Mariano José de Larra – “El duelo” (1835)

Summary

Carlos was heir to a great fortune, but unlike the vast majority of cases, his fortune was the least of his excellent qualities. Women adored him. His parents adored him. He had received a superb education and was a man of fine character and considerable talents.

But unfortunately the greatest difference between idiots and men of talent is that the former group is far more likely to say stupid things, while the latter group is far more likely to do them: Carlos entered society, and soon enough he fell in love.

Carlos was a man of  imagination, and Men with imagination require women who are either very sensitive or very risque. Adela was undoubtedly one of the risque types: beautiful; and quite aware of it. Her parents had cultivated in her all the qualities that our society values: and society values the same types of qualities in a woman that in a rifle would be called range and in a hunter, skill: that is to say, they had raised Adela to be a perfect deadly weapon. at flirting she could outdo anyone; though not especially sensitive, she could still admirably fake the sentimentality without which it is impossible to conquer a man’s heart; she sang beautifully, she danced like a fainting woodland nymph, and she gazed at you with the eyes of a dying victim It was impossible not to adore her.

For Carlos, she was the truth amongst lies, heaven on earth. Her parents were ecstatic, he was a brilliant match, and so that which, without the involvement of the State would only have been a love affair, became instead a marriage. The transaction was complete.

Six months into their marriage, social custom demanded a certain level of detachment, for society finds nothing as ridiculous as a man who is overly attentive to his wife. Adela for her part was more than entertained by the world and its abundance of delightful young men. Until finally one young man proved impervious to her charms, and Adela, not accustomed to such slights, and now all the more determined to conquer, put her virtue at risk, as the saying goes. Carlos at first suspected and later confirmed. There was a scandal, everyone knew about it, and society demanded satisfaction. Carlos had to give it to them. He challenged Adela’s lover. The ground was chosen, the hour set, the signal given, the two shots fired at once, and Carlos fell to the ground. But his honor and his woman remained standing.

 

Excerpt (accompanied by Rossini’s overture to “The Barber of Seville”)

In this our enlightened century, one of the things that most obsesses the public is honor, an enigmatic concept that, in the sense in which we currently use it, is not encountered in any of the ancient texts. Our modern notion of honor is the child of the Middle Ages…and as our civilization has developed, honor has been redefined and perfected along with it to such an extent that these days there is not a single person who does not have honor, of a sort; every man is a man of honor.

In ancient times, times of great confusion and barbarism, when a man who, by exploiting  an advantage gained only through impudence or luck, humiliated someone else , he only humiliated himself, and without making a fuss about honor remained himself dishonored. Now it is the opposite case. If a low or vicious person offends you, YOU are the dishonored one. Someone slaps you in the face? Everyone will sneer at you, not at the person who slapped you. Someone offends your wife, your daughter, or your beloved? You are the one who no longer has honor. Has someone robbed you? You, being robbed, are now poor, and consequently without honor. The man who robbed you, and now is rich, is a man with honor. He drives about in your car and he is a decent man, a gentleman. You meanwhile  now go about on foot, you are just an ordinary bastard with no car. Ah, the marvels of progress!

Having no concept of this sort of honor, Ancient history does not contain a single example of a duel. When Agamemnon offended Achilles, Achilles enclosed himself within his tent; he did not go and demand satisfaction. The duel, in relation to the history of the world, is an invention of yesterday; it has taken us almost six thousand years to understand that when a man mistreats you, there is always a way to make amends for the damage done, and that way is to kill him.

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