YOU MIGHT BE AT A DISTANCE from your life. As always: an ordinary state, banal. Your body headed straight for the abyss, with the forward momentum of age. And beneath the freshness of blood there is weakness, ashes. Nostalgia: the soul. Sick, yes. Without a doubt: sick. And the real name of that sickness would be childhood. Incurable, as such. The sickness might also have another name: life. Nothing about it would be an inner life, a hinterlife, a clearing momentarily out of reach which you could penetrate, on a clear morning. A sickness, that’s all, and the awareness you would have of it would also be an awareness of the profound inadequacy of any remedy.
One day, in this equal, chronic absence, you would receive these letters, three in all. They would look like a book. And the author would be you yourself, that is, someone else. A passerby. A shadow, far away. No one in particular.
The books. They’re on my table. I opened them, at random. I leafed through them. A peacefulness came over me, one I didn’t know I needed. A happiness in reading before the very act of reading. A light stolen by this first quick, distracted glance. A light anticipating the light captive in these pages. Then I closed the books again. Later. Reading would be for later, much later. Nighttime would be better for reading. Nighttime is better. At last there is an equality established between the darkness within and the darkness without. I went out. I went for a walk, saw people. The idea came to write you a letter, this letter, the idea of a letter that would never end, never lead anywhere. Often interrupted, the way reading is interrupted, the way the state of being a reader, of being absent, is revoked by the sound of a door closing, by the sudden arrival of dawn, or by the disaster of sleep.
No doubt you are familiar with this text by Valéry on “The Two Virtues of a Book”: That is what reading is about. It might be symbolized by the idea of a flame spreading, a thread burning from one end to the other, with little explosions and scintillations from time to time. This text, without changing a line or a word, might also help to define what is undefined about love, to delimit what is unlimited about life. Something that can only illuminate itself through its own destruction. Burning. Continually burning until the ultimate flame—the earth’s flame, the chill of the earth upon the body.
Night. Dusk. The fading light attenuates a primitive desire in me to be consoled. A desire that came before any loss or mourning. I look at these books. Through the window I can see the forest, the dark mass of trees leaning against the night. It’s December, late afternoon. I’m expecting nothing. I’m expecting no one and that, no doubt, is the true formula of waiting: Nothing. No one.
The child, the reader, is trapped in the sleepless apprenticeship of life in society, bound within a generalized stupidity by the constant obligation to speak and to answer “present”; for there are questions, there are calls, always, which do not stop, which do not cease from tormenting the silence that sleeps deep within the reader, that beautiful silence, a sleep-walking silence. The joy of withdrawing: you open a book, you are done with solicitations and company of any kind, with any sort of random obligation. There is a purification: you pick up a book. You enter a dream. Purification.
Reading, not to know, not to learn or accumulate or compile or acquire. No, none of all that. Reading, rather, to forget, find freedom, lose something, lose yourself. To be alone again, infinitely alone.
So alone that you will never be alone again.
Books set down the coordinates, chart the wilderness, are given over to love and to the untamed grasses where wild and gentle beasts roam in search of a watering hole, in search of the watering hole of sleep.
The way words have of touching, irradiating the voice, detecting in the reader’s heavy soul seams of fresh water, sources of fire: true writers are water diviners. They are healers. The magnetic hand of one who writes is laid upon the open heart of the reader, to absorb his fever and change his blood to water.
The father likes the image of the child sprawled amidst books, absent. His face troubled by reverie, so lovely, so gentle when one surprises it. The mother is wiser and somehow fearful; it’s something she cannot explain. The mortal passion of reading. Eyes exchanging their light for the darkness of words. The body surrenders its living strength for an improbable afterlife. The child is reading: that’s it; he won’t come back. The pages communicate their pallor to him. Words suggest the bitter taste of the voyage, of refusal. Real life, the one that is not in books but to which books bear witness—where is it?
Another day. I forgot to tell you about the snow that fell yesterday, late in the day, early evening. Or about the idea of eternity which came with the snow, which became part of its movement, its whiteness. A dropping tenderness, slowly falling. I stopped everything, even this letter, to gaze at the snow. I don’t know why I’m writing this to you. I gazed at the snow. For a long time. No thoughts, no thoughts of anything. Or if I had thoughts, their movement and that of the snow had become one. This fascination, this unhealthy lack of distinction between what was outside and what was inside actually does have something to do with what I want to tell you. Reading, and the fact of reading, are just a variation of this.
There is a book I’ve read over and over, a thousand and one times, a book that doesn’t exist. I’ve thought of writing it, but I won’t. Nothing happens in it. There’s only one character. It’s a child: he has two names, Lys and Pierre. Two names, two simultaneous lives, one incorporating the other and protecting it from any ordinary corruption. Two names which are also those of two orders: mineral and vegetable. Of the stone—for stone in French is Pierre—the child would retain the trajectory, as when a hand has thrown a stone: a pure line, straight and unwavering. And of the flower, the lily, he would retain the beauty, that long, endless unfolding of strength. A vertical source. A flame.
The most cherished of those his age, and the most rejected: disappointing. In the end, disappointing. Rejected for the very love he might inspire and which would seem to be addressed to him in vain, a love he would not retain, that he would neither discourage nor welcome; rejected for this love which would breeze through him like air through a wide-open door. He would lack the knowledge of how to close that door once and for all. He would lack the elementary virtue of knowing how to make a choice, how to separate things, to map out borders.
He would not take part in the invention of the book nor in the way it might be read. He would be in a life and a time that have not been categorized, the way one is at the age of one or two, and less and less as time goes by. Before long, less and less. And very soon not at all.
There is one thing alone that is certain, of which I am sure, one thing alone: I can picture him reading. Reading a great deal, to a frightening degree. Imagining his excuse—reading, the fact that he is in the midst of reading or has things to read—in order to ward off the accusations which soon will follow: that he doesn’t move, that he’s apathetic, that he lacks all the usual feelings regarding the eternity toward which he is headed, restfully.
The only way to write his story, the only hope of reaching him is to make this book the way he makes everything: without preferences. Without knowing. In the identity of living and dying. In the terror of this identity. Silence upon silence.
We count with our fingers. We begin counting at the age of one. Soon our wide-open hand indicates the age of five. Then the other hand reaches out in turn. Then both hands open and close simultaneously, several times in a row, as many times as there are decades and as quickly as possible, to follow the movement of time; but it’s pointless, the speed of time is far greater than that of fingers bending and stretching. The speed of time is greater than that of life. It’s the speed of the night and night has always been there—we are surprised, how everything has gone by so quickly and we haven’t been able to hold it back. My God, what happened, I must have made a mistake somewhere, I must have hit some vital mechanism, knocked something out of gear, and everything’s gone mad, everything’s spun out of control and I’ve been carried out to the edge, far from the center and the center has been gouged out like a wound, like a vortex, and everything has crashed inwards and I wasn’t there, I was there for no one, no one. Very soon our hands stop counting. My hand no longer opens now. It’s dried out, fading with the leaves on the ground. Rotting with the apples that rolled off to the edge of the path, swollen with a golden rust color, grown soft. All the same we have tried to avoid the unavoidable. It’s the right hand, the one that starts off the first five years: we’ve come up with a thousand different ploys to try to stop the gesture, the litany. This hand has learned to gather moments of light, to seize the silences with its fingertips. It has learned to turn pages. It’s a mockery. Reading is counting backwards. There is always a smaller, infinitesimal digit. But there are no first words, there never are. What a mockery. You read the word: unbearable. You read the definition of the word unbearable. You see that this is precisely the thing you never cease from bearing. You’re missing the roots of the word, its ancient usage. The essential thing is missing, the origin. So you tear up the page. So you begin all over—always the same page, always the same reading.
Some time goes by. Time passing. I’m not doing anything, you see: I start writing this letter and then I stop writing and then I take it up again. I go for walks, often. I walk over God in the woodlands, in the strange light of the woodlands, in this light that seeps out of the shadow, rising from the earth. The winter cold stimulates my thoughts, sharpens my sight and expands my reverie. I come home late to open up my books, to take up the reading I will not finish.
Away from everything. Removed from everything. Listening to everything. Using books as if they were brittle walls through which I could hear the echo of the most ancient, secret wars.
The soul. It has the gleam and weight of ink. It has that black density, more luminous than daylight.
Reading. Through books, through this basic assembly of paper, thread, ink, and lead, preserving the dream of an essential poverty, a poverty greater than the absence of all possessions. Searching—for what, I don’t know. Searching. Needing, to live, only a handful of words and an equivalent handful of silence. More than that, no. I never manage to satisfy the need. And every time, I stumble upon the irreducible drawback of all books: that which is closest to silence is, by virtue of that very proximity, most in danger of leading us away from silence, of distracting us from it.
What if one were to give up books: the sort of naïve dream that comes to those of us who stay up too late, too long, with too many books. No. The way out, if there is one, is to spread the disease: every second of every day, one must mobilize the despair that is initially confined to the reading room alone, initially active only during the time one spends reading. One must contemplate everything—a face, the dawn, stones—as if that everything were a book one might read.
Two sentences by Rimbaud, copied out into a notebook:
Branches and rain hurled at the casement window of the library
I remember his purple room, with its yellow paper windowpanes: and his books, hidden, which had soaked in the ocean!
The first of these sentences is from the fourth sonnet of “Childhood,” and the second is at the beginning of a short tale: “Deserts of Love.” Both these titles mark off very precisely the space created by the reader’s reverie. Two false doors painted on the wall of one’s room. As for the content of these sentences, they illustrate what happens when one is reading: there is a summons, and an invocation of basic forces. A call voiced by the extreme distress of a dreamer, or a child, or a reader, to immemorial powers: to the water in the sky. The tree. The water in the oceans. A call. A petition: that all of this might come and invade him—submerge him, penetrate and swallow him, together with his books. Together with his books.
So that he will be engulfed at last, in this thing that surpasses him without coercing him.
Together with his books.
The middle of a December day. Through the window I watch as the clouds flee across the sky. There is a blackbird on a tree. It has trouble keeping its balance when it first sets its claws upon the branch. It beats its wings to remedy the situation: there. It flies off, lands on a slightly smaller tree, flies off again, disappears. Two o’clock in the afternoon. Children are at school. The sky is featureless. A vacant lot. The memory of a walk I took with a child. A country road, light. Suddenly the child ran ahead, shouting with joy. A gentle downward slope propelling his stride and his joyfulness.
Night has come, very quickly. Listening to music: a Schubert octet. Music, and what it is: breathing. A tide. The long caress of a hand of sand. No. A low door: God penetrates the air through music. Soundlessly. I am doing nothing. Opening a book, yet again. Meditation liberates space: I am no longer alone, separate in shadow. I am wherever there are lights: in houses, in children’s hands, in the gaze of animals, in love letters, in rosebushes, in music, everywhere, I am everywhere, close to everything and everyone. Close to you. Yes. Close to you.
I want to tell you the strangeness of my days, so common, so banal. To tell you about the light of these winter days, so exuberant and gentle. This sudden air of springtime. As if things would never end….
I know nothing of your life, of the people who are with you, the words that protect you, the trees or houses or the blue color you see from your windows. I don’t imagine anything. I have nothing to tell you that you don’t already know. If I write to you it is in order to keep writing and never stop, and it is pure song, a pure celebration of song, and of the vibration of the air against the membrane of the heart.
If I write to you it is from this place of solitude, this silence that measures our equality, and our distance as well. This unavoidable fact of solitude. Mine. Yours. An ever greater solitude, unlimited.
And I know that for a long time to come I will have to invent everything. Everything: the air around me and what is in the air—light, birds, stars, rain. The earth beneath me and what is in the earth, stones, water, nights. Invent everything to take a single step. And then leave everything. Destroy it all in order to take it up again, to take a second step. The idea of rest—of this I am sure—would be fatal. The idea of a name, which would be my own.
I don’t believe I told you that I have work, that I am, like most ordinary people, subject to the mandatory lie of a job, to a considerable waste of time and of life. I think the best thing is not to talk about it. Just to write. To change nothing. Let the anger and despair accumulate. Carry on. Let the decision, a decision, happen, as if of its own accord, at the end of an indefinite period of time, perhaps soon, perhaps a long time from now. I have no power over my life. Above all how to lead it. There is a sentence I read yesterday, in the diminished winter light, in one of those dusty old books that I open from time to time, at random, to any page: Throw all your cares to God.
I am thinking about a departure. The stars in my internal sky given free rein, at last. A departure.
No longer enough weight or shadow to finish a task, to read something in a sustained way or even simply to walk. Idleness. A joyful dancing light, an invisible light, a light from within. All that remains are broad thoughts, so broad and yet precise, enveloping thoughts, developing thoughts. Books. So many books in this room. So many waves. So many trees. To be in this room as if in a forest, as if at the bottom of the sea. So many rooms within this room. To be everywhere as if in a room, as if in a forest, as if at the bottom of the sea. Everywhere, in this way. Doing nothing. Looking at everything. I might be made for nothing. I might be made for this: everything. Love. Things come to me, all sorts of things. Through their silence, they come into me. First of all through their silence. Then their light begins to make its way inside me, discreet, infinitesimal. Miraculously saved. And finally the burst of flames, lightning, something incandescent and radiant. Then, writing; only afterwards. That’s it. That’s all. I wouldn’t know how to do anything else. Only this changing of silence into light. Love. It passes through my lips, carves lines in my hand, upside down, then right-side up, then upside down again, and so on. I observe the movement. I am writing, you see, writing to you. These letters. This letter.
I often think about the child, the one I told you about: Lys, Pierre. The simple book that I’m not writing. And you and I would know that this child is not where he is. I often see him writing. Letters, always. Pages and pages, void of anything to see, filled only with light, black with light. Reading them through, several times. Correcting the spelling mistakes. In the end, burning them.
These letters, being consumed. These words of calm despair. This turbulent, stirring peace.
True thoughts, blazing thoughts, the ones that could make you die.
Writing, again. Unchanged in solitude. Deepening the wound of solitude, a wound no one has inflicted, given, before anything else, given before any encounter, given. Writing. Touching with a supernatural heart the very blood of life, of all life, the greatest mystery. Fingertips touching the dampness of a stone level with the ground. A stone come from who knows what depths….
Once again it is evening. The light from the lamp strikes the white page. It is very late now. I am going to continue the reading I began last summer, a book by Proust that I used to take along on my walks: its pages are still soaked with sun. A bottomless, endless reading. Motionless reading. The story does not move forward. There is no story. Just a very slow progression toward Love, toward the cruelty of Love, toward its blind, white light. A hallucinatory, all-consuming, tireless reading. A man is speaking. A man who is in bed, approaching death. He is writing the book bit by bit, as I read it. He is writing from the place of utter abandonment that is his at last. He has never been so close to tears, to the aridity of death. Never so close to life, to the burning nudity of life. To write, before, must have been impossible, or at least futile, without consequence. Words of all sorts blossom and grow in every direction. They multiply and branch out like foliage, like an uncontrolled, uncontrollable growth of leaves or fruit. They emerge from this present state of distress, in this sickroom which I see filled with pages, notes, on the bed, on the floor, everywhere. A note, in the front of the book, in the chronology: 1906. After a stay in Versailles, Proust moves to 102, Boulevard Haussmann. Increasingly painful bouts of insomnia: in 1910, to isolate himself from any noise, he has the walls of his room lined with cork. For a start, the words say nothing about their origin. They indicate nothing but details, a host of details about people, gardens, seasons, stairways, perfumes, stones, dresses, lullabies, gossip, rivers. Thus they refer to everything, without selecting, in the undifferentiated enchantment of living. And everything is there, already. These words that rise to the surface could not have emerged had everything not already been there. Everything comes from this man at the end of his life, shut away within the four walls of his room, a room that has become one with the immaterial room of writing. Everything comes from this man who has reached old age, in his body, in his strength, who has reached eternity in love, in his life. It is from the extreme poverty of Love that the luxury and opulence of his sentences are born. It is toward simplicity and the Orient of Love that these very rich, sumptuous, sovereign sentences are bound. Toward the woman who is strolling by, there, beyond the picture windows of the grand hotel, strolling toward the freshness of her body, the insolence of her laugh, the immensity of desire and of the nearby sea. The story is nothing. The story is everything. It is a progression toward the bareness of this room, toward this wound, re-opened for centuries to come, toward this light and constant glow in one’s gaze: Love itself.
As little education as possible; as little of society as possible. The Lys-child, the Pierre-child. At times I also see him growing tired of books, tired of writing, tired of everything. Recovering, in brief instances, the use of an instinct that has been denied, buried, a thousand times over. Leaving indefinitely. Going deeper and deeper into the forest, into silence. Thoughts come, unbidden, with the suddenness of a branch across the path, a branch you must push back with outstretched arms and which will whip your face if you let go too soon. Such thoughts cannot be held at a distance: they spring from that region within that he knows nothing about, and whence, he suspects, the majority of his gestures also come, as does, already, the irrepressible desire to go for endless walks in that place. His thoughts are words. Some words may be slower than others, and they linger within, reluctant to disappear into the formulation of an idea or into the light whispering of lips. Words in bulk, with no rational link between them: Marble, God, Source, Ink, Dawn…. And then there is one solitary word, wandering above the others, or below, he’s not sure which: Death. Dying.
Something like an extreme weakness.
Sunday. Rain. It’s been raining all day. Life slipping over faces, like rain on a windowpane, finding nothing to hold it back. Sundays.
The sound made by the books open on this table: they murmur. They are saying something in a low voice, monotonously. Relentlessly. These texts, these poems, have the same effect upon one’s vision, exactly the same, as the faraway, unreal sound of Gregorian chant in the coolness of a church one is visiting. Through both these senses, reading, like the chant, invents something in our soul. There are a great many affinities, and much complicity, between reading and prayer: in both cases, there is murmuring. In both cases, a silent commerce with the Other. In both cases, a similarly indefinite and gentle walk through clear orchards, the very same orchards evoked in the twelfth century by Guerric d’Igny: With every book you read you are walking through a garden. And then above all there is the fervor shared by the two acts of reading and prayer. I like that word, fervor. It’s a password. It presides over the alloy of body and soul, over the interlacing of embroidery upon the fabric of one single immaterial language, gentle and ardent to the extreme, the echoes of which can sometimes be heard in birdsong, or in the lightning-lit dawn of lovers.
The hourglass of reading, through which immobility alone flows, measuring nothing but the late hour of the heart, the same, always, the only hour.
This expanse of the invisible on the black and white page: an expanse of silence.
Pure silence: the soul’s natural element, like water to the swimmer from beyond the horizon.
The Lys-vibration is in constant metamorphosis, passing through innumerable force fields, using fear, laughter, ruse, and kindness in turn. Then a sign, one day, undeciphered. An unexpected ebbing of strength. Beneath the body’s foolish heat lies an icy zone, fallow, toward which Lys is heading slowly and regularly. One day, two days, three days go by. There is Lys, enclosed in the fever that drains the color from his cheeks, that gathers all the lights of his face into a single focal point. There is his mother, sitting nearby, at an infinite distance, also enclosed, in who knows what, simply enclosed. There is the bareness of these gestures, the poverty of the words that come and go from one to the other, creating footbridges between them, altogether too fragile, constantly collapsing. On the fourth night, he leaves life behind. His face grows pale. His breath fades, settles into the faintest register.
He is walking alongside a canal, on one of those paths where horse-drawn barges used to pass. He is looking down. The water level is decreasing at an alarming rate, to reveal a black and heavy mulch. A desire to go down, to continue his walk down there. He is about to yield to this desire when the water returns in a violent rush, destroying the fascination. A lock must have opened further upstream. The child wakes up. He is sweating. He looks around. The light is strange. It is neither the light of day, nor that of night.
His mother is absent.
With difficulty he gets up, leaves the room, leaves these letters.
Someone is writing. Someone is writing letters. Leaning over a table of cheap wood, leaning over a dream that is too precise; someone is writing, whom we can see from behind. Daylight comes in through the window, an everyday light. It burns your eyes. It burns the first page of the book, slowly consuming the book, the words. Burning with neither flame nor clarity, a useless burning. At the end of the book there would be nothing left but this light, this frank, sharp wound of light. The story would end, you see, having failed to conjure the night, or sleep. It would remain unfinished, definitively unfinished, and before it would lie this expanse of light, this eternity of day, inviolate, intact.
Life with its own rhythm, idle, eternal. Hours of idleness for one second of pure gold, of writing. What is lasting hurries ahead with the flash of ink. Accept this loss of time, never claim to change it, or fill it.
What is unfinished or incomplete may be essential, where perfection is concerned.
An ongoing conversation with a child: immediately and nervously, it deals with the meaning of the world and of eternity, rather than with any private matter. Love in person, in the face of a child who looks like thousands of others: unique.
To invent a tale. A story. It wouldn’t be written for a child, nor for an adult. Written for no one in particular. The story of no one in particular. Beginning anywhere, in any way. With this word: God. The rest would follow, on its own:
God is the name of someone who has thousands of names. He is called silence, dawn, nobody, lilac, and a host of other names, but it isn’t possible to say all of them. An entire life would not suffice, and it is in order to go faster that a name like that—God—was invented, a name to say all the names, a name to say someone who is everywhere, except in churches, town halls, schools, or anything that looks remotely like a house. Because God is outdoors, all the time, in any weather, even in winter, and he falls asleep in the snow and the snow becomes soft for him, it gives him only its whiteness with a few stars stitched on top and keeps its burning chill to itself. God has no house. He does not need one, and besides, when he sees a house he opens the doors, tears down the walls, burns the windows and everything goes into the house with him, day, night, red, black, everything and in any order, and it is then, and only then, that a house becomes bearable, only then can a person live there, because then everything is there in the house: sun, moon, life in its madness, such great and gentle madness, the periwinkle eyes of madness. Then God wanders off somewhere else: because he wanders everywhere, falls asleep everywhere, in ferns, in sparrows’ nests or infants’ eyes. God has a funny way about him, truly. When he isn’t throwing the doors wide open, God does nothing. That’s his trade: to do nothing. It’s a very difficult trade. There are very few people who really know how to do it well, how to do nothing. God, however, does it very well. From time to time, to rest, he stops doing nothing: and then he makes bouquets; he gathers all the lights of the world, even those of storms and inkwells; he makes bouquets with them but he doesn’t know who to give them to. Or he holds a seashell close to his ear and listens to music, all the music of the world. He listens for a long time and it is like a snowflake in his heart, a torment of foam, the first era of the sea, the vastness of the sea within his heart, and God begins to laugh and God begins to cry, because laughing and crying are all the same to God, because God is a bit mad, a bit strange. And if you ask him what’s wrong, he’ll say he doesn’t know, he knows nothing, he’s forgotten everything along the wayside and he’s lost his head, lost his shadow, and no longer knows his name. And then he laughs, and cries, and goes away, and comes back, and it’s daytime, and it’s nighttime and then there you are, that’s the way it is, always, every day.
Drifting, endless drifting, on these walks. Reading. Letters. Work. An absence.
I do not write to hold or save the passing hour. I write to you about its passage through me, and the bursts of beauty that stay inside me, these wisps of eternity within grief-stricken death, between the slabs of weariness.
I listen to music. A lot of music. Mozart. Schubert. Mozart-the-cat: he moves about, easily, sliding, rubbing, never creasing the foliage of the air, never spilling a drop of silence. He circles softly around a bird of light, never taking his eyes from it, never allowing the game to end with capture, abduction.
Everything is given, offered. Every degree of the abyss is counted. Pure contemplation, pure pain.
From the window I observe the fine weather. The candor of the sun.
I think of you, about whom I know nothing.
I look at today’s sky: hurried, confused. There’s something there I can write to you about. It’s a way to talk to you about the weather, about this desert of lights eroded by too much rain, too many winters, or a sudden brutal clearing in the sky and the despair that ensues, that must ensue.
Now a new season has come. Another economy of wind, air, and sounds borne from afar. Songs of invisible birds. Now and again there are children’s cries, just outside, or in the forests, you know, like those cries you hear at the beach in the summer: only children mingle the playfulness of voices and laughter so perfectly with the sound of the elements, with the deep murmur of the waves. No doubt you’ve already noticed this, and that the voices of adults, on the other hand, mingle with nothing, embrace nothing. They create a screen. They sever, hinder, get in the way.
Lights linger. The blackness of trees when night encircles them is not as pronounced, not as hard. Great things sleep inside us, always, the sleep that the lengthening of the days arouses more and more. There is always something missing. From everything we might do and say and experience, something is missing, always. A certain consciousness, premature and irreducible. You can try to go around it, make a deal. Something that is just one single, inexhaustible day can be temporarily forgotten. It can be reduced into days, weeks, or months. Keep busy. You speak and you believe you are speaking. You do things and you believe you are doing something. I prefer, personally, to do nothing. I prefer to stay with this first age of the world, of the night, of the cold. I have nothing to say about the thickness of night, about shadow and frost, nothing to think. To think something about it would already imply moving away from it. It is within this night, from this non-light of life that I am writing to you, but that’s not what I’m talking to you about. It’s about all the rest, about everything that is engulfed by life—gestures, things, faces, words. Everything goes away. Everything comes slowly nearer, then slowly goes away again. Everything slides gently—voices, gazes—everything slides gently to one side, smoothly, as if independently of any will, the way the land slides. And everything goes on just as well. The same things, always. Nothing is hindered. The appearances of work, the appearances of conversation, the appearances of various movements. An apparent life. I suppose that’s a banal thing. I suppose it is possible to live for a long time in this way, over a long period of time. In this marvelous death which is indifference. In this horrible ability to live in the absence of everything, in the most silent of absences. Ageless. Without ever getting older, without ever suffering. No doubt that is what is called an ordinary life. You can die within it. You know that you can die. You also know that it is impossible to die. You know all that and a lot of other things as well, all equally useless, all equally cumbersome. Sometimes, too, the grace of a wound comes along to dismiss the amazing amount of knowledge one has about everything, this hodgepodge.
The fresh fatal wound of despair.
You don’t know anything anymore.
For a moment you lose the ignorance you have learned. You lose your mental indigence.
Despair lightens your gaze, burns your blood, purifies. Then it is enough just to look. Without choosing; look. Wherever your eyes turn it is always the same light—black, full daylight. That is when you can write, for example. Without worrying about ever being read. Write something. Write this:
A stone might falter within you, then others, nearby. A wall, a place you rarely go by anymore, will soon crumble beneath the distant pressure of the wind. You look at the stones as they fall, disjointed, and with a passionate slowness, into the dried grasses of oblivion: worn deep by the gray waters of weariness, they could not hold out for much longer. All it took was a breath of wind to send them back to their original diversity. You listen to the final echoes of the landslide. You hear what the echoes say: someone has left you, someone who had never come into you. Gradually the fascination of the ruins vanishes, and their lingering power to invoke regret becomes as nothing. You move on. You feel the inexpressible nature of a light serving to measure the negligible immensity of your loss.
Such a text, yes, can be written. In early love, in dying love, it’s the same thing, writing. In the confusion of time and genres, you can write. Writing. So you don’t hear anymore. Above all you don’t hear. You write to see, to understand. You can give this text to be looked at, as I have done here. You can also not show it, or even not write it. Just look around. The flowers on this table, heavy with heat. Your hand flat on the page. Or nothing at all. That’s it. Nothing.
Great passages of light in a sky lying fallow.
A night and a day have gone by. A pause in this letter. A white stone between two paths of ink. I could also tell you about a little girl I look after sometimes, with whom I spend entire days. Her name is Hélène. I could tell you about the miracle of the seasons on her face, the radiant disorder which the wind brings to her gaze. Her slow gestures, always filled with a grave attentiveness. The delicate bruising of the first roses in her hands, their light increasing as she folds them, their singed softness between her fingers. She is two years old, she is a thousand years old, she is the same age I gave to Lys or Pierre in a dream. Perhaps the idea of this book came from that, perhaps. To be honest, I know nothing about my writing, about my dreaming, or why I am dreaming, why I am writing about it, and how. I know nothing about what I am doing. I do it, that’s all. I dream that I am doing it. I am searching for something. I don’t know which are the best paths to take. I take them all, one after the other, or simultaneously. There are these letters I write to you. I am addressing the most undifferentiated among you, the lowest common denominator, the night, the clean slate of the night.
There is a gift of nonexistence, equally distributed among all of us, which also urges me to talk to you. A legacy of the poorest madness. An inalienable equality before the void, the horror of the void, the sovereignty of the void. Whether we reject it or not, that hardly matters. That is where we are. That is where encounters occur.
I go on these walks, an incessant observation of everything, and everything is arresting to me, a broken eternity of walks. There are books into which I adventure, until I find the right words, the clear black words, those that predominate with the suddenness of a storm, or a calm, anywhere, in the middle of the text or at the bottom of a page. I copy them over in notebooks of many colors, and I leave them on the table. I forget about them. I give them no further thought. For your sake I have re-read a few pages of Délie by Maurice Scève, so we can talk about it. Here is what I found, these words which a single reading cannot exhaust, words that fill me with joy, words I read and reread, that I chew over, as when I go for a walk with a sprig to chew on between my lips, between my teeth:
The Body works with heightened strength
Resolving its Spirit into another life.
Immaterial crystals, precipitates of salt and the soul which may take other paths than books: a silence can induce them, or a gesture glimpsed in haste, a shadow on the wall, or the unpredictability of pain. I am talking about those instants when the mind stumbles, the momentary interruption of mental processes that cause us to open doors and say the words that are expected of us, the deaf words. I am talking about the unhoped-for respite from the inadequacy of the knowledge that prepares us for life—a nothing life, of profound nothingness. I am talking about that white, nervous lightning which for a brief instant shows us our true face, the face that looks up from the darkest solitude to the all-consuming flames of an encounter. There is no chosen land, no chosen hour, for such a state. If books, on rare occasions, can induce such a state, then absence can do so just as well, as can stars, the fear of the approaching day or, already, the shreds of light between the branches of the trees. Beyond, before, any literature. Whatever form the encounter may take, whatever the angel’s face may be made of—stone, flesh, ink, fern—the good news is always the same: the news of our deliverance, of the deliverance within us from those captive forces, those obscure sources. That book I put down yesterday, the one by Maurice Scève, has no other black, chalky matter than this one, entirely designated by these first words:
The blow was great, without sharp blade, that
Maketh, the Body living, the Spirit to sway
To write, on white or gray paper, on bark, on stone. On the fine stone of night. I think of the fossilized animals that are in the earth, the fossilized deer sometimes exhumed, the intricate impression of their bones in the stone. Seized in the movement where they were caught by death. For centuries they have been running. For centuries. Motionless. That might be a fairly faithful image of writing.
There is a pond nearby. Death often makes the rounds of its domains in winter and in high summer alike: I have seen the pond frozen; I have walked out to its very center. I listen to the faraway, erratic, cracking of the thick ice beneath my footsteps. I have also seen it dry, emptied of water, of its strength. I go there often. I look at the lights which escape to the sky, which drift over the water. Dozens of lights, naïve, precious, mad, silvery. A little infinity of light: however great, it cannot match the brilliance of the solar core enclosed in heavy ink, no more than it can approach the intensity—incomparable—of the fire spreading like veins across the closed eyelids of a loved one. There is more clarity in books than in the sky. There is more clarity in the sleep of lovers than in books. The superior power of Love, the power of naked life, elusive, mute, similar to those mentally afflicted children we house and foster and care for, without ever managing to bridge the gap they have created between their world and ours, or to abolish the opaque, magnetized kingdom into which, one day, they disappeared.
The distance between those children and ourselves is also the distance we have all grown accustomed to having between ourselves and our own life. One must not hurry to close that distance. A detour is necessary. However green and fresh life may be at the edge of a pond, in order to reach it we must first reach that part of ourselves which is like water, like air, like the sky.
To be silent: entering into solitude does not imply erecting fences. Far from it, it is an opening onto the only lasting and authentic access we can have to other people, to the otherness that is in us, and in others, like the shadow cast by a star, solar and kindly.
It is in this interval of solitude that strange words may bloom, helpful, kind words, emerging slowly with the slowness of those fragile, brittle lilies that stay for a long time without opening, in a silence of fresh water. It is in this interval that love is played out, although it is not a game; but it is also a game, a tournament of lights, where everything is played out to an extreme, unpredictably and unforeseeably, in the time and space that separate each of us from all our death.
Look at this book. The light it creates in your hands. I am referring here to a material, obvious light: the light of the forests, the trees one cuts down to make the paper, the downpours and rifts of sunlight that cause the trees to grow, the oils and pigments that give the ink a black soul, the daylight coming through the window and which is often astonishing, more so than the night.
As for the words written on these pages: a few blades of grass, freshly cut from the greenness of memory.
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
© Editions Fata Morgana, 1985
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.