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The Manuscript of Juan Serrano

On his last South American voyage Professor Osten-Seckher, the renowned explorer of the upper Amazon jungle and of the bordering Peruvian Andes, made a most remarkable discovery. He succeeded in finding an old manuscript in the remote and difficult to reach cloister of Santa Esperanza somewhere in the heights of Mont-Blanc. It gave information on one of the many heroes that in ancient times helped in the discovery and conquest of the earth. It was written by Juan Serrano, one of the participants in Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the earth, and of whose end nothing had been known up to now.

It was only known that he appeared on the beach of the island of Zubu after a bloody feast in which the other participants were slaughtered, and that he pleaded with his companions, who had remained on ship, “for the sake of God and the Holy Virgin”, to pay his ransom so that he might be released from the savages. But even though he, wounded, covered with blood, tightly bound, and clothed only with a shirt was such a pathetic sight, and even though the ransom price of two rifles, two bars of metal and a length of rope could have been achieved, the commander Juan Carvajo, refused to free him and gave the command to set sail.

Pigasetta, whom we have to thank for a diary about Magellan’s voyage, thought that Carvajo left Serrano in the hands of the savages so that he would not have to turn over the command to his captain again; but perhaps it was also because he feared further betrayal from the islanders.

In the preliminary remarks it can be noticed that this took place on May 1, 1521 and that a few days earlier—on April 27—Magellan, on the island of Matan, near Zubu, lost his own life under the spears and howls of savages.

Professor Osten-Seckher was not able to find out how the manuscript of Juan Serrano came to the cloister of Santa Esperanza. One might be permitted to assume that some Spanish sailor at a later time found the manuscript with some natives and was permitted to bring it back from South America, where it came into the possession of the cloister at Santa Esperanze.

And now let us read the manuscript itself in the best possible translation as follows:

“In the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I, Juan Serrano, first captain of the ‘Santiago’ and then later the ‘Concepcion’, write these lines in the face of impending death, without hope that it might ever be read by any of my countrymen. If, by God’s grace, and through a miracle, my manuscript should ever be read by a Spaniard or a Portuguese (against whom I carry no grudge, especially since I am Portuguese from birth), he might be able to glean from it how much the devil is able to achieve in the temptation of us poor sinners; how weak we are and how strange our lives and deaths may be. And then perhaps he might say a prayer for my poor soul, if at all possible in the church of Maria de la Victoria de Triana in Sevilla, where Magellan received the royal standard from out of the hands of Sancho Martinez de Leiva.

After the slaughter of my companions through the betrayal of the king of Zubu I was led to the beach, but even though I pleaded and begged as strongly as I could, they would not pay my ransom, and I had to watch, as my companions set sail and turned the bow of their ship away from land. And this happened, even though Juan Carvajo was my godson and he had sworn with upraised hands on the memory of his mother and on the wounds of Christ, that he would not deliver me to certain death on this island. When I saw that my pleas were not able to make them come back, I fell into a terrible rage and despair and began to curse Spain, my companions, and myself; and I asked God, if He on the earliest Day of Judgment would hold Juan Carvao accountable for the condition of my soul. And I also hoped that my curse might soon bring sickness and death to this horrible and criminal man, my godson.

So I remained behind alone on the island of Zubu and was once more led into the village by my captors, so their king could decide what to do with me. And there was a large crowd of people around me, of women and children, who threw dirt, shells and stones at me, beating my face and forehead bloody. I was determined to show these people that I was not afraid, was prepared to die, and walked upright between my guards. So we came to the large hut of the king, where the banquet had been arranged and where we had been captured.

A number of stakes had been driven into the earth around the hut, and the bodies of my companions had been impaled upon their tips. As we entered I saw the king lounging on his bed and near him was a human body lying stretched out on the ground. In passing I recognized Duarte Barbosa, who like me had only been wounded in the capture.

The body of my companion was cut open, so that I could see the inside of his belly and intestines. The king kept putting both hands into the body cavity, tearing out fistfuls of fat and shoving it into his mouth. But Duarte Barbosa was still alive and moaned and whimpered so pitifully; and as he looked at me, he begged me by all the saints and eternal salvation, to kill him. But he could just as well have been begging a stone or a rafter in the hut, because my hands were tied and there was even another rope tied around my arms, which was tied so tightly that I thought my shoulders would pop out of their joints.

I really can’t leave it unmentioned that Duarte Barbosa himself had inflamed the hatred of the savages—which I must call them, even though they have all received the holy baptism—by much too strongly chasing after the women of the island, as was his way, and they had been much too willing as well. This rage of the savages had not broken out before because Magellan had kept them subdued with his look and his words.

In the meantime the king turned to me and said a few words in his language. Then Henrique, Magellan’s slave from Malakka, stepped up. He had followed his master from Portugal and Spain and after that almost all around the entire earth until he was once more near his homeland; but after Magellan’s death he had fallen away from us.

Henrique, who understood the language of the Zubu and served as our translator, translated the words of the king to me, in which he said, that I could see from the behavior of my companions how disloyal and traitorous a people the Spaniards were, and that they had left me behind out of fear of him. That irritated me and I contradicted him, again through the mouth of Henrique, and said that he himself had given the worst example of disloyalty and betrayal, when he had sworn an oath to Magellan, to be obedient and subservient to the king of Spain. He had through God’s gracious providence received holy baptism and renounced his former pagan name, Rajah Humabon, and replaced it with the proud name ‘Carlo’ after our royal majesty; which he himself afterwards appeared entirely unworthy of; so much so that I could do nothing else, despite his baptism, than consider him a despicable heathen and idolater.

At that the king only grimaced and replied that his royal majesty Karl V was of no concern to him. He did not care and I only had to look over at my companion, Duarte Barbosa, to see what was going to happen to me next. Then he clapped his hands and two girls entered. They were only clothed with little skirts of leaves around their hips and wore veils on their heads. One of them held a knife of stone in her hand and slowly danced around the bloody body of Duarte Barbosa, until the king gave a signal, at which she knelt down and plunged the blade of her knife into the heart of the poor man. His whimpering immediately ceased, and I offered up a prayer in the name of my patron, as thanks, that Barbosa was finally released from his suffering.

I was led out of the hut. As I passed the stakes with the bodies of my companions I counted and found that there were twenty one of them. It immediately occurred to me that one was missing. Twenty seven of us had come ashore and of these Juan Carvajo and the ship’s master-at-arms had immediately returned because they didn’t trust these creatures. Henrique had gone over to the enemies; Barbosa still lay in the hut; I was still alive, and apparently the twenty second must be as well.

I didn’t have time to notice or determine anything else because I was quickly led past and thrown into a hut, where they tied me so tightly to a post that the blood was soon oozing from out of my skin.

Toward evening the so called Henrique again came to me, sat down across from me and began to tell me how they were going to kill me and how much the population of this entire island would enjoy this celebration. At that his eyes glowed so terribly and his features became so distorted, that it seemed as if Satan himself was looking at me. And then he told me, how he, with the help of the four remaining kings of Zubu, had arranged the treachery and given Rajah Humabon counsel; and how happy he was to finally have his revenge for being taken away from his homeland and for his enslavement. That was when I realized, that this slave as well, even though he had long since been baptized and wore a Christian name, was nothing other than another heathen.

He left me at night fall, and two girls came into the hut; the first was the one that had killed Duarte Barbosa. They sat to the left and to the right of me with their stone knives in their hands, and I understood that they were designated as my guards. But in front of the hut I could still hear the voices of the men and knew they were being very careful to prevent an escape. But I was so weak from the loss of so much blood, from a blow over the head which I had received, one that had nearly crushed my skull, that I could not even once think about making an attempt for my freedom. Because I was so weak I soon fell asleep despite my bounds, and a good dream showed me the beautiful city of Sevilla, and I went with Donna Mercedes across to the church of Santa Maria de la Victoria: once Donna Mercedes lifted her hand and caressed me so softly and lovingly over my face, that I became highly confused and wondered why she did this.

But then I awoke from harsh screams like the screeching of a giant bird, and as I came to my senses, I noticed two things; that these screeches were coming from above my head at the top of the hut and that a soft and warm hand was still lovingly caressing my face. But there was so much darkness in the hut that I could not make out whose hands they belonged to, except that it must belong to one of my guards, because no one other than a woman was able to caress so softly and lovingly.

Meanwhile the cries from the roof continued and they were such horrible and uncanny screeches that the dogs around the hut became entirely panicked and began to howl as if in fear. It was not long before the caressing stopped, and both girls spoke to each other in the darkness, then they began a soft singing that penetrated miraculously into my heart, strengthened my soul like a sweet refreshment and almost drove tears into my eyes. As the screeches on the roof became silent and only this song continued, a deep sleep soon came over me and didn’t leave until the light of morning.

With sunrise my guards left and in their place came four of the king’s warriors with lances and clubs, who tested my bonds, to see if they had loosened. Henrique brought me some bread and a roasted hen, which he pushed into my mouth piece by piece, so that I could eat and regain my strength, in order, as he said, to prolong my death, which he again described in a horrible way. I ate and refused to give him any response when he once more inquired if I knew where the priest Pedro de Valderrama was hiding, who to his memory had also come ashore. But my thoughts were only directed toward the night that was coming soon and was waiting to see if it would bring any more soft caresses and comforting songs.

With nightfall the darkness came again along with both girls and their stone knives, then the warriors left, so I thought that it must be the custom with these heathens, and it occurred to me that my two guards were perhaps some type of priestesses, like those in many of the tribes in the lands that the Portuguese had discovered.

But they only spoke with each other and didn’t even look at me. After they had sat down to my left and to my right, the one on my right prepared a drink for me, which she mixed together from various vessels. She said something over it and then they both drank as well.

I was determined not to fall asleep, so that I could find out which of them was friendly towards me. But I had to wait a long time, until midnight, before I felt a hand on my arm. Slowly the hand slid up to my neck, and I sensed once more the coldness of the stone knife on my throat, so that I was terribly frightened and realized that I was to die in the darkness. But the knife cut the rope that lay around my neck and made it difficult to breathe and to swallow. Then the ropes around my arms and legs were cut so that I was once more free. But I didn’t move, because I thought, this same hand that had freed me, would give me a signal of what I had to do.

Around the table, at which we sat with disgust and horror, were displayed precious tapestries in richly detailed scenes from out of the life of the court, images of the seasons, and landscapes from out of the immense regions of the world ruled by Spain. Our servants brought the prepared dishes from out of an adjoining room, in closed containers and carried in with trembling limbs, while Jonas Barg sprang here and there between the people, beating them with a whip and scolding them because of their slowness and awkwardness.

I sat between the professor, whose long beard jutted out from his chin like a horn, and the attorney, whose limbed were shivering in his monk’s robe. I sat and could not look away from the twitching animal that was dying in front of me under the glass dome. I was determined to enjoy nothing of this meal, and to drink nothing out of these cups, on whose gold surface a rude joke was embossed.

Jonas Barg was entirely different than usual, his immobility appeared to have fallen from him like a mask, but the silly fool, the way he fulfilled the duty of host, made him even more hideous. His eyes glowed, and suddenly I found the comparison in me, which I had been trying in vain for so long to find; it was how the fires of hell showed out from between a cleft in the earth’s crust. He skipped from one to the other of us, urging us to eat and drink and continued in the same manner at the places where two empty glasses stood; where, as always, two glasses were placed in memory of our dead friends.

So the evening continued until midnight, and a kind of mania took hold of my friends, that originated from out of the same instinct, as the desire of criminals to be baptized, before they are led to their death. The complete torment of the festivities under the glowing eyes of the image of Christ became in that moment for me, the dead, bloody cadaver under the glass bells; and the odor of the incense, which came from the candles became decaying meat for me; the only one who, in the expectation of danger had preserved his sobriety. It was so repulsive, that an angry disgust threatened to overwhelm me. The most disgusting thing happened around midnight, when several members from the city joined in with the pleasures of known prostitutes, showing their prowess in lewd dances and rolling around with them on the great carpet under the catcalls of the onlookers.

After Jonas Barg had chased them away again with his whip, the immense pharmacist raised himself weakly from his place and began to babble praises for our host, in which he richly included mangled Spanish curses, which he had learned one time on a summer voyage to the Pyrenees. Jonas Barg stood up to reply; his lurking eyes looked straight at me, and he spoke;  and his words seemed to dance like stones in his mouth.

“Oh, my friend, it makes me so happy that my banquet meets your approval. I have long hesitated to bring you to my kingdom, because I was worried that your courage and high spirits would find it a bit too gloomy here. But now to my happy amazement I find, right under the shadows of that which our statutes forbids, that life blooms that much brighter and louder. Here, surrounded by the symbolic images of the power of decay, of the manifold transformations of one and the same—or shall I say—encircled by it, your merriment still springs out entirely differently than the superficial surface of things. And take heed, gentlemen, it shall become much lustier yet.”

He commanded the wine to be poured and raised his tankard with the heavy, viscous, dark red fluid; but only after convincing himself that the precious glasses in front of the empty places of our dead friends were also filled.

“Now gentlemen, with this wine, the best of the Spanish wines from out of my cellar, I receive you completely. Now for a happy continuation of our celebration. Even though I, as you know, do not in any way share your exuberant love of life; I do know the duty of being a host and invite you to salute your tyrant, life, in the same way that those gladiators about to die saluted Caesar one last time.”

While all the others lifted their glasses to this strange toast, I poured my wine unobserved onto the earth in the same manner that I had gotten rid of the contents of countless other glasses.  Then  on a whim I nonchalantly went over to the places set for our dead friends, stood before the full glasses and watched . . . as the dark red contents of the glasses slowly disappeared, even though no hand lifted them and no lips touched them.

Then I knew that the moment of battle had come. —With a repulsive grin Jonas Barg surveyed the entire group of revelers, who had long since forgotten their mummery; stared into the faces of every single one of them and spoke, as he tapped the flat of this hand with his whip.

“Now children, we are going to take a little stroll. Between the scenes of these two tapestries is a passage that leads to the entrance of the well-tended park of the Escorial court. We desire to follow the old customs, and I ask each of you, to come with me into my park.”

He stretched out his hand commandingly towards the great wall tapestries, on whose colored surface groups of trees and the meadow of a park had been portrayed in elaborate embroidery. As I followed his hand I saw the trees and bushes stand out evermore perfectly, then tower up in plastic masses, rushing together to unite in a crowded canopy of treetops. The winding path extended far out from the cluster of trees into the winding meadow and led to a wide open countryside. Until now everything had remained the size of a model, but then the trees grew from the size of toys to take on real physical aspects. They bowed in the night wind, and covered the empty spaces between their trunks with moist shadows. The darkened images became deep and so dangerously beautiful, that I, who was prepared for anything, trembled.

A mighty, mysterious park lay before us.

“Now children, take torches along to light our way. The cute candles of mummified fingers and toes, of leg bones and clavicles will give us enough light.”

In a frenzy of victory Jonas Barg took no notice of me, seized his candlestick and everyone—everyone silently took up the candles next to their plates, and arranged themselves into a long procession, and all of them—all of them began to follow him. Jonas Barg skipped on ahead and it seemed as if he had entered into the shadows of the first group of trees, when I became overcome with fear and burst out:

“Jonas Barg,” I screamed, “Jonas Barg! Give back to the grave that which has come from out of the grave!”

Then, as if in a sudden earthquake the silhouettes of all the objects in front of me disappeared. The trees and bushes, the entire night darkened park disappeared into the distance of a foggy background, before which a grotesque drama was enacted. In front of this background, that towered up over every gesture like a decoration, stood Jonas Barg, seized by fearful spasms that tore him around and pulled his body back and forth. He tried to straighten up and reached for me with his long arms.  But his hands sank back down; his face stared in horror like a death mask, and suddenly he disappeared into the gaping darkness with a terrible scream.

I cannot possibly say how long this darkness lay upon us, it could not have been more than a few minutes, but when life once more disturbed the space of the abyss, it seemed to have ripped apart the fabric of time as well. The first impression of my return to consciousness was my labored breathing.

It was my own breathing, but soon I could distinguish the sound of others near me, and through the groping darkness and broken whispers we convinced ourselves, that we were all still alive. As lights and voices from the outer shores of our darkness called us back into the world from silence and darkness; we scarcely dared to call out for our salvation and sought to demonstrate the composure in misfortune written down in our statutes.

The crowd of our rescuers turned down the narrow passage toward us. The farmers, who had met our strange procession with astonishment, had raised the alarm when we had not returned from the ruins after three days and the rescue expedition had found us after long searches and dangerous wanderings through the half closed passages that were threatening to collapse. The torches flickered in the subterranean chamber casting our shadows on the walls like prehistoric monsters of the ancient world. Where the table had stood lay a rubbish pile of dirt; the walls were bare and glistened with gray slime. But at the places of the wall tapestries, whose embroidered park landscapes had been transformed into reality, at that place, were Jonas Barg had disappeared with a fearful scream, a black hole gaped between the quadrants of the foundation wall, down which our investigation found a gaping abyss. This was the path of Jonas Barg and through which he had been leading the procession.

I would not give up until I, with the help of ladders tied together, with rope and a torch, dared the descent and all my companions followed behind me. I told myself that this inexplicable burden must be undertaken, if we ever wanted to look life in the eyes again. It went down into the depths of a well, but it was much more than a well, it was a murderer’s grave that served to conceal a bloody secret in the old castle. When we finally reached the bottom, we found a fissure that led down even further, and in the darkness below, right next to the swirling water was a skeleton. The arms were tied behind its back and the legs chained over a cross; between the white teeth of the death’s head a cloth had been stuck, which was now decayed and rotten, but still in a good enough condition to perfectly show the marks of how it had been forcefully pressed into the long silent mouth.

Although there was no indication to suggest that this skeleton had some relationship to our missing host, we all knew that the last remains of Jonas Barg lay there in front of us. And it seemed as if my friends, in a sudden explosion, became free of their long accumulated and repressed hatred. They gnashed their teeth together, bellowed like raging animals, and wanted to fall upon the skeleton with fists and knives.

Then compassion came into me, which announced itself darkly, as I again saw him in writhing in convulsions in front of the night park landscape; it came to me large and radiant and as I shooed my friends back it gave me the words:

“Gentlemen, preserve the magnanimity of the living even against death. How he must have loved and enjoyed life, so much so that he was compelled to seek it out, even though he hated it and wanted to destroy it.”

With a gesture the onlookers led my friends away from the skeleton, who with lowered heads followed me out of the well and out of the old castle; out, to where life with its radiant autumn day waited for us.

I scarcely dared to breathe, because I felt Jonas Barg next to me, and just then, as Dittrich crouched down for a short rest in the middle of the rope, he said into my ear:

“You are too cautious, my dear friend, to be a member of the club of reckless and daring. Do you expect me to believe that you have wounded your foot, as well?”

He knew it . . . he knew it, that I was playing a comedy, by God, a miserable, pitiful comedy, in order not to go up on the tight rope, that I had left my friend in the lurch like a coward, because I was afraid of death, because I was afraid of him, Jonas Barg. He laughed right next to me, and then, without even looking back, I believed I could feel that he was gone. Stretched out next to the fawning Fatme, I sought to support my friend high above us with my eyes, and involuntarily moved my feet with his.

Suddenly I saw a shadow, a long stretched out shadow with angular movements, with an inorganic agility, that was climbing up the suspended rope ladder. This shadow . . . this ghastly spidery shadow—it was him. No one saw him. No one screamed. I didn’t scream either. I could only beat with my arms around me and jump up, during which I saw, that the shadow had reached the rope, stood upright and in the brightness of the electrical light looked exactly like a pillar of fog as it slid forward.

Dittrich was almost at the end of the rope and preparing to turn around when the shadow reached him. I still see it before me, how the end of the balance beam began to swing wildly, how Dittrich stood still, trying to regain his equilibrium. At that moment the shadow sprang onto the back of my friend, and as Dittrich’s pale face suddenly turned around towards us, I believed for the space of a heart beat that I could see the grin of Jonas Barg. Dittrich cried out, entirely different from before, not in jubilation, but in deathly fear. He let the balancing beam fall and brought both hands to his throat, as if he wanted to become free of choking fists. The battle above was very short, a wrestling with the relentless power of the earth, which pulled his body out and threw it down with tangled limbs. He fell down so close to the feet of Miss Ellida, that her glittering, snake like body recoiled backwards.

I did not press through to the shattered body. I had no other thought during this incident than to seek out Jonas Barg. As I turned around, he stood next to me, and his eyes, which lay like glowing irons in dark caves, held me, even though I wanted to throw myself at him. I still had no power over him; still had to find the words that would free me from him.

The silence after the death of Dittrich was more unbearable than a bodily pain, and most unbearable for me, because I thought I had seen something so strange, that I almost violated the strict protocols. It urged me to break the laws of the club, and often, in the dusk of evenings, when our tiresome jocularity lost its glow; I was almost ready to speak out about it, what everyone was thinking about. The dislike of the club members against Jonas Barg had grown even greater and become entirely obvious, as if they suspected the same thing that made me uneasy, without being able to put a name to it.

Only Jonas Barg himself appeared to notice nothing. He came and went like before, without any of us being able to discover the mystery of his regular life. Despite my efforts, I discovered nothing either. Only one thing was very clear to me, he did not live in the city. He was absolutely immaterial, like a force of nature.

We wanted to tear down the old performance room and begin our new games that first week. Professor Hannak, who in the breaks between our escapades pursued historical studies, brought up the idea of an historical masquerade, in which we would distance ourselves from the present, and give ourselves over to the spirits of a forgotten time. In our efforts to quickly seize upon something new, and to completely forget our two friends, in whose silent memories two empty glasses were set; we turned to anything at that time, whose merriment was whipped to a fever pitch, until it became a fearful whirlwind.

The wantonness with which we celebrated our orgies in the style of the Persian kings, the time of decadent Rome, and the French Rococo period almost achieved on a small scale the luxuries of those times themselves. In the entire city, whose murmur we in our strongly closed company had learned to despise, they spoke of our impulses. They regarded us as lost, and the more they pressed us, the louder we laughed and our greatest lunatic escapades became increasingly intemperate.

Something drove us onward, something that we were trying to escape, because we hated it, and it appeared to me, as if there was some connection between this impulse and Jonas Barg, who always participated unmoving as a post. It was no longer an escalating quest for life, but something else, perhaps its exact opposite; as I admitted in the gray days after our raging nights. It was not recklessness any more, but lunacy, that tore us through all the labyrinths of pleasure, and none of us were for a moment in doubt, that it was only a coincidence that the police had not yet turned against us.

One day Jonas bark stood up in our midst and his eyes stared straight at me, as he invited us to a feast with him.

“I see you are very surprised, gentlemen,” he said, “that I invite you to me, because until now I have not led any of you to my place. But my often very troublesome restraint has always been stronger than my desire to invite you over. But now, because your interests touch my own, I dare to invite you to come. Namely, I am also a historian, self understandably an amateur, and for years have lived for several weeks during these beautiful autumn days in the ruins of castle Neufels.”

“Neufels is in ruin,” cried the lieutenant.

“That is precisely why I love the castle so much, because as you know, I search out decay. By the way, I can reassure you that, with me you will be able to find your old, strong instinct for life.”—the empty eyes burned—commanded.

“Let it be my concern to make your visit with me so entertaining, that all of your desires will die away, to receive from out of my pockets. You shall be in need of nothing, or better said, shall desire nothing, which you now consider indispensable.”

Despite Jonas Barg’s attempt to transform his creaking and screeching voice into a cordial hiss, I sensed a hidden threat, a sense of secret malice in his words. And it was that way for the others as well, as their consent barely concealed a boundless hatred against this man, who seemed to force out our own decision according to his own will. We all growled like wild beasts against the tamer, and I strove in vain to free myself from out of the commotion, in order to win back any safety; because Jonas Barg had made a strong and certain victory against me. It was a struggle for my “I”, whose better part, whose courage and confidence seemed to have been banished through an enchantment.

It was in such a condition that the most important transformations were nursed in an almost imperceptible way, moving forward without conscious control.

Some imperceptible reason; the color of the air, a lost and again found word, the fragment of a melody from afar, the cry of a bird, the chortling of the waves on the edge of the beach, worked like a heavy blow, and released an entire multitude of connections; a sudden frenzy tore down all the laws of psychology and logic, swung out over all possibilities and worked the most miraculous transformations within me. Of the strange things that I still have to tell, this is the strangest, which I experienced the evening before the feast. I stood on the bridge over the river, looked at the dirty water, in which the pollution of the factories floated and felt, as if I was gently sliding against the current. The whistles and foghorns of the surrounding factories howled out the end of the work day. Two girls went behind me laughing on the other side. Someone pushed me. On the other side a policeman stood next to a man with Turkish honey and sugar figs, spinning the threads of a peaceful conversation.

In that moment I spoke entirely calmly and softly to myself.

“If you reverse the name Barg it reads . . . G . . .r . . .a . .b. . .  or said out loud “Grab” [translator’s note: grab means grave in the German language].

I was frightened and trembled over my entire body, so that I had to hold onto the hand railing of the bridge. But then with the return of my strength I felt an immense joy, because I knew, that I had found the word of power over my enemy.

According to the proposal of professor Hannak we had conjured up the time of Velasquez in Spain for the banquet and in a little railway station the next evening transformed ourselves into Spanish Grandees, monks, painters and soldiers; and then went up to the ruins on foot. Our procession surprised and astonished several farmers that we encountered on the steep path coming down from the ruins,  because we maintained an apprehensive seriousness that kept all thoughts of a masquerade away from us. I was the last one of all, with a full consciousness of the fearful experience that awaited, and was determined to defend us with all means possible.

In the courtyard, between dilapidated stairs, Jonas Barg crouched on a stone in the garments of a fool and after a short greeting, skipped on ahead as our leader. The cracked walls closed in on us from all sides and pressed us into a tiny passage, whose walls bore acetylene lamps at certain intervals. They jumped out of the damp walls like blooming tulips and illuminated the path, upon which Jonas Barg, with the strangest contortions, skipped ahead. From time to time he turned his pale face toward us, in order to convince himself that we were all following him. The passage was endless and from whose brightness side passages crawled off into darkness; and it seemed to me, as if Barg was intentionally leading us in a circle. The gigantic pharmacist was undaunted enough to dare tell jokes, even here, while the others had all been overwhelmed by paralysis. His laborious encouragements were not heeded by anyone, and only when they stood in the great vaulted banquet hall did the others find the courage to speak. Here the host had happily created the sense of a fanatical and closeted time. One such luxury this banquet appeared to have established, as an example, was cruelty which served also as a duty, a piety that bound itself to lechery without shame.

In this vault under the rubble of an old castle all the treasures of an Indian princely court were showcased and arranged with a gloomy ostentation, as if they could incite the aroma and spirit of religious ecstasy even more than the refinement of Spain.

Nearby the banquet table was set with various things, from the most out of the way places that with shameless skill held their indecencies. There stood drinking cups that in their masterful craftsmanship rendered nothing less than the suffering of Christ. The bread lay on the plate with despicable scorn, and imprinted as if consecrated with the holy letters, I. N. R. I. and the napkins of the finest fabric were replicas of the sweat cloth of Veronica.

[Translator’s note: the sixth station of the cross in the passion play of Christ where Veronica wipes the sweat from the face of Jesus]

The pelts of silver gray rabbits were used as coasters, but with these animals, the pelts had been pulled off their living bodies and they lay covered with blood and still twitching under a glass dome in front of the plate of every participant at this meal. In the middle of the table rose a cross with a life sized marble Christ, whose eyes were lit from the inside and glowed out so that the entire table was illuminated.  Besides this light, every guest also had special little lamps at each place, in which strange candles burned. They looked like dried flesh and smelled of spices and resin.

We did not ask about it, because it was the highest law of the Club of the Reckless and Daring, to not speak of death or of the dead. When one of us died from within our circle, it was to us, as if he was simply gone, and no word of sympathy was permitted to follow his memory. Only a glass stood at his place for one year. That was all that our Constitution permitted to be placed in silent memory.

It was hard for me to cope with my pain and my terror. Often I was almost overwhelmed with horror about my friend, but it was all so vague, so full of suspected hideousness, that I scarcely dared think about it clearly.

At that moment it had seemed to me, as if Jonas Barg had reached up and miraculously pulled down that giant white grave of plunging snow next to him; as if the movement of his arm was still descending after giving a command, and a bestial smile had been pasted on his cruel, narrow lips.   As soon as this thought occurred to me, a labyrinth of questions confronted me. What if I had gone in Munk’s place? Would I have been killed by the avalanche? Is that why he had offered me his arm?

I had no doubts that my friends also suffered under similar thoughts, but we said nothing to each other, and repressed our fears in heroic battles. We held to our fixed principles, and as often happens; it incited us to even more mad escapades of spontaneous hilarity; to wild dances far beyond the standards of our club.

I must confess that the maddest escapades came from me, and that it was also I that instigated the incident with the acrobatics. From an inextinguishable thirst after the tantalizing bizarre, the thought occurred to me, to transform our entire club into a band of performers; to turn all quiet, common pleasures upside down and through the introduction of obstacles include the new sensations of danger and difficulty into our old desires. Our statutes obliged us to physical fitness, and most of us were exquisite acrobats, many were also swimmers, rowers, fencers and riders. We soon succeeded in performing such simple tricks as jumping through hoops, balancing, and the free fall of the trapeze.

To the extent, that we progressed from easier to more difficult exercises, our pleasure grew in these things, and we were scarcely in a position to take our meals, with our heads hanging down from swings, twirling our plates on a fork, or squatting down on the tight rope to cut our meat. Yes, we had even included a tight rope in our program, and my dear friend Dittrich, who had moved into Munk’s place, distinguished himself in the field as well as myself. We could do it just as well as many of the neighboring acrobats, who astounded the farmers with their performances. And it speaks well of our strong wills, that we were able to achieve what professional artists only achieved after years of practice. Our club base transformed itself into a circus. It’s over refined perfumes gave way to the smell of sweat and the odor of overheated bodies.

In this tension of all forces, we felt comfortable and forgot that which we were obliged to be quiet about. Only Jonas Barg did not seem to agree with this transformation. He, who seemed to blossom in our crashes and likewise withered in our convulsive gaiety, seemed to find our new pursuits uncomfortable and shriveled up, so that he became more boney and scornful. When we invited him to participate in our performances, he could do as well as the best of us, even though we never saw him seriously practice. But his manner had a spidery angularity, an agility without joints that was extremely unpleasant to watch, like something that was not human.

But the craziest idea in this part of the life of our club did not come from me.

“Now children,” said my friend, Dittrich, one evening. “Do you know that tomorrow the first performance of the Barnum Circus begins?”

He sat at his meal on the tightrope with crossed legs, tipped his head back and took a drink out of a champagne bottle, as we laughed up at him.

“Naturally, naturally! Well, what about it?”

“What about it? Gentlemen! Children! The most self-evident can never be discovered. We will go to the show and greet the performers as colleagues.”

The proposal was just strange enough, for us to agree to it. I was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of this idea, until Jonas Barg’s warm interest began to make me suspicious.

He came up to me with his repulsive friendliness, which he incessantly pursued and said, “This idea is so good that it could have even been yours.”

“Thank you.”

“Now we can demonstrate our skills before an audience that can appreciate them. Only those who know the exact details of a skill can truly appreciate its mastery in the performance of others.”

“Certainly, certainly!”

I left him standing, because I could not bear the staring of his eyes. But I felt their gaze at my back.

Barnum brought its immense equipment into our city the next day, pitched its tent in a couple of hours, and was prepared to give its first performance that evening. We viewed its hideous abnormalities and then tracked the work of the performers with knowledgeable criticism in the great ring.

The attendants prepared our tunics in the dressing rooms. After the performance, the Ringmaster agreed with our plan, through the prospect of a fun and exuberant night. We finally convinced him to keep it a secret from the other circus performers. A strange meeting awaited us as we entered the arena again a short time later after our transformation. At first they looked at us as if we were a hostile army, but then accepted us as tables were quickly set up and heavily laden with food.

The suspicious Ringmaster had at first only sacrificed the narrow light of his gasoline burner so that a sinister high wall of darkness surrounded our group in the immense space. After the first course of the best food in the city, provided by the city board, the voices rose, and the Ringmaster stood up, and in broken German, praised the unexpected hospitality of us amateurs. One of us replied in even more broken English, and then the arc lamps flickered on to solidly illuminate the area.

We found ourselves mixed together according to the dictates of a grotesque humor. The moss girl sat on the lap of the finance counselor; the giant lady held a Lieutenant in her arms like a baby, laying him across her ample breasts; and the monkey woman let a textile manufacturer crawl into the furs with her. Two legal secretaries and a professor studied a map of Borneo on the tattooed body of a Malayan. The freaks had also found their friends. The skeleton man conversed with a doctor over medical questions; the largest man in the world, perhaps attracted by the strange sympathy of opposites, sat next to the petite attorney; and the smallest man in the world, like the dwarf king in the fairy tales, had his tall chair snuggled up next to the gigantic pharmacist, whom, rumor had it, could crush a porcelain goblet with one hand in a fit of anger. The other club comrades were shyer and the performers, the acrobats, Japanese jugglers and the clown pulled them into their colorful array. My friend Dittrich stretched out like a large ostrich next to the beautiful tight rope walker, Miss Ellida, who glittered like a snake and enthralled him with her stupendous scientific knowledge of tightrope walking. I saw him puffed up with pleasure; while I myself was engaged in a confidential conversation with the Arabian animal tamer Fatme in a comfortable Viennese dialect over the training of wild animals.

I insisted, and Fatme had the kindness to show me the crude grips of her profession on my own body.

Our happiness was so loud and noisy that bestial answering bellows came from out of the cages of the menagerie surrounding us, and it seemed as if we sat in a circle of howling demons. The demonstrations of our new friendship became even more ardent, and those caresses, which in our remote corner were heating up to the point of an explosion. I felt that something was about to happen, something that compelled me to apply all caution in resisting the ardent whispers of Fatme, who was even then showing me another grip with her solid fists. Suddenly I heard the voice of Jonas Barg, who sat there in the middle of our collective brotherhood, unmoving as a post.

“We sit here, celebrating us and you, as colleagues, but except for our outfits, we have still not given any legitimate demonstration. We should show you what we can do.”

The others did not reflect long, jumped into the sand of the arena and began to show their skills; which Barnum’s performers watched in amazement at so much unexpected dexterity. But Jonas Barg did not appear to be satisfied with this triumph and proposed that Dittrich and I should go up onto the tightrope.

“Only being up there decides whether we possess power, courage and perseverance,” and he pointed to the top of the tented roof at the tightrope that Miss Ellida walked upon during her performance.

I consider it my duty, to confess here, that I felt such a terror at that moment, was seized by such a deathly fear, that it was as if I had stepped upon the edge of an abyss and an inevitable judgment was pronounced. But Dittrich looked into the beautiful mocking eyes of Ellida and agreed, so impassioned by her glittering snake like body, so much so, that I scarcely dared to refuse. All the objections of the Ringmaster were struck down, and several of the assistants were already holding the rope ladder which we were supposed to climb up to get to the high wire. My mind raced for an immeasurably short time, trying to find any possibility of salvation, impassioned by a fear, that it could only all end in madness. I found nothing. I found nothing . . .

I could only shout out, “But the net, there is no net . . .”

“With the net it is not reckless and daring,” said Jonas Barg like an executioner.

“With the net it’s common labor,” said the beautiful Ellida and laughed.

“Come on,” cried Dietrich and seized the low hanging rope ladder.

I saw his arm muscles swell up under his tunic and would have liked to tear him away from there, when I saw the eyes of Jonas Barg glowing like hot irons in a cave. I was given no choice then, but to follow him. Hesitantly, I took two steps and then stumbled over a half buried bottle in the sand of the arena — it stung me. I screamed out and folded together. They sprang to me and lifted me up, found out that I had injured my foot, and set me down onto a chair. Now the demonstration of my skills had passed, and my soft whimpering aroused the beautiful Fatme to such compassion that her rough fists became entirely soft and tender.

But Dittrich grabbed angrily and climbed high up the rope ladder without any concern for me; pulled himself higher and then clambered over our heads again, while the tears came so hot and heavy out of my eyes that Fatme, who had been made weak by my pain, softly sobbed too.

Then Dittrich appeared in the region of the roof, grabbed the rope and began the quick retracing of his passage with the balancing beam. He carefully set one foot before the other, until he found a solid stance, and let out a piercing yell that echoed back even more quickly.

Around us answered the bellows, grunts and howls of the animals and the loud shouting came together and swelled across the floor to us and seemed to oppress my lungs like steam.

My Adventure with Jonas Barg

“Gentlemen,” I began. “Life! Life! The poet says that life is not the highest good, but he is wrong. It is not only the highest, it is the only good. What we experience of happiness, of joy, of Dionysian frenzy, what we experience of the quiet comforts, are projections of life onto our souls. And our souls? What are they other than vibrations of the one infinite life, points of intersection of the two major possibilities of being; of time and space, spiraling consciousness, and above all else, life itself. Gentlemen, hooray!”

I had continued on in this manner for a long time under the approving murmurs and the encouraging shouts of my club comrades, fired up by the excellent punch, and would have continued on, if the hated voice had not called out and interrupted me. I continued on with a few more sentences trying to drown it out, until I noticed that my opponent’s words were attracting more attention than my own. My sermon collapsed right in the middle.

“See, dear friends,” he said, “you are all seized by a chemically induced megalomania. The animated compounds; which you gentlemen see as bringing forth creation, are nothing more than the green scum over a swamp full of rot and decay. Life is a process of combustion, an oxidation, or if you will; an exchange of materials, if you believe that idols are material beings. Life is a dark process in the ganglionic system of an immense monster, whose name I would rather conceal from you; flatulent gas in its intestines, and its light, gentlemen, is simply the glow of mold.”

Depending upon the state of our intoxication these words had a varying effect; the generally sober became more serious and glum, looking into their glasses and casting angry glances at this enemy of life. The strongly tipsy ones began to resist him noisily with weakening resolve. Those that were entirely drunk fell all over him; weeping around his neck, that life was such a great an evil.

Jonas Barg stood in their midst unmoving, like a post, and looked at me with eyes like burning watch fires, as if  he expected my answer.

“Children,” I said, “children, what use is all reasoning. Life has us and holds us; every day it gives us new miracles and unceasingly defeats every adversary from morning until evening.”

I believed that I had said something quite trivial, a subterfuge, and nonsense, but Jonas Barg screamed as if scorched by a red hot iron; hurled his glass away from himself and fell off his chair. The drunks sobbed around him, supporting each other and thoroughly soaking the shoulders of their jackets; while the others, disturbed over his tactless blazing mood, withdrew from him and gathered around me.

“Let him be,” said the engineer Munk, “he will calm down again.”

When I moved to this city from my earlier place of employment, I had made connections here with this “Club of the Reckless and Daring” and found like-minded companions. We all went devoutly through the Temple of life, celebrating the small, hidden mysteries of this Temple as well as the celebration of wild, intoxicating orgies.

The supervisor of my previous place of employment had distanced himself because of my mad pranks. Although it helped me to be in such a company, for which I was more suited, they made even more crazy proposals than my own. I felt complete in this club of the reckless and daring, but I knew from the first moment on, that a hatred radiated out at me, a power worked against me, that strove to destroy me.

The odd, empty eyes of my club comrade, Jonas Barg, looked fixedly at me as if through the end of a long tunnel, and they seemed somehow threatening and dangerous. The friendliness, with which he sought to become closer to me, made me all the more suspicious; so that I often quickly and openly sensed my own inclinations, my emerging thoughts and cautions against him. My club companions felt the same way, but far less clearly.

When I asked them to clarify for me how this strange, reserved and sinister man; of whose private life no one knew anything at all, had come to be included in their company; they all became silent with dismay. Apparently nobody had ever asked the question before. In a heavy drunkenness, at the end of a long and exuberantly passionate celebration, they had promised to invite him into the club, because of those sympathies of intoxication, which even now so strangely attracted the drunks to him. On the next day when they had to decide upon his admission, nobody wanted to be against it. An unacknowledged fear held all of their objections back. So he became a club member, even though the others feared and hated him.

Everything that had been hidden, as if through secret agreement, had now been freed through my questions. For the first time they began to wonder how they always allowed the most beautiful celebrations to be disturbed, and considered every possible way of removing him from our circle. But in the meantime they all crowded tighter around me as if seeking protection from some unknown opposition.

That evening, on which Jonas Barg so rudely interrupted my sermon with his hatred against life, was when this relationship took shape most perfectly, but Jonas Barg freed himself from his weeping friends and came up to me. He reached to shake my hand. It was a hand, who skin appeared cold and lifeless as leather, and whose fingers snapped shut around mine like a lock.

“Opposing principles,” he said, “should not divide us. You are a friend of life. I find it neither great nor beautiful, nor good. But under these opposing views, our personal relationship should not suffer.”

“Listen,” said the engineer Munk, “it is not the sense, but the tone” . . . (my nearness allowed his courage to grow) “You have not spoken like an opponent in this
matter of debate, but like one who is crazy with wrath.”

It was not possible to continue this conversation any further, because the irresistible noise of the carousing had returned, pushing with all its resistance against it. Barg sat down beside me and flung a cold kindness over me, which I felt like a cobweb on my face and around my throat. From out of our drunkenness bloomed large, red, fantastic flowers; the sight of which made us even crazier and awoke all the lower instincts to destruction.

All our jewelry was placed in a pile and pounded to a metallic powder in the mortar. Everyone took some bits in their glass, sprinkled some on the laurel wreaths that hung on the wall, and then drank the gold at the same time with the champagne and cream. Several took needles and stabbed through the flesh of their bare arms and legs, others burned their bodies with candles and in their heavy intoxication did not appear to feel the torments of the flames; the walls began to slowly turn in circles, then finally sloped sharply into each other, and all the corners leveled out at the same time to form a dome that arched over our heads, which whirled in a frantic race around some obliquely placed axis.

The club members became even friendlier toward Jonas Barg as the night progressed because of drunkenness. He sat in our midst unmoving like a post. He drank immeasurable quantities of wine out of the large vessels which we had filled with champagne and passed around. The engineer Munk sat down on the other side of him and became even more tender and urgent in his friendship. That seemed very strange to me and suddenly I saw with unpleasant clarity that we were all sitting around Barg and had accepted him as the center of our interest. I stood up and went outside in order to splash some cold water over myself. A wide stream of water gushed over my head from out of a large lion’s head and into a black marble basin. It strengthened my will power by restoring a sobriety that was entirely resistant to suggestion. As I straightened up, I felt Jonas Barg behind me.

He looked at me with his empty eyes as if from far away, and the hatred darkened his voice as he said, “You are a poor club member. Is this the promised recklessness and daring? Do you want to interrupt the momentum of our festivities with a water cure?”

I pulled myself together as if in the ring with a strong opponent.

“Life demands limits to madness. And moreover, where is the recklessness and daring that you praise as well as a club mate. I’ve never seen you in a frenzy of joy.”

His head dropped between his shoulders as if struck by a blow and he let me pass back into the hall. Most of the intoxicated noise of my companions had faded away. They sat there lifeless and insensible in all kinds of positions; with foaming mouths and drooled confused words.

“The banquet of Plato by Sophocles,” cried the engineer Munk.

But when morning came and the others lay under the tables, they still sat there.

“My Plato,” he spoke weeping into the tangled beard of Jonas Barg and sobbed with emotion.

“Let’s go,” said Barg and offered me his arm. “Take it. We will be able to return home with united forces.”

“I thank you, but my own power will suffice. If you would like to be of service, support your friend Munk.”

There was nothing more terrible to me about this strange man than his eyes, which had the ability to bind with his dangerous will far more than his mouth did. He silently took the heavily drunken man under his arm; and as we took our coats from the equally drunken servants and got dressed; followed us down the steps, from whose walls scornful masks grinned down.

The morning was damp and foggy, and in the early dawn the shops began their food preparations. During the night immense masses of snow had fallen, piled up on all the roofs and forced the street sweepers into strenuous labor to clear the way. We had scarcely gone more than a few steps, when there was a strong gust behind us, and at the same moment a driving snow swirled around us and tore at us. There stood Jonas Barg next to a pile of snow, unmoving as a post, and his eyes glowed in the dim light of early dawn.

“Where is Munk? Munk!”

Barg pointed at the still slightly moving pile of snow, which quietly settled down to rest like an animal after a successful leap. We threw ourselves at the mountain of snow which filled half the street, and began to dig with hands and sticks. The street sweepers joined in after careful consideration in the hopes of rescuing some unfortunate. Several bakers’ boys set down their bread baskets and helped dig until half of a body was uncovered in the snow. The early pedestrians on the street, half frozen drunkards, gathered around us to gawk at the amusing scene until they were sent away grinning by several watchmen who eagerly investigated the cause of the accident and wrote down the number of the house, from whose steep roof the avalanche had slipped, in their little books.

After half an hour we had freed our friend. He lay there dead before us, with a broken neck, or suffocated or from a heart attack. I don’t know which.

Eleagabal’s hand, which held the pocket knife, that fearful withered hand, between whose sinews narrow grooves of shadows began to show, slid in a playful manner back and forth on the edge of the gondola.

“We must seize all that is before our eyes with certainty, as long as our will is living within us, as well as the lunacy which is just as near. This is according to the law of the relationship between power and repulsion. We do not dare judge this spiritual balance in the terms of physical formulas. Inside us lies the legacy of many ancestors that have returned to the Spirit. I will tell you of one of them, which you might gain some illumination from.

It was in one of the rich art galleries in Holland. From out of my tiredness and disgust at the neglect of humanity arose within me the desire to view those treasures, which in a boiling of greed I considered as my property; to enjoy them in an undisturbed solitude so that their finest, most secret voices might speak to me.

As the pompous watchmen, in the darkness of their misunderstanding, strode around through the halls announcing the close of the business day to the visitors, I hid right behind one of them in the darkest corner of a janitor’s closet that was closed off from the public. It was filled with brushes, brooms and buckets. From between the red dust fringes I saw a tall fellow with a sailor’s beard enter the hall and go straight across to where the last exhibit stood on its altar, the “Night Watch” of Rembrandt. He jingled his key ring in front of him, urging the last visitors out, indifferently rubbing his arm sleeve against the works of a rich and harmless time and spit into every second bowl which he found on his way, as if it was one of his duties. He went past my hiding place with his pointed mouth. Then I heard other watchmen coming from other directions, heard them speaking in the front hall and finally the clatter of keys sounded three times as the main entrance was locked up in a repulsive chain of noise.

I was alone and stepped out of my hiding spot onto the shore of a sea of silence which stretched forth from my feet into an infinity of directions. I went humbly among these choice spirits, conscious of my own baseness, and yet taken up in their soaring life. The pompous and popular pieces of the public hours lost their overwhelming majesty, and the unnoticed smaller masters, upon which the mark of neglect appeared, spoke in the relative twilight. I remained standing in front of an uncommonly charming little picture, which depicted the sunken Netherlands of the artist’s life. Nothing in the Holland of today appeared to be saved from those times, other than the lust for eating and drinking. It was a painting, which portrayed the inventory of an art gallery, whose walls were hung with paintings, whose easels carried important canvases and there was an intentional chaotic, kaleidoscopic charm combined with a unity and accord that bound it all together. At the time they loved to show off their riches, and assembled together in this painting appeared miniature copies of all the famous works of contemporaries or predecessors, so that it looked like an illustrated handbook of Dutch art history. The small master of this work included a selection of various favorites that were considered the most popular and precious in their time, and between the paintings stood groups of people. The paintings were so loyally depicted, so free of affectation and also from critical consideration, that we of today would scarcely be in a position to compare their characteristics to the originals. The people chatted, laughed, and all the gestures and gazes appeared to be focused on those images or looking out from the painting itself. It was just light enough to see that the Master who had painted this painting, the one in front of me, had played a little joke.

Among the famous paintings on the main wall in the uncommonly colorful art gallery, between Rabens, Rembrandt, Van de Velde, Vermeer van Delft, Frans Hals and Jan Steen hung this very same painting as well. All the ladies and gentlemen, all the Rubens, Rembrandts and all the others, and itself, were repeated once more in miniature. I wanted to laugh, but the twilight seemed so oppressive and heavy, that my laugh vanished noiselessly and suddenly it seemed as if folds of darkness began moving to allow someone through.

A voice spoke next to me, “The joke of the master appeals to you mine Herr?  Oh, at that time they loved their jokes and placed them alongside the deepest seriousness.”

A short, fat man stood next to me with his arms laid behind his back and a considerable protruding belly. His red, healthy face seemed incredibly happy to see the works of Frans Hals in this Harlem gallery. He was colorfully outfitted in a black jacket with a white collar and his nose glowed with the noble patina of Lucas Bols, founded in 1575. I was surprised at the foot stool that he so casually stepped upon with such certainty. He pointed at the painting and laid his finger on the spot where the painting of the gallery appeared for the third time.

“This appears to be the end of the series through the impossibility of further miniaturization. I tell you, mine Herr, you are wrong. There was nothing, at that time, which they would not dare to do. Through your boldness in allowing yourself to be locked in here, you have proven your zeal and love. I would like to lead you on a bit farther.”

Then he pulled a magnifying glass out of a pocket of his jacket, breathed on it and polished it with a silk cloth. As all the narrow bands of scattered light in the wide hall seemed to concentrate themselves into this glass and the sinking night was interrupted by a bright shimmering light, I called upon all the prudence I could muster. I knew that I was trying to cling to an unshakable pillar, one that was anchored in the deepest logic. In quick, circular sequences I built it up. There are technical limits to painting beyond which it is simply impossible to go any further. The finest strokes of the most undaunted brush could not be more delicate than Canaletto’s smallest ornamentation, the embroidery on the vestments of priests or the engraving of the gems on their monstrance.

And with a certain confidence in the decision of my will, to not let myself be fooled, I took the magnifying glass. At first I saw nothing other than huge blobs, mountains of color that adhered to the wide ditches of the canvas, swirls of red and blue in an insane rotation which suddenly resembled the spiral nebula of the hunting dog, Sirius. The drilling, sweeping forces of incalculable coincidences tore clouds of color apart from each other, threw them down onto to rough reefs and left them there to sink into the abyss of the mesh grid. But then I saw, from the summit of a high mountain, the flat surface of an image in front of me. And I knew, that it was the same repetition of the art gallery, which at this magnification appeared just as the original one did to the normal eye.

Then I lowered the hood: enough! This was a small miracle, one of those things that is not understandable, which the ancient times so dearly like to surprise us with, when we try to show ourselves as above them. But a curiosity, almost a physical compulsion, which I felt as a pressure in my neck, pulled the hood back off. I had to look inside – and was terrified.

My terror was something like the way it disturbs us, when we see a piece of our skin under strong magnification. This wrinkled, soft, jellylike substance cut with deep furrows, with the openings of the pores and the fat glands and the excretions of the shiny sweat glands with the smooth, blond, slimy hairs that looks like the image of a landscape on a planet whose ruler is disgust. Every sinking beneath the boundaries of the microscopic appears to excite nausea, which is the opposite of the upswing, which one receives when gazing on high. We measure the oversized things and are paralyzed with fear at those things smaller than the null point of our established proportions.

As I felt these chains of knowledge rattle through me, I grabbed swaying after that anchored column of my will, in order cling to it. But then something terrible happened. The column, which I grabbed for, pushed me back, or it was as if my hands were torn loose from its smoothness – I don’t know, it was the sensation of a purely physical blow or push, that threw me down an inclined plane. And sliding downward I saw the ever smaller becoming images of the gallery one after the other. They followed closely behind each other like the scenes of a theater, in which the figures of an evil dream performed a ghastly comedy of fear. The entire world was nothing more than an ever tighter becoming rectangular tunnel in which there was no going backwards, only forwards. They had pushed me into it and now I waited to take on the form of a pyramid. Paintings hung on the walls of this prison, paintings, paintings, paintings, in an endless succession, becoming smaller and smaller, until they sank into mathematical infinity. And despite that, they even still, in some inexplicable way, made the impression, that the images shown were always exact copies of the original painting repeated over and over again. The smiling Cavaliers, the curtseying Ladies, the groups in happy contemplation returned again in the same sequence in almost imperceptible reductions. It was always the same smile and the same curtsy on into infinity. The madness, the complete senselessness of this at the time caused all spatial notions of these incessant repetitions to flicker like a Jack-o-lantern of fear in front of me. I felt all regularities and harmonies collapse together, and while there was a whistling in my ears, my body was crushed into that horrible tunnel. My head came to a point and bored into the darkness of unconsciousness.  The watchman, that found me lying on the floor of the gallery, was surprised and indignant and brought me in front of the director. After I succeeded with great difficulty in describing my strange adventures to him, he shook his head and coined the term, ‘gallery illness’. Three Dutch professors of the best reputation were given the opportunity to study this unprecedented phenomenon with scientific thoroughness.”

During this explanation it had become entirely light. The sun bloomed forth from between two clouds. Our friend’s face was like an antique comedy mass; between the toothless jaws the dark hole of the mouth gaped with the tusks protruding far over the great patriarch’s beard. I once saw the image of a French guardsman in an illustrated war history. He was sitting down and putting a drinking mug to his mouth when his head was torn off by a shell. In its complete paralysis, which interrupted all life functions; in that moment, Richard Lionheart resembled that dead soldier. And then I saw something in the young, faded, and pale as if drained of blood, sunlight of the overflowing morning.

The hand with the pocket knife; that fearful hand, which had been playing some apparently harmless game around the edge of the gondola, during the capture of our attention, had almost completely cut through the rope which held our balloon to the earth. One strand of hemp after another released itself from its bondage with a soft snap, and only a thin strand still led to the safety of the ground. Richard Lionheart must have noticed the danger at the same time, because his paralysis was broken in a sudden explosion. He lunged at Kuperus and tried to seize him by the throat. But Eleagabal threw him back into his place with a short hand movement and then with barred fangs, gave a soundless laugh, as he pushed the electric button to signal the drawing in of the balloon.

The slow ride down happened in complete silence. The tension was at a high point where the peace of calmness had turned into a grimace. We had to expect that the rope would tear apart and the sudden jerk of the balloon would launch us into the unthinkable adventure of a death plunge. For a year we sank into the void, and the only thing that happened during this time, was the slow and inexorable rubbing of the rope on the edge of the gondola. When the spire of a tower top protruded into the solitude of our fear, we trembled. The tower point widened, then leapt into the roundness of a cupola beneath it and slid into a slender shaft across from us.

Gothic floral patterns went past . . . another tower. Then the glass roofs of the displayed palaces and finally, the entire ghost of one in the cold morning light, frozen dreams of lush splendor. We trembled more violently, and as the tree tops swam near us, Richard Lionheart tried to jump out of the gondola. Our wrestling with him sent a lurching through the gondola. Then we felt the delicious roughness of the earth. We climbed down among the workers and authorities, who forgot their grumpy sleepiness in astonishment over our bewilderment. How we came down from outer space, almost crying in amazement at our salvation, and greeted the precious feeling of solidity. Richard Lionheart took a deep breath, and his dead eyes came alive in a fire of hatred.

But Eleagabal Kuperus laughed silently, and his tusks hung over his gray patriarch’s beard.

“Prudence, my friend, prudence! Did you believe then, that this highest, most honorable and cautious company with limited liability, would rely on a simple hemp rope to ensure the integrity of this balloon? We have not yet been Americanized that much, and this old company is also happily, in possession of a security policy. Do you see this thick wire cable beneath the rolled ends of hemp? They know how to disguise complete safety with piquant charm, so that honorable family fathers can tell how they have participated in a dangerous balloon ride. Eleagabal Kuperus loved such jokes.

The Repulsion of the Will

By Karl Strobl

Translated by Joe Bandel

The thing that was venerable about our friend Eleagabal Kuperus was his full, long gray beard. It flowed from his face like the wrath from the countenance of Jehovah. Two triangular, pointed, yellow ivory tusks in the corners of his mouth were what was unusual about him. When he smiled they crept over his gray patriarch’s beard like dragons over the forest underbrush. And when he laughed, you could see that he had no other teeth at all in his entire mouth, other than those two upper canine teeth, which sat in his bulging red jaw.

But the venerable and the unusual met in his eyes and mixed in an iridescent greenish gray; the way water shimmers when it stands for a long time and whose clear natural purity is free of the dirty factory waste that pollutes in the honor of some indispensable industry; or the color of the sky, over whose happy expanse suddenly glides mysterious shadows and lights.

To be alone with Eleagabal Kuperus was joy and terror. We were alone with him, very much alone, at least 1000 meters above all other solitary things.

Fireworks exploded near us and Kuperus reached out into the small rain of artificial lightning that snaked like fire around his withered hand. Then everything was dark again; only a faint bubbling glow cooked out of the deep, above which the gondola appeared to be lightly swimming.

Above us swelled the immense body of a balloon, like the belly of a giant soaring animal. We stood in the night, fixed in space, in a condition of complete equilibrium between the pull from above, and the gravitational force of the earth.

“This is the place to talk of things that we cannot understand down below,” said Kuperus as he whittled with his knife at his bluish black fingernails, through which white, half-moons showed at the roots of the nails. They lay like protective steely capsules over especially fine, sensitive nerve endings in need of protection.

– “Do you mean to say that this few hundred meters height has the capacity to change our spirits that much?” asked Richard Lionheart.

Our courageous friend asked this question defensively, but I was resolute, to grasp the strangeness of this hour and felt ashamed, that he wanted to save himself. Kuperus looked at him and then smiled, in such a way that the ends of his teeth showed like the curious and dangerous tips of curving daggers.

“Young man, you carry the honorable name of Lionheart with good reason. Down there alone, when confronted with mouth and claws, with brass or explosives you keep your composure. You are a worthy hold over from the great century of enlightenment; one who has purified his soul several times in the fire of materialism. It has often appeared to me, as if you at times sit at the table with a hollow belly or at least are immune to the articles in Diderot’s Encyclopedia. But now, that we are suspended between heaven and earth, you should not forget that ‘there gives more things’ . . .”

“I don’t believe in them,” said Lionheart curtly, as if with that clubbing blow he wanted to destroy that which he did not dare to look at any closer.

“Belief is a crutch, for whose use we must have a solid ground beneath us. It is one of the products of the earth and lays down there between those displays of wood and stucco palaces, which we have so happily escaped. The laws of the Spirit change quickly, the more distant we are from there, where they codify them in order to believe in them, more distant — in a relationship, whose graphic portrayal I leave for psychophysics to contemplate.”

“What do you want to say about it?”

“Nothing more, other than that up here we are more sensitive despite all of its power, which down below compels consciousness to flow under a cover of ice. Perhaps we will be shown entirely extraordinary phenomena, when we succeed in transplanting ourselves into this empty air space, something different, like the light of the Geissler tubes, that emits its wonderful blossoms in a vacuum.”

[Translator’s note: Geissler tubes were the precursors to neon lights.]

“You compare physical experiments with those of the spirit.”

Kuperus let his hand with the pocket knife hang over the edge of the gondola, so that the shimmer of the lighted city below glinted on the blade. The large yellow canines crawled out of the gaping mouth in a silent laugh.

“Now you try saving yourself in duality and might as well become a Monist and convince yourself of the agreement between the laws of physicality and those of the soul. I don’t want to confuse you and only ask you to take the Geissler tubes as an image.”

The Italian festival in the wooden city down there below us, over which our captive balloon hung in the night, set off two fiery suns at the same time, which began their rotations not far beneath us. They whirled and rattled around an uncertain axis, and a reflection of their sparkling life appeared in the venerable and strange eyes of our friend Kuperus. The blade of the pocket knife glimmered red like the tip of a glowing iron.

“I want to show you a small thing, an easily achieved experiment. In this condition of equilibrium, in which we now find ourselves, every bodily movement produces a rocking of this gondola, although, naturally, you do not want this, because it is not comfortable to establish the condition of a sea storm way up here. Really think about it, how painful it would be if the gondola turned into a pendulum, and you attempted to keep it as quiet as possible.”

Richard Lionheart was silent under the eyes of our friend and I looked at him. That was what he was really doing, trying to keep the gondola from rocking. The wicker basket swam lightly on a sea of silence between heaven and earth, and only the suns rattled slowly and tiredly as they turned beneath us, so that the solitude became heavier and more immense. It was like the bleakness of a locked room that is filled with the humming of dying flies; that, through some coincidence wandered into their grave and vainly pushed themselves to death against the dusty window glass.

Suddenly I understood why we sat up there; why Eleagabal took us on this nightly climb using all his persuasive skills on us; and the intentional bribes, which he had to use on the English authorities to purchase this balloon ride. I could hear all of their objections.

“Herr, no, no, that is against our policy. It is also forbidden by the police. And something really could happen.”

Our friend’s response, at the last one, as he regarded the gentlemen with a smile, “I was there, when the first airship crashed, and nothing happened to me, other than getting my front teeth knocked out.”

And with that I felt the sky above me, like a soft wave, and the light of the Milky Way, which flowed down upon me like a veil.

Suddenly, Richard Lionheart cried, “Watch out, do you feel that! Do you feel that?”

His hands gripped at the edges of the gondola and his fear contorted fingers dug into the wicker basket. His face was distorted by terror and an inability to breathe; his bloodshot eyes stared straight out, like those of someone being whipped. The twin points of Eleagabal’s patriarch beard trembled.

“It will pass.”

“Magician, conjurer,” said Richard Lionheart, and his exhaustion made him entirely limp, like a collapsing children’s balloon.

He leaned back and breathed heavily.

“You have experienced the storm and the rocking entirely by yourself, the two of us have remained solidly in the gondola, do you understand this?”

“You can see this trick in any of the better market places.”

“You are wrong if you take this for some type of suggestion. I have been entirely passive and let it work all by itself. Here you have a beautiful little experiment in the repulsion of the will.”

“You are not going to confuse me anymore with your mystical words.”

“I cannot do anymore then give you the needed explanation. For centuries we have found in our so called superior Western civilization, a gruesome confusion that exists through all of its dimensions, the belief that the will is a blessing for the bringing of power. Having no will is thought of as unlucky, the one afflicted with a sick will is called a criminal in the language of our culture. Will is the same as power, and all dramatists of all times have glorified nothing else other than the will in their works. In doing this they overlook the fact that any working power creates a reaction.

In the physical world they recognize this and have calculated the recoil of the powder and of the rocket. But because of a loud pride they have not noticed the more remote working of the will, and the devastation which is caused in its proximity. That means they don’t notice that both originate out of one and the same cause. The dramatist consoles himself over this incalculable reaction with the construction of a mystical destiny, and the metaphysicians, blind moles in the ground of reality, grope around in torturous tunnels after knowledge.

Your applied will has entirely counterbalanced your equilibrium and quiet and has placed the gondola in motion for you. There is only one thing lacking, that my friend and I do not have the same directed will as yours, have not enveloped and helped strengthen it so as to bring the storm you experience into reality. The will of the masses and its repulsion frustrates each power individually and collectively creates world history.”

“You are witty Eleagabal Kuperus, but the sun will set, and your words freeze into clinging ice.”

The illuminated city became quiet and its lights were extinguished. The stars hung in the pale night, with the melancholy brilliance of their isolation. The shadow of Eleagabal’s head was separated from the rest of his body by the high edge of the gondola and cast its shadow against the green damask of the balloon, like the head of John the Baptist on a dark platter.

“Would you like some more examples, so you can understand me more clearly? Do you know the secret of the unending melody? I don’t mean the musical principle of happiness, as Wagner calls it, the one that states that the movement of the melody overcomes all natural attempts at completion, so that its horizon continues to expand infinitely.

Instead, I mean any small sequences of a few beats, which are so downright complete, are so enclosed within themselves, that they can be repeated endlessly. A chord of notes, that circles repeatedly and in every repetition simply repeats itself over again. Mozart brought such melodies out of himself in his sunny hours and the completion of creation itself comes out of the various lower octaves.

When our ear understands this melody for the first time, the will then responds with every possible attempt to escape from it, only to generate a new impetus in a resounding repetition at a new octave. The normal human can easily determine that the power of repulsion is small, as is the positive power of the will. The artist carries the synthesis of both forces within himself and becomes suspended like we are, fixed solidly between heaven and earth. Lunacy enters in, when the greatness of the repulsion overcomes the forward impulse.”

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