Translating Silence:
Notes on Bousquet and Learning French

Has the time finally arrived? For years, I’ve been struck by that itch, common to a lot of people who ready and study French philosophy, no doubt: a resigned understanding that a lot of the best scholarship and further reading just isn’t available in English and is unlikely to be any time soon. So, best to make a go of reading and translating it for yourself.

Joë Bousquet has been the final straw for me, as he has come back to me time and again like a boomerang. He is famous for being injured in Vailly, a hotly contested region on the border of France and Switzerland, just six months before the end of the First World War. Though he survived, he became a paraplegic, suffering from chronic pain. A short biography prefacing a Gallimard edition of one of his books reads:

On 27 May 1918, a bullet hit him, severing his spinal cord. At the age of twenty-one, he began a life of immobility. From 1924 until his death, he lived in Carcassonne in “the room with the closed shutters”. It was there that he undertook to “naturalise his wound”.

Bedbound and shrinking from the light of the world, he embarked on the writer’s life, surrounding himself with books, writing poetry and prose, filling dozens of notebooks and sending copious letters, corresponding with some of the best-known (or otherwise notorious) writers and artists of the day, particularly the Surrealists. He soon became an important writer in his own right.

My interest in him was first piqued by Deleuze’s infrequent references to his works, and his wounding, particularly in the “Twenty-First Series of the Event” from Logic of Sense. It’s my favourite chapter of that book, and I’ve drawn on it many times. Fully elucidating his stoicism, Deleuze writes:

We are sometimes hesitant to call Stoic[ism] a concrete or poetic way of life, as if the name of a doctrine were too bookish or abstract to designate the most personal relation with a wound. But where do doctrines come from, if not from wounds and vital aphorisms which, with their charge of exemplary provocation, are so many speculative anecdotes? Joe Bousquet must be called Stoic. He apprehends the wound that he bears deep within his body in its eternal truth as a pure event. To the extent that events are articulated in us, they wait for us and invite us in. They signal us: “My wound existed before me, I was born to embody it.” It is a question of attaining this will that the event creates in us; of becoming the quasi-cause of what is produced within us, the Operator…

It is a passage that I think problematises much of his philosophy, and I am particularly interested in exploring how this sentiment unfurls in his numerous other references — not least in Oedipus, who surely does this exquisitely, if also disastrously and tragically. Though anti-Oedipal, Deleuze’s philosophy seeks out other ways to meet your destiny.

But there’s something about this orientation that isn’t just defeatist, accepting one’s fate, but rather, as Nietzsche would argue, loving one’s fate for the intensities that it produces within you. This is true enough of “the Genius of Òc”, in the words of Renat Nelli, referring to the cultural history of Provence and the Languedoc-Roussillon, where Bousquet lived and died. Born in Narbonne and spending his life in Carcassonne, he was closely associated with the region and its literary explosion, centring on the radical literary journal, the Cahiers du Sud. Particularly during and after the Second World War, the land of the troubadours once again became an artistic retreat; a hotbed for French modernisms. Indeed, despite being subsumed within Vichy France, it was arguably the very occupation that allowed so many to experiment with new modes of expression and resistance — as both militants and artists.

I became newly fascinated with this period after spending time in the Roussillon at the end of summer, 2021. I spent a lot of summers there as a kid too, as my parents had a dream of retiring out there, which they sadly never realised. Its cultural history fascinates me — its in-betweenness; the cultural bravado of the French Resistance, whose militancy still bubbles under the surface of an area otherwise known for its popularity among the rich and famous; its status as a contested land, historically part of Catalonia; the region where Ezra Pound and Walter Benjamin both walked, one seeing the birth of a new world and the other the end of the old one.

In fact, I’d really love to write a book about it one day (if I ever again find the time). I feel like I’ve gathered up all these stories about strange cultural encounters in the South of France that could fit together into a wonderfully weird little travelogue — the Fauves in Collioure, the Cubists in Ceret, Claude Simon sailing on noumenal winds, Bataille at the caves of Lascaux, Benjamin’s route to Catalonia, Bousquet’s bed in Carcassonne, the Holy Grail at Rennes-le-Chateau, and so many more. It paints the peculiar picture of a region perhaps most famous for its medieval lyric poetry but where, strangely, no more songs are sung of its more recent (oc)cultural history (at least outside of France and its academy).

These serendipitous encounters aside, I also keep returning to Bousquet every time I think about my old essay, “The Primal Wound”. I’ve wanted to return to it for a while as well, and although I’ve got enough on my plate right now, having started Lainging psychoanalysis at the end of last year, Bousquet’s very embodiment of his wound, which both made and ruined his life, makes him a figure I want to get to know now more than ever.

The only problem, of course, is that no one has ever written about him at any length in English, nor have they translated any of his works. So I’m left wanting to do it for myself…

A further problem — and its quite a big one — is that I don’t really speak French… My reading comprehension is passable, but that counts for little when reading such poetic prose as this… But i wonder if this could be an interesting way to learn, feeling it out. If I don’t understand the language, I feel I do, at the very least, understand Bousquet’s position and the place from which he is writing. So, perhaps I’ll start to share some stuff over the next few weeks and months, as I try to figure him out…

To start, I’ve picked up Traduit du Silence, a volume edited together from his various notebooks. This is not his Cahier noir, a volume of bedbound fantasies, of sexual and violent desires, which are far more infamous and scandalous. These, on the contrary, are far more introspective, focusing on that wound at the heart of himself. It is a silent void, the nonetheless deafening nature of which he hopes to translate into words. Below, the first few paragraphs, which I translated yesterday, trying to figure out the grammar and taking a few poetic liberties with the phrasing that I think better encapsulates the intended meaning — which I may be getting completely wrong, of course, but it’s a learning curve.

It should come as no surprise that this writer I’ve felt so drawn to is a bit of a goth… Here, in the opening few pages, we find a man who hasn’t yet come to terms with his wound. There’s a ways to go before Bousquet’s Stoicism presumably emerges. In fact, he seems to be at war with himself in these opening passages. And the battle unfolds like a Poean horror, in which his pain takes on the form of his double. But rather than being a shadow that follows him around, he is the shadow of it. This other “me” that determines him.

It’s all very melodramatic. I love it.

After a number of years, I have come to understand that the nature of things makes my desire for death into a law. Not because I am myself, but because I am a man. Right now, each of my sensations is full of a growing discontent that I will try to define over the following pages: I receive a mouthful of horror with every breathe, in every moment, which gives every act of my life an aftertaste, and with each taste, I feel a little more capable of describing this horror than I was before.

Through the perception of an object, whatever it is, I feel a kind of harm done to my thinking. The world in which I live is overwhelmed by the weight of the light – a light I cannot penetrate without all the thoughts becoming transparent and non-existent like ghosts. This world is grotesque, and it has to wear its absurdity on its face since, without knowing others, I can judge it to be imperfect. You can’t stay in the horrible light, under the hideous rain of rays, and if someone as hurt as I am still lives there, it’s because I don’t know which path to take to the night.

There is a night inside the night.

Some evenings, I feel touched by a kind of melancholy, a sad insensitivity. I feel inferior, then worthy of the mediocrity to which my life certainly conforms. I feel cut off from the world by an idea that I have of beauty. I don’t suffer; but I savour and think about my silence as if it were the perfectly appropriate expression of my inner nothingness.

I have a disgust for this “I”, because I know that he holds the reality of the world in his hands. I hate this “I” which, instead of forming me, determines me. For he is the unity of all my instants, but he abandons me in the midst of them, abandoning me to my thoughts – that is to say, he puts me face-to-face with the exterior world that is outside of him.

This is just a fragment, of course. I am stuck on the paragraph that follows the final one here. If anyone has any advice on best ways to approach this sort of translation — resources, guides, e-learning courses, etc. — I’d appreciate it. I don’t want my very rudimentary reading proficiency to get too much in the way here, and I am mostly relying on guesswork, a French-English dictionary and a little bit of Google Translate if the grammar boggles my brain, but I would like to take it seriously and find ways to improve as I go that aren’t so reliant on dodgy crutches…

(Getting better at speaking French will have to be undertaken separately, I feel… I’m awful at it… Rendered a silent bag of nerves when the opporunity arises… If I could find an excuse to go stay in Carcassonne or Perpignan again, at least for six months, and have a real go at it, I think I would. If anyone comes across an opportunity that might be suitable for throwing myself in the deep end and learning that way — evidently the best way — I’d appreciate that as well.)


  1. Cher Matt,
    je suis -alongise Brigid et une autre colleague- l’un des trois que vous avez invité à parler un ‘tit peu de Mark Fisher dans quelques mois. Mais dans cette commentaire-ci je voudrais tout simplement souligner qu’une fois que j’ai finalement lu votre publication, je l’ai beaucoup aimé, comment je l’ai trouvé super inter-essant, et combien il m’a souvenu ce sorte de projet que j’avais l’idée de faire sur la condition handicapée de Franz Biberkoptf en Berlin AlexanderPlatz de Alfred Döblin et la Phénoménologie de la perception merleau-pontyenne. Tout ce que je voulais dire c’est que j’ai trouvé, et je le fais encore, une relation entre la ‘disparition’ d’un membre individuel et des disparitions aux niveaux plus collectives. Je viens et je suis née en Argentine, donc, j’imagine, vous pourrez imaginer de quoi je parle par rapport à notre dernière dictature (1976-1983). Quoi qu’il en fut, je vous salue cordialement, et j’espère que tant notre invitation comme cette communication soient des bonnes excuses pour nous maintenir en communication.

  2. I have just recently visited Carcassonne for the first time, only having visited the region once before, a dozen years ago. Although somewhat familiar with the Surrealists, Bousquets name is new to me.

    Regarding French conversation, I can only say that being left to fend for yourself as it were, is invaluable. You are forced to use your execrable French on the unsuspecting population, without an fluent assistant to guide you. You suffer the embarrassment of your own mistakes & failures of comprehension, but without the cringe – making sensations of being overseen by a lover, friend or associate. These, if fluent are often prone to butt in to help you get by but usually take over the interaction, so you learn less.

    Being a tolerable mimic, I have found I can make myself understood to some extent, usually having gleaned sentences from phrase books. However I mostly do not follow the replies as I never know what to expect & have rarely spent enough time in France in order to start getting a feel for the sound of the language & those common catch phrases used by many.
    I have found most French are quite accepting of one’s efforts. Only in pressured situations is patience sometimes not shown. Can’t you see I gave customers waiting?!
    So: go alone, go for a good length of time & develop a very thick skin regarding any embarrassment!

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