The Decline of the West
My cousin’s prophecy had fallen wide of the mark. Not only was it not raining, but the skies were blue above the rooftops of our little town on Saturday. In a fresh linen shirt, with a prayer book under my arm, and even with my head held a bit higher than usually, I walked up to the parish house. It was there that I was supposed to receive from Father Zephyrin Kiderlen my final instructions on how to conduct myself on the following Sunday.
After the priest’s fat cook Marie came to the front door and let me in, I ambled across a plush purple carpet towards the priest’s study.
“Softly,” whispered Marie.
She was responsible for maintaining peace and order in the house. “Knock twice,” she said. On the outer door, and on the inner one. And make sure that you never stop bowing.” She said this and much else as though I were setting foot for the very first time in this peaceful, near-palatial house, which was seldom visited by anybody, at most by me, and by a couple of other people, and at certain times, but never before the harvest of the wall-pears, by the archbishop in his purple vestment.
When I was given permission to enter, I opened the door and poked my head into the gap between it and a fishing rod. My gaze sought out the priest, who, as always at this time of day, was sitting behind the armrest of his upholstered desk-chair and reading not a newspaper but—and this was what in particular caught my attention today–a big book: The Decline of the West.
No sooner did I sit down than I began to wonder what sorts of things might be contained in this remarkable dark book, to wonder why it was as thick as my mother’s cookbook, and above all, where in the world this West that was its subject happened to be located.
The estimable Father Zephyrin Kiderlen, to whom I had greatly endeared myself over the past few weeks, cleared his throat. “The West is here, where we live,” he said, “in contrast to the East, through which, as you of course know, Jesus Christ, the son of God, roamed after he had arrived in the world to redeem the souls of men and women…”
I had already heard about all that. And also about the olive trees and the cypresses, about the Virgin Mary, Bethlehem, and a bunch of other things on the banks of the Jordan. But nobody had ever before told me that I lived in the West.
“The West stretches from the East across the Mediterranean to the far north,” said the priest.
He took something out of a strongbox.
Now I wanted to know why this place, which to the best of my knowledge had not only a west but also an east, not to mention a north and south, was called “the West.”
Zephyrin Kiderlen, whose sister sang the strangest songs to her own plodding accompaniment on the organ every Sunday, took his pipe in his hands and packed its brown bowl with fragrant tobacco.
“This tobacco,” he said, “comes from the East, from somewhere not far from Jerusalem.”
He lit the pipe.
“The West,” he resumed in his gentle voice, “is what they call our region of the earth, because the sun, after it has risen in the morning, sets on us in the evening.”
This made everything completely clear to me.
“You of course know where the sun rises in the morning and where it sets in the evening. Or do you not know? Over there, where it rises, is the east; over there, where it sets, is the west.”
The priest savored his pipe. He sucked on its mouthpiece, and each time he did this his cheeks were drawn inwards. When he blew out the smoke, they turned red like two apples shimmering in the morning sun.
“And what’s in that big book?” I wanted to know. “Can so much be written about this West?”
The old man in the black coat could not help laughing out loud. He could not even help coughing. He started choking; his face turned beet red. I sat motionlessly across from him, with my hands in my lap. Then my gaze glided, slowly, meanderingly, over the mountains of books that were piled up on every side of the room.
Have all these been written by people? I thought. By clever people? By poets, by…
Now I wanted to know why exactly this learned man, whom I had never heard of before, had given his book the title The Decline of the West.
“Is this West really declining?” I asked. I feared the worst. I clasped one of my knees firmly with both hands.
Zephyrin Kiderlen took the pipe out of his mouth and drew a deep breath. “Yes, and if it keeps declining, it will go under. For sure! What’s more, it won’t take very long to go under. And everything that crawls around on its surface will go under along with it—”
I sat in total silence. Now the thought of nothing in the world gave me any pleasure. Quick as a flash, I said: “Then of course I shall go under too, and so will everything else, the entire country, the villages, the cities, my music-groups, the deer in the forest and the frogs…” I asked him how this West of ours could just go under one fine day, meaning overnight, and what sorts of things would happen while it was going under, and how soon we would ultimately have to deal with this incredibly bizarre business of going under…
The priest sneezed. He did this in a quite peculiar manner and fashion, more genteelly than anybody else I had ever met did; even his hand gestures …His name was Zephyrin Kiderlen and he was our priest, a brilliant man, the most brilliant man in the parish, who reported directly to our Father in Heaven.
“The connections are all internal,” he said. “And whatever happens internally, inside of us, so to speak, you can certainly feel, but you won’t understand it until much later. Your time has not yet come, in contrast to mine, which is almost over–but by then you will be a reasoning individual…”
“But let me give you an example,” he resumed: “When a ship on the ocean, no matter how sturdy it is, has too much cargo in it, and this cargo is unevenly distributed, then this ship—in conformity with the laws of physics—inevitably sinks, it goes under. That’s what the West is now—a sturdy, overladen ship.”
“Hence the title The Decline of the West,” I said, although I had understood only a small part of what the sage had been talking about.
Zephyrin Kiderlen shook his head gently.
The room became dead silent. There were no birds singing outside, at the windows—not a creature was stirring; Zephyrin sucked on his pipe, took a breath every now and then, and gazed amusedly at me through his spectacles.
“It’s a philosophical book,” he said. The man who wrote it is very clever. He is a thinker.”
I immediately thought of the old professor whom I occasionally crossed paths with on the street, an extremely peculiar person who hardly ever said anything and whom I had basically always regarded as nothing but a fool, because whenever you saw him his nose was buried in a notebook in which he was always jotting down something.
“He is a philosopher—and he’s also not a philosopher at all,” resumed the priest. “His name wouldn’t mean anything to you, like most names. There are men who have a mind magnified and sanctified by the Almighty. What they see is in their eyes life, an estate, a house that is pleasant to live in; in their eyes it is a tiny cog in the giant machine of the world. Out of the teeniest and tiniest bolts they build the world…
By this point my mind had reached its limits. I nodded a couple of more times as the priest continued speaking, but in the end I had to admit that I had understood pretty much nothing the priest had just said. I had retained in my memory only a single word of his brief speech: knowledge. And even regarding that word I didn’t know a thing; I hadn’t the faintest idea of how to begin thinking about it.
“Will a person really know everything,” I asked, “once he’s read this book?”
Eyeing me contemplatively, the priest leaned back.
“Nobody knows everything,” he said. “The man who wrote the book, some years ago, doesn’t know everything either.”
“But then,” I wished to know, “will a person know what’s inside the book once he’s read it from its first to its last page?”
Zephyrin Kiderlen took his pipe out of his mouth and shook his snow-white head to and fro.
“Why yes,” he averred—he kept moving the pipe farther and farther away from his head—“one person will know, and the next person won’t. People are diverse. One person’s brain has received God’s benison, and the brain of the next person hasn’t, as I have already said. A tricky story, Christoph. Even among sheep there are only a few that can bleat in conformity with the rules of their art. Most of the people who have read this book don’t know what’s inside it. It exasperates them. God knows why. Most human beings, I tell you, are a vexation to books! Of course they pretend they understand what they read or have read and think themselves clever and wise and have their noses perfumed—but for the most part what they understand is utter muck—and for the longest time their lives have been as limited as those of grocers’ wives! And the most dangerous of them are those who give the appearance of knowing something, of understanding something. The majority of worthwhile books”— here the old man, using his pipe, indicated a swathe of them that ran along the walls of his study—“never penetrate the brains of their readers. ‘It doesn’t ring a bell’ is what they say in our valley. Everything that is unsurpassably beautiful goes to the dogs. And whatever is unsurpassably beautiful and precious is also—mark my words—unsurpassably inconspicuous. So it goes for everything on God’s green earth, my son. So it has ever gone, from time immemorial. So it will ever go, my dear Christoph. Reading a book is exactly like praying. You should do both of them on your knees and with devout attentiveness. Today’s world is much too loud, too scheming, too unbalanced, people are too lazy and idle and wishy-washy to linger in the company of a book as it deserves. Books, my son, are little worlds unto themselves. When you open them, you can walk around in them as long as you like, without getting boxed on the ears anywhere by anyone. That is what is so beautiful about books. And such worlds still exist in our time, worlds whose mornings are cloudless and whose skies are broad, and in which the sun shines perpetually…
At this point, the grizzled priest concluded his speech. He picked up the book The Decline of the West and flipped it around every which way a couple of times.
“I always take a sniff at them. Each one of them smells different, better than the next one,” he said.
Then he stood up, took a couple of steps, and shoved the big, dark, mysterious book into some place in the wall of books next to the window.
“The important thing is to summon up the courage to step into the worlds of books as if you had just arrived in the world and had never seen anything ever before. You’ve got to amble through their first few pages like a newborn, and then you will perceive the fresh morning breeze as it wafts over you,” said the priest.
I opened my mouth and pricked up my ears.
“Most people,” resumed the old man, “no longer see anything. They bleat all over the place
like our neighborhood sheep, sniffle like dogs, trumpet their platitudes to every point of the compass, wear nice suits and dresses and coats, drink their coffee in conformity with a rigidly determined schema, and flock to wherever everything tastes sweetest. Mark my words, Christoph, wherever it smells best and tastes best, there you must don your hat—if you’ve got one by then—and vanish!”
I now felt as though I had understood every word the priest had said. This feeling came upon me just like boundless enlightenment pouring down from heaven. A new world was opening up, a land of unbounded beauty, a land without end.
“Perhaps,” opined the priest, “some part of what I have just confided to you has stuck to that white skull of yours. Someday you will repay me for it. Most people nowadays just smile indulgently at the pronouncements of an old man…”
He opened the little grate-door of the stove that heated his study, knocked his pipe empty, and took a look out the window.
“Life is like a treasure chest. Everybody can take whatever he likes out of it,” he said. Then he glanced at his watch, paced a couple of steps up and down, and stopped. A little while later he remarked that I would have to be in the church in a half an hour, and that by then he would already be sitting in his confessional…
Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 493-499. Originally published in Linzer Volksblatt on July 7, 1954.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson