Where did you find so many stories, Master Ludovico?

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Back then, in Valenciennes, my reading was particularly beneficial for me. The times and the atmosphere were grey. The chief medical officer must have been a man of little imagination; otherwise, every time they transported a corpse to the cemetery he would have ordered that they should only beat the drum when it was not possible to hear it from our wing of the hospital. And because it was a large military hospital and many people died there, the drums never stopped all morning.
Our room was small. It contained four beds; in the middle of the room there was a table where Jochen von Stülpnagel played Skat with two other wounded men. They only interrupted their game during visits and meals. One of the men had bladder problems; every two hours a nurse came and inserted a catheter in him. Before she left with the catheter, he had to try to urinate; to stimulate his urination, she hissed, as coachmen do with their horses.
It must have been raining buckets; there was also a canal in the vicinity, and a towpath where I went to take the air. As long as my state of mind was only melancholy I could bear it; but sometimes it became depressive. When I look back at that time, it seems like a miracle that we always managed to float rather than drown in the lethargy of one of those lakes of despair.
I could look in my diaries for details of the time I spent in that hospital, but I find it more pleasant to allow them to merge with my memories of other hospital stays. The profound nature of a fever is not measured with degrees of temperature. It seems to me that I possess a more exact memory for books and their contents than for the events of everyday experience, even for the events of my own life. Events are more or less the results of chance. They stick to you the way barnacles and algae cling to the Cristo Sottomarino [“The Christ of the Abyss”] in the Gulf of Genoa. Sometimes, divers have to descend to free the image of these adherences. We demand the same thing from authors: a world that is more or less liberated from chance.
The use of ether was familiar to me, since my father had given me The Beetles’ Friend. This volatile and dangerously combustible substance formed part of the equipment of the entomologist. It causes a lethal narcosis, but, so it would seem, of a euphoric nature. This can be inferred from the fact that the little corpses of the insects remain soft and their appendages flexible; not rigid, as is the case after death by cyanide gas.
I never would have imagined that it was possible to work with a substance with effects like those described by Maupassant. Ether was considered to be the quintessential volatile and flammable substance, almost immaterial. The ecstatic intoxication that the elixir by the same name causes had to be lighter and more spiritual than a vulgar state of drunkenness. I could not pass up the opportunity to try it. Maupassant gave me a good idea.
The opportunity seemed to have arrived when, in 1918, I spent a few days convalescing in Hannover. My observations about places are also valid for my observations about my wounds: they are gradually diluted in one’s memory, chance events that are now almost indistinguishable from each other. In any case, they were progressively getting worse, as if a sniper was drawing a bead, ever more accurately, on my heart. It began with the legs, rose to the head and finally got to the chest; each time, more resoundingly and with more serious consequences.
I still wore a small bandage, half concealed by my cap, when I went to the military hospital to confirm my rehabilitation; it was quite noticeable that the mobilization had included the triarii. The possibility that the war might be lost never even occurred to me; I refused to accept it.
On the top floor of the military hospital a commission was assembled; it consisted of a doctor, an officer, a secretary and various hospital personnel who came and went. The sick and the wounded, most of whom were rehabilitated, entered in small groups, in alphabetical order. In the lobby, together with other men, Kolshorn was waiting, who had the same kind of wound as mine: a shot that had grazed the upper right side of his head. His sign was Aries: tough, but hardly of a spiritual character. These traits of ram and goat were already manifested in his infancy. He did not want to rejoin his regiment because of bitter disputes. His love affairs had caused him to lose track of time and place. Thus, in the vicinity of Tourcoing, he shut himself away for three whole days with a woman of “Flemish blood”, oblivious to the fact that we had resumed our march a long time before. This story still haunts him; however, once he was on the railway line he met another woman, this one a hairdresser from Linden: she was waiting for him down below, at the gates.
We were summoned at the same time; Kolshorn was just in front of me in the line and he told me about his problems. He had headaches and he could not lift his arm.
“In what part?”, the chief doctor asked him, as he examined his clinical report.
“On the right side: where I am wounded.”
“Good, you will soon recover. You will see. You will have another fourteen days of rest; then you will be able to pull up trees by their roots.”
As for my case, I, too would have preferred that I should be prescribed rest, but mentally I was already well on the way to being cured. Dr. Sternheim, the chief medical officer of the reserves, was famous as a good pediatrician. He had also been our family doctor, even in the most literal sense of the word, since we had lived in the same house, on the corner of Bödecker and Wedekindstrasse. My mother held him in very high esteem; he had cured us of measles. As a pediatrician, reservist and intelligent Jew, he did not really fit in there; he would have liked to have more elbow room. This was not exactly what was expected of him. He only found himself there provisionally.
We descended the worn stairs; I smelled the odors of watery soup and phenol. On the ground floor I said goodbye to Kolshorn, who went off to Linden with his hairdresser. I saw them go; they went arm in arm, which in the old days would not have been acceptable, not even with one’s legal wife. Undoubtedly, he had swallowed the whole bait on the first bite. In general, he had the gift of being able to carry out rapid and changing maneuvers of approach. During the following years, I ran into him in the city increasingly more often, always past midnight, on solitary walks, without his ever going into details about his itineraries.
I had yet to go to Ritterburg, which is in the vicinity of the city. It was the morning when I visited Walter, who was ruminating over plans to commit suicide. Perhaps it was not just by chance that it was precisely at that moment when I conceived of the idea of undertaking an experiment with ether.
How did I arrive at this idea? Was it curiosity, boredom or recklessness? It seems to me that I was satisfied with my situation; much more satisfied, in any case, than I am today, when I view it in retrospect.
The streets and squares of the city, where the crowds of wounded men ebbed and flowed, looked as sad as a worn-out old shirt. At the beginning of the war everything seethed as if in a beehive before the departure of the swarm. Now it was nearing its end; the remnants of the people returned, “exhausted by their flight and without spoils”. Their power had been dissolved into foam.
All of this seems grey and unpleasant to me today, just as it seems strange that I preserved my good mood in the “battles of materiel”. However, youth has a different calendar, it lives off its own forces. I had made a date to meet a nurse that evening; she was counting on me being there. She arrived at the eaves of the forest in a striped hospital gown: “I can only go out like this after sunset.” She therefore knew what to expect; time could not do anything to us. Here, too, I have forgotten her name, even her first name; only this makes the memory strong, and disturbing.
Already during my last years at the institute I had lived, with great pleasure, in the neighborhood that extends approximately from Friedrichswall to Calenberger Strasse, which Leritzky called “Calebutz” Street, to indicate that it was not at all a residential district; at least not for married couples. Narrow alleys, small houses, poor people; but there were also some eccentric types. For years I was a regular customer at the house of the old man Lafaire, who know much more about books than any of the antique dealers that I have known. Later I was a frequent visitor at the home of the sculptor of masks, Gross, who lived in the shadow of the Church of the Holy Cross, and who at that time was carving his “talking birds” from wood. That is what he called some geese whose necks ended in phalli. In Waterloo Square there is still a clandestine Guelph movement, which goes very far back in time.
During the war, I was billeted for a few days in the house of a plump innkeeper; her husband, a reservist, was in Belgium. She was a conductor on the Doren trolley line, and was away from the house most of the day. She did not get home until midday, in her uniform and cap, to clean my room. Which was fine by me, since my work required solitude.
So I came back to the house after I had said goodbye to Walter, and acquired a little ether, in the vicinity of the “Black Bears”. How did Maupassant use it to get intoxicated? I did not remember. Since then, however, I had read about the “ether addicts” in my father’s library, and I realized that they, too, had fallen victim to the fatal nature of the drug and that it did not take them long to die, constantly forced to double their dose. They drank the ether and finally consumed it in unusual quantities. Periodically, this pleasure has wreaked havoc as a popular vice, as in Ireland and Lithuania. It seemed that on market days the air was tainted with ethyl vapors.
It seemed to me that it would be good enough to sniff it, once the bottle was uncorked. I “inhaled” it, as the pharmacists say, soaking my handkerchief with a few good splashes and wrapping it on my face. To top it off, I put the bedspread over my head. The effect was immediate.
The ascending phase could not have lasted very long, for when I woke up I saw that it was still some time before dinner. I also had an appetite, or at least it seemed that I did. “Undoubtedly, a kind of intoxication for people who are in a hurry.”
After putting some loose change and rationing coupons in my pocket, I put on my hat and gloves, and, to take a little air, I walked towards downtown, passing by the Friedrich wall. At Waterloo Square and its environs a mass of military personnel of every rank swarmed, as had been the case for centuries. Here, I had to be prepared to salute, that is, I had to observe that scrupulous ceremonial of “military honor”. Sometimes I had to give them and sometimes return them, depending on the rank of the insignias that glittered, more or less clearly, but not without inviting misunderstandings, on caps, collars and epaulettes. This is reminiscent of the antennae of some species of the Silex beetle; two or three of its members are phosphorescent, and thanks to their glow, animals can see them from afar, when they fly through the forest in the shadows.
I felt that I was at the top of my game, and even had the impression that I was moving with great ease and that I could observe the transitions with a striking precision. However, as the experts point out, a sharpening of the senses and of the intellect are the usual results after getting intoxicated on ether. Thus, for example, they tell us of a ten-year-old boy who, after a minor operation, had become addicted to ether, which he inhaled or swallowed, and secretly obtained greater and greater quantities of the drug from pharmacies. He stole from his parents to satisfy his addiction, which had become incurable. In school, he was distinguished for his brilliant academic performance. Above all, he easily solved mathematical problems when he had awakened from his ether-induced stupor. He died at the age of nineteen; according to Lewin, of a heart attack. Just before he died, he was consuming a liter of ether every day. This is reminiscent of the fantastic quantities that De Quincey used to take with laudanum.
My walk led me past the Leibniz monument to the street that curves from Waterloo Square to Friedrichswall. To the left is the fortress next to the Leine with its fountains, to the right a small tavern. Behind, the barracks, the arsenal, and a little further the Schrader public baths: a familiar picture where little has changed for generations.
Then I turned towards Friedrichswall, a beautiful and peaceful street where my grandfather and I used to walk hand in hand. To the right, the “new” city hall, behind the Masch, to the left a neighborhood where remnants of the old urban walls are still standing. Now it was busy; during the lunch break, soldiers in uniform surged down all the side streets. As I said, I was having some fun with the ceremonial of saluting. Generally speaking, we must every now and then put ourselves through bothersome experiences and practice them like a game. This surprises pedants, who take it for an excess of zeal.
In addition to this attitude, we must also take into account the penetrating optimism that is the after-effect of the drug. The dose can be gauged, from superficial stimulation to the depths of total intoxication. One could see persons who loitered around busy streets, with a handkerchief soaked in ether held up to their faces, because their landlady could not stand the penetrating odor that impregnated the house. And that is how De Quincey also traversed the city of London. In such cases, the external world is allowed to participate in the game. It begins to obey, as if led by the conductor with his baton.
It is indisputable that with a little drop one more easily confronts everyday obligations, even those that one has postponed dealing with for a long time. “It makes it easier to get started.” Old veterans often toss back a small glass before the shooting starts: “liquor that hits the mark”.
All along the sidewalk I saw the insignias of various ranks appear and disappear like the numbers, colors and images in a card game. Sometimes I was the first to salute, at other times I had to wait, depending on whether a big fish or a subordinate appeared. I saluted first, or second, or simultaneously, depending on the various branches of the military or ties of comradery. A simple dispenser of worm medicine, that is, a doctor mobilized with his caduceus, did not pose any problem. Then, a second lieutenant comes along, a real Prussian-type bastard, with almost congenital inhibitions. To describe the salute that one must give in this kind of situation would require a whole book.
They passed by as if in a kaleidoscope. Formalities and rules were still in effect, although with uncertain and ill-defined borders. I saw people I knew, like my future runner, the regiment’s tailor, Wodrich, and the aviator Bittrich, who was a test pilot for aircraft manufacturers and was swimming in gold. A messenger with his shoulder bag went by. For Wodrich, the world was on the verge of falling apart as far as he was concerned: the last straw was when he heard that a captain had stolen a sausage from the market: some captain! Bittrich, who survived the war, would later become a real big fish.
Salut au monde! My state of mind was exultant, as if I was in a shooting party, I felt like a fish in water, I was in full control of the rules of the game. This was merely one aspect, but I did not feel any less pleased, like someone driving on his way to a date who entertains himself by taking the curves with confidence. A sensation of well being like that is contagious; it was no longer necessary to contain myself, or to calculate my attitude, when I passed by the second lieutenant—I simply responded correctly. I did not violate the rules, but observed them and mastered them as if the whole thing was a game. I could sense a spark of sympathy, a profound complicity, at the instant our glances met.
Suddenly, to my left, an officer with epaulets on his shoulders and wide red stripes on his trousers appeared: a major from the General Staff who, obviously, was on his way, like every day, to the office. At that very moment, I took the curve with too much confidence, and when I had barely passed him I heard: “Hey, wait a minute!” And then, in the military jargon of Potsdam, with a sharp demanding tone that did not brook any opposition: “Why didn’t you salute the gentleman major general?”
He gave me an angry look, while he pointed at the sidewalk with his hand. It was indeed an unusual spectacle: a general on a bicycle. It was Linde-Suden, who was on his way to General Headquarters. I could still see him in half profile over the red flaps with a crown of oak leaves in gold.
Quick rejoinders are not ordinarily counted among my strong points. On this occasion, the ether undoubtedly inspired me: “I was concentrating all my attention on the gentleman major.”
His gaze pierced me with his severe but also languid face. The veins popping out of his neck, his eyes red, a slightly yellow complexion, ill-tempered, the kind of person who was suited for garrison service in the rearguard, an intelligent night shift worker, with an iron will.
It was obvious that he did not want to let me off the hook so easily, for, after having inspected me from head to toe, he asked me:
“Why did you leave without your weapons?”
In fact, I had forgotten them; but at least I was wearing my cap. Then I said, although it was not true, but it could have been true:
“I have a medical exemption!”
“Well, well…. And who is the doctor who is treating you?”
“The medical doctor captain Sternheim, major, sir.”
“Sternheim? Sternheim? It is obvious that he discharged you too soon. It is unlike him. It is true, though, that you still smell like a hospital.”
He looked me over again with manifest benevolence.
“Just like a wounded man, gold plated. Won’t they give you a medal for your loyal service in the trenches? Not at all. You should, perhaps, be a little more careful. But pay more attention; one slip could be fatal!”
“It will not happen again.”
His prophecy was accurate. Undoubtedly, the good fellow always felt like he was on duty and took advantage of his walks between the office and his home to enforce discipline and dish out warnings to the undisciplined. In principle, he was entirely correct, since every revolt begins with refusing to salute. But you cannot stop an avalanche.
Sometimes, our virtues are turned against us and our faults work in our favor. My disorientation had contributed to a narrow escape from this incident. Still floating on the wings of the ether, I then proceeded to the King George tavern. The owner had reserved a table for patients with nervous disorders, where almost all the customers had bandaged heads. Odd behavior did not attract particular attention there. Zobel had taken a bullet in the forehead and luckily it had lodged between the two cerebral lobes, without causing serious lesions. A stroke of good luck amidst misfortune, the first prize in a macabre lottery. Mundt, on the other hand, had lost part of his brain; he had to learn how to count and add, like a child. An old colonial soldier from Cameroon, with a small incision on his upper lip, was agitated at first by the symptoms of an extreme euphoria. We called him “Incredible”, because that was one of his favorite words. Between one digression and another, concerning how the Battle of the Marne would have turned out, if he had been in command instead of Hentsch, he interspersed some specific memories, especially concerning the time he spent in colonial service.
“When I heard the boy beat the drum, I grabbed my rifle and ran out of my tent in my pyjamas.”
Then he told us about how he found himself, in the moonlight, face to face with a gorilla, whose teeth glittered in all their whiteness. He shot at the animal without hearing any sound; it was like a dream.
“Then I heard someone whisper behind me: ‘cartridge, cartridge’; my girl from the Hausa tribe put a cartridge in my hand. She had followed me while the boys stayed behind out of fear.”
In his frozen state he was full of good spicy stories, like a shipwrecked sailor returning from the Tropics, and he constituted a kind of goldmine of data for the Sheikh, who also consulted him in eroticis. He often told us anecdotes about the Hausa girl, who came from the savannah and had a light complexion. Although he only provided for her as one would take care of a small dog that lies on the wicker mat at the foot of the bed, it was obvious that he had nonetheless cultivated a bond of affection with her.
In this circle, as I have said, I could hardly have attracted attention. On the other hand, I felt that my mind was more clear and lucid than usual, and I took the curves more abruptly, but I still did not feel the state that supervenes after a big breakfast. An intermission inserted into my everyday life; that night I went on the date I mentioned above.
The major, as I said, had predicted accurately: things would soon turn catastrophic. When in the midst of collapse things become even more catastrophic, the wave recedes and new norms are imposed. That is what happened here, too. It was not long before the major general went down with the ship, in circumstances that were hardly glorious. And at his side, the major. His offices were occupied by new commanders; thus, that of the major, for example, was assigned to Kleist, who also came to a catastrophic end, twenty-five years later, on the southern wing of the eastern front. I met him again in Vorosilovsk.
As for the meeting at Friedrichswall, Frederick said to me: “He rides a pale horse”;54 and my adversary also sensed it immediately, despite the imprecision of his diagnosis. If I had “breakfasted copiously”, he would have known immediately. Such a thing can happen, for example, on your birthday. But that it should happen while out on a walk, right under his nose, while I followed in the footsteps of Maupassant, was something that was beyond his understanding.
Butterflies flutter in the thicket of phenomena, in whose shadow the panther lies dreaming.
So much for ether. Narcosis was followed by an interval of lucid happiness. Ecstatic intoxication had descended into a profound source; similar, but not identical, to the way it was described by Maupassant. I heard something like an orchestra that suddenly started to play, whose theme was taken up by a second orchestra and reflected like an echo that was modulated and developed in a series of variations. The echo was repeated resonantly and deeply. After a brief pause, the first orchestra played again. At first, they were far from each other and, then, they began to gradually come closer to each other, while the instruments subsided. Shortly before losing consciousness, the image and its reflection became identical and merged in a low frequency buzz. I had heard the sound of the fabric. In the strings that no longer vibrated, the sound is extinguished. It switched off, it became too low for the human ear.
Here, then, is the Hegelian synthesis, harmonically reduced and accessible to any intelligence. A simplification that leads to successions of rhythmic nodes. In this way, it is obvious not why something is understood, but the need, the function of the act of comprehension in general.
Therefore, the thinker who does not work within this pre-established need will not be able to show the question that must be understood. If, in his system, the harmonia mundi does not vibrate, his words will only graze the recipient. This sound must have the eloquence of the word. This, in turn, explains the effect of some systems on masses whom these systems cannot reach intellectually. They not only influence with commentaries, but also immediately.

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