The Porthos Paralysis Paradox

My questions answered, sort of.

I don’t know why I didn’t think of checking Project Gutenberg when I first discovered the strange disconnect between two accounts of the death of Porthos in Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask. Doing so, finally, has been illuminating — but questions remain.

If your brain is working better than mine, you may recall that I’d been baffled by the scene in VIVRE SA VIE in which philosopher Brice Parain, meeting Anna Karina in a cafe, recounts this key scene in precise but seemingly inaccurate detail. He claimed that Porthos was trapped in a collapsing cellar after failing to make a swift retreat from a bomb he’d set off — the slow-witted giant started thinking too late in life, and became seized by Zeno’s Paradox on the impossibility of movement. It rang false to me, even though I couldn’t recall from my own reading of the book, decades ago, exactly how Porthos perished. Some casual digging turned up a British Medical Journal piece stating that Porthos died, not from a bomb and a cave-in, but from vertebrobasilar insufficiency. I’m not sure what that is but you don’t need dynamite to achieve it.

Oddly enough, the two accounts and the text itself square up remarkably well. The BMJ piece has omitted all the details about HOW Porthos meets his fate. He is indeed involved in an explosion and a roof collapse. The scene is a cave, not a cellar, but Parain has otherwise described it fairly accurately:

“Oh! oh!” murmured he, “there is my weakness seizing me again! I can walk no further! What is this?”

Aramis perceived him through the opening, and unable to conceive what could induce him to stop thus—“Come on, Porthos! come on,” he cried; “come quickly!”

“Oh!” replied the giant, making an effort that contorted every muscle of his body—“oh! but I cannot.” While saying these words, he fell upon his knees, but with his mighty hands he clung to the rocks, and raised himself up again.

But what the BMJ interprets as a physical collapse — which is clearly what Dumas intended — Parain has parsed as some kind of intellectual brainstorm — the line “I can walk no further” is extrapolated out into this Zeno’s paradox routine — in order to take two steps, you must first take one, and before that a half-step, before that a quarter. Ultimately, the number of components of the two steps is infinite, and one cannot complete an infinite sequence. “I can walk no further,” indeed!

I don’t think Parain is misreading or misremembering Dumas by mistake, it has to be a deliberate distortion. I sensed when he made the ridiculous statement that Porthos manages to hold up the collapsing ceiling for several days before he expires, that he was slightly spoofing the heroic (or, often, anti-heroic) yarn. To what extent Godard has colluded with him in his radical reinterpretation of a popular classic is uncertain, though. I would imagine JLG would be more able than I to spot the distortions, and he had probably read the book more recently than I. Still, he allows Parain to misidentify the title as Twenty Years After.

Dumas gives Porthos some moving last words. As Porthos is struck down by his weakness and then crushed beneath the rubble, Aramis desperately urges him to hurry out of the collapsing cavern, and Porthos replies

with a voice growing evidently weaker, “patience! patience!”

9 Responses to “The Porthos Paralysis Paradox”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    So many decades have passed since I saw the last part of the Dumas Trilogy on BBC TV where Roger Livesey played Porthos. I remember him collapsing in a cave but am vague as to whether the dynamite caused the explosion. To conclude with a sentence admiring your investigative reflecting the physical build of both Porthos and Livesey at the time – “Stout Fellow”!

  2. I’m not as stout as I was, thankfully. Still working on translating “almost trim” into “almost healthy” though.

  3. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Pauline Kael addresses this gag, I think, though it’s a very different Godard film. The philosopher in Breathless “teases” another young beauty with “a pseudo-profundity”. I ain’t read Kael in 20 years so don’t trust my memory.

  4. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    A recycled joke or perhaps a bit of nerdy businesses?

  5. Godard likes his bold statements, or “windbites” as somebody called them. He did have a gift for the epigram himself, and some of them are even meaningful.

  6. daniel riccuito Says:

    Good point. I also flash to JLG’s “You’re assholes!” as the opposite mode from these kinds of “windbites” — maybe he’s parodying a kind of inexcusable philosophizing as a substitute for action. He was a champion of Palestine.

  7. You couldn’t use dynamite to try to free the man in the iron mask anyway. It wasn’t invented till 1867.

  8. Probably I should have said gunpowder…

  9. daniel riccuito Says:

    I’m struck by how good Godard’s films look. Why does the cinematography in Martin Scorsese’s “recent” output look so shitty? The last 20 years or so: ugh, blech, yeesh! From the lighting choices to the actual clarity of the image, it’s been looking like amateur hour for a very long time.

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