The Rage of Professor Barbenfouillis

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The rules of the world are suspended here. The cavern roars off into the distance, and even as they descend the astronomers can see crags and spires, glittering stalactites, green rivers rushing over cliffs to vanish in the hissing darkness. Their leader, Professor Barbenfouillis, plants his umbrella in the ground and finds it transformed into a huge toadstool. His delight is Edenic. A whole unspoiled world awaits, a labyrinth of untold size and detail.

The astronomers have been making noise, though, and they’ve disturbed something. From the gloom of a grove of mushrooms scuttles a Selenite, a fearsome lunar crustacean. Its menace is overwhelming; Barbenfouillis rushes back to his panicked friends. Seizing another umbrella, he turns to face the Selenite and shrinks back in fear as it rushes him, but it stops short, like a bull that’s just trying to keep strangers away from its herd, and now Barbenfouillis lunges. Startled, it falls onto its back; he brings down the umbrella, and it bursts like a sporocarp.

Is Professor Barbenfouillis a killer? The obvious answer is no. This is a learned professor, passing his life in solitary contemplation of the stars, sometimes attending a conference. He is quiet and solitary, maybe not a people person. But he’s not a murderer. He was scared. His friends were egging him on.

Think about this historically, though. How old is Professor Barbenfouillis? Let’s assume he’s a lifelong Parisian, like his interpreter Georges Méliès. If he’s 70 years old in 1902, he’s seen things you people wouldn’t believe. When he was 1 or 2, soldiers walked into a tenement just northeast of the Louvre, kicked down the doors of the rooms, surprised the inhabitants (supposed rioters) in their pajamas, and slaughtered them. If baby Barbenfouillis was ever taken to the shops in the Véro-Dodat arcade (entrance surmounted by statues of Hermes and a Satyr, commerce and frenzy), he may have seen Honoré Daumier’s lithograph in a window: a man in a bloody nightgown, propped up on the flank of a bed, with his son, still alive, crushed beneath him.

It’s unlikely that he remembers that, or that he remembers how the soldiers were egged on by people like his family. But things happened at an accelerating tempo through the rest of the century. When Barbenfouillis was 16, he might have heard gunshots from across the Seine as guards outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs killed 52 people. When he was 20 he might have watched columns of people led by soldiers past his window, to be herded onto cattle cars and shipped to Algeria. For most of his 20s and 30s French soldiers died shivering with tropical diseases on gunships from the Orinoco to the Mekong. When he was 39 he would have spent months trying to get the taste of cat meat out of his mouth as the Prussians closed in on Paris. And in the Commune, who knows? Did he flee the city? Did he huddle in his flat and wait for Thiers and the Versailles Army to save him? What was he doing at the end, with the blood of 25,000 people gurgling into the gutters, when every street hissed with maggots?

That was 30 years ago. The city still smells like shit and death. Sometimes on Sunday mornings he sees the frozen corpse of a Gascon or a Breton huddled on a quay. The streets he used to know have been paved under canyonlike boulevards, and there’s nothing to hear anywhere but screaming locomotives and clanging iron wheels. He keeps waiting for it to stop and relax but it never does, it just keeps going, creeping out like a myxogastrid, swallowing Vietnam and Algeria. It is tunneling into itself now, filigreeing iron rails beneath its own skin, digging out the labyrinthine new frontier, spiraling raggedly down, faster and faster.

Now he’s on the moon. All of that is far below, and things here are silent and peaceful. But Barbenfouillis is carrying it around inside of him.

It is possible that the first labyrinth, built on Minoan Crete in the late Bronze Age, was a dance floor. Book 18 of the Iliad seems to mention it, in a long description of the new shield Hephaestus makes for Achilles. Homer doesn’t actually mention a maze, but some English translators carry it in from later traditions. Here’s Chapman, who goes all the way: “…a dancing place / all full of turnings, that was like the admirable maze / for hair-hair’d Ariadne made, by cunning Daedalus / And in it youths and virgins dance’d, all young and beauteous.”

Other translators let the choreography of the dance suggest the maze. But even if the dancing place and not just the dance was truly full of turnings, those turnings were just paint. In the Iliad, the youths and virgins get about three times as much attention as the dance floor. Their dance may have involved jumping over a bull, which would be another celebration of the young and the beauteous. But Minoan civilization collapsed, and 500 years later the Greeks, like horror fans craving gore, had buried this dancing floor deep in the earth, built walls for it, turned the youths and virgins into sacrificial victims, and transformed the bull into a Minotaur. This folkloric defamation turned a fertility rite, permanently, into a form of ritual combat. 700 years after that, the Flavians built what came to be known as the Colosseum, a venue for ritual combat built on top of a maze. 

It’s possible that, in the cave, Barbenfouillis recognizes the mirror image of the Métro, the new world beneath Paris. (The excavations at Knossos, which uncovered fair-hair’d Ariadne’s dancing floor, coincided with the excavations in Paris that created the first Métro line.) The difference is that on the moon there are no timetables, no roaring iron and hissing steam. There is perfect freedom. There’s nothing to stop Barbenfouillis from carrying out the urge that’s been boiling up inside him for his entire life.


Deeper:

Beneath the surface of the moon