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Authors: Edouard Levé

Autoportrait (4 page)

BOOK: Autoportrait

Facial Year
, in which I would take a photo of my face every day and make a film of the three hundred sixty-five images, I say “almost” since the film comprises two hundred photographs taken over a year and a half. I started a photo project in which I would photograph the forty-one places where Charles Baudelaire lived in Paris, but four years later I still hadn’t finished, each time I think of going back to it, I’m discouraged by the idea that I would have to start at the beginning to make the pictures go together. One day I decided to classify the “unclassified” photographs I had taken over the last fifteen years, only to discover that they included at least ten categories, among them: friends, girlfriends, family, passersby, walls, shop windows, objects, windows, doors, I thought it would take me days to come up with these classifications, in three hours it was done. I stopped taking tourist photos when I realized that I looked at them only once, on the way back from the lab, just to confirm that they had no interest beyond what they were: travel pictures. When traveling I am always tempted, despite what I think of tourist photos, to take pictures of the beautiful landscapes, the strangers in the streets, or the unlikely things I notice in store windows, I don’t give in to this temptation because I’ve gotten out of the habit of taking a camera with me on trips. I think tourists don’t look at their travel photos, and if they do, think nothing of them. I could have been a journalist or reporter, a musician or a dancer. I can walk for hours without getting blisters on my feet. In a house I don’t like green walls whether they’re painted, hung with fabric, or wallpapered, green makes me think of a hospital or luxuriant vegetation, I don’t want to be sick or in nature. There are times in my life when I overuse the phrase: “It all sounds pretty complicated.” I have been to New York’s Chinatown, I walked down Mott Street, Mulberry Street, Canal Street, and Bayard Street, all I saw were restaurants, shops selling gadgets, gifts, and jewelry, without being able to tell them apart I was stunned by the opacity of these few streets, I could penetrate them physically but not mentally, my mind hung back on the threshold, I saw nothing of Chinatown, but I bought a pair of black acrylic wool gloves for five dollars from an old Chinese man who was nervous. I need to stretch for at least fifteen minutes in the morning, otherwise my muscles are tense until evening, I work badly and am on edge. I rarely smoke more than ten cigarettes a day, my throat has a natural gauge that, if I smoke more, upsets my stomach. I have sometimes gone without smoking for days. I have stopped smoking several times by accident, always the same way: when I have a sore throat I stop smoking and, when it goes away, I forget to restart. I smoke roll-your-owns because they burn down at the same speed that I drag on them, if they go out, I relight them, manufactured cigarettes burn down on their own and impose a rhythm I don’t want to follow. I have a friend who calculates that at three in the afternoon the metro is emptiest and so you always ought to take it exactly then. Sometimes I write on a computer with my eyes closed and look forward to the typos that will appear when I read it back. There is more about my body that I don’t know than I know. I know I have a head, a right brain and a left brain, two eyes, two nostrils, teeth, a lower lip and an upper lip, I know I have ten fingers at the ends of my hands at the ends of my arms connected to my torso, a neck, two nipples, I forget how many ribs, a penis, two testicles, two buttocks, two hips, two legs and two feet, I know I have a stomach, a heart, a large intestine and a small one, a liver, a trachea, blood, a throat, a tongue, vocal chords, and two ears, I don’t know how many muscles I have, how much my bones weigh, how many neurons I have or how quickly they are replenished, I don’t know the volume of my blood, I have seen none of my internal organs, I have seen certain parts of my body only through the intermediary of a mirror, I have never seen certain parts of my body, even through the intermediary of a mirror, but I have no idea which. I follow madmen in the street. I am not an anarchist. I am not a communist. I am not a socialist. I am not on the Right. I am a democrat. Ecological issues matter to me. I have voted Green in every election. Until I was fourteen I spent most of my weekends in a country house where, looking back, I think I was very bored although I did not know it at the time. In poetry, I don’t like the worked-over language, I like the facts and ideas. I am more interested in the neutrality and anonymity of our shared language than by the attempts of poets to make a language of their own, a factual report seems to me the most beautifully unpoetic poetry there is. I often use the word often. When I write I often use the word
, but on rereading I strike it. I dream of an objective prose, but there is no such thing. I don’t know how many words I know. I wonder whether I forget words as I get older, and if, since I’m learning fewer words than I used to, the number of words I use is shrinking. I am often afraid of deceiving my interlocutors. I am uneasy speaking in public on subjects other than myself. I am inexhaustible on the subject of myself. Since I like listening to other people talk about themselves, I have no scruples about talking about myself. I ask lots of questions about my interlocutors’ private lives, especially if we are strangers. I would rather have someone tell me about an exhibition than see it with my own eyes. I do not lie. I think I don’t believe in God, but from time to time, at night, I wonder whether I ever really stopped believing. By my calculations, before the age of fourteen I believed in God by imitation, between fourteen and twenty-one I had faith, then more and more I stopped believing, until one day I realized I no longer believed. When I believed, I thought of God as a grand-father with a white tunic and beard, he appeared to me leaning down, as in a fresco. I dislike professional meetings where I show my work to people who see me out of politeness, not because they want to, I especially dislike the way they flip too quickly through my books of photos, as for professional meetings that go well, I don’t always enjoy them, especially when they end in a commission that I only half believe in even though I pretend to be enthusiastic. When I’m sleeping well, I envision this project: to spend days without sleeping, to live with the feeling of being under the influence of a natural drug. When I’m sleeping badly, I envision this project: to sleep for forty-eight hours, to live afterward with the feeling of having been under the influence of a natural drug. In foreign countries eating presents a problem: the menus are incomprehensible, I choose at random and in general have had pleasant surprises although, or because, the nature of the dishes is unpredictable, and their order goes against nature. I am as deeply affected by good news as by bad, besides, bad news can be good, the real bad news would be no news at all. On the street I checked my watch while I was holding a can of Coke in my left hand, I poured part of it down my pants, by chance nobody saw, I have told no one. I have not read Plato, but I have read many articles that cited him, so I have the false sense of knowing him, like those books I’ve owned for a long time and never opened. To keep from being caught out, I avoid quoting Plato in the course of a conversation. I find it dangerous to invoke the views of a writer I know only partially, but there is none I know all the way through. A storm exalts me like an enemy. I can drink three big cups of American coffee without feeling sick, but no more than one French espresso and no Italian espresso at all. In foreign countries urinating and defecating is a problem, but no more so than when I’m away from home in my own country. I have not operated a truck, a plane, a helicopter, or a rocket, I drive cars, I ride motorcycles of all different cylinders, I pilot boats, I ride bicycles. I know how to downhill ski, water-ski, skateboard, roller-skate, windsurf, but I don’t know how to surf or snowboard. If I hear someone addressed as “Monsieur Paul” instead of “Paul” I have to overcome a sense of anxiety in order to keep talking to him, since I am making fun of him in my mind and will feel guilty afterward. I do not wear turtlenecks, they irritate my neck. I avoid Shetland sweaters because they itch and give off a smell that reminds me of the irritations I had as a child when I was forced to wear one. I do not like putting on a crewneck sweater when my hair is still damp. I stopped going to the hairdresser when I was fourteen because of the smell of the hair spray, the hard fingers of the shampoo woman on my wet hair, and the way my neck hurt on the U-shaped rim of the sink. I cut my own hair, which surprises my friends because with experience I tend not to get it wrong. I have seen too many grinning corpses on TV. I collect invitations to exhibitions so I can draw up an inventory in twenty or thirty years but every four years I throw them all away for lack of space, and, after a while, I start over again. I’d like to save all the postcards that I receive but I end up throwing them away after a few years, except the ones from my best friends. I wonder whether my friends throw away the postcards I worked so hard on before I sent them. I will repeat sentences or opinions that I’ve heard, verbatim, just because I think they’re right and I don’t see any reason to modify them before I take them as my own. I’m not sure that I can serve as a model for youth. When I was ten I was eating a ham sandwich, suddenly I caught a whiff of tobacco even though no one around me was smoking, along with this smell came a bitter taste in my mouth, there was a black cigarette butt in the baguette, I had just bitten into it. Unlike a friend of a friend, I have never found a tadpole in my yoghurt. On a winter day when no cloud darkens the sun and the cold light casts hard shadows, I could photograph anything and anyone. In public toilets, before I flush I wrap my fingers with toilet paper, I put paper down on the seat before I sit down, I wash my hands on the way out, but sometimes also on the way in. I have not found myself waiting for a train or plane that never arrived, only people. It’s rare for me to make friends with someone who stands me up. I do not court a capricious woman. To reassure myself, when I am lost in a foreign city, I go to the supermarket, it’s a familiar place, and yet, from close up, no product is similar to the ones I know, for example, I can be completely lost in the yoghurt aisle. I am attracted to women who are generous with their time, their smiles, their conversation, their affection, and their physical desire. I would rather be at the top of a mountain than at the bottom. I go down stairs one stair at a time and I climb them two by two. I have gone fishing fewer than five times, and not since I was fifteen. I shot a rifle at a pheasant, and I killed it. I shot a rifle at a blackbird, and I missed. I have torn the wings off roughly thirty flies, I have taken the back legs off a similar number of grasshoppers. I have crushed a hundred soldier ants on a lime tree in la Beauce. I have destroyed an anthill by kicking it. I deeply loved a dog that my parents had put down because he’d gone crazy, it was my first experience of death. I was sitting on a café terrace on a street near the Bastille, the bag with my expensive camera in it was hanging on a chair next to the sidewalk, a kid grabbed the bag and took off running, I saw right away, but it took me several seconds to accept the idea that someone was actually robbing me, so I stood up and ran after him, when I realized that I wasn’t going to catch him, I cried out without believing it: “Stop thief, stop thief,” he instantly dropped the bag. I do not remember whether I cried when I came back from a class ski trip and my parents announced to me that Pirouette, my hamster, had died while I was away. My father gave me a .22 rifle when I turned thirteen, which scared the rest of the family. I loved the smell of the cartridges for my rifle. I loved the shape of my rifle, but I was sorry it could only shoot one at a time, and I imagined that if our house was attacked I would have to think up a way to make the assailants think it was an automatic. Actually, my rifle only fired lead shot, not cartridges, which made it less injurious to human beings, including potential assassins. Although I don’t hunt, my father gave me my grandfather’s shotgun, I have sometimes considered using it to kill myself. I do more things when I haven’t got much time than when I have lots. I dreamed that I was with my father, who was also Raphaël Ibañez, and we were walking through a lycée attended exclusively by tall blonde girls in Converse sneakers, then w
e bathed in a sweet stream and the streambed led to a cave that was carpeted with watercress that we ate all the way down to the bed before we went back to the lycée, full of desire. Riding in a car, I watch the power lines go up and down at the tops of the poles like strands of marshmallow in a French candy store. I find nature less hospitable than the city. I will take more interest in a house under construction than in a minimalist sculpture because, since the interest of the former is accidental, I feel more like the author than the viewer of the “work.” One of my friends sang the first words of a chorus in English, followed by a series of onomatopoeic sounds because that was where his comprehension ended. As a child I had a recurring nightmare: gravity has disappeared and humanity has drifted apart, my family have floated away and will never come back, everyone is the center of a universe that is infinitely expanding. Even if it is an odd sort of present, I thank my father and mother for having given me life. When I lie on the grass I remember the vertigo I felt at the age of six when, lying on the grass, I thought that if gravity stopped working, I would fall into the sky. I attended primary and secondary school in a reinforced concrete building that my friends and I called “Le Blockhaus,” which explains why it took me years before I could look with pleasure at any building constructed of that material. I am friends with a couple who, in bed, play a game where they invent plausible names for Hollywood actors and actresses, I don’t know what the prizes and penalties are. I draw better with my eyes closed than open. On the train I looked at the white hair of the passenger in front of me, he appeared above the headrest like an abstract ball of fur. When the sun goes down in the sea, I avoid looking at the band of reflections that connect me to it. I am rarely aboard a yacht. I have not jet-skied. I can sail a dinghy or a catamaran. I went for a fifteen-day sail with friends in Brittany, I remember the days were long and never boring even though we did nothing except wait for the next port. I am not the right height for public seating, it’s too small, which takes some of the pleasure out of movies and the theater and makes travel uncomfortable for me. I would like to communicate without using words or gestures, and just perceive everything that was in the brain of my interlocutor, like a photograph. Seeing Harlem from a train a sentence came into my head: “This is not the promised land.” I have neither a hunting permit nor a gun permit. Even though the food is bland and more expensive than at other places, I eat in museum cafeterias, their minimalist décor, their luminosity, and the memory of the art I have just seen make up for their lack of character. I am thirty-nine at the moment I write these words. I have seen a work by Damien Hirst entitled

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