The Enchanted Clock
In the Palace of Versailles there is a fabulous golden clock, made for Louis XV by the king's engineer, Claude-Siméon Passemant. The astronomical clock shows the phases of the moon and the movements of the planets, and it will tell time—hours, minutes, seconds, and even sixtieths of seconds—until the year 9999. Passemant's clock brings the nature of time into sharp focus in Julia Kristeva's intricate, poetic novel The Enchanted Clock. Nivi Delisle, a psychoanalyst and magazine editor, nearly drowns while swimming off the Île de Ré; the astrophysicist Theo Passemant fishes her out of the water. They become lovers. While Theo wonders if he is descended from the clockmaker Passemant, Nivi's son Stan, who suffers from occasional comas, develops a passion for the remarkable clock at Versailles. Soon Nivi is fixated on its maker. But then the clock is stolen, and when a young writer for Nivi's magazine mysteriously dies, the clock is found near his body. The Enchanted Clock combines past and present, jumping back and forth between points of view and across eras from eighteenth-century Versailles to the present day. Its stylistically inventive narrative voices bring both immediacy and depth to our understanding of consciousness. Nivi's life resembles her creator's in many respects, coloring Kristeva's customary erudition with autobiographical poignancy. Part detective mystery, part historical fiction, The Enchanted Clock is a philosophically and linguistically multifaceted novel, full of poetic ruminations on memory, love, and the transcendence of linear time. It is one of the most illuminating works of one of France's great writers and thinkers.
THE ENCHANTED CLOCK
JULIA KRISTEVA TRANS. BY ARMINE KOTIN MORTIMER
The following is from Julia Kristeva's novel, The Enchanted Clock. An intricate, poetic novel about a golden clock, made for Louis XV by the king's engineer. The astronomical clock shows the phases of the moon and the movements of the planets, and it will tell time—hours, minutes, seconds, and even sixtieths of seconds—until the year 9999.
My son X-rays me, entrails and bones. He knows what pain constricts my throat if someone happens to raise their voice. He holds my sweaty hands when words fail me. He perceives the tears in my dry eyes when I am struggling to remain standing. Stan is the only one who realizes you exist.
You are neither a passage nor a door. I have no need for light, no more than for night, oxygen, orgasm, even death. I have had it all; I still have it. With my ex-husband Ugo Delisle and with others. Times were like that, times are like that—that's life. Now you give me what was missing: the fullness of solitude, a solitude full of you.
Obviously I have always been alone, externally as well as on the inside. But that was an absent solitude lacking existence and flavor. Alone with myself. That solitude is not filled in by you now. You make it present, and I don't suffer from it. I've come to like it. Thanks to you. You alone with me, me alone with you—because you are almost never here—the two of us alone. Nothing obligates us. No need to speak to each other. No. You make me break with the untruths of solitude. You make it vibrant; I embody it. I don't think I'm trying to reassure myself by imagining that your solitude is an echo of mine—mute coincidence, silent fulfillment. Certainly not. In a more delicate way, your solitude diffracts mine. When you are here, we listen to each other, holding hands, but this handprint endures, and we also hear each other think, whether our bodies embrace or we remain far, far apart. I like this understanding, this taste for integrated absence, this pleasure in each other—"the pleasure in God," you'll say with your distant, almost funny seriousness.
Because you are alone, though less than I am, I don't come to you to rejoin you, the better to grasp my solitude and simply to feel myself truly alone. Not to expect anything from you. Other than that you exist and that you agree to think about me, with me. Two solitudes that are annulled only at infinity. You smile. "In Eternity." I don't know what that is. You say: "A world where time does not exist." A time-out-of-time, perhaps. "We have to forget time."
If you were religious or simply a believer, "eternity" would mean "the hereafter." But you live in the stars, "in perspective," Stan says. I think we're dreaming. I call this dream a fiction, a secret transport under the open sky. But you? I like to think that you carry me within you precisely when, to scrutinize the stars, you abandon us. For interminable days and nights. I persuade myself that I am the invisible depth of your giant telescopes, the very ones that confer visible surfaces upon celestial bodies. And that during your starry time, you think, you see, you live in a cosmic solitude. I am persuaded then that you are the most alone of us all. Or the exact opposite: at the limits of the All? My sole. What to call you?
Solus? The word seems too solar, exclusive and peremptory. It would be more correct to just call you You, without a name, a conjugate secret, me in you, you in me, my Asteroid, my Alone other, my A. I have no need to emphasize anxiety to discover that I'm missing you. I constantly tremble because of it; only at intervals do I lay myself open. For what purpose? For nothing. I have chosen gratuity; now I enjoy it a bit more. The furrow of your gaze in mine, osmosis of our hands that do not let go in the face of this film that the world has become, that we watch without seeing. Your breath, your odor, your voice from which I take food and drink outside time: when you are with me, while listening to your messages, when reading your texts and your e-mails. Dreaming about you, recalling you, reinventing you. Creating you.
"I am 300 million years after the Big Bang. With you and the red stars, those galaxies that I see now as they were 13.82 billion years ago. Because it takes time for light to reach us. These are very young galaxies, no comparison to the older spirals like the Milky Way or Andromeda. Witnessing this fascinating spectacle, I see time swallowed up. ILY."
You are convinced I understand what is happening out there, in the constellation Fornax, which you have just captured on your screen. Thanks to the Hubble space telescope, which was aimed at the desired target for at least 270 hours, you managed to obtain the most detailed image of the distant universe, an "ultra deep field" that puts you in contact with what took place 13.82 billion light years before.
"ILY" is our signature, as secret as Edgar Allan Poe's purloined letter, three compacted letters, to be written but not to be spoken:
"I Love You."
Magnetic field. Disk of accretion. Our star-baby. The first Earth-like extrasolar planet, habitable. Incredible but true: ILY.
More than 13 billion light years separate us, too. I, Nivi, am swept into the abysses of my patients, listening to their spiraling labyrinths. He, my Astro, not content to try out everything his state-of-the-art telescopes can offer, the most high-performing ones on earth—from Grenoble to New Mexico, from Toulouse to Seattle—persists in camping out day and night at some hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang, a mere trifle compared to the origin of the universe. Obviously two realities that do not facilitate our nevertheless permanent meetings.
Since the day we met in the waters of the Atlantic off the coast of the Phare des Baleines, time has opened up, sweeping away limits and obstacles.1 Whatever happens, whatever the weather report, genetics, or the Internet may say, ILY is felt and thought, ILY is translated into words, acts, patients, stars, lives, and deaths. ILY in everything, in nothing.
It was a violet morning, the garnet disk of the sun barely pierced the mist, the warm sand no longer caressed my feet, nothing at all kept me on the shore. Running toward the rolling surf of the rising tide. Embracing the nervous wave. It catches me, loaded with algae and iodine. I let it massage my face, my skull, the back of my neck, my back. Force my arms, my thighs, my calves. Iridescent, warmed skin. I hear my heartbeat. I breathe in air between two waves. To be reborn has never been beyond my power. Why not? I burst out laughing, ô violet rays, I can no longer see the shore. Nothing but that circumflexed ô, no horizon. I go under, I am no longer cold, I am the iceberg that melts, the polar bear that drowns, I sink, I don't cry, ever, I will laugh to the end. What is there at the end of time? Lights still, sparks in my eyes, salt filling my throat. And my hand in his hand.
"Certain galaxies stopped making stars millions of years ago. Practically asleep. Drowned, if you prefer."
What is it? I hear an adolescent voice, its trumpeting, then velvety, timbre. I cling to the fear that's slipping away under this arrant audacity. I squeeze a hand, and always this voice; I don't give a damn what it's saying; it's as if it's trying to reach me, to grab me like a hand that does not want to let go of mine. A lifebuoy, sailor's hitch, caress.
"I think you're fine for the party . . . Oh yes. You know, there's always a handful of unrepentant revelers huddled together in the interior regions of the galaxy, celebrating new beginnings. They fuel the revelry while the galaxy takes a well-deserved rest. A new burst of stars is confirmed at 5,000 light years, and the celebration continues around the hub. Not in its core but at the margin. When the center collapses, the process begins again at the borders. Such is the life of stars. Ours too, perhaps."
The sun finishes drying my cheeks; it's burning my eyelids now, my lips. I open my eyes.
"Theo. Theo Passemant. You are on board my boat . . ." "Passemant . . . I've heard that name before . . ."
"I fished you out near here. Very far from shore . . . You had to have guts. Or be unconscious . . . Do you remember?"
"Yes. Violet rays. I was dissolving from having laughed so much . . . Much too much, for no reason . . . Nivi Delisle."
He had wrapped me in a white peignoir and a plaid blanket.
My bathing suit had come off.
"At first I thought that laughing seagulls were fluttering around a dolphin. Yes, there are dolphins that lose their way around here. Those mauve reflections . . . The tidal wind, the shadow that appeared and disappeared in the foam, struggling . . . Butthe cry was notthatof a bird, thatcry . . . could only have been the echo of a woman."
The wind had calmed, and the boat had stopped moving. I looked at his gray hair, his tanned complexion. How old might he be, this sidereal adolescent? Fifty? A little more? He shouldn't imagine, above all, that he has saved me from a melancholy suicide. That's all I need—that he should disembark like a hero at the Phare des Baleines!
"Very sorry to have scared you . . . I was having a wild time . . . I like to laugh in the water . . . Does that surprise you?"
He doesn't wait for silence to set in. Once again, Astro comes to my aid.
"Of course not. This encounter was inevitable." "You don't know me."
"I waited for you to wake up . . . I heard you dreaming." Am I supposed to say "sorry" or "thank you"? I am silent.
"I have read your books . . . certain ones. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia."2
Am I supposed to say "thank you" or "sorry"? I am still silent.
"Don't worry. My job is to look at the sky. And to remain silent, me too . . . I don't talk a lot. Never about the essential things . . . I can chat, manage, communicate . . . Not a bit neurotic . . . I will not be your patient."
So much the better! I notice he has let go of my hand; I need him to keep it. His voice continues: "Besides, we both explore deep spaces, at the two edges of the universe . . . So distant one from the other that we have no chance of meeting each other . . . Had no chance . . . The probability was close to zero. But thanks to the violet ray, it was certain . . . You can keep my sweatsuit. You are here, madam."
He had dressed me.
I remember only vague sequences of the soundtrack of this film, and the beams of the lighthouse sweeping across the night in the Fier.3 Theo must have quietly deposited me at my home. I found myself in an armchair on the veranda facing the ocean, dressed in his charcoal gray tracksuit and a plaid blanket. I didn't even have the strength to make myself some tea. I collapsed on the big bed and slept. Alone. Without Stan, without the telephone, without anyone.
From The Enchanted Clock. Used with permission of Columbia University Press. Copyright © 2017 by Julia Kristeva.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julia Kristeva is professor emerita of linguistics at the Université de Paris VII and author of many acclaimed works and novels. Her Columbia University Press books include Murder in Byzantium: A Novel (2005); Teresa, My Love: An Imagined Life of the Saint of Avila (2014); and, with Philippe Sollers, Marriage as a Fine Art (2016).
Armine Kotin Mortimer is professor emerita of French literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her contributions to French culture were recognized with the Palmes académiques distinction in 2009. She is the translator of two books by Philippe Sollers.
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