The Illusion of the Sea

Bains Vigier, Quai et escalier. Photo by Eugène Atget, 1913.

In his book, À rebours, the French author Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) describes how his protagonist Jean des Esseintes substitutes a dream reality for reality itself. Des Esseintes masters the art of imaginative creation. One can visit exotic places while never leaving a cozy fireside or enjoy swimming in the sea while miles inland.

…there was not the shadow of a doubt that fanciful delights resembling the true in every detail, could be enjoyed. One could revel, for instance, in long explorations while near one’s own fireside, stimulating the restive or sluggish mind, if need be, by reading some suggestive narrative of travel in distant lands. One could enjoy the beneficent results of a sea bath, too, even in Paris. All that is necessary is to visit the Vigier baths situated in a boat on the Seine, far from the shore. 

There, the illusion of the sea is undeniable, imperious, positive. It is achieved by salting the water of the bath; by mixing, according to the Codex formula, sulphate of soda, hydrochlorate of magnesia and lime; by extracting from a box, carefully closed by means of a screw, a ball of thread or a very small piece of cable which had been specially procured from one of those great rope-making establishments whose vast warehouses and basements are heavy with odors of the sea and the port; by inhaling these perfumes held by the ball or the cable end; by consulting an exact photograph of the casino; by eagerly reading the Joanne guide describing the beauties of the seashore where one would wish to be; by being rocked on the waves, made by the eddy of fly boats lapping against the pontoon of baths; by listening to the plaint of the wind under the arches, or to the hollow murmur of the omnibuses passing above on the Port Royal, two steps away. 

The secret lies in knowing how to proceed, how to concentrate deeply enough to produce the hallucination and succeed in substituting the dream reality for the reality itself.

Artifice, besides, seemed to Des Esseintes the final distinctive mark of man’s genius.

Huysmans, Joris-Karl. Against the Grain. Translated by John Howard.

I find this fascinating! To practice this kind of imaginative creation is liberating in a time when we often find ourselves alone, in isolation from others, our travel restricted, our social interaction limited. I can travel around the world in eighty days, or go to the gym, have coffee and pastry at a cafe, visit the great libraries and museums of the world. I can be an American expatriate in Casablanca, sacrificing my heart for an old flame or lead a bunch of Spanish conquistadores down the Amazon searching for El Dorado. There are no limits. Let me share two examples. 

Presently, I am unable to pray with my regular Chabad congregation. So, I’ve set up a prayer area at the end of our long dining table. I say the prayers there at the same time I recited them when praying at Chabad. At Chabad, a good man named Yossi always prepared coffee and bourekas for us to enjoy after the service. Although many men had to leave for work when the prayers ended, some could stay and enjoy Yossi’s coffee, pastry, and learn with our Rabbi. The difference now is that I make the coffee and the bourekas and study alone. I say alone, but that’s true only if you are looking at me from the outside. On the inside, I am sitting at a table with my friends. When I taste the pastry, I am with my friends. When I read Rashi, though I am reading it in English, I hear it in Hebrew in Rabbi Heber’s singing lilt.

Every Friday night, my wife and I enjoy an exquisite meal by candlelight at La Maison de Batya. La Maison de Batya serves a variety of cuisine. Two of our favorites are French Quiche, and a Vegetarian Indian Kofta Curry served with papadums and raita. For dessert, there is gâteau au chocolat végétarien with café à la crème. I need little imagination here to feel that I am eating at one of the world’s leading dining establishments.

These are two of my “imaginative creations.” Using my computer, however, I can do many other things: visit great libraries and art galleries all over the world. I can read first editions, view original illustrations, see more great works of art than my grandparents or parents could have seen in a lifetime.

Here are two links, the first for world-class libraries, and the second for incredible art:

The only limitation within the confines of our home is our imaginations. The key, in the words of Jean des Esseintes, is “to concentrate deeply enough to produce the hallucination and succeed in substituting the dream reality for the reality itself.” And it’s all done naturally! 

Oh, and you don’t need to wear a mask.

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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