Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Translation of "Das Ganze ist im Grunde ein Spaß" (Thomas Bernhard interviewed by Brigitte Hofer on April 12, 1978)

The Whole Thing Is Basically a Joke [1]

THOMAS BERNHARD: [Well, you see], Breath can’t be read from; a person can’t read aloud about his own illness; it just doesn’t work.  [You’re thinking of] The Cheap-Eaters, which is a manuscript that I cobbled together recently, [and] from which I’m going to read an excerpt.  It’s an argument between the Vienna Public Kitchen people, the God’s Eye people, and the Zoegernitz people; it takes place in the 19th District, and they’re [all], you know, suspicious of each other, right?  Each [group] thinks it’s the best one.  The V. P. K. people triumph [in the end], I think.

BRIGITTE HOFER: An essay that is scheduled to appear shortly?

THOMAS BERNHARD: It might come out in the autumn; I don’t know yet.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Will you read something from Immanuel Kant?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No [I can’t do that one] either; I’ve never yet read [from] that play; you’d have to break it [all] down, literally make yourself into [this or that] comic character at [a specific] moment…it doesn’t work; I mean it would be too grotesque.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Of course that [play] is about to have its premiere—in Germany.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, it’ll be on Saturday, in Stuttgart.

BRIGITTE HOFER: And why in Stuttgart and not in Vienna?

THOMAS BERNHARD: [Well, you see], Claus Peymann is there, [and] I like working with him best; he understands me, so we don’t need to do a lot of talking, so [everything] functions [well].

BRIGITTE HOFER: Has any Viennese theater yet shown any interest in putting on this play?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, none at all.  No, I’m not trying anything on my end either; I haven’t done anything at all either, and now we’ll just have to see what things are like there.  You never know that.

BRIGITTE HOFER: So in other words, if a Viennese theater had wanted to stage it, you would have sent them the manuscript.  But [so far] no Viennese theater has gotten in touch with you.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I keep an eye on who the actors are in which places; in my plays it’s obviously very important for first-class actors to be involved, and in Vienna there are of course some superlative actors, but they end up regressing into lousy ones because behind the scenes you’ve got these lousy general managers [of the theaters] standing [around]; so [even] the best actors are of no use when behind the scenes there’s no [supporting] wall, and so everything always crumbles and collapses.

BRIGITTE HOFER: What about the director?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Well, I haven’t even heard of any director[s]; certainly not [of] any at all here. 

BRIGITTE HOFER: Are you going to continue to work on your [auto]biography, after The Cause, [The] Cellar, and Breath, in which you have dealt with your youth in Salzburg, in grammar school, in boarding school, and your commercial apprenticeship, as well as even your time in hospital?

THOMAS BERNHARD: If I survive I’ll certainly do that before other people do it and let their own flowers spring up, these flowers that won’t gibe with anything that really happened.  And I intend to do it all myself, before other people have [even] done the sketches for their painting.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Of course you could also do it in a completely different form.

THOMAS BERNHARD: In my own form, full stop.  I mean, it keeps going; I want to keep the whole thing going, until it just ends when I’m 23, before I’m [completely] grown up.  Of course I’m no memoirist; I don’t want to do anything like that at all; it’s really just [my] childhood.

BRIGITTE HOFER: In other words, now you ought to work on your involvement with music.

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, what should come next is what I’d almost call a burlesque about the doctors and the sanatorium and all that.  Then comes my leap back into music, in other words, the study of music, [of] dramatic theory actually, [of] acting, pretty much everything I did until I got my diploma.  But with my diploma in hand—I of course put all that behind me back then at the Mozarteum—I walked out the door and swore to myself that I’d never have anything more to do with it.  At that point it was all behind me.  [It wasn’t just] my studies [that] were behind me, it was the whole thing.  Maybe that’ll take up five books or six, seven, I don’t know.

BRIGITTE HOFER: What does this process of summing up your life in a literary mode entail?  What kind of an effect does it have on your own life, and on literature?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I really don’t know whether it has anything to do with literature.  I’d say it’s just me reworking my memories, and that it happens pretty much automatically.  Even stylistically I don’t have any problems; I haven’t set myself any sort of agenda; I’ve never assigned it any sort of literary…value, I guess; rather, I just sit down and reminisce and write it down, without any problems of form.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Sure, but what’s the basis of the premise that it’s valid for you to share your personal experiences with a large number of people?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I have to do it myself before other people do it.  I mean, when I open the newspapers, I’m confronted by the most impossible statements, and “my path [led me] hither and thither” and everything having to do with life and philosophy and the simple life and this and that—it’s all been wrong so far.  And then comes the moment when you’re [totally] horror-stricken by one of these statements, and then you sit down and try more or less to impart some authenticity to it.  Naturally you’re only approximately successful, as with everything; most of it you forget again afterwards.

BRIGITTE HOFER: In other words, the interpretation of the work can only arise from the work [itself]?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, I think that the literary works that I have written are pretty much stuck in limbo until somebody eventually comes out and asks point-blank, “Where does all that come from?,” right?  So I have to give it some stability.  And now after 20 years I’ve got a feel for what I’m doing.  And probably it’s also good to operate in this way.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Yes, and that’s also how you [can] account for the pessimism in your works.  Mightn’t one interpret it as a means of enlightening, albeit a very severe means?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I am trying to enlighten and to clarify [things] via these [auto]biographical jottings.

BRIGITTE HOFER: In Breath, you do indeed write that while you no longer cling to the fragments of your childhood and youth, they [still] point towards the development of a broader existence.  Might one say that you have now found your rhythm of existence?  Do you yourself find this to be the case?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I believe that from the beginning I’ve had a certain rhythm, which intensifies, which logically progresses as I get older, and I’ve never interfered [with it].

BRIGITTE HOFER: Will you continue working on your autobiography, and will the next chapter then be dedicated to this involvement with music?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I’d like to do that; maybe a year from now.  For the moment I’m through with it; now I’m writing a prose piece, in other words a novel, a longish one, and a play.

BRIGITTE HOFER: What sort of novel is this you’re writing?

THOMAS BERNHARD: It’s called Unrest; it’s going to be another longish piece, which I’ve been working on for four or five years.

BRIGITTE HOFER: So is it also about your own life?

THOMAS BERNHARD: That’s a stylistic problem, and because it’s language and hence not life that’s in the foreground, it has nothing to do with me in and of myself…insofar as everything has nothing and [yet] actually everything to do with one[self], right?, which of course is something one can’t get away from.

BRIGITTE HOFER: And [what about] the play you’re writing?

THOMAS BERNHARD: It’s quite simply called The Milk Can.  It’s a play for Minetti and Therese Affolter, and we’d like to have it performed in Stuttgart before Peymann leaves town.  So probably by this winter.

BRIGITTE HOFER: And what’s the structure of this play; is it comparable to [that of] your earlier ones?

THOMAS BERNHARD: It[’ll] be written in my way, [won’t it?]

BRIGITTE HOFER: A comedy, a drama, a satire?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, it’s about an old, a very old, philosophical man, a character who has retired to the woods, who’s recapitulating [the events of] his life, and who is living off the milk that this young girl brings to him through the woods at six in the evening every day. [2] And the kind of tension that arises out of [this situation], in other words between an elderly person and a person who’s almost still a child, who always, whenever she goes to him, has got to walk through more or less [total] darkness, and this is what produces these elements of tension and this [force]field of tension that the play is based in and built on.  And a problem of form—I simply wanted to [write] something else for Minetti, and for this young girl.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Now [let’s turn] to the play Immanuel Kant, which is about to have its premiere in Stuttgart.  It tells of how during a sea voyage to America, Kant along with his entourage—his wife, has parrot, and his manservant—meets various people, including a millionairess, an admiral, an art collector, a cardinal, and a captain.  What’s distinctive about these people is their profound narrow-mindedness: they can converse only in formulaic, empty phrases, behind which lurks brutality.  This brutality comes to the fore especially when they’re talking about real-life problems—for instance, indigence and illness among the poor.  Is this roughly what you were trying to get across?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, it’s a society on the high seas, where the possibility of sinking is always present at every minute, so everything can always go under.  This society [exists] entirely on the surface and then [it] kills, throttles, this fusspot Kant, who is a madman, like all great philosophers, whether they themselves know it or not.  At the very end he enters an insane asylum, which is just the normal course for a thinking person, right?, to end up in an insane asylum.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Tellingly, he ends up in an insane asylum in America.   

THOMAS BERNHARD: He ends up in the world or in history, which of course is an insane asylum also.  And the position a philosopher occupies in history is actually the same as the position occupied by a cell in a madhouse, when one describes the world as a madhouse.

BRIGITTE HOFER: So the difference between the Old World and the New World isn’t particularly relevant in this case, in your opinion?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I don’t think it is, no.

BRIGITTE HOFER: So Immanuel Kant could be rewritten with a completely different cast of characters?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I could just as easily have [called it] Schopenhauer.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Or Fichte or Hegel or Schelling…

THOMAS BERNHARD: That might not [work] quite as well, because Kant is of course…he’s the one who really towers over all [the others]; that’s why I picked him.

BRIGITTE HOFER: But this play is after all a comedy.  How does it work on the level of entertainment?

THOMAS BERNHARD: The whole thing is basically a joke, [and] it will also come off like one, I hope.  Perhaps it’ll even be a farce, which I think would be nice.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Mightn’t one now echo Kant himself by saying “The comical is a failed attempt at the sublime?”  That would fit perfectly with this interpretation.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, it clearly [would be] a perfect [fit]; it could serve as the epigraph of the play.  Unfortunately that quote didn’t occur to me when I was writing it.

BRIGITTE HOFER: The theme of virtuosity keeps cropping up in your work; even Kant is a virtuoso.  Could you imagine this virtuosity occupying a different place, as a manifestation of decadence, or is taking up arms in any way against virtuosity even a possibility for you?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I would never want to do that, because for me virtuosity has always been the whole [point] of the joke [that is] literature and art.  For me how well something works has always been less important than how [well] it’s done.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Yes, but in your plays it really does come across more as a manifestation of decadence, which means you don’t see it that way at all.

THOMAS BERNHARD: That’s the way it’s going to be; probably I’m also decadent, sure.  And that’s why it comes across that way, the way I am in the final analysis.

BRIGITTE HOFER: As you’re writing, do you have a dialogue partner with you, or do you concentrate on yourself?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, I picture actors, I picture figures, that I’m writing for.   And they’re assigned names and functions and meet one another and go their separate ways afterwards.  I of course have no interest in designing plays, not to mention characters [or plots], the sort of the thing the drama has always had and has always required and that people have [always] gone for.  I compose musical notation for actors.  And what I write, my words, are really just note-heads, and [the actors] then have to perform them, that’s when the music first comes through, so I don’t know what [they’ll] be like when they’re read [aloud], because even musical scores should be read [aloud]; [on their own] they don’t live as music, or really as plays either.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Do any points of identification exist for yourself; could one for example view Kant as some form of self-criticism?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I am of course also very much a figure who walks into a social situation, from time to time, who pulls those kinds of pranks, shoots his mouth off, talks about himself, naturally; what’s more, people want to persuade, they want lead [somebody] someplace, preferably into the abyss, like philosophers, or all people who philosophize, and even on a ship, right?, perhaps Austria is an ocean liner like that; it could very well be one.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Are you really saying that in all seriousness—that you want to lead people into the abyss?

THOMAS BERNHARD: That of course is a powerful [fantasy whose allure] people [feel] from childhood onwards, right?, [the fantasy] of allowing yourself to be actually coerced into walking to the abyss, or the desire push another person, or whole masses of people, into it.

BRIGITTE HOFER: In other words, you see yourself as the Pied Piper.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I can’t picture myself as anything of the kind [right] now; it’s all too fairytailish for my liking, I think.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Something written by you was supposed to appear in an anthology of [writings by] Austrian [authors].  Your contribution was rejected by the publisher [of the anthology], who happened to be your own publisher, Residenz.  You [then] published this article in a West German newspaper.  So your stance towards Austria is essentially one of permanent confrontation.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I can only describe the things that went on in connection with this piece.  The publisher said he was producing this anthology, and that I should write something about Austria.  And I said I’m not about to write anything about Austria, because of course [everybody] will have a pretty good idea of [the sort of thing] I’d write.  But when the publisher wouldn’t leave me alone, I said, fine, I’ll do it.  So I wrote it; the reader [from the publisher’s office] came [to me] and said, this is the best segment in the whole book, this is really something special, and [he] was enthusiastic and wonder[-struck].  Three weeks later the publisher comes [to me] and says he can’t do it.  He presented the segment to a lawyer, and the lawyer said, no, this is actionable, the national government will sue or some crazy parish priest will come along and sue and he’ll have trials [to deal with] again, right[?]  And I’m supposed to revise it a bit, and I said, I’m not doing any revising; [you] take it as it is or not at all, and then we went our separate ways.  If I’ve written what I’ve been commissioned to write, it really ought to be published.  So I sent it to Die Zeit, in an envelope, and that’s where it was published.

BRIGITTE HOFER: What are the essential points of your critique?  After all, a lot of people haven’t read this article in Die Zeit.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I think it can be summed up in the following couple of propositions: that it would be good if something in this country were radically changed, namely if [there were] some genuine political [changes] and consequently economic [changes], cultural [changes]; that whole lot has been fast asleep for [a while now], namely about eight, nine years…which is quite simply too long.  I think that every five, six years a proper political sea change should take place; the doors, the windows, should be thrown open again; new people should be [shown] in.  They’re all hunkered down [there], and they’re really bringing the lot [of us] ever closer to the abyss I spoke of earlier.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Doesn’t this very situation argue [eloquently] in favor of your critique—the [situation] that an article that attacks Austria so scathingly [has not been] publish[ed] in Austria?

THOMAS BERNHARD: In and of itself it’s more typical than any other example I know of in recent memory.

BRIGITTE HOFFER: [Let’s talk about] Breath just once more.  Just as in the Cause and in the Cellar, in Breath you describe scraps of your childhood and youth; these are meant to illustrate a logical development [leading] to your later existence.  In Breath, [you deal with] the time when you were bedridden in hospital, a period when you were very much on your own, but because of that also discovering in a special way a path to your later existence.

THOMAS BERNHARD: My problem was first of all [the one entailed] by writ[ing] it so soon, then [there was] the question [of] whether I [could] write it, and in the third place whether a person [should] publish something like that, [something] about himself, in such a way.  Then I pretty much stopped asking myself those questions and simply wrote it and published it and stopped thinking altogether about any of those questions.

BRIGITTE HOFFER: It really ended up being very much a concrete book about you, a book that formally speaking diverges somewhat from the others.

THOMAS BERNHARD: In my view it’s not really a literary work at all, because of course it’s not a made-up story; there aren’t even any stylistic issues [to deal with] in it, in my view.  It’s a book that simply emerged from my personality, from my memory, more or less spontaneously.

BRIGITTE HOFER: And [a book] that contains a genuine life-or-death decision on your part to live.  Mightn’t one put it that way?

THOMAS BERNHARD: That’s the logical consequence, why I’m alive today, right?, [it] really explains…explains everything.  Otherwise I obviously wouldn’t still be here.

BRIGITTE HOFER: But it also presents a very critical depiction of, for example, the situation in a hospital, which you at one point call a “death factory.”

THOMAS BERNHARD: I think that everybody who has gone through something similar experiences that, everybody who’s been in that kind of position in that kind of hospital; I mean, that’s going to happen over and over again in every similar case; there’s nothing particularly outrageous about it in and of itself.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Yes, you describe there the difference between the rooms where the patients who were already given up for dead were housed, and the rooms where things were much “friendlier,” as a [certain] chief physician at one point puts it.  [Actually] I don’t think he [uses the word] “friendly,” what does he [actually] say?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, he says “friendly”; he wants to put me into a “friendlier” room because he no longer has any idea of what it is anymore and also no longer has any idea of how to juggle concepts.

BRIGITTE HOFER: So the terrible solitude of these people and the impossibility…

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, these are people who have already been shoved out of the world, [and] in whose company one subsequently just finds oneself.  [People] with little prospect of being shoved back in, right?, because that’s something nobody any longer has any desire whatsoever to see happen.

BRIGITTE HOFER: And there [there’s] also the virtual impossibility of communication between people, even [with] people whom one really loves or to whom one feels closest, hence [with] members of [one’s] own family.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, they’ve already said their goodbyes to you, right?, or you yourself in your own mind have said your goodbyes to them, and so there’s no longer any possibility of understanding whatsoever there, quite apart from the fact that you no longer [find] it physically possible either, right?  But naturally [there’s] probably a residue of willpower that[‘ll] bring you back to life, if you[’ll] only just take it by the hand and rally all your forces.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Your relation to the theater always comes through again, for example in the metaphor of the marionette show, when the people in their hospital beds are attached to the tubes that they take nourishment from with the last of their strength, or during that—as you call it—“perverse display of lubrication” of the last rites.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Well, in order to make these horrible things even slightly bearable I always, starting when I was a child, envisioned this detour through the theatrical, right?  [Envisioned] the horrible reality in the final analysis never as a tragedy, but rather as a comedy.  For me that was the only possibility—and it still is even today.

[1] Editors’ note:  First broadcast on ORF[, the Austrian state broadcasting network,]  on April 12, 1978.

First published in Von einer Katastrophe in die andere, edited by Sepp Dreissinger (Weitra, 1992), pp. 49-62.  The interviewer was Brigitte Hofer.  The printed version was prefaced by this note: “On April 12, 1978 Thomas Bernhard gave a reading at [a meeting of] the Austrian Society for Literature.  Late that morning Bernhard met Hofer for the interview at the Café Bräunerhof.  [Because] it was too loud in the café, the two of them continued the conversation in Ms. Hofer’s car[.  They] first discussed the program [of the meeting], in which a reading from Breath had been announced.  The following is a complete transcript of the recorded [interview]:  

The Bernhard book referred to at the beginning of the interview, The Cheap-Eaters, was published in May of 1980. 

[2] This is obviously an early version of Einfach kompliziert (Simply Complicated), which received its premiere on February 28, 1986, at the Schiller Theater in Berlin.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2014 by Douglas Robertson

Source: Der Wahrheit auf der Spur.  Reden, Leserbriefe, Interviews, Feuilletons.  Herausgegeben von  Wolfram Bayer, Raimund Fellingerund und Martin Huber [Stalking the Truth.  Speeches, Open Letters, Interviews, Newspaper Articles.  Edited by Wolfram Bayer et al.](Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2011). 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Translation of Die Serapionsbrüder by E. T. A. Hoffmann. Part One.

The Serapionian Brethren

Volume I


This book and its present form were occasioned by the publisher’s invitation to the author to gather together all his tales and novellas—hitherto dispersed among numerous newspapers and pocket-books—and present them anew in a single collection on the grounds that they shared a single factual origin in a certain Serapion-Day reunion of a handful of bosom friends thitherto separated by a long stretch of time and united in their liking for his fictions.  The aforementioned form will inevitably recall that of Ludwig Tieck’s Phantasus. –But how drastically the author stands to lose from any comparison of the two works!  Quite apart from the fact that he would hardly dare to dream of juxtaposing that consummate master’s soul-embracing fictions with his own, the dialogues with which the Phantasus is interwoven are composed of incredibly profound and penetrating observations on art and literature; whereas here the convivial conversations that tie the various fictions together are intended to present a candid image of a gathering of kindred spirits sharing with each other the creations of their minds and frankly expressing their opinions of them.  Only the conditions afforded by such a merry, unfettered conversation, a conversation in which one word quite genuinely does lead to another, can serve as the measuring stick here.    Moreover, the membership of my society is signally devoid of those lovely women who in the Phantasus are so expert at setting in motion a kaleidoscopic play of charming colors.  And so the author ardently beseeches the reader of acute sensibility not to entertain that invidious comparison that is so detrimental to him, but rather to accept good-naturedly and without further exactions that which is unexactingly proffered to him in a spirit of good-natured sincerity.

Part One

“Try as hard as one might, there is no denying or dismissing the bitter conviction that what used to be can never return—never.  Vain are all efforts to take a stand against the inexorable force of time, which marches ever-implacably forward, consigning everything in its path to eternal destruction.  Of our past life, now submerged in deepest night, nothing remains behind but its tenebrous afterimages, which wanton within our souls and habitually fleer and gibe at us like ghosts in a nightmare.  And yet—fools that we are!—we continue to harbor the delusion that someday we shall discover these phantoms that have become part and parcel of our mind—of our very ego—in the external world, flourishing with all the imperishable freshness of youth.  Lost for ever to us are such figures as the mistress whose heart we unconscionably forsake, the friend with whom we are senselessly compelled to sever all ties—figures who when we see them next after an absence of perhaps years or even decades will no longer be what they once were, and who in their turn will of course be disappointed to find us equally changed!”

Thus spoke Lothar as he vehemently leapt from his chair, strode directly to the very threshold of the fireplace, crossed his arms over his chest, and gazed with a gloomy mien into the merrily crackling flames.

“My dear friend Lothar,” Theodor now began, “my dear friend Lothar, you must at least concede that you are a living case in counterproof of your own postulate—for it has been a full twelve years since I last saw you, and you retain every painful degree of your dozen-year-old bent for recklessly succumbing to the sulks on the most trivial pretexts.  It is true—and all the rest of us, Ottmar, Cyprian, and I, feel this every bit as keenly as you do--that this our first gathering after a long separation has so far not proved nearly as gratifying as we may have flattered ourselves that it would be.  Blame it on me for having run the length and breadth of each and every one of this town’s endless number of streets tracking you down, for having refused to stop running until I had committed each and every one of you to appearing here at my fireside this evening.  Perhaps it would have been wiser of me to let fortune determine the circumstances of our reunion, but in my worst imaginings I would never have dreamt that we who for so many years had lived united to one another by heartfelt affection, by a single noble passion for achievement in the arts and sciences, we whom only the savage hurricane of political strife that rages relentlessly through these disaster-ridden times of ours could ever have flung asunder; I would never have dreamt, I say, that we would have been capable of spending even a single day anchored in the same port without once regarding one another in the flesh as sympathetically as we always had done in spirit.  And yet in the mere handful of hours we have been sitting here together we have been tormenting each other with all the murderous enthusiasm of our friendship’s salad days.  And up to this point not one of us has brought up anything remotely intelligent for discussion; rather, all the while we have all been retailing nothing but the most astonishing quantities of tiresome, tedious bilge.  And what else may we conclude from all this, but that we are all children in the very truest and worst sense, that we really are so credulous as to believe that we can simply take up the melody where we left off singing it twelve years ago?  Perhaps we really are now expecting Lothar again to read us Tieck’s ‘Zerbino’ for the first time, and rack our frames with paroxysms of jubilantly exuberant merriment.  Or perhaps we assume that Cyrprian has brought along with him some manner of fantastic poem, or even the complete draft of some over-the-top opera libretto, which you will oblige me to set to music on the spot, and then I shall have to pound out the entire newly composed opus on the same knackered old piano I made use of twelve years ago, and thereby goad the poor, world-weary instrument into producing precisely the same sequence of cacophonous pings and dings I elicited from it then.  Or we are hoping that Ottmar will tell us of some rarity of a fine wine, of an eldritch hare’s foot, and set us all aflame and ablaze with eagerness to strike all manner of outrageous bets to partake of the wine and the hare’s foot at one go.  And because none of this has happened, we have all been stealing scowls at one another, and thinking of each of the others in turn, ‘Hey, why is the old fellow so different from heart to skin?  I never would have thought that he of all people could change so much!’  And to be sure, none of us is the same as he used to be!  That we have aged twelve years, that each of these years has deposited on us yet another layer of the earth that is weighing us ever farther downward of the ethereal region and ever closer to our final resting place inside the earth—neither of these will I deny.  But who among us has meanwhile avoided being swept into the savage whirlwind of our age, which hurries us along willy-nilly from one event—nay one crime—to the next?  Could all the horrors, the terrors, the atrocities of our time conceivably pass over us without forcibly taking hold of us and leaving their bloody traces deeply engraved in our innermost selves?  It is these horrors that have deprived our earlier memories of their original brilliance of color, and in vain will we ever strive to restore that brilliance to them!   Even so, it is still quite possible that though the corruption of our eyesight by stronger light has appreciably dimmed the dazzling luster of many of the things in the world and indeed in ourselves that we found so noble and majestic back then, the original, basic cast of thought that begot our mutual love has survived all these changes unaltered and undiminished.  What I am trying to say is that each of us still truly believes that each of the others is a person of considerable merit, and a person worthy of genuine, intimate friendship.  Therefore, let us forget about the old days and their expectations of us and, using the aforementioned cast of mind as our starting point, make a sincere attempt at renewing the charter of our friendship as if drawing it up afresh.”

“Thank heaven,” said Ottmar, interrupting his friend, “thank heaven that Lothar got fed up with our silly and muddle-headed arguing, and that you, Theodor, have nabbed the spiteful little devil who has been pestering and torturing us all this time.  I was on the point of suffocating from all that tiresome compulsive merrymaking, and beginning to grow fearfully cross even with myself, when Lothar flew off the handle.  But now that Theodor has bluntly indicated the cause of this outburst, I feel that I have been drawn even closer to all of you, and as if the old chumminess of our former reunions were banishing all fruitless doubts and striving to regain the upper hand.  Theodor is right: although time may well have wrought many transformations, at bottom our belief in one another has stood firm.   And I hereby declare the preliminaries of our new charter most solemnly concluded, and peremptorily decree that from now on, on a given day of each week we shall attempt to reconvene, for otherwise we shall disperse hither and thither into various precincts of this great city, and in our centrifugally increasing isolation from one another be more miserable than ever before."

“A splendid idea!” cried Lothar, “but dear Ottmar, you really must immediately add to the charter certain statutes that we shall be required to conform to at our weekly-scheduled gatherings--for example, a statute allowing or forbidding us to talk about such and such a thing, or compelling us to say three witty things apiece, or enjoining us to do our absolute level best to eat anchovy salad every time.  By this means we shall succumb in one fell swoop to that philistinism that sprouts and blooms only over the course of years in your common garden-variety club.   Can you really not see, Ottmar, that every fixed stipulation regarding our meetings will immediately impart to them an onerous spirit of compulsoriness, which will certainly spoil my fun if nobody else’s?  I beg you only to recall the deep antipathy we used to harbor against every entity with even the faintest aspirations to styling itself a club, a fraternal organization, or any other name befitting one of those preposterous exercises in systematically administered tedium and superfluity; and now you yourself are attempting to confine within the narrow bounds of that maleficent genre the wondrous four-leaf clover that can germinate only naturally, absent the gardener’s constrictive attentions!"

“Our friend Lothar,” began Theodor, “can be rather slow to shake himself free of a bad mood; indeed, we all know well enough that he sees ill humors as dreadful phantoms with which he is locked in a valiant and tumultuous struggle to the death…of his patience, after which even he is obliged to acknowledge that they were after only phantoms conjured up by his own beloved ego.  Nothing but this quirk of yours, Lothar, can account for the fact that Ottmar’s harmless and even eminently reasonable proposal has immediately caused you to think of clubs and fraternal organizations, and to regard everything necessarily connected to it as a species of philistinism.  But talking of this has suddenly put me in mind of a scene from our earlier life together.  Do you not recall the first time we first left the capital and moved to the tiny burglet of P***?  Decorum and propriety required that we should allow ourselves to be admitted to the club comprised by the so-called notables of the town.  Via a scroll solemnly filled with the most punctiliously composed commercialese, we received the news that we had been accepted as members of the club by an overwhelming preponderance of voices; and beside this scroll lay a neatly bound and fifteen-to-twenty bow-festooned book containing the club’s statutes.  These statutes had been drawn up by an old town councilor quite in the manner of the Prussian law code, with divisions into titles and paragraphs.   They were the most hilarious things ever put in writing.   One title bore the superscription 'Of Women and Children, and the Powers and Privileges Thereof,' under which nothing less trivial was sanctioned than the members’ wives’ right to drink tea every Thursday and Sunday in the dining room of the club’s host tavern, and even to hold some four or six dances there every winter.  On the subject of children the regulations were more complicated and more critical; here the jurist handled his material with uncommon sagacity and had meticulously discriminated among persons in their minority, persons in their majority, and persons in patria potestate.  The minors were very prettily subdivided according to their moral constitutions into well-bred and ill-bred children, and those in the second category were categorically forbidden admittance to the club for being anathemic to its fundamental principle: first and foremost the club was to be an association exclusively composed of well-bred persons.   This section was immediately followed by the remarkable title on dogs, cats, and other creatures lacking the faculty of reason.  Nobody, it proclaimed, should bring any manner of deleterious wild animal into the club.  Accordingly if a club-member had perchance acquired a lion, tiger, or leopard in lieu of a pet dog, any effort on his part to introduce the beast into the club would come to naught: the board of governors were categorically prohibited from granting admittance even to the most scrupulously barbered and manicured bestial schismatic.  Even docile poodles and well-trained pug-dogs were declared unclubworthy, and permitted to be present only in the exceptional and exclusively estival setting of a club picnic, and then only upon presentation of a special admission pass to be awarded only after careful deliberation by the admissions committee.  We—Lothar and I—discovered in this ponderously ruminative code of laws some truly majestic appendices and declarations, which at the next meeting of the club we expounded with the most earnest solemnity, and in so doing caused all manner of ridiculous rubbish to be debated with uncommon gravity, to our immeasurable delight.  At length, one member after another grew wise to our wicked sport, and we were no longer trusted; but this evaporation of confidence did not have the result that we desired and expected—namely, our formal expulsion from the club.

"I remember those merry days very well,” said Lothar, “and notice to my far from negligible chagrin that I no longer find those sorts of mystifications amusing.  In my middle age I have become much too stodgy, and quite prone to losing my temper at many of the things that used to put me stitches."

“I believe as much as that and no more,” chimed in Ottmar: “ and I am much more strongly convinced, Lothar, that the mere echo of any kind of inimical experience is bound to reverberate in your soul more forefuly now than at any earlier time.  But a new life will soon blow like a gentle springtime breeze through your soul, whose discords will then swiftly die away, and you will once again be the good-natured Lothar of twelve years ago!  Your club in P*** has reminded me of yet another one, whose founder must have been inspired by an absolutely first-rate sense of humor; a club whose ceremonials were actually not unreminiscent of those of the celebrated Fraternal Order of Fools.  Picture to yourself an association that is organized from top to bottom like the government of a country—with a king, a prime minister, privy councilors, etc.  The sole purpose, the very raison d’être, of this association was the indulgence of good eating and even better drinking.  For this reason, its meetings were held in its town of residence’s only hotel, where the best kitchen and best cellar in the area were to be found.   At these sessions were held the most solemn and serious negotiations on the weal and woe of the State, which consisted in nothing more or other than exquisite dinner-courses and first-rate wines."  The minister for foreign affairs would report that an excellent Rhenish wine had reached a shop in a remote quarter of the city. Immediately whereupon it would be resolved to send a diplomatic mission thither!   Men of peerless talent, i.e. first-rate wine-tasting tongues, were chosen for this embassy; they received a detailed commission, and the minster of finance appropriated moneys from a special fund to defray the expenses of the legation and of the purchase of the newly discovered merchandise.   Thus there was general turmoil because a ragout had turned out badly—memoranda were exchanged—stern speeches about the gathering storm that loured over the State were delivered.  Thus the privy council convened in order to determine whether a cold punch should be mixed that day, and if so, from which wines.  In an attitude of deep contemplation the king heard out his out ministers’ proposals in the cabinet chamber; he nodded: the decree on cold punch was drawn up, and its execution was entrusted to the minister of the interior.  But the minister of the interior on account of his weak stomach cannot stand [the slightest amount of] citric acid; therefore, he uses peeled oranges in the mix and by means of a new decree manages to get [the cold punch] declared a cardinal.  Thus were the arts and sciences patronized, while the poet, who had just written a new drinking song, as well as the singer, who had set it to music and sung it, received from the king the medal of the red cock’s feather, and the two of them were granted permission to drink one more bottle of wine than usual—i.e., at their own cost!  To top it all off the king to signify his exalted rank wore an enormous crown cut out of gold pasteboard and carried a scepter and an orb; the grandees of the kingdom for their part decked themselves out in caps of the most outlandish shapes.  The society’s symbol was a silver box into which a stately crowing cock with outspread wings squeezed out an egg.   If you take me at my word when I assure you that at least during the period when chance introduced me into this sublimely splendid society, the discourse of its intelligent and imposing membership was absolutely first-rate, and that these gentlemen fully grasped the profoundly ironic character of the whole thing and played their roles to the hilt, you will believe me when I say that I have never been so delighted, nay, enraptured by a joke as by this one.”

“I approve of the thing unreservedly,” said Lothar, “but I just don’t see how it could ever be sustained over the long term.  The best joke grows stale, and it will actually rot if it is as frequently repeated and—even worse—as systematically realized as that egg-laying Masonic cock of yours was.  Both of you, Theodor and Ottmar, have so far reported only on big, strapping clubs with formal statutes and endlessly proliferating mystifications; allow me to draw your attention to what may well be the simplest club that has yet existed in the whole wide world.   In a tiny Polish border town that had long since been occupied by the Prussians, there were only two minor German officials—an old disabled captain, who had been put in charge of the posting-house, and the excise collector.  Every evening at five o’clock sharp the two of them would meet in this backwater burglet’s only tavern, and more specifically in a little private room that nobody else was allowed to enter.   Ordinarily the excise collector would already be sitting with his mug of beer and puffing on his pipe when the captian arrived.  The latter would take his seat while addressing the words ‘How’s it going, partner?’ to the tax-man on the other side of the table, light his already-filled pipe, produce from his pocket the day’s newspapers, and set about diligently reading; sliding each page as he finished it across to the tax-man, who would read it equally diligently in his turn..  In profound silence they would both sit there blowing their thick tobacco smoke into each others’ faces, until at the stroke of eight the tax-man rose, emptied his pipe and, after addressing the words ‘Well, so it goes, partner’ to the captain, left the tavern.   And the two of them in all seriousness termed this routine ‘Our Fraternal Organization.’

“Most amusing!” cried Theodor, “And if there is a person alive who would have admirably acquitted himself as a member of that organization, that person is our very own Cyprian, who certainly never would have broken its solemn silence with any unseasonable chatter.  He would appear to have lately taken the Camaldolese monks’ vow of pepertual silence, for a single syllable has yet to escape his lips this evening.”

Cyprian, who had indeed been silent until this point, breathed a deep sigh, as if awaking from a dream, cast his eyes up at the ceiling, and said with a gentle smile, “I freely confess to you all that ever since I arrived here tonight, I have been unable to expel from my mind the memory of a curious adventure that befell me several years ago, and it often happens that when one’s head is full of voices ebulliently declaiming at full volume, one’s mouth is disinclined to afford an outlet to speech.  But nothing that has been mentioned so far has escaped my notice, and I believe I can give a pretty good account of it.  In the first place, Theodor was quite right when he said that we all were childish enough to think we could pick up exactly where we had left off twelve years ago, and that it was because this wasn’t happening and never could happen that we were being so pettish towards each other.   I maintain, however, that nothing in the world would have more conspicuously shown us up as a pack of dyed-in-the-wool philistines, than our sallying forth along the same rutted path we had carved out back then.  And this puts me in mind of those philosophers—but I really must put this into the form of a proper tale!—Just picture to yourself two people—let’s call them Sebastian and Ptolomeus--- and picture them zealously devoting themselves to the study of Kantian philosophy at the University of K---, and engaging in heated disputes over this philosophy, keeping its flame alive, practically every day.   Right in the middle of one of these philosophical quarrels, at the very moment when Sebastian has dealt a powerful and decisive blow and Ptolomeus is valiantly rallying towards a reply, they are interrupted; and as chance would and indeed does have it, they never run into each other again in K----------. The one moves away to one town, the other to another.  Nearly twenty years later, on a street in B-----, Ptolomeus sees ambling ahead of him a figure whom he instantly recognizes as his friend Sebastian.  He bounds up to him, claps him on the shoulder, and before Sebastian has finished turning around to see who is there, Ptolomeus is already at work: you know very well what I mean—namely, that he immediately delivers the rejoining blow that he started to aim twenty years earlier.  Sebastian for his part sets off all the mines he laid in K---------.  The two of them dispute for two, three hours straight while ambling up and down the street.  Each of them in the ardor of his opinion appeals to the professor himself as arbitrator—this in utter heedlessness of the fact that they are in B-----, and that old Immanuel has been sleeping in his grave for a great many years now; they part company and never see each other again.  This story, which has the singular merit of being true, has always struck me at least as having something almost gruesome about it.  I cannot contemplate this profound spectral philistinism without a certain amount of horror.  I was more amused by our old commercial councilor, whom I visited on my way here.  He welcomed me with wide open arms, but his behavior had about it a whiff of anxiety and low spirits that I could not rightly account for; until one fine day when the two of us were out walking, he begged me for heaven’s sake to resume powdering my hair and wearing a gray hat, for otherwise he would never believe that I was the same good old Cyprian he had formerly known.  And with these words, he wiped away the fear-induced sweat from his brow and implored me whatever I did not to take his frankness amiss—So!—we wish not to be philistines; we insist on not taking up anew the the thread we were spinning twelve years ago; we wish not to make a challengeable offense of the fact that we are wearing different coats and hats than we wore then; we wish to be different than we were back then and yet to retain our identities: on all this we can agree.  What Lothar has without any real justification said regarding the perniciousness of clubs and fraternal organizations may very well be true, and it may go to show how deeply prone wretched man is to renounce the last paltry vestiges of his freedom and erect an artificial roof over his head even when the sky above him is cheerfully cloudless.  But what is that to us?  I second Ottmar’s proposal that we should try to meet exactly once a week, on the same day each week.  I am pretty certain that even if—as I am reluctant to believe or concede—the seeds of philistinism really did ever lie dormant within us, time and the marvelous events attending its passage have seen to it that come what may we shall never blossom into full-blown philistines.  Is it really possible that the tone of our gatherings could ever degenerate into the rank philistinism of a club?  And so we might as well give Ottmar’s proposed scheme a try.” 
“I’m obdurate,” cried Lothar: “obdurate in my opposition to this scheme, and for the sake of rescuing us straight-away from all this to-and-fro polemicizing, Cyprian must tell us of the curious adventure that has so captivated him in body and mind today.”  “I am of the opinion,” said Cyprian, “that our mood will ride a crest of ever-rising gaiety and fellow-feeling if only it should please Theodor to open that mysterious vase that propagates the finest aromatic fragrances and that would appear to hail from the celebrated society of the egg-laying cock.”  On the other hand, nothing would more efficiently impede the regermination of old merriment in this familiar company than my adventure, which you are collectively bound to find outlandish and uninteresting—nay, downright silly and outré.  What’s more, in tone it’s downright gloomy, and I play a pretty sorry role in it—reason enough for my keeping the whole thing to myself.”  Observe, gentlemen,” cried Theodor, “how our Cyprian, our darling Sabbath child, has once again seen an assortment of questionable spirits that he does not trust to show themselves to our thoroughly terrestrial eyes according to his exacting specifications.  Just go ahead and tell us of your adventure, Cyprian, and no matter how sorry a role you play in it, I promise immediately after you’re finished  to serve up to you from the annals of my memory some adventure in which I cut a much sillier figure than you.  I won’t take no for an answer.” 

“Very well, then,” said Cyprian, and after gazing reflectively into empty space for a few seconds, he commenced his tale thus:

You all know that several years ago for a very short time I lived in B***, in a town famously situated in one of the most charming parts of southern Germany.  It was my reckless wont and pleasure then to go on long, wide-ranging walks without taking along that indispensable accessory known as a guidebook; and so it happened that one fine day I wandered into a densely wooded forest, and the longer and more assiduously I searched for the merest hint of a trail or path, the more assuredly the faintest scent of a human footprint eluded me.  Finally the forest started thinning out, and I noticed not far off a man in a brown hermit’s cowl crowned with a broad straw hat; he had a long, unkempt black beard and was sitting with clasped hands on a small boulder on the very edge of a ravine and gazing pensively into the distance.  The whole scene had something queer and outlandish about it; I felt faint shivers coursing through my body.  One can scarcely avoid feeling such sensations when a figure whom one has seen only in paintings or met only in books suddenly steps into one’s perfectly ordinary life.  With my own eyes I now beheld in the flesh an anchorite of primitive Christian times seated amid the rugged mountains of a Salvator Rosa landscape.I soon recollected that a peripatetic monk was after all nothing particularly unusual in these parts, and I boldly stepped up to the man and asked him how I might most easily find my way out of the forest and to the road leading back to B***.  He looked me up and down with a sullenly scornful eye, then said in a hollow voice: “It is most rash and thoughtless of you to interrupt with a mere question the conversation that I am engaged in with the estimable persons gathered round me.  I know full well that you have been driven by sheer curiosity to see me and hear me speak in this wilderness, but as you can see, at present I have no time to speak with you.  My friend Ambrosius of Camaldoli is returning to Alexandria; tag along with him.”  With these words, the man stood up and climbed down into the ravine.  I felt as though I were dreaming.  Then I suddenly heard coming from very close by the familiar racket of a passing vehicle; I groped my way through the undergrowth towards the sound, and very quickly found myself standing on a woodcutter’s trail and staring directly at the back and shoulders of a male peasant in the driver’s seat of a two-wheeled cart that I lost no time in catching up with.  The man conveyed me quite expeditiously to the main road to B***.  On the way I recounted my adventure to him and asked him who the strange man in the forest was.  “Ah, my dear sir,” replied the peasant, “he is the worthy man who calls himself Serapion the Priest and who has lived in the forest for many years now, in a tiny hut that he built with his own hands.  People say he’s not quite right in the head, but he is a sweet and pious gentleman who never harms a soul, and he edifies us villagers with many a devout sermon and gives us counsel that’s second to none in wisdom.  As I had happened upon my anchorite scarcely two hours from B***, I concluded that somebody in the town must know further particulars about him, and this did indeed turn out to be the case.  Doctor S** explained everything to me.   This hermit had formerly been one of the most intelligent and liberally educated minds in M*****What was more, he hailed from a highly distinguished family, so that upon completing his studies he could scarcely avoid being assigned to an important diplomatic position, whose duties he discharged with exemplary zeal and trustworthiness.  His erudition was conjoined with a first-rate gift for poetry; everything he wrote was animated by an incendiary imagination, by a singular intelligence that peered into the deepest depths.  His unsurpassable sense of humor and good nature made him respectively the most agreeable and the most lovable companion imaginable.  He rapidly rose through the ranks of the foreign service, and he had just been appointed to a very important ambassadorship when he suddenly and inexplicably vanished from M*****.  All inquiries into his whereabouts proved fruitless, and every conjecture about them fell stillborn from the lips of the conjecturer.  Not long afterwards a man swathed in a brown cowl turned up in the Tyrolean mountains; he would preach in the villages for a while and then withdraw deep into the unpeopled woods, where he lived like a hermit.  Happenstance so willed it that Count P** caught a glimpse of this person, who had begun styling himself Serapion the Priest.  The count instantly recognized him as his unfortunate nephew, the man who had disappeared from M*****.  The count’s men seized him and took him back to M*****; he was stark raving mad, and the combined skill of the town’s most illustrious physicians produced not the slightest change in the unfortunate man’s condition.  He was committed to the insane asylum at B***, and the regular, psychiatrically informed course of treatment administered by the doctor who presided over this institution did at least succeed in pulling him out of the suicidally depressed state into which he had fallen by the time of his admission.  Whether the doctor out of fidelity to his own theory afforded the patient an opportunity to slip away or the madman found the means of doing so on his own, suffice it to say, he escaped and remained completely out of sight for some time.  Eventually Serapion resurfaced in the woods some two hours from B***, and the doctor from the asylum argued to the unfortunate man’s relations and all other concerned parties that as they truly felt compassion for him and obviously did not wish to plunge him back into his old fits of raging and raving, and obviously did wish for him to be calm and happy in his own way, they really had no choice but to let him continue living in the woods as his own master and in accordance with his own whims.  The doctor gave them a full catalogue of all the bad things that were bound to happen if they did otherwiseIn the end his arguments, bolstered by his reputation, won everybody over; the police department contented itself with putting the unfortunate man under remote and discreet surveillance by the nearest village court, and everything turned out just as the doctor had predicted it wouldSerapion built himself a nice--nay, in the circumstances a downright luxurious—little hut; he wove himself some bedmats out of bulrushes; he laid out a little garden in which he grew flowers and vegetables. Apart from the belief that he was the hermit Serapion who during the reign of the emperor Decius had fled into the Theban desert and suffered martyrdom, and certain logical corollaries of this main belief, his mind seemed not in the least bit disordered.  He was more than capable of engaging in intelligent conversation; indeed, not infrequently there were flashes of the keen sense of humor and even of the good-naturedness that had formerly been the mainstay of his talk.  And yet the doctor declared him completely incurable and strongly discouraged any attempt to get him to resume his old position in society.  You may well and rightly imagine that by this point I was scarcely able to stop thinking about my anchorite, that I was smitten by an irresistible desire to see him again.  But you cannot as yet imagine the fatuity of the motives that gave impetus to my desire!  I had in view no less ambitious a project than that of attacking Serapion’s idée fixe at the root!  I read Pinel, Reil, every conceivable book on psychology I could get my hands on; I thought that perhaps it was some medical layman such as myself or one of the foreign psychologists who was destined to cast the first ray of light into Serapion’s benighted mind.  In addition to my study of madness I did not neglect to acquaint myself with the complete canon of narratives centering on Serapion, of which there were no fewer than eight in the History of the Saints and Martyrs; and armed with all this knowledge, I sallied forth to call on my anchorite one fine, cloudless morning.  I found him working in his little garden with pickaxe and spades and singing a song of devotion.  Wild doves cooed and fluttered about him as he liberally strewed the ground with birdseed for them, and a young deer inquisitively poked its nose through the leaves of the espalier.  So he seemed to be living in perfect harmony with the animals of the forest.Not a trace of madness was discernible in his face, whose mild features bespoke a peculiar combination of placidity and good cheer.  And on the evidence of this facial expression I concluded that Doctor S** in B*** had been right.  You see, upon learning of my determination to visit the anchorite, the doctor had advised me to choose a bright and sunny morning for my visit, because it was on such mornings that Serapion was most mentally relaxed and in the mood for conversation with strangers, whereas in the evening he tended to avoid all human company.   As soon as Serapion noticed me he dropped his spades and approached me in a friendly attitude.  I said that I was much fatigued by a long journey, and that I desired nothing but to share a few minutes of rest with him.  “I bid you a hearty welcome,” he said; “the little that I have that may refresh you is at your service.”Whereupon he led me to a mossy seat in front of his hut, brought out a small table, set upon it bread, exquisite clusters of grapes, and a jug of wine, and convivially invited me to eat and drink while he sat opposite me on a footstool and with a hearty appetite partook of bread and drank a large jug of wine to its dregs.  In point of fact I had absolutely no idea how I was to get a conversation started, how I was supposed to go about trying out my psychological book-learning on this exuberantly equanimous gentleman.Finally I pulled myself together and began thus: “Do you call yourself Serapion, reverend sir?” “Indeed I do,” he replied: “the Church gave me that name.“Early ecclesiastical historiography,” I continued, “mentions several famous holy men of that name—an abbot named Serapion, who was distinguished for his charitable acts, and the learned Bishop Serapion, who is commemorated by Hieronymus in his book De viris illustribus.  There was also a monk named Serapion.”Heraclides in his Paradise relates that upon his arrival in Rome from the Theban wastes, this monk made a singular suggestion to a certain virgin with whom he was consorting and who had renounced the world and its pleasures, namely that she should give proof of her asceticism by parading half-naked through the streets of Rome with him, and when she refused, he spurned her, saying  ‘Thou has proved that thou livest according to pagan nature’s dictates and cravest the approval of man; believe not in thine own greatness, boast not that thou hast transcended the world!“ Now if I am not mistaken, reverend sir, this filthy monk (as he was dubbed by Heraclides himself) was the very same Serapion who suffered such an exceedingly horrible martyrdom during the reign of the emperor Decius.As is well known, he was thrown off a high cliff after having all his limbs dislocated.”  “So he was,” said Serapion, his face turning pale and his eyes flaring up into a gloomy incandescence: “so he was, but this martyr has nothing in common with that monk who waged war against Mother Nature herself with such ascetic fury.” “The martyr Serapion of whom you speak is none other than myself.”“What?” I cried in genuine astonishment: “Do you really believe yourself to be that Serapion, the one who perished in the most pitiable manner many hundreds of years ago?”“You may,” continued Serapion very calmly, “find it impossible to believe that, and I admit that it is bound to sound strange to many a person who is unable to see past the tip of his own nose, but it really is the truth.”God in his omnipotence providentially allowed me to survive my martyrdom because it was his eternal will that I should live a short time longer in a manner pleasing to him, here in these Theban wastes.Only occasionally does a sharp twinge in my head or an equally sharp cramping of my limbs remind me of the torments I lived through.”Now was the time, I thought, for me to begin effecting my cure.I spoke at great length and very learnedly about the human animal’s occasional susceptibility to pathological idées fixes, and about how a single false note could throw even the most perfectly pitched organism out of tune.I mentioned the scholar who could not be budged from his front room because he feared that the instant he stepped outside his nose would collide with and shatter the windows of the house across the street; I spoke of the Abbot Molanus who could hold forth rationally on any subject and who refused to leave his front room simply because he thought he was a grain of barley and worried that he would be devoured straightaway by some chickens. From relating these cases I found it an easy transition to explaining that it was by no means uncommon for a person to develop the delusional idée fixe that his own self was identical to that of some historical personage.Nothing could be more insane, more illogical, I continued, than to believe this cosy little forest two hours from B***--a forest tramped through each and every day by peasants, hunters, travelers, and strollers –to be the Theban wastes, and to believe oneself to be a certain holy visionary who perished as a martyr hundreds and hundreds of years ago.Serapion heard me out in silence; my words seemed to be making a strong impression on him, and he seemed to be deeply immersed in a violent mental struggle.Now, I thought, was the time to deliver the coup de grace; I leapt to my feet, grabbed both of Serapion’s hands, and exclaimed loudly and assuredly: “Count P**, awaken at once from this pernicious dream that holds you in its spell, cast off these loathsome garments, return to your family, who mourn your absence, return to the human community that quite justly resents your neglect of your duties to it!” Serapion looked me over with dourly penetrating scrutiny; then a sarcastic smile played about his lips and cheeks, as he very slowly and calmly said the following: “You have, my dear sir, spoken at great length and have even stated your opinion with great eloquence and sagacity; you will therefore, I trust, allow me to say a few words of my own in reply.”St. Antony, indeed, all men of the Church who withdrew into solitude, were often plagued by naysayers, who out of envy of their divine contentment would pester them with merciless insistence, relenting only when their poor victims lay ignominiously stretched out on the ground.  I have had no better luck than my predecessors.Every now and then certain people whom the Devil has taken into his service try to persuade me that I am Count P** from M— in the hope of making me succumb to pride and a thousand other sinful passions. As prayer is no use against them, I simply take them by the shoulders, throw them out, and lock my little garden up as snugly as I can manage. I am very nearly of a mind to deal with you in the same way.  But there won’t be any need of that.  You are obviously the most impotent of all the antagonists that have appeared before me here, and I shall beat you with your own weapons—namely, the weapons of ratiocination.We have been talking about madness: if either of us is suffering from this villainous malady, you are obviously afflicted with a much more serious case of it than I am.  You maintain that my conviction that I am Serapion the martyr is an idée fixe, and I am well aware that many other people believe the same thing or perhaps merely act as if they believe it.  If I am now genuinely insane, then only a madman may be so presumptuous as to suppose that he is capable of persuading me of the falsity of the idée fixe that my insanity has engendered.If that were possible, there would soon be not a single insane person left on the entire earth, for then man could reign as undisputed sovereign of an intellectual faculty that does not in fact belong to him, and has merely been lent to him on trust by the higher power that is its rightful ruler.But as I am not insane and actually am Serapion the martyr, it is in fact a most foolhardy undertaking to try to talk me out of believing this and into embracing the idée fixe that I am Count P** from M—and am required to fill some position of eminence there.  You say that Serapion the martyr lived four hundred years ago and that consequently I cannot be that Serapion, probably on the grounds that human beings are incapable of roaming the earth for so long.But as in the first place time is as relative a concept as number, I could say to you that I carry the concept of time within me, and that scarcely three hours—or whatever other stretch of time you care to name—have passed since the emperor Decius ordered me to be executed.But even if we take your notion of time as a given, you have nothing to pit against me but your puny suspicion that a life as long as the one I claim to have led is unprecedented and contravenes natural law.  Is your knowledge of every single human being who has ever existed in the whole wide world so intimate and extensive that you can utter the word “unprecedented” without blushing?  Do you put the power of almighty God on the same level as the feeble craftsmanship of some tenth-rate watchmaker who is incapable of forestalling the breakdown of a lifeless timepiece?  You say that the place in which the two of us are standing is not the Theban wastes, but a cosy little forest just two hours from B***, a forest that is tramped through each and every day by peasants, hunters, and other sorts of people.  Prove it to me!At this point I was sure I would be able to nab my man.  “Get up!” I cried: “you’re coming with me.  In two hours we’ll be in B***, and everything I have asserted will be proved.”
“Poor deluded fool,” said Serapion: “what a vast distance stands between us and B***!”But suppose I were actually to follow you to a city that you call B***, would you be able to convince me that we had really walked for only two hours, that the town we had reached was actually B***?If I subsequently maintained that some horrible case of madness was causing you to mistake the Theban wastes for a small forest and the ever-so-faraway city of Alexandria for the southern German city of B***, what would you be able to say in return?Our original quarrel would just keep going and going and would eventually be the death of both of us. And why don’t you just give some serious thought to what you are trying to do?You must consider very carefully the fact that the man with whom you are speaking leads a happy, peaceful life in perfect harmony with his Creator.  This man was allowed to begin enjoying such a spiritually rich life only after surviving a hideous martyrdom.  Has it not pleased the eternal Almighty to cast a veil over the events that preceded that martyrdom, and is it not a horrible, godless piece of devilry to try to pull that veil off?”For all my book-learning, in the presence of this madman I was bewildered—nay, abashed!With his logically impeccable foolishness he had driven me completely from the field, and I now grasped the full extent of the silliness of my undertaking.  Moreover, I was as profoundly shaken by the reproach contained in his last words as I was astonished by my dim consciousness of his early life, which now suddenly shimmered before my eyes like an invulnerable spirit hailing from a higher realm.  Serapion seemed to understand exactly how I was feeling at that moment; he met my gaze with one of his own that was full of the purest, most unaffected good nature, and said, “I had a hunch that you were not just another one of those awful pesterers, and my hunch has been proved right.”  Some Tom, Dick, or Harry—or, who knows?, perhaps even the Devil himself—may well have incited you to test me; it certainly was not something you would have decided to do on your own, and perhaps it was only because I turned out to be so different from the anchorite Serapion you were expecting that those doubts you flung at me carried any weight at all with you. Though no one may accuse me of deviating so much as an inch from the rigorous piety exacted of a dedicated servant of God and the Church, nothing is more alien to me than that ascetic variety of cynicism into which so many of brethren have fallen, cynicism that testifies not to their inner strength and discipline, but rather and to the contrary to the feebleness and indeed the total disorganization of their spiritual faculties. You could have legitimately taxed me with madness if you had discovered me living in the sort of deplorably squalid conditions that those deranged fanatics so often affect. You expected to find here that cynical monk Serapion—pale, emaciated, disfigured by sleeplessness and hunger; his turbid gaze bespeaking nothing but worry and terror brought on by appalling nightmares of the kind that drove blessed St. Anthony to utter despair; his knees shaking so violently that he can hardly stand upright; his raiment nothing but a filthy, blood-spattered cowl—and you instead encountered a man flush with placidity and good cheer.I too endured these infernal torments to the point of feeling my very heart catch fire, but as I was awakening [from them] to find my limbs dislocated and my head smashed in, the spirit of my inner self burst into light and restored me body and soul.  O my brother, may Heaven grant that before you leave this earth you come to enjoy the placidity and good cheer that enlivens and strengthens me!  Do not be afraid of the terrors of profound solitude, for only in such solitude can a pious heart come to enjoy a life like mine!"

Having uttered these last words in a tone of sacerdotal solemnity, Serapion now fell silent and directed his transfigured gaze heavenward.Could my state of mind have been in any way different?  Could any of this have failed to strike me as exquisitely uncanny?  I was now in the presence of a madman who lauded his condition as an inestimable gift from Heaven, who had discovered in this condition his only source of contentment and good cheer, and who wished the same fate on me from the bottom of his heart!  I thought that I should probably leave, but at the very instant I was about to set off, Serapion began speaking again, but in a very different tone: “You will probably find it hard to believe that this raw, inhospitable desert often gets almost too lively to allow me to meditate in peace.  Each and every day I am visited by the most remarkable and varied sorts of men. Yesterday Ariosto was with me, and he was soon followed by Dante and Petrarch; this evening I am expecting the worthy ecclesiastical scholar Evagrius, and just as yesterday I discussed poetry, today I intend discuss the latest developments in the Church.” Sometimes I climb up to the top of that mountain, from which on a clear day you can distinctly see the spires of Alexandria; and before my very eyes the most marvelous acts and events take place. Many people besides you have had trouble believing in the actuality of all this and maintained that these things that I take to be real are merely the progeny of my mind, of my imagination. I regard this as one of the most sophistical of all possible absurdities. Is it not the mind alone that is capable of comprehending the things that happen all around us in space and time?  Indeed, what is it within us that hears, sees, feels?—perhaps the lifeless machines that we call eyes, ears, hands, etc.  Does the mind perchance shape its own separate spatially and temporally contingent world within and cede the function of apprehending the outside world to some other principle residing within us? The very idea is nonsensical! And so it must be the mind alone that comprehends the events that take place in our presence, and hence the events that it supposes to have been real must have actually taken place. Just yesterday Ariosto was talking about the creations of his fancy, and he maintained that in his mind he had called into being figures and events that had never existed in space and time. I denied that this was possible, and said that he would have to admit that nothing but a lack of higher knowledge could ever persuade a poet to attempt to confine within the cramped precincts of his own brain the multitude of actual people and objects that his prophetic vision enabled him to see, hear, and touch.    But right after one’s martyrdom comes that higher knowledge that living in profound solitude brings ever nearer. You seem not to be of one mind with me; perhaps you do not comprehend me at all? And yet how, after all, is one to expect a child of the world, be his will ever so pure, to comprehend the complete round of existence of a divinely ordained anchorite? Allow me to relate to you what happened before my very eyes this morning as the sun was rising and I was standing at the summit of that mountain. 

Serapion now recounted to me a veritable novella; it was wrought with a degree of elaborateness and seamlessness that only literary authors endowed with the greatest intellects and the most ardent imaginative powers are capable of effecting.  All the figures in his narrative were delineated with such sharpness, suppleness, and fullness, and imbued with such glowing vitality, that I was completely swept away, bewitched by some magic force as if in a dream; and I could not but believe that Serapion really had beheld all these people and things from atop his mountain.  This novella was followed by another, and again another, until the midday sun was standing high above our heads.  At this point Serapion rose from his seat and while gazing into the distance said, “Here comes my brother Hilarion, who in his excessive austerity is forever reproaching me for spending too much of my time in the company of strangers.” I took the hint and bade him goodbye, but not without asking him if he would permit me to call on him again.  Serapion answered with a gentle smile, “Ai, my friend!  I thought you would have wished to hasten as quickly as possible out of this desert wilderness, as it seems wholly unconducive to your mode of living.  But if it should please you to take up residence in my neighborhood for a while, you will be welcome in my hut, in my little garden, at any time!  Perhaps I shall succeed in converting the man who came to me as a wicked antagonist. Farewell, my friend!  It is quite impossible for me to describe the impression made on me by my visit to this unfortunate man.  Although his condition, that methodical madness in which he had discovered his spiritual salvation, made me shiver all over with dread, I was positively awestricken by the brilliance of his literary gifts; his sheer good-naturedness, his entire comportment, which fairly exuded equanimous self-renunciation, aroused in me the profoundest and most moving sense of fellow-feeling.  I thought of Ophelia’s painful words—“O! what a noble mind is here o’erthrown: the courtier’s, solidier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue, sword; the expectancy and rose of the fair state, the glass of fashion and the mould of form, the observ’d of all observers, quite, quite, down!  […] I […] see that noble lord and most sovereign reason, like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh; that unmatched form and feature of blown youth blasted with ecstasy—and yet I could not reproach the eternal almighty, who had perhaps by this means steered the unfortunate soul clear of many a menacing cliff and into safe harbor.  The more often I visited my anchorite, the more deeply fond of him I became. Each time I found him more cheerful and garrulous than the time before, and I took the most punctilious care not to slip back into playing the psychological diagnostician.  It was wondrous to behold with what sagacity, with what penetrating intelligence, my anchorite discoursed on life in all its forms; but even more remarkable was his ability to expatiate on historical events by inferring the most diverse array of ulterior motives from every possible point of view.  But as the sagacity of his divinations seemed almost too striking at times, I did occasionally take it upon myself to demur that no work of professional historiography would dare to make use of such intimate particulars as he adduced; whereupon he would assure me while smiling his gentlest smile that certainly no historian in the world could be as well acquainted with the whole story as he was, given that he had of course acquired his knowledge straight from the mouths of the dramatis personae themselves, who had all figured in his roster of visitors.  I was now obliged to leave B***, to which I returned for the first time three years later.  It was a late-autumn, mid-November day—November 14 specifically, if I’m not mistaken—when I raced out of the city to visit my anchorite.  I was still quite a distance from his hut when I heard the ringing of the little bell mounted on its roof, and I was instantly racked by strange shivers and gloomy forebodings.  On his bed of bulrush mats Serapion lay stretched out with his hands folded on his breast.  I thought he was asleep.  But on drawing nearer to him I could plainly see that he was in fact dead!"
“And you buried him with the help of two lions!” With these words Ottmar interrupted his friend.
 “What?  What did you just say?” cried Cyprian, agape with astonishment.  “You heard me, and that was exactly what happened.  While you were still in the depths of the forest, before you reached Serapion’s hut, you were accosted by several strange monsters, with whom you conversed.” A stag brought you the cloak of St. Athansius and asked you to wrap Serapion’s body in it.  In short, your last visit to the mad anchorite reminds me of that marvelous visit that Anthony paid to the hermit Paul, and about which the holy man recounts so much fantastic twaddle that one can plainly see that the whole thing has shaken his brain up not a little.  As you can see, I, too, am conversant with the hagiographical legends!  Now I know why a few years ago your mind was chock full of images of monks, cloisters, hermits and saints.  I noticed this in that one letter you sent me back then, a letter that was so powerfully imbued with a peculiar mystical tone that it inspired the germination of all sorts of extraordinary ideas in my own mind.  If I’m not mistaken you were then busy writing a strange book founded in the most profound Catholic mysticism, a book that was so crammed with madness and diabolical matter that it could have completely ruined your reputation among the mild-mannered and the skittish.

 “So I was,” replied Cyprian, “and even though its front cover bears the image of the Devil as a cautionary emblem, I’m much of a mind to wish that I had never sent that fantastic book into the world.  I admit that it was my frequentation of the anchorite’s company that incited me to write it.  Perhaps I should have shunned him, but you, Ottmar—indeed all of you—are aware of my peculiar proclivity for associating with madmen; I always used to fancy that nature vouchsafed the mentally abnormal alone a glimpse of her most gruesome depths, and it was indeed in the very throes of that uncanny horror that often seized me in the company of the anchorite that I was visited by those intimations and images that quickened my mind and imparted to it the peculiar impetus to my composition of the book.  It may be that minds who comprehend everything from the ground up regard this peculiar impetus merely as the paroxysm of a serious illness; but what difference does that make if the patient himself feels healthy and in full possession of his faculties?"
“You are most certainly healthy and in full possession of your faculties, my dear Cyprian,” chimed in Theodor, “and this is proof of your robust constitution, a constitution that I am of more than half a mind to envy you.  You speak of glimpsing the most gruesome depths of nature: on this subject all I can say is, let anyone who is not completely sure his head is screwed on right avoid catching such a glimpse.  Nobody will impugn the placid, good-natured madness of Serapion as you have depicted him for us, given that the company of the most vitally imaginative poet imaginable scarcely bears comparison with this man’s company.  But especially given that many years have passed since you last saw him alive, you must admit that you have been able to delineate his image for us only by the gloriously resplendent light in which it is bathed in your memory.  For my part, though, I am confident in averring that that at least someone like me would never enjoy a moment free of the most harrowing anxiety—nay, terror—in the company of a madman of your Serapion’s stripe (of all stripes).  Indeed, even just listening to you tell of how Serapion eulogized his condition as the happiest imaginable, how he wished that you could live as blissfully as he did, was enough to make my hair stand on end.  It would be terrible if the idea of this blissful condition took hold of one’s mind and thereby proved capable of inducing actual, full-blown madness.  I certainly would never have sacrificed my psychological integrity to my companionship with Serapion; and in addition to the psychological damage there is also physical damage to be dreaded, for the French physician Dr. Pinel has adduced numerous case studies of persons whose idée fixes suddenly plunged them into deliria of such frenzied intensity that like raving beasts they lay tooth and nail into every human being within reach."
 “Theodor is right,” said Ottmar; “dear Cyprian I can only decry your foolish proclivity for folly, your insane delight in insanity.“  There is about it something intrinsically overwrought that in time will only prove a burden to you.  That I avoid full-blown madmen like the plague naturally goes without saying, but I am put off and disconcerted quite enough even by people of overexcited imaginations who are given to splenetic utterances of any sort.« 
“Now, now, dear Ottmar,” chimed in Theodor: “here you are patently going too far, for I know for a fact that there is nothing you detest more than a person who refuses to make a habit of spontaneously imparting some eccentric turn to his every utterance.  The maladjustment of the external world to their internal emotions unsurprisingly impels highly strung people to make outlandish grimaces that more equanimous countenances, being impervious to joy and sorrow alike, fail to comprehend and cannot fail to take amiss.  It is remarkable, though, that you yourself, my dear Ottmar, are all too vulnerable, too prone, to transgressing every limit, and on numerous occasions have directed the charge of utter and complete possession by the spleen at your own head.  I am reminded of a certain gentleman whose sense of humor was so wildly eccentric that it led half the city in which he lived to denounce him as a madman, notwithstanding the fact that no one was less capable than he of going genuinely, clinically mad.  The manner in which I made his acquaintance is every bit as queerly comical as the state in which I subsequently found him is poignant and profoundly touching.  I should like to tell you his story as a means of effecting the gentle transition from madness via the spleen to full-blown soundness of mind.  My only fear is that, especially given that music plays a part in this story, you will accuse me of the same fault with which I have taxed Cyprian—namely that of adorning my tale with all sorts of fantastic embellishments, and of interpolating into it all sorts of events that never happened at all.  Meanwhile I have noticed that Lothar has been casting longing looks at the vase that Cyprian termed mysterious, and from whose contents he promised himself so many salutary effects.  Let us release the magic!"  

Theodor removed the cap from the wine-decanter, and poured all his guests a drink; paid tribute to the king and prime minister of the society of the egg-laying hen and unhesitatingly averred his intention of inducting every one of his companions into its government.  "Now, cried Lothar after draining a couple of glasses, “now Theodor, tell us about your splenetic gentleman.  Be humorous—merry, moving, heart-gripping—be whatever you like, provided you free us from that blasted mad anchorite; help us out of the bedlam that Cyprian has dragged us into!”


Translation ©2013 by Douglas Robertson