a new translation of vivant denon’s point de lendemain

 

Vivant Denon’s No Tomorrow (Point de Lendemain), now translated by Lydia Davis!

 

The famous opening sentences, which Milan Kundera admired for "the playful elegance of repetition in the first paragraph of one of the loveliest pieces of French prose:"

 

J’aimais éperdument la comtesse de ——; j’avais vingt ans, et j’étais ingénu; elle me trompa, je me fâchai, elle me quitta. J’étais ingénu, je la regrettai; j’avais vingt ans, elle me pardonna; et comme j’avais vingt ans, que j’étais ingénu, toujours trompé, mais plus quitté, je me croyais l’amant le mieux aimé, partant le plus heureux des hommes.

 

Davis’ translation:

 

I was desperately in love with the Comtesse de —— ; I was twenty years old and I was naive. She deceived me, I got angry, she left me. I was naive, I missed her. I was twenty years old, she forgave me, and, because I was twenty years old, because I was naive—still deceived, but no longer abandoned—I thought myself to be the best-loved lover, and therefore the happiest of men.

 

 

Davis’ translation reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 2009:

 

Peter Brooks opens his fascinating introduction to Lydia Davis’s translation of Vivant Denon’s novella by asserting that "No Tomorrow may be the most stylish erotic tale ever written. Erotic, while not at all pornographic". Set over the course of one night and the following morning, it is the lush account of the seduction of the twenty-year-old narrator by the beautiful Mme de T ——, who knows that he is in love with her friend the Comtesse de——. A game of love and sex played out with the consent, it emerges, of Mme de T——’s lover, closes with her parting words "Don’t give the Countess cause to quarrel with me".

 

Point de Lendemain was first published anonymously in 1777, five years before Laclos’s Liaisons dangereuses, in which such stratagems were given a more brutal twist. Brooks refers to the "male fantasy" aspects of Denon’s libertine work, and draws profitably on Marcel Mauss’ s theory of the gift — "the eighteenth century’ s erotic version of the ‘potlatch"’. He reveals that Balzac so admired Denon’s conte that he recycled it in his Physiologie du mariage (1829). Milan Kundera, it could be added, also paid homage, in his novella La Lenteur (1993).

 

Vivant Denon (de Non, before the Revolution) was born in 1747 into minor French nobility. He became a favourite of Louis XV and spent seven years with the French embassy in Naples where he developed an interest in antiquities. A skilled engraver, he accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian campaign and published his Travels through Lower and Upper Egypt in 1802. Napoleon later appointed him first Director of the Louvre. He died in 1825. Point de Lendemain is his only work of fiction.

 

Lydia Davis’s translation is equal to the challenges of Denon’s formal , elaborate prose, and there is little to choose between her version and the excellent one produced by David Coward in 1995. Where Denon writes "Le château ainsi que les jardins, appuyés contre une montagne, descendaient en terrasse jusque sur les rives de la Seine", Davis gives us: "The château as well as the gardens, resting against a mountainside, descended in terraces to the banks of the Seine", while Coward goes for the topographically more realistic " … built on the side of a hill, sloped down in terraces to the Seine". Elsewhere, the narrator tells us "J’étais d’ailleurs trop ému pour me rendre compte de ce que j’éprouvais"; Davis renders it "Besides, I was too moved to realize what I was experiencing", while Coward gives us "But truth to tell l was too distraught to know what I felt". Both appear to fit. This elegant edition reproduces Denon’s original text. which remains, by common consent, a masterpiece.

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proust on memory and the image: the last lines of swann’s way

Image:Grave of Proust.jpg

When Proust ran out of time.

The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.


—Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way (1913; translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin).

proust on memory and the image: the last lines of swann’s way

When Proust ran out of time.

The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.

 

—Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way (1913; translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin).

 
 

an autibiographical story from blanchot on bearing witness

"The Instant of My Death"

By Maurice Blanchot

Maurice 

I remember a young man—a man still young—prevented from dying by death itself—and perhaps the error of injustice.


The Allies had succeeded in getting a foothold on French soil. The Germans, already vanquished, were struggling in vain with useless ferocity.

In a large house, (The Château, it was called) someone knocked at the door rather timidly. I know that the young man came to open the door to guests who were presumably asking for help.

This time, a howl: "Everyone outside"

A Nazi lieutenant, in shamefully normal French, made the oldest people exit first, and then two young women.

"Outside, outside." This time, he was howling. The young man, however, did not try to flee but advanced slowly, in an almost priestly manner. The lieutenant shook him, showed him the casings, bullets; there had obviously been fighting; the soil was a war soil.

The lieutenant choked in a bizarre language. And putting the casings, the bullets, a grenade under the nose of the man already less young (one ages quickly), he distinctly shouted: "This is what you have come to."

The Nazi placed his men in a row in order to hit, according to the rules, the human target. The young man said, "At least have my family go inside." So it was: the aunt (ninety-four years old); his mother, younger; his sister and his sister-in-law; a long, slow procession, silent, as if everything had already been done.

I know—do I know it—that the one at whom the Germans were already aiming, awaiting but the final order, experienced then a feeling of extraordinary lightness, a sort of beatitude (nothing happy, however)—sovereign elation? The encounter of death with death?

In his place, I will not try to analyze. He was perhaps suddenly invincible. Dead—immortal. Perhaps ecstasy. Rather the feeling of compassion for suffering humanity, the happiness of not being immortal or eternal. Henceforth, he was bound to death by a surreptitious friendship.

At that instant, an abrupt return to the world, the considerable noise of a nearby battle exploded. Comrades from the maquis wanted to bring help to one they knew would be in danger. The lieutenant moved away to assess the situation. The Germans stayed in order, prepared to remain thus in an immobility that arrested time.

Then one of them approached and said in a firm voice, "We’re not Germans, Russians," and, with a sort of laugh, "Vlassov army," and made a sign forhim to disappear.

I think he moved away, still with the feeling of lightness, until he found himself in a distant forest, named the "Bois des bruyères," where he remained sheltered by trees he knew well. In the dense forest suddenly, after how much time, he rediscovered a sense of the real. Everywhere fires, a continuous succession of fires; all the farms were burning. A little later, he learned that three young men, sons of farmers—truly strangers to all combat, whose only fault was their youth—had been slaughtered.


Even the bloated horses, on the road, in the fields, attested to a war that had gone on. In reality, how much time had elapsed? When the lieutenant returned and became aware the young chatelaine had disappeared, why did anger, rage, not prompt him to burn down the Château (immobile and majestic)? Because it was the Château. On the facade it was inscribed, like an indestructible reminder, the date 1807. Was he cultivated enough to know this was the famous year of Jena, when Napoleon, on his small gray horse, passed under the windows of Hegel, who recognized in him the "spirit of the world," as he wrote to a friend? Lie and truth: for as Hegel wrote to another friend, the French pillaged and ransacked his home. But Hegel knew how to distinguish the empirical and the essential. In that year 1944, the Nazi lieutenant had for the Château a respect or consideration that the farms did not arouse. Everything was searched, however. Some money was taken; in a separate room, "the high chamber," the lieutenant found papers and a sort of thick manuscript—which perhaps contained war plans. Finally he left.
Everything was burning, except the Château. The Seigneurs had been spared.

No doubt what then began for the young man was the torment of injustice. No more ecstasy; the feeling that he was only living because, even in the eyes of the Russians, he belonged to a noble class.

This was war: life for some, for others, the cruelty of assassination.

There remained, however, at the moment when the shooting was no longer but to come, the feeling of lightness that I would not know how to translate: freed from life? the infinite opening up? Neither happiness, nor unhappiness. Nor the absence of fear and perhaps already the step beyond. I know, I image that this unanalyzable feeling changed what there remained for him of existence. As if the death outside of him could only henceforth collide with the death in him. "I am alive. No, you are dead."

Later, having returned to Paris, he met Malraux, who said that he had been taken prisoner (without being recognized) and that he had succeeded in escaping, losing a manuscript in the process. “It was only reflections of art, easy to reconstitute, whereas a manuscript would not be.” With Paulhan, he made inquiries which could only remain in vain.

 

What does it matter. All that remains is the feeling of lightness that is death itself, or to put it more precisely, the instant of my death henceforth always in abeyance.

 

—Maurice Blanchot, The Instant of My Death. Originally published in French as L’instant de ma mort (1994).

the late, great claude lévi-strauss on myth and meaning


He was building not so much a science of myth as a brilliant explication of the nuances and competing interpretation of our oldest stories. And he lived to see his 101st year, thereby proving reading is good for you! 

Claude Lévi-Strauss, 

 The Meeting Of Myth And Science

Let me start with a personal confession. There is a magazine which I read faithfully each month from the first line to the last, even though I don’t understand all of it; it is the Scientific American. I am extremely eager to be as informed as possible of everything that takes place in modern science and its new developments. My position in relation to science is thus not a negative one.

Secondly, I think there are some things we have lost, and we should try perhaps to regain them, because I am not sure that in the kind of world in which we are living and with the kind of scientific thinking we are bound to follow, we can regain these things exactly as if they had never been lost; but we can try to become aware of their existence and their importance.

In the third place, my feeling is that modern science is not at all moving away from these lost things, but that more and more it is attempting to reintegrate them in the field of scientific explanation. The real gap, the real separation between science and what we might as well call mythical thought for the sake of finding a convenient name, although it is not exactly that—the real separation occurred in the seventeenth and the eighteenth century. At that time, with Bacon, Descartes, Newton, and the others, it was necessary for science to build itself up against the old generations of mythical and mystical thought, and it was thought that science could only exist by turning its back upon the world of the senses, the world we see, smell, taste, and perceive; the sensory was a delusive world, whereas the real world was a world of mathematical properties which could only be grasped by the intellect and which was entirely at odds with the false testimony of the senses. This was probably a necessary move, for experience shows us that thanks to this separation—this schism if you like—scientific thought was able to constitute itself.

Now, my impression (and, of course, I do not talk as a scientist—I am not a physicist, I am not a biologist, I am not a chemist) is that contemporary science is tending to overcome this gap, and that more and more the sense data are being reintegrated into scientific explanation as something which has a meaning, which has a truth, and which can be explained.

Take, for instance, the world of smells. We were accustomed to think that this was entirely subjective, outside the world of science. Now the chemists are able to tell us that each smell or each taste has a certain chemical composition and to give us the reasons why subjectively some smells or some tastes feel to us as having something in common and some others seem widely different. 

Let’s take another example. There was in philosophy from the time of the Greeks to the eighteenth and even the nineteenth century—and there still is to some extent—a tremendous discussion about the origin of mathematical ideas—the idea of the line, the idea of the circle, the idea of the triangle. There were, in the main, two classical theories: one of the mind as a tabula rasa, with nothing in it in the beginning; everything comes to it from experience. It is from seeing a lot of round objects, none of which were perfectly round, that we are able nevertheless to abstract the idea of the circle. The second classical theory goes back to Plato, who claimed that such ideas of the circle, of the triangle, of the line, are perfect, innate in the mind, and it is because they are given to the mind that we are able to project them, so to speak, on reality, although reality never offers us a perfect circle or a perfect triangle.

Now, contemporary researchers on the neurophysiology of vision teach us that the nervous cells in the retina and the other apparatus behind the retina are specialized: some cells are sensitive only to straight direction, in the vertical sense, others in the horizontal, others in the oblique, some of them to the relationship between the background and the central figures, and the like. So—and I simplify very much because it is too complicated for me to explain this in English—this whole problem of experience versus mind seems to have a solution in the structure of the nervous system, not in the structure of the mind or in experience, but somewhere between mind and experience in the way our nervous system is built and in the way it mediates between mind and experience.

Probably there is something deep in my own mind, which makes it likely that I always was what is now being called a structuralist. My mother told me that, when I was about two years old and still unable to read, of course, I claimed that actually I was able to read. And when I was asked why, I said that when I looked at the signboards on shops—for instance, boulanger (baker) or boucher (butcher)—I was able to read something because what was obviously similar, from a graphic point of view, in the writing could not mean anything other than ‘bou,’ the same first syllable of boucher and boulanger. Probably there is nothing more than that in the structuralist approach; it is the quest for the invariant, or for the invariant elements among superficial differences.

Throughout my life, this search was probably a predominant interest of mine. When I was a child, for a while my main interest was geology. The problem in geology is also to try to understand what is invariant in the tremendous diversity of landscapes, that is, to be able to reduce a landscape to a finite number of geological layers and of geological operations. Later as an adolescent, I spent a great part of my leisure time drawing costumes and sets for opera. The problem there is exactly the same—to try to express in one language, that is, the language of graphic arts and painting, something which also exists in music and in the libretto; that is, to try to reach the invariant property of a very complex set of codes (the musical code, the literary code, the artistic code). The problem is to find what is common to all of them. It’s a problem, one might say, of translation, of translating what is expressed in one language—or one code, if you prefer, but language is sufficient—into expression in a different language.

Structuralism, or whatever goes under that name, has been considered as something completely new and at thetime revolutionary; this, I think, is doubly false. In the first place, even in the field of the humanities, it is not new at all; we can follow very well this trend of thought from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century and to the present time. But it is also wrong for another reason: what we call structuralism in the field of linguistics, or anthropology, or the like, is nothing other than a very pale and faint imitation of what the ‘hard sciences,’ as I think you call them in English, have been doing all the time.

Science has only two ways of proceeding: it is either reductionist or structuralist. It is reductionist when it is possible to find out that very complex phenomena on one level can be reduced to simpler phenomena on other levels. For instance, there is a lot in life which can be reduced to physico-chemical processes, which explain a part but not all. And when we are confronted with phenomena too complex to be reduced to phenomena of a lower order, then we can only approach them by looking to their relationships, that is, by trying to understand what kind of original system they make up. This is exactly what we have been trying to do in linguistics, in anthropology, and in different fields.

It is true—and let’s personalize nature for the sake of the argument—that Nature has only a limited number of procedures at her disposal and that the kinds of procedure which Nature uses at one level of reality are bound to reappear at different levels. The genetic code is a very good example; it is well known that, when the biologists and the geneticists had the problem of describing what they had discovered, they could do nothing better than borrow the language of linguistics and to speak of words, of phrase, of accent, of punctuation marks, and the like. I do not mean at all that it is the same thing; of course, it is not. But it is the same kind of problem arising at two different levels of reality.

It would be very far from my mind to try to reduce culture, as we say in our anthropological jargon, to nature; but nevertheless what we witness at the level of culture are phenomena of the same kind from a formal point of view (I do not mean at all substantially). We can at least trace the same problem to the mind that we can observe on the level of nature, though, of course, the cultural is much more complicated and calls upon a much larger number of variables.

I’m not trying to formulate a philosophy, or even a theory. Since I was a child, I have been bothered by, let’s call it the irrational, and have been trying to find an order behind what is given to us as a disorder. It so happened that I became an anthropologist, as a matter of fact not because I was interested in anthropology, but because I was trying to get out of philosophy. It also so happened that in the French academic framework, where anthropology was at the time not taught as a discipline in its own right in the universities, it was possible for somebody trained in philosophy and teaching philosophy to escape to anthropology. I escaped there, and was confronted immediately by one problem—there were lots of rules of marriage all over the world which looked absolutely meaningless, and it was all the more irritating because, if they were meaningless, then there should be different rules for each people, though nevertheless the number of rules could be more or less finite. So, if the same absurdity was found to reappear over and over again, and another kind of absurdity also to reappear, then this was something which was not absolutely absurd; otherwise it would not reappear. 

Such was my first orientation, to try to find an order behind this apparent disorder. And when after working on the kinship systems and marriage rules, I turned my attention, also by chance and not at all on purpose, toward mythology, the problem was exactly the same. Mythical stories are, or seem, arbitrary, meaningless, absurd, yet nevertheless they seem to reappear all over the world. A ‘fanciful’ creation of the mind in one place would be unique—you would not find the same creation in a completely different place. My problem was trying to find out if there was some kind of order behind this apparent disorder—that’s all. And I do not claim that there are conclusions to be drawn.

It is, I think, absolutely impossible to conceive of meaning without order. There is something very curious in semantics, that the word ‘meaning’ is probably, in the whole language, the word the meaning of which is the most difficult to find. What does ‘to mean’ mean? It seems to me that the only answer we can give is that ‘to mean’ means the ability of any kind of data to be translated in a different language. I do not mean a different language like French or German, but different words on a different level. After all, this translation is what a dictionary is expected to give you—the meaning of the word in different words, which on a slightly different level are isomorphic to the word or expression you are trying to understand. Now, what would a translation be without rules?

It would be absolutely impossible to understand. Because you cannot replace any word by any other word or any sentence by any other sentence, you have to have rules of translation. To speak of rules and to speak of meaning is to speak of the same thing; and if we look at all the intellectual undertakings of mankind, as far as they have been recorded all over the world, the common denominator is always to introduce some kind of order. If this represents a basic need for order in the human mind and since, after all, the human mind is only part of the universe, the need probably exists because there is some order in the universe and the universe is not a chaos.

***

What I have been trying to say here is that there has been a divorce—a necessary divorce—between scientific thought and what I have called the logic of the concrete, that is, the respect for and the use of the data of the senses, as opposed to images and symbols and the like. We are witnessing the moment when this divorce will perhaps be overcome or reversed, because modern science seems to be able to make progress not only in its own traditional line—pushing forward and forward but still within the same narrow channel—but also at the same time to widen the channel and to reincorporate a great many items previously left outside.

In this respect, I may be subjected to the criticism of being called ‘scientistic’ or a kind of blind believer in science who holds that science is able to solve absolutely all problems. Well, I certainly don’t believe that, because I cannot conceive that a day will come when science will be complete and achieved. There will always be new problems, and exactly at the same pace as science is able to solve problems which were deemed philosophical a dozen years or a century ago, so there will appear new problems which had not hitherto been not perceived as such. There will always be a gap between the answer science is able to give us and the new question which this answer will raise. So I am not ‘scientistic’ in that way. Science will never give us all the answers. What we can try to do is to increase very slowly the number and the quality of the answers we are able to give, and this, I think, we can do only through science.

 —from Claude Lévi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning, University of Toronto Press, 1978. Originally in the form of a talk given as part of the 1977 Massey Lectures entitled “Myth and Meaning,” and  broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio series, Ideas, in December 1977.

  

 

surrealistic short fiction from boris vian

 
Boris Vian was a French writer, poet, jazz musician, critic, actor—to name just a few of his trades.  Vian’s approach to life can be found in his famous assertion that that “I am not an existentialist. For an existentialist, existence precedes essence. For me, there isn’t any such thing as essence.” Vian was a Satrap of the College of Pataphysics, the neo-Surrealist group that included Raymond Queneau and Eugene lonesco.
 
In 1959, while watching the screening of a film made from  his 1946 novel I Spit on Your Graves (J’Irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes). A few minutes into the film, Vian apparently yelled “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” and then collapsed, dying of a heart attack at age 39.  I Spit on Your Graves was also associated with another death, after a man murdered his mistress in a Montmartre motel and left behind a copy of the bestselling novel at the murder scene within which he’d highlighted the particularly violent passages.
 
 
 


      Vian’s murderous bestseller

His short story “The Dead Fish” is a surrealistic piece about forgery and murder:
 
 
 The Dead Fish 
by Boris Vian   

The carriage door stuck as usual; at the other end of the train, the big hat chief leaned hard on the red button, and the compressed air squirted into the tubes. The assistant strained to force the two panels apart. He was hot. Drops of gray sweat zigzagging across his face, like flies, and the dirty collar of his insulated zephyr shirt was exposed.

 

The train was about to start when the chief released the button. The air belched joyously under the train, and the assistant almost lost his balance as the door suddenly gave way. He stumbled down, not without ripping open his collecting bag on the latch.

 

The train started, and the resulting atmospheric displacement pushed the assistant against the malodorous latrines, where two Arabs were discussing politics with great knife-blows.

 

The assistant shook himself, patted his hair, which was crushed against his soft skull like rotten weeds. A faint mist rose from his half-naked torso, from which stood out a jutting clavicle, and the beginnings of one or two pairs of uncouth, badly planted ribs.

 

With a heavy step, he went down the platform tiled with hexagons of red and green, soiled here and there with long black trails: it had rained octopuses during the afternoon, but the time that the station employees were supposed to dedicate to mopping the platform, according to their monumental chart, had been passed in the satisfaction of unmentionable needs.

 

The assistant rummaged in his pockets, and his fingers encountered the coarse corrugated pasteboard that he had to surrender at the exit. His knees hurt, and the dampness of the pools he had explored during the day made his badly fastened joints grind together. It must be said, he had gathered a more than honorable booty in his bag.

 

He handed his ticket to the dim man standing behind the grille. The man took it, looked at it and smiled ferociously.

 

“You haven’t got another one?” he said.

 

“No,” said the assistant.

 

“This one is forged.”

 

“But it was my boss that gave it to me,” said the assistant nicely, with a charming smile and a little nod.

 

The clerk giggled. “I’m not surprised it’s forged, then. He bought ten from us, this morning.”

 

“Ten what?” said the assistant.

 

“Ten forged tickets.”

 

“But why?” said the assistant. His smile grew weaker and drooped to the left.

 

“To give them to you,” said the clerk. “Primo, so as to get you sworn at, to begin with, which I am about to do; and secundo, so that you’d have to pay the fine.”

 

“Why?” said the assistant. “I’ve got hardly any money.”

 

“Because it’s slimy to travel with a forged ticket,” said the clerk.

 

“But you’re the ones that forge them!”

 

“We have to. Because there are characters slimy enough to travel with forged tickets. You think it’s fun, hey, to forget tickets all the while?”

 

“You’d certainly do better to clean up a tile,” said the assistant.

 

“No word games,” said the clerk. “Pay the fine. It’s thirty francs.”

 

“That’s not true,” said the assistant. “It’s twelve francs when you haven’t got a ticket.”

 

“It’s much more serious to have a forged one,” said the clerk. “Pay, or I’ll call my dog!”

 

“He won’t come,” said the assistant

 

“No,” said the clerk, “but it’ll make your ears hurt, anyhow.”

 

The assistant looked at the gloomy and emaciated face of the clerk, who gave him a venomous stare in return.

 

“I haven’t got much money,” he muttered.

 

“Me either,” said the clerk. “Pay up.”

 

“He gives me fifty francs a day,” said the assistant, “and I have to eat.”

 

The clerk tugged at the visor of his cap, and a blue screen dropped over his face. “Pay up,” he said with his hand, rubbing the thumb and forefinger together.

 

The assistant reached for his shiny, patched-up wallet. He took out two creased ten-franc notes and a little five-franc note that was still bleeding.

 

“Twenty-five,” he proposed uncertainly.

 

“Thirty,” said the three outstretched fingers of the clerk.

 

The assistant sighed, and his boss’s face appeared between his toes. He spat on it, right in the eye. His heart beat faster. The face dissolved and blackened. He put the money in the outstretched hand and left. He heard the click of the visor returning to its usual place.

 

Walking slowly, he reached the foot of the hill. The bag bruised his skinny hips, and the bamboo handle of his net whipped his frail, malformed calves at random as he walked.

 

***


Download the rest of the story here.

 

henri michaux’s vision of art-as-exorcism

From Ordeals, Exorcisms  

The title of this little collection of poems and prose texts (121 pages in the original edition) could define much of Michaux’s work. Its Preface is particularly important: in it, he explains the function of art-as-exorcism and its reason for being: “to ward off the surrounding powers of the hostile world.” As in Facing the Locks, a collection he published almost ten years later, some of the texts in Ordeals, Exorcisms reflect, more clearly than usual, a reality outside the self—in this case, the Nazi Occupation of Europe. If Michaux’s basic situation is one of exploring the sicknesses of the self inside a room, there are times when the outside world will come to resemble the prison of a sick man’s room: from 1940 to 1944, all of France seemed to be transformed into a prison or a hospital.  

  

This work also reflects the poet’s continuing preoccupation with inner space, the field of consciousness, the imagination and its monsters . . . Most of it could have been produced at any period of Michaux’s career.

 

—from Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927–1984. Selected, translated, and presented by David Ball. University of California Press, 1994.  

  

 

  

Preface 

It would be truly extraordinary if perfect harmony emerged from the thousands of events that occur every year. There are always a few that stick in your throat; you keep them inside yourself; they hurt.  


One of the things you can do: exorcism.
 


Every situation means dependency, hundreds of dependencies. It would be unheard-of if this state of affairs were perfectly satisfying or if a man—however active he might be—could really fight against all these dependencies effectively.
 


One of the things you can do: exorcism.
 


Exorcism, a reaction in force, with a battering ram, is the true poem of the prisoner.
 


In the very space of suffering and obsession, you introduce such exaltation, such magnificent violence, welded to the hammering of words, that the evil is progressively dissolved, replaced by an airy demonic sphere—a marvelous state!
 


Many contemporary poems, poems of deliverance, also have an effect of exorcism, but of exorcism through subterfuge. Through the subterfuge of our subconscious nature that defends itself with an appropriate imaginative elaboration: Dreams. Through planned or exploratory subterfuge, searching for its optimum point of application: waking Dreams.
 


Not only dreams but an infinity of thoughts exists in order to allow us “to get by,” and even some philosophical systems were essentially exorcistic, although they thought they were something else entirely.

Their effect is similarly liberating, but their nature is quite different.

Nothing here of that rocketing surge, impetuous and seemingly super-human, of the exorcism. Nothing of that kind of gun turret that takes shape at those moments when the object to be driven away, rendered as it were electrically present, is beaten back by magic.


This vertical, explosive rush upward is one of the great moments of existence. The exercise cannot be recommended enough to those who despite themselves live in unhappy dependence. But it is hard to start the motor—only near-despair will do the trick.

The understanding reader will realize that the poems at the beginning of this book were not made out of hatred of one thing or another, but to shake off overpowering influences.
 


Most of the following texts are in a sense exorcisms through subterfuge. Their reason for being:to ward off the surrounding powers of the hostile world.
 

Voices 

I heard a voice in those unhappy days and I heard: “I shall reduce them, these men, I shall reduce them and already they are reduced although they don’t realize it yet. I shall reduce them to so little that there will be no way of telling man from woman and already they are no longer what they once were, but since their organs can still interpenetrate they still think themselves different, one this, the other that. But so terribly shall I make them suffer that there will no longer be any organ that matters. I shall leave them only their skeletons, a mere line of their skeleton for them to hang their unhappiness on. They’ve run enough! What do they still need legs for? Their movements are small, small! And it will be much better that way. Just as a statue in a park makes only one gesture, whatever may happen, even so shall I petrify them—but smaller, smaller.”
 
 

 

I heard that voice, I heard it and I shuddered, but not all that much, because I admired it, for its dark determination and its vast though apparently senseless plan. That voice was only one voice among hundreds, filling the top and bottom of the atmosphere and the East and the West, and all of them were aggressive, wicked, hateful, promising a sinister future for man.  


But man, panicky in one place, calm in another, had reflexes and calculations in case of hard times, and he was ready, although he might generally have appeared hunted and ineffectual.
 


He who can be tripped up by a pebble had already been walking for two hundred thousand years when I heard the voices of hatred and threats which meant to frighten him.
 

The Letter 

I am writing to you from aland that was once full of light. I am writing you from the land of the cloak and shadow. For years and years, we’ve been living on the Tower of the flag at half-mast. Summer! Poisoned summer! And since then it has always been the same day, day of the encrusted memory . . . 


The hooked fish thinks of the water as long as he can. As long as he can, isn’t that natural? You reach top of a mountain slope and you’re hit by a pike-thrust. Afterward your whole life changes. One instant smashes in the door of the Temple.
 


We ask each other for advice. We don’t know any more. One doesn’t know any more than the other. This one is frantic, that one nonplussed. All of us at a loss. Calm exists no longer. Wisdom lasts no longer than an inspiration.
Tell me: with three arrows shot into his cheek, who would walk around looking natural?  
 

 


Death took some of us. Prison, exile, hunger, hardship took the others. Great sabers of shuddering slashed through us, then everything base and sneaky passed through us.
 


Who on our soil still feels the kiss of joy in the very bottom of his heart?
 


The union of wine and the self is a poem. The union of self and woman is a poem. The union of heaven and earth is a poem, but the poem we have heard has paralyzed our understanding.


Our song in unbearable grief could not be uttered. The art of carving in jade has stopped. Clouds go by, clouds shaped like rocks, clouds shaped like peaches, and as for us, we too go by like clouds, full of the vain powers of suffering.


We no longer like the day. It howls. We no longer like the night, haunted by worries. A thousand voices to sink into. No voice to lean on. Our skin is sick of our pale faces.


Vast events. The night, too, is vast, but what can it do? The thousand stars of night can’t light a single bed.
Those who knew no longer know. They jump with the train, they roll with the wheel.
 

 


“Stay within oneself?” Don’t even think about it! On the island of parrots, no house is isolated. In the fall, villainy showed its face. The pure is not pure. It shows its stubbornness, its vindictiveness. Some can be seen yelping. Others can be seen ducking out of the way. But grandeur is nowhere to be seen.
 
 

 

The secret ardor, the farewell to truth, the silence of stone slabs, the scream of the knife victim, the world of frozen rest and burning feelings has been our world and the road of the puzzled dog our road.


We could not recognize ourselves in the silence, we could not recognize ourselves in the screams, nor in our caverns, nor in the gestures of foreigners. Around us, the countryside is indifferent and the sky has no purpose.
 
 

 

We have looked at ourselves in the mirror of death. We have looked at ourselves in the mirror of the sullied seal, of flowing blood, of decapitated surging, in the grimy mirror of humiliations.
 
 

 

We have gone back to the glaucous springs.

Labyrinth

Life, a labyrinth, death, a labyrinth
Labyrinth without end, says the Master of Ho.

      Everything hammers down, nothing liberates.
The suicide is born again to new suffering.

      The prison opens on a prison
The corridor opens another corridor:

      He who thinks he is unrolling the scroll of his life
Is unrolling nothing at all.

      Nothing comes out anywhere
The centuries, too, live underground, says the Master of Ho.

After My Death

I was transported after my death, I was transported not into a closed space, but into the immense vacuum of the ether. Far from being depressed by this immense opening in all directions as far as the eye could see, in the starry sky, I pulled myself together and pulled together all that I had been and all I was just about to be, and finally all I had planned to become (in my secret inner calendar), and squeezing the whole thing together, my good qualities too, and even my vices, as a last rampart, I made myself a shell out of all this.
 
 

 

Around this nucleus, energized by anger, but by a clean anger no longer based on blood, cold and whole, I set about playing porcupine, in a supreme act of defense, in an ultimate refusal.
 
 

 

Then, the vacuum, the larvae of the vacuum that were already extending their soft pockets tentacularly toward me, threatening me with an abject endosmosis—the larvae, astonished after a few futile attempts on this prey that refused to give in, retreated in confusion and disappeared from view, leaving alive the man who deserved it so much.
 
 

 

Free, henceforth, on this front, I used my power of the moment, the exaltation of the unhoped-for victory, to weigh towards Earth, and repenetrated my motionless body, which the sheets and blanket had luckily prevented from growing cold.
 
 

 

With surprise, after this struggle of mine which outdid the efforts of giants, with surprise and joy mixed with disappointment I came back to the narrow closed horizons where human life, to be what it is, must be lived.

In the Company of Monsters

It soon became clear (from my adolescence on) that I had been born to live among monsters. For a long time they were terrible, then they ceased being terrible and after great virulence they weakened little by little. Finally they became inactive and I lived among them in serenity.

 

 

 

 

 

This was the time when others, still unsuspected, began to form and one day would come before me, active and terrible (for if they were to come and spring up only to be idle and kept on leash, do you think they would ever come?), but after filling the whole horizon with darkness they began to weaken and I lived among them in serenity, unperturbed, and this was a fine thing, especially since it had come close to being so hateful, almost fatal.

 

 

 

 

And they who at first had been so excessive, repulsive, disgusting, took on such delicate contours that despite their impossible forms, one would almost have classed them as a part of nature.
 
 

 

Age was doing this. Certainly. And what was the clear sign of this inoffensive stage? It’s quite simple. They no longer had eyes. With the organs of detection washed away, their faces—although monstrous in form—their heads their bodies were no more disturbing than the form of the cones, spheres, cylinders or volumes that nature displays in its rocks, its pebbles and in many other domains.

The Monster Lobe

After my third relapse, through inside vision I saw my brain all sticky and in folds, macroscopically I saw its lobes and centers, none of which were functioning any more, and instead, I expected to see pus or tumors forming inside there.
 
 

 

As I was searching for a lobe that might still be healthy, I saw one, unmasked by the shrinkage of the others. It was at the height of its activity and a very dangerous activity too, for it was a monster lobe. The more I saw it, the more certain I was.
 
 

 

It was the monster lobe, usually reduced to an inactive state, which, given the failure of the other lobes, suddenly, by a powerful act of substitution, was supplying me with life; but it—the life of monsters—was welded to mine. Now, all my life, I had always had the greatest difficulty in keeping them in their place.
 
 

 

Here, perhaps, was the ultimate attempt of my Being to survive. In what monstrosities I found support (and in what way!), I would not dare relate. Who would have thought that life was so precious to me?
 
 

 

From monster to monster, from caterpillars to giant larvae, I kept on clinging . . . 

The Monster on the Stairs

I met a monster on the stairs. When you looked at him, the trouble he had in climbing them hurt terribly.
 
 

 

Yet his thighs were impressive. He was even, so to speak, all thigh. Two heavy thighs on plantigrade paws.
 
 

 

The top did not seem clear to me. Little mouths of darkness, darkness or . . . ..? This being had no true body, except just enough soft, vaguely moist zones to tempt the dreaming penis of some idle man. But perhaps that wasn’t it at all, and this big monster, probably a hermaphrodite, crushed and bestial, was unhappily climbing a flight of stairs that would no doubt lead him nowhere. (Although I had the impression that he had not set out just to climb a few short steps.)
 
 

 

Seeing him was upsetting, and surely it was not a good sign to have met up with a monster like that.
 
 

 

You could see he was vile immediately. But in what way—that was not at all certain.
 
 

 

He seemed to carry lakes on his undefined mass, tiny lakes, or were they eyelids, enormous eyelids?

In the Hospital

The pain is atrocious. They have given me a room in the hospital at some distance from the others.
 
 

 

I share it with a coughing woman.
 
 

 

No doubt they expected that with the screams my suffering would soon wrench out of me I would destroy the sleep of all the patients in the ward.
 
 

 

No! Every morning I examine my strength on the one hand, and the progress of my pain on the other, and I decide as firmly to hold on today as,irrevocably, the next, to let myself give in to the screams of my infernal suffering that I can now only hold back with extreme difficulty whose overflow is imminent, imminent, if it has not already been reached. Yet the next day again I resist the growing pressure that is well beyond what I thought I would be able to stand.
 
 

 

But why, oh why did they give me a coughing woman who lacerates my rare moments of peace and is shredding to pieces, disastrously, the little continuity I can still manage to keep, in this terrible harassment of pain?

 

—originally published in Epreuves, Exorcismes 1940–1944, Gallimard, 1945; new edition, 1967.)