Thomas sat down and he looked at the sea. For a stretch of time he stayed there, motionless, as if he’d come only to watch the other swimmers’ movements, and, while the mist made it impossible to see very far, he stubbornly remained where he was, his eyes fixed on those bodies as they struggled to progress across the water. Then, when reached by an especially large wave, he too went down across the sand and slid into the tumultuous water that quickly overcame him. It was a calm section of the sea where Thomas often swam a long time without tiring. And so he wasn’t worried about losing stamina, even though his goal suddenly appeared very distant, and he experienced a slight disquiet about going somewhere without knowing the way. What normally prevented the fear of tiring was familiarity with his path, which he would recognize and retrieve from within the water, knowing that if he followed it exactly his strength wouldn’t fail him. Today, however, it wasn’t the same. He’d chosen a new route and neither discerned anything in the distance to show him the way, nor recognized, hardly, the water in which he was gliding. He still made no effort to go back the way he’d come. The mist hid the shore such that returning there no longer seemed to be an option, and regardless he was making his way toward a more monumental and further removed goal that as of yet he’d only glimpsed. He was wrangling with himself beneath the solitude weighing upon him until suddenly he perceived a swimmer, not very far away, who moved with a rapidity and ease that was astonishing. It was the kind of spectacle he’d have liked to take time to admire. The burden of his own weariness began to seem even heavier. Still, the sight was also a sort of consolation, and he wished he had the strength to cry out and to obtain a cry in response. So his voice made an attempt to rise above the noise the waves produced in their unending turbulence. He expected the sound to be lost in the clamor pressing in upon it, but was surprised by a distinct and vibrant cry that sprang out through the wind’s sighs and seemed to splinter into the silence that it was ripping to shreds. But the swimmer ignored the call, and his indifference seemed so impossible that he might have been removed from reality. After this, the act of swimming became more and more important to Thomas, though he sensed he was doing it strangely. A cloud had come down onto the sea and the water’s surface was lost in its pallid glimmer that seemed the only thing truly real. Violent waves shook Thomas’s body and pulled his arms and his legs in different directions, but this wasn’t enough to assure him that he was rolling in a familiar element. The water’s volatility made even his effort to swim into an activity that was tragic without being serious and that left him feeling nothing but despondence. Perhaps all he needed to drive out these desolate thoughts was a more complete self-control, but his eyes could settle on nothing and he felt as if by contemplating the emptiness he hoped, absurdly, to find some kind of help. Meanwhile a boat emerged from the fog, first slowly, periodically disappearing into a darkness consisting of only as that disappearance, and then suddenly surging up so close that Thomas could have read the words shining on its hull if he had wanted to go to the trouble. Was this because there was no one manning it? He let it move away as indifferently as if its image held for him some illusory promise, and he continued to swim like a man who having completely forgotten all dangers was taking great pleasure in what he did. It became clear how foolish this was when the sea, stirred up by the wind, broke out into a violence so sudden and so extreme that he could barely perceive its effects. One might have thought that the storm so disturbed the water that it dispersed into inaccessible regions and that the gusts of impetuous wind were about to wreak havoc on even the sky but there was also a silence and a calm as though all was already destroyed, and the stretch of sea seemed no different from one of those deserts where the passerby ends by doubting of his or her own existence. Thomas tried to advance by disengaging himself from the tasteless tide invading from every direction. A bracing cold, as vibrant as if he’d been plunged suddenly into the middle winter, paralyzed his arms such that they now seemed heavy, and foreign. The turbulent water swirled around him. Could this really be water? Sometimes the foam fluttered before his eyes like ashen snowflakes and sometimes it was the very absence of water that seized his body and his legs and moved them violently. And so suddenly he had the unfortunate impression of being chained to an illusion that he didn’t understand. He breathed more slowly and for a little while held in his mouth the liquid that the gusts of wind were pushing against his head; and yet this was nothing but a warm sweetness or softness, the peculiar drink of a man deprived of taste. Then he realized that his limbs, either from fatigue, or for another unknown reason, felt as foreign as the water in which they rolled. Every time he reflected on the way his hands disappeared and then reappeared with total indifference to the future and a sort of unreality that he was forbidden to understand, he was fully ready to believe that he would encounter many more unforeseeable difficulties before he was finished. He didn’t lose heart; the sense of danger was completely separate from the disturbance that caused the situation. What was there to be afraid of? And yet this didn’t make him any better off, because though he could continue indefinitely in the water or whatever unfamiliar element had taken its place, there was something unbearable about swimming with a body that served him in no way but – he now realized – to believe that it was swimming. But that wasn’t all. After a bit of time passed his skin appeared to be wet in an abnormal manner. Large blotches of moistness covered his arms and his chest. Because he couldn’t seriously examine what was happening he could only attribute this to the numbness, and he let his arms float softly on the water’s surface as if the body he’d been using for swimming were as fluid as the liquid it pierced. The sensation was pleasant at first. The only possible explanation seemed to be that he pursued, in swimming, a sort of daydream in which he was becoming mixed into with the sea; the intoxication of leaving himself, of sliding into the emptiness, of being dispersed into the idea of water, made him forget the painful impression he was fighting and that had conquered him like nausea. And even as this imagined sea that he was more and more intimately becoming seemed to merge with the true sea where he was as good as drowned, he was not as upset as he should have been; more than anything else he felt comforted, as if he had finally discovered the key to the situation and everything were now ready for him to continue with an absence of anatomy in an absence of sea his journey without end. But certain naive aspects of this outlook were incompatible with reality. He began to roll from one side to the other, like a rudderless boat, in the water that was acting as his swimming body. The sensation of something extremely vague, similar to a pain of an intensity that conceals its cause, passed through his limbs. He told himself he would soon be able to continue searching for a way out and realized how ridiculous it was to fight being carried away by a wave that was his own arm. In the end he was very quickly overcome, and the state of his soul resembled that of a being that would soon drown bitterly in itself. It was surely time to stop: his strength would not take him much farther, and the cold was becoming unbearable. But one hope remained and again he swam as though he’d become a fish in its native sea, as though within his restored inner self he had suddenly discovered the potential to continue swimming. Was this an advisable thing to do? He was feeling better; he had the agreeable impression of breathing with gills and living off invisible bubbles of air formed in the depths of himself. He felt so completely gratified that rather than stop there he let himself be prey to transformations he might have been able to ward off, if his first triumph had not made him over-confident. He saw that by continually approaching a more elementary existence, he evaded danger and became better situated to go as far as was necessary. He was swimming better, like a monster deprived of fins; under the giant microscope, he made himself into ambitious piles of eyelashes and vibrations tirelessly beating against the water. The endeavor became entirely bizarre when he began trying to swim not in the water around him, but rather in a vague, ideal region, that was here and not there, a kind of sacred place where he could be within the matter that was above matter itself. He secretly thought that this place was so perfect for him that he needed only to be there, to be; it was like an imaginary hollow into which he sank because, before he was there, it had already been imprinted with his own form. And so he made one last effort to commit himself entirely. This was not at all difficult, he met no obstacle and had the impression that he was uniting with himself and settling into this place where no other could come, where he had finally found a repose that none could dispute. But the illusion didn’t last long. In the end he had to go back, and as the shore was quite close, contrary to what he had previously thought, returning would be a simple task. With ease he made his way to a sort of cliff to which swimmers sometimes made a special trip so they could jump off. His fatigue had disappeared, and when the wind had finished drying the streaming water off his body, there remained no evidence of what had happened. He did however feel a buzzing in his ears and a burning in his eyes, as might be expected after any long stay in saltwater. He became especially aware of this when, turning toward that unending blanket on which the sun reflected, he tried to make out the direction in which he had traveled so far. Then there was truly a fog before his eyes and he was fully prepared to perceive anything in the blurred emptiness he feverishly tried to pierce with his gaze. Looking out, he discovered a man swimming in the distance, half lost under the horizon and so far away that he could not see his movements. At such a distance it was difficult to make any observations of consequence, and the swimmer was continually slipping out of sight, and reappeared only in the moments when his existence seemed most unlikely. Thomas refused to move from his post. As though his tired eyes were sharper for their fatigue, he continued to follow all the developments of that swimmer who might have already vanished and who, if he were in fact there, could only have passed for an unimportant bit of flotsam. This absence, far from bothering him, revived his curiosity. Not only did he still seem to perceive the swimmer very well, but he also felt himself drawing closer to him and into an intimacy greater than any he’d felt before. He stayed there several moments watching, and waiting. There was in his contemplation something painful, something onerous, that was much like the feeling of too much freedom, the kind of freedom obtained through the rupture of all ties. His features became confused and his face assumed a rare expression.
Excerpt. Originally appeared in French as Thomas l’obscur. © Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1941, 2005 pour la présente édition.