(continued from above, Paris Notes: Rilke, Malte Laurids Brigge, and the Latin Quarter Today)
A drizzle had started: sidewalks and cobblestones all splattered with dark, ponderous droplets. There was no getting past the man except by crossing the street; he lay completely in my path, face-up in the drizzle with his big workman’s hands flung out at both sides and rain falling into the blemished palms. He didn’t appear to stir in the least to that coolness on his face. Next to the blue number of a house three or four doors down an engraved plaque was hung which reported, with nearly implausible irrelevance: “Denis Diderot, that great mind of the French Enlightenment, lived here at such-and-such a date.”
What more? There were many…
…the little dark-skinned man whose upper body was disfigured to the shape of a crescent moon. He was at the corner of the rue Cardinal Lemoine and the boulevard Saint Germain when I saw him. Pacing back and forth with a cigarette in his hand. He kept turning and turning on mincing feet: two tentative steps this way, two that way—as though confined in the tiny box of pain that each movement erected around him, as though expecting again and again to find the pain diminished by a simple about-face, again and again coming hard against the pain. The stubby cigarette kept jumping to his lips—quick pert little puff, then down again. He was neatly dressed: a good thick shirt well fitted to his scoliotic trunk and tucked smartly into his trousers. But he looked confused, seized by that distinctive confusion of people lost within themselves. He was still moving back and forth with those little satyr-like steps when I reached the quay two blocks ahead and rounded the corner.
And this, just last night:
...the tawny man on the Pont de la Tournelle: dressed all in brown, and brown himself, his pale skin seized in filth as in tarnished copper.
He was standing against the stone wall of the bridge with one shrunken hand cupped before him—not held forth in confident need—no, but kept close against his jacket, the fingers curled, the plea of the concave palm barely apparent. At his back was Notre Dame. I was watching the vaporous twilight behind the cathedral towers and didn’t notice the man till I’d passed within a few feet of him. He was standing extremely erect, as if rigid with an effort to press himself out of sight, to blend into the waist-high stone wall. Yet his need remained. His need kept his hand aloft in its dimly remembered gesture. There was a tall streetlamp beside him. It flickered aglow with all the other ones along the quay and with those huge nightlamps that enhalo the great cathedral—flickered just as I was going by him. I saw the shapeless bulk of his face: the knife-thin slits where he’d squeezed shut his eyes. He could no longer so much as look to see who his benefactors might be. He was far inside himself and it was purely obligatory to stand there in accord with his body’s need, to permit the hand to importune; he had no part in it. His lips were drawn back, his teeth bared in a deep-breathing grimace. And this was the most painful part of it: he was snuffling, or panting, or giggling—I couldn’t tell which. Sharp spasmodic sibilations almost like words, but not words. None of these people use mere words; Malte, you know this only too well.
I went past the man (just like everyone went past him) and down the stone stairs to the quay where twilight people were loitering in the mild river air. I sat down and watched the boats go by. Sat for an hour or so. And the man remained on the bridge above me. I kept looking up and seeing his brown back and inert shoulders, his brown head turning neither left nor right. The colored lights had come on in the arches of the bridge: bright colors, but they somehow shed a tainted haze. The man stood motionless in the urinous gleam. People went by him. At length I looked up again and he was gone.
But Malte, I may wonder in my time as you did in yours: in what niche does such a man carve his bed by night? Where is the place he returns to? We wonder because wondering gains us a share in the destinies of strangers—and what could better suit the work we do?
Or maybe the man hadn’t gone. Maybe he’d just lain down below the wall where I couldn’t see.
Goodnight, Paris. Goodnight city toward which so much envy flows from all corners of the earth. Again your streets will coil in their knotted courses around me as I sleep. But I am hindered by the labyrinth no more; I’ve long since surrendered. Tomorrow I’ll tarry again. It need not matter that I am lost.