There we were, a bunch of men, after a dinner together. We’d had a great time. One of the guys, an old friend, asked me:
“Would you mind taking a walk down the Champs-Elysees with me?”
We left on a slow stroll down the long avenue, under trees with barely any leaves left on them. Silence, except for the vague, steady, background hum of Paris. A cool wind blew over our faces and the rows of stars dotting the sky gave it a golden glow.
My friend said:
“I don’t know why, buy I breathe easier here, out at night, than anywhere else. My thoughts break free of their restraints. I sometimes get some the feeling that makes you think, for a second, that you’re going to unveil the divine secret of all things. Then the window shuts and it’s over.”
From time to time, we’d see two shadows. We’d be passing in front of a bench where two lovers sat side by side, gripping each other so tightly that they looked as if they were blended together into one being.
My friend said:
“Poor fools! It’s not that they disgust me, it’s more that I pity them. Among all the mysteries of life, there’s only one that I’ve sunken into: The torment of our lives comes from being eternally alone, and all our efforts, everything we do, is an attempt to flee that solitude. Those two, there, lovers on a bench out in the street, they’re trying, like us, like everyone, to put an end to their isolation, if only for a minute. But they’re still alone, they’ll always be alone. And us, too.
“That’s the way it seems, more or less. That’s all.
“For some time, I’ve endured this abominable torture of having understood, having discovered the horrible solitude of my life, and I know that nothing can stop it, nothing, do you hear? Whatever we try, whatever we do, whatever our heart’s desire, whether we’re kissing, whether we’re hugging, we’re always alone.
“I brought you with me tonight on this stroll in order to avoid going back to my place, because I can’t take the solitude that I find there anymore. And what good will this do me? I talk, you listen, we’re still both alone, side by side, but still alone. Do you understand?
“Blessed are the simple-minded, according to Scripture. They have the illusion of happiness. They don’t feel our solitary misery, they don’t wander around like me, without contact beyond elbow-to-elbow, without any joy except the endless, self-satisfaction of suffering with the knowledge of our eternal isolation.
“You think I’m crazy, don’t you?
“Listen. Since I’ve perceived the solitude of being, I feel that I’m sinking deeper into a dark tunnel, and I can’t feel the walls and I don’t know where it ends, and perhaps there is no end! I’m traveling downward without anyone else, without any other living creature taking this same dark passage. This tunnel, it’s life. Sometimes I hear the sound of voices, and shouts … I move forward uncertainly toward these vague rumblings. But I never know just where they are; I never reach anyone, I never feel another hand reaching out in the darkness that surrounds me. Do you understand?
“Some men sometimes discovered this unspeakable suffering. Musset exclaimed:
Who’s coming? Who’s calling me? No one.
I’m alone. It’s the chiming of the clock.
Oh, solitude! Oh, poverty!
“But for him, that was only a passing doubt, and not a definitive certainty, as it is for me. He was a poet; he was populating his life with phantoms and dreams. He was never really alone. Me, I’m really alone!
“Gustave Flaubert was one of the unhappiest beings in this world, because he was extremely lucid. Didn’t he send a girlfriend these words of despair?: ‘We are all in a desert. No one understands anyone.’
“No, no one understands anyone, regardless of what they think, what they say, and whether they try to. Does the Earth know what’s happening in those stars up there, blasting like fireballs across space, so distant that we can only the see the light of a few? While a countless army of others is lost to infinity, but maybe so close together that they form a unified whole, like molecules form a human body?
“Well, man is likewise unaware of what goes on in another man. We are farther removed from each other than those stars, more isolated even, because thought is immeasurable.
“Do you know of anything more horrifying than this constant close contact with people that we can’t know? We love one another as if we were bound together by chains, we’re close, but we stretch our arms out and we can’t touch. We’re in the grip of a tortuous need of union, but our efforts are sterile, our pleasures useless, our secrets bear no fruit, our grasps impotent, our caresses in vain. When we want to get together, we just hurtle toward another person and then collide.
“I never feel as alone as I do when I bare my soul to some friend, because it’s then that I best understand the unbreakable barrier. There he is, a man; I see that his eyes are looking at me; but his soul, behind those eyes, I don’t have the slightest notion of it. He listens. What is he thinking? Do you understand this torment? Maybe he hates me. Or feels contempt for me, or is laughing at me? He’s thinking about what I say, he judges me, he’s scoffing at me, he condemns me, he decides I’m mediocre, or stupid. What’s he thinking? If I like him, does he like me? Just what’s going on in that little round head? The thoughts of someone else are so mysterious, those hidden thoughts. They’re free; they’re thoughts we can never know, never control, never dominate, never conquer!
“And me, as much as I’d love to give of myself entirely, open all the doors of my being, I can’t. In the deepest part of my soul, there’s a section that no one can ever know. No one can ever discover it, no one can get inside, because no one is like me, because no one understands anyone.
“Do you understand me, at least right now? Do you? No, you think I’m crazy! You’re looking at me, you’re wondering about me. You’re asking yourself: ‘What’s gotten into him tonight?’ But one day, if you happen to fall victim to my horrible and subtle suffering, come see me and tell me: ‘I understand you now!’ That will make me happy, for an instant, maybe.
“It’s women who bring my solitude home to me the most.
“Oh, they’ve made me suffer so, because they often gave me – more than other men have – the illusion of not being alone!
“When you fall in love, it seems you expand. A superhuman sensation takes over. Do you know why? Do you know where this immense happiness comes from? It’s because you feel that you’re no longer alone. The isolation and abandonment of other humans seems to cease. What a false impression!
“Even more tormented than we are by the eternal need of love that eats away at our solitary hearts, woman are the biggest lie of the Dream.
“You know those delicious hours spent face to face with that long-haired beauty who drives you mad. What delirium stirs our spirits! What illusion carries us away!
“She and I, we will be as one soon, doesn’t it seem? But that ‘soon’ never comes, and after weeks of waiting, hoping and counterfeit joy, I find myself suddenly, one day, more alone than I’ve ever been.
“After each kiss, after each embrace, the isolation grows. And it is so grating, so painful.
“Didn’t the poet Sully Prudhomme write:
Caresses are but troubled journeys
Fruitless attempts at pathetic love that reaches for
The impossible union of souls through bodies
“And then, farewell. It’s over. You hardly recognize that woman, who for a part of your life had meant everything to you, without you ever having known her intimate thoughts. And those thoughts were no doubt nothing special!
“Just as it seemed that, in a mysterious agreement, in a complete harmony of desire and hope, you dived as deeply as possible into her soul, a word, just one word sometimes, shows the mistake that you made, it shines like a beacon in the night, lighting up the black hole between you.
“But even so, the best thing in the world, it’s to spend an evening near a woman you love, without speaking, almost completely content just to be in her presence. Don’t ask for more, though, because two beings can never fully merge.
“As for me, at present, I have closed off my soul. I don’t tell anyone what I believe, what I think and what I like. Knowing I’m condemned to this horrible solitude, I consider things without ever giving my opinion of them. What good are opinions, arguments, pleasures, beliefs? Not being able to share anything with anyone, I’ve lost interest in everything. My invisible thoughts remain unexplored. I keep a set of answers that I use in response to everyday questions, and a smile that says ‘Yes’ when I don’t want to bother speaking.
“Do you understand me?”
We had walked up the long avenue to the Arc de Triomphe at l’Etoile, then we went back down to the Place de la Concorde. He’d been speaking slowly, and there were other things he said that I don’t remember.
He stopped suddenly, reaching out to point to the tall, granite obelisk standing on the Paris pavement. Its Egyptian profile was set against the starry sky, a monument in exile with the history of its country inscribed on its sides in strange symbols. My friend exclaimed:
“Hey, we’re just like that stone.”
Then he left, without saying another word.
Was he sick? Was he crazy? Was he wise? I still don’t know. Sometimes I think he was right; sometimes I think he’d lost his mind.
EDWARD HOPPER – Painter of Solitude
Edward Hopper is a well known American painter born in New York, in 1882. His urban and rural scenes of middle-class solitude and introspection reflect his personal vision of modern American life of the 1960’s. Hopper is recognized as a central part of the American Scene painting, expressing the loneliness, vacuity, and stagnation of town life. His haunting realist canvases evoke an enigmatic emptiness and simplicity that has become the artist’s trademark. He created some 2,500 works before he died in 1967.
Hopper is one of the most original and important American Realist painters of the 20th century, but he cringed at such categorizations. “I never tried to do the American scene,” he said. “I think American scene painters caricatured America. I always wanted to do myself.” He was a flinty individualist who was anti-FDR and anti-New Deal. He lived frugally with his wife in the same New York City fourth-floor walk-up that didn’t have central heat until the 1960s. For many years they lugged coal up on a dumbwaiter for their potbelly stove and even shared a communal bathroom. He loved theater and film, and was well read. Hopper was a very private and shy person given to depressions. He spoke very little and, not surprisingly, most of the people and places in his paintings are silent. He captured the quiet brooding of off-hours Greenwich Village, where he lived, creating the iconic masterpieces for which he is noted.
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