from The Botanical Garden
Translated by Brian Evenson
For a long time I believed that life was a continuous flux, the slow and perpetual transformation of one thing into another contiguous to it, insensibly, without progression, but without rupture either, like the Metamorphoses for Twenty-Three String Soloists by Richard Strauss that is playing at this moment on the radio, astonishing thread, knotting and unknotting the same theme, amplifying it, contorting it, reducing it to a tenuous netting, where it rediscovers all its strength and sets out again before dying in the deepest tones, I was wrong; or at least, I didn’t distinguish, then, the stages which are clearly visible to me now. There are thresholds, beginnings and endings, this is without doubt a very mediocre clarity but it’s my day’s harvest.
The beginning is that which in itself doesn’t necessarily replace something else, while after it there is another thing which very naturally is or occurs; the ending is, on the contrary, that which in itself, very naturally, necessarily or most of the time replaces something else, while afterward there is nothing else; the middle is that which in itself replaces something else and is followed by something else. The whole is that which has a beginning, middle, and end.
And then there are intervals.
I have decided to keep a notebook to write down in it my statements, my measurements, my ulterior motives, my doubts, my memories, and my plans. History, geography and geometry, by which I mean past, present, future. The past is time compressed into categories, set onto index cards: history; the present is space, gestures in space, what is or isn’t approachable, what we embrace or do not embrace: geography; the future is the ineluctable unrolling of a curved function along predetermined parameters: geometry. That’s the tiny region I intend to crisscross like a surveyor dispatching his daily report to the Home Office. And I experience this proposal as a step and as a rupture. Rupture, the point of departure from which one is made to feel the need to tie up loose ends, to make the parts of one’s life that one would have been able to believe quite distinct until then, that one would have even been bent on not mixing coexist on the same rectangle of paper, in the same semantic secretion, look how suddenly, from the step backward that has been taken, certainties have been put in place, likes and dislikes take shape and one sees before one’s (at first a little surprised) eyes, one’s profession, one’s hobbies, one’s friendships, one’s memories, one’s loves, one’s opinions, organize themselves into a constellation whose coherence terrifies as much as reassures someone who never having managed to make up his mind to be only one nevertheless worries about being many.
A chaos, which it is up to us to segment in some way or another. The syndrome of the colonial jellyfish! It is composed of zoologically distinct individuals, each being able to reproduce itself by budding and to reconstitute a complete colony. Inside, the division of labor reigns: motors, steering polyps which insure through their flutterings the propulsion of the whole; hunters, they hurl in the direction of their prey filaments with paralyzing fluids; eaters, they swallow and digest on behalf of the others; producers, male and female, occupied solely with copulating. And yet the jellyfish acts, reacts, moves about as an indissociable whole, a body. We are hardly different, and depending on whether we lean toward atomic theory or seek out a globalizing view, we imagine unities of different size but all more or less artificial. Commodities for argument, no more and no less.
Dawkins goes as far as to say that a chicken is only the method used by an egg to make another egg. That the body is only a place where genes gather together for a moment, a pure temporary receptacle, a survival machine manipulated by genes and discarded once the genes divide themselves in two and have staunched the inextinguishable thirst they have for leaving doubles of themselves in the bodies of the next generation. That neither the species, nor the grouping, nor even the individual are the pertinent unities of selection, but only the gene, whose preservation and multiplication is the unique raison d’être of our existence. Of course, Dawkins is crazy, but no more or less so than all of us who whip bloody the first hobbyhorse that we manage to mount, and we periodically confront each other in conferences whose preceeings come add themselves to the piles already cluttering our libraries.
Rebuilding collapsed walls, clearing the surroundings, visiting cellars and attics, pruning certain trees so that they regain their vigor, you can tend to your life like an estate. Walking the main path, hands behind the back and head lowered, prey to intense thoughts. Devoting oneself to excavations, freeing by touch the shattered fragments of a buried mosaic, imagining the irremediably lost bits, reconstructing stories beginning from the rediscovered elements, advancing hypotheses to span the missing pieces. The desire to live, if only for several minutes a day, in that distance face to face with oneself, the variable distance which separates one event from another, loses itself in the intervals, a memory, a project, an established fact, an experience, the day’s weather, the visit of a friend, and to be able at some remove from it to think back on it, to play again a familiar air, to put one's steps in one's steps, to return home…
I liked the sort of chaos made from disorder and improvisation in which I lived. The idea of having several personalities on hand at once, truly many careers without a lot of connection to one another, somewhat attracted me, I saw it as a guarantee of tranquility, the assurance of being able at will to leave one part of yourself so as to take refuge in an other, the comforting feeling of never truly resembling your portrait. But to take a bit of distance, to look the past and the immediate present up and down, to recognize in this sludge of zooids with distinct functions the shifting contours of the jellyfish: why not, once past the age of fifty, treat oneself to this luxury.
When suddenly, in the angle of a gable, in the rising of a lane, is perceived—immersed, but not entirely, under the proliferation of modern structures—the form of the old village with, still implicitly perceptible, the layout of necessary paths, from pasture to trough, from hillock to spring, from mill to river; at a time when there is no longer fountain nor mill, when the hillock is caparisoned with concrete and tar, when the banks of the river have been parceled out in avenues or public gardens, what a miracle to again be able to catch hold of this residue of the soul which comes back to you like a whiff of time still quite closeby, back when they recorded in a large book bound in black linen, in a subtle cursive script full of the upstrokes that a quill allows: Tuesday the 5th, 100 sous for the fashioning of a pair of trousers.
That was what I had, fiercely, nostalgia for this morning: 100 sous for the fashioning of a pair of trousers.
An open window, a tree-lined path, a keyhole, a tunnel leading out into the middle of the woods, a promontory whose view is sought after, a bordering wall, these are what these notes will be by turns. “An additional obsession,” says Gertrude, “as if you didn’t have enough of them already, you now need your daily gargling in addition to all the rest. At heart, you believe in nothing that is or that happens, you have to write it down to give it retrospectively some sort of posthumous reality. Besides, you’re the one who’s posthumous, my friend, completely, out of step. If you were a boxer you would wait for the punches so as to be able to analyze their strength, their direction, their guard, preparing the unstoppable rejoinder which would always arrive too late.”
Strange weather, an intermittent ray of sunlight hits me in the face and disappears and then starts over again, like the floodlight an inquisitor would train on me, but, I yield, I welcome without displeasure its warmth and its successive withdrawals, like an alternately hot and cold shower which caresses and stings me all at once.
I love Gertrude. After having returned to my home in the role of busybody, criticizing this, lampooning that, she herself rather lost under the pretext of needing nothing and no-one, it very well could be that she claims today the role of orchestra conductor. Oh, certainly she hasn’t mastered all the instruments, but doesn’t she, from afar, impose her rhythm on the whole, arrange it, and end by giving it a sort of harmony?
The Garden’s large magnolia tree has put out its first flower of the year, it is still doggedly closed in on itself, its form conical and its color still green yellow, before a creamy white overcomes it, sums up its vigor, I believe I already discern from my window its quite subtle fragrance, but this is probably an anticipation.
For nearly ten years now I have occupied a converted apartment in the roof beams of the Museum, in the oldest building, which is now the paleontology wing, I have a view of the winter garden and the tropical greenhouses adjoining the college of botany, Buffon, Chevreul, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire dwelled there, a million stuffed mammals and birds, eight million dried plants pressed into herbariums including those of dear Jean-Jacques, my compatriot, 150 million pinned insects arranged by genus, families, species, all classified in Latin, I hold sway over the categories. The repository of the commensurable.
I left Geneva ten years ago.
Gertrude likes to assert publically that I am not Swiss, that this is a fabrication on my part, an affectation, a way of distinguishing myself, an excuse so as not to have to take sides. When my opinion is asked on such and such a thing, she interrupts me to say: “But he has no opinion, or if he has he won’t give it to you, don't you know, he’s neutral, he’s Swiss, he observes, he banks, he sits around getting fat….”
Old Sam watches over the zoo, he’s a laconic, surly fellow who devotes himself to sarcasm. Vegetarian, misanthrope, and anti-religious. He wears in all seasons a canvas hat with a turned-down brim.
With time, I have managed to soften him. It wasn’t easy. When I was appointed, it seemed that he had been there for all time, and he didn’t hesitate to treat me like an intruder. Now, I get a greeting out of him, some respect, and also measurements and observations which I immediately record. He hands them over stingily.
“And it’s for you, eh, not for the other cockatoo, that one, of the shitter-in-pants genus…” He is talking about Dawkins, he has never been able to stand him.
“And your Mr. Sosthène [it’s Soskine, he insists on referring to him like this], he’s been camping out at the reptile house for nearly a month. He’s waiting for the birth of the monitors with his movie crew. It’s Hollywood here, you can’t even push a broom through anymore. Me, I tell you that they won’t come. I know them, the monitors, they don't like to be disturbed." And he adds: “Ah, you wouldn’t have seen this in Mr. Steiner’s time.”
A stone in my garden? Steiner is my predecessor. A devotée of mineralogy and the oblique sciences. He debuted in the role of Saint-Just, as defender of usurped privileges and intellectual deceptions, only to finish as a sort of touchy prelate who fulminated through enigmatic papal bulls the ruins of the mental encyclopedia, of the house of knowledge that he had once carried in his head and which had collapsed.
“Mr. Gilles, that’s another matter. I have never seen his paintings but if they look like him, that’s good. Ah, he often comes to take photos. He doesn’t ask you anymore, he’s in the habit. His favorite is the orangutan. The other day, he put a leaf of lettuce on his head and looked at us proudly. We mutually contemplated ourselves for a long moment. Mr. Gilles said: ‘Don’t you think he looks like Rembrandt?’ Me, I didn’t think so, but it pleased me very much that he said that, like that, without laughing.”
“You should go with me to his next exhibition,” I say.
“No, sir. That sort of bird isn’t for me, it's enough to know that my orangutan looks like Rembrandt.”
I like taxonomy, it’s a humble science, I rank you in such and such a category because you have twenty-four vertebrae, in such and such another because you have six legs and because it cannot be, until proof of the contrary, that you have both six legs and twenty-four vertebrae. But the categories are open at each end, nothing ever prevents one from refining or generalizing at one’s pleasure. A small pleasure, well within reach, why deprive oneself of it?
According to Dante, every passage from the Bible has at least four meanings, the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. Scotus Erigena, more consistent, says that the meanings of Scripture are as infinite as the colors of a peacock's tail.
Isn’t it the same for everything?
Reminiscences, echoes, disjunctions, summations, intervals, thresholds, equilibriums, projections, that’s how we see our life as soon as it stops being a great big nap.
There is always a box within the box.
Everything is only parts. And the old dream of a Unity that links them. To this point, we have ended up ceding. Those which were successively proposed to us decidedly weren’t a match for it. The whole being definitively incommensurable, truly inconceivable, all that remains for us is the perception and the patient measuring of the relations that the parts maintain between themselves.
Numbers are the middleman of this relation. This relation is a number.
Simon of Tournai, a Franciscan of whom it is said that after having presented a series of arguments in favor of the Holy Trinity he cried out while descending from the pulpit: “Jesus, how I have exalted thy law. And yet if out of spite I had wanted to overthrow it, I would have been able to cite arguments much more powerful still.”
A choice must be made. In the end, it little matters what.
“That’s what you don’t succeed in making up your mind about. You try to chase all the hares at the same time without being certain that some of them aren’t just potted rabbit,” Gertrude would say.
Beatings of the heart, meal times, alternation of waking and sleeping, regular swinging of arms and legs while walking, intimate chafings of love, recurrence of excretions, repetition of the same gestures at the same times, at every turn we divide the infinite into segments that are more or less identical and, because of this fact, reassuring; we use the very revolution of the planets to determine the sequences which regulate our social life.
I am driven to wonder if in art we aren’t first sensitive to a rhythm here, a ratio there. Golden mean, art of the fugue, rules of prosody, certain echoes and orders of greatness related to one another.
And Gilles Aillaud, portraying our orangutan as Rembrandt, no doubt doesn’t act otherwise.
Time, which distances us from beings or things that we love and which have disappeared, brings us near to them if it increases the love that we bear for them. It hems in a detail, sets off a trait, transposes a scene, lightens the whole of the insignificant, and it is as if feeling gathers strength from having to house itself only in spaces which are allowed to it.
But what can these scraps, improbable equivalences, have in common with life and death? No way to determine their colors. Fraud, mime, insecurity disguise them. All the same, that’s what remains for us; the present feeds on it.
Clémence. Her luminous face appears intermittently. Life ebbs from her slowly soon leaving only a fragile presence, a quivering of the lips, a minute movement of the fingers, still succeeding in maintaining, at the most elementary level, a connection with the family circle.
Beginning, middle and end. For want of having meaning, at least individual life should have a form which defines it. An entire life, with beginning, middle and end. Perhaps it is vaguely this way as long as a breath still quickens this strange entity. But death abolishes the unity. Ruptures without order, the return to chaos. Instead of reconstruction: legend, infidelity, the intangible, the without-proof, fiction.
Clémence left us. Karl gave notice of his arrival. That’s how it all began. Two lines which don’t cross. Distances are created, distances are annulled. A matter of trajectories and intervals. History, geography, geometry.
I didn’t dare to begin like that, I held back. Generalities, pleasantries, commonplaces. But it’s very much like that that it all started: Clémence, Karl.
In gymnastics class, the first act of the teacher after having made the students get into rows of three or four was to regulate their positioning while procuring for them the space they would need to accomplish the actions that he was soon going to require of them. The command which controlled this preliminary exercise was: Take your distance.
I used to like, I always liked, as a child, receiving this command.
Moving further from one's neighbor by an arm held perpendicularly to the line of the body, as if each forced the other to respect a vital space calculated most exactly and with the means at hand: the length of an arm.
Distance. The ringing of the telephone interrupts the adagio of a quartet, at the sound of the suddenly slow-motion voice which answers it is understood that it’s a question of a death, one knows always exactly, before you are told, who it is a question of, one leave’s one’s seat, one approaches the window, one puts one’s forehead against the cold pane, the violin flares up, the air is purer, the sky bluer, the tops of the trees move.
An entire life. Of waiting.
Keeping busy. Keeping her hands busy, busy with everything.
A rather long life. Longer than average.
The feeling of having filled it.
With nothing, nothings, a lot of waiting,
furnished with diverse occupations.
talented at diversion
In this photograph, she is young, she wears her hair long, collected into a large braid, her head slants slightly toward her shoulder, in retreat, as if to apologize for posing, for being visible.
pulling back, but present
a talent for presence
as well as for pulling back
It may also be that the pulling back is what gives her presence its translucent quality. Even in a photograph it’s perceptible. Strange technological virtue, how the graininess of a print makes you suddenly palpate a sense of time, the presence of the past.
I turn around and turn over this dog-earred photograph, too small for one to really see whatever’s there. The individual is standing, in the garden path. I don’t recognize the hedges nor the beds. I guess the place more than identify it. She holds a basket in one hand and in the other a flap of her apron turned up onto her stomach, no doubt so as to carry a few apples. I recognize this gesture.
What isn’t there, her eyes, steel blue, rather small, without mischief. Will never be there, a life and nothing, suddenly past, faded, vanished.
her story without problems
pledged to oblivion
barely preceding the general oblivion
She had been put to work early. Already as a child, for many hours each morning before going to school, she had to help out at the store.
Later, during school vacations, their father bought for her and her sisters several sheep they had to watch over on the hillsides and which would be slaughtered come autumn.
A curtain of rain, the rather sad countryside through the window, the slow ticking of the clock. She sewed, she sewed.
An old habit dating perhaps from before the general implementation of electric lighting: she let the day ebb completely before turning on the lights while saying: “It is night.”
A secret treaty with time.
To know how not to interfere, the art of letting steep.
Between things and words, between phenomena and sentences, at the heart of one and the other, time in all its variance and nuance, the weft of things.
The smell of things, the trembling of the countryside, the stirring of a photograph, absence is what moves us. To give it form, to work the non-existent. Like those negative figures which appear in the interval between two forms, a vase or two symmetrically opposed profiles, you see alternatively the positive or the negative, no way to perceive them together. Also doesn't the space existing between each of them lay out the leaves of a tree better than a penciled outline?
Clémence and Karl. They will never meet. Will never have heard tell of one another. Will always be mutually ignorant of their each other's existence. And me, I owe everything to them, to one and to the other, and to Gertrude who always intervenes at the right moment. Strange combination of their influences. The definitive absence of one, the imminent return of the other, and these whiffs of childhood and of youth that they evoke in a well-ordered life.
I imagine I hear Gertrude: “You cultivate the past like a patch of greens. It’s a little bit your fix, or rather your cup of tea, it’s not dangerous and it isn’t noisy. Besides, I don’t doubt that it will be enjoyable. And strong emotions are hardly your style. All the same a little air is needed here, open the windows, good lord! And even if your papers fly away, gathering them on all fours will be wholesome exercise for you.”
The phrase subverts the thing.
What is right, the word, the memory
the raw, unformed thing
And what is right?
The unfiltered true, without armature
the whole as it comes
yappings of a dog, the road white with fog
its lesson: no lessons
event: solution of continuity; inrush of the other into the unrolling of the identical, pebble in the pond of the tacit renewal of the same.
Drops of water on the cabbage leaf; each is unique and their dispersal is arbitrary.
Morning was her time.
Brief and sober notations, a bit borrowed and stiff, like the votive offerings that relatives leave on tombstones, porcelain book open and set up obliquely, bearer of one of those agreed upon phrases, “condolences” genus, and of an artificial rose with faded colors.
That story of hikers surprised by a storm, having taken shelter under a tree, and whom lightning killed.
Children, entering by the hall door, swiping in passing sugar from the cupboard and leaving by running out the garden door.
Small tableau: she was walking uphill in the lane holding the handle of a wicker basket in the bend of her folded arm.
He said: to tell stories is to ratify the social. To take part in its game. Since childhood we have been constituted by stories that we have to believe in, take part in, that we have to reproduce, mimic. A cunning joining of stories fabricates the temporality into which we are thrown and gives to the arbitrary or to sleight of hand the semblance of natural causes.
To shatter narration is to kick against this, he said.
Karl. I remember perfectly the first time that I saw him; it was only a little later that I actually made his acquaintance. It was at the start of the university semester, I had already been attending classes in theoretical physics for some weeks.
I had first lived in a hotel before finding a room for rent at no. 23 Spiegelgasse. That day, I had followed some student friends to Bräunerhof. The bourgeois wearing their Sunday best liked to stay on the terrace; we preferred the back room where the regulars came to play chess. That's where he kept himself, seated before a glass of absinthe, alone and silent in the middle of that juvenile excitement. His countenance severe, as if sculpted, his thin lips framed by two large creases. He seemed distracted, solitary in his thoughts. Two or three times however, I surprised in his gaze a gleam of complicity with one or the other of the young people of our group. On the way home, I accompanied one of them who was older than me and who had always lived in the capital, and I questioned him. Everyone there knew him, he had first been a brilliant professor, a fervent polemicist whose pages where commented upon in fashionable circles. He had published several noteworthy books, essays of a sort on contemporary mores that touched lightly upon all disciplines, from economy to biology, by way of psychoanalysis, which was then just being born.
Heir to a gigantic industrial consortium, he used his revenue to help poets and musicians. His renown had hardly passed beyond the city limits but, in the capital, he was practically an object of worship. All the intellectual elite crowded into his lectures where they hoped to learn which new book published abroad it was necessary to have read, what new theory of psychology or social science he was going to present, and if he was going to recommend it, multiplying as a result the number of its initiates, or disparage it and probably remove it from all attention in that city for a long time.
He specialized in public readings in which his own works and those of his friends of the time alternated. With a consummate art of staging, he ran through all the accepted ideas. His favorite target was journalists, guilty in his eyes of disfiguring the language and of lowering thought. He freely parodied so and so, indulging in his imitations with a jesting and an unequalled maliciousness. Still, hasty caricatures came more from his listeners than from himself; as all sects bewitched by the personality of a leader, they had a tendency to exaggerate each of his words, radicalize his reticences, inflate his enthusiasms. Also he frequently had to make clarifications so as to refute interpretations which overstepped his thought.
It is said that he squandered the better part of his fortune in a few years. His cousins, never having accepted his eccentricity, gradually separated him from all authority in management of family affairs. The family council soon consented to allocate him a small pension in exchange for a submissive signature.
Unexpectedly, he abandoned everything, resigned from the university and disappeared. Rumors prospered. One affirmed that he had had himself hired as a gardener in Lower Saxony, another that he was an orderly in a hospital in Hamburg.
After a few years, he reappeared, never having given the least explanation, taking up none of his old activities. He had abandoned the large family house on the edge of the river and lived in a little hotel in the center of town. He spent all his days in that café.
I returned several times, alone, in the early hours of the afternoon (the students came only in the evening); he was in the same seat and hardly made another gesture than a nod from time to time to the waiter who then refilled his drink.
I managed to obtain his books, which were out of print. I see again the look of the bookseller who found them for me. He didn’t say anything, but looked at me as if to say: “There’s one who's ripe for the picking.”
I got in the habit of going to the café and sitting down at a table close to his own. On several occasions, I saw him deep in conversation with young people. He spoke without looking at his interlocutor, as if for himself, as if he were speaking to himself or as if what he said must be true or its own justification, whoever his interlocutor was, that it was not at all a question of saying something to someone but of saying what had to be said, to everybody, to anybody. Of course this was only an illusion; in reality he didn’t fail to confirm periodically, by little sidelong glances, that he was being understood. It even happened that he prolonged a look more than was natural, as if to support what he had just said, and, in a certain way, to strike his interlocutor, seeming to say: “Ah, you have been able to make believe that I wasn’t speaking to you, that what I was saying didn’t concern you, but you see very well now that you won’t escape, that the ball is in your court and, like it or not, you will have to make the best of it.”
He didn't look like an artist and didn’t in any case look like the intellectuals that I was used to encountering. He spoke of literature, life and people with sarcasm and irony.
I was captivated and no longer thought about hiding it. I paid attention to his way of speaking more than to the words themselves. I watched him with such intensity that he noticed and threw me a quick glance, on the sly. Then he stood up. I did the same, held the door open for him and found myself beside him. We made our way toward the center of town, his stride at once gave the impression of power and of lightness. Behind his apparent rigidity hid a surprising physical suppleness. We still walked. Then, unexpectedly, he said to me, using the familiar: “What are you doing now? Are you going somewhere?” I answered: “No, I have all the time in the world.” So he asked me: “Do you want to come to my house?”
Those few words, their banality, are still in my ear. I hear their pitch, the particular timbre that the tones had, the movement of the lips pronouncing them, the way he turned his head sideways and looked elsewhere, slightly elsewhere, just over my shoulder, all the while suggesting that I accompany him.
First a shared silence, then a glance, an excuse, a word, before having exchanged three complete sentences we were already, in a sense, intimate. Intimate, as much as that man could be with anyone. He always managed to keep the conversation on the level of general ideas and to indicate clearly that all matters of a private nature would be set aside.
I was later told how he had broken definitively with a longstanding friend who had allowed himself a pleasantry about his private life, “Sir, please leave my table immediately” and since his friend, thinking it a game, did not and continued his gossiping, he went to sit at another table and never spoke another word to him.