Telepathy would be a wonder. Telekinesis an inestimable power.
Only after acquiring both we’d tackle teaching a stone slab to get up and move (maybe).
… we can immediately read Henri Michaux’s text The Statue and I 1.
In my spare time, I’ve been teaching a statue to walk. Given its exaggeratedly prolonged immobility, it isn’t easy. Not for the statue. Not for me. Great distance separates us, I realize that.
The futility of teaching a statue to walk! The first line presents a paradox heralding a discussion, if not a resolution. The reader is drawn onwards.
The remainder of the paragraph claims the problem is real: this is no metaphorical statue (reserve judgment on that) and the narrator is aware of the difficulties.
A few lines later in the text, the moral of a perennial piece of advice is reversed; instead of reassurance that a journey begins with a single step, implying any first step, just get going, we read:
What matters is that [the statue’s] first step be a good one. Everything depends on that first step.
This is doubly unsettling. Michaux refers to both the literal first step of a fixed piece of stone or bronze (which only magic could animate), and the metaphorical journey of an entity being taught how to walk (a journey magicked into existence would surely be an unparalleled success, psychology of the first step notwithstanding).
In general, assume that the first step of anything must be a good one and you’ll be paralysed with fear—bear this mind.
The narrator, however, approaches the issue “sensibly”:
Consequently, I practice. I practice as never before.
Standing next to the statue in a scrupulously parallel manner, our feet both raised and stiff like stakes planted in the ground.
They stand like that, the narrator repeatedly trying to capture the exact position of the statue, its foot, arch, style, bearing. Their parallelism is imperfect though, so the lesson in locomotion cannot get going.
The result is ruinous.
That’s why I’m almost unable to walk anymore myself, seized by a rigidity, though one that’s all momentum and my captivated body frightens me and no longer takes me anywhere.
On the literal plane, the narrator is becoming a statue himself. This is a story about the futility of teaching an inanimate object a distinctly human mode of action.
On the metaphorical plane, the narrator is becoming the embodiment of paralysing fear. The story is about fearing change. In particular, it is an excuse for not moving forward: perhaps he imitates an idealised image he set for himself, at the price of individual freedom; or perhaps he imitates a calcified societal norm because punishment awaits anyone who steps out of line (hence the literal interpretation of the metaphor); or the situation is absurd and this is French postmodernism that everyone puzzles out for themselves.
However you take it, the mesmerising allure of The Statue and I is the same as the one that powers puns: the shimmer between literal and metaphorical. The mortar that binds the two planes is unstable and the mind can’t decide which interpretation to pick—clues indicate this way and that, equally.
Last time I analysed another text by Michaux, Like the Sea, in which the narrator was a sea wave fearing its violent or benevolent effect on the world. There reverse personification—the metaphorical identification of a human with a non-human form—was a tool to an end. The identification was made via a simile before jumping into metaphorical language.
In The Statue and I, the process of reverse personification happens gradually, and indeed isn’t complete by the last line. The text is only a page long, so a close reading reveals how one would go about creating a similar disturbance using some other saying, for example about sticks and stones and words. A first idea would be a zen-like take on a bully who becomes the stick or the stone that he throws. (Roald Dahl does a disturbing take on the reverse, where the bullied boy… Read The Swan if you get a chance.)
Michaux’s postmodern meditation may strike you as nihilistic, so let me end on a more classical note.
All stories about statues I measure against the first and most touching one I ever encountered: Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince (available on Gutenberg for free).
The Happy Prince is a gilded statue of a real prince who’d known nothing but happiness during his secluded life, if pleasure be happiness. When he died, the statue-prince was erected on a high pedestal wherefrom he observes the great inequality and sadness of the world. He is unable to move, but his lamentations attract the attention of a swallow. At the prince’s bidding the swallow picks off and distributes bits of gold from his statue to those in greatest need.
I won’t spoil how the story ends. It’s heartbreaking except for the sweetest message buried within: even those with an indulgent past can redeem themselves, even those encased and immobile can improve the world through the agency of others, and lastly, even those with hearts of lead can love and be loved in return.
So even for the statues there is hope yet.
This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.
- Judging a Book by its Quirk Words: on Léon Bloy’s Tarantula’s Parlour and Other Unkind Tales (1893–4).
- Diabolical Framings: on Jules Barbey’s Diaboliques (1874).
- Urns as Hearts: on Jean Lorrain’s Soul-Drinker (1890s).
- Alone (With Only Your Demons for Company): on Michel de Ghelderode’s Spells (1941).
- Becoming the Sea: Fearing Fate: on Henri Michaux’s Life in the Folds (1949) and reverse personification in Like the Sea.
- Becoming a Statue: Fearing Change:
- Taken from Life in the Folds, translated from the French by Darren Jackson. ↩
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