April 23, 2010
A Minor Functionary
In the beginning, the process of supplication at our imperial court required that the supplicant journey from his home to the capital and abase himself in the presence of the emperor. Given the great size of our empire, this proved impossible: the time and expense of the journey were unbearable for many of our subjects. So one of our ministers devised a solution. Supplicants would commit their problems to a parchment scroll; these would be collected at regular intervals and read in the presence of the emperor, who would grant or refuse the various petitions they made.
But a courtier observed one day how grievous, nearly treasonous, an insult this was to the person of the emperor, that he should have to hear the entirety of a subject’s complaint—a practice that, the courtier had always felt, presumed too much upon his tender nature. So another solution was devised. From each written scroll, an official would select a single word, the word that justified and perfectly demonstrated the nature of the complaint; and that this word alone would be enunciated in the presence of the emperor, who would then pronounce his judgment.
The election of this word is my master’s job; he chooses with utmost justice the central word from each scroll: iron, beneath, harvest, encyclopedic, thus. Then I copy it, blot it with sand from one of the barrels filling our pavilion in unending ranks, and deliver the newly-inked scrap to a lower minister of the court, who reads it in the presence of the emperor (or so we are told.)
As you can imagine, this is difficult work. And soon, it seems, a new doctrine will be promulgated. Murmurs of dissent and ill-will within the court are already afoot; even the single word has been deemed insulting and excessive. Soon my master will be permitted to retain only a single letter from each scroll of supplication, in order to cover our emperor with the fullness of earthly glory that he deserves.
Certain anthropological thinkers make much of this fact: mankind remains the only animal to bury its dead. It is difficult, however, on closer examination to see why this should make us remarkable. Burial displays like no other work of human ritual that mixture of brutality and sentiment characterizing our most profound moments. It is almost as absurd as the phrase I love you which—if true—need never be spoken.
Like other impassioned students in my country I received an education largely political, at the expense of talent and character. (You taught me language, and my profit on’t, etc.) I did not want to judge. Shivering pity, tears, seized me as a boy for immobile mountains, for the days themselves, such prisoners. First stirrings of a simple awe, scornful and frightening. Even the wind-stripped branches of a black tree. What is conquers, stupidly, what is not. The great question, faith, irrelevant. Ethics, irrelevant. The same goes for virtue and reason. In this spirit, clearness of pines, consciousness, a gentle footbridge. Near the year’s beginning, a long year, in a city I abandoned. Above which, on the dome of the Capitol, Justice stood in her heavy robes. Regarding aesthetic philosophy, the natural vocation of our educated middle classes—on that subject let this much suffice. And off in the distance, the spring sky was touching the spring earth in mildness and darkness.
The Political Problem In Nuce
Among this people, we can find numerous traces of the lands they have wandered through, not just in the occasional strikingly alien feature, but in their multiplicity of words for common things, like sun and wind. (The idea of silence is designated among them by—at last count—more than twenty words.) And their customs, too, bear the stamp of wanderings: why else the casting of bread on the surface of wells and rivers, why else the crowns of feathers donned—with grave murmurings of prayers bound to no common rhythm—at the year’s turn?
It is difficult to have sympathy for the goddess Athena. For one thing, she is beautiful, which earns her, as it does every beautiful woman, hatred in various coinages. For another, she is just. Unlike Apollo, who flayed the satyr Marsyas merely for an excellence in music approaching but not exceeding his own, Athena punished Arachne for vicious slanders directed against her family. But bear these two points in mind: her birth was prodigious and violent (compare it to the dazzling arrival of Aphrodite, or the leafy childhood of Hermes) and she alone of all the Olympians—and even the Titans before them—has no mother.
Over the last hundred years, millions of fully necessary murders brought—at long last—our daily misery to an end, blessed by worldwide accord. Only a few objected, and they were easy to discount. Now, joy never ceases. Every government treasures its citizens like sons. The twenty-first century has come already to resemble, even in the eyes of an amateur, the twentieth in its fullness of peace and glory. And you haunted, Clio, Dalmatia’s shoreline all last fall, amid karst, pine, resinous clearness. Heavy masses of lavender, a plant native to that coast, cleansed a fleeing breeze.
Stavrogin in Hell
Stavrogin is in Eternity, i.e., Hell. It is far worse than his poor, bedeviled creator imagined: not even a locked, dusty bathhouse, not even spiders. Instead, an enormous crowd of the living mills around on the broad shore of a still sea, arriving in skiffs, looking blankly up and down, even greeting each other, unaware of their presence in Hell. Each wears the clothes of his time and of his nation; in the emptiness above the shore, the colors burn like flags. No sound carries. It is approximately four o’clock in the afternoon. And how, you inquire, is this worse? Why does poor Stavrogin suffer? If you ask him, it’s already too late—he’s turned his face away in abasement, and sobs (without a sound) from his keen and childish fear that you will see the livid, scarlet bruise on his neck, left by the silken cord.
Though he later in life became known for the stringency and peculiarity of his religious views, there always remained some among his admirers who were astonished by this, who questioned it. Not his sincerity, but the affectations of dress and manner that he put on in his old age. (And nothing was diminished, as is so often the case with conversions: something akin to an ocean still made its home within his inhuman spirit.) But the question is unavoidable: such words and such actions from a man who speaks in his novels neither of Heaven nor Hell? Not even one single ray, one vision. Only Murat in his gleaming blue coat, gallivanting without purpose along the roads of Poland.
I would not be surprised to learn that the majority of suicides bring themselves to the act out of simple exhaustion. Imagine: here is the sun, a riverbank, a fence, tendrils of bindweed. And still, in the face of the mute blessings of objects, in the face of experience, only inner monotony. Yes, I would not be at all surprised to learn that the suicide finally acts only from the exhaustion that his unfulfilled desire must produce. Although how a proof of this might be undertaken escapes me.
“Every luxury must be paid for. And everything is a luxury, including being in the world.” You composed this paradox near the end of your life, after two wars. Drunks patrolled the same verdant hills, cindery roads hissed underfoot, the bloody sun set, your imperial grief consumed—what? What vanished behind this life? What wholeness? Yes, I agree. Yes, any purity evades me. Yet I ask that you intercede. I’m barely half your age, thoughts of this kind merely a clumsy means to happiness. Preserve me from them. The sky glows harbor-gray this afternoon, sir. After a morning’s travel I’m tired, hungry for an absent love.
In Another Country
Before the beginning of the play, Machevill, robed in ornate crimson and gold brocade, walks onto the empty stage. He starts by listing the misdeeds of various princes of Christendom. But then, near the end of his speech, he changes tenor. Now, he informs the audience, you will see one of my most adept pupils, Barabas, in his element, making full use of my teachings. The audience cannot know, of course, what Machevill means by teachings: the intense pain of belonging to no nation, though you live in the midst of one, and of seeing in kings or the state nothing divine, only restless generations.
The Book of Lies
The Book of Lies is, in the opinion of its editors, the most useful book yet devised for humankind. Not because it contains every lie ever set down on paper or spoken. This would be impossible: the act of speaking or writing already has the indelible cast of falsehood about it. But because it sets out the ideal forms of the lie, which are surprisingly few. Only two, in fact. There are lies of appearance, those that beautify or detract. And there are lies of moral condition: think of the Parcae, or of the platinum balance of the modern goddess, Justice. The first lie ever told has the honor of belonging to both of these categories. Ye shall be as gods: a lie of appearance, naturally. A lie of moral condition: knowing good and evil.
A Real Artist
Given how well-known the story of Prospero—the eminent natural philosopher—is these days, and how swiftly our sympathies incline towards him, a few words ought to be said in defense of his brother, whom I knew a little. Have you any idea, he once asked me, how intolerable the wise become? In the face of peace, their wisdom. In the face of unthinkable adversity, their wisdom. Even—perhaps I should say especially—in this highly aesthetic new world, with its vines, tawny rocks, and copper-irised goats: their wisdom. And my brother considers himself, secretly but no doubt about it, a real artist. You can tell by his correct posture and stern glance. It’s indistinguishable from utter fraudulence.
The Sons of Eli
Here in the temple, things go on without too many breaks in routine. The priests enter in peace and leave in peace. The squat black brazier, filled with the thighbones and fat of cleanly animals: undisturbed. A strand of smoke, as though it were fine writing, lazily and firmly unspools from it and vanishes among the coffered arches of the vaults. Slowly the chief priest utters his heavy prayer; slowly it ascends. And all this without interruption. For you cannot describe the thin, constant, almost inaudible wail—of a child, perhaps, in pain and nearing death—that accompanies all these various acts as an interruption.
Little is known for sure about the alchemist and theologian Heinrich Khunrath, save that he was not a Jew. His strange, Christian vision of the nature and purpose of magic—in which magic is subject to both God’s law and natural law, and thus vulnerable to empirical study—enjoyed esteem among the major Lutheran thinkers of his age. And indeed, despite their arcane subject matter, his works are doctrinally irreproachable, except for the clear influence of Lurianic Kabbalism on his account of the creation of the world and the eternal contest between matter and spirit. Why, then, the confusion about his name during his university years, when he was known as Khunrath, Conrad, and Lips? I offer no explanation for this. Offering an explanation would violate the spirit of the enterprise.
We stand next to the sea, the sun shining on everything. In the woods, silence. From the water, silence. No need to mention the sand. About the clouds and hares, the less said the better. “No heart in the meadows, no god among the pines.” So Pasternak wrote. I doubt he would have wanted it applied to this scene, however, which is supposed to represent a real, vibrant consummation. Every mystery has been resolved, every punishment meted out. No-one can question the justice of the proceedings, or how needful they were to ensure everyone’s happiness–even the condemned. But explain to me the shadow hulking beneath this cloven pine, wordless now and durable, watchful. Or the invisible horizon. Or our muteness. For everything human ends in muteness, not silence (silence is a form of perfection). Mountains are silent; the passage of time is silent. Muteness, however . . . I don’t need to explain. I know you all belong to the educated middle classes, and will have no trouble discerning what I mean.
From the Annals
And I’d like to tell you about my city, chief among my homeland’s cities—how I arrived here as a boy, in what season, in what condition—in the hope its brief history would aid you in understanding that compulsion to irony and outright falsehood which dogs me. If you knew me personally, you’d know how frank, how miserable a liar I am for one so practiced. But what use would someone skilled by nature at deception ever actually have of lies? You need not answer. Suffice it to say that in my city, by ancient law, some cornice, some archway, supple and tense, must remain always unfinished, to recall a certain act of great destruction, our cruelest memory, our most bitter. I’ll leave it unnamed. I can hear already alien songs, rapid footsteps, the rattle of unclean wine in a goatskin, and know by this that the simple Gibeonites have gathered among us, eager to serve, to whisper modestly in our ears. And that our city is even now unsalvageably fallen.
A Certain Very Famous Novel
Whenever I thought about this certain novel, during the months and years I thought about such vaporous things, whole months and years wasted, I was struck by its odd intermingling of power and weakness. It seizes on the most fundamental component of experience—the passage of time—and takes this passage as its necessary, though hardly sufficient, subject. Whatever other matters any particular novel deals with, it deals with incidentally. This Protean, irrepressible strength, however, is coupled with a failing peculiar to written language, namely that it operates on no sensual faculty. The powerful narrative ambiguity of music, which suggests always some utterance by its tantalizing eternal refusal to break into speech, detracts in no way from its strength. The unbearably compressed instant that a painting or a sculpture occupies only heightens the intensity of our (purely sensual) encounter with it.
But in literature there is no immediate sensual encounter. Our first glance at it, so to speak, has already engaged our abstract faculties: memory, analogy, prediction, the entire complement of inner efforts that resemble and echo the actions of senses, but remain immeasurably distant from them. The sorrows presented therein are trivial. Its actors are wretched ciphers. And not merely because they appear as briefly realized, ephemeral potentialities, though this is a central reason. But consider: more often than not they imagine themselves to be driven by love–or some love-like form of ferocity–which withers the instant it is chosen as a motive. And if they remain ciphers, as they surely do, doesn’t it throw the exercise into more than sufficient doubt? Doesn’t it lend the whole enterprise of literature at least a comic, if not a ridiculous cast?
A Little Story
Reb Avruml’s face was so beautiful that at times it struck terror into the souls of other men and women. No one knows to this day if this is the cause of his reputation for wonderworking: we have evidence of his beauty but not of his miraculous abilities.
For example, it was claimed in his village that he could heal the sick with his touch. Even the gentiles, even the graf. But the graf’s bones lie, nonetheless, in the earth—of this we have made ourselves certain. Another rumor was current surrounding Reb Avruml: when all others went out on the hills, mourning the vanished bride, she would walk by his side for an hour or two, until sunset. No trace of her, not even the shred of a garment, has ever been found. Then there are the numerous sorcerors Reb Avruml was said to have disposed of, and not through violence, either, but through disputation, through the ridiculous contrast that serene, burning obedience casts artificial efforts of the human will into. The learned have dismissed these stories as literary artifacts concealing doctrinal struggle, or as outright lies. What could be, they ask correctly, less coherent?
You’ll admit, then, that nothing remains of the reputation of Reb Avruml. But on his gravestone, which is cooled by the shade of an ancient split oak, the lineaments of his face and the testament of his empty, slightly narrowed eyes speak to the hearts of all those rightfully concerned with such matters.
Man’s numberless sufferings and torments in the remorseless flow of history have long been correctly held to suggest the nonexistence of God. Those for whom this does not suffice let us refer to the unthinkable improbability of such a being. Those for whom this does not suffice let us mock with the phrase—meant honorably once—credo quia absurdum. All this serves as inarguable proof of the nonexistence of a God made in our image. And that only.
The Truth about Pythagoras
We have become fond of pointing out the hypocrisy, even viciousness, of this man, who ordered his followers to conceal the terrible fact that the square root of two is irrational. But this certainly does not hold with his belief in the transmigration of souls. What would a believer in transmigration gain from suppressing anything, particularly on the grounds of its moral ambiguity? The truth about Pythagoras is at the same time far simpler and far more complicated. His suppression demonstrates his marvelous foresight. He deliberately discredited himself, for all future time, by keeping an irrelevant fact out of the hands of the public, an act he foresaw would come to be regarded as a cardinal sin. So now we ignore him, laugh at him, while his secrets remain intact. And how he mocks at us: by presenting to us the incredible rumor of his golden thigh.
The Bold Knight, the Apples of Youth, the Water of Life
As was the case with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the chief constituent of the knight’s personality was an unalterable conviction that he possessed a place in the ceaseless and impenetrable flow of time. Such a conviction—sadly—cannot be separated from a belief in the necessity and high dignity of that place. People of this sort inevitably go in quest of (and retrieve) the instruments of grace. They have no use for them, they can be trusted not to abscond with them. So the bold knight returned with the miraculous apples and the water, purity itself, and presented them to the sick, murderous king, his patron and employer. He received (and asked) nothing for this incalculable service.
One of his rough coevals—an American, or some other English-speaker, naturally—once observed that the statements I smell violets and It is true that I smell violets are synonymous. In doing so, he considered himself to have demonstrated that truth does not exist. An unbreakable hypothesis, on the one hand. On the other—you might say that such inaccuracy constitutes almost the whole of language, which is now, as it has ever been, a necessary but insufficient vessel for truth. This is obvious to anyone possessing even a little genuine experience. So much so that a commonplace has grown up around it:post coitum omnia animalia tristia sunt.
Borowski, Tadeusz. Born in Zhitomir, Ukraine. Lifelong Communist. Kapo in Auschwitz. Died by his own hand July 1st, 1951, age twenty-nine, leaving behind him numerous poems, two volumes of stories, his wife whom he first met at seventeen, and his daughter Malgorzata, then five days old. Once addressed Stanislaw Wygodzki, his mentor and friend, in a poem: You’ll walk to the Jew Market, to the rails.Encountered in the camp (so his story The Battle of Grünwald reveals) a woman who proved to him the existence of human nobility. Accepted, four years after his release, a commission from the new Polish government to write a life of Feliks Dzerzhinsky. Borowski, Tadeusz. Kapo in Auschwitz. Most honored ladies and gentlemen—