I’m a doubter. Even things that I’ve experienced firsthand, I doubt. Immediately after X happens, I ask myself: “How can I be sure that my memory of X is trustworthy?” And were a devil to overhear my thoughts and answer: “Dear Bryan of Eagan, you are a reliable witness of X because you just saw X happen with your own eyes—are you stupid or what!?” I’d try the devil’s patience by arguing: “Thou sayest. But I only possess a memory of my eyes having seen X happen; I still don’t know if I truly saw X; I can only sense what my eyes are seeing right now, although I fear that my mind might be tricking itself on this front as well. With confidence, all I can say that I know indeed is…
I was going to make a joke here, but now I’ve decided against it. One of my favorite books was written by Alfred Jarry: it’s called Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician. Actually, that’s its name in English—I can’t yet understand French, so I must read it in Simon Watson Taylor’s translation. The reason that I mention Jarry’s book, which classes itself as “A Neo-Scientific Novel” is that, originally, to end my paragraph above, I had intended to quote something Faustroll said. Before sharing the citation in context, however, I’ll copy some words from an encyclopedia and from one of the above translator’s annotations, to refresh my memory about the identity of three persons who shall be mentioned in the passage.
- François-Marie Arouet, who took the pen name Voltaire, was famous for his wit, his attacks on the established Catholic Church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion.
- Ernest Renan was a French historian and author of La Vie de Jésus, a book which depicted Jesus as a man not deific and rejected the miracles of the gospels.
- Victor Charbonnel was a French writer and journalist, originally a priest, who quit Holy Orders and gave a series of anti-clerical lectures. He founded La Raison, a freethinking publication that argued for secularism.
Also I should remind myself that the one named Bosse-de-Nage is described in the same section of Jarry’s book as “a hydrocephalous baboon knowing no words of human language except ha ha.”
At this point, I probably won’t believe myself when I claim that I meant for this diary entry to be spontaneous and free, not bogged down with a lot of fussy hairsplitting. In truth, I wanted to write about my lifelong desire to be an artist; and I planned to quote Marcel Duchamp, who’s a hero of mine. Maybe I’ll try to do that, either below or in my next entry… but first, since I’ve gone to so much trouble fulfilling the commitment to provide a setup for Jarry’s passage, let me now give the quote itself, from chapter 14 (“Concerning the Forest of Love”)—it’s just a simple exchange:
The incline opened out suddenly into the triangle of an open space. The sky opened out too, and a sun burst open in it like the yolk of a prairie oyster bursting in the throat, and the azure became reddish blue; the sea was so warm that it steamed; the re-dyed costumes of the passers-by were splashes of color more brilliant than opaque precious stones.
“Are you Christians?” asked a bronzed man, dressed in a gaudy smock, standing in the center of the little triangular town.
“Like M. Arouet, M. Renan, and M. Charbonnel,” I answered after some reflection.
“I am God,” said Faustroll.
“Ha ha!” said Bosse-de-Nage, without further commentary.
Thus I remained in charge of the skiff with the baboon cabin boy, who passed the time by jumping on my shoulders and pissing down my back; but I beat him off with blows from a bundle of writs, and observed with curiosity from far off the demeanor of the gaily dressed man who had approved of Faustroll’s answer.
Now I’ll say a couple words about my childhood yearning…
I’ve always wished that I could be an artist. When I was in my teens, I went to the local library and browsed the shelves and found a book about modern art. It was mostly paintings—I was thrilled by them: I wanted to join in on the fun and become a painter.
I’ve lived my whole life in the same suburban area. The people here do not like any kind of art very much, and, even though the period labeled “modern” is now long past, my fellow suburbanites tend to be offended by “modern” styles and “modern” artworks. If I were a teenager growing up today in one of the big cities like New York or Paris or Berlin, I might learn to look down on the modernists as old-fashioned, because of my knowledge of the newest developments in art; but, since I remain in a backward land that is comparatively rural, the ancient movement of modernism maintains its freshness to me: it feels alive and daring, and I still love it.
Yet, to speak of an artistic movement is to speak of a vague cluster of associates, rather than to focus on an individual artist—I prefer the latter; and, although I’ve gained much from both, I’d rather lose myself in gazing on a single work of art than in studying genres. But I’m not in the mood to list a whole lot of names of people and pieces; and even though I said above that I planned to mention Duchamp, now I’d rather not. I’m tired of listening to myself.