Here is the story as it was told to me:
A young writer (drunk) was talking to an older writer (also drunk). The older man was very old, in his nineties, so that his skin was parchment-like, nearly translucent; he wore a tweed jacket and a grey fedora with a bluebird’s feather in the band of the hat. Two men, sitting, getting drunk around the kitchen table and talking, late at night. This took place in the country, in the deep South — so you are free to imagine an old house with faded gables, with the house windows the only spot of light for miles and miles. I like to imagine a lake near the house, the waters black and invisible, moonlight on the water, maybe a movement in the trees that might be deer or might just end up being the wind. …But you can imagine whatever you want. Anyway; night, late, the deep South. The two men talking. A lovely scene.
And at one point, while sipping his whiskey, the young man says to the older man, he says this: “Is there any hope?”
Just simple, like that. The young man is very young, as the old man is very old. The young man hopes to be a great writer one day; the old man is already a great writer, famous, acclaimed, but so old that he is nearing senility or is already there. The young man hopes that the old man’s wisdom will make him into a great writer; he has great faith in the older man, and so that is why, while drunk, he asks the most basic, the most important question of all.
“Is there any hope?”
There is a pause in the room.
Then the older man clears his throat to speak. He answers very solemnly, and he says this: “In the hallways of Versailles, there hung a faint, ever-so-faint smell of human excrement, because as the chambermaids hurried along a tiny bit would always splash from the pots.”
That is the entire story as it was told to me. I do not know what it means.
But I think about this story all the time. Randomly, while I’m walking, or browsing in a store, this story comes to me. And I try to figure it out.
Doubtless the younger writer in the story was confused too. “Human excrement”? What? What does that have to do with anything? What does that have to do with hope? He, the younger writer, was doubtless confused, as we are confused. But we cannot now ask the older writer for an explanation, for he is dead — dead many years now.
Is there hope? What does the story mean?
As it turns out, the older writer told the story wrong. He told it askew — intentionally or unintentionally. Like me, the younger writer continued to think about this story. Here is what he said about it, about the thing about Versailles:
“…Many years later, I realized that he was half-remembering a detail from the court of Louis XV, namely that the latrines were so few and so poorly placed at the palace, the marquesses used to steal away and relieve themselves on stairwells and behind the beautiful furniture, but that night I had no idea what he meant, and still don’t entirely.”
He still doesn’t know what it means. And maybe the whole story means nothing. A drunken conversation. A potentially senile old man.
Let’s start with some facts: Louis XV ruled France for sixty years. He was an absolute monarch; he had total power and control. …And his palace was the palace of Versailles. As the King of France, Louis was God’s anointed son — more or less. He was God’s chosen representative on earth. Rulers ruled by divine right, by divine fiat. Deus vult — God wills it. God wills this and God wills that. God willed that Louis XV should become King. This was the belief. The absolute monarchy. The Ancien Régime.
…Versailles was Louis’s palace and therefore had to be perfect, as befitting God’s anointed son. Versailles still exists today, of course, and tourists still visit it today, of course, in order to marvel at its beauty.
There were three hundred and fifty rooms per floor in the château of Versailles. 2,300 rooms in total; 2, 153 windows; 67 staircases; 6,123 paintings; 2,102 sculptures. The palace was designed in a heliocentric pattern, so that everything radiated from a central axis, the spreading wings of the palace like the spreading rays of the sun, centering on the King’s room, the Salon d’Apollon — the throne room of Apollo, god of the sun. There was an artificial lake, with a statue of Neptune overseeing the lake; lazily surveying it. All the furniture was made of solid silver. Even the chamber pots were made of silver. The balustrades — the parapets and handrails on the staircases — were made of silver, and the balustrades weighed more than a ton. One ton of solid silver. There was an orangery where you could pick oranges and limes from the greenhouse-glassed trees. There was a theater and an opera house. There was a Galerie des Glaces — a hall of mirrors — an endless procession of mirrored arches, with golden statues of women hoisting candelabra; the endlessness of the mirrors reflecting and refracting the endlessness of the palace itself.
But in the midst of all this fabulousness, there weren’t any toilets. There were no toilets in the palace of Versailles. No indoor plumbing.
There were a few of those silver chamber pots, but not enough of them. And use of them was restricted. The rules of the château forbade using the chamber pots to toss human waste out of the palace windows. But people still did it all the time. In the midst of this gilded place, people were illicitly throwing piss and shit out of the windows. Because they had to. They had to piss and shit.
This is the story that the old man told. Now; what does it have to do with hope?
Eventually the palace of Versailles fell in the French Revolution. The silver furniture was melted down and sold. But while the King lived in the palace, it was supposed to be heaven on earth. The King was God’s representative on earth; his home was designed to be a literal representation of heaven in the world, heaven on solid ground.
But in this heaven, there were no toilets. And so people threw shit and piss out the windows. They peed on the silver and gold stairwells. They peed behind the silver furniture.
What does this mean? Maybe it means that there is no hope. That we’ll all fall short of heaven. We’ll literally crap all over heaven, ruin it. We’ll strive for perfection, but we’ll fail — endlessly fail. That would be a sad story of our lives.
But… Dostoevsky said something interesting, in his book Notes from Underground. He once said that if people lived in a beautiful Crystal Palace, they would have to smash it just for kicks. He meant this as a good thing. In his book, he was speaking of the city of St. Petersburg — the first fully planned city in the world, just as Versailles was a fully planned palace.
If people lived in a crystal palace, they’d smash it just for kicks. Think of the real heaven and of Satan’s rebellion. Satan was an angel; the highest angel; God’s bro, his right-hand man. And even in heaven, this angel simply couldn’t take it for one second longer, and rebelled. “My sentence is for open war,” he said, and rebelled, and failed, and was ejected, and fell from the crystal battlements of heaven, heading into endless nothingness, inky black and doom. There wasn’t a reason for his rebellion or he just rebelled out of boredom, the same as having no reason, but either way, he just couldn’t take it for one second longer.
And so… things will go awry. Nothing rules over us. God, the idea of heaven, these things do not rule over us. In the most intricately planned palace in the world, in the perfect place on earth, things still went wrong. There was a story once about the employees of Disney World having to shoot vultures, because vultures were congregating around Disney World. So they shot them, secretly, under the cover of night, because this could not be — vultures and Disney World could not coexist in the same sphere. But the story got out anyway, and the existence of the story proves how things go wrong, even though we plan heaven in hell’s despite.
Things will go wrong. The palace will crumble. Vultures will congregate. And in your life too. You’ll drop out of college. You’ll get fired from that job. Your lover will leave you, and someone dear to you will get sick, and the bus will pull away forever, leaving you in a trail of tears. Life cannot be planned: the future is a rut-filled road winding through a wandering countryside — and who knows where it goes? — and this may be reason for hope. Things will go awry, and as things go awry, we will blossom, and change. Is this what the old man meant? We’ll shoot for the stars — and hit the roof; this is reason for hope, not despair. Life is unexpected. Everything is flux. Nothing abides.
Maybe that’s the intended moral. Is there hope? Maybe. Or maybe not. At any rate, now I can get rid of the story, clear it from my head the way that you can clear an annoying song from your head; the way you can clear out Michael Jackson by listening to Guns n’ Roses. Now I can think of something different while I am walking to the store. The real truth is that I told you this story to make it go away. That’s why you tell stories, right or wrong: to make them go away. That’s probably why the old man told the story in the first place. …Today I typed up this white paper lie for you so that I could empty my head, which is no crystal palace, but a confluence of things overheard and misunderstood. The end. Finis.