Showing posts with label Rainer Maria Rilke. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rainer Maria Rilke. Show all posts

Saturday, December 24, 2016

I'm moving from discovery to discovery

One of my sisters once said that she recalled me, coming home to Grafton from the start of my new life as a university student, talking about my encounter with theories of Sigmund Freud. That sounded like an exaggeration on the part of my sister, because I had never (up until now) been attracted by anything to do with Freud and theories of the mind of a psychoanalytical kind.

More recently, an anonymous individual sent me this message, which I promptly ignored, because I failed to understand what the sender was trying to say to me:

Today, I understand at last that I've been stupidly shunning one of the most amazing discoveries of all time. Consequently I'm engaged in a crash course to pick up all the stuff I've deliberately ignored.

Strangely, I don't even regret my ignorance about the workings of the human mind and memories. I simply had no particular reasons to be enticed by such things. Today, everything has changed for me. To be perfectly honest, the individual who operated as a catalyzer for me was the cartoonist Craig Adams, who never stops talking about hypnosis and cognitive dissonance. Only today do I realize what he has been trying to say. Another catalyzer, of a more subtle kind, was Rainer Rilke. I'm thinking in particular of his Malte Laurids Brigge and the personage Nikolai Kuzmich.

I'll no doubt have more to say, in the future, about this fascinating theme of memories.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

For whom is this blog written?

That’s a good question, and I thank you very much for asking it. On Saturday, 9 December 2006, my very first blog post asked a similar question.

Why have I created this blog?

I often find myself saying more or less the same everyday things in e-mails to several friends. Consequently, this blog could be a good way of avoiding such repetition. This doesn't mean that I intend to abandon the idea of sending e-mails to friends. It merely means that certain stuff can be outlined here publicly in my blog, and I can then talk about specific behind-the-scenes things in my personal e-mails. Another down-to-earth reason for this blog is that some of my friends have faulty e-mail systems, which often block my messages because they're judged to be spam. [This is notably the case for Australian customers of Big Pond.] Finally, another good reason for this blog is the possibility of my being able to express freely my feelings in domains that some of my friends judge to be taboo: for example, Aussie politics. So, I'm hoping that this new vector of expression (new for me, that is) will prove to be effective and pleasant to use.
Alas, I didn't have the courage at that time to provide my forthcoming readers with the proverbial truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It's not easy for me to reply, but let's see if I can be a little more honest today. First, I'll give you a hint. A few nights ago, I was intrigued by an unexpected early-morning dream. I found myself informing my readers that the name of my Antipodes blog would be replaced by a new title : The Notebook of William de Gamone. Readers who know me well will recognize instantly what's behind this choice.

• It's pure Rilke, associated with The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge.

• The author's name has been mildly Frenchified in a noble fashion by the addition of "de Gamone".

Let's no longer beat around the bush. Right from the start, ten years ago, my Antipodes blog has always been written primarily for myself. It's simply my on-screen notebook, for saving various ideas, and testing my ability to say various things in certain ways. Readers may have noticed that I've rarely gone out of my way to attract readers and their comments. Often they annoyed me, especially when I found them quarrelsome.

So, let me be perfectly clear. For whom is this blog written? Primarily, for a French-speaking fellow named William who lives at Gamone. Who has always been enchanted by the writings of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Malte's medical visit

The 26-year-old would-be writer Rainer Maria Rilke arrived in Paris in the summer of 1902. He soon started work on his future great prose poem: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which would be completed in 1910. The squalid Left Bank setting in which Malte, the disturbed young Danish hero of the novel, evolved was no doubt familiar to Rilke, although we do not know to what extent Rilke might have been describing, through Malte, his own existence as a destitute poet in turn-of-the-century Paris.

In the life of Malte, afflicted by mental problems, a dramatic event was his visit to a doctor at the famous hospital of the Salpetrière in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, which looks like this today:

The excellent Gallica service of the BNF [Bibliothèque nationale de France] has provided us with a splendid photo of the Salpetrière hospital in 1899 (just before the epoch of Rilke/Malte), by the great photographer of Paris Eugène Atget [1857-1927]. I've therefore inserted this old image into the following excerpt from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge:

My doctor didn't understand me. Not in any way whatsoever. It was indeed difficult finding the right words. They wanted to try electric shock treatment. Fine. I was given a note: I was to be at the Salpetrière at one o'clock. I was there.

I had to go along past various huts and through several yards where here and there beneath the bare trees people with white caps were standing looking like convicts. Finally I entered a long, dark corridor-like room which had four greenish frosted-glass windows on one side each separated from the next by an expanse of black dividing wall. A wooden bench ran along the wall facing and on this bench sat those who knew me and were waiting for me. Yes, they were all there. When I'd got used to the half-light in the room I noticed that among the people who were sitting there shoulder to shoulder in an endless row there could have been a few other people, lower class people: tradespeople, housemaids, waggon drivers . Down at the narrow end of the corridor two fat women had spread themselves out on special chairs and were chatting to each other, concierges presumably. I looked at the clock; it was five minutes to one. In five, let's say ten, minutes from now it would be my turn, so it wasn't so bad. The air was stale, heavy, full of clothing and breath. At one particular spot the strong, smell of ether forced its way through a crack in a door leaving a chill as it rose. I began pacing up and down. It struck me that I had actually been directed here among these people, to this overcrowded public surgery. It was, so to speak, the first official acknowledgement that I belonged to the outcasts. Is that how the doctor had seen me? Yet when I had visited him I had on a reasonably good suit and I had sent in my card. Nevertheless he must have somehow found out. Or perhaps I'd given myself away. That being the case, then, I didn't find it so terrible. People were sitting quietly and paying no attention to me. A few of them were in pain and to make it more bearable would give a little swing sometimes to this leg sometimes to the other. A number of men had lowered their heads onto the palms of their hands, others were fast asleep, their faces weighted down with weariness. A fat man with a red swollen neck sat there bent over staring at the floor, and now and again spat with a sound like a slap at a stain as if it seemed appropriate to him. A child was sobbing in a corner; it had brought its long skinny legs up onto the bench and was now holding them in an embrace, pressing tightly as if it had to say goodbye to them. A pale little woman who wore on her hair a lopsided crepe hat trimmed with round black flowers, had the grimace of a smile about her meagre lips, but her sore eyelids were constantly brimming over. Not far from her they'd placed a girl with a round smooth face and bulging eyes that were devoid of any expression; her mouth hung open and one could see the white slimy gums with their old stunted teeth. And there were bandages everywhere. Bandages wrapped layer upon layer around the whole head until only a single eye was there and it belonged to no one. Bandages that hid and bandages that told you what was underneath. Bandages that had been opened and in which now lay as if in a filthy bed a hand that was no longer a hand; and protruding from the row a leg that had been bound up as big as a whole man. I walked back and forth and made an effort to be calm. I was much occupied by the wall opposite. I noticed it had a number of single doors and that it didn't reach the ceiling, so that this corridor wasn't entirely cut off from the rooms that presumably lead off it. I looked at the clock. I'd been walking up and down for an hour. A while later the doctors arrived. First a couple of young ones with looks of indifference on their faces went by, eventually the doctor whom I'd been to see came along wearing light-coloured gloves, a chapeau à huit reflets [1] and an impeccable greatcoat. When he saw me he tipped his hat and smiled absently. I now hoped I'd be called straight away, but another hour went by. I can't remember how I spent the time. It simply went by. An old man in a soiled apron, some sort of orderly, came in and touched me on the shoulder. I went into one of the siderooms. The doctor and the young men were seated round a table. They looked at me. I was given a chair. Fine. And now I was expected to tell them what exactly was the matter with me. As briefly as possible, s ' il vous plait. Because the gentlemen didn't have much time. I felt odd. The young men sat and looked at me with that superior, professional curiosity that they'd been taught. The doctor I knew stroked his black goatee and smiled absently. I thought I would burst into tears but I heard myself say in French: 'I have already had the honour, monsieur, of giving you all the details that I'm able to give. If you consider it necessary that these gentlemen be fully informed, then you are no doubt able, following our conversation, to do that in a few words, while for me it would be very difficult. ' The doctor stood up with a polite smile, crossed with his assistants to the window and spoke a few words which he accompanied with a horizontal rocking movement of his hand. Three minutes later one of the young men, a short-sighted and nervous fellow, returned to the table and said, trying to look sternly at me: 'You sleep well, sir?' 'No, badly. ' Whereupon he bounded back to the group. They debated there for a time then the doctor turned to me and advised me that I would be called. I reminded him that my appointment had been for one o'clock. He smiled and made a quick fluttering movement with his small white hands to indicate that he was tremendously busy. So I went back into my corridor where the air had become much more oppressive and began again to walk up and down though I felt dead tired. Eventually the accumulated smells of dampness made my head spin, I stood by the entrance door and opened it slightly. I saw that outside it was still afternoon and there was some sun, and that made me unspeakably happy. But I couldn't have been standing there for a minute before I heard my name called. A female who was sitting two steps away at a small table hissed something to me. Who had told me to open the door? I said I couldn't stand the air inside. Well, that was my affair, but the door had to be kept shut. Wouldn't it be possible then to open a window? No, that was forbidden. I decided to start walking up and down again, because it did eventually produce a kind of numbing effect and it harmed no one. But now that too displeased the woman at the table. Didn't I have a seat? No, I hadn't. Wandering about was not permitted. I would have to find myself a seat. There should still be one. The woman was right. Actually there was one free next to the girl with the bulging eyes. I sat there this time with the feeling that the situation I was in must definitely be leading to something dreadful. On my left was the girl with the rotting gums; whatever was on my right took me some time to make out. There was an enormous immovable mass that had a face and a big heavy lifeless hand. This side of the face was empty, completely without features and without memories and what was uncanny was that his suit was the sort they dress corpses in before putting them in a coffin. The narrow black necktie was fastened round the collar in the usual loose impersonal way, and one could tell that the jacket had been put on this limp corpse by somebody else. The hand had been placed on the trousers in the same position as this one here, and even the hair looked as if it had been combed by the women who wash the corpses and had been set stiffly like the hair on a stuffed animal. I oberved all this very carefully and it occurred to me that this seat then was the very one that had been destined for me, because I believed that now at last I had arrived at that point in my life where I would remain. Fate, indeed, moves in mysterious ways.  Suddenly there arose quite near me and in rapid succession the screams of a terrified struggling child followed by a low restrained weeping. While I was making an effort to find out where the screams could have come from, once more there was a small suppressed scream, and I could hear voices asking questions, and one, in an undertone, giving orders, and then, regardlessly, some kind of machine started to hum and continued without a care. It was then that I remembered that half-wall and it was plain to me that it was all coming from the other side of the doors and that people were working there. Indeed every so often the orderly with the soiled apron appeared and beckoned. I no longer gave any thought to it's possibly being me he had in mind. Was it meant for me? No. Two men came along with a wheelchair; they lifted the mass into it and now I saw that it was a lame old man and that the other side of his face was smaller, worn down by life and had one eye open that was dim and sorrowful. They took him into the other room leaving plenty of vacant space near me. And I sat and wondered what they probably intended to do the feeble-minded girl and whether or not she too would scream. The machine behind the wall hummed away so pleasantly in its mass-production kind of way that it wasn't disturbing at all.

But then everything went quiet and in the quietness a superior self-satisfied voice that I thought I knew said: 'Riez! ' A pause. 'Riez. Mais riez, riez. ' [2] I was already laughing. It was inexplicable why the man in there didn't want to laugh. A machine started rattling and immediately fell silent; words were exchanged, then again the same energetic voice made itself heard and commanded: 'Dites-nous le mot: avant.' Spelling it out: ' a-v-a-n-t ' [3] . Silence. 'On n'entend rien. Encore une fois...[4] And then, while the warm and squishy babbling continued on the other side, there, for the first time in many many years it was there again. That: the Big Thing, which had shocked me with my first deep horror when I was a child lying in bed with a fever. Yes, that's what I had always called it whenever they were all standing round my bed, feeling my pulse, and asking me what had scared me: the Big Thing. And whenever they sent for the doctor and he came and persuaded me to tell him, I would simply beg him to do everything he could so that the Big Thing went away, nothing else mattered. But he was like the others. He couldn't take it away, though I was small then and it would have been easy to help me. And now it was here again. Later on it had simply failed to appear, it hadn't come back not even during nights when I'd had fever, but it was here now and I didn't have a fever. Now it was here. Now it was growing out of me like a tumour, like a second head, and was a part of me although it couldn't belong to me since it was so big. It was there like a big dead animal that at one time, when it was still living, had been my my hand or my arm. And my blood flowed through me and through it, as through one and the same body. And my heart must have been under a great strain pumping blood into the Big One; there was hardly enough blood. And the blood, against its own will, entered the Big Thing and came back sick and corrupted. But the Big Thing swelled and grew before my face like a warm bluish boil and grew before my mouth and across my remaining eye ran the edge of its shadow.  I can't remember how I found my way through so many yards. It was evening and I'd become lost in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. I walked in one direction up boulevards that had wall after wall and when I could see no end to them I walked back down in the opposite direction as far as some square or other. There I began to walk along one street and passed other streets that I'd never seen before, and still more of them. Sometimes electric trams with their lights too bright raced up raced past amid a harsh clanging of bells. But their destination signs carried names I didn't know. I didn't know what city I was in or whether I lived hereabouts, or what I had to do so that I wouldn't have to do any more walking.

[1] stylish shiny top-hat 
[2] Laugh! . . . laugh. Come on laugh, laugh.
[3] Say the word 'before' for us.
[4] We can't hear. Say it again.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Paris a century ago

A French photographer, Eugène Atget [1857-1927], produced a large series of fantastic photos of the working people of Paris around 1898. One of the best-known is the organ grinder and a young female singer:

The following fellow is selling stationery (sheets of paper and envelopes) to passers-by who intend to write letters:

The next photo presents an unusual professional activity. The fellow with rolled-up trousers, working alongside the Seine, earned his living by washing the dogs of passers-by.

The next photo represents a profession that still existed in Paris when I arrived here in 1962. Parisians of the generation before mine would have immediately recognized this corpulent fellow, through his hat and smock, as a member of the ancient corporation—created under the king of France known as Saint Louis [1214-1270]—called the Forts des Halles: literally, the strongmen of the markets.

Their task consisted of transporting manually all the meat and vegetables sold within the vast Paris markets, the Halles, referred to by Emile Zola as the "stomach of Paris".

In the next photo, the fellow on the left is selling articles that were familiar to my brother and me when we were kids out in rural Australia:

I'm talking of plaited braids of horsehair that were attached to the end of whips, to make them crack with a sharp loud noise. (Making these so-called whip crackers, and then using them effectively, were skills that both Don and I had acquired.) The customer in a top hat was probably a coach driver.

The following photo by Atget, taken in 1898, shows the St-Michel bridge, which links the Latin Quarter to the Ile de la Cité:

Here's a most unromantic modern view of the same site:

Incidentally, Eugène Atget photographed the Paris that is present in the opening pages of the Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke [1875-1926]. That's why I borrowed some of Atget's photos to illustrate my movie script based upon Rilke's novel.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Once upon a time in Vienna

To people who have read and admired Edmund de Waal's family-history document, The Hare with Amber Eyes, my recent blog post entitled Potter's heritage [display] probably appeared lopsided, since I spoke almost exclusively of Charles Ephrussi, the prominent Parisian dilettante. Meanwhile, I said nothing about his uncle Ignace von Ephrussi in Vienna, who built the vast banking headquarters on the Ringstrasse known as the Palais Ephrussi.

Nor did I mention Ignace's son Viktor, the head of the family on Kristallnacht—November 9–10, 1938—when Nazi thugs terminated forever the power and glory of the Ephrussi dynasty in Austria.

Charles had given his netsuke collection to his cousin Viktor as a wedding gift in 1899. Edmund de Waal's book reveals the amazing way in which these precious objects survived the aftermath of Kristallnacht.

My short blog post was by no means an in-depth review of this splendid book. I merely wished to evoke in a few words the two personages who impressed me most: the Parisian Ephrussi who actually collected the netsuke, and the potter/author who is currently protecting them.

Among the other wealthy Viennese Jews who lost almost everything after Kristallnacht, I might mention the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein [see my previous post, entitled Dawkins gives Miss Anscombe a role], who happened to be a friend of the Ephrussis.

I was greatly interested by an earlier minor theme of The Hare with Amber Eyes. I'm referring to the five-year epistolary relationship that existed between the author's Viennese grandmother Elisabeth Ephrussi [1899-1991] and the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke [1875-1926]. Elisabeth was almost a contemporary of another of Rilke's young Jewish female friends of a literary disposition, Claire Goll [1890-1977], whom I was privileged to meet in Paris not long before her death.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Talking to destiny

This fabulous photo by Nikki Kahn [published in The Washington Post of 16 March 2010] has been labeled "Life goes on". Why not?

[Click the photo to visit the Pulitzer Prizes website.]

The newborn's name is Destiny Dorival. I erupted in tears (literally) when I first gazed upon that beautiful little nose and mouth, determined to gain their rightful place upon our planet Earth. Welcome! Destiny Dorival was born in a makeshift maternity tent in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the days that followed the earthquake of 12 January 2010.

Maybe, at some time in the future, an adult Haitian girl, Destiny Dorival, will come upon my present humble blog post. [Why not? You don't imagine that Google's gonna let its precious live data disappear!] Destiny might read Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, especially the episode of the death at Ulsgaard of the chamberlain Christoph Detlev Brigge, evoking an earthquake atmosphere.
For when night had fallen, and those of the over-wearied domestics who were not on duty tried to snatch some sleep, then Christoph Detlev's death shouted, shouted and groaned. It roared so long and so constantly that the dogs, at first howling in concert, were struck dumb and did not dare lie down, but stood on their long, slender, trembling legs, in terror. And when the villagers heard it roaring through the spacious, silvery Danish summer night, they rose from their beds as if there were a thunder-storm, put on their clothes and remained sitting in silence round the lamp until it was over. And women near their time were consigned to the most remote rooms and the most thickly partitioned recesses. But they heard it; they heard it, as if it had cried from their own bodies, and they pled to be allowed to get up too, and came, voluminous and white, to sit with their vacant faces among the others.
Through his evocations of the chamberlain's death, Rilke prepares us, as it were, for the most terrible moment of Malte's notebooks (which Destiny Dorival will appreciate, I hope):
And what a melancholy beauty came to women when they were pregnant, and stood, their slender hands involuntarily resting on their big bodies which bore two fruits: a child and a death. Did not the broad, almost nourishing smile on their quite vacant faces come from their sometimes thinking that both these fruits were growing?
Dear Destiny was born in the midst of death. An ordinary Rilkean affair.

POST SCRIPTUM: French-language readers of my blog who would like to receive a copy of my Rilkean movie script on Malte might send an email request to sky.william [at]

Monday, June 7, 2010

Submerged in roses

That pompous title sounds as if I'm dead and about to be buried. Not quite. I'm still kicking, more than ever...

I've often evoked my longstanding and intense admiration of the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, author of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge… which I've recently adapted for a movie (project being currently examined by a French producer).

Roses were a refrain in the words and the life of Rilke. Towards the end of his life, he was living in Muzot, Switzerland.

Here, the great poet cultivated his roses.

Finally, a prick from the thorn of a rose poisoned the poet.

The poet himself wrote the mysterious lines that are engraved in German on his tombstone:

Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust,

Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel Lidern.

Rose, oh pure contradiction, desire,
To be no one's sleep under so many eyelids.

My friend Tineke Bot brought back this marvelous winter photo of Rilke's Muzot "castle" at Raron in the Valais canton of Switzerland:

Altering the view angle for her next photo, the artist Tineke captured the tortured soul of the poet, pricked to death by a rose thorn:

Today, at Gamone, I'm surrounded by flowers, including many roses.

The following blood-red specimen is certainly moving, in that it bears the name of Coluche [1944-1986], the great French comic who was killed in a motor-cycle accident when I was out in Australia for the America's Cup.

I have the abrupt impression that one doesn't grow roses innocently, just for fun. There's surely method in the rose-grower's madness. But there's no doubt a bit of pure madness, too. Look at this delightfully schizophrenic specimen labeled New Year. The rose bush is totally incapable of deciding what color it might adopt.

There are more familiar specimens, such as this Albertine (the treasured rose of Christine), which has had a rough time recovering from the exceptionally wet spring of Gamone:

Believe me, though, that I'm in no way obsessed by the task of identifying each rose, as if they were objects. Here, for example, is a splendid rose, in my Gamone garden, that deserves to be designated simply as "pure Rilke":

Having said this, I owe my Antipodes readers a few explanations (in fact, three), because I tend to be somewhat lazy at times.

1. The first reason why the Antipodes blog exudes an aura of drowsiness, from time to time, is that I've been devoting a huge amount of time and effort to the construction of a staircase down into my rose and peony garden. I've been imposing upon myself an information blackout concerning this staircase, which exploits an experimental construction approach! No images will be published before the completion of the project… which has been one of my major recent outdoor efforts at Gamone.

2. The second reason behind my drowsiness is that I've been devoting a lot of energy to the project of starting a legal association, to be named ROYANENSIS, to handle the publication of ancient texts concerning my adopted Royans homeland.

3. The third reason for my other-worldliness is that I've become addicted to the concept of electronic books. It's a huge subject. Basically, inspired by the arrival of the iPad, and the strong words of Steve Jobs on these questions, I've decided to focus upon this kind of software construction, at all levels (including genealogical documents).

For the moment, let's admire quietly the voluptuous roses...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Making a movie about a poet

For ages, I've imagined the idea of creating a movie adaptation of an enigmatic and beautiful book by Rainer Maria Rilke with a curious title: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. In my article of 19 June 2009 entitled Work in progress [display], I described my project in this domain. Since the end of summer, when I finally got around to completing a French-language movie script, I have imagined naively that I would rapidly encounter individuals who would be delighted to collaborate with me on this project, or to at least encourage me in various ways. Sadly, this has not been the case. Certainly, Christine has helped me greatly with the technical task of producing decent French, but she remains essentially opposed, I believe (for reasons that I can vaguely fathom), to the very idea that Rilke's novel should or could be brought to the screen.

I was reassured to learn that the New Zealand Academy Award winning cinéaste Jane Campion has created a movie about the English poet John Keats [1795-1821].

Here's the trailer:

Jane Campion explained to a journalist: "When I was blocked by such-and-such a situation, I asked my fifteen-year-old daughter Alice for advice. She is sensitive and intelligent, and she's not afraid of expressing her emotions and her sentiments. That spontaneity, that freshness and that naturalness were most useful for me."

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to develop my script on Malte in such a sympathetic environment. And yet I'm persuaded that Rilke and his hero Malte are vastly more interesting personages than Keats, particularly from a cinematographic viewpoint. I remain confident. We'll see...

Friday, June 19, 2009

Work in progress

Yesterday, I finished the initial version, in English, of my movie adaptation of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Today, I started the translation of my movie script into French... since there are many reasons why a film on this subject must be an essentially French affair.

The tentative title of my movie is Adieu, Abelone. In aristocratic late 19th-century Denmark, Malte, the hero of Rilke's novel, has always been totally infatuated by his aunt, the Countess Abel Brahe, some fifteen years older than her romantic nephew. Although Rilke's novel provides no proofs enabling us to make such an assertion explicitly, it would appear that Malte and Abelone became incestuous lovers for a brief moment. Then Malte abandoned forever his native land. Learning of the death of his aunt, Malte suffered a trauma that evolved rapidly into a grave psychosis characterized by hallucinations and paranoia. Finally, after electric shock therapy at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, Malte emerged slowly from his mental afflictions and became a writer, inspired above all by Baudelaire. One might say that his salvation was poetry.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Ancient hospital, legendary surgeon

During my many years in the heart of Paris, I was mildly obsessed (I hesitated before using this word, but it's fairly accurate) by a great and ancient hospital on the Ile de la Cité, not far away from the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris: the Hôtel-Dieu.

I had always been fascinated by the way in which this hospital was perceived by Malte Laurids Brigge, the hero of the celebrated novel by Rainer Maria Rilke [1875-1926]. Everybody knows that Malte was in fact Rilke's alter ego. Well, even before my arrival in Paris, Malte had also become my alter ego.

I’m afraid. You have to take action against fear when it lays hold of you. It would be terrible to fall ill here. If ever somebody were to take me to the Hôtel-Dieu, I would certainly die there. [...] This excellent Hôtel is very ancient. Even in King Clovis' time, people died there in a number of beds. Now they are dying there in five hundred and fifty-nine beds. Of course the whole business is mechanical. With such an enormous output, an individual death is not so thoroughly carried out; but that is, after all, of little consequence. It is quantity that counts. Who cares anything today for a well-finished death? No one. Even wealthy people who could afford this luxury are beginning to be careless and indifferent about the matter. The desire to have a death of one's own is growing more and more rare. In a little while, it will be as rare as a life of one's own.

In Rilke's time, the hospital looked like this:

At my habitual bar in Paris, the Petit Gavroche, I used to run into a cultivated old Swiss fellow—a former lawyer, whom we referred to, respectfully, as Monsieur Jean—who was also a Rilke enthusiast. One evening, he whispered to me excitedly: "I've discovered a small door into the Hôtel-Dieu that is often left open after midnight, for the night staff. Would you like to visit this Rilkean temple?" With a good few beers under my belt, it sounded like a great idea. It was a totally weird excursion, strolling stealthily in the semi-darkness of the vast corridors of this ancient hospital, while knowing full well that we shouldn't have been there. Behind closed doors, just a few meters away from us, there were wards where sick people were no doubt dying "in five hundred and fifty-nine beds". You might say that Monsieur Jean and I looked upon our visit as a kind of literary experience: an outlandish way of soaking up retrospectively the heavy atmosphere of Rilke's turn-of-the-century Paris. Luckily, we didn't run into anybody. Indeed, the hospital gave the spooky impression that it was deserted... and this enhanced the Rilkean aroma of our nocturnal excursion.

At the start of the 19th century, the Hôtel-Dieu was associated with a legendary surgeon: Guillaume Dupuytren. Born in humble circumstances near Limoges, Guillaume moved up to Paris at the age of twelve, to finish his schooling. His favorite pastime consisted of reading medical textbooks. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, by the age of eighteen, he had taught himself enough about human anatomy to be hired by the Faculty of Medicine for two separate jobs. On the one hand, he gave courses on anatomy to students. On the other hand, he was placed in charge of all the autopsies carried out by the Department of Anatomy. He learned so much through these dissections that he was able to publish a successful treatise on the subject. He was awarded his medical degree in 1803, and was immediately appointed as a surgeon at the Hôtel-Dieu. He soon became renowned as the most brilliant surgeon in France, but his personality was so abominable that his colleagues feared and hated him. Indeed, he refused to speak with any of them, reserving his conversations for patients.

Well, even today, posthumously, Guillaume Dupuytren is treated rather disrespectfully by the young medical staff at the Hôtel-Dieu, who like to dress up his statue in all kinds of costumes and disguises.

On the left, Guillaume is wearing French Revolutionary pants, but he has an Elvis hairdo. On the right, as we can gather from the date and the US flag, he has become a blood-stained GI, wearing a metal helmet, on a beach in Normandy.

Guillaume can become a soccer player when the world cup is at stake...

... but he can switch to rugby, if need be, and even become the mascot (as indicated by the sash "en grève") of striking medical personnel.

One day, Guillaume's a surfer, then later he's the double of the French singer Michel Polnareff.

Sometimes, Guillaume even imagines himself as an exotic movie creature.

Malte Laurids Brigge would have been intrigued by all these individuals associated with the surgeon of the Hôtel-Dieu hospital:

For one thing, it has never occurred to me before how many different faces there are. There are quantites of people, but there are even more faces, for each person has several. There are some who wear the same face for years. Naturally, it wears out. It gets dirty. It splits at the folds. It stretches, like gloves one has worn on a journey. These are thrifty, simple folk. They do not change their face. They never even have it cleaned. It is good enough, they say, and who can prove the contrary? The question of course arises, since they have several faces, what do they do with the others? They keep them. Their children will wear them. But sometimes, too, it happens that their dogs go out with them on. And why not? Faces are faces.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

One-track mind and reading

The first time in my life that I tuned in exclusively to a single author, reading nothing else, was back in my adolescent Durrell days. Totally enraptured by this novelist, I've surely read the greater part of everything that Lawrence Durrell [1912-1990] ever wrote, culminating in Caesar's Vast Ghost, mentioned in my article of 27 March 2007 entitled Books about Provence and the French Riviera [display].

Later, in other domains, I often made a point of reading everything I could lay my hands upon from poets, intellectuals and researchers who impressed me greatly: Rainer Maria Rilke, of course, then my friend and mentor Pierre Schaeffer in France, and great US computer scientists such as Marvin Minsky and Roger Schank. At the same time, I was thrilled in particular by the literary opus of Kurt Vonnegut. Concerning all the above-mentioned authors, I ended up acquiring and reading all their fundamental writings. But, in all these cases, my basic emotion [to use the concept at the heart of Minsky's recent masterly synthesis entitled The Emotion Machine] was admiration, rather than total fascination as in the Durrellian universe. There always seemed to be some little thing that was missing in their works: maybe simply the power and magic of first-person poetic writing.

These days, once again, I've become a one-author reader. His name won't surprise readers of my blog: Richard Dawkins, born in Africa... like all of us, at one time or another. As a reader, I feel that my commitment is for life! Faced with the Dawkins phenomenon, I'm a little like a novice monk about to make his permanent vows. [Dawkins would surely sprout some kind of invisible rash if he learned that a devoted reader dared to liken him to a spiritual abbot.]

Unweaving the Rainbow, as the title implies, is all about rainbows, of all kinds: those that we see in the sky, formed by light passing through droplets of water, and those in our human minds, construed by the foibles of Darwinian evolution. The soul of this book is poetic. Was it not Keats who complained that Newton's analysis of the colors of the rainbows had destroyed forever their charm? Dawkins deals, as it were, with Keats, placing him on the sidelines of fabulous scientific revelations that enable us, now, to know the rainbow.

A Devil's Chaplain is pure Dawkins curled up in a leather lounge in front of a log fire, talking on about anything and everything: that's to say, about life and death, and the quest for profound challenges in our meaningless existence. Dawkins tackles all kinds of topics, including the emptiness of fashionable French philosophy (professed by intellectuals such as Lacan, Guattari and Deleuze), silly religious reactions to the cloned sheep named Dolly, alternative medicine, and the obnoxious expression of religion that disgusted the world at large on 11 September 2001. Dawkins reiterates that the religions of everybody are to be condemned, once and for all: Catholics, Protestants, Jews of all denominations and Moslems.

In the wake of Dawkins, I simply can't imagine what I might ever read from now on. Maybe old Tintin comics. Better still, exciting tales of archaic fiction from the Bible...

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Finding people through the Internet

One of my female friends back in Paris was a prolific and eclectic writer. She had decided, a long time ago, to invest in a multi-volumed copy of the Encyclopædia Britannica, and I believe that this big expensive tool played a major positive role in her work as an author.

Today, thanks to Internet tools such as Google and Wikipedia, everybody has access to a far greater encyclopedia than the Britannica. Over the last day or so, I've been in a research situation that illustrates one of the ways in which the Internet is a far more powerful source of encyclopedic knowledge than any mere printed book could ever be.

In my articles entitled First word of a poem [display] and Rilke's hermit [display], I pointed out that I've been working on the creation of a movie script based upon Rilke's novel entitled The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. In the context of the author's fictional personages, there are references to a few dozen authentic historical individuals, some of whom are well known (for example, the French poetess Louise Labé, or the Spanish Carmelite nun Theresa of Avila), whereas others are no longer as well known today as they were back at the time when Rilke was writing his novel. I had trouble identifying two individuals, mentioned briefly by Rilke, named Anna Sophie Reventlow and Julie Reventlow. In a conventional encyclopedia, of the kind printed on paper, these individuals may not have marked their times sufficiently to earn a place in history, as it were. In the context of the Internet, using Google, individuals such as these two Reventlow ladies are often described in genealogical contexts... and that's exactly how I was able to obtain precious information about them, enabling me to understand why Rilke has brought these authentic individuals into the fictional world of his novel.

I was even able to find portraits of the two women. Furthermore, obtaining this information through the Internet enabled me to become acquainted, by email, with the man who produced the genealogical website, who is in fact a descendant of the family in question. And this was like using the Internet to unearth and enter into contact with real-life memories of Rilke's world... which is far more than what you can do with a paper encyclopedia.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Rilke's hermit

I'm working intensely at present on the filmscript project based upon The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke. The final years of Rilke's life were spent in hermitic conditions in a small manor-house in Switzerland. I was intrigued to rediscover a passage in the Notebooks [written when Rilke was not yet thirty] that prefigures this solitary existence at Muzot.

When we speak of hermits, we take too much for granted. We imagine that people know something about them. No, they do not. They have never seen a solitary; they have simply hated him without knowing him. They have been his neighbors who made use of him; they have been the voices in an adjoining room that tempted him. They have incited things against him, then they made a great noise and drowned his voice. Children have been in league against him because he was tender and a child, and as he grew, the stronger grew his opposition to grown people. They tracked him to his hiding place, like a hunted beast, and his long youth had no closed season. And when he did not sink exhausted, but escaped, they decried what had come forth from him, and called it ugly and cast suspicion upon it. And, when he paid no heed, they came out into the open and ate away his food, breathed his air and spat upon his poverty so that it became repugnant to him. They denounced him, as one stricken with contagious disease, and cast stones at him to make him depart more quickly. And they were right in their ancient instinct: for he was in truth their foe.

But, then, when he never raised his eyes, they began to reflect. They suspected that with all this they had simply done what he desired, that they had been fortifying him in his solutide and helping him to cut himself off from them for ever. And now they changed their tactics, and used against him the final weapon, the deadliest of all, the opposite mode of attack — fame. And at this noise he has almost every time looked up and been distraught.

— Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge