Just a moment before the gong went off I jumped out of bed and, locking the door behind me, I bolted downstairs to the courtyard. There I got lost. One quadrangle after another, one staircase after another. I wandered in and out of the buildings searching frantically for the refectory. Passed a long line of youngsters marching in a column to God knows where; they moved along like a chain gang, with a slave driver at the head of the column. Finally I saw an energetic looking individual, with a derby, heading toward me. I stopped him to ask the way to the refectory. Happened I stopped the right man. It was M. le Proviseur, and he seemed delighted to have stumbled on me. Wanted to know right away if I were comfortably settled, if there was anything more he could do for me. I told him everything was O.K. Only it was a bit chilly, I ventured to add. He assured me that it was rather unusual, this weather. Now and then the fogs came on and a bit of snow, and then it became unpleasant for a while, and so on and so forth. All the while he had me by the arm, guiding me toward the refectory.
He seemed like a very decent chap. A regular guy, I thought to myself. I even went so far as to imagine that I might get chummy with him later on, that he'd invite me to his room on a bitter cold night and make a hot grog for me. I imagined all sorts of friendly things in the few moments it required to reach the door of the refectory. Here, my mind racing on at a mile a minute. he suddenly shook hands with me and, doffing his hat, bade me good night. I was so bewildered that I tipped my hat also. It was the regular thing to do, I soon found out. Whenever you pass a prof, or even M. l'Econome, you doff the hat. Might pass the same guy a dozen times a day. Makes no difference. You've got to give the salute, even though your hat is worn out. It's the polite thing to do.
Anyway, I had found the refectory. Like an East Side clinic it was, with tiled walls, bare light, and marble-topped tables. And of course a big stove with an elbow pipe. The dinner wasn't served yet. A cripple was running in and out with dishes and knives and forks and bottles of wine. In a corner several young men conversing animatedly. I went up to them and introduced myself. They gave me a most cordial reception. Almost too cordial, in fact. I couldn't quite make it out. In a jiffy the room began to fill up; I was presented from one to the other quickly. Then they formed a circle about me and, filling the glasses, they began to sing…
L'autre soir l'idée m'est venue
Cré nom de Zeus d'enculer un pendu;
Le vent se lève sur la potence,
Voilà mon pendu qui se balance,
J'ai dû l'enculer en sautant,
Cré nom de Zeus, on est jamais content.
Baiser dans un con trop petit,
Cré nom de Zeus, on s'écorche le vit;
Baiser dans un con trop large,
On ne sait pas où l'on décharge;
Se branler étant bien emmerdant,
Cré nom de Zeus, on est jamais content.
With this, Quasimodo announced the dinner.
They were a cheerful group, les surveillants. There was Kroa who belched like a pig and always let off a loud fart when he sat down to table. He could fart thirteen times in succession, they informed me. He held the record. Then there was Monsieur le Prince, an athlete who was fond of wearing a tuxedo in the evening when he went to town; he had a beautiful complexion, just like a girl, and never touched the wine nor read anything that might tax his brain. Next to him sat Petit Paul, from the Midi, who thought of nothing but cunt all the time; he used to say every day – "à partir de jeudi je ne parlerai plus de femmes." He and Monsieur le Prince were inseparable. Then there was Passeleau, a veritable young scallywag who was studying medicine and who borrowed right and left; he talked incessantly of Ronsard, Villon and Rabelais. Opposite me sat Mollesse, agitator and organizer of the pions, who insisted on weighing the meat to see if it wasn't short a few grams. He occupied a little room in the infirmary. His supreme enemy was Monsieur l'Econome, which was nothing particularly to his credit since everybody hated this individual. For companion Mollesse had one called Le Pénible, a dour-looking chap with a hawklike profile who practised the strictest economy and acted as moneylender. He was like an engraving by Albrecht Dürer – a composite of all the dour, sour, morose, bitter, unfortunate, unlucky and introspective devils who compose the pantheon of Germany's medieval knights. A Jew, no doubt. At any rate, he was killed in an automobile accident shortly after my arrival, a circumstance which left me twenty three francs to the good. With the exception of Renaud who sat beside me, the others have faded out of my memory; they belonged to that category of colorless individuals who make up the world of engineers, architects, dentists, pharmacists, teachers, etc. There was nothing to distinguish them from the clods whom they would later wipe their boots on. They were zeros in every sense of the word, ciphers who form the nucleus of a respectable and lamentable citizenry. They ate with their heads down and were always the first to clamor for a second helping. They slept soundly and never complained; they were neither gay nor miserable. The indifferent ones whom Dante consigned to the vestibule of Hell. The upper crusters.
It was the custom after dinner to go immediately to town, unless one was on duty in the dormitories. In the center of town were the cafés – huge, dreary halls where the somnolent merchants of Dijon gathered to play cards and listen to the music. It was warm in the cafés, that is the best I can say of them. The seats were fairly comfortable, too. And there were always a few whores about who, for a glass of beer or a cup of coffee, would sit and chew the fat with you. The music, on the other hand, was atrocious. Such music! On a winter's night, in a dirty hole like Dijon, nothing can be more harassing, more nerv-racking, than the sound of a French orchestra. Particularly one of those lugubrious female orchestras with everything coming in squeaks and farts, with a dry, algebraic rhythm and the hygienic consistency of toothpaste. A wheezing and scraping performed at so many francs the hour – and the devil take the hindmost! The melancholy of it! As if old Euclid had stood up on his hind legs and swallowed prussic acid. The whole realm of Idea so thoroughly exploited by the reason that there is nothing left of which to make music except the empty slats of the accordion, through which the wind whistles and tears the ether to tatters. However, to speak of music in connection with this putpost is like dreaming of champagne when you are in the death cell. Music was the least of my worries. I didn't even think of cunt, so dismal, so chill, so barren, so gray was it all. On the way home the first night I noticed on the door of a café an inscription from the Gargantua. Inside the café it was like a morgue. However, forward!
I had plenty of time on my hands and not a sou to spend. Two or three hours of conversational lessons a day, and that was all. And what use was it, teaching these poor bastards English?
I felt sorry as hell for them. All morning plugging away on John Gilpin's Ride, and in the afternoon coming to me to practise a dead language. I thought of the good time I had wasted reading Virgil or wading through such incomprehensible nonsense as Hermann and Dorothea. The insanity of it! Learning, the empty breadbasket!
I thought of Carl who can recite Faust backwards, who never writes a book without praising the shit out of his immortal, incorruptible Goethe. And yet he hadn't sense enough to take on a rich cunt and get himself a change of underwear. There's something obscene in this love of the past which ends in breadlines and dugouts. Something obscene about this spiritual racket which permits an idiot to sprinkle holy water over Big Berthas and dreadnoughts and high explosives. Every man with a bellyful of the classics is an enemy to the human race.
Here was I, supposedly to spread the gospel of Franco-American amity – the emissary of a corpse who, after he had plundered right and left, after he had caused untold suffering and misery, dreamed of establishing universal peace. Pfui!
What did they expect me to talk about, I wonder? About Leaves of Grass, about the tariff walls, about the Declaration of Independence, about the latest gang war? What? Just what, I'd like to know. Well, I'll tell you – I never mentioned these things. I started right off the bat with a lesson in the psysiology of love.
How the elephants make love – that was it! It caught like wildfire. After the first day there were no more empty benches. After that first lesson in English they were standing at the door waiting for me. We got along swell together. They asked all sorts of questions, as though they had never learned a damned thing. I let them fire away. I taught them to ask still more ticklish questions. Ask anything! – that was my motto. I'm here as a plenipotentiary from the realm of free spirits. I'm here to create a fever and a ferment. "In some ways," says an eminent astronomer, "the material universe appears to be passing away like a tale that is told, dissolving into nothingness like a vision." That seems to be the general feeling underlying the empty breadbasket of learning. Myself, I don't believe it. I don't believe a fucking thing these bastards try to shove down our throats.