If I didn’t obstinately believe in the power of the written word, I would never have recorded this confession, patchworked together from fragments. Not even my unhappiness could have compelled me to do so, and indeed, perhaps I would have been wiser, rather than lamentably scribbling away, which could render me a monster in the reader’s eyes, to turn to a psychiatrist. But I didn’t dare subject myself to therapy, fearing that my doctors would make me all the more ill.
Which is why I decided on the journal. The silence of the pages pressing against each other, so I hoped, would sooner or later swallow up my depraved thoughts. Yes, the written words would show mercy upon the perverse emotions I kept securely under lock and key, as I wouldn’t have dared share them with anyone. Instead I remained silent, resigning myself to a continual lie; a lie which in turn built a trap for my cowardice, indiscernibly, so that, after all the years I’d spent trying to escape, it might take me prisoner once and for all. Had I committed a crime, and done so in time, perhaps this would have saved me; for a constraint on my external freedom would have forced me into disciplined thought, and then – so I childishly deluded myself – my illness would not have had the opportunity to unfold as it did. As a law-abiding citizen, however, I became unworthy of simple punishment, so nothing could protect me from myself.
If I didn’t talk about my degenerate illness even now, I’d throw in the towel once and for all. Like a fool, I believe that by the time I reach the last of the words I’ve recorded, I might breathe easier, and no longer will it be the benevolent narcosis of medications which allows me to accept the unbearable.
Perhaps it was all decided at the beginning. It’s hard to put a finger on, but I was always drawn instinctively to illnesses. As a child, for example, I regularly escaped into hospitals with a varying assortment of suspicious complaints, as if I could be secure nowhere else. Hospitals were my world, for no matter how fixedly ordered the outside world purported to be, I felt genuinely free only between those dun olive walls. Although after two or three weeks it was invariably determined that there was nothing wrong with me, even while packing my things to go home I knew without a doubt that, soon enough, I would return. That which children fear, that which makes adults uneasy, was soothing to me.
Above all it wasn’t the sundry peculiarities of this or that clinical case that interested me, but the enigmatic aura that illness in general constructs about itself. No sooner would I step into a hospital at my father’s side than I would sense this: I had only to notice the tired face of the plump old man slumped behind the little sliding window of the porter’s booth by the hospital entrance—a face curtained by a mixture of boredom and the bureaucratic solemnity porters are expected to display. Surely he was among the most important people here; despite his blank stare he wore his dark-blue hospital-issue overalls with the pride of someone entrusted with authority—well aware that, here, he was not simply a guard carrying out his duty but a breathing crossing-bar at the front dividing the two worlds. It seemed that his eyes, glittering sometimes dimly, sometimes almost brightly, exuded an inscrutable light that enveloped all those who entered the hospital. I noticed the difference immediately, as keenly as a virologist might sense at once that a laboratory is sterile whereas others don’t notice a thing. I received this light into myself with deep breaths. But let me clarify what I mean by “light”; for in fact what little light did seep through the windows was subdued in effect by that familiar hospital smell most people find so disagreeable. Perhaps I’m not mistaken in now asserting in words what I then sensed: that this glitter was a materialized extension of the sundry illnesses of those suffering in the hospital present and past. This perception of mine was akin to those rare and fortunate occasions when we manage to see behind another person’s smile and notice its supporting pillars; knock those pillars out of place, and what a moment before had seemed indestructible, is gone, like that.
I breathed easier on seeing the doctors appear in the hallway. Ah yes, I’m home once again, I thought as my father accompanied me, as usual, to the in-patient receiving office. I was worried only that the doctor who’d been summoned to give me a last minute look before sending me on to the appropriate ward might reconsider things, and be pleased to inform us that I needn’t stay after all. But vigilance saved me. Unfalteringly I followed through on the symptoms I had come up with a week earlier, so that the doctor, after yet another test, would be ready to hand me over to some darling nurse. How could he have suspected that a ten-year-old boy was playing sick? While he racked his brains over the cause of my constant headaches, recurring dizziness, and fainting spells, I wanly awaited the verdict, worried that my trickery would be uncovered any minute. The sight of my frightened face, however, could hardly have led him to suspect some scheming on my part, especially not the sort at issue—fed by my desire to be in a place everyone else would, if possible, abandon with haste. But I deceived him: when he notified us that a sample of my spinal fluid would have to be drawn, I gave a sigh of relief, as if this test held the promise of a speedy recovery.
Next I was led into the ward and shown my bed. Rarely would I arrive with pajamas in hand, so my father would ask the nurse to dig me up some standard, hospital-issue nightclothes. When, a little while later, a rosy-cheeked nurse placed the clothing before me, my reaction was not that of other boys—not a bashful stare, but exhilaration. As if only with this ill-matched, overwashed uniform could I become a fully legitimate denizen of the hospital, in contrast with those patients who wore their own pajamas and robes, and whom as a result I did not consider full-fledged hospital residents but practically civilians. I may have looked ungainly in those scraps of fabric, but they were now mine as surely as the guile by which I’d succeeded in deceiving everyone around me. Now I only waited to say good-bye to Father. Oh, he tried cheering me up, he did, saying I shouldn’t be scared, that they’d pay me a visit in no time. But even as he patted me on the head, I was hoping they’d take as long as possible before tearing me out of the sense of freedom that awaited me. No sooner did he step from the ward than I gave a sigh of relief. My final link with the outside world had disappeared: no longer would Father’s presence disturb my solitude.
In this confinement, the fear I never could have overcome at home or at school began to slowly let up. As if I could get air only here, cramped between four walls, separated from the outside world. I breathed in what my roommates’ sick bodies and frightened expressions exuded; and doing so was as liberating a sensation as a convict must feel on unexpectedly being granted two days of freedom. It was in this atmosphere, bleak and sad to practically everyone else, that my self-identity began to take shape, albeit in a highly questionable manner. Not only was I soothed by the proximity of my fellow patients, but I actually drew strength from within them; I nourished myself on their worries, uncertainties, and pains, not unlike those creatures that cull their food from excrement. I didn’t even have to scrutinize their faces to discover on them that palpable vibration, composed of a marqueterie of fear. Fear of their illnesses. Perhaps it was a heightened sensitivity to this shadow play, distinguishable from their bodies, that attracted me to the wards to begin with; for there I could observe that the worse off someone was, the more this vibration appeared on him as something separable from, yet nonetheless in contact with, the material world. Later, when I would catch the eyes of one of my fellow patients, I met with this stare, which appeared to have torn through a thick veil. It seemed it wasn’t even him watching me, but rather, that a current of sorts surrounded his face, and this current was descending upon me.
It was here, too, that I learned another thing: silence lays the path for our understanding those people who, for whatever reason, we deem interesting. For days on end I lay near these wordless bodies, because only this way could I truly map them. Of course, it is generally held that we can get to know people best through conversation. My experience on this point differs. A breathing body near us transpires something of singular essence as surely as the blood of the newly executed might suddenly release its still vital scent on touching freshly fallen snow; one need only note the person-specific “messages” that emanate from pleasant or unpleasant smells. Perhaps my job was made easier because illness rendered the bodies of my fellow patients vulnerable, having torn away the armor they’d earlier built around themselves through steady practice in the outside world. Here, on the hospital beds, bodies touched as imperceptibly as the individual flavors of vegetables and sauces commingling on a dinner plate served up by a master chef.
Not even if he’d told me in words, could I have grasped the terrible powerlessness emanating from the man in the bed next to mine. Not only did his body seem bound to the mattress with invisible ropes, but before I knew it, I, too, had been sapped of strength. Through the arm’s length of space between us I accepted his immobility into myself, and soon enough whatever had slowed his blood pressure had done the same to me. I’d wormed my way to the center of the life force that held his system intact, if you will: suddenly I was overcome by a warmth of unknown origin. Why shouldn’t I assume that the human body, this skin-draped mass of breathing flesh, this vessel stuffed with cells and tissues, this receptacle filled with fluids at or about 98.6°, submits under given circumstances to a wholly different gravitational force than the one we’re used to? Say, to the magnetism that fuses two bodies without their ever touching. When under the influence of this force we perceive things in much the same way as dogs that, even from a great distance, appear capable of sensing that their masters are in danger.
Had I only listened to the complaints of this or that roommate, never could I have understood the gloom on their silent faces, their folded hands, and in bearings that spoke of self-resignation. Simply by observing how he lay on his bed, for example, I managed to determine the relationship of the person across from me to his illness. When he buried his head in the pillow or clasped his hands about the nape of his neck, I knew that, once more, he was worrying himself silly over the next day’s operation; although it so happened that just beforehand, each of us had gone about telling him how groundless his fears in fact were. Having listened to the encouraging words, he had feigned tiredness. But he couldn’t deceive me. Only now was he truly distressed, as I saw plainly from the way he held his hands. When, after a while, he had had enough of his solitary fears and began talking once again, how different an effect his sentences had! It wasn’t the meaning of the words as they fell beside each other that I now found myself interpreting, but the mysterious relationship that accommodated his words to the back of his hand, the way he held his head, his lineaments, and his ever-changing expression. It now seemed that he was involuntarily breathing in reverse, only so as to first introduce to his body the sounds he was so busy formulating; for he could thus give news of his distress. The words thus brought to the surface the broken fragments of the fear lurking in his cells and tissues. Perhaps I perceived the workings of this exceptional process only because I’d already spent days silently studying the body he inhabited.
This impression or illusion of mine was probably due partly to the fact that when people are confined together in a tight space for long, their minds sometimes turn faint presentiments about what the other minds as well as their own are up to, into torrential certainties. At any rate, it can safely be said that illness sweeps us into a radically new if temporary paradigm of being. What happens is this: our internal sense of time overwhelms our usual perception of the clock on the wall, of the world outside us. Oddest of all, while we hardly even noticed this mental bellwether of ours before, within moments we are on the most intimate of terms. Unknown yet familiar, it severs us indiscernibly from the outside world. This is, I believe, a force equal in potency to intelligence, and one whose presence is revealed by illness. If only for seconds, it can return us to a unity that, we thought, wrongly, we had forever lost.
Most people loathe hospital smells. Their stomachs turn, and if possible they open a window. This was not me. I breathed in these obnoxious odors with rapture. If a fellow patient received a monstrous shot in the arm or had a bandage reapplied before bedtime, for example, and the bloody swab of cotton or wound-soaked gauze was left atop a nightstand to stink up the room, my nostrils flared. Many patients managed to talk their way out of their daily baths, but was I troubled by the putrefied smell of their bodies? No, I simply ascribed the stench as rightly belonging to the store of hospital scents, and accepted it as an integral part of life within these walls.
Every day I took long walks around the building. My favorite place was the waiting area before the operating room, where I invariably encountered wheelchairs and rolling beds. Lustfully I breathed in the smells escaping through the door of that room, like someone already so familiar with the fragrances of the most diverse flowers that he would much prefer to finally taste a petal instead. Then I walked over to the outpatient receiving area, to those freshly arrived people who, only minutes before, had been coming and going about the city. The odor of gasoline exuded from their coats along with a wide range of other smells that had settled upon them in minute particles—the stench of the city. These conspicuously “civilian” odors were strange compared to the hospital air I’d gotten used to. So it was all for naught, was it, that invisible filter that, so I was convinced, hung in the air by the porter’s booth? These recalcitrant smells had been able to slip in here nonetheless! I could only hope that they too, would soon be soaked up by the dominant odor. And sure enough, soon I found myself imagining that the very color of the outpatients’ breath had changed: unsuspecting strangers are just as subject as anyone to the hospital’s unspoken, unwritten, unchangeable laws. Do know that I am not referring to measurable conditions brought on by humidity, air pressure, or even some malodorous mixture of bacteria, but to that which might be called the hospital’s “actual psychic climate”; or, it might be said, its psychic space free of material influences. Only the initiated are privy to this knowledge. Priests and sacristans understand this full well as their flocks depart the house of worship; cantors, too, may perceive it somewhat if adequately sensitive.
Sometimes I would leave the waiting outpatients behind and head off toward those former patients who, a few days before, might have been walking about these same hallways. It was entirely by chance that I first happened upon a hospital morgue. I couldn’t even recall how I wound up in the basement, but all at once I’d left the building, and found myself there after a short walk. Unable to get in, I could determine only roughly what deodorizers were used by the paid servants of death to make their jobs bearable. The elusive odor of newly rotting flesh also managed to waft its way to my nose somewhat, but it had to overcome various obstacles: walls, doors, and the pumping mechanisms of the air-conditioning system. Yet I couldn’t indulge in such reveries for long, as I was regularly shooed away from there.
Unlike my roommates, I didn’t mind the hospital food. When, as happened each day around noon, the food cart rolled into the room, they conspicuously sneered, as if looking upon swill. By contrast my mouth began watering at once, and before the food ever touched me, my tongue perceived the flavor of the oversalted chicken or beef broth and the vaguely milky, stewed spinach or cabbage the other patients turned their noses at. Sometimes my fellow patients completely avoided the meals they were served, instead unwrapping the fried pork or breaded chicken that family or friends had brought in during visiting hours. Their fussiness suited me well: after finishing my own portion, I eagerly fell upon their untouched plates. Ah, the life! I felt like a veritable gentleman.
Although I would have preferred not to notice my roommates’ stares on such occasions, I knew full well they were watching me as if I were some hog let loose in the ward. All the same, I didn’t raise my head. Instead I stared fixedly into my plate, reflecting upon those fellow patients who found the hospital food so disagreeable that they’d been literally starving for days. As for myself, I’d already had five cups of truly pathetic, sugar-rich, faintly lemony tea that morning, and I called out to the nurse as she went away: Couldn’t I have just one more cup? I said this without looking up. Although I was all but certain I wouldn’t have discovered genuine ill-will in my fellow patients’ searching glances, I feared their stares. But there was no avoiding humiliation. I brought it upon myself; for I had a guilty conscience knowing that others remained hungry even as I ate. As soon as I stopped eating I slowly raised my head and even cast a stealthy glance at this or that roommate. Suddenly I felt light. The shame I’d felt directed toward myself from my observers’ stares only moments before had now disappeared without a trace. Though without exception they left the room after lunch, I wasn’t left alone. No, all around me I heard the muffled heartbeats of illusory strangers who’d somehow or other wormed their way into my bed. So then, this protracted, torturous meal had some significance after all, I thought while pulling their pliable bodies about myself on the mattress. Oh yes, we were a happy, satiated bunch—satiated not by fried chicken and the like, but by the sweet-sour scent of our limbs, our genitals, nestling up against each other.
I moved about these hospitals feeling just as much at home as some woman who, after many years, happens upon the brothel where she was born and raised; for that brothel was, after all, home to her, no matter what it signifies to the world at large. For me, even the most neglected, unkempt hospital promised freedom; once inside, I could look out upon the world without being accused of having done anything wrong. At most, people would feel sorry for me, and since pity is indelibly bound up with the purer sensation of love, my awareness of being pitied was comforting. And yet it wasn’t this, but the world of opportunity that would have been unavailable to me on the outside, that really fed my desire to be hospitalized. To observe the sick. A hospital was a laboratory of the soul, where I could glean information available almost nowhere else.
On some days I got my neighbors to talk not through silence on my part but by asking them directly to tell me about their illnesses. (From the age of fourteen I was no longer sent to the children’s ward, but was placed among the men.) The expertise with which one middle-aged man in particular related his troubles to me would have befit a doctor. It was very nearly with devotion that he told me the story of his hemorrhoids. He began by recounting the difficulties of defecation, an act that, he observed, most people think about as casually they perform it. But if only some such person were to take his place, he said, hatefully glinting his tiny eyes at me, he would understand at once what tortures the supposedly carefree act of expelling one’s excrement can hold in store. Initially even he had regarded his predicament with humor. After all, while sitting fruitlessly on the toilet he could read his favorite newspapers from beginning to end, and that mischievous tickling from inside his buttocks occasionally prompted him to chuckle. But when, one day, he found himself waiting in vain a half hour for something to happen, he became flat-out annoyed. Only later did he realize that, compared to the discomforts yet to come, his patience had yet to be tested.
He paused briefly, as if afraid that recalling these events might cause him to re-experience the pain. But, no doubt on convincing himself that, after an operation that could be called a success, he had no cause for concern, he resumed his presentation. If you’re unlucky, he said, ominously raising his voice, then by God you’re at the mercy of your excrement, especially if it’s as stubbornly rock-hard as his had been in recent months. As he’d told his wife more than once, shit is the master of man. This thought occurred to him when he once spent an entire night on the toilet. Finally he pumped the lousy little sausage out through the thick web of veins around his anus. Sure enough, what emerged was bloody as all hell, just like the textbooks say. Only later did he look up the relevant chapter in the medical reference encyclopedia.
Had I read Nietzsche by the time I was fourteen, I would no doubt have interjected, “Sir, you are absolutely right. Why, that German gentleman pronounced long ago that man would have a far easier time of it imagining himself as God if he didn’t have a hole on his bottom half.” Since I was so young, however, this fellow patient had to be content with sympathetic nodding on my part, which of course took some doing to accomplish tactfully, as a fit of laughter sometimes came surging up into my throat.
The previous week, he continued, he couldn’t postpone the operation any longer, and had no choice but to check in to the hospital. He’d expected a routine incision. But when they lay him on his belly the next day on the operating table, and the shovel-handed doctor began poking about inside his buttocks, his head spun. He was angry with himself, too, for not having taken note of the doctor’s hands the day before, hands which, he said, looked more like a common laborer’s than a surgeon’s. But this wasn’t what he wanted to talk about just now after all, but about that particular posture. He’d lived through a thing or two in his day, to be sure, but never, never had he found himself in such an excruciatingly awkward situation. Imagine, he said, lowering his voice: there you are, buck naked and whimpering on the table, on your belly. Your legs are spread apart, your bottom half is propped up, and there’s this sandpapery hand the size of a garden shovel fiddling around your sphincter, which it sometimes stretches out, as if bent on directing the scalpel there, only there. He felt as though all his secrets had been exposed to the world. This is not to mention the discreet puffs of wind that warmed not only his behind from time to time, but the doctor’s rummaging fingers as well. Of course, he tried to smooth things over with profuse apologies, but the sympathetic humming of the young female nurse only heightened his shame. “Believe me,” he said, “if I was a philosopher type, this little operation would at least have made me see the world differently.” But my fellow patient had to cut short his philosophizing, for a nurse arrived to tell him it was time for re-bandaging his wound. I had enjoyed his presentation. Indeed, how illuminating it would be if certain men of intellect would undertake to verify their discoveries while in this particular delicate position.
On the brink of adolescence my predilection toward hospitals underwent a decisive change. Previously I’d been satisfied with any ward, enjoying medical wards every bit as much as ear, nose, and throat clinics. After all, the whole point had been to get admitted to any health-care institution that bore some resemblance to a military barracks. From the age of sixteen, however, I had a decided preference for psychiatric wards, as I felt it below me to spend those one or two weeks I’d taken such pains to secure for myself, among those patients with run-of-the-mill problems such as circulatory or respiratory diseases. Another factor in this change in my preferred specialization was, of course, the fact that in these wards I could more easily fool the appropriate people into believing in my supposed illnesses. Yes, it was there that my talent for conjuring up all manner of symptoms really proved itself. If the examining doctor wasn’t prone to take my headaches or my inexplicable nausea seriously, I turned to shrewder tactics. Not least, I recounted those everyday musings that in normal circumstances I would have kept silent about, if for no other reason that I imagined I wasn’t the only person with an active if strange imagination. Gaining admittance to a psychiatric ward, however, required a deliberate approach. Effusively I related my recurring fantasies; for example, while sitting in a third-floor box at the opera, I often wondered what would happen if, at the dramatic climax, I was to leap onto those unsuspecting people seated below. During the intermissions I sometimes went about picking out my victims. Occasionally I considered bounding up to the stage and pulling the lead tenor’s beard while he was busy sounding a high C. Naturally I’d scrap the idea at once, though soon enough my mind was off in another shocking direction: using the deep-cut décolletage of the full-bosomed, middle-aged lady sitting beside me to my advantage, in one deft motion I’d slip my hand underneath her blouse. Then I would turn to her husband and ask, politely: was your wife’s breast so warm even before leaving for the opera? Sometimes, so I told the doctor, I had an overwhelming urge to smack a policeman walking opposite me in the light of day, although I’d always feared those in uniform.
From the suspicion with which my doctor watched me, I knew even mid-way into my confession that I’d assured myself a spot in the psychiatric ward for at least two weeks. And in fact he was already busy dictating some preliminary diagnosis, in Latin, to his assistant, while to me he said only, don’t you worry, lad, they’ll look you over good.
Having occupied the designated bed with all the usual smugness I assumed after such success, I waited with enthusiasm to see what wounded personalities chance had now brought me into contact with. In this ward, I suspected, it wouldn’t be some lyrical yet reflective, objective presentation on hemorrhoids that would make my stay worth its every moment, but, for example, someone’s picturesque account of a fairly minor nervous breakdown. My roommates were mostly middle-aged and older men. I was virtually alone in having earned at such a young age the nonplussed respect that patients in other wards accorded their peers in the psychiatric ward. Of course, there was just as much room in this respect for pity as there was for contempt; for my part, at least, I immediately read disapproval on the faces of outside patients who strayed into our territory, stares that unambiguously branded me as someone not to be trusted. After all, there are respectable and unrespectable illnesses, but even the most innocent form of neurosis is relegated to the latter category, like an innocuous case of gonorrhea. Still, it must be said that individual attitudes can shift somewhat over time, for often those who least suspect themselves, their friends, and their relatives prone to such troubles eventually come to know these wards quite well. Perhaps it is the vague awareness of this possibility in the hospital population at large that served to explain the contradictory attitude which, after all, still assured the residents of the psychiatric ward a touch of respect.
I placed the psychiatric ward at the top of the hospital hierarchy. My sensitivity, and almost instinctive attraction, to disease had evolved to the point where the meaning of my frequent flights into hospitals in the preceding years now crystallized before me as but preparation for the real adventure, which awaited me in the outside world. Yes, I came to understand that by coming to know the wretched fate of the sick I would be able justify the course of my own existence. As if I’d sensed in advance that someday I, too, would end up this way. This is what it must be like to be a born man of the world, in spirit yet not in wealth, on being led for the first time into an illustrious and glittering assemblage of high society folk. By observing the stirrings of the unattainable, he realizes that his only talent lies in the acquisition of this pompous wealth and elegance, for even if he would, he can never live any other way.
One of the men in the ward resembled a boozehound I knew who’d escaped from an occupational therapy clinic way off in the provinces. I always did like that ever smiling wino. After absconding from that forcibly temperate institution he took to hanging out at a commuter railway station, where his fellow imbibers would sometimes help him off in the direction of the public restroom so as to keep him from wetting his pants all the more. One time I noticed him grinning knowingly at his half-witted chums, who, having been summoned to the train cars for a bit of hard labor to earn their bread or wine, were busily carrying dreadfully heavy sacks full of who-knows-what back and forth for some no doubt noble purpose. No, he wasn’t such a fool after all. While the others toiled away he went about not so discreetly sampling fruit brandy he’d acquired for a modest sum from someone’s hush-hush distillery.
But the lineaments of this particular patient in the psychiatric ward did not speak of alcoholism. His alarmingly gaunt face appeared to have been pressed in with a blunt object. Conspicuously long eyelashes shaded his deep-set goggly eyes. It seemed he couldn’t even see out, even if he did happen to raise his head and give the impression that he was looking us over. At such times he’d break into a meaningful yet unnerving smile—unnerving on two counts: only while eating did he insert his dentures, besides, there was something menacing in that smile not at all unlike my friend’s knowing grin. I had to take care to assure that this fellow patient wouldn’t catch my probing eyes at such moments even by chance, for perhaps he was able to see out of those eyes all the same. In any case, I did manage to determine that this smile eclipsed even the final traces of meaning discernible on his face. At first I wondered why he wasn’t being treated in some mental institution instead; for the other patients in the ward, at least judging from how they appeared, did not exactly count as serious cases. Later I realized that in his case all this was rather some sort of inherent physiognomic trait; one that, unfortunately, his less than rosy psychological condition only accentuated during his stay here. Indeed, the doctors who dropped in regularly to check up on us devoted not a bit more time to him than to the rest of us. And surely it would have been unreasonable of me to assume that this reflected slipshod work on the part of specialists. In the final analysis, those with certain unappealing, innate facial characteristics that with luck are normally obscured should be wary of neurosis and worse; for the singular atmosphere of such wards, coupled with the effects of medication, can expose our hidden, none too attractive lineaments for all the world to see.
Aside from myself and the goggly-eyed patient who sometimes appeared to cast me that menacing smile, there were other men in the room. A balding gentleman played the role of amateur psychologist, offering us bits of expert advice. Perhaps he soliloquized so assiduously only because his asymmetrical mouth spurred him to constant talking, as if frequent drawing of breath and excited sentences were his only hope that his lip, somewhat askew, would ever slip back in place. His suicide attempt the previous week explained his presence among us in the ward, which he claimed to know better than others knew their own homes. He didn’t even bother denying that he spent at least three to four months a year up here. He’d have to be really nuts, he insisted, to work himself silly like folks out there in the big wide world when life up here was incomparably more pleasant. “Think of it,” he exhorted us with notable eloquence while darting about his glittering eyes and gesturing with disdain at the window, “how can that dreary ratrace even be compared with this intimacy, this warmth? While folks out there might as well be robots, programmed as they are to be ‘responsible citizens’ and run about all day long not knowing left from right, those of use in here can chit-chat to our heart’s content. And, hey, we can feel perfectly free to ogle the nurses’ thighs! Damn those thighs the way they sometimes open wide without realizing it or happen to rub up against each other! Gentlemen,” he said, raising his voice, as if for an important announcement, “let us consider once and for all what freedom this place offers us if we can spend hours considering all possible aspects of a nurse’s thigh. We are, after all, privileged, terrorized neither by time nor by the distracting images of the outside world. For hours on end we can bathe our retinas on this glorious part of a woman’s body, supposedly designed for changing location, and meanwhile we can reflect upon this and that.”
All this now encouraged me to throw in some observations of my own on the topic at hand. “Yes,” I began in a tone surprisingly relaxed and authoritative given my age. But I had read—and heard—plenty. “For example,” I began as if giving a lecture to medical students, “we might wonder if the husband or lover of the nurse who is the subject of our studious attention has noticed the pale streak at the bend of her knees—a streak that says at least as much as a scar on the face. This ever so faint line, which others would pass their eyes over without a second glance, can in fact help us answer such delicate questions as the springiness of the nurse’s steps or, say, her body’s overall confidence, which we cannot hope to determine solely from the way she moves. Yes, it can reinforce or else cast doubt on whatever we may have presumed about this nurse before we chanced to notice it. Naturally, we might also contemplate why our nurse doesn’t wear pantyhose. We’d do well to be wary as regards the most obvious explanation”—at this I glanced at the man with the asymmetrical mouth, to see if he agreed—“for indeed, how foolish we’d be to explain away these naked legs by pointing to the hospital’s ever-present excessive heat. A far more probable explanation is that these legs desire bareness—that they yearn to confess their nakedness! Let us observe as she sits down by the table beside the coat-rack and crosses her legs. Just now her commingling thighs would hardly put up with some external fabric, some material foreign to the body, no, not even the finest silk. Not only would pantyhose of any sort set those thighs apart, but worse yet, it would stretch a net of sorts over the freely breathing pores of her skin—an especially dangerous condition. As someone once told me, the soul lies hidden in the skin. Believe me, gentlemen, a woman wearing clothes is like someone constantly at risk of suffocation.”
Several of them burst out laughing at my last sentence, but having found no reason to take offense, I continued my presentation. “Or let’s look at her more closely as she steps about by our beds. This is not mere walking, but, but—paddling! Yes, the air is practically surging like water near some ladies’ thighs. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the thighs, those eminently distinguished warm pincers, touch merely germs and the dust-laden air. We, who indeed have so much time …” And with unabashed affectation I now echoed the pronouncement the man with the asymmetrical mouth had made just before, at which he broke into a knowing smile. I added, “No, we cannot be content with this amateurish finding of fact. Indeed, the floating effect in the nurse’s walk arises precisely because the energy, the force, that accompanies movement, which so often vanishes immediately in the case of other women, here hovers in place, as it were. Yes, some inexplicable magnetism causes that … that force to remain between her legs. So the entire leg, or at least the thigh, also rubs against the unverifiable vibrations generated by the knees and the ankles. This may be the secret of this or that particular woman: such magical moments hit them most unexpectedly of all, and, gentlemen, the result is unfathomable excitement.”
I used the example of scent to clarify the ambiguous matter of “energy escape.” “As we know quite well,” I said, taking a deep breath, “there are some bodies with no apparent smell whatsoever. While it is not impossible that mad scientists stealthily fumigate these poor souls each and every night, almost certainly such people are simply riddled with holes. It needn’t be a wind or draft—even a word uttered just loud enough can suck the scent right out of them. Only those can be deceived on this count who are uninformed, who associate the body’s elusive universe of scent with various perfumes and oils. Now, we become exceedingly light-headed around some ladies, so strong are the scents they exude. One might even venture to say that these aren’t scents at all, no, for they have no weight, but rather the various manifestations of the gravity-free flow of love, capable of checking the effects of even those bodily by-products often held in disrepute, such as perspiration. Those bodies incapable of countering such undesirable smells have, we imagine, been overcome by substances composed of unfamiliar molecules, and have … putrefied.”
As my roommates saw it, good fortune had brought them into contact with the city’s most refined authority on women. While letting them believe what they would, I kept glancing appreciatively at the man with the asymmetrical mouth, who’d in fact made possible the presentation of my fantasies. Indeed, how would I, ever hiding away, have revealed that imagination was my only joy? Had I done so, I would also have had to confess what I was doing there among them at all.
My spontaneous discourses concerned not merely the nurses’ thighs or the fragrance of the women I supposedly knew so well. The lighting effects in the room excited me too, as did the musical possibilities of the snatches of hallway conversation that drifted into the room. The week after my arrival during one of my hospital stays, by which time my roommates regarded me as part of the family, I finally presented my pet theory, which I’d been mulling over for some time—a technique to acquire a knowledge of personality. I wish to briefly sum up my method.
A composer with a faultless sense of pitch would be commissioned to “compose” a neurotic who’d volunteered for the experiment; and to do so not only by transcribing the patient’s words, but all sounds the subject generates in the course of his activity. The task would not be simple in the least, for the composer could not be content with recording simply the musical equivalent of the sounds produced by speech. It would be all-too easy to substitute an exclamation with a high F, or a cool pronouncement with a scale-opening C. If polyphony can be expected anywhere at all, here it must. So too the body’s subtler sounds must also be incorporated into the score. When a sigh slips from an almost pure G to a G flat, for example, the composer must immediately note the glissando, and stand at the ready to ascertain whether the next sigh generates the same shift in tone. For a sound can only become the element of a musical composition if it occurs repeatedly, as does the slide in this case. Chance nonetheless remains a factor, and it is advisable to consider this during the final arrangement of the score. Though it may take some work, it is possible to determine the key. Continuous talking offers countless reference points. Perhaps it is here that the composer of “personality music” encounters his easiest task. It is child’s play to determine, based on those chords which pop up more than once in the course of a sentence, in which direction to nudge those sounds that obviously fall on the border—whether toward a major or minor key. Alas, this artifice can no more be avoided than the need for our composer to decide which among the countless available notes to accord privileged treatment by inserting them into the composition. Notwithstanding, an opus is born whose material was provided by the musical transcription of our patient’s speech, yawns, ear scratching, or, say, his indiscreet movements transposed as a series of sounds.
Once the piece is complete, the patient would be transferred to the musical therapy ward. There he would be confronted with an acoustic arrangement virtually identical to himself! “Yes,” he might say to his therapist with flippancy or pride, “I’ll just put myself on the record player, so go ahead and listen while I step out to the toilet.”
Or else the patient—let us call him by an everyday name, Lajos Balogh—wouldn’t be sent to the musical therapy ward in those first weeks at all, only his composition would. The specialist would be handed the “Lajos Balogh Sonata for Piano and Violin in D Minor,” and wouldn’t even have an appointment with the patient until ascertaining the appropriate clues to the harmony of Lajos Balogh. It can hardly be doubted that the interpretation of personality music is the thorniest matter of all; indeed, the most reassuring scenario would see the psychiatrist himself compose the score. We can’t make such demands of those who specialize in mental and nervous disorders, however, so we must settle for the superlative and praiseworthy knowledge of musical theory that characterizes our doctor, namely, the musical therapist.
The possibilities inherent in understanding personality through music, even if limited, are a given. Why, the very tonality of a “piece” says so much! Obviously it wasn’t by chance that our composer rejected atonality. One would naively believe that nervous system disorders readily tend toward chordless musical compositions, which reject harmony. Not so. While composing the Lajos Balogh Sonata the composer must have felt all the while that the setting of this personality to music expressly requires that referential center of notes and chords: a tonic. That is to say, he recorded only that from the nervous system, from behavior, from the sounds characterizing the personality, which could be seized at all; the “gravitation,” so to speak, whose musical equivalent is the tonic. A general diagnosis can readily be established using this point of evidence. Lajos Balogh may have weighty problems, but his case is not hopeless. Among other indications, the minor key supports this presumption. The caressing strains of a quartet or even a somewhat more frisky sextet demonstrates that his personality is still holding itself in check. However, it would be a mistake to simply take these undeniably encouraging signs at face value. Indeed, this is what serves to distinguish a real specialist from a charlatan, for the former will form a suspicion over this very point; in other words, perhaps it is in this very tenderness, this hyper-harmony, that the reasons for the thus-far obscure illness must be sought. Perhaps Lajos Balogh is in fact toodelicate, and so a treatment of “sensitivity for sensitivity” might be ineffective, for after a while it will necessarily lead to a breakdown! Perhaps the specialist has thus found the clue to solving this riddle?
The time has come for experimentation. Having arranged a personal session with the patient, our doctor first plays him the “Lajos Balogh Sonata for Piano and Violin in D Minor.” Observing his reactions, the doctor soon realizes that Lajos, entirely transfixed by the nauseatingly sweet melodies, is like some grossly obese diabetic who would devour all the chocolate and pastries he could lay his hands on until dropping dead. Our musical psychiatrist has already formulated his plan. First he allows Lajos to listen to the piece from beginning to end, letting him scoop out even the last drop of the opiate, then, initially digging up a Mozart serenade—something melodious enough, that is, so as not to terrify our patient from the outset—he gradually switches over to those “foreign” pieces that, via ever more dissonant tones, compel the patient to confront a very different world. Finally he might lure him into the realm of atonality, where the degree of the patient’s aversion to this world of sounds generally regarded more as noise than as music, becomes clear. If the selection of pieces is fortunate, then perhaps it is precisely this frightening music that can touch the patient’s own inner chaos—namely, the chaos that in his case was, in fact, borne of a desire for harmony. The doctor can now establish a diagnosis. Namely, this personality disorder can be treated only with an even greater degree of chaos! After a fairly precise mapping of the symptoms, the doctor may send the patient back to the psychiatric ward, for the matter now rests with the good doctors there.
My roommates drifted off now and again during my presentation of this wild scheme, and only in the glances of the man with the menacing smile did I occasionally notice something akin to comprehension.
The real excitement, however, awaited me in the lounge. There I met those women who sought refuge after weekend family brawls, suicide attempts meant to get attention, and minor nervous breakdowns. Studying them was the highlight of my stay. In those first few days I occupied myself by classifying them, wanting as I did to establish certain points of regularity. And indeed, I discerned a plain correlation between the singularity of a woman’s face and her type of illness. A wholly different type of beauty characterized ladies inclined toward hysteria than, say, those suffering depression. When observing the former I saw an open map of tempers and instincts, albeit deciphering this map was anything but easy. While scrutinizing the latter, however, I increasingly felt that the faces had succumbed to so ruinous a force that they were collapsing inward, as it were, or rather, that they had turned into a sort of drenched plaster that might at any moment come peeling off the wall.
Different comparisons were in order for those faces that were obviously the most serious cases. Only on the basis of the eyes, for example, could I properly study a certain middle-aged woman who appeared in the lounge every day at three and took her usual seat. There she sat motionless, staring straight ahead, until early evening. It seemed her eyes were assiduously burning away the entire surface of the face around them. Yes, that pair of eyes was all I really saw, eyes that were by turns radiating nervousness or fearsomeness. In her case it would be more precise to speak not of the beauty of her face but that of her eyes, which left me quite as much afraid as fascinated. Her plainly manic disposition was aggravated by the schizophrenia also reflected by those eyes. In spite or perhaps because of this, hers was a beauty more potent than that of the most perfectly proportioned faces I had seen. Only days later did I come to understand why no one dared sit down beside her even though, by all appearances, she seemed quite harmless: it wasn’t some menacing outburst they feared but, quite simply, her disquieting eyes.
An alarmingly thin girl of around twenty merited special attention. Her chalky white skin seemed to have been planed right down to her skeleton. It was a wonder that she could even get out of bed and walk to the lounge. She seemed on the verge of dying from old age. Afraid as I was of her shame, of my serving as an unwitting mirror to her deformity, I didn’t dare look her in the eyes. What I really mean to say, however, is that her beauty was to be found precisely in her dogged refusal to be much bothered by shame. Nature ridiculed this girl’s body in vain, for by venturing out among us, she knowingly risked humiliation, unintentional though it was.
The plainly alcoholic women formed the most clear-cut group. Their bloated, discolored faces seemed padded with rags that, if tapped when most swollen, would surely have yielded alcoholic pus. It was more than apparent that these women hadn’t reconciled themselves to compulsory abstinence, although medications did assure them a sort of innocent stupor. Nature is so unfair to women! Alcohol can never ravage a man’s face as mercilessly as it does a woman’s. It renders a woman’s face sexless, which is striking precisely because the observer nonetheless cannot escape a paradoxical impression: despite alcohol’s success in twisting once delicate lineaments out of shape, in the final analysis not even devastated dimples, sagging skin, baggy eyes, or clammy, outward turning lower lips can extirpate from such faces that eerie, ever lingering mien of femininity-turned-memory. While assigning such facial decay a definitive niche in the spectrum of beauty would have been going too far, when observing such a face I did sometimes imagine that this patchwork of bluish-red welts and swollen knots of flesh and skin nonetheless still harbored some elusive but vital ingredient of beauty.
Having completed my highhanded classifications, it was time for a reckoning. Had someone asked me which group of these women were most to my liking, I would surely have said those suffering depression. Indeed, their gloom fired my imagination; which is to say, the disintegration underway on their faces allowed me to imagine that I might put their personalities back together again. While I remained convinced that these faces had succumbed to some ruinous force, it would be more exact to say that I perceived a sort of motion. The anxiety plainly in their eyes seemed to radiate slowly, in shadowlike waves, upon the face around them, which in turn sponged up this anxiety. Blunt fear came undone over the furrows between the eyebrows, entrenching itself in the creases of the skin and drawing barely perceptible vertical lines across the otherwise tender cut of the given woman’s mouth. Surely the eyes determined the exact dynamics of fear and anxiety discernable on a face: as if the ever changing contours of a face were in fact a series of photographs being taken by the eyes, or rather, by the relentlessly sad stares issuing from therein. Yes, the exactingly precise lens of the eyes brought into sharp focus both the zigzagging, bitter lines about the mouth and the trench-deep clefts of an incurably bad mood.
As dubious as my assertions may seem, it must be admitted that in extreme cases, at least, the resulting “softness” of countenance is plain as day. Gloom saturates a face over a period of months, rendering muscles flabby, dissolving facial tissue, and releasing chemicals that wash away nerve endings. Hit such a face, and its owner won’t even wince.
The real challenge of my physiognomic research was yet to come: that of solving the problem, replete as it was with so many variables. I had to create a personality from the symptoms I’d assessed. Back then I kept my distance from extreme cases, observing women who showed signs of schizophrenia from as far away as I did psychotics. This said, I would have gladly given myself over to women suffering melancholy. Why? Perhaps because I perceived them as consummate examples of inexplicable yet still restrained woe. Its sufferers hadn’t yet lived to see out-and-out despair. I was galvanized by their proximity, and was beginning to imagine I’d come upon a precise explanation for my flights into hospitals, the origin of my questionable attraction to illness.
So I’d fallen in love with sadness before even knowing what it was. I began to realize this only now, noticing on the face of a girl around twenty who was seated across from me an unmistakable “gravitation”—a force that, it seemed, was a reflection of my ever-so-vague sense of self. As if I myself had unconsciously engraved this girl’s face years before, only so that it might satiate the emptiness inside me on this day. I might compare this to stepping before the Lord on Judgment Day so that He might see himself in us. The sheer force of the woe I perceived on that girl’s face branded me, as it were, with—myself. On realizing this I felt as wounded as those who are sensitive to words are prone to injury by a perfidious sentence. I shuddered, as if I’d sensed in advance the sort of women’s faces I’d be swept toward in the years to come.
It is an irony of fate, as I see it, that the woman who robbed me of my innocence, in the night-duty nurses’ room at that, was twenty years my senior and not a bit melancholic. She caught my attention from the very first day. Poising her tall, slender body provocatively as she moved about the hallways, she seemed to have forgotten altogether that this was a hospital and not some fashion show. Her long black hair, which she wore let down, flowed ostentatiously onto her silk gown. On stepping into the lounge she looked us over with a stare bordering on contempt. Then, as if wanting to ensure her superiority, she took a seat amid us creatures of lower standing. Doing so must have calmed her, for soon enough she flashed her white teeth our way. The message was clear: starting now she was willing to suspend her aloofness. What else would she have begun to talk about, but—men? And so she did. As she explained it, she’d fled into the hospital only to escape from her “damn” husband—so she began to explain without ado, as if everyone had been waiting for her confession. That man had been tormenting her with jealousy for years. At first he had no reason to be jealous. Through many long years she asserted her innocence, but when sins she hadn’t even committed flew back in her face, she thought it best to identify with the image he’d formed of her. There are no two ways about it, she quipped, some women are branded as whores no matter what. They can have a heap of children or hide away in a cloister, but absolutely nothing will erase the impression of coquetry.
This was my chance to observe this woman more closely. She spoke without self-pity, but her face underwent a decisive transformation nonetheless. All traces of the vanity so conspicuous just before had vanished; she might have been a teenage girl in despair. She was still strikingly beautiful: neither a wrinkle on her high forehead nor below the eyes. Nor did she seem at risk of the flaccidity characteristic of the faces of middle-aged women, which nestles up against the slackened facial muscles like some invisible membrane. The skin on her face was as taut as a high school girl’s. Sometimes she spontaneously moistened her proportionately wide lips, perhaps the same way she once had after frequent kisses. While watching her I understood that as long as I didn’t look into her eyes, I’d desire only this type of woman. But I couldn’t forget her gaze, which spread hopeless disillusionment over this otherwise flawless face. As for the taut skin, a closer look revealed that it had embarked on a course of more treacherous decay than even that of the bloated, crumpled, wrinkle-strewn skin of the alcoholics. People tend to characterize faces such as hers with the term “cold beauty,” little suspecting the abounding self-hatred that scorches these faces day by day. Only now did I understand this woman’s awe-inspiring arrogance: she’d adopted this arbitrary role only in order to flee the emptiness inside her. I even respected her for not reaching for the so easily mastered handholds of undisguised neurosis.
Suddenly she broke her monologue. This hit me almost as unexpectedly as her first sentence. Her face was again consumed by apparent contempt toward those around her. As if she could change her expression by simply turning some invisible switch on and off. Then she stood, and walked out of the lounge with her usual provocative gait, not forgetting, of course, to cast a withering glance or two at us as she went.
It happened precisely the evening before my departure. I’d been walking restlessly about the hallway and consumed by the disquietude that always hit me when being expelled from my chosen homes. The ward was oddly silent, as if the on-duty doctor had ordered all the patients into bed early, a directive I’d managed to wriggle out of. While passing by the women’s ward, I noticed the door to room 29 open up. Out she stepped. Surely not by chance. I was nervous. Perhaps she’d been watching me for days, I thought, and now she sensed that this was the last chance to get to know me. She came straight at me, as if hurrying to a prearranged meeting. When she then stepped before me, blocking my path, and caressed my face with her clawlike fingers, I reacted as naturally as I had a few days earlier on seeing her disdainful stare. So perhaps her husband had been right after all. Yes, this beauty was a raging tramp, and it was now easy to imagine that she’d specialized in corrupting minors. Or was she, too, among those neurotics whose illness is accompanied by overheated sensuality? I didn’t have time to think, however, for she led me straight into the night-duty nurses’ room, where, to my amazement, there was not a soul. So she’d colluded with the nurses more than once in recent days. How else was her confidence to be explained? I really couldn’t complain. Even cats adept at mating in the cellars of urban apartment buildings don’t bond as surely we did in that tiny, poorly lit room. The torrid self-abandon lasted half an hour, perhaps, then she suddenly threw on her dark silk gown and announced that we must leave the room immediately. On stepping out into the hallway I noticed only that I was alone once more. No doubt I should have taken it as a warning that my passage to manhood occurred in the neurological ward of the city hospital, but my exulting body dispelled all doubts.
On stepping out of the hospital the next morning, what did I find in my pocket but my initiator’s address? I shuddered with excitement at the thought that the next embrace might come to pass as well. However, when I looked up the given flat some two weeks later and rang the bell repeatedly in vain, someone stepped out of a neighboring apartment to inform me that the woman had apparently fled to Sweden with a wanted man.
I was left alone. But the half-hour intermezzo that composed this unexpected bliss didn’t pass without a trace after all, for I vowed to myself in the weeks after leaving the ward to bring an end to my hospital shams. From this point on I would not go about pilfering bliss for myself in the lounges and rooms of neurological wards but, I decided, from girls. By now it wasn’t only my sense of security and of freedom that I had hospitals to thank for, but my becoming an adult. Like so many people, I, too, fell victim to a false presumption in planning my future. I thought the self that had prompted my voluntary withdrawals into hospitals over many years had been absorbed in that tiny room reserved for the night-duty nurses by the torrid heat of our bodies as they bonded, by the desire that followed our separation; by the desire that, as my initiator had left me without a word, I now resolved to quench by loving other women.
Of course, how would I have understood at sixteen that the force which had lured me into hospitals early on, when I was yet a child, would accompany me throughout my life? Years passed before I realized that my true initiation had been brought on by the hospital milieu, not by those wild embraces, which only set the seal on things, consecrating the place, as it were.
So then, my real seduction was to be found in the gradually expanding self-consciousness that had, by now, established my attunement to illness as synonymous with my fundamental character. It may seem absurd, yet I sometimes think my “civilian” endeavors in the coming years came to pass only so I might, even if subconsciously, collect evidence to validate the self-identity I’d sensed as a teenager.
Or did it begin on the train? That day when, at the age of seventeen, not long after my years of eager escapades in hospitals drew to a close, I found myself on the Budapest-bound express clutching the photograph of a resplendently blond Polish girl from Warsaw whom I’d met only two days earlier at the Krakow railway station? Standing there in the cold draft of the aisle, I experienced for the first time the consequences of loving a woman. I whispered an inexplicable vow: I love this girl, her and her alone. And so I may not look upon another. If my eyes linger elsewhere nonetheless, this will mean my love for this Polish girl is in doubt.
That ID-sized photo or rather, the sixteen-year-old face it depicted now subtly realigned its lineaments into a sterner expression befitting my self-imposed taboo. As if to indicate that it would henceforth stand guard over my voluntary bondage. There was no fooling it. Like an attendant foisted upon me, it lurked constantly in my pocket. But how could I possibly have kept my oath from minute to minute, hour to hour? Sometimes my eyes involuntarily settled upon a woman’s face. There was no avoiding this, and so I began to observe myself observing, as if this remained my only option. One minute this other woman’s lineaments appeared inert, but then, as if summoned by an invisible call, the corners of her mouth rose just so. Perhaps she’s smiling to herself, I thought while following the slender, sickle-like arch formed by her lips. Almost imperceptibly she contorted her straight nose, and a faint depression appeared atop the bridge, the headboard of her smile, ruffling the perfectly smooth skin ever so slightly. Which was when my vow came to mind. I was stricken with shame. Punishment was in order. Like someone undeserving of true love, I was just about ready to give her up altogether when it struck me that this would in fact amount to an easy escape and, no, not the punishment that must invariably be mine.
The authority that snapshot wielded over me became truly oppressive only once its scope of activity expanded. For example, the photo entrusted the seductive gestures of other women to test my devotion. On certain days this was so unbearable that I buried the picture away somewhere in my room and headed outside thinking I’d slipped out from under its strict supervision. Yet this unrelenting snapshot second-guessed me, for at such times it had me watched by even shrewder means. If, say, while riding the tram I saw a girl who happened to be letting down her hair, caressing that copious glittering crown of hers, I would think: this woman is putting me to the test. “Look upon me, yes, go ahead and imagine what it would be like to smell, to stroke my lovely hair! See how, as I lean my head to the side, my hair unfurls, exposing its mass of silky inviting strands….” I understood that the photo had seeped its way into this girl’s hand motions as she let down her hair, for try as that gesture did to disguise itself with a veil of seductiveness, it wasn’t hard to discern the true instigator, the photograph, machinating … watching over me, gauging my fidelity. Finally I turned away my head in vain. In reviewing the scene, my latent seduction weighed heavily upon me. At this moment it hardly mattered anymore whether I’d tripped up only in thought. I had to suffer for my sins; indeed, the image before me had already accomplished this, having palpably eroded my sense of security.
No going outside for a week, came the verdict. Thus I might manage to avoid becoming a repeat offender, avoid killing again. Ensconced in my room, I fished the photo out of its hiding place and promised it that from now on I wouldn’t allow my eyes to rest on other women’s faces; or if I did, I’d see them as lifeless objects worthy of contempt. Better to walk the streets with my head down, eyes fixed to the ground. I would loathe all women, and in so doing relentlessly divest them of their claim to beauty; for only my photograph, only my love, could be beautiful.
I ascribed my subordination vis-à-vis the photo to the Polish girl’s presumed jealousy. Shouldering the burden of this jealousy was my duty, for only thus could I free her from the agony it caused her. Yes, I had liberated her from suffering, bearing its brunt in a way that she could not have possibly known about; all this to verify that only she existed within me. If this proved impossible, I would see to changing the rules of the game. My madness would be the worthiest gift for a love that, being unrealizable in the day-to-day world, was a perfect love.
My voluntary bondage lasted half a year. The photograph kept an eye on my every move and thought. It skulked about in my hand, my desk, my nerves.
Then one rainy summer day I traveled to Warsaw. There, a message was waiting for me from my love. She asked that I meet up with her in a low brow motel way up north in Gdansk, as she’d had to go to that coastal city due to some urgent matter. The next evening I was waiting for her in the designated motel when a mutual acquaintance, a portrait painter who hawked his wares on the street, stepped with a broad grin into my room. Slapping me on the shoulder, he pulled a bottle of vodka from his pocket and extended it to me. “Have a swig, mate!” he said, casting me a commiserating look. “I’ve come from the rail workers hostel, where your gal is making out with her new beau, a painter chum of mine. So … how about us going down for a dip in the sea?” “Maybe later,” came my strained reply, “I think I’ll take a little walk first.” Crumpling the photograph in my hip pocket, I left the painter behind.
So the angel-faced bitch from Warsaw had dumped me like that! While I had safeguarded our love with pathological fear, she’d consoled herself with a two-bit painter. I had only his ever drunk colleague to thank for my discovering the chicanery. All the same, Polak weger dwa bratanki….* Of course I was well aware that my devotion had been somewhat exaggerated; after all, she could hardly have suspected the nature of my love. In any case, I now passed up a singular opportunity. Instead unraveling, nay, ripping apart the mysterious threads that bound me to that photograph that is, by throwing away that piece of crumpled paper and the face it portrayed I broke only with the model it represented. What I did, and hastily at that, was to board a train and seek distraction away from the coast, in central Poland. By the next day I was rapturously sucking the mouth of a lovely black-haired girl. Never had I known such kissing. Her saliva flowed as if her larynx had malfunctioned and she was unable to keep that silky, salty fluid in her throat. Eagerly I drank.
I first kissed a girl in a dream. Her dirty brown hair fell straight down on both sides of her head, tenuously holding together a face that otherwise seemed on the verge of disintegration; a face whose thick fleshy lips offered the only sure grip. I don’t recall how we began, but there we were, kissing madly. Suddenly a viscous, bitter fluid a yellowish discharge that seemed not to be her saliva poured from her mouth into my throat. Disconcerted and disgusted, I nonetheless sucked on her lips all the more, afraid of going down in failure before the person most important to me just then. Perhaps, had I sucked the girl completely into myself, swallowed her whole like some vile-tasting medicine, I would have conquered my revulsion; I would have stepped beyond something every person who seeks communion with another must transcend. Yet I only continued allowing the pulpy mass into myself: her inconsequential face, pulpy lips, and perspiring body did not dissolve into a bitter fluid I might simply have swallowed, only to throw it up promptly after our parting. I went on holding her in my arms, my throat still full of the acrid discharge. The memory of that taste has lingered in me ever since.
I thought it best to end my little jaunt to Poland. On the way back home to Hungary I stopped off yet again, now in Katowice, to drop in on a schoolteacher friend of mine. Although I was now quite anxious to consummate the alleviation of my coastal fatigue, there I learned that she had found herself a husband in the months since I’d first met her; this, despite the fact that at the drama festival where we first laid eyes on one another, she had promised repeatedly to give me her most precious treasure if only I made her my wife. She’d realized that waiting for me was pointless. Times change. Whatever happened to all that talk I’d grown up hearing of Polish whores? Ah yes, Catholicism was spreading like wildfire once again.
Only on getting home did I reach for the photograph once more. No longer did I regret not having torn it up then and there, on the coast. Not as if I could have proven her infidelity. No, that would have meant catching her sixteen-year-old visage on that photograph red-handed say, as she stole from my nightstand to the bookshelf to assume a carnal position with the large gold-framed picture of my brother, who enjoyed an exceedingly good reputation with the ladies. No, she didn’t try slipping away; for one thing, because every iota of her vigilance was devoted to my watchful eyes. All the same, I had to admit that, in the wake of all that had passed, no longer could I delay clearing the slate of our relationship once and for all.
Far from coming to loathe the photograph and this surprised me most of all somehow I felt as if the Polish girl’s fling at the rail workers hostel had left it every bit as vulnerable as it had rendered me. An absurd and fleeting thought even passed through me as I stared upon that snapshot lying there in my perspiring palm: it was trying to cheer me up. I had to break the silence, and so I spoke aloud what the photo would surely have said: “Look here, it’s not really that girl on the platform in the Krakow station that you fell in love with, you know, but the picture she just happened to give you, and which happens to depict her face. Yes, it was me who seduced you on that train, me and my suggestive smile, my dubious youth and perhaps this can be forgiven, if you consider that I was born at the age of sixteen; me and my sad eyes, which render my glance so restive. I am the true face. The other, that creature of flesh and blood whom you rushed off to Warsaw to visit, and then so anxiously went on to Gdansk, she is a mere likeness of me. You foolishly believed that her warm body would be grateful for the love you felt not in fact for her, but for me. It was me you lived with, not her; it was my glance you so mindfully watched owing to your secret feared that one morning the magic would disappear, and instead of my cherished face a stranger already seeming to fade from your mind would be staring back. Of course I am not calling into question whether, had you been luckier, you could have truly loved her, too. Surely an affair in which you can count on conquering both aspects of a single woman is even more exciting; but perhaps I’m not off track in suspecting that you derive more excitement from my kind. If I’m not mistaken, you now intend to settle your score with me. Well, go right ahead. It’s high time. Yes, physical obliteration can do its part to expunge an unpleasant memory. But wait. Come to think of it, in your shoes I wouldn’t be so quick to throw away this crumpled piece of paper I’ve become; no, instead I’d slip it away between your dusty papers in a desk drawer. Yes, perhaps someday I can still come in handy.”
I wasn’t about to let this talk disconcert me, especially since I no longer regretted all that had happened. How did I manage to forget those six months of anxiety and fear, those months during which I’d allowed that photograph to rule over me like some despot? By now telling myself that the Warsaw girl’s infidelity was just what I’d needed! Yes, I digested my first break-up by not worrying anymore about resistance on the part of the photo; not even it could deny that in this case there did, after all, exist a relationship of sorts, if hard to define, between picture and bona fide individual. It was just tough luck that, though innocent, the photo had gotten the short end of the deal.
I breathed easier. From now on my photograph could not demand my attention. The hierarchical relationship was over. I could now walk the streets freely and gaze upon women’s faces without a guilty conscience, no longer having to fear the shame of being caught in the act; of having the picture take my unintentional infidelity to task on sensing a glance-in-the-making. True, it was I who had commissioned it with this task of policing me in the first place; I, who had raised it to its inquisitional chair. It had exercised its power with my consent, as if what was really going on here was that I, born into servility, could live only when held tight in a despot’s grip.
On slipping my forsaken photograph between the pages of a tattered spiral notebook at the age of seventeen, I suspect that I escaped only from a picture evoking the Polish girl not from the impulse to seek a sense of security in forces outside myself. Among other things, this goes to explain my dread of freedom. I was always most agitated when someone or something did not take me by the shoulders, if the unsuspecting attendant I happened to have chosen on any given occasion left me alone. Indeed, at such times I reasoned that my unforeseen independence could only be due to some irreversible mistake of mine; and that I’d heavy-handedly broken the alliance I’d tied with my superior. Freedom left me feeling unprotected, frightfully weightless, yearning terribly to be compelled to account for my actions before a stern authority.
No doubt I seem to have overstepped the bounds of reason, trying as I am to explain the development of my obsessions, my illness, by way of absurd theories surrounding a plain old photo. Yet I am not about to be misled by the reader’s patronizing smile. The more time I devote to understanding my love for the photo, the more I convinced I am that we cannot be prudent enough when accepting certain gifts. Had I not pocketed that photo, after all, on the platform that day at the Krakow train station, perhaps everything would have turned out differently.
(translated by Paul Olchváry)
Blurb of the Hungarian Edition
Those who effusively praise a novel on its cover are also capable of other sorts of perfidy. But no matter how sordidly I try to formulate my words, I still can’t say anything else about Ferenc Barnás’s first novel, The Parasite, except that it is a disturbing, quietly radical work harboring a major literary talent indeed.
(original Hungarian text by Sándor Mészáros, literary
critic and editor at Alföld, a literary journal;
translated by Paul Olchváry)
The story of The Parasite tells is in fact that of the narrator’s anguish and self-obliteration, and it refutes the idea that anyone at all can miss out on what it is to suffer and come face to face with death. Due to the novel’s extraordinarily powerful language, the visions and apparitions, the hallucinations and dreams, turn frighteningly memorable.
(original Hungarian text by Mihály Szegedy-Maszák,
Professor of Comparative Literature, Eötvös Loránd
University, Budapest and Indiana University,
Bloomington; translated by Paul Olchváry)