AT THE CAFE IRREAL
(an allegory concerning Irreality)
Like the great Caneletto preparing to paint a picture of Venice for one of his Grand Tour patrons, Gustave Flaubert sat down in a cafe and started writing. With his practiced eye he noted the way the cigarette smoke seemed to hang in the air above the cafe's denizens, the elaborate choreography of the waiters scurrying to and fro while nodding acknowledgments of orders (and gratuities) received and, particularly important to his current work, the expansive gestures of a petit-bourgeois sitting off to his left, vainly trying to impress his female companion. Some number of minutes later he was joined by three friends. The first of them, who happened to be the philosopher Socrates, asked Gustave what he was doing. "I'm writing a cafe scene for a novel," Gustave answered.
Socrates smiled and shook his head. "So that you might, I suppose, more accurately describe the shadows on the wall."
Gustave laughed. They had spoken of this before.
"I would prefer to say: to more accurately describe life and the people who, as it were, cast the shadows. To my way of thinking, we only need to open our eyes and observe the people around us as their lives unfold to have a more complete, more striking, more probing vision of reality itself. I would even go so far as to say that we can, in this way, lift ourselves out of the cave."
"Like a scientist gathering data," scoffed André Breton, Gustave's second friend. André was a large man with an air of unpredictability about him.
"So long as it's understood that I attempt to express the characteristic details of the great and disparate body of data gathered and, by so doing, reflect a higher, aesthetic truth, I would accept this description," Gustave replied. Remembering something he'd once read, he then added, "Besides, André, it seems to me that you too gather data. As I recall, there was once a publication called 'The Surrealist Research Bulletin.'"
"This is true," André admitted, pausing for a second to light up a cigarette. "Its purpose, however, was neither dialectical in our friend Socrates’ sense, nor empirical -- you see, we research the shadows that cast the light."
Before Gustave could respond they were interrupted by one of the waiters, who had just delivered an espresso to a gendarme sitting at the table next to theirs and was now asking Gustave's friends what they'd like.
"I guess I'll have a coffee," Socrates answered, after a moment's hesitation.
"For me as well," said André.
Jacques Derrida, the fourth friend, indicated that he too wanted a coffee while Gustave, gesturing at his nearly empty cup, requested another for himself.
The waiter, to their mutual surprise, made each of them repeat their order fully three times before repeating it to himself. Then he dashed off and, while the four friends watched in fascination, repeated the order to a second waiter who wrote it down in a little black book and then repeated it to a third waiter. Finally a fourth waiter came back and, with great solemnity, placed four inkwells on the table. "There you are," he said.
"But," Gustave protested, "we ordered coffee."
"Exactly," the waiter replied, walking off.
They stared at the inkwells in silence for a few seconds until André started to laugh out loud. Then Socrates and Jacques joined in and, finally, Gustave also. There was, however, more than a little scorn in Gustave’s voice as he chided André for arranging a practical joke at his expense. André took some exception to this, denying that he'd arranged anything at anyone's expense. He added: "Perhaps you are, and I say this with the utmost respect, too mired in traditional notions of cause and effect to appreciate what just happened."
"Mired enough," Gustave said, rising from the table, "that, since I feel a need to go to the bathroom, I am going to do so." Gesturing to the inkwells, he added, “When I return, I expect our order to be straightened out." He asked the waiter where he could find the bathroom and was directed down a long, dark hallway. He started down it but another waiter hurried after him, this one carrying an ancient, brass key ring with several skeleton keys on it. "You will need these, monsieur," the waiter explained. Continuing his journey, Gustave finally came upon the bathroom door and found that he had to match the appropriate key to no less than four different locks before he was finally able to open it. But, instead of a bathroom, he found a solid brick wall behind the door.
He returned to the table, expecting André to again be laughing at him. The surrealist, however, gave no hint of being in on any prank. Instead, he was busy examining the inkwells, as though he still wasn't entirely sure that they were real. Still supposing himself to be the victim of an elaborate practical joke, Gustave decided to take temporary leave of the situation—aided no doubt by his sighting of a female acquaintance, with whom he had hopes for a liason d' amour, sitting alone at a table in the balcony portion of the cafe.
Saying that he’d be back shortly—maybe—Gustave got up from the table and headed toward a sign that had been posted next to the cloakroom and which stated, in no uncertain terms, “To the balcony.” But there was no stairway there. Indeed, even after he’d walked all around the main floor of the cafe—and the outside of the cafe as well—he was still unable to find a stairway or any other means of getting up there.
Frustrated, Gustave started calling up to his acquaintance, but only succeeded in drawing the unwanted attention of the crowd of patrons inhabiting the main floor. Worse, the spectacle of his repeatedly but fruitlessly crying out to her caused the waiters nearest him to hurry in his direction, thinking that they might need to pacify a suddenly psychotic patron. The woman, meanwhile, didn’t so much as bat an eye in his direction. In fact, and this really was quite inexplicable, nobody on the upstairs floor seemed to hear him at all, though they were but a few feet away.
Finally the waiters reached Gustave, who immediately ceased and desisted. After returning to the table he said nothing, knowing that even André was incapable of pulling off such a stunt. André, who along with the others had been watching Gustave's vain attempts to get upstairs, looked up at his friend and remarked: "You know, they often say that fact is stranger than fiction. And yet, I think what they're really saying is that fact is stranger than your fiction."
"Uh-huh," Gustave mumbled as he sat down, in no mood for a discussion.
The surrealist, however, pursued the matter. "But I'm serious. Why don't you take out that notebook of yours and start writing some more descriptive prose about this cafe? You wanted to capture its essence and that's what we're now seeing -- though it could certainly be said to be an essence en désarroi."
Gustave, knowing that André was well aware that the events they'd just witnessed were irreconcilable with what he’d been writing, did not dignify André with an answer. Into the fray, however, jumped Socrates, looking as though the wisdom of the ages had been confirmed. "I believe," he stated, "that this incident proves a point of mine about the true nature of reality." Here he paused for a second to consider the possibility of having a meaningful dialogue with this group--with the suddenly sullen Gustave, the ever-obfuscatory Jacques, and André, who would say anything to be au contraire, even when he knew that it flew fully in the face of reason--and decided that there wasn't any. Instead he arranged to have two of the waiters sit at the table. Once they were settled in, he asked them:
"Could it not be reasonably asserted, based on our good friend Gustave's experience here today, that we can neither see nor hear anything accurately? And if sight and sound aren't reliable, wouldn't the other, inferior senses be even more so?"
"Of course," the first waiter said.
"So when, I ask, does the soul attain to truth? For it seems anything considered in the company of the body is, quite clearly, deceived."
"True," the second answered.
"It is only in thought, then, that something of reality is manifested. Do you agree?"
"Yes," they both chimed in.
"And it thinks best when untroubled by such things as sight and hearing, pain or pleasure; when it is alone by itself, taking leave of this body and, doing its best to avoid all association or contact therewith, reaches out towards reality."
"That is so," said the first.
"Thus the soul of a philosopher utterly despises the body, shunning it and striving to be alone by itself."
"It is as you say," the second waiter said, reaching over to the first and yanking his bow tie off.
"Now for the next point. Do we believe there is such a thing as absolute justice, or not?"
“’We’ certainly believe there is," answered the first, before pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket, wrapping it around the second's neck and trying to choke him with it.
"And absolute beauty and goodness?"
"If you believe it, then so do we," they answered in unison, though the second had to croak out his answer due to the pressure on his larynx.
"Well," Socrates pursued, trying to ignore the waiters' behavior, "did you ever see anything of the kind with your eyes or any of the other bodily senses?"
"Assuredly not," the first answered, laughing demonically as he tightened his improvised noose, causing the second to turn quite blue in the face. Despite this, the second waiter managed to get out a verse of a song about a dancer at the Moulin Rouge whose attributes were, evidently, "absolutely divine."
"Will not," Socrates asked, raising his voice to command more attention, "the apprehension of knowledge be done most perfectly by the man who approaches each thing, as far as possible, with the reason alone, and not dragging any of the senses to serve as an ally of thought? Won't such a man, to attain to the knowledge of reality, employ pure, absolute reason in his attempt to hunt down the pure, absolute essences of things?"
"No he won't!" cried out the first. "He'll live and love and experience life and in this way find wisdom!"
Socrates, taken aback by this outburst, hesitated for a moment. The second waiter, however, took advantage of the first waiter's outburst to break free of his grip and cry out, "Nonsense! He will shun the senses and employ pure reason!" before starting to tickle the first under his arms. The first started laughing uncontrollably and retaliated by tickling the second, who started giggling. Socrates, deciding that he'd lost this part of his audience, turned to his three friends. "Even you," he said to them, "are aware that when students of geometry, arithmetic, and the kindred sciences make use of visible forms and reason about them, they are thinking not of these, but of the ideals which they resemble; not of the figures which they draw, but of the absolute square and the absolute diameter, and so on."
"Yes, of course," Breton said with a wave of the hand. "And also, that this means that you, Socrates, utilize this discrepancy between the imperfection of the drawn object and the perfection of the imagined as a stepping stone to your much vaunted 'pure reason' and negation of the importance of the sensate world. But tell me, Socrates, what do you see in the eye of your mind when I give you two legs of a right triangle, a and b, where a stands vertical and is equal in length to 8 inches and b lies horizontal and is equal to 6 inches?"
"That is, naturally, solved by the theorem of Pythagoras, who was so greatly beloved for his wisdom. Thus, I see a right triangle whose hypotenuse is ten inches."
"Look closer," André persisted. "Close your eyes and look closer. What do you see now?"
"Well, I see the perfection of form," Socrates began confidently, but then he started and opened his eyes wide.
"What is it?" André asked.
Socrates shook his head with disbelief. "I saw a woman's breast. Where I should have seen a right triangle, have always seen a right triangle, I saw a woman's breast. And, furthermore..."
"And, furthermore...?" André queried, as Socrates' voice had trailed off.
"And furthermore I saw the rest of the woman and, with her, I saw a naked man, also exquisitely perfect in form." He paused for a second before adding: "For the sake of clarity, I will admit that this has caused me to feel somewhat...disturbed."
André, upon hearing this admission, stood up as though he were Vladimir Ilyich Lenin proclaiming the triumph of the Revolution. "Long ago," he started, "I made a statement to the effect that the day will come when man will recognize love, which is to say, carnal love, for his only master and will honor it even in those mysterious perversions with which it surrounds itself. I say to you that this day has come. That what we have seen in this cafe is not reality, but surreality. That the antinomies that have engulfed and repressed human existence into the deepest servitude--between waking and sleep, reality and dream, reason and folly, the objective and the subjective, perception and representation, past and future, have at last been eliminated."
He then looked over at a woman sitting by herself a couple of tables over and said to himself, almost as though it were a prayer, "Love, I adore and have never ceased to adore your mortal shadow, your venomous shadow." To his friends he said "Excuse me, gentleman, but in a surreality there is no such thing as a repressed desire," before going over to the woman's table and introducing himself. No sooner had the woman shaken André's hand and told him her name than he proposed a "bout of libertinage" which would involve, specifically, her taking off her clothes, laying down on a bed, and being repeatedly whipped by André until he'd found his satisfaction. However, before the woman could respond to this extraordinary proposal, the gendarme who had been sitting at the table next to theirs intervened, announcing that he was going to take André into custody.
"For what?" the surrealist asked.
"For offenses to be committed," the gendarme answered and now it was André's turn to look surprised. Before he could register a protest with the gendarme, however, Jacques finally spoke up, though (it must be said) not entirely in André's defense.
"André, my friend, I'm afraid that, in spite of the supposed radicalism of your proposed 'liberation' of subconscious desire, by structuring your thought in binary opposites you have, in fact, simply been a loyal servant of Western metaphysics. Only you think that you have overcome its constraints because you have reversed the polarity of presence, which has traditionally been deemed "positive," versus absence, traditionally deemed "negative," and thereby also reversed all the polarities that follow in the wake of this, such as good versus evil or rational versus irrational. But by privileging with your surreal polarity absence, in the form of dreams, over presence, in the form of waking life, and thereby deeming the "irrational" positive, "evil" -- at least as it is defined by traditional morality -- positive, and so on, you have merely held to the same schema of binary opposites as traditional metaphysics, which is why you find yourself equally vulnerable to the supplement. Thus, having observed the events here today, you proclaimed the cafe a 'surreality' and acted accordingly. But, alas, the shadow presence of the supplement is always present -- here in the form of the gendarme -- undermining the distinction you had proclaimed between reality and surreality as it had undermined Gustave's and Socrates' distinctions before. As it always has and always will undermine all such binary oppositions such that they are no longer opposed any more than they are equivalent, or even equivalent to themselves. Where to mean is not to be."
André did not look impressed. "And what," he asked Jacques, as though he still had one more point to prove before having to take his leave, "is the binary opposite of life?"
"Traditionally, one would suppose it to be death," answered Jacques.
"Then try this supplement on for size," André said, putting into practice what he himself had once declared (in the Second manifeste du surréalisme) to be the "simplest" of surrealist acts -- that is, shooting somebody -- by grabbing the gendarme's revolver and firing three shots into Jacques. The great philosopher-linguist slumped forward, by all appearances manifesting not only the meaning, but also the being, of death.
The gendarme angrily took back his revolver, grabbed André by the arm and forcibly led the still defiant surrealist away, leaving Gustave and Socrates sitting in silence, watching with ambivalence the life and death struggle between the two waiters now proceeding apace on the table in front of them.
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copyright by Greg Evans 1998, 2011 and 2013 all rights reserved