Where did you find so many stories, Master Ludovico?



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79
This spectacle does not reflect what is best about the human being. It is nonetheless true that it would be unfair to attribute it to ecstatic intoxication. Ecstatic intoxication uncovers what is already present, as if a veil was lifted or as if the door of a deep vault was forced open. It is one key among others.
When Dickens walked to that neighborhood and spent the night there, he only obeyed a supreme curiosity that for the author is not only legitimate, but even imperative. And if, while there, as he said, he felt shame, this is also part of the learning experience, and it is particularly important in an era like the Victorian Era, when the ideal of unblemished innocence prevailed.
This cannibalistic trait is thus innate to the human being and for it to be manifested you do not even need executions. Cruelty is inherent to the human being in an almost anatomical way, like Mariotte’s Spot and, just like the latter, is hardly perceptible. Thus, in every era there is a proscribed element upon whom all hatred is concentrated. It is accused of heresy, to persecute it is praiseworthy; if something unfortunate happens to it, it will provoke general satisfaction. This complacent acceptance of the misfortune of others is also found in honest people, even in people like Pickwick. This sentiment begins already in the gardens of infancy, in the first grades of elementary school.
80
Having reached this point I must resist the temptation to sum up my reflections with a literary digression. Its theme would have been the way we focus our attention on the proscribed. The method varies depending on whether the proscribed element is foreign or domestic, regardless of whether it is benevolent or even indulgent. In that respect, the illumination of evil in Dostoyevsky is essentially different from the way Dickens, Victor Hugo, or, to cite an extreme case, Eugène Sue, addressed the topic.
Dostoyevsky penetrates the internal universe of Raskolnikov; he thinks, he feels, he suffers with the murderer, he is resurrected with him. He follows the great maxim: “This was you”. This is a pedagogical method in the highest sense, insofar as it includes the reader in this identification, which, for entire chapters, transforms the act of reading into an ordeal; this is the case with Marmeladov’s confession and Raskolnikov’s declaration.
Dostoyevsky’s book, which is often categorized as a detective novel, is in fact quite the contrary. The detective novel fascinates us because a human being is being pursued; the relentless pursuit, the clever traps laid, the manhunt in the jungle of the big city, all form part of the Great Hunt. Dostoyevsky leads us to a lower level; at these depths, the murderer is presented as his own persecutor; but at the same time as someone who triumphs over his own ego. This has a much greater effect on us.
I must also resist my temptation to examine Joseph Conrad as a phenomenon of transition, not only with regard to relations between East and West, but also with respect to the world of morality and, for that reason, he is incomparable in his illumination of the doomed existence. We must point out that here the good conscience begins to get murky. The doomed existence is ambiguous: it no longer belongs to society, but still respects its laws.
81
Despite these last few reflections, we have not strayed too far from our theme, or rather, we have only taken a short detour. The mere observation of the human being, whether it is accompanied by comprehension or even by compassion, brings us closer to the object of our study only incompletely.
When the author begins to plunge into the study of, or to identify with, the human being, something different results. Lavater once said that to really understand another person one would have to imitate his face; and it is true that such imitation would not be limited to wearing a mask. This is the touchstone that allows us to distinguish between the real and the imitation; a claim that also applies to actors. Blood is always demanded; and the most faithful imitation, the most subtle study of character, does not attain the power of passion. Art is becoming identical to nature; the mask merges with the original material. In every art, even in the medical art, one will find the difference that involves, in a word, something that is taught in no technical college or school.
Raphael said: “To understand means to become equal”. In this context, one must include the animal; the ancient hunters always knew this. This applies not just to the bloody forms of the hunt, but also to the more sublime forms, with their spiritual and imperishable acquisitions. In this regard, as well, the religions of the Far East are distinguished from those of the Near East. Many epochs, even the most remote ones, have felt themselves closer to the animals than our epoch does, they possessed a more profound knowledge of animals, despite all the sophisticated advances of zoology. And never before our time have such notorious forms of animal exploitation ever existed.
The poet, too, knows the secret of the Great Hunt. The primordial hunter conjures the animal by way of dances and masks; similarly, the poet invokes the animal by way of the word, which cannot be reduced to impressions of movement and splashes of colors. Among brothers one must not abuse praise; nonetheless, I do not want to conceal the fact that Friedrich Georg has won many trophies in this subtle hunt. Thus, with the turkey, the owl, the snake, the hare, and other animals.
We thus hearken back to the dawn of time, to pre-mythical times, to the power of metamorphosis of the Great Mother. Her vestments come in all shapes and sizes, in various forms, yet only one material. In the folk tale, unity becomes visible; the poet evokes it for us, just as the artist generally does. What we have allowed ourselves to forget is more relevant than what we allow ourselves to hear and to see. If this alone is achieved, then all the rest is just extra: the fragmentary, the questionable, the object, and time with its nuances.
82
It is obvious that for Dostoyevsky there was something anesthetizing behind his relation of the customs of Paris, and something disturbing behind the disorder in London. This speaks in favor of a humane, but also a penetrating vision. He saw the reign of Baal behind the horrendous and fascinating spectacle of the Thames, which has been described by many other witnesses, before and after Dostoyevsky.
Dostoyevsky was undoubtedly thinking of that Bal or Bel who also appeared in the form of a dragon, and whom the king Cyrus demanded that Daniel should worship: “Do you not think that Bel is a living God? Do you not see how much he eats and drinks every day?”40 Blake saw a green dragon in the London Treasury Building.
Baal has preserved the reputation of being a harsh and pitiless master. The name of Babylon, his principal homeland, has become synonymous with the metropolis in general, and especially with its nocturnal side. Dostoyevsky also perceived something in particular: that puritanical character, where a monstrous display of energy is united with an imperturbable moral conscience. It is therefore not by chance that machine technology and its forms of exploitation were developed there, until they became the precedent and model for critical reflection.
The nocturnal side, present in every metropolis and, as close scrutiny will reveal, in every provincial city, is particularly bleak in this case. Like the marketing of every other commodity, in the big cities vice is marketed more blatantly and in a more specialized way. The streets and neighborhoods devoted to this purpose are basically similar, but differ depending on time and place. They are not the same in the capitals as they are in the port cities or cities hosting major military bases; the place where Hogarth drew his sketches is different from the place where Toulouse-Lautrec drew his sketches. There are cities that have from ancient times evoked the fame of a Capua, while others were founded more recently with the intention of creating concentrations of drunkenness, gambling and sex.
Dostoyevsky undoubtedly visited Montmartre during his stay in Paris, but it was not there that Baal, seated on his throne, appeared to him. In the vicinity of Paris he saw structures of order, in London obscene disorder. One might have thought that it would have been the opposite; but it is precisely with regard to this point that the integrity of the artist is displayed, whose glance penetrates the social surface, as if through the varnish on a work of art, until it touches the bottom of things.
83
Once again we ask ourselves: why does ecstatic intoxication induce images that are so much more dreary and sad in the Nordic countries than in the southern countries? It is true that the Nordic countries do not produce wine, but this is understandable. The same can be said of the sun and of the climate in general. Poe came from a southern state and at the same time constitutes the classic example for all the horrors of the Anglo-Saxon black-out. The hells of Poe and Baudelaire are different; above all because in Poe the machine appears on the scene, not as an economic power, but as a demonic power. The enemy of the artist, even of the human being, is mechanical motion; this was already divined by Hieronymus Bosch.
In the North, the distance that must be traversed to attain to the gift of ecstatic intoxication is enormous; it lacks a large part of the innate, natural cheerfulness. On the other hand, the talent of reflecting it in the mirror of scepticism grows; geniuses of irony, of satire and of the grotesque prosper with greater power in the North than anywhere else.
With distance, fatigue also intensifies. To forget something, to escape from something and, on the other hand, to want to attain or win something; the problem of ecstatic intoxication in general revolves around these two extremes. The more impoverished the substance, the deeper the abyss that must be bridged. In the Victorian family, the father went directly to the brothel after dinner. Work and doctrine become “edifying”, when the foundation is no longer so solid. The obligation based on “being” is reduced to a reflection in appearance.
The image of the desert is constantly imposed on us. Nietzsche meditated on this question for a long time; he wandered through oases and mirages. His perspective on crime must be viewed with these considerations in mind, along with his historical assessment of the Renaissance. Even so, we must be cautious; in this sense, Jacob Burckhardt already suffered from certain optical illusions, and a certain confusion between power and weakness, and it is hard to determine just how disastrous they were. This brings us to Gobineau: “The nostalgia for racial purity is a distinctive trait of the half-breed”. This is one of the maxims with which I have inflicted the most suffering on myself.
Nietzsche’s relation to ecstatic intoxication is that of the hypersensitive; for people with this kind of constitution, the sun, the air, and atmospheric pressure unleash euphoric effects. This is displayed above all in The Dawn, in which Nietzsche transmits this idea to the reader. In the preface he speaks of the human being who “desires a long period of darkness, an unintelligible, hidden, enigmatic something, knowing as he does that he will in time have his own morning, his own redemption, his own rosy dawn.”
Once again we are on the path of approach.
84
When the distance has become so great, and the supervention of that which is so necessary to us becomes an unusual event, then the intermediate worlds and the lower worlds gain in their force of attraction. Undoubtedly, not everything is barren: the ruined altars are populated by demons.
We must understand the root of desolation, not its symptoms, since the visible world possesses it in such great variety. For change depends on spatial and temporal circumstances; it is of a kinetic nature. We fly to the poles and to the moon, and take the desert with us. The more we travel, the greater is the flow of images that rushes upon us. Why is it not possible to satiate our hunger for images? It is a sign of the fact that, in the end, images do not satisfy. The real dissatisfaction aspires to overcome space and time.
Images only satisfy when we cease to feel that hunger; there is nothing else in them, there is nothing else beyond them, under them or behind them. They will never yield their secret. Now we can enjoy the contentment of the “last man”, as he has been depicted by Nietzsche and Huxley.
85
Where life becomes very helpless, ecstatic intoxication is one of the last resorts that remain. This is one of the reasons that explain why pastors can do nothing against alcoholism. The alcoholic can be helped in neither an economic nor a moral sense; it is an ontological problem, and theology has proven to be increasingly less adequate for its solution.
The drinker does not drink only because he wants to escape from his poverty. He yearns above all to approach spheres that not only lie beyond his own misery, but also beyond helplessness itself; where there is no more suffering. His euphoria conceals something more than just pure well-being and an absence of pain. Dostoyevsky also grasped it with his brilliant depictions; how else could he have put the following sentence into the mouth of his sad hero, Marmeladov, “I drink so that I may suffer twice as much”?
86
Cycles, with the alternation between high tide and low tide, are opposed to technological monotony. Here the heartbeat, there the rhythm of the motor; here the poem, there the machine. The impulse towards festive squandering acts both in its vulgar as well as in its sublime forms; both in the person who throws away his wages on drink, as well as in the person who can say: “Once, I lived like the gods.”
Cycles are experienced with greater intensity wherever the meaning of the festival is preserved, and therefore its joy is more intense in wild and backward regions than in urbanized zones, stronger in the countryside than in the city. In the city, the annual fair is constantly taking place, there is light all day and all night. This is why the periodic celebration is reserved for great occasions, and it is precisely in this respect that the mystery of the cycle lies dormant. The cycle comes around full circle when the stillness appears and therefore announces, in that which moves, the invisible within the visible.
In the city one therefore encounters more addicts than in the countryside. It is typical of addiction to try to reduce the periodicity of the cycle of its pleasures to a minimum, or even better, to make it a continuum. In this way, the oscillations become almost imperceptible.
The addict can also hide more easily in the city than in the countryside. He lives more anonymously, he finds hiding places, he can move from one neighborhood to another; and it is easier for him to get his drug.
The drunkard in the village, the morphine addict in the small town, are soon recognized by everyone, even if they try to keep their condition a secret. They can only succeed in doing so when the passage from a steady habit to an absolute dependence is not obvious to all. This coincides with the passage from open and accepted consumption to another, secret and suspect, kind of consumption.
Soon, there is no longer be anything left to hide. Then it is inevitable that there will be a loss of respect and reputation, not to mention economic, social and physical harm. The perversion of all manifestations of friendship, observed and suffered by the persons closest to the addict, and perceived by the latter as well in its demonic inevitability, is one of the saddest spectacles, whose best description is found, perhaps, in several of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories.
The Great Babylon
87
For the immense consumption of the capital cities, which receive migrants from the provinces and immigrants from other countries, a single neighborhood for pleasure is no longer enough. There are various such neighborhoods from which one may choose. Many, like Montmartre, Sao Paulo or the Mangue of Río de Janeiro, have become the classic destinations of travelers; others enjoy a fleeting prosperity, perhaps coinciding with annual world’s fairs or major festivals. The Council of Constance attracted thousands of women of the night to the city, along with their camp followers.
Even if places could be reduced to a common denominator, the scenery varies. It adjusts to the customers, how much money they have, their culture, and their tastes. At Montmartre one breathes a completely different atmosphere than at Montparnasse. Behind the Bastille, the criminal influences that are everywhere associated with lasciviousness and intoxication become more evident. Then again, the Rue de Lappe must have changed a lot over the last twenty years; I have not been there in a long time. Verlaine already felt at home in those narrow streets, and not without reason.
“The Avenue de Wagram festers in the 17th arrondissement, which is otherwise so distinguished, like an infected vein.” We owe this comparison to Marcel Jouhandeau, who embellishes our steps with kaleidoscopic images. Such infections are possible everywhere, usually to the dismay of their neighbors. Not far from the Neuilly bridge a Luna Park was opened; from there, drunkards and lovers dispersed to less well-lit areas in the vicinity. There was also an element of political insecurity. Concerning this aspect, too, Marcel knew some interesting stories; back then he lived in a house on the Rue du Commandant Marchand, with windows overlooking the Bois de Boulogne.
88
The proximity of parks and wooded areas favors such clandestine activities; ecstatic intoxication is concentrated in suspect places. In this respect, Observatory Street in Leipzig deserves more than passing mention. The upper stretch of the road was very respectable; it included the zoological institute, where Meisenheimer was then conducting his research in genetics. I used to live in that area; I used to walk, dressed in a white lab coat, to the laboratory.
The landlady, old and sickly, was hardly capable of taking care of the apartment house, a task that was further complicated by a small domestic zoo. She was taking care of a parrot and an unusual number of cats, whose odor could already be detected in the foyer. When someone in the neighborhood wanted to get rid of a kitten, he would secretly put it outside near her door facing on the courtyard of the building and this caused the old lady such torments of conscience that she finally quelled them by adopting the little foundling.
This and various other reasons explained why there was such a high turnover among the residents of the building. The mere fact of choosing such a place to live was an indication that the tenants either had very low expectations or else were up to no good. The old lady, who had been squeezed dry by the inflation, was forced to put up with such types. Sometimes the older tenants suffered from this situation so much that their sinister blank looks gave them a ghastly appearance. In the end, what you would expect from such a situation finally happened. Shortly before or after my arrival, I don’t remember exactly when it was, a lawyer had rented a room; he was about thirty years old, vigorous, bald, and sporting a big black beard like Sudermann’s. One of his idiosyncrasies consisted in the fact that at night, when he could not sleep, hookers would be going up and down the stairs and along the hallway to his room all night long. As is usual in such apartment buildings, this hallway was cluttered with all kinds of furniture, where the cats were lying about. One night, when the old lady, who could not get to sleep, opened the door of his room, she fainted from fright at seeing the bearded fellow, who often meditated in the nude.
The building had once been a hotel; one part of the courtyard thus led to the garages and stables where the carriages and horses were kept for the guests who were going to the fair. These garages and stables had been subdivided into very small rooms. The boarding house, which had also seen better days, was still in the front part of the building; it was closely watched by the police. Once, a family wanted to move in to one of the rat-holes in the former stables; not having been paid, the moving crew left, abandoning all the family’s belongings on the street in a downpour. This happened at night; the children were crying, the father returned after wandering about in vain; he was drunk and took out his absurd rage on the furniture.
I do not know how this story ended, but I do know that with regard to this question my memory is afflicted by a permanent lacuna, one of the many irreparable moments on the road of life where we failed. It is true that during those “golden” twenties no one had a penny to spare, at least among my circle of acquaintances; but in this case what was involved was more than just a matter of political economy. The image returns: safe and secure in our room, we hear cries for help coming from the street, but we are too comfortable or too cowardly to go downstairs.
As for those pennies, they were in fact scarce, and literally so, despite the fact that only a short time before I still possessed thousands in my wallet. Once, a lawyer who lived in the neighborhood told me that he was short a penny. It was his custom, when night had fallen, to drink his “small beer” in a tavern and, after stashing his extracts and notes from his reading of Hegel in a drawer in his room, he would walk to the tavern in his slippers. The small glass of beer cost twenty pennies; when he reached into his pocket to pay, he was a penny short.
“And what happened then?”
“A laborer was sitting next to me; I asked him for a penny.”
“And what did he say?”
“Nothing. First he looked at me, and then he took the penny out his pocket.”
89
My room was located above the main door of the building. During the day, the street was quiet, but it got busier around the time the cafes closed. Sometimes, I was awakened by voices from the street below; then, I got out of bed and stood to listen by the window in my darkened room, as if from a balcony seat in the theater. The actors were always different; the types, however, were always the same: two women of the night who were exchanging anecdotes; the prostitute and her john; two drunks who were either arguing with each other or expressing their love for one another.
The dialogues between the hetaerae, like those described by Lucian and Aretino, are literary ornaments of a prosaic business, whose intrigues are reproduced more faithfully by the actual conversations, although not in such a humorous form. Some time later, I was reminded of this episode, when I was in Iceland and I observed how the fisherwomen scaled and gutted the herrings with a steady hand. I observed the same cold objectivity back then in Leipzig, and not without a certain power of suggestion, either. In the gaslight, the average john had a nervous look; one might say that he wanted to penetrate the girls’ make-up the way one punches through the plaster in a house.
The regular hookers who cast their nets there were discreet, but were sure to profit if their victim was more or less drunk, naturally without going too far. The girls who frequented the taverns had their own rooms in the neighborhood; a more dangerous kind, who would not show themselves in the light of day, came from the grasslands and stalked the drunks. They were not always successful; one of them was murdered in the park. Kokkel, the coroner, whose masterful lectures I occasionally attended, performed the autopsy. Among other things, he described the wax she applied to her face to enhance her cheekbones, before she went out onto the streets at night.
The conversations of the drunks were interminable; the pals could never separate; thoughts painfully made their way through their brains, until one of the upstairs tenants would finally tell them to shut up. It was strange, however, to hear what came to light in the impressions exchanged between young artisans, fathers of families and pimps. When their thoughts became confused and boring, one nonetheless perceived the desire that inspired them. Gibberish babbled under the moon only betrays the deficiencies we all have in common. The effort seems ridiculous; the weight is too much. Here we can see where all work ends. Shakespeare must have often paid attention to such conversations, and with great profit. And the compassion that made Büchner’s Woyzeck a figure of tragedy finds its basis here.


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