Individual and Metamorphosis.
Am a writer use my fountain pen as a lookout tower the lookout tower as a ship's mast the ship's mast moreover as a clock hand also meant to be the spear of a swordfish fossilized into stone outstretched across two wing-shaped halves of the heavens so as with their help to traverse the day in orderly fashion and thereafter to disappear in the tavern Along the peak of this curving trajectory I clamber for one more morning
1. How my settling in language and dwelling in rooms of narration came about.
I am an invention of my own self. Since coming upon myself facing myself I've been faced the whole time with the problem of how to place myself somewhere, in some place where I would be able either to find or somehow cobble together on my own, through hints and hunches at least, something like a roof, a lodging, a shelter for me and my head. In my case it was clear soon enough that this would be most feasible if I came to settle in a region of my own arranging, a plot of land in the realm of language, of narration. There isn't just one single place we hail from or call home, but several, if not innumerable places. I don't believe in ordinary homes in that sense. I can only conjure homes interrupted by other homes or connected to and interwoven with one another in multiple ways. Often it's a matter of invented homes or more probably of homes we've imagined, just like so many other, if not most things, after all; they not only arise in our imagination but moreover--in accordance with assertions advanced by a number of perceptual psychologists--everything around us, inasmuch as it is only seemingly around us though in actuality located inside us and nowhere else, corresponds in any individual instance to nothing other than what is being imagined. So I want now, at least as to what concerns my home or my homes, to try singling out in succession a few of the ones that stand out with special distinctness and attempt to enlarge on them in somewhat more detail, at least on the ones that caused my existence as a writer or literary person to seem charged with inexorability, even utter inescapability.
First my home as place. Once again, there are in fact several places to which I would be obliged to give the name of home, but let's take my first actual home town, the provincial city in which I was born and grew up and hence lived in for almost twenty years in unbroken succession. I attempted some time back to write a story about my very first appearance in this place; it was the only one of my "autobiographical texts," incidentally, that is genuinely in accordance with factual truth or at least is aiming to be. For in everything else which has befallen me and of which I believe myself unable to refrain from composing a written record, I succumb to the compulsion to invent it anew, that is to put an overlay of untruth over it to some extent--without doing which I would consider myself a liar. This almost one-of-a-kind "true and accurate" autobiographical short story about my first fetching up in my first "home as place" is one I now want less to quote to you as we go than to recount, exactly as it might have happened in fact. (1)
As is probably well known to you, I was born in the city of Klagenfurt in the winter of 1946, and some reference has been made to a few complications, albeit rather commonplace ones, in connection with my birth. The story in question begins with woebegone laments about the cold winter night, and my mother allegedly started out not being able to find her shoes for a long time, locating them only after a frantic, extensive search and disappearing into the darkness of the February night after putting them on in great haste. There follows the description of the trip--it struck her as endlessly long at the time--to a side entrance of the district hospital, which was actually located quite nearby, though at practically every second a few years of her life seemed likely to be lopped off, and the story of how she's frantically rattling the locked door at that side entrance, slowly waking up the night porter, sound asleep, until he opens the window of his tiny porter's lodge and looks out scowling, wanting to know what's wrong. He's supposed to have explained to my mother that she wasn't permitted to enter the hospital by that door, but by the main entrance instead, because it wasn't the usual practice to enter the hospital by any of the side entrances, and moreover it wasn't even possible to open this particular one, whereas the main entrance, on the other hand, was open all night long, so she could certainly go in that way if she really wanted to, but he couldn't open the door where they were, because after all he had strict instructions from the top, ones he was duty-bound to heed, just as there were specific strict instructions from the top for each and every one of us, and there was no such thing as refusing to comply with them, because why else would strict instructions like these exist if it weren't important, weren't essential to abide by them, and in every line of work there are rules and regulations that we all just have to make the best of, take for instance in his job as night porter, where he was under orders never under any circumstances to open this particular side entrance at night, no matter what might occur, and it didn't bear thinking what would happen if someone observed him opening up, for there would be serious consequences, and he would be dismissed once and for all from his position as night porter, forever, and then he'd have to figure out how he, his wife, and his children could live on air etc., etc. The story then tells how the porter is supposed to have softened up little by little to the extent of opening up the side entrance, remarking that his being there at all was lucky for the mother, because management had recently been contemplating reassignment for him from the side entrance here to the main entrance, in which case, had that actually come about, she would be standing before a locked gate and would quite possibly have had to go to the main entrance, for there and only there would he, in this hypothetical case, have been able to open up for her, but not here, or she would in the best case have had to climb over the bars of the gateway, outfitted with iron spikes, which he, assuming he had not as an exception opened up for her here, would undoubtedly have had to prevent her from doing. After that I--as the expression goes--"turned up in no time," and, bringing the story to its end, there's a description of my skin, at that point completely blue.
So I myself come even before the first locality I call home, because I myself, in the same way that each of us is a locality, am a locality and so am in and of myself that first and narrowest-in-compass of my homes. It is very rewarding, by the way, to ponder more deeply one's own self as a home locality, even though the self without a locality is actually not possible, even though, too, locality without surrounding countryside is not possible and countryside without a surrounding continent is not possible and a continent without the surrounding seas in which it is afloat is not possible and the oceans and the continents without the planet around which they are girded are not possible and the planets without the solar system and the solar system without the Milky Way are not possible etc., etc., all the way up to the cosmos, which could then conversely be traced back to the microcosm ... though about our own selves we know the least; we know only our own surface, and under our skin it's dark, thank God; I for one am very happy that I don't know what's being played out beneath my skin.
Now, however, to move from persons as their own homes in themselves and on to the first of such which can be specified in the conventional way--the name being Klagenfurt. That city has always remained strangely diffuse to me, and so I tried writing something about it: (2)
When you've crossed over Bahnhof Strasse, where the station is, and go east on Priesterhaus Gasse, you'll come upon Getreide Gasse, proceeding north along which you could reach Rauscher Park with its statue erected to honor and commemorate the poet Rauscher, but you could of course keep following Priesterhaus Gasse to a square farther along, in the middle of which, honoring a certain long-departed Field Marshal Conrad, whom I never met personally, a roaring lion in slate has been placed, just behind which, though, continuing along a straight line, everything soon comes to a stop, because that's where, at the edge of the city, the metal storage huts where they keep the huge snow plows and storm equipment begin. If you turn right, you'll soon be able to catch sight of the garden layouts in Frick the scrap metal man's yard, in full bloom with rusted kitchen ranges, ovens, and pipes, and then you'll come to the black gates of the wholesale vegetable dealer Valentin di Lenardo, behind which one of those famous masked galas of cabbages, cauliflowers, kohlrabies, and all their kith and kin from the kitchen garden could very well be taking place right now. Should you go in the other direction, however, you'll come after an uphill climb to another gate, this one belonging to Pagitz the fruit dealer, behind which a new Great Flood, this time of fruit juices, has long been in preparation, for which reason trucks are constantly driving into and back out of the courtyard, unloading wooden cases with empty bottles and reloading ones with bottles newly refilled. You make your way back down hill, past a tavern under the constellation of the Hawk, and come once more to Bahnhof Strasse, where the sparkle from a gleaming tower instantly catches your eye; it's the Capuchin Church, enclosed by a black fence on which is mounted a showcase with the pictures of the Pope along with his most important ministers of education.
"A good city to get out of," as Ingeborg Bachmann declared years ago. Probably one of the reasons I started writing poems at age fourteen or fifteen was to go on journeys of exploration through them, since I wasn't able to move away for twenty years and was perhaps by this means unconsciously attempting to search via language for a home constituted altogether differently from the one I actually found myself in the midst of, one I didn't--it goes without saying--end up finding for a long time. Even so, a few, a very few, of these early poems, despite having grown somehow unfamiliar to me by now, have also somehow remained very dear to me, so that I still stand by them. The others I long ago consigned to the coal stove. I'd like to quote or "recite" one of the early poems for you now; I happen to remember it by heart. It's called "Lend Canal:' Incidentally, the Lend Canal leads from the east bank of Lake Worth, situated about three kilometers outside of Klagenfurt, into the center of the city and was dug, in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, I believe, mainly by Turkish prisoners of war, for the purpose of conveniently transporting by raft into the city and directly to market fish caught in the lake and also of shipping wood and other materials. Originally, it was not only this canal that was supposed to lead from the lake to the city, but from this one canal a whole system of canals was in fact meant to be constructed through all the major streets and avenues of the city, apparently so as to be able to transport goods not merely to the market, but even to provide curbside delivery. So today we would probably have in Klagenfurt what would undoubtedly be called a "Venice of the Alps," were it not that the abbot of Viktring raised legal objections on the grounds that legitimate prerogatives or monopolies governing property or commerce within his purview would thereby have been infringed. On the other hand, however, I'm virtually certain that those many canals in Klagenfurt, had they not oozed away, fallen to ruin, or dried out on their own in the course of the centuries, or had not one day, owing to slipshod maintenance, begun to exude a horrible stench, would have been filled in by the nineteen fifties, at the latest, so as not to impede automobile traffic anymore. But now for the poem:
Lend Canal The canal the bank and the grass on the bank The reflection of the bank in the canal and the reflection of the grass on the bank in the canal
The threefold movement of the grass:
1. the movement of the grass in the wind
2. the reflection of the movement of the grass in the water and
3. the movement of the reflection of the movement of the grass on the waves behind the motor boat skimming past
The man at the helm looks like a famous captain He takes his nautical cap off his head and waves back.
Several of these early poems, this one among them, were published back then (it would have been in 1962 or '63) in a local provincial journal of literature, which my guardian at the time (I had one because I was born out of wedlock, which was more awkward then than it is now, with guardianship always assigned to the head official of the municipal child welfare office) did not at all approve of, so that first he promptly forbade the editor to publish anything more by me, since I was doing very badly in school, and second pronounced a ban on my writing any additional nonsense of that kind, because all that would do would be to fill my head even more with useless notions; the man even had the audacity to threaten me with reform school if I didn't comply.
That may very well have contributed to my developing an extremely disturbed relationship to bureaucracy in any form, whence my allergic reactions to all generally prevailing systems of management, administration, pigeonholing, classifying, and to any organization of public affairs by forms, files, folders; and all this may in turn have been one of the driving forces leading me in my Geometric Regional Novel to go all out after official and officious doings not only through the form of gratifying caricatures but also through malevolent fits of temper that border on defamation and calumny displayed with malice aforethought and--even more--through (though not limited to) insulting the various offices of rural functionaries.
Now I would like to read to you a short example from this regional novel; it's something the grade-school teacher is saying to the children. (3)
Knife and fork and scissors and candle Are things little children must never handle, but later on one should respect them too so that things will go well because one shines one's shoes and brushes one's teeth at least twice a day, when one meets someone, one greets the someone cordially, in particular when one cannot abide the someone, one fulfills one's civic duties, one does not read suggestive books, novels, and the like, one does not lean out the window in the middle of a journey but instead one doses windows and doors in winter to keep the toilet from freezing up, one does not harass women, one gets off the steps of a conveyance facing forward, the left hand without fail on the left front and not the left rear handrail, one does not come late, whatever you can do today, take care of it without delay, by noon tomorrow, then there's no sorrow, one does not use the toilet when the train is stopped in the station, one does not come late, one undertakes periodic verifications that the safety catch on the weapon one is carrying is in the correct position, one does not cavort or gallivant in and around unsavory establishments, one does not scamper away when one hears or even senses oneself being called, but comes instantly to a stop in order to comply on the spot with whatever is about to be expected of one, when eating, one mostly, for the most part, picks up the fork with the left, the knife with the right hand, in a hotel room, one does not just piss into the washbasin, but goes out into the corridor instead and seeks out the facilities expressly and most considerately provided for that purpose, one votes for the party to which one belongs, when one coughs or yawns, however, one holds his hand up to one's mouth if one will be so kind, and finally one does not slouch, does not romp and roister, does not kill, does not exasperate others, does not make changes, does not luck, does not make noise, does not hit others, does not love, does not gorge oneself, does not get loaded, does not defy, does not lie, does not steal, does not chatter away, does not shout, does not show off; instead one leads, pleads, prays, plays, brushes, rushes, confesses, professes, judges, budges, bears pain and strain and rides, rides, rides (through the days and the nights all the way to the edge of the continent at the beginning of the ocean, where one will sell one's horse so as have in hand the money to rent a rowboat worthy of the high seas); furthermore one acts, combs, teaches, honors, looks, greets, goes, seeks, hurries, glances, walks, helps, fences, lends, sifts, lets be, eats, blows one's nose, tracks, rubs, flashes, nourishes, hurtles along, gives gifts, proves to be of use, saps, hangs, deans, washes, dyes, bleaches, patches, sews, knits, files, embroiders, aims, follows, as well as one can.
Strange to say, my Geometric Regional Novel, though containing an architectural sketch of the village in which it is set [p. 41 of the Dalkey Archive edition], a drawing suspiciously similar to the layout of the main square in Klagenfurt--the Haupt Platz, as it's called--doesn't actually have all that much to do with Klagenfurt and the surrounding area as the terrain depicted.
A large part of the text is grounded specifically, strange to say, in observations I jotted down in a travel diary during a trip through Persia, in 1966 I believe, which then, sublimated and reworked, became one of the basic elements in its gestation. I can more or less remember a strange passage from that diary now, a passage, by the way, that doesn't appear in the Regional Novel but that I would like to try setting out for you now if only because I am attempting to give you a better approximate understanding of how an observation from what's referred to as reality develops in my head into literature, at least my way.
The text as I remember it goes more or less as follows:
All along the road wooden crates are placed about one hundred meters apart. However, the people assume that these crates aren't real crates at all; they only look like crates, but in reality they're covering boards. No one knows exactly what's concealed under the covering boards. People assume that there are statues under the boards and that the crates were lowered over the statues to protect the statues from the harmful effects of the unpredictable weather. The statues are to be uncovered on certain festive, ceremonious, or significant occasions about which the people often hear much but have never seen any sign of. So it became the custom to pass large amounts of time by waiting for the start of the festivities and special celebrations, on the one hand, picturing how they might progress, as well as, on the other, by making mental images of the statues waiting to be uncovered. It wasn't just a question of waiting for the outbreak of the general merrymaking that would ensue at the start and during the progress of the festivals, then, but also of curiosity about what the statues would look like. When strangers venture into the region, they're asked about possible festivities and about statues concealed under covering boards in their home regions, but up to now the native people haven't found out very much more than that there are no such wooden crates and that festivities of a similar kind in fact do take place, but only once in a while, not all the time. In nearby areas wooden boxes of this kind can still be found, whereas in farther outlying districts they are met with much more seldom. There are people, too, who say that there's nothing whatever under those crates or boxes. People who try opening or removing these boxes or crates are struck by lightning out of the clear blue sky, burned to a crisp, and keel over dead.
I really did see such crates and boxes in Persia at that time. Not a hundred meters apart, to be sure, but always at the start and the end of every village and every city. What you need to know in addition is that every Persian city and every Persian village is laid out in intersecting streets and that at the end or the beginning, depending on where one enters, there's a traffic circle you have to drive around, and that in the middle of this traffic circle at the start or the end of the city always stood a wooden box or a wooden crate like this. I couldn't at first think what they might be for, but I found out little by little--the shah was still the ruler then--that they had to do with preparations for the six-thousandth or ten-thousandth anniversary of the Persian Empire and that under these crates at the end or the start of each village a statue of the shah or his father had been placed in readiness to be uncovered.
So even though the Geometric Regional Novel was created in part from such "exotic" travel notes, as they could be called, it is naturally very far from being anything like an Oriental novel; it was much more a question of my wanting above all to test out and put through their paces in it all the methodological and experimental devices of the writer's craft--altogether, when looked at from the perspective of literary history, in the tradition of the Vienna Group, as those writers are known, among whom I was then and today still am very dose to H. C. Artmann and Konrad Bayer. In addition, I wouldn't want to conceal that I was somewhat under the spell of Peter Weiss's early experimental prose--I'll mention here only the titles The Shadow of the Coachman's Body and The Conversation of the Three Wayfarers. (4) Perhaps--or even probably--I was looking at the outset to produce something very different from what wound up emerging, namely an altogether idyllic piece of village prose like Marie Luise Kaschnitz's Description of a Village, (5) which I liked very much at the time and still like today, and I must have started out completely in this style. But with increasing precision in writing and describing, it suddenly struck me how much more comical all things became the more minutely I scrutinized them. So my process of working on this book was actually connected to my discovery and working out of techniques for humor, satire, and caricature. The more precisely something is described, the more blurred the thing being described can grow--as when one moves an object closer and closer to one's eye--and the ways and means by which I cause things to blur precisely through the ways and means of precise description then show themselves to be things in fact stood on their head, defamiliarized or sliding into the comedic realm of either a liberating joke or a malign caricature. The part of Geometric Regional Novel that didn't come into being in the Orient was written in Vienna, and while the novel itself has no more or less to do with Vienna than with Klagenfurt, my first home, it nonetheless was completed in a place that's become altogether a kind of second home to me, although I still, even to the present day, have never quite fully taken its measure nor come to understand it. Before the Regional Novel, by the way, I tried writing a novel about Vienna, which was later published as a fragment under the title The System of Vienna, and in this novel--it would presumably have turned out to be a kind of geometrical city novel--I wanted to have the individual stories take place precisely along the routes of the city's traffic system, specifically structured along the streetcar system of Vienna; however, the city's traffic system, especially the streetcar system of Vienna, is so complicated and confusing that the task I'd set myself, with the meticulous nature of its requirements, was really more than I could handle at the time. But because I don't want Vienna as my second home-location to fall by the wayside, I would like to present to you now the following story about my Vienna home; I give it here in its original version, which is not printed anywhere. It can be found in sublimated form in my [Awakening to the Great] Sleep War, but in this first version it is nowhere to be found. (6) You may or may not remember, but it was a sensation some ten or fifteen years ago when suddenly, in the middle of the night--that is, at five A.M.--the largest bridge across the Danube, the Reich Bridge, simply collapsed, out of the blue, with no warning. There was nobody on the bridge at the time, thank God, just one pedestrian and one automobile, and both went plunging into the Danube but came back out unhurt. So out of this cave-in of the Reich Bridge, which was a worldwide news event then, the following story came to me:
Reich Bridge Some years ago I would often walk from bridge to bridge along the banks of the Danube, undecided every time as to the most convenient point for my daily river crossing, first in one direction and then back, during which--it was usually on the bridge then called the "old Reich Bridge'--I would stand leaning over the rail for a while, looking down at the river's eyes as they drifted past below, and then spitting down into the river before I resumed my crossing. To this day I am absolutely certain that my spitting down into the water from the bridge was in no way connected with its bringing good luck, as the simplistic folk belief would have it, but was rather a kind of substitute for my not spitting my bodily self in its entirety over that railing along the firmament. Instead of a complete plunge into the river, then, I let drift downward just a few words or sentences, now rendered unutterable through liquefaction, dissolved in my oral cavity from having been kept silent so long, as a form of pars pro toto, representing on the whole the whole of me there on the back of the river, all the way to the Black Sea, and perhaps being given thereby the opportunity to become better acquainted with somewhat more of what's called the wide world than the torso that was the remainder of my existence, stuck fast here owing to its lethargy and the weight of its body--or something like that. On this one particular morning, very early, no later than five A.M.--incapable of any acceptable activity, I had been stumbling my way through quite a few days and restlessly wandering with no aim for many sleepless nights; why is a different story that doesn't belong here--I was roving around the area by the Danube, as usual, and wanted to conclude by initiating what had grown to be my traditional crossing, which struck me, whenever I started out, incidentally, and on the way back too, as a kind of international border crossing, except this time--and I'm absolutely certain of it to this day--I wasn't going to spit pars pro toto into the river but was finally, no matter what, in my entirety, going to drop downward into the river, among its numberless gray eye-threads tied together by water, meaning that this time there would have been a one-way international crossing only. When I drew near the foot of the bridge, however, I saw that a rather large crowd of people had assembled there. That wasn't at all to my liking, and no sooner was I beginning to make a path for myself through this five-A.M., dawn's-early-light gathering of Viennese than I found out from what people were saying that the Reichsbrrucke, up onto which I had just now been wanting to walk so as, on this very day, to take a plunge into the river, downstream to the Black Sea--the Reichsbrucke, as I found out from the people's chatter, had collapsed only a few minutes before, buckling and plummeting into the river. That was quite a shock. Less for the crowd happily gaping at the break of dawn, always enthralled anew, as though for the first time, by any disaster that happens their way, than for me, who naturally saw myself as cheated, triple-crossed--my plans crossed out, crossed through, crossed over by this bridge--and simply made a fool of. At the very least, I felt it to be an outrageous impertinence. Here I am, ready to plunge from the bridge into the Danube and onward to the Black Sea, when--right in front of my face, before I even have a decent chance to put my plan into practice--the Reichsbrticke itself takes a plunge into the Danube instead, right smack down into the stream coursing its way to the Black Sea beaches, without, incidentally (and thank God, too!), as I was able to find out from the happily excited murmurings of the early-dawn palaver among these uninjured Viennese foregathered so early, without any injuries--not a single soul got it this time--because there happened to be nobody on the bridge at that early hour. The bridge from which Robert Schumann, whose life and music I was just at that time studying on an altogether scholarly level--at least as intensively as my inner state permitted--the bridge from which he went plunging into the Rhine still spans its river in Dusseldorf today, by the way, the same as always, but the bridge from which I wanted to plunge into the river went and spoiled it by taking a plunge of its own immediately before I could take mine, simply locked me out, took off just as I was getting there, ran away from me at a mad dash, at the last minute, head over heels, wanted absolutely nothing to do with me, and so I am absolutely certain still today that if, on that early morning back then, I had not resolved to throw myself off the Reichsbrucke into the Danube but had intended instead just to spit down into the river from its midpoint, as I always had, it would never have taken its own plunge on that early morning at around five A.M. but would still be standing there unchanged, in its old form, to this very day. Which is how it is that at bottom I'm the person in fact responsible for its collapse, but of course no one ever thought such a thing at the time, and I'll continue to be careful, today and tomorrow, not to wave it in anybody's face; people needn't think I'm that stupid.
After this detailed consideration of the concept "home" as place, I would like to move to home as time or to time as home. Not home as the spirit of the time (I'm speaking of Zeit, not Zeitgeist) or as politics, or even home as in hometown newspaper (I mean Zeit, not Zeitung) or anything like that, but instead here again from a personal standpoint, as I view it from the practice of writing, which in turn has to do with home as day and home as night. On that subject I have to say right here, getting ahead of myself, that to me daytime represents something rather alien, whereas nighttime has become my home, because I do my actual writing only at night. What I mostly do is pace back and forth in my room at night and concentrate on my topic until I find myself sitting down as if automatically and beginning to write, haltingly at first but then more and more fluidly; though only when I don't have to do any more thinking about what I should write, only then, when everything is flowing on its own from my hand onto the paper have I reached the right stage--almost as if the work were no longer streaming from my head through my hand, with my pen racing over the paper, but, on the contrary, running up from the paper into my pen, from there into my hand and through my writing arm, my shoulders and my neck into my head. It then continues like that throughout the whole night, and if luck goes my way, the following day isn't a day at all but a continuation of the previous night instead, so that the approaching evening and night are still that first night and not the one after it, and so on and on to the point of complete exhaustion (and often the strangest things come to me just before that total exhaustion), all this of course without any thinking at all, simply and completely spontaneous, as if on its own: with this kind of writing, which in the tradition of the Surrealists might have been called "controlled automatic writing" it's a question of nothing other than a kind of exploratory project or exploratory journey through regions that are no doubt already present in our heads but about which we know nothing beforehand--just as in the heads of each and every one of us, as provided by evolution, we all possess memories, for the most part unknown to us, of the entire world as it has existed up to the present moment, beginning with memories of our existence as a breath, as a rock, as an amoeba, and so on up to our lives as primates, Neanderthals, and Homo sapiens with the totality of their history and development. It can also happen, however, that I pace back and forth in my room at night, sleepless, without knowing why I'm ceaselessly pacing back and forth in my room, and then the thought suddenly comes to me that my whole existence and all my writing have never consisted of anything but pacing back and forth in my room. Fortunately, that kind of pointless pacing back and forth is not the rule, and as for the sort of extremely interesting material--it's often strange even to me--that can emerge at that last stage of exhaustion just before total collapse, I'd like to offer you an example in the form of this night-home story:
The Singing Lakes One day, far out in the country, a small pond began to sing. All the people in the vicinity were drawn to its pleasing music, which brought everything to a halt and then engulfed it; they gathered around the music and gazed into the singing water, held captive by the sounds rising up from the pond. The music from the pond was carried onward to the larger lakes in that country, whereupon all the people near the lakes likewise gathered around their banks and gazed into the liquid music rising from the many surfaces of the water. These melodies could also be heard along the banks of the rivers, and on the river islands people merrily pitched colorful tents so as to devote themselves with abandon to this music from then on, for to every one of them, no matter how desirable or how different their manner of living had been up to this point, everything previous, compared to their present mad surrender to this music--which very soon had taken dominion over everything and brought it under subjection--now suddenly seemed unimportant and, for that matter, increasingly ridiculous. From the rivers the singing reaches the seas. Now all the people have settled along the banks of every body of water, all along the edges of the colorful feasts of aural intoxication! As time passes, the people want to enter ever deeper into the music of the waters, move ever farther out with their ships into the waters filled with music, merge ever more completely into the sounds, fathoming the final mysteries of this music even at the cost of their own liquescence: little by little they fling themselves into the ponds, lakes, rivers and seas, are washed away, drown in the water, in the music. Only a very few of them are left: The deaf inhabitants of the deserts, steppes, and savannas.
This story moves us with ease from the idea of home as time, that is as day and night, to home as music or, as it pertains to me, to home as language or language as home. By no means do I intend to go wandering through dialectology now; instead, I want to touch on language in its ability to serve as a medium of art and thus as a mode of transportation when undertaking poetic exploration, since languages and verbal exchanges in everyday affairs as well as all other conventional languages, all the way up to the language of science, are unsuitable as media of communication or vehicles for conveying new insights; far from that, they are more likely to serve the conventions of misunderstanding than of understanding--Fritz Mauthner, the first philosopher of language, asserted and established that at the beginning of this century, among others. And only when language is able to become something that points beyond itself, only when it attempts to give expression to "that which cannot actually be said" that is, does it enter into the possibility not of naming things hitherto unknown, to be sure, but at least of thereby brushing against and touching on new emotions and feelings that remained unknown to us up till then, or of producing ideas our need for which may perhaps be more urgent today than anything else. How, nonetheless, from a purely technical standpoint, can language express what has always been inexpressible, grow literate enough to produce literature? Allow me to try illustrating it for you through an image. Picture language as a fence you're erecting: letters and words as fence posts, sentences as fences put up around an area in itself unknown, intangible, unmeasured, perhaps not even really accessible; but my fencing it in with language delineates its outlines to me, allows me to see its contours, even though I cannot gain access or perhaps do not even need to enter this area:
... also, in order to be able eventually to exchange, as if we were housed in secure dwelling places, those mysteries that have so far remained unknown to us, in order to be able to communicate over these days and weeks and even beyond, we will need a new language, one we will gradually have to acquire, even though its words are for now staying stuck in our mouths inasmuch as it is not providing us with readymade sentences able to swim up ahead, as they usually do, into the oblivion that is our lot; a language in the thought-journey transportation system of which our expeditions into insight would achieve much greater distances than they might in a province of memory all prepared and laid out in advance, a province in which whatever has persisted in being incomprehensibly strange to us on the personal plane would grow more familiar by allowing us finally to catch hold of the word-sails that are constantly outpacing us; a language whose sentence-wings take broad swoops ahead of us, vanishing in advance from our sight, the expression-sound regions of which would be their incomparable modes and means of speaking on the paths of writing among the lodgings of a grammar of the future so constituted, arrayed in the communication from which you could not ever again, not even in a language as yet unknown to you, be at a loss for words, unlike now, with ballast-sentences hobbling behind us, trudging along, sentences we idly toss at and past one another until reaching the abandoned villages, all spread out before us, of a new vocabulary of the future, the words of which will flee from us because they are afraid of us or because we would not yet be up to them, too slow as we are to catch up with the docile recognition-power shown in the flyovers they perform, thereby exhibiting to the province of our vision crossed lines of skywriting; that, however, most certainly not because its power of signification might threaten our thinking--no, never that; more the opposite, in that our words would elect to run away from us before we have a chance to destroy the fragile feeling-wisdom of a diaphanous syllablesoundveil over their emotivesoundskin the minute they leap past our lips; a new language that would simply not allow us to cajole it.
And now we move away from language as home and close with home as utopia or home as dream or dream as home. Don't we often notice that a dream, if it has taken root in us but is nonetheless waning and slipping away or has even dropped away from us by now, will produce a grief over its expiring that strangely resonates for a long time in its aftermath? That said, we cannot even begin to imagine how many dreams have, however distantly, approached the realm of our dreams, how many dream potentialities we never have even the faintest inkling of, not even in our dreams. We are presumably at so vast a distance from our truly great plans because not even a hint of them ever surfaces inside us. Are they inaccessible because we need to be protected from them? It isn't that we can't bear them, but that they would not be able to bear us. In reality, then, it isn't the true "dreamers" who are alienated from reality but rather those people who claim to be able to bypass dreams and "dreamers," because they believe they're the only ones who stand firm with both legs fixed on the solidly cemented ground of what they call their "reality" not the least bit aware of being stuck so fast that they can no longer put one foot in front of the other.
An evolutionary leap made through reflection on the genuinely creative attributes within us, which would entail a turn away from those mindsets (touted as "realities") currently in the ascendant--power, money-hunger, property ownership--could be effected through intensified artistic exploration. That at least is my surmise and my assertion--my hope, too. Science would once more have to become art, and art would be able to become science. "Home is where no one has been before," says Bloch. That's my favorite quintessence of the subject.
2. In the guest rooms of language creators I'm friends with.
The present actually has no ascertainable duration. It's so fleeting, in fact, that it's over and gone before we're finished pronouncing the word "present." Sometimes it strikes me less as a kind of time or verb tense than as a kind of place, albeit one we can't ascertain the placement of. By that I have in mind places that geographers persist in concealing from us, because they are forever crossing whole continents in ceaseless flight from themselves and yet often see themselves nonetheless, now under the compulsion to opt for crossing the oceans as well, until they one day resemble--with regard to their fleetingness, comparably shy--those elementary particles (there is nearly none smaller) called neutrinos, which often prove to be identifiable as matter for only minute fractions of a second. But there comes a time when a such a place, constantly fleeing from itself, grows exhausted from its unrelenting top-speed itinerancy and reaches a point beyond which it no longer can or no longer wants to go--it's had enough of itself; it digs itself tunnels, like a mole, so as to vanish even from its own self in a kind of underground region and thus, grown untraceable to, by, and through its own self, to fall into oblivion in its own memory, finally achieving total forgetfulness of self. Perhaps it's places like these that we can't see but which nonetheless constitute the present by being just that place at which we're standing while the sky is continuously pouring the future down into our heads so as to blend into our memory and then to flow, a river of remembrance far behind our backs, into one or another sea. There's a three-line poem by the Italian Salvatore Quasimodo that allows us to apprehend this state in a considerably simplified form: (7)
Everyone stands alone on the heart of the earth struck by a ray of sunlight and suddenly it's evening
A typical day poem. Night poems are completely different: (8)
H. C. Artmann i ask you to draw a lighthouse on the wall of your house if the night has no moon i will never find you then who will share with me flowers and berries found and the narrow bed its head against the window what's the good of the handsomest flagpole and the useful dog won't bark what's the good of a signpost in the dark and the useful dog is sleeping when a man's finished oiling his boots he hopes for a heavy rain to test how waterproof his footwear is but what i'm hoping for is no night without a lighthouse [...]
This poem has always proven to be a kind of beacon for me, a handy flashlight that makes it unnecessary to rent a bothersomely annoying swarm of lightning bugs and which understands--thanks to the automated motor of a litanycarouselizing enwording dynamo (quite comparable to a traditional bicycle light, but only as far as the principle goes) built with artful concealment by the poet into the chassis--how to generate on its own the electrical current for producing light and thus obviating the need to purchase expensive batteries. More than glistening shoes, what always comes to my mind in the second-to-last stanza is the memory of how I was absolutely incapable of learning to tie my shoelaces with any standard knot; I simply could not catch on, no matter what, so I devised a knot all my own, and I tie my shoes with it to this very day, though not another living soul would anywhere at any time really ever be able to understand how it works; I have accordingly considered continuing to keep the technique of this knot to myself, and in my deliberations, what is being signaled to me from above by the eye of the lighthouse which is this poem is that my proposal is entirely advisable, for which reason I have no intention whatever, not here and now anyway, of explaining how I tie my shoes.
When speaking of identity and transformation, we must first distinguish between, on the one hand, the mostly imperceptible transformations we ourselves and our surroundings undergo, a good example applicable in this context being that of shedding skin, a process to which we are all subject or to which we subject ourselves, and then those transformations to ourselves or our surroundings that are very perceptible indeed, this latter kind expressed at its absolute clearest in the form of those natural disasters or private tragedies that befall us, and, on the other hand, the description and representation of such individual or comprehensive metamorphoses, in this latter category in turn distinguishing yet further between, on the one hand, the representation of how we imagine them and the images of our own perceptual systems along with their concomitant reality-gestation--a process we are required to undertake anew not only every day but on any day and all days, for without accomplishing such a thing we would become obsessive-compulsive neurotics who do nothing but sit around silently and motionlessly, getting through the day in such a way that nothing good or bad will happen--and, on the other hand, the images and representations that employ the medium of art to show the transformations of ourselves and our world. Our tendency frequently to describe the world upside down in this latter kind of artistic--not to say artificial- world picture probably comes about through a collective artistic need and the artist's need to open a way through artifice for a warning--or rather the warning--to reach us, saying that we should not to allow the world pictures instilled into us by sheer everydayness to become too much of a habit, inasmuch as the world in all probability looks very different, after all, from how it might be portrayed by whatever capacity we have to see it, and by purposely turning it upside down we can at least be beguiled into the attempt always to subject our worldview to inquiry anew, so that we can be placed into the position of seeing the world in a completely new way over and over again. As a small introductory example, a short story by J. L. Borges: (9)
On Exactitude in Science ... In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
My first reaction when I had read this story was a need I couldn't explain to myself to transfer that text from geography to history, and I ask that you now forgive my vanity in not wanting to hold back from you even for a second my own variation on the text above:
My whole life long I've had at my disposal a work of universal history whose exactitude inspired fright inasmuch as it was capable of being regarded as coextensive with history itself the various branches of history consequently manifesting a woeful decline in that scholars were condemned to subject historiography exclusively to ever closer observation because it had grown impossible to differentiate history from historiography and scholars for the sake of scholarly certainty turned not to history but instead to historiography which however in its turn represented nothing more than a historical observation of that work of universal history which I was able to have at my disposal my whole life long
A kind of practical application of this text to the general situation in the southernmost province of Austria, in which I live and the capital of which is Klagenfurt, lies quite astonishingly close at hand; it isn't that we've laid a map of Carinthia equal in area to Carinthia over Carinthia, but instead we have somehow had laid over the state of Carinthia a painting the exact size of Carinthia that depicts the surface features of Carinthia; it is confidently asserted that this painting replicates with perfect optical fidelity the surface features of Carinthia in the strictest realist manner--as if we might need to deliver over the state in which we live, like upholstered furniture with slipcovers in a charming flower pattern, to the atrocious ministrations of some dilettantish interior decorator--whereas, in fact, this painting of Carinthia laid over the state of Carinthia is unfortunately nothing more than a cheap piece of kitschy "art" purchased at some cut-rate emporium, much though it is still asserted to be depicting with absolute congruence the surface features of this southernmost Austrian province. We don't live in a real countryside here but in a picture instead.
Let's move away from Carinthia, however, and take ourselves off to another place. There's something else of which this story by Borges leads me to think, and that's a place outside this country, called Cern, (10) I think, located near Geneva, namely one of the intellectual bastions of not only empirical but also and especially of practical experimental research, not just of the microcosmos but also of the world at large, which is to say of the cosmos in general. Located in this center is an underground circular-shaped conduit with a circumference on a scale--according to what I remember from a hasty reading of some pertinent science feature in the newspaper--that would encircle a middle-sized or even larger city like Klagenfurt, Salzburg, or Graz all the way to their farthest outskirts. This gigantic underground tunnel-circle or circle-channel was constructed for the sole purpose of deploying inside it instruments and machines that to our simple everyday standards would appear monstrously large, with the help of which scientists are able not only to make individual atoms collide but also to make collide the separate components and fragments thereby released from the individual atoms so that they shatter too; that is, protons, neutrons, electrons etc. are broken down into yet smaller components and, to the greatest extent possible, into even smaller elementary particles, science in this way having through decades of work discovered the very smallest particle that has ever been found up to now; it goes by the name of--I think--quark, and there's an antiquark as well, though perhaps I mean what's known as a neutrino, which may be even smaller than the quark, though it has the disadvantage of being detectable for only fractions of a second or microfractions of a second and demonstrates, moreover, the property--sometimes advantageous to people like us but rather disadvantageous to scientists--of being able to travel through any material, no matter how dense, as if it were air, so that a neutrino, then, could fall right through our earth or shoot through or be shot through it, which is the reason only a very few of them are ever captured in this circular tunnel at Cern, and that, as was already said, never for more than a very short time, so that no one has been able to ascertain to date whether a quark or an antiquark is smaller than a neutrino or, vice versa, a neutrino smaller than a quark or an antiquark, or whether the extreme fleetingness of that which can not only not be detected or ascertained--but instead, owing to its aggregate state, is not even remotely calculable--whether such a scarcely even existent elementary particle or particle of such an elementary particle thus rendered virtually indeterminable in the first place impels the insight that its largeness or smallness as calculated to date neither can nor could have any meaning. All of this, however, could presumably and even probably, for that matter, not be sustained to the point of a solution, resolution, or absolution (but not dissolution) until such time as the financial resources are provided to construct a far more extensive underground circular channel-conduit even than the one in Cern, preferably one that would occupy the extent of a whole country underground, or, best of all, of a whole continent. Only then, in an underground circular tunnel system of such dimensions, would they be able to find out for certain if a quark is larger or smaller than a neutrino or vice versa. And the very smallest particle could be found only if they were in a position to build for us and our scientific endeavors, here on the planet on which we live, the very largest possible underground circular tunnel; specifically, this underground tunnel would have to be at least as large as the equator itself or secured underneath the equator all around our planet. Of course this most assuredly does not mean that I have in mind allowing that sort of imbecilic madness or indeed the whole currently available assortment of destructive manias to become reality so that we can have at our disposal the absolutely final stages of knowledge. To find out what the essence of Nothing is, I have to destroy everything. To find out how small the first or ur-particle is and what it is made of, to pass a Last Judgment on it, that is (and I use the term advisedly), I must destroy our world and the whole world of all other worlds--or do I perhaps mean only that we're forced to subject everything to question over and over again in order simply to continue existing instead of just vegetating until we grow torpid or just ever so slowly evaporate. Thus, in the thought and belief that we're investigating and answering unanswered questions through study, we put ourselves in a position merely to construct the most germane and least mundane riddles and to devise the right mysteries, at least halfway, so as to formulate the greatest possible number of the right questions, if not by means of the signs and languages now at our disposal--let alone being able to answer them--then at least to intimate, intuit, and track them down. That it is possible, however, to return from such lofty concepts of spatial immensity to this small world of ours simply by observing a very small place, no bigger than a leaf, and then conjuring out of this leaf a whole world as large as our actual terrestrial world, can be proven by one of Ernst Jandl's poems that I would like to recite for you now: (11)
antipodes a leaf and under it a leaf and under it a leaf and under it a leaf and under it a table and under it ground and under it a room and under it a cellar and under it a globe [...] and under it a table and under it a leaf and under it a leaf and under it a leaf and under it a leaf
Place or country can be computed and recorded with the help of geometry. The most varied kinds of literary genre demonstrate over and over, more than anything else, what extremely far-reaching consequences, encroachments, impacts, or alterations the measurement and division of land can bring about among the people living on it, which fact is easy to discern and recognize by the appearance in literature, again and again, of surveyors, geometers, and land officials as main or subordinate characters, all the way from the surveyor K. in Kafka's The Castle to the more or less corrupt government assayers and assessment registrars in the kitschified Blut-und-Boden peasant tragedies of the Nazi era and, in addition, to those lawful and unlawful shiftings of boundary stones in fields and meadows that provide the motivation for the most appalling domestic tragedies. That this system, which governs us in so many ways, however, is capable--like all other systems, though admittedly along much different lines, but in every case arising from the application to its own self of its own fundamental axioms and basic rules, meaning in the present instance through the application of basic rules of geometry to geometry itself--of reducing ad absurdum whatever system is under discussion, here meaning geometry, so that it collapses in on itself, more or less imploding or exploding, can very deftly be demonstrated precisely in the realm of geometry. One of the most imaginary but optically attractive laws in the rules of geometry or descriptive geometry is the one according to which two parallel straight lines meet at infinity. But what happens if I assume that these two parallel straight lines are infinitely distant from one another? Then they meet constantly and everywhere but at the same time nowhere. Zero is equal to infinity, so both have suddenly become identical. Everything is at the same time nothing. A law of mathematics is both imploded and exploded. Of course world conferences of mathematicians have passed resolutions declaring it inadmissible to pose such questions and problems. But returning once again to these parallel straight lines that meet at infinity, it isn't really necessary to reach as far out as infinity. It's enough to remain on the sphere of our small planet Earth to find what may be a much more extreme answer or seeming answer to a similarly extreme question. The longest possible straight line that could be produced on our earth would probably run around the equator, and the most remotely distant parallel line from the equator is the parallel line running through all the separate meridians girding the earth, any two chosen at random will in each case be equally distant at the most distant parallel line and thus also a parallel line running around the equator, which is to say as good as identically congruent with the first equator of the first straight line but not meeting it anywhere while yet meeting it everywhere. What would be proved is that the very existence of a straight line would be impossible, because every straight line would in some way or another, though for the most part incalculable and indeterminable, be forced to curve or somehow be curved.
Forgive me these Sophistic or perhaps Scholastic diversions, in pursuing which I'm always reminded of a passage from a novel by Flann O'Brian [sic], (12) The Third Policeman. In it, two policemen are constantly diverting themselves by making small boxes that fit into still smaller boxes, and then they make needles so sharp that even the thought of how sharp one of these needles is would be enough to drive a person insane; indeed, they are so sharp that one of them will prick a person just by being anywhere near him, without its ever touching the skin, because the sharpest sharp point of the sharp needle is so sharp it's not even visible.
Forgive me, then, these Sophistic or perhaps Scholastic diversions--the point of the needle is Scholastic, after all. How many angels could find room on the head of a needle was a beloved, playful puzzle of the Scholastics, but even in ancient times people thought a great deal about relativity, although they--many of the Sophists and Cynics, among others--very quickly reduced ad absurdum much of what was considered everyday, commonsensical, no-nonsense wisdom held to be definitively and irrefutably valid. For instance, the famous story of the footrace between Achilles and the tortoise, the exact and authentic version of which struck me on my first reading as tremendously refined, though it has escaped me for the time being, and since I had no reference work available at home to look it up in, I'm compelled for now to cite a second version of this parable, one that found its way to me at some point or other or that at some point in some way I very well may have worked up in my own mind, more or less as a substitute. That second version goes approximately as follows: Assume that both parties, Achilles and the tortoise, have to complete a hundred-meter race, which, to the astonishment of all, coming as a total surprise, the tortoise wins after ten minutes or ten hours, because with absolute unconcern, giving not a single thought to or a moment's care about how to cover the hundred-meter course most expediently, it simply went grabbling ever so slowly along its way, as usual, and then, even after time had gone by, the finish line long since far behind it, just kept on walking, not even taking notice of and utterly indifferent to any kind of goal in front of or behind it. Achilles, however, is intelligent and shrewd, in all probability highly educated in mathematics and philosophy as well, so of course he immediately runs through the whole problem in his head and figures out how to complete the stretch most expeditiously. He accordingly thinks--and he is entirely correct--that before he can finish the whole course he must first cover half the distance of the hundred meters and after that half then half of that half and then half of that half of that half etc. This logical, indeed indisputable fact grows in his head to the status of so total an idee fixe that he can never bring himself actually to cross the finish line, because at the end he would have to cover a distance so small and so short that he can no longer bisect it in his head. And because this whole problem has developed inside his head into such a dominant idee fixe as now to have manifested itself even outside his head as an insurmountable wall, he will now never be able to cross the finish line but will remain stuck at it like a bird that has smashed into a windowpane or like a gigantic fly stuck to a gigantic transparent and invisible strip of flypaper.
The following story has just popped into my head, speaking of running. There are people in Ethiopia or thereabouts, and in Sudan, too, who are such amazing runners that they're actually not capable of simply walking in the ordinary way but can only run--barefoot, of course. Some sports officials naturally came up with the idea of sending them to the Olympic Games and having them compete as marathon runners. They would be sure to win all the medals, of course, but the plan went amiss, apparently because whichever runner was even a short distance ahead would stop and wait for the others to catch up, for they didn't enjoy running by themselves, preferring instead simply to run together, as a whole group, and get to the finish line all at once. The word "flypaper" mentioned a moment ago now provides us at last with our next excerpt and accordingly with our next point about the transformations people undergo; it's "Flypaper," by Robert Musil: (13)
Tangle-foot flypaper is approximately fourteen inches long and eight inches wide; it is coated with a yellow poison paste and comes from Canada. When a fly lands on it--not so eagerly, more out of convention, because so many others are already there--it gets stuck at first by only the outermost joints of all its legs. A very quiet, disconcerting sensation, as though while walking in the dark we were to step on something with our naked soles, nothing more than a soft, warm, unavoidable obstruction, and yet something into which little by little the awesome human essence flows, recognized as a hand that just happens to be lying there, and with five ever more decipherable fingers, holds us tight. Here they stand all stiffly erect, like cripples pretending to be normal, or like decrepit old soldiers (and a little bowlegged, the way you stand on a sharp edge). They hold themselves upright, gathering strength and pondering their position. After a few seconds they've come to a tactical decision and they begin to do what they can, to buzz and try to lift themselves. They continue this frantic effort until exhaustion makes them stop. Then they take a breather and try again. But the intervals grow ever longer. They stand there and I feel how helpless they are. Bewildering vapors rise from below. Their tongue gropes about like a tiny hammer. Their head is brown and hairy, as though made of a coconut, as manlike as an African idol. They twist forward and backward on their firmly fastened little legs, bend at the knees and lean forward like men trying to move a too-heavy load: more tragic than the working man, truer as an athletic expression of the greatest exertion than Laocoon. And then comes the extraordinary moment when the imminent need of a second's relief wins out over the almighty instincts of self-preservation. It is the moment when the mountain climber because of pain in his fingers willfully loosens his grip, when the man lost in the snow lays himself down like a child, when the hunted man stops dead with aching lungs. They no longer hold themselves up with all their might, but sink a little and at that moment appear totally human. Immediately they get stuck somewhere else, higher up on the leg, or behind, or at the tip of a wing. When after a little while they've overcome the spiritual exhaustion and resume the fight for survival, they're trapped in an unfavorable position and their movements become unnatural. Then they lie down with outstretched hindlegs, propped up on their elbows, and try to lift themselves. Or else seated on the ground, they rear up with outstretched arms like women who attempt in vain to wrest their hands free of a man's fists. Or they lie on their belly, with head and arms in front of them as though fallen while running, and they only still hold up their face. But the enemy is always passive and wins at just such desperate, muddled moments. A nothing, an it draws them in: so slowly that one can hardly follow, and usually with an abrupt acceleration at the very end, when the last inner breakdown overcomes them. Then, all of a sudden, they let themselves fall, forward on their face, head over heels; or sideways with all legs collapsed; frequently also rolled on their side with their legs rowing to the rear. This is how they lie there. Like crashed planes with one wing reaching out into the air. Or like dead horses. Or with endless gesticulations of despair. Or like sleepers. Sometimes even the next day, one of them wakes up, gropes a while with one leg or flutters a wing. Sometimes such a movement sweeps over the lot, then all of them sink a little deeper into death. And only on the side, near their legsockets, is their some tiny wriggling organ that still lives a long time. It opens and closes, you can't describe it without a magnifying glass, it looks like a miniscule human eye that ceaselessly opens and shuts.
This story isn't exactly about a metamorphosis, at least not entirely so, but almost, though you have to think the story all the way through. This tiny, flickering organ which can't be described without a magnifying glass naturally wouldn't be discovered even with a magnifying glass, however; this tiny human eye, at first imaginary, is an image manifesting itself so strongly that it metamorphoses into an actual eye that from the page of the book begins hypnotizing the reader to such an extent that it begins to be reflected in the eye of the reader, more and more powerfully, like a beam of light piercing the reader's eye from the page, until a feeling starts rising up in the reader, not just vaguely, but as if it were a fact, that his own eye is stuck to the flypaper on the page above or below, so that only with great effort can he discern whether he, the reader, has through his eye become stuck to the page on the flypaper, merged somehow (it makes no difference whether as a fly or a reader), or whether (and this is the more hoped-for alternative) what's at issue is nothing
more than the description of a fly. That describing such a transformation is no longer necessary under such conditions--but would be possible, although entirely unnecessary, however warranted it might be elsewhere, proving here, as it will, to be our first story about a genuine transformation--is shown in this text by Julio Cortazar, "Axolotl" (14) ...
There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl. [...] I was afraid of them. I think that had it not been for feeling the proximity of other visitors and the guard, I would not have been bold enough to remain alone with them. "You eat them alive with your eyes, hey," the guard said, laughing; he likely thought I was a little cracked. What he didn't notice was that it was they devouring me slowly with their eyes, in a cannibalism of gold. [...] The eyes of axolotls have no lids. I know now that there was nothing strange, that that had to occur. Leaning over in front of the tank each morning, the recognition was greater. They were suffering, every fiber of my body reached toward that stifled pain, that stiff torment at the bottom of the tank. They were lying in wait for something, a remote dominion destroyed, an age of liberty when the world had been that of the axolotls. [...] So there was nothing strange in what happened. My face was pressed against the glass of the aquarium, my eyes were attempting once more to penetrate the mystery of those eyes of gold without iris, without pupil. I saw from very close up the face of an axolotl immobile next to the glass. No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood. [...] He returned many times, but he comes less often now. [...] It seemed to me that he was not so much interested in us any more, that he was coming out of habit. [...] It occurs to me that at the beginning we continued to communicate, that he felt more than ever one with the mystery which was claiming him. But the bridges were broken between him and me, because what was his obsession is now an axolotl, alien to his human life. I think that at the beginning I was capable of returning to him in a certain way--ah, only in a certain way--and of keeping awake his desire to know us better. I am an axolotl for good now, and if I think like a man it's only because every axolotl thinks like a man inside his rosy stone semblance. [...] And in this final solitude to which he no longer comes, I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is going to write a story about us, that, believing he's making up a story, he's going to write all this about axolotls.
And that's just what happened here, whereupon the cycle of the metamorphosis has returned to where it started and we can begin reading the story all over again from the start.
Doesn't the technique of the transformation described here have great similarity to the text of "Flypaper," at least outwardly? Here, too, we have the hypnotizing eye exhibiting such great power and meaning that the face of the observer, described at first as merely reflected in the glass of the aquarium, is with utmost skill transported past the wall of the aquarium into the aquarium itself. Things develop quite a bit less spectacularly in one kind of transformation that has become only too common these days; in the following story, Wolfgang Hildesheimer originally intended, at least so it would seem, just to parody the eternal nattering about genius unrecognized because of chances missed owing to a botched childhood and the developmentally misguided maturing process of an equally botched adolescence. The story is called "The Insurance Agent's Guest Performance": (15)
Anyone who has ever heard the pianist Frantiek Hrdla play will never forget his enormous impact (no matter how hard one may try). His breathtaking vivacity and virtuoso technique have inspired the greatest critics of our century to compare him to Anton Rubenstein [....] Only very few people, including myself, his boyhood friend, know about his tragedy, the cause of his weary smile: Hrdla is a frustrated insurance agent. [....] It is not without deep sympathy that one pictures the nerve-racking guilt feelings of the young man, who was forced to meet agents and statisticians in secret, since his all-too-strict father forbade him to have any dealings with representatives of such professions. [...] But no truly sensitive person can long endure such a lasting strain on his resistance. Defeated and discouraged, young Frantiek was forced to submit to his fate [....] I lost touch with him for years, but whenever I saw his picture in the newspapers, it seemed to me as if his weary gaze had a touch of painful renunciation, a profound yearning for a long-vanished ideal. Yesterday, for the first time in many years, I heard him perform after his return from a foreign tour [....] During the recess, before the Eroica, I plied my way with my umbrella through the excited swarm of autograph hunters into the artist's dressing room. My friend Frantiek, aged, tired, and spent, sat among laurel wreaths, picking them apart with an absent gaze. [...] Frantiek suddenly asked with a cautious composure: "Listen, old friend, are you insured?" Somewhat huskily, I admitted I wasn't. [...] Before I could say "Eroica," he had insured me against murder, accidents, hail and fog, and all misdeeds, catastrophes, and acts of God that one can be insured against. I shall never forget those minutes; his wonderful oratory and his warm rhetoric truly vied with the primal force of his piano playing. [...] A strange person, I thought during the Eroica, truly, a double talent of unwonted proportions.
I can still see--as part of the jacket copy--the ending of another very funny but also very slow-moving story about transformation, and the ending alone is so comical that one doesn't need to read anything that comes before it, witty as that is too. The ending of this story of a transformation goes like this: "Last September, I stepped into my bedroom, opened the window wide, transformed myself, and flew away. I have never regretted it." (16)
Thanks to Wolfgang Hildesheimer we have now been empowered to transform ourselves into something birdlike, having accomplished which we can imagine ourselves as birdpeople reeling helplessly through the atmosphere or, should we by chance be constituted in a somewhat more exalted vein, having the mighty pinions of a condor grow from our shoulders, in which latter case, however, we would need to reconcile ourselves to having suddenly turned into eaters of carrion as well, which we basically are anyway. What's more essential is that we also could thereby very well be bringing upon ourselves a change in the tempo of our day-to-day living and a change in the length of our future lives. Many of you will now reassuringly point out that reference is no doubt being made at this juncture to those parrots living on old pirate ships, and will be imagining that we would be treated like them, pampered and babied by even the most brutal pirate captains, because hidden in the nonsensical chatter of the palaver we're forever emitting are also all the data needed to find long-lost treasure at the bottom of the sea, in addition to which those parrots seem to have Biblical lifespans. At least that's the rumor. At any rate, however, the length of our lives would change very substantially, along with the speed with which it elapses, our perception of our surroundings thus becoming entirely different, which is totally logical, on consideration, inasmuch as any change in us likewise changes the world around us at the same time. Hence we now come to our conclusion for today and also to a speculative and experimental approach to the metamorphosis of time. I will take the liberty of drawing upon Fritz Mauthner's enlargements on the subject in his Dictionary of Philosophy and of continuing to let them refine themselves inside me in sublimated form.
Let us assume there might be strains of human beings whose most distinctive characteristic would be that they live, on average, in contrast to our existences of seventy or eighty years, no longer than thirty or forty days, or even, occasionally, only about forty minutes. Such persons would obviously have a pulse rate several thousand if not million times faster than ours, and people with a longevity of one month or even only a few minutes would view nature as eternally unchanging; they would never hear sounds registered by us "normal" eighty-year-people and would be more likely to hear light than to see it. Now I will attempt to describe the slow mutation of an eighty-year-person to a minute- or month-person. Such mutants would, within that transformation from seeing light to hearing it, find themselves confronted suddenly with a basically insoluble problem: the night hours would be bearable, but toward morning they would hear an indefinite rumbling--menacing on the one hand and soothing on the other--coming from the sun in the droning darkness on the other side of the planet. At sunrise there would commence the roar of lightthunder growing louder and louder and reaching its greatest volume in a middaysun-stormexplosion furor lasting till the end of the day, which would itself last for a year, finally to give way--in the echo of the night hours manifesting the darkness of the absent sun like a humming of bees--to a peaceful respite from the thunderous light. Of course it's clear in any case that our sun must be producing exactly this kind of unendurable uproar because of the unceasing activity of its atomic-fusion self-explosion, and we should consider ourselves lucky that we are spared hearing it in the course of our ordinary lives.
Let's switch to the other extreme--human beings, instead of the usual seventy or eighty years, will now suddenly live for eighty thousand years or longer and would feel everything as being a thousand times slower because of a pulse rate reduced a thousandfold. They would experience the events of a year within a time span corresponding to eight hours as we feel them now. They would see plant life zooming upward, the sun hurtling across the sky as it races along from the morning mist to the evening dusk, would watch it whizzing past from the one second that is a day through a few brief moments of darkness to another new mad dash upward of the sun in the east, through a few morning, noontime, and afternoon seconds, then back to the few minutes of black night-instantaneousness; day and night would now be no more than brief, white-and-black or white-and-gray blinks of the eye in the sky above the frenziedly nervous twitchings of the movements made by rampant vegetative overgrowth gone completely insane and encompassing the whole hysterical plant world, whose manic blooming, withering, furious wilting of petals and ceaseless bursting of seed cases going pop; or else the sun a single glowing semicircle in a black sky, and while taking a walk we people now so changed would have to be careful not to be struck by treetops shooting up all of a sudden from the ground at lightning speed like arrows, careful not to be thrust upward, caught in their topmost branches, not to have our bodies terrifyingly fired up into the clouds or pinned to the sky--or in the best case we would have become tangled in the tops of trees that, having rocketed skyward a hundred meters up from the ground at lightning speed, would stop and hold still for a split second and then, with a speed every bit as lightning-like and as if somehow drawn back into the ground, collapse in on themselves, crumbling until they make wood shavings of themselves, fall back onto the ground as pulverized heaps of sawdust, entailing of course our plummeting down along with them, smashed to pieces in the worst case but perhaps, with luck, our fall cushioned by the pile of rotted shavings, and so escaping death by the skin of our teeth. So the life of "eon man" would be saddled with just as many handicaps as that of "month man" who would always have to be on guard against being driven insane by the ceaselessly roaring sun.
Since we cannot know whether such entities exist, inasmuch as no possibility stands open to us for either determining or ruling out their existence--because owing to the furiously rapid or else the unendingly slowed-down rhythms of their time spans and the duration of their lives they would be unknowable by our senses or any other of our measuring instruments--I consider it altogether advisable to assume that entities do exist among us, that their trans parent bodies, made of light, are sitting with us in the rows of chairs here in this auditorium or are swooping around our heads, past masters at playing all sorts of pranks on us without our even noticing--and why shouldn't they? To close, I would like to come back to that waterfall in which our future is tumbling down onto our present and vanishing behind us in memory. Naturally a waterfall can freeze, and if we're lucky we can step behind the curtain of ice and there catch glimpses of things that will surely never be comprehensible to us but that make possible in a flash, though admittedly in enigmatic form, some recognition of the world that we will immediately thereafter totally forget.
(1) Elfriede Jelinek once compared Jonke's artistry to that of jazz improvisers; trained musician that he was, Jonke was a master at varying and rifling on his own material. Comparing this telling of the story to one he published elsewhere brings a fuller appreciation of his art. See his "Beginnings in a Small Southern Austrian City," The System of Vienna: From Heaven Street to Earth Mound Square, trans. Vincent Kling, Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2009, pp. 9-11.
(2) This passage differs only in the last sentence from the corresponding paragraphs in "The Small City on the Lake," The System of Vienna, pp. 12-16.
(3) Compare this version with the one published in Geometric Regional Novel, trans. Johannes W. Vazulik, Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 1994 (rpt. 2000), pp. 43-46. Jonke's arrangement of items is different, and the two translators have taken different approaches to the tone of the language.
(4) Trans. E. B. Garside and Rosmarie Waldrop, respectively, New York: Delacorte, 1969.
(5) Trans. Victoria Anne Roberts, M.A. thesis, UTexas, Austin, 1975.
(6) Compare with pp. 206-210 in Awakening to the Great Sleep War, trans. Jean M. Snook, Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2012.
(7) Salvatore Quasimodo, "Ed e subito sera," Tutte le poesie, Milan: Mondadore, 1995, p. 9. The German version Jonke quotes here suppresses the punctuation in the original Italian: "Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra / trafitto da un raggio di sole: / ed e subito sera." Translation of the German version by Vincent Kling; Jack Bevan translates from the Italian as follows: "Each of us is alone on the heart of the earth / pierced by a ray of sun: / and suddenly it's evening." Quasimodo, Complete Poems, intro, and trans. Jack Bevan, London: Anvil Press, 1983, p. 29.
(8) H. C. Artmann, "ich bitte dich," Landschaften, Das poetische Werk, v. 5, ed. Klaus Reichert, Berlin: Rainer Verlag, 1994, p. 15. Translation here by Vincent Kling.
(9) Jorge Luis Borges, "On Exactitude in Science," Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley, New York: Viking, 1998, p. 325.
(10) Jonke appears to think that Cern is a place name, but it is an acronym, CERN, that stands for the European Center for Nuclear Research.
(11) Ernst Jandl, "Antipoden," him hanflang war das wort: Sprechgedichte, DAV Audio CD, March 2008. Translation here by Vincent Kling.
(12) This is Jonke's spelling; it should be O'Brien. The Third Policeman is published by Dalkey Archive Press (2nd printing, 2000).
(13) Robert Musil, "Flypaper," Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, trans. Peter Worts man, New York: Archipelago, 2006, pp. 3-5.
(14) Julio Cortazar, "Axolotl," trans. Paul Blackburn, Farewell to Dragons: Modern Tales of the Playful Imagination, ed. and intro. Franz Rottensteiner, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984, pp. 20-27.
(15) Wolfgang Hildesheimer, "The Insurance Agent's Guest Performance," The Collected Stories of Wolfgang Hildesheimer, trans, Joachim Neugroschel, New York: Ecco, 1987, pp. 59-62.
(16) This is the penultimate paragraph of the story following "The Insurance Agent's Guest Performance," titled "Why I Changed into a Nightingale," in the Neugroschel translation cited above (p. 69).
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|Author:||Jonke, Gert F.|
|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2012|
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