One of my constant preoccupations is to understand how other people can exist, how there can be souls that aren’t mine, consciousnesses that have nothing to do with my own, which—because it’s a consciousness—seems to me like the only one. I accept that the man standing before me, who speaks with words like mine and gesticulates as I do or could do, is in some sense my fellow creature. But so are the figures from illustrations that fill my imagination, the characters I meet in novels, and the dramatic personae that move on stage through the actors who represent them.
No one, I suppose, genuinely admits the real existence of another person. We may concede that the person is alive and that he thinks and feels as we do, but there will always be an unnamed element of difference, a materialized inequality. There are figures from the past and living images from books that are more real to us than the incarnate indifferences that talk to us over shop counters, or happen to glance at us in the trams, or brush against us in the dead happenstance of the streets. Most people are no more for us than scenery, generally the invisible scenery of a street we know by heart.
I feel more kinship and intimacy with certain characters described in books and certain images I’ve seen in prints than I feel with many so-called real people, who are of that metaphysical insignificance known as flesh and blood. And ‘flesh and blood’ in fact describes them rather well: they’re like chunks of meat displayed in the window of a butcher’s, dead things bleeding as if they were alive, shanks and cutlets of Destiny.
I’m not ashamed of feeling this way, as I’ve discovered that’s how everyone feels. What seems to lie behind people’s mutual contempt and indifference, such that they can kill each other like assassins who don’t really feel they’re killing, or like soldiers who don’t think about what they’re doing, is that no one pays heed to the apparently abstruse fact that other people are also living souls.
On certain days, in certain moments, brought to me by I don’t know what breeze and opened to me by the opening of I don’t know what door, I suddenly feel that the corner grocer is a thinking entity, that his assistant, who at this moment is bent over a sack of potatoes next to the entrance, is truly a soul capable of suffering.
When I was told yesterday that the employee of the tobacco shop had committed suicide, it seemed like a lie. Poor man, he also existed! We had forgotten this, all of us, all who knew him in the same way as all those who never met him. Tomorrow we’ll forget him even better. But he evidently had a soul, for he killed himself. Passion? Anxiety? No doubt… But for me, as for all humanity, there’s only the memory of a dumb smile and a shabby sports coat that hung unevenly from the shoulders. That’s all that remains to me of this man who felt so much that he killed himself for feeling, since what else does one kill himself for? Once, as I was buying cigarettes from him, it occurred to me that he would go bald early. As it turns out, he didn’t have time enough to go bald. That’s one of the memories I have of him. What other one can I have, if even this one is not of him but of one of my thoughts?
I suddenly see his corpse, the coffin where they placed him, the so alien grave where they must have lowered him, and it dawns on me that the cashier of the tobacco shop, with crooked coat and all, was in a certain way the whole of humanity.
It was only a flash. What’s clear to me now, today, as the human being I am, is that he died. That’s all.
I’ve always worried, in those occasional moments of detachment when we become conscious of ourselves as individuals who are seen as ‘others’ by other people, about the physical and even moral impression I must make on those who observe me and talk to me, whether on a daily basis or in a chance meeting.
We’re all used to thinking of ourselves as primarily mental realities, and of other people as immediately physical realities. We vaguely see ourselves as physical people, in so far as we consider how we look to others. And we vaguely see others as mental realities, though only when we’re in love or in conflict does it really dawn on us that they, like we, are predominantly soul.
And so sometimes I lose myself in futile speculations about the sort of person I am in the eyes of others: how my voice sounds, what kind of impression I leave in their involuntary memory, how my gestures, my words and my visible life are inscribed on the retinas of their interpretation. I’ve never succeeded in seeing myself from the outside. No mirror can show us ourself from outside, because no mirror can take us out of ourself. We would need a different soul, a different way of looking and thinking. If I were an actor projected on a screen, or if I recorded my voice on records, I’m certain that I still wouldn’t know what I am on the outside, because like it or not, and no matter what I might record of myself, I’m always here inside, enclosed by high walls, on the private estate of my consciousness of me.
I don’t know if others are like me, or if the science of life consists essentially in being so alienated from oneself that this alienation becomes second nature, such that one can participate in life as an exile from his own consciousness. Or perhaps other people, even more self-absorbed than I, are completely given over to the brutishness of being only themselves, living outwardly by the same miracle that enables bees to form societies more highly organized than any nation and allows ants to communicate with a language of tiny antennae whose results surpass our complex system of mutual understanding.
The geography of our consciousness of reality is an endless complexity of irregular coasts, low and high mountains, and myriad lakes. And if I ponder too mich, I see it all as a kind of map, like that of the Pays du Tendre or of Gulliver’s Travels, a fantasy of exactitude inscribed in an ironic or fanciful book for the amusement of superior beings, who know where countries are really countries.
Everything is complex for those who think, and no doubt thought itself takes delight in making things yet more complex. But those who think need to justify their abdication with a vast programme of understanding, which they set forth—like liars their explanations—with heaps of exaggerated detail that eventually reveal, once the earth is swept away, the lying root.
Everything is complex, or I’m the one who’s complex. But at any rate it doesn’t matter, because at any rate nothing matters. All of this, all these considerations that have strayed off the broad highway, vegetate in the gardens of excluded gods like climbing plants detached from their walls. And on this night as I conclude these inconclusive considerations, I smile at the vital irony which makes them appear in a human soul that has already, even before there were stars, an orphan of Fate’s grand purposes.