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Tropic of Cancer[北回归线][En/Cn]




Between sessions, if I had no book to read, I would go upstairs to the dormitory and chat with the pions. They were delightfully ignorant of all that was going on – especially in the world of art. Almost as ignorant as the students themselves. It was as if I had gotten into a private little madhouse with no exit signs. Sometimes I snooped around under the arcades, watching the kids marching along with huge hunks of bread stuck in their dirty mugs.



I was always hungry myself, since it was impossible for me to go to breakfast which was handed out at some ungodly hour of the morning, just when the bed was getting toasty. Huge bowls of blue Coffee with chunks of white bread and no butter to go with it. For lunch, beans or lentils with bits of meat thrown in to make it look appetizing. Food fit for a chain gang, for rock breakers. Even the wine was lousy. Things were either diluted or bloated. There were calories, but no cuisine. M. l'Econome was responsible for it all. So they said. I don't believe that, either. He was paid to keep our heads just above the water line. He didn't ask if we were suffering from piles or carbuncles; he didn't inquire if we had delicate palates or the intestines of wolves. Why should he? He was hired at so many grams the plate to produce so many kilowatts of energy. Everything in terms of horse power. It was all carefully reckoned in the fat ledgers which the pasty faced clerks scribbled in morning, noon and night. Debit and credit, with a red line down the middle of the page.



Roaming around the quadrangle with an empty belly most of the time I got to feel slightly mad. Like Charles the Silly, poor devil – only I had no Odette Champdivers with whom to play stinkfinger. Half the time I had to grub cigarettes from the students, and during the lessons sometimes I munched a bit of dry bread with them. As the fire was always going out on me I soon used up my allotment of wood. It was the devil's own time coaxing a little wood out of the ledger clerks. Finally I got so riled up about it that I would go out in the street and hunt for firewood, like an Arab. Astonishing how little firewood you could pick up in the streets of Dijon. However, these little foraging expeditions brought me into strange precincts. Got to know the little street named after a M. Philibert Papillon – a dead musician, I believe – where there was a cluster of whorehouses. It was always more cheerful hereabouts; there was the smell of cooking, and wash hanging out to dry. Once in a while I caught a glimpse of the poor half wits who lounged about inside. They were better off than the poor devils in the center of town whom I used to bump into whenever I walked through a department store. I did that frequently in order to get warm. They were doing it for the same reason, I suppose. Looking for someone to buy them a Coffee. They looked a little crazy, with the cold and the loneliness. The whole town looked a bit crazy when the blue of evening settled over it. You could walk up and down the main drive any Thursday in the week till doomsday and never meet an expansive soul. Sixty or seventy thousand people – perhaps more – wrapped in woolen underwear and nowhere to go and nothing to do. Turning out mustard by the carload. Female orchestras grinding out The Merry Widow. Silver service in the big hotels. The ducal palace rotting away, stone by stone, limb by limb. The trees screeching with frost. A ceaseless clatter of wooden shoes. The University celebrating the death of Goethe, or the birth, I don't remember which. (Usually it's the deaths that are celebrated.) Idiotic affair, anyway. Everybody yawning and stretching.



Coming through the high driveway into the quadrangle a sense of abysmal futility always came over me. Outside bleak and empty; inside, bleak and empty. A scummy sterility hanging over the town, a fog of book-learning. Slag and cinders of the past. Around the interior courts were ranged the classrooms, little shacks such as you might see in the North woods, where the pedagogues gave free rein to their voices. On the blackboard the futile abracadabra which the future citizens of the republic would have to spend their lives forgetting. Once in a while the parents were received in the big reception room just off the driveway, where there were busts of the heroes of antiquity, such as Molière, Racine, Corneille, Voltaire, etc., all the scarecrows whom the cabinet ministers mention with moist lips whenever an immortal is added to the waxworks. (No bust of Villon, no bust of Rabelais, no bust of Rimbaud.) Anyway, they met here in solemn conclave, the parents and the stuffed shirts whom the State hires to bend the minds of the young. Always this bending process, this landscape gardening to make the mind more attractive. And the youngsters came too, occasionally – the little sunflowers who would soon be transplanted from the nursery in order to decorate the municipal grassplots. Some of them were just rubber plants easily dusted with a torn chemise. All of them jerking away for dear life in the dormitories as soon as night came on. The dormitories! where the red lights glowed, where the bell rang like a fire alarm, where the treads were hollowed out in the scramble to reach the education cells.



Then there were the profs! During the first few days I got so far as to shake hands with a few of them, and of course there was always the salute with the hat when we passed under the arcades. But as for a heart to heart talk, as for walking to the corner and having a drink together, nothing doing. It was simply unimaginable. Most of them looked as though they had had the shit scared out of them. Anyway, I belonged to another hierarchy. They wouldn't even share a louse with the likes of me. They made me so damned irritated, just to look at them, that I used to curse them under my breath when I saw them coming. I used to stand there, leaning against a pillar, with a cigarette in the corner of my mouth and my hat down over my eyes, and when they got within hailing distance I would let squirt a good gob and up with the hat. I didn't even bother to open my trap and bid them the time of the day. Under my breath I simply said: "Fuck you, Jack!" and let it go at that.



After a week it seemed as if I had been here all my life. It was like a bloody, fucking nightmare that you can't throw off. Used to fall into a coma thinking about it. Just a few days ago I had arrived. Nightfall. People scurrying Home like rats under the foggy lights. The trees glittering with diamond pointed malice. I thought it all out, a thousand times or more. From the station to the Lycée it was like a promenade through the Danzig Corridor, all deckle edged, crannied, nerve ridden. A lane of dead bones, of crooked, cringing figures buried in shrouds. Spines made of sardine bones. The Lycée itself seemed to rise up out of a lake of thin snow, an inverted mountain that pointed down toward the center of the earth where God or the Devil works always in a straitjacket grinding grist for that paradise which is always a wet dream. If the sun ever shone I don't remember it. I remember nothing but the cold greasy fogs that blew in from the frozen marshes over yonder where the railroad tracks burrowed into the lurid hills. Down near the station was a canal, or perhaps it was a river, hidden away under a yellow sky, with little shacks pasted slap up against the rising edge of the banks. There was a barracks too somewhere, it struck me, because every now and then I met little yellow men from Cochin China – squirmy, opium faced runts peeping out of their baggy uniforms like dyed skeletons packed in excelsior.



The whole goddamned medievalism of the place was infernally ticklish and restive, rocking back and forth with low moans, jumping out at you from the eaves, hanging like broken necked criminals from the gargoyles. I kept looking back all the time, kept walking like a crab that you prong with a dirty fork. All those fat little monsters, those slablike effigies pasted on the façade of the Eglise St. Michel, they were following me down the crooked lanes and around corners. The whole façade of St. Michel seemed to open up like an album at night, leaving you face to face with the horrors of the printed page. When the lights went out and the characters faded away flat, dead as words, then it was quite magnificent, the façade; in every crevice of the old gnarled front there was the hollow chant of the nightwind and over the lacy rubble of cold stiff vestments there was a cloudy absinthe like drool of fog and frost.



Here, where the church stood, everything seemed turned hind side front. The church itself must have been twisted off its base by centuries of progress in the rain and snow. It lay in the Place Edgar Quinet, squat against the wind, like a dead mule. Through the Rue de la Monnaie the wind rushed like white hair streaming wild: it whirled around the white hitching posts which obstructed the free passage of omnibuses and twenty mule teams. Swinging through this exit in the early morning hours I sometimes stumbled upon Monsieur Renaud who, wrapped in his cowl like a gluttonous monk, made overtures to me in the language of the sixteenth century. Falling in step with Monsieur Renaud, the moon busting through the greasy sky like a punctured balloon, I fell immediately into the realm of the transcendental. M. Renaud had a precise speech, dry as apricots, with a heavy Brandenburger base. Used to come at me full tilt from Goethe or Fichte, with deep base notes that rumbled in the windy corners of the Place like claps of last year's thunder. Men of Yucatan, men of Zanzibar, men of Tierra del Fuego, save me from this glaucous hog rind! The North piles up about me, the glacial fjords, the blue-tipped spines, the crazy lights, the obscene Christian chant that spread like an avalanche from Etna to the Aegean. Everything frozen tight as scum, the mind locked and rimed with frost, and through the melancholy bales of chitter wit the choking gargle of louse eaten saints. White I am and wrapped in wool, swaddled, fettered, hamstrung, but in this I have no part. White to the bone, but with a cold alkali base, with saffron-tipped fingers. White, aye, but no brother of learning, no Catholic heart. White and ruthless, as the men before me who sailed out of the Elbe. I look to the sea, to the sky, to what is unintelligible and distantly near.



The snow under foot scurries before the wind, blows, tickles, stings, lisps away, whirls aloft, showers, splinters, sprays down. No sun, no roar of surf, no breaker's surge. The cold north wind pointed with barbed shafts, icy, malevolent, greedy, blighting, paralyzing. The streets turn away on their crooked elbows; they break from the hurried sight, the stern glance. They hobble away down the drifting lattice work, wheeling the church hind side front, mowing down the statues, flattening the monuments, uprooting the trees, stiffening the grass, sucking the fragrance out of the earth. Leaves dull as cement: leaves no dew can bring to glisten again. No moon will ever silver their listless plight. The seasons are come to a stagnant stop, the trees blench and wither, the wagons roll in the mica ruts with slithering harplike thuds. In the hollow of the white tipped hills, lurid and boneless Dijon slumbers. No man alive and walking through the night except the restless spirits moving southward toward the sapphire grids. Yet I am up and about, a walking ghost, a white man terrorized by the cold sanity of this slaughterhouse geometry. Who am I? What am I doing here? I fall between the cold walls of human malevolence, a white figure fluttering, sinking down through the cold lake, a mountain of skulls above me. I settle down to the cold latitudes, the chalk steps washed with indigo. The earth in its dark corridors knows my step, feels a foot abroad, a wing stirring, a gasp and a shudder. I hear the learning chaffed and chuzzled, the figures mounting upward, bat slime dripping aloft and clanging with pasteboard golden wings; I hear the trains collide, the chains rattle, the locomotive chugging, snorting, sniffing, steaming and pissing. All things come to me through the clear fog with the odor of repetition, with yellow hangovers and Gadzooks and whettikins. In the dead center, far below Dijon, far below the hyperborean regions, stands God Ajax, his shoulders strapped to the mill wheel, the olives crunching, the green marsh water alive with croaking frogs.

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