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The Metafizzical Essays of
Nicholas Hancock

Published by The British Hancock Society
by arrangement with the author.


Copyright  ©  2008 Nicholas Hancock.  Permission  is granted  to  distribute  in  any  medium, commercial or non-commercial, provided author attribution and copyright notices remain intact.

THE OLD PORTRAIT


A couple photographed in Three-Rivers between 1880 and 1910 – a comfortable margin surely – seems to be sinking in a sea of quicklime that will soon reach their unequivocal hearts. If not quite pillars of Trifluvian society, they are at the very least worthy members of it – he for his partial suffrage and she for the respect of the beggar she sees charitably yet unlovingly from her door.
      Monsieur Panneton was a pharmacist by profession, but he has just handed on his business to the son who previously only figured in black capitals on the sign hanging from a window where yellow liquid glows in a metre-high urn. Before having the sign repainted, the son invites his newly retired parent to be photographed.
      The father gives the photographer a little smile of condescension and complacency that puts the portraitist fair and square on the step appropriate for him on the social pyramid. Indeed the ex-pharmacist looks from his throne at most of his co-citizens in this manner. His wife’s shoulder is squeezed against his own without his being apparently aware of it. He has accomplished man’s mission: self-propagation and the making of money.
      The busy photographer nips out from under his black cloth to direct the light of an ancient lamp onto the clouded sky hanging behind the old man’s presumptuous face to give it a sort of halo. Then the young man’s head disappears again only to reappear immediately; he hurries towards Madame Panneton carrying the eight volumes of François-Xavier Garneau’s History of Canada.
      ‘Be so good as to stand for a moment, madame.’
      And he places the books under the black bottom.
     ‘Excellent. And now your head is quite on a level with Monsieur Panneton’s.’
      In effect, the good bourgeois lady’s bonnet has now been raised to within a centimetre of the summit of her husband’s head.
      ‘Madame, you’re smiling. Give me, I humbly beg you, your most distinguished grimace. When Sartre comes to write his Nausée people will say that you are too frivolous and as such unworthy to hang with the rest of the bourgeoisie – indeed with the portraits Rollebon is to see in the Le Havre municipal library. Adopt an expression, madame, that tells everyone you disapprove of them. . . Perfect, madame. You have managed such a fall of the right-hand corner of your mouth that one would be tempted to say your whale bone was strangling your little abdomen. Your nostrils are widening like those of a purebred mare placed in a field with carthorses. Excellent! Maintain for one minute please that sneer full of suffering and dissatisfaction.’
      He opens the camera’s aperture and, one eye on the watch he has drawn from his waistcoat, counts up to sixty hundred.
      ‘Bravo!’ he exclaims at length. ‘That obstinate jaw, those eyes of an ageing sow – it’s exactly what’s required to capture an expression worthy to represent the entire army of our black-robed bourgeoises.’
                                                                           * * *

They’re all dead now: the obsequious little photographer and the grave couple that spent a few minutes in his studio, all three lying under the rain in the St. Michel cemetery. Icy water descends by degrees to their wretched collections of disarticulated bones lying among splinters of rotting wood – bones, it must be said, that have the same ontological inconsequence now as they did in life, yet hidden from the eyes of the drivers who pass by throwing excremental showers of muddy water over the few walkers-by.
      Whatever may occur, nonetheless, anyone sitting on the sofa opposite this gilded frame, despite the worm-eaten bodies, returns into contact with the vanished presence by means of the prosaic ghost of an old photograph and says, quite satisfied with his vestiges of Latin: ‘Sic transit euphoria.’