“But can you imagine a worse fate for your declining years than being read aloud to by Simone de Beauvoir?” ~Elizabeth Bishop
Other people were Sartre’s idea of Hell,
but Elizabeth Bishop’s idea of Hell was Simone de Beauvoir.
And somehow these three, brimming with radical freedom
and unconventional relationships, illuminated my way
to my own path of mediocrity and obscurity punctuated
by poor, if unconventional, choices in lifestyle and relationships.
From their inspiration, I was driven to write sporadically,
love without enthusiasm, and live quietly on the fringes
of a friendly but disinterested community surrounded
by an interested but hostile society of blame and recrimination.
In some unjustified fantasy, I sometimes imagine that Sartre would
approve of me or that Beauvoir might wish me greater freedom.
Elizabeth Bishop might mourn my dim light but not think it a disaster.
But still, I imagine myself in their shoes, standing on a balcony
overlooking the Montparnasse Cemetery before writing in a cafe
on the ground floor. And here I am, just like them!, sitting with my lover,
writing in a notebook, drinking Beaujolais, and munching quietly on a fresh galette.
The words neither flow nor drip but must be pried out, singly, and with great effort.
But still, you can feel the energy, can’t you?, where fertile minds spawned the
great works, and I have spawned faint evidence of mental effort, in their shadow.
In that book, Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre’s
Antoine Roquentin gets kind of freaked
Out just looking at the root of a chestnut tree.
I thought it was pretty weird at first,
Because how can you get through life
If you freak out every time you see a
Tree root or some fool thing like a tree root?
You couldn’t go on, could you? It’d just be
One crisis after another until you went
Insane and did yourself in, but then
I kind of get it. I mean, if you look at
Anything for awhile, it can get you thinking,
And thinking is always the risky part.
Once you start thinking, everything comes
Into question, and you might not even
Be able to tell if a root is real, or you
Might start to think the root is conscious
And is staring at you, or you might start
To wonder if you are real. I mean, you
Could be part of the consciousness of
The root, but it wouldn’t have to be a root,
Either, would it? Any damn thing can send
Your thoughts careering out of control,
And you might just start feeling a little
Overwhelmed. You might feel like you can’t really
Talk to anyone, because you’re not sure whether
They are like you. Maybe they don’t see the same
Colors. Maybe they don’t feel the same feelings.
Maybe you are the only one who knows what
Pain is. Or maybe you’re just a character in their story.
But Sartre said he never felt that kind
Of nausea, and now you think maybe he was
Just an asshole. Maybe he just thought up a
Lot of stupid shit just to make money off
People who were socially anxious like
Roquentin or just anxious generally.
It was all just a joke to Sartre and his
Mescaline addled buddies, but you are
Starting to see things more clearly now.
You’re starting to want to punch that jackass
In the face, and you finally realize
Albert Camus was right about everything.