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Trastevere's tales | A rhetorical answer for a rhetorical question

February 20, 2019


One day, in summer, when his blood was up from the heat, beer and seeing women in short dresses our Adam decided he had had enough of rhetorical questions and that now he wanted answers. By coincidence, he looked to the left and saw a man he had not seen there before but someone he recognises like an old, old friend; not his but perhaps one he had met when he was younger, perhaps a friend of his parents and recognises him.

The devil started the conversation. ‘I can answer your rhetorical questions; in fact I am the only one who can.’

 ‘I do not doubt you in the slightest devil, but please explain to a mortal like me how you aim to achieve this feat.’

‘It is not an easy one but it has the validity and backing of science. As a man of science I admire the respect for trial and error, of running the experiment in all possible situations and repeating these so that none can criticise your findings and conclusion. Therefore, I will provide you, not only with a thousand women, but with a thousand lives, to complete until your death, at which point the next one will begin. To ensure our experiment is controlled and unequivocally unbiased you will live this life with no memories; you will be yourself, but without any knowledge of our agreement.’

‘But what do you wish in return…. My soul?’

‘My dear Adam, as I have already said, I am a man of science, I do not believe in the soul; knowledge is my payment.’

And so, the pact was made and the scientist and the case study embarked upon their first controlled test as Adam was born into his second life.

In this life Adam was born into a middle class family much like his one before, this time he was named Cain, and he lived his life much the same. He had his first kiss when he was ten, he lost his virginity at fifteen and fell briefly in love only to re-evaluate this six months later. At university he lived a precocious existence and knew many women, one of whom fell pregnant. They married in a whirlwind of romance and excitement but one year later he had an affair. The marriage ended amiably enough and Adam remarried, having no more children. He died aged seventy nine of a heart attack, leaving his younger wife behind.

At once Adam was again in that same pub, sitting next to the same scientist who hadn’t moved an inch.

‘Now Adam, time to check case notes. How did you feel about your experiences there? Do you regret your divorce, perhaps you still yearn now for that lost innocence of fifteen, or are you missing your mourning wife?’

‘But, where is eve, can I see her, how are the children…. What happened to my wife…. My second wife…. I mean my third wife, the one mourning me…. But also how is my second wife…. Is our child ok? Is she sad about my death?’

‘Hmmmm, I can see these are still early days in the experiment, but ah well, call me an optimist I had hoped for results, I am ever so impatient you know, ok, drink up, time for life number two, or rather three….’

‘….wait, wait, how is my daughter, does my second wife still love me….’

And so Adam began life number three.

This time he was born in France in the middle ages. He grew up the second son of a noble lord, and was named Enoch. Being the second son he was sent to a monastery to take his vows at the age of ten. Here he received tutoring, learnt Latin and committed his life to the church and god and died of the black death at the age of fifty.

‘Adam, Adam, Adam…. Ok to forsake women for a life, I can understand this after three marriages and two lifetimes…. But to commit yourself to learning the bible…. What were you thinking?’ This time the devil seemed in a good mood and was having a drink, because, as he explained, this test run didn’t provide much studying for his experiment.

 ‘My god, it is you, am I in hell? What has happened to my brothers? Is St. Cuthbert’s surviving the plague…. How is eve, how is my second wife? Did our daughter attend my funeral as Cain, does she miss me?’

‘No time for that I’m afraid Adam, time for the next life.’

Now reader, I am not inclined, and I am sure you are least inclined to read a thousand stories within a story. I have neither the time nor the patience, nor in fact, the skill. However, rest assured Adam lived his lives, one after another. He saw periods of peace and periods of war. He lived to know hundreds of different languages and more than once was a genius and more often than this a fool. But throughout it all he met millions of women, and fell in love countless times. Often this love was platonic, more often it was not. Often this love lasted seconds or perhaps only a night, often he denied it had ever existed or forgot it had and often he believed he had loved when he hadn’t.

After his thousandth death he returned to the pub on that summer afternoon as Adam, sitting next to the devil who had never moved an inch.

‘Ah, Adam, as with all scientific experiments it seems that our search for an answer has not provided any clear results as yet. Yet never fear, I feel our conclusion will present itself eventually, even if at times, I must admit, I have forgotten the original question.’

‘Please, please I cannot continue anymore. How are my thousands of wives? How are my thousands of children? Do they miss me; do most of them know who I am? Do they want to know who I am? Who am I again? How is Marie Antoinette, did she survive after my execution? And Joan of Arc, I never meant to rape her…. It was only the wine, and I missed my wife. How are my thousand mothers, did I at least make some of them proud? What about those men that stole my loves from me, did they deserve them, could the women they stole have been the answer to my question. Devil, I cannot do this anymore, please. I have forgotten the original question myself.’

‘Fortitude Adam, are we not men of science? Of course you are feeling a little weary, but we must press on in the name of knowledge. And never fear, I’ll let you into a little secret that was integral to our experiment; for like the rat must never know it is in a maze you can never know that we have made or scientific experiment a thousand times over. You have been in this pub a million times, we have met a million times, you have agreed to our pact a million times and based on logic and the strength of science I can predict that you will agree to our experiment another million times.

You have been every man fourfold by my calculation. You have loved in every possible way every possible woman. You have been the man who has hated yourself. You have been the father and the son of yourself. You have been Ghandi, Churchill, Hemmingway and Berlusconi. You have started countless wars and have killed yourself countless times within those wars. You have stolen women from yourself and have, in turn, had them stolen from you. You have made this deal with me a thousand times, and in your next life, you will meet eve and after twenty five years together you will still make it again.

I have given you a rhetorical answer for your rhetorical question, but don’t blame me if you are angry…. You have even been the person who invented this story and is just finishing writing it up now. You’re even the man reading its last line.’


Illustrazione di Elisa Terranera.

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