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critical reflections translations language games

Further excerpts from poet Alain Borne’s essay,
Postman Cheval And His Ideal Palace

September 20, 2021


This is my translation of several more excerpts from an essay written by the poet Alain Borne on the postman Ferdinand Cheval’s Ideal Palace, describing, imagining, analyzing that uncanny monument and its equally mysterious creator.

Borne’s essay, written in the first half of the twentieth century, was re-published this year in the form of a book, together with the writings of Cheval and numerous photographs of the Ideal Palace as well as of Cheval and Borne themselves. The translated title of the book is The Postman Cheval And His Ideal Palace (Le Facteur Cheval et son Palais Idéal).

The book is a chiaroscuro of voices, Cheval’s voice, expressed in his writings and Palace inscriptions, intertwining with the myriad voices through which Borne expresses his fascination for the monument—those of poet; artist and creator; moved, overwhelmed, troubled viewer of the Palace; analyst in anthropological, historical, literary critical, art historical, psychoanalytic and other veins. To translate Borne’s own words:

“A sublime Mr. Jourdain, Ferdinand Cheval was an artist without knowing what art was.” (p. 49)

My thanks to the representative of the city of Montélimar, holder of the copyright of Alain Borne’s writings, for permission to publish this translation on my blog.

Details of the book Borne, Alain. Le Facteur Cheval et son Palais Idéal. Strasbourg: Éditions L’Atelier contemporain. 2021, 160 pages, 32 reproductions.

On Alain Borne

Alain Borne was born in 1915 and lived all his life in Drôme, the department in southeastern France that also contains the town of Hauterives where Cheval’s Ideal Palace is located. Borne worked as a lawyer and wrote copiously in his spare time. During the Second World War, he participated in a network of literary resistance. Very close to his mother, he sank into alcoholism and depression upon her death, and died himself not long after, in 1962, in a car accident, aged 47.

The translation, excerpted from pages 25-34
(See also my translation of pages 34-47 posted previously.)

The postman Cheval died over thirty years ago and we have few documents written by him—only a short autobiography written in two versions1.

As for witnesses to his days of labor, there are not very many more of them, and those who remain are of an advanced age, so that we do not possess any details about his life.

Ferdinand Cheval was born in 1836 at Charmes near Hauterives in the northern Drôme, bordering the department of Isère, a country that, reaching to the Alps, already presents green hillsides, verdant and wooded, forming a landscape that, though without much originality or character, is nevertheless pleasant and harmonious.

We know that he married quite young and had children. His education was definitely not as rudimentary as we would like to believe, given our taste for paradox. We may assume that he received a basic education. Cheval was far from illiterate. He knew how to write. Though writing may have been laborious for him, his style is not that of a completely unlettered man. At a time when education was still far from widespread, Ferdinand Cheval belonged to that small rural elite from amongst whom were recruited low-ranking public servants.

He possessed a certain openness of mind.

It is believed that Cheval served in North Africa. Such a journey, the longest and among the few he made in his lifetime, would have enabled him to see specimens of architecture very different from those that he encountered in his native Drôme.

Such a journey, however, would not suffice to explain the knowledge that Cheval seems to have possessed of exotic monuments of different periods.

Going by his two autobiographies, the inscriptions on his monument, his monument itself, it would seem that Cheval’s was turn of mind particular to his time: it was a turn of mind characteristic of the Second Republic one might say. The cult of man motivated Cheval, of man and his works. It was a systematic cult, little reasoned, that led him to admit history in its entirety, the earth in its totality, a cult as well of God in his diverse creations—animal, vegetal, mineral. Cheval demonstrates an unsophisticated but fairly vast knowledge in the fields of history, geography, zoology, botany.

He seems to have been possessed by the zeal of the neophyte and one would be surprised if he had received this education from anything besides very simple, popular writings aimed at a general readership.

He believed in science, in great men, in effort, and in the invincibility of effort.

He read and remembered what he had read. We know that he could draw: he drew several plans of his monument, and the shapes of his plants, his animals, his arabesques remain quite adequate.

In short, it would seem that Cheval, before his adventure, had acquired a knowledge of the world that, mediocre though it may have been, clearly exceeded a mere knowledge of his milieu. Open to a certain order of disinterested inquiry, Cheval, in other times, would probably have been better able to satisfy his taste—which remained rather naïve—for knowledge of the world. But then would he ever have built his monument?

This simple man, a good husband, a good father, a good public servant, for years upon years delivers mail in several villages, walking thirty kilometers daily.

He pursues his métier: the same places every day, similar or changing with the shifting seasons, and with the beating of his heart. And all the while, the landscape is whittled away even as it resolves itself: habit effaces yet engraves it.

A rural postman, no different than thousands of others, a little more cultivated than some perhaps, a little more curious, a little dreamier—nothing would seem to single him out for an exemplary adventure.

Nothing happens to him, except that he dreams.

He writes it himself:

“What can one do when walking perpetually through the same landscape, except dream? … I dreamt.”

Even knowing that he dreamt each night of the same bizarre monument, that he liked to imagine it in his waking state so as to charm the monotony of the path he was obliged to take, does not prepare us to consider Cheval as an exceptional being.

Do we not, each of us, possess a story that we tell ourselves interminably, an image that we choose, an escape towards the interior, quite poor but which helps us live, a bland, clichéd music that makes us immortal for a few moments, hiding the unfolding of days and making us forget death?

Some have in their eyes the image of a woman, the luster of a bloodline, the shadow of their sex, but each of us, under our skulls and eyelids, has a dream, a hope, an illusion, a desire, greater than the life lived each day, and which justifies the stubborn beating of a heart destined for nothing.

Sometimes an individual rises from his shared slumber, bringing into broad daylight the rattle of his desire, shaking it, and becoming aware, letting himself be led by the deep cry of his being, the moan of his revolt.

Almost all people are silent about their pain—so great is the inertia—pretending that no frisson runs through them, no illusion, no call that quickens the beating of their hearts that, having animated them so feebly, just as surely extinguishes them.

We do not willingly separate our entrails and our lungs from the soul which nobody forgoes but which makes us ashamed of our baseness.

Yet certain very evolved people, refined ones so few in number one can count them only too rapidly, proclaim their desire, their illusion, the fantasy that moves them, in books, on canvases, in the lightening gestures that lead to love or murder.

The consciousness that accepts, that leans towards its mirrored self unflinchingly, is as rare as courage. And if the understanding of the fundamental triviality of man—and therefore of oneself—is rare, the proclamation of that triviality, by indicating the remedy by which one amuses or benumbs oneself, is rarer still.

This is a lot to have written merely to indicate the originality of this obscure postman who harbored for so long a chimera of a type and on a scale that are, all in all, fairly common. His was an originality that consisted in his having one day (or night) chosen his favorite image, his hobbyhorse, in having seen it intensely. And suddenly, breaching the banal course of his existence, he decided to get closer to it no matter what the effort and difficulty, to make it his own in truth and in reality.

“To distract my thoughts,” he writes, “I constructed in my dreams a fairy palace … with caves, towers, gardens, castles, museums and sculptures.”

And further on:

“As my dream sank slowly into the fog of oblivion, an incident revived it suddenly: my foot hit a stone that almost made me fall.”

The shape of this stone seduces him by its strangeness.

“Since nature furnishes the sculpture, I shall be the architect and mason.”

Involuntarily, naively, Ferdinand Cheval joins the privileged cohort of artists, of singers of the self, of heralds of men.

With slow, with insistent movements, Cheval defines what will be his oeuvre.

First, he accumulates in his yard the stones that he chooses and collects during his rounds or that he fetches expressly for the purpose, marking on the ground the dimensions of the edifice, of which he also traces plans on paper, based on the image that possesses him.

Alas, nothing remains of these plans he made of the “great carriage,” testament to the intermediate phase between the dream and the realization of the dream, testament to the time when the butterfly was in the chrysalis.

He saw a castle, he carried with him a castle. This dream held for him a deep significance, the series of monuments that would realize the dream for him, he would not be abstemious with them, he would not let them be blunted.

Where an artist who was aware would have made a sketch, a painting, a model in miniature, he made a ’life-size’ oeuvre where a man may wander at ease and accomplish any number of acts, all except those of daily life: one can, within the monument, neither eat nor sleep, the final rest apart perhaps.

Cheval dreamt, as others have done, of a castle. But he, he creates it, and not merely to see it close up, but to wander within it, to pace back and forth, perhaps to receive therein other dreams, but also people who pass by: the dream must cease, it must be a true reality, more than plausible, certain, painstakingly finished, apprehensible in three dimensions, occupying space, reassuring.

It was not Cheval’s wish to achieve a work of art. And, besides, taken as a whole, the “ideal palace” is not a work of art. It is a proliferation of unruly exercises and of things realized, of harmonious sets and disparate elements.

One may think that it was above all to attain peace that Cheval realized his work, and to exorcize himself of a dream, even though other motives may have pushed and encouraged him in the course of a superhuman effort, notably pride and the will to power.

In short, at the age of 43 years, a rural postman decides to erect for himself, with the help of chosen stones and cement, a Palace of which he has dreamed for over 10 years, through night and day. Alone and unaided, he accumulates the thousands of tons of materials that will be necessary, not letting himself be put off by any difficulty, by any obstacle, HE DEVOTES ALL THE LEISURE TIME OF THIRTY-THREE YEARS OF HIS LIFE TO THE CONSTRUCTION OF AN EDIFICE 14 METERS HIGH, 12 METERS WIDE, 25 METERS LONG, composed not only of walls that are fairly thick, but also of architectural and sculptural motifs representing monuments, plants, animals, summarizing the history of the world, accomplishing a disparate but powerful work. Having completed this monument of carefully chosen materials, Cheval enjoys peacefully the astonishment of his contemporaries during the several years left to him of life, further constructing a funeral chapel of an unrestrained exuberance, just in time to fall asleep within a shelter created by his own conscious and willing hands.

  1. Translator’s note: Ferdinand Cheval died in 1924. Borne wrote this essay in the first half of the twentieth century. ↩︎