Where did you find so many stories, Master Ludovico?

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I cannot do less than cite Svidrigailov again. Just as he regrets the fact that Shakespeare did not put Falstaff in more of his scenes, so, too, may we regret the fact that Dostoyevsky did not give us a more detailed character sketch of one of his most important characters. Falstaff and Svidrigailov have in common an absolute and effective distance with respect to moral hierarchies, from whose encumbrances they managed to free themselves at the cost of their reputations. The fact that they do not suffer from the loss of their sense of honor, but that they even derive advantages from it, allows us to infer a reserve of autonomous energy.
Thus, in his conversation with Raskolnikov about ghosts, Svidrigailov says: “I agree that ghosts only appear to the sick, but that only proves that they are unable to appear except to the sick, not that they don’t exist.”
It is true that with the increase of weakness, there is also an increase in receptivity. This applies above all when death approaches. When the sick man begins to see “his deaths”, it is said that his death is announced. Illnesses also cause an intensification of the perception of normal colors, especially red. Sickness is not only a loss, but also a premonition.
Something similar takes place in ecstatic intoxication. Terror and joy are symptoms of liberation, intimately related to it. Everyone knows that the mere proximity or company of drunken persons can cause the foundations of reality to tremble. The great festivals attest to this. Thus, the Alexanderplatz encourages conversations, it provides them with a backdrop.
Today it is easier to find the perfect lover than it is to find a partner for conversation who is acquainted with history and literature. The great epoch that was propitious for dialogue was the 19th century, which, at least in this aspect, has survived longer in France than here in Germany. Edmond, an unsympathetic character to most people, and sinister to more than one, was for me a fortunate discovery. He possessed a cultivated attentiveness that did not let any allusion pass unnoticed. I often think of those midnight conversations, engaged in with such oneiric indolence, in the heart of the intoxicated city.
Finally we said good night, and Edmond returned to his harem. Once again, he went to the telephone booth to call Edith, and, without waiting for her to pick up the phone—one ring, and the rest was free—he took back his obol.
Scorched Wings
I took two or three walks around the square, where the traffic was still thick. The number of drunks had noticeably increased; they fought with each other on the street corners. In groups of dark-clad men the helmets of the police glittered. In the telephone booth where Edmond had called Edith, a pimp was settling accounts with his girls. So as not to call attention to himself he was kneeing them. Later, he would beat them. Hawkers circulated with obscene pictures, bait to catch his customers.
My impressions of the place were dull, but more immediate and vulgar than in the Kurfürstendamm. There, the public was more elegant; they moved differently, they were more agile; the women were less pushy; they let the customer take the initiative. The topographical conditions are also important. On a big street, with multicolored lights, when you are out for some fun, freedom does not seem to be too diminished. On the other hand, in a city square one easily gets the impression of inevitability. One does not make progress, one only goes in circles around a central point where the demon lies in wait. Ecstatic intoxication shackles more securely; painted moths flutter around the light.
The metropolitan centers are recruiting grounds not just for the barracks, but also for vice; new reinforcements are always arriving from the provinces and they are soon consumed. I once had a conversation with Edmond about the awakening which leaves a presentment of doom, about the fearful confrontation of empirical man with moral man, with his “better self”, when contemplated in the mirror behind the “nocturnal”. Hogarth has illustrated this approach “by degrees” in some of his horror stories. One can also think of mill slaves; of course, this is only one of the possible ideas. In the last stages, shortly before the catastrophe, the results of approach become similar to those which, in the Middle Ages, were attributed to demonic influences. Thus, for example, the proliferation of rats or insects which is one of the symptoms of delirium tremens. The cocaine addict imagines that cockroaches and spiders are crawling on or under his skin. They cannot be convinced that they are suffering from a hallucination; to the contrary, to free themselves they scratch themselves with their fingernails or other instruments.
There is nothing more horrible than the visions that accompany this delirium, veritable acts of self-destruction. The unhappy addict hears, in his confused stupor, from outside himself, court proceedings where he is on trial and witnesses are interrogated who make shocking statements. Or the noise of a crowd that has gathered in front of his house because his misdeeds have become a burden to the city.
We should also see this delirium as a sudden qualitative change. A feeling of guilt, experienced with greater or lesser intensity after every swallow, accumulates, and now presses down on the addict with all its weight.
This pertains to the theme of the encounter with oneself: the annihilation of the human being by way of his reflected image. Oscar Wilde has captured this process, with a surprising degree of accuracy, in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
When I attended my first courtroom trial—it took place in Hannover and I was still in high school—a sixty-year-old man was being tried. It was a case of fraud, but before the evidence was examined, there was a brief exchange between judge and defendant.
“First of all, we will recite your prior convictions.”
“No, not the priors, no: it is unnecessary.”
They exchanged words several times, until the judge finally read the list of the defendant’s prior convictions. It was a long list: petty larceny, when he was still an apprentice; embezzlement; fraud; and fraud again and again in many cases that were all similar and had also led to the same result. The man had spent most of his life behind bars. At the beginning of the trial he had the look of one of those businessmen you see in offices or behind the counters at banks. It was obvious that he always knew how to win people’s confidence; otherwise, he would not have been able to return to his life of crime so often.
When the judge began to read the list of prior offenses, the defendant’s face changed. He lost his composure, as if his personality had been extracted, and turned pale. His will to defend himself, which he had expressed right up until that moment, vanished. His head slumped towards his chest. The atmosphere in the courtroom became hostile: “That’s just the kind of person you are.” He had already been found guilty even before he was tried.
Here I was able to experience, for the first time, how the human being comes face to face with his karma; this confrontation borders on the judgment of the dead. In the mirror one sees behind the everyday face the face of destiny. “Thus must you be, from self there is no remission.”41
The human being can argue with death, but not with his own image. Thus one can understand the fact that the convicted murderer still persists in maintaining his innocence on the scaffold; having reached this point, his desire can no longer save his head. This is one of the facts that testify to an instinct for transcendence.
To bring about this confrontation is the most powerful and also the most dangerous pedagogical method. This is not the job of the accuser. Destiny itself can knock at the door. The “new man” can arise from catastrophe, as has been described in the great confessions from Augustine to Hamann and Kanne. Likewise, in Gotthelf’s Hans Berner and His Sons [Hans Berner und seine Söhne—1843], a brief narrative through which the winds of the Last Judgment blow. “This is what Hans Berner said to his sons, and his words weighed on their heads like a burden of one thousand quintals.”
By evoking that courtroom episode, I am pleased, by the way, to boast that even then, when I was still a boy, I did not share the unanimous feeling of hostility in the gallery towards the accused, but I recognized him as a tragic figure; of course, not consciously, but rather in the form of a nightmare that has tormented me for a long time. Once again that head appears before me—or, as I undoubtedly should have said, the head of that culprit—that slowly sank down towards his chest.
Viewing places as vast mills is only one possible point of view. Here one cannot reject the principle of selection. There can be no discipline where there is no indiscipline, either. Since we are dealing with a mill, we should think of various degrees of hardness, and gravity also offers us the analogy: the image of the wheat that is separated from the chaff is very ancient.
As for ecstatic intoxication, the question is posed as to whether or not it creates dependence. A good psychologist can undoubtedly tell us the answer in advance. During the night before he committed suicide, Svidrigailov thought he saw traits of a whore in the face of a five-year-old girl. Things like that are plausible, even if you do not believe in Lombroso’s measuring arts. Just as the internal form imprints the external aspect and precedes it in time, so does character form the physiognomy. Likewise, predisposition precedes habit. By this I mean that there are types who from the beginning must keep far away from drugs. The inclination is predictable and, along with it, the inclined planes.
The large number of hospital patients who are currently being introduced to morphine only represents a small part of the contingent of morphine users. The adventurer who is distinguished by his superabundance of force will not join their ranks. Rather, he will take to drink, and even then he will not seek in drink a narcotic and tranquilizing consolation, but an excitatory stimulant. This is also expressed in his taste for crime, which tends towards brutality.
The abuse of alcohol is harmful not only when it is chronic, but it can also take a fatal turn in an acute episode. Often enough, one incident of excess is all it takes to ruin someone. Effects can be unleashed that the victim never would have considered possible, not even in his dreams. In every office, in every business, there is someone who disappears overnight, and when you ask about him, the response is often: “You know: his love affair with the bottle.”
In motor vehicle traffic, there is no place for such roundabout expressions and euphemistic circumlocutions; the traffic accident demystifies them.
When I look back on the past, it seems to me that we did not lack enlightenment concerning this question. We were taught about it by our high school teachers, and they hardly told us anything new; nothing that we did not already learn on the playgrounds and, undoubtedly, more thoroughly. Besides, many of us had already advanced beyond theory.
The best lessons are proved by their details. An uncle along the lines of Diderot’s bourru bienfaisant is priceless. “Soap and water prevent ninety percent of venereal diseases”, my father told me; he brought up this advice in our conversation.
The teacher described how a drunk left a tavern and was hounded by prostitutes. They stalked him and he contented himself with a piece of meat that, under other circumstances, he would not have even touched. This is already serious; but to top it all off, he forgot to take precautions. Furthermore, it all takes much longer than when you are sober.
“When we drink we think we can do it much better; but it lasts only one-third as long, not to speak of the pleasure.”
This latter observation struck our teacher as a hilarious joke. He added information about the various kinds of infections.
Meanwhile, sexually transmitted diseases have lost their aura of horror, despite what we hear from the doctors who say that, due to immigration, there will be more cases. In any event, the remedies appear to have a radical effect. During my service with the military police regiment in Paris, I was surprised to see that, to employ a term used by Rabelais, those “infected by Venus” rejoined their units after three days of treatment. Of course, they could not get away completely unscathed, but had to spend three days in the brig, “for noncompliance with health regulations”. In 1870 an occupation that lasted that long would have annihilated an army; anyone who wants to get an idea of why can read Maupassant’s Le lit 29.
In the American armed forces such unfortunates were supposed to be punished with much harsher penalties, including demotion. This might be a remnant of Puritanism. In general, we must not discount the suspicion that the disappearance of this “plague of humanity” might be connected with the decline of Christian morality. In such cases I do not usually speak of cause and effect, but of correlations. It is not about progress, but about a new global image. Nietzsche already perceived this quite well, but nonetheless was himself at the receiving end of a direct hit.
In addition to the physical sufferings that accompany venereal disease, a stigma is attached to the victim which marks him as a pariah. This increases its terrors, which will soon be unimaginable to us. For the most part, its victims suffer in secret, for obvious reasons. We may assume, however, that the hidden casualties of the war of the 1870s still had an impact right up until the turn of the century. Already, in Simplicissimus, France was attributed with the greatest responsibility for this plague. Syphilis and “the French disease” are synonymous. “My dear Seydlitz”, said Frederick to his cavalry general, “you began by suffering the French disease, and now it is the French themselves who are suffering from us.”
Every large family has an uncle who died after a long period spent in a wheelchair or in a mental institution. One called attention to himself due to his strange way of getting about, while the other shocked people by his eccentric behavior.
Mrs. Schwendi, a widow whom I met during my trip to the Amazon, told me the story of the sufferings of her husband, which caused her to suffer as well. She was shocked less by his absurd outbursts than by the fact that he never closed the door when he went to the bathroom. Then he was placed in a sanitarium where he was to receive treatment. One fine day, seated at the kitchen table, after the soup, when he was preparing to carve the turkey, her husband looked at her affectionately:
“For a long time I have felt the desire to cut your throat. Isn’t this a good time?”
“No, Arthur, the knife is not very sharp. Give it to me, and I will bring it to the kitchen to sharpen it.”
She left and came back with the attendants from the mental hospital, who seized him and held him down.
“One day I wanted to go see him. The doctor asked me, ‘Are you sure?’; nonetheless, he allowed me to watch him through the door. In a swimming pool a group of naked men were howling and throwing chunks of moss around, a green hell. The doctor told me, ‘Now your husband is nothing but a beast and that is all. You will have to accept it’.”
In rural areas people often take these sick individuals under their own care; it was then inconceivable that one could be born or die in a hospital. Until the First World War, the main roads, which are now completely dominated by motor vehicles, were then also used by horse-drawn carriages. One stayed overnight in the houses of relatives or in hostels where your father and your grandfather had slept. Martin told me how, traveling on horseback to Berlin, they had visited his uncle Ludolf. While our father, after dinner, smoked a cigar with his uncle, the boy went to take a walk in the courtyard. He opened the door of an adjacent apartment and saw a man wearing a frock coat. This was unusual at that time of day; but what was even more unusual was the fact that this man was not standing up, but was on all fours, like a dog that was guarding the door. He looked up; his black goatee stood out against his dress shirt. Behind him, a servant appeared and closed the door.
When they resumed their trip on horseback, since they wanted to get to the city by nightfall, Martin said, “Father, I saw uncle Friedrich”.
Our father abstained from commentary.
Since the autumn of 1916, that is, since the Battle of the Somme, our unit had a pretty regular routine: service at the front, wounded, military hospital, leave, garrison duty, return to the front. This was repeated until the moment when a well-aimed shot crippled or killed one of us.
While on garrison duty we would always return to find the same “old warhorses”; some were old, others crippled, such as, for example, the “Sheikh”, who suffered from deforming arthritis. He held his cigarettes between the thumb and the index finger of a strangely splayed hand. The disease progressed slowly; it lasted fifteen years, until he died in Silesia, where he was a Justice of the Peace.
The “Sheikh” had been recalled to active service; already as a young officer he had bad luck. He had given himself the nickname; he borrowed it from one of his favorite books, the histories of the Sheikh Nefzaoui. His knowledge of erotic literature was vast. He shared with us not only the fruits of his reading, but also his practical experiences, while we were waiting in the lobby or leaning against the wall in the kitchen waiting for Wulkow, who was always late.
The Sheikh combined an unlimited knowledge of the most disparate topics with a systematic and classifying type of mind. With regard to venereal infections, he viewed them less as a doctor and as a moralist than as a lover of curiosities. He had divided them into three degrees: in the first, the warning of Venus, in the second, the blow, and in the third, medical torture.
He had plenty of examples. With the increase in traffic that came with the war, afflictions of every kind multiplied. Those who had been on the receiving end of the blows of Venus did not keep it secret. They drank water in wine bottles. “Orderly, when I order a bottle of white Moselle wine, you know what mean.” It is true that they did not consult with the chief medical officer, because they did not want their disease to be registered in their service record; they preferred Krakauer, who lived in the vicinity of the train station, as the greatest of dermatologists. Some were not capable of giving up drinking; if Krakauer warned them to stop drinking, they became angry. “You know that if you do not begin to live like a newborn babe, within three days things will go badly for you.”
It was different when “Venus struck” with a vengeance; then the victims told nobody. They preferred to keep it to themselves. Kieber was the sole exception. When, leaning against the wall, waiting for Wulkow, he began to grumble: “But when will the old man come with his big bowl full of thick soup! What a hangover! and I am dying of hunger besides, and to top it all off, my syphilis!”
Finally, Wulkow arrived in his blue jacket, which made him look very big. A generation earlier, my uncle Hermann had served in his company. He went to his seat and slowly leaned back, yawning, while he placed his hands on the arms of the chair. He, too, suffered from arthritis, although not in the hands like the Sheikh, but in the bones of his legs and feet. Then came the shouted orders that we were all waiting for: “Orderly, bring me a big bowl of thick soup!” He shouted like a shipwrecked sailor in his lifeboat, for besides his arthritis and other pains he was also suffering from diabetes. It seems that one of the symptoms of this disease is an insatiable appetite; and so it was in his case. His eyes glittered when the plate full of turnips, dry beans, crushed beans or whatever else was on the menu, appeared on the table before him. If there were potatoes, in the center of the plate he built up a kind of island. Then Wulkow brought forth a small packet of dietetic cookies and crumbled them into his soup. A sad spectacle, but for us, if I must be honest, an entertaining diversion that was repeated every day.
Kieber was a loudmouth, but not a syphilitic. It is true that people used to like to complain about the shortages. Peterson, a pale youth, who was seated at the end of the table, did not say a word about the affair. He had his reasons. He disappeared a few days later and I did not see him again for a long time.
Peterson was a friend of mine from school; I visited him in the military hospital before I went for the last time back to the front. He owed his disgrace to a very lovely woman, a bird of paradise with whom he had spend a night at Tivoli.
Kreppen, the doctor’s assistant, to whom he finally reported and to whom he finally confessed, swore: “There is nothing more dangerous than these itinerant princesses who appear at dusk.” He also said: “She did not miss anything. In comparison, the Turkish music is a bagatelle.”
When I arrived at Petersen’s room, I found him sitting on his cot. He looked terrible.
“Walter, how are you?”
“I’m a goner, I should bail out.”
“You’ll get better, you’ll see. And its less bad that you came directly, instead of first going through Krakauer.”
“I saw Krakauer, too. And things are not getting better. Every day they discover another problem.”
A unpleasant looking doctor entered the room.
“You must not spend the whole day in bed.” Having said that, he left.
Walter got up; there was only one chair in the room, and because of the nature of Walter’s illness, no one else used it.
“They treat me like a leper here, which is just what I am, anyway. Especially the nurses: they wash their hands three times even though they only touch the doorknob. And they can’t stand it when I get visitors. For them it’s a burden.”
He was right about that. He would have been a hundred times better off if he had been hospitalized as a battlefield casualty. That was a valid ticket: the bullet wound that led home. All kinds of chances belong among the “desastres de la guerra”,42 but they are all viewed differently. It could have been an oasis where such an affair is taken with good humor, if the chief medical officer is a cynic. Orlando told us about his stay in a military hospital in Douai, where he killed the time telling dirty jokes. Each new admission was the occasion for a peculiar ritual. The newly arrived soldier was presented to the patients’ committee, whose members were disguised as doctors; they interrogated him in depth, and he had to tell them why he was there, and he had to show them where he was wounded. Then they shook their heads: an unbelievable case.
As for Walter’s case, there was nothing funny about it, neither for him nor for anyone else. He was from Eastern Frisia, and his conduct very closely approximated that of the hero of Popert’s novel, Helmut Harringa. This work was a landmark in the history of the Wandervögel and of its educational policy in favor of abstinence. This book has been forgotten; it was a masterpiece from the pedagogical point of view, by virtue of its limitation to a single theme and its precise distinction between light and darkness. Harringa, an ideal Germanic figure, came to ruin because of the dissolute customs of the university students, which he basically despised. As a result of a drinking bout, which had been forced on him, he had a fleeting encounter with a prostitute; as a result, he was poisoned to the marrow. Harringa decided, as Walter would put it, to “bail out”. What the doctors could not cure, the elements would cure: he swam out to sea until he was exhausted and drowned.
Harringa had a bright future in his personal life as well as professionally: he was intelligent, healthy, happily engaged. Popert wanted to describe an exemplary case; and he succeeded; Walter was a good example; also with respect to the destructive feeling of guilt. When I left him that day, he said to me: “The worst thing about it is that I can no longer fight alongside my comrades; especially now, when we also have to face the Americans.”

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