Literary breaks


or a double humiliation

By Nicolas Cavaillès 11 May 2017


© Charles Duprat / OnP


In declaring her love for Onegin, Tatiana makes a gesture that the writer Nicolas Cavaillès takes up here. He has made it the initial theme of his variations on the gravity of bodies. In this silent dialogue of postures, chairs and benches acquire new nobility.   

Tatiana spends her time sitting: silently, sadly, she dreams, sitting in the window at her parents’ home, looking out over the dreary countryside where she grew up, where she is waiting; sitting at her table, in her room, she observes herself pityingly in the mirror; sitting at the banqueting tables to which her condition of nubile young woman condemn her, and then as a high-ranking wife, judiciously married off, she smiles amid her boredom. Only love, her impatience, her fevers and her insomnia have ever dragged Tatiana to her feet: she has only ever stood up once in her life, for the short, tragic episode summed up in the name Eugene Onegin, and that one could also call a double humiliation. Was she not right, the ingénue, to stand up as she did then, in all the freshness and spontaneity of her sudden passion? Why should she have felt ashamed? But she hastened to sit down again, to write an unfortunate letter to Onegin that said everything, and ruined all. What a humiliation was to follow!

As for Onegin, he never sits down; standing, he rejects the young woman whose audacious letter he read and whom he sought out at her home, in the wood adjoining the domain, in the garden of her laughter-filled childhood, of her romantic adolescence. She is seated: having seen him approach from afar, she sinks, overcome with emotion, onto a conveniently placed bench. Having come to reject her, Onegin does not sit down next to her, in no way seeks to console her, on the contrary: in the ambivalence of his feelings towards her, in his chilly empathy, he wants above all to teach her a lesson. Cynical and powerful, upright and straight, the blasé young baritone inflicts a masochistic “confession” on the pretty young girl sitting before him: I could never love anyone but you, Tatiana, but happiness is denied me, and routine would kill our marriage… A peremptory but lucid discourse, the aggressive ricochets of which pierce Tatiana’s naive heart like nails: she can find nothing to say in response, she remains seated, paralysed by what she has heard; it is Onegin who, having finished speaking, raises her from her bench to bring the torture to an end. The scene is worse than a duel, in which the adversaries in their vanity are still facing each other, on an apparently equal footing; here, Onegin operates with an almost immoral facility; he crushes the woman who explicitly confided in him, he responds to her kittenish desire for affection with the well-judged sermon of a so-called accursed creature. The affair is resolved in five minutes. Everything is very proper, each plays his or her part, and buries deep down inside the absurdity of this fiasco, but in their lack of experience, in the rigidity of their youthful souls, Onegin and Tatiana will persist to the bitter end: she lets herself be trampled on and he tramples her down; each is resigned to a life of disappointed hopes.

It is he who will regret it most… Onegin will never forget how Tatiana, stunned by her own boldness and by her emotions, collapsed on the bench, the day he came to reject her: in spite of all her confused emotions, it was the fall of a queen… She fell for him, but from the way she fell, the manner in which she collapsed, he instinctively felt, at the time, and understood later very clearly, that the poor naïve girl sitting on her rustic bench was worth infinitely more than him, who would always remain upright, frozen by shame and self-loathing, always feeding the nameless fear within him that prevented him from sitting down: the thought of the absence of a chair behind him.

It must be stated that, at the back of Onegin’s mind there persists a curious Russian joke, the legacy of his years of training, an anecdotal riddle which nevertheless has permanently conditioned his understanding of the world. Here it is, this light-hearted enigma: When a group of women enter the Royal Box at the theatre, how can you tell for certain which one of them is the Queen, the Empress, the Tzarina? Before they sit down, every woman checks her chair, places a hand on it; the Queen, however, sits down without a backward glance. A humorous saying suitable enough for the education of dim-witted girls, perhaps, and yet! The proud misanthropist, the quasi-nihilist Onegin owes much to that long-forgotten lesson. Love, hope, God even and meaning so sought after for so long, the meaning of life: are these not just so many chairs on which we hope to seat ourselves and enjoy a little rest, support or protection? But if we mistrust these chairs, we cannot sit down on them, and we remain standing, lost and ridiculous, like some one who remains on his feet during the liturgy, at a concert or even at a dinner party, when every one else is seated. The difficulty stems precisely from the fact that, in order to sit on these chairs, like kings, like queens, we must believe in them: we must be intimately persuaded that the chair is there, behind us, because we want it to be there. Even when there is no chair, it is enough to let oneself sink back with the desire of finding a chair there for the chair to exist: thus do queens, thus do kings.

Onegin lacked either flexibility or faith. Whatever the case, all was clarified, light was shed on the irony of his fateful destiny when, years later the Petersburg loner came by chance to wander through the palace of a Muscovite prince where he saw Tatiana again: sitting at the centre of the noble drawing room, sitting there with as much simplicity as majesty, with as much calm as indifference. Humiliated in his turn, mortified, conquered for ever by the girl who was once in love with him, whose spontaneous outpourings he scorned, Onegin exclaimed:
«Царицей кажется она !» «Tsaritsei kajetsia ona!» «She looks like a queen!»     

She believed she was a victim,
He was pleased to act as executioner;
She was seated like a queen,
Whilst he remained standing
Like an idiot.    

Nicolas Cavaillès

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