Forgotten on the map

“Oublié Sur La Carte”: from a poem by Charles Baudelaire…

Spleen II

J’ai plus de souvenirs que si j’avais mille ans.

Un gros meuble à tiroirs encombré de bilans,
De vers, de billets doux, de procès, de romances,
Avec de lourds cheveux roulés dans des quittances,
Cache moins de secrets que mon triste cerveau.
C’est une pyramide, un immense caveau,
Qui contient plus de morts que la fosse commune.
— Je suis un cimetière abhorré de la lune,
Où comme des remords se traînent de longs vers
Qui s’acharnent toujours sur mes morts les plus chers.
Je suis un vieux boudoir plein de roses fanées,
Où gît tout un fouillis de modes surannées,
Où les pastels plaintifs et les pâles Boucher
Seuls, respirent l’odeur d’un flacon débouché.

Rien n’égale en longueur les boiteuses journées,
Quand sous les lourds flocons des neigeuses années
L’ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosité,
Prend les proportions de l’immortalité.
— Désormais tu n’es plus, ô matière vivante!
Qu’un granit entouré d’une vague épouvante,
Assoupi dans le fond d’un Sahara brumeux;
Un vieux sphinx ignoré du monde insoucieux,
Oublié sur la carte, et dont l’humeur farouche
Ne chante qu’aux rayons du soleil qui se couche.

In English [my translation]:

I have more memory than if I had a thousand years

A great chest of drawers weighted full with balance sheets,
With verses, with love letters, with writs, with romances,
With thick locks of hair wrapped up in receipts,
Hides fewer secrets than my sad brain.
A pyramid, an immense cave,
That contains more dead than the potter’s field.
— I am a cemetery abhored by the moon,
Where like regrets trail long worms
Which gnaw forever on my dearest dead.
I am an old boudoir full up faded roses,
Where lie a muddle of fashions past,
Where the plaintive pastels and the Boucher pales
Alone, breathe the odor of an uncorked flask.

Nothing equals in length those limping days,
When under the heavy flakes of snowy years
Ennui, fruit of dismal apathy,
Takes on the proportions of immortality.
— Henceforth you are no more, o living matter!
Than a block of granite surrounded by a vague dread,
Asleep in the depths of a hazy Sahara;
An old sphinx unknown to the careless world,
Forgotten on the map, and whose ferocious humor
Sings not, but to the rays of the setting sun

“Forgotten on the map”:

  1. “Omitted from the map” (trans. William Aggeler)—forgotten by the mapmaker, left off of the map, and thus condemened to be forgotten forever. Here the act of writing (mapmaking), which fails to occur in the omission of the sphinx, is intended as a technology of memory (a “mnemotechnique”). To write is to “record”—to set down in writing, to produce a record, to remember (from the same root, “recordar” in Spanish); a “record”—something serving as a remembrance, also a grooved disk that is played on a gramaphone. From the lived sound of the recording studio, to the record, to the record player, which brings the sound back to life. From the memory of the mapmaker, to the map, to lived memory of the “careless world.”
  2. “Forgotten because on the map” (trans. Paul de Man)—the gramophone is broken, the act of recording does not come off. The sound cannot be recovered. My brother’s harddrive makes a clicking noise when it spins. His photos (his memories) are lost. Writing is a failed technology of memory, it cannot recall lived experience. Or: writing is a functional technology of forgetting (thus de Man says because and not despite on the map). Once recorded, the Sphinx can be forgotten, the world cares only for the completeness of its inscriptions. Also, on the other side, the inscription on the map does not necessarily derive from the mapmaker’s memory. Unless the mapmaker is an explorer, he is a copyist—his maps are compliations and transformations of other maps.

Like hair, the grotesque remnants of which we find, in this poem, rolled up in receipts buried, tomblike, in a drawer, writing is not-quite alive, not quite dead. It is emitted from the living human body as dead matter. It is a supplement to memory that is never adequate to the task. It is equally a supplement to active forgetting.

WordPress. A mnemotechnique. A word processor. A word-presser. Microsoft Works. It does work. It works by processing words. The writing does work by remembering. It remembers by doing work. The work is to map: “un Sahara brumeux,” more or less an obscure field.

In approximately 1 year, I will take my PhD Exams in order to move on to the next phase of the program in Comparative Literature in which I am currently enrolled. The exam will cover 6 lists of 20-30 texts each on topics which I have come up with in consultation with my exam committee. It will take place as soon as I’ve finished reading the assigned texts, and, afterwards, assuming I pass, I will move on to propose and then write a dissertation, which I plan to do from back home in Chicago. This means, basically, that there are 120-180 texts between me and Chicago. This blog is meant to fill that space.


~ by Matt on January 7, 2007.

5 Responses to “Forgotten on the map”

  1. I love the poetic quality of your language here. “The work is to map” is an evocative description of what it’s like to face the enormity of one’s exam lists– to map the texts in relation to one another, but also to use the texts as reference points to map one’s own, presently nebulous, thoughts about literature and language.

    When I came to graduate school from across the country, I was fascinated by the process of slowly learning the layout of a new city. The project I always considered but never executed was to draw, by freehand, maps of the city once a month without looking at the previous maps or any existing “real” maps. Little by little territories would be filled in, curves and angles would be refined, more landmarks would be added, distances would become less exaggerated. I think a blog, facing such an uncharted territory, could be a very similar project. What I like about the comparison is that the first maps will inevitably be wildly inaccurate and incurably subjective — but so will the last maps. The difference may just be that the last maps will be more potentially useful to a wider audience.

    At any rate, I am excited to be in on the ground floor of your cartography. Welcome!

  2. How exciting! I hope you will give updates on the vagaries of the exam preparation process… It’s always hyped as this horribly traumatic stage, so it’s great to write against that and say what you find rewarding and enjoyable.
    I like your translation here too. What do you think of the vers/vers word play (worms/verses)?

  3. Hey, glad to see you got the blog up and running. I’m proud of both of us for putting our money where our mouths are. On a side note…despite having taken French for five years in school, I had no idea what the title meant until you explained it in the post. C’est la vie.

  4. Thanks for the comments. uncomplicatedly, you continue to prove the irony of your moniker. As the first comment on my blog, thanks for writing such an eloquent description of what I’ll hopefully be doing here.

    Wendy, I will definitely be posting extensively about the exam prep process. I even plan to post drafts and revisions of my lists and headnotes from time to time. I hope this blog will help make the process less traumatic for myself and others–and, as a veteran, your advice will always be welcomed.

    As for the translation, I’m glad you liked it. I found most of the translations available on the internet missed some of the subtleties which I will perhaps have a chance to point out in a later post. What do you think of my translation of “pâles Boucher” as “Boucher pales” rather than “pale Bouchers” (that is, the kind of pale hues used by the painter Boucher, as opposed to the paintings by Boucher that use those hues)? It’s almost universal to go the other way, perhaps because Boucher is singular (though this is a problem either way, no?), but the nearby parallels of “roses fanées” and “pastels plaintifs” and the standard “adjective follows the noun” rule in French seem to suggest “Boucher pales.” I only ask because it’s important to another move I’d like to make.

    The play on “vers” was the only trope I found myself totally unable to render in English. I might have translated “vers” as “words” so that it would at least resound with the word “worms,” but that would have come at the cost of losing the specificity of the list of items in the drawers that Baudelaire enumerates. The play is definitely important–both uses of “vers” sort of play upon each other reciprocally-in line 3, the “vers” (verses) hidden in the drawer are always in danger of becoming/being read as “worms” as soon as they enter into the grotesque play which brings the worm-like locks of hair to a deathy-deathless life. Meanwhile, in line 9, the “vers” which “gnaw forever on my dearest dead” also works as a description of a certain kind of elegiac poetry which writes to remember and to mourn, which is to say, to forget.

    Meghan, this post is all about forgetting. I’m sure that knowledge of French is sleeping somewhere inside of you.

  5. My French isn’t too good, but I like to read a short Baudelaire or Rimbaud piece now and then. Thanks for putting this one up – I’d never seen it

    I also have a fondness for maps, since I make them with computers and meditate frequently on their strange quality: they seem so true, yet they are so false.

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