The poem Le Gouffre, by Charles Baudelaire, mentions Pascal (some more on that after the poem), so as a mathematician, it caught my eye. And I love the line:

Je ne vois qu'infini par toutes les fenêtres.

Looking for a good English translation, I googled what I thought was the obvious translation of this line into iambic pentameter:

I see infinity through every window,

I found a few unrhymed translations with lines close to this one, but I wasn't satisfied with any of the rhymed translations. There's a rather well-known and quite satisfactory translation of this line in Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves:

Through all the windows I only see infinity,

but he neglected to translate the rest of the poem to go with it.

So I decided to translate the sonnet myself, and include the above translation of that line. I came up with what I think is a fairly faithful rendition (although purists might object to the slant rhymes and the unusual rhyme scheme).

                           The Abyss

                    Charles Baudelaire

Pascal had his abyss, that moved with him.
All is abyss—action, desire, dream,
words! And I often feel against my skin,
making me shiver, the cold wind of Fear.

All around me—the brink, the depths, the space;
I'm spellbound, petrified, held fast in place.
And on my midnights, God's skilled fingers trace
an ever-changing and unceasing nightmare.

I fear my dreams, as I would fear big holes
filled with vague horror, leading who knows where.
I see infinity through every window.
My mind, always oppressed by vertigo,
yearns to become as numb as empty air.
Ah! Never stray from Numbers and from Souls!


Why is Pascal connected with the abyss? There is an apocryphal story that after a carriage accident left him dangling over a river, Pascal sensed an abyss on his left side everywhere that he went. There seems to be no conteporary record of this, so it probably never happened. On the other hand, Pascal died of a cancer which had spread to his brain, and constantly sensing an imaginary abyss on your left seems to me like a symptom compatible with brain damage. So it's vaguely possible that the story is in part true.

There are two more tangential connections of Pascal to the abyss or to vacuum. First, he was the one who proposed the experiment of taking a mercury barometer to the top of a mountain to show that the air pressure was lower there (thus establishing that the atmosphere was finite, and surrounded by vacuum). He was unfortunately not in good enough health to climb the mountain himself, so he got his brother-in-law to do the experiment for him.

Second, in his Pensées, he wrote, about men's eternal inability to find satisfaction in their lives:
... What is it then that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remains to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.1
which quote the Internet, with its usual impeccable accuracy, has mutated into “there is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man.” I don't know whether Baudelaire was thinking of this quote when he wrote the poem. It seems possible.



1 Qu'est-ce donc que nous crie cette avidité et cette impuissance, sinon qu'il y a eu autrefois dans l'homme un véritable bonheur, dont il ne lui reste maintenant que la marque et la trace toute vide, et qu'il essaye inutilement de remplir de tout ce qui l'environne, recherchant des choses absentes le secours qu'il n'obtient pas des présentes, mais qui en sont toutes incapables, parce que ce gouffre infini ne peut être rempli que par un objet infini et immuable, c'est à dire que par Dieu même?