Han Ryner, “The Paradox” (1913)



By Han Ryner

I know a country in which the inhabitants are always clothed. Beside the woman in labor, the priest and magistrate wait and, as soon as the child appears, seizing it, they enclose it entirely, hands and face included, in an elastic material which conforms to the contours of the body and which grows with it. Perhaps, despite its elasticity, the cloth resists, opposing itself to the growth, for the people of that country remain singularly small.

The strange garment has holes corresponding to the eyes, nostrils, AND mouth. But it folds a bit, with adhesive on the edge of the natural openings, and nowhere can one see the skin, that indecency. It even adheres to the eyelids. The eyelashes, drawn together by this trick, just as close together as the toes of birds that swim, give the eyes an indescribable expression of stupidity and meanness.

During the growth of the child, or even later, due to wear or some accident, sometimes the clothing will crack. The victim of such misfortune is often able to conceal and remedy it in secret. Otherwise, they receive fifty lashes, and then they kneel and, among ceremonies and prayers, the priests and the magistrates paste over the tear two superimposed strips of modest stuff

I passed through this country at a time when hostile men had robbed me of my coat. I walked innocent and nude among these religious people.

Women and young people soon gathered around me. The large herd followed me, praising the color of my clothes and their supple fineness. But, after a little while, some priests rushed up who accused that crowd with cries accompanied by cursing gestures. Then some armed men dispersed them with batons.

And, seizing me, they led me before the chief magistrate. There, a prosecutor stood up, saying:

“This man is guilty of not wearing the garment that the city has ordered and of introducing an extravagant costume. He is guilty of corrupting, by this means, women and young people. Sentence: death.

“What do you have to say in your defense?” asked the judge.

I responded naively:

“I am a stranger, and I do not know your laws. Yet I am certain that I do not wear the garments that they condemn, since I am naked as the baby who comes from his mother’s womb.

Now, these men affirmed that they like the urbanity, the subtleties of mind and the ingenious surprises of the speech. Then they looked at one another with smiling lips and eyes. And the judge proclaimed:

“Here is a foreigner with an intelligence to amiably paradoxical for me to have the courage to condemn it.

The advocate approved. And the prosecutor declared:

“I admire more than anyone the grace and spice that are put into peach. That is why I withdraw my accusation against this man. There is, moreover, a profound sense and a useful lesson in his witticism. The knowledge of the laws forms around the citizens a garment which warms them and an armor which protects them. So that this man, ignorant of our laws, the natural and reasonable laws, is, in fact, naked and poor as a newborn.

They greatly applauded this little man, whose eyes shone, beneath bunched eyelashes, like water stirred by the legs of a duck. I sensed that the desire for this applause had contributed to my salvation and I exchanged with my unexpected defender some extended congratulations.

The judge asked me if my plan was to settle down in the country or only to traverse it. I wanted to know, before responding, what treatment I would meet with in either case. They praised my prudence and explained to me that, if I should remain in the land, they would first strip off my unnatural garment, after which they would dress me like everyone else. But if I only wished to cross, they would suppose that the paradoxical clothing with which I was covered were legal and noble in my own city, and would be content, for the duration of my passage, to cover the local impiety of it under a long tunic, like those with which we defend ourselves, in winter, against the cold.

All the assistants gathered around me, extolling the virtues of their country, the sweetest of homelands, and made efforts to keep me there which were certainly flattering to me. Nonetheless, I preferred to protect, by a prompt departure, the integrity of what they called my paradoxical garment.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur; from The Smart Set, March 1913.]

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