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     translated from the French by


Personal Effects /

    (Inventory of Bougainville’s Travel Case) 

The Comb

The comb is a piece of ivory or tortoiseshell, of horn, originally made more clumsily out of picks set in a stub of wood, and serves to smooth out hair, to divide it into distinct masses on opposing sides of a part that lays bare the hairs’ roots, the skull’s palest leather. The comb became a useless object of pure nostalgia for bald men, who generally melt the ebonite in the fire or, conversely, hold onto it even more zealously, like a relic, or a souvenir of a happy, fertile time. The comb is thus locked up in a small case that perfectly sheathes every tooth. Bald men only attach so much importance to preserving the teeth of the comb because they see the breakage of one of them as an even more foreboding omen than alopecia is.

The Cotton Swab

The cotton swab, which is used to extract these small, yellow, smooth, waxy, slightly bitter secretions known as cerumen from the ear’s inner cavity, is made of a wooden stem and, rolled around its end, a small quantity of cotton. Cotton swabs are sold in boxes of a hundred each in drugstores and supermarkets. But some families prove this purchase’s uselessness, its purely extravagant nature by making cotton swabs themselves, with the help of a broken matchstick or a lollipop stick notched at their ends with pocket knives, the better to bind the cotton to the wood. The single-use brand-name Q-Tip and the family-made cotton swab more or less perform the same service, which is cleaning one’s ears, and can bring about the same pleasant irritation of the auricular labyrinth’s tissues through repeated frictions if they’re pushed into the still-unexplored canals, increasingly close to the fibrous, translucent membrane that transmits sound, can even set off a small spasm in children should the maneuvering be especially deft. Some women also use cotton swabs, dipped in alcohol, to clean their children’s belly buttons, or even, dipped in nail-polish remover, to scrub away the varnish that sneaks onto their skin as they paint their nails. Some people insist that using cotton swabs is thoroughly dangerous: not only do they risk puncturing the eardrum, but they also push all the auricular discharge into distant canals, resulting in small grains that harden irrevocably until they fill in and block the passageway connecting the middle ear and the inner ear, causing the perception of sound to be lost forever. For cotton swabs, our great-grandmothers simply used the unfolded iron strips of their hairpins.

The Blackhead Remover

The blackhead remover is a flat, thin tool made of hard material, iron or metal, open on its wider end so that, when pressed against skin, it can extract, sometimes in a long twisted white coil, the small plug of sebaceous material that had taken root in one of the dermis’s orifices. The blackhead remover often has a sharper, triangular-shaped end, hardly an effective substitute for a nail file, meant for scrubbing nails while in mourning or cleansing them of their desires, but it’s hard to see what more perverse use there could be for this unbeautiful little instrument.

The Nose Wipe

The nose wipe is quite simply the profane, parodic for a handkerchief (nose wipe: snot rag). It also designates, in a distant land particularly preoccupied with hygiene, a small portable machine, designed like a milking machine, that single men can affix at any time to the terminal organ of their lower abdomen, in order to extract and grind, and transform into a fine, volatile powder, the recent product of their seminal vesticles.

The Exfoliating Glove

The exfoliating glove is principally a glove one puts one’s hand in, although it is made not out of silk or lace, but of a rough cloth, potentially an agglomeration of twine, which scrubs away at the outer layer of skin. One rubs in some eau de cologne or camphor while extolling its anaphrodisiac virtues, so as to warm up an aching muscle, to slough off already-decaying skin. The exfoliating glove is a fairly masculine instrument, intended to strengthen the body, but some women whose skin cannot bear running water or alkalis willingly use them.

The Cuticle Trimmer

The cuticle trimmer is next to the brush, the polisher, the nail file, the scissors, and the nail varnish in the nail-care box, a small case intended for the care of fingernails and toenails. It’s the sharpest instrument: with its two honed points which clamp together harshly with the squeeze of a palm, it breaks and severs, through repeated clips, through consecutive small angles, all around the nail, because its actual shearing mechanism, which acts through the flexion of a lever, is superficially very narrow. To harmonize, to even out these successive trimmings, and thereby render the cuticle trimmer’s work invisible, requires resorting to a nail file. Having been thus wronged, the cuticle trimmer hints at the threat that it could, at any moment, slip and nick the flesh around the nail to leave a more enduring trace.

The Eyelash Curler

The object most similar to the eyelash curler, which women and some inverts used for brightening their gaze, is the escargot tongs, or the curling iron. The eyelash curler is composed of two rings in which one’s fingers can fit, but the movement they imprint isn’t one of shearing, because the end of the arms are made of two parallel curved pincers that pinch the upper lashes, then the lower ones, while curling them gently, and of two flat blades that clasp together over the cornea of each side of the eyelid the better to open the eye. The eyelash curler has never been effective, except for depigmenting the eyes they’re intending to outline, and for creating permanent gaps between eyelids.

The Cat o’ Nine Tails

The cat o’ nine tails has been hung, among the cobweb dusters, from ceiling hooks, in the dim backroom of the hardware store. It carries within itself, in its unmoving straps, the screams of battered children, it exhales the pleasure of perverted lovers.

The Rigollot’s Paper

The Rigollot’s paper, or mustard paper, is a strip of cloth, tulle, or paper, packed with linseed flour or ground-up black mustard grains, which the mother floats first in the cold water of a soup bowl, immersing it every so often with her fingertips so that the powder, thinning out, forms a sort of plaster. The child is lying in bed, he has opened his pajama top to bare his thin little chest, he dreads the moment when the strip of cold, damp tulle will be pressed onto his skin, sting, then prick, and burn until he begs his mother to remove it. She has carefully pasted the poultice on the child’s chest and protected the pajama top, which she returns to button up again, with a layer of cotton wool, she looks at her watch, but there is no prescribed length for using the mustard paper, apart from extreme irritation, inbearableness. She tells the child: “Think about something else,” “Think about vacation,” “Your father keeps it on all night without any trouble, he sleeps with it on,” but the child focuses all his thoughts on that point on his chest, on this heat and chill, this itch, this bite. The mustard paper’s effect is revulsion, it draws out the blood trapped in a diseased, inflamed, or congested organ, it reactivates circulation. The child is about to cry, fortunately, his mother has set a small container of baby powder with holes in it on the nightstand, and soon the cruel bloodsucker will be nothing more than a horrid little ball of a sodden green paper in the trashcan, and the mother, will open his pajama top to dust his reddened chest with a cloud of talc that she will spread, like a caress, with her soft hands. Immediately after, the child will fall asleep. The Rigollot’s paper, which takes its name, quite simply, from Professor Rigollot, who invented it, has, like the cupping glass, the cat o’ nine tails, or the thermogenic cotton strip soaked in vinegar and placed on one’s lower back, become an outdated remedy. It’s practically never used anymore, except in increasingly luxurious simulacra. 

The Tongue Depressor

The tongue depressor in its various form, as simple flat strips of sanded wood or as metal paddles, is found alongside some small scrapers in the kidney-shaped bowl during the medical examination. The tongue depressor is used to open the mouth properly, to prevent swallowing and biting, to examine, with a beam aimed by a headlight at the center of a basin of mirrors set on the otorhinolaryngologist’s forehead, the veil that coats the throat, and to discern, beyond the uvula, potential tonsils, small almonds full of lymph that hamper children’s respiraton. The tongue depressor imposes a rather disagreeable pressure on the tongue, an ever-colder, ever-harsher contact with the taste buds’ velvet, and, to avoid it, it’s enough to promise the practitioner that one knows quite well to open one’s mouth properly, one’s mouth quite wide.

The Ether Mask

Disassembled and empty, some parts wrapped in silk paper, the bulb, the nose clip, the snorkel, and the central part, a rubber or tin ball, kept separately in a wooden box, the ether mask gloomily waits for its moment in the otorhinolaryngologist’s glass case. Intended to alleviate laudanum- and mandrake-based anaesthetics, which were often followed by a definitive fainting fit, the ether mask was originally composed of a silver case in which an ether-soaked sponge was placed, connected via a tube to an inhaler, a mask that cleaves perfectly to the gums beneath the raised lips, and which the child, who’s kept from breathing through the nose with the help of a small with the help of a small metal clip, has to bite while inhaling the anesthetic vapors until complete narcosis results (the ether mask is often used for tonsil operations, for circumcisions). Perfected by Doctor Ombredanne in 1932, the ether mask now comprises a steel or rubber urn, a mask that covers the entire facial area (children are just told to only breathe through the mouth, in order to prevent completely numbing the brain), and a small bulb that the child squeezes himself for more of the ether vapors, until he falls unconscious in the operation chair.

This form of anesthesia only brings about a partial loss of consciousness: the child still clearly feels the scissors entering his throat and the blood suddenly filling his mouth. The ether subsequently causes vomiting, and nightmares that engrave themselves into the child’s memory forever. Very few etherists have an ether mask, which certainly might facilitate their doses; they prefer to inhale it directly from a vial, or to drink it. The ether mask is also not advisable for fighting insomnia, for eradicating temporary depression. If it contains too many details, it may be that its mere description can put readers to sleep.

The Gloves

Whether tailored from an animal’s hide or finely crocheted, whether mitten-shaped or fingerless, the gloves evidently serve to protect the hands’ skin from cold or bad air, from cracking, from infections, they’re lined with suede or warm furs, they sometimes hug the fingers’ outlines and go all the way up one’s arms, as antiseptics they keep the microbes of surgeons’ hands away from the opened-up body, they absorb all sweat or, pocketed, let it all escape, they’re supple, they’re put away in glove boxes, all it takes is a swing of the hand for them to slap louts, but it should never be forgotten that the hands they’re keenest to help are those of thieves and stranglers.

The Daguerreotype of a Dead Child

The daguerreotype of a dead child appears to be a small case of sculpted black wood or ebony with two proportionally miniscule hooks for fasteners: it can be hung from the end of a chain, but it’s a bit heavy, and not oval-shaped, so it’s kept atop some furniture, or in its bag, it’s brought on trips, hidden in the false bottom of a brief-case or, more commonly, right on one’s own body, beneath one’s underclothes, in more intimate, noble locations, the heart, the throat, never the stomach, held by strings or ribbons, it’s looked at frequently, sheltered from every prying eye, it’s the reason to step away, it’s kissed respectfully, a few tears are shed over it, the heavens shouted at. The small box’s lid, when opened, reveals a carmine velvet cushion in which an inscription, a dedication, a vow can sometimes be read, amid flowers, atopped by a cross. When held in one’s hand and seen with lowered eyes, the first thing to be seen is a mirror, a smooth silvery plaque that reflects back one’s gaze in the oval frame embedded with gemstones and engraved with filigress, and it takes a careful tilt to make out, captured on this plaque of silber bromide on glass, the immobile depiction of the dead child, lying on a small bed, dressed for church, with eyes shut, arms crossed, pale cheeks hollowed by illness, a ribbon or a bow tie around the neck to hide the blue mark of the hands that had wrung it.

The Teddy-Bear Vial

The teddy-bear vial appears to be a stuffed animal, with a light brown coat, of very small dimensions: it’s sitting, it’s smiling, it’s a charming and very benign animal. A woman could easily keep it in her purse, a child in his pocket, or hidden in his hand. Anybody who notices it, for the woman, deems it just a trinket kept slightly too long, and, for the child, nobody notices it at all, because it’s typical for a child to befriend an animal of this sort. But, the little blue or pink rosette encircling its neck hides, and reveals upon being untied, a more mortal wound. It becomes clear that the head can be flipped open with the flick of a finger, whereupon there gleams, amid the neck’s fur, the cap of a crystal vial. It appears that the teddy bear is nothing more than a lining, a cover, intended to camouflage the slyest machinations. Should a woman’s beautifully thin, pale hand demonstrate the stratagem among society, abruptly decapitating the bear she had been playing with to reveal its trick, it would arouse wonder. But the same hand could act more deviously, splattering headier perfumes (Jungle Gardenia), slipping it into an ice tray’s water which will soon crystallize to make ice cubes that mete out, in the guests’ glasses, a glacial liqueur, that instantaneously seals and freezes out their veins. The child generally uses the teddy-bear vial for more inoffensive ends, scattering miasmic vapors in public spaces, packing the vial with baby teeth, plucked-out eyelashes. But, going by this description, it would seem that the only users of teddy-bear vials for poisoning could be women and children.

The Vibrating Chair

This model of vibrating chair is an easily disassembled and transported replica of the colossal vibrating chair that the dukes of Pomerania had installed in their sitting rooms, akin to their physicians’ and electrostaticians’ cabinets of technologies: at first it was nothing more than an economical device for catching lightning, a sort of prehistoric lightning rod, until the dukes of Pomerania, whose easy morals and feelings, whose appreciation of dance and extravagance was notorious, took pleasure in it, and ordered more frequent artificial lightning strikes from their electrostaticians. The basic model of the vibrating chair (of which the electric chair, made in America, is merely a sinister perversion) was quickly refined: first they covered it completely in smooth, silky fur, the shining hides of wild cats, cassowaries, and ocelots, so that the potentially nude body could sit as luxuriously as possible with thoroughly adjustable switches and levers ulitimately added on. One could be seated or reclined there while the body, run through by a delicious electrical current that breathes life into every limb, sways and rolls, and while its blood is shaken like milk in an immense agitator. Several virtues have been found in the vibrating chair that surpass the pleasure gained, it would give new life to one’s body and new vigor to one’s weakened limbs, it would brighten one’s blood, eliminate one’s humors, expel one’s seminal discharge. The vibrating chair has been, even more recently, perfected: padded with a waterproof cover beneath the fur to reduce the number of incidents, and outfitted with straps, leather and rubber strips to keep the body from being thrown at high speeds. The vibrating chari was, in the home of Pomerania’s dukes, an outright attraction: people came from all the courts of Europe to experience it, and the dukes occasionally, by hiding the wires connecting their boudoir to the electrostaticians’ cabinets, took pleasure in making it look like a haunted chair. Women swooned in it, and it was forbidden for use by children, and even adolescents, because one of the last dukes of Pomerania had met a far too luxurious death there. Hidden from the public are all the instruments that he had assembled himself, without his scholars’ knowledge, to revitalize the machine: the iron collar that closed around his neck with its studs pressing lightly into his skin, the leather belts binding his wrists and ankles to the fur, and which he had replaced with reeking rat hides that hadn’t been cleaned of grease, and with an even icier marble plank that he enjoyed all the more, the rings and straps that pulled back his hair, and this long, flexible, black-colored member that protruded from the chair and quickly swelled up in his anus, under the pressure of a valve, until it took on the dimensions of a stallion’s erection, all these flasks that surrounded his head, like a crystal helmet, and instilled in his brain, through his nostrils, total narcosis, the heavy vapors of decoctions of hell’s seeds and devil’s hair, all these objects reside half broken, burned, crumbling apart, in the crates of the subbasements of the palace of the dukes of Pomerania, where there is displayed, in the museum’s rarely visited rooms, just the classic model of vibrating chair, like an extravagant object from another century, a duke’s caprice.

The Neck Brace

The neck brace is a leather bandage punched with holes, a case with steel fasteners, like those of a briefcase, which hugs the neck and the nape perfectly, sometimes even the shoulders, and props up the chin, right where bones are absent, right where the cylinder of the neck, wholly softened, weakens and wavers like a flamingo’s. This circular support is typically open in the front, like an arrow slit, to let through air, of course, but also to let through a tongue or a dagger, because the youngest ones afflicted with this congenital vice feverishly seek out this crimson contact of taste buds or cold steel. And, when, after nightfall, the precious case is opened, having been hidden by a knotted scarf or a too-high ruff, betraying a face’s stiffness and a gaze’s sternness, the head then has to be held in one’s hands and in a cloth, because it rolls, it turns, it falls backwards, and from this finally-freed mouth that drools, it’s possible to do whatever one wishes, the blood spurting from the heart stops in one of this innumerable knots, the protruding small muscular callus that purportedly indicates masculinity bobs up and down endlessly like a mechanism, and the subject dies of exhaustion, suffocates if abandoned in the void, if left unsupported by one’s palms on both sides, like the rarest of illuminated tomes.

The Static Electricity Machine

Originally it was noticed that yellow amber, after having been rubbed, attracts light and dry bodies: this was explained by saying that rubbing gave a soul to the amber and that this soul attracted light bodies as if by a breath. Then a scholar by the name of Guillaume Gilbert recognized that the property of attracting light bodies, after prerequisite frictions, was common to agate, diamond, sapphire, ruby, opal, amethyst, aquamarine, rock crystal, sulfur, mastic, resin, arsenic, talc, and other substances. Moreover, he saw that those materials attracted not only stalks of straw, but also wood, metal filings or sheets, stones, dirt, and even liquids, such as water and oil. But it was the illustrious Otto von Guericke, burgomaster of Magdeburg, who achieved the honor of having built the first electrical device by means of a sphere of sulfur: “Take a bowl of copper, or as it is called, a phial, the thickness of a child’s head; fill it with sulfure crushed in a mortar, and heat over a fire to melt the sulfur, which must then be stored in a a dry place. Next, pierce this globe in such as way as to pass an iron rod through it along its axis...” With this rudimentary machine, Otto von Guericke was able to see, while working in darkness, the luminous phenomenon that accompanies the rubbing of the sulfur globe, that is, the electrical spark. The gleam he obtained was very weak, comparable only, in his own words, to the phospheresence that sugar presents when it’s ground in a dark room; to hear the spark’s fizzle, he had to hold his ear very close to the globe. In the attractions and repulsions the sulfur globe had successively exerted upon the light bodies placed in its vicinity, Otto von Guericke thought he could see phenomena analagous to the attractions and repulsions the earthly globe exerted upon the bodies within its sphere of action...

The British physician Grey was the first to electrify a man’s body. He notes that if a child is hung horizontally on horsehairs and if this child is brought into contact with a rubbed glass tube, the patient’s head and feet attract light bodies. In his articles, the Frenchman Du Fay disntinguishes between two types of electricity: vitreous electricity and resinous electricity. The former is characteristic of glass, rock, crystal, gemstones, animal hair, or wool. The latter is characteristic of amber, gum copal, shellac, silk, yarn and paper. The nature of these two electricities is to repel one another or to attract one another. In an experiment that aroused widespread interest, Du Fay drew electrical sparks out of the human body. After isolating himself by hanging silk cords from his office’s ceiling, the physician lay on a small platform held in the air by these cords and had himself electrified by coming into contact with a thick glass tube that had been rubbed. The patient’s body only had to extend its finger for a spark to surge. Out of the darkness had come a luminous emanation...

Hausen, a professor in Leipzig, built a machine which is depicted in a book published in Paris in 1748, Guillaume Watson’s Expériences et observations sur l’électricité. A young abbot turns a handle that conveys a rotational movement to a glass globe. The role of conductor is played by a child suspended in the air by silk cords that isolate it. Through its feet, the child collects the electricity developed on the globe’s surface; the fluid follows its body and is transmitted by its right hand to a girl atop a slab of resin. The little girl holds her left hand out to the patient and, with her electrified right hand, attracts gold foil set on an isolating side table.

Finally, in 1768, the British optician Ramsden instututes a significant change in the machines currently in use: he substitutes the glass cylinder with a tray that turns between four animal-hide cushions stuffed with horsehair and pressing against the glass by means of a spring. It’s interesting to notice that the reason that, in electrical machines, the glass globe is replaced with a cylinder or a disc is the relatively considerable number of accidents that this globe had caused: it exploded suddenly and sent dangerous shards flying at the experimenters. Discs might split in two while they were filled with fluid, but at least would not detonate, and their use was harmless. Thanks to these machines, it was possible to simulate fire raining down with water flowing from an electrified fountain; shooting stars were successfully produced by electricity in a metallic disc rotating very quickly with many spikes equidistant from the center. 

But, of all the phenomena that were discovered at this time, the one that aroused the greatest curiosity and attracted the most attention was the combusiton by electrical spark of inflammable materials. Doctor Ludolf, of Berlin, lit ether with sparks excited by the approach of an electrified glass tube. By drawing out a spark with his finger, Winckler, in Leipzig, lit not only ether but also eau-de-vie, cow horn’s liquor, and several other liquors. Watson, in England, repeated and extended these experiments. He lit, in addition to more or less concentrated eau-de-vie, various liquids containing volatile oils, such as spirits of lavender, sweet spirit of nitre, turpentine, elixirs and styptics, peony flower or lemon or orange or juniper or sassafras essence...

In her novel, Pauliska or Modern Perversity, published in 1798, Révéroni Saint-Cyr shows us how the breath of pretty women is converted into fluid, how love can be communicated, like rabies, by a bite and how, by rubbing the skin of children or women, a rejuvenating magnetic source may be obtained... And on a parchment in red letters:

Love is a dog-madness, it can be communicated, as this malady here mentioned, by a bite. (Diet.) Burnt turtledove bones, camphor and snakeskin. (Operations.) Repated bites.

Love is the physical union of two beings in order that their masses become one, thus you must give the atoms impetus. Irritate the fibres with ashes of the operator’s hair and eyelashes. Intense penetration through the pores; increased friction on the skin. For a draught, the operator shall give his breath converted into fluid.

The Flypaper

The flypaper is a spiral of slightly sticky cardstock that quickly yellows in the air. It unfurls like a streamer, or like a Christmas wreath, absolutely gruesome for flies’ feet. Enticed by the delectation of the jam that its varnished surface promises, the fly lands on the paper, a glue it cannot extricate itself from: the roll thereby strewn with wings and slow suffocations, famished and mute supplictions, is, once it’s completely packed, subsequently thrown in the trash. A miniscule and unnecessary object of torture, the fly-paper, which used to attract flies rather than repel them, has been replaced by ultrasound.

The Vacuum Machine

Composed of a glass dome set on a piece of marquettry and connected to a system of pumps, valves, and wheels through which the air drawn out of the enclosure is evacuated, the vacuum machine is inexorable in the sense that it creates an unreal space, denuded of any particle, unlivable for any sensitive thing. This machine, in comparative-physics demonstrations, has become a parlor trick: under the glass dome is set a living bird, then it’s closed shut, taking care that the strips and rubber discs designed to guarantee a perfect seal are positioned correctly, the bird flits around panickedly beneath the glass cage that all the participants’ sleazy eyes are stuck on, and when the gaunt, acid-bitten hand of the phsyician starts turning the wheel and the air compressed by the pumps thins, the bird doesn’t even float in this space void of all weight, it can’t fly anymore, it’s immediately flattened against the marquetry below, its heart and the small ivory balls of its eyes burst, the fragile skeleton of its keel breaks apart, and when the dome is taken away, in a hiss of decompression, all that is left is a small powdery, bony mass of feathers, slightly liquid as well. 

If the enclosure of the vacuum machine is enlarged to human dimensions and the pneumatic system is activated after having sealed in a nude, blindfolded man, the same process results: the skin immediately turns blue, and the man is crushed, nailed by the mass of the void, all the skin on the surface of his face and his body bursts, bored through as if under an acid’s violent flow, soon there will be nothing more than his skeleton, like a thorn stoked to a white heat.

Order Written in Invisible Ink here...

Hervé GUIBERT (1955–1991) was a writer, a photography critic for Le Monde, a photographer, and a filmmaker. In 1984 he and Patrice Chereau were awarded a César for best screenplay for L’Homme Blessé. Shortly before his death from AIDS, he completed La Pudeur ou L’impudeur, a video work that chronicles the last days of his life.

Jeffrey ZUCKERMAN is an American translator from the French, most recently of Luc Dardenne’s diaries and Jean Genet’s The Criminal Child. The digital editor of Music & Literature Magazine, he received a PEN-Heim Translation Fund grant for his translation of Guibert’s Written in Invisible Ink: Selected Stories.


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