When George the Fourth was still reigning over the privacies of Windsor, when the Duke of Wellington was Prime Minister, and Mr. Vincy was mayor of the old corporation in Middlemarch, Mrs. Casaubon, born Dorothea Brooke, had taken her wedding journey to Rome. In those days the world in general was more ignorant of good and evil by forty years than it is at present. Travellers did not often carry full information on Christian art either in their heads or their pockets; and even the most brilliant English critic of the day mistook the flower-flushed tomb of the ascended Virgin for an ornamental vase due to the painter’s fancy. Romanticism, which has helped to fill some dull blanks with love and knowledge, had not yet penetrated the times with its leaven and entered into everybody’s food; it was fermenting still as a distinguishable vigorous enthusiasm in certain long-haired German artists at Rome, and the youth of other nations who worked or idled near them were sometimes caught in the spreading movement.
One fine morning a young man whose hair was not immoderately long, but abundant and curly, and who was otherwise English in his equipment, had just turned his back on the Belvedere Torso in the Vatican and was looking out on the magnificent view of the mountains from the adjoining round vestibule. He was sufficiently absorbed not to notice the approach of a dark-eyed, animated German who came up to him and placing a hand on his shoulder, said with a strong accent, “Come here, quick! else she will have changed her pose.”
Quickness was ready at the call, and the two figures passed lightly along by the Meleager, towards the hall where the reclining Ariadne, then called the Cleopatra, lies in the marble voluptuousness of her beauty, the drapery folding around her with a petal-like ease and tenderness. They were just in time to see another figure standing against a pedestal near the reclining marble: a breathing blooming girl, whose form, not shamed by the Ariadne, was clad in Quakerish gray drapery; her long cloak, fastened at the neck, was thrown backward from her arms, and one beautiful ungloved hand pillowed her cheek, pushing somewhat backward the white beaver bonnet which made a sort of halo to her face around the simply braided dark-brown hair. She was not looking at the sculpture, probably not thinking of it: her large eyes were fixed dreamily on a streak of sunlight which fell across the floor. But she became conscious of the two strangers who suddenly paused as if to contemplate the Cleopatra, and, without looking at them, immediately turned away to join a maid-servant and courier who were loitering along the hall at a little distance off.
“What do you think of that for a fine bit of antithesis?” said the German, searching in his friend’s face for responding admiration, but going on volubly without waiting for any other answer. “There lies antique beauty, not corpse-like even in death, but arrested in the complete contentment of its sensuous perfection: and here stands beauty in its breathing life, with the consciousness of Christian centuries in its bosom. But she should be dressed as a nun; I think she looks almost what you call a Quaker; I would dress her as a nun in my picture. However, she is married; I saw her wedding-ring on that wonderful left hand, otherwise I should have thought the sallow Geistlicher was her father. I saw him parting from her a good while ago, and just now I found her in that magnificent pose. Only think! he is perhaps rich, and would like to have her portrait taken. Ah! it is no use looking after her– there she goes! Let us follow her home!”
“No, no,” said his companion, with a little frown.
“You are singular, Ladislaw. You look struck together. Do you know her?”
“I know that she is married to my cousin,” said Will Ladislaw, sauntering down the hall with a preoccupied air, while his German friend kept at his side and watched him eagerly.
“What! the Geistlicher? He looks more like an uncle–a more useful sort of relation.”
“He is not my uncle. I tell you he is my second cousin,” said Ladislaw, with some irritation.
“Schon, schon. Don’t be snappish. You are not angry with me for thinking Mrs. Second-Cousin the most perfect young Madonna I ever saw?”
“Angry? nonsense. I have only seen her once before, for a couple of minutes, when my cousin introduced her to me, just before I left England. They were not married then. I didn’t know they were coming to Rome.”
“But you will go to see them now–you will find out what they have for an address–since you know the name. Shall we go to the post? And you could speak about the portrait.”
“Confound you, Naumann! I don’t know what I shall do. I am not so brazen as you.”
“Bah! that is because you are dilettantish and amateurish. If you were an artist, you would think of Mistress Second-Cousin as antique form animated by Christian sentiment–a sort of Christian Antigone– sensuous force controlled by spiritual passion.”
“Yes, and that your painting her was the chief outcome of her existence–the divinity passing into higher completeness and all but exhausted in the act of covering your bit of canvas. I am amateurish if you like: I do NOT think that all the universe is straining towards the obscure significance of your pictures.”
“But it is, my dear!–so far as it is straining through me, Adolf Naumann: that stands firm,” said the good-natured painter, putting a hand on Ladislaw’s shoulder, and not in the least disturbed by the unaccountable touch of ill-humour in his tone. “See now! My existence presupposes the existence of the whole universe– does it NOT? and my function is to paint–and as a painter I have a conception which is altogether genialisch, of your great-aunt or second grandmother as a subject for a picture; therefore, the universe is straining towards that picture through that particular hook or claw which it puts forth in the shape of me– not true?”
“But how if another claw in the shape of me is straining to thwart it?– the case is a little less simple then.”
“Not at all: the result of the struggle is the same thing– picture or no picture–logically.”
Will could not resist this imperturbable temper, and the cloud in his face broke into sunshiny laughter.
“Come now, my friend–you will help?” said Naumann, in a hopeful tone.
“No; nonsense, Naumann! English ladies are not at everybody’s service as models. And you want to express too much with your painting. You would only have made a better or worse portrait with a background which every connoisseur would give a different reason for or against. And what is a portrait of a woman? Your painting and Plastik are poor stuff after all. They perturb and dull conceptions instead of raising them. Language is a finer medium.”
“Yes, for those who can’t paint,” said Naumann. “There you have perfect right. I did not recommend you to paint, my friend.”
The amiable artist carried his sting, but Ladislaw did not choose to appear stung. He went on as if he had not heard.
“Language gives a fuller image, which is all the better for beings vague. After all, the true seeing is within; and painting stares at you with an insistent imperfection. I feel that especially about representations of women. As if a woman were a mere coloured superficies! You must wait for movement and tone. There is a difference in their very breathing: they change from moment to moment.–This woman whom you have just seen, for example: how would you paint her voice, pray? But her voice is much diviner than anything you have seen of her.”
“I see, I see. You are jealous. No man must presume to think that he can paint your ideal. This is serious, my friend! Your great-aunt! `Der Neffe als Onkel’ in a tragic sense–ungeheuer!”
“You and I shall quarrel, Naumann, if you call that lady my aunt again.”
“How is she to be called then?”
“Good. Suppose I get acquainted with her in spite of you, and find that she very much wishes to be painted?”
“Yes, suppose!” said Will Ladislaw, in a contemptuous undertone, intended to dismiss the subject. He was conscious of being irritated by ridiculously small causes, which were half of his own creation. Why was he making any fuss about Mrs. Casaubon? And yet he felt as if something had happened to him with regard to her. There are characters which are continually creating collisions and nodes for themselves in dramas which nobody is prepared to act with them. Their susceptibilities will clash against objects that remain innocently quiet.
George Eliot, 1819-1880. Middlemarch, 1871-72. Book II. Old and Young. Chapter XIX
That winter – 1946 – was a long time going. Although it was April, a freezing wind blew through the streets of the city, and overhead the snow clouds moved across the sky.
The old man who was called Drioli shuffled painfully along the sidewalk of the Rue de Rivoli. He was cold and miserable, huddled up like a hedgehog in a filthy black coat, only his eyes and the top of his head visible above the turned-up collar.
The door of a café opened and the faint whiff of roasting chicken brought a pain of yearning to the top of his stomach. He moved on glancing without any interest at the things in the shop windows – perfume, silk ties and shirts, diamonds, porcelain, antique furniture, finely bound books. Then a picture gallery. He had always liked picture-galleries. This one had a single canvas on display in the window. He stopped to look at it. He turned to go on. He checked, looked back; and now, suddenly, there came to him a slight uneasiness, a movement of the memory, a distant recollection of something, somewhere, he had seen before. He looked again. It was landscape, a clump of trees leaning madly over to one side as if blown by a tremendous wind. Attached to the frame there was a little plaque, and on this it said: CHAIM SOUTINE (1894 – 1943).
Drioli stared at the picture, wondering vaguely what there was about it that seemed familiar. Crazy painting, he thought. Very strange and crazy – but I like it . . . Chaim Soutine . . . Soutine . . . “By God!” he cried suddenly. ‘My little Kalmuck, that’s who it is! My little Kalmuck with a picture in the finest shop in Paris! Just imagine that!’
The old man pressed his face closer to the window. He could remember the boy – yes, quite clearly he could remember him. But when? The rest of it was not so easy to recollect. It was so long ago. How long? Twenty – no, more like thirty years, wasn’t it? Wait a minute. Yes — it was the year before the war, the first war, 1913. That was it. And this Soutine, this ugly little Kalmuck whom he had liked – almost loved – for no reason at all that he could think of, except that he could paint.
. . .
“First,” the boy said, “I shall make an ordinary painting. Then if it pleases me, I shall tattoo over it.” With a wide brush he began to paint upon the naked skin of the man’s back.
‘Ayee! Ayee!’ Drioli screamed. ‘A monstrous centipede is marching down my spine!’
“Be still now! Be still!” The boy worked rapidly applying the paint only in a thin blue wash so that it would not afterwards interfere with the process of tattooing. His concentration, as soon as he began to paint, was so great that it appeared somehow to supersede his drunkenness. He applied the brush strokes with quick short jabs of the arm, holding the wrist stiff, and in less than half an hour it was finished.
“All right. That’s all,” he said at last to the girl, who immediately returned to the couch, lay down, and fell asleep.
Drioli remained awake. He watched the boy take up the needle and dip it in the ink; then he felt the sharp tickling sting as it touched the skin of his back. The pain, which was unpleasant but never extreme, kept him from going to sleep. By following the track of the needle and by watching the different colours of ink that the boy was using, Drioli amused himself trying to visualize what was going on behind him. The boy worked with an astonishing intensity. He appeared to have become completely absorbed in the little machine and in unusual effects it was able to produce.
Far into the small hours of the morning the machine buzzed and the boy worked. Drioli could remember that when the artist finally stepped back and said, “It is finished,” there was daylight outside and the sound of people walking in the street.
“I want to see it,” Drioli said. The boy held up a mirror, and Drioli craned his neck to look.
“Good God!” he cried. It was a startling sight. The whole of his back, from the top of his shoulders to the base of his spine, was a blaze of colour – gold and green and blue and black and scarlet. The tattoo was applied so heavily it looked almost like an impasto. The boy had followed as closely as possible the original brush strokes, filling them in solid, and it was marvelous the way he had somehow managed to achieve – even with this slow process – a certain spontaneity. The portrait was quite alive; it contained much of that twisted, tortured quality so characteristic of Soutine’s other works. It was not a good likeness. It was a mood rather than a likeness, the model’s face vague and tipsy, the background swirling around her head in a mass of dark-green curling strokes.
“I rather like it myself.” The boy stood back, examining it critically. “You know,” he added, “I think it’s good enough for me to sign.” And taking up the buzzer again, he inscribed his name in red ink on the right-hand side, over the place where Drioli’s kidney was.
The old man who was called Drioli was standing in a sort of trance, staring at the painting in the window of the picture-dealer’s shop. It had been so long ago, all that – almost as though it had happened in another life.
. . .
On a sudden impulse, Drioli turned, pushed open the door of the gallery and went in.
It was a long room with a thick wine-coloured carpet, and by God how beautiful and warm it was! There were all these people strolling about looking at the pictures, well-washed, dignified people, each of whom held a catalogue in the hand. Drioli stood just inside the door, nervously glancing around, wondering whether he dared go forward and mingle with this crowd. But before he had time to gather his courage, he heard a voice beside him saying, “What is it you want?”
The speaker wore a black morning coat. He was plump and short and had a very white face. It was a flabby face with so much flech upon it that the cheeks hung down on either side of the mouth in two fleshy collops, spanielwise. He came up close to Drioli and said again, ‘What is is that you want?’
Drioli stood still.
“If you please,” the man was saying, “take yourself out of my gallery.”
“Am I not permitted to look at the pictures?”
“I have asked you to leave.”
Drioli stood his ground. ” He felt suddenly, overwhelmingly outraged.
“Let us not have trouble,” the man was saying. “Come on now, this way.” He put a fat white paw on Drioli’s arm and began to push him firmly to the door.
That did it. “Take your goddam hands off me!” Drioli shouted. His voice rang clear down the long gallery and all the heads turned around as one – all the startled faces stared down the length of the room at the person who had made this noise. A flunkey came running over to help, and the two men tried to hustle Drioli through the door. The people stood still, watching the struggle. Their faces expressed only a mild interest, and seemed to be saying. “It’s all right. There’s no danger to us. It’s being taken care of.”
“I, too!” Drioli was shouting. “I, too, have a picture by this painter! He was my friend and I have a picture which he gave me!”
“Someone should call the police.”
With a rapid twist of the body Drioli suddenly suddenly jumped clear of the two men and before anyone could stop him he was running down the gallery shouting, “I’ll show you! I’ll show you! I’ll show you!” He flung off his overcoat, then his jacket and shirt, and he turned so that his naked back was towards the people.
“There!” he cried, breathing quickly. “You see? There it is!”
There was a sudden absolute silence in the room, each person arrested in what he was doing, standing motionless in a kind of shocked, uneasy surprise. They were staring at the tattooed picture. It was still there, the colours as bright as ever, but the man’s back was thinner now, the shoulder blades protruded more sharply, and the effect, though not great, was to give the picture a curiously wrinkled, squashed appearance.
Somebody said, “My God, but it is!”
Then came the excitement and the noise of voices as the people surged forward to crowd around the old man.
‘It is unmistakable!’
“His early manner, yes?”
“It is fantastic, fantastic!”
“And look, it is signed!”
‘Bend your shoulders forward, my friend, so that the picture stretches out flat.’
“Old one, when was this done?”
“In 1913,” Drioli said, without turning around. “In the autumn of 1913.”
“Who taught Soutine to tattoo?”
“I taught him.”
“And the woman?”
“She was my wife.”
The gallery owner was pushing through the crowd towards Drioli. He was calm now, deadly serious, making a smile with his mouth. “Monsieur,” he said, “I will buy it. Drioli could see the loose fat upon the face vibrating as he moved the jaw. ‘I said I will buy it. Monsieur.”
“How can you buy it?” Drioli asked softly.
“I will give you two hundred thousand francs for it.” The dealer’s eyes were small and dark, the wings of the broad nose-base were beginning to quiver.
“Don’t do it!” someone murmured in the crowd. “It is worth twenty times as much.”
Drioli opened his mouth to speak. No words came, so he shut it; then he opened it again and said slowly, “But how can I sell it?” He lifted his hands, let them drop helplessly to his sides. “Monsieur, how can I possibly sell it?” All the sadness in the world was in his voice.
“Yes!” they were saying in the crowd. “How can he sell it? It is part of himself!”
“Listen!” the dealer said, coming up close. “I will help you. I will make you rich. Together we shall make some private arrangement over this picture, no?”
Drioli watched him with slow, apprehensive eyes. “But how can you buy it. Monsieur? What will you do with it when you have bought it? Where will you keep it? Where will you keep it tonight? And where tomorrow?”
“Ah, where will I keep it? Yes, where will I keep it? Now, where will I keep it? Well, now . . . It would seem,” he said, “that if I take the picture, I take you also. That is a disadvantage.’ He paused and stroked his nose again. ‘The picture itself is of no value until you are dead. How old are you, my friend?”
“But you are perhaps not very robust, no?” The dealer lowered the hand from his nose and looked Drioli up and down, slowly, like a farmer examining an old horse.
“I do not like this,” Drioli said, edging away. “Quite honestly. Monsieur, I do not like it.” He edged straight into the arms of a tall man who put out his hands and caught him gently by the shoulders. Drioli glanced around and apologised. The man smiled down at him, patting one of the old fellow’s naked shoulders reassuringly with a hand encased in a canary-coloured glove.
“Listen, my friend,” the stranger said, still smiling. “Do you like to swim and to bask yourself in the sun?”
Drioli looked up at him, rather alarmed.
“Do you like fine food and red wine from the great châteaux of Bordeaux?” “ The man was still smiling, showing strong white teeth with a flash of gold among them. He spoke in a soft coaxing manner, one gloved hand still resting on Drioli’s shoulder. “Do you like such things?”
“Well – yes,” Drioli answered, still greatly perplexed. ‘Of course’
‘And the company of beautiful women?’
‘And a cupboard full of suits and shirts made to your own personal measurements? It would seem that you are a little lacking for clothes.’
Drioli watched this suave man, waiting for the rest of the proposal.
“Have you ever had a shoe constructed especially for your own foot?”
“You would like that?”
“And a man who will shave you in the mornings and trim your hair?” Drioli simply stood and stared.
“And a plump attractive girl to manicure the nails of your fingers?” Someone in the crowd giggled.
“And a bell beside your bed to call a maid to bring you breakfast in the morning? Would you like these things, my friend? Do they appeal to you?”
Drioli stood still and looked at him.
“You see, I am the owner of the Hotel Bristol in Cannes. I now invite you to come down there and live as my guest for the rest of your life in luxury and comfort.” The man paused, allowing his listener time to digest this cheerful prospect.
“Your only duty – shall I call it your pleasure – will be to spend your time on my beach in bathing trunks, walking among my guests, sunning yourself, swimming, drinking cocktails. You would like that?”
There was no answer.
“Don’t you see – all the guests will thus be able to observe this fascinating picture by Soutine. You will become famous, and men will say, “Look, there is the fellow with ten million francs upon his back.” You like this idea, Monsieur? It pleases you?”
Drioli looked up at the tall man in the canary gloves, still wondering whether this was some kind of joke. ‘It is a comical idea,’ he said slowly. “But do you really mean it?”
“Of course I mean it.”
“Wait,” the dealer interrupted. “See here, old man. Here is the answer to our problem. I will buy the picture, and I will arrange with a surgeon to remove the skin from your back, and then you will be able to go off on your own and enjoy the great sum of money I shall give you for it.”
“With no skin on my back?”
“No, no, please! You misunderstand. This surgeon will put a new piece of skin in the place of the old one. It is simple.”
“Could he do that?”
“There is nothing to it.”
“Impossible!” said the man with the canary gloves. “He’s too old for such a major skin-removing operation. It would kill him. It would kill you, my friend.”
“It would kill me?”
“Naturally. You would never survive. Only the picture would come through.”
“In the name of God!” Drioli cried. He looked around aghast at the faces of the people watching him, and in the silence that followed, another man’s voice, speaking quietly from the back of the group, could be heard saying, “Perhaps, if one were to offer this old man enough money”, he might consent to kill himself on the spot. Who knows?” A few people sniggered. The dealer moved his feet uneasily on the carpet.
Then the hand in the canary glove was tapping Drioli again upon the shoulder, “Come on,” the tall man was saying, smiling his broad white smile. “You and I will go and have a good dinner and we can talk about it some more while we eat. How’s that? Are you hungry?”
Drioli watched him, frowning. He didn’t like the man’s long flexible neck, or the way he craned it forward at you when he spoke, like a snake.
“Roast duck and Chambertin”, the man was saying. He put a rich succulent accent on the words, splashing them out with his tongue. “And perhaps a soufflé aux marrons, light and frothy.”
Drioli’s eyes turned up towards the ceiling, his lips became loose and wet. One could see the poor old fellow beginning literally to drool at the mouth.
“How do you like your duck?” the man went on. “Do you like it very brown and crisp outside, or shall it be…”
“I am coming,” Drioli said quickly. Already he had picked up his shirt and was pulling it frantically over his head. “Wait for me. Monsieur. I am coming.” And within a minute he had disappeared out of the gallery with his new patron.
It wasn’t more than a few weeks later that a picture by Soutine, of a woman’s head, painted in an unusual manner, nicely framed and heavily varnished, turned up for sale in Buenos Aires. That – and the fact that there is no hotel in Cannes called Bristol – causes one to wonder a little, and to pray for the old man’s health, and to hope fervently that wherever he may be at this moment, there is a plump attractive girl to manicure the nails of his fingers, and a maid to bring him his breakfast in bed in the mornings.
Roald Dahl, 1916-1990. Skin, 1952 (Someone Like You, 1954)
Book 3. Toward Bethlehem. 1.
Eric saw her at once, standing near the steps, just beyond the ticket-taker. She was pacing in a small circle and her back, as he entered, was to him. She wore her loose brown raincoat and her head was covered with a matching hood; and she palyed with the tip, white bone in the shape of a claw, of her thin umbrella. The museum was crowded, full of the stale, Sunday museum stink, aggravated now, by the damp. He came through the doors behind a great cloud of windy, rainy, broad-beamed ladies; and they formed, before him, a large, loud, rocking wall, as they shook their unbrellas and themselves and repeated to each other, in their triumphant voices, how awful the weather was. Three young men and their two young girls, scrubbed and milky, gleaming with their passion for improvement and the ease with which they moved amongst abstractions, were surrendering their tickets and passing through the barrier. Others were on the steps, going down, coming up, stationary, peering at each other like half-blinded birds and setting up a hideous whirr, as of flying feathers and boastful wings. Cass, small, pale and old-fashioned in her hood, restlessly pacing, disenchantedly watched all this; she glanced indifferentedly toward the resounding ladies, but did not see him; he was still trying to get through, or around the wall. He looked toward the people on the steps again, wondering why Cass had wished to meet here; it was only too probable that these sacred and sterile halls contained, blocking a corridor or half-hidden by a spinning mass of statuary, someone that they knew. Cass, resignedly lit a cigarette half-turning in her small, imaginary cage. People now came crushing in through the doors behind him, and their greater pressure spat him past the ladies. He touched Cass on the shoulder.
At his touch, she seemed to spring. Her eyes came alive at once, and her pale lips tensed. And her smile was pale. She said. ‘Oh, I thought you’d never get here.’
He had surmounted a desparate temptation not to come at all, and had half-hoped that he would not find her there. She was so pale and seemed, in this cold, dazling place, so helpless, that his heart turned over. He was half an hour late. He said, ‘Dear Cass, please forgive me, it’s hard to get anywhere in weather like this. How are you?’
‘Dead.’ She did not move, merely stared at the tip of her cigarette as though she were hypnotised by it. ‘I’ve had no sleep.’ Her voice was very light and calm.
‘You picked a strange place for us to meet.’
‘Did I?’ She looked unseeingly around; then looked at him. The blank despair in her face seemed to take notice, in the far distance, of him, and her face softened into sorrow. ‘I guess I did. I just thought—well, nobody’s likely to overhear us, and I–I just couldn’t think of any other place.’
He had been about to suggest that they leave, but her white face and the fact of the rain checked him. ‘It’s all right,’ he said. He took her arm, thay started aimlessly up the steps. He realised that he was terribly hungry.
‘I can’t stay with you very long, because I left the kids alone. But I told Richard that I was coming out—that I was going to try to see you today.’
They reached the first of a labyrinthine series of rooms, shifting and crackling with groups of people, with bright paintings above and around them, and stretching into the far distance, like tombstones with unreadable inscriptions. The people moved in waves, like tourists in a foreign graveyard. Occasionaly a single mourner, dreaming of some vanished relationship, stood alone in adoration or reverie before a massive memorial—but they mainly evinced, moving restlesly here and there, the democratic gaiety. Cass and Eric moved in some panic through this crowd, trying to find a quieter place; through fields of French impressionists and cubists and cacaphonous modern masters, into a smaller room dominated by an enormous painting, executed, prinicipally, in red, before which two students, a girl and a boy, stood holding hands.
‘Was it very bad, Cass? Last night?’
He asked this in a low voice as they stood before a painting in cool yellow, of a girl with a long neck, in a yellow dress, with yellow hair.
‘Yes.’ Her hood obscured her face; it was hot in the museum; she threw the hood back. Her hair was dishevelled on the brow and trailing at the neck: she looked weary and old. ‘At first, it was awful because I hadn’t realised how much I’d hurt him. He can suffer after all,’ and she looked at Eric quickly, and looked away. They moved away from the yellow painting and faced another one, of a street with canals, somewhere in Europe. ‘And—no matter what has happened since, I did love him very much, and he was my whole life, and he’ll always be very important to me.’ She paused. ‘I suppose he made me feel terribly guilty. I didn’t know that would happen. I didn’t think it could—but—it did.’ She paused again, her shoulders sagging with a weary and proud defeat. Then she touched his hand. ‘I hate to tell you that—but I must try to tell you all of it. He frightened me, too, he frightened me because I was suddenly terribly afraid of losing the children and I cannot live without them.’ She moved one hand over her brow, uselessly pushing up her hair. ‘I didn’t have to tell him; he didn’t really know, he didn’t suspect you at all, of course; he thought it was Vivaldo. I told him because I thought he had a right to know, that if we were going to—continue—together, we could begin again on a new basis, with everything clear between us. But I was wrong. Some things cannot be clear.’
The boy and girl were coming to their side of the room. Cass and Eric crossed over, to stand beneath the red painting. ‘Or perhaps some things are clear, only one won’t face these things. I don’t know. . . . Anyway I didn’t think he’d threaten me, I didn’t think he’d try to frighten me. If he were leaving me, if he were being unfaithful to me—unfaithful, what a word! I don’t think I’d try to hold him that way. I don’t think I’d try to punish him. After all—he doesn’t belong to me, nobody belongs to anybody.’
They began walking again, down a long corridor, toward the ladies. ‘He said these terrible things to me, he said that he would sue me for divorce ,and take Paul and Michael away from me. And I listened to him, it doesn’t seem real. I didn’t see how he could say those things, if he ever loved me. And I watched him. I could he see that he was saying those things just to hurt me to hurt me because he’d been hurt–like a child. And I saw that I loved him like that, like a child, and now the bill for all that dreaming had come in. How can one have dreamed for so long? And I thought it was real. Now I don’t know what’s real. And I felt betrayed, I felt that I’d betrayed myself, and you, and everything—of value, everything anyway, that one aspires to become, one doesn’t want to be simply another grey, shapeless monster.’ They passed the cheerful ladies and Cass looked at them with wonder and with hatred. ‘Oh, God. It’s a miserable world.’
He said nothing, for he did not know what to say, and they continued their frightening promenade through the icy and angular jungle. The colours on the walls blared art them—like frozen music; he had the feeling that these rooms would never cease folding in on each other, that this labyrinth was eternal. And a sorrow entered him for Cass stronger than any love he had ever felt for her. She stood as erect as a soldier, moving straight ahead, and no bigger, as they said in the South, than a minute. He wished that he could rescue her, that it was within his power to rescue her and make her life less hard. But it was only love which could accomplish the miracle of making a life bearable—only love, and love itself mostly failed; and he had never loved her. He had used her to find out something about himself. And even this was not true. He had used her in the hope of avoiding a confrontation with himself which he had, nevertheless, and with a vengeance, been forced to endure. He felt as far removed from Cass now, in her terrible hour, as he was physically removed from Yves. Space howled between them like a flood. And whereas, with every moment now, Yves was coming closer, defeating all that water, and, as he approached, becoming more unreal, Cass was being driven farther away, was already in the unconquerable distance where she would be wrapped about by reality, unalterable forever, as a corpse is wrapped in a shroud. Therefore his sorrow, now that he was helpless, luxuriously stretched and reached. ‘You’ll never be a monster,’ he said, never.’ What’s happening is unspeakable, I know, but it can’t defeat you. You can’t go under, you’ve come too far.’
‘I think I know that I won’t be. But what I’m going to become—that I don’t see at all. And I’m afraid.’
They passed not far from a weary guard, who looked blinded and dazzled, as though he had never been able to escape the light. Before them was a large and violent canvas in greens and reds and blacks, in blocks and circles, in daggerlike exclamations; it took a flying leap, as it were, from the wall, poised for the spectator’s eyeballs; and at the same time it seemed to stretch endlessly and adoringly in on itself, reaching back into an unspeakable chaos. It was aggressivley and supurbly uncharming and unreadable, and might have been painted by a lonely and blooodthirsty tyrant, who had been cheated of his victims. ‘How horrible,’ Cass murmured, but she did not move; for they had this corner, except for the guard, to themselves.
James Baldwin, 1924-1987 Another Country, 1962
I have never seen a place like Paris for varieties of sexual provender. As soon as a woman loses a front tooth or an eye or a leg she goes on the loose. In America she’d starve to death if she had nothing to recommend her but a mutilation. Here it is different. A missing tooth or a nose eaten away or a fallen womb, any misfortune that aggravates the natural homeliness of a female, seems to be regarded as an added spice, a stimulant for the jaded appetites of the male.
I am speaking naturally of that world, which is peculiar to the big cities, the world of men and women whose last drop of juice has been squeezed out by the machine — the martyrs of modern progress. It is this mass of bones and collar buttons which the painter finds so difficult to put flesh on.
It is only later, in the afternoon, when I find myself in an art gallery on the Rue de Seze, surrounded by the men and women of Matisse, that I am drawn back again to the proper precincts of the human world. On the threshold of that big hall whose walls are now ablaze, I pause a moment to recover from the shock which one experiences when the habitual gray of the world is rent asunder and the color of life splashes forth in song and poem. I find myself in a world so natural, so complete, that I am lost. I have the sensation of being immersed in the very plexus of life, focal from whatever place, position or attitude I take my stance. Lost as when once I sank into the quick of a budding grove and seated in the dining room of that enormous world of Balbec, I caught for the first time the profound meaning of those interior stills which manifest their presence through the exorcism of sight and touch. Standing on the threshold of that world which Matisse has created I re-experienced the power of that revelation which had permitted Proust to so deform the picture of life that only those who, like himself, are sensible to the alchemy of sound and sense, are capable of transforming the negative reality of life into the substantial and significant outlines of art. Only those who can admit the light into their gizzards can translate what is there in the heart. Vividly now I recall how the glint and sparkle of light caroming from the massive chandeliers splintered and ran blood, flecking the tips of the waves that beat monotonously on the dull gold outside the windows. On the beach, masts and chimneys interlaced, and like a fuliginous shadow the figure of Albertine gliding through the surf, fusing into the mysterious quick and prism of a protoplasmic realm, uniting her shadow to the dream and harbinger of death. With the close of day, pain rising like a mist from the earth, sorrow closing in, shuttering the endless vista of sea and sky. Two waxen hands lying lifelessly on the bedspread and along the pale veins the fluted murmur of a shell repeating the legend of its birth.
In every poem by Matisse there is the history of a particle of human flesh which refused the consummation of death. The whole run of flesh, from hair to nails, expresses the miracle of breathing, as if the inner eye, in its thirst for a greater reality, had converted the pores of the flesh into hungry seeing mouths. By whatever vision one passes there is the odor and the sound of voyage. It is impossible to gaze at even a corner of his dreams without feeling the lift of the wave and the cool of the flying spray. He stands at the helm peering with steady blue eyes into the portfolio, of time. Into what distant corners has he not thrown his long, slanting gaze? Looking down the vast promontory of his nose he has beheld everything — the Cordilleras falling away into the Pacific, the history of the diaspora done in vellum, shutters fluting the froufrou of the beach, the piano curving like a conch, corollas giving out diapasons of light, chameleons squirming under the book-press, seraglios expiring in oceans of dust, music issuing like fire from the hidden chromosphere of pain, spore and madrepore fructifying the earth, navels vomiting their bright spawn of anguish … He is a bright sage, a dancing seer who, with a sweep of the brush, removes the ugly scaffold to which the body of a man is chained by the incontrovertible facts of life. He it is, if any man to-day possesses the gift, who knows where to dissolve the human figure, who has the courage to sacrifice an harmonious line in order to detect the rhythm and murmur of the blood, who takes the light that has been refracted inside him and lets it flood the keyboard of color. Behind the minutiae, the chaos, the mockery of life, he detects the invisible pattern; he announces his discoveries in the metaphysical pigment of space. No searching for formulae, no crucifixion of ideas, no compulsion other than to create. Even as the world goes to smash there is one man who remains at the core, who becomes more solidly fixed and anchored, more centrifugal as the process of dissolution quickens.
More and more the world resembles an entomologist’s dream. The earth is moving out of its orbit, the axis has shifted; from the north the snow blows down in huge knife-blue drifts. A new ice age is setting in, the transverse sutures are closing up and everywhere throughout the corn belt the foetal world is dying, turning to dead mastoid. Inch by inch the deltas are drying out and the river-beds are smooth as glass. A new day is dawning, a metallurgical day, when the earth shall clink with showers of bright yellow ore. As the thermometer drops, the form of the world grows blurred; osmosis there still is, and here and there articulation, but at the periphery the veins are all varicose, at the periphery the light-waves bend and the sun bleeds like a broken rectum.
At the very hub of this wheel which is falling apart, is Matisse. And he will keep on rolling until everything that has gone to make up the wheel has disintegrated. He has already rolled over a goodly portion of the globe, over Persia and India and China, and like a magnet he has attached to himself microscopic particles from Kurd, Beluchistan, Timbuctoo, Somaliland, Angkor, Tierra del Fuego. The odalisques he has studded with malachite and jasper, their flesh veiled with a thousand eyes, perfumed eyes dipped in the sperm of whales. Wherever a breeze stirs there are breasts as cool as jelly, white pigeons come to flutter and rut in the ice-blue veins of the Himalayas.
The wallpaper with which the men of science have covered the world of reality is falling to tatters. The grand whorehouse which they have made of life requires no decoration; it is essential only that the drains function adequately. Beauty, that feline beauty which has us by the balls in America, is finished. To fathom the new reality it is first necessary to dismantle the drains, to lay open the gangrened ducts which compose the genito-urinary system that supplies the excreta of art. The odor of the day is permanganate and formaldehyde. The drains are clogged with strangled embryos.
The world of Matisse is still beautiful in an old-fashioned bedroom way. There is not a ball-bearing in evidence, nor a boiler-plate, nor a piston, nor a monkey-wrench. It is the same old world that went gayly to the Bois in the pastoral days of wine and fornication. I find it soothing and refreshing to move amongst these creatures with live, breathing pores whose background is stable and solid as light itself. I feel it poignantly when I walk along the Boulevard de la Madeleine and the whores rustle beside me, when just to glance at them causes me to tremble. Is it because they are exotic or well-nourished? No, it is rare to find a beautiful woman along the Boulevard de la Madeleine. But in Matisse, in the exploration of his brush, there is the trembling glitter of a worid which demands only the presence of the female to crystallize the most fugitive aspirations. To come upon a woman offering herself outside a urinal, where there are advertised cigarette papers, rum, acrobats, horse-races, where the heavy foliage of the trees breaks the heavy mass of walls and roofs, is an experience that begins where the boundaries of the known world leave off. In the evening now and then, skirting the cemetery walls, I stumble upon the phantom odalisques of Matisse fastened to the trees, their tangled manes drenched with sap. A few feet away, removed by incalculable aeons of time, lies the prone and mummy-swathed ghost of Baudelaire, of a whole world that will belch no more. In the dusky corners of cafes are men and women with hands locked, their loins slather-flecked; nearby stands the garcon with his apron full of sous, waiting patiently for the entr’acte in order to fall upon his wife and gouge her. Even as the worid falls apart the Paris that belongs to Matisse shudders with bright, gasping orgasms, the air itself is steady with a stagnant sperm, the trees tangled like hair. On its wobbly axle the wheel rolls steadily downhill; there are no brakes, no ball-bearings, no balloon tires. The wheel is falling apart, but the revolution is intact …
After leaving the Pension Orfila that afternoon I went to the library and there, after bathing in the Ganges and pondering over the signs of the zodiac, I began to reflect on the meaning of that inferno which Strindberg had so mercilessly depicted. And, as I ruminated, it began to grow clear to me, the mystery of his pilgrimage, the flight which
the poet makes over the face of the earth and then, as if he had been ordained to re-enact a lost drama, the heroic descent to the very bowels of the earth, the dark and fearsome sojourn in the belly of the whale, the bloody struggle to liberate himself, to emerge clean of the past, a bright, gory sun god cast up on an alien shore. It was no mystery to me any longer why he and others (Dante, Rabelais, Van Gogh, etc., etc.) had made their pilgrimage to Paris. I understood then why it is that Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love. I understood why it is that here, at the very hub
of the wheel, one can embrace the most fantastic, the most impossible theories, without finding them in the least strange; it is here that one reads again the books of his youth and the enigmas take on new meanings, one for every white hair. One walks the streets knowing that he is mad, possessed, because it is only too obvious that these cold,
indifferent faces are the visages of one’s keepers. Here all boundaries fade away and the world reveals itself for the mad slaughterhouse that it is. The treadmill stretches away to infinitude, the hatches are closed down tight, logic runs rampant, with bloody cleaver flashing. The air is chill and stagnant, the language apocalyptic. Not an exit sign anywhere; no issue save death. A blind alley at the end of which is a scaffold.
Then one day I fell in with a photographer; he was making a collection of the slimy joints of Paris for some degenerate in Munich. He wanted to know if I would pose for him with my pants down, and in other ways. I thought of those skinny little runts, who look like bell-hops and messenger boys, that one sees on pornographic post-cards in little book-shop windows occasionally, the mysterious phantoms who inhabit the Rue de la Lune and other malodorous quarters of the city. I didn’t like very much the idea of advertising my physog in the company of these elite. But, since I was assured that the photographs were for a strictly private collection, and since it was destined for Munich, I gave my consent. When you’re not in your home town you can permit yourself little liberties, particularly for such a worthy motive as earning your daily bread. After all, I hadn’t been so squeamish, come to think of it, even in New York. There were nights when I was so damned desperate, back there, that I had to go out right in my own neighborhood and panhandle.
We didn’t go to the show places familiar to the tourists, but to the little joints where the atmosphere was more congenial, where we could play a game of cards in the afternoon before getting down to work. He was a good companion, the photographer. He knew the city inside out, the walls particularly; he talked to me about Goethe often, and the days of the Hohenstaufen, and the massacre of the Jews during the reign of the Black Death. Interesting subjects, and always related in some obscure way to the things he was doing. He had ideas for scenarios too, astounding ideas, but nobody had the courage to execute them. The sight of a horse split-open like a saloon door, would inspire him to talk of Dante or Leonardo da Vinci or Rembrandt; from the slaughter-house at Villette he would jump into a cab and rush me to the Trocadero Museum, in order to point out a skull or a mummy that had fascinated him. We explored the 5th, the 13th, the 19th and the 20th arrondissements thoroughly. Our favorite resting places were lugubrious little spots such as the Place Nationale, Place des Peupliers, Place Contrescarpe, Place Paul-Verlaine. Many of these places were already familiar to me, but all of them I now saw in a different light owing to the rare flavor of his conversation. If today I should happen to stroll down the Rue du Chateau-des-Renders, for example, inhaling the fetid stench of the hospital beds with which the 13th arrondissement reeks, my nostrils would undoubtedly expand with pleasure, because, compounded with that odor of stale piss and formaldehyde, there would be the odors of our imaginative voyages through the charnel house of Europe which the Black Death had created.
Through him I got to know a spiritual-minded individual named Kruger, who was a sculptor and painter. Kruger took a shine to me for some reason or other; it was impossible to get away from him once he discovered that I was willing to listen to his “esoteric” ideas. There are people in this world for whom the word “esoteric” seems to act as a divine ichor. Like “settled” for Herr Peeperkorn of the Magic Mountain. Kruger was one of those saints who have gone wrong, a masochist, an anal type whose law is scrupulousness, rectitude and conscientiousness, who on an off day would knock a man’s teeth down his throat without a qualm. He seemed to think I was ripe to move on to another plane, “a higher plane,” as he put it. I was ready to move on to any plane he designated, provided that one didn’t eat less or drink less. He chewed my head off about the “threadsoul,” the “causal body,” “ablation,” the Upanishads, Plodnus, Krishnamurti, “the Karmic vestiture of the soul,” “the nirvanic consciousness,” all that flapdoodle which blows out of the East like a breath from the plague. Sometimes he would go into a trance and talk about his previous incarnations, how he imagined them to be, at least. Or he would relate his dreams which, so far as I could see, were thoroughly insipid, prosaic, hardly worth even the attention of a Freudian, but, for him, there were vast esoteric marvels hidden in their depths which I had to aid him to decipher. He had turned himself inside out, like a coat whose nap is worn off.
Little by little, as I gained his confidence, I wormed my way into his heart. I had him at such a point that he would come running after me, in the street, to inquire if he could lend me a few francs. He wanted to hold me together in order to survive the transition to a higher plane. I acted like a pear that is ripening on the tree. Now and then I had relapses and I would confess my need for more earthly nourishment — a visit to the Sphinx or the Rue St. Apolline where I knew he repaired in weak moments when the demands of the flesh had become too vehement.
As a painter he was nil; as a sculptor less than nil. He was a good housekeeper, that I’ll say for him. And an economical one to boot. Nothing went to waste, not even the paper that the meat was wrapped in. Friday nights he threw open his studio to his fellow artists; there was always plenty to drink and good sandwiches, and if by chance there was anything left over I would come round the next day to polish it off.
Back of the Bal Bullier was another studio I got into the habit of frequenting – the studio of Mark Swift. If he was not a genius he was certainly an eccentric, this caustic Irishman. He had for a model a Jewess whom he had been living with for years; he was now tired of her and was searching for a pretext to get rid of her. But as he had eaten up the dowry which she had originally brought with her, he was puzzled as to how to disembarrass himself of her without making restitution. The simplest thing was to so antagonize her that she would choose starvation rather than support his cruelties.
She was rather a fine person, his mistress; the worst that one could say against her was that she had lost her shape, and her ability to support him any longer. She was a painter herself and, among those who professed to know, it was said that she had far more talent than he. But no matter how miserable he made life for her she was just; she would never allow anyone to say that he was not a great painter. It was because he really has genius, she said, that he was such a rotten individual. One never saw her canvases on the wall – only his. Her things were stuck away in the kitchen. Once it happened, in my presence, that someone insisted on seeing her work. The result was painful. “You see this figure,” said Swift, pointing to one of her canvases with his big foot. “The man standing in the doorway there is just about to go out for a leak. He won’t be able to find his way back because his head is on wrong… Now take that nude over there… It was all right until she started to paint the cunt. I don’t know what she was thinking about, but she made it so big that her brush slipped and she couldn’t get it out again.”
By way of showing us what a nude ought to be like he hauls out a huge canvas which he had recently completed. It was a picture of her, a splendid piece of vengeance inspired by a guilty conscience. The work of a madman – vicious, petty, malign, brilliant. You had the feeling that he had spied on her through the keyhole, that he had caught her in an off moment, when she was picking her nose absent-mindedly, or scratching her ass. She sat there on the horsehair sofa, in a room without ventilation, an enormous room without a window; it might as well have been the anterior lobe of the pineal gland. Back of her ran the zigzag stairs leading to the balcony; they were covered with a bilious-green carpet, such a green as could only emanate from a universe that had been pooped out. The most prominent thing was her buttocks, which were lopsided and full of scabs; she seemed to have slightly raised her ass from the sofa, as if to let a loud fart. Her face he had idealized: it looked sweet and virginal, pure as a cough drop. But her bosom was distended, swollen with sewer gas; she seemed to be swimming in a menstrual sea, an enlarged fetus with the dull, syrupy look of an angel.
Nevertheless one couldn’t help but like him. He was an indefatigable worker, a man who hadn’t a single thought in his head but paint. And cunning as a lynx withal. It was he who put it into my head to cultivate the friendship of Fillmore, a young man in the diplomatic service who had found his way into the little group that surrounded Kruger and Swift. “Let him help you,” he said. “He doesn’t know what to do with his money.”
We got even better acquainted, more intimate, I might say, due to a peculiar incident that occurred during my brief sojourn with Kruger. It happened just after the arrival of Collins, a sailor whom Fillmore had got to know on the way over from America. The three of us used to meet regularly on the terrasse of the Rotonde before going to dinner. It was always Pernod, a drink which put Collins in good humor and provided a base, asit were, for the wine and beer and fines, etc., which had to be guzzled afterward. All during Collins’s stay in Paris I lived like a duke; nothing but fowl and good vintages and desserts that I hadn’t even heard of before. A month of this regimen and I should have been obliged to go to Baden-Baden or Vichy or Aix-les-Bains. Meanwhile Kruger was putting me up at his studio. I was getting to be a nuisance because I never showed up before three a.m. and it was difficult to rout me out of bed before noon. Overtly Kruger never uttered a word of reproach but his manner indicated plainly enough that I was becoming a bum.
One day I was taken ill. The rich diet was taking effect upon me. I don’t know what ailed me, but I couldn’t get out of bed. I had lost all my stamina, and with it whatever courage I possessed. Kruger had. to look after me, had to make broths for me, and so on. It was a trying period for him, more particularly because he was just on the verge of giving an important exhibition at his studio, a private showing to some wealthy connoisseurs from whom he was expecting aid. The cot on which I lay was in the studio; there was no other room to put me in. The morning of the day he was to give his exhibition, Kruger awoke thoroughly disgruntled. If I had been able to stand on my feet I know he would have given me a clout in the jaw and kicked me out. But I was prostrate, and weak as a cat. He tried to coax me out of bed, with the idea of locking me up in the kitchen upon the arrival of his visitors. I realized that I was making a mess of it for him. People can’t look at pictures and statues with enthusiasm when a man is dying before their eyes. Kruger honestly thought I was dying. So did I. That’s why, despite my feelings of guilt, I couldn’t muster
any enthusiasm when he proposed calling for the ambulance and having me shipped to the American Hospital. I wanted to die there, comfortably, right in the studio; I didn’t want to be urged to get up and find a better place to die in. I didn’t care where I died, really, so long as it wasn’t necessary to get up.
When he heard me talk this way Kruger became alarmed. Worse than having a sickman in his studio should the visitors arrive, was to have a dead man. That would completely ruin his prospects, slim as they were. He didn’t put it that way to me, of course, but I could see from his agitation that that was what worried him. And that made me stubborn. I refused to let him call the hospital. I refused to let him call a doctor. I refused everything.
He got so angry with me finally that, despite my protestations, he began to dress me. I was too weak to resist. All I could do was to murmur weakly – “you bastard you!” Though it was warm outdoors I was shivering like a dog. After he had completely dressed me he flung an overcoat over me and slipped outside to telephone. “I won’t go! I won’t go!” I kept saying but he simply slammed the door on me. He came back in a few minutes and, without addressing a word to me, busied himself about the studio. Last minute preparations. In a little while there was a knock on the door. It was Fillmore. Collins was waiting downstairs, he informed me.
The two of them, Fillmore and Kruger, slipped their arms under me and hoisted me to my feet. As they dragged me to the elevator Kruger softened up. “It’s for your own good,” he said. “And besides, it wouldn’t be fair to me. You know what a struggle I’ve had all these years. You ought to think about me too.” He was actually on the point of tears.
Wretched and miserable as I felt, his words almost made me smile. He was considerably older than I, and even though he was a rotten painter, a rotten artist all the way through, he deserved a break – at least once in a lifetime.
[Miller moved into the apartment of Fillmore]
Nevertheless, he tried to make me feel at ease. There was always plenty of food and wine, and now and then he would insist that I accompany him to a dancing. He was fond of going to a nigger joint on the Rue d’Odessa where there was a good-looking mulatto who used to come home with us occasionally. The one thing that bothered him was that he couldn’t find a French girl who liked to drink. They were all too sober to satisfy him – He liked to bring a woman back to the studio and guzzle it with her before getting down to business. He also liked to have her think that he was an artist. As the man from whom he had rented the place was a painter, it was not difficult to create an
impression; the canvases which we had found in the armoire were soon stuck about the place and one of the unfinished ones conspicuously mounted on the easel. Unfortunately they were all of a surrealistic quality and the impression they created was usually unfavorable. Between a whore, a concierge and a cabinet minister there is not much
difference in taste where pictures are concerned. It was a matter of great relief to Fillmore when Mark Swift began to visit us regularly with the intention of doing my portrait. Fillmore had a great admiration for Swift. He was a genius, he said. And though there was something ferocious about everything he tackled nevertheless when he painted a man or an object you could recognize it for what it was.
At Swift’s request I had begun to grow a beard. The shape of my skull, he said, required a beard. I had to sit by the window with the Eiffel Tower in back of me because he wanted the Eiffel Tower in the picture too. He also wanted the typewriter in the picture. Kruger got the habit of dropping in too about this time; he maintained that Swift
knew nothing about painting. It exasperated him to see things out of proportion. He believed in Nature’s laws, implicitly. Swift didn’t give a fuck about Nature; he wanted to paint what was inside his head. Anyway, there was Swift’s portrait of me stuck on the easel now, and though everything was out of proportion, even a cabinet minister could
see that it was a human head, a man with a beard. The concierge, indeed, began to take a great interest in the picture; she thought the likeness was striking. And she liked the idea of showing the Eiffel Tower in the background.
Europe is saturated with art and her soil is full of dead bones and her museums are bursting with plundered treasures, but what Europe has never had is a free, healthy spirit, what you might call a MAN.
Henry Miller, 1891-1980 Tropic of Cancer, 1934
When I paid my first visit to the Bouville museum last year I was struck by the portrait of Olivier Blevigne. Faulty proportion? Perspective? I couldn’t tell, but something bothered me: this deputy didn’t seem plumb on his canvas.
I have gone back several times since then. But my worry persisted. I didn’t want to admit that Bordurin, Prix de Rome, had made a mistake in his drawing.
But this afternoon, turning the pages of an old collection of the Satirique Bouvillois, a blackmail- sheet whose owner was accused of high treason during the war, I caught a glimpse of the truth. I went to the museum as soon as I left the library.
I crossed the shadow of the vestibule quickly. My steps made no sound on the black and white tiles. A whole race of plaster folk twisted their arms. In passing I glanced, through two great openings, and saw cracked vases, plates, and a blue and yellow satyr on a pedestal. It was the Bernard Palissy Room, devoted to ceramics and minor arts. But ceramics do not amuse me. A lady and gentleman in mourning were respectfully contemplating the baked objects.
Above the entrance to the main hall—the Salon Bordurin-Renaudas—someone had hung, undoubtedly only a little while ago, a large canvas which I did not recognize. It was signed by Richard Severand and entitled “The Bachelor’s Death.” It was a gift of the State.
Naked to the waist, his body a little green, like that of a dead man, the bachelor was lying on an unmade bed. The disorder of sheets and blankets attested to a long death agony. I smiled, thinking about M. Fasquelle. But he wasn’t alone: his daughter was taking care of him. On the canvas, the maid, his mistress, her features marked by vice, had already opened a bureau drawer and was counting the money. An open door disclosed a man in a cap, a cigarette stuck to his lower lip, waiting in the shadows. Near the wall a cat lapped milk indifferently.
This man had lived only for himself. By a harsh and well-deserved punishment, no one had come to his bedside to close his eyes. This painting gave me a last warning: there was still time, I could retrace my steps. But if I were to turn a deaf ear, I had been forewarned: more than a hundred and fifty portraits were hanging on the wall of the room I was about to enter; with the exception of a few young people, prematurely taken from their families, and the mother superior of a boarding school, none of those painted had died a bachelor, none of them had died childless or intestate, none without the last rites. Their souls at peace that day as on other days, with God and the world, these men had slipped quietly into death, to claim their share of eternal life to which they had a right.
For they had a right to everything: to life, to work, to wealth, to command, to respect, and, finally, to immortality.
I took a moment to compose myself and entered. A guardian was sleeping near the window. A pale light, falling from the windows, made flecks on the paintings. Nothing alive in this great rectangular room, except a cat who was frightened at my approach and fled. But I felt the looks of a hundred and fifty pairs of eyes on me.
All who belonged to the Bouville elite between 1875 and 1910 were there, men and women, scrupulously painted by Renaudas and Bordurin.
The men had built Sainte-Cecile-de-la-Mer. In 1882, they founded the Federation of Shipowners and Merchants of Bouville “to group in one powerful entity all men of good will, to co-operate in national recovery and to hold in check the parties of disorder. . . .” They made Bouville the best equipped port in France for unloading coal and wood. The lengthening and widening of the quays were their work. They extended the Marine Terminal and, by constant dredging, brought the low-tide depth of anchorage to 10.7 meters. In twenty years, the catch of the fishing fleet which was 5,000 barrels in 1869, rose, thanks to them, to 18,000 barrels. Stopping at no sacrifice to assist the im- provement of the best elements in the working-class, they created, on their own initiative, various centres for technical and professional study which prospered under their lofty protection. They broke the famous shipping strike in 1898 and gave their sons to their country in 1914.
The women, worthy helpmates of these strugglers, founded most of the town’s charitable and philanthropic organizations. But above all, they were wives and mothers. They raised fine children, taught them rights and duties, religion, and a respect for the traditions which made France great.
The general complexion of these portraits bordered on dark brown. Lively colours had been banished, out of decency. However, in the portraits of Renaudas, who showed a partiality towards old men, the snowy hair and sidewhiskers showed up well against deep black backgrounds; he excelled in painting hands. Bordurin, who was a little weak on theory, sacrificed the hands somewhat but the collars shone like white marble.
It was very hot; the guardian was snoring gently. I glanced around the walls: I saw hands and eyes; here and there a spot of light obliterated a face. As I began walking towards the portrait of Olivier Blevigne, something held me back: from the moulding, Pacome, the merchant, cast a bright look down on me.
He was standing there, his head thrown slightly back; in one hand he held a top hat and gloves against his pearl-grey trousers. I could not keep myself from a certain admiration: I saw nothing mediocre in him, nothing which allowed of criticism: small feet, slender hands, wide wrestler’s shoulders, a hint of whimsy. He courteously offered visitors the unwrinkled purity of his face; the shadow of a smile played on the lips. But his grey eyes were not smiling. He must have been about fifty: but he was as young and fresh as a man of thirty. He was beautiful.
I gave up finding fault with him. But he did not let go of me. I read a calm and implacable judgment in his eyes.
Then I realized what separated us: what I thought about him could not reach him; it was psychology, the kind they write about in books. But his judgment went through me like a sword and questioned my very right to exist. And it was true, I had always realized it; I hadn’t the right to exist. I had appeared by chance, I existed like a stone, a plant or a microbe. My life put out feelers towards small pleasures in every direction. Sometimes it sent out vague signals; at other times I felt nothing more than a harmless buzzing.
But for this handsome, faultless man, now dead, for Jean Pacome, son of the Pacome of the Defence Nationale, it had been an entirely different matter: the beating of his heart and the mute rumblings of his organs, in his case, assumed the form of rights to be instantly obeyed. For sixty years, without a halt, he had used his right to live. The slightest doubt had never crossed those magnificent grey eyes. Pacome had never made a mistake. He had always done his duty, all his duty, his duty as son, husband, father, leader. He had never weakened in his demands for his due: as a child, the right to be well brought up, in a united family, the right to inherit a spotless name, a prosperous business; as a husband, the right to be cared for, surrounded with tender affection; as a father, the right to be venerated; as a leader, the right to be obeyed without a murmur. For a right is nothing more than the other aspect of duty. His extraordinary success (today the Pacomes are the richest family in Bouville) could never have surprised him. He never told himself he was happy, and while he was enjoying himself he must have done so with moderation, saying: “This is my refreshment.” Thus pleasure itself, also becoming a right, lost its aggressive futility. On the left, a little above his bluish-grey hair, I noticed a shelf of books. The bindings were handsome; they were surely classics. Every evening before going to sleep, Pacome undoubtedly read over a few pages of “his old Montaigne” or one of Horace’s odes in the Latin text. Sometimes, too, he must have read a contemporary work to keep up to date. Thus he knew Barres and Bourget. He would put his book down after a moment. He would smile. His look, losing its admirable circumspection, became almost dreamy. He would say: “How easy and how difficult it is to do one’s duty.”
He had never looked any further into himself: he was a leader.
There were other leaders on the walls: nothing but leaders. He was a leader—this tall, ver-de-gris man in his armchair. His white waistcoat was a happy reminder of his silver hair. (Attention to artistry was not excluded from these portraits, which were above all painted for moral edification, and exactitude was pushed to the furthest limit of scruple.) His long, slender hand was placed on the head of a small boy. An open book rested on his knees which were covered by a rug. But his look had strayed into the distance. He was seeing all those things which are invisible to young people. His name was written on a plaque of gilded wood below his portrait: his name must have been Pacome or Parrottin, or Chaigneau. I had not thought of looking: for his close relatives, for this child, for himself, he was simply the grandfather; soon, if he deemed the time fitting to instruct his grandson about the scope of his future duties, he would speak of himself in the third person:
“You’re going to promise your grandfather to be good, my boy, to work hard next year. Perhaps Grandfather won’t be here any more next year.”
In the evening of his life, he scattered his indulgent goodness over everyone. Even if he were to see me—though to him I was transparent—I would find grace in his eyes: he would think that I, too, had grandparents once. He demanded nothing: one has no more desires at that age. Nothing except for people to lower their voices slightly when he entered, nothing except a touch of tenderness and smiling respect when he passed, nothing except for his daughter-in-law to say sometimes: “Father is amazing; he’s younger than all of us”; nothing except to be the only one able to calm the temper of his grandson by putting his hands on the boy’s head and saying: “Grandfather knows how to take care of all those troubles”; nothing except for his son, several times a year, to come asking his advice on delicate matters; finally, nothing more than to feel himself serene, appeased, and infinitely wise. The old gentleman’s hand barely weighed on his grandson’s curls: it was almost a benediction. What could he be thinking of? Of his honourable past which conferred on him the right to speak on everything and to have the last word on everything. I had not gone far enough the other day: experience was much more than a defence against death; it was a right; the right of old men.
General Aubry, hanging against the moulding, with his great sabre, was a leader. Another leader: President Hebert, well read, friend of Impetraz. His face was long and symmetrical with an interminable chin, punctuated, just under the lip, by a goatee: he thrust out his jaw slightly, with the amused air of being distinguished, of rolling out an objection on principles like a faint belch. He dreamed, he held a quill pen: he was taking his relaxation too, by Heaven, and it was writing verses. But he had the eagle eye of a leader.
And soldiers? I was in the centre of the room, the cynosure of all these grave eyes. I was neither father nor grandfather, not even a husband. I did not have a vote, I hardly paid any taxes: I could not boast of being a taxpayer, an elector, nor even of having the humble right to honour which twenty years of obedience confers on an employee. My existence began to worry me seriously. Was I not a simple spectre? “Hey!” I suddenly told myself, “I am the soldier!” It really made me laugh.
A portly quinquagenarian politely returned a handsome smile. Renaudas had painted him with loving care, no touch was too tender for those fleshy, finely-chiselled little ears, especially for the hands, long, nervous, with loose fingers: the hands of a real savant or artist. His face was unknown to me: I must have passed before the canvas often without noticing it. I went up to it and read: Remy Parrottin, born in Bouville in 1849, Professor at the Ecole de Medecine, Paris. Parrottin: Doctor Wakefield had spoken to me of him: “Once in my life I met a great man, Remy Parrottin. I took courses under him during the winter of 1904 (you know I spent two years in Paris studying obstetrics). He made me realize what it was to be a leader. He had it in him, I swear he did. He electrified us, he could have led us to the ends of the earth. And with all that he was a gentleman: he had an immense fortune-gave a good part of it to help poor students.”
This is how this prince of science, the first time I heard him spoken of, inspired strong feelings in me. Now I stood before him and he was smiling at me. What intelligence and affability in his smile! His plump body rested leisurely in the hollow of a great leather armchair. This unpretentious wise man put people at their ease immediately. If it hadn’t been for the spirit in his look you would have taken him for just anybody.
It did not take long to guess the reason for his prestige: he was loved because he understood everything; you could tell him anything. He looked a little like Renan, all in all, with more distinction. He was one of those who say:
“Socialists? Well, I go further than they do!” When you followed him down this perilous road you were soon to leave behind, not without a shiver, family, country, private property rights, and the most sacred values. You even doubted for a second the right of the bourgeois elite to command. Another step and suddenly everything was re-established, miraculously founded on solid reason, good old reasons. You turned around and saw the Socialists, already far behind you, all tiny, waving their handkerchiefs and shouting: “Wait for us!”
Through Wakefield I knew that the Master liked, as he himself said with a smile, “to deliver souls.” To prolong his own, he surrounded himself with youth: he often received young men of good family who were studying medicine. Wakefield had often been to his house for luncheon. After the meal they retired to the smoking-room. The Master treated these students who were at their first cigarettes like men: he offered them cigars. He stretched out on a divan and discoursed at great length, his eyes half-closed, surrounded by an eager crowd of disciples. He evoked memories, told stories, drawing a sharp and profound moral from each. And if there were among those well-bred young men one who seemed especially headstrong, Parrottin would take a special interest in him. He made him speak, listened to him attentively, gave him ideas and subjects for meditation. It usually happened that one day the young man, full of generous ideas, excited by the hostility of his parents, weary of thinking alone, his hand against every man, asked to visit the Master privately, and, stammering with shyness, confided in him his most intimate thoughts, his indignations, his hopes. Par-rottin embraced him. He said: “I understand you. I understood you from the first day.” They talked on. Parrottin went far, still farther, so far that the young man followed him with great difficulty. After a few conversations of this sort one could detect a favourable change in the young rebel. He saw clearly within himself, he learned to know the deep bonds which attached him to his family, to his environment; at last he understood the admirable role of the elite. And finally, as if by magic, found himself once again, enlightened, repentant. “He cured more souls,” concluded Wakefield, “than I’ve cured bodies.”
Remy Parrottin smiled affably at me. He hesitated, tried to understand my position, to turn gently and lead me back to the fold. But I wasn’t afraid of him: I was no lamb. I looked at his fine forehead, calm and unwrinkled, his small belly, his hand set flat against his knee. I returned his smile and left.
Jean Parrottin, his brother, president of the S.A.B., leaned both hands on the edge of a table loaded with papers; his whole attitude signified to the visitor that the audience was over. His look was extraordinary; although abstracted yet shining with high endeavour. His dazzling eyes devoured his whole face. Behind this glow I noticed the thin, tight lips of a mystic. “It’s odd,” I said, “he looks like Remy Parrottin.” I turned to the Great Master: examining him in the light of this resemblance, a sense of aridity and desolation, a family resemblance took possession of his face. I went back to Jean Parrottin.
This man was one-ideaed. Nothing more was left in him but bones, dead flesh and Pure Right. A real case of possession, I thought. Once Right has taken hold of a man exorcism cannot drive it out; Jean Parrottin had consecrated his whole life to thinking about his Right: nothing else. Instead of the slight headache I feel coming on each time I visit a museum, he would have felt the painful right of having his temples cared for. It never did to make him think too much, or attract his attention to unpleasant realities, to his possible death, to the sufferings of others. Undoubtedly, on his death bed, at that moment when, ever since Socrates, it has been proper to pronounce certain elevated words, he told his wife, as one of my uncles told his, who had watched beside him for twelve nights, “I do not thank you, Therese; you have only done your duty.” When a man gets that far, you have to take your hat off to him.
His eyes, which I stared at in wonderment, indicated that
I must leave. I did not leave. I was resolutely indiscreet. I knew, as a result of studying at great length a certain portrait of Philip II in the library of the Escurial, that when one is confronted with a face sparkling with righteousness, after a moment this sparkle dies away, and only an ashy residue remains: this residue interested me.
Parrottin put up a good fight. But suddenly his look burned out, the picture grew dim. What was left? Blind eyes, the thin mouth of a dead snake, and cheeks. The pale, round cheeks of a child: they spread over the canvas. The employees of the S.A.B. never suspected it: they never stayed in Parrottin’s office long enough. When they went in, they came up against that terrible look like a wall. From behind it, the cheeks were in shelter, white and flabby. How long did it take his wife to notice them? Two years? Five years? One day, I imagine, as her husband was sleeping, on his side with a ray of light caressing his nose, or else on a hot day, while he was having trouble with his digestion, sunk into an armchair, his eyes half-closed, with a splash of sunlight on his chin, she dared to look him in the face: all this flesh appeared to her defenceless, bloated, slobbering, vaguely obscene. From that day on, Mme Parrottin undoubtedly took command.
I took a few steps backward and in one glance covered all these great personages: Pacome, President Hebert, both Parrot-tins, and General Aubry. They had worn top hats; every Sunday on the Rue Tournebride they met Mme Gratien, the mayor’s wife, who saw Sainte Cecile in a dream. They greeted her with great ceremonious salutes, the secret of which is now lost.
They had been painted very minutely; yet, under the brush, their countenances had been stripped of the mysterious weakness of men’s faces. Their faces, even the last powerful, were clear as porcelain: in vain I looked for some relation they could bear to trees and animals, to thoughts of earth or water. In life they evidently did not require it. But, at the moment of passing on to posterity, they had confided themselves to a renowned painter in order that he should discreetly carry out on their faces the system of dredgings, drillings, and irrigations by which, all around Bouville, they had transformed the sea and the land.
Thus, with the help of Renaudas and Bordurin, they had enslaved Nature: without themselves and within themselves. What these sombre canvases offered to me was man reconsidered by man, with, as sole adornment, the finest conquest of man: a bouquet of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Without mental reservation, I admired the reign of man.
A woman and a man came in. They were dressed in black and tried to make themselves inconspicuous. They stopped, enchanted, on the doorstep and the man automatically took off his hat.
“Ah!” the lady said, deeply touched.
The gentleman quickly regained his sang-froid. He said respectfully: “It’s a whole era!”
“Yes,” the lady said, “this is in the time of my grandmother.”
They took a few steps and met the look of Jean Parrottin. The woman stood gaping, but the man was not proud: he looked humble, he must have known intimidating looks and brief interviews well. He tugged gently at the woman’s arm.
“Look at that one,” he said.
Remy Parrottin’s smile had always put the humble at ease. The woman went forward and read studiously:
“Portrait of Remy Parrottin, born in Bouville in 1849. Professor of the Ecole de Medecine, Paris, by Renaudas.”
“Parrottin, of the Academy of Science,” her husband said, “by Renaudas of the Institute. That’s History!”
The lady nodded, then looked at the Great Master.
“How handsome he is,” she said, “how intelligent he looks!” The husband made an expansive gesture.
“They’re the ones who made Bouville what it is,” he said with simplicity. “It’s right to have had them put here, all together,” the woman said tenderly.
We were three soldiers manoeuvring in this immense hall. The husband who laughed with respect, silently, shot me a troubled glance and suddenly stopped laughing. A sweet joy flooded over me: well, I was right! It was really too funny.
The woman came near me.
“Gaston,” she said, suddenly bold, “come here!” The husband came towards us.
“Look,” she went on, “he has a street named after him:
Olivier Blevigne. You know, the little street that goes up the Coteau Vert just before you get to Jouxtebouville.”
After an instant, she added: “He doesn’t look exactly easy.”
“No. Some people must have found him a pretty awkward customer.”
These words were addressed to me. The man, watching me out of the corner of his eye, began to laugh softly, this time with a conceited air, a busy-body, as if he were Olivier Blevigne himself.
Olivier Blevigne did not laugh. He thrust his compact jaw towards us and his Adam’s apple jutted out.
There was a moment of ecstatic silence.
“You’d think he was going to move,” the lady said. The husband explained obligingly:
“He was a great cotton merchant. Then he went into politics; he was a deputy.”
I knew it. Two years ago I had looked him up in the Petit Dictionnaire des Grands Hommes de Bouville by Abbe Morellet. I copied the article.
“Blevigne, Olivier-Martial, son of the late Olivier-Martial Blevigne, horn and died in Bouville (1849-1908), studied law in Paris, passed Bar examinations in 1872. Deeply impressed lay the Commune insurrection, which forced him, as it did so many other Parisians, to take refuge in Versailles under the protection of the National Assembly, he swore, at an age when young men think only of pleasure, ‘to consecrate his life to the re-establishment of order.’ He kept his word: immediately after his return to our city, he founded the famous Club de I’Ordre which every evening for many years united the principal businessmen and shipowners of Bouville. This aristocratic circle, which one might jokingly describe as being more restricted than the jockey Club, exerted, until 1908, a salutary influence on the destiny of our great commercial port. In 1880, Olivier Blevigne married Marie-Louise Pacome, younger daughter of Charles Pacome, businessman (see Pacome’), and at the death of the latter, founded the company of Pacome-Blevigne & Son. Shortly thereafter he entered actively into politics and placed his candidature before the deputation.
” ‘The country,’ he said in a celebrated speech, ‘is suffering from a most serious malady: the ruling class no longer wants to rule. And who then shall rule, gentlemen, if those who, by their heredity, their education, their experience, have been rendered most fit for the exercising of power, turn from it in resignation or weariness? I have often said: to rule is not a right of the elite; it is a primary duty of the elite. Gentlemen, I beg of you: let us restore the principle of authority?
“Elected first on October 4, 1885, he was constantly re-elected thereafter. Of an energetic and virile eloquence, he delivered many brilliant speeches. He was in Paris in 1898 when the terrible strike broke out. He returned to Bouville immediately and became the guiding spirit of the resistance. He took the initiative of negotiating with the strikers. These negotiations, inspired by an open-minded attempt at conciliation, were interrupted by the small uprising in Jouxtebouville. We know that the timely intervention of the military restored calm to our minds.
“The premature death of his son Octave, who had entered the Ecole Poly’technique at a very early age and of whom he wanted to ‘make a leader’ was a terrible blow to Olivier Blevigne. He was never to recover from it and died two years later, in February, 1908.
“Collected speeches: Moral Forces (1894: out of print), The Duty to Punish (1900: all speeches in this collection were given a propos of the Dreyfus Case: out of print), Will-power (1902: out of print). After his death, his last speeches and a few letters to intimate friends were collected under the title Labour Im-probus (Plon, 1910). Iconography: there is an excellent portrait of him, by Bordurin, at the Bouville museum.”
An excellent portrait, granted. Olivier Blevigne had a small black moustache, and his olive-tinted face somewhat resembled Maurice Barres. The two men had surely met each other: they used to sit on the same benches. But the deputy from Bouville did not have the nonchalance of the President of the League of Patriots. He was stiff as a poker and sprang at you from his canvas like a jack-in-the-box. His eyes sparkled: the pupil was black, the cornea reddish. He pursed up his fleshy little mouth and held his right hand against his breast.
How this portrait annoyed me! Sometimes Blevigne seemed too large or too small to me. But today I knew what to look for.
I had learned the truth turning over the pages of the Satirique Bouvillois. The issue of 6 November, 1905 was devoted entirely to Blevigne. He was pictured on the cover, tiny, hanging on to the mane of old Combes, and the caption read: “The Lion’s Louse.” Everything was explained from the first page on: Olivier Blevigne was only five feet tall. They mocked his small stature and squeaking voice which more than once threw the whole Chamber into hysterics. They accused him of putting rubber lifts in his shoes. On the other hand, Mme Blevigne, nee Pacome, was a horse. “Here we can well say,” the paper added, “that his other half is his double.”
Five feet tall! Yes, Bordurin, with jealous care, had surrounded him with objects which ran no risk of diminishing him; a hassock, a low armchair, a shelf with a few little books, a small Persian table. Only he had given him the same stature as his neighbour Jean Parrottin and both canvases had the same dimensions. The result was that the small table, in one picture, was almost as large as the immense table in the other, and that the hassock would have almost reached Parrottin’s shoulder. The eye instinctively made a comparison between the two: my discomfort had come from that.
Now I wanted to laugh. Five feet tall! If I had wanted to talk to Blevigne I would have had to lean over or bend my knees. I was no longer surprised that he held up his nose so impetuously: the destiny of these small men is always working itself out a few inches above their head.
Admirable power of art. From this shrill-voiced mannikin, nothing would pass on to posterity save a threatening face, a superb gesture and the bloodshot eyes of a bull. The student terrorised by the Commune, the deputy, a bad-tempered midget; that was what death had taken. But, thanks to Bordurin, the President of the Club de l’Ordre, the orator of “Moral Forces,” was immortal.
“Oh, poor little Pipo!”
The woman gave a stifled cry: under the portrait of Octave Blevigne “son of the late …” a pious hand had traced these words:
“Died at the Ecole Poly technique in 1904.” “He’s dead! Just like the Arondel boy. He looked intelligent. How hard it must have been for his poor mother! They make them work too hard in those big schools. The brain works, while you’re asleep. I like those two-cornered hats, it looks so stylish. Is that what you call a ‘cassowary?'”
“No. They have cassowaries at Saint-Cyr.” In my turn I studied the prematurely dead polytechnician. His wax complexion and well-groomed moustache would have been enough to turn one’s idea to approaching death. He had foreseen his fate as well: a certain resignation could be read in his clear, far-seeing eyes. But at the same time he carried his head high; in this uniform he represented the French Army.
Tu Marcellus erisl Manibus date lilia flenis . . .
A cut rose, a dead poly technician: what could be sadder?
I quietly followed the long gallery, greeting in passing, without stopping, the distinguished faces which peered from the shadows: M. Bossoire, President of the Board of Trade; M. Faby, President of the Board of Directors of the Autonomous Port of Bouville; M. Boulange, businessman, with his family; M. Ranne-quin, Mayor of Bouville; M. de Lucien, born in Bouville, French Ambassador to the United States and a poet as well; an unknown dressed like a prefect; Mother Sainte-Marie-Louise, Mother Superior of the Orphan Asylum; M. and Mme Thereson; M. Thi-boust-Gouron, General President of the Trades Council; M. Bo-bot, principle administrator of the Inscription Maritime; Messrs. Brion, Minette, Grelot, Lefebvre, Dr. and Mme Pain, Bordurin himself, painted by his son, Pierre Bordurin. Clear, cold looks, fine features, thin lips, M. Boulange was economical and patient, Mother Sainte-Marie-Louise of an industrious piety, M. Thiboust-Gouron was as hard on himself as on others. Mme Thereson struggled without weakening against deep illness. Her infinitely weary mouth told unceasingly of her suffering. But this pious woman had never said: “It hurts.” She took the upper hand: she made up bills of fare and presided over welfare societies. Sometimes, she would slowly close her eyes in the middle of a sentence and all traces of life would leave her face. This fainting spell lasted hardly more than a second; shortly afterward, Mme Thereson would re-open her eyes and finish her sentence. And in the work room they whispered: “Poor Mme Thereson! She never complains.”
I had crossed the whole length of the salon Bordurin-Renaudas. I turned back. Farewell, beautiful lilies, elegant in your painted little sanctuaries, good-bye, lovely lilies, our pride and reason for existing, good-bye you bastards!
Jean-Paul Sartre, 1905-1980 La nausée,1938 Nausea
Thus things began between them, and the days ran through the hourglass into March, and after a while it seemed quite natural for him to come up to her place in the rue Descartes up behind the Panthéon, her little place with its little sunny rooms, and the spring coming on so warm that year when things were heating up at the Sorbonne and at the Beaux-Arts where she taught. It was the first time Annie would have a European lover, even though it was a long time since she arrived in Paris from New York, with her illustrations and her so red hair and her bag full of more paint-brushes and sketchbooks than clothes. In the Lower East Side she had become a somewhat famous painter, first an abstract expressionist, then a figurative painter, following the generation of Motherwell, Kooning and Kline. But she had split off from them all and come to Paris because she had been invited by some enthusiasts of her painting who were on the faculty of the École des Beaux-Arts, and then she stayed on because they wanted her to and had even given her a studio of her own at her own at the school, way up under the eaves, a huge space by Paris standards. She stayed on as in a dream whose beginning had been forgotten. She felt now almost as if she could not paint without that special Paris light, that pearl light, translucent over the grey roofops, or rather she felt might never again paint in that harsh wide-open ‘big sky’ light of America. Even in New York, in Manhattan, in the Lower East side, it was a bit hedged in, not quite the big sky of Out West but still like a wide open wide-angle lens, a great unblinking eye that left no place to find one’s private self, in the wide-open landscape of America, where everything had fallen out of the canvases and left only empty abstract expressionist open-fields of subjective desolation, where everything had fallen out into the destroyed streets of the Lower East side and lay in heaps in the gutters, piles of mattresses and bedsprings, broken dolls and brassieres, shattered mirrors and bent bodies in the dirty dawn, east of Tompkins Square like some bombed-out Dresden, laid out in the pulsing light, which was so very masculine, yes, a light so masculine and young, which was just the opposite of that pearl grey Paris light, which was still so feminine, not so aggressive as the American light and its aggressive New York School of painters, compared to Paris with its old light, like some old grande dame dozing off in her Beaux-Arts school. Annie had never been one of those hard-line New Yorkers who could never live anywhwere else. She had always wanted to escape, and she did, Paris for her a liberation, as for so many others, and she had stayed on and on – ten years, fifteen years now, and time winging on, while in her painting she was figuratively digging out those lost human bodies, those torn human remains in the gutter, and putting them back in her canvases, breathing life into them again. She loved the human figure, and had too much to say to be a non-objective painter. But now it was the spring of 1968, and that old dame which was Paris dozing in the late sun was to be thrust into the light of new 1968 realities and the student revolution, the light of percussion grenades with deafening flashes in the night sky over Saint-Michael and Saint-Germain.
She thought back to another spring when she had fallen in love with one of her teachers at the Art Students League, he one of the great teachers, a man in his sixties then, what the students called ‘an old rad’ of the thirties generation, one of the WPA arists who went around with the Partisan Review crowd, but at this time, her time, he was both very far away from retirement and used to like to have some of his favourite students come up to his flat on West End Avenue on Sundays and drink beer and talk about painting and politics. There didn’t seem to be any women in residence at his house, and it was only much later she found out the truth, but then that summer back then after classes were over for the year she used to drop in now and then and usually found him alone in his huge studio and always glad to see her. Looking back now she could see that she was the one who had made the advances, although he certainly did respond with affection. But in the end it came out, it all came out that he was very gay, and there was no way around it. A very solitary man, living by himself and still living for his students, and Annie didn’t stop seeing him, but in the end she had to leave, she had to move on, with her own needs, and he gave her a silver ring set with a scarab which she still had and still wore. In addition to that he gave her much more, he showed her the artist as the total enemy of the state, as gadfly of the state, the artist as the total enemy of all the organized forces that bore down on the free individual everywhere, the artist as the bearer of Eros, as bearer of the life force itself, as bearer of love, in a world seemingly bent on destroying all that, Eros versus civilization, life against death. Yes, in his printmaking classes you learned not only stone lithography and drypoint etching, you also learned you had to use that art to say something important, not just a bunch of minimalist nothingness. You learned the radical tradition tradition of the WPA artists and muralists. ‘Speak up and stop mumbling!’ he would yell at them when he bent over their work and saw that the drawing was saying nothing. And it was strange, she reflected now, how his ideas were like Julian’s, as now Julian had fallen silent, watching the musicians in the square, but suddenly then in the middle of that sunny idyll came a dissident sound from down the rue Mouffetard, the sound of drums beaten by students carrying placards who now came streaming in to the Place Contrescarpe, circling the still-playing musicians and the old couple, who now stopped dancing and hurried off down the street. And the three students with drums led a straggling line around the little square, with more of them pouring in all the time, waving placards and banners upon all that wild new spirit of rebellion. Among them were posters she recognized as having been done by the poster brigade at the Beaux-Arts, some by her students, some of them indeed in the style of WPA artists but with messages hardly dreamed of in the American thirties:
Alcohol kills: Take LSD
THE YOUNG MAKE LOVE, THE OLD MAKE OBSCENE GESTURES
I’M A GROUCHO MARXIST
‘Revolution is the ecstasy of history’
MAKE LOVE AND BEGIN AGAIN
POWER TO THE IMAGINATION!
‘Nous sommes tous les enragés – Ortega y Gasset
TO FORBID IS FORBIDDEN
Open The Windows Of Your Heart
MAKE LOVE NOT WAR
THE SORBONNE IS THE STALINGRAD OF THE REVOLUTION!
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1919-1997 Love in the Days of Rage, 1988