From Things that Happen When Reading Rilke
man called Aherne from Clonakilty stopped me on a zebra crossing, and said,
‘Are you the author the Nicotine Cat and Other People? I’ve just read it
in two nights.’ I commiserated with him, and he quoted back a phrase from it,
‘Only a fool or me’.
I asked him how did he recognise me? ‘My daughter lives in Bras de Venus, and she said, ‘You can’t miss him. He’s the worst dressed man in town’. I forgot about the homage to my last neglected work, wanting to protest that, though I dress down, I’m always clean. But the patience of the drivers watching us chat in the middle of the road was at breaking point. Ever since that encounter, I’ve been wearing my Sunday best on weekdays. I’m hoping in future not to be recognised, like the blind man in Rilke’s The Notes of Malte Laurids Brigge.
Malte is aware of him selling newspapers at the gate of the Luxembourg Gardens, so self-effacing nobody notices him. He is one dimensional, flattened against the railings with his back to the world. Malte can’t bring himself to look closer, and reconstructs his appearance from conjecture, a task which preoccupies him until he has a complete picture – high hat, slack tie, low collar sprouting a chicken neck… In sum, a man with the power of making himself invisible.
Malte is satisfied there’s no need to look as he bounds past. But the flap of his frockcoat alerts the blind man, who turns round and cries out half-heartedly, ‘Le Journal, Le Journal’. Malte even thinks of stopping to buy a paper, but thinks again, fearing that his feigned indifference would be blown, and that he could somehow be made responsible for this unfortunate.
His talent for imagining things outside his experience is becoming a liability. He begins to see the newspaper seller as a figure of fate, akin to the crapulous blind man in Madame Bovary, who Emma wanted to avoid, but was strangely drawn to. And so he resolves to force himself to look at the blind man. Each attempt brings him out in a cold sweat. But on Pentecost Sunday he decides to face the truth.
The blind man doesn’t look anything like his imaginary portrait. He’s a pathetic wreck, whose angle of inclination is that of a scarecrow carelessly posted. Terror bulges behind his eyelids and drools out of his shrunken mouth like a frothing chute. Yet, on closer examination, he sports a straw hat with a red ribbon, a yellow-scarlet cravat, and a new raincoat. The blind man is wearing his Sunday best for the holiday, and the bright colours are clearly for other people. Not that it attracts any more attention than usual.
Baudelaire is wrong, Malte thinks. In ‘Les Aveugles’, he sees blind men as
merely lost souls, eyesores. ‘What are they looking for in the sky? These
matchstick-men, vaguely ridiculous, frightening children with the whites of
their sockets. The divine spark has been extinguished. Always staring upwards,
and not where they’re going, plunging further into the infinite silence of
their boundless dark. They never stop to take in their surroundings, and nod
their heads wearily, thinking the worst. All around them the city laughs,
sings, cries out, bent on pleasure. I too drag myself along, feeling stupid,
asking the same question, what do they see?’
Baudelaire contemplates the blind men as failed poets, who have given up on all the senses for the tantalisations of thought. That the ideas constantly recede before them doesn’t warrant contempt, Malte opines. Blindness is above and beyond words, and defies the philosopher’s gaze. He doesn’t needs to tear out his eyes to see what the blind man doesn’t, only to give him due recognition for standing there before him in his festive clothes.
And so Malte exults, ‘My God, You exist! What grace, what suffering! The man still believes in himself, and birds of paradise! He’s an example to us all. Putting up with everything and not judging others...’ And Malte promises himself that if he can afford a new raincoat this winter he’ll wear it like that. Blindly, invisibly, like the Holy Ghost. But at heart he knows, whether he’s destined for Higher Things or the lower depths, disguising himself in fine feathers won’t help him in the least. He has no wish to dress better than the vagrants standing every day at the same street corner, until winter comes and they disappear into the fog. When it lifts they’ll still be there, ever present and uncomplaining. ‘I live from meal to meal, from day to day, from hope to hope, from journey to journey, from illness to illness, from the cradle to the grave. But they remain the same. Endure. As though they are immortal.’
He thinks of the bag lady. ‘She who every day takes off her many layers of clothes on the café terrace with such patience and suffering it’s painful to watch. I, who if I had a withered arm would wear long wide sleeves even in bed. Each garment peeled off like the shell of a badly laid egg, bit by bit, rag by rag, until she gets down to her a tattered frock, and stands before us on one leg. The other is a dried, wasted, stump.’