Tropic of Cancer  北回归线

Toward the end of the meal each evening the veilleur de nuit drops in for his bit of cheer. This is the only human being in the whole institution with whom I feel a kinship. He is a nobody. He carries a lantern and a bunch of keys. He makes the rounds through the night, stiff as an automaton. About the time the stale cheese is being passed around, in he pops for his glass of wine. He stands there, with paw outstretched, his hair stiff and wiry, like a mastiff's, his cheeks ruddy, his mustache gleaming with snow. He mumbles a word or two and Quasimodo brings him the bottle. Then, with feet solidly planted, he throws back his head and down it goes, slowly in one long draught. To me it's like he's pouring rubies down his gullet. Something about this gesture which seizes me by the hair. It's almost as if he were drinking down the dregs of human sympathy, as if all the love and compassion in the world could be tossed off like that, in one gulp – as if that were all that could be squeezed together day after day. A little less than a rabbit they have made him. In the scheme of things he's not worth the brine to pickle a herring. He's just a piece of live manure. And he knows it. When he looks around after his drink and smiles at us, the world seems to be falling to pieces. It's a smile thrown across an abyss. The whole stinking civilized world lies like a quagmire at the bottom of the pit, and over it, like a mirage, hovers this wavering smile.


It was the same smile which greeted me at night when I returned from my rambles. I remember one such night when, standing at the door waiting for the old fellow to finish his rounds, I had such a sense of well being that I could have waited thus forever. I had to wait perhaps half an hour before he opened the door. I looked about me calmly and leisurely, drank everything in, the dead tree in front of the school with its twisted rope branches, the houses across the street which had changed color during the night, which curved now more noticeably, the sound of a train rolling through the Siberian wastes, the railings painted by Utrillo, the sky, the deep wagon ruts. Suddenly, out of nowhere, two lovers appeared; every few yards they stopped and embraced, and when I could no longer follow them with my eyes I followed the sound of their steps, heard the abrupt stop, and then the slow, meandering gait. I could feel the sag and slump of their bodies when they leaned against a rail, heard their shoes creak as the muscles tightened for the embrace. Through the town they wandered, through the crooked streets, toward the glassy canal where the water lay black as coal. There was something phenomenal about it. In all Dijon not two like them.


Meanwhile the old fellow was making the rounds; I could hear the jingle of his keys, the crunching of his boots, the steady, automatic tread. Finally I heard him coming through the driveway to open the big door, a monstrous, arched portal without a moat in front of it. I heard him fumbling at the lock, his hands stiff, his mind numbed. As the door swung open I saw over his head a brilliant constellation crowning the chapel. Every door was locked, every cell bolted. The books were closed. The night hung close, dagger-pointed, drunk as a maniac. There it was, the infinitude of emptiness. Over the chapel, like a bishop's miter, hung the constellation, every night, during the winter months, it hung there low over the chapel. Low and bright, a handful of dagger points, a dazzle of pure emptiness. The old fellow followed me to the turn of the drive. The door closed silently. As I bade him good night I caught that desperate, hopeless smile again, like a meteoric flash over the rim of a lost world. And again I saw him standing in the refectory, his head thrown back and the rubies pouring down his gullet. The whole Mediterranean seemed to be buried inside him – the orange groves, the cypress trees, the winged statues, the wooden temples, the blue sea, the stiff masks, the mystic numbers, the mythological birds, the sapphire skies, the eaglets, the sunny coves, the blind bards, the bearded heroes. Gone all that. Sunk beneath the avalanche from the North. Buried, dead forever. A memory. A wild hope.


For just a moment I linger at the carriageway. The shroud, the pall, the unspeakable, clutching emptiness of it all. Then I walk quickly along the gravel path near the wall, past the arches and columns, the iron staircases, from one quadrangle to the other. Everything is locked tight. Locked for the winter. I find the arcade leading to the dormitory. A sickish light spills down over the stairs from the grimy, frosted windows. Everywhere the paint is peeling off. The stones are hollowed out, the banister creaks; a damp sweat oozes from the flagging and forms a pale, fuzzy aura pierced by the feeble red light at the head of the stairs. I mount the last flight, the turret, in a sweat and terror. In pitch darkness I grope my way through the deserted corridor, every room empty, locked, molding away. My hand slides along the wall seeking the keyhole. A panic comes over me as I grasp the doorknob. Always a hand at my collar ready to yank me back. Once inside the room I bolt the door. It's a miracle which I perform each night, the miracle of getting inside without being strangled, without being struck down by an ax. I can hear the rats scurrying through the corridor, gnawing away over my head between the thick rafters. The light glares like burning sulfur and there is the sweet, sickish stench of a room which is never ventilated. In the corner stands the coal box, just as I left it. The fire is out. A silence so intense that it sounds like Niagara Falls in my ears.


Alone, with a tremendous empty longing and dread. The whole room for my thoughts. Nothing but myself and what I think, what I fear. Could think the most fantastic thoughts, could dance, spit, grimace, curse, wail – nobody would ever know, nobody would ever hear. The thought of such absolute privacy is enough to drive me mad. It's like a clean birth. Everything cut away. Separate, naked, alone. Bliss and agony simultaneously. Time on your hands. Each second weighing on you like a mountain. You drown in it. Deserts, seas, lakes, oceans. Time beating away like a meat ax. Nothingness. The world. The me and the not me. Oomaharumooma. Everything has to have a name. Everything has to be learned, tested, experienced. Faites comme chez vous, chéri.


The silence descends in volcanic chutes. Yonder, in the barren hills, rolling onward toward the great metallurgical regions, the locomotives are pulling their merchant products. Over steel and iron beds they roll, the ground sown with slag and cinders and purple ore. In the baggage cars, kelps, fishplate, rolled iron, sleepers, wire rods, plates and sheets, laminated articles, hot rolled hoops, splints and mortar carriages, and Zorès ore. The wheels U 80 millimetres or over. Pass splendid specimens of Anglo Norman architecture, pass pedestrians and pederasts, open hearth furnaces, basic Bessemer mills, dynamos and transformers, pig iron castings and steel ingots. The public at large, pedestrians and pederasts, goldfish and spun glass palm trees, donkeys sobbing, all circulating freely through quincuncial alleys. At the Place du Brésil a lavender eye.


Going back in a flash over the women I've known. It's like a chain which I've forged out of my own misery. Each one bound to the other. A fear of living separate, of staying born. The door of the womb always on the latch. Dread and longing. Deep in the blood the pull of paradise. The beyond. Always the beyond. It must have all started with the navel. They cut the umbilical cord, give you a slap on the ass, and presto! you're out in the world, adrift, a ship without a rudder. You look at the stars and then you look at your navel. You grow eyes everywhere – in the armpits, between the lips, in the roots of your hair, on the soles of your feet. What is distant becomes near, what is near becomes distant. Inner-outer, a constant flux, a shedding of skins, a turning inside out. You drift around like that for years and years, until you find yourself in the dead center, and there you slowly rot, slowly crumble to pieces, get dispersed again. Only your name remains.