April 23, 2020
I was born with two eyes to see the world as far as my legs could take me. But now my legs are paralyzed, and my sight limited. I can only see a tiny fragment of the world, as much as my window allows me to see. No more can I find the door that leads me outside. I might die before feeling the soil under my feet; before being out there in the sea or ocean; before listening to the birds’ song and the silence of trees in a deep forest; before climbing up the mountains to see how far those unending valleys take me; before discovering or rediscovering anything left to us by the Greeks and Romans, the Egyptians and Persians, the Indus Valley people and American Indians, Raphael and Michelangelo – before seeing, once again, the masterpieces of nature and humanity.
The streets are emptied. The houses are full. I have lost count of the days of my exiled life. You may wonder whether it is a prison or castle window I am looking from. But I have not committed a crime to be imprisoned. Nor am I a fairy-princess shut out in a medieval castle. I am told I am dangerous. Some invisible enemy can easily turn me into a killing machine when I leave my nutshell. It can do so in a second, against my will. So I have to stay in my confined world while the enemy is waiting out there, at my doorway.
What am I to do? There is no one to help me regain my faculty of reflection. Or maybe there is. Who can make my hopeless present comprehensible better than a writer? Who can supply a longer list of narratives about the instinct of human survival and the sufferings of those facing an unknown reality better than literature? What writers have thought decades or centuries ago may be still useful several generations later. I start to think about fictional characters like Alice. What if she had never fallen down a rabbit hole? Were she given a choice she would probably have never swapped her cozy birthplace for Wonderland. Had she not fallen into a strange world accidentally there would have been no tale of her adventures. Should I also start to see my forced exile from the world as a chance to rediscover life? Am I not given a sign that I should stop seeking pleasure among people and start to learn something new about myself? There is a change in the outside world; perhaps something needs to be changed about myself, too. New reality seems alien, violent, chaotic, senseless. I am not heard. By whom? The cause of it is itself both sightless and invisible. But I have to accept reality as it is, even if my thoughts cannot quite conceive it. It makes no sense to fight against the senseless. I should rather attempt to find my way around even if I have to abandon my old habits and tastes just as Alice changes her body sizes to become part of a fantastic reality. It is time to learn something new about myself. It is time to abandon some of my old habits, no matter how hard it is. Don’t you remember the sufferings of the narrator of A la Recherche du temps perdu, going to bed without being solaced by his mother’s goodnight kiss or sleeping in unfamiliar rooms at different moments in his life? Yet was not breaking with his usual habits life-altering? Was it not the act of quitting his old habits and beliefs that led to his development as an artist, as a creative thinker? In any case, breaking with old habits does not necessarily mean forgetting the past, like the inhabitants of Márquez’s Macondo infected with insomnia plague and amnesia.
Then I reflect on the lot of Alice and narrator. Both are left alone in strange situations, just as I am. Yet their intimidating shelters are not permanent. Alice may walk out of the underworld, the narrator from the room; I can go nowhere. I am not in Wonderland to travel back to my birthplace like Alice; nor am I suffering from the loss of time and memory like Marcel in order to make a book out of my experiences. No longer can I move in space.
Yet time remains in my possession even if space does not. No longer do I count down my remaining hours, days, months. The clock is ticking no more in my nutshell. I start to follow the rhythm of the Earth. I plant a flower, a tree. I feel time passing and the seasons changing. I see the Sun moving in the sky at daylight. At night I meet the far-away stars and the moon. Time, it seems, is no longer measured by a ‘pocket watch’, or by a ‘white rabbit’ on earth. All rest in deep silence at nightfall. Mother earth has won back its natural rhythm.
How much I would have preferred to be lodged somewhere out there in nature than within these senseless walls. Who knows, I might have even built my habitat in a cave and started a new life far from human society, had I been as lucky as Robinson Crusoe. Then my life would have become more animated than it is. Things would have had come back to life. I would have been able to live in harmony with nature. But my ship has not been wrecked in a storm during a far-away journey. I have not ended up on an island like Crusoe.
How long will I stay in my nutshell? I can give no answer. Had I been a snail, I could have been locked in my shell for a lifetime. Had I been a once strong and noble lion, I would have become a weaker and poor creature in a cage, awaiting perhaps nothing else but death. Though the lion is still able to survive in a cage. But nature has not imprisoned me in my shell like a snail. Nor have people brought me in a cage like a lion. I am neither a snail nor a lion. I am a human being. I need to think, to imagine, to nourish my soul in order to animate my self-awareness. I desire to be in contact with life and with others. Is there a tie which holds me to the outside world as before? I desire to listen again to my heartbeat when I hear the rhythms and sounds of music and dance. No dance scene, not even the iconic tango in the movie Scent of a Woman will ever be equal to the thrill of the original. I am in search of deeper emotions, of diversity of feelings that the simple adjustment of colors can tell in a painting; or a combination of gestures, speech and music in a theatre piece. And I need to share my feelings with a friend. I have had enough of looking at life through a window. Did not a wise man called Pirsig tell us that the journey of discovery is the one that is traveled with a motorbike rather than the one seen from the automobile window? How long will I continue to see the world through my nutshell?
I used to see the world lit by the Sun. Now I see things in a man-made light. A phone has gone up as a barrier between the surrounding world and me. Images on a phone screen are now shaping my worldview and beliefs. No longer do I see objects as they are; I can only see their shadows projected on the screen. No longer do I see people made out of flesh; I can only see phantoms of those I have never met before. I start to believe in what my eyes see. I start to live the life of unknown people coming into vision on my phone and TV screens. I forget those I have met and known; I find comfort in my daydreams and beliefs nourished by a TV and phone; I start to look like the inmates of Plato’s Cave deceived by their eyes. Like them, I lose the faculty of imagining what is hidden from my sight. Like them, I start to believe that what I see on the screen is the real world and not an illusion. I change reality for fantasy little by little. No longer am I longing for a day when I will leave my nutshell. This strange world is becoming familiar to me.
Perhaps I should revolt against my lot, perhaps I should find delight in welcoming back the real world. Perhaps I should no longer trust my eyes, especially now when my eyesight is more limited than ever before. I need to open myself to the unacquainted world, like the brave prisoner escaped from Plato’s Cave. Like him, I will have to make a painful journey to gain self-awareness. Like him, I will discover real things that are at first unknown and incomprehensible to me. Then I may regain my power of reflection, just as the brave prisoner gains wisdom when he is able to direct his gaze toward the Sun.
I was born with two eyes to see the world as far as my legs could take me. But now my legs are paralyzed, and my sight limited. One day my eyes will see more than a tiny fragment of the world. One day I will find the door which leads me outside.
As a grantee of the Swiss Confederation and a PhD candidate at the University of Lausanne, I am currently working on a research project on the aesthetics and philosophy of time in the early twentieth century prose. This project includes writings of Catherine Colomb, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust. Its boundaries have been extended to the study of language and metaphors of war in my presentations at the 8th Congress of the European Society of Comparative Literature (ESCL) (Lille, 2019), Annual Conference of the Swiss Association of Comparative and General Literatures (Lausanne, 208) and 11th Congress of German Franco-Romanistic Association (Osnabrück, 2018).
I have published on Virginia Woolf and Catherine Colomb in Journal of Gender Studies and peer-reviewed books (such as Apprenties Sages. Apprentiissages au féminin, Reims, 2018). Other work on Colomb, Woolf, and Proust will appear in Études de littérature des xxe et xxie siècles (ed. Didier Alexandre, Classiques Garnier) and ESCL publications.