Where did you find so many stories, Master Ludovico?

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After having taken my personal effects from my valise which, at the time, was still called a necessaire, I made myself comfortable and put on my pajamas. There was a chair in the room that had known better days; I reclined upon it, put my legs up on a coffee table and covered them with the blanket. Now it was time to read, a duty I almost never neglected to perform.
At that time, in Halle, I had brought along a small edition of The Thousand and One Nights. When I was taking it out of my valise, my glance fell upon a porcelain container, about the size of my palm, which bore an embossed oval inscription: EXTR. CANNABIS. It was perfect: I could take advantage of my stay in this place to test this experience; anyway, I was accustomed to doing three or four things at the same time. Thus, I could read, drink tea, smoke a pipe, pet the cat and also think about this or that pleasant experience—all these things harmonized well, when they were unified by right state of mind.
The porcelain container was made in such a way that it could have held twenty cigarettes; it had a small lid, with a clasp shaped like an acorn. It was an example of the sobriety that flourished in the last years of the 18th century, at first as a reduction of surface area, which still did not affect the proportions. This tendency can be observed in every domain, but especially in the work of silversmiths. Druggists’ jars were no exceptions. This reduction becomes evident when we compare the offices of the late Baroque period, such as have been preserved in Salzburg or Mergentheim, with our contemporary laboratories. In Oslo, the Swan Pharmacy shows what the Imperial style was still capable of creating, not only with regard to artisanal works, but also in symphonic performances.
As for the containers, they were either broken one by one with the passage of time, or else they were retired when the proprietor decided to update his equipment. The Lion Pharmacy in Leisnig must have known a whole series of such containers after having been obtained its license. The latter was granted by August the Strong. In the old documents we can still note extraordinary privileges, such as, for example, the right to manufacture Theriac right in the middle of the marketplace.
When they were not destroyed, the superfluous containers found a place on a shelf in the storage room. That is where the medicinal herbs were stored in the old days. Hardly a trace of such things remains, since plants have long since disappeared from the old pharmacies and, with them, so have the magnificent botanists of the stature of Parkinson (author of Paradisus Terrestris, published in London in 1629).79 Now they no longer administer leaves, flowers, roots or bark, but active principles.
For a long time, nothing had been stored up there but old junk. I used to like to poke around up there, and I could do so whenever I wanted. Of course, the old rectangular bottles, made of colored glass embossed with inscriptions, had long since disappeared, but these porcelain jars had not yet become museum pieces. There were more than a hundred of them in the storage room in the loft; they must have been put there, all at once, God knows when. I picked out a few of them, choosing the ones with labels that were more or less odd.
The glassware had to have been manufactured at a nearby factory, about sixty years before, and was put into storage maybe thirty or forty years later. The small jars had contained ointments, but only rarely does the pharmacist dispense their contents with a spoon, which, like the mortar and pestle and even the scale, has gradually gone out of use.
Besides, the names embossed on the porcelain jars referred, in part, to substances that, now that they were obsolete, no longer figured in doctor’s prescriptions. The extractum Cannabis, for example, was only used occasionally in Western pharmacies, while in the East it was considered to be a panacea. It was obtained by rolling the cannabis leaves on planks and scraping off the residues, or by having men walk through fields of cannabis wearing leather aprons, to which the resinous residues adhered. In the West, pills and tinctures of cannabis were effective remedies for insomnia, melancholia and depression; they were used, along with opium, as psycho-pharmaceuticals.
In every pharmacy there was a kind of domestic gnome, a factotum, who, besides running errands, performed all the tasks that did not require any particular skills. One of these tasks involved refilling the containers, and the assistant probably spared himself the trouble of cleaning them first. With the passage of time, the contents dried up like an Egyptian mummy, petrified and crystallized. Some substances have preserved their consistency over a long period of time in a most surprising way; among them, extract of cannabis. A layer of resin covered the bottom of the jar, which had acquired a dark, glassy green color, such as is described in the manuals. It is true that, according to the treatises, with the passage of time the substance should have turned gray, and should have lost some of its potency.
Anyway, it would not hurt to try it; perhaps a trace of the active principle remained in the paste. I committed the typical betrayal of trust, by taking not only the container, but also the contents. This recklessness was certainly contrary to the sensible judgment of my father, but this was not the only secret I concealed from him.
For my father, intoxication was a disgusting vice. How was it possible to reconcile a passion for the music of Mozart with a rational interpretation of the surrounding world and its problems? How would such a thing be possible for a penetrating, and even incisive intellect? This is a question that I have often asked myself. In any event, the common denominator had to lie at a great depth. Which speaks in favor of Mozart, and also of my father. I have only seen him tipsy on two or three occasions, and then only slightly tipsy. Then he would light a cigarette and take a few drags. He loved difficult problems, but only if they could be solved, like a chess move. The eruption of irrational ideas and elements upset him; he abhorred excess just as, in general, he abhorred the unpredictable. From major phenomena he extracted the mathematical details, in order to devote himself to their examination; thus, of the operations of the First World War, which seemed confused to him, he selected only the Battle of Skagerrak. Like all pharmacists, he had some unpleasant experiences with morphine addicts. This topic was taboo among us.
The paste, as I said, was an intense green color, like the color of the branches of pine trees in a snow-covered forest. I had not brought a spoon with me, or any kind of knife, so I took out my toothbrush and dipped it into the paste at the bottom of the jar, that is, I used the celluloid handle of the toothbrush, which was a transparent red color, like a caramel. A dab of resin adhered to it, a sticky substance that felt rough on my teeth. Maybe it had not been sitting around as long as I thought.
Now I could shift gears, get up off the ground. The course of the day often seemed to me like a road covered with broken glass: gray, lacerating, full of dissonances. However, there was still the hope that in this landscape something would take shape and articulate itself, round off and melt into a unitary form—something that would not require so much an effort of will as a capacity for vision. Reading offered me an example.
I do not specifically recall which of the stories from that great book that I began, and continued, to read at the time—I have forgotten the title, while I still remember the plot. It is expressed time and time again, with greater or lesser clarity, in stories in which the almost unlimited extension of time becomes visible. Magicians like to show off their powers, so that even in our time they perform the “miracle of the mango tree”. In newsreels you see them, seated, with their hands motionless. In some stories, all they need is a cup of water; they beg the sultan in whose court they are guests to lower his head. The sultan then hears a roaring sound, as if he was sinking in the sea, on the bottom of which he undertakes a pilgrimage that leads him to a distant coastline. There he comes to the surface in a city; he looks like a beggar. He walks to the mosque and there he finds, standing in front of the mosque, a woman who is awaiting the first man who comes along—for a law or a vote obliges her to give herself as wife to precisely that man. She leads the foreigner to the baths and then, dressed in the finest vestments for the banquet, she accompanies him to the wedding. He devotes himself to sharing the fate of this lady, he fathers children by her, he acquires houses, gardens, and slaves, and over the years rises to the highest positions and honors. His luck does not last, however; he is implicated in dangerous conspiracies, cast into captivity, and condemned to death. He comes to the scaffold; the executioner puts the rope around his neck and hoists him up. He hears a roaring sound, like the rumor of the waves crashing on the shore, then the rope breaks his neck. When he raises his head, he realizes that it was not the sound of the sea that he heard, but the sound of the water in the cup the magician is holding, where he had actually been submerged for only an instant.
The great lords were not always pleased by their sojourns in the world of dreams. One of them, an Egyptian sultan, I think, was even so enraged by his imaginary torments that he ordered the magician to be beheaded. As De Quincey, above all, experienced it, the “sting of time”.
As it turned out, the magician was almost always rewarded with ingratitude. One can observe this in the demonstrations staged by hypnotists: when the spellbound persons snap out of their trances, they glare angrily at the hypnotist. The students who were tricked at Auerbach’s Cellar were no different: “‘Tis magic! Strike—The knave is outlawed!”80
I reached out and opened the book. The bitter part of the day had passed. How could people have put up with it, before there were books? The sultan lowered his head—I saw the magician smile, I saw the stupid astonishment on the faces of the assembled swordsmen. They had their hands on the hilts of their scimitars, except for one, who was holding the turban of the sultan. Then I heard the roar of the sea and I began my pilgrimage through its depths.
The images were powerful and direct: they were not mediated by reflection. Up until then they had glittered like light from a mirror—now I saw the same light, but up close. Before, I had read the text in a good translation; now I heard it recited in its original language. I was no longer a reader. The tale revealed a depth that I had never even suspected. It had made the sea and its monotony accessible. Whoever heard it, whoever felt its waves wash over him, no longer needed the text, he could dispense with the letters of the alphabet.
I set the book aside; I was breathing faster, with a great feeling of pleasure. Every breath was a joy; I was conscious of this pleasure. I felt it as a light touch in my diaphragm. This touch was rhythmic, it was like the movement of a pendulum that touched me very softly, it caressed me and then was lost at the distant point of a long oscillation. It returned and brushed me again, a little more deeply and delicately. I continued on my pilgrimage on the bottom of the sea, and I heard its murmur; it was a rich and pleasant sound. The pendulum went back and forth; its impetus was increasing. Now, I ascended along with the pendulum; one of its components had broken away from the physis. I rose with the bob of the pendulum as if on the gondola of an amusement park ride; it had the form of a half moon. The keel was as sharp as the blade of a knife, it hardly grazed my skin. It was the air current that was caressing it. My sensitivity increased when the swinging pendulum was on its way up—at its high point I was seized by vertigo. All of this forced me to laugh compulsively, then I came back down whistling. The motion was unstoppable and uncontrollable; it reached a point where I was afraid I was going to fall.
Serenity was followed by intense pleasure, then came qualms, and then anxiety, almost without any transition. After reaching its high point, the pendulum began to oscillate in the opposite direction. It is as if children were playing with a small fire and were amusing themselves with the flames, until, hissing and crackling, it reached the crown of the trees. Then they run away, terrified. The fire spreads in the blink of an eye.
Our sensitivity has its limits. When we cross a particular threshold, perception becomes paradoxical, as if contact with congealed objects causes blisters like those caused by fire. Extreme pains can be transmuted into pleasure, as in the execution of Damiens. Likewise, pleasure can become too intense. Then it is manifested as a theft from nature; the situation reverses in an instant.
Anxiety did not gradually creep up on me; it supervened with all its violence. The swing of the gondola did not slow down, but moved as if it had reversed directions. I jumped up, looked at myself in the mirror and did not recognize myself. That face there, pallid, distorted in a sneer, was stronger than mine, and was hostile towards me. It was up to something wicked; I could not look away from it.
I must have ingested too strong a dose. Maybe a lethal dose. Above all, it was necessary to remain calm and not wake up my mother. The substance must disappear; the jar was still on the table. I quickly opened the window and threw it out; it landed in a snow bank. Then, it would be advisable to drink as much water as I possibly could, to induce vomiting; I could not allow myself to be overcome by madness.
The anxiety increased, however; I could not bear to be closed up in that room for much longer. The hallway was dimly lit; I walked down the hall, opening doors as quickly as possible. In one room, two men were sitting, counting money, and, stunned by my intrusion, they immediately stood up. In the next room, a lady was squatting over the bidet; her husband waved his fist at me. Downstairs, in the lobby, there was still a crowd of people; I rushed forward, running barefoot and with my pajamas unbuttoned, among the crowd, bumping into them and tripping over their suitcases.
“You can’t do that here, sir”, the young bellhop shouted; I was already on my way back up the stairs. Irate guests were coming down the stairs; the ones whose privacy I had violated.
There was nothing else I could do; I felt that I had to wake up my mother, since I was no longer capable of dealing with the situation. She was still awake, reading in bed, as had been her custom since she was a child. It was not the first time that I made her worry; but this must have been the last straw. She stared at me as if in a dream, my condition and my face were reflected in her look. Then the bellhop came in; I heard my mother saying in a low voice, “He suddenly felt indisposed … nervous agitation … telephone … call the doctor”. Then she came to my side, while I, in a state of growing anxiety, could not stop writhing on the bed.
The doctor arrived a few minutes later; undoubtedly, he lived in the vicinity and often made house calls for patients at the hotel. Hotels are microcosms of society, stations along the road of life and its trials. Furthermore, one’s health is in peril on journeys. Every kind of case, from indigestion to suicide, is an emergency here, and the hotel desk clerk needs a first class doctor who will respond to calls without delay. This doctor was around sixty years old; he was corpulent, with loose folds of skin; the light gleamed on his balding head. He came without a coat, either because he only lived across the street or because he left it in the lobby. He was breathing heavily, undoubtedly because he had walked up the stairs, and except for this particular detail, his presence radiated tranquility, while the bellhop who was looking over his shoulder through the half-open door displayed a look that was somewhere between curious and horrified. I saw the doctor’s white skull approach me under the light, and lower down on his bald head I saw the two lenses of dark eyeglasses; they must have been almost perfectly circular.
“You want to tell me everything about this: now you are trying to be careful not to reveal your secret. That could prove fatal.”
Even today I wonder just what kind of fatality he was talking about. He was, certainly, the approach of a power that represented order, with its morality and common sense. In this sense, every encounter between the sick person and the doctor conceals, to a greater or lesser extent, a certain hostility, and in cases like this it comes to the surface. They are border skirmishes.
The white skull with dark eyes approached slowly, and leaned over me. Next to the bed there was a reading lamp on a small table; the doctor took hold of it and shined its light on my face. It was unpleasant. I saw how the bellhop’s mouth suddenly opened. Then the doctor began the interrogation: “Have you ingested anything? A medicine or some other substance?”
At the same time, he carefully looked all around the room. But the jar with the green paste was outside in the slush. I had to take off my jacket; my mother helped me. The doctor examined my arms, and put his hands on my chest. He palpitated my stomach. “Did you drink or perhaps eat anything?”
This question brought back to me the memory of the Leipzig train station, and the carp à la polonaise. That was my scapegoat: I would shift the blame onto the fish. A good idea, and better yet, I was not the one who suggested it. I only said, “Nothing since today around noon”. This set the stage for my mother’s answer: “It must have been the carp.” The doctor nodded his head: although he might not be convinced, at least he accepted it as a hypothesis. Despite my attempt to restrain myself, I could not help but smile. The doctor then put some dark powder in a glass and asked the bellhop to bring some strong coffee. The bellhop disappeared into the kitchen and returned in a little while with a serving tray.
The doctor had chosen the right remedy; already the first swallow was like a soothing balm that spread softly through my soul. The tension was relaxed just as suddenly as it had arrived, and along with it that strange mixture of wild frenzy and anxiety. In its place, serenity spread. It was more than beneficial; it was a profound pleasure of existence. Real happiness is without reason; it comes like a wave that catches us by surprise. We are unaware of its causes. Perhaps, far from the hotel, a meteor plunged into the sea. Perhaps it was only a favorable conjunction of the stars; it is the kind of happiness that is becoming increasingly more rare.
My mother could now breathe easy; she could not believe her eyes. The misfortune had passed, like a dream whose meaning is not revealed until you awaken. Even the doctor was satisfied; the case had caused less inconvenience than he had at first expected; he did not waste any time with unnecessary talk.
In addition, some of the other guests had gathered outside the room, unbidden, out of curiosity, and now they, too, joined in the atmosphere of good cheer. Even the man who had shaken his fist at me was there, a small fat man in a tee shirt. He said to my mother: “It’s not at all odd that he should lose his nerve in such a condition.”
A favorable atmosphere; among the group that had gathered temporarily in that sparsely-furnished room and who now dispersed, I only saw friendly faces. I felt lucky, myself; there has to be something in us that acts directly on the environment, which then takes the form of an echo or reflected image. This is valid for both good and bad occasions, for both the crests and the troughs in the waves of life: our mothers are the only persons who will never let us down.
On Christmas and New Year’s Day I often visited my parents, whenever I could. On Saint Sylvester’s Day we dined on carp, as is the custom in many families. Since time immemorial, this animal has risen with the wave of life, as the bearer of good luck, for the ushering in of the New Year. In that region, it was served as “blue carp”, with a sprig of parsley in its open mouth, and garnished with lemon slices. An image full of color: the red roe, the melted butter and the raifort with cream also made their contributions.
The fish, which came from the lakes of Bohemia, got bigger with the passage of the years, and we had to extend the table after the grandchildren were born. Friedrich Georg, who had for many years sat across from my father, was gradually moved farther and farther away from him. The old man contemplated the big table with satisfaction. As a self-declared positivist he did not hold the beyond in high esteem, but he did believe “that we survive in our children”.
While everyone was gazing at the fish with delight, our mother warned us to watch out for bones; and she did not forget to point out that this fish had still been alive and wagging his tail only that very morning. “For”, she added, “when it comes to fish poisoning, I have already had enough of that for the last time in Halle. Ernst can tell us something about that, can’t you?”
“Yes, what an unpleasant story”, I usually answered, and could not avoid blushing a little.
I reaped compassion where I least deserved it. In this connection, I would at least like to mention the astounding expenditure of cleverness of which one is capable, when a great disorder seizes control of one’s head. Undoubtedly, this cleverness is rooted in a deeper layer than our intellect. It can be manifested by putting itself at the service of the intellect, or by overruling the intellect in an instinctive way, more or less like a chameleon. This strange animal does not choose its camouflage coloring the way a painter would; but by reacting directly to the light. His skin harbors a grid as sensitive as a very fine-grained photographic film. But it surpasses film, since it also conceals a trick. Behind everything that is automatic, this trick lives, which refines it to an incredible degree, but which can also live without it.
To have disposal over and to judge81
How is it that a failure, a mistake, or a debt afflicts us for such a long time and we never completely liquidate it? The feeling of being in debt to my mother has tormented me since the incident in Halle. This anxiety is a specific, almost Tantalus-like, torture. It is always possible to put an end to resentment produced by a misfortune, as it is possible to put an end to a the pain caused by an insult, even a serious one; time heals these wounds. However, why does the memory of an injustice, which weighs upon our “own” conscience, torment us for so long and so disastrously? They are not scars; they are the edges of an open wound, and the memory accompanies us, it goes back to our first year at school.
It seems as if there is a judge in our conscience; yes, there is a judge “in us”. This jurisdiction has nothing to do with morality, nor does it have anything to do with rights or the law; that would be too simple. Nor is it just about expiation. The Fathers of the Church shed much half-light on this domain. If it was just about expiation, then this judge would have to fall silent once “the debt is paid”; but that is not what happens. We can leave the prison, or the brig, after ten or twenty years and nonetheless never cease to be tried by this internal court. We might even believe that we human beings have condemned ourselves unjustly—this changes little or nothing.
The judge does not pronounce the final sentence—it is each person who casts his own shadow over himself. Among the great criminal trials of our century, the case of the lawyer, Hau, demonstrates this in a special way, for, after he was released from prison he committed suicide. Even the stubborn denial of guilt, maintained right up to the end, is not directed so much at the world as at the image of our own conscience, which maintains a merciless silence. “Thus must you be, from self there is no remission.” In this venue you cannot win an appeal to declare a mistrial. We are treading on terrain where things become serious and inevitable, like death. Justice remains elsewhere, where a complete silence reigns—as it was in the time of Socrates, and so it is today when justice is increasingly more obviously patterned on the traffic code.
What importance does this internal judge have, which has such a minor relation with “crime and punishment”? By the way, Raskolnikov could have beaten the prosecutor at his own game, but he could not escape his own conscience. Raskolnikov did not owe his defeat to a logical error, but to a fracture in his substance. Hence the abject nature of the crime committed “with an axe”; Napoleon, whom he believed he was imitating, would never have thought of such a thing even in his wildest dreams.
Before this Court, the seriousness of the crime does not enter into consideration. The ease with which dictators brush off their qualms of conscience, even when they are responsible for vast destruction, is shocking;82 Napoleon did not feel any guilt when, on his deathbed, he murmured these words: “tête d’armée”. Nonetheless, the spirit that disposes also suffers, undoubtedly, as bitterly or more bitterly than any other. It is just that he is aware of his failure in a different way.
We have to consider this manner of judgment in a more simple and general way, as a will to have disposal over something, whose tragedy consists in the fact that it cannot rectify fate. Speaking in biological terms, we expect to modify phenomena, and this is more or less practicable, while the genotype perseveres inalterably in its essence. There is no pardon; all absolution, all punishment, are only symbolic acts.
What is this anxiety, this unease, responding to, which no critical consciousness, no prosecutor, is capable of provoking on such a deep level, or with such bitter remorse? We are not capable of producing it, we are not capable of reestablishing the image. But what does it mean, “to reestablish”? This image has never existed, it has been incorporated into us with its fractures and its fissures. We do not establish any equivalence between “it is necessary” and “it is advisable” that would be like that. The exemplary model recedes more than any other from this equivalence. However, the world strives ever more diligently to adapt to this model.
Nonetheless, this internal judge persists, and he knows nothing of forgiveness. He accepts neither repentance nor a good conscience.
The distinctive feature of great problems is the fact that they are not susceptible to resolution. Their value resides in the incessant questioning which in vain calls for a response, and in inextinguishable unease. In the North I have seen masses of logs descend with the current of the river, forming a tangle of tree trunks. At first they move slowly and as they approach the rapids, more quickly. At the same time, they revolve on their axes and submit to the rhythm of the current as if they were controlled by a magnet. In many places, a lumberjack helps them along.
This is something that is repeated in the tangle of branches and roots of the tree of life, in the lines of the hand, in the chromosomes of the cell’s nucleus, in the fate of the individual. That which does not submit, will be forced to yield.
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