Bright magic, p.11
Bright Magic, p.11Alfred Doblin
I had been told that love was not about the inborn need of a man for a woman, with which I was not unfamiliar, but something much higher, delicate, subtle, impossible to speak of in words of prose. I set out to find this thing so difficult to describe.
On my walks through the streets in various cities and countries, I sedulously observed people: young people, old people, girls, soldiers, officers, clerks.
I proceeded systematically and with great discretion, trying to achieve an understanding of the subtle process in question. I sought out the cities in which love was said especially to reside and did not take my eyes off the people there. After all, love must express itself in some specific way, and I labored, though in vain, to find out from the crowd what that way might be. I gave particular scrutiny to the clothing of the people I passed—the color of their skirts, shirts, coats—but I found no salient features, and I was also far from clear about what the special feature might actually be: A particular shape of the boot, a sharp nose, a necktie? The friends with whom I shared my observations laughed at me like mad and proudly dashed off obscure remarks such as: “A matter of the soul that you cannot see; you have to feel, feel, feel!” But they were superficial people, satisfied with these words and not realizing that this was precisely where my problem lay. When they tried to describe to me these feelings of theirs, it was always a combination of rephrasing their simple need for a woman and using the over-refined poetic phrases I could only shake my head at.
My search had yielded no results and undeterred I continued on my way. Yet my never-ending exertions had given me a case of the nerves. I felt anxious and uncertain. Ailing as I was, I felt neglected—so foolish was my heart—and I dragged myself around like a cripple and peered like a beggar into the faces of people on the street. So great was my unhappiness that even my sister, with whom I lived, noticed my slumped posture. Incidentally, I continued to eat and drink as usual. Since no depression or gloom could deprive me of my appetite. I always did my duty.
I am naturally drawn to women, to all women, and even more to everything that woman is. Very early on, I noticed that I tended to adopt a polite, deferential tone whenever I talked to young girls, even babies in swaddling clothes. I often made the little girls and their nannies laugh when, with my large, broad figure, elephantine as I am, I walked up to them, doffed my top hat to the playing girls, and formally paid my respects to the prattling little things. When I bent down over them, a feeling of something like shyness came over me, my heart pounded, and my mouth watered, gushed really, as it always does when I am excited. I tried hard to put myself in an advantageous light with them; to do so, I spent much time studying child psychology. Sometimes, when I looked these suckling creatures in the eyes, their blind and motionless child’s eyes, a dark dread rose up within me at the violence lying dormant there, and my fingers itched to nip in the bud a future pregnant with horrors.
But there will be no end to the laughing at me if I admit that I also treated with reverence those inanimate objects that the German language classifies as feminine. Though only sometimes. I frequently eyed the green table Lampe in my room with respect, kept my distance from her, took care not to touch her, and even draped a white sheet over her at night because I was ashamed to undress in front of her. Occasionally I crept insecurely around my wardrobe sometimes, and, after a long hesitation, paid tribute to it with a deep bow and obliging smile; better, I decided, would be to say that I paid tribute to her. For me, the neuter noun was feminine.
Later, my feeling for women took on a darker cast. There is nothing so pitiable as a woman. One time, I saw a female dog walking slowly in front of me, losing blood, now in drips, now in a thick stream, leaving a trail of it behind on the sidewalk. Tears came to my eyes when I looked women in the face. No sooner do the unsuspecting young things start to gain a little strength than their burden assaults them, unrelentingly repeated, and they drip with blood. And the blood streams until they shrivel up. Labor pains attack them, shatter their bodies, make them decrepit before their time.
And is there any creature on earth more wretched than a mother? I cannot think of anyone as deeply vulnerable as a mother through her child. Nothing is as exposed, as needy, as a mother.
Should not gentle words then roll off my tongue when I speak to women? But I have never spoken such words. A poet and connoisseur of human character might perhaps ask why. Maybe I am too passive by nature.
Still, while on my search for love, I often enough ran across women I noticed and to whom I thought I should say something. But I didn’t lay a finger on them. I glanced furtively at them, observed their movements, their way of speaking, laughing, and looking, and something like trepidation clutched at my chest and turned my eyes aside, away from them. Not a sound betrayed me to them, I even forbade myself quiet dreamy thoughts of them. I believe that the things I want have to come to me, and even then I would be reluctant to take them up. It is shameful not only to bare and expose the body—every word, every movement betrays us. And so shame crushes us into the ground; there is no salvation from shame except death. And nevertheless my passivity had the effrontery to live and continue to breathe, like an animal.
Many times I anxiously ran away from these women, far up into the mountains. There was fog there at every turn, shutting me in like a cramped little room. With every puff of wind the door sprang open, and the ravines, the rising and falling of the white air, revived me. Often a denser pillar strode upright through the middle of the valley and then lay down on the cliff like a long-haired greyhound at my feet.
I cried in my way, without tears, over not being able to find love.
After I had returned from my path thus empty-handed, tedium dug its claws more savagely into me and I launched myself upon women, determined to love.
I had approached people for advice without success, had hunted in vain for the distinguishing features of love, looking and looking until my eyes were sick; now I pushed ahead to the source, offering up myself as the guinea pig.
As for which girl I should approach, at first I didn’t know and I asked my friends. They said long experience had shown that the choice was basically irrelevant. Then they told me about a girl who loved many, was loved by many, and was apparently very heroic.
I set off to see her, gained entry to her apartment, and, pursuing my earlier investigations, began by asking her resolutely and with the seriousness that behooves a man for an objective statement of facts about love. What were the signs by which others could see that she loved many? She smiled heroically.
Then, acting on my friends’ advice, I said and did to her several things that I had often had occasion to observe. I was soon thereby able to awaken in her the impression that I loved her. From that point on, she made in my presence the peculiar bodily movements, gestures, and facial expressions that must be coextensive with love or apparently constitute its particular nature. A light gliding of the palm of the hand across my cheeks, repeated often, rather as though wiping dust; sucking movements of the lips with a salivary moistening of my mouth; a snarling and whimpering of the voice; tightly pressing one’s own limbs as a whole against those of the opponent. In addition, a stereotyped repetition of various mindless phrases, and eventually uncleanliness and letting oneself go, which is apparently a major proof of love. I observed this condition with great interest for a time. Once, though, when the girl, indulging in similar movements, assured me that I loved her—something there was no way at all for her to know—I asked her, confused and upset, what had given her that idea and what supported this claim of hers. For up until then I had felt only the self-explanatory natural drive toward her, as well as occasional amazement, aversion, and friendly superiority. Eventually I strongly denied it. At which point the characteristic movements in my presence from the other side came to a stop. I myself had never made these movements involuntarily but always intentionally, always planned—not so the girl, however. It repelled me to go around with
In those days I also often walked right past the women who filled me with trepidation; one of them made an effort and sent me an affectionate letter because of my great sadness. At first I wanted to open up to her and write her that I was sad because I could not find love. Then, in my industrious zeal, I even considered undertaking attempts with her, but at the thought of it my heart was in my throat, my chest constricted, I could hardly breathe.
It was hopeless after all. I had tried so long, but in vain.
I realized that women were wasting my time. The information I had been given at the start—that love was just so much pointless chatter—had not been misleading. I am writing a complaint, and a warning. Is there anyone who would stand up and deny me the right to do so? I am healthy, I have no reason to think that any part of me is malfunctioning. I have always been a capable person who knows how to behave himself, rarely makes mistakes, and shows a deft hand everywhere.
And now I also understand the game the women are playing. Men are stronger than women: They can beat them to death—and yet they let them make them miserable. Through the perfidious institution of love. That is what protects women. This deceptive word is stronger than muscles of steel. I am too rational to let myself be caught. These extraordinarily noxious and hateworthy creatures turn men into fools and actors. Because among men, too—I say it loud and clear—no one knows what the love their deceived spirits speak of actually is. No one understands love but everyone plays at it—out of fear of women. So fainthearted this tradition has made men; so mighty is the power of deception.
Steps against love need to be taken by the state, just as against alcohol and tuberculosis. The natural relationship between the antagonists needs to be reinstated. Women need to shut up. I am in favor of a well-trained tribe of whores; in the present circumstances, it is as necessary to found whore academies as it is to lay new railroad tracks. Silence and tact would be taught there, as well as a quick understanding for certain things, a lovely gait, modulation of the voice, singing, but also moaning and whispering. What is now isolated hearsay about the arts of love could be learned by many. Infinite masses of energy in men would thereby be freed up for other activities that do more to promote civilized culture, while the art of pleasure, nourished by a community and tended with special care, would soon enter an unprecedented golden age. Love needs to be gradually expelled from the world. More important than the women’s movement, the campaign for bread, is the men’s movement against this heavy, undignified yoke of love. The natural relationship, as I expressed it above, between male and female has to be restored.
With a loud voice I cry out against the enemy who murders in darkness. And has for centuries.
I found someone on my search: the washerwoman in the hotel where I live. She is hunchbacked, has a square fat face with doglike eyes and pouting lips. I have never seen anything like her slovenly way of walking and her squalid clothes.
When she sees me in the hall, as she’s standing in the kitchen in front of the tub with her sleeves rolled up high, her lips bulge, she rubs the nose mounted above them with the back of her left hand and grins.
Women are all the same.
It amazed me at first, this grin, so that something like bitterness came over me—bitterness, no, that is not the right word: rage and pain. I threatened her with my fists when she laughed, and I rushed at her. Who did she think I was? I am a free man. Women are all the same. Either they smile at me so that I want to punch them in the face or they cloak themselves with all that time-wasting verbosity, as though it were a matter of administering the holy sacrament: They act out love, the sly little slaves, the phony masters, I can see right through them. I can smell right through them, through all their perfumes I can sniff them out. Anyone who has spent the night with a female—I want to speak clearly here—knows what I mean: He knows the specific, sharp, repulsive smell that lingers on a woman; the slaves are branded by nature. I could smell this fume as soon as I stood next to her, the washerwoman. She was genuine. My mouth watered: Women nauseate me. I grabbed her there in the kitchen and dragged her behind me to my room, because I didn’t know what else there was to do to her after that smile. In my room, though, I threw her down. She turned her back to me; she betrayed womankind to me. I feasted with mocking words on the quintessence of woman, the lowest female, and defiled her. How I laugh at love! Women paraded past me in my thoughts, women I knew, women I revered, also the women who filled me with trepidation—the thin one, with her blond hair all combed up—the delicate, slightly consumptive one, oh, that low black fur cap she wore—the proud beasts paraded past me. I sat in my lair with the laundry girl and defiled all the sleeping creatures. They could not see me, could not tear the unsuspecting lump away from me and save themselves from degradation.
Oh, how pious I am, I am very pious.
When the girl turned affectionate, I flew into a boundless, utterly terrible rage, threw her out the door, and planted my heel in her fat haunches. That’s how furious I was. Later, too, I screamed at her, threatened her, slapped her frantically, and pulled her hair, without feeling any pleasure or relief from doing so. Most of the time, though, I cried in the night on her breast, for hours, in my way, without tears.
The pictures on the wall. I walk coolly past them. What convulsions must have racked this man when he painted that picture. And music. I shut my ears to it. How apathetic I have become; how deeply what I have learned has embedded itself in my breast. I am ashamed of these men. They’re all defeated, all betrayed, and out of their virtue they have made a need, the need for a woman. Should smash them in battle and stomp them into submission. Poison flows in their veins.
My blood is pure, pure.
I climbed mountains.
They stand there dazzling in the morning light.
They are overburdened with snow. The snowy mountain stands there like a bride, awaiting praise.
I walk across it. From all sides, from every branch, the glittering icicles break off and fall on me, they tear the hat from my head and run down into my neck. The snow is high; already I sink in it up to my knees.
How happy it makes me, all the riches and beauties spread out before me, and that I can trample them with my blind heels.
I have changed so strangely, since I set out toward other people. Most likely I got carried away.
Oh how people disgust me.
I hate women, I hate, hate, hate them, I could weep with rage over them, the dogs, the damned bitches. I envy the mad—at least they still believe in their hallucinations. There is nothing left to push me to work, to laugh, to breathe.
Methinks they have corrupted me. So they did poison me after all.
I am so scared. I only want to run and climb. My God, help me.
I climb through the snow.
I realize now that I’ve lost my way.
Right. I’ll sit down in the soft snow. I’ll make it down, I won’t make it down? I count it off on my coat buttons. The sweet snow.
My God, help my sick soul soon.
THE CANONESS AND DEATH
THE GAUNT gray-haired maiden had pushed the glasses of hyacinths aside and propped her elbows on the windowsill. She sat bent in the light of the snow. Out in the front yard a dazzling
She took her left elbow off the windowsill, laid her delicate little hands together, pressed her back against the back of the chair. The maiden sat stiffly behind the glasses of hyacinths. When the clock struck, she went to the refectory table, took a bite, and put down her fork. She left the hall. She sat in her room. All day she sat in her room, in a corner, her ruined face turned to the wall. The snowlight falling into the room turned faint; the colors dissipated on the carpet. Two trembling hands raised the cylinder from the lamp in the dark, then the lamp was violently put out again. Clothes fell to the floor. She breathed in bed, haltingly, now quickly, now deeply. All night she lay there with her eyes open. Her face did not move in the darkness. Around midnight, the moon appeared outside her little window. White, it remained there half the night; only when the clock struck half past three did it turn away.
In the morning, she walked with measured steps through the park behind the convent, bent, in her black dress with the narrow sleeves. The maiden walked under the bare trees next to her gangly friend. They spoke now and then, raising wrinkled lids from their eyes, which misted up at the first breath of air. Indifferent sentences were repeated.
When the moon appeared outside her curtained window in the night, the canoness’s bed teetered. Her fingers clutched both edges of the bed frame and clenched into balls; she shook, pressed herself into the bed, and groaned often as morning came. Oh, how the lump whimpered, crawled under the blanket, and fell asleep only when it was already light.
The next day there was a disquiet in her actions. She gulped down her meal, kept jumping up, chatted and babbled like never before, broke off in the middle of what she was saying, and fidgeted. She stayed sitting in the dining hall for a long time, with shoulders slumped, doubled over. She did not go back to her room that day. That evening, she asked her friend to spend the night with her, in vain. After that, it was as though someone was pushing the canoness across the threshold. She hastily locked the door behind her, closed the window, sprinkled eau de cologne on the walls, and put flowers, blossoming flowers, on the table and the stove, at the feet of the little picture of the Mother of God in the corner, as many flowers as she could find, white and blue blankets, too, that she had in her cupboard, and draped them over her chairs too. Then she suddenly sat down for a long, foolish, stubborn cry.
Bright Magic by Alfred Doblin / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes