In the Land of Pain

Alphonse Daudet, prolific Belle Epoque novelist, sufferer (as so many of his contemporaries
were) from tertiary syphilis, its attendant neuropathies and derangements, wrote terrifyingly little
as his disease consumed him. Between “Two days of great suffering. Spasms in my right foot,
with pains shooting all the way up my sides” and “You have to die so many times before you
die” and “I only know one thing, and that is to shout to my children ‘long live life!’ But it’s so
hard to do, when I am ripped apart by pain,” he, at various sanitaria for treatment, was hung by
his foreteeth for hours in a harrowing prescription meant to stretch his spine straight against its
inside corkscrew wasting. During these years he amassed a few pages of short descriptions of
pain; essays against erasure surrounded each by months of silence.

Edouard Manet, the painter, Daudet’s contemporary and fellow syphilitic, had brushes wrapped
by their stems with ripped cloths to his palsied hands, and painted, in ten minute occasional
bursts as he was able, miniature still lifes of the flowers his friends had left in his drawing room
for him. To a painting, they are of flowers at the height of crisp beauty, which is to say, as it is for
the seasons of the Earth round the sun, their greatest inflection towards waste. It is this second
quality which concerned him; you can feel the eloquence of his body broken by disease in his
last, finishing strokes, which made of the flowers’ boundaries with their indistinct backgrounds
something like the blur water rippling makes of the light which warms it through. A wisdom, an
eloquence of pain, accessible to Manet, which Daudet was exiled from. “The first moves of an
illness that’s sounding me out, choosing its ground. One moment it’s my eyes; floating specks;
double vision; then objects appear cut in two, the pages of a book, the letters of a word only half
read, sliced as if by billhook; cut by a scimitar. I grasp at letters by their downstrokes as they
rush by.” The specificity of his language overwhelms itself, and makes of each attempt at
utterance as sharp a thing as his symptoms. There is nowhere for pain speaking to go but inward.

(quotations from “In the Land of Pain,” tr. Julian Barnes)

Stuart GreenhouseMarch - April  2016 Issue