THE KING’S TWO BODIES

By Pierre Michon
Translated by Erik Noonan

The year 1961. Most likely autumn, or early winter. Samuel Beckett is seated. He has been king for ten years—a little more or a little less than ten years: eight since the premiere of Godot, eleven since Jérôme Lindon’s massive publication of the great novels.  In France nothing exists that can make room for him, or usurp the throne he sits on. We know the king has two bodies: one eternal, dynastic body, which the text enthrones and consecrates, which we arbitrarily call Shakespeare, Joyce, Beckett—or else Bruno, Dante, Vico, Joyce, Beckett—the immortal body, clad in castoffs pro tem; and then there’s another, mortal body, functional and relative, the castoffs that go for carrion, the one that’s called—and only called—Dante, and it wears a small cowl over a pug nose; only Joyce, so it has rings and a stunned, myopic eye; only Shakespeare and it’s a fat landlord in an Elizabethan ruff. Or it’s only—incarceratedly—called Samuel Beckett, and in the prison of his name, he sits in autumn 1961 before the lens of Lütfi Özkök, Turk, photographer—artistic photographer—who has arranged a somber drape behind his somberly attired model, in order to lend the portrait he is about to make of him an air of Titian or Champaigne, a classic air of grandeur. This Turk’s mania, his calling, is making photos of writers, which is to say, making—with artifice, craft and skill—a portrait of the king’s two bodies, the simultaneous appearance of the body of the Author and its particular incarnation: the living Verb and the saccus merdae. In the same image.

Samuel Beckett knows all of this, because it’s the infancy of art, and because he is king. He also knows that with him, for him, this magical operation is easier than it is for Dante or Joyce because unlike Dante and Joyce he is handsome—handsome as a king: an icy eye, an illusion of fire under the ice, strict perfect mouth, the noli me tangere he’s been wearing since birth, mixed with luxuriance, handsome plus stigmata, celestial thinness, wrinkles cut with a shard of Job, fleshy big ears, the King Lear look. He knows it’s too easy for him—as if the fat Elizabethan landlord had King Lear’s head—and he also knows that you can hardly take a photo of the saccus merdae called Samuel Beckett without a portrait of the king appearing in the same moment too, literature in person, with—visible around the icy eye and big ear—a Dantescan cowl, an Elizabethan ruff, and, in a corner, visible or not, a shard of Job.

Does he get off on this—this haphazard biology, this immanent justice—Samuel Beckett, on an autumn day in 1961? Does it inspire vanity in him, disgust, an unwonted urge to laugh? I don’t know, but I know for sure he accepts it. He says: I’m the text, why shouldn’t I be the icon? Beckett I am, why not possess the appearance thereof? I have killed my language and my mother, I was born on the day of the Crucifixion, I’ve got the intermingled attributes of Saint Francis and Gary Cooper, the world is a theater, things laugh, God exults, or else Nothing does, let’s play it out via forms. Let’s go on. He extends a hand, he takes a Boyard Blanc and lights it, he places it in the corner of his mouth, like Bogart, like Guevara, like a metalworker. His icy eye takes in the photographer, rejects him. The signs overflow. The photographer shoots. The king’s two bodies appear.


Translation of «Les deux corps du roi» by Pierre Michon excerpted from Corps du roi, Copyright © Éditions Verdier 2002

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