18th June 2013 — Tales from the Clinic

Tales from the Clinic — 15

Monsieur Papillon like to philosophise. He talks earnestly about the connections between the mind and the body. He plays with words.

Shortly after I meet him for the first time, he muses aloud about the words for a tumour in the breast – “tumeur mammaire” – how they sound the same as “tu meurts ma mere” (you kill my mother). The day before a public holiday –jour férié – he puns, “sur un jour férié on fait rien” (one doesn’t work on a public holiday).

He flits about, chatting, making jokes, talking airily about language and holistics.

He stops to chat while I’m having physiotherapy on a couch in the Salle de Kine.

“To be or not to be,” he declares, “that is the question. But what is the question?”

I am distracted. My leg is on Monsieur Boxeur’s shoulder. He is massaging my calf muscles.

“To be or not to be,” I reply. “That is the question.”

“Etre ou non être,,” says Monsieur Papillon. “C’est ne pas une question.”

“C’est une question en Anglais,” I say. “C’est une issue, c’est quelque chose a décider.”

Monsieur Papillon looks unconvinced.

Monsieur Boxeur fetches a large blue ball and places it on the couch against the wall. He explains how I am to push hard against the ball with my feet to strengthen the calf muscles. I begin the exercise with my left foot.

Monsieur Papillon is still puzzling aloud over the opening words of Hamlet’s soliloquoy.

“Etre ou non être. C’est impossible.” He shakes his head. “If there is not something there is nothing. If one is not, how can there be a question? If there is no being, there is nothing.”

We are in the land of Sartre and phenomenology. A land I can’t negotiate in English, much less French.

Monsieur Papillon is still pondering aloud about being and nothingness. “Etre ou non être, ça c’est la question. Mais c’est ne pas une question.”

I switch the ball to my right foot.

“It’s a question for Hamlet,” I say, pressing my foot against the ball. “He’s a character in a play. He says, “to be or not to be, that is the question,” because he’s trying to decide whether or not to kill himself.”

Monsieur Papillon pauses for a moment, head to one side. “Ah,” he says at last, “I understand.”

He flits away to alight on someone else.