The Clerk’s Vision
And to fill all these white pages that are left for me with the same monotonous question: at what hour do the hours end? And the anterooms, the memorials, the intrigues, the negotiations with the Janitor, the Rotating Chairman, the Secretary, the Associate, the Delegate. To glimpse the Influential from afar and to send my card each year to remind – who? – that in some corner, devoted, steady, plodding, although not very sure of my existence, I too await the coming of my hour, I too exist. No. I quit.
Yes, I know, I could settle down in an idea, in a custom, in an obsession. Or stretch out on the coals of a pain or some hope and wait there, not making much noise. Of course it’s not so bad: I eat, drink, sleep, make love, observe the marked holidays and go to the beach in summer. People like me and I like them. I take my condition lightly: sickness, insomnia, nightmares, social gatherings, the idea of death, the little worm that burrows into the heart or the liver (the little worm that leaves its eggs in the brain and at night pierces the deepest sleep), the future at the expense of today – the today that never comes on time, that always loses its bets. No. I renounce my ration card, my I.D., my birth certificate, voter’s registration, passport, code number, countersign, credentials, safe conduct pass, insignia, tattoo, brand.
The world stretches out before me, the vast world of the big, the little, and the medium. Universe of kings and presidents and jailors, of mandarins and pariahs and liberators and liberated, of judges and witnesses and the condemned: stars of the first, second, third and nth magnitudes, planets, comets, bodies errant and eccentric or routine and domesticated by the laws of gravity, the subtle laws of falling, all keeping step, all turning slowly or rapidly around a void. Where they claim the central sun lies, the solar being, the hot beam made out of every human gaze, there is nothing but a hole and less than a hole: the eye of a dead fish, the giddy cavity of the eye that falls into itself and looks at itself without seeing. There is nothing with which to fill the hollow center of the whirlwind. The springs are smashed, the foundations collapsed, the visible or invisible bonds that joined one star to another, one body to another, one man to another, are nothing but a tangle of wires and thorns, a jungle of claws and teeth that twist us and chew us and spit us out and chew us again. No one hangs himself by the rope of a physical law. The equations fall tirelessly into themselves.
And in regard to the present matter, if the present matters: I do not belong to the masters. I don’t wash my hands of it, but I am not a judge, nor a witness for the prosecution, nor an executioner. I do not torture, interrogate, or suffer interrogation. I do not loudly plead for leniency, nor wish to save myself or anyone else. And for all that I don’t do and for all that they do to us, I neither ask forgiveness nor forgive. Their piety is as abject as their justice. Am I innocent? I’m guilty. Am I guilty? I’m innocent. (I’m innocent when I’m guilty, guilty when I’m innocent. I’m guilty when … but that is another song. Another song? It’s all the same song.) Guilty innocent, innocent guilty, the fact is I quit.
I remember my loves, my conversation, my friendships. I remember it all, see it all, see them all. With melancholy, but without nostalgia. And above all, without hope. I know that it is immortal, and that, if we are anything, we are the hope of something. For me, expectation has spent itself. I quit the nevertheless, the even, the in spite of everything, the moratoriums, the excuses and forgiving. I know the mechanism of the trap of morality and the drowsiness of certain words. I have lost faith in all those constructions of stone, ideas, ciphers. I quit. I no longer defend this broken tower. And, in silence, I await the event.
A light breeze, slightly chilly, will start to blow. The newspapers will talk of a cold wave. The people will shrug their shoulders and continue life as always. The first deaths will barely swell the daily count, and no one in the statistics bureau will notice that extra zero. But after a while everyone will begin to look at each other and ask: what’s happening? Because for months doors and windows are going to rattle, furniture and trees will creak. For years there will be a shivering in the bones and a chattering of teeth, chills and goose bumps. For years the chimneys, prophets, and chiefs will howl. The mist that hangs over stagnant ponds will drift into the city. And at noon beneath the equivocal sun, the breeze will drag the smell of dry blood from a slaughterhouse abandoned even by flies.
No use going out or staying at home. No use erecting walls against the impalpable. A mouth will extinguish all the fires, a doubt will root up all the decisions. It will be everywhere without being anywhere. It will blur all the. mirrors. Penetrating walls and convictions, vestments and well-tempered souls, it will install itself in the marrow of everyone. Whistling between body and body, crouching between soul and soul. And all the wounds will open because, with expert and delicate, although somewhat cold, hands, it will irritate sores and pimples, will burst pustules and swellings and dig into the old, badly healed wounds. Oh fountain of blood, forever inexhaustible! Life will be a knife, a gray and agile and cutting and exact and arbitrary blade that falls and slashes and divides. To crack, to claw, to quarter, the verbs that move with giant steps against us!
It is not the sword that shines in the confusion of what will be. It is not the saber, but fear and the whip. I speak of what is already among us. Everywhere there are trembling and whispers, insinuations and murmurs. Everywhere the light wind blows, the breeze that provokes the immense Whiplash each time it unwinds in the air. Already many carry the purple insignia in their flesh. The light wind rises from the meadows of the past, and hurries closer to our time.
“The Clerk’s Vision/Visión del escribente” By Octavio Paz, Translated by Eliot Weinberger, from EAGLE OR SUN?, copyright ©1976 by Octavio Paz and Eliot Weinberger.
Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation, agents.
Excerpt selected by the Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy.
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