Translated from the French by Barbara Wright
“I was still very much under the influence of the surrealists, of attempts to approach the unconscious; in short of experiments made on language in what might be called its nascent state, that’s to say: independent of any rational order. A gratuitous game with vocabulary-that was my passion. Logic seemed to me to be incapable of attaining the very special domain of literature, which in any case I still equate with that of poetry. And so it was a fascination with the possibilities, the absolute freedom of creation, an intense desire to abolish all the constraints of classical writing, that made me produce these exercises which neither the logician, nor philosopher, nor moralist, will find to his taste. That doesn’t mean to say that the imaginative reader will not be able to find something in them to his taste. A reader in love with language and with the multifarious echoes that his emotions absorb when he is attuned to words. Hence, for him, a profusion of contradictory meanings, and the feeling of being released from the prisons of rationalizing reason.”
Paris, late 1940s
Ah, those fingernail races! They’re on the great attractions of these parts. The whole world and his wife uproots himself with his family, his house, his terrain, and comes and camps here for several months, for as long as the race lasts, in a special reserved site. Whatever his financial situation, everyone finds the means to perform this rite. The unemployed are rare, for a sizeable labor force is needed for the harvest. The collectors go to work a year in advance. They visit every residence, whether official or not, with sacks which they fill with clippings, with broken nails, with nails that have been extracted—they can acquire an inexhaustible supply of the latter in garrets, on account of the tortures. They’ve stopped bothering about animals’ claws ever since the day they ran wild and pounced on the spectators. Once they’ve been collected, then, the nails are piled up in silos adjoining the racecourse. Usually there are only a few weeks to go before the start of the games. They are used for leveling the terrain and especially for stabilizing the atmosphere. This operation was delicate and even dangerous, only a few years ago. Today it is carried out with the aid of valves and giant compressors laid out along the track. The people who live in the neighborhood are warned when the stabilization is due to begin. They have to decamp within twelve hours. But there are always some hundred thousand laggards who get caught up in currents and torn to shreds. This provided some extra nails.
The inaugural day arrives. People can sit wherever they like, entrance is free. It may be said that in theory people prefer to be at a certain altitude, that of the silos, for instance, or one or two thousand meters up. The very sight of this multicolored crowd rising up in tiers several kilometers into the sky is magnificent enough. What can be said about the entrance of the nails into the arena? There is nothing with which it can be compared—unless it be a snowstorm. At the signal, they rush off towards the East.
In high summer, mauve placards are stuck up all over the country to announce that the leaf-picking is about to start. All the natives are mobilized for a week. The territory is transformed into a veritable parade ground. The state health services are entirely responsible for the transport, board, and lodging of the worker. Given the density of the population, and that all private industries and businesses have to suspend their activities during this time, it is easy to imagine the extent of the task incumbent in the above-mentioned authorities.
At first I didn’t quite understand the reasons for this transfer of the inhabitants from one province to another on the opposite side of the territory for this chore. It’s a question of productivity. I had the honor of being introduced to one of the members of the top organizing committee. He is a morose little man who has spent his life in perfecting the administrative mechanism of the “leaves week.”
When they have arrived at their destination, the groups (about a million souls) are divided up into squads of a thousand in the province to be stripped. These squads, commonly known as “the dryasdusts,” set to work immediately. This has been going on for so long that men, women, and children can climb trees like monkeys. Every native species of trees is a legal target.
Under the system, however, varieties tend to disappear in favor of one basic type of tree, which is something between an apple tree and a horse chestnut. Hedges, copses, and the vegetation of the heathlands are similar targets. Every leaf must be picked without its peduncle; this requires great dexterity in the operators. The peduncles, which normally fall in the autumn, will be collected by private firms.
As the gathering proceeds, whole cartfuls of leaves are unloaded into the canals crisscrossing the country. They discharge their load into rivers. At the mouths of these rivers this fearsome accumulation is controlled by a system of dredgers and cranes along the bank, thus raising a vegetal bastion which, when the seadrift reaches it, slowly decomposes until the spring.
The exploitation of this huge, putrescent wall is begun in March.
The whole of their private life is autopsied in their eyes, even when they are lost in thought. When you walk down the street you are surrounded by decorticated beings. They present a spectacle of monstrous psychological division. I met almost none for whom the present had any importance. They project everything into the future. A future constituted of present and past preoccupations. Encumbered by this impossibility, they trudge from distress to downfall.
They are dangerously haunted by eternity.
As for the children, I think they resemble our own. They dream of buns, balloons, and toy ducks. But they stagger under the weight of their anxieties, as heavy as planets.
The crowd didn’t flinch at the sound of the leaves being torn off. It seemed as if it were being absorbed into an indiscernible, illocalizable object. This wasn’t the first manifestation of the sort. The most celebrated one, so I was told, was that historically classified under the name of Good Friday. I made this comparison because a little girl by my side began to desiccate. First, her hair fell out like hay. Then her face, which had become fibrous, dropped down over her doll. With one hand the little girl hugged the fetish to her bosom, and with the other she tried to hold her head up. But her hands had become glued to her body, down to her pelvis. She took two more steps. Then her legs broke.
I had never before seen a mob immobilized. The place is usually so full of movement that you can only keep your eyes on an individual, or a couple, or at the very most a group. But at that moment one could only too easily take in the whole assembly. I had no need of proof, the spectacle was hypnotic. It was only when thinking about it later that I realized that the ease with which it could be seen confirmed its reality.
You ask your way, as a matter of habit, of a passerby. He doesn’t answer. Right away, you are jerked out of your automatism because it’s true, the way is there in front of you, almost on top of you.
The difficulty of fighting against your mania to understand is in proportion to your isolation. I am only now, thanks to a few friends, beginning to liberate myself to a certain extent.
One of my first experiences was buying my bread without leaving my house. It took me an hour of tension to relax; an hour to delimit the feeling the feeling of bread and to confine my desire to my teeth, my palate, and my esophagus; an hour to evacuate the decision; an hour to abolish the time which had elapsed (I checked, later); and there we were, the bread was on my table, I was eating it.
All this was the result of an incalculable effort. They make no effort at all: they have never lost this astonishing faculty.
When they are trying to escape from shame, they are the most pitiable creatures I have ever seen. Since transparency of their souls is not merely constitutional but also an active function, a little like a walking windowpane which might go and shatter itself an obstacle, no base action is the attribute of the person who commits it. It comes within the network of turpitudes that binds all these people together.
This kind of permanent link of omniconsciousness should, it would seem, exclude the feeling of the irremediable, which is egotistic, and substitute for it that of complicity, of collusion. But this is far from being the case; the sense of shame persists. I have seen poor wretches who were at odds with it perch up in the trees like owls and remain there sleepless for nights on end. The structure of sin and remorse, of their interpenetration and mutual influence, rose up, tangible and useless, in front of them, and up there on their perches they gave the impressions of being false meetings points, artificial intersections.
For their notions of the absolute are deficient. They have but a vague knowledge of divine mysteries and allegorical redemptions, whose disproportion to their wealth of emotion is such that the slightest lapse from honesty plunges them into dejection.
Oh, those trees, with their weight of suffering flesh…
Their artists work in isolation. They have no public. As they are recruited from common criminals, they are banned. Any kind of contact with them is a felony. Their penitentiaries are of a greater variety than ours and convicts may be placed in an artist’s studio.
Far from being blunted, the sensitivities of this vermin increase in proportion to their guilt. When an interested observer, defying the risk of prosecution, goes to see them and admires one of their works, this feeling that the visitor is a kindred spirit is so unexpected that the criminals lose their heads. They whirl around, throw themselves on the work and trample it, lacerate it, pulverize it. Then they disappear into the walls, where for the rest of their lives they are racked by qualms of conscience at having deceived people.
If you lose a contour, or a segment, or one whole side of your body, the hachured surface is reduced by the same amount and your armpits are no longer included in it. You wander around with holes in you, carrying your charcoal-drawn silhouette satchel. Your cheek becomes emancipated. Your prominent jaw commutes between your neck and your glottis; the wings of your nose erupt in pharyngeal edemas; nauseating liquids ooze out down your apophyses. Your truncated sphincters flow back towards your nerve centers, your epigastrium becomes subdivided. The satchel finally drops, too, your hand becomes invaginated, and the sketch so carefully made the day before it stained with liquid manure. This is the result of a plasma deficiency. It frequently happens during country rambles. Several comrades have gone for a day’s outing and come back unrecognizable.
This excerpt is part of a forthcoming omnibus to be published by Red Dust/Spuyten Duyvil in March of 2002