Philosophy in Aden

Paul Nizan

When the elements of the universe have been mysteriously decanted and nothing remains but colorless vapors and the dregs of tides and stones, I discover that my body is lost, I cannot use it, because there is no love, there are no human actions.

Then the mind begins to ruminate on the past and on the future, on what unknown possibilities the future may hold, on things that might have been but are no longer possible, on what was not, and on what yet may be. This life of idle speculation is the harvest of boredom. It is an existence in which no operation of the faculty of thinking, no real thought, ever takes place. Real thought concerns itself with the actual, which combines an immediate presence and some sort of activity: thought requires real objects that exist in a particular place at a particular time. It sets to work on them and summons up all its resources to do them honor. A thought wants something. It desires a concrete end.

When I go for a walk on the slopes of the volcano, I am all alone and wretched as a stone. I pass lava grottos full of bats, I walk along paths edged with rocks painted white, in the bottom of ravines where poison rue and thorn-bushes grow. Great, tireless vultures watch me from their nests. Night comes, like a cloud, or a bird. On the summit of Jebel Shamshan the sun goes down amid an icy solitude. This is the time of day when you can pick up pieces of lava without burning your fingers; they are flat stones in which the crystals make patterns that look like fossil ferns. I am lost. I want to return to men who are not waiting for me under the lights of Aden, men who are not there. The crater is a great urn in which the night piles up, accumulating the mysterious ingredients of its magic. The semaphore station exchanges its final signals with ships that still loom beyond the twin peaks of Little Aden, which sailors call the Ass’s Ears. The darkness, cold as mercury, is full of invisible faces, of secret agreements, of drugs to be used for sympathetic magic. It beats like a heart. I am not saved from the pitiless day. I dare not hope for anything in this enormous night that spreads all around, cooling the deadly volcano surrounded by reflections of the moon in the sea.

I hardly want to think about this life that leads me. There is no material or human object in it; the love of a woman can be an object of thought, just as a tree can. All is absence. Show me my tools, my animals, my needs, my men. Show me fields, and weapons. If only I had a field everything would be all right, or if I had a real trade between my hands. I have objects that are my slaves. They are familiar but empty things, things that call for no invention or joy: furniture, penholders, taxis, teeth, eyeglasses, clothes, hands, doors.

We have to concern ourselves with objects. What a source of boredom and despair objects become when they are too familiar. They play as important a role in human lives as men do. It is a necessary act of charity to give them some thought.

Everyone has had the experience of coming upon strange apparitions. At Bourg-la-Reine, for instance, I once saw a melon that bad grown inside a demi-john; a greater marvel than those four-masted schooners put in bottles by retired sailors sitting on the ramparts of Belle-Ile-en-Mer. Old-fashioned opticians sometimes decorate their windows with pieces of glass, tortoise shell, and metal. These objects are even less utilitarian than the poetic lenses displayed outside of pharmacies, prisms that cast colored lights over the sidewalk and transform everything they touch. Or one may suddenly see a white skull, pure as a celestial sphere, an old-fashioned atlas of the mind with the word “phrenology” tattooed on its forehead. Or again, the photographer’s imagination may decorate his model’s thighs with black lace and garters adorned with figurines, mottos and emblems which, like the pierced hearts of the Virgin of the Sorrows and the flowers of Saint Theresa of Lisieux, divert the mind to the most uninhabitable regions of love.

These liberated islands have lost all communication with the incalculable quantities of matter fashioned for useful purposes. No more bridges, no more handles. They have escaped from the slavery of receptacles and instruments, and they cannot be put to use in the ways that have been consecrated by the wisdom of nations. For all their ugliness and poverty, we recognize them as belonging to a world in which objects and their masters live at liberty. Despite the fact that they were conceived by retired civil servants, we can identify them with the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and the poems of Rimbaud; it is simply that they have been so diverted from their true destiny that they have sunk to the level of a cannon or a flag. They enable us to enter a universe in which things do not require special directions for use, where the actions corresponding to them do not have to be learned, evoke no disgust, require no prophylactic measures, and are subject to no sanctions. Unfortunately, by the age of twelve, men already know by heart their entire retinue of objects. We must search for objects which do not require special training on our part, which do not call for actions standardized by the bureau of weights and measures. A life filled with new objects, objects capable of awakening everything in man that has never yet been put to use, would be more joyous than anything conceived by Plato. Everything is to be hoped for from such a life. All man’s resources would be utilized—the resources of his body, his instincts, his artistic abilities. We would become aware of the existence of humanity. In the meantime, let us live in our poverty, subject to habits imposed by objects, the manias of our brothers: no one is happy. And yet our brothers can be the simplest and most varied of our things.

In Aden this idleness is terrible, one is deprived of everything, even of the semblance of art and philosophy.

So life is reduced to the shallowness of the past and the dust of a future made up of habits and systems, the madness that combines the elements of poverty and excludes melons in bottles, seasons in hell, and free women. A chess match in which the living lose to the dead. The obscure foreboding that the number of these poverty-stricken combinations is infinite, leads to what can only be called despair. All the myths about the great void are simply descriptions of life lived in accordance with the intelligence and the old philosophy. The inner life is Intelligent. Despair flatters itself sometimes with being very subtle. The intelligence is an old madwoman who grinds up refuse and manufactures new things out of it. She arranges equal matches, in which opposing thoughts are always equally significant and attractive. The fact that she always regards them in an identical manner reduces them to this equality. She has two mottos: A is the same as B; it’s all the same to me. Truth comes out of the mouths of puns. She busies herself even when her master finds nothing to do, because she must always keep going: what a life! Her master watches her function the way a paralytic watches his arm jump and tremble. There is no reason why it should stop. The master wants nothing, so he never comes upon an object which his intelligence tells him is really important and capable of displacing all other objects. For her, to encounter this thought or that is a matter of indifference, she is too pure to indicate a choice. She is a mirror that has no preference among the objects reflected, she is the locus of every thought possible. She doesn't give a rap about anything: she is just as happy performing analytical operations as she would be working out various possible worlds and possible lives for man. The only dream she can bear is algebra of one kind or another. The algebra of Leibnitz, for example, sets forth all the formulas for the inner life, everything that justifies the degradation of the outer life. She makes no proposals, she has no taste for anything: she invades the entire being, and from the inevitable failure of reason, the man who is gnawed by intelligence finally infers the universal defeat of mankind. This generalization is the ultimate limit of reason and its most perfect operation. There is nothing left to do but go on as before and think about death in a new way. When no aspect of life seems to offer any reason to make a choice, some men invent comforting descriptions of death. On the other side of this watershed they divine the presence of a reservoir of events that cannot be understood by the intelligence or prefigured by the imagination. Yielding to the fatal illusions of boredom, they end up conceiving of death as a new kind of life, a life composed of the least familiar parts of the universe and the metamorphoses that the intelligence will be capable of when she is liberated at last from the body, which is about as useful to her as a dog in a game of ninepins. Death will be a life in which total exercise of the intelligence will no longer be limited by the boredom and demands of the body, which loves the life of the flesh and delights in the physical world. Still later, they get to thinking about angels.

In six months I pass through these deadly stages. Fortunately my idle body and my instincts cannot adapt to mental calculations, to art for art’s sake. I hate this life. I begin to desire a human state that would be the exact opposite of suffocating abstraction. I try to imagine free men who want to be—in reality, and not in dreams like Christians and bankers—everything it is given man to be.

I realize every day how puerile was the fear that possessed us in Paris. The acts we were expected to perform—acts that would be consistent with our families’ status, with common courtesy, and with the abstract functions of the bourgeois world—were so empty and absurd that we thought all acts were eternally sterile, like the nuns who drink herb teas to make their breasts flow, and that men must always die in the dark. When we slept we had dreams that should have shown us the truth, but our masters were powerful enough to forbid dreams from breaking into the daylight. Hence our attempts at escape, which we thought were so dramatic. We didn’t notice that everyone was happy to see us depart and encouraged us to go. All these people who gave us advice only wanted to disarm us, and they very nearly succeeded. Was there anyone who did not praise the various forms of retreat: profundity, confession, introspection, certain types of poetry, billiards, religion, the movies, adventure stories, the tabloids, the exploits of famous aviators? Novelists who wrote about inner adventures and psychologists who described conversion were held in high esteem; young men and petty clerks were congratulated on creating fantasy lives for themselves—that was called, for example, the Past Recaptured. It was even suggested that Buddhism was charming. Meanwhile our masters were easy in their minds; as long as you are busy with remembrance of things past you are no threat to anyone. To flee meant that you had no intention of taking a close look at the world you were fleeing, that you were not going to call anyone to account on the day you understood what it was all about. Go play and don’t bother the grown-ups. It was a wonderful plan for making us forget about present evils and their remedies. Any examination of the present imperils Order. You think you are innocent if you say, “I love this woman and I want to act in accordance with my love,” but you are beginning the revolution. Besides, your love will not succeed. What a sin it is to demand freedom and announce that you want to do something to achieve it! You will be driven back: to claim the right to a human act is to attack the forces responsible for all the misery in the world. The demands of man are simple. The day I began to think about them I thought I was Columbus, or Newton; anyway, they are more important than the business about the egg* or infinitesimal calculus. Because they prophesy the ruin of the world. If anyone stood in a public square in Paris and declared that men must live like human beings, that plants live like plants and it’s about time men had a right to do the same, he would disappear under a black heap of policemen.

* An allusion to a popular French anecdote that tells how Columbus used an egg to confound envious critics who said it had taken no great wit to discover the new world. It had been a simple matter, they declared, the only trick was to think of looking for it in the first place. Columbus is supposed to have replied by taking an egg and asking which of the company could make it stand on end. When everyone objected that the feat was impossible, Columbus crushed one end of the egg just enough to flatten it and stood it on the table, rebuking his enemies with the words, “That too was simple—one had only to think of it.” (Trans.)


SOURCE: Nizan, Paul. Aden, Arabie; translated from the French by Joan Pinkham (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), pp. 126-131. (French original published 1960, English translation published 1968).


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Offsite:

Paul Nizan @ Reason & Society

Paul Nizan @ Ĝirafo

Paul Nizan @ Marxists Internet Archive


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