Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Joanna Scott, “Infidels” from Conjunctions #71

Victor Hugo: Lace and Ghosts, ca. 1855

Victor Hugo: Lace and Ghosts, ca. 1855

It was a damp November afternoon in Paris in 1887 when the man who would be identified in the book only as “C” suffered the first symptoms of the affliction that would make him noteworthy. He had risen from his nap and settled comfortably into his armchair by the window overlooking the Place des Vosges. Droplets from the thick fog ran like tears down the exterior of the glass. A wood fire crackled and filled the room with its soothing fragrance.1

1 I came across the story of C when I was browsing at a used bookstore in Ithaca. I read the case history while standing in the aisle. Stupidly, I left without purchasing the book. When I returned for it later, the book was gone. I don’t recall the title. C’s story, however, left an indelible impression in my mind.

This is one of those offbeat stories: I can’t quite get a handle on it, but it fascinates me. It presents as walking a fine line between fiction and nonfiction while skillfully dodging verifications. Telescoping narrations make it something like a walk through a maze of twisty little passages. And by complete coincidence (ah, yes, another coincidence; how I love these coincidences!) I happened to read something this morning that might be relevant. Or not. And this is going to be one of those posts: way too long, meandering into tangential waters, and written more for my own edification and later recall than for readers. Sorry.

The first clever trick blurring the line between fiction and fact is the (unnamed first person) narrator’s description, quoted above, of how she came across the story of C. I avoid the “I read this somewhere but I can’t remember where” thing unless I must include something with a source I can’t find, but here, it’s used as a literary device. Combined with this is the second trick, footnotes, almost always associated with nonfiction but most recently popularized in fiction by DFW (LitHub tells me Infinite Jest doesn’t use footnotes at all, but, rather, endnotes, and explains the difference in terms of reading; I confess, I hate endnotes because they do force me to choose to continue in a straight line or take a brief detour and return, having lost forward momentum, but who am I to argue with DFW).

At this point C becomes something close to a third-person narrator within the first-person narration, and the setting shifts to 19th century Paris, specifically Place des Vosges. The story will necessarily inform us, a bit later, that this is the former location of French royalty, destroyed by Catherine de Medici after her husband, Henri II, was killed in a joust there; turns out she wasn’t crazy about the place to begin with, so what could be seen as a gesture of grief might just be an aesthetic choice and the cleaning out of a really big attic now that the owner is gone. But the location is important for another reason: it was where Victor Hugo lived for sixteen years. And, by the way, is the current home of the Maison de Victor Hugo, the museum containing, among other things, his drawings. I had not known Victor Hugo drew, but it seems he left behind thousands of critically acclaimed abstract and impressionistic works, one of which I’ve used as a header image above.

C is not a fan of fiction in general, and is even more emphatically not a fan of Hugo in particular:

He was secretly critical of contemporary men of letters and blamed novelists, especially, for pandering to the public and emptying their work of useful information. The worst of them, in his opinion, was Victor Hugo, who used to live in an apartment across the square. C had read a couple of novels and a book of verse by his former neighbor. He wasn’t inclined to read more. He wasn’t at all curious. What was there to be curious about if there was nothing to learn?

I love that line about “nothing to learn.” I’ve said many times that my favorite fiction teaches me something. Here, I learned a great deal about Places de Vosges, for example, and a bit about Victor Hugo. Sometimes we learn more intangible things from fiction: another point of view, how it feels to walk in someone’s shoes, the harmful effects of our own barely-noticed prejudices. But C feels the only learning to be done is to be found in military histories and biographies.

He is reading, in fact, on that day in 1887 when we come to know him. And another touch of nonfiction: a footnote informs us the passage C is reading is from Gibbons. I checked (of course I did; in a story like this, I check everything); indeed it is. But he has a problem: when he comes to the word infidels, he can’t read it.

Really, it should have been easy enough for C to comprehend. Yet, to his dismay, the word was utterly unintelligible. His eyes processed the letters in their correct order. His brain received the information in the usual fashion. He inhaled, and his oxygenated blood flowed briskly. All organs were seemingly in working order, and C was very much awake, utterly sober and self-aware, but the eight letters of that English word were as devoid of meaning as if he had never learned to read. …
The letters were so unrecognizable that infidel wasn’t even a word to him. It was a solid blankness, a splotch of spilled ink, an absolute nothing.

Our narrator goes on to explain how this was not the phenomenon known to contemporary neuroscience as semantic satiation, where repetition of a particular word renders it meaningless. I’ve read about this many times, but I’ve never had it happen to me; I’ll have to take it on faith that it’s a relatively common experience, though it is not C’s problem.

And again, a footnote, but instead of an intersection with nonfiction, it is itself a fiction: the cited article (claiming that mobile devices have reduced the vocabulary to the point where some words are repeated more often, causing “a dramatic uptick” in semantic satiation) and the journal it appears in are fictitious.The author names are nearly comedic exercises. Pissoralüpa? Really? Then again, if someone had tried to convince me that @southpaw was really Luppe Luppen, I would have thought that was a joke, so who’s to tell with names. But none of it is googleable, so I’m assuming it’s fictional. It’s a good thing, since a later footnote cites the same article as claiming that humanity will be illiterate by 2150, again, presumably, thanks to the internet (and I just put up a major rant about blaming the internet for all of society’s ills). Yet it’s the internet that convinces me the article is fictitious. Twisty passages, see?

Poor C’s troubles don’t end with the word infidel. He is momentarily relieved to find the other words are perfectly readable, until they aren’t. “It was as if the light within each letter went out one by one, until each word was dark.” Another great turn of phrase: meaning as a light within a word, a light that can, for reasons we don’t always understand, go out.

And here’s where personal coincidence comes in to play. This morning, before I started this post (I’d pulled quotes and done some preliminary research and art searching yesterday), I saw an article on Aeon about posterior cortical atrophy, a form of dementia that alters how the brain interprets the signals the eyes send. I was interested because I remember from some of my neuroscience moocs that the eyes send signals from light falling on the retina, but the image, what we see, is created in the brain. When that goes awry, a street can look like an ocean, and words like smudges. Granted, this is not C’s problem any more than semantic satiation. His problem is specific to words, not all vision. And while strokes and other brain lesions can affect reading, they typically would affect speech as well. Still, there are interesting parallels, and the brain is the true undiscovered country.

By the way: why did Scott chose infidel as the word that would signal such a calamity? In the present American climate it’s a bit loaded, but would it have been in 1887’s Paris? Does it fit C for his distaste for Hugo, for fiction in general? Does the use of this word convey some sense of punishment being wrought upon him? And why is the word pluralized in the title? Are there other infidels in the story?

Now the narrator briefly enters the story. She describes a 1981 trip to Paris, during which time she wandered through the Place des Vosges and had a conversation with an elderly Parisian woman who told her the history of the site. It seems there is a ghost story connected to it as well: the woman claims the ghost of Henri II frequents the park, and she has seen him several times herself.

I didn’t bother to wait around to see if the ghost of Henri II would make his entrance that evening. It had become increasingly obvious to me that the woman was suffering from senility. I could only hope that she was receiving adequate care. As for me, though I appreciate a good ghost story, I thought I could tell the difference between fiction and fact – until I stumbled across the story of C.

Don’t we all think we know the difference. By the way, I can’t find any reference to the ghost of Henri II, or anyone else, connected with the Place des Vosges.

We return to the final scene of the story. I won’t go into detail – it’s much better read – but will propose that it somewhat reprises the narrator’s trip to Paris by bringing C together with a ghost and a drawing. And, in that meeting, C realizes all that he has lost:

It occurred to him that he had judged Hugo’s work too harshly through the years. His inclination to find faults had dominated his reading experience. He realized that in his urge to be critical, he had missed the sheer, absorbing pleasure of Hugo’s books….
He had failed to fully savor the distinct satisfaction that comes with reading selflessly, propelled by selfless interest. All through his adult life, when his intellect was at its sharpest, he had positioned himself in competition with the books in the library. Now it was too late to start over. He had missed his chance.

I can’t help but think this is every author’s warning, or perhaps plea to every reader. While C’s story takes only one day, it seems to span centuries, from Henri II’s 16th to Victor Hugo’s 19th to our own 21st. I learned something about the past and the present, about history and literature and neuroscience. Blended in with the question of fiction or nonfiction is the nature of reading, and the difference between reading critically (which has its place) and pleasure reading, which can take on a broader sense of enjoying the world or finding fault because it is not perfect.

This is my second encounter with Scott. Pushcart 2016 featured her story “The Knowledge Gallery” which drove me mad trying to figure out the significance of the key element. I resorted to emailing Scott, and she was very gracious in her reply, for which I am still grateful.

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