The truth never owns itself, but rather, gives itself away. That is to
say, we do not possess truth. We only encounter it.
Even so, there is nothing certain, even in the most profound revelations, for is it not true that yesterday's experience is soon but a dream. Gone, like a mist... and verifications escape us. The enigma of time swallowing up itself like the dragon its horny tail.
So you see, he has fallen prey to doubt. (Of course I am speaking of myself here. I am a writer, and it is a habit of ours to speak in third person as if we are speaking of other people.)
No, that's not entirely true, though in large measure it is to the universal in all of us that one hopes to appeal. Certainly it was the universal in me that Enno touched. That is, the universal sense of the tragic... Thus we returned together to his apartment and poured ourselves drinks while dashing all hope against the unpalatable night.
He lived alone at that time, in the days before his fame. How could I
have known what lay ahead of us then. We tape our hopes to the wall, but
we hardly imagine the good thing will come. Years go by and we are left
with only the dust taste, the stench of stagnant waters in the cellar of
our souls. We conceal our tears, but to no avail. We find little comfort
in this solitary stance.
So it is we find our way back to the society of men. We rub shoulders, make small talk, pay attention occasionally, repeat a joke or two and give the appearance of feeling at home in this world, their world, a world not our own.
Then we meet someone rare, someone complete and full of years, who has lived a life not unlike our own, but in a different span of time. We meet in a chance encounter that has the earmarks of Providentiality. We open our hearts and minds and find a resonance so complete it seems to defy probability and chance. Like two long lost friends finding themselves in an alien land, we rejoiced. How strange it seems now, for he alone was the immigrant.
(How foreign I have always felt myself from that which surrounds me, suffocates and imprisons me.)
Our first affinity was books. "When I was a young man in Poland,"
Enno has repeatedly told me, "I spent all my waking hours in the library."
We were both lovers of books. European authors best, we both agreed. Americans had clever writers, but few great minds. The American experience is a corrupting experience, teaching us to value only the surface of things, causing us to miss the substance of things themselves. Whether it be art or literature, even music, Americans seem incapable of touching anything remotely passionate in the human breast.
He had come through the war and that, more than anything, sets one apart from most of the American experience. Pop psychology has little to say to survivors of the war experience. He had been a survivor of one of man's greatest invented nightmares. And in 1949 he gained his passage to New York City, freedom's shores.
"No one will believe the truth. So we do not talk about the truth any more." He said this many times, too. "People prefer fictions. Fictions require no commitment. Fictions require no risk. Truth is a risk. Truth demands a stance." Thus was his posture fixed, in an attitude of provocation.
Life is essentially tragic, he was fond of saying. I did not accept this
thesis at the time, that is, in the beginning, but events persuaded me and
in the end I was forced to bow to his undeniable conclusion. "What
took you so long?" he asked me when I finally came around. The forked
query found its mark and perforated the cloak which served as my last refuge
from myself. For you see, it was from myself that I was fleeing. And in
Enno, the mirror would not go away. How strange the progression as I was
drawn in, at first magnetized, then bewildered and, at the end, humiliated
and shamed. It's funny how we never understand the real meaning of our lives
until it is too late to do us any good.
When things are going well with us we forget how tenuous is the strand
that holds us above the abyss.
While I was having the nervous breakdown I learned how helpless helplessness really is. Enno visited me in the hospital then.
"How long will you stay?" he asked.
"This is really the end for me. I don't see how I can face anyone after this."
"You made your bed."
"Yes, I made my bed."
"What are the doctors saying?"
"They are trying to sort out all the lies I have been telling myself. I sound very convincing. The worst is certain to come out," I said. "I don't think I can handle it."
"You can't run away now. You have a family to take care of."
I had no strength to reply.
The reservoirs were full, but the dams high and strong. The dry valley
waits in vain for the rains of spring.
I can no longer understand why I feel so stonehearted. My heart is not a shell capable of being cracked open, but rather a steel bearing, solid throughout, and inanimate. Not a living organ, but rather granite, basalt, and lead.
Enno's third visit to the hospital (his second visit found me inaccessible) was the first in which we discussed the story I had written about him for Modern Maturity.
"You have created a fiction and called it fact. These are lies," he shouted. "Now what are you going to do about it."
"Show me which part is not true."
He made no effort to answer.
"Show me," I said. "I really want to know. Your name is spelled right, correct? And you are from Poland. These stories, these atrocities you experienced... not true?"
He stood tight-lipped, leaning against the table, his chin thrust forward mercilessly.
"Is it the treatment you don't like?"
"The treatment, the treatment. Dammit, you make me out to be a hero. I am no hero, godammit." He threw out his hand as if violently pushing curtains away from his face and said something in German.
I half wondered why he ever told me these stories. He told me himself that people always said his experiences should be recorded in a book. I had recorded them. Was he going to hate me for this?
"I'm not seeking immortality. Maybe you are, but I'm not. Leave me out of your damn books."
But he knew I wouldn't and I knew he really liked the idea of it.
One wonders.... I wonder, if our hatred of things in others is chiefly
due to our fear of discovering them in ourselves? I cite weakness here.
When I am not guarding myself I find myself intolerant of weakness in others.
Stupidity, too. I hate stupidity. Do I fear being considered stupid?
It's not an obsession, but maybe I fear I am lazy as well. I won't allow myself the luxury of rest and diversion. We live but once and have but one opportunity to leave our mark in time.
I remember when I first learned that Marco Polo was not the first to find a road to China. His name has been preserved only because he had the ill luck of being forced to share a prison cell with a writer. Writers love good stories. It gives them something worthwhile to practice their craft on. This was how Enno had impressed himself upon me. He would be the object of my art.
Immortality was a recurrent theme in our talks. He claimed that the true
immortals were those who most fully understood and embraced the futility
of their lives and their work.
But it is not so much the quest for life as the fear of death -- the void and Nothingness -- that drives us. Anything, anything to escape the solitariness of our passage through time toward the predetermined end.
He questioned me about my own work, but I couldn't help feeling my answers
did not interest him.
This was only natural, of course. He existed in a world of his own. I frequented that world, sought to experience it, capture it, record, it, but could not expect him to have the same interest in mine.
When I expressed interest in his stories, his experiences, he clucked and trilled like a bird, twittering with delight. If, because of some temporary melancholy, I were somewhat less enthusiastic about hearing his autobiographical discourse, he clammed up, even turned on me, accusing me of hating him.
"I am not interesting enough for you, eh?" he said bitterly. My protests would finally win out.
The game -- we both knew it to be as such -- required two players. His role was to act insulted, mine to abase myself. It's a curious thing, these interpersonal dynamics. The eagerness with which I seek the worm position, prostrate, ashamed... And for what reward? The friendships it provides, I suppose.
Was it love or fear, however, that brought me here to seek Enno's company? It would have been easy to say love, my concern for a crusty old man who had no one else save me.
But the truth, always less comforting when faced honestly, remains quite otherwise. Was it not loneliness that compelled me? In my selfishness I needed a companion, lest my earthly sojourn be a tad bit too solitary.
At one time his presence in a room made a dominating impression upon
people, no matter how large the room or how many the people.
Today, he is half a man. His physical stature has so deteriorated that he can barely sit up at times. Thus I force him to eat, to take regular meals. "You need nourishment," I say. "Your strength is down."
"I forget how good it is to eat."
He neglects everything but his music. Beethoven, Sibelius, Grieg, Bach. "Bocchhhhhh," he declaims with an exagerrated gutteral display.
And if I let him, he neglects me as well.
Slats of light paint a zebra hide across his features as he tells me again of his escape during the war. Only this time I question in more detail. Times, places, distances, dates. His memory is hazy and he chafes at this probing for details. Suddenly it appears I am too interested. There is no middle ground.
"I am wasting your time," he says dismissively.
"No, I'm interested. Please, tell me the story again of how you escaped to Switzerland."
"I was working in a small town in western Austria--"
"What was the name of the town?"
"I don't know. It was a small town. It's too small to be on any map. It was a very small town."
"Where was it near?"
"Somewhere near the border. Less than a mile from the Swiss border."
"How far from Vienna?"
"No, no, no. Vienna is not anywhere near Switzerland. Must you be so stupid?"
It had been a long night. Together we ushered in the new year, drinking,
singing, laughing. A purple ridge of clouds painted the horizon, awaiting
the coming of dawn with quiet patience. All above remained a crystal, chilled
blue. The trees appeared decorated with powdered sugar and globs of white
frosting. An unbroken blanket of fresh snow carpeted the hillside.
We drove carefully till at last we arrived at his apartment.
"Sit. You will stay for one more, won't you?"
"I've already had too many. Let me go now."
"It won't do. Open another beer. You know where they are."
I refused to take off my coat, holding my gloves in my left hand, unpocketed keys in my right.
"Oh go on, then. Look at you."
The day was already ruined. I knew that. But I was afraid that if I sat down I wouldn't get up.
"Have I ever told you the story about Jose Cordenio?" Here it was. Fresh bait. A new story, if I would stay.
He never admitted to loneliness. Never owned up to a human feeling at all on that score. To what great lengths he would go, however, in order to keep me around.
"Jose Cordenio the writer? Friend of Unamuno and Bunuel?"
"The same," he said.
"When did you know Jose Cordenio?"
"After the war. In Zurich. A strange man."
"From Barcelona. Left his homeland when Franco came to power. Had a Jewish wife who was taken by the Nazis when he was in Paris. The war did him terrible."
And so it was that I removed my coat and remained with him for the duration of two more beers. I drove home in silence, accompanied by an image of Jose Cordenio painted in tragic hues across the canopy of my soul while the crisp, brilliant sun -- reflected with such brightness that my eyes were stabbed with it -- illumined my way.
Happy New Year.
Depressing above all is this: the feeling of futility associated with
all my efforts to achieve something worthwhile. Is my labor in vain?
Now seated on the emerging threshold of a new year, I see the expanse of time uncoiling before me and I ask myself, What? Which? How do I determine what is worthwhile and what is futile? Is it for love or money that we pour ourselves out?
At certain times our conversations gave me the feeling that I was standing
poised on the rim of a mammoth crater, a terrible cavern of the soul that
hade been left vacant through some diabolical and catastrophic event in
a former era of this man's life. He gave me glimpses of it, in the way he
held his head, the compressed line of his mouth, in his words, his mannerism,
his stillness. Then there were the glimpses when the shutter of his eye
flashed horizontally and I saw, with clarity, but for an instant, the terrain
of his heart, the whole devastated landscape, my vantage point being the
rim of this terrible hollow crater, immensely deep, wide.
I would never have asked him to speak of it, but it was evident the time had come when he raised the matter himself. Like all other topics we examined, he would begin falteringly at first, backing into it by accusing me of not being interested in yet another tale of his, chiding, almost childishly, my disinterest. When at last I would concede, he would put me off further still, until I was torn between begging and giving up. Crazymaker he.
Now here it was. He would tell of the scar which time had never healed. He would speak of it plainly. He would tell the story that had never been told. Together we would examine his sorrow.
"So what is the truth?"
"Oh. This again," I said.
"I want to know why you created me."
"I don't know. I had a need, I guess."
"And now you never visit me. You went away and haven't been back in more than a year."
"Life goes on. I have other friends now."
His hand ran up to the side of his head and over the top, mussing his hair. "Is it a woman?"
I stared at the floor, my palms flat against my thighs.
"I don't like the way this is ending," he said. His voice was soft, resigned.
"It's best," I said. "I wanted people to know you, but now... I have a life, too. I have to get on with things."
"Where will I go? What will I do?"
"Does it matter?" I said. "You've been captured on paper and you will live. That's more than I can say about my own life. You will be remembered. I will be forgotten. That's just how it is."
"Oh, you'll be remembered," he chided. "You get the byline."
"Get out of here," I screamed.
It sounds harsh, but it's a writer's right, isn't it? I created him. I had grown tired of him.
It could have ended differently. I didn't torture him or shoot him or hang him or have him suffer through a long illness. I suppose it was cruel to neglect him and I've been feeling crummy about it. At last, he's finished. No nursing home. No intensive care. No hospital bills.
I'm waiting for some other character now. Someone who smiles a lot, with a mouthful of nice teeth and a sense of humor. I'm a bit weary of heavy, complicated characters. Someone funny would be great. Or maybe a talking animal. Hopefully we'll get along. Writers tend to develop their characters better when they care about them.
In the meantime... Enno... wherever you are.... I'm sorry. You're part of my past now. I needed to move forward.
copyright 1998 - ed newman
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