Becoming a human again.

from All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir page 253 fiction ~8 min read

I had not forgotten the sound of her voice. I'm sorry for you. She had uttered those words, and the phantom I had become was suddenly transformed into a man of flesh and bones. And it was that malicious, guilty man who now stood before her. Wasit hate, scorn, or pity that I saw in her eyes? The anguished shame which gripped my heart once again bore witness to the fact that it was I, the real I, at whom she was looking. She turned her head away.

"How pretty these grounds are," she said. "Do you like the country?" A brief silence followed, and then she resumed somewhat haltingly, "I've been wanting to see you for a long time. I wanted to thank you for having spared Richet's life."

Brusquely, I said, "You don't have to thank me. I didn't do it because of you."

"That doesn't matter," she said. "What matters is that you acted generously."

"It wasn't generosity," I said impatiently.

It irritated me that she could have been duped, she too, by that foreign being who, as a result of chance acts, had molded himself around me.

She smiled. "I suppose that whenever you do something worthy, you always find evil motives for it."

"Did you think my motives were good when I told Madame de Montesson about you?" I asked.

"Oh, I don't say that you're not capable of cruelty, too," she said in a calm tone of voice.

Perplexed, I carefully studied her. She looked much younger than when I had last seen her in Madame de Montesson's salon, and she seemed more beautiful, too. What had she come for?

"You don't bear any grudge against me?" I asked.

"No. In fact, you did me a great service," she said gayly. "I wasn't going to spend the rest of my life as a slave to a selfish old woman, and you created the breach."

"Well! So much the better! And to think that I almost felt remorse because of that incident."

"You'd have been wrong. My life is much more interesting now." There was a touch of defiance in her voice.

"Did you come here to offer me absolution?" I asked dryly.

She shook her head. "I came to talk to you about a project..."

"A project?"

"For quite a long time now my friends and I have wanted to found an independent university to make up for the insufficiencies of official teaching. We believe the development of the scientific spirit will have a great influence on social and political progress." She cut herself off and held out a notebook to me which had been in her hand. Then, in the same timid manner as she had begun, she said, "All our ideas are set forth in here."

I took the notebook and opened it. It began with a rather long dissertation on the advantages of the experimental method and the moral and political consequences which could be expected to result from its diffusion; next, a curriculum was proposed for the future university; in conclusion, a few pages written in a firm and impassioned tone, announced the advent of a better world. I laid the tract on my knees.

"Did you draft it?"

A slightly embarrassed smile appeared on her face. "Yes," she answered.

"I admire your faith."

"Faith alone isn't enough. We need collaborators and money. A great deal of money."

I laughed. "You came here to ask me for money?"

"Yes. We've opened a subscription list. I hope you'll be the first to make a donation. And we'd be even happier if you would consider accepting a chair in chemistry."

After a few moments of silence, I said, "What gave you the idea to come to me?"

"You're very rich," she answered frankly. "And you're a great scientist. Everyone is talking about the work you've done with carbon."

"But you know me. You've reproached me often enough for hating mankind. What made you think I'd agree to help you?"

Her face grew animated, her eyes more brilliant. "On the contrary. I don't know you. You might turn me down, but you might accept, too. I decided to take a chance."

"And why should I accept? To make up for the wrong I did you?"

She stiffened. "I told you that you did me no wrong."

"For the pleasure of doing you a favor, then?"

"In the interest of science and humanity."

"I'm not interested in science except insofar as it is inhuman."

"It amazes me how you dare to hate people," she said in a sudden flash of anger. "You're rich, learned, free; you do everything you like, while most of mankind lives in misery and ignorance, enslaved by joyless work. And you never in your life tried to help them. They should hate you."

Her voice was so full of passion that I felt called upon to defend myself. But how could I tell her the truth?

"At bottom, I think I envy them," I said.

"You?"

"They're alive. For years now, I haven't been able to feel alive."

"Ah! I knew it!" she said in a compassionate tone of voice. "I knew you were very unhappy."

I abruptly stood up. "Come, let's take a walk through the grounds, since you find them so pretty."

"I'd love to."

She took my arm and we strolled alongside the river in which goldfish were lazily swimming.

"Even on such a beautiful day as this, don't you feel alive?"

"No."

With her fingertips she touched one of the roses Bompard had created. "Isn't there anything here you like?" she asked.

I plucked the rose and held it out to her. "I'd like this rose, if you were wearing it."

She smiled, took the flower and deeply breathed in its fragrance.

"it says things to you, doesn't it?" I said. "What does it tell you?"

"That it's wonderful to be alive," she said gayly.

"It tells me nothing. For me things have no voice."

I looked hard at the saffron-colored rose, but there had been too many roses in my life, too many springtimes.

"That's only because you don't know how to listen to them."

We walked for a while in silence. She looked at the trees and flowers. No sooner did she turn her eyes from me than I felt my life abandoning me.

"I'm curious to know what you think of me," I said.

"I used to think very ill of you."

"What made you change your opinion?"

"Your actions towards Richet made me see you in a new light."

I shrugged my shoulders. "That was pure capriciousness."

I felt as if I were deceiving her. I was ashamed. But it was impossible to explain to her...

"It would be a mistake, of course, to take me for a good-hearted soul," I said.

She smiled. "I'm not stupid, you know."

"And yet you hope to interest me in the happiness of humanity."

She pushed a pebble along the path with her foot and did not answer.

"Look here," I said. "Do you believe I'll give you that money or don't you? Which way do you bet, yes or no?"

She looked at me gravely. "I don't know," she said. "You're free to do as you please."

For the second time she touched my heart. It was true; I was free. All the centuries through which I had lived rushed forth like moths and died at the edge of that glowing moment which burst out under the blue sky, that moment as new, as unforeseen as if the past had never existed. In that instant I decided to give Marianne an answer that had never before been inscribed in any of the forgotten moments of my life. And it was I, yes, it was I who had decided. I had made the choice between disappointing Marianne or gratifying her.

"Must I decide right now?"

"As you like," she said rather coldly.

I looked at her. Disappointed or gratified, she would walk down the road, pass through the gate, and there would be nothing left for me but to go back and stretch myself out on the grass near the ant hill.

"When will you give me your answer?" she asked.

I paused. I felt like saying "Tomorrow" to be sure of seeing her again. But I did not say it. In her presence, it was I who spoke, who acted —the real I. It would have shamed me to exploit the situation because of a mere whim.

"Right away," I said. "Would you mind waiting for just a moment?"

I returned a few minutes later with a bill of exchange in my hand. When I gave it to Marianne, the blood rushed to her cheeks.

"But it's a fortune!" she exclaimed.

"It's not my whole fortune."

"But it must be a large part..."

"Didn't you tell me you needed a great deal of money?"

She looked at the paper, then at my face. "I don't understand," she said.

"You can't understand everything."

Stupefied, she stood motionless before me.

"It's late," I said. "You ought to leave. I don't believe we have anything further to talk about."

"I have one more favor to ask of you," she said slowly.

"But you're insatiable!"

"Neither my friends nor I know much about business. It seems that you're a skillful financier. Help us get our university started."

"Is it in your interest or mine that you ask me that?"

She seemed abashed. "Both," she said.

"More one or more the other?"

She hesitated. She loved life so much that she always had confidence in the effectiveness of truth.

"I believe that the day you decide to get out of yourself, a lot of things will change for you..."

"Why do you take so much interest in me?" I asked.

"Can't you understand that it's quite possible for someone to take an interest in you?"

For a moment we stood silently facing each other.

"I'll think it over," I said. "And I'll come and bring you my answer."

"Twelve, rue des Ciseaux. That's where I live now." She held out her hand. "Thank you."

"Twelve, rue des Ciseaux," I repeated. "And it's I who should be thanking you."

She climbed into the carriage and I listened to the sound of the wheels as they rolled off along the road. Then, with both arms I hugged the trunk of a tall linden tree, pressed my cheek against its rough bark and thought with desire, with anguish, "Will I again become a living man?"

—Simone de Beauvoir, All Men Are Mortal, p. 253