Week 418: From ‘L’Enfant de la Haute Mer’, by Jules Supervielle

This is the concluding paragraph of a very strange, visionary short story by the French poet Jules Supervielle, about a sailor who one night, by the intensity of his longing to see his dead daughter again, conjures her into a kind of being, out on the ocean. The idea itself is not entirely original – in Tibetan Buddhism, for example, we find the concept of the tulpa, a being created by the exercise of spiritual or mental powers, capable of feeling and some autonomy of action. What is original is Supervielle’s imaginative empathy for such a creature. Generally I am not a great fan of literary work that can be characterised as fey, or, less kindly, as a bit daft, but I do find that there is something haunting about this particular story. Supervielle suffered for much of his life from poor health and a consequent fear of death – this was someone who speaks of holding his hand over a candle flame to reassure himself that he was still alive – so it may be that he projected some of his own state on to this creature poised between life and death, and it is this, along with the hypnotic cadences of its prose, that gives the story its power.

The translation that follows is my own.

‘Marins qui rêvez en haute mer, les coudes appuyés sur la lisse, craignez de penser longtemps dans le noir de la nuit à un visage aimé. Vous risqueriez de donner naissance, dans des lieux essentiellement désertiques, à un être doué de toute la sensibilité humaine et qui ne peut pas vivre ni mourir, ni aimer, et souffre pourtant comme s’il vivait, aimait et se trouvait toujours sur le point de mourir, un être infiniment déshérité dans les solitudes aquatiques, comme cette enfant de l’Océan, née un jour du cerveau de Charles Liévens, de Steenvoorde, matelot de pont du quatre-mâts Le Hardi, qui avait perdu sa fille âgée de douze ans, pendant un de ses voyages, et, une nuit, par 55 degrés de latitude Nord et 35 de longitude Ouest, pensa longuement à elle, avec une force terrible, pour le grand malheur de cette enfant’.

‘Sailors who dream out on the wide ocean, your elbows propped on the rail, beware of thinking too long in the dark of the night of a face beloved. You will risk giving birth, in these wholly desert places, to a being endowed with all human feeling that can neither live nor die, but suffers as if it lived, loved and found itself always on the point of death, a being infinitely disinherited in the watery solitudes, like this child of the Ocean, born one day from the brain of Charles Lievens, of Steenvorde, sailor on the bridge of the four-masted Le Hardi, who had during one of his voyages lost his daughter of twelve years old, and one night, at latitude 55 degrees north and longitude 35 degrees west, thought long of her, with a terrible strength, to this child’s great misfortune’.

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