The Garden of Forking Languages: French (R)evolution

“The feeling of adventure would simply be that of the irreversibility of time.”

Since I first read this sentence in Sartre’s book, Nausea, I would find myself thinking about it every time I experienced what he would call the feeling of adventure. The phrasing, the meaning, the syntax of the quote never changed. However, every time I heard or read this sentence, I was somehow simultaneously struck by a feeling of novelty and discovery, as if I had never conceived of such a concept before, and a contrasting, strong sense of familiarity, as if I had come up with those words myself.

Sartre believes that we usually experience the feeling of adventure when we have a peculiar, unique experience and, crucially, when we take notice of it. We then suddenly realise that the moment we are currently living has something unique, that it will only happen once and never again – at least never with the same special dynamics. We become aware that, looking back in time, this will be one of our few outstanding memories among endless unremarkable days. When we come to this realisation, we also understand that our adventure will end, and as the end of it gets closer and closer, we attempt to savour every second, every aspect of the experience. We cling to every moment but at the same time we do nothing to prevent the experience from ending, because it is exactly its perishability which makes the adventure valuable and our feeling so overwhelmingly significant.

Sartre proceeds to explain that, when experiencing such a feeling, it comes naturally to us to recount our adventure; we are no longer the mere protagonist of our story, we are the narrator, the writer of it. However, it is impossible to both live an adventure and recount it at the same time: by narrating our experiences we inevitably start rationalising them, which results in the loss of the spontaneity and haphazardness which had turned our otherwise regular day into an adventure in the first place.

When I was seventeen, I went to Paris for a month to be a cat sitter and to practice my French. For the first time I was living in a city entirely by myself. I was utterly overwhelmed by a disorienting feeling of freedom, together with the awareness that I would never, in the future, be as careless as I was then: I had no academic responsibilities because it was the summer holidays, I didn’t have a job, I could just practice my French, read books, wander around the city and visit museums every day. The cat was my only real responsibility, but as most cats, she was independent and proud, and she only needed me occasionally for food and affection. Everything I could possibly want to see felt easily reachable in Paris, and I would spend entire days getting lost in the Parisian streets and exploring museums, where I would let my eyes be captured by different forms of art whilst also exploring the intertwined stories of the artists, the writers, the historical figures that had inhabited that iconic city in the past.

After my daily run in the Jardins de Luxembourg, I would drink caramel coffee in a cafe on the banks of the Seine with a freshly purchased second hand book in my hand. I would visit the Musée de l’Orangerie, where Monet’s iconic “Nymphéas” was exhibited in a large oval room, covering the walls completely and surrounding the observer. I would examine the painting from every angle, first looking at it from a distance, then getting closer to admire each individual brushstroke and how, together with all the other brushstrokes, it created the iconically dynamic impressionistic effect.

While I wandered around the city, always alone yet surrounded by crowds, I also felt like one small brushstroke in a bigger painting. My adventure, so significant to me, was just one in hundreds, thousands of adventures. Every person populating every crowded street was the writer, the narrator, the main character of their own story. As the end of my adventure became inevitably close, I reflected that it is immensely comforting to just be one in a multitude: your struggles disappear within other infinite kinds of struggles, and your joy is reflected by other infinite kinds of joy. Somehow, both of these thoughts are reassuring.

As I take a sip of caramel coffee, quarantined in my Italian home, its characteristic flavour takes me back to those Parisian sunny afternoons, and I think of how Proust was taken back in time by having a bite of his proverbial madeleine. Now that being in a crowd is momentarily impossible, my Parisian memories appear even more incredible and unattainable. After everything that has changed both in myself and in the world, I look back at that one intense, strongly heterogeneous month: it feels less like one of the many happenings of my life, and more like a lifetime within a lifetime.

[Viola Ragonese – she/her]

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