Georges Rodenbach: One Evening

Idle and alone, the Poet had wandered all day through the streets of the enormous, fevered capital. In the gathering twilight, under a sky of yellow layers of light and turning acid, he felt more alone than ever. He hadn’t met anyone. He hadn’t had the courage to visit anyone. The busy crowd brushed past him, ignored him, returning to near or distant homes. How abandoned it seemed to him that he was! And he walked on, talking to himself: ‘Yes! The Poet is alone. Who among all these people  thinks of the things that concern me? Who at this moment sees the sky of vinegar and Passion that I see? Ah! The Crowd! The Crowd! It’s the many and I’m the Elite. It adheres to facts, me to the Law. Its zeal is for the disorder of events; mine for the order of the Universe. Ah how different I am from the Crowd, the others, all of them! I’m exceptional, unique. I’m the great bachelor – but God is too!…’

The Poet continued walking, jostled by endless passers-by. The evening advanced. After the Calvary sky, the sponge of yellow rays, the sovereign red of a cloud of blood opened by the Lance, the night arrived with all its thorns of darkness on its brow. The Poet, still more sullen, asked himself by what new mischief, that evening, he could alleviate his intolerable ennui and finally revenge himself on someone for the universal incomprehension that at that moment, more than ever, he felt weighing down on him and isolating him in an island of shadows amidst the tide of humans eddying around him. For he had become a mischief-maker, wily, inventive, and avid for his vice. Certainly at the outset it had been less a matter of his loathing for the crowd and the rancorous impulse of his spite. It was above all because he’d never been understood. He felt an exile in this life. Truly, he walked amidst strangers. He didn’t even speak the same language as others. His conversation appeared incomprehensible and ridiculous. Then he saw that he would have to take up arms against an Idiocy that, failing to understand him, was able to mock him. For, in this circumstance, laughter was an expression of incomprehension. Therefore it behoved him to go on the offensive and be the first to jeer. Yes! That was how he’d become a mischief-maker – as a legitimate self-defence!

Then he’d acquired a taste for it. It had become an enticement, a sport of his ennui, a mental diversion. For the hoaxer possesses something of the psychology of the inventor. He found a new approach. Would it succeed? In thought, as on paper, everything works perfectly. In theory it’s good. But in practice? Will his invention (and that’s what a hoax is) come off? It had to succeed.

Then all that matters is the realisation, not for any reason, solely for the proof…

That’s why, after so many laborious deceptions inflicted on high and mighty imbeciles, with the sole aim of revenging himself, defending himself, the Poet arrived at disinterested deceptions, or rather experiments, for which inoffensive folk, even simple folk, served as his tools…

Thus, this evening, under the Golgotha sky wherein the stars now embedded their cruel nails, he suddenly had a new idea that flooded his mournful face with joy while he was passing by a humble shop window. It was a coal merchant’s shop, black as an extinguished factory furnace… But in the rear, clear in the lamplight, a meagre little room, a laid out tablecloth, glasses and plates for a meal; lit up too with the invisible radiance of a home full of happiness. Between a man and a woman, a blond child was eating.

The Poet went in. The merchant promptly approached him, obsequious, awaiting the order, all the happier on account of a client happening by. The Poet inspected. Analogies occurred to him… He looked at the mysterious patterns in the big lumps of coal, like frost on windowpanes… It was like frost in deep mourning. Suddenly he asked,

‘Is all this coal yours?’

The man nodded yes, puzzled.

‘And all these stacked logs?’

Once more the man acknowledged, thinking that the customer was unable to make up his mind.

‘And that, it’s coke, it’s wood cinder? That’s all yours too?’

The Poet carefully considered all the piles of merchandise, calculating the chances of his new invention, still concealed, trying to foresee the outcome, which would be put into effect when he wished it; then suddenly he made up his mind, stared at the coal merchant and said.

‘Why, all this is yours? And you aren’t asphyxiated?

The Poet had gone out. On the opposite pavement, protected by the darkness, he lingered long to watch. He could follow the mute scene through the windows. The merchant hadn’t moved, as though nailed to the spot, fascinated by the shop’s black accumulation, already looking at the coal, the coke, the anthracite with a terrified expression on his face, as though they were instruments of death. He pushed the nearby logs out of sight, as though they were the scaffold. At the rear, the meagre room was still clearly lit. The woman was waiting, the blond child continued calling out with its mouth and with its eyes too, calling out like other mouths. The coal merchant was no longer looking in that direction. He seemed to looking within himself, where the irremediable words had lodged, already inscribing his destiny. He took to reconsidering the shadowy merchandise that he sold and that the singular visitor had slowly enumerated, before indicating the best use that could be made of them…

The Poet was exultant. One more time he had undoubtedly happened upon a fine trick… His invention had succeeded. He continued to watch from the outside… The merchant, visibly, was already under his influence. He stayed in the shop without moving. One could have said that he was unable to rejoin his family, resume the simple joys of life, with his happy family around the lamp and the evening meal… The Poet sneered: – ‘The Poet, enemy of families!’ – And he went away, speaking aloud in a strange soliloquy: ‘Yes! I’ve given him a Taste for the Void…’ And he meditated on how intoxicating was the idea of death. It’s the attraction of the abyss, the homicidal gentleness of the manchineel. One can no longer elude it after it has reared its head. Even at the height of happiness. So it is with lovers; if, in the paroxysm of their kisses, the idea of death insinuates itself between them for a second, their love has no other desire than to die. The bed is already a tomb; and there’s no more hesitation, save the method of suicide…

Just so, the merchant already looked at the coal like it was death, continuing to turn his back on his family, which is to say, to turn his back on life, as though the pessimism of the unknown passer-by had given him an immediate apprehension of bitterness and pointlessness.

Some months later Poet roamed at random along the same path, in the doleful hour of twilight, which was his favourite time. He recognized the little shop where he had entered one evening, but it seemed that everything was changed. The front window shutters were closed. It had a deserted air. An old poster, stuck on the door, was torn, now presented the likeness of a grimacing cut-out face. The Poet recalled his conversation, the ironic advice that he’d given. Had he truly conferred to the last degree, the Taste for the Void? He had to know.  He rang the bell. No-one came to answer. Then he addressed himself to the neighbours, making adroit enquiries. Some knew nothing. Others held their tongues. Finally, an old woman who was related to the merchant and his family told all. The poor people! They really were unfortunate. One fine day, without anyone knowing why, the merchant had started to neglect his business. Always sunk in gloom! That had overtaken him all of a sudden. He was always going out, spent his time at the wine merchant’s, drinking, drinking. He came back drunk. And then the quarrels. He hit his wife. No customer dared enter. And there were debts, seizures, untold misery. In his lucid intervals, the merchant said: ‘Yes, someone cast a spell on me. I thought that people who cast spells only still existed in the countryside, and only for animals. Now they’re in the cities. I would easily recognize him, mine, but he won’t come back.’

‘And what happened in the end?’ the Poet asked, with the breathless anxiety of the inventor who still doesn’t know if the experiment has completely succeeded.

The woman replied.

‘He asphyxiated himself with his last bushel of coal…’

The Poet was satisfied by the logic of destiny, felt no remorse, since he all he’d done was to randomly inflict on someone – who represented the Crowd – one of the innumerable maledictions with which this latter had burdened him.

He resumed his walk, amidst this new evening of crucifixion and yellow rays of light, an evening in every way similar to that on which he had already passed this way. And the evening called to his mind Jesus, to whom Barrabas is always preferred by the crowd.

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