Bright magic, p.15
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       Bright Magic, p.15

           Alfred Doblin
 
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  It soon became clear that the spirits increased their number solely through arrivals from without, from other worlds, from cosmic traffic. Thus when they heard and could not understand the words “father,” “mother,” “son,” “daughter,” they wanted to know, first, how this thing happened, and second, why the people on this side didn’t increase the same easy way that they did, by simply importing some more—a question, in fact, that made the society members stop and think. They also didn’t know how to respond to the spirits’ comment that this side must not be able to generate imports because clearly it offered little to attract those from other worlds. This world’s appeal was so small that even the people living on earth had no choice after a while but to head out—or else divide, in difficult fashion. The spirits were amazed.

  “How can you stand it there on earth? With only each other for company? And the new ones come from just yourselves too?”

  The society admitted it wasn’t easy.

  Spirits: “That must be why you hold spiritualist meetings?”

  They agreed happily. They had found a new, convincing, and serious justification for their spiritualism.

  The spirits drew further conclusions: “So basically the only reason you come together in the way you’ve described, and divide, is to fill the gaps that constantly arise when someone leaves for another world.”

  Nods. “It’s called death. No one can avoid it.”

  They laughed. “No one can? That’s a strange way to put it. Who would want to? Who could stand staying longer? And then what happens with the new ones?”

  “The newborns? We raise them, when they grow up. We educate them and teach them in schools and universities.”

  The spirits were speechless.

  “That’s awful,” they finally said. “Awful. You, educate them? You teach them. Nothing can come of that. You’re just preventing any chance of something new arising.”

  The spiritualists sat silent. They had never looked at things that way. The spirits wrung their hands (as it were). “You’ll never get anywhere. You’ll degenerate, there’s no other possibility.”

  And yet they themselves seemed to find this miserable human existence downright appetizing. These old geezers were hardly being honest, considering their enormous interest in Eveline.

  “This whole maneuver of reproducing,” the eager gentlemen suddenly interjected into the debate, “it’s all clearly just something you invented to overcome the monotony of life there on earth.”

  “You’re right!” Eveline cried out. “You’ve hit the nail on the head! It’s true. That’s why we have love.”

  And she positively went into raptures and had the audacity (but then she was an actress and dancer, and used to self-exposure) to paint an intoxicating picture of love for the spirits, via Wiscott, in front of all the serious men and women of the club and her detective. Love, she said, was among the most worthwhile, pleasant, interesting, and exciting things that ever happened on earth, which truly would be, without it, deadly dull.

  The elegant medium at this point violently tossed and turned on the chaise longue and cleared his throat in such a way as to, one might say, put the brakes on. Eveline noticed. She provocatively cleared her own throat. Then van Steen the brewery owner suddenly came forward to ask, after an incomprehensible murmur, as though he didn’t know anything, as if blind, whether the Miss Eveline he had named was present at the current session investigating his murder and was ready to make a statement.

  The detective answered energetically, “She’s right here.”

  Van Steen groaned. “Knocking a hole like that in someone’s head.”

  Everyone pricked up their ears. The crime was on the table. Eveline wanted to begin her defense straightaway. But the detective, noticing this, pushed her back into her chair and hissed, “Wait until you are asked a question.”

  She screamed, “Let me go!”

  The brewer, tragically: “A hole like that. Even now I can’t remember anything. I’m still totally confused.”

  Laughter came from many sides; the poor medium could voice it only with great difficulty. The beyond was unmercifully amused at the crazy behavior of their colleague. One of them yelled “Welcome to this side!” and just then an object flew across the room and landed by the door. Because it was so dark and no one wanted to interrupt the session, it was impossible to investigate what it was.

  The teary-eyed (or teary-souled) spirit of the brewer: “Yes, they hauled me to the cemetery and buried me.”

  That was more than the beyond could bear. Their laughter positively tore the medium apart. The lady, the accused, kept shouting interruptions, refusing to be calmed down, while the brewer kept groaning, and before long several spiritualists lost patience and took Eveline’s side against her sentimental accuser, who had nothing substantive to offer. Naturally, the spirits took her side as well. In so doing, they broke the agreement they had made at the beginning, to talk one at a time, and the medium was soon in a bad state. He raised his arms, he couldn’t follow, the incredible confusion of laughter and cries of protest was unbearable. The whole beyond must have gone completely crazy, due to Eveline, or van Steen. They were all at each other’s throats. The medium shrieked in despair, and there was nothing to do but break off the session that had begun so auspiciously.

  And what was lying on the floor by the door? The welcome plaque from van Steen’s grave. The spirits had retrieved it.

  •

  Let us now, before we proceed to describe the course of the last two sessions and thereby reveal the murderer, arrange the various incidents, observations, and revelations of the sessions into a general picture of conditions on the other side. This can only be a rough sketch, because the material we have to work with is relatively limited, and because with everything the spirits say we have to allow for their great mendacity. Taking all that into account, we can still arrive at the following:

  Upon leaving this side, the spirits lose more and more of their solidity along with their bodies and grow ever lighter and thinner over time. It is a process of advancing emaciation that takes place quickly, because there what matters are not years, as with us, but decades, even centuries. For the older habitués of the beyond, making plans for the next millennium is not at all unheard of.

  When we speak of emaciation, what we mean is the loss of all substance, including memories, ideas, and thoughts. The beings grow emptier and emptier, or in other words: more spiritual. From our point of view, this is obviously a process of shrinkage, a kind of increasing stupidity. We can safely speak of it as advancing idiocy, ending in absolute airheadedness.

  Now since, along with their bodies and other substances, the spirits lose all the fluctuations and distractions of earth, air, and water, it is easy to imagine how boring their lives are there, and appreciate the merciful dispensation of Nature that speeds up time for them, making it pass at an accelerated tempo, a gallop. The spirits can thus count on some event befalling them at least every few centuries, or over the course of a millennium.

  In the beginning, freshly arrived from earth, they frolic around lustily indeed. Later, when none of them notices anything about the others, when nothing and no one makes any demands on them whatsoever or disturbs them at all, they sink into a kind of dolce far niente, a state of laziness and sluggishness, which necessarily leads to the blunting of all interests and feelings; a condition of gentle apathy, mixing benevolence with impotence, in which one can only forgive. At that point one enters the ranks of the advanced spirits.

  The wise ones who care about nothing anymore slowly rise to the higher levels, the sphere of the beyond known as the influential ruling circle, where lullabies constantly resound and one turns one’s head only rarely, to sniff out if anything is going on down in the world, and if so, to criticize it.

  This, then, is the explanation for certain things one notices in spiritualist meetings. What do these beings who have crossed over to the other side, from whom we expect a deepening and relaxat
ion of all their abilities, especially of thought, actually have to say when they are channeled? They accept the greetings of an uncle or aunt; as husbands, they give their widows information and advice that is rarely accurate; they inquire after relatives who happen to be in the room just then. We would have expected something more from an astral being, something a little more metaphysical. Here in this spiritualist club as well, the members sat around Wiscott and would have been delighted—curious as townsfolk are—to hear some authentic report on the “four corners of the world” or what a “Hyperborean” might think about life in E. But Nature does not accommodate our wishes.

  If the spirits insist on being native to the beyond, it is not just from vanity. The seniors truly no longer remember a thing about the terrestrial peregrinations lying so far behind them. It is therefore considered bad manners to have anything to do with any of it, and the new arrivals are drilled, in the few schools that have been established there (or that could be established, given the scarcity of teaching personnel), to honor the lofty mindless monotony of the elders as the pinnacle of what is to be striven for. Anyone caught reflecting and remembering is arrested and transported to the respective temple of punishment, of which there are four, one for each of the compass points. There they are forced to study a page of theosophy, after which they quickly give up thinking altogether.

  This, then, is our account of the condition and nature of the spirits, to which must be added their hypocrisy and lies at every stage. For, though the centuries there roll past like nothing, the rulers remain greedy and keep their sumptuous tastes, a fact their morality compels them to hide.

  •

  What a relief it was, therefore—to return to our story—when spiritualism arose on earth and agreed to meet with at least some spirits. And what excitement, in certain circles of the beyond, when word got out that the freshly arrived van Steen had been summoned to appear as a witness in a criminal proceeding, his own murder case. How they threw themselves at him—shamelessly, one might say. This was just the kind of thing they were waiting for. Gossip and arguments were running wild in the whole lower beyond, and suddenly, before the very eyes of the rulers sunk in torpid wisdom, there was a kind of emancipation. A large group of spirits openly sympathized with van Steen and urged him to energetically pursue his case. Naturally they only wanted a bit of fun, hence the excesses at the cemetery and their throwing the welcome plaque at the human beings’ feet, as much as to say: You crooks, you murder one of us and so condemn him to this lousy afterlife, and then you think you can fob him off with a plaque!

  Since the afterlifers realized that the rail line to this side was overloaded, and since they had no desire to take turns single file, they had the same thought as the spiritualists. They demanded more connections—a doubling and tripling of the line.

  The loudest voice was one Nulpe, from the Stone Age, who demanded that they wrest the whole operation out of the spiritualists’ hands and take over themselves, first for the sake of justice, and second—but the second reason remained unstated, it was self-explanatory in this circle: because then they could clown around more. Nulpe reminded his fellow sufferers how backward it was in the beyond: No one ever tries to do anything here. We molt like birds, leave our nice bodies behind on earth, then stroll around in astral bodies, only to finally end our days as pure spirits. Is that really such a worthy goal? Humans complain all the time about their existence, true, but what about us, with our astral bodies? Nulpe railed against the beyond, said it had totally gone to seed. The spirits lay around doing nothing and, despite their burning curiosity, could not make even one contact with earth.

  This tirade had real results.

  Four members of the society, all older individuals, although obviously nothing in age compared to Nulpe or the other astral beings, two ladies and two gentlemen, simple folk with modest incomes whose only source of intellectual stimulation was spiritualism, felt compelled to admit to one another and their delighted president that they could feel something in their body parts, it was unclear what—an agitation, a compulsion—no, it wasn’t love—more like. . . . And they said that they could (they thought they could) fall into a trance! Their batteries were being pumped full, so to speak. They were prepared to work at no cost alongside the highly paid medium. Nothing could suit the president better, after two older mediums had already demanded higher fees. We can see here the workings of the conspiratorial spirits.

  And in fact, when the time for the big session came and the light was turned off, first the professional, Wiscott, fell into a trance and then, on either side of him, several other individuals. This frightened the rest, the uninitiated, who were worried that they might suffer the same fate. Valley calmed them down with a gesture.

  The suspense grew. Eveline was there with her detective, and she opened her eyes wide and pricked up her ears.

  She had good reason for her nerves. The big guns were being brought out against her. For now all five of the people who had entered a trance started talking at once, led by Wiscott. The more they spoke, and the harder they were to understand, the greater the restlessness among the non-spiritualists. They were overcome with agitation. They felt that the trance state would spread to them, they would be unable to resist, they too would start talking and talking, heaven knows what they would say.

  After extensive discussion, the astral beings under Nulpe the caveman’s leadership had decided on a set marching order for their first group contact with this side. They had already drunk a toast to the opening of a new line, in spirit fashion, with copious gulps of air.

  Nulpe had chosen as his speaker one of the amateur mediums, Schnüffel the haberdasher, who was sitting directly across from Eveline. As a result, Schnüffel now had to lean across the table and utter strange and sweet words to the lady, on behalf of the venerable Nulpe. These words were, needless to say, not the kind one would have expected from someone spiritualized to such a high degree. Schnüffel’s remark, or that of the graybeard Nulpe, apparently a kind of compliment common in Stone Age times, had to do with the lady’s well-developed bosom.

  At this the other mediums, including the two spiritized ladies, burst into laughter; the president himself guffawed but immediately called for order. They stifled their laughter, fidgeted on their chairs, and managed to stare stiffly, unsmilingly straight ahead.

  When the lady’s face reddened under this snuffling, admittedly in the dark, but she did not reply—she didn’t, in any case, rebuff the amorous caveman—Nulpe struck up a conversation with young Eveline (the spirits represented on this occasion were all men; the scent of van Steen’s story had attracted almost exclusively gentlemen). Nulpe asked how she felt on earth, whether her racy charms went over well enough here. He was also curious if she liked to travel, and when she said yes, he recommended the exquisite landscapes of the beyond and praised them to the skies. He offered his services as a guide, should the occasion arise.

  The beyond, he bragged, was beneficial for every kind of health. There had been no sicknesses there for millennia. That was due to the landscape, the wide open spaces, where everything was airy, ventilated from without and within. And everything beautiful that had to be hidden under clothes on earth could there be borne openly, risk-free.

  The old man from the Stone Age, horny as a young goat, seemed to want to entice the young lady to approach his state (or him), although he neglected to mention, and had probably forgotten, that they have no bodies on the other side.

  Then one Depp from Upper Egypt, Tutankhamen’s dynasty, jumped in and hit on her even more crudely and obviously. Everything was as if planned to attack Eveline.

  During this unusual conversation, the room grew more and more agitated. The session was losing ever more of its scientific and/or criminal-justice character, especially as a consequence of the conspicuous behavior of the four assistant mediums, who, under astral influence, periodically emitted inarticulate sounds such as “Hawt” and “Hu” and “Hooah,” which at first meant not
hing to anyone. They also stammered and grunted. This enthusiasm leapt across to other members of the society. And during the rising and falling tumult there suddenly appeared an optical phenomenon in the middle of the table. A dazzling flame shot up, flickered, and went out.

  In its light, the master medium, Wiscott, could be seen lying on the divan with an ecstatic expression on his face, as though listening to something far away. (Incidentally, in the earlier sessions too, mysterious shining bands of light had sometimes appeared around him.)

  Wiscott moved, raised his arm, and cried out in delight, “Oh, they’re dancing, the astral bodies. The spirits are dancing.”

  Truly, they had set themselves in motion to pay their respects to the charming Eveline.

  And now Wiscott, too, gave off rhythmical noises. First he, and then the nonprofessionals, began to clap their hands in rhythm.

  The astral beings, the ancient ones, danced—invisibly to earthly eyes, a tribute paid by the other side to this, or more precisely a tribute paid by indestructible old men to the Eternal Feminine, the whole thing a ballet in honor of the opening of a new transport line, and, to look at it in crudely materialistic terms, excessive behavior attributable to immoderate air-drinking.

  Some of those present, carried away, literally heard the bones of the spirits knocking and their joints cracking as they danced. But these were auditory hallucinations, since there was nothing there that could knock or crack. They were ether from head to toe, but with more than ether on their minds.

  The co-mediums were counting merrily “One, two, three,” a dance rhythm, like that of an earthly polka, when suddenly Wiscott cried out in amazement, “They’re wearing pajamas! They’re dancing in pajamas.”

  No one could believe it. This was sensational, it went against every theory. The people craned their necks, opened their eyes wide so that they could see something too. Only Eveline, who probably realized her time was running out, had put her hands over her face and collapsed on the table. It looked as though she was crying. But no one paid any attention to her. Everyone wanted only to see the spirits, dancing in pajamas.

 
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