The French poet Christian Bobin died recently, on November 23rd, in his native Le Creusot, in Burgundy. He was 71 years old. When I read the obituary in Le Monde, I bought Bobin’s 1999 book, La présence pure (The Pure Presence), published by Le temps qu’il fait, Cognac. It opens with this poem:
L’arbre est devant la fenêtre du salon.
Je l’interroge chaque matin :
« Quoi de neuf aujourd’hui ? » La
réponse vient sans tarder, donnée
par des centaines de feuilles :
« Tout ».
The tree stands in front of the living room window.
I question it every morning:
“What’s new today?” The
response comes quickly, given
by hundreds of leaves:
That tree returns again and again through this short book, as one of the main characters; the other is the poet’s father, who, afflicted with Alzheimer disease, lives with other elderly patients in
« la maison de long séjour », the long-time residence:
Il y a deux ans, mon père disait
voir, réellement voir en face de
lui, ses parents morts depuis long-
Il déclarait aussi, en appuyant
bien sur chaque mot, se sentir
« hors du temps » et voir « tout
à neuf », même le plus familier.
Les plus grands mystiques disent
éprouver la même chose, au mot
Two years ago, my father claimed
to see, really see there before
him, his parents, dead a long
He also claimed, stressing
each word, to feel himself
“outside time” and to see “everything
as new,” even the most familiar.
The greatest mystics say
that they experience the same,
Reading the poems in Bobin’s book, I was seduced. Then, at some moment in the last two weeks, I don’t remember exactly when, but it was certainly after I had experienced the seduction of the book, on a night that was sleepless, I was repeating in my mind those words, « Quoi de neuf aujourd’hui ? », and a doubt disturbed my memory: perhaps the poet had misunderstood the leaves? « Tout », he heard, but the following leafy words might have escaped him: « Tout. Et rien. » Everything. And nothing. For the leaves must have understood that if everything is new then nothing is.
And I wondered about Bobin père, if his insisting that he stood outside time while he saw everything as new was perhaps a symptom of dementia, since newness must always happen inside, not outside, time. Outside time is where the logicians claim to be, not the mystics. Bertrand Russell famously said (in Mysticism and Logic, and Other Essays), “To realize the unimportance of time is the gate to wisdom.” The lord was grinding his own axe, for all objects of logical or mathematical thought must dwell outside time, must be eternal and unchanging, must, in other words, be ruled by the “Principle of Identity”: everything is equal to itself. Since our physics is based on mathematics, we should not be surprised that our concepts “now” and “new” have no place in the time of the physicists.
I was lying on my bed, a line of Spanish verse tenaciously blocking my descent to sleep: “estando ya mi casa sosegada” (when my house was already quiet). My house was quiet, yet my soul was not. Until the line called its rhyme: “salí sin ser notada” (I went out unnoticed), and I remembered that those lines are from St. John of the Cross’ “Noche oscura del alma” (Dark Night of the Soul), where all is motion and time. Why, even God waits:
“a donde me esperaba
quien yo bien me sabía”
(where He awaited me
whom I well knew).
Some of the greatest mystics dwell in time.