The Nature of Dialectic


[This excerpt from Conrad Aiken's short story "The Disciple" provides a sense of the tone, mood, flow, and mutual interchange that characterizes dialectic, though there are extraneous elements included as well.]



"I should like," he said to the florid Jewish shopkeeper, "to look at some oddity in the way of a set of chessmen."

"An oddity?-- Yes."

"A wedding gift, under peculiar circumstances. Something rather--" he waved a claw.

"--Rare?"

"--Old."

A Chinese set with dragons, a Hindu set with elephants, a Japanese set of carved cherry-wood, daimyos, priests. . . . No these weren't quite the thing. The Jew looked at him intently under wrinkled lids like a parrot's. . . . The Jew hunched his shoulders almost up to his ears.

"Ah-I think I know what you want. But it can't be had."

"You mean---"

"You were thinking, no doubt, of the set of the 'Twelve Disciples'?"

Astonishing! He had never heard of the set of "Twelve Disciples"; and yet there could be no question that it was what he was seeking.

"Exactly!"

"Ah! But it is lost. . . .  And even if it were found, who could afford to buy it?"

"Oh! Afford! . . ."

"Ah--you are right--what does it matter?"

"And what is it like, this set of the Twelve Disciples?"

"Like?" It is--but don't you know?"

The Jew, leaning on the glass case, peered at him, he thought, somewhat peculiarly.

"How should I? I've never even heard of it."

"But you said----!"

"Ah--forgive me--it is true that when you mentioned it--how shall I say--it seemed to me in some remote way--familiar. That was all."

"Ah, I see--I see! . . .   You thought you remembered it. . . .   And if you think, if you concentrate upon it--if you turn, in your mind, a sudden light upon it----"

"I beg your pardon---?"

"--You don't see it any more clearly?"

"Why, no--how should I?"

"Oh. . .   But the set really is quite ordinary--as carving. Nothing remarkable."

"Then why is it so valuable?"

"Perhaps because it is generally considered mythical."

"Mythical? . . . It doesn't, after all, exist? . . .

"So some would say. As for me---"

"You believe in it?"

"I believe in it. . .   I have even, in dreams, seen it."

He found himself staring at the Jew, on this, as if at the revelation of some sort of obscure miracle. Yes, it appeared, the set of chessmen, in dreams; it came, in dreams, to this Jew. For a moment it seemed, in the oddest of ways, more tangible, it gave out a gleam and came nearer. Thirty-two pieces of ivory, close-clustered, one of them fallen over, and a candle lighting them. Had he dreamed this himself? It was vivid, and vivid was the hand he put out among them to right the fallen piece. But the fallen piece was stubborn, resisted, became massive . . .   He lifted his hand from the glass showcase, and stepped back. He had a sense of having resisted, barely resisted, and with an effort that left him trembling, a temptation not the less vast for having been incomprehensible. It was with a feeling of yielding to some obscure small issue of this temptation that he now said, with a conscious jocoseness that did not conceal excitement:

"And the piece that has fallen over--which piece is that?"


The effect of this remark was extraordinary. The tempo of the adventure--for adventure it unquestionably and profoundly was--instantly quickened. It was as if the stream on which they were being swept had not only broadened and taken on a dizzying speed, but had, as suddenly, dived underground through a phantasmagoric darkness. Specifically, he found himself looking at a Jew who had somehow changed--he was less the shopkeeper, less even, the human being, and more--something else. What, exactly? More imposing? That, certainly; and also, singularly, more luminous--he gave out a light, and his eyes, looking down, seemed in the kindliest of manners to indicate that this light must also be a guidance. What it was that the Jew said he didn't catch. It was merely a short, vague exclamation, followed by a smile and a stare which were a little frightenting in their suggestion of extraordinary intimacy. After that, it was as if every step taken was taken the more elaborately to insure for the ensuing talk the right seclusion and secrecy. The iron shutters outside the window were rattled harshly down and locked, the door was locked, the lights in the show window were switched off, leaving the heap of jewels, oddities, silks, and carvings in darkness. From outside in the night mingled with the subdued murmur of the street came, even more subdued and tenuous, sounds of a bell, slowly struck, and as if blown down from a very great height. . . .   When, having followed his host through a passage and up the stairs, an uplifted tall candle flinging cascades of banister shadows over the richly ornamented wall, he entered the room over the shop, it was with a vague sense of having come an incredible distance in space and time--the street seemed far away, remote seemed the snowy square where, surely only a quarter of an hour ago, the clock had struck four; remotest of all seemed his own poor lodgings where the fire probably needed replenishing. Had he not, even, come a long way from himself--was his name still Dace? . . .

"The piece that has fallen over!" said the Jew, and gave a short laugh. He had set the candle on the chimneypiece, where its light, duplicate in the dusty mirror, was sufficient to show a faded room crowded with odds and ends. "That's shrewd--that's shrewd. That goes, certainly to the root of things. . . .   so you knew, all the time!"

"Knew? . . ."

"You were merely drawing me out, leading me on! Well, well! That was clever."

Dace met the Jew's richly insinuating stare with bland and genial acquiescence.

"What makes you think I know?"

"My dear chap! . . .   Are you joking? . . .   Why, of course, it was your allusion to Judas."

"Oh, I see--my allusion to Judas. . . ."

"--The piece that has fallen over, as you so nicely put it!"

"Oh--that! . . .  So that is Judas? . . .  But I didn't, to tell the truth, know it at all. I knew nothing whatever!"

The Jew smiled at this with an excess of politeness, but the smile slowly faded.

"But--how extraordinary! . . .  You really knew nothing?"

"As I say--nothing whatever."

"But how on earth, then, did you come to speak of the piece that has fallen over?"

They exchanged a long look over this question, as if (absurd! Dace found time to say to himself) it was, somehow, of tremendous import. But decidedly, it was of tremendous import. Whether the man were mad or not--and for the first moment Dace clearly formulated to himself that possibility--or whether he himself was on the verge of madness, did not seem particularly to matter. What was remarkable, or uncanny, was the way in which their sanity, or madness, brought them, in every consciousness, together. That singular vision of the chessmen--how explain it? His mental eye reverted to it, and he saw it now more sharply than ever. He saw the criss-crossing of shadows among the pieces, he saw deeply carved on the crown of the king nearest him the letters "I.N.R."--(and no doubt "I" was turned away from); and there was Judas lying at the left-hand corner of the board, apparently on the point of rolling off. He put out his finger to it, tried to lift it--it was immovable, as if glued. But it must be moved! He felt the gathering within himself of a great wave of energy, all directed to a huge decuman crash against the implacable obstacle. . . .   Then he removed his hand from the edge of the small taboret (which he had hardly noticed) and leaned back in his chair, once more with a sense of temptation undergone and partially resisted. But again, it was a yielding to some small faint beckoning, some fugitive far signal, that put the next words on his tongue.

"Well," he said, and he laughed a little uneasily. "I'm sure I can't explain it. But no sooner had you spoken of seeing the chessmen in dreams than I had, on the spot, a kind of waking dream myself. I've just had it again. I didn't see all the pieces plainly--but plain enough was the piece which you say is Judas, and plain enough was the inscription on the crown of one of the kings."

"You mean the letters----?"

"I.N.R.I."

"Ah, yes. Exactly. . . .  Rex Judaerorum. . .  How extraordinary!"

"To put it very mildly!"

"What? . . .  Oh, I don't mean that."

"I beg your pardon, then--but what do you mean?"

The Jew regarded him searchingly: Dace felt himself being slowly fathomed and gave himself agreeably to the experience, with a sense that he must keep still, let the plummet go strait.

"I mean"--the Jew was deliberate--"that while you see so much without assistance--oh, certainly, quite without assitance--you nevertheless don't see all."

"All?"

"Yes--that's what I find extraordinary. . . .  When, downstairs in the shop, you suddenly asked me 'And the piece that has fallen over--what piece is that?' -- how could I but assume that your identification was complete? . . .  I--as you saw--accepted you. And now, you say, you didn't at all recognize the piece as Judas! Certainly that is very peculiar. I must suppose, however as all the circumstances urge, that you would, had you been given time, have named Judas yourself. Yes, undoubtedly that is the explanation."

The look which the Jew turned on Dace shone with the most perfect innocence and trust, and he replied to it with a grave nod. The logic was reasonable--was it not? Yet something in what the Jew said perplexed and escaped him; he went over it slowly, aware that somewhere, in this small plausible structure of words, was one word which was not so much a "block" as a "window" --it let through a light which was disquietingly suggestive of a space beyond space, of a depth which yawned beneath the solid, a world that was, as he was at last to phrase it, "other." He found this word quickly enough--it was "identification"--and looked hard through it. What on earth had he meant by it? . . .  It was simply a depth, a gleam, and nothing more. Yet, for some reason, he decided not to challenge it--not, at any rate, immediately. Wouldn't it be more fruitful simply to wait before it exactly as one would wait before a lighted window, to find out at last what it was preciselly that moved on the other side? Was it not also essential that he should in everything take his cue from the Jew?

It was therefore with a sense of the imperative necessity of delalying, of somehow gaining time, that he rose from his chair as if merely to look about him. The room to which he had been brought was extraordinary--a museum in microcosm. Han Horse The candle, placed on the white marble mantel precarioulsy between a tall much-figured clock and a Han horse, lighted the chamber only sufficiently to show its richness and its confusion. The only cleared space was that immediately before the fire, where the two chairs faced each other obliquely on the worn Persian carpet: for the rest, narrow lanes led hither and thither among a chaos of furniture and oddments which, in the gloom, had amazingly the air of a jungle. Chairs stood on tables, ivories and pictures balanced on chairs, shields, swords, and suits of chain mail hung on the walls with tapestries and Chinese paintings. Half a dozen clocks were ticking confusedly, only one of them visible. And dust was everywhere, thick, gritty dust, deposit of decades--on the mantel, the clock, the floor, the tables, here and there finger-marked. Even the mirror was dusty. And Dace, feeling the eyes of the Jew upon his back, and looking into the glass above the candle flame, to examine the shopkeeper at his leisure, was able to see of him, in the veiled gloom, only the dimmest of outlines. He turned and faced his interlocutor.

"You have some fine things here," he murmured. "That horse, for example."

The Jew was inert. It was as if he knew Dace to be evading him. He stared a moment, then dropped his eyes.

"Ah--that little Hans horse."

He was not interested in the horse, that was clear; and did not intend talking of it. But as Dace again sank into his chair, sighing, the Jew leaned sharply toward him, and smiled. Dace was touched by something in this smile--it was singularly gentle and friendly, a little humble. Why was it, nevertheless, that it seemed so oddly belied by his eyes? For in the eyes, lidded like a parrot's, something disqueting flickered.

Dace laughed outright, but not entirely with conviction. He was still trying, as it were, to gain time.

"Trust you? But why on earth shouldn't I? Is it any question--"

"Oh, not of business, no! Certainly not. . . .  We are not concerned with business. . . .   Isn't it really," he lowered his tone a little, "something very much more important?"

"Important?"

"Yes. Isn't it at bottom simply the question of our trusting--completely trusting--one another?"

Dace looked hard into the little eyes, which, in intensity of meaning, seemed to blaze.

"Oh, that!" he exclaimed gently. He directed his unseeing stare at the fire in an effort to conceal his confusion. Where, where on earth, he cried to himself, am I going? He felt slightly dizzy, but managed to affect a calm. Whether the shopkeeper was a madman or a prophet seemed for the present a wholly irrelevant question.

"That's of course taken for granted--isn't it?" he went on. And then added, for all the world as if the words were not so much his own as somehow given him, "What I mean is--isn't it sufficient guarantee of our mutual trust--or sympathy, at all events--that so far, for all the singularity of our intercourse, we so easilly and with so little error,  follow one another?" He was pleased with himself at this, and showed it by smiling a little more lightly than before, and also by relaxing slightly in his chair.

And the shopkeeper, too, was pleased. He again, in that curious way which Dace had noticed downstairs in the shop, seemed before his very eyes in the act of changing; it was as if he became more significant, as if all his colors became brighter and richer. as if a secret low light within had somehow been sharply turned up. The wrinkled lids lifted a little, and the face became luminous with words of which Dace felt that he could almost, in advance, see the shape.

"Ah," came the pleased murmur. "Exactly. That's a good deal better, isn't it? We begin to know where we are. And isn't it important that you should agree with me, since you use the word 'follow,' that I follow you quite as successfully as you follow me? I don't mean to urge or press you--no--no. But that, I think, if you will permit my saying so, is--er--a point----"

"Of cardinal importance? Yes--I believe it is. You mean--"

"I mean that, in all the experience we are sharing, or are about to share, you are contributing--quite without any assistance from me--as much as I. Or, to put it in another way, that you have been as free to accept as complete my identification as I have been to accept or reject yours. The responsibility is divided."