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Archaeology: Five Miniatures

Painting

Adam has just tasted the forbidden fruit; he has bitten into the apple and he’s condemned to roll it eternally in his mouth. His mouth, wide open, is bitter. The gigantic size of the apple is in scale with the enormity of the sin. The same colour as the apple, a flower. Looked at closely, this flower is a face. What face? Sisyphus, whom one generally reduces, wrongly, to a tenacious boulder, was a crafty man, so crafty that the wordsmiths have claimed he was the father of Ulysses. Sinuous, twisting, labyrinthine, wiliness evokes nets, laces , snares, knots. And in fact, Sisyphus succeeded in chaining Thanatos who’d come to conduct him to the kingdom of the dead. He is the only mortal to have succeeded at this unheard of exploit: cheating Death, ensnaring him, reducing him to powerlessness, to such a degree that the Immortals, jealous of their privilege, come to death’s rescue and set him free. On a corner of the apple, a squirrel… no, a hobgoblin… or rather, a bird. It’s indifferent to the torments of Adam-Sisyphus and the symbolic implications of this picture. Indifferent, too, to the spectator.

(…)

The Black Coat

After killing the Minotaur, Theseus succeeded in getting out of the labyrinth thanks to the thread of Ariadne – Ariadne whom he would abandon (the ungrateful wretch!) on a desert island.

These days, the labyrinth is empty and silent.

All the same, the shadow of the Minotaur floats there, disconsolate and threatening, though in vain. The shadow yearns to be set free, but does not know how to leave this sinister place and rejoin the kingdom of the dead. So it continues to wander, without respite, in the inextricability of the labyrinth. From time to time, it knocks into other shadows, those of its victims.

On Olympus, the gods, gathered together on the occasion of a banquet, turn to Thanatos and ask him why he did not conduct the Minotaur into Hell. Wrapped in his black coat, Thanatos timidly lowers his eyes and does not answer.

So the gods leave with a huge burst of laughter. They have understood: the god of death didn’t go to seek out the shadow of the Minotaur because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to leave the labyrinth and would remain a prisoner there for all eternity.

(…)

The Dark Ones

It’s not uncommon, in the Thousand and One Nights, for someone to ask other people, whom they have come across in some far distant region, Are they human beings or demons? They answer that they’re human, and don’t fail to add, ‘But as for you, you are certainly demons…’ And so, on one side and the other, the suspicion about demonic nature exists, which – let’s admit – the verbal interchange soon afterwards wards off.

The same isn’t quite the case in a mysterious passage from the Travels of Ibn Battuta, in which the Land of Darkness is at issue. To reach it from the ‘city of Bolghar’, writes the astonishing fourteenth-century globe-trotter, requires walking for forty days in the midst of snow, on a sledge drawn by dogs. You orient yourself thanks to the leading dog who guides the pack and whose role is of primary importance; but it is also imperative, at the moment when the food supplies are distributed, that the animals eat before the men, the leading dog first, otherwise he’ll become angry and take off, abandoning the men who, deprived of their bearings, are condemned to certain death.

Ibn Battuta had not himself ventured into this dark region, reckoning that there was scarcely much profit to be drawn from it. He judged the adventure only in commercial terms – investment, benefits…. But what did he himself have to offer this country, what he did have to exchange with the inhabitants? Taking all in all, what profit did he draw from all his travels, if not for a book which he dictated late in the day, when he was far from imagining the extraordinary fortune that it would gain later?

So it is only from hearsay that he talks of the Land of Darkness. The merchants, he says, once they’ve reached their destination, deposit what they’ve brought and then withdraw. The following day, they return to the place and find, next to what they’ve left, other merchandise deposited by strange creatures who never show themselves. They can then either accept the exchange , or take back their goods and leave the area.

It is worth noticing that trust reigns between the two parties, each one honouring the contract honestly: everybody ultimately gets their due and there’s no evidence of a complaint or an altercation on record. The visitors are dealing with very discreet partners in the business, for whom gold and silver have no currency, and whose economic system depends on barter. It is they who fix the value of the merchandise on offer to them; all in silence, without sound or fury; not a single word exchanged, nor a single face glimpsed.

It isn’t known how this silent system of communication was established. While the merchants travel forty days – and what a significant number that is! – before reaching their appointed destination, nothing is known about the movements of their shadowy partners. Do they live just over the border, calmly minding their own business, or have they themselves also come from afar in order to meet – assuming that is indeed the appropriate word – the visitors? To tell the truth, we have no precise knowledge about them, except that they sustain themselves on the produce of hunting and that animal skins provide their clothes. No doubt they haven’t a notion about agriculture: what could grow well in those wildernesses of ice? How was the border established? For there definitely is one, admittedly not officially fixed , but the result of an implicit pact. Rigorously respected, this border isn’t crossed, neither in one direction nor the other. If no ban has been expressly issued, the ban is in force in people’s consciousness. It isn’t reported anywhere that a merchant, impelled by either curiosity or greed, may have slipped in among the Dark Ones. Suppose he managed to pick them out in the darkness? They’d distance themselves and knowing the lie of the land – since they’re on home ground – make him make complicated detours and easily shake him off. Alone in the darkness, without support or possibility of going back, he turns round and round, wedded to blindness and trespass.

They won’t give him a single chance to turn back, for fear that he may reveal their jealously guarded secrets. Anyhow, they’ve an effective way of fighting invaders: if the latter take it upon themselves to arrive in force, the dark ones kill their dogs and condemn them to wander for ever.

They don’t tolerate any relations with foreigners, they insist on staying among themselves, without mingling. As nobody has seen them or had the opportunity to speak to them, their identity remains uncertain. Are they humans or demons? Ibn Battuta asks himself. But other questions come to mind. Do they dissimulate because their ugliness is repulsive, or, on the other hand, because they are so beautiful they fear they might lose their brilliance, that mixing with others, they might be blighted and decay? Are they half beasts, half men, like the populations of Gog and Magog whom Horned Alexander confined to their mountains, according to the Koran, when he built a dyke that could not be crossed?

What is sure is that they wish neither to be seen, nor heard. They keep quiet but they listen. They listen because they keep quiet. Have they taken a vow of silence? Or are they incapable of uttering a single word, indeed – but that is unlikely – of crying out? Perhaps they deny themselves speech in order not to reveal a weak spot and fall to the mercies of the merchants, who would then exploit them and strip them clean. Their attitude rather reminds one of those monkeys who, according to an old tradition, refused to speak in order not to be reduced to slavery.

But the greatest likelihood is that they don’t speak so that they will not be seen! As long as they don’t utter a single word, they’re shielded from sight, they’re protected. In fact they do speak, and it is for that reason that they demand that visitors – but how did they transmit this to them? – withdraw after depositing their merchandise.

You can’t have heard them or seen them, you have never seen them, not even as furtive shadows in the midst of the ice (lovers of Tintin will inevitably think of the Yeti, the Abominable Snowman). Living at the ends of the earth, perpetual night protects them from all foreign incursion. Their territory is inaccessible, but you must recognise that on their part, they forbid themselves engaging with another territory across the way. You do not see them, but they, they see. By dint of living in the shadows, they have acquired a special optical skill, They see and are not seen: an enviable position. Nearby and faraway alike, they preserve their mystery completely. If they keep strangers at a distance, it’s because they are warned by their instincts that proximity and familiarity are the source of misunderstandings, friction and acts of violence. From what it appears, they are afraid of no longer remaining themselves, of losing their identity, which is perhaps nothing other than the mystery which envelops them.

But aren’t they deceiving themselves in thinking that by limiting the exchange to material goods and refusing to barter goods of another kind they come forearmed? In exchange for skins of marten and sable, squirrel and ermine , they receive foreign merchandise, the nature of which is not mentioned – foodstuffs, fabrics, tools? – merchandise undoubtedly haunted by the spirit of the strangers and imprinted with their consciousness.

Without a doubt, this concession is not without consequences for them. It is hard to imagine that they lack curiosity and aren’t interested in the visitors. Perhaps they’re constantly in the process of waiting for them, watching out for their arrival, and that this is even their main occupation. Aren’t they afraid that they’ll no longer see them coming back, and, when they’re late in making an appearance, aren’t they tempted to set out to look for them? Don’t they organise a party, rejoicings, when they see that at last they have come back?

Furthermore, are they all agreed about not showing themselves? It does seem to be the case, no infringement having been recorded. But the young ones, don’t they ask themselves why they have to be content with waiting for the merchants, why they don’t go out likewise towards them? What do their elders answer? How do they explain the decision to live in hiding, what history, what foundation myth do they invoke to support their behaviour?

The reality is, murmur the oldest among the Dark Ones, that it is the strangers who, refusing to make contact or communicate in any way, have established this strange and silent system of exchange. It has not been recorded that they’ve made an overture to the Dark Ones. It is they who don’t want to show themselves and disdain any relation other than mercantile: furtively, they come to deposit their merchandise at the border, withdraw speedily, and come back the following day to take the precious animal skins. It isn’t out of respect , or out of shyness, that they don’t cross the border, but from lack of interest. And it is this indifference that disturbs the Dark Ones, who, in their immense ice-bound exile, wait for those across the way, humans or demons, to make the first step and come towards them.

(…)

Metaphor

The ode, said the poets in former times, is a stray she-camel: you don’t know where she’ll end up. Lost in the immensity of the desert, she wanders looking for her nearest and dearest, animal and human. But it’s not certain that she’ll find them again. One day or other, the orphan will be taken in by persons unknown, who’ll adopt her and she’ll spend the rest of her days among them. Unless she wanders off again.

Isn’t it the fate of an ode to wander, to be a stranger everywhere?

This was something known to the Arab poet of the desert. But he thought that his odes would never be read other than in Arabic. He was far from grasping that his she-camels, centuries later, would have reached towns of which he had not the slightest idea: Berlin, Paris, London, New York.

Translated, interpreted, accompanied by commentaries, they now speak in foreign tongues.

With time, they’ll doubtless forget the idiom of their original.

(…)

The Message of Forgiveness

The last trump on Judgement Day has just sounded. Resurrected, the dead are leaving their tombs. As they – most of them – are naked (the most recent shrouds are in rags), they avoid looking at one another. During their long sojourn in the depths of the earth, they’ve lost their memory, but they know they’ll recover it thanks to a register, the one to which their good and evil deeds have been committed (the latter more numerous by far than the former). An angel will provide them with it, and they will have all eternity to meditate on the use they have made of their life here below. They will guard their register jealously. The reason for this is very simple: in the afterlife, there isn’t a library, nor, for that matter, are there mirrors. Eschatological descriptions, even the most detailed, maintain total silence about reading and – it goes without saying – about literature. From this point of view, the blessed and the damned are treated equally; it isn’t possible either for one or the other to read anything but their register, a book which, strictly speaking, they haven’t written.

Some of them – certainly the most numerous – aren’t in the least bothered by this. But for others – those who are fanatical about reading, those who, here below, lived only for reading, this is devastating. Weary of consulting their register and disgusted with themselves, they yearn, they burn, to read new things. Then the boldest of them suggest putting the registers at everyone’s disposal. At first this proposal is considered attentively, but, on reflection, not everyone is pleased by it – or rather, it pleases no one. Indeed, if ones sets aside a few exhibitionists, the idea of being read, or yielding oneself up, is intolerable. Each person feels they will be exposed like prey to the voraciousness of others and stripped of their mystery.

In the midst of indignant and vehement protests, the wisest suggest the following solution: the books will circulate in an anonymous way, everyone keeping the first page on which their name is inscribed. This proposal, once accepted, establishes an immense library and everybody can then plunge themselves indefinitely into the delicious pleasures of reading.

But one day or other – supposing that the notion of day itself still has any value – the desire to reread one’s own book will begin to be felt. At first it will seize a few; then, little by little, everybody. The great disappointment, however, will be at the meeting: in the anonymous mass of books, how to rediscover one’s own? Also, in the rage and feverishness, each and everyone will set to to find it, each and everyone will try to rediscover themselves in the immense library. An infinite task: unless they strike lucky in their quest at one moment or another, they will have to read all the books, and supposing that they succeed in this, the outcome isn’t clear because, in the interval, oblivion will have worked its ravages on their minds, and ineluctably there will come a day when they will be incapable of recognising their book, of recognising themselves.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


was born in Rabat, Morocco in 1945. He is the author of several books in Arabic and in French. He visited the British Comparative Literature conference, 'Migration' at the University of Essex in July 2013. Archéologie: Douze Miniatures was first published by Bookleg DABA Maroc in 2012.

Clare Finburgh is Senior Lecturer in Modern Drama at the University of Essex. She has co-written Jean Genet (with David Bradby, 2011) and co-edited Contemporary French Theatre and Performance (with Carl Lavery, 2011). She has translated into English two plays by Noëlle Renaude.



Marina Warner's most recent book is Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights (Vintage, 2012), and she is co-editor with Philip Kennedy of Scheherazade's Children: Global Encounters with the Arabian Nights (NYU Press, 2013).