“Le vieux peintre Wang-Fô et son disciple Ling
erraient le long des routes du royaume de Han
J’aime beaucoup cette nouvelle de Marguerite Yourcenar
“Le vieux peintre Wang-Fô et son disciple Ling erraient le long des routes du royaume de Han. Ils avançaient lentement, car Wang-Fô s’arrêtait la nuit pour contempler les astres, le jour pour regarder les libellules. Ils étaient peu chargés, car Wang-Fô aimait l’image des choses, et non les choses elles-mêmes, et nul objet au monde ne lui semblait digne d’être acquis, sauf des pinceaux, des pots de laque et d’encres de Chine, des rouleaux de soie et de papier de riz. Ils étaient pauvres, car Wang-Fô troquait ses peintures contre une ration de bouillie de millet et dédaignait les pièces d’argent. Son disciple Ling, pliant sous le poids d’un sac plein d’esquisses, courbait respectueusement le dos comme d’il portait la voûte céleste, car ce sac, aux yeux de Ling, était rempli de montagnes sous la neige, de fleuves au printemps, et du visage de la lune d’été”.
Le reste en anglais car j’ai des amis anglais à qui je souhaite faire lire cette nouvelle. Et les français ont le livre édité chez Gallimard. (Marguerite Yourcenar. Nouvelles Orientales).
The old painter Wang-Fo and his disciple Ling were wandering along the roads of the Kingdom of Han. They made slow progress because Wang-Fo would stop at night to watch the stars and during the day to observe the dragonflies. They carried hardly any luggage, because Wang-Fo loved the image of things and not the things themselves, and no object in the world seemed to him worth buying, except brushes, pots of lacquer and China ink, and rolls of silk and rice paper. They were poor, because Wang-Fo would exchange his paintings for a ration of boiled millet, and paid no attention to pieces of silver. Ling, his disciple, bent beneath the weight of a sack full of sketches, bowed his back with respect as if he were carrying the heaven’s vault, because for Ling the sack was full of snow-covered mountains, torrents in spring and the face of the summer moon.
Ling had not been born to trot down the roads, following an old man who seized the dawn and captured the dust. His father had been a banker who dealt in gold, his mother the only child of a jade merchant who had left all his wordly possessions, cursing her for not being a son. Ling had grown up in a house where wealth made him shy : he was afraid of insects, of thunder and the face of the dead. When Ling was fifteen, his father chose a bride for him, a very beautiful one because the thought of the happiness he was giving his son consoled him for having reached the age in which the night is meant for sleep. Ling’s life was as frail as a reed, childish as milk, sweet as saliva, salty as tears. After the wedding, Ling’s parents became discreet to the point of dying, and their son was left alone in a house painted vermillion, in the company of his young wife who never stopped smiling and a plum tree that blossomed every spring with pale-pink flowers. Long loved this woman of a crystal-clear heart as one loves a mirror that will never tarnish, or a talisman that will protect one forever. He visited the teahouses to follow the dictates of fashions, and only moderately favored acrobats and dancers.
One night, in the tavern, Wang-Fo shared Ling’s table. The old man had been drinking in order to better paint a drunkard, and he cocked his head to one side as if trying to measure the distance between his hand and his bowl. The rice wine undid the tongue of the taciturn craftsman, and that night Wang spoke as if silence were a wall and words the colors with which to cover it. Thanks to him, Ling got to know the beauty of the drunkards’ faces blurred by the vapors of hot drink, the brown splendor of the roasts unevenly brushed by tongues of fire, and the exquisite blush of wine stains strewn on the tablecloths like withered petals. A gust of wind broke the window : the downpour entered the room. Wang-Fo leaned out to make Ling admire the livid zebra stripes of lightning, and Ling, spellbound, stopped being afraid of storms.
Ling paid the old panter’s bill, and as Wang-Fo was both without money and without lodging, he humbly offered him a resting place. They walked away together; Ling held a lamp whose light projected unexpected fires in the puddles. That evening, Ling discovered with surprise that the walls of his house were not red, as he had always thought, but the color of an almost rotten orange. In the courtyard, Wang-Fo noticed the delicate shape of a bush to which no one had paid any attention until then, and compared it to a young woman letting down her hair to dry. In the passageway, he followed with delight the hesitant trail of an ant along the cracks in the wall, and Ling’s horror of these creatures vanished into thin air. Realizing that Wang-Fo had just presented him with the gift of a new soul and a new vision of the world, Ling respectfully offered the old man the room in which his father and mother had died.
For many years now, Wang-Fo had dreamed of painting the portrait of a princess of olden days playing the lute under a willow. No woman was sufficiently unreal to be his model, but Ling would do because he was not a woman. Then Wang-Fo spoke of painting a young prince shooting an arrow at the foot of a large cedar tree. No young man of the present was sufficiently unreal to serve as his model, but Ling got his own wife to pose under the plum tree in the garden. Later on, Wang-Fo painted her in a fairy costume against the clouds of twilight, and the young woman wept because it was an omen of death. As Ling came to prefer the portraits painted by Wang-Fo to the young woman herself, her face began to fade, like a flower exposed to warm winds and summer rains. One morning, they found her hanging from the branches of the pink plum tree : the ends of the scarf that was strangling her floated in the wind, entangled with her hair. She looked even more delicate than usual, and as pure as the beauties celebrated by the poets of days gone by. Wang-Fo painted her one last time, because he loved the green hue that suffuses the face of the dead. His disciple Ling mixed the colors and the task needed such concentration that he forgot to shed tears.
One after the other, Ling sold his slaves, his jades, and the fish in his pond to buy his master pots of purple ink that came from the West. When the house was emtied, they left it, and Ling closed the door of his past behind him. Wang-Fo felt weary of a city where the faces could no longer teach him secrets of ugliness or beauty, and the master and his disciple walked away together down the roads of the Kingdom of Han. Their reputation preceded them into the villages, to the gateway of the fortresses, and into the atrium of temples where restless pilgrims halt at dusk. It was murmured that Wang-Fo had the power to bring his paintings to life by adding a last touch of color to their eyes. Farmers would come and beg him to paint a watchdog, anf the lords would ask him fro portraits of their best warriors. The priests honored Wang-Fo as a sage ; the people feared him as a sorcerer. Wang enjoyed these differences of opinion which gave him the chance to study expressions of gratitude, fear and veneration.
Ling begged for food, watched over his master’s rest, and took advantage of the old man’s raptures to massage his feet. With the first rays of the sun, when the old man was still asleep, Ling went in pursuit of timid landscapes hidden behind bunches of reed. In the evening, when the master, disheartened, threw donw his brushes, he would carefully pick them up. When Wang became sad and spoke of his old age, Ling would smile and show him the solid trunk of an old oak; When Wang felt happy and made jokes, Ling would humbly pretend to listen.
One day, at sunset, they reached the outskirts of Imperial City and Ling sought out and found an inn in which Wang-Focould spend the night. The old man wrapped himself up in rags, and Ling lay down next to him to keep him warm because spring had only just begun and the floor of beaten earth was still frozen. At dawn, heavy steps echoed in the corridors of the inn ; they heard the frightened whispers of the innkeeper and orders shouted in a foreign, barbaric tongue. Ling trembled, remembering that the night before, he had stolen a rice cake for his master’s supper. Certain that they would come to take him to prison, he asked himself who would help Wang-Fo ford the next river on the following day. The soldiers entered carrying lanterns. The flames gleaming through the motley paper cast red and blue lights on their leather helmets. The string of a bow quivered over their shoulders, and the fiercest among them suddenly let out a roar for no reason at all. A heavy hand fell on Wang-Fo’s neck, and the painters could not help noticing that the soldiers’ sleeves did not match the color of their coats. Helped by his disciple, Wang-Fo followed the soldiers, stumbling along uneven roads. The passing crowds made fun of these two criminals who were certainly going to be beheaded. The soldiers answered Wang’s questions with savage scowls. His bound hands hurt him, and Ling in despair looked smiling at his master, which for him was a gentler way of crying.
They reached the treshold of the Imperial Palace, whose purple walls rose in broad daylight like a sweep of sunset. The soldiers led Wang-Fo through countless square and circular rooms whose shapes symbolized the seasons, the cardinal points, the male and the female, longevity and the prerogatives of power. The doors swung on their hinges with a musical note, and were placed in such a manner that one followed the entire scale when crossing the palace from east to west. Everything combined to give an impression of superhuman power and subtlety, and one could feel that here the simplest orders were as final and as terrible as the wisdom of the ancients. At last, the air became thin and the silence so deep that not even a man under torture would have dared to scream. A eunuch lifted a tapestry ; the soldiers began to tremble like women, and the small troop entered the chamber in which the Son of Heaven sat on a high throne. It was a room without walls, held up by thick columns of blue stone. A garden spread out on the far side of the marble shafts, and each and every flower blooming in the greenery belonged to a rare species brought here from across the oceans. But none of them had any perfume, so that the Celestial Dragon’s meditations would not be troubled by fine smells. Out of respect for the silence in which his thoughts evolved, no bird had been allowed within the enclosure, and even the bees had been driven away. An enormous wall separated the garden from the rest of the world, so that the wind that sweeps over dead dogs and corpses on the battlefield would not dare brush the Emperor’s sleeve.
The Celestial Master sat on a throne of jade, and his hands were wrinkled like those of an old man, though he had scarcely reached the age of twenty. His robe was blue to symbolize winter, and green to remind one of spring. His face was beautiful but blank, like a looking glass placed too high, reflecting nothing except the stars and the immutable heavens. To his right stood his Minister of Perfect Pleasures, and to his left his Councelor of Just Toments. Because his courtiers, lined along the base of the columns, always lent a keen ear to the slightest sound from his lips, he had adopted the habit of speaking in a low voice.
“Celestial Dragon”, sait Wang-Fo, bowing low, “I am old, I am poor, I am weak. You are like summer ; I am like winter. You have Ten Thousand Lives ; I have but one, and it is near its close. What have I done to you ? My hands have been tied, these hands that never harmed you”.
“You ask what you have done to me, old Wang-Fo ?” sait the Emperor.
His voice was so melodious that it made one want to cry. He raised his right hand, to which the reflections from the jade pavement gave a pale sea-green hue like that of an underwater plant, and Wang-Fo marveled at the lengh of those thin fingers, and hunted among his memories to discover whether he had not at some time painted a mediocre portrait of either the Emperor or one of his ancestors that would now merit a sentence of death. But it seemed unlikely because Wang-Fo had not been an assiduous visitor at the Emperial COurt. He preferred the farmers’ huts or, in the cities, the courtesans’ quarters and the taverns along the harbour where the dockers liked to quarrel.
“You ask me what it is that you have done, old Wang-Fo?” repeated the Emperor, inclining his slender neck towards the old man waiting attentively. “I will tell you. But, as another man’s poison cannot enter our veins except through our nine openings, in order to show you your offenses I must take you with me down the corridors of my memory and tell you the story of my life. My father had assembled a collection of your work and hidden it in the most secret chamber in the palace, because he judged that the people in your paintings should not be concealed from the world since they cannot lower their eyes in the presence of profane viewers. It was in those same rooms that I was brought up, old Wang-Fo, surrounded by solitude. To prevent my innocence from being sullied by other human souls, the restless crowd of my future subjects had been driven away from me, and no one was allowed to pass my threshold, fro fear that his or her shadow would stretch out and touch me. The few aged servants that were placed in my service showed themselves as little as possible; the hours turned in cicles; the colors of your paintings bloomed in the first hours of the morning and grew pale at dusk. At night, when I was unable to sleep, I gazed at them, and for nearly ten years I gazed at them every night. During the day, sitting on a carpet whose design I knew by heart, I dreamed of the joys the future had in store for me. I imagined the world, with the Kingdom of Han at the center, to be like the flat palm of my hand crossed by the fatal lines of the Five Rivers. Around it lay the sea in which monsters are born, and farther away the mountains that hold up the heavens. And to help me visualize these things I used your paintings. You made me believe that the sea looked like the vast sheet of water spread across your scrolls, so blue that if a stone were to fall into it, it would become a sapphire; that women opened and closed like flowers, like the creatures that come forward, pushed by the wind, along the paths of your painted gardens; and that the young, slim-waisted warriors who mount guard in the fortresses along the frontier were themselves like arrows that could pierce my heart. At sixteen I saw the doors that separated me from the world open once again; I climbed onto the balcony of my palace to look at the clouds, but they wezre far less beautiful than those in your sunsets. I ordered my litter; bounced along roads on which I had not forseen either mud or stones, I traveled across the provinces of the Empire without ever findinf your gardens full of women like fireflies, or a woman whose body was in itself a garden. The pebbles on the beach spoiled my taste for oceans; the blood of the tortured is less red than the pomegranates in your paintings; the village vermin prevented me from seeing the beauty of the rice fields; the flesh of mortal women disgusted me like the dead meat hanging from the butcher’s hook, and the coarse laughter of my soldiers made me sick. You lied, Wang-Fo, you old impostor. The world is nothing but a mass of muddled colors thrown into the void by an insane painter, and smudged by our tears. The Kingdom of Han is not the most beautiful of kingdoms, and I am not the Emperor. The only empire which is worth reigning over is that which you alone can enter, old Wang-Fo, by the road of One Thousand Curves and TenThousand Colors. YOu alone reign peacefully over mountains covered in snow that cannot melt, and over fields of daffodils that cannot die. And that is why, Wang-Fo, I have conceived a punishment for you, for you whose enchantment has filled me with disgust at everything I own, and with desire for everything I shall never possess. And in order to lock you up in the only cell from which there is no escape, I have decided to have your eyes burned out, because your eyes, Wang-Fo, are the two magic gates that open onto your kingdom. And as your hands are the two roads of ten forking paths that lead to the heart of your kingdom, I have decided to have your hands cut off. Have you understood, old Wang-Fo ?”.
Hearing the sentence, Ling, the disciple, tore from his belt an old knife and leaped towards the Emperor. Two guards immediately seized him. The Son of Heaven smiled and added, with a sigh : “And I also hate you, old Wang-Fo, becaue you have known how to make yourself beloved. Kill that dog”.
Ling jumped to one side so that his blood would not stain his master’s robe. One of the soldiers lifted his sword and Ling’s head fell from his neck like a cut flower. The servants carried away the remains, and Wang-Fo, in despair, admired the beautiful scarlet stain that his disciple’s blood made on the green stone floor.
The Emperor made a sign and two eunuchs wiped Wang’s eyes.
“Listen, old Wang-Fo”, said the Emperor, “and dry your tears, because this is not the time to weep. Your eyes must be clear so that the little light that is left to them is not clouded by your weeping. Because it is not only the grudge I bear you that makes me desire your death ; it is not only the cruelty in my heart that makes me want to see you suffer. I have other plans, old Wang-Fo. I possess among your works a remarkable painting in which the mountains, the river estuary, and the sea reflect each other, on a very small scale certainly, but with a clarity that surpasses the real landscapes themselves, like objects reflected on the walls of a metal sphere. But that painting is unfinished, Wang-Fo; your masterpiece is but a sketch. No doubt, when you began your work, siting in a solitary valley, you noticed a passing bird, or a child running after the bird. And the bird’s beak or the child’s cheeks made you forget the blue eyelids of the sea. You never finished the frills or the water’s cloak, or the seaweed hair of the rocks. Wang-Fo, I want you to use the few hours of light that are left to you to finish this painting, which will thus contain the final secret amassed during your long life. I know that your hands, about to fall, will not tremble on the silken cloth, and infinity will enter your work through those unhappy cuts. I know that your eyes, about to be put out, will discover bearings far beyond all human senses. This is my plan, old Wang-Fo, and I can force you to fulfill it. If you refuse, before blinding you, I will have all your paintings burned, and you will be like a father whose children are slaughtered and all hopes of posterity extinguished. However, believe, if you wish, that this last order stems from nothing but my kindness, because I know that the silken scroll is the only mistress you ever deigned to touch. And to offer you brushes, paints and ink to occupy your last hours is like offering the favors of a harlot to a man condemned to death”.
Upon a sign from the Emperor’s little finger, two eunuchs respectfully brought forward the unfinished scroll on which Wang-Fo had outlined the image of the sea and the sky. Wang-Fo dried his tears and smiled, because that small sketch reminded him of his youth. Everything in it spoke of a fresh new spirit which Wang-Fo could no longer claim as his, and yet something was missiong from it, because when Wang had painted it he had not yet looked long enough at the mountains or at the rocks bathing their naked flanks in the sea, and he had not yet penetrated deep enough into the sadness of the evening twilight. Wang-Fo selected one of the brushes which a slave held ready for him and began spreading wide strokes of blue onto the unfinished sea. A eunuch crouched by his feet, mixing the colors ; he carried out his task with little skill, and more than ever Wang-Fo lamented the loss of his disciple Ling. Wang began by adding a touch of pink to the tip of the wing of a cloud perched on a mountain. Then he painted onto the surface of the sea a few small lines that deepened the perfect feeling of calm. The jade floor became increasingly damp, but Wng-Fo, absorbed as he was in his painting, did not seem to notice that he was working with his feet in water. The fragile rowboat grew under the strokes of the painter’s brush and now occupied the entire foreground of the silken scroll. The rhythmic sound of the oars rose suddenly in the distance, quick and eager like the beating of wings. The sound came nearer, gently filling the whole room, then ceased, and a few trembling drops appeared on the boatman’s oars. The red iron intended for Wang’s eyes lay extinguished on the executioner’s coals. The courtiers, motionless as etiquette required, stood in water up to their shoulders, trying to lift themselves onto the tip of their toes. The water finally reached the level of the imperial heart. The silence was so deep one could have heard a tear drop. It was Ling. He wore his everyday robe, and his right sleeve still had a hole that he had not had time to mend that morning before the soldiers’ arrival. But around his neck was tied a strange red scarf.
Wang-Fo said to him softly, while he continued painting : “I thought you were dead”.
“You being alive”, said Ling respectfully, “how could I have died?”.
And he helped his master into the boat. The jade ceiling reflected itself in the water, so that Ling seemed to be inside a cave. The pigtails of submerged courtiers rippled up towards the surface like snakes, and the pale head of the Emperor floated like a lotus.
“Look at them”, said Wang-Fo sadly. “These wretches will die, if they are not dead already. I never thought there was enough water in the sea to drown an Emperor. What are we to do ?”.
“Master, have no fear”, murmured the disciple. “They will soon be dry again and will not even remember that their sleeves were ever wet. Only the Emperor will keep in his heart a little of the bitterness of the sea. These people are not the kind to lose themselves inside a painting”.
And he added : “The sea is calm, the wind high, the seabirds fly to their nest. Let us leave, Master, and sail to the land beyond the waves”.
“Let us leave”, said the old painter.
Wang-Fo took hold of the helm, and Ling bent over the oars. The sound of rowing filled the room again, strong and steady like the beating of a heart. The level of the water dropped unnoticed around the large vertical rocks tant became columns once more. Soon only a few puddles glistened in the hollows of the jade floor. The courtiers’ robes were dry, but a few wisps of foam still clung to the hem of the Emperor’s cloak. The painting finished by Wang-Fo was leaning against a tapestry. A rowboat occupied the entire foreground. It drifted away little by little, leaving behind it a thin wake that smoothed out into the quiet sea. One could no longer make out the faces of the two men sitting in the boat, but one could still see Ling’s red scarf and Wang-Fo’s beard waving in the breeze.
The beating of the oars grew fainter, then ceased, blotted out by the distance. The Emperor, leaning forward, a hand above his eyes, watched Wang’s boat sail away till it was nothing but an imperceptible dot in the paleness of the twilight. A golden mist rose and spread over the water. Finally the boat veered around a rock that stood at the gateway to the ocean ; the shadow of a cliff fell across it ; its wake disappeared from the deserted surface, and the painter Wang-Fo and his disciple Ling vanished forever on the jade-blue sea that Wang-Fo had just created.
Marguerite Yourcenar. Nouvelles Orientales. Gallimard.