From my family and hence from my tormentors I fled into a corner of the tower and had, in the absence of light and hence in the absence of the gnats that [never fail] to drive me mad, taken with me from the library a book wherein I had read a pair of sentences that appeared to be by Montaigne, to whom I am affined in such an intimately and materially illuminating fashion as to no other person.
On my way to the tower I had, as if I could redeem myself only by doing so and by no other means, removed a book from the shelves, without having the faintest idea what sort of book it might be, I merely thought that it was possibly a philosophical book, because for centuries my family have stored such so-called philosophical books only on the left side of the library, and naturally in the full clarity of consciousness I had not taken out a so-called belletristic book from the right side of the library, but rather from the left, that is to say, not from the belletristic side, but rather the kind of book to be found on the philosophical side, although I had been unable to ascertain which philosophical topic it treated of, when I had removed it from the shelves on the left side, for it very well might have been a completely different book from the one I had ultimately removed, not the Montaigne, but possibly rather the Descartes or the Novalis or the Schopenhauer.
On my way to the tower, during which passage, as already mentioned, I had not lit a candle on account of the gnats, I had strained my concentration to its utmost limits in trying to guess which book I had taken from the shelves, but [none of] the philosophers whose names then occurred to me was Montaigne.
Because nobody [had] entered the tower from the library in such a long time, I along with my head was soon submerged in cobwebs, and in the end I had, long before I had reached the tower, the sensation of wearing a cobweb cap; so thickly had my head been enveloped by cobwebs on my way to the tower; I could feel the cobwebs on my face and on my head like a bandage that on my way from the library to the tower I had wound around [my head] merely by walking and by repeatedly turning round my head and my entire body, because I had been worried that my family might have seen me first even as I entered the library and then again as I was leaving the library and heading for the tower. I even found it difficult to breathe.
Now in addition to the fear of suffocation, of which I [had] already suffered for so many years solely on account of my weakened lungs, I had on account of the cobwebs around my head a second, even more appalling [fear]. The entire afternoon my family had tortured me with [talk about] their business transactions and had, while they [had] unrelentingly hectored me or completely refrained from speaking about those subjects that would have been worth speaking about, reproached me for being [the cause of] their unhappiness. For having made it my modus operandi to be against them and against their way of life, against their business transactions and against their [way of] thinking, despite the fact that it was also my [way of] thinking.
That I had made a habit of undermining their way of thinking, of ridiculing it, destroying and of killing it. That I dedicated everything in myself to undermining it and to destroying it and to killing it. Day and night I brooded over nothing else and [re]commenced my persecution of it from the moment I woke up. It was not I who was the invalid and hence the weaker party, they said, but rather they who were the invalids and the weakened party, they were lorded over by me and not vice versa: I was their oppressor, they were not persecuting me, but rather I them.
But I have been hearing this as long as I have existed.
From the moment of my birth onwards I had been against them, [from the beginning] I had held them to account in my capacity as a never-speaking, ever-gazing naughty child, for my existence, their perfidious monstrosity. The very first time he opened his eyes the child had shuddered at the sight of them, because he had been against them. Instinctively from the very first instants everything within me revolted against them, ultimately with the constitution of the intelligence of my head with greater decisiveness and ruthlessness.
I was their annihilator, they said once again today, even while I perpetually gave them to understand that they were my annihilator, pursued my annihilation [of them] from the moment of my begetting onwards. My family have me on their conscience, I say in each and every thing, I say this, while vice versa they [declare] in each and every thing that they say and think and in their unrelenting actions, that I had them on their conscience. I was born into such a lovely neighborhood and in such a lovely house, they are constantly saying, and I ridiculed and contemned it unrelentingly.
In each of my utterances there was nothing but this ridicule and contempt, on which they will someday founder, but I think that I myself shall someday founder on their ridicule and contempt. On the way from the library to the tower I reflected that I had not escaped from them in twenty-four years, even though in the twenty-four years of my life I [had] had nothing in my head but [the thought of] escaping from them; to withdraw myself from them has never been possible, even for the briefest period, mine has only ever been a feigned withdrawal, [undertaken] entirely [for the sake of] being silent about escaping, about which I no longer ever even dare to think. Their care had always been supremely solicitous, their attentiveness always supremely great, their hopelessness always centered on me, but at the same time supremely awful.
They had cleared so many paths for me, and I had taken not a single one of these paths, they said to me once again today. All the paths that they had shown to me and cleared for me had always been the best ones for me, they had fully envisaged my pursuing all these paths, but I had ruined all these paths for them and thereby for myself from the beginning onwards.
That I had once said to them that I never intended to pursue any path, but their misunderstanding and [along] with this misunderstanding their conspiracy of the most unabashed thoroughpaced baseness, had allowed me immediately to perceive the nonsensicality of this remark of mine, and I had not allowed myself to repeat this remark that I never intended to follow any path. All remarks for my part to them had always run into this misunderstanding and the effectual baseness that attended this misunderstanding. Hence over the course of the decades I have spoken less and less and finally not at all, and their reproaches have become ever more ruthless.
I had gone into the library and had removed a philosophical book from the shelves in the consciousness of committing a crime, for in their eyes entering the library on its own was a crime and the removal of a philosophical book from the shelves a much greater one, where[as] the withdrawal for my part from them on its own was judged an even greater one still.
That they had bought a house in Encknach in order to expand it and then, in a single year, sell it off for a tenfold profit, they had said that they had converted two farms near Rutzenmoos into one and thereby into a thirty-million [schilling] profit overnight, they said.
We must act, when the weak are at their most weakened, they said at the table, anticipate the intelligent via an even more ruthless intelligence, they said, via an even more perfidious perfidy. The spoke of these business transactions not unmediatedly, but indirectly, even as they talked about something regarded by them as a philosophical subject, namely about Schopenhauer’s solitude, about which they certainly, as I know, had in actual fact read everything, but understood nothing, but they spoke of nothing but their business transactions, [about] how to hoodwink intelligence via an even more intelligent intelligence. They spooned their soup and harangued in defense of a dog that had bitten a vagrant and in yet in the midst of this canine hypocrisy they were still really talking only about their business transactions. My parents and my siblings have always been in agreement with each other, they have always been a conspiracy against everything and against me. We have always loved you said my parents once again today, and my siblings looked at them and listened to them without arguing, while I was thinking that they had only hated me throughout my life, as I have only hated them throughout my life, when I say the truth, as I know [the truth] and am not [in the habit of] lying, a [habit] against which I have been fortifying myself for quite a long time. We indeed even say we love our parents and hate them in reality, for we cannot love our progenitors, because we are by no means happy people, our unhappiness is by no means something that we have been talked into, like our happiness, which we daily talk ourselves into in order merely to [summon up] the courage to get up and to wash ourselves, to get dressed, to take that first sip, swallow that first bite.
Because every morning without fail we are reminded that our parents out of an appalling overestimation of themselves and actually in their procreative megalomania have made us and flung us and placed us into this world that is assuredly more dreadful and horrid than gratifying and useful. We owe to our progenitors our helplessness, our clumsiness, all [the] difficulties with which we are unqualified to cope throughout our lives. First we are told you are not allowed to drink this water because it is poisoned, then we are told you are not allowed to read this book because it is poisoned. If you drink this water, you will perish as a consequence, if you read this book, you will perish as a consequence. They led you into the woods, they stuck you into gloomy children’s rooms in order to derange you, they introduced you to people whom you immediately recognized as your annihilators. They showed you landscapes that that were lethal to you. They threw you into schools as if into dungeons, they ultimately exorcised your soul in order to let it expire in their swamp and in their desert. Thus was your heart’s native rhythm disrupted, until ultimately this heart of yours became irreversibly ill, as the doctors say, because it had never been granted [a moment’s] repose.
They stuck you in green clothes when you wanted to wear red [ones], in cold [clothes], when warm [clothes] had been necessary, [when] you wanted to walk, you were obliged to run, when you wanted to run, you were obliged to walk, [when] you wanted repose, they gave you none, [when] you wanted to cry, they silenced you. You have always observed them as long as you can remember and perceived and studied their untruthfulness and told them time and again that they are lost, which they have refused to admit, even as they have known that they are nothing but lost the whole time that I have been observing them, right on through to today. That they are impudent, which they have always denied, unscrupulous, dangerous to the common good. Then they accused me so to speak of the truth, they accused me of falsehood. But I rejected and accepted [the proposition] that they were beautiful, intelligent, in order [merely] to say the truth, they accused me of falsehood. Thus throughout my life they accused me at one time of the truth and at another time of falsehood and very often of the truth and of falsehood and accused me of truth and falsehood basically throughout my life, as I myself accused them of falsehood and of truth throughout their lives.
I can say whatever I like, they accuse me either of truth or of falsehood and often it is not clear to them, they accuse me now of the truth or of falsehood, as it is very often not clear to me is, I accuse them of falsehood or of truth, because I in my accusation mechanism, which to be sure has long since turned into an accusation illness, can no longer distinguish between what is truth and what is falsehood, as they can no longer distinguish truth from falsehood vis-à-vis me. Before I had a mortal fear of taking a lump of sugar out of the can in the larder, likewise today I had a mortal fear of removing a book from the library and I had the greatest mortal fear that it was a philosophical book, as [I did] yesterday evening. Montaigne I have always loved [as I have loved] nobody else. I have always fled to my Montaigne when I have been in a [state of] mortal fear. By Montaigne I have always let myself be guided and instructed, nay, led away and astray. Montaigne has always been my rescuer and savior. When I have ultimately mistrusted everybody else, [mistrusted] my infinite great philosophical family, whom to be sure I can only describe as an infinitely great French philosophical family, in which there have only ever been a couple of German and Italian nephews and nieces, all of whom, as I must say, died very young, I am nonetheless always thoroughly edified by my Montaigne. I have never had a father and never [had] a mother, but always [had] my Montaigne. My progenitors, whom I intend never to call Father and Mother, have from my first moment onwards repelled me, and since very early on I have taken the appropriate steps towards this repulsion and have run straight ahead into the arms of my Montaigne, in other words, into the truth. Montaigne, I have always thought, has a great, infinite, philosophical family, but I have never loved any of the members of this philosophical family more than its chief, Montaigne.
I had, on my way to the tower, in the library and its gnat-necessitated darkness, intended only to cling to one of the members of this French philosophical family, after I had freed myself from the clutches of my own family, but never thought that I had in that extreme darkness got a secure grip on my Montaigne. My family had eaten their soup and their meat with the same avidity of theirs that has always repelled me, when they raise the spoon to their lips, it says more to me than anything else about them; when they cut the meat on the plate, when they get the salad out of the bowl. When they drink from their glasses and tear their bread, no matter what they are talking about and what they are making a fuss about or fun of, it has always repelled me and embarrassed me. I have always detested meals with them, but all my life I have been compelled to be together with them, to be delivered up to them as a result of my illness.
Never a hundred steps [in succession] without them, most of the time, [I] should be distressed if I did not dread this accusation so much. Everything about them and involving them (and involving me) would be shaking to name, if I would not dread this accusation like nothing else. First they had made me dependent, then they had reproached me for this dependency on them, throughout my life. From the moment at which I was no longer capable of extricating myself from this dependency onwards, I had naturally been reproached for this natural [dependency], this natural, appalling [dependency]. Vis-à-vis them, I was obliged to say from a certain point of time onwards [that] it was the only possibility.
We wish to flee, to fly, but we can no longer do so.
They (and we ourselves) have walled up all exits to the outside world. At once we see that they have walled us (and we ourselves) in. Then we do nothing but keep waiting for the moment at which we shall asphyxiate. Then we often wonder whether it would not be better to be blind, completely deaf to our other crippling illnesses, because we then we [would] no longer see anything that we are fairly obliged to recognize as lethal, no longer hear anything, but that will also at once [involve] us in misapprehension. We always wished for a cure, when no cure was to be expected any longer, because nothing was possible any longer. We wanted to break [everything] off, when there was no longer anything to break off. My family had perceived too late that they had only begotten their destroyer and annihilator. And I had comprehended [it] too late. I comprehended when it was too late to be able to comprehend. How often they had said a dog would [have been] better than me, because a dog would [have] protect[ed] them and cost less than me, who only observe and ridicule and dissolve and destroy and annihilate them.
If you go to the fountain, we shall beat you to death, they had said, when I was four or five years old. If you go into the library, just wait and see [what happens], they said, and meant nothing less than that they would beat me to death. Thus as a four and five year-old child I only secretly ever [went] to the fountain and so to speak as an adult only secretly ever went into the library. They had always given me to understand that at the fountain I would lose my so-called balance and fall in, irretrievably. And they had always given me to understand that in the library and in quite specific books, naturally they did not explicitly say philosophical books, I would lose my balance and fall in, irretrievably. [Just] as four or five years ago I went secretly and downright soul-chillingly into the library, I have been going for so many years into the library only secretly behind their backs, so to speak.
Every time I feel as if I were walking into a trap, because they had always said to me or given me to understand that for me the library was a trap (like the fountain). I am twenty-four years old and I walk into the library as if into a trap. The trap will snap shut, they had said, as I went into the library for the first time. Every time I go into the library, I think, the trap is going to snap shut. It could also have been Descartes, I thought, or Pascal. Good Lord, I thought, how I love all these philosophers, I love them like nothing in the world! But it was Montaigne, my indisputable favorite Montaigne! I sat down in the rearmost corner of the tower and read and read, and I could have howled [my head off] for [sheer] bliss, if not so long ago I had been able to undo such a monstrous instance of permissiveness by means of such a thought: When we wantonly howl our [heads off] and fail to see ourselves as a result and do not on this occasion give careful consideration to ourselves, we are even and much more ridiculous than we have [already] made ourselves, thus I saw myself, as I [howled my head off] and gave careful consideration to these facts, without literally and in actual fact howling [my head off].I continued reading from my Montaigne next to [the] closed [shutters] quite perversely, because it was so laborious in the absence of artificial light, until I reached the following sentence: It is to be hoped that nothing has happened to him! The sentence had been written not by Montaigne, but rather by my family, who at the foot of the tower were walking to and fro in search of me.
Translation unauthorized but ©2011 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Goethe schtirbt. Erzählungen (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010).