Comme Elle Respire: Memory of Breath, Breath of Memory

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La poésie est un système de respiration, c’est fait pour mieux respirer.

[Poetry is a respiration system, it’s made for breathing better.]
—Erri De Luca



I can hear you breathing!


– Breathing?

– Yes!
—Paul Thomas Anderson

Little paper-fish cutouts have been placed on the ground, on the carpet.

We’re in the reassuring ‘70s stylishness of a doctor’s office. The carpet is soft and glistens like in interior decoration magazines, it’s with it, in. We couldn’t care less about what Dyson vacuum cleaners and “purifiers” boast they can eliminate several decades later: acarids, those microscopic domestic arthropods, human parasites (notably), and airborne vectors of infectious disease (colds, coughs, respiratory distress). No, in the spring of 1975, innocently and self-satisfyingly, the urbane doctor flaunts the opulent carpet with curly pile in his luxury apartment with its state-of-the-art waiting room.

In this grand interior of a medical office, a man in a white coat plies his important trade. For example, that day a little girl is re-learning how to breathe. One might think that exhaling and inhaling is learned for life—je t’aime comme je respire, elle parle comme elle respire, il ment comme il respire1Translator’s note: these three expressions use breathing in ways that assume it is natural and unquestioned. Roughly: to love someone like one breathes, to speak like one breathes, to tell lies like one breathes.—from the very first cry at birth. But in fact, sometimes in life breathing gets stuck between the nasal cavity and the bronchial tubes, between the respiratory tract and the lungs. Progressively, imperceptibly, the organism is short of air, a malicious infection spreads and impairs alveolar diffusion to the point of respiratory exhaustion: Is it serious, doctor? We must act quickly, very quickly. How to liquify what stopped up the system one day to the point of blocking it—the doctors know what to do.

This doctor undertook long, arduous and learned studies. He knows functionally how a living being breathes, how a child lives organically. He can also re-teach the little girl what she no longer knows how to do: inhale, exhale using the full volume of the thoracic cage, regulating the ventilatory flow, solidifying the invisible membranes. In the child’s family, everyone knows (and knows how to do) important things, but no one undertook extensive studies, much less studies of the aerial exchanges in the human body. This special knowledge possessed by the doctor (unless special means something else unspoken that would explain why this specific doctor was chosen rather than any other) surrounds him with a padding of respect that creates (and the little girl feels this) a sort of protective continuum between him and the walls within which he sees her, where he practices his kind of calm and slow urbane medicine. It’s far from the formidable hospital she has just left, with its spherical apparatus next to the bed aspirating the red and yellow pleural liquid, the “treatment room” where the surgeon, the “butcher” as the nurses call him among themselves, manipulated the drain without anesthesia, with no regard for the child’s suffering. The doctor, and his place in the elevated tower, even though they are not to be confused, make for a cozy reception space in which one is comfortable, even in passing.

This doctor—who is, in truth, a massage-physiotherapist—is located in a designer high-rise building with a façade decorated by white, pointed features that manifest a will toward an architectural act. On the ground floor, the entrance hall is finished in dark-veined, clear brown marble, and the entry threshold between the exterior and interior is marked by large transparent glass panes that must be manipulated with care. The entrance hall has an intimidating sonority and a useless cold nudity from which one escapes in an elevator where one is surrounded by mirrors and gold buttons and in which one speeds upward silently toward floors, clouds.

The designer high-rise is located at the outskirts, the outskirts of a city of recent Olympic stature, where several years earlier Olympic athletes were welcomed and trained to increase their respiratory capacity and to control their cardiac rhythms to surpass their previous efforts (XXth Winter Olympics, Grenoble 1968). The physiotherapist himself, whose practice consists in supporting the circulation and rethinking of movement, was at the time part of a sports team. He cared for, repaired, relaxed, energized, massaged the muscular and knotted bodies of skiers (in every living organism, muscles breathe: during physical exertion, the mechanical forces imposed on muscles and the increased need for oxygen provoke modifications in gaseous exchanges in the blood and thus an adaptation of the respiratory apparatus—the physiotherapist knows all this by heart and he knows what it feels like, since obviously he himself skis).

The Olympic Village where the athletes, administrative staff, and the press resided (later transformed into a vast district of affordable housing while retaining the name) was just across from the physiotherapist’s office, although separated from it by a wide expressway that recorded CO2 pollution spikes according to the clocklike traffic movement of workers. The Olympic Village was known for this: offering a sublime 360-degree view of a landscape of tremendous mountains evoking pure air (which one can breathe on the slopes of those mountains), while within the four walls of the city, the air measured by sensors turned out to be some of the most polluted in the country. The village was built in a natural box canyon, an ancient glacial basin, resulting from the intense scraping effect of Alpine glaciers during the Quaternary period. The circle of mountains, formed by four peaks of imposing crystalline and limestone rock, sent back to the inhabitants the smoke, exhaust fumes, and toxic emissions that wind could not sufficiently chase away, dissipate.

The outskirts of the Olympic Village (today we would call them “suburbs”) were, in 1975, a space where sufficient vegetation still allowed chlorophyll exchanges through photosynthesis. These outskirts constituted the advancing urbanized fringe of a village that in the past was situated on wooded hills. The village had progressively spread out through the clearing of fields, the draining of swamps, the cultivating of food-producing land, electrification, the building of a factory producing artificial silk, and working-class housing projects. As it grew, developing and increasingly populous, this territory had ultimately become a small city: Échirolles. The name, as certain bucolic etymologies would have it, means “the place where there are squirrels.” Tails raised, very becoming reddish color, soft fur, cute little forepaws to collect nuts and provisions, these little rodents are often pictured in flowered fields and colorful clearings, skipping around the white hooves of prince charming’s horse in the picture books that children leaf through.

In Écherolles, then, is the imposing high-rise of the doctor and, just nearby, the low-cost housing units where the little girl lives among the squirrels. The latter are five-story buildings with bare, cream beige-colored façades, à la mode de chez nous, savez-vous planter les choux.2Translator’s note: the reader will recognize the French children’s song, quoted here to emphasize the dull likeness of the low-cost housing units built during this period. They resemble all the low-cost housing that grew like mushrooms on the periphery of large cities to address social needs, house repatriated Algerians, as well as the young and restless baby boomers, who in turn had their own children. Growth, the Thirty Glorious Years, needed housing (at the time no one realized that the period in question was nearing its end precisely in 1975).3Translator’s note: “Les Trente Glorieuses” refers to the thirty-year period of rapid economic growth in France dating from the end of the Second World War to the mid-1970s, during which France was modernized.

The building in which the little girl lives with her family is located on the Allée du Gâtinais, alley of thick cakes, of ice skating and of buttered bread, alley of princely domains—the Gâtinée as a county during the Ancien Régime evokes for the child (who has no idea where this region is really located) a period in the history of France when kings, queens, animals, and forests dominated.4Translator’s note: the stream of consciousness reflections of the little girl here play on the resemblance between Gâtinais (the region) and gâteau (cake, cookie). There are mailboxes in the entrance hall, of course, but no marble or elevator—this is nothing like the doctor’s high-rise. The inhabitants climb agilely, run nimbly, go up the stairs four at a time. They don’t need to catch their breath on the landing. The landings are used instead to dry the salad in a towel with ample arching arm movements (even energetic windmilling) that leave loads of unequally sized drops on the wet ground. To the little girl, the interior of the apartment seems large, empty, modern—very important not to look old, be old—and comfortable. She takes her nap in a bedroom of her own (voluptuousness of calm time, shutters closed in the middle of the day, dreams and grandeur of a retreat, listening to her own breathing to rock herself to sleep), or on the mats placed on the floor of the classroom in the afternoon in the kindergarten right down from her apartment. The collective pleasure of everyone breathing together, suddenly slowed to the same rhythm after the excitement, the shouts, a respite that links the little schoolchildren deeply to each other, their chests and bellies expanding in waves, rolling, the warmth numbing their limbs.

In this month of May, the little girl doesn’t climb up the stairs of 7 Allée du Gâtinais at full speed, doesn’t shake the salad dry, doesn’t play with the building guardian’s son, doesn’t float a toy parachute from her window, doesn’t lick the bowls in the kitchen, doesn’t watch the rain fall, doesn’t hold her little sister on her knees, doesn’t participate in activities at the young people’s center, or run to recover at recess. No, this afternoon the little girl concentrates deeply on the curly piled carpet in the office at top of the fashionable tower while the physiotherapist waits patiently at the other end of the room. He waits kindly, confidently. He is as determined as he would be if he were watching his own child. Perhaps he is indeed thinking about another child. He has all his time. One might say he has his whole life in front of him.

Blowing on those little paper-fish cutouts, propelling them from a corner of the room to a finish line, the physiotherapist thinks this exercise is fun for the little girl. She had grown tired of blowing up small and large balloons, made of more-or-less flexible rubber. And to ask her to put her mouth on pipettes, plastic tubes, glass vials, to force air bubbles to float by blowing hard, no, he couldn’t ask her to do that. Those apparatuses might remind the little girl of other sorts of apparatus: the invasive reanimation machines, the oxygen masks, intubation, catheters, tanks, the noisy, strident beeps, the flashing warning lights, always too bright. The whole artificial arsenal—cold, metallic—that had to be urgently activated when the child came to the hospital amorphous, livid, with nasal flaring, this is not good, not good at all: respiratory distress, because it suddenly clicked with the pediatrician, interpreting the cluster of clinical signs and declaring, panicked, if she is not put on ventilation at the hospital, she’s going to die.

In truth, making the little fish move forward does please the child. The problem with the carpet is that the paper cutouts don’t slide very easily on it. Still worse, the difficulty presented by a carpet with curly pile (the doctor doesn’t realize this, thinks the child, if he bent down to my level, he’s not lying down on the ground like me) is that the fins on the cutout fish get caught in the curls. The little girl must blow very hard, and repeatedly. It’s a grand adventure, a long way, a big pond. The little girl’s face is close to the paper fish, the fish are waiting, looking at her. They’re red, I blow, the paper trembles, the fish move forward. They’re silver-gray, their bellies and scales shine in the current. It’s a grand adventure, a grand frolic on the sand, a grand stream of salted, glittering silt (the sea advances and withdraws in the small movements of the tide). The little girl wears her pretty summer bathing suit, the fish dash between my feet. The little girl drops her bucket and shovel, I pick up my swim float and dive into the water.

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