Bonheur du Jour – Escritoire of the Day
In eighteenth-century French, the “Bonheur du jour”, literally the “happiness of the day”, was a small escritoire or writing desk with many drawers – and even secret drawers, or compartments. It was a fine, elaborate piece of furniture, often delicately inlaid with marquetry, and typically used by women to write, read or hide love letters. Or so we are told! Did men not have, or did they not need to hide their love affairs just as well…? But let’s not go astray; this is none of our business today.
The English and German languages, as well as many others, still use the French term “escritoire” to refer to this specific type of furniture, as if, in every language, something hidden were still present in it. And today, we too discover a secret inside the writing desk presented to us by our friends from the Indian Institute of Technology.
“The Present of the Day”? Presence or gift? A long time ago, a Byzantine grammarian did use the verb praesento (in late Latin) in the sense of offering or presenting someone with something. In other languages, the double entendre is equally… present, or, in other words, praesens, which means being in front of somebody or something (the Latin verb praesum has a different meaning: to be or to go ahead, to lead the way, to command). In short, three possible meanings emerge from the Latin: to be in front of, to offer or to command.
With the day, something or somebody, some “presence” comes and presents itself. What presents itself as a day is light, or more precisely sunlight. According to some hypotheses, “day” may be related to the Sanskrit root dah, “to burn”. The Latin dies is related to yet another semantic field (a bright light that shines) and in the form divus, the word assumes a divine dimension. Following two different paths takes us back to the vicinity of two notions: light and fire, warmth and visibility, access and intensity.
Therefore, daytime is the time of some shining presence, of a self-offering being as being-there, in front of us, as if we became present to ourselves when we woke up. Before and after the awakening, or the “wake” if we take the word in its Irish-Joycean meaning, there is no presence. There is absence, but absence is a lack of presence; it presents nothing and has nothing to present.
The present presents itself out of nothing/nowhere and in front of nothing, just as light comes out of the darkness and shines towards the edge of darkness. Presence is related to absence: this is at least what we have been asserting in the Western tradition since Aristotle and Augustine, which means since the time eternity was lost. Eternity does not mean sempiternity or time everlasting. It means time out of time or timeless, which boils down to sheer being as it is the case in Parmenides and still in Plato (for whom time is only the mobile image of sheer being).
Sheer being is what belongs neither to presence nor to absence. It neither comes nor goes. It neither appears nor disappears. It is neither in front nor ahead of anything. Sheer being is “to be” as such, when “to be” means coming to, presenting itself to something or someone. Plato’s mobility cannot stay still as an image of immobility: it has to come (and leave). It comes to… To what? To nothing – to the nothingness of being.
The whole of Western philosophy has been thinking about that: the “to be” understood as a need, a desire, a will, or a search for something to fill nothingness. Something like a supreme being. But of course a supreme being cannot be-come; it does not exist but dies. It does not die after living a life of its own; it dies in its proper essence. It is pure dying. Actually, everything pure is death, isn’t it?
The “to be” as “to be to (and from) nothing” becomes in turn nothing. The “now”, the “today”, the “instant” is nothing, it is only an empty relation between the past and the future, that is to say, between two modes of absence.
Philosophy as a whole has been thinking about this for ages, resulting in the following words:
“All the presents are determining as regards for the future the howabouts of their past absences which they might see on at hearing could they once smell of tastes from touch.”
Needless to say, this sentence comes from Finnegans Wake. Not by chance, because it can be argued that this book is essentially about presence – about the enigma of presence as presenting, offering no-thing.
And offering it to us by repeating “in his secondmouth language as many of the bigtimer’s verbaten words which he could balbly call to memory”.
Not far from the end, there is a visit to “the Old Lord”, presumably the bigtimer, who could easily be the “Deity Itself” about which it has been said in the first part of the book:
“upon the Open Bible and before the Great Taskmaster’s (I lift my hat!) and in the presence of the Deity Itself”
And now one has his hat and shall remember to take it off:
“His door always open. For a newera’s day. Much as your own is. You invoiced him last Eatster so he ought to give us hockockles and everything. Remember to take off your white hat, ech? When we come in the presence.”
What is a “newera’s day”? The day of a new era? The first day opening a new era or the new era itself presented as a day, radiating some shining light?
But “newera” in one single word also means that the entire era to come is contained in this very day. Or that any day is an era in itself, or that it “open(s) the door” to a new era.
Let us come back to the first quotation mentioned above: the determination of the present is given with complex “regards” to the future and the past, and in the whole of their absences, making together something that can appeal to the five senses blended or combined. That is: the “regards” of the present is consideration, a mixture of respect for and interest in all future-past absences for everything and everybody capable of making a sign, telling or indicating, calling or appealing from faraway. Today opens itself as a consideration for absence not as loss or damage, but as the possibility of presenting the signs, the echoes, the sounds, tastes and touches – all the sensibility of what is not “there” or “present” as already given and posited (what Heidegger calls vorhanden) but as what is coming as presented.
The regards of the present make possible a presentation: a coming in front of us.
And it makes our “happiness of the day”. Just as a lover’s letter is delivered daily to his or her lover, each new day delivers a message from what has been and what will be – from memory and expectation, from otherness and even from the unknown.
The message is not a signification, not a meaning. It may contain some meanings, but as a message, as a letter, its entire value resides in its coming. And it comes because it is regarded, considered, desired and loved.
A love letter has its value as a sign of love, not as a piece of information. That is the reason why it is hidden, even if it is not dissimulated from the eyes of a husband, a wife or a priest. The essence of love is hidden – one could even go as far as to say hidden from love itself. Therefore, it is a gift, a gift given from nowhere to nowhere. To some extent, from nobody to nobody, for love belongs to a realm beyond or behind anybody or any body.
The present day is the presentation of an appeal coming from within and without, from behind (memory) and from beyond (future). Memory and the future are not simply absent: they offer the possibility of some presence between the two of them. Some presence which does not stand in front of what is not given, but as a sheer gift, some pure giving, happens neither yesterday nor tomorrow but in the open space where presentation is made possible.
A presentation means a coming, advancing, moving, proceeding, not a status, neither staying nor standing. And the bonheur du jour is made, in its delicate marquetry, out of a self-opening of the day to a new sense, to its proper and singular sense which is nothing more and nothing less than the sense of opening itself – that is, opening up a self at large. For, a self is nothing else than an opening to an infinite and overreaching “to be” (and not being) somebody, someday, somewhere.
Again with Finnegans Wake:
“as happy as the day is wet, babbling, bubbling, chattering to herself, deloothering the fields on their elbows leaning with the sloothering slide of her, giddygaddy, grannyma, gossipaceous Anna Livia.
He lifts the lifewand and the dumb speak.
“Quoi” is the French word for “what” and may be used for interrogation or exclamation just as its English counterpart. Here, we have an exclamation mark after the last “q” – which makes it sound to a French reader or listener like the quack of a duck: coincoincoin… or “couac” which is precisely an onomatopoeia used to refer to some blunder.
Now, the French for “now” is “maintenant” (a synonym for “à present”/at present) which itself can be split into “main” (the hand in French) and “tenant” (the gerund form of the verb “tenir”, meaning to hold or to grasp in French), indicating the period of time during which I can hold something in my hands. A rather brief one, as I also need my hands for many operations or gestures to come.
In Finnegans Wake, Joyce uses that French word in a passage that appears as a marginal note entirely written in French: “Mai maintenante elle est venuse”. The word here is feminized, whereas an “s” is inserted into “venue” (come). The “now” becomes a quality of the “she” who has now come – and this (be)coming is transformed into a new version of Venus (the Latin goddess of love).
Who may be this “she”? Actually, the sentence is a quotation from John’s Gospel: “The hour did come where the son of Man will be glorified”. The feminized “now” is the “now” of the coming of Venus’s glorification.
“Maintenant” is the present when one may hold divine glorification in one’s hands. In the text, next to the note, a feminised mass is referred to: “Lammas is led in by baith our washwives”;
Glorification means making – or rather, letting something/somebody shine. The lover is glorified by his/her love. A song by French singer Françoise Hardy reads, in the simplest and most naïve way:
Le premier bonheur du jour
le premier bonheur du jour
c’est un ruban de soleil
qui s’enroule sur ta main
et caresse mon épaule.
the first happiness of the day
is a ray of sunlight
that wraps itself around your hand
and caresses my shoulder.]
Glory means light, sparkles and sunrise. Day takes place between sunrise and sunset, in the East just as in the West. Between the two of them, a whole geography, geopolitics, globalization and/or “mondialisation” in French (literally “becoming-world”) expand. A world is a space and a time, an area and an era where and when it is possible to produce and make sense. Making sense does not mean producing meaning – a final, global meaning – but making an appeal possible, or a call which is worth being considered and regarded.
This is very banal, but it is also what we are facing today: a global lack of making sense and a global making of calculations. A global lack of a world and a global production of – again – calculations: money, tools, speed and energy.
This lack/depletion and this making are visible through the accelerated process of production and the accelerated process of enrichment and impoverishment. This entire process is piercing through the everyday, through the day, and not allowing the presentation of the secret of the day.
Nevertheless, presentation takes place. Every day. There is not only the big process in progress with its own cheap infinity as the only goal or end; there is a daily opening, a small and almost invisible happiness of the day, which is neither pleasure nor delight, but which is day itself.
And this secret may be finally stronger than the megaprocess itself, which is already caught in its own jeopardy. It ignores the day, everyday and the day as such. Computers, traders, industries, planes and boats work night and day. They only know the time of production, investment, calculation and big data. And there is neither day nor secret in this chronological and time-consuming time.
But people still live day and night, they wake up and sleep, between openness and closeness. People need a rhythm, which is altogether temporal and spatial – or territorial, the territory being both a history and a geography (even through migrations), as well as some kind of a diary – written or not, but always personal, confidential, secret, and surely to be hidden in some bonheur-du-jour.
Today, in their own different ways, many people are acting and thinking, in search for such a secret: neither to protect it nor to make it public, but to affirm that there is a secret and that it does and will resist.
“we have frankly enjoyed more than anything these secret workings of natures (thanks ever for it, we humbly pray) and, well, was really so denighted of this lights time”
This is the secret of nothing: not a thing, but what? Somebody (maybe this “it” that we humbly pray for – instead of any “bigtimer”). The coming of somebody – no thing making newthing, as Joyce writes – and the newthing itself are not a thing but somebody coming. Somebody presenting herself, himself or itself to the mere opening of a day.
Or maybe as this opening takes place, just as sunrise presents itself to make another sunset possible.
“To be” becomes to day.
To day means to happen. To happen means something ordinary – extraordinary in the ordinary, just as what happens before the ending of Finnegans Wake:
“The day. Remember! Why there that moment and us two only?”
We all have already experienced this question that does not expect any answer. Senses without meaning. An overwhelming sensitivity.
At this last moment of the novel, Joyce’s language is perfectly ordinary. There is nothing to be interpreted. Nothing hidden – but the thing itself, the presence of the thing – which is “the day” – withdrawn in its presentation, which is at the same time – maintenant – memory and expectation. The one who speaks, allaniuvia pulchrabelle, is about to utter the words that are to disclose her last day:
“My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. I’ll bear it on me. To remind me of. Lff! So soft this morning, ours. Yes.”
New Delhi, January 22nd 2018.
Note : This lecture was delivered at the conference The Present of the Day at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, 22-23 January 2018, organized by Divya Dwivedi, Bijoy Boruah and C.A. Tomy.