Selections from La peau de l’ombre (The Shadow’s Skin)

Joël Gayraud

Illustration by Gianna Meola

These twenty-three fragments from the pen of Joël Gayraud appeared in French over a decade ago. The guiding principle of La peau de l’ombre (The Shadow’s Skin)—the book from which they are excerpted—was to undercut a way of thinking that sees truth as being behind appearances, and that strips off the successive, deceptive layers of reality, only to be left with no more than a skeleton. Gayraud’s effort has illustrious predecessors—most notably and systematically Hegel, who in the preface to his Phenomenology complained of the conceit of contemporary science: having “lost hold of the living nature of concrete fact,” and content to merely study “merely dry bones with flesh and blood all gone,” it mistook the skin of such truth, “devitalized and despiritualized and excoriated,” for knowledge.

In Gayraud’s hands, this corporal metaphor is at once more tragic and more vivid, and the living reality to which it is in thrall more seductive, evoking the fateful dance of truth which, bidden to perform an ancient striptease before an oriental master and his guests, ends up skinned alive when she has no more garments to forfeit. Truth here falls victim less to barbaric cruelty than to amusement and thoughtlessness, the act of flaying performed by a member of staff in fear of displeasing his master. The philosopher who, like the despot, wants to see truth denuded to the bone, is left with only the shadow of reality. For Gayraud, however, “All living knowledge is desire.” True to this insight, the fragments gathered in The Shadow’s Skin stop at caressing the living skin of truth’s shadow, leaving its body intact.

—S. D. Chrostowska

There is an obvious analogy between recollection and dreaming: to remember is to dream what one has lived, and to dream is to make what one remembers come alive.


There are two kinds of appearance. The one most often so designated, in our society founded on the acquisition and accumulation of status symbols, is appearance related to having, appearance that resolves itself in showing off one’s possessions. But there is another kind of appearance, just as important as the first, governed by the aesthetic values of self-affirmation and self-expression—appearance related to being.


Too polished, he always speaks with his mouth empty—completely empty—so much so that no one listens to him anymore.


The expression “take a road trip,” so dear to imitators of the Beat Generation in the 1970s, has always irritated me. Behind its triviality, I can already see taking shape the antithesis of a voyage or an adventure. I can see a series of spaces, one after another and all the same, a linear displacement without the thickness of experience, roaming confined to the unravelling of an insipid ribbon of asphalt, justifying by this mutilated capture of spatiality a world that has renounced the adventure of history.


Boredom assumes its full force when action—all meaningful, authentic action—is felt to be impossible. To one who is bored, ordinary activity seems nothing but foolish agitation, vain efforts, constantly renewed, to feel or see oneself as alive. We would be wrong to think that the point of view of boredom basically reflects a perverted or pathological view of reality. On the contrary, stepping back from reality, an effect of this passion, is the first step necessary to any critical judgment on the world. Thus, a strong childhood predisposition for boredom is often accompanied by intellectual precocity favoring theoretical reflection and the development of the faculties of abstraction. What else is left to us, when all possibility of action appears exhausted, when even play, however often repeated with delight, suddenly loses its attraction, except to sink into a reverie and set about transforming, without the aid of the external world, ideas and images for one’s own personal use? Ennui, which puts distance between whomever experiences it and the world, is that state of twilit grace that renders one capable of taking an exact measure of life.


Perhaps one day we will witness a mass revolt whose principal motivation and positive project will be recapturing ennui. Men fight to the death to reclaim the right to be bored, to enjoy at last boredom that belongs to them, of which a daily avalanche of advertisements, offered liberally and ready for consumption, has deprived them.


In the sun, the waves of the Aegean twinkle this morning like stars. Whereas I imagine the celestial vault by night as an immense sea, with the stars as the sparkling crest of invisible wavelets illuminated by a sun to which we have our backs perpetually turned, like the prisoners in Plato’s cave; a sun dispensing light destined to forever remain invisible to our sublunary eyes.


The recent metamorphosis of street signs in Paris gives us daily proof of the need for the indefinite in the genesis of poetic sentiment. Beneath the street name one now sees added the dates and occupation of the historical figure after whom it is named, and sometimes the designation is even changed for the sake of precision. What disappointment the first time I saw, beneath the Rue Rochechouart, the title “Abbess”! As a result, this quarter where I had lived for many years, and which for me connoted great depravity, from boulevard prostitutes to today’s transsexuals, was reduced to the detestable dimensions of Catholicity. The same goes for the Rue Pigalle, deliberately revamped as “Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, sculptor,” under the pressure of local real estate agents hoping thereby to scrub the area clean of its bad reputation in the eyes of prospective buyers. In another neighborhood, the Rue Jouffroy, from which my friend Jean-Pierre Le Goff sends me his precious “flying leaves,” gains nothing from the stupidly explicit “Rue Jouffroy d’Abbans, inventor of steam navigation”; as for this marvelous Rue de l’Orient, which joins at right angles two points on the Rue Lepic, the halo of calm delight that once emanated from its name alone has been butchered by criminal town councilors who rebaptized it as “Rue de l’Armée d’Orient.” Just as textual explication badly done succeeds in putting us off poetry, so the magic of a stroll is overrun by such overly well-intentioned pedagogical efforts.

Catholicism effected a return to polytheism, but it is a polytheism continually augmented. One can indeed multiply the number of saints to infinity; theoretically, one could even have as many saints as people. For pagans, however, the number of gods is limited; their polytheism consists of discrete entities. In the Catholic religion, the boundaries between the profane and the sacred are constantly blurred by the ability to extend indefinitely the sphere of divinity.


When the spirit of gravity is at work, and one does not immediately make short work of it, words fall with dull regularity into the void of all anticipated interpretation. Luckily there is still irony, which is the clinamen of discourse.

Jean Paulhan dreamt of writing a novel composed in such a way as to let itself be forgotten as soon as it was read. What is most trying about bad books is that something always remains of them in our memory, already quite encumbered by false news of the world. An airport novel that leaves no mnemonic trace whatsoever even if one took pleasure in reading it could not fail to be a masterpiece.

Regret that what was had not been better—there you have a sentiment more saturnine than the simple nostalgia for happy days.

“The mirror is our master,” notes Leonardo da Vinci; and he could have added: “like death, like time—in which we are also reflected.”

In the opposition—wholly artificial—that men persist in making between the body and the spirit, the superiority of the body is glaring: the spirit would not know how to get by without the body, while the body could do without the spirit just fine. It is this obvious fact that the religions of asceticism have done their best to cover up.

Alcoholism kills drunkenness as surely as temperance; the practice of excess must know to free itself from all compulsion.


Place any object in front of a mirror—be it even the most perfect product of Venetian mirror-makers—and it will always seem to you hazier and above all farther away for being at a double remove from itself through the mediation of the reflective surface. But you, looking in the same mirror, do you not likewise appear to yourself both hazier and more distant than you do to anyone who looks at you? Yet everyone knows that what most flatters your poor self is the contemplation of this reflection which, however, removes you from yourself and openly distorts you.

When I look at myself reflected in the eyes of my beloved, the distance from which I see myself is double that from which she sees me.

Only half a century ago, to be seen as authentic in all aspects of one’s life was still an attitude both very common and easy to adopt; it was the contrary attitude that was difficult, inauthenticity demanding skill and a good deal of refinement; and one could spot a snob straight away by their lack of expertise in the matter. At present, a consistently authentic bearing is impossible to maintain if one does not want to be thought emotionally disturbed, and all forms of social relations of even the slightest depth are forbidden. Therein lies the contemporary paradox: So as not to be overwhelmed by universal sarcasm and contempt, authentic man is condemned to entertain only the most fleeting and superficial relations with others. He is condemned, without notable exception, to never having friends. Yet what authenticity is it that does not nourish itself on friendship?


The great lesson of surrealism is that nature is the only sacred there is, and it is all sacred. Or rather, which amounts to the same, that the sacred is contained in the relation that man has with nature as soon as he stops considering it as a source of production, as matter for exploitation. We could say that in hunter-gatherer societies the sacred had nature as its only resource, precisely because at no time was nature thought of in that way. Beginning with the Neolithic, when nature first comes to be considered as a means of production, we see the development of the utilitarian view of nature and, at the same time, of its separation from the sacred—whence the need to represent the sacred in human, demiurgic forms. What surrealism made possible, and this with the greatest possible force, is a sacred without god, a transcendence conceived as a simple fold in immanence, alien to all religiosity and perpetuation of rituals.

In 1789, the village of Caillau in Languedoc requested, in its cahier de doléances, that all Frenchmen be ennobled. A wonderful claim for ascending egalitarianism.

Equality should always be accompanied by rising, since it has as its purpose the generalization of luxury, superfluity, and uselessness on the plane of having—which is as good as rising on the plane of being, since the possession of the useless as such tips the possessing subject into the sphere of being.

Equality that levels by lowering is nothing but misery, a source of intolerable inequalities in the near future, worse than those one believed or pretended to have abolished.

As Gracián knew so well, one must master or conceal one’s passions in order to succeed. But this success is in keeping with a general framework of defiance and presupposes that one makes no attempt at all on the stability of the social edifice. If, on the contrary, one wants to shake this edifice, passion becomes an indispensable lever without which nothing essential or durable can be accomplished. With it, success ceases to limit itself to a horizon marked out by individual morality and finds the utopian horizon of a much vaster project, surpassing the individual embodying it. Success is achieved, as it were, in the death of the individual who is no longer satisfied with small monadic success, in which he slowly suffocates from the nothingness of all meaning, and who prefers risking passion in order to restore meaning and intensity, no matter how ephemeral, to his own life.

To the first of January, a day for well-wishing, should be added, in the same part of the year, a day for wishing ill. This institution would enable the externalization of repressed, unexpressed, often unconscious maledictions, which follow close behind the noisy demonstration of well-wishing. Everyone to whom we chose not to send greetings, or about whom we have forgotten, is not simply relegated to a zone of pure indifference. Often enough, we reserve for them a tenacious loathing which we do not dare utter on this special day, which only confirms our feelings. It is only through weakness or else familial or social hypocrisy that we respond positively to greetings from people we hate in our heart of hearts, and might even beat them to the punch. What is more, we forget to curse these detestable beings and realities from which the day has distracted us, even as they oppress, besiege, and remain intolerable to us, so that we wish upon them unhappiness, if not destruction.

The only thing we know for certain about the man in the iron mask is that he wore a mask made of velvet.

translated from the French by S. D. Chrostowska

With permission of Éditions José Corti