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Excerpt from 'The Loop'

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the loop


By JACQUES ROUBAUD

Dalkey Archive Press

Copyright © 1993 Éditions du Seuil
All right reserved.

 

ISBN: 978-1-56478-546-6

 


Contents

Branch Two: The Loop
STORY
Inverse Flower....................................................................11
The Fig Tree......................................................................45
Rue d'Assas.......................................................................78
Wild Park.........................................................................117
Davila Square.....................................................................138
Hôtel Lutetia.....................................................................159
INSERTIONS
interpolations
(from Chapter 1)..................................................................199
(from Chapter 2)..................................................................231
(from Chapter 3)..................................................................255
(from Chapter 4)..................................................................291
(from Chapter 5)..................................................................298
(from Chapter 6)..................................................................312
bifurcations
The Monster of Strasbourg.........................................................349
Fore-life.........................................................................384
On Clouds.........................................................................396
Montée de la Boucle...............................................................431
Childhood of Prose................................................................473
Boulevard Truphème................................................................477
Descriptive Table of Contents.....................................................517
Index of Terms Appearing in the Descriptive Table of Contents.....................545
Translator's Afterword............................................................549

 

Chapter One

Inverse Flower

 

1 During the night, the mist on the window

During the night, the mist on the window had turned to ice. I see that it was still night, six-thirty, seven o'clock; wintertime then, and dark outside; no details, only darkness; the windowpane covered with the patterns of the frozen mist; on the lowest pane, on the left-hand side of the window, at eye level, in the light; this light from an electric bulb, yellow against the intense darkness outside, opaque and wintry, clouded by the mist; not a uniform mist, as when it rains, but an almost transparent frost, forming patterns; a web of translucent patterns, with a certain thickness, the slight thickness of frost, but with variations in this thickness, and, because of these miniscule variations, forming patterns on the glass, like a vegetal network, an entire system of veins, a surface vegetation, a cluster of flat ferns; or a flower.

I scratched a fingernail against this snow, this false snow: neither white nor powdery; not melting but fading, the dirty snow of springtime lingering on the sidewalks under the boxwood trees; or crushed snow, rather: worn down, dusty and colorless, ephemeral; with my fingernail I traced a path on the glass, and the crystallized mist accumulated against my finger, turning to water because of the warmth of my finger, quickly disappearing in tiny rivulets and evaporating into a damp coldness on my numb finger; or else I held my palm flat against the glass, and under its pressure the clump of frost became a sheet of glassy ice, so that the night suddenly showed through, almost watchful in its proximity; all the vegetation of the frozen traces erased, with its imaginary petals, stamens, and corollas; now it was smooth, like glass on glass: the map of my hand, the sensitive network of its lines, left no imprint.

Still using my fingernail, very carefully, I was able to slide these blades of ice over the surface of the glass, toward the bottom, placing them next to one another in polygonal figures, fractured rectangles; the upper half of the windowpane then seemed to be bare for a moment, directly adjacent to the night, contiguous with that still impenetrable mass, blue and somber; but only for a moment, for this space was soon covered in mist: a fine mist, impartial and isolating, the same mist that floated through the air in clouds, born from respiration; at every moment this breath-turned-mist held the nocturnal exterior at bay, and if I rubbed it with my elbow, with my pajama sleeve, it reappeared immediately. From this thicket of images one could deduce that it was cold inside the room as well: not so cold as outside, perhaps, so that the mist could still cling to the window, but cold enough for the air to condense those frozen vocables (I see them) like words escaping from a silent voice.

But this would mean indulging in a superfluous exercise of deduction, since at the very moment of my saying what could be deduced, before saying it, I know it; this memory knows it, and it does not lie. I do not mean that a memory is, or is not, sincere, but only that, like a dog, it cannot lie (no doubt a lie is only an act of saying, an act of speech, turned outward). It really does appear this way, in this image; and every image is undeniable. This memory, my memory, knows that it was so: It was nighttime, and it was winter; it was cold; cold outside and inside the room; I scratched with my fingernail, I let the granito of foggy crystals from the mist accumulate against my nail, I lay my hand against the pane, I pressed against the pane with my face, with my breath. And yet, every line in the story of this memory contains a great many implicit conclusions. And it is precisely here that error, if there is any error, lies in wait for me at every turn: because in memories, in my memories (I am speaking only for myself), there is only seeing. Even touch is "colorless," anesthetized. I have no other adjectives to identify this apprehension of material things by thought alone, without form, without sensuous qualities, as they arise gray and pasty, made of some kind of conceptual clay (according to some of the first theories of memory from Antiquity). In the process of remembering, I do not feel that my finger is cold, nor do I feel the mild and already fading sharpness of the frozen dust scraped under my nail. I know-because it is universal and common knowledge that frost exists and that this mode of the physical existence of water is cold-I know, then, that the night was cold, and therefore know everything that follows from this. And I can recall this knowledge from experience, as one says. But the image that I reconstitute at this moment is numb to this knowledge-it is indifferent.

Writing on glass is like writing on water: regardless of what one tries to inscribe on these surfaces, such writing is always also a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of all things. True, a certain kind of mythifying fiction has sometimes tried to change this metaphor into its opposite, by imagining a message engraved on eternal glaciers, in the deep polar snow, protected on all sides by the uniform whiteness, a kind of immense graffiti-indeed, it would have to be a message of colossal proportions-and preferably in an incomprehensible and therefore immortal language, presenting a truth at once indispensable and indecipherable. And yet, from the moment one first masters the gestures of writing-and probably, for some people, up until their writing hand can move no more-there is a compulsion, a desire mixed with anguish, to write words and signs that can be erased almost immediately: in sand by a wave, in dust by footsteps, in pencil by an eraser; or else by water, rain, time, or tears smudging the ink.

It was winter, most likely a wartime winter: 1938-1939, at the earliest, 1944-1945 at the latest. I couldn't have been in that room before the first date, or after the second. Since the mist had frozen, it must have been towards morning. A very cold night, which was a rare phenomenon. It doesn't freeze much in the Aude region. I try to think of a very cold winter from this period: 1940? 1942? There was at least one very cold winter during the war. It was bad enough to have stuck in everyone's memory for a long time, including my own, and was all the more memorable because people didn't heat their houses then, or at least we didn't. Our bedroom was unheated. If this image is correct, and pure, if it's not distorted or mixed with others through resemblance, confusion, or mere repetition, if it is indeed the lower pane of the window that I see, then it must be the earliest, the first possible winter. But as soon as one breathes on any image, any memory, it too becomes covered with mist, and reveals itself to be thoroughly webbed with imprecision. Around it is the past, which, like the dark night of that winter, is impenetrable.

To the left of the window, I see my bed: is this another image, another moment, or the same one? I don't know. I feel the cube of the room around me, the bed in the corner, square against two walls, lengthwise in relation to me, behind my head; a little farther, the door opens, is open (this sense of what is "around" me is part of a retrospective vision, which, like light, is sometimes able to "turn corners"). Of certain bedrooms, certain beds, I can evoke only a single image that always remains the same, and everything that isn't part of this image remains hermetically sealed to me. But of this old room I have a multiple but unified vision, assembled like a collage, through the superimposition and then the fusion of numerous separate images that have since become inseparable: beginning from a particular point, the one from which "this" is seen-a central point, at the "top" of the bed, almost in the very corner of the room. (Seen from above, the bed has a "top" and a "bottom," as if while lying on it I imagined myself as vertical-the "point" of my vision being at the top left corner of the "page," where one writes the return address on a letter.) No colors, no, there are no colors. To see all the other images I recall from this same place gathered together in the same way-the fingernail on the frost-covered window, the nighttime windowpanes, what the daylight will make visible through the window-all this presupposes a viewer with multiple eyes, innumerable hands. He who remembers is at once Argos, the giant with a hundred eyes, and an octopus, a creature with a hundred arms.

In the cold of the room, my bed was divided into different regions, warm and cold; the intense cold bordered sharply on the warmth; it nipped at my ears, my nose. Here, then, is something truly "inevitable": the banality of temperature. In the evening, one conquered as many territories held by the cold as possible, waging battles analogous to a Russian campaign, which provided a strategic model for this game of conquest, renewed night after night (I am speaking not of the disastrous Napoleonic campaign, but of the one that was unfolding contemporaneously, at the time I am recalling, in the immense bed of the Ukraine, news of which was relayed to us every evening on the London radio broadcasts, filled with details of the "Allied" victories, and then confirmed after a delay when the broadcast from occupied Paris announced new "elastic retreats" on the part of the Germans). The Siberian regions of the three edges, bounded by the vertical sides of the mattress and the covers that were tucked in well underneath it, always remained impervious to comfort; but in the morning, the diffuse warmth of my sleeping body had beaten back these pockets of resistance, this Stalingrad and its armies of ice.

There were two other beds in that room, I see them; on the other side of the window, my sister Denise's; and at the far end of the room (still looking out from that same point), to the left of the door, my brother Pierre's; seen from the door, however, this layout, which was of parental origin (I mean it was determined by our parents), organized the space of the bedroom according to the age of its occupants (that is, if one imagines this space as unfolding along the natural movement of one's sight, as I am in the habit of doing, and as if the flat surface of the world, not only that of my bed, had become vertical, like a page: read from left to right, and from top to bottom). It seems to me that the Spartan light did indeed come from a naked bulb on the ceiling; everything else has disappeared, more or less.

 

2 Like the world of the skeptic

Like the world of the skeptic, as conceived by Russell, the universe, already containing an image of the past, has just come into being; and, containing this image, it will just as quickly cease to be-that is, almost instantaneously. The image of the past that we call a memory has no duration (and, in fact, every image is of the past). It comes into the world, it becomes a world, and without a caption, without instructions for use, without explanations. It implies a great deal, but offers no guarantees, no justification of its existence. As soon as one lingers over it for a moment, rather than accepting it without hesitation-as though it told the truth about the past, as though it brought with it a knowledge of the past upon which we could found reasonable beliefs-as soon as one begins to inquire into this curious non-duration of individual memories, one cannot help but be seized by doubt.

And yet certainty too (which, given the above, I can hardly claim is founded on any reasonable precepts) is always there: I enter this bedroom, in the present, after almost a half a century of separation, and facing the window, facing the frozen night, I am enveloped in exactly that way of seeing, exactly this gaze. I see, intensely see, the glassy path emerge, squeaking under my nail, and the tiny pellets of colorless ice accumulate on my fingertip. The intensity, the physical proximity of the world are two of the essential features of this memory: this night is so close to my gaze that it can only be real, can only show something real, can only have been so.

But how is it that I can inhabit this same gaze now, in which the window is high, the bed is vast, viewing a piece of the world with a much older scale of vision? It's a miracle that would leave me incredulous if I weren't in the habit of experiencing it every day, without question-like everyone else, no doubt. I inhabit-and I say "I" meaning "me, here and now," meaning "me in the present"-I invade the center of sight, that place within a body where images are formed (the "imaginary center of the self," the point in relation to which the one who is seeing situates the world, and his vision: I assert nothing more than this; nothing in particular concerning any physical basis for the images or their possible localization in the brain; I leave these suppositions to the peremptory "cognitivists"), and this body is that of a being who disappeared a half-century ago. One cannot see oneself, says common sense. I would add that not only can one not see oneself outside of oneself now, in the present, but also that one cannot see oneself in the past. It is also said that one cannot both "be and have been," simultaneously. I would say, rather, that at no moment can one not be-that is, one can never have internal proof "of having been." What continues today, in me, of that room, of that night, is not "me," but a world.

From these reflections, which express a skepticism that is after all quite moderate (although perhaps oriented in an unusual direction), I can derive an explanation for the feeling of annoyance that's always taken hold of me when reading "childhood memories," independent of their effectiveness as stories, descriptions, or political or moral convictions; particularly by those who attempt, naively (I believe), and sincerely (I hope), to reduce or even to efface and annul the distance between the present "self" of the narrator and his or her hypothetical former "self," his or her childhood "person." I'm repulsed by phrases like "I thought that ..." or "I believed that ..." when they are presented as immediate certainties rather than indirect deductions based on other considerations (written documents, letters, a "journal," for example, which constitute physical evidence observable in the present). To be sure, the closer we approach the moment of our birth, going backward in time (and certainly if one goes as far back as the end of our second year, the end of everyone's true "primary school"), these attempts at reconstruction are, at the very least, rather implausible (or so they seem to me). (Most of us, however, aspiring to immortality in both directions, make a touchingly obstinate effort to locate the moment of our "first memory" as close to birth as possible.)

But my incredulity goes much further, and is much more radical. Coleridge's famous "willing suspension of disbelief" asks the reader (I limit myself here to the reader) to interrupt, momentarily and voluntarily, a skepticism that is quite natural given the impossibility of believing that anything recounted in fiction is true. I interpret the formula thus: as a slight twisting and an implicit particularization of the ancient axiom, it too of a skeptical nature, of a "suspension of judgment," and therefore as demanding the "suspension of a judgment (however inevitable) of impossibility." One generally applies it only to the novel, but in fact it seems to me that it must be invoked even more forcefully in the context of an autobiographical narrative; which I would place, on a scale of implausibility, at least at the same level as the historical novel, and almost as high as "science fiction." As for me, it is practically impossible to achieve this degree of willing suspension.

And again I must insist: what I just wrote aspires to no physiological, neurological, psychological, cognitive, or philosophical relevance. Why not? Because what is offered here for you to read is nothing other than a story: the beginning of what I call a branch (the second) of a work of prose (being the second, it naturally follows the first, which like this branch is of a certain length (but at the same time it's not necessary to have read the first in order to approach the second, nor the ones that follow, should there be any)), a prose work that I qualify as a story, since I haven't found a better, more particular generic term that expresses my intentions. The things said in it are said in the present moment of telling a story, as the storytelling itself moves forward, and said in the form in which they've presented themselves to be recounted by me, inscribed line by line now in "12-point New York" on my computer screen. These things can't be detached from the story that contains them, and therefore they can in no way claim any status as truths-not even the truth of a "possible monad on the shelf of essence" (Leibniz).

(Continues...)

 


Excerpted from the loop by JACQUES ROUBAUD Copyright © 1993 by Éditions du Seuil . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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