28 May, 2011

Solitude by Guy de Maupassant

A translation of the French version

Just after enjoying a delightful dinner, my older companion asked if I would like to return by way of the Boulevard des Champs-Elysées.

And so we set off and sauntered along the boulevard lined with almost leafless autumnal trees. The only sound being that of indistinct murmurs which pervade Paris. A breeze refreshed our faces. Above us the star-spangled sky appeared to be tinted a golden hue.

My companion said to me :

“I don’t know why it is that I breathe better at night than at any other time, and that I think more clearly. There are even fleeting moments when I appear to be on the verge of gaining an insight into the divine secret of things. Then suddenly the window is closed.”

Amidst the shadows of the night, we passed by the silhouette of two people seated side by side on a bench.

My companion whispered:

“Ignorant people! My feelings are based more on compassion than contempt. Out of all the mysteries of human life there is one that I have penetrated: our biggest torment is the realisation that we are eternally alone, and that all our efforts, all our acts are focussed on fleeing from this solitude. That loving couple on the bench are searching, like us, and all living beings, for a way to counter their loneliness, albeit for a short period of time. But they remain forever alone, and us also. That is more or less an observable fact.

“For some time I have lived with this painful knowledge, and I am not aware of the means for overcoming this deplorable solitude.There is no solution, nothing, do you hear me? In spite of our attempts, our actions, our heartfelt impulses, our passionate interactions, we are always alone.

“I have prompted you to walk with me along this boulevard as I am fearful of confronting the torment of solitude when I return to my apartment. Why return? I speak to you, you listen to me, and both of us are alone, side by side, but alone. Do you understand me?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, says scripture. They have the illusion of happiness. They don’t experience the pain of solitude, they don’t wander like me through life, with limited contact, without any joy other than the egoistical satisfaction of understanding, of seeing, of grasping and of suffering without end the knowledge of our eternal isolation.

"You think I’m crazy, don’t you? 

“Listen to me. Since experiencing the inner impact of solitude, I am aware that I am drawn more each day into the endless depths of depression. I descend there by an obscure route, alone, without the company of another person. That route has become my way of life. Sometimes I hear noises, voices, cries. I feel my way towards these indistinct murmurs, but I never know exactly from where they come. I travel alone, no helping hand reaches out as I pierce the darkness. Do you understand me?
“Few people have sometimes sensed this dreadful suffering.
“Musset wrote :
                              I am alone. – The time has come
                                 O solitude! – O wretchedness
“But for him this was only a short-lived state of uncertainty, and not the  firm conviction that it is for me. He was a poet: he filled his life with apparitions, with dreams. He was never truly alone. As for me, I am alone!

“Gustave Flaubert, although widely recognized as being melancholic,was able to convey with lucidity this phrase of despair to a female friend: “All of us are in a desert. Nobody understands anyone.”

“No, whatever one thinks, whatever one says, whatever the temptation to say otherwise, nobody understands anybody. The earth does it understand those stars above, speckles of light scattered across space, so far away that we catch a clear view of only a few, whilst a countless number of stars are lost in infinity, so close as to form a totality, like the molecules of a body?

Well, no man knows how another is thinking. We are further apart from each other than the stars, and above all more isolated because our thoughts are unfathomable.

Do you know something more terrible than this constant encounter with people that we can’t work out? We like each other as if we were shackled, close, arms reaching out, but we don’t succeed in being intimate. An agonizing need for a union preys on our mind, but all of our efforts are sterile, our abandonment pointless, our self-confidence unfruitful, our embraces ineffectual, our caresses superficial. When we want to be sociable, our impetus for friendship only results in heartbreak.

I never feel alone when  I open my heart to some friend, because it is then that I best understand the insurmountable obstacle. This man before me looks intently at me, but I am not able to penetrate his soul. He listens to me. What is he thinking? Yes, what is he thinking?  Do you understand this torment? Perhaps he hates me? Or despises me? Or mocks me? He reflects on what I say, he judges me, he makes fun of me, he condemns me, he regards me as being mediocre or a fool. How can I know what he is thinking? How can I know if he loves me as I love him? Just what is going on in that little round head?
“The unknown thoughts of someone else are so mysterious. Hidden thoughts are free for we can neither know nor control, dominate nor conquer them.
“At least for the moment do you understand me? No, you think I‘m crazy! You scrutinise me, you’re wary of me! You wonder: “What’s the matter with him tonight?” But one day if you succeed to understand, to fathom my horrible yet subtle suffering, come and tell me- "I have understood your situation". In doing so you will make me happy, but perhaps for only an instant.
“It’s women who reckon that they are best placed to figure out my solitude. Woe is me! Woe! How they have made me suffer, for they have often given me, more than men, the illusion of not being alone!

“When you fall in love, it seems that you are overwhelmed with euphoria. Do you know why? Do you know where this immense feeling of happiness comes from? It’s simply because you imagine that you are no longer alone. Feelings of isolation from humanity appear to come to an end. What a mistake!

“Still more tormented than us by an eternal need of love, which gnaws our solitary heart, is the woman who spoils the dream. Past intimate moments of exquisite joy were experienced with this woman with the long hair and engaging personality, the features of whom were unsettling. Such is the illusion which leads our mind astray!

“Does it not seem that shortly we will be as one, a couple? But this anticipated moment never comes, then suddenly one day, after some weeks of waiting in hope and misleading joy, I find myself once again more alone than I’ve ever been.
“After each kiss, after each embrace, a sense of loneliness increases. It’s so distressing, traumatic.
"Was it not the poet M. Sully Prudhomme who wrote:
Caresses are but transports of anxiety
                Fruitless attempts at a pathetic love which seeks
                The impossible union of souls to bodies

“And then, farewell. It’s over. It is as if this woman, whom you now hardly recognize, has meant everything to you for but a short period of time during which no doubt she never intimated how she was thinking.

“At the very moment when it seems that, within an obscure agreement between people who have a mishmash of desires and aspirations, you had descended as far as the depth of  her soul, a word, a one and only word, sometimes reveals your error, and highlights, like a flash in the night, the black hole between you.

“And yet, there is nothing better than to share an evening with a woman that you love. Even if you don’t speak her mere presence can result in you being almost completely happy. Don’t ask for more than that as two beings don’t readily interact. 

“As for me, my soul is closed. I no longer tell anyone what I believe, what I think and what I like. Knowing I’m condemned to appalling solitude, I consider matters without ever uttering an opinion. Quarrels, pleasures, and beliefs, what are they to me? An inability to share with others causes me to be disinterested in everything. My invisible thoughts remain unexplored. I have some banal phrases for responding daily to questions, and a smile which says : ‘Yes’, when I can’t even make the effort to speak. Do you understand me?”

We had walked along the long boulevard to the Arc de Triomphe, and then turned back towards the Place de la Concorde, during which he had explained all this slowly, and added other matters which I don’t remember.

Unexpectedly, he stopped and pointed towards the tall granite obelesk which stands on the Paris pavement, and of which the top of its long profile pierced the star spangled sky. On the side of this monument from Egypt was etched in strange signs the history of that country. 

My friend exclaimed:

“Look, we are all like that stone.”

Then he left without uttering another word.

Was he intoxicated? Was he mad? Was he wise? I still don’t know. Sometimes I have the impression he was right: sometimes I have the impression he had lost his mind.

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