“a terrible sexual craving squeezed my pubis like a claw”

Chapter 2, part 1 of 3

A physician was consulted about my spells and he pronounced a strange word: “paludism;” I was amazed that something so intimate and secret as my disquietude could have a name, and what’s more, a name so bizarre.  The doctor had prescribed quinine: another cause for amazement.  I found it impossible to understand how the sick spaces, themselves, could have been cured with the quinine that I took.  What disturbed me exceedingly, however, was the physician himself.  Long after the consultation he continued to exist and to stir in my memory with little automatic gestures whose inexhaustible mechanism I couldn’t shut off.

He was a man of small stature with an egg-shaped head.  The pointed end of the egg was elongated by a little black beard that was forever agitated.  His small and velvety eyes, curt gestures and protruding mouth made him resemble a mouse.  This impression was so powerful from the first moment that it seemed completely natural when I heard him prolonging each “r”  sonorously when he began to speak, as if he were continuously munching on something hidden.

The quinine that he gave me also strengthened the conviction that the physician had something mouse-like about him.  The verification of this conviction was made in such a strange way and is related to such important facts of my childhood that a part of the events is worth the telling.

Near our house there was a sewing machine store where I would go every day for hours.  Its owner was a young man, Eugen, who had just finished his military service and had found himself a place in town by opening the shop.  He had a sister who was a year younger than him: Clara.  They lived together in some workingclass neighborhood and looked after the shop during the day; they had neither acquaintances nor relatives.

The shop was a simple private room rented commercially for the first time.

The walls still kept their parlor paint with violet garlands of lilac, and there were discolored rectangular patches where the pictures had hung.  In the middle of the ceiling a bronze lamp had been left, with a dark red majolica cap, covered at the edges with green acanthus leaves set off in faience.  It was an object full of ornamentation, old and obsolete, yet imposing — something that resembled a funeral monument or a veteran general on parade wearing his old uniform.

The sewing machines were lined up smartly in three rows leaving two wide aisles to the back.  Eugen took care to sprinkle the floor every morning using an old can with a hole at the bottom.  The spray of water that flowed out was very thin and Eugen maneuvered it dexterously sketching spirals and masterly figure eights on the floor.  Sometimes he signed his name and wrote the date.  The wall painting called for such delicacy.

At the back of the store a screen made of boards separated a kind of cabin from the rest of the shop; a green curtain covered the entrance.  Eugen and Clara stayed there all the time; they even ate lunch there so they wouldn’t have to leave the shop.  They named it “the actors’ dressing room” and I heard Eugen saying one day: “It’s a true `actors’ dressing room.’  When I go into the shop and talk for half an hour trying to sell a sewing machine, am I not acting in a comedy?”

And then he added in a more learned voice: “Life, in general, is pure theater.”

Behind the curtain Eugen played the violin.  He kept the music on the table and sat bent over them, patiently deciphering the tangled staves as if he were disentangling a ball of string with numerous knots in it in order to pull forth a unique and delicate thread, the thread of music. All afternoon a small gas lamp burned on a chest filling the room with a morose light and distorting an enormous shadow of the violinist on the walls.

I came so often that in time I became a kind of furniture-guest, an extension of the old cerecloth couch on which I sat immobile, a thing that no one bothered about and that bothered no one.

At the back of the “dressing room” Clara would perform her afternoon toilette.  She kept her dresses in a cabinet and looked at herself in a cracked mirror that was propped against a lamp on the chest.  It was such an old mirror that the gilding had faded completely in places, and the real objects behind the mirror appeared through the transparent patches, commingling with the reflected image, like a photograph with superimposed negatives.

Sometimes she undressed almost completely and rubbed some eau de Cologne under her arms, raising them without embarrassment, or on the bosom—putting a hand inside her chemise.  The chemise was short and when she leaned over I could see all of her beautiful legs encased in tight stockings. On the whole she resembled a half-naked woman that I had seen once on a pornographic postcard that a pretzel seller had shown me in the park.

It provoked the same indistinct swoon as had the obscene picture, a kind of void that formed in my chest, while at the same time a terrible sexual craving squeezed my pubis like a claw.

I always stayed in the same place in the “dressing room,”  on the couch behind Eugen and waited for Clara to finish her toilette.  Then she would go out into the store, passing between her brother and me through a space so narrow that she had to rub her thighs against my knees.

I waited for this moment every day with the same impatience and the same agony.  It depended on a mass of trivial circumstances which I weighed and watched for with an exasperating and extraordinarily acute sensibility.  It was enough for Eugen to be thirsty, not to feel like playing or for a customer to come into the shop for him to leave his place by the table, which would mean that there would be enough space for Clara to pass without brushing against me . . .

When I went there in the afternoon and neared the door to the store, long vibrating antennae came out of me and explored the air to catch the sound of the violin; if I heard Eugen playing, a great calm would come over me.  I went in as quietly as possible and at the doorway I would even announce myself so he wouldn’t think a customer had come and interrupt his playing for a second: it was possible that in that second, the inertia and the mirage of the melody would stop abruptly and that Eugen would abandon the violin and not play at all the rest of the afternoon.  That wasn’t the end of the possibility of unfavorable events.  There were still so many things that passed in the dressing room . . .  While Clara performed her toilette, I listened for the smallest sounds and followed the smallest movements for fear that somehow from those would issue the disaster of the afternoon.  It was possible, for instance, for Eugen to cough lightly, to swallow a little saliva and to say suddenly that he was thirsty and that he was going to the cafe to get a pastry; from the infinitely trivial cause as this cough, a lost afternoon resulted, monstrous and enormous.  The whole day would lose its importance and at night in bed, instead of ruminating at leisure (and stopping a few minutes on each detail in order to “see” and remember better) about the moment when my knees touched Clara’s stockings—to dig out, to carve and to caress this thought—I would toss and turn feverishly under the sheets, unable to sleep, waiting impatiently for the next day.


“There was in all this a kind of melancholy of existing…”

Chapter 1, part 3 of 3

Outside of these two cursed places, the rest of the town dissolved into a uniform mass of banality, with interchangeable houses, with trees that were exasperatingly immobile, with dogs, vacant lots and dust. The spells occurred more readily and more often in enclosed spaces.  Usually I could not bear being alone in an unfamiliar room.  If I had to wait there, the swoon would overcome me within a few moments, suave and terrible.  The room itself prepared for it: a warm and hospitable intimacy would filter through the walls, trickling over all the furniture and over all the objects.  All of a sudden the room would become sublime and I would feel very happy in its space.  But this was no more than a trick of the spell, its fine and delicate perversity.  In the next moment of my beatitude, all was overturned and confounded.  I would stare wide-eyed at everything around me, but the objects had lost their usual significance: they were bathed in a new existence.

As if they had suddenly been unwrapped from the thin and transparent paper in which they had been enveloped until then, their aspect became ineffably new.  They appeared destined for new, superior and fantastic uses that I would have strived to discover in vain.

But not only that: the objects were thrown into a veritable frenzy of freedom.  They became independent of one another, but it was an independence that meant not only their simple isolation but also an ecstatic exaltation. The enthusiasm to exist in a new aura overcame me also: powerful attachments connected me to the objects, through invisible anostomoses that turned me into an object in the room like the others, in the same way in which an organ grafted onto live flesh, through subtle exchanges of substances, integrates itself into the foreign body.  Once, during one of my spells, the sun had cast a small cascade of rays on the walls, like irreal gold water, marbled with luminous waves. I saw the corner of a bookcase with thick volumes bound in leather behind glass, and these real details that I perceived from the distance of my swoon ended by intoxicating me and knocking me out like the last inhalation of chloroform.  What was most common and familiar in those objects disturbed me most.  The habit of scrutinizing them so many times had probably ended by wearing away the exterior skin, and so sometimes they appeared to me flayed to the point of bleeding: alive, indescribably alive.

The supreme moment of the spell was consumed floating outside of any world in a way that was at once pleasant and painful.  At the sound of footsteps, the room quickly returned to its old aspect.  Then there would commence a decline within the four walls, an extremely slight, almost imperceptible diminution of its exaltation; this convinced me that the certainty in which I lived was separated from the world of uncertainties by the thinnest of membranes. I would find myself in the room that I knew so well, sweating, exhausted and full of the sensation of the uselessness of the things around me.  I would observe new particularities in them, as happens when we discover some fresh detail in an object that we have used every day for years.

The room vaguely retained the memory of the catastrophe like the sulfurous smell of a place where an explosion had occurred.  I saw the bound books in the glass cabinets and in their immobility I noticed, for some reason, a perfidious air of concealment and complicity.  The objects around me never gave up their secretive attitude, ferociously maintained in their severe immobility.

Ordinary words are not valid at certain spiritual depths.  I’m trying to define my spells exactly but only find images.  The magic word that could express them would have to borrow something from the essence of other sensibilities in life, distilling itself from them like a new scent from a masterly concoction of perfumes.

For the word to exist, it should contain something of the stupefaction that grips me when I see a person in reality and then follow their gestures in a mirror, plus something of the disequilibrium of falling in dreams with the whistling fear that runs down the spine in an unforgettable instant; or something of the fog and transparency inhabited by bizarre scenes in crystal balls.

I envied the people around me, hermetically sealed in their clothes and isolated from the tyranny of objects.  They lived as prisoners under jackets and overcoats but nothing from the outside could terrorize and defeat them, nothing penetrated their wonderful prisons.  Between the world and me there was no separation.  Everything that surrounded me invaded me from head to toe as if my skin had been a sieve.  My attentiveness—distracted at that—to the things that surrounded me, was not a simple act of will.  The world naturally stretched all its tentacles toward me; I was crisscrossed by the thousand arms of the hydra.  In exasperation I was forced to observe that I was living in the world that I saw.  There was nothing more to be done about it.

The spells belonged to me and to the places where they occurred in the same measure.  It’s true that some of these places contained a malevolence of their own, but all the others were found in a trance themselves much before my coming.  So it was for instance with some rooms, where I felt my spells crystallizing from the melancholy of immobility and boundless solitude found there.

As a kind of equity, however, between me and the world (an equity which immersed me still more irremediably in the uniformity of raw matter) the conviction that objects could be innocuous became equal with the terror that they sometimes inspired in me.  Their innocuousness came from a universal lack of force.

I sensed vaguely that nothing in this world could reach the end, nothing could complete itself.  The ferocity of objects also became exhausted.  Thus the idea was born in me of the imperfection of any manifestation in this world, even the supernatural ones.

In a never-ending interior dialogue I would sometimes defy the maleficent powers around me, and at other times fawn upon them basely.  I practiced some weird rituals, though they were not without meaning.  If I left the house and went on different roads, I would always retrace my steps coming back home; I did this so as not to describe a circle with my path in which houses and trees would remain enclosed. In this regard my walk resembled a thread and if, once unwound, it had not been rewound, along the same road, the objects collected in the knots of the walk would have forever remained irremediably and profoundly bound to me.  If I avoided touching the stones in the path of the water when it rained, I did this so as not to add anything to the action of water and not to intervene in the exercise of its elemental powers.

Fire purified all.  I always had a box of matches in my pocket.  Whenever I was very sad I would light a match and pass my hand through the flame, first one, then the other.

There was in all this a kind of melancholy of existing and a kind of organized torment that was normal within the limits of my life as a child.

In time the spells disappeared on their own, though not without leaving behind their powerful memory, forever.  When I entered adolescence I no longer had these spells, but in a way, that crepuscular state that preceded them and the profound feeling of the uselessness of the world that followed became my natural state.

The uselessness filled the hollows of the world like a liquid that had spread out in all directions, and the sky above me, the eternally correct sky, absurd and indefinite, took on the characteristic color of despair.

To this day I go about in this uselessness that surrounds me and under this eternally cursed sky.