An excerpt from La Nausée by Jean-Paul Sartre. English translation by Stefi.
(...) Everyone who had belonged to the cream of Bouville between 1875 and 1910 was there, men and women, painted scrupulously by Renaudas and Bordurin.
The men built Santa Cecilia del Mare. In 1882 they founded the Association of Shipowners and Tradesmen of Bouville “to reunite in a powerful hub all good intentions, to contribute to the project of national recovery, and to keep the opposition in check..”. It is them who made Bouville the French commercial port best equipped for unloading timber and coal. The expansion of the docks was their work. They gave the maritime station all the necessary extension and by means of continuous dredging, they brought the depth of the sea bottom to 10.7 metres at low tide. In twenty years, thanks to them, the tonnage of the fishing boats, which was 5000 tons in 1869, increased to 18,000. In order to improve the conditions of the working class, they created on their own initiative and without letting any sacrifice stop them, various technical and professional learning centres, which prospered under their high protection. In 1898 they stopped the famous docks strike, and in 1914 they gave their sons to the nation.
The women, worthy companions of these fighters, founded the majority of the social services organizations, schools and workshops in the city. But most importantly they were wives and mothers. They raised fine children, taught them their rights and duties, religion, and the respect for the traditions that made France.
The general tint of the portraits was dark brown. For scruple of decency bright colours had been banned. However, in Renaulds' portraits, who preferred to paint the elderly, the snow of the hair and of the sideburns stood out on the black background: he excelled in portraying hands. In those of Bordurin instead, who was less technical, hands were a little sacrificed, but the collars shone like white marble.
It was hot and the custodian was snoring gently. I looked around the walls: I saw eyes and hands; here and there a spot of light obliterated a face. While I was headed toward Oliviero Blevigne's portrait, something caught my eye: from the top of a frame, Pacôme the businessman, cast a bright gaze on me.
He stood, the head leaning back slightly, and held the top hat and the gloves in one hand, against the pearl grey of his pants. I could not help but feel a certain admiration: I did not see anything mediocre in him, nothing that could leave room for criticism: small feet, gentle hands, wide fighter's shoulders, discreet elegance, and a hint of fantasy. He offered the visitors a perfect face, with no wrinkles. A light smile fluttered on his lips. But his grey eyes did not smile. He must have been fifty, but looked young and fresh as if he were thirty. He was handsome.
I gave up trying to find a fault in him. But he did not let go. I saw a calm, implacable judgement in his eyes. I understood then what set us apart: what I thought of him, did not concern him, it was just psychology, like in a novel. But his judgement pierced me like a sword and questioned even my very right to exist. And it was true, I had always realized it: I didn't have the right to exist. I had appeared by chance, I existed like a rock, a plant, a microbe. My life, dictated by caprice, moved in all directions. At times it gave me vague warnings, other times I heard nothing but a buzz without consequences.
But for that man with no faults, now dead, for Giovanni Pacôme, son of Mr. Pacôme of National Defense, life had been a completely different thing: his heartbeat and the mute noise of the other organs, reached him as individual rights, instantaneous and pure. For sixty years, without interruption, he had exercised his right to exist. Those gorgeous grey eyes! Not the slightest doubt had ever tarnished them. He had never been wrong, Pacôme. He had always fulfilled his duties, all his duties; his duty as a son, as a husband, as a father, as a leader. And equally he had claimed his own rights without hesitation: as a son, the right to be well educated in a proper family, and that of inheriting a good reputation and a thriving business; as a husband, the right to be cared for with tender affection; as a father, the right to be venerated, as a leader, the right to be obeyed without questioning. A right is nothing but the other aspect of a duty. His extraordinary success in business (the Pacômes are up to now the richest family in Bouville) must not have surprised him. He must have never told himself that he was happy, and when he allowed himself a pleasure, he would indulge with moderation, saying: “I am resting”. That way even pleasure, now a right too, would lose its aggressive futility.
To the left, just above his sky grey hair, I noticed some books on a shelf. Beautiful bindings: surely classics. Without a doubt, in the evening, before going to bed, Pacôme would read over a few pages of “his old Montaigne”, or an ode by Horatio, in the Latin version. Sometimes he probably read a contemporary novel too, just to keep up with the times. That's how he had discovered Barrès and Bourget.
He would then put the book down after a little while and smile. His eyes, losing that admirable self-confidence, would become dreamy. He would say: “How simple and difficult it is to do one's duty.”
He had never had second thoughts: he was a leader.
Other leaders were hanging on the wall; nothing but leaders. That handsome verdigris old man sitting in his armchair was a leader too. His white waistcoat matched exquisitely his silver hair (these portraits, painted mostly for the purpose of moral formation and with the utmost attention to exact details, were however not exempt from artistic inclination). He rested his long fine hand on the head of a little boy; an open book lay on his knees wrapped in a blanket. But his eyes wandered faraway. Everything that was invisible to the young, he could see. His name was written on a golden plate under his portrait: it must have been Pacôme, or Parrotin, or Chaigneau. I did not check. For his family, for that child, and for him, he was just Grandfather; if he had deemed it appropriate to instruct his grandson about his future duties, he would have spoken in the third person:
“You must promise your Grandfather to be good, my dear, and to study hard next year; your Grandfather may no longer be here next year.” At the sunset of his life, he lavished indulgent kindness on everyone. Even I would have received his grace, had he seen me, but I was invisible to his eyes. He would have thought that I too had grandparents once. He did not demand anything: one has no more desires at that age. Nothing, except for people to lower their voice slightly when he entered the room; except for them to show a hint of affection and respect on their face when he walked by; nothing except for his granddaughter to say at times: “Dad is extraordinary, he is the youngest of us all”; except for being the only one who could calm his grandson's tantrums and then place his hands on his head and say: “Only Grandfather knows how to cure these great sorrows”; nothing except for his son to turn to him for advice on delicate matters several times a year; nothing else, finally, but to feel serene, peaceful and infinitely good. The hand of this old gentleman must have rested very lightly on the boy's head: a blessing almost. What could he be thinking about? About his honourable past that gave him the right to talk about anything and to have the last word, always. I had not thought deeply enough the other day: Experience is a lot more than a defense against death, it is a right: the right of old men.
- The End -