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Sport 5: Spring 1990

Vincent O'Sullivan — Qui êtes-vous vraiment M. Meryon?

page 125

Vincent O'Sullivan

Qui êtes-vous vraiment M. Meryon?

Homme libre, toujours to chériras la mer!
La mer est ton miroir, to contemples ton âme
Darts le déroulement infini de sa lame,
Et ton esprit n'est pas un gouffre moins amer.

He wanted—M. Baudelaire—he wanted to write poems for me. For me. Can you imagine that? For the etchings I did of Paris. My famous pictures. 'La Morgue.' 'Le Pont Neuf.' You must have seen them? Must have seen the way I move the shadows and let the paper speak whiter, more pure, as my shadows grow more thick. And always something that puzzles as you look. Why I place birds there wheeling like flakes of soot. Like black snow.

Baudelaire said my pictures were visions as well as facts. He said, 'In the cross-hatched lines of your etchings all becomes a dreadful mirror. I am the only poet who understands these things.' He was standing right there, in my studio, when he said he wanted to find the words that would match what I saw. He said, 'I too am an explorer of the modern soul. I have images that equal yours.' His forests of ships' masts and the musk of black women with hair like wet heavy ropes. M. Baudelaire standing here, at my shoulder, as he watches my blade move slowly across the metal plates. He said, 'You use your knife like a surgeon, you are a true artiste.' And I said to him, 'M. Baudelaire, I will find my own words for my own scored flesh. You are a great poet but I do not need you. I am who I am.'

'Ah, he said, 'but who are you exactly, Charles Meryon?'

You must let me tell you then, a little. It was not always tin plates I ate from. Locked doors. This beard which makes me look like a madman, no? Even you, M. Baudelaire, do not know everything about the soul. You do not know how innocence corrupts more profoundly than those favourite words of yours—luxury, boredom. There are more frightening things than those. There is space and savagery. There is the nakedness of things exactly as they are.

You must let me go back to before this cell at Charenton. We are not page 126here, for the moment. We are back to when I wore this jacket. Lieutenant, you notice that? When my ship Le Rhin rode at anchor not two hundred metres from where you are sitting now. Akaroa. 'The long harbour.' I could not believe it when we sailed through the black cliffs into this calm. The forest grew to the water's edge. In the mornings we stood on deck and the sound of birds was beyond belief. The natives moved on the shoreline like figures in ancient stories, like turning a Greek vase. Oh, we were full of Rousseau in those days! Full of humanity. Optimism. I had never seen such men, such women, as in Tahiti. I remembered our Revolution was for them as much as us—remember the slogans? 'Liberty for all races, all men as brothers.' To be French was to carry that torch. The first race of Europe hand in hand with the noble savage. You see this friend I drew in Akaroa? Ah well. Our dreams founder on the reefs of fact, no? Where I wanted my savages to be gods I saw poverty and laziness and dirt. For the torch of equality we shared with them the flare of disease. Reads from letter: Le contact des Européens là, comme partout, ne leur est que défavorable; ils se corrompent au lieu de s'améliorer et chaque jour marchent à leur perte.'

Yet I am still a young man. When I ask myself what should life be, I still want the world to answer—it will be what you make it. Sin is not our destiny. To be a bastard is not a flaw across existence. This man I write to—mon père—an English doctor. My mother is a dancing girl at the Paris opera and will die insane at thirty-eight. My birth is a small black bird that flies above me, very high, on even the finest days. I look at Mt Benoit across the harbour there—that lovely peak, you know it? Above the bush, above our little inconsequential port. There is a circling hawk beside that high pure rock. I understand such things.

I am here for two years. I draw pictures. We sail to other islands. To Valparaiso. Sydney. I walk these hills until I know them better than I do anywhere on earth. I grow into the Pacific until I seem another man. And then I return home. 'Oh, le beau et bon pays que la France, comme on apprend à l'aimer quand on est éloigne!' You cannot imagine Paris in the 1840s. Before the world turned sour. When the future of man still seemed a broad path to freedom. I thought myself the very man to draw that path. Let me tell you about one picture I had planned. 1848, the year of light! A square picture. A triangular group, apex slightly to the right, the horizon lit up to the left. France is the principal figure and rises from a heap of ruins, the mirror of truth held high in her right hand. A naked boy child is at her side. In the foreground a girl binds the wounds of a victorious but dying warrior. The picture was still in my mind when the barricades fell, when the monarchy was restored, when the people of page 127Paris were crushed, and so it was never done. The noble European is no more true then than the noble savage. Under cannibalism man eats man. Under capitalism the reverse is true. So much for Hope!

Ton esquif passager sur l'orageuse mer
Qu'on appelle la Vie, Océan dur, amer,
Ou trop souvent, hélas, fallacieux rivage,
L'esprit qui nous leurrait va mourir au rivage.

There was a girl in a restaurant who was supposed to have driven me mad. It says so in the books. She was a waitress in a cheap establishment and my disappointment brought me to this. To have made me an isolato. Listen to this. 'The lonely meditations of a brain already morbid, suspicious in later life and shrinking from human intercourse, were visible even then in his melancholy.' I am not interested in temperament, my dear friends. God has chosen me for more than temperament! He has chosen me for truth. Looks at himself in mirror.

Regardez en cette image
Le sombre Meryon
Au grotesque visage.

A man tells the truth by looking at things exactly as they are. Yet that is very hard. Because there is perspective, which speaks to us in different voices. There is the curve of a stone, say, the solidness of a wall with sunlight falling across it. They remain exact. Precise. They also change while I walk. Every artist, you see, must tell two truths at the same time. The world is there, like this hand. The world is disappearing, as my hand also disappears ... two, one, nada.. . . Let me tell you about the divine lie which is art.

You will know my etching 'Le Petit Pont'? A row of austere buildings above the Quai, the towers of Notre Dame above the buildings. It is very famous. And the towers in fact are higher than the laws of perspective allow—the idea of Notre Dame, you see, as well as every inch of it, to perfection. This is what I do. I make a drawing from down here, near the edge of the river. I am looking directly up—so. Then I draw it again, from here, as every passer-by will see it. I then fit both together to make my etching. I do not copy Notre Dame, you notice. I compose it with an accuracy more piquant than any one sighting can ever do. Every detail—a ledge as delicate as frost, the grand elegant pilasters—these are there with more precision than any eye before mine has ever noticed. They are page 128also there as no other eye shall ever see them again, except through me.

My line, then, which is so respected for its truth, is an instrument to carry us past mere fact. It lets the spirit talk to me from stone. And what do you think the spirit of Paris is? Imagine, to begin with, you look through these walls towards the hills. You see the snagged fleeces of the clouds on those majestic rocks. You see a southern ocean more pure than we conceive. You see the natives at ease with Original Sin. They have neither the need nor the desire to make themselves children of God. And now imagine everything that you mean by that word European. You dip that word in the Pacific and it breaks up like sodden bread. The feast of civilisation becomes an empty plate. You see what we have to fear. And always the paradox, my friends. The beauty of a face like this. Indicates drawing of a Maori head. And here are we. Turns to drawing of Le Stryge, the gargoyle on Notre Dame. Which is the face that tells me more of Christ? And which is the history of what we are? The story of the streets we walk in every day? Ah, M. Baudelaire, I have my own poems too. I have words for our friend here. Notre image. Notre semblable!

Insatiable vampire, l'eternelle luxure
Sur la grande cité convoite sa pâture.

I am not always this solemn, of course! Sometimes I put balloons in the sky over Paris. I call one Speranza. I call another Vasco de Gama. My friends simply don't know what to say. Whoever saw that kind of armada over Paris? I did, I say. And sometimes I see canoes and whales where others only see a drifting cloud. Ah Charles, they say, what a sense of the bizarre! And I tell them other secrets I know. I say if we gave up this lecherous indulgent notion of sleeping on beds level as this table. If we gave up that, I tell them, if we slept on an angle like this, facing the rising sun, would not our lives make so much more sense? I have done it myself. A couple of long boards. Ropes round here to keep you from falling down. There is such an effort in sleeping, the mind has no time for sensual thoughts! But tell people this and you would be amazed at how embarrassed they become. Or we are walking along the street, say, and someone says there is a good place to eat down here, it is only a few minutes. No, I say. But they say it's very good. So I tell them how in every doorway in that street there is a Jesuit observing us. The enemies of progress and liberty in every doorway, in their silent black slippers and their Spanish cloaks. At first they think this too is a joke. How can you know such things, Meryon? How do I know the sun shines, I say? How do I know the rain makes me wet? You might as well ask me to doubt that page 129I breathe. Or to believe that it is not wrong to eat while others go hungry. You see this arm, for instance? When I was an officer in New Zealand it was as thick as that. When I ate pork and drank wine with every meal. When I was a young man and simply didn't think. And the poor in Paris, in those days? The poor were everywhere, and like the poor at all times, they were hungry. And now I look at my meagre arm and know that things are so much better for them. I am hungry nearly always, but there are not so many poor. Slowly, slowly, I turn my empty plate into a shining world. I see such things in Paris you must promise not to tell.

'Le Collège Henri IV', you must all know that? My pictures that will puzzle the future more than any other. At first it is a panorama. There is the great rectangle of the College itself, the high buildings that surround the courtyards. Next to those, on the right, the formal gardens, then further right again, the rows of houses. On the side of one house you might see my monogram—so elaborately drawn that in the distance it is like an eye. In the foreground there are naked classical figures, so much larger than life. They are the figures we Europeans revere—but they are also confused and afraid. And why not? At the back of the etching, at the end of our city streets, there is already the Ocean. There is the promise of deluge. And you will see not only the Ocean. You will see a small figure is riding a whale. There are the triangular canvasses of Polynesian canoes. Is it not so very clear? Paris between its antique dreams, its civilisation, and the rising tide of empire, of a damaged world, corroding its margins.

I draw this picture over again. It is the same view of almost the same things. Only you notice now the water is higher, the streets are in flood. The naked figures are wading for their lives. For you see how the Ocean from those outskirts has poured across the city. The canoes are larger. Leviathan is riding to his new home. This is the conscience of France turning on itself. And you notice where the city and the invading Ocean meet? That house that breaks the engulfing tide? It is the home of Charles Meryon which is both Paris and the deluge.

You will understand then Victor Hugo. You know what that great man said of me? Of this mind that the doctors tell you is corrupting into chaos? 'Cette belle imagination', that is what he called it. '11 ne faut pas que cette belle imagination soit châtiée de la grande lutte qu'elle livre à l'infini, tantôt en contemplant l'Océan, tantôt en contemplant Paris.' My mind which is at the border of immense terror, immense calm. What I offer you, mes chers confrères, is that indecision in yourself. To see the dreadful accuracy of things exactly as they are. To know the wheeling, riding visions above the streets we walk. To guess the shadows of each page 130doorway as we pass. Oh, there is nothing to sharpen one's pencil like being a bastard when it is human folly one wants to draw!

Quel mortel habitait
En ce gite si sombre?
Qui donc la se cachait,
Dans la nuit et dans 1'ombre;

Etait-ce la Vertu,
Pauvre silencieuse?
Le crime, diras-tu,
Quelqu'dme vicieuse.

Ah! ma foi, je 1'ignore;
Si to veux le savoir,
Curieux, vas-y voir
Il en est temps encore.

Il en est temps toujours ... This gift of perception the medical profession presumes to call my'delirious melancholia'. As though to be a little more than sane disturbs these mere doctors, these mechanics of the body. Even my death you will find documented as a kind of dementia. You will read that on 14 February 1868, believing myself Christ detained by the Pharisees, I continue in my refusal to deprive the poor of their food. Yet ask yourselves. Is a man to be called demented who starves himself for his friends? That man is very certain, indeed. Very deliberate. And the brave are always sane-a fact which unsettles the ordinary mind extraordinarily! ... Well, we have seen a great deal together, you and 1. The Akaroa you see almost as clearly as I did from Charenton. The waves. Always the waves. Mt Benoit. Mt Herbert. You cannot look at these hills, this harbour, these circling birds, with more care than I have given them. You cannot look at our world, look at each other, with more disillusionment, yet with more love.

J'espère en un autre âge,
Naviguant dans tes yeux,
Revoir encore la plage,
La mer et les vaissaux.

Mon ami et matelot,
Humanité, toi que j'aime
Comme un autre moi-même,
A revoir, à bientôt!

page 131
Black and WHite Illustration

Le Collège Henri IV, 1864


Qui êtes-vous vraiment Monsieur Meryon?, in a translation by Christiane Mortelier, was performed by the Wellington actor Bruce Phillips at the French 1990 Colloquium at Akaroa on 17 August. This one-actor piece was written specifically for that occasion, to suggest through the details of Meryon s life at least one kind of relationship between Europe and the Pacific. Several of the etchings referred to in the text were back-projected during the performance.

Charles Meryon (1822-1868) was the illegitimate son of an English doctor and a Paris dancer. As a young man he spent two years attached to the French settlement at Akaroa, as a junior officer on the corvette Le Rhin, and calling at Sydney, Valparaiso, and a number of Pacific islands. He left the naval service soon after his return to France, and was soon famous as an etcher, and over several years became markedly eccentric and unstable. He died in the asylum at Charenton-Saint-Maurice. Although there is no satisfactory biography, there are many essays and monographs on Meryon, and numerous articles. These are meticulously recorded by the pre-eminant Meryon scholar, R.D.J. Collins, in Charles Meryon, A Bibliography (University of Otago Press, 1986).

This monologue is based squarely on the known facts of Meryon's life, drawn mainly from the studies by Burly, Bouvenne, Delted and Ecke. (See Collins' Bibliography.) Naturally the dramatic patterns go beyond those facts, but the. lines from the poems he wrote, very often to accompany his own artwork, as well as biographical details—including his bizarre 'theories' on living—can be verified from these various sources, and from copies of his Akaroa the Alexander Turnbull Library. Such incidents as canoes and whales above Paris, or flotillas of named balloons, are from his actual etchings.

The piece opens with the first four lines of Baudelaire's 'L'Homme et la Mer'. The lines 'Regardez en cette visage' are adapted from those engraved on a portrait of Meryon by Felix Braquemond. Other verse quotations are—with occasional slight changes—from Meryon himself.