Changing States of Mind: An Intertextual Reading of Toussaint’s La Salle de Bain in Relation to Pascal’s Pensées

In some ways, there is a clear relationship between the content of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s (1957–) novel La Salle de Bain and portions of Blaise Pascal’s (1623-1662) Pensées. This is true particularly in the two choices the narrator makes that define him as unique within the novel—namely, that he chooses to spend his days contemplating in solitude, and that he chooses to do so in his bathroom. These two characteristics reflect beliefs Pascal sets forth in his Pensées concerning both diversions (Pascal uses the word “divertissements”) and appearances (Pascal’s term is “apparences”), both of which I will address in more detail later. Because the choices of the narrator of La Salle de Bain seem to reflect Pascal’s beliefs on the above matters, it is within reason to suggest that he in fact represents a kind of “ideal man” in Pascal’s terms, one who casts off the blindfold of mankind’s conventions and daily rituals to contemplate his existence.[1]

However, I argue in this paper that the narrator’s relationship to Pascal’s Pensées is in fact slightly more complex than this. While the narrator’s above-mentioned characteristics do respond directly to ideas in Pascal’s Pensées, his contemplation differs somewhat from that which Pascal describes. To the latter man, someone who has shed himself of diversion and appearances will ultimately find himself despairing, because without anything to distract him he will realize the misery of the human condition. However, the narrator’s contemplation, though it approaches this realization occasionally, is directed more often toward seeking comfort from the horrific reality of mankind’s condition that, at some level of his being, he is aware of without fully understanding. This represents a choice beyond those posited by Pascal in his work, and is important because it suggests another, more nuanced model for conducting one’s lifestyle while considering the state of mankind’s existence than the options that Pascal provides in his work.

In Pensées, Pascal sets up his ultimate argument, which is that mankind should believe in God because it needs him, by detailing the various ways in which the existence of mankind without God is miserable. One of the proofs he offers is mankind’s inclination toward diversions, which he asserts have been created to give people a false impression of happiness, and to distract them from contemplation of what it means to be a human being and to exist in this world and universe. Were people to truly contemplate their lives, they would realize how miserable the conditions of their existence were. Pascal defined “diversions” as any activity that distracted mankind from contemplation—thus, not only activities intended for entertainment, but also actions like fighting wars, studying, and going to work everyday (39-40).[2]

The appearance of Pascal’s Pensées at several points throughout the novel invites comparison between these two works. The narrator, who has mentioned elsewhere that he has started to read an English edition of Pascal’s text, at one point quotes the following passage (Toussaint 88):

But when I thought more deeply, and after I had found the cause for all our distress, I
wanted to discover its reason, I found out there was a valid one, which consists in the
natural stress of our weak and mortal condition, and so miserable, that nothing can
console
us, when we think it over (qtd. in Toussaint 93).

This is one of the passages in Pascal’s work that introduces the section on diversion that was briefly summarized above. The narrator’s focus on it seemingly indicates his interest in the topic and sheds light on his behaviors up until and after this point in the novel.

In some ways, the narrator has escaped the self-imposed blindfold of diversions that the rest of the world wears. He is not interested in engaging in menial daily tasks, but rather tries to spend his days in contemplation. Furthermore, at the beginning and end of the novel, he chooses to reside in the bathroom while he does so. His mother, concerned about this, comes to visit him there. She suggests that he should distract himself somehow, perhaps by playing sports (13). The narrator informs the reader, “je répondis que le besoin de divertissement me paraissait suspect…je ne craignais rien moins que les diversions…” (13). He admits that diversions unsettle him, even to the point of frightening him. This implies that he believes they have a detrimental effect on quality of life. Given that he seems so keen on solitude and reflection, it is reasonable to conclude that in his case, he specifically mistrusts the potential of diversion to distract him from his ongoing examination of his life.

The novel’s emphasis on daily routine underscores both the general world’s obsession with diversions and the potential these diversions have to distract the narrator from engaging in serious contemplation. One such example occurs in the first section, when a Polish painter named Kabrowinski who has been employed to paint the narrator’s kitchen embarks on a quest to gut and skin some octopus for lunch. This normally-mundane activity is meticulously described across several pages that are spaced intermittently between the other events that occur in the first section of the novel, casting it as practically a monumental occasion (11-49). First, Kabrowinski is delighted by the prospect of preparing the octopus. “Kabrowinski approuvait largement. Il avait un visage radieux, epanoui” (27). Kabrowinski’s jubilation, indicated by the words “radieux” and “epanoui,” seems out of proportion to the dull task at hand. However, this exaggerated response indicates his devotion to what amounts ultimately to no more than a diversion. Pascal writes that people ultimately engage in diversions for the sake of distraction from serious reflection, not for the sake of whatever the goal of the diversion is (40). Kabrowinski’s reaction and the seemingly unmerited prominence of the incident in the text combine to contribute almost a sacred significance to the act of gutting the octopus. Kabrowinski’s rapture reflects the importance that the pursuit of diversion takes on because of its power to distract from contemplation. The act of gutting the octopus even manages to disrupt the narrator while he is in the midst of thought. Caught up in a fantasy of meeting the Austrian ambassador, from whom he has received a letter in the mail, he snaps back to reality when he observes the octopus as Kabrowinski operates on it (Toussaint 31).  Without a rich inner life, it is difficult to reflect and meditate about the condition of one’s existence, but participation in and even passive observation of diversions will ensure that an individual is too distracted to build up such an inner world. Furthermore, diversions are so ubiquitous that even the narrator, who has largely freed himself from their influence, sometimes succumbs to their ability to distract, as indicated in this passage.

In addition to his disdain of most kinds of quotidian activity, the narrator’s decision at the beginning and end of the novel to spend his time in the bathroom also reflects a defiant refusal to succumb to another weakness of mankind that Pascal terms “appearances.” The narrator admits of his partner, “Edmondsson pensait qu’il y avait quelque chose de desséchant dans mon refus de quitter la salle de bain…” (11). Her choice to use the word “desséchant” to describe her feelings about the narrator’s newfound habit reveals that she finds his choice detrimental to his well-being. She finally tells his parents, which also clearly demonstrates her concern (12). When his mother then comes to visit him in the bathroom, she is “soucieuse” and displays “une lasse tristesse” (13). These descriptions reveal that she is unsettled by her son’s sojourn in the bathroom, a conclusion that is reinforced by her fruitless attempts to convince him to busy himself with some kind of distraction (13). These kinds of reactions reveal the degree to which the narrator’s decision to habitate in his bathroom is seen as cause for concern because of its unconventionality.

However, there is no inherent reason why a bathroom cannot be just as appropriate a space for habitation as any other room in the house. In Pascal’s critique of “appearances,” he laments that it is mankind’s habit and fallacy to regard what is simply custom as truth. This is the reason, he gives as example, that people believe without question that kings have some kind of divine right to rule—though this is an arbitrary custom, it was decided a long time ago and has been enacted continously for ages, until finally it was regarded as Truth (28). Bathrooms were probably first constructed expressly for the purpose of washing oneself, but then again, kitchens were most likely constructed expressly for the purpose of cooking, and basements for the purpose of storage. Over time, however, the purpose of most rooms in a typical home has become much more flexible—kitchens are often used as spaces for recreation and conversation, while basements have in modern homes frequently been revamped not only as storage spaces, but as the central recreation hub of the home. Yet for some reason, the explicit purpose of the bathroom seems not to have shifted from when it was first created. As such, the narrator’s decision to habitate in the bathroom reflects defiance of yet another of the weaknesses of mankind that Pascal lists. He refuses to accept that a bathroom’s inherent purpose is to wash and relieve oneself, that the role that has been assigned to it is a truth and not simply an arbitrary custom that has been in place for ages.

For Pascal, the only other Godless alternative to living a life replete with distraction is to contemplate on the miserable condition of mankind’s existence, and in so doing to become filled with hopelessness and despair (38-39). This is where the narrator of Toussaint’s novel differs. Though he has successfully, for the most part, managed to weed diversion out of his life and live in constant contemplation, he has not yet grasped the whole scope of the misery of mankind’s condition. This is because, like those who pursue diversions, the narrator is also frightened to face the full magnitude of human misery. Consequently, all of his thoughts, while supposedly directed toward a critical contemplation of himself and his surroundings, are in fact actually directed toward seeking comfort from this terrifying reality.

There are various signs scattered throughout the novel to suggest that the primary purpose of the narrator’s evasion of the world around him and retreat into himself is to be comforted and protected from its misery. For example, when he habitates the bathroom, he sits in the bathtub (Toussaint 11). Bathtubs have bowl-like shapes suggestive of the womb, indicating a desire on the narrator’s part to return to the one place in the life of a human being that is an absolute shield from all that is miserable about the existence of the human race. The narrator mentions that, on at least one occasion, he has sat in the bathtub while nude, which further reinforces the image of the womb (11). The narrator’s mother visiting him in the bathroom and handing him cakes to eat in the bathtub further establishes the connection between the bathtub and the womb by simulating his mother feeding him when he was still in utero (13).

The narrator describes another telling incident. “Deux fois par semaine, j’écoutais le compte rendu radiophonique du déroulement de la journé de championnat de France de football…bercé par de chaudes voix humaines, j’écoutais les reportages la lumière éteinte, parfois les yeux fermés” (14). The use of the verb “bercer” here coupled with the pairing “chaudes voix humaines” create an atmosphere of warmth, coziness, and security emblematic of the womb. Furthermore, the same verb “bercer” works together with the imagery of the dim lights and the narrator’s closed eyes to connote a child who is gently cradled to sleep by a loved one. This image is perhaps second only to the womb image in terms of the security, assurance, and protection from the horrors of human existence that it evokes.

The role of Edmondsson in the narrator’s life should not be neglected. She takes on the role of caretaker for him, assuming a maternal-like stance and once again suggesting that the narrator is ultimately pursuing comfort from the misery of human existence. Throughout the entire story, Edmondsson is responsible for taking care of most of the narrator’s practical needs. For example, when he decides to spend his days in the bathtub, she helps out by taking on a part-time job at an art gallery (11). He also freely admits that she is the one who is most skilled with money matters (43). This further demonstrates her role as caretaker and overseer of both their home and the narrator himself.

Most importantly, when he leaves Paris temporarily for a change of scenery in Venice, he longs for Edmondsson with increasing intensity with every moment he is away from her. His days begin to revolve around the phone calls he and Edmondsson make to one another, in which he revels in hearing not only her voice, but also her breathing and her silences. The two of them frequently stay on the phone for long periods together, alternating between speech and silence (72). He clearly finds solace and comfort in being able to hear the presence of the woman he loves at the other end of the line. Lastly, the narrator’s extended hospital stay in Venice for no particularly urgent reason also suggests that his ultimate quest is to be comforted, consoled, and protected (102-125). Hospitals are also where most babies are born and spend the first few minutes or days of their lives, so the hospital stay also continues the imagery of the womb began in the first section.  All of these examples demonstrate that the narrator’s ultimate aim is to be comforted, not to boldly examine the misery of his existence.

To be sure, however, the narrator’s search for consolation, while not exactly a bold face-off with the misery of his existence, nevertheless reveals that he is closer to becoming free of illusion than many people. The particular Pascal text singled out in the novel hints at how this could be. This particular segment of text is a peculiar choice to single out for citation, as it does not hold a place of very high importance within the structure of Pensées. It is essentially a transitional paragraph that segways into Pascal’s lengthy critique of diversion. Had the narrator wanted specifically to emphasize some viewpoint of Pascal’s about the misguidance of diversion, he could have picked from an ample amount of content specifically addressing that subject. Instead, he chooses to emphasize a transitional paragraph that does not even yet introduce the subject of its section, and therefore has no apparent connection with the concept of diversions for those who do not know its context.

He must, then, have decided to single out this paragraph for another reason. The word “console” is italicized in the citation of this passage in the novel (93). The emphasis on this word suggests that perhaps the narrator was not only struck by this passage in particular because of its scalding truth, but felt some kind of a connection or other kind of importance to the verb “console” in particular. The emphasis could be an acknowledgment that there is no true way to be consoled by one’s misery; on the contrary, it could be a cry to work harder to feel consoled. In any case, though, Pascal’s passage makes clear that in order to recognize the need for consolation, one first has to understand the extent of the misery of human existence. The narrator has not faced this misery head-on; if he had, then according to Pascal, he would be overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness. He rather revels in the consolation he is able to create for himself and continues to evade the direct confrontation of the truth. Even so, the fact that he recognizes the need for consolation means that he recognizes the existence of the miserable condition of mankind, even if he is not ready, willing, or able to fully understand it. .

It is important to remember, however, that because of his proximity to understanding the miserable condition of mankind compared to others, the narrator does occasionally experience flashes of insight. For instance, while he is sitting looking at the rain, he follows one droplet with his eyes through its descent to its collision with the ground. From this observation, he concludes, “Ainsi est-il possible de se représenter que le mouvement…tend essentiellement vers l’immobilité, et qu’en conséquence entraîne continûment les corps vers la mort, qui est immobilité. Olé” (38). The narrator reaches an insightful conclusion from his observation of the raindrop, a glimmer of one aspect of mankind’s condition that, according to Pascal, makes it unbearable, which is man’s knowledge of his own mortality (cite). The narrator’s exclamation “olé” clearly indicates that he finds the content of the reflection intense. This is the character of all of the flashes of insight he experiences throughout the novel—they are intense bursts of understanding that occur all of a sudden intermittently throughout the author’s daily life.

It is necessary to leave the realm of Pascal-influenced thinking to come to any conclusion about the significance of the narrator’s state as a man who is suspended in a kind of purgatory of consolation, between the words of diversion and contemplation of the true state of his existence. This is because, in the context of Pascal’s Pensées alone, there is nothing to say about such a position, possibly because it never occurred to Pascal that such a mindset might be possible. Were the narrator confined to Pascal’s model of human mentality, he would have to sooner or later either return to the world of diversion or move on to fully grasp the depth of his misery, both of which are bleak options. This grim outlook is why, for Pascal, human beings need to believe in God, the greater argument of his work.

In the case of La Salle de Bain, however, it seems as though Toussaint wants to suggest another model of engagement with reality, to escape the dichotomy in Pascal between those who understand the misery of human existence and are miserable and those who evade thinking about it by spending their entire lives engrossed in diversions. The narrator of La Salle de Bain has forsaken diversion for the sake of acknowledging, at some level of his being, that the majority of supposed givens that surround him are based on arbitrary custom and not inherent truth, and that mankind’s existence is cruel and mean. He has to have come to this conclusion at some level in order to desire solace, comfort, and protection. However, he has not fully confronted the meanness of mankind’s condition, as evidenced by the fact that he does not boldly face the reality of this condition, but rather occupies himself in seeking comfort and protection from it. While the narrator for the most part leads a comfortable life, caught up in his love for Edmondsson, his proximity to an understanding of the darkness of his condition means that he occasionally experiences brilliant flashes of meaning, or as Virginia Woolf once described the phenomenon, “…little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” (cite this).  Toussaint presents an alternative, not entirely undesirable model of relating oneself to the larger universe, the grip of distraction and, occasionally, of catching flashes of understanding of the human condition that do not suffocate us. In an age as rife with distractions as the present, especially in the field of techonology, it is important to consider the possible implications for our society of such a mindset.

Suggestions from professor for improvement:

-He wasn’t convinced by the Edmondsson comments, unless I want to take a more Freudian approach and use the idea of man wanting to sleep with his mother

-consider the bathroom as a transitional space

-emphasize more the anti-Pascalian nature of the hero

-Emphasize more the specificity of the bathroom (why the bathroom?)

-Mention Pascal’s lack of a determined structure when discussing how the passage fits into Pascal

-reconcile whether I want paper to be about death thing or trauma of separation from other

-Are the two sojourns in the bathroom the same thing, or two separate events with different signification?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Marek, Heidi. “Pascal im Bade: Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s ‘La Salle de Bain’ und ‘La
Télévision.’” Romanische Forschungen. 113.1 (2001): 38-51. Web.

Pascale, Blaise. Pascal’s Pensées. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1958. Web.

Toussaint, Jean-Philippe. La Salle de Bain. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1985/2005. Print.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] I know of at least one such scholar who has made such an argument. See Marek, 38-51.

[2] I should clarify two points here before moving on. First, the only mindsets in Pascal that I will discuss throughout the rest of the paper are those in which God is absent. Second, underlying the argument of my paper is an assumption that there is some truth to Pascal’s claim that mankind’s existence is, in fact, fairly grim to contemplate. A few of the reasons he gives for this conclusion are mankind’s weariness, inconstancy, ignorance, and unrest, as well as his knowledge of his own mortality (Pascal 37; 48-49). All of these qualities have constituted artistic commentaries upon the human race practically since literature and art were created.

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