Bright magic, p.22
Bright Magic, p.22Alfred Doblin
Just picture the amazement of the brave artillerymen in a raging battle who have loaded their weapon’s heavy payload and fired— they turn around to get a new projectile—the cannon shudders, they turn back around, and they find the ammunition back in its chamber. There it sits, calm and peaceful in its bed, saying nothing. (Of course it says nothing. It wanted to give human beings something to think about, and it has.) They are stunned, they toss the old projectile aside, put a new one in, load, pull, press the detonator, cover their ears, but keep their eyes facing suspiciously forward. Amid the hellish din they see the new shell rise like Satan out of the flames, the barrel; take to the air; roar off. They can breathe easier—it worked this time, there was no mistake in the loading or flaw in the manufacturing. Then there’s a hum in the distance, something comes closer, the noise gets louder, and look, inconceivable, unbelievable, but they have no choice but to believe it because they can see it, the heavy, black, elongated projectile they’ve just fired coming back. What in the world can be bringing it back? It hums a contented, soothing hum. It takes its time, it seems like a different projectile (in terms of mood) from the one they just shot. It falls from the sky before the astonished eyes of the human beings, the valiant artillery-men, who run head over heels away from their projectile (unjustly —it’s not trying to do anything to them, after all, except enlighten and instruct). It lowers itself down with great precision into the still-glowing hot barrel and slips into its old place. Anyway, it’s back home.
Few among us can clearly picture what a horrifying, bewildering effect this protest had. Generals, colonels, majors, captains, lieutenants, sergeants, general staffs, and governments in every country held their heads in their hands. The ground was slipping away beneath their feet; bullets were no longer following orders. What was the threat of earlier revolutionaries, who sang “Working man, arise! / Your power recognize! / The wheels will all stand still / If that’s your strong arm’s will,” compared to this. And one mustn’t think that this terrible development was happening only on one side. It happened on both. The enemy generals felt obliged to make overtures to each other (already a first success in the bullet’s peace-loving action, or nonaction). They wanted to reach a common accord and cordially exchanged information, naturally behind the public’s back. But there was nothing more they could do. It was like an epidemic. The majority of the bullets turned back to their starting point, folded as it were their arms, and hit the sack. It was the end of the world.
The generals staged processions and went to pray. They usually did that only after victories. They pleaded for the reinstitution of the laws of nature. In every country, the soldiers—the presumptive victims of these laws—were ordered to do the same.
There was widespread discussion then of the strange conversations that an old Argentinean herdsman named Pueblo had had with a bull named Arbel. Pueblo, in the presence of Arbel and Hortense the cow (by that point producing milk flavored like gasoline), was arrested.
Pueblo stood by his earlier statements. So, the military realized, the whole situation was a result of the well-known theory of materialism, pernicious to an extent no one had had anywhere near an idea of. It had lured Nature into unbridled acts of freedom and brought humanity to the brink of the abyss. They were already face-to-face with the prospect of a lasting peace.
In every country, in every capital, people now streamed to the city halls, the ministries. The mathematicians came running with their calculations that no longer added up. A battle raged between astronomers and opticians over their lenses. Behind them appeared the cafégoers, no longer willing to drink their miserable coffees, and the café owners, who could no longer find any takers for that same miserable coffee and could no longer pay their taxes as a result. The herdsmen came too, the cattle ranchers, the butchers, the farmers, with cries and lamentations: “This theory is a catastrophe, it will bring us to ruin. We have to ban it among the livestock and vegetables.”
“The cannons and guns too. There first,” the generals demanded. “But how, gentlemen, how?”
It truly was a desperate situation. Would humanity be able to stand the chaos for long? Evildoers were already taking advantage of the general confusion and spreading rumors that it was time to give up, that all of Darwinism was refuted and we had to go back to being animals. Why cling to this civilization? What’s the good of it? Now that Nature itself has acquired our civilization and everything is topsy-turvy, we can see what it’s good for.
“What should we do?” people asked. The villains, who included many swimming coaches, gym teachers, and fitness trainers, answered, “Go back into the water and swim like the fishes. Go into the fields and graze like the cows. Climb trees.”
Whereupon various ingenious persons planted trees and started teaching others how to climb them.
They brought ladders for the elderly.
The generals didn’t see how that would solve anything. In their way of thinking, a situation could be considered resolved only after a number of persons had been arrested, locked up, and shot. But whom to lock up and shoot? The generals answered, “If you round up enough people, you can be sure that the right ones are among them.”
So they locked up every person, educated or uneducated, who had professed or promoted materialism and charged them with conspiracy to starve the state as well as misuse of artillery and firearm ammunition for illegal purposes.
During the trial, crazy things were reported from the various battlefields, now emptied out and condemned to inactivity. Entrepreneurs built stages nearby, the public who could afford admission crowded in to gape at the fronts, soldiers requested time off in the middle of battles. In Bosnia, cannonballs flew so slowly past everyone, so invitingly slowly, that birds perched on board and let the cannonballs carry them, and on the return trip they only jumped off right before the cannons’ mouths. Now that certainly looked like mockery of humans on the animals’ part. In Spain and Italy, flocks of doves rested on these peaceful commuter cannonballs, including doves with olive branches in their beaks. It was a real slap in the face for the generals. In the cities, they soon had to release the scientists and philosophers, because the prisoners could prove that, yes, they had taught and promoted the criminalized theory, but they had had nothing to do with its dissemination through Nature. Rather, they explained, the guilty parties were to be sought among the white mice, guinea pigs, and dogs, perhaps other lab animals. The furious generals issued warrants at once for the arrest of these chatty and treasonous beasts, guilty of such a serious breach of confidence. They wanted to make short work of the trials. And that was the turning point.
The news spread to Nature, through various messenger animals, quicker than the humans would have thought possible. Everyone there knew lightning-fast that the humans had changed their views with respect to atoms, etc., and that all of this was thus in no way a definite and absolute truth—in fact, it was now outlawed.
Faith in humanity was shaken. They had seen humankind as the head of Nature, but now saw that they had been seduced and betrayed.
Truthfully, though, it was not an unwelcome discovery. A thrill of euphoria ran through Nature. They were free from a nightmare.
Before we describe how Nature’s blessed return came to pass, we would like to cast a glance at the dogs that the generals caught and locked up at the last moment. The animal world was in an uproar and on everyone’s lips were the dogs, the martyrs, languishing in their prison cells, accused of spreading false intelligence and inciting Nature against humanity, and now at risk of being shot as rebels. That too. First humanity had tricked Nature, now it was going after its own gullible victims. Volunteer battalions of fleas were sent into action at once, with the mission of infiltrating the prison and passing the message to the dogs that their liberation was being prepared. By cleverly using any available means, carried by prison wardens and even civil servants and officers, the fleas reached the prison cells and descended upon the depr
And that night came the incredible, magnificent liberation, later celebrated by many animals in song and story.
In the prison cell where the five dogs, already sentenced and facing execution, were imprisoned, all the locks melted overnight. Bolts, clasps, chains turned to butter.
The prisoners were woken up that night by a strange sound. They ran to the doors, felt around, licked: Butter was dripping from the doors, the doors moved and sprang open as soon as they touched them, some even crashed to the floor because their hinges had melted too. The bars on the doors dissolved; the bars on the windows melted too, leaving behind sizable portions of good unsalted butter. It goes without saying that numerous residents of this prison, yanked out of a deep sleep by this unexpected blessing, found themselves in seventh heaven and feasted richly upon the animal fat. They spread it on whatever bread they had left, they could grease their boots and slick their hair, and finally they left the rapidly emptied building, occupied in the end by none but the jailers.
For these wardens had to let them go: They couldn’t use their sabers and revolvers either. They couldn’t even tell what time it was, since the clocks on the wall and the watches in their pockets had fallen to the ground. The fillings in their teeth melted. Amazement, and the creamy sauce in their mouths, made the wardens speechless. On some of them, the glasses ran down their noses.
The five criminals accused of high treason could not have dreamed, though, that on top of everything they would be met on the outside with a full-scale fireworks display. It almost made them run back to their cells. If you wonder what kind of fireworks these were, you should know they were unintentional, but welcomed and encouraged by Nature. Nature, in its enthusiasm, had, as we have seen, put all its forces into action to free the canine messengers. They had given the rallying cry: Let every lock and key melt away. As in all revolutions, the rallying cry was quickly overtaken by events.
Wherever prisoners were sleeping on their iron cots, they unexpectedly crashed to the floor. They woke up, thought it was an earthquake, felt around, and found themselves in a lake of butter sauce with no trace of a bed. Their astonishment was indescribable. In the central kitchen, the vats melted and dumped their contents into the flames. Some of the cooks were spreading a pitiful piece of margarine on their bread when suddenly the knife lay down on the bread, spread itself out, and was ready to eat. It was a stroke of luck that the prison itself, a blocky old stone structure, had no iron parts in its construction. But the plumbing melted. Water effervesced in torrents down the corridors and poured like a river down the stairs. It rose up out of the cellar and met the water coming down from above. At the same time, flames as thick as your arm shot out of the walls— it was only the fact that the gas pipes turned to butter relatively slowly that prevented the prisoners, including the dogs, from drowning or going up in flames. By the time the fire broke out, everyone was already on the street. Flames blazed up from the ground in the neighborhood around the prison too—gigantic tongues of flame in the places where streetlamps had stood.
The masses of water swelled mightily. What a din from the fluid element, what hissing and wheezing from the fiery. Plus the tumult and cries of the people hurrying past.
Atop the powerful torrents of water the actual heroes of the day, the five dogs, swam to freedom and barked into the morning. They were met outside by packs of their compatriots who had gathered there, and who let out an enormous triumphal concert, proclaiming to the other animals the victory they had achieved.
Behind them, the prison stood in total befuddlement and sizzled, not knowing if it should merrily go up in flames or go down in the flood.
Like the prodigal son, whose pride had tempted him out into the world and who lost everything there, who returned and ruefully threw himself into his father’s arms, Nature too retreated back to its old, safe territory.
The waterfalls on the distant Blue Nile hurled their veils of water high into the air and danced beneath it on the cliff steps, African and wild. They squealed and thrashed. They smiled at the sun with a mighty rainbow. They threw gush after gush over the poor bushes they had let dry out. And the roots of the grasses softened up and drank whatever came into their bellies.
The tiger, who had been a bloodthirsty beast to absolutely everyone in the meantime—a dark rage ate away at him, grim fury at being dependent on idiotic things like atoms and electrons—the tiger cursed and swore, “I get it. The humans started this whole thing on purpose to torture us. The first one of them I see’ll pay.”
But actually the tiger was glad to have it all behind him, and he crept timidly back to his lair, with a heavy, heavy conscience after all this time. He was afraid, and ashamed.
He found his dearly beloved standing outside the door with the seven rascals she had had to feed on her own the whole time her fine husband had been bumming around. That pathetic fellow groveling up to her there, that runaway scalawag who called himself a philosopher—she gave him the reception he deserved. She gave him a good hard beating in front of the cheering brats, with several breaks to catch her breath, until he was limp and sniveling. Then she had breakfast in the sunlight with the whole family, without including him. After they were done, he was allowed to set foot in the apartment. With tears in his eyes, he lay down in his old corner. His family authority was gone. He had to admit he had deserved the beating: He was no tiger, he was an ass.
Arbel and Hortense fell into each other’s arms when they got the news. They put on a big bellow-concert. The roosters crowed earsplittingly too, and the owls shrieked; they were tired of their long fruitless fight with the rays of the sun. The people stood by and marveled at the mighty racket, wondering what it might mean. Hortense was done tormenting herself with methods of diluting milk. She let the milk flow how it wanted. And when Arbel’s time came and they slaughtered him, he made a parting promise to give good, surprisingly good, especially tender meat. And he kept his word. It was delicious. The truth was, no one had any beef with it whatsoever.
The gunpowder lost its addiction to drink. It stayed dry. It had been so hard to draw hydrogen and oxygen from the air anyway. And the bullets were no longer interested in the laws of ballistics. When the bullets flew, they flew. It would be all right, they would get where they were going just fine. The laws didn’t come from humans, obviously, who had made such fools of themselves with their talk of atoms and electrons. There was no compulsion in the laws. The bullets knew that now. They had faith. One might object that earlier, when the bullets had turned back and reentered their rifle barrels and cannon muzzles, they were being eminently reasonable and peace loving, and now they were turning warlike? They were not, they presumed to do no such thing. They denied all responsibility for what the humans did. As far as they, the bullets, were concerned, there was one and only one higher authority whose servants and tools they were, and to whom they calmly left the task of judging their behavior.
And now everything—elements, stones, plants, and animals— behaved the same way: blind and thoughtless, if you will, although perhaps also quite thoughtful, actually.
In those wondrous days of reaction and return, a museum dedicated to the memory of the great events was founded in the tropical jungle. Chimpanzees and orangutans had set it up. The whole animal world in the vicinity took part in the opening celebrations, with guests arriving from distant lands as well.
In an abandoned termite mound with a cathedral-like dome, the central cupola hall contained a large microscope that had already rotted. Exhibited on tables in other halls were eyeglasses, opera glasses, and magnifying glasses. There were test tubes and alembics in a side room, along with syringes and hypodermic needles. A room deep underground housed the library: books of physics, chemistry, and
The primates had meticulously collected, found, or stolen it all, and they presented it to visitors with ironic comments. Long and forceful speeches were given at the dedication of the institute, intended to serve as a university to instruct the coming generations. Here they would be able to study the instruments that humans had invented to gain mastery over nature. A special theoretical course would cover the materialist heresy.
The institute soon shut down. The tiger, its president, could not make himself understood and brought down death and destruction on his students as a result. Some resourceful monkeys, in collaboration with numerous zebras, set up a traveling exhibit from the instruments, and this kept its directors well fed for quite some time.
Bright Magic by Alfred Doblin / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes