Mlle Lambercier’s Comb

Marek Bieńczyk

Illustration by Hugo Muecke

Where might all of this have started? Jean-Jacques Rousseau was eight years old when one of Madame Lambercier's many combs was ruined. The combs were drying on a plate in the alcove of the room adjoining the kitchen; the heat emanating from the kitchen stove warmed the air, the first rays of spring sunlight illuminated the wall, and Jean-Jacques had the pleasure of reading in this very spot the Latin exercises that had been assigned him. Several of the combs were multi-sided; Madame, or rather Mademoiselle Lambercier, the strict Mlle Lambercier, must have had long, strong, thick hair. When the maid returned to the room, she saw that all of the teeth along one side of the largest comb had snapped off. She let out a shriek, and the echo of her cries resounds in the ears of some to this very day.

This called for an investigation. M. Lambercier and his family conducted interrogations, a capital inquisitory; the interrogator had no doubt that it was Jean-Jacques who had committed the offence—nay, the little murder: no one else had been in the room, no one else had been seen going in: guilty, guilty, guilty. Jean-Jacques objected, he protested, he swore; his Uncle Bernard was summoned from a great distance; the severity and authority of his relative did not compel Jean-Jacques to admit guilt: "They were unable to force from me the confession they required. Though the punishment was several times repeated and I was reduced to the most deplorable condition, I remained inflexible. I would have died rather than give in, and I was resolved to do so." For the misdeed itself, but also for his resistance and impertinence, for his insolent denial, for his recalcitrance, for his stupid eight-year-old life, for his squinty blue eyes, for his proudly tousled bangs, for the flush on his face, for the serpent hidden within the garden, for man's original sin, for the failure to live up to the maturity demanded of him as well as of his cousin, who had also been up to no good—unintentionally, by his own assurances, but deliberately in the judgment of the court—a fitting sentence was carried out. Locked in their room, they lay in the same bed and, with a feeling of helplessness and injustice, embraced one another, lifted themselves up from under the covers, stood on the bed frame, and cried out furiously, in perfect Latin: Carnifex! Carnifex! Executioner! Executioner! You are all executioners!

When Jean-Jacques recalls this event in his Confessions, he is already an old man, but his hand trembles, waves of blood rise to his face, and he feels that "my pulse beat faster once more as I write." Nearly half a century has passed, half a century, and nothing has changed, the plate is still steaming, it's as though it happened just yesterday. Yesterday the comb was broken, yesterday he was falsely accused, yesterday he was punished, yesterday doubt was cast on his innocence, the voice of his heart was left unheard. Half a century! "It is now nearly fifty years since this occurrence, and I have no fear of a fresh punishment for the offence. But I declare before heaven that I was not guilty. I had not broken, nor so much as touched, the comb. I had not gone near the stove, nor so much as thought of doing so. But do not ask me how the mischief occurred. I have no idea, and I cannot understand it. But I do most positively know that I was innocent."

In his beautiful book Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction, Jean Starobinski speaks of the whole affair with the comb as if of the expulsion from Paradise. The young Jean-Jacques had lived in the conviction that Paradise is the mutual transparency of hearts, complete and immediate understanding among people, that words and feelings pass from one to the other, from Jean to Sophie, from Sophie to Paul, like a ray of light from eye to eye. But then he learned that his own feelings, his own certainty—as to his innocence, for example—could not be transmitted, expressed, or told. An obstruction now stood on the path to the hearts of others; the conviction that flowed from the depths of his own heart could no longer reach them. The world had been so clear, so transparent. That morning, the sun had squeezed impatiently into the room, but then everything suddenly changed, the darkness of accusation and rejection fell upon that day. The world had become gloomy, clouded over, and had lost its luster, which before had cleared his eyes' course all the way up to the horizon. Now, somewhere in the depths of that darkness, the innocent heart of Jean-Jacques could only flicker like a burning, useless crystal. From that incident onward, he tells us, he could no longer enjoy unperturbed happiness. This marked the end of his childhood. Here had been the catastrophe that bisected his life, leaving the time of purity, innocence, and naïveté on the one side, and opening, on the other, which was infinitely longer, the laborious, daily game of appearances. "We began to be secretive, to rebel, to lie." Later, just once, he will even say, "I became indeed what I appeared." The destroyer of the comb, the cunning fox, the clever little liar, someone other than himself. Like that time in Turin when he stole Mlle Pontal's ribbon, the pink ribbon with the silver edge, though it was already a little worn, a bit frayed, and the guilt for this act was born by Marion, Madame de Vercellis's cook, pretty, modest, and sweet, "a good girl, sensible and absolutely trustworthy." He regretted it for forty years; he hoped that he had done penance for this crime with forty years of integrity and honor, as well as with the avalanche of misfortunes that had crashed down on the waning years of his life and burdened his dying.

It seems that it was precisely Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the unfortunate guardian of the comb, who awakened the ancient concept of transparency and first introduced it as an intrinsic object (of ideas, feelings, phantasms) into the imagination and literature of Europe; it is in his writings that it comes to mark the ideal, the highest value, of which his, Jean-Jacques's, own existence was or might have been—if not for the closed hearts of others—the fullest embodiment. "My heart has been as transparent as crystal," he repeats several times in his letters and in the Dialogues. When he starts to hold forth on honesty, he likes to speak of himself not only in the first person, but in the third, to assume a distance, to establish the objective measure of his statements: "His heart, transparent as crystal, can hide nothing of what happens within it. Every mood it feels is transmitted to his eyes and face." A heart of crystal, a transparent heart: here is an ideal as much spiritual as it is physiological. "For, if I understand the hearts of Julia and Clara," he writes of the heroines of The New Heloise, "they were to each other perfectly transparent." One can believe in such hearts, and even imagine them not as metaphors, but as a transparent material.

The dream of an originary transparency would remain the metaphor for the utopian state of happiness, and Jean-Jacques would surely never have reached the verge of his own great and extraordinary madness, which continues to arouse hatred and aversion (how many accusations from writers, philosophers, and critics to this day? how many reproaches—those abandoned children, those foibles, those strange relationships with women, that French Revolution?), were it not for his fascination with transparency as a state as much spiritual as physical and chemical. Transparency not only as a zone for interpersonal relationships and the social links derived from them, but also as a psycho-physical state. He was very interested in processes of vitrification, about which he wrote in his Institutions chimiques; he was intrigued by the work of the German physicist Joachim Becher, who believed that "man is from glass and to glass may return," and who was convinced that by the right process it was possible to transform a corpse into "lovely, transparent glass" (which the latest technology, used commercially in America, has mastered to perfection; for an appropriately high fee the dead body can be converted into a crystal signet ring—with a deep blue tint—to be worn on the finger).

Besides, at this time—the mid-eighteenth century—the conceit of imagining the body as though made of glass is gaining currency; it appears, among other places, in Fontenelle's then widely read Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, as well as in a philosophical tract by La Mettrie. This image gained traction from technological advances in the production of glass and from its increasingly common use as a practical material over the course of the preceding century. The seventeenth-century image of glass was still negative, bound up with the Baroque discourse on the fragility and vanity of existence. In his Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton discerns among the "fearful melancholics" those who "are all glass, and therefore they will suffer no man to come near them." Descartes, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, also speaks of melancholics who, under the influence of vapors of black bile, imagine that they "are a totally hollowed-out shell or are made of glass." The idea of glass's fragility (because of cups and goblets, because of transparent spheres, because of the instantaneous bursting of soap bubbles) likewise stretches through the entire seventeenth century in vanitas portraits and in still-lifes.

But the eighteenth-century sensualist discourse valorizes glass in another way, positively, by connecting it for the first time with such values as purity and openness. In Rousseau, the image of one's own body as glass is favorable, and not ominous, as it had been in those melancholic obsessions over fragility. In the aforementioned Institutions chimiques, Rousseau spends a long time pondering the physical properties of transparency, and he recognizes that fluidity is fundamental: "no bodies could be transparent were all their parts not fluid in equal measure." Transparency is for Rousseau hardened, arrested, or frozen fluidity, and this is why the crystal of the heart does not submit to time, but continues in its own, immutable, pure form, like an eternal river. If it were possible to erect a new monument to Jean-Jacques today (for example, in Warsaw's Skaryszewski Park), I imagine that it might take the form of the "Man of Glass," L'Homme de verre, the statue that greeted visitors to the main hall of the Paris World's Fair in 1937. Illuminated by a shaft of light from above, it reaches into this brightness with a glass hand that flows with artificial blood; it tenses its glass torso, in which one can count all the ribs; while the glass legs, with their tangled muscles and glass arteries, hold the trunk in a straight posture, firmly planted, yet ready to raise it lightly, even to launch it into the air. Or else it might look like a figure from the tribute paid to Rousseau (Hommage à Jean-Jacques Rousseau) two hundred years after his death by Emmanuel Saulnier, a sculptor for whom transparency has become the chief subject; this glass Jean-Jacques was placed on the promenade in Annecy, in Rousseau's native alpine haunt, near the lakes upon whose surface he jotted down his dreams and strolls. And were it possible to memorialize Jean-Jacques on the pedestal in words befitting his imagination, I would select these, from a poem entitled "Transparency," by Jan Twardowski:

I pray Lord to take no cover
may that no matter what I am transparent
that you see through me the duck with the flat bill
the yellow primrose that blossoms in the evening
always from the beginning of the world four poppy petals a heart that sketches emotion in a letter

Rousseauian transparency is all-encompassing, absolute, and, like every Rousseauian ideal, elemental as well as mythic, a given from the get-go. Its expression knows no shadow, nothing falls between the heart and the face, they exist in a commonness of purpose, like communicating vessels. Here there is nothing of degrees, nuances, evolutions, middle grounds, instances of unknowing, there is no dialectic of essence and appearance, no libertine larvatus prodeo, no living out one's life behind a mask. The only thing that might disrupt it is an obstruction imposed from the outside, one that cuts off the radiance of transparency, its immanent duration in time. This confrontation, encapsulated in the title of Jean Starobinski's book as, precisely, "transparency and obstruction," penetrates all of Jean-Jacques's work, creating two distinct categories and the basis of his social and political theory, which is dependent on the dichotomy of clarity and obscurity. The obstruction to the transparency that Jean-Jacques had sensed within himself, the obstruction that will in time be elevated to the realm of negative social experience (people have gotten stuck in obscurity and no longer wish to live without it), is the impossibility—to use today's language—of communication; that is, of the complete disclosure and transmission of transparency, of its eternal duration. In other consciousnesses, there arises a false image of Jean-Jacques, destroyer of combs, and this denies his absolute transparency, which would otherwise be the ideal model for this kind of social communication.

Thus, the tragedy of Rousseauian transparency is the fact that it is left defenseless within its own innocence: it can't defend itself from being clouded over, from the darkening brought on by the unrestrained activity of mankind, from the false judgments of others. Simply looking at other people isn't enough to achieve this transparency, nor does looking seek to do so. Now and then the world goes dark, and Jean-Jacques wants to account for it, illuminate it, write books about it, to make sure that, for the first time in history, he is presenting man as he truly is, in all his transparency, and he, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, will be this man. He accosts people everywhere, at salons, on the street, he pushes their buttons, he awaits their smiles and understanding, for them to entrust him with their faith, to admit him into their hearts, but darkness continues to envelope the world, and he feels like kicking and screaming, like letting his body seize and convulse and, when his strength fails him, to just sit there and cry. All of the most important characters in his work cry, and Jean-Jacques is always crying himself, and in their faces the tears carve tracks by which to return to times long past, to a childhood that smells of thyme, when everything was as clear as the palm of your hand, happily right there before your very eyes.

translated from the Polish by Benjamin Paloff

This excerpt consists of one chapter from the book Transparency, forthcoming in Spring 2012 from Dalkey Archive Press.