Unreal Nature

October 21, 2017

I Have Lived in Such Rooms

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… to suffer is to give supreme attention to something …

This is from the essay ‘The Evening with Monsieur Teste’ found in Paul Valéry: An Anthology (1956: 1977):

… How can one not feel enthusiasm for the man who never said anything vague?

… How can one not be won over by a man whose mind seemed to transform for itself alone every existing thing, a mind that performed everything that occurred to it? I imagined it handling, combining, transforming, connecting, and, within the field of its knowledge, able to cut off and deviate, illuminate, freeze this or heat that, suppress, heighten, name the unnamed, forget at will, subdue or brighten this or that …

[ … ]

… We were at his door. He invited me to come in and smoke a cigar with him.

At the top floor of the house, we went into a very small “furnished” apartment. There was not a book in sight. Nothing indicated the usual sort of work at a table, beneath a lamp, amongst pens and papers. In the greenish room smelling of mint, there around the candle was nothing but the dull abstract furniture — a bed, a clock, a wardrobe with a mirror, two armchairs — like creations of the mind. On the mantelpiece a few newspapers, a dozen calling cards covered with numbers, and a medicine bottle.

[line break added] I have never had a stronger impression of the ordinary. This was any room, like “any point” in geometry — and perhaps as useful. My host existed in lodgings of the most usual sort. I thought of the hours he would spend in that armchair. I was terrified by the infinite dreariness possible in that abstract and banal place. I have lived in such rooms — I could never believe, without a shudder, that they were my final destination.

Monsieur Teste talked about money. I cannot reproduce his special eloquence: it seemed to me less precise than usual. Fatigue, the silence deeper by the hour, the bitter cigars, the relaxation of night, seemed to overtake him. I still hear his voice, softer and slower, fluttering the flame of the single candle burning between us, while he cited very large numbers, wearily. Eight hundred ten million seventy-five thousand five hundred fifty. …

[line break added] I listened to that extraordinary music without following the calculation. He was reciting for me the fluctuations of the stock market, and the long sequences of the names of numbers held me like a poem. He would compare events of the day, industrial phenomena, public taste and the passions, and still more numbers, one with another. He would say: “Gold is somehow the mind of society.”

Suddenly he was silent. He was in pain.

Again I looked around the chill room at the nullity of the furniture, not to look at him. He took his flask and drank. I stood up to leave.

“Stay on,” he said, “[if] you don’t mind. I’m going to bed. In a few moments I’ll be asleep. You’ll take the candle to go down.”

He undressed quietly. His gaunt body slid beneath the covers and lay still. Later he turned over and sank deeper into the bed — it was too short.

He said with a smile. “I’m a plank … floating! … I feel an imperceptible rolling under me — a vast movement? I sleep for an hour or two at most. … I’m fond of navigating the night. Often I can’t distinguish my thought from sleep. I don’t know whether I have been asleep. In the past, whenever I drowsed I would think of all that had given me pleasure — faces, things, moments. I would bring them to mind so that thinking would be as pleasant as possible, smooth as the bed. …

[line break added] I’m old. I can show you that I feel old. … Remember! When we are children we discover ourselves, we learn little by little the extent of our body, we express our body’s particularity by a series of movements, I suppose? We twist and discover or rediscover ourselves, and are amazed! We touch our heel, or hold the right foot in the left hand, we take a cold foot into a warm palm! …

[line break added] Now, I know myself by heart. My heart included. Bah! The whole earth is staked off, all the flags are flying over all territories. … My bed remains. I’m fond of this flow of sleep and linen; the sheet stretched and folded, or crumpled — falling over me like sand when I lie ‘dead’ still, it curdles around me in sleep. … A very complex bit of mechanics. Along the warp or the woof, the slightest deviation. .. Ah-h-h!”

He was in pain.

“What’s the matter?” I said. “I can … ”

“It’s nothing … much,” he said. “It’s … a tenth of a second appearing. … Wait. … At certain moments my body lights up. … This is very odd. Suddenly, I can see into myself. … I can make out the depths of the layers of my flesh; I feel zones of pain … rings, poles, plumes of pain. Do you see these living forms, this geometry of my suffering? There are certain flashes that are exactly like ideas. They make me understand — from here, to there. … Yet they leave me uncertain. ‘Uncertain’ is not the word. … When it is coming on, I find something confused or diffused in me.

[line break added] Inside my self … foggy places arise, there are open expanses that come into view. Then I pick out a question from my memory, some problem or other … and plunge into it. I count grains of sand … and so long as I can see them. … My increasing pain forces me to notice it. I think about it! Waiting only to hear my cry … and the moment I hear it, the object, the terrible object, smaller and still smaller, vanishes from my inner sight. …

“What is a man’s potential? I fight against everything — except the suffering of my body, beyond a certain intensity. Yet, it is there I should begin. Because … to suffer is to give supreme attention to something, and I am somewhat a man of attention. … “

My most recent previous post from Valéry’s book is here.

-Julie

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