Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Café Chats

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TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934) was the Spanish physician and scientist who discovered the individual nature of the nerve cell (later termed the neuron). He was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1906 for his groundbreaking work on the structure of the nervous system and is considered to be the founder of modern neuroscience. His masterpiece, Textura del sistema nervioso del hombre y de los vertebrados [Histology of the Nervous System of Man and Vertebrates] (1899–1904), is a summary of twenty years spent looking through a microscope at “the world of the infinitely small.” It features more than a thousand original illustrations and is still cited frequently in the scientific literature.

Cajal had a lifelong relationship with the literature of the arts as well.  As an adolescent, he enjoyed reading lyric poetry and tales of knight-errantry.  Although his father did not allow such distracting books at home, his mother secretly gave him cheap romance novels. Cajal found Dumas (père), Hugo, Cervantes, and Defoe while trespassing in the library of a neighbor. Deeply affected by Robinson Crusoe, he wrote and illustrated his own novel about a shipwreck survivor. In medical school, inspired by Jules Verne, he composed a novel about a miniature man on Jupiter. Both these works were lost—along with seven of twelve science fiction stories. The remaining five stories were published as Cuentos de vacaciones [Vacation Stories] in 1905. That year, in honor of the tricentennial of the publication of Don Quixote, he delivered a memorable speech at the University of Madrid. Cajal’s personal library included ten thousand volumes. Two years before his death, he published El mundo visto a los ochenta años [The World as Seen by an Eighty-Year-Old], in which he reflects at length on a life of reading and writing. “Of all our friends,” he remarks, “[books] are the only ones who stop talking after they say their piece.”

This is not to say that Cajal avoided conversation. Throughout his career, he liked to participate in tertulias, intellectual circles that gathered at clubs or cafés. This Spanish tradition was especially popular in Madrid, where Cajal held a prestigious university chair for thirty years. Every day, at four in the afternoon, he would walk from his home to the Café Suizo, where aristocrats, bankers, bullfighters, and artists were known to assemble. A rule of his table was that one was not permitted to talk about one’s area of expertise; to prevent overexcitement, conversations were limited to one hour.

In 1920, when the Café Suizo was demolished, Cajal wrote Chácharas de café [Café Chitchats], a “partly serious, partly humorous” booklet of aphorisms and meditations reconstructed from his past tertulia conversations. The title was changed to Charlas de café [Café Chats] in the 1921 edition; twelve editions have been published in the original Spanish. The following selections are excerpted from four of the eleven chapters that comprise this delightful and stimulating little book: Café Chats.

I. On Glory, Death, and Immortality

Glory is nothing but delayed oblivion. . . .

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. . . In the effort to defend ourselves against attacking microbes and perpetuate our existence, millions of our own cells (such as glandular, blood, and phagocytic corpuscles) must be destroyed continuously. Without noticing it, without even suspecting it, we are consuming our own bodies. . . . Thus, nothing seems more natural than death, given that we kill ourselves regularly. Yet, nevertheless . . .

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Man, it has been said, is the favorite of Providence. It would be equally right to declare that he is the darling of microbes. Beginning at birth, his trajectory proves to be a mad dash across a battlefield, where missiles rain down from the sky. . . .

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. . . In reality, the idea of death frightens us because of the terrible pain and agony that usually precedes it and, above all, because once our earthly consciousness is extinguished all that we love is gone forever: family, homeland, fame, etc. . . .

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. . . When death finally arrives, what remains to be killed? Still a great deal: a brain tenaciously stubborn in its thinking, despite the fact that it may feel undermined by other deteriorating organs. And the brain (or if you prefer, the mind) makes the whole man.

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The most terrible thing about death is its eternity. Everything in this world shall pass, except for it. Thus, death is the terrifying, the inexorable, and indeed the only true reality. That is why we never dare to mention it.

I contend that this surprising disregard represents one of pious Nature’s most benevolent gifts. She knows that evolution is possible only while looking away from such deep shadows.

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The real purpose of civilization is to keep death waiting outside our bedroom every day.

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In our final years, which of our friends’ deaths shall resonate most solemnly in our hearts? The ones taken by the same illness that afflicts us.

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Do we even deserve immortality, such creatures as we are? It is horrifying to consider the endless misery of having to share the hereafter with those thousands of fools and enemies from whom we spent our ephemeral earthly existence escaping. We must have faith that in the next life the Creator will set aside a separate place for unbearable souls.

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When it is motivated by ego rather than illness, the desire to die reveals an absolute lack of altruism. It is in effect a declaration that no one loves you, and that neither fatherland nor family deserves your effort or sacrifice.

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In the entire animal kingdom, every being is concerned almost exclusively with the immortality of the species. It is man alone who battles first and foremost for the immortality of the individual. . . .

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Underneath the deepest and most sacred sorrow there is an element of lamentable egoism. When mourning the unexpected loss of a son, are we not mourning a part of ourselves? . . .

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Despite my respect and admiration for orthodox Christianity, there are dogmas (that of the resurrection of the flesh, for example) which sink me in a sea of confusion. Why regenerate a stomach that will not need to digest, eyes that will not need to see, ears that will not need to hear, and a brain that, without senses or impulses, will never be able to function as the instrument of the mind? . . .

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Of all the promised immortalities—that of ideas (the consolation of wise men), that of the spirit (the consolation of philosophers), that of body and soul (the consolation of Christians), and that of nirvana (the consolation of Buddhists and Theosophs)—only integral immortality would be fully satisfying: in other words the persistence of body and soul. It is the only type that would preserve our individual personality, that is to say, the particular configuration of our unique brain, with its flaws and limitations, and the memory of our triumphs, failures, and loves.

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Praise be to teachers such as the great Socrates, who have made death their most meaningful lesson.

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I consider one of the many probable causes of our worldview to be an ignorance of death, or else, what amounts to nothing more than a dim and confused idea of it. Having evolved precociously in the primitive man, the fear of not-being has been our most effective means of progress. . . .

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. . . It is a sad fact of life that, sooner or later, all statues must fall from their pedestals, and all prestigious men will be forgotten, except for the truly exceptional ones. . . .

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Your death is not worth much if many people do not wish for it.

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From the height of eternity, human minds must seem like the foam bubbles created by a wave breaking over a beach. They shine for a moment with multicolored lights, they reflect in miniature the blue of the sky and the magic of the countryside, and instantly they burst, giving way to a new avalanche of iridescent cells.

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Let us not be afraid to leave our work incomplete: once planted, the seed of truth shall be cultivated by another. The real tragedy is to fall before developing intellectual wings, our brain bursting with unfinished projects.

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It is a moving sight to watch on summer mornings as young bees gather honey for the exhausted and dying workwomen who, before their eyes grow dim, receive a passionate kiss from the sun, our father of life. Hear the anxious cry of the dying—“Light, more light!”—from the great Goethe to the humblest creature. Might this universal plea signify an optimistic prophecy? After death’s darkness, will the sun of immortality rise? It is comforting to hope and to believe so.

II. On Sorrow and Old Age

The saddest thing about old age is to be without a future. . . .

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At thirty, we beam with pride; at forty we become serious; but at seventy we feel as though we have been shot through the heart: “Have we lost time cherishing dreams?” “Will our previous ideas be forever erased from human minds and written pages? How will we defend or amend them if we have no life left to live?” . . .

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. . . Here we should note that nearly all suffering during old age arises from the fact that our organism does not die at once, as is the case with many insects. Instead we die slowly, little by little. . . .

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When we are children, we think: “I am immortal.” When we are old, we say: “I die having never lived.” Or, even sadder: “I never knew how to live.” And it would not matter if we lived as long as the elephant (three hundred years) or the crocodile (two hundred years); we would end up concluding exactly the same thing.

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The essential difference between the young and old man is the fact that the former learns more than he forgets, while the latter forgets more than he learns. . . .

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. . . Our most loyal companion in triumph as in tragedy, even this body at last abandons us. Noble cells desert while microbes advance. Increasingly isolated, our despairing soul is like that of the desert explorer who braves the endless, harrowing plain alone, his resources depleted, his comrades fallen, and haunted by carrion crows that circle what is soon to be his corpse . . .

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I feel a certain sadness every day when I contemplate the feeble pine trees on Alcalá Street. Their gaunt and reddish leaves, their slumping or dried-out branches, and the absence of their penetrating aroma all seem to say to us, dejectedly: “Human breath is poison to us. Have pity and return us to our homeland, the mountains.”

We city-dwellers are poor exiles, too. Like these withered conifer courtesans, our body, tired of this social life, cries out: “Why did I abandon Mother Nature? The spirit of man sickens me. Return me to the great mountain forest. There the trees are so majestic and pure that the atmosphere of human beings has still not managed to pollute them.”

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Having arrived at this glacial summit—old age—we realize that we have lived many successive existences, strung together by a luminous thread of conscious memory. Like prehistoric geological formations, our memory contains various layers that preserve artifacts from ancient human tribes. In the cerebral cave, the solitary old man must look with pity upon his primitive ancestors and declare his independence of thought and action. . . .

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While contemplating our past, from the height of experience, we have all at times exclaimed: “Ah! If only we could start our life again! . . .” And pondering this idea, our memory, traveling back in time, like a cinematograph in reverse, develops the film of our past, where sad scenes prevail over happy ones, and joy flashes intermittently, like lightning in the gloomy night.

This fantasy is absurd in principle because life, a function of matter and time, flows forever toward nothing. However, if it were really possible and we could turn back time, existence would come to be unimaginable torture. . . .

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In ripe old age, belated glory lends our spirit a certain sweet and tranquil melancholy. High in the reddened evening sky, larks no longer sing, but instead bats flutter. And two great sorrows stand out above the rest: we miss the loving kiss of our parents and the Judas kiss of our enemies. . . .

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Like an army, our organism has its aging generals. They include the heart, brain, kidneys, and lungs. All is well if they are kept healthy and high-spirited. When they surrender, however, the end is near.

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Let us conceal our deterioration even if only so as not to discourage the young, who are hungry for honor and glory.

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Our organism’s complexity has spread a rich and noble life throughout sensations and thoughts; however, as a counterweight, this complexity has also brought us distressing fragility. We live with the constant threat of catastrophe. . . .

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In her infinite wisdom, nature has made old age ugly and sterile so that we should waste none of our precious time or energy.

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I find the common deafness of the old man to be a blessing. Because of it he can waste away in relative peace, without having to hear the chorus of gravediggers, made up of his rivals and enemies, who seem to shout: “You old geezer, when are you going to die, already?”

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Only three things can distract the mind from the depression of old age: books, the sun, and flowers. . . .

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Happiness and contentment always come from awareness of our productive activities. . . . Only while creating do we forget our heartbreaks and failures. But the wise man who is dying does not create; he can only vegetate and reread. This is why he is miserable.

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. . . He who is enriched by labor is like the honeybee that spends all of its energy building a comb for the queen’s offspring, offspring with whom it has nothing more than a vague and distant kinship.

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Why gather new and beautiful impressions, if there is no time to build intellectual castles with them?

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We can certainly empathize with the old scholar who lives to see his work forgotten. But there is something even more agonizing: to sense, in one’s consciousness, the commotion of chrysalis-ideas, struggling to come into their own, to break free from their rigid cocoons and receive the sun’s kisses. And all for nothing.

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Blessed are those who give their lives to a great idea, for they will endure in and for it! . . .

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Nothing distracts the old like the study of history; that is to say, gaining an understanding of the words, deeds, and lives of men who are even further along than they are—if not in years, then certainly in antiquity. . . .

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A library represents both the spirit’s cradle and its tomb. There the young are trained and prepared for life’s harsh battles, while the old, conversing with the dead, are comforted in the face of their own demise.

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. . . Faith vigorously promotes longevity, while doubt can doom us to an early death.

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Physical pain is forgettable; emotional pain is not. The latter persists, in some form or another, with hardly any change. The years only partially heal a wounded ego and calm a storming heart. Like a drawing eraser, time obliterates the faint lines of an image, but preserves the deep impressions that have permeated the canvas.

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I consider one of life’s greatest tricks to be the fact that certain instincts survive while the organs in charge of enabling them have become useless. . . .

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One distinguishing feature of old age is thinking that since we are dying, the whole universe should be dying too. . . .

 

—translated from the Spanish by BENJAMIN EHRLICH

 [For more “Café Chats,” see the print edition of NER or the PDF/Issuu version.]



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