Michel Serres, ‘Metamorphosis’, pp.3-31, in:
Serres, M., Burks, R., 2011. Variations on the body. Univocal Publishing, Minneapolis.


Anxiety, of course, occurs before the climb, just as fear returns after; but during it, the body progresses, on the rock face, as though it were protected. But, leaving aside guides, pitons, ropes and partners, by what, by whom?

Stretch out your arms and legs: your twenty fingers and toes attain in space a large rectangular frame or a circle – your starfish, octopus or gibbon’s maximal hold on the world. Your active force and sensibility radiate at the extreme points of this figure.


During his regression to this pre-human state, the climber is, therefore, sheltered in an archaic, invisible, elastic, obliging uterus, whose variable paving stone contains and protects his entire body which is, then, slumbering inside the prehensions and supports that stay awake for it – just like his head, that stupid animal, which is, then, sleeping: I know how things are with not thinking.


[when we fall, in disequilibrium, we have to think]

The very first cogito was a plan for a refuge to recover the lost ball. This is why we seek a roof; this is why we inhabit. The human, standing, has just been born.


I don’t seek myself as subject, stupid project; only things and others are found.


Among these, a little less thing and much less other, is my body. Clever, hypocritical and lying, the speech that explores who I am – full of vanity when it fidgets within the hidden recesses of a warm and lazy interior – again becomes instructive and fair (I insist upon once again taking up this adjective) as soon as the body exposes itself to cold, danger and death, in the most intense of osseous, muscular, perceptual, metabolic, respiratory, sanguineous, total activities: neither the body nor speech, then, can dream, strut, cheat or lie. Let’s go.


Thus writing resembles mountain climbing more than level plowing. The page tilts upward, inspired, less flat than the field, soon vertical and exciting. Lying on the table, the page in the past resembled a flat, open area; but, now, the computer’s smooth screen forms a rock face: what holds are there to grab onto?


Then yes, the entire body gathers itself, from the feet to the cranium: head and belly, muscles and genitalia, back and thighs, sweat and presence of mind, emotion, attention and valor, persevering slowness, the five senses assembled by that of movement, but suddenly, lightning speed, inspiration and concentration, demand for silence… the true subject of writing clings to the page-wall, climbs the screen, engages with them as a hand-to-hand wrestler – fair, respectful, familiar, enchanted, amorous… – but in such a way that if by chance he let go of a hold or didn’t see it, he would fly, a disarticulated jumping jack, to the bottom of beauty.

Because writing is no more forgiving than the mountain, most walkers-writers have themselves preceded by guides and surrounded by ropes: citations-belays, notes-mountain huts, references- pitons. The sham craft consists in the multiplication of proper names; the genuine writer’s craft demands a solitary engagement from the entire body and its sole singularity.

Gymnastic exercise, a rather austere diet, life in the open air, a thousand practices of strength and flexibility, on the whole, alpine climbs, for writing, are as good as ten libraries. Specific, distinctive, original, the whole body invents; the head likes to repeat. Head, stupid; body, brilliant.


Study, learn, certainly – something of it will always stay with you – but, above all, train the body and have confidence in it, for it remembers everything without weight or overloading. Our divine flesh alone distinguishes us from machines; human intelligence can be distinguished from artificial intelligence by the body, alone.


Ecstasy presupposes equilibrium and, far from destroying it, surpasses it, imparting the real as such, live and direct, refusing substitutes. Jubilant exultation does not emerge from melancholy, but from immediate contact with the rock. In general, creation does not arise from torpor, nor from narcosis, but from training, and it is rewarded with supergrowth.


The climb, therefore, begins at the summit. A special torture, careful down-climbing requires that retention be played off against gravity and that one boldly rush toward the attractor void, but through mastering its law, reversing therefore the work of the muscles, putting the back in place of the front, the knees in their popliteal crease, sending the eyes beneath the toes, making the entire body go cross-eyed in chiasma – the front, the back; the top, the bottom; the left, the right – opening out or unrolling lastly, unfolding strength instead of drawing it toward oneself, in extension rather than traction. Thus, we didn’t know and so learn on the descent ridge unfurling in front of us like a banner luffing in the wind that, sunk even deeper than the quadrumane into the depths of evolution, we’re still univalve mollusks: periwinkle, limpet or barnacle attached to the rock, whelk, cowrie….


The body lies down and sleeps in this shell in which it leans back; the anterior organs inhabit like a house the posterior valve, a shell that’s solid like the inert and dark to perception, a quasi natural niche that moves, pivots or leans a little, depending on the person, to the right or to the left, so that we repose in the favorite side of the back whose strength, like a foundation, supports, from shoulder to trousers, the conquests and enterprises of the front, so feeble, puny, delicate and tender that without this invincible backing, it would never permit itself such audacities.

During the attempt on the wall, rock and back then form two solid shells – one belonging to us, the other the world – inside of which the soft, hypocritical and intelligent inhabitant of the shadows always takes shelter; does the periwinkle turn into a clam, cockle, oyster, scallop or maxima clam?


By standing up, the fragile is exposed. Does our evolution and, perhaps, that of the whole of life consist of this fearful, timid and reckless boldness: going outside toward the world of things, not remaining at rest, at home; moving out? Being born: exposing the fragile to the harsh, the warm to the icy, the soft to the hard and the tender to violence; this is what it means to know.

Thus I sometimes dream that, unlike our brother animals, delivered over – fangs, claws and beaks – to Darwinian laws, mankind has protected the weak instead of killing them, since, standing, it was itself exposing its weaknesses, especially its pregnant female.


Our sexuality is different from that of animals and our ancestors, separated from us by that reversal which began with our upright posture.


The postural reversal is also pertinent for gait and bearing; as a runner or nimble walker, I inhabit the muscles of my thighs and the tendons of my ankles – the vibrating cables and strong columns of my port as well as my transport – just as much as I used to reside, a powerful athlete, in the shell and roof of my dorsal parts.


The descent gives us a body seized by letting go, whereas the climb up gives free rein to the common centripetal passions, such as: clinging to handholds, acquiring, drawing by means of nerves and muscles an object toward oneself and oneself toward an objective, arriving or desiring. Seizing, devouring, consuming.

Down-climbing leaves behind. Gesture, then, becomes generous. Starting from clenched hands, the arms open out […]

Trust those who let go – the wisest among us – trust those who descend, who leave behind, who can but don’t, trust the detached, trust those who give way, trust the poor and those who live apart.


Those who ascend, on the contrary, and who stretch out toward the desired seizure neither do, nor think about anything other than what favors their appetite. Culture, civilization, wisdom, beauty, even thought begins with letting go, with the arm gesture that relaxes, centrifugal. Active, enthusiastic, courageous, dynamic, willful – begin nevertheless by desiring strongly.

Those who ascend, on the contrary, and who stretch out toward the desired seizure neither do, nor think about anything other than what favors their appetite. Culture, civilization, wisdom, beauty, even thought begins with letting go, with the arm gesture that relaxes, centrifugal. Active, enthusiastic, courageous, dynamic, willful – begin nevertheless by desiring strongly.


On the rare occasions when they emerge from their automobile shells, our contemporaries walk over leveled ground, so that their head remains in the clouds, I mean to say outside their legs, while these latter pedal along automatically. Technology has removed so many obstacles to their strolling for so long, even tenuous ones, that Marcel Proust was given raptures of memory the moment the paving stones became uneven, forgetting that the highway department had recently smoothed them.


The step sets up, in effect, a cycle that, if maintained in proper condition, links sight to the sole of the foot’s sense of touch, then quickly sends the latter back to the former, which, after monitoring and anticipation, returns it with more pace; the eye caresses the rock before the gait touches it and confirms, in response, the unencumberedness of the gaze – so that the pupil almost touches and the arch of the foot practically sees.

Far from being an immutable segment of straight line combing and raking space, as hedge posts would, the gait inhabits the elastic and mobile continuously resumed ellipse of a water magnifying glass. Second reversal: sight touches and touch sees. Break the cycle even for a moment, you fall. Sight walks or life ceases. He who doesn’t know how to walk puts one foot in front of the other; he who does puts an eye in front of each shoe.


At the same time as learning to walk over steep, difficult, capricious grounds, you must learn to find your seat there; then and then only, when all the the skin of the foot sends the entire body a hundred delectable messages of velvet, wool and silken comfort, do you learn how one becomes hominin, banishing from yourself the univalve, the quadruped and the ape – an erect animal, a risen child, an adult person expelling everything that remains infantile. Leaving childhood and the animal, what joy at last: the body gets its kicks.


Sketched out towards the end of The Five Senses, the classification of the basic forms of sensual pleasure – breathing, waking, jumping, walking, running, carrying… – was deficient, since it didn’t take into account standing balance.

Not stable, but unstable, better still, metastable, invariant through variations, this equilibrium is constructed like a refuge or a habitat, composed like a musical score, over fragile epicycles or minuscule rapid ellipses, planed cams, minor stumblings recovered from, differentials of angles or of deviations quickly returned to the peace of the smooth and even, a sloped roof but, in all, flat… […]


The nerve endings that complete the brain’s hold over the organism, I know them to be so entangled that if, the cranial bones being open, I should gently remove the soft, gray and white mass of the brain from its abode, my entire body, knotted, attached, drawn, petit points by petit points, by thick shocks of hair, inextricable and complete, would turn inside out, like the fingers of a glove, to display, on the reverse side of the epidermis, that dense, innumerable, complex, admirable network that I intensely feel allows me to think out to the minuscule extremities of the sensible.


Our places of life, small, cast and mix their admirable networks, so complex and fringed down to the subliminal that they pose algorithmically intractable problems, mix them, as I was saying, with the admirable networks, inert or living, which, here and there, are distributed throughout the Universe – flamboyant mountain, fractal littoral, flows of winds and waters, groupings of turbulence, trees with their foliage.


Here is the beginning of a description, reasonable and felt, of sensation, by places and folds, proximities, penetrations and mixtures.

That intelligence may be artificially reconstructed, certainly, I don’t see anything particularly astonishing in that, but flesh, the sensible, the body?