Gargoyle 11
cover etching by Scott McIntyre
publication date 5/25/1979

I Remember Malraux

George Myers Jr.

The sloping houses, brick streets and overhanging porches of Zillebeke are not picturesque. They are old, unchanged and dated. Apart from the old school and the fruit kiosk, there is one other landmark: a tall chimney belching out black soot from the center of town. This is the boiler of the public bath-house. We would meet here for what Malraux called ‘The Sweating Off.’

Thus, in its own peculiar way, Zillebeke prepares the visitor for the Malraux transformation. The town suggests a different age, with different expectations of life. Unless the visitor takes this hint, he’ll get no further than the cliche that Malraux’s adventurous genius was historic.

Whenever I visited M we would first meet here, immediately after my train ride and Sweat Off. This hospice was famous for its care and treatment of the sick, especially those suffering from syphilis and the plague. M spoke of it as if it were now and relished its various drama. In the second half of the fifteenth century the plague was as common as flu is today. In 1466, for example, 60,000 people died of it in Paris alone. Syph was also sweeping across Europe on an unprecedented scale, he added, laughing. The recounted tales and experiences (not all entirely his own) flowed easily in the steamy chambers, logistics and numbers and dragoons of grainy information. The uncertainty of life as a result of the disease was at least as great as the uncertainty experienced by men in the front line, or by men stealing great treasures for Indochina (which he never brought up).

Once a month, like the clocking of my train and its ensuing rate hikes, M insisted that he hadn’t read a book in, well, months but for a biography of Alexander the Great which he would pick up now and again. On this one occasion, however, The History of Rome was showing from beneath his neatly folded trousers. He noticed me straining to make out the title and said in a tired voice, "The world we know is subordinated to its own coherence," then passed his hand in front of his gaunt face as if to never mind.

There was a report that Malraux died of the plague or fever in the east. I inquired about it and he told me that it was his report. He seemed to enjoy this attitude. The more I looked at M the more convinced I became that for M misadventure represented the actual state of man. Misadventure was not for him the prelude to death–as modern man tends to fear: it was the condition of life.

"Church and state are corrupt and merciless; but for DeGaulle, who has an ear for music." M buttoned his coat and we left the hospice. His coat was strangely tattered for a man quite knowledgeable of his own position. I didn’t notice it before now. He turned to look back at the bath-house.

"Quite like a Grunewald, yes?" Looking at the hospice, I couldn’t know to which painting he was referring but nodded anyway, as I often did.

"The most important thing in a picture is always what it cannot say." I recognized the quote from Braque, whom he knew I admired. He often balanced and parried the facts like this, to make me feel at ease I suppose.

In these hurried memories, I forgot to mention that we were at war and that not too far from us there was an enemy as eager for our death as we were for his. These days were before the Canadians began the foolhardy fashion of raiding the other side. We were told by the Leicestershires that the French only kept two sentries on the line, and that twice monthly they fired their rifles into the air to see if they still functioned.

I never heard any shots myself but thought if M was around, gunfire could not be far behind.

Surely here Malraux was being subservient to an imaginary compulsion, charged beyond the probability of all logic. M was saying, with a shrug, that Christ, like the victims of Isenheim, dies without the slightest feeling because all his sense of spiritual power had been drawn out of him by the degree of his misadventure–because he had been stripped naked unto death.