Skip to main Skip to sidebar

Where Are We Going? Meditations with Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel

Painting by Paul Gauguin - PD-US-expired

By Sylvie Kandé

Where are we going? This question posed by the Night of Ideas was reflected in Paul Gauguin’s masterpiece painted in Tahiti in 1897-1898, and preserved in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The painter, like singer Jacques Brel decades later, found a form of answer to this question in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands—an answer they took to their graves, and a source of meditation for poet Sylvie Kandé.

       Between them lies a century or so. If, as the saying goes, the past is a country, those eighty long years, as so many border stones, could have turned Paul and Jacques into distant, dispassionate, or even hostile neighbors. Yet these two poets, obsessed with color and music, belong together, kin, as it were, to other unarmed rebels and dreamers without a cause.
       Against their will, they both lived in eras that put their faith in linear progress and in the virtue of speed. The sky is the limit! You only live twice! Everyone around them took these mottos for granted: in spite of writers and artists’ angry petitions, the Eiffel tower rose and remained; and on screen, James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 whizzed by, all smoke and shine.
       In their respective times, and against the wisdom of the crowd, Paul and Jacques chose to cast-off the moorings. Out of the blue, they responded to a call, a cry, and followed their hearts to the same green and ocher archipelago. They left with the prescience that over there, they would be free at last to conjure up le sens de la vie. The slow voyage on a South-bound ship, the fertile boredom on board, their souls amazed by the noisy fresco of moody waters, the celestial waves where stars float like an offering to all that is divine, and a love like a vault over ancient fears of desertion and inadequacy, a love as vast as a sky wed to the sea, a love that will be theirs to share and receive, to give and take —  how easy it is to imagine it all!
       Wording their poetic vision is another story.
Undoubtedly, the object of their twin quest was le sens de la vie (and nothing but…), for they knew that the meaning of life is intertwined with its direction and with the discovery of the hidden symbols’ true names. In this pursuit, much has to be sacrificed — compass, dictionary, genealogy, the North and its computation of time. They assented to everything and in time, learned to call death a fruit, as everyone else on the island did. “To plow with a feather”: Primo Levi’s oxymoronic phrase refers to the inability of language to account for otherness, for scale and age differences, in short, to its inability to translate, although by definition it must. For once then, let’s not try to plow with a feather, let’s put en français dans le texte, this sens de la vie, which Gauguin and Brel strove to capture in saturated colors, to express in a torrential language where rocks and tears, music, mica and laughter are tossed together.
       Both thought they were old men when they finally learned how to hear the love songs of the palm trees. Jacques touched the fruit and it was ripe: he accepted it without a moan (Let me tell you/Moaning is not done/In the Marquesas Islands). Paul went to look for it, climbed a mountain, and returned empty-handed: he couldn’t wait to get his teeth into it. What more was there for him? His masterpiece was completed, and it illuminated for all le sens de la vie.
       Where Do We Come From What Are We Where Are We Going
Yes, he had found the meaning of life and its direction. From right to left! This is how this musical poem, as he fondly called his painting, was to be read. Only then could one see immobile figures walking towards the hereafter, and beyond. In fact, the title had not come to him until he was done painting the body’s triple initiation into death, until he had examined it in a counter-intuitive direction. Then, on the upper left corner, he had written his testimony — without question marks since the enigma was solved, and with capitalized words, as suited to the depiction of such a liturgy.

Where Do We Come From
We are born of older dances and a bolder purpose
Our mothers are many —shade is one of them
Together they watch over the elder
Back at last
From the blue Beyond

What Are We
Long before dogs and goats,
Sewn clothes and shame
Life was a fruit we ate, saving just the seed
Many songs we sang in tongues we lost
We knew the fruit was death too

Where Are We Going
Facing each other in an eternity quite unlike summer, their twin graves endure.
Between them lies a pebbly path, a red thread of connivance.
Love, he whispered, if something happens to me, bury me, will you, in Atuona, our country.
Beyond the cascade of branches, leaves and fruit they sleep under, the waves dash against the shore.
And pirogues come, pirogues go
La vie a plus d’un sens
When uttered, the true names of arcane things take flight
Thick flock of white birds whose futile cries
Fade away and return 



Dr. Sylvie Kandé is a poet, historian, translator, and associate professor at SUNY College at Old Westbury in New York. She teaches African history and French and Francophone (African and Caribbean) literature. She holds a doctorate from the Université Paris Cité (formerly Paris Diderot) on “Creole” urbanism and architecture in Sierra Leone in the 18th and 19th centuries. She has received several prizes and awards for her work as a poet, including the Louise-Labé Prize and the Lucienne Gracia-Vincent Prize in 2017. Her book La quête infinie de l’autre rive has just been published in a bilingual edition, The Neverending Quest for the Other Shore: An Epic in Three Cantos. She is a member of the translation committee of the PEN American Center. Since 2017, she has been president of the Caribbean Jury of the Association des Écrivains de Langue Française.

Related content

Sign up to receive exclusive news and updates