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Authors: John Hawkes

Travesty

BOOK: Travesty
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I am imbued with the notion that a Muse is necessarily a dead woman, inaccesible or absent; that the poetic structure—like the canon, which is only a hole surrounded
by steel—can be based only on what one does not have; and that ultimately one can write only to fill a void or at the least to situate, in relation to the most lucid part of ourselves, the place where this incommensurable abyss yawns within us.


Michel Leiris:
Manhood

You see, a person I knew used to divide human beings
into three categories: those who prefer having nothing to
hide
rather than being obliged to lie, those who prefer lying
to
having nothing to hide, and finally those who like both lying
and
the hidden. I’ll let you choose the pigeonhole that suits
me
.

—Albert Camus:
The Fall

For Three Sophies

No, no, Henri. Hands off the wheel. Please. It is
too late. After all, at one hundred and forty-nine kilometers per hour on a country
road in the darkest quarter of the night, surely it is obvious that your slightest
effort to wrench away the wheel will pitch us into the toneless world of highway
tragedy even more quickly than I have planned. And you will not believe it, but we
are still accelerating.

As for you, Chantal, you must beware. You must obey your Papa. You
must sit back in your seat and fasten your belt and stop crying. And Chantal, no
more beating the driver about the shoulders or shaking his arm. Emulate Henri, my
poor Chantal, and control yourself.

But see how we fly! And the curves, how sharp and
numerous they are! The geometries of joy!

At least you are in the hands of an expert driver.

So you are going to relax,
cher ami
. You are determined to
hide your trembling, achieve a few moments of silence, begin smoking one of your
delightful cigarettes, and then after this appropriate expenditure of precious time
and in the midst of your composure, then you will attempt to dissuade me, to talk me
back to sanity (as you will express the idea), to appeal to my kindness and good
sense. I approve. I am listening. The hour is yours. But of course you may use the
lighter. Only reach for it slowly and keep in mind my warning. Do not be deceived by
my good nature. I am as serious as a sheet of flame.

As for you, Chantal, you must stop that sobbing. I will not say it
again. Don’t you know that Papa loves you? Not many young women have the
opportunity of passing their last minutes in the company of lover and loving Papa
both. The black night, the speeding car, the three of us, a glimpse of early snow
curled in the roots of a fleeting roadside tree—it is a warm and comfortable
way to go, Chantal. You must not be afraid.

And to think that we used to call her the “porno
brat.” Yes, our own Chantal—no sooner was she able to
walk than she was forever stumbling into the erotic lives of her parents. Or
perhaps I should say the illusory lives of her young parents. At any rate it was
Honorine who began to call our own baby girl the “porno brat.” But
with a smile. Always with that ingenuous smile so appropriate to the oval and
sensual face of the woman who is your mistress, my wife, Chantal’s still
young and generous mother. And then there was the schoolmate of Chantal’s,
that boyish jokester, who gave her the optician’s chart with its letters
diminishing in size and saying
TOO MUCH SEX MAKES ONE SHORTSIGHTED
.

But do you know that I have never worn eyeglasses and even now am
permitted to drive the fastest cars without anything at all to assist the sight of
my naked eyes?

But Chantal and Honorine—what a pair of names. And to think
that at this instant the one is white-faced, tear-streaked and clinging to the edge
of hysteria in lieu of prayer directly behind us, while the other sleeps in the very
chateau we are approaching. But be brave, Chantal. There will be no comforting
Honorine when she receives the news.

Murder, Henri? Well, that is precisely the trouble with you poets.
In your pessimism you ape the articulation you achieve in written words, you are
able to recite your poems as an actor his lines, you consider yourselves
quite exempt from all those rules of behavior that constrict us
lesser-privileged men in feet, hands, loins, mouths. Yet in the last extremity you
cry moral wolf. So you accuse me of planning murder. But with the very use of the
word you reveal at last that you are only the most banal and predictable of poets.
No libertine, no man of vision and hence suffering, but a banal moralist. Think of
the connotations of “murder,” that awful word: the loss of emotional
control, the hate, the spite, the selfishness, the broken glass, the blood, the cry
in the throat, the trembling blindness that results in the irrevocable act, the
helpless blow. Murder is the most limited of gestures.

But how different is our own situation. Suspended as you are in time,
holding your lighted cigarette between your fingers, bathed in your own sweat and
the gentle lights of the dashboard—in all this there is clarity but not
morality. Not even ethics. You and Chantal and I are simply traveling in purity and
extremity down that road the rest of the world attempts to hide from us by heaping
up whole forests of the most confusing road signs, detours, barricades. What does it
matter that the choice is mine, not yours? That I am the driver and you the
passenger? Can’t you see that your morality is no different from
Chantal’s whimpering and that here, now, we are dealing with a question of
choice rather than chaos?

I am no poet. And I am no murderer. But did Chantal ever tell you
about the time she won for herself the
title “Queen of
Carrots?” No? But perhaps your sexual knowledge of my daughter has made you
shortsighted after all.

I am not laughing at you. I am the kindest man you will ever meet.

Slow down, you say? But the course of events cannot be regulated by
some sort of perversely wired traffic policeman. We do not argue with the star, the
comet, the locomotive racing almost invisible in the cold night, the conductor on
the empty but moving
autobus
. I am not a child. I trust you not to demean yourself
with mere transparency or pathos. Our speed is a maximum in a bed of maximums which
happen to include: my driving skill, this empty road, the time of night, the
capacity of the car’s engine, the immensity of the four seasons lying beyond
us between the trees or in the flat fields. Like schoolboys who have studied the
solar system (I do not mean to be condescending or simple-minded) you and I know
that all the elements of life coerce each other, force each other instant by instant
into that perfect formation which is lofty and the only one possible. I am aware of
a particular distance; these yellow headlights are the lights of my eyes; my mind is
bound inside my memory of this curving road like a fist in glass.

You cannot know how often I have driven this
precise route alone and at the fastest speed I could achieve. You cannot be
aware of those innumerable late afternoons each of which contained this silent car,
the technician sprawled on his back beneath my car, a bank of chromium instruments,
a silence only faintly smelling of grease and oil, myself as the patient spectator
in one corner of a place that resembled the nearly empty interior of an aircraft
hangar. There, there is your speed. Would you believe it?

Between the adjustments made by the hand of that white-coated figure
lying as if dead on the concrete floor of his vast garage, and the warm and living
pressure of my own two hands on the thick black skin of this steering
wheel—from that time to this, from one hand to a pair of hands, from the
minute adjustments made beneath the car to the life of the mind that holds the
moving car to the road, there is nothing, nothing at all.

The last time I drove this car to that garage I shook hands with the
technician. On the ramp the waiting automobile gleamed as new. Now we are traveling
as if inside a clock the shape of a bullet, seated as if stationary among tight
springs and brilliant gems. And we have a full tank of fuel, and tires hardly a
month old.

Do not ask me to slow down. It is impossible.

But you are already loosening your collar while I ramble on about
Chantal’s childhood, my love of cars,
the intimacy we
share, our swift progress through the fortress of space. Suddenly you and I are more
different than ever, yet closer even than when we were three to a bed. But
don’t worry, despite all this talk of mine I am concentrating. Never for an
instant do I lose sight of the road we follow through our blackest night, though I
can hardly see it. Yes, my concentration is like that of a marksman, a tasteful
executioner, a child crouching over a bug on a stick. And I understand your
frustration, your feelings of incomprehension. It is not easy to discover that your
closest friend and husband to one mistress and father of the other is driving at
something greater than his customary speed, at a speed that begins to frighten you,
and that this same friend is driving by plan, intentionally, and refuses to listen
to what for you is reason. What can you do? How in but a few minutes can you adjust
yourself successfully to what for me is second nature: a nearly phobic yearning for
the truest paradox, a thirst to lie at the center of this paradigm: one moment the
car in perfect condition, without so much as a scratch on its curving surface, the
next moment impact, sheer impact. Total destruction. In its own way it is a form of
ecstasy, this utter harmony between design and debris. But even a poet will find it
difficult to share this vision on short notice.

But Chantal, perhaps you would like to remove your shoes. Perhaps you
would like to imagine that you are merely one of several hundred airplane passengers
preparing themselves to survive if possible a crash
landing. And
yet we are only three. Only three. A small but soothing number.

Of course I am not joking. How for the briefest pleasure of joking
could I risk the lives of my own daughter and a poet acclaimed by the public? I am
certainly not the man to take risks or live or for that matter die by chance. I am
disappointed. Apparently your need to be spared—your need for relief, for
deceleration—is so great that now, after all these years, you are willing to
do even the most terrible injustice to my character, merely for the sake of your
urgency. You wish only to open your eyes and find us safely parked on the edge of
the dark road, the interior of the automobile filled with our soft and private
laughter. I understand. But I regret that it cannot be that way,
cher
ami
.

Why not alone? Or why not the four of us? Well, these are much more
serious and interesting questions. At last you perceive that I am not merely some
sort of suicidal maniac, an aesthetician of death at high speed. But even to
approach these subtle thoughts you must give me time, more time. And yet
doesn’t the fact that you’ve asked the first question hint at least at
its answer?

Please, I beg you. Do not accuse me of being a man without feeling
or a man of unnatural feeling. This
moment, for instance, is not
disgusting but decisive. The reason I am feeling a sensation of comfort so intense
as to be almost electrical, while you on the other hand are feeling only a mixture
of disbelief and misery—the reason for this disparity between us is more,
much more, than a matter of temperament, though it is that too. We have agreed on
the surface aspects of trauma: the difficulty of submission, the problem of
surprise, a concept of existence so suddenly constricted that one feels like a
goldfish crazed and yet at the same time quite paralyzed in his bowl. A mere
question of adjustment. But the fact of the matter is that you do not share my
interest in what I have called “design and debris.” For instance, you
and I are equally familiar with our white avenues, our sunlit thoroughfares, our
boulevards beautifully packed with vehicles which even at a standstill are able to
careen about. The bright colors, the shouts, the bestial roar of the traffic, the
policemen typically wired for contradictory signals—it is a commonplace, not
worth a thought. And you and I are equally familiar with those occasional large
patches of sand which fill half the street, marking the site of one of our frequent
and incomprehensible collisions, and around which the traffic is forced impatiently
to veer—until some courageous driver falls back on good sense and lunges
straight across the patch of sand, his tires scattering the sand and revealing the
fresh blood beneath. Another commonplace, you say, more everyday life. The triteness
of a nation incapable of understanding highway, motor vehicle, pedestrian.
But here we differ, because I have always been secretly drawn to
the scene of accidents, have always paused beside those patches of sand with a
certain quickening of pulse and hardening of concentration. Mere sand, mere sand
flung down on a city street and already sponging up the blood beneath. But for me
these small islands created out of haste, pain, death, crudeness, are thoroughly
analogous to the symmetry of the two or even more machines whose crashing results in
nothing more than an aftermath of blood and sand. It is like a skin, this small area
of dusty butchery, that might have been peeled from the body of one of the offending
cars. I think of the shot tiger and the skin in the hall of the dark chateau. But
for you it is worth no more than a shrug. Your poetry lies elsewhere. Whereas I have
never failed to pull over, park, alight from my automobile—despite the
honking, the insults—and spend my few moments of reverential amazement
whenever and wherever I have discovered one of these sacred sites. It is something
like a war memorial. The greater the incongruity, the greater the truth.

But what about me, you are asking yourself, what about my life? My
safety? And why am I now subjected to foolish philosophy mouthed by a man who has
suddenly become an insufferable egotist and who threatens to kill me, maim me, by
smashing this car into the trunk of an unmoving tree in ten minutes, or twenty, or
thirty?

Now you must listen. The point is that you cannot imagine that I, the
head of the household, so to speak,
can behave in this fashion;
you cannot believe that a life as rich as yours, as sensual as yours, as honored,
can suddenly be reduced inexplicably to fear, grief, skid marks, a few shards of
broken glass; you simply do not know that as a child I divided my furtive time quite
equally between those periodicals depicting the most brutal and uncanny destructions
of human flesh (the elbow locked inside the mouth, the head half buried inside the
chest, the statuary of severed legs, dangling hands) and those other periodicals
depicting the attractions of young living women partially or totally in the
nude.

BOOK: Travesty
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