The Drunkards. Diego Velazquez, 1629. Chapter Nine
“She, too, of course, would have to learn to take seriously what hitherto had been, to her, the domain of muttering peasant girls, or mad monks, or wild-eyed clairvoyants. . . .”: Well, maybe she did, that fine Fraulein von Rothenberg, but I couldn’t. To me, the most reluctant of mystics—if that was indeed what I was—mysticism still was the domain of gibbering peasant girls, and I cursed the luck that had dragged me into its orbit. And, worse: . . .the sheer horror of it burst upon her, the horror primarily of having no further doubt, of knowing the Truth that had eluded so many for so long, that both God and devil are real, immanent, and insatiable. Horror? But I thought the girl was a believer. Wasn’t it good news, then? Or was it the horror of any certainty displacing life’s pleasantly fuzzy doubt? And on the other hand…List, list, oh list! Papa Hamlet’s ghost, roaring on the battlements. Hamlet fils and his There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio…that we would really rather not think about, thank you very much. The older I got, the less I wanted to contemplate the possibility that the grinning devils with pitchforks were real, let alone that the moment of their prodding was nearer by the hour. This primordial nonsense, straight out of Calvin’s ramblings, flouted Vico: Age of gods, age of heroes, age of men? No: Age of ninnies! It appalled my Enlightenment mind. I recalled David Hume’s lofty dismissal of visions: "no human testimony can have such a force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any system of religion," and Diderot’s withering putdown of same: “utter rubbish; and please let the cat out when you go.” But not even the sages of Edinburgh and Paris could deny that there was a kind of horrid logic in that hint of eternal farce in old-world Christian demonology that would be such a perfect extension of the farce of life. . . yes, an optimist might say it was all of a piece with Leibnizian theodicy, and he and/or she might find hope in the mere fact of God’s probable existence. But to me, M. de Voltaire erased that fantasy with a single word: Pangloss.And Ockham’s razor shaved too close for comfort: If you have to choose from competing theories, he said, choose the simplest because it's most likely to be true. Well, the simplest theory was that I was cuckoo. True? The next simplest, or Theory B, was that I was having hallucinations because of ... booze? Stress? Then, of course, there was the less simple, dreaded Theory C: that I had actually seen the Archangel; that he and all that he implied was real; that we were damned, or saved. Amusing, no?
(Yes! What terrifies me is God’s sense of humor.)
Too, I was getting jumpy, scrutinizing strangers in the street for signs of halos, or wings, and to ascertain that they were firmly rooted, groundwise. This was taken for ogling, or aggression. I had more than one outraged matron on the street to placate (“but your shoes, madame, your shoes, so very elegant, I must purchase a pair for my wife…”). And last Monday at the College I was hurrying down the hallway toward Lecture Theatre 3 when a cracked voice cried, “On your knees! It’s the Archangel Gustave!” I turned and saw the retreating, mirth-shaken backs of two of the younger lecturers, who turned in turn and, giggling like infants, turned away when I turned again. I dismissed them with a rude gesture, but next day (Tuesdays are always dodgy), I was at my desk laboring through a turgid essay on Alpine Poetry of the Proto-Romantic Period when Mme. Brunel, secretary to Dr. Petitpoix, our Director, rang and summoned me to his office. I was loath to be disturbed, but Petitpoix was not to be ignored, so I went, guts roiling. His office was on the top floor, with a view over the St. Gervais church and the Old Town to the Jet d’Eau in the lake shimmying like a swan’s wing in the blue beyond, all of which was much more beautiful on that still autumn day than Petitpoix himself. He was in his middle fifties, tall, a meter eighty or more in his knobby stocking feet, white-haired with, like Wagner, sideburns that almost joined under his chin. He was an ardent cross-country skier and cyclist. A Swiss patriot, he had once thrown the Unspunnenstein at the ludicrous volkisch stone-throwing festival in some Swiss-Primitive forest canton, an event at which grown men turn out in leather shorts and flowery braces and link arms to sing sentimental songs of an idealized Switzerland that isn't mine. Pictures of the event and of various bicycle races—the Tour de Romandie, the Tour de France—decorated the walls of his office.
He was leaning sideways in his chair, gazing at the ceiling, when the bovine Mme. Brunel showed me in.
“We need to get this place cleaned up, Termi,” he said. “I’m certain that’s a cobweb up there. What do you think?” He pointed, squinting. I was unconcerned with cobs or webs separately or together.
“What do you want, Petitpoix? I’m busy.”
“Well.” He looked at me with the expression of an arch-villain from Twenties films—Svengali, say, heavy on the staring and “faint smile playing over his lips” kind of thing. So I came directly to the point.
“You’ll have to drag me up before the Senate if you want to sack me, and I’ve been here longer than you have.”
“Why, I will take you to the Senate, Termi,” he said, reduced (I was pleased to note) to petulance, “if I get one more report about your public misbehavior. Drunkenness, I suppose—again.”
I sat down and demanded an explanation. He gave me a few seconds’ worth of the Svengali treatment, then heaved a long, deep sigh, like a man relieved of a heavy burden.
“I’m referring, of course, to the article in Le Procope Helvète, which describes a…well, I’m sure you’ve seen it.”
“I have not.” Le Procope Helvète is a gossip rag written by anarcho-leftists of the permanent-malcontent stripe, the types who wear the same clothes for days on end and drive oxidized 1978 Volkswagen minivans with Eat the Richdecals plastered across their cracked windows. “Pure bumwipe, Petitpoix.”
“Ha! So you say.” He handed the paper to me, tapping the article with a headmasterly index finger. “Read this.”
“’Lurid sighting in city center?’”The article was unsigned, like most articles in that broadsheet of vilification whose existence was a direct result of the Canton’s newly-lax libel laws, which in turn were a consequence of a slide in values generally. . . .The paper had the sneering style typical of book reviewers, hack journalists and undergraduates—and no wonder, as most of it was written by members of one or all of those three groups. I had contributed once or twice (twice) myself, once on Verlaine (pro), another time on Citizen Kane (con). This article was probably the incontinent spewing of a discontented ex-student of my own. I read out loud at first, then subsided into silent perusal.
“A fat pompous ugly bellicose toad of a professor and ‘man of letters’ of 50-plus is the only one known in Geneva today to claim to be a mystic, to possess that second sight that opens up the heavens for his private delectation. A mystic, truly? A new Thomas of Navarre? Do we in Calvin’s city harbor within our borders a future saint of the Roman Catholics? Or a Mahayana Buddhist, floating blissfully above a sacred mandala? Or…
“JUST ANOTHER DRUNKARD?” Inserted adjacent to this typographical shout was a photograph of a representative of the grog-blossomed fraternity, a bearded, ragged tramp glaring at the camera, holding high, in the manner of the Statue of Liberty and her torch, a bottle of (I recognized the label) Feldschlösschen beer, while elbow-levering himself up from a recumbent position under a bridge—no doubt the Pont de la Coulevrenière, traditional local kip of the local downs-and-out and, once, the fair-weather home of a young Italian stonemason’s apprentice known as “Benny Muscles” to his comrades…Reluctantly fascinated, I went on reading. Petitpoix was quietly strumming his fingers on his desk, gazing sky- or cobweb-ward.
“Statistics would argue in favor of the drunkard hypothesis, our city being quite notorious for its many imbibers, less so for its mystics. Certainly our man’s love of the bottle is well-established: He is a poivrot, pure and simple, who sucks on the bottle as an infant sucks on its mother’s tit. Or do other drugs cloud his vision? He is, after all, a poet, self-styled, with two banal collections to his credit, or disgrace, confections in a direct and predictable line of descent from Apollinaire’s Alcohols, yawn yawn, and Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, snore snore. But that he is a poet, and maudit for the inferior quality of his verses, there is no doubt. And moreover he is a visionary, for he has seen Michael—and not just Michael Dupont the taxi driver, or Michael Cornet-Rouge the hairdresser on the next corner! No, no, my friends! It is the sacred Archangel of that name whom he claims to have been introduced to, and on the fashionable Corraterie, no less, during rush-hour one banal workday last week!”
This paragraph was separated from its successor by a cartoon depicting a bald, long-fringed and heavily-mustached man of bowling-ball roundness clutching a bottle and gazing up at a hovering hippie-esque figure sporting huge bat-like wings. In the background a leering Sino-Japanese tourist was depicted with a camera. I continued, grimly, aloud again:
“Overheard in one of the city’s cafes: This well-known man of letters, or just plain man about town, or plain old man, described in intimate detail within your correspondent’s hearing the physiognomy and anatomy of the blond angel who descended in a shimmering cloud of gold dust, like a crowd-pleaser in Zizi Jeanmaire’s heyday at the Casino de Paris….’”
“Now,” said Petitpoix, ignored too long. “What do you have to say, Termi, eh? Angels on the boulevards? It’s like one of those Brazilian novels. Of course, we all know here at the college that you’ve had your problems, and of course we sympathize, but….”
I interrupted him. The article wasn’t quite over.
“Swiss cinema has fallen on hard times,” I read. “Perhaps one of our more enterprising young cinéastes should contact the esteemed visionary and propose a docudrama entitled The Poet and the Angel. Or maybe they should merely give him the number of Al-Anon, which has several convenient branches around our alcoholic metropolis. The closest to G.T.’s residence is the Rue Haldas branch, telephone number oh two two ....”
“Ah ho ho,” burbled Petitpoix. “Amusing, no?”
“No,” said I. It was an outrage. I fumed. The author even knew where I lived. But it was not a libelous outrage, as my name was never used. Naturally, I wondered about the source. Gax? The treacherous bastard! . . .unless we’d been overheard during dinner. Not impossible; after all, we treated the Lyrique as an extension of our living rooms, and spoke freely there…one of the waiters, then? Possibly. I only hoped Martine wouldn’t see it, but in her media-saturated milieu reading all the local papers was probably a daily requirement….
“Well, M. le Directeur? Under the law, which is all that matters, I wouldn’t be able to take action, because it names no one; par contre, this also means that you don’t have a leg to stand on. Therefore I categorically deny that I am the man described. So put that in your bike clips and pedal it.”
I rose and left, my bravado tempered with apprehension. As soon as I arrived home I called Gax. He stammered in a surly and quite unconvincing fashion.
“Le Proco-cope Helvète? Why would I have anything to do with that fishwrap?”
“Then somebody eavesdropped on me. It’s all in there. Just have a look.”
“Calm down, Termi. Don’t make more enemies than you can handle.”
True, but I wasn’t thinking of him; insulting one’s boss was a dangerous game, at my age. I wasn’t likely to entice further employers, if sacked, and the income from my published writings would barely support a thin titmouse. However, I did have a pension plan and twenty-four years of service, and Calvin College had an age-old system of permanent tenure called “investment,” granted to me by Petitpoix’s predecessor, that was proof against dismissal in ordinary circumstances. But it could be rescinded in the event of public disgrace, incompetence, incitement to riot, embezzlement, self-exposure, and other malfeasances, and it was my opinion that Petitpoix had been after my hide for a long time anyway, in fact ever since he first set Adidas-shod foot in the place, wearing absurd inner-thigh-revealing blue cycling shorts, yellow Equipe Romande jersey and red bandanna (and I, who happened to be in the entrance hall, directed him to the service entrance, taking him for a bicycle messenger). . . actually, the precise moment of rupture had been after a public set-to about some absurd ecological decree he had issued—collect all used snotrags and deliver en masse to the snotrag bin thrice a week on pain of death, or something equally ridiculous—and which I called it “shit” several times (yes, it was after a leisurely lunch at the Lyrique), forever earning his enmity. And I had few allies. There was Paul Trenet, my copain in the Biology department, with whom I’d gone on a beer-tasting tour of Germany in ’94. There was Mlle. Giroux in Languages, who was one of the few human beings who’d read, and appreciated, my poetry collections, and with whom I’d daringly exchanged kisses one midsummer night, down at the Perle du Lac after a heaping platter of filets de perche and two bottles of Seyssel. But Trenet was nearing retirement, and had a bad liver, and Mlle. Giroux was rumored to be in Helsinki marrying a Finn. So if Petitpoix launched an attack, I would be on my own, doughty little Belgium to his mighty Nazi divisions.
As it transpired, I launched the attack on myself, somewhat like the Arab armies in 1973. It was the Monday after my contretemps with Petitpoix, when things seemed to have died down; at least, there had been no more catcalls in the hallways, or obscure graffiti on the bulletin boards (“Big Angel’s Watching You” and “Fat-arsed Archangel” had been scrubbed off). As usual, my students were sulky, and, good middle-class kids that they were, all dressed like the impoverished children of cherry-picking illegal immigrants; but there were no overt gestures of derision or rebellion. I was actually feeling in fine fettle (as one so often is just before a disaster), having gone for a ten-kilometer walk the day before across the barren crest of the French Jura range from the Cret de la Neige to the Colomby de Gex, just to prove I could do it: windy and chill under a cirrus-streaked sky of pale blue with a view across the Genevois basin of the long finger of Leman tickling Geneva’s twat and the sky-high Savoy and Valais Alps and some of the Bernese Oberland, too, with a coy peek at Italy from the other side of Mont Blanc’s crumpled bedclothes. I had known this panorama all my life but it never failed to inspire and humble in equal measure. It was here in the eighteenth century that men first looked up at the mountains and said, “How magnificent!” instead of “There dwell demons!” The mountains liberated me from the prison of myself. They took me into the vast anonymity of Nature. They were godly, and I walked with the gods, yet burdened with a mere mortal’s knees. It was a splendid jaunt. Oh, my guts cried out from time to time and of course there was the occasional blaring fart and groan and heart-hiccup, but all in all my performance wasn’t bad for a man my age and shape. I drove down to Gex afterward, as Mont Blanc started her pink-glowing descent into night, and I followed my foot-feat with a dish of dried beef and fondue at the Bobinette and washed it all down with a crisp Pouilly-Fuissé. During dinner I refused to be drawn out of the pleasant fuzz of my thoughts, despite the intrusive booming of the television, immersing myself instead in the comforting minutiae of school openings, jazz concerts, flooded barnyards, and cars for sale in the Sunday Dauphiné Libéré. The drive back, through the darkling plain of the Pays de Gex, amid the twinkling lights of the random farms and thickening suburbs, had been a slow and stately affair, with me paying the utmost attention to the safety of the Citroen and its occupant and the Citroen responding as a well-behaved car should. Bed then at ten, a sober rising, and few smokes and little coffee; so, as I mounted the podium the next day to deliver a lecture on the life and inspired works of Pierre-Alain Deutweiler, Arch-Poet of Saas-Fee and author of Paracelsus, a Bombastic Farce, I was quite alert and relaxed…although, by the way, Martine Jeanrenaud had not been answering the phone for some days, which behavior of course I now attributed to the article in Le Procope Helvète.
But no other cloud floated in the sky of my life at that moment. Then came the next moment, and enter stage left: Cloud, in the shape of . . . HIM. Yes, the mighty boy-archangel, Michael of the Tanning Salons, scourge of the devil, favorite of bearded Russian anchorites, spitting image of the American actor Jed Ranger. (I hadn’t noticed this before, but in the interim had watched a movie starring Ranger: Pomegranate Juice, 1999); ‘h’m,’ I’d self-mused, ‘he looks like the Archangel Michael. Hic.’) This time his lighting was soft and diffuse; yet it seemed to fill the room, like the luminous wash of a lighthouse at night or the aliens’ arrival in a sci-fi movie. Slowly, the trembling will o’-the-wisp fashioned itself into a broad nimbus, rippling like a jellyfish, and drifted across the lecture hall above the oblivious heads of the students. I gaped. This time, I must confess, there was at first a touch of exultation. I recalled the drunken delight on the saint’s face in Bellini’s St. Francis in Ecstasy. I realized, this time round, that it was unbelievable, yet I believed it willingly, for there it was. I damned near heard a celestial chorus. I was, fleetingly, one of the elect. I may even have flung my head back and sunk to my knees: St. Gustave the Mystical Tango Dancer! Then doubt—sanity—set in. I heard a distant titter from the human audience, but on the angel’s face was the blandly pleasant and quite unmoved expression of a news reader, or tour guide. In his right hand he displayed his sword, as if offering it for sale; then slowly and soundlessly he sheathed it, smiling all the while. He then calmly folded his wings, exactly as he had done the first time. I was struck by the programmed quality of these gestures. They seemed automatic, as if I were watching a computer-generated image created by someone—or something—else. God?
The angelic apparition floated past the back row and paused directly above Kia Dos Santos, bisexual Brazilian anti-nuclear, anti-banking demonstrator and World Music tambourine player and daughter of the Brazilian Ambassador to the U.N. Perhaps the faint haze of marijuana smoke around her meticulously tousled head concealed the apparition from her. Or maybe she had a hangover from all that thrumming and drumming the night before. Either way, all she saw was me staring in her direction, misinterpreted this as an invasion of her hard-won private space, and got to her feet ready to do battle with any oppressive representative of white-male sex-hierarchy.
“Tiens,” she shouted, navel exposed, both thumbs hooked into the belt-loops of her jeans. “Oy, you, prof! Wotcha lookin’ at?”
“Him,” I shouted back, pointing. “Don’t you see?”
I couldn’t believe she didn’t. He was looking down at me, with fine Mantegnan perspective from the feet up; he was higher this time but there was no change in the posture of the image relative to the first time I saw it. I was reminded of the Son et Lumière show at Versailles, where a huge image of Louis XVI floats across the side of the Trianon.
“Man who is born and lives but a day, you are full of doubt and anger,” he said in the accent-free Linguaphone voice I remembered.
I found this banal, like a sermon, or a horoscope in the paper.
“You’re right, Michael,” I said, “Doubt and anger it is. Tell me something, won’t you? Just one thing, all right?”
Whether he heard or not I never knew, but the entire class certainly had. I was aware of coarse laughter and a crash, but dimly, as if there were a soundproofed barrier between me and the real, or other, world of the students beyond. What a sight I must have been, to be sure, standing there on the podium, chin thrust forward, waving my hands and bawling into the (to them) empty air….!
“The flowery language of men bears foul blooms,” said my visitor. “Only remember this: He of whom I warned you walks the earth still. And you and I will meet again upon the brow of the hill that leads to the higher place.”
“Oh very well. But that’s not what I wanted to ask you. What I want to know is this—where are you going? Wait,” for like the Cheshire Cat’s his smile faded last, as the noontime sun outside the windows turned to dusk, then back to noon again, and I came to slumped forward, clutching the sides of the podium and feeling as if I’d just emerged from underwater. A semicircle of students was standing around me. Kia Dos Santos approached warily, as to a strange, possibly mad, dog. This possibility instilled in her a strange new respect.
“Excuse me Professor Termi, but are you all right?”
Well, it was hard to say. Not really. Class was dismissed, of course, and I went home, pleading stress—exhaustion—overwork—the usual litany.
Back in my apartment I settled myself in my armchair facing the Salève and watched as the old loaf-mountain turned a mottled violet in the foggy sunset. After a quick Pernod I reached for the phone to call Martine, but, not wanting the renewed disappointment of getting no answer, went to her book instead. Another installment of Stefanie and Adolf would be a welcome distraction from the mad maze of my life, which, until recently, had been as placid and well-ordered as my dear country of Switzerland, and was now turning into a bit of a little Lebanon.