Saturday, January 29, 2011

Perpendicular Work: Growing Middle-Aged with Unvented Weenieaphobia

(For a PDF version of this essay, go to The Worldview Annex.)

“…a friendship which probably is not the least of the riddles in Kafka’s life.”
Walter Benjamin on Franz Kafka’s friendship with his biographer, Max Brod

Sooner or later, any halfway dedicated aficionado of the great and long-deceased Canadian piano-player-cum-musicologist-cum-comedian-cum-documentarian Glenn Gould is bound to hear of Tim Page, and to get to know him after a fashion.  To satisfy his curiosity about Gould’s writings, for example, such a fan must seek out The Glenn Gould Reader, a collection edited by Page, and from its editor’s introduction he will learn not only—and most saliently—that Page and Gould were personal friends, but also that Page is (or used to be), like Gould, something of a night-owl; for otherwise he could not have endured very many of the midnight phone calls Gould made to him “as he [Gould not Page] sipped on an omnipresent cup of tea and prepared to begin his nocturnal workday” (GGR xv).  If his Gouldian researches lead him to You Tube and an excellent 1998 Canadian television documentary called The Life and Times of Glenn Gould, he will learn that unlike Gould but like (according to him) most people, Page “accepted” (or used to accept) “give and take relations” with others “as a matter of course.”      
But even if he never ventures outside the Gouldian musical discography proper, the Gould fan will have a hard time avoiding Page’s 1982 audio interview with Gould, as it is appended to both currently in-print releases of Gould’s 1982 rendition of his signature, career-framing piece, Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  Here, one really hits Pagean pay dirt, in the form of either 6 or 37 minutes (half the length of, respectively, the abridged 12-minute version included in the one release, and the full 52-minute one included in the other), of Page in the vocal flesh.  The prevailing impression left by this interview is that Page was, and presumably still is, something of what Calvin “Bud” Trillin has called in the parlance of his 1950s college peer group, a weenie, an argoteme that I employ in preference to its latter-day quasi-analogues “nerd” or “dork” by way of avoiding the ineluctably parochial connotations of these two terms, of avoiding their inevitable conjuration of specific latter-day subcultures, notably computer programming and science-fiction fandom.  It is perfectly possible to imagine a weenie, for example, having absolutely no interest in computers or science fiction but instead having an overweeni(e)ng passion for, say, student government or grassroots political activism, and manifesting his weeniehood by constantly pitching up with a petition for one’s signature to some proposal for or against the widening or narrowing of this or that thingamajuggernaut, and presenting it to one with a contumacious flourish suggestive of “you should be out there doing this too.”  To summarize this impression via another route: back in ’05 a six-foot friend of mine was both visiting me and looking for a job.  As he was a fellow Gould fan and had not heard the Page-Gould entretien, I played it for him; later the same day, he asked if he could borrow a jacket to wear to his job interviews, and not having anything more serviceable in my wardrobe[1], I let him try on a navy blue two brass-button blazer, some mid-80s hand-me-down that I myself had (I swear by this hand) never worn, and that would have fitted even my 5’8” self rather snugly.  In answer to the obvious question posed as he stood before me spot-welded into the thinglet and with a good square half-foot of shirt-cuff showing on each side, I replied, “You look exactly as I imagine Tim Page would want to look,” whereupon he doffed it as quickly as though I had said its previous borrower had perished of ebola.  So what was it about Page’s presentation of himself in this interview that exuded such a gamily Viennese, too big for his preppie blazer-esque, stench?  It’s hard to say.  Part of it is certainly owing to something he could have had but little control over, namely his native speaking tessitura, a reedy countertenor at times verging on the nasal and vulnerable to being thrown into the ridiculous and feeble background by Gould’s consistently plummy if occasionally rhoticism-engloutinized baritone.  But a good deal of it comes from the substance of his utterances; for example, his “I did take the pulse of this recording, if you don’t mind a metaphor.” 

In 2002, twenty years after Gould’s death, a so-called team of neurologists resident in his native Toronto announced their “discovery” that Gould had served as a lifelong abject catamite to an overmastering pederast[2] of a brain condition called Asperger’s syndrome.  Licensed for general release to select neurological auto-diagnostic retail outlets in 1994, since the turn of the millennium, Asperger’s syndrome has sold like an infinitely cloneable hotcake among non-celibate weenies looking simultaneously to carve out some extra cave time[3] and to imbibe a dram or two of spiritual succor for not having patented that “software platform I invented that was just like Facebook only a million times more synergistic,” or been on that (so-called) team of geneticists who invented the mouse that grew bull’s testicles instead of ears.  You see, old-school autism—a.k.a. autism tout court, a.k.a. your grandfather’s autism of ca. 1960—failed to make much of a splash in the neurological auto-diagnostic scene, even among weenies, because of the mandation of round-the-clock surveillance that came with the diagnosis.  Sure, it might have been cool (from a weenie’s eye point of view) to be able to memorize your local telephone book and thereby equip yourself to greet total strangers by reciting their telephone numbers, but not at the cost of having a minder with you when you shopped for underpants.  For the kinds of people (i.e., weenies) who regard Deep Blue-esque feats like memorizing telephone books as proofs of unsurpassable intellectual prowess, Asperger’s has been a godsend.  It lets them off the (non-telephonic) hook of actually having to attempt such feats while at the same time presenting them with a neurological pedigree proving their inalienable affiliation with the tribe of phone-book memorizers, and exacts nothing more constraining in return than a foreplay-session or two of lip-service to the Winfreyean- feminine pseudo-virtues of “emotional intelligence” and fashion sense (i.e., practical knowledge of the formula F = B * O / A[4]).  The inappositeness of attributing such a weenie-friendly condition to Gould can perhaps be most succinctly expressed in the statement that Glenn Gould had not a whiff of weeniehood about him, that indeed if any person ever had a just title to the sobriquet of Antiweenie it was he.  But in the interest of both upping the anti (sic) and accentuating the positive for a change, I prefer to refer to Gould by way of another handle, the Archurbanite, which is to say, the person who most nearly perfectly embodies and exemplifies that by-now almost universally unintelligible quality known—or, rather, mostly unknown—as urbanity.  Where the weenie is incessantly importunate, the urbane man is a paragon of tact who takes the most exacting pains to avoid either mentioning or seeming to elicit mention of any state of affairs that his interlocutor would prefer to be passed over in silence.  (For proof of Gould’s mastery of the virtue of tact, one need only refer to his corpus of interviews of fellow-musicians and others associated with music; to those with, for example, Arnold Schoenberg’s widow Gertrud, a dourly shy woman obviously unused to holding forth at length on demand; and with the flamboyant octogenarian conductor Leopold Stokowski, brimming over with affected foreignisms and fatuous speculations about the solar system at which Gould manfully forbears to smile.)  Where the weenie is pedantic, the urbanite is judicious, making and citing distinctions only when they are needed for the purposes of the discussion, and gently, tactfully dismissing gratuitous distinctions made or referenced by others.  In short/at last: if weenies, the antitheses of urbanites, are at best dubiously autistic, then the very notion of autistic urbanity is positively oxymoronic, and one might as well talk of emasculating Don Juan by rechristening him Don Piccolocazzo, or cutting the ISM Meter Rod in Paris down to size by calling it “the Inch Rod,” as of “humanizing” the archurbanite Glenn Gould by bestowing on him a posthumous diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome.

In 2005, in a Washington Post article commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Gould’s first U. S. gig, Tim Page found occasion to allude to the Gouldian-Aspergerian diagnosis. “It has been suggested,” he wrote, “that Gould may have had a touch of autism—he was profoundly uncomfortable with most physical contact and demanded, throughout his life, the psychological safety of unbroken routines whenever possible.  But we live in an era that has placed too much emphasis on diagnosis. Perhaps Gould's first biographer, Geoffrey Paysant, came closer to the truth when he called Gould an ‘exceedingly
superior person, friendly and considerate. He is not really an eccentric, nor is he egocentric. Glenn Gould is a person who has found out how he wants to live his life and is doing precisely that.’  And it is that person—with his “exceedingly superior” artistry—that we celebrate today.”  In spirit and gist this passage is roundly dismissive of the notion of Gould as Aspie.  But the careful eye will detect a fair amount of hedging.  Page writes that “our era places too much emphasis on diagnosis,” thereby leaving open the possibility that while this particular diagnosis does not deserve as much attention as it has received, it is nonetheless accurate.  He writes that “perhaps Geoffrey Paysant came closer to the truth,” thereby leaving open the possibility, however remote, that the diagnostic suggesters have come closer to the truth than Mr. Paysant; not to mention the more proximate possibility that, although Mr. Paysant has come closer to the truth, the suggesters are still within measurable distance of it.  Lastly, Page repeats Paysant’s attributive “‘exceedingly superior’” in front of a new noun, “musician” in place of “human being,” thereby leaving open the possibility that while Gould undoubtedly excelled as a certain sub-type of human being, he was merely average or inferior as a human being overall.

The necessity—or, at least, utility—of all this prevarication became more intelligible in hindsight with the appearance in 2009 of Page’s Parallel Play: Growing up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s.  Here, Page revealed that he himself had been diagnosed with Asperger’s in 2000—in other words, five years before the date of the above-quoted article.  Between 2000 and 2009, he had refrained from discussing his own Aspie-ism in deference to the wishes of his son, a fellow Aspie who released the elder Page from the gag order only on turning eighteen.  Naturally this gag order had precluded his saying certain obvious things by way of repudiating the Gouldian diagnosis, for example, something to the effect of “for proof that our era has placed too much emphasis on diagnosis, you need look no further than yours truly, an Aspergerian diagnosee who is both a successful journalist and a minor media personality.”  Be that as it may, Parallel Play hardly constitutes a continuation in spirit or letter of those brief remarks on Gould; to the contrary, it is very much a traditional neurological auto-hagiography, with Page himself as its subject and Asperger’s the key to his life history, a key made to bear generically mandated unlimited emphasis as an insatiable soul-devouring daemon that has left him at the age of fifty-three “with the sensation that my life has been spent in a perpetual state of parallel play, alongside, but distinctly apart from, the rest of humanity” (PP 3).   As for Gould, he receives only a few passing mentions, none of them incorporating a sub-mention of the diagnosis.  The closest Page comes to spilling the Aspiean beans on Gould is on Page 67, where he reports that “[a]ccepting the inevitable and looking for guidance” in his early teens, “I fixated on the lives of accomplished loners—Bobby Fischer, Glenn Gould, Howard Hughes, J. D. Salinger—and I read everything that I could find about them.  They were all greatly gifted men who seemed to share some of my paralysis but had also managed to make the world accept and acclaim them on their terms.”  This is perhaps metonymically charged enough to prompt an occasional Gould-curious reader ignorant of the diagnosis to Google “Gould Asperger’s”; but the Gould-incurious reader will not likely derive from it the faintest suspicion that Gould had Asperger’s.  Why has Page suddenly become so voluble about his own Asperger’s and so close-mouthed about Gould’s?  The most charitable explanation is that in true Gouldian fashion he is being tactful—that while he is comfortable enough airing his own dirty neurological laundry he is not about to presume that his friend would have been equally comfortable having his set of knickers in that pattern so aired.  But this begs the question, for if Page can be tactful enough to Gould not to besmirch Gould’s posthumous reputation, why cannot he be tactful enough not to besmirch his own living one?  More cynically, one might conjecture that in this one-time sidelining of Gould Page is trying to have it both ways, by jealously safeguarding the capital he has accrued courtesy of his association with an Aspie-proof urbanite and yet keeping it well to the background for the nonce lest it give rise to scruples over the legitimacy of his own weenie-ishly-certified claim to the title of genius.  In any case, whatever the efficient and final causes of this Gould-shaped lacuna may be, for a Gould admirer-cum-Aspien skeptic such as the present writer it clearly constitutes both a substantial debt to be discharged and a windfall to be exploited.  The present writer owes it to Glenn to preempt or counteract any such metonymic damage to Gould’s reputation as may be (or have been) done by Page’s self-outing as an Aspie, yet insofar as he can demonstrate—as I hope to do, using Parallel Play alone as my casebook—that an Aspergerian diagnosis is by no means apposite even to a full-blown weenie such as Page, he will have proved the a fortiori inapplicability of such a diagnosis to Gould, and to urbanites in general, in richer detail than has yet been attempted, let alone achieved, in the scant dozen or so pages so far publicly devoted to the Gouldian neurological habitus.

So legion and manifold are the registers of incoherence in Parallel Play that its exegete is hard-pressed to know which way to have it, to get a purchase on only one of its shortcomings at a time in the interest of speedy and intelligible demolition.  The first and last chapters present in scattershot fashion the symptomatology of the condition, interspersed with exempla drawn from Page’s biography.  In between, one mostly gets a straightforward chronologically-governed memoir of childhood and early adulthood almost completely devoid of references to Asperger’s or indeed to any other etiological bogeyman.  The symptoms themselves—whether described by Page or by some cited authority—are difficult enough to reconcile with any existing or hypothetical state of human affairs; and the pertinence of the biographemes as manifestations of these symptoms is often debatable, even when the connection between symptom and Page-ism is explicitly drawn; to say nothing of the relevance of the biographemes in the middle chapters, which must be inferred by analogy or induction.  The only remotely practicable way of approaching this gallimaufry of a morass, it seems to me, is to itemize it by symptom-cum-conjectural manifestation(s), and hope against hope that one of the feeble gleamlets comprising the internal incoherence of the symptoms will occasionally illumine some corresponding gleamlet in one of the manifestations (and vice versa, natch).

The first Aspien symptom I shall thus itemize is “ignorance of or indifference to social norms” (PP 6). For Page this symptom is best exemplified—not in his own person, to be sure—by the case of the little girl who says “Nine times nine is equal to 81” instead of “Hi, you want to play!” (ibid.).  The two nearest approaches to an actual manifestation of such anomalous and off-putting salutational behavior chez Tim occur, respectively, during his early teens, when his fellow youngsters are “discovering each other’s bodies” and he “could merely stand there anxious and untouched, looking at the ground and hoping somebody would approach that I could tell all about the actress Lillian Gish (‘The World Almanac says that she was born in 1896, but now it turns out that she might have been born in 1893 –isn’t that fascinating?’)” (PP 66), and during his mid-forties, when occupying “a senior administrative position at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra …I laughed out loud when one trustee suggested that we’d sell more tickets if we put Ravel’s Bolero on every program.”  As for the miracle that his indurate antisociality has not manifested itself in any tic more reprehensible than an occasional untimely titter (remember: he only wished he could talk to somebody about Lillian Gish’s birth year), he attributes it to his all-too timely perusal, as an adolescent, of Emily Post’s Etiquette, a book that, he says, “helped pull me into the human race” by “suggest[ing] ways to inaugurate conversations without launching into a lecture, remind[ing] me of the importance of listening as well as speaking, and convinc[ing] me that manners, properly understood, existed to make other people feel comfortable, rather than (as I had suspected) to demonstrate the practitioner’s social superiority” (PP 74). 

To begin with, in the very formulation of this symptom, one is confronted—as one so often is in the world of pop-neurologiana—with a jaw drop-inducing ignorance of the established meaning of common English words.  By its very nature, a norm is not innate; hence one logically cannot but be born ignorant of a norm and remain ignorant of it until one has been taught it.  “Hi, you want to play” may very well be the normative—which is to say the most customarily prescribed—child-to-child icebreaking formula, but it is certainly not the most empirically common one among actual American children, the majority of whom in their presumptively non-neurologically inflected social-normative ignorance will tend to advert to much less propitious material than “Nine times nine is equal to 81,” for example, “Hey Chinese” and “You’re ugly” to name just two of the many dozens of kiddie-phatemes I have collected over the years on the hyper-average pavements of Tim Page’s (and my) Baltimore.  The majority of this majority do of course eventually attain greater social fluency, but only courtesy of the very rote inculcation of mechanically applicable rules that Page received from Miss Post; and certainly the proportion of them who learn how to “inaugurate conversations without launching into a lecture” cannot be very large, to judge by the earfuls of unsolicited advice I receive day in and day out from Average Joeish total strangers—taxi drivers, fellow bus-passengers, barbers, and the like.  Perhaps all of these people were Aspies after all; if so, it is a decidedly tiny non-Aspien minority who are the authentic parallel players.
Now let us move on to Aspien Symptom No. 2, “a great ability to maintain masses of information.”  This is the most patently autisticekesque of the Aspien symptoms in its unmistakable evocation of the phone-book memorization trick.  But to judge by Page’s performance in this department, the threshold of requisite massiveness would appear to be much lower for Aspies than for Autisties.  Page’s presumptive pièce de resistance herein—after all, he excerpts it as the opening passage of the book—is a second-grade composition exercise on a school field trip to Boston, in which, rather than writing about the historical sites of the city, he concentrated on the roads (Route 44A, Hunting Lodge Road, Separatist Road) and modes of transportation (Gray Line 43, “made by the Superior Bus Company Like School Bus 6” (PP 2) that had taken him there.  This is admittedly both quite impressive for a second-grader and fairly weird for anyone not in the employ of a regional transportation planning quango.  Still, it must be remembered that just as ordinary kids out of not knowing any better will say the darndest things (don’t forget “Hey Chinese” and “You’re ugly”) they will also for the same reason take an interest in the darndest things, transportation networks by no means being the most darndest of them, and young Tim Page’s transportation-network obsession being far from the most darndest example of that obsession that the world has yet witnessed.  Did you know, for instance, that we are blessed to be contemporaries of an English lad not a day older than six who can tell you how to travel between any two points in Greater London (England not Canada) using the local bus service?  Throughout the half-dozen minutes of a radio phone interview I heard with him, he seemed a perfectly well-adjusted and amiable little tot with typically tottishly heterogeneous interests: the only thing he liked more than riding London buses, he said, was “maybe eating salami.”  Isn’t that cute in an incredibly unautistic sort of way?  And equally to the point, isn’t this kid’s achievement more impressive than any mass-storage exercise that Tim Page has publicly proved himself capable of?  The field-trip essay is the only concrete, detailed, and even marginally impressive testimonial of his hoarding prowess furnished in Parallel Play; the remainder are either general, equivocal, unexceptional, or all three.  At the age of eight or nine, he brags, he would “read random passages from [college] students’ textbooks aloud” (36).  For the love of fudge, these were textbooks pitched at semi-literate American teenagers, not Ciceronian orations or Cartesian meditations; and naturally from the mere fact that he was able to read them we are hardly entitled to assume that he understood so much as a word of them.  Underwhelming in exactly the same way is his boast that at about the same age he would amuse himself by “basically”—i.e., certainly not perfectly—memorizing articles from the World Book Encyclopedia, a children’s reference work with entries clocking in at a few hundred words apiece.  A truly snoozeworthy proportion of Parallel Play consists of a self-regarding account of Page’s so-called career as a so-called boy filmmaker, which is to say a “director” of silent Super-Eight home-movies “starring” his family and schoolmates.  Granted, these home movies were apparently more ambitious in scope than the average reel of 1960s Disneyland vacation footage, in featuring characters and plots and spliced-in pre-talkie Hollywood–style intertitles.  But isn’t this the least one should expect from even a modestly inventive and mildly curious child living in a house with filming and editing equipment on its premises?  And is there any reason for supposing that any of Tim Page’s cinematic pseudo-opera was any less prosaically unremarkable than the average spiral-bound handwritten “novel” produced during the same period by Page’s less technologically well-endowed contemporaries?  Page makes not so much as a hummingbird’s rib-bone about the fact that his films were thoroughgoing imitations of pre-extant films.  At no point does he hint, let alone state, that he actually discovered any new cinematic technique, some new application of the medium after the manner of, say, Chaplin’s use of montage to establish point of view or Murnau’s omni-ambulant camera on wheels.  I am sorry if I seem unduly party-pooping in bringing this up; but after all, Page is the dude trying to prove that he is a neurologically organic genius here, and discovering rather than imitating is the sort of thing that bona fide geniuses actually do (or did).  In Page’s idolatry of his boyish self’s purported filmmaking prowess, I am dismayed to descry proleptic shades of today’s You-Tube rugrat-auteurs, frenetically shopping the ninth sequel to their feature-length “masterpiece” The Shit I Took This Morning, “filmed” on a state-of-the-art digital camera with storage space amounting to a century or two of recording time; shades, in other words, of a state of affairs in which the universal aesthetic consensus reflexively translates—at a one-to-one horsepower-to-brainwave ratio—the engineering infrastructure of a given technology into “creative energy” chez every odd dimwit who happens to have this technology at his service.                 

Now it’s on to Symptom No. 3: “difficulty with transitions.”  This is probably the most contestable of the Aspien symptoms qua symptom, and it is certainly the one most sparsely documented in Parallel Play.  “Learning to make connections with people—much as I desperately wanted to—was a bewildering process, for they kept changing, and I felt like an alien, always about to be exposed” (PP 7).  Only in an age such as ours, the first age in which change plain and simple (not to be confused with progress, or change qualified by improvement) has figured as a positive good, could resistance to change plain and simple have acquired a suspicion of pathological significance, or an indiscriminate spreadeagled-buttocked acquiescence to changes in one’s fellow humans be construed as a de facto virtue.  In a more rational age, it would go without saying that one was within one’s rights to be bewildered and indeed injured by such changes when they were violent, for the worse, and deleterious to qualities that one had come to count on the other person to supply.  In such an age, one would have to show that one had been repeatedly at minimum bewildered by changes chez les autres that were subtle, trivial, for the better, or harmless to one’s interests.  But as this is not such an age, examples of such changes in the Pagean Lebenswelt are not adduced within the covers of PP, and the sole human metamorphoses recounted therein—the descent of both his parents into senile dementia and his wife’s out-of-the-blue abandonment of him—are such that only a god or a monster in Page’s position could have failed to be severely discomfited by them.  I do not think it likely that Page wanted us to regard his misery in face of these events as preeminently Aspergerian in provenance.  But in the absence of more freakish instances of metamorphaphobia in Parallel Play, what choice do we have?  Page does, to be sure, dwell more than long enough on instances of his enamorment with non-human stasis as manifested in “music that was nearly changeless, unfolding slowly and inevitably, with few surprises—Ravel’s Bolero, the ‘Carol of the Bells,’ and the ‘Sunrise’ movement from Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite” (PP 11), and he seems to regard his thirty-year-old assumption of the style of (in Glenn Gould’s words) “Most Dedicated Champion and Ardent Propagandist” of that most monotonous of all musical schools, minimalism, as a kind of vindication of his montomaniacal neurological essence.  But here, as in the case of “Nine times nine is equal to 81,” demographics tell against Page.  Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and John Adams, the leading minimalists, are by far the most commercially successful composers of allegedly serious music since 1950; their record sales and concert commissions handily outsrip those of their more rhythmically and harmonically dynamic contemporaries; and the Bolero—as Page’s philistine St. Louisian trustee well knew—is possibly the most popular piece of classical music of all time.  Indeed, “the more monotonous, inevitably-unfolding, and unsurprising the better,” would appear to be the watchword of the vast record-buying and concert-going public, all three billion of whom I hereupon urge to run not walk to their respective general practitioners to claim their Asperger’s diagnosis before this condition goes the way of neurasthenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Tell him or her that Tim sent you.

Symptom No. 4: a lack of interest in other people’s clothes.  This symptom I cannot manage to regard in any other light than that of a sop to the female sex-partners of the Asperger’s male target demographic, specifically to their anorakish version of fashion sense, which I have already touched on in Paragraph Two above.  Page obviously regards it as especially worthy of pathos, because he mentions it at the very beginning of a Parallel Play-plugging interview (with NPR’s Terry Gross) as the con half of a one-sentence pro/con précis of the condition: “I can remember all sorts of trivia, but I don't notice what somebody has on.”  In PP proper, it is graced by a more specific phenomenal setting: “I can have lunch with somebody and come away with no memory of what she was wearing” (PP 179).  Here, the gender of that second personal pronoun, in tandem with the word “memory,” conjures up an entire sitcom scene centered on a fattish woman on the verge of menopause—one who quasi-literally lives for compliments on her personal appearance—catechizing her poor henpecked husband on “whether he noticed anything different about me on the Tuesday before last—you know: that day we had lunch at Soandso’s.”  Call me old-fashioned (or worse), but it seems to me that the most momentous particular one should “come away with” after having lunch with anybody is what one ordered, so that next time one may either enjoy it again or avoid it; followed at a distant second by what (if anything) the other person said; with what this person was wearing lying at about No. 145 of the Post-Prandial Momentousness Chart, just above the brand name of the ketchup offered at one’s table.  Seriously, guys and gals, can we not all pull together as one gender-neutral mass and provisionally agree that the wardrobes of our past lunch-partners constitute a certifiable sort of trivia, towards the noble end of granting poor Timmy a passport through at least this one risible checkpoint en route to Normalia?            

Last and certainly not least, we have Symptom No. 5: an “ability to think outside the box,” or “actually, a struggle…to perceive just what these boxes [are]—why they [are] there, where their borderlines might be, how to live safely within and without them”, manifesting itself in an “imperious contempt show[n] to people who [are] in a position to do [one] harm” (PP 3).  With a bit of paraphrastic license that I daresay Page himself would not resent, we may rechristen this symptom “an obliviousness or impatience of authority and hierarchy.”  There is no denying that little Tim Page was an obstreperous tyke, or that he matured into a far from docile adolescent.  At the age of two he “already found naps impossible” and reveled in “ruining phonograph records,” as his “mother had tacitly agreed to let him do,” “by playing them over and over, lifting and dropping the big brown tonearm with my tiny, clumsy hands” (PP 10).  By his late single-digits he was snacking on “a steady diet of horehound drops” and insisting on “thread[ing] a rabbit’s foot through each buttonhole of my shirt”; “nobody could have persuaded me to abandon these quirks, and any attempt to do so would have been taken as a physical threat and reduced me to hysteria” (PP 52).  As an early teen, he fell foul of the administration of his school on account of a “fuck”-including graffito directed at the principal, and not even a plangent four thousand-word letter from his father touting the youngster’s “extreme verbal ability” and “pure creative talent” (PP 87) could save him from expulsion.  And one day at high school he took enough LSD to send him on a picaresque rampage that culminated and concluded with his screaming “Please let me in!  The sun is melting my eyes!” on the front doorstep of the house of one his mother’s friends, whence Mrs. Page dutifully conveyed him to the nearest hospital emergency room.  Taken together these events add up to a respectable, if hardly spectacular, pre-adult up-cutter’s curriculum vitae.  But they are far more impressive as a case-history in soft-touch parenting.  Why, they prompt the product of sterner child-rearing styles to ask, did Page’s mother allow him, even “tacitly,” to ruin all those phonograph records, each of which in those vinyl-only days must have been worth on average as much as a mid-priced dress or piece of table china from the Sears-Roebuck catalog?  Or why was this hypothetical fit of hysteria never suffered to become an actual one, as a regrettable but inevitable preliminary to weaning little Timmy off his godawful horehound-drop diet?; why, toward this same end, was his face never gently yet firmly shoved into a plate of meatloaf or tuna casserole at dinnertime?  Why instead of addressing to Tim’s principal that novella-length screed in his son’s defense did Page Sr. not dash off to him a telegram reading simply “EXPULSION TOO GOOD FOR LIL BASTARD”?  Why, as far as we know, upon fetching Tim from the emergency room did Mrs. Page not tell him that “the next time this happens I’ll leave you there for the men from the loony bin to pick you up”? Regardless of their age, children in their native state are like housecats: they assume that every adult human in their vicinity exists for the sole purpose of serving them.  And for all their diminutive proportions, they will indeed consistently, dependably evince “imperious contempt to people who are in a position to do them harm,” until this position is filled by someone who can cause them to believe that he actually intends to do them harm, regardless of whether any harm is actually intended.  Unless Page is holding back something, we may conclude that such a position was never filled by any adult in young Tim Page’s life.   

From the above catalogue, it should be clear to the reader that I am skeptical not so much of the empirical reality of Asperger’s syndrome as of its practical determinant-ness, its tenability as an efficient cause trumping all other efficient causes.  In other and more specific words, I am perfectly willing to grant that whatever so-called battery of so-called tests that was administered to Tim Page on that glorious day in 2000 registered some neurologically-extant state of affairs, but I am strongly averse to conceding that a biography that was in its essential points identical to that presented in Parallel Play could not have been written by someone of a neurological constitution radically different from that of Tim Page.  In its essential points, Page’s story is that of a clever but by no means brilliant child who, because his parents were not interested in teaching it to him, was compelled to learn on his own the lesson that his intelligence did not exempt him from pleasing other people, including, perhaps especially, people less clever than himself.  It is a story that has been lived by and told of countless clubbable, unautistic individuals long before Bob Asperger was ever born, and it will doubtless continue to be lived by and told of legions more long after all flavors and magnitudes of autism have been banished by international legal fiat from the human genetic code.  If Tim Page had seen fit to make Parallel Play follow the lineaments of this classic plot (which was, after all, good enough for the likes of Sophocles and Shakespeare), it might have made for an absorbing and instructive read.  Instead, strapped as he is throughout into the driver’s seat of the brand new Big Wheel that is his Asperger’s diagnosis, he is obliged to divide his time unequally, exclusively, and offensively between serving as his own full-throated and enthusiastic (albeit nominally apologetic) Stentor and fulsomely (albeit less convincingly) mopping, mowing, and scraping to the community of the stupid.  In my capacity as someone other than Tim Page, I am merely entitled to yawn without comment on the first of these performances; but in my capacity as a fellow clever person I am not only entitled but positively obliged to demur at length to the second of them, as I am whenever someone shits (please forgive me, reader, for shifting to a coarser metaphor) ad libitum on the intellect. I am obliged, for example, to rush to the defense of the intellect of Page’s father, when Tim disparagingly writes that his old man “found it easier to convey deep feeling in carefully crafted words than in any sort of spontaneous verbal expression” (PP 25), knowing full well as I do that every human being I have ever met or heard tell of has been troubled by an equally perceptible inferiority of his powers of expression in the so-called heat of the moment to those he subsequently enjoys in the so-called coolness of deliberation.  If—and this is a highly debatable “if” anyhow—stupid people seem be more spontaneously eloquent than clever ones, this is only because the gap between what they are capable of saying off the cuff and what they are capable of saying when they are afforded the leisure to compose their thoughts is much smaller.  Pressed to defend his son at a PTA meeting, the actual intelligent Ellis Page, like his counterfactual stupid counterpart, might have screamed nothing more articulate than “You done done my child a heap o’ wrong, Mr. Principal!,” but in a four-thousand word letter the stupid elder Page would have been unable to do anything but iterate this sentiment 444 times.  Similarly wrongheaded is (young) Page’s hand-wringing confession that “to this day, if you put me behind a busy sales counter, a meltdown would be imminent, for I can’t easily read new faces and shifting attention from one unfamiliar person to another overwhelms me,” (PP 176) implying as it does, as a kind of sop to the stupid, that customer service requires a specific kind of genius different from but equal in merit to that needed for literary production.   The aforesaid “meltdown” is not only an “imminent” but an actual experience for every supermarket cashier or call-center or fast food drive-through attendant, however garrulous and people-loving he she may be, during his or her first hours at the job; but with time, as a greater and greater portion of the job becomes habitual, even the surliest and most unclubbable people in such positions manage to recover from this purportedly cataclysmic event.  It is not the quasi or even fully autistic who have the most trouble holding down customer service jobs, but the lazy, the unpunctual, and undependable—those most signally lacking in the Aspergerian virtues, such as they are.  Thus, the typical customer service worker is someone of no specific neurological complexion who either lacks the aptitude, experience, and patience to engage in some higher-brow occupation; or who, in spite of such qualities has not managed to produce anything that people are willing to remunerate him for—at least not for more than, say, 1.4 times the minimum wage.  If Tim Page elected to become the music critic of the Washington Post rather than Cashier No. 478 at the Storrs, Connecticut Wal Mart, it was presumably because the job at the newspaper paid at least a bit better than the one at the discount retailer and bade fair to eventuate in something a bit more gratifying than a crate of Cashier of the Month certificates and a case of terminal lumbago; and I daresay if the newspaper job hadn’t panned out—as I suspect it would not have done had he not had the good fortune to meet both Glenn Gould and Philip Glass—he would have had no trouble either filling that crate or coming down with that case.

Lest the reader assume that I am one to talk, as they say—that I am blithely holding forth on the legerity of customer service grunt-work from the comfort of my “air-conditioned cell at Kennedy” where I am pulling in ninety thou a year by keeping some “bastard” of a dead poet “on the skids” of a biography or critical study—let me inform him that I, like Page, had my Jeffersonian turn at the bat of remunerative brainplay, during a period when I, too, flattered myself that I was organically not cut out to work in customer service; and for all that turn I have now been earning my tägliches Brot in the CS industry without a single interruption of employment (touch “would”) for over a decade, an interval that has left me with the melancholy certainty that my life is being spent in a perpetual state of perpendicular work, athwart, but distinctly amidst, the rest of humanity.  In my case, the turn took the form of a half-baked theory that the anus rather than the vagina was the natural kipping-out spot for the tensed yard or erect penis, and that accordingly every last man, woman, and child who had ever lived was the product of incompetent marksmanship.  I had matriculated at the preeminent institution for the inculcation and dissemination of this theory, and if I had been able to persuade myself that it was fully baked, I would not improbably at this date be the ninth-most eligible bachelor in Bismarck or Las Cruces or whichever sub-provincial trouette hosted the fourth-tier college or university at which I would be assistant (or perhaps even associate) professor of English.  To be sure, it would not have been half as romantic a position as that of music critic for the Washington Post; but on the other hand, I imagine traipsing through the inexhaustible entirety of the western literary canon armed with a pair of anus-spotting binoculars would become tiresome less quickly than alternately eulogizing one indistinguishable autotympanectomy-inducing Philip Glass opus after another and trotting out the same butcher’s half-dozen mothballed Glenn Gould anecdotes on every Gould anniversary year.  Not that I even suspect that this journalistic bichromaticism is the best that Page is capable of, but that the whole Aspergerian gambit constitutes a pretty piss-poor departure from it, although the same cannot quite be said of Parallel Play in toto.  What do I mean in those last two gnomic and irritatingly coyly potentially mutually contradictory clauses?  Why, merely that occasionally in PP, Page lets slip some fragment of prose that obviously bears no relation to his Aspergerian case history—that cannot, indeed, be assimilated, however willfully to a case history of any kind.  This is not to say of such fragments that they are always unassimilable to some other, equally scornworthy, genre of history; indeed perhaps the better part of them would have creditably served as voiceover tracks to The Wonder Years or any other audiovisual treatment of the by-now quadragenerean topos of growing up in the quietest, tranquillest town in America during the turbulent, troubled sixties.  But even these passages, for all their superbanality, at least bespeak a desire on Page’s part to find a more redeemable telos for his experience than self-affiliation with a neuronerdial subculture.  Better are the moments when, insouciantly heedless the of pop-psychiatric demand for matoority, Page evinces a kind of Rabelaisian earthiness of humor, e.g., “I can understand why you don’t take [LSD],” she said, with the tone of someone who had just been handed a warm turd” (PP 107); and a parody of the Brady Bunch theme song containing the tercet “All of them had hair of gold/like their mother/The youngest one had balls” (PP 119).  Equally meritorious are two occasions on which he is free-spirited enough to give a hearty two-finger salute to the medical anathematization of chemical dependency, first in praising “the liberating effects of alcohol” (PP 109) in his capacity as “an enthusiastic drinker” (PP 110), and then in including Valium in his list of acknowledgments.  But the best bit is unencumbered by any intrinsically Pagean baggage whatsoever, and reads as follows:  

Mine was the last generation to inhabit a time when old films, old photographs, and old recordings inescapably looked and sounded just as old as they were.  Setting aside any fashion considerations, pictures of my grandparents or even my parents in their youth seemed to originate in another world—the big, cardboard-like prints, the formal poses, the mezzotints.  Snapshots from the 1950s and the 1960s looked somewhat better but were mostly over- or underexposed, and home movies were brief, silent, fuzzy, and fragmented.  But I grew up as media grew up, and by the time video recording was easily accessible to consumers, in the 1980s, life could be preserved pretty much as it happened (PP 47).

This single half-paragraph could serve as the germ of a book five times the length of Parallel Play and worth every strike of the multiplication key, a book that I myself (moderately clever minds think alike!) have thought about writing, a book on the evanescence of technologically-induced historical decay.  Naturally enough, my own thoughts on this phenomenon have not corresponded letter-for-letter with Page’s: I am inclined, for instance, to quibble with him over the notion of anything’s looking or sounding “just as old as it [is]”—for surely the old-lookingness of a given representation increases or decreases with the historically variable transience or relative permanence of the representing medium; such that, for instance, whereas any silent movie would have looked hopelessly antediluvian to any five-year-old earthling of 1932, the figures in a well-preserved Byzantine mosaic of 1150 would probably not have seemed particularly old-fashioned to a Constantinopolitan of 1350.  (We can discuss this at length over Resurrections at the Brewer’s Art sometime if you’re still residing in the area, Tim.)  I would also move back the moment when life began to be “preservable pretty much as it happened” by at least a decade and-a-half, to the advent of purely digital home video recording; but this may be because, being eighteen years Page’s junior, I am not quite old enough to remember a time when Super 8 was the state-of-the-art recording medium and therefore to mistake VHS’s improvements on it for perfections of it (just as for all I know I am equally mistaken in attributing mimetic immaculateness to high-definition digital video [the question of the extent to and manner in which one’s perception of technical improvements is mediated by one’s historical position is not the least exigent one facing the would-be author of such a book]).   As the reader will have perceived, I could go on for hours on this subject, but unfortunately I can’t go on about it for a minute longer here because it happens not to coincide with the subject of Parallel Play, i. gratuitously e., Asperger’s.  But when all is said and done, in the final analysis, am Arsch, Asperger’s is simply not a very good fit, as they say, for Tim Page.  The very identity of his arch-pet obsession, the cinema, bespeaks an orientation to the world that is far too social to be more than quasi-autistic, inasmuch as more nearly inevitably than any other artistic medium, movies are about people.  On the other hand, of course, it should be evident from what I have said of it already that the book that I hope Page still has it in him to write—the book not so much outlined as hinted at, in 90%-conjectural Australopithecus-skeletal fashion, by the best parts of Parallel Play—could hardly ever turn out to be a retread of Hollywood Confidential, indeed that it could hardly ever turn out to be a classic of any version of cinema-buffery.  It would perforce be difficult to classify, and require Page to plumb the whole oilfield of his interests—from cinema to music to literature to history to you (i.e., Tim) name it—at the hazard of being called pretentious, dilettantish, chicken-thieving, or downright incompetent; require him, in other words, to be a bit more like a certain famous dead Canadian who was neither Raymond Massey nor John Candy.  It would also, in appealing to neither professional academics nor amateurs of any given cultural field, be most unlikely to sell well, or even to attract much in the way of a so-called cult readership.  What, then, would be the point of writing it?  Well, were I in Tim’s shoes, the answer to this question would be simple: It would have done Glenn proud.  But I suspect, alas, that the idea of Glenn held by the Tim who is actually in Tim’s shoes has precious little in common with my own.                        
[1] Of course, if he had asked to borrow a suit I would have offered him the usufruct of my weenie-pellent charcoal-and-black houndstooth late-90s three plastic-button two-piecer.
[2] “Served…pederast”: a necessary ironic intensification of the obvious but cavalierly overused “suffer,” which legitimately governs only objects of which the subject would unreservedly wish to be disburdened.
[3] Now is as good a place as any in which to mention (as if it needed mentioning) that weenies are all men.
[4] “F = B * O/A,” where F= findworthiness, B=brand name prestige quotient, O=original price, and A=actual price
[5] Now is as good a place as any in which to mention (as if it needed mentioning) that weenies are all men.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

A Translation of Einfach kompliziert by Thomas Bernhard

(For a PDF version of this translation, go to The Worldview Annex).

Simply Complicated

For Minetti

He was in the right: and so, indeed it is.
Richard III

A year [in the] Ludwig Pavilion
that humbled you
that almost could have cost you your head

Dramatis personae
HE, an old actor
KATHARINA, a nine-year-old

A run-down room

A chair at stage left, a chair by the wall at stage right
A window at stage right, a door at stage left
A table and chair
A chest
A chamber-pot
A bucket
An icebox
A tape-recorder on the floor

Scene One
Early in the day
HE in a shabby black suit and oversize felt slippers with buckles, and with a pair of spectacles hanging from his neck, is kneeling on the floor and nailing down a plinth
If anybody sees me here
in this pose
Contemplates the nail he has most recently hammered down
A contempt for craftsmen
Looks around
We have all allowed our talents
to waste away
signalized for askewness
doctored in mathematics
Guest of honor on the Isle of Man
Devoured along with the viceroy by Indians
contemplates the nail he has most recently hammered down
One more tap
one tap more
hits the nail
Who would have imagined
How we have dwindled here
there used to be no mice in the Hanssachsstrasse
The mice are holdovers
Everyone died off
without exception
first my sisters
then my brother
First a phobia about hats
then hats
made to order
No medical problem
I said
they did not believe me
I had always been punctual
A dependability fanatic
Kept every appointment
Brought punctuality to a science
Never unpunctual
Either we go to seed
or we are punctual
A chronology of death
first Grandfather
then Grandmother
then Mother
then Father
every year a sister
then my brother
looks around
Made of dust
I have outrun stupidity
Extracurricular horror
But if we had not had our seizures
lifts the hammer high into the air and looks around
My heart made into a den of thieves
Intellectual experience
No temperament for ministration
lets his hand and the hammer fall, exhausted
We concoct ourselves our own unhappiness
Like an unappetizing soup
and spoon it up
glances at the door
A matter of taste he said
I have figured out his game
We love our brother to the end of our life
even if at every moment we hate him
must hate him
glances at the window
The word capitulation
never spoken
never given up
Up in my head
contemplates the nail he has most recently hammered down
In principle
I have always been a gourmet
naturally not
in the primitive sense
A spiritual gourmet
Everyone wasted away
Not I
Everyone has died off
Not I
I am a genius
I have always said to myself
in the face of all assertions to the contrary
We despair quite early on
Capitalized despair
made out of despair
into a genius
When falsehood dominates everything
genius develops unobtrusively
I am no idiot
I said
I am intractable
but no idiot
tries to stand up, but fails
Studied in France at the Sorbonne
at Göttingen
at Cambridge
everything of no avail
A despiser of books
A degenerator of knowledge
A demolisher of character
tries to stand up, but remains kneeling and glances at the door
The summers
were propitious
when I let myself go
they were bored to death
while I developed philosophically
I wrote maxims
while they digested their pork
philosophical noises throughout
looks around
Always played the role of the maker of unhappiness
tried to tell the truth
and walked with falsehood along the street
A conspiracy first against my parents
then against the others
a court jester's existence
strikes two more hammer blows, completely exhausted, on the nail he has most recently hammered down, and then glances at the window.
They all died off
not I
They died
I walked with a vigorous gait
I bought myself a book
they hated me
But reading is supersensual
Waste of time
Two whole years
spent with only Shakespeare
and with Schopenhauer
We tolerate nothing else
we imprison ourselves with Shakespeare
and with Schopenhauer
we positively cannot stand music
Tries to stand up, but remains kneeling
Did not abandon pleasure, naturally
but elasticity
sang "The Crow"
At the age of eighteen  
Made a show of myself with Schubert
Italian arias with great sympathy
They naturally did not think
That I would go ahead with everything
They shook their heads
I walked out
And had left them behind me
A tenacity fanatic
Stands up and stretches
I have always loathed
Always loathed beer-drinkers
Clear-water fanaticism
Goes to the window and looks out and turns around and glances at the door
Given up my desires
But I have not
given up myself
We owe nothing to anyone
Everyone owes everything to us
But we owe nothing to anyone
Too lazy
even to cook their own hot soup
too lazy
even to cut their own bread
too lazy
even to open The World as Will and Idea
We could do everything for ourselves
we do not dream of doing it
You go your way
I said
I will go my way
you all go your way
while I go my way
the opposite way
that is it
Too lazy
To cook their own chicken soup
We want to go to bed
and are too lazy to do so
We have uncovered ourselves in the night
and we are practically freezing to death
and are too lazy
to pull the covers over ourselves
Hated my father
Hated my mother
Hated the merry-go-round
Hated sauerkraut
Hated squeaky doors
Set traps
and waylaid Grandmother
and didn't eat beef
Childhood shoved us off
walks over to the nail he has most recently hammered down and contemplates it
looks around
caught by surprise in this laughable state
by surprise by surprise
Ordinarily on Sunday she wore
her blue dress
that I had bought her in Konstanz
she worried
she might grow out of the dress
at the age of seventy-six she worried about this
A woebegone character
At the age of seventy-six she accused me of lying
Everything invariably acquired
at my expense
Later on in the spring an incessant compulsion to talk
hammers at the nail he has most recently hammered down
after a pause
Buy mouse-poison
stands up and walks to the table and lays the hammer down and takes a notepad out of the chest and writes on it
"Buy mouse-poison"
Buy mouse-poison
Looks around, looks at the writing-pad
A hundred-twenty-three mice
from the third of January to the twenty-fourth of December
walks to the bed and bends down to the chamber-pot standing there and carries it out of the room while coughing, flushes the toilet, and immediately comes back in with the empty chamber-pot.
Buy mouse-poison
places the chamber-pot under the bed, walks to the window
and looks out
Practically nothing more to do with it
It is no longer of any concern to us  
not of the slightest
turns around and glances at the door
She defamed me
she simply gave the knife a twist
We have not been left unpunished
by the world  
leans on the wall and glances at the door
dull-witted thirst for knowledge
Paper war horribly conclusive
walks to the table, sits down, opens the drawer and takes out a newspaper and a large daguerreotype of Schopenhauer and sternly contemplates the daguerreotype
Led astray yet again to lechery
to spiritual lechery
picks up the hammer and a nail and stands up and hammers the nail into the wall and hangs the daguerreotype of Schopenhauer takes three steps back and contemplates the daguerreotype of Schopenhauer
It makes no difference
whom we follow
no difference
takes another two steps back
If we inherit from our grandfather
nothing but Schopenhauer
we can consider ourselves fortunate
in every situation
always hated
the so-called primeval philosophy
turns round and glances at the door and exclaims
To paint
what kind of a madman
thought to paint this place
one would really have to be mad
to put up paint here
clutches at his head
glances at the floor
When we are not even in a position
to have to do anything fearlessly
such that the stroke needed to drive in a single nail
gives us a stroke
To paint
to paint
glances at the window and then at the
daguerreotype of Schopenhauer
Philosophical fornication
Waspish fortune-telling
Because we have inherited
our grandfather's daguerreotype
we hang it on the wall
always yet again we hang it on the wall
until we are dependent on it
goes to the table and sits down and looks
at the floor
A lifelong malheur
A lifelong philosophical malheur
If we still had a manager
we could take him to task
but we no longer have a manager
Mr Manager, I say
enfranchise me from Schopenhauer
enfranchise me from Descartes also
and from Voltaire, Mr Manager
looks around
If we give names to the mice
we are doubtless insane
peers into the corners of the room in succession
Admiral Nelson
Admiral Dönitz
Field marshal Kesselring
or quite simply Hans
or Franz Josef
or Minna
stands up and goes to the plinth that he had nailed down earlier,
and inspects it, then
No more mouse-hole
No more mouse
looks around
We can say
That we in our life
more or less every two days
have caught a mouse
stands up
From now on we shall no longer catch them
we shall poison them
walks to the table and sits down and takes a book out of the drawer 
and reads
Very often poor mother
had an arduous time at breastfeeding
that is a fact
closes the book with a snap and places it in the chest
and closes the chest and
glances at the door
All the night through I thought
I would let the place be painted
Indeed I have even thought
about painting it myself
Overweening pride
Self overvaluation
We are already completely exhausted
when we hammer a single nail into the plinth
glances at the daguerreotype of Schopenhauer
We have a harder and harder time building momentum
Herr Schopenhauer
opens the drawer and lays the notepad inside it and shuts the drawer and opens it back up and takes out the notepad and writes "Buy mouse-poison" in it once again in large letters tears off the sheet with "Buy mouse-poison" written on it and stands up and sticks it on a nail in the wall, takes two steps back and reads
Buy mouse-poison
We must walk in the street
If we do not wish to go to seed
contemplates his feet
We are not currying favor at all
when we go outside
we are not currying favor
We say mouse-poison
and mean mouse-poison
one packet of mouse-poison I say
and I let myself pick up a packet of mouse poison
Out of impatience we must
throw a spanner in the works
a kangaroo-court trial mind you
Glances at the door then goes to the mirror and gazes into it
We do not ask
what is tolerable
we strive
for an attractive exterior
we recapitulate each day
our mental incapacity naturally
we shall not understand
we let it be
Enlightenment is nonsense
draws quite close to the mirror, nearly touches the mirror with his chin
No beauty
I have strived all my life
For a proper tongue-position
How is Amsterdam correctly pronounced
in contrast to Rotterdam
Memel Etsch Belt
that was it
Gaiety moderated
but not excessively
but not excessively
The word cosmometropolitan
spoken three thousand eight hundred times
at the Hotel Krasnapolski
I did not respond to
what they were saying
but I did not hold myself back either
I have been to Moscow I said
I have been to Helsinki I said
I have been to New York I said
I have been to Saõ Paulo
At large gatherings I invariably stopped all conversation in its tracks
I do not understand the slightest thing about surrealism
I said
Bertrand Russell is a charlatan I said
Don't even mention Beethoven around me
I said
Bankers are all vultures I said
In my youth I played the double bass
naturally I said
not the piano
sticks his tongue out and draws it back in
Lourdes I said
cured me
after a certain fashion Fátima did even more so
With Cardinal Wischinski
I talked about Polish seeds
Allude to Schopenhauer as little as possible
I always thought to myself
turns around to face the door
Philosophical string-puller
Walks to the table, picks up the hammer, kneels before the plinth that he has just nailed down, and hits the nail that he has just hammered down
Inspects the plinth and says very quietly
that is it
stands up and lays the hammer on the table
and sits down
If we no longer answer letters
we no longer receive  any
in thirteen years I have
not replied to a letter
looks around
to subscribe to the newspaper
in order to study the help-wanted ads
at the age of eighty-two
picks up the newspaper and flips it open and reads
Hotel in Black Forest
seeks middle-aged butler
and with good manners
looks up from the newspaper and glances at the door

Scene Two
Towards noon

HE is sitting at the table, in shirtsleeves, with an old blanket wrapped
around his shoulders
Regimented work
they said
The element of the perverse in my thoughts
they hated
If I walked quickly
It was wrong
If I walked slowly
it was wrong
You a cripple and an actor
your father
you this good-for-nothing actor
your mother
she demanded altruism
takes a deep breath
In Badgastein the thunder of the waterfall drowned out
her chatter
Out of fear we drip
the first prize
out of fear
after a pause
I shall put it on
I shall put on the crown
stands up and walks to the chest and opens it
glances at the door
I last put it on in March
On the twenty-seventh of March
it was raining
first there was rain
then heavy snowfall
bends down and pulls out of the chest a crown and walks with the crown to the door and back and looks out of the window and walks back to the door and puts the crown on.
Possibly mistaken
in this constitution
no scruples whatsoever
presses the crown down on his head
presses the crown more firmly down on his head
presses the crown even more firmly down on his head
Firmer still
presses the crown even more firmly down on his head
First we get upset
Then we calm down
No it was not by chance
that the idea occurred to me
I said
I was already an actor
before I got the idea
In my mother's belly
I was already Richard the Third
looks around
No glass cage
Running in the wrong direction means death
presses the crown down on his head
When my head begins to bleed
the crown has been properly placed
when my head begins to bleed
presses the crown as firmly as possible down on his head and presses it even more firmly, while he positions himself in front of the mirror.  After a pause
Constantly spurned
with too much pallor in my face
Played opposite everyone
Never thrust myself into the foreground
We cannot say
that we are content
We undertake a journey
and arrive completely spent
We leave the house
and come back destroyed
Nor do we make telephone calls anymore
we have canceled our telephone service
canceled it
Kept the newspaper subscription
but canceled the telephone service
Too much pallor in my face
Always rejected
Everyone has always time and again
become entangled in contradictions
The art of acting
We have believed nothing
but accepted it as true
and have spat it out
spat it out
spat it out
spat it out
spits on the floor
looks into the mirror again
All week long
learned how to cough
the way a king coughs
Learned how to cough
We listened
what we heard
was useless
convinced of everything
primitive mathematics
high art
all useless
while we prepared ourselves supper
we thought
what we have heard all day
is useless
heard nothing but nonsense
all our life
makes a grimace at the mirror
Always time and again made a grimace
an unseemly one
already the born grimace-maker
as a child
turns round and glances at the window
And then suddenly the entire grand
Classical attitude
Looks into the mirror again and sticks his tongue out
We exist only
If we are so to speak
the center of the world
walks to the table and sits down while pressing the crown firmly down on his head
fell ill for a single scene
bedridden for a year
on account of this single scene
Always put the crown on
without advancing any farther
Even though I did not know
why everything was crumbling around me
Thought too much about Shakespeare
when I was acting Shakespeare
thought too much about the crown
when I was playing Richard III
thought too much about the art of acting
when I was acting
We are not permitted to think about the art of acting
when we are acting
we are not permitted to think about Shakespeare
when we are acting Shakespeare
we wear the crown
but we are not permitted to think
we are king
A wretched dog that thinks
It is a wretched dog
Cogitated much too much
Recapitulated much too much
Traveled around much too much
I had to get to know the continent
What nonsense
Fell ill for the whole year
On account of this single scene
And can never explain what the art of acting is
people ask
we answer
but know nothing
presses the crown firmly down on his head
Under the crown I calm down
I would have even acquired the costume
if I had expressed the desire
I wanted the crown
They thought
I would die at seventy
but I am fully eighty-two
they thought
they were celebrating my sixtieth birthday
as my last birthday
but they even had to celebrate my eightieth
I wanted to have the crown
Not the costume
I am myself alone
do you understand
I had expressed the desire
and I have acquired the crown
Posterior slyness
I have always
said of myself
stands up and goes to the previously nailed-down plinth
bends down and inspects the plinth
Even of craftspeople
we have had our fill
Precisely even
of the so-called simple people
the complicated ones we always hated
but now we also hate the simple ones
we tolerate either the complicated
or the simple
When we walk along the street
they all make us sick
that is the truth
presses the crown down on his head
Truth fanatic
But injustice is everywhere
like falsehood
inspects the plinth
To paint
What madness
When I am hardly capable anymore
Of making myself a cup of tea
Twenty years I have thought
I shall paint one more time
looks around
but I shall never paint again
it satisfies me
as it is
looks at the ceiling
It really is all the same
Whether it is painted again
Or not
I no longer notice
Whether it has been painted
Or not
Thought about it
For twenty years
After her death I shall paint
I thought
Twenty years
That nobody comes anymore
Two days before her death
She was still saying
I had become malicious
I was by now not only weird
But also malicious to boot
glances at the door
our son was to have been named
But Rodrigo I said
is a fine name
I begged her
then there was a miscarriage
So many sisters
and only one brother
and all of them degenerates
irresolutely grown up
suddenly deceased
They left me behind
with this familial shambles
Tries to stand up but does not succeed
The catastrophic thing of course was
that I towered over all of them
in spiritual hindsight
I was ill
I was thoroughly ill
but I towered over all of them
in spiritual hindsight
we loved ourselves
and hated ourselves
tries to stand up but does not succeed
A wholly contrarian
central nervous system
that was family-shattered throughout
stands up
A cardinal
they would have liked that
they hated
the acting profession
but I have always also hated it
walks to the mirror and peers into it
they left me alone
In the Thuringian forest
for three months
they gave not a thought to me
and I was not even eleven years old
We do not forgive them
we are incapable of doing that
our parents are unforgivable
The crime of being born
is unforgivable
There is a knock at the door
To himself
It is not without
that we meet our fate
presses the crown firmly down on his head, turns around, and takes two steps towards the door
Relying on myself
I have broken off all
in a whisper
Richard the Third
perfectly inadequately
Unbearable meter
sloppily translated
There is a knock at the door
We wish to be left alone
and they will not leave us alone
We burn all our bridges behind us
and we are badgered
we wish to enjoy our peace
and people knock on our door
in a whisper
To be unapproachable
nobody's partner
There is a knock at the door
Grew old before their time
they all
died away
in a questioning tone, after a pause
Is that you Katharina

It's me

Ah yes my child
Walks to the window and looks out the window and turns back around
One moment
just one moment
presses the crown firmly down on his head
I am just reading in a book
walks to the bed and sits down on it
Schopenhauer my child
Tries to take the crown off his head, but he does not take it off
One moment
he puts on the jacket
I am just putting on my jacket
I have read Schopenhauer
and am putting on my jacket
Why do you come now
we said eleven o'clock
it is now half-past one
Ah yes
one moment
he stands up and walks to the door and opens it
Katharina enters with a half-full jug of milk

We think it is our evil genius, child
and it is our good one
Come in
I am the old actor
to whom you bring milk
every Tuesday and Friday
you bring the old actor milk
the old actor
who no longer associates with human beings
come in my child
Human beings are the cause
it is always human beings
Come in

KATHARINA enters as far as the middle of the room
HE still standing at the door
Human beings are horrible my child
and megalomaniacal
The whole of humanity is megalomaniacal
wherever we look
we see only a megalomaniacal humanity
we are in the midst
of a catastrophic ordeal of stultification
The crown yes the crown
irritates you
Richard the Third
I played him in Duisburg
and in Bochum
It was not a success
I loved the role
but I had no success with it
For my seventieth birthday
The municipal government of Duisburg presented me with
this crown
which I wore when I played the Richard the Third
This very crown
We enjoy no success
and yet we love the role
In Duisburg my child
In the theater at Duisburg I have played
Richard the Third
that naturally means nothing to you my child
give me the jug
he takes the milk-jug from Katharina
People who work in the theater
only look so serious
actually they are not
in a questioning tone
Are you afraid of me
In Duisburg I played
Richard the Third
As well as Don Carlos
the lot
walks with the milk-jug to the icebox, opens the icebox, takes a saucer out of it and fills it with milk from the jug
Every now and then
I enjoy
putting on the crown
puts the jug in the icebox and closes the door of the icebox
aren't they
All actors are crazy
all good actors are crazy
the entire theater is crazy
Theater people
crazy people
The theater world
a crazy world
Won't you sit down

KATHARINA takes a seat at the table

HE sits down on the chair at the window
The actor has a crown on his head
but he is no king
the actor wears a coronation robe
but he is no king
the actor succeeds to the throne
but he is no king
presses the crown firmly down on his head
The actor
who has a crown on his head
is a poor old man
Has your mother given you permission
to let me take you to the opera
as I promised I would

KATHARINA shakes her head

You see
I told you
she would not let me
take you to the opera
To The Magic Flute
That is the most wonderful experience for a child
her first trip to the opera
and especially to hear The Magic Flute
Perhaps later
Human beings are human agents of destruction
they thoroughly ruin
even their own child
before he can even properly breathe
presses the crown firmly down on his head
For over ten years
since my seventieth birthday
I have put on
this crown in the chest
every other Tuesday of the month
Do you like the crown


We have dignity
when we are wearing a crown
But it is thoroughly nonsensical
to put on a stage-crown
when one is an old actor
a ridiculous act
a ridiculous act
nothing but pure ridiculousness
addressing Katharina directly
Did you know
that I have acted in Duisburg
and in Osnabrück
Loud-mouthed fools
That means nothing to you
The art of acting
is a lethal art
I fear nothing more
Do you understand
I can do
what I want
I fear nothing more
Fear is perverse my child
where there is so much stupidity
addressing Katharina directly
Would you like some juice

KATHARINA answers in the affirmative

HE stands up and walks to the icebox and asks
Black-cherry juice


HE opens the icebox and takes out a bottle of black-cherry juice and fills a glass with it and places it on the table
Wait a moment
And don't gulp it down all at once
lest you catch a cold
People are greedy
and greedily gulp everything down at once
he drags the chair away from the window and places it at the table and sits down opposite Katharina
You will see
in the world is very complicated
It all looks very simple
but it is very complicated
everything is complicated
Presses the crown firmly down on his head
Human beings do not forgive
that is the unfortunate truth
human beings punish and do not forgive
How was your mathematics class today
was it good
One sip at a time
Drink slowly
eat slowly
and drink slowly
also read slowly
Today I have subsisted
more on Schopenhauer
than on water
I shall not paint
I told you I would paint
but I am not going to paint
looks around
I no longer even notice
whether it has been painted or not
I do not see the cracks in the wall at all
in a questioning tone
Are there many cracks
KATHARINA looks around
there are many cracks
It will surely be the death of me
if I repaint the room
Ten years before you were born
my wife died
Did I tell you that
her name was Katharina
the same as yours
She was very beautiful
very exacting
and very beautiful
looks at the ceiling
presses the crown firmly down on his head
The crown on my head
calms me down
in a questioning tone
How do I look
with the crown on
how do I look with the crown on


Every second Tuesday of the month
I allow myself this joke
an old man
especially when he is old actor
may surely be allowed this joke
every second Tuesday of the month
Actors are like children
that is why you and I get along so well
stands up and walks to the piece of writing-paper on the wall on which he has written the phrase "Buy mouse-poison, and points to the piece of paper
Can you read what is written on that piece of paper


What is written there

Buy mouse-poison

Buy mouse-poison
He sits back down stands immediately back up and walks with the chair to the window
I no longer catch mice
I poison them
It disgusts me
to drown them in the bucket
For decades I drowned the mice in the bucket
now I poison them
he sits down
When my wife was alive
there was not a single mouse in the house
No sooner had she died
than the mice appeared
On the ground floor there are rats
It won't be long before the rats are here too
This house is a storehouse
for rats
It makes [no] difference
whichever direction we choose
we choose whichever direction
we made the wrong choice
he takes the crown off his head and clasps it firmly to his chest
Suddenly it makes no sense
to keep the crown on my head
this crown is heavier than a real one
real crowns worn by real kings
are not as heavy
I never keep it
on my head
for more than an hour
Apart from you
nobody has seen me
with this crown on my head
promise me
that you will tell nobody
that you have seen me with this crown
on my head
people used to believe
I was mad
An actor can manage
to put a crown on his head
without being mad
directly to Katharina
I shall crown you

KATHARINA stands up and approaches him

You must kneel down
you must be kneeling down when you are crowned

KATHARINA kneels before him

HE puts the crown on her head
How beautiful you are
with the crown on
But girls like you
have never taken up a crown
It is ridiculous
suddenly shouting
Ridiculous ridiculous
it is ridiculous
it is ridiculous
he snatches the crown off her head

KATHARINA has jumped up

Hurls the crown across the room
He collapses exhausted, then
I am not mad
I am not mad
The whole time
I had the crown on
I am completely spent
I am frightened
when you knocked
I thought
you were the people from the insurance company
from the property insurance company
I was expecting people
from the property insurance company
I am insured against burglary
is that not ridiculous
I am insured against burglary
I own nothing
but this shabby crown
and am insured against burglary
directly to KATHARINA
Come here
come here please
KATHARINA walks to him
He makes as if to touch her face, but then refrains
People have not understood
that I intend to have
nothing further to do with them
they come when they like
but I open the door to no one
Are you coming again next Friday
I am now going to tell you something
in confidence
Pay attention
resolutely, super-distinctly, and yet softly
I do not actually like milk
and so I do not drink milk
but I wish to see you
every Tuesday and Friday
I wish to see you
do you understand that
Not a soul apart from you
has access to me
not a single one
I have always
hated milk
As soon as you leave
I always pour the milk
into the sink
milk disgusts me
But do not tell your mother that
You just tell everybody
the famous actor in the Hanssachstrasse
loves milk
and he drinks milk
he actually never eats or drinks anything
but milk
He takes her by the hand
My dear child
next Friday
bring me mouse-poison
so that I can poison all the mice
in this house

KATHARINA starts to leave

HE holds her back
Whenever I am there
Every day the famous actor in the Hanssachstrasse drinks milk
he exists only
because he drinks milk
say that to everybody
promise me you will
he gives Katharina the milk jug and she leaves
Throughout our existence
we impose upon ourselves
we act on a stage
he stands up and takes the bowl out of the icebox and empties the milk into the bucket
He listens for some time at the door and walks out with the bucket
He flushes the toilet

Scene Three

Towards Evening

HE is sitting in a shabby old dressing gown at the chair by the window/on the window-seat
was submissive
We rushed directly
into catastrophe
but we survived
Committed errors naturally
A year [in the] Ludwig Pavilion
that humbled you
that could have nearly cost you your head
looks around
I shall not paint
I have no need for renovation
It is enough
if we can sleep well
and are not in pain
clutches at his head with both hands
The crown bears
an atrocity
The spectators were afraid of me
not vice versa
Lifelong intimacy
with me
to the point of megalomania
She warbled a song
that was enough for her
I married her out of pity
and because I hoped for an heir
laughs to himself
An incapacity for living at bottom
Everything is rising
I said to myself
Nothing rises
the art of acting
and with this perfection
fell ill
She had not suspected
that she must die
Perpetual double-dealing
they believe they will live for ever
that is their mistake
they believe they have no defective organs
that is their mistake
Kidney brain liver
gnaw away everything in the end
I drove out of her
the drive to travel
stands up and walks to the door and listens
I must write to the administrators of the cemetery
Attended no concerts for two years
after her death
looks at the window
Victor died
like her
The wretched thing is
that people do not suspect
that they must die
in the very near future
if they knew
that they must die in the very near future
they would set out one last time for Leipzig
or for the Fichtelgebirge
thus they die quite suddenly
without having arrived one last time at Leipzig
at the Fichtelgebirge
ties the belt [of the dressing  gown] more tightly around his [waist]
We do not move
that is why we are cold
walks to the table and sits down
A lifelong repeater of school grades
looks at his shoes
In the end we wear felt shoes
which we always hated
I have always hated felt
picks up the hammer, stands up and walks to the plinth, bends down hits the nail once with the hammer forcefully, looks around
In this pose
looks around
A motet
for her funeral
the same motet
for Viktor
attempts to stand up
but fails
The mouse-poison under the door
and under the window
Then word will get around
that I am poisoning the mice
suddenly cries out
Cream of wheat
of course cream of wheat
stands up and walks to the table, takes the notepad out of the chest and writes the words cream of wheat on it
Cream of wheat
stands up and sticks the sheet of writing paper on to the nail
Woe betide him
who takes proceedings against himself
in a whisper
Never take proceedings against yourself
glances at the door
Always despised self-cooked food
The pre-denture era
and the post-denture era
When we no longer have our own teeth
we have a craving for a bite of
Slime of wheat
sits down on the chair at the window
We hate Schopenhauer
and exist out of him
we hate the world
and exist in it
I have always hated writers
even Goethe
came into conflict with the courts
A lifelong
fear of prison
Because we believe we are constantly proceeding
In the end we eat slime of wheat
and freeze even when
we have on felt shoes
and a heavy winter blanket
stands up and walks to the door and listens
Eighteen tenants
that makes things common
that fosters deceit
and commonness
Only when one of them dies
do we learn his name
I have never gotten involved
in a conversation
with any residents of this building
with the building superintendent yes
but not with the residents as such
Should the building acquire a communal dumpster
they asked me
no no
no no
to be sure the superintendent brings me nothing but every possible disease
when I let him come in
I shall no longer let him into the apartment
He has bought himself a house on the Kitsee
everybody is buying houses
Horrible house-buying frenzy
listens intently at the door
Always lived in your shadow she said
I never forgave her for this insult
The young man believes
he has a future
but nobody has a future
walks to the door, sits down and opens the newspaper
after a pause
Construction engineer
if possible in mid thirties
with experience in Africa
for Saudi Arabia
after a pause
Bookseller seeks
two bookseller's apprentices
in the [city] center
lays the newspaper on the table
Felled by a stroke
while holding a trouser-hanger
a risible death
a risible death
stands up and walks to the door and listens
has always gotten on my nerves
I could just as easily
have died in Kenya
all signs were pointing to it
but I did not die in Kenya
A lifelong dependence on climate
tablet-dependency and climate-dependency
listens intently at the door
We say we do not need people
but it is not true
that you do not need people
A lust for life that is it
I have always had it
Perpetual curiosity
listens more intently at the door
Perpetual curiosity
walks to the window and looks out
A perpetual lust for life
even in foul weather
looks down at the street
We no longer go down there
we look down there
but we no longer go down there
We have always given people a wide
every person
Now we shall never go down there again
looks at the clock
In Kenya [courted] death
risible death
At the invitation of the big game hunter Thompson
how risible
Looks all four walls up and down
Ultimately became famous
He draws the roller-blind so as to darken the room completely
Panic fear of greenhouses
of plants in general
Greenhousaphobia from childhood
through to the present
He raises the blind and turns on the light and draws the blind
Never took a walk
in my entire life
lay in bed
with the curtains drawn
on the weekends
acted at the theater
or lay in bed
goes and winds the clock
Paris yes
London no
Sils Maria yes
Saint Moritz no
For years ate nothing but low-fat curds
walks to the door and listens
It is a question of the intensity
with which we act
after a pause
Discontinued on account of insignificance
the proceedings were discontinued on account of insignificance
they said
Incessantly involved in trials
but never imprisoned
walks to the icebox and takes a sausage out of it
The old cheese
or the old sausage
puts the sausage back into the icebox and takes out of the icebox a piece of cheese
sniffs the cheese
The sausage would be better
puts the cheese back into the icebox and takes the sausage out again, sniffs the sausage
puts the sausage back into the icebox and takes the cheese out again
shuts the icebox
looks at the door
The old people's dance
I completely forgot about it
that is why it so quiet in the house
straightens up and walks with the cheese to the table
he unfolds a large sheet of newspaper over the table
and sets the cheese on it
takes a loaf of bread out of the table-drawer and cuts himself a
thick slice
Until two years ago I
still used to go
to the old people's dance
he begins eating the cheese and bread
he pours himself a glass of mineral water from a bottle, drinks, and eats
Unhappiness sets in
because we no longer think
Have forgotten how to think
he looks at the door
The old people's dance
looks at the shopping list on the wall
Cream of wheat
For Katharina a lovely
Twenty-shilling piece
he sticks several more pieces of bread into his mouth and chews
He enjoyed
universal acclaim
they said in the lobby
while I was memorizing my lines
When I recite Prospero's speeches
they pay attention
they are obviously enraptured by it
he stands up and walks to the tape recorder, presses a button, and sits back down
voluntary self-control
without scruples
he now listens to himself speaking from the tape recorder
If anybody sees me here
in this pose
A contempt for craftsmen
We have all allowed our talents
to waste away
signalized for askewness
doctored in mathematics
he walks to the tape recorder and stops it
looks around
they are obviously enraptured by it
he sits down at the table and continues eating



Translation unauthorized but © 2011 by Douglas Robertson