Geometry in the Dust, Chapter 3

The paradox is that in order to know the city one has to be able to get lost in it, know how to walk right into glass doors, or to cut oneself in half at each crossing to appease the pains of hesitation–and especially how to ask for directions: then, without moving from the spot, one must let oneself be carried away for a full quarter of an hour by a meticulous gabber, as exacting as he is baroque (his speech, consisting of static details that lack any precise orientation, is a kind of fabulous bestiary adapted to the metropolis, of no use whatsoever to a lost traveler), one must play along with his instructions, trust them but not too much, take them into consideration but distinguish the topography of memories from that of anecdote, and these two from the topography of aesthetic judgments formed effortlessly on the fly (a similar technique is used to appraise objects in glass display cases, factoring in the effect of lighting). The paradox is: one wants to get lost in the city, take a chance, blindfold oneself, imagine forests (how one behaves in a forest, the behavior of the forest itself), but the city does everything to ensure that no one gets lost, despite little snares and misunderstandings (to fail to find one’s way, to chase after the bus: that’s not really what it means to get lost); even if one were to ask the landscape designers to construct cul-de-sacs and diagonal passageways, these attempts would be of no avail in view of the immense arrows posted at each intersection and the numerous maps posted at eye level, maps on which everything is distinct, of a terrible precision (there is a mark of Cain there, which the traveler never can escape, wherever he may go: a red ring encircling the words: you are here). It would be wonderful to get lost; the city itself thinks that arranging its corridors in a whimsical or a particular way would suit the purpose well, that a combination of plenitude and void would suffice, a few painted trompe-l’œil windows–or as the English call them, mock windows, a deceptive homonymy, false friends–or, instead, doors that open onto walls–but the city proves to be less stringent in ensuring that we lose our way than it is at ensuring our orientation. Any metaphor that makes of the city a forest (a forest-city without perimeter or center, a forest built of commentaries and sudden unforeseeable deaths, like in the adventures of Percival), or an ant colony, is wrong, because such comparisons are invalid at such different scales (just as the Banū Mūsā brothers’ Book on the Measurement of Plane and Spherical Figures shows). To lose oneself in the city can sometimes coincide with feelings of luxury (boasting), in which case it’s an illusory, dandyish maneuver, a self-deception in the service of an intoxication more rich than opium; if getting lost requires the wanderer’s active participation, then wandering becomes a variety of nonchalance. Certain famous pedestrians here have pulled off the lazy feat of getting lost on purpose: the exercise requires the same gumption (the same cleverness, the same technique of avoidance, the same admixture of distraction and concentration) that it takes to read a detective novel over again, when one must force oneself to forget the ending that lies in store.

If the city does not lead us astray, a few of its agents try to: a perfectly accomplished task if the foreign traveler were to ever take their instructions seriously (literally, that is). Fortunately, the foreigner who asks for directions does not expect instructions for use from the wayfinding local, but only a Menippean satire for their little corner of the city, a macaronic, a description expressed in the local creole (he hears the local out: he lends him the ear of a foreigner: a hospitable ear). The dilettante or professional wayfinders try their best to waylay the traveler, their vocabulary is chosen with much care (but with an improvisational tone), and a familiar though hesitating syntax (informal frankness, offset by the cadences of a diplomat); ambivalence is meted out word by individual word, or resides since time immemorial in the local language, in every one of its locutions, in each one of its proverbs–it’s known how difficult a principle as the crow flies can be in a city of one-way streets and roundabouts, it’s known that the original division of space into right and left becomes problematic as soon as the right of the local resident is not the right of the traveler, and that their notions of left diverge from the start. Also, the remarks of the local regarding his small portion of city are not refuted by the foreigner alone (as soon as he continues on his way), but by the whole city: on every street corner it knows how to refute the opinion its inhabitants form of it.

The sovereign architect will see to it that agents of this sort be posted in his new city at regular intervals, amateur or professional wayfinders, employed full-time or intermittently: either a solitary individual in charge of a cluster of cats, or an old lady, a grandmother to each and all, who passes her time walking up and down the street between her stewpot and the vegetable vendors, or other old racegoers, who smoke yellow cigarettes and wear a specific model of cap, or a local sage, dressed in a bathrobe, or some carefully selected new recruits to the ranks of the unemployed (it’s important that the wayfinder have at his or her disposal the entirety of their free time, from the morning dawn to the evening crepuscule, proprietor of all the day’s hours (and so much a proprietor that they not be completely at his or her disposal: rather like the chastity of the eunuch within the thousand-gated harem); he or she needs to be able to understand duration, because under no circumstances should the reply he or she gives be contained in a single word or sentence: the directions of the wayfinder, I know this from experience, have their beginning, yet no end).

So that this particular union of wanderer and local may be complete (a completeness, pardon the comparison, similar to the completeness postulated by sexology: its creatures are split evenly between the demands of hygiene, performance, social harmony, and Iseult’s magic spells; it supposes fulfillment, exquisite delights, and the ecumenism of simultaneous orgasms), so that the union of foreigner and autochthon, each rich with their respective encyclopedic knowledges, may give rise to this interminable, spoken prose, the wanderer must be all ears, he must accept his instructions with gravity, but nevertheless refrain from taking any heed of them; he will have to flee along a route he will accept as a present. Additionally, the local must thoroughly inhabit his or her neighborhood (completeness/prosperity/maternal bond, to which we must also add: syncretism) and have looked after its nooks and cracks for many years, cultivate a particular notion of the eternal and the fleeting, to the point that he or she will come to consider a cat sitting on a cornice (this or that cat) to be a point as fixed and determinate as a fire hydrant, or an old façade classed as the patrimony of the human race.* (The gazes of very old inhabitants have a fossilising effect, and it can occur that when any flighty, living (imminently mortal) creature comes into contact with one, it freezes solid, becoming an element of architecture. These might be peaceful, disinterested Gorgons, these old women who have been living in their apartments since forever ago–little does the length of time matter; but the concept of eternity involves a similar nostalgia.)


* You will quickly understand that the city is not made up only of itself: a city is composed of city, intentions in the city, and the difference between the city and those intentions (that difference being sometimes a catastrophe, sometimes a pile of garbage, sometimes a banished tribe, sometimes bankable income, sometimes on the contrary a lack, sometimes a nice surprise, sometimes nostalgia, sometimes going over budget).


Pierre Senges

Pierre Senges is the author of fourteen books and over sixty plays for radio. His erudite fictions often unfold in the margins of other texts in the form of commentaries, catalogs, and encyclopedias. He is the recipient of prizes for his novels Ruines-de-Rome (2002) and Veuves au maquillage (2000), as well as for his radio work. His novel Fragments of Lichtenberg (2008) will be forthcoming in English translation from Dalkey Archive Press in 2016.

Jacob Siefring

Jacob Siefring is a Canadian-American translator. His translations have appeared in Gorse Journal #4, Hyperion, Music and Literature Online, and Vestiges. His criticism has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, 3:AM Magazine, Golden Handcuffs Review, The Winnipeg Review, and elsewhere. He keeps a blog at

Géométrie dans la poussière. Copyright (c) Gallimard, 2004. English translation copyright (c) Jacob Siefring, 2015.