Bright magic, p.14
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       Bright Magic, p.14

           Alfred Doblin
 
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  It was obvious to the spiritualists that Wiscott was now a telescope through which primarily those on the other side were looking. Some of them secretly wondered, given the high honorarium Wiscott received and his opulent lifestyle, if he wasn’t perhaps selling his services to them on the other side too, the old bastard—and what they were paying him, and how, and with what. As long as he wasn’t getting too mixed up with them.

  You can imagine what a hodgepodge it was, with both sides wanting to use the telescope, or megaphone, at the same time. Each side made fun of the other, tried to insist on rules and regulations for the traffic. But it did stay within civilized bounds.

  Once this first contact was established, they resolutely tackled the question of the murder.

  “Who has supposedly been murdered?” laughed the murdered man, quite amused by the earlier to-do. Valley very cautiously conveyed that it was him. He could have spared himself the trouble and been clearer because the spirit didn’t notice the hints. He constantly returned to the subject of his trip and thought they were joking with him. He was obviously suffering from a posthumous gap in his memory, perhaps corresponding to the gap in his skull that the murderer had made with a blunt instrument. Now the question was how to break the news to him. Finally, after being badgered repeatedly by his fellow society members, van Steen had to face facts. After a short pause, he said that he was withdrawing to get advice from his buddies.

  There was no sign of him for a while. The medium whistled contentedly on the divan and chuckled to himself at something, eyes closed. He seemed to be having a good time, who knows with whom.

  Then van Steen reappeared, this time alone. He was sulking, acting like he didn’t know a thing, hadn’t heard anything, and they had to tell him everything all over again. Strangely, or to be honest stupidly, he asked who he was dealing with. They soon understood why he was acting that way. It was clear from the heckling they could hear coming from the other side—some spirits were lingering nearby. Van Steen was simply embarrassed in the presence of the others in the beyond. He didn’t want it known that he had, or ever had had, anything to do with the spiritualist society or with this side at all. It was bon ton on the other side not to have originated from human beings—why this might be, and what it even meant, were actually incomprehensible, of course, since all of them there must originally have been human beings. (Or were there some who had another origin?) In any case, over there they acted across the board like they were the high-class real thing, yet another confirmation that social relations on this side and the other side were the same.

  As soon as the spiritualists realized that this was the situation, and that their good old brewery owner was ashamed to have come from a human being—him, an ordinary meat-and-potatoes spirit, the real thing, the fun-loving fellow, him—their mood lifted and they teased the poor creature mercilessly. They greeted him heartily, alluded to his brewery job, which had actually come naturally to him and fit him to a T; his brewery was doing great without him too, by the way. They made reference to various pleasant times they had spent with him here in E., before or after meetings of the society.

  Van Steen had no way out: They were too many for him, and behind him the others were making nasty comments and confusing him, and he was trying to hush up his past, using fancy words and talking about theoretical and philosophical things, all total nonsense of course, since that wasn’t his style and they were just words he had picked up somewhere, and the speech produced a loud, mocking laugh from his buddies in the society, who naturally didn’t understand them at all either.

  The spirits gathering behind and around him all this time in ever greater number followed the debate with great attention. They interjected comments now and then and finally subjected van Steen to a cross-examination so intense, such a confusing muddle, that it should have been called a crisscross-examination. They only embarrassed him more, driving him into a corner. Now, under direct interrogation and Yes or No questions, van Steen could no longer deny it: He had to admit that he did recognize certain of the persons present. They emphasized the “re-” in “recognize” several times until at last he had to confess.

  Defamed as he was, he lashed out and snapped at the spirits tormenting him: “Fine, all right, it’s true! So what if it is? Who are you all then? Where did you come from? Did you hatch from a chicken’s egg? Or come from a picture book? Let’s hear it. Now it’s my turn to ask questions.” The response was a thunderous burst of scornful laughter from the beyond, lasting several minutes, in which the whole leadership of the society also took part.

  The spirits—we would like to mention here, so as not to present them in a false light—truly did think they were innocent. They considered themselves aboriginal spirits native to the beyond and felt that they had good reason to cut mere travelers, immigrants, passersby down to size. This was because the whole crowd that had crept up behind van Steen and now formed a chorus around him were all extremely ancient. Some came from the Ice Age, some from the time of the early Egyptians. There were people there too who had crossed the Red Sea with dry feet, and one who had died of malaria while building the Great Pyramid.

  None of them had any precise memory of this side. And what about the many souls of babies, Indian babies of Aztec origin, who only grew up to normal size on the other side—what were they supposed to remember, what could they remember? The memory of the mother’s breast or sucking on a rubber pacifier doesn’t last long and is hardly enough to keep a person occupied for eternity, or even for millennia. So all of them—Egyptians, cavemen, and Aztec babies— could laugh in good conscience at van Steen the newcomer, who had been found guilty of running a brewery on the other side and whose head had been crushed in; laugh at him, a blemish on the beyond, a splash of mud from the scurrilous earth.

  Being empty, though, as spirits are, they are also curious, greedily hungering for anything new. Shapeless floods of restlessness and sensationalism sometimes inundate the other side. All the spirits present were suffering from one such attack of feverish curiosity, and that was why they had flocked around van Steen and snuck into the session after him.

  Now unmasked after all, and his own interest piqued (it was all the same to him), the brewer began to ask the living questions about his situation, while his entourage greedily paid attention. He wanted information about his final days, which they were happy to give him: They had been merry, peaceful, people had spent time with him, maybe he had something he would like to say himself about certain ladies who had attached themselves to him, maybe for reasons of inheritance. Then they moved directly to the murder, told him about the valuables that had been stolen, and about the pajamas and shirts. They heard an astonished and delighted “Ahh!” pass through the crowd of spirits when they mentioned the clothes, and could not understand the reason for it at all. Van Steen stayed on the topic of the murder someone had committed against him, though, and wanted to know more details. He seemed to be in great distress, and cried out, “I should have seen that! I should have been there!”

  The detective in attendance as a guest felt that his moment had come, and asked, with a rookie’s naiveté, “So who was it?”

  He had not taken into account van Steen’s condition, still struggling with the news of the misfortune that had befallen him; he felt it as a misfortune and was not ashamed to admit it before his fellow spirits.

  “I don’t know!” he howled. “What villainy, what infamy. How should I know when I’ve had a hole like that knocked into my head.”

  And then he started stammering about how dreadful it was among human beings, how monstrously they treated you, and then that you had to die because of a hole in your head like that. “I will never be a human being again, I swear it, I’ll never agree to it again. Such an uncertain existence. One little gunshot and you’re dead.”

  The society sat there, deeply moved. Alas, it was only too true.

  They invited the brewer, who by now had cast off all shyness before his fellow spirits, to
try a little harder. They for their part were listening to the story so intently that they were as quiet as mice. Maybe something would occur to him which could put them onto the murderer’s tracks. They described the fateful hotel room and told him how it had been left. At this, his sadness left him. He had them explain his posthumous adornments in detail. He giggled, and asked about the napkins in his boots several times, at which he gave a hearty laugh.

  “Do they think I eat out of my boots? That I was that drunk? We must have been having a good time.”

  Then he let out an elegiac sigh. The napkins seemed to have reminded him of something. And then, without warning—it was like a bomb going off—he asked about Eveline Dutort! He described her as a charming, attractive creature. He knew the name of the theater where she acted, and even knew (it was strange) the play she was currently acting in. Advertising in the beyond. He repeated her name several times, in a melancholy voice, and brooded. The gaps in his memory seemed to be starting to fill.

  “Was it her?” the detective pushed.

  “Maybe,” the spirit sighed. “Who can know. Maybe it was her. It seems that way to me. To knock a hole like that into someone’s head. With a blunt instrument? What kind?”

  But that was what they wanted to learn from him.

  He thought it over. “A blunt instrument. There must not have been a sharp one handy.” And he marveled: “Such a sweet little thing. Not even something sharp.”

  He withdrew with his silent companions, shaking his head, only to return after a few minutes and thank the people there for the interest they had shown, and also to inquire where they had buried him. He would like to go there right away.

  The society was already thinking about rushing out the door to tell the press about the amazing results of their séance, when the medium, still in a trance, gave a signal. There was knocking—a message from the beyond. They wanted to know, over there, when they would be reconvening.

  The president said, “Friday.” (This was Tuesday.)

  On the other side they brusquely thanked him and said one had to strike while the iron was hot.

  With that, the session ended. Incidentally, van Steen’s rage at the beyond is more comprehensible when we realize the job that this man, who had so loved life and had lived in such high style here, had on the other side: Garbage collection! That was the usual assignment for a certain kind of new arrival, whose heart still clung to earthly things and who had led a wild life on the other (that is, this) side. Conceited bachelors were given that job as well, and famous luminaries such as scientists, painters, writers, tenors, and generals. For there was garbage in the beyond, stemming from the titanic mass of rotten, shriveled, worthless ideas and preferences that everyone brought with them, gradually threw off, and as it were sweated out of their system—things that no longer had or could have any place in the strict, noble, and spiritual other side. This sad latrine duty was assigned to the merry van Steen. He, and others, had to sweep up this daily rubbish and cart it off to be burned. In his affliction he, like many others, often simply scattered the stuff back down onto the earth.

  •

  They reconvened earlier than planned, though—on Thursday, because meanwhile something happened that made the society decide they needed to proceed more rapidly.

  As we recall, van Steen had stated before he left that he wanted to visit his grave in the cemetery, a delight that spirits have enjoyed since time immemorial and that no one had any desire to refuse him. Several members of the society had sprung into action early the next morning and tidied up the rather neglected grave. They brought flowers, and also, to welcome the ghost, their former associate, sensibly added a few fresh bottles of beer from his brewery and a plaque on the top of the grave mound proclaiming to the visitor: “Welcome to the city of your former activities, and bon voyage on your travels to come.”

  The next morning, on Thursday, the cemetery watchman reported that an act of vandalism had taken place the previous night in the locked grounds. Unknown persons had forced their way in and destroyed what the spiritualists had so piously assembled. The bottles had been opened and the beer poured out, the flowers scattered. The welcome plaque was gone. The hooligans had also worked their mischief in the area around the grave. While the general public was merely amused by the spiritualists’ activities, and maintained that obviously the cemetery watchman had drunk the beer himself and done everything else to mislead them, the society members were quite sure that ghosts under the leadership of van Steen had done it, indignant at the murder. The meeting was planned for that night.

  The proceedings started, and right away there was a predictable technical difficulty: Wiscott, the medium, couldn’t do it. The lines were busy, the roads were blocked. A good dozen spirits were talking to him at the same time. He lay on the sofa, tossed and turned from side to side, covered his ears. Inarticulate sounds came out of him. Finally, tears were running from his eyes and there was nothing to do but wake him up. He made a sorry impression, sitting there like that with his back against the wall, and he whispered that everything was chaos on the other side, they were totally out of hand, what was he supposed to do.

  They agreed to have only a limited exchange with the beyond that day, during which they would ask the beings on the other side to try to maintain order, in the interests of both sides. They promised to return the next day with at least two assistants for a full session, in order to satisfy all their requests. At this, they boarded the passenger train once more: commuter line “This Side–Other Side” via Wiscott.

  That day, incidentally, Mademoiselle Eveline Dutort, accompanied by a police detective, was on the scene to face the victim. But here it was no mere playacted victim, unlike the one Claudius was confronted with in Hamlet. Here, the criminal would face the murder victim in person (if admittedly spiritualized). So there was Eveline, pert and voluptuous, sitting at the table in front of the chaise longue, alternately shy and flirty. Most of the time she acted indifferent to the proceedings, threw coquettish glances, and tittered as she surveyed the strange milieu of the spiritualists, philistine stuffed shirts every last one. In short, she was the very picture of guilt, or at least of complicity, of having taken part in or known about the crime. She cynically awaited the accusation from the beyond. When she greeted the medium with a contemptuous “Pah!,” the detective next to her hissed: “Stop making a fuss, miss.”

  The spirits appeared, and as soon as they had made their complaints about the reduced speaking time and the number of speakers, before settling down to comply with the inevitable, they directed their attention, now taking turns, to Miss Eveline. They trained the heavy artillery of their millennia-old acumen upon her. One by one they greeted her: “Hello, Eveline.” “Hallo, darling.” “You little flirt, you too?” “How do you like it here with us, doll?” “Who did you pretty yourself up for so nice today? Who’s the lucky guy?”

  Not especially genteel, these spirits. Everyone could see the kind of type they were dealing with from the questions they directed at the young lady. It was a bizarre trial, a jovial court session. Even the detective next to the lady admitted that he had always pictured spirits rather differently. He too had entertained the classical ideas, but now here he was, face-to-face with the reality, crude and potent, and he grinned in surprise.

  Not a single one of the questions the spirits asked Eveline had to do with van Steen’s murder. The murdered man himself seemed bashful and hung back, cowed, letting the others talk.

  What was it the gentlemen wished to know? Nothing but matters from the domain of reproduction. We might find this amazing, but if you put yourself in a spirit’s shoes and circumstances, you’ll understand. Ten thousand, fifty thousand years are no small thing. And when someone that old, with only similarly grizzled veterans as companions, suddenly finds himself faced with a sexy, flawlessly dressed twenty-two-year-old young lady, Miss Eveline Dutort from the cabaret in the city of E.?

  The gang of spirits was completely in a tizzy. The
previous night, led by van Steen, they had behaved like boys, like louts one might say, at the cemetery, furious at the criminal act that had been committed against one of their number (at least we assume they were the ones at the cemetery)—maybe that had livened them up, got them going, worked up their appetite, and now here unexpectedly before them today was Eveline.

  If one of our readers should parenthetically ask: How is it possible for spirits, communicating with this side through Wiscott, to see Eveline at all, much less in a dimly lit room, and recognize her as a young lady, and after five or ten thousand years at that? How is it possible? The answer would have to be, plain and simple, that they did. That’s what the spirits did. Skeptics can like it or lump it. And by the way, seeing through a medium’s closed eyes in a dim room and recognizing someone there is the least that a spirit can do—if it wants to.

  As for the spirits’ interest in Eveline and questions of reproduction, one must above all take account of their advanced age. Can we imagine, for instance “How lovely it is for the little fishes down in the deep,” as a classical German poet once asked? We cannot. We all come from water and descend from fishes, and yet we have no memory—unless perhaps little children do, in the form of their fear of water—that it is not, after all, as wonderful down in the deep as the poet imagines. While the people present smirked and gave the spiritualized old men this or that hint—about the two sexes, the uses to which a lady can be put—Eveline laughed, merry and light of heart. She kept no secrets from them in this regard. But when the seniors pushed for details, a storm of merriment came over everyone. The spiritualists themselves were doubled over with laughter. Only the medium remained serious, a sign of how deep his trance state was.

 
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