Nothing to be done
[ places - october 11 ]
The tragi-comic street theatre of the Parisian tramp or clochard is a fecund seam that I mine for stories, not without a creeping lick of guilt. Take a promenade along any boulevard, through any rue or park, and you will encounter tramps, alone, in pairs or forming a petit comité on a bench. Mostly, they are approaching intoxication for reasons self-evident enough. I’m usually reminded of Beckett’s offspring, Vladimir and Estragon, by their static existence, with its forced indecision, a tree for company, and the seasons observed closely out of a self-preservation reflex.
These lives, far outside the ordinary, are lived in parallel to ours. And so, this summer, I stared in astonishment at someone who has made a phone box their home, just as, last winter, I had stared disbelievingly at someone pitching their sleeping bag on the street-mounted grill of a ventilation shaft for the Métropolitain. Here was a source of warmth and carcinogens; slow death the price paid for a more bearable present. Many surround themselves with the accoutrements of a ‘normal’ life: a transistor radio; a Thermos flask; books. Are these the vestiges of their original life, or are they archaeological finds dug out from the middens of the advanced civilisation they were once a part of, and which they now find themselves marooned in? I’ve never yet had the courage to ask, choosing to hide behind the excuse of lacklustre French speaking skills.
I said that I was usually reminded of Waiting For Godot’s celebrated itinerants, but not always. For one thing, there are the women: prematurely wizened and preternaturally tough. These are twentieth century homo sapiens who seem to have devolved into primitive habits and feral form. I stare with the same confusion as at a tribal people in documentaries on the television: we share the DNA, have the same physiology and experience the same life arc: born, (chances are we’ll) procreate, die; but what canyon-wide gap separates our existences! I stare with the same wide-mouthed wonder that R S Thomas stared at the Welsh peasant, Iago Prytherch, toiling in the field: There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.
That word ‘devolve’ won’t do, being rather insidiously puritanical in its seeming admonishment. For a part of me wonders whether, among those made destitute through fickle circumstance, there are some men and women who have willingly freed themselves from the shackles of the social treadmill that we all hop on each morning when our alarm beckons us at 6.30 a.m., dutifully showering and shaving, buttoning our washed and ironed shirts, applying our unguents and deodorants, then dutifully commuting at a silent remove from the world, either cocooned in a car, or enmeshed in a maze of MP3s on the metro, our curiosity made ever more myopic by the smartphones weighing down our hands and our gaze?
In rue Censier, a bedraggled man is deep in conversation with himself in the middle of the street. Does he see someone whom my sterile sensibility occludes? To hear his impassioned tone, his arguments pitched like a tent in a gale, with relative precision, would seem to suggest so. Perhaps he is simply schizophrenic. On Avenue Les Gobelins, a sad soul keeps his white socks iridescently clean. In Parc Richard Lenoir, there is one of the great innovators, who has appropriated an abandoned shopping trolley. She lives by her routine: putting bags within bags, turning the trolley into a sort of lived-in Matrushka doll.
To witness these scenes is to experience a sort of vision, so removed have you become from the dull patina of your routine waking life. I am often reminded of a drunkenly-lucid Charles Bukowski expatiating in a documentary on why we all enjoy seeing mad men in films:
...we admire them because they’re doing exactly what they want to do... we admire that creature because it’s aligned to do exactly what it wants to do. And the closer you get to exactly what you want to do, the better you are as a human creature or as any kind of thing.
One wonders how easy would it be to give up and walk away from even the most averagely successful life. Each human existence has the potential to become a social pressure cooker, whenever we advance up a rung on the social ladder, or entwine our lives with even just one other soul – a lover, say – in whom the potential for a union of as yet unknown family, unknown friends, and unknown strains lies.
Nothing to be done, says Estragon. Our consciences, so easily pricked, read this as: there is no cure for people such as these. But surely this has a far more literal meaning for these vagabonds: they are doing nothing. Why? Because nothing we do needs to be done. That devastating existential fact still haunts us, as we bury ourselves in perceived necessities, entangle our minds in novel distractions, like social media. Life is absurd. For we can ascribe to life whatever meaning we want. As Sartre succinctly noted: man makes himself; he is not born ready-made. And perhaps the clochard can stare at this stark truth more readily than us.
So I go on regarding these castaways from the common stream of life, these hermits who, whilst living among us, are as isolated and incomprehensible as Diogenes of Sinope must have seemed c350 BC, living in his tub. And I borrow the pattern of their existence because, as R S Thomas saw, they are somehow able to keep resisting these unfathomable plights day after day, year after year:
Yet this is your prototype, who, season by season
Against siege of rain and the wind's attrition,
Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress
Not to be stormed, even in death's confusion.
Remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars,
Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.
A Peasant, R S Thomas