Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Should I Stay or Should I Go

Not long ago I had asked the specialist if I could contemplate travelling. Naturally, anytime, he said, but the way he said naturally struck me as sinister. On the other hand,whatever condition we are in, we must always do what we want to do, and if we want to go on a journey, then we must do so and not worry about our condition, even if it's the worst possible condition, because if it is, we're finished anyway, whether we go on the journey or not, and it's better to die having made the journey we've been longing for than to be stifled by our longing. It was eighteen months since I'd been anywhere. The last time had been to Palma, because I always regarded it as the most perfect place. In November, when the fog so cruelly oppresses and depresses us in Austria, I had run through the streets of Palma in an open necked shirt and drunk my coffee every day in the shade of the plane trees on the famous Bourne. And in Palma I'd been able to make my definitive notes on Reger. True, I later lost them, to this day I don't know where, thus managing to destroy the fruits of two month's intellectual effort through a piece of gross carelessness. Quite unforgivable! Just to think that I might now be sitting on the terrace of the Nixe Palace, eating my olives and drinking my glass of water, not just absorbed, but utterly captivated by the sight of others on the terrace, who would be just as taken up by their fancies and fantasies as I was with mine! We often fail to realize that if we want to go on existing we need to summon up all our strength in order to wrench ourselves off the spot where we're stuck. My sister's right to keep using the word travel in my presence, wielding it over me like a whip all the time, I tell myself. She doesn't just use the word casually every moment, but with a definite aim in mind, the preservation of my very existence. Naturally the observer can see through the person he is observing more ruthlessly and realistically than the person observed, I said. There are so many wonderful towns in the world, so many landscapes and coastlines I've seen in my life, but for me none has ever been as perfect as Palma. But what if one of my dreaded attacks comes when I'm in Palma and I'm lying in bed in my hotel room with no proper medical attention and in a state of mortal fear? We have to envisage the most terrible eventualities and make the journey nonetheless, I told myself, yet at the same time I said, I can't take all my piles of notes with me; they'll hardly go in two suitcases, and to take more than two suitcases to Palma is madness. I was driven almost to distraction by the thought of having to go to the station, get on the train, go from the train to the airport, board the plane and all the rest with two or even three suitcases. But I didn't abandon the thought of Palma or the Melia--the Mediterraneo having closed for good years ago. I had taken a firm hold in the idea, and it had taken a firm hold on me. I walked about the house, to and fro, backwards and forwards, upstairs and downstairs, unable to rid myself of the thought of leaving Peiskam behind me; in fact I made not the slightest attempt to rid myself of the thought of Palma, but went on fuelling it until in the end I got so far as to take my two large suitcases out of the hall chest and place them beside it on the floor as though I really was going to leave. On the other hand, I said to myself, we mustn't give way at once to a sudden whim. Where would that land us? But the idea was there. I placed the suitcases between the chest and the door and contemplated them from a favorable angle. How long it is since I last took those cases out of the chest! I said to myself. Far too long. In fact, the cases were dusty, even though they'd been in the chest since my last trip to Palma. I got a duster and wiped them. At once I felt very sick. I hadn't even finished dusting one case when I was obliged to support myself on the chest, overcome by a sudden fit of breathlessness. And in this condition you're thinking of flying to Palma--in the midst of all the dreadful difficulties that are invariably attendant upon such a journey, a journey which would be nothing to a healthy person, but which is far too much for a sick person and could even lead to his death? After a while, however, I dusted the second case, proceeding more cautiously this time, and then I sat down in the iron chair in the hall, my favourite chair. The articles about Mendelssohn Bartholdy can go in one of the cases, I told myself, my clothes and underclothes in the other--the Mendelssohn papers in the larger one, the clothes and underclothes in the smaller one. What's the point of having such elegant luggage, I said to myself, at least sixty years old and going back to the latter years of my maternal grandmother? She had good taste, as these suitcases of hers testify. The Tuscans have good taste, I told myself, as is borne out time and again. If I go away, I said to myself, sitting in the iron chair, I shall simply be leaving a country whose absolute futility utterly depresses me every single day, whose imbecilities daily threaten to stifle me, and whose idiocies will sooner or later be the end of me, even without my illnesses. Whose political and cultural conditions have of late become so chaotic that they turn my stomach when I wake up every morning, even before I am out of bed. Whose indifference to the intellect has long since ceased to cause the likes of me to despair, but if I am to be truthful only to vomit. I shall be going away from a country, I told myself, sitting in my iron chair, in which everything which once gave pleasure to so-called thinking people, or at least made it possible for them to go on existing, has been expelled, expunged and extinguished, in which only the most primitive instinct for survival prevails and the slightest pretension to thought is stifled at birth. In which a corrupt state and a corrupt church join forces to pull at the endless rope which, with the utmost callousness and ruthlessness, they have for centuries wound round the neck of a blind and stupid people, a people imprisoned in its stupidity by its rulers. In which truth is trodden underfoot, and lies are sanctified by all official organs as the only means to any end. I shall be leaving a country, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, in which truth is not understood or quite simply not accepted, and falsehood is the only legal tender in all transactions. I shall be leaving a country in which the church practices hypocrisy and in which socialism, having come to power, practices exploitation, and in which art says whatever is acceptable to these two. I shall be leaving a country in which a people educated to stupidity allows its ears to be stopped by the church and its mouth by the state, and in which everything I hold sacred has for centuries ended up in the slop pails of the rulers. If I go away, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, I shall be going away from a country in which I no longer have any place and in which I have never found happiness. If I go away, I shall be going away from a country in which the towns stink and the inhabitants of the towns have become coarsened. I shall be going away from a country in which the language has become vulgar and the minds of those who speak this vulgar language have for the most part become deranged. I shall be going away from a country, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, in which the only model for behavior is set by the so-called wild animals. I shall be going away from a country in which darkest night prevails at noonday, and in which virtually the only people in power are blustering illiterates. If I go away, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, I shall be leaving the disgusting, depressing, and unconscionably filthy public lavatory of Europe. To go away, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, means leaving behind me a country which for years has done nothing but afflict me with the most damaging depression and has taken every opportunity, no matter where or when, of insidiously and malignantly urinating on my head. But isn't it madness to think of going to Palma when I'm in such a state, and when my general physical condition doesn't even permit me to walk two hundred yards out of the door? I asked myself as I sat in the iron chair. As I sat there, I thought first about Taormina and the Timeo, with Christina and her Fiat, then about Palma and the Melia, with the Canellas, their three storey palace and their Mercedes. And suddenly, as I sat in the iron chair, I saw myself running through the narrow streets of Palma. Running through the streets! I cried out, sitting in the iron chair, when I'm not capable of even walking round the outside of my own house, let alone running through the streets of Palma. For a sick man like me to entertain such an idea isn't just bordering on megalomania; such an idea is well beyond the border, it's sheer madness. And I couldn't get this madness out of my head. As I sat in the iron chair I couldn't call a halt to the madness and didn't even try. On the contrary, I indulged it to such an extent that I couldn't help shouting out the word mad. The Melia or the Timeo, Christina or the Canellas, the Fiat or the Mercedes, I speculated, unable to stop myself, as I sat in the iron chair, drawing refreshment from these ridiculous speculations -- the Melia with all the hundreds and thousands of yachts outside the window -- the Timeo with its bougainvillaeas flowering at the window -- the Melia and the incredible sea breeze -- the ancient bathroom at the Timeo -- Christina or the Canellas -- the bougainvillaeas or the sea breeze -- the Cathedral or the Greek theater, I thought, sitting in the iron chair, the Mallorcans or the Sicilians -- Etna or Pollensa -- Ramon Llull and Ruben Dario or Pirandello. At present, I finally told myself, since I want to start my work on Mendelssohn Bartholdy, I need a cosmopolitan atmosphere -- more people, more activity, more excitement, I thought as I sat in the iron chair, not a place with just one street -- and on a hill at that, hence requiring exertion -- and just one cafe, but a place with many busy streets -- and squares! and many cafes, and as many people around me as possible, for at present I need nothing so much as to have people around me - not that I want any dealings with them: I don't even want to speak with them, I thought, sitting in the iron chair, but I must have them around me. And so for all these obvious reasons I decided on Palma and against Taormina, in favour of the Canellas and against Christina, and generally in favour of a climate which would be positively beneficial to me in my condition, a summery climate such as I might expect in Palma even in February, but not in Taormina, where in February it is still wintery and rains nearly all the time. And in February, I thought, sitting in the iron chair, Etna is seldom to be seen, and even then its covered in snow from top to bottom, a constant and harmful reminder of the Alps, and therefore of Austria and home, which could only sicken me again and again. But suddenly this all appeared to me as senseless fantasizing, indulged in by an over wrought invalid, sitting in his iron chair; it did little more than make me sadder than I already was, and ended in dejection.

Thomas Bernhard Concrete
trans. by David McLintock, 1984

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