Where did you find so many stories, Master Ludovico?



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60
We went on a camping trip in the mountainous region of the Weser: Wandervögel; it had to be around 1910, near Duisberg. Anyway, that morning we visited the monument to the Emperor. Our group, students from the Wunstorfer region, consisted of twelve vigorous boys. We had two guides; the first was called Werner, the second, Robby.
By that time, the Wandervögel32 had developed into a group that was in part tolerated and in part encouraged by school administrators; in every high school there was a local chapter. Its ideals were vague, determined more by feelings than by facts, without academic, military or political purposes. “To be on the road”: that is, wandering aimlessly, in the romantic manner, cooking your own food, sitting around a campfire, singing, camping in tents, spending nights in barns: in this way one gained more than one thing, but lost even more.
For our current purposes the most relevant aspect of this phenomenon was the constant exchange of thoughts and opinions during the long hikes and right up until we fell asleep. Many of these conversations would last a whole lifetime: convictions that might only have been arrived at after long efforts, were obtained in sudden flashes. Hase, for example, an enthusiastic reader of Gerstäcker’s novels, kept us up to date on his reading, in discussions in the darkness in barns. Once, after he had entertained us for a long time with his conversation, I wanted to carry on with our discussion, and I said, “The Pirates of the Mississippi is an excellent book, too”, but Werner, who finally wanted to get some sleep, interrupted by saying, “That’s enough of this nonsense! Gerstäcker is a skilled storyteller, but he lacks imagination”.
Such summaries can save us a lot of work. Werner had, furthermore, good judgment combined with great vitality. “A goliard,33 a daredevil”, as it says in that song sung by the students of Prague. This does not mean, however, that he would put up with just any nonsense. The rough environment in which he had been raised also had a positive side. On the first day of our camping trip, we dined on beans, and Werner was angry with August Stiebitz, a little redheaded kid everyone called Fietje, because the kid would always let his farts fly without any qualms. He told him off: “Hey Fietje! Do you cut farts like that at home, too?”. This did not make much of an impression on Fietje; he said, “Of course. My father says that there is nothing more dangerous than holding them in. That’s how you get appendicitis”.
Stiebitz’s father was a distinguished physician, and a notorious cynic. It was said that, when he went on house calls, he used to put his finger in the bedpan and taste the urine. He was nonetheless one of the pillars of society. On the Emperor’s birthday and on the anniversary of the Battle of Sedan, he attended the celebrations at the school dressed in the uniform of a naval chief medical officer.
Fietje also had a sister who was just as small and as red-haired as he was: Erika. As long as she lived she suffered from unexpected setbacks that caught her by surprise, but did not incapacitate her; and this is what happened to me, too, on this occasion. After the war, the elder Stiebitz had some kind of disagreement with us. He had moved to Berlin and opened up an office on a street that runs parallel to Potsdam Avenue. He was an excellent specialist in internal diseases; in everything that affected the gall bladder and the liver, his diagnoses verged on clairvoyance. Word of his medical practice spread, and it was not long before his waiting room, with its painting of Wilhelm II, was mobbed with more or less jaundiced patients.
“More than one would-be patient turned around and left immediately when they saw the crowd. It’s better that way; when it comes right down to it, I can’t split myself into four parts.” This was true, and because of the nature of his clientele, gut irregularities were certainly not exceptional. In his examination room he sat on a large couch, his back to the window: “More than one bomb has exploded here.” As a type of person with a mixture of sensitive and crude traits, he was not exactly a rarity; this type is frequently encountered among physicians: the almost proverbial taste for music that is characteristic of surgeons is exemplified very clearly here.
61
I only saw Fietje once after the days of our camping trips; naturally, he, too, had enlisted in the navy and was always at sea. When I asked him about Erika, I noticed that I had touched a sore spot: “She’ll be the death of her father.” He went on to recount a whole soap opera, mostly involving her lowlife friends, especially a consumptive poet who wrote bad poetry. “When these elements are out of town, she won’t even respond to our words. Today it happened again, at noon; she curled up like a hedgehog next to the table and did nothing but stare off into space. Now the old man won’t eat a thing. At least mother isn’t here to see this.”
Then we talked about his own problems; they were of a political nature. He was traveling on a mission for the Consul Organization, and was therefore one of its agents in the navy. When I asked him about his mission, he replied: “I cannot tell you; you will find out soon enough.” He was incapable of keeping the secret, however: “First, we will overthrow your basket-maker”. He said “your basket-maker”, because he knew that I would understand that he was referring to the Minister of Defense. Therefore, this must have been shortly before the Kapp Putsch.
So much for my little digression about how the distinguished old physician transmitted, in accordance with Mendel’s laws, his liberal and his conservative genes. The historical context must have had something to do with it. At that time, in the mountainous region of the Weser, we had not yet even begun to suspect the course that would be taken by events. Thus, Werner was off-target with his reprimand, and had to change his tone: “Fietje, I do not want to know about your family’s business. But if you are going to cut one, then yell ‘nuntio!’ so that we know.”
The advice seemed to be Solomonic, but it was like escaping from the frying pan only to fall into the fire, since every time Fietje said “nuntio!” was an occasion for jokes. There was no end to the shouts of “nuntio!”, the curses and the howls of laughter. It got so bad that Werner abolished its use that same day.
62
As I said, Werner’s coarse nature had a pedagogical aspect, too; it also included “cultural tours”. He called attention to the fact that we were almost totally ignorant about how the objects and materials we use everyday were made, and he did not consider himself an exception. Cultural tours were supposed to remedy this shortcoming without delay. We had already gone to a spinning mill, a cement factory and a water purification plant, where, once Werner had presented his request, we were welcomed and given a friendly tour. Here, too, in the vicinity of the Wittekind Mountain, he felt the spur, after breakfast, of the cultural impulse. We still had a short walk to where we had previously planned to spend the night. Down below, along the bank of the river, there was a factory with tall smokestacks, a deserted-looking building whose bricks were stained black with soot. He probably had some ulterior motive for wanting to go there.
We walked down the hillside and entered through a gate that led to a deserted courtyard. Our group—with our guitars and mandolins, we constituted a “proper band”—attracted the attention of some workers. When Werner told them that we had come on a cultural tour, they did not seem to know just what to do with us; then one fellow broke out into laughter and exclaimed: “They just want to drink beer!” He nonetheless disappeared into the office and reported our arrival.
So, we had come to a brewery, and it was not long before the director, now informed of our purpose, came to meet us. I am not sure whether one of the words that was then fashionable in student jargon, schmissig, “snazzy”, comes from Schmiss, “scar”; anyway, this term, which is still in use, fit this director’s appearance to a T, even if he was somewhat fat and had a bald spot on the top of his head. It was obvious that he was quite bored with his job, and our visit provided the occasion for a pleasant break from the routine. This idea seemed to take hold of him and he offered us his personal services as a guide.
Then we saw, in various buildings, huge copper vats and cauldrons for manufacturing beer, machines for grinding and shredding, pumps, conveyor belts and sorting machines; we even climbed up to the ovens where the malted barley and hops were dried. We heard words like “brewer’s yeast” and “lees”, “green malt”, “barley froth” and “dextrin”, and we were also informed of the differences between the English, the Bohemian and the Bavarian methods of brewing beer. There were various brews, among which, the first produced strong beer, and the second, light monastery beer. The climate of Munich was especially favorable for the art of making beer; in March the conditions were at their best. This explained the fame of spring beer. Bock beer had nothing to do with the goat from which its name in German was taken; the word recalled a strong beer that was first produced in Einbeck. Mumme beer, on the other hand, the naval beer of Brunswick, still bears the name of its original brewer.34 The director expressed his hope that it would be a good year for hops. Attempts to manufacture preserved extracts of the hop plant were showing some promise. We were informed of these and other details while we stood around the machines or while we were walking up and down stairs.
63
After seeing how beer is made, it was only fair that we should taste a sample, too. Our tour concluded in a lounge in the administrative building. There, chairs had been arranged around a table decorated with a representative of the lares: a rough standard bearer, with the emblem of the brewery. The walls were covered with certificates, on which the outlines of endless rows of smokestacks were depicted, as if they would go on forever in geometric progression towards an imaginary point.
The director issued various orders. We were served a tray of cigars and cigarettes, and they also brought us several cases full of bottles of beer. A few minutes later, we were sitting down at the table around a case of beer with the brewmaster. Werner left to get his guitar; as he often said, now was the time for some laughter, if not for a little “ruckus”.
It was a stifling, hot day, but in the lounge a cool breeze circulated. Our host began the tasting with a light summer beer, in order to move on from there to the stronger varieties produced for export. At first, we drank with a natural thirst; then we drank with that other thirst that flourishes when one has already put away a few bottles, and we did not have to be asked twice when the director called for a song. We knew the whole Zupfgeigenhansl anthology by heart. The first song, undoubtedly not very appropriate for the spirit of the place, was, as always, the “Traveling Companion”:
Today I quench my thirst with the waters of a mountain spring,

tomorrow I will quench my thirst with the wine of the Rhine….


The second song was more in tune with the place:
There rises the mountain of Kyffhäuser

in the middle of Germany

at its heart sleeps the powerful emperor:

his name was Frederick Barbarossa.


Other songs followed, including the song about the battle of the Teutoberger Forest. It was in this region that Varus was dealt a defeat that lasted a millennium. Werner also knew some little ditties that were a little more spicy, without actually being obscene, as long as the spirit of the group put him in the mood. One such song was about the three happy-go-lucky lumberjacks, and another was about the little skylark—funny songs that he sang in a high-pitched voice, accompanied by the lute.
My wife, the little Skylark,

tweet la la ra,

in the church cut a fart,

tweet la la ra,

the priest came running:

Skylark, this time your song is off-key!


The director sang, too, with a deep voice. He liked ballads such as the song about the heroic mayor who saved his city; tossing back a big glass, he sang:
The fortress of Rothenburg,

rising from the bank of the Tauber,

resisting the fierce Tilly

for several months now.


It did not take long for a very genial atmosphere to prevail; we took delight in each other’s company. Until that day, I hardly ever drank beer; to me it seemed to be a bitter, insipid, nasty beverage. Then, suddenly, everything was different: my thirst, but also the group, had changed its flavor. At the same time, unsuspected energies were released. I made some singular observations.
It would have been more fitting to use the word “perceptions” than “observations” in this context. The difference between observation and perception is like the difference between the fisherman and the fish: the fisherman observes the bait; the fish perceives it. It is undoubtedly advisable, as I have attempted here, to transform our perceptions into observations, thanks to subsequent reflection. If we then succeed in transforming observation as well, we shall see both the fisherman as well as the fish from the distance of contemplation.
For perception is already effectively accompanied by thought. They are inextricably associated, and like thought, perception is also affected by illusions. That is how I succumbed to a typical logical error. Concretely, while I thought that we were sitting down and drinking because we were enjoying ourselves and we were thirsty, basically I had it backwards. We had already been in high spirits all day, since at that age it does not take much to make you happy. The drink had only favored a particular state of mind and a thirst of another kind. The threshold that separated a drink or two from getting blind drunk was almost imperceptible.
64
I had always admired Werner; he was sitting, with his shirt unbuttoned, next to the director: strong, vibrant, with reddish-blonde hair, a type of human being one sees in ancient paintings and sculpture, and is still frequently seen in the Celtic countries. The role of chief seemed to have been written just for him; it fit him like a glove. His demeanor was both self-confident and courteous, he manifested physical and spiritual superiority. In addition, he possessed a natural grace. Perhaps I would also have been capable of articulating a response or a judgment with the same grace, but I would have needed more time to formulate it: besides, I lacked the firm resolve with which he expressed his views. In his presence, agreeing with him became a pleasure.
Such characters embody our most cherished dreams. We see them and listen to them as if a part of us had broken away and appeared on the stage before us. There, at the brewery, I experienced that feeling of sympathy in a very special way, and even the director was affected by it, who listened to Werner with pleasure. He impressed us with his elegance, while we impressed him with our good behavior. On the table in front of him was a cigarette case engraved with his name. Every time he took a cigarette from the case, he gave it a little tap with his finger before lighting it. As he lit his cigarette, the flame illuminated a blue jewel on his hand, in a setting emblazoned with a coat of arms. His beer stein also featured the same coat of arms embossed in enamel, under the firm’s motto: “Let this be our standard!”
I have forgotten just what the standard looked like; the colors of the coat of arms were the same as those of the pennon attached to his watch chain. Everything was harmonious: and there were the scars: a totemic spirit, born after his time. This was a man who felt comfortable in his skin, and who knew what was his due; which one could see by the way he gave orders. They were, rather, desires that corresponded to a friendly relation of authority: desires, concerning whose fulfillment there could be no hesitation. For example: “Krause, could you perhaps…?”
Krause was the master brewer, a cheerful type who knew how to make us laugh, which would not have taken much effort in any case. When he took a little sip, he would say, for example: “To your health, Krause, I would very much like to drink a toast with you”, and before a big swallow: “Look out below, my dear soul, there’s going to be a downpour”. The director must have heard all of his quips many times; he barely cracked a smile.
Krause was constantly taking new bottles from the case, inviting us to drink, and also to have a smoke. He was probably rubbing his hands together in glee when we were not looking. He drank nonstop; thirst seemed to be his natural state. His boss also emptied a few steins and did so with a style that left no room for doubt that he had a lot of practice. He had a way of drinking that one might call casual: he drank the beer in one swallow, without effort, without moving his Adam’s Apple: the liquid passed through the swallowing apparatus without a pause. Similarly, when the revels became louder, he remained motionless in his chair; he was accustomed to presiding over banquets.
65
Not everyone experienced the same pleasant feelings in this new situation, and some were even seriously irritated. Thus, Robby, our second-in-command, became increasingly more disagreeable the longer our little get together lasted. Not only did he just sit there with a frown on his face, and without so much as touching a drop of beer, but he also tried to prevent us from drinking and blamed Werner above all for our going astray. The greater our jubilation, the more sullen he became.
To be fair, he was right, it was one of the rules of those hiking clubs: during outings one was permitted neither to drink alcohol nor to smoke. Although we still sang their Dionysian songs, this abstinence distinguished us from our predecessors, the Bacchantes, who, naturally, were a little older than us. So Robby’s protest was not unjust. Even so, this beer-tasting was a justified exception to the rule. I had always considered him to be a pedant, whose greatest aspiration was that nothing should “happen” during the trip; it made him so mad I thought he would faint, with his wrinkled nose, as if he had smelled a foul odor. When Werner rebuked him, he walked out and rid us of his spoilsport presence.
Now, when I recall the figure of Robby, it seems to me that he was possessed by an unusual zeal for order. As he often said, he liked to dot his i’s. It was undoubtedly not by chance that he was interested in orthography. He was obsessed with the dots. In his view, they were used far too often; he persecuted the superfluous dots. When the train departed from the station—we were in a fourth class compartment “for passengers with heavy baggage”, where we were always kept under close observation—Robby devoted himself to reading the notices posted on the walls of the compartment. He took out a pen and began to mark up the dots with a pedagogical zeal; the first fell already after the word “Notice”. He also had all kinds of objections to the semicolon. He deemed it a hybrid. Thirty years later, I read something similar in Valéry, who, indeed, also had in common with Robby the fact that he was a good mathematician. He found alcoholic beverages repulsive, without exception, as substances that were harmful to the nature of life. Unfermented fruit juice was healthy, digestible and tastes better.
66
Back to the brewery: then I saw my comrades more clearly; they expressed themselves more frankly and with greater enthusiasm. Whether speaking or silent, we were closely united in an immediate understanding. It was quite surprising, as if you did not see a punch was aimed at you until it hit you. The cavalryman is quite familiar with this state; he might have been riding a horse for a whole year and suddenly he understands what it means to ride.
We can read a letter at the same time that we follow its sentences and the thoughts they express; but we can also look it over, without seeing words or syllables, but only the author’s handwriting style. Then, the writer of the letter seems to suddenly appear as if from out of a forest or from behind a fence. We see that only he constitutes the real content of the letter, not the message.
I do not mean to imply that our conversation was more brilliant. To the contrary. The lively and enthusiastic turn taken by our conversation did not depend on reason, but on that harmony that, like a universal force, reconciles all things, just as the wind blows on everything and the sun shines on everything. Thus, with drunkenness, the futility and the inconsistency of the conversation increase, at least from the point of view of those who are not directly involved. In fact, the rhyme must not be sought in the words, but in the harmony. Since the sober man does not participate in that harmony, the festival seems strange to him or, as it did to our second-in-command Robby, annoying.
67
Soon, other considerations began to occupy my attention. That sharpened sense of sight, which up until then was directed at my comrades, was now focused on objects. The floor was made of paving stones; they came from the red sandstone of the mountains, just like the monument that we had visited that morning. On this red floor, a case full of bottles of beer stood out. You only had to open them, the white stoppers glistened. There were twenty-five: five times five. I counted them several times: how could an odd number form a square? Of course, one could take any number of bottles from each side. But don’t you need four somewhere to form a square?
A paradox of this kind had never before occurred to me: I did not like math, and since it hardly interested me at school, I found it very strange that I should be thinking about mathematical questions in my private life. And here I was, face to face, by chance, and without any training, with a point of intersection where geometry and arithmetic came into contact, with the primacy of measurement over calculation, of space over time. More important than the confrontation with this problem was the encounter, which was more universal, with the evidence: with the intuitive force from which our questions and our knowledge bursts forth.
68
While I was engrossed in contemplation of the twenty-five white ceramic stoppers, the party continued on its course. There was undoubtedly some discord. Krause appeared with a bottle of schnapps and some shot glasses on a tray, but the director refused it with a gesture. Nor did he like it when his factotum told dirty jokes. Fietje got up and left the room; when he came back, he was as white as a ghost and his forehead was beaded with sweat. The director took a look at his watch on its fob. It was time to go. Werner began singing the song that we always sang when it was time to say goodbye:
Goodbye, good night,

the party comes to an end



so now I have to go.
Our tour had come to an end. We thanked the director, we hoisted our backpacks and departed, still in good condition. The forest was not far away; only when we got into the woods did we begin to feel the effect of an unaccustomed pleasure. The air in the bar had concentrated it. Fietje had to vomit again; he was nearly in a state of collapse. Werner unbuttoned Fietje’s shirt and put a wet rag on his chest. He had brought along a first aid kit.
The sunlight gleamed obliquely through the crowns of the trees. We threw ourselves down on the moss, overcome by weariness. It was somewhat reminiscent of the old Bacchantes, whose wild feasts in the forests only began after drinking with the peasants until nightfall, when they frolicked with the farmhands in the hay.
69
When we awoke, hung over, it was already late in the evening. There was nothing for us to do but to look for a place to stay for the night. This was not hard and we usually succeeded on our first attempt. The farmer, who had almost always served in the military, ordinarily received us with hospitality and let us stay in his barn. It often happened that, at the same farm, we were even treated to conversation, bread and cold cuts.
It was already dark when we came to a large farm isolated in a clearing. A dog followed us, barking. We had to yell at the door of the farmhouse for a long time, until the door opened and the farmer looked us over. The encounter got off on the wrong foot right from the start. Because of the dog’s barking, Werner spoke in a louder voice than usual, and was obliged to shout louder and louder, because the farmer did not seem to understand what we wanted from him. The farmer never stopped asking: “What do you want?”, and this query gradually took on a more threatening tone. And his dog was also getting more and more furious. Finally, he shouted to his son or his servant: “Hinnerk, come here! And bring the bat with you!” The time had come to hit the road.
We did not stop until we had gone quite a distance into the woods. We formed a circle. Under the light of the moon, I examined the faces of my comrades in the murky darkness. Our morale was very bad. Our musical instruments and our decorative feathers took on a mournful look. The romantic atmosphere had evaporated. Perhaps, for that reason, we found ourselves closer to the reality of the old vagabonds, who might have been chased away from the farm and beaten with sticks. We had to resign ourselves to having been knocked down a notch in the class system. And besides our weariness, we had to face the crisis of our command structure, which had already reared its head during our tour of the brewery. Werner was beside himself with rage:
“What a wicked beast! Have you ever seen such a thing! No one has ever treated us like that.”
Robby’s time had come. He finally gave free rein to the secret anger that had long been seething within him:
“There’s nothing odd about it, because you should never ask anyone a question in that tone of voice. And besides, you stink of schnapps. That good man was right. He thought we were bums. We can consider ourselves lucky that we got away safe and sound.”
Werner could hardly object to this; except for the reference to schnapps, which Robby only added to drive home his accusation that we had shamed ourselves. Werner refused to make any excuses. He said: “Robby, you are right, as always; I have been negligent. You take command; as punishment I shall march all night.”
After saying this, he got ready to hit the road. We heard him in the darkness, singing one of his songs:
The tinker waves his hat,

goodbye!, goodbye, Miss!, the repair job was good.


However, no one wanted to leave him in the lurch. We ran up to him, we surrounded him and even had to beg him to get permission to march at his side. All of us wanted to go with him, even Fietje, although he had terrible pains in his legs. Not even Robby dared to stand aside and let him go.
It was a long night; we advanced at marching pace through Bückeburg and Stadthagen towards Wunstorf. Marching was the right word, since it was hard work. In the wee hours of the morning, once the dawn glimmered on the horizon, I experienced, for the first time, those visions that might be called the magic of exhaustion: dreams of endless avenues, the ecstatic intoxication of the sleepless night. There were no more creases in our pants; we found ourselves on the outskirts of Dahomey. Then the landscape turned into palaces of perfect symmetry. There were lanterns, lamps, wreaths, and glittering garlands in the windows. The fences and hedgerows were transformed; in the light of dawn, paths seemed to be transfigured into crystalline rivers. Not long ago, this was a pond with fish and water lilies; now, it is a highway with cars and trucks. It was dangerous; one had to hold one’s breath. Now and then we suddenly woke up with our aching feet pounding on the pavement. That is how the bird perches when it lands. At those times, exhaustion was overcome, as if a dam had been opened, and only then did the real energy flow.


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