Early in the morning, every day, for years, he has been drinking beer. He gulps it down. The liquid foams in the amber bottle. Foam escapes around his mouth. He drinks standing. Every evening he is there at the end of the street, at the west end of the cemetery at about the same time, between seven and eight. He sips, he sucks. It’s “the milk of old age.” He bloats, he burps, he pisses, he staggers on the sidewalk once he starts walking again, his mouth screwed to the bottle. Stupefied. Some people are fascinated by the complexity of organizations that weave inextricable networks around the men who work in them. The workers then demonstrate aberrant behavior. I’m looking at a smooth leg, a triangle of flesh and bone, the bulge of a thigh, the heavy curve of a calf and the blue sky like a paper cutout. At this moment that is all there is: the distinct image of lines, the perception of colors, the bent leg of a nude woman by the seashore. He gulps his beer. He sucks his stupor, he bloats up.
Early in the morning, very early, St. Francis delivers meat. He gets out of his refrigerator truck, his head and back bent over under an enormous side of beef. His jacket forms a hood. It is splotched with blood. St. Francis dreaming, his body laden down with the cold cadaver of an animal. He is dreaming of his holiness, of his infinite love of creatures. He smiles, his eyes in emptiness. He is in this magnificent state of acceptance because he knows himself to be meat, only meat. There is no other access to the soul. St. Francis shows his tender bestiality. He’s a gentle one.
Almost every evening one of these operatic heroines dies a virgin amid impressive vocal orgasms. Sometimes, I think, their sex is in their mouths. Now I look at the double edge of long lips, the hair. The bright pink, forever moist, pearly aspect of the place. Then the black slit that opens slowly like an amorous clam with the soft, irregular edges of confusion made flesh. A cloudy angelic music, a distant murmur. She speaks with pleasure of typewriters. She speaks precisely, as a professional, raising the cover with an expert hand. She inspects, she tries it out, she talks of the alphanumeric keystroking, of memory, of electronic retrieval, of text-processing. He drinks his beer at the west end of the cemetery. In winter he’s a black silhouette, a cutout beneath the yellow of the lamplight. He’s cold, he totters, he stops and takes a swig. The foam drips down his coat.
For five days the observation of stupidity in its pure state, so thick, so dense. Each time this man opens his mouth to say something, a masochism of the mind, makes me think of a delirium. For years he’s lived with the electronic machines he takes apart and repairs. His strange eyes are protected by enormous glasses. The opacity of a gaze behind concentric transparencies. The man has something of a fat bird about him—stupid, waddling all by himself in the midst of people’s laughter, sarcasms, sadness, and anger, and at last, their exasperation and frustration in attempting to communicate with him. It’s a scenario that gets under my skin.
Close-up of the leather of a shoe: patina and fine wrinkles, a few tiny spots on the shiny amber. The stitching of the soles. The folds and the marks of the leather. The crack of a whip. Look away and face the landscape to find the gist of this—an exercise in purification. Close-up, a wall of round stones recedes toward the glow. Then there are the banks, the black line of trees, the round stones of the wall, of all the walls that separate the fields, that give rhythm to the flatness and articulate it with full stops. Further on, to the left, another wall below the shimmering of the sea, black, pierced by the fire of the evening. It is evening now. Everything is scintillation, light, pinpricks, vibrations. It often happens with this intensity. That I am next to her, naked. She is white, absolutely white. Sometimes she undresses herself in the light and becomes transparent, her milky white opacity transmuting to a vibrant limpidity. The dead are out there, lying in the night, on the other side of the trees and the black stone wall. The vaults, the tombs, the slabs, facing me, as precisely arranged as cars in a parking lot. The dead are there, in force, while I struggle for my gist, my way of putting them in words. Each to his own drug. In summertime he’s still at that western corner of the cemetery, back-lit against the blaze of sunset looming over the housetops, a silhouette devoured by the light, going up in flames. His ugly mug is dazzling then, seen through the bottle’s amber and the foam slopping down his neck onto his shirt. He drinks standing up, propped against a lime tree on the street.
All that to get to the point concerning opacity and transparency, the qualities of blocking light or letting it through. Sometimes I come very close, with a disturbing clarity, when in company; sometimes I am alone, remote, back in my opaque individual state. Anguish is there the moment this thought takes shape. I am homesick for the society of others and I feel the pain of knowing myself to be close and at the same instant irreducibly alone. To live between these two states. Heart and affection. I’m thinking of a death surrounded by loved ones, of someone who will walk me out to the edge holding my hand. Tenderness would be the last experience.
I stay there for hours, looking. To my right, a steep wooded slope rises to the sky, almost perpendicularly. To my left, on the other hand, there’s a gentle slope, a prairie behind the trembling aspens, from the dark line of the bushes to the edge of the pine woods, between the grass and the high wall of the trees. In the middle, in front of me, shaded at its banks, spreads the river, burning in the afternoon’s fire. It makes a wide curve. In the background, the sky. I touch lightly with my index finger. One has to perceive and feel pleasure in the smallest details to go any further. Judith stiffens in a grimace of orgasm. She is caught in Klimt’s lethal jewelry. Judith, number one: 1901. Her gaze is clouded because one eye is open and shiny while the other is matte, half-dosed. The teeth glisten behind the smile. The skin is bare to the crotch with constellations of glitter like the river under the old metal bridge, and in the lower right hand corner, Holophernes’s head, the black severed head that makes her come. A woman comments on the painting in front of a group of tourists. Her right arm made a pantomime of hitting herself low in the body. “He touches our unconscious! He touches our unconscious!” surely meaning to say, “He touches my pussy!” Salome singing in the red-hot afternoon, wanting Johanan’s head. He sucks on his bottle at the west end of the cemetery. Her hips stir, she slips the at-last-severed head between her spreading thighs. She puts the dead man’s mouth to her cunt, she gasps violently, her face thrown back. Salome, broken.
At this instant—this break—he kills her because she has become unbearable, definitely “opaque” when she comes. So he kills her. The opacity of the foam and the golden transparency of the bottle and the liquid light sparkling honey. Maybe he gets off on the color too, standing there at the west end of the cemetery. Maybe he is dreaming of another world, another mode of existence. He is looking at the street the cars the sprawling body of Salome, the play of light through the splendors of the amber. He is imagining his happiness. He holds it, he sees it. He sucks slowly. The beer fills his mouth and foams. He sees the milky froth, the amber of the glass, the honey of the beer and the minuscule bubbles and the sky and the billboards and the windows, like a golden suit of armor studded with gemstones and enamel. He kills her, he makes her die in beauty, this woman who squeezes him too tight and holds him too close. He has his experience of transparency and opacity. Like St. Francis, in his infinite love of creatures, he is coming back from hell. On his back he has the heavy, round, nacreous threat of meat. He is happy and smiling. He no longer needs to be on his guard. He doesn’t turn around. I know what divides me from people. Inextricable networks: people’s behavior is imposed on them. I observe them from out of the corners of my eyes.
Wittgenstein, Remarks on Color: "The question is: Of what sort should a visual image be, if we have to call it the image of a transparent and colored medium? Again: What aspect should something have in order to appear colored and transparent? This is not a question of physics, but it is linked to questions in physics . . . "
I stay there for hours, gazing at the city. Like other capitals, it’s a “city in the sea,” dead and silent, congealed in its madness, a bearer of dead people and old desires, of shapes and thoughts that serve, keeping the memory green. City I walk in. “What makes up this image, that we call the image of a colored transparent medium?” Night takes the shape of a great city, a deep blue that the lights in the windows and the streetlights of the avenues bring alive. One guesses at alignments, perspectives, masses, heights, streaks of yellow headlights, red traffic lights, blazing thoroughfares. It all becomes transparent.
She tells him he’s strange, you’d think he was eating something. He answers that he’s got nothing in his mouth. He tells a vague story. They laugh. Her body is opaque and of a heavy whiteness, a bit soft, a bit threatening; in contrast, her thoughts are crystal-clear. The night air is limpid blue. He sucks white foamy stupor straight from the bottle.
Objects: music box, cowboy on a gold-painted horse with jointed legs, a red and green cast-lead clown, then a wooden hand with a rod-like fossil curled up in its palm, then, above the hand, a little mannequin, a brilliant shape suspended in mid-air, in mid-flight, its arms outspread, then back to the varnished surface of the table with a black-handled magnifying glass, an object of metal and of a glass with concentric transparencies. There, beneath the lamp, next to the matte-colored machine with the alphanumeric keyboard, and an electronic “delete” feature for erasures, there is the representation of a decorated casket, poised on planks above an open grave, in an immense empty landscape. The shovels are abandoned. The gravediggers are gone. A birch, whose branches hold three wreathes, a cross, and a marine anchor of pearls and flowers, is faintly outlined against the sky. Around it, the infinite plain. And standing in the twilight at the west end of the cemetery, he sucks the beer dribbling and frothing at the corners of his mouth. He sucks, pisses, shits, sucks, pisses, etc. The delicacy of certain seashells, the transparent and the opaque sometimes melt into one another. When that happens, the word for it is translucidity. Painters love this mystery. Sometimes in a certain light the leaves of trees crumble in translucid clusters above their dazzling trunks. I hear people incessantly speaking a denatured language, abstract and grey, a technical language. I would like to get reeducated.
St. Francis, Judith and Salome, the sucker of stupor, Wittgenstein, Klimt, her naked, and me in cities and in countrysides, all the memories and all the references quickly conjured up, but which I don’t want to use here. I am thinking of the whirls of milky vapor ripped from the asphalt of New York on rainy nights. Death in the streets all the time, the kids are dying, it’s part of daily life and the news is there. In the past, peasants controlled their world and could act upon their space. Obvious consequences: depression. Starting with drugs, happily that portion of the dream that extends to every instant of the day, that floating, those rites of passage that softly threaten the order of things, that daubing of material, specifically paint on the appropriate surfaces—it all threatens Order but doesn’t allow anyone to determine their own fate. We are in the golden age of Melancholy. I’d like to do its anatomy.
So there is this fear we have of approaching death. This fear which makes us react, like sensitive beings, early on in life, which plunges us into Time one day with a state of consciousness, with anxiety. We don’t change anything, we go along carrying the old, old memory of childhood, and now we shoot flashbulbs straight at eyes wide open with terror, or into blind stares. We know nothing of our birth and nothing of our death. There is no opacity more disturbing than this. We can’t know anything about it. What’s left is meat: a little package of damp flesh, oozing with blood, screaming with pain, hurled into space and time, lungs ripped by air, ripped out by the roots, torn, pulled out of a warm uterus, floating in there for nine months, germinating, getting bigger and more complex and differentiated in total peace, transparent and in a sort of dark transparency with the pregnant mother. Transparency lays bare the heart of darkness. At the west end of the cemetery, he sucks his beer from the amber bottle, the beer foams in his mouth, he swallows painfully. Like a big pink shrimp, the foetus swims, it is transparent. The organs are outlined like shadows behind the skin, the bones are soft, faintly delineated by gentle contours. What remains is this state about which we know nothing.
Translated from the French by Georgia Marsh and David Rattray.
—Jacques Teboul has published seven novels with Seuil, among them, Vermeer, Holderlien, Les trous de la viand, and Le vol des oiseaux. He lives and works in Paris.