On being famous
Atlas – Air France n°73 – July 1972
The foremost advantage of a tub, when one lives in one I mean, is not having a guestroom: one can then invite friends with impunity; they never come. Without harm, one can even insist, recommending the hotel opposite, on condition that one has taken the precaution of choosing the aforesaid hotel because of its expensiveness and because it is protected by at least three stars. For then, either they will shrink back from the expense, or, if they do go to the luxury hotel, the haughty reprobation of the personnel will make it quickly understood that the visitors of the house cannot be expected to keep company with an individual having neither private chauffeur nor traveller cheques.
The second advantage of the tub is that its exiguity does not permit even the smallest library, discouraging authors from sending you their books.
“Ah, sir”, I got used to saying to the author, who was always in search of a dedication, “how I’d love to read your last work! But, you see, I don’t know where to put it. The last time I tried cohabiting with a book, it ended with a synovial extravasation because I got my foot caught in it while getting out to respond to a call of nature. At my age, synovial extravasations are very unpleasant. So you will understand, Sir, that I cannot read your book”.
Having neither books to obscure my ideas nor friends to give me their affection, am I not the happiest of men? I only have intruders and nuisances, the spice of life. I ask myself what I would do without them.
My latest intruder was a colleague, a philosopher. He had just completed a thesis on the concept of En-Soi in the works of Diogenes the Cynic, and wanted to have my opinion, because, I don’t know if you can remember, Diogenes, that’s me. I remarked that no works existed by Diogenes the Cynic. He stared at me in astonishment for a moment, then asked in which way this remark had any bearing on his thesis.
“In the fact”, I said, “that I don’t see how one can write a thesis on a nonexistent work.”
“What?” he exclaimed, “what did you say? But you are truly ignorant!”
And he raised the canvas cover of the wheelbarrow (hadn’t I mentioned it?) that he had pushed up with his two thin arms. From it appeared an enormous manuscript of about three thousand pages. All that on Diogenes! I stood up, flattered, and thumbed through the work of my honorable colleague. Each page comprised two parts. The one on top, occupying a third of the page, was the text. Underneath, the other two-thirds were a mass of notes and references. Because it was so exceptional, I seized the colossal book round its waist, took it into my tub, installed myself with difficulty, and started to read this monument to my glory.
I don’t know why reading it reminded me of an old anecdote of my days in Athens in the school of the Sophists. A teacher was explaining the first verse of the Odyssey to his disciples. At the back of the room, a not-very-smart bearded fellow was trying to make himself unnoticeable.
“Hey, you there”, said the teacher, “Your turn. I’m turning the hour-glass. We’re listening to you.”
“Well, Master, I didn’t understand your explanations very well.”
“Did not understand? You’re making us laugh, you ignorant lout.” (The audience was splitting their sides with laughter.) “What’s your name?”
I couldn’t either. I understood nothing at all in this book on Diogenes. As I progressed in the reading of it, my synovial extravasation caused me more and more cruel pain.
“Are you certain”, I asked my honorable colleague, “that this book concerns me?”
The honorable colleague drew himself up.
“I acknowledge“, he said, “that I detached myself from the subject. Moreover, that’s what the president of the jury said as he gave me a very honorable mention.”
“Still between us, what do you think of Diogenes?” I asked.
“Between us” (he scrutinized the surroundings with suspicion and bent to whisper in my ear), “between us, I don’t know very well any more whether I think something of him, and — still between us — that leaves me completely indifferent. Consider. I have worked for twenty years on a thesis. To write it, I have had to read more than three thousand different books and texts, search in twenty libraries, visit countless places. Between us, Diogenes, if he ever existed, did he do as much?”
“I can assure you, no. To my knowledge, three thousand books didn’t exist in his day. And anyway, Diogenes was too lazy to read them.”
“Thank you”, said the honorable colleague. “You’ve understood me.”
With that, he put his thesis in the barrow, drew the canvas over it, and went. As for me, I took a nap, for nothing clears your understanding better.■