Journalist Shtamm, whose “Letters from the Provinces” were signed “Etal,” among other pseudonyms, had decided to set out—on the heels of his letters—for Moscow.
Shtamm believed in his elbows and in the ability of Etal to swap drops of ink for rubles, but the question of living space worried him. He knew that on the metropolitan chessboard, squares had not been set aside for all of the chessmen. People who had been to Moscow scared you; the buildings are all packed to the rafters. You have to camp in vestibules, on backstairs, on boulevard benches, in asphalt cauldrons, and in dustbins.
That is why Shtamm, as soon as he stepped off the train onto the Moscow station platform, began repeating into dead and living, human and telephonic ears one and the same words: a room. . .
But the black telephonic ear, having heard him out, hung indifferently on its steel hook. The human ears hid under fur and astrakhan collars—the frost that day crackled underfoot—while the words, as though blanketed by layer upon layer of carbon paper, grew fainter with each repetition and broke up into softly knocking letters.
Citizen Shtamm was very nervous and impressionable; that evening when, spun out like a top on a string, he lay down on three hard chairs bent on forcing him to the floor with their backs, he clearly saw in his mind’s eye the specter of the dustbin, its wooden lid thrown hospitably open.
But there’s truth to the old adage: Morning is wiser than evening. And wilier too. Having risen with the dawn from his chairs, which went back to their corners to sulk, Shtamm apologized for the trouble, thanked them for the bed, and trudged off along the half-deserted streets of snow- and rime-clad Moscow. But before he had gone a hundred paces, at practically the first crossroad, he met a little man mincing along in a thin and threadbare overcoat. The little man’s eyes were hidden under a cap, his lips closely muffled in a scarf. Nonetheless, the man saw Shtamm, stopped, and said, “Ah. And you too?”
“Where so early?”
“I’m looking for a room.”
Shtamm did not catch the reply; the words stuck fast in the scarf’s double whorls. But he saw the man thrust a hand inside his overcoat, feel about for something, and finally pull out a narrow notepad. He quickly wrote something down, blowing on his frozen fingers. An hour later, a three-by-four-inch slip of paper torn from the notepad had miraculously turned into lodgings measuring one hundred square feet.
The longed-for space had been found on the top floor of an enormous gray pile in one of the side streets that trace crooked zigzags between Povarskaya and Nikitskaya. The room struck Shtamm as somewhat narrow and dark, but once the electric light had been switched on, dark blue roses appeared, capering down the wallpaper in long verticals. Shtamm liked the sprightly blue roses. He went to the window; hundreds upon hundreds of roofs pulled low over more windows. Looking pleased, he turned round to the landlady—a quiet, elderly woman with a black shawl about her shoulders.
“Very good. I’ll take it. May I have the key?”
There was no key. The landlady, looking down and drawing her shawl more closely about her, said the key was lost, but that . . .
Shtamm wasn’t listening.
“Doesn’t matter. For now a padlock will do. I’ll go and fetch my things.”
In another hour the new lodger was tinkering with the door, screwing in the padlock’s steel hasp. Elated as he was, one small detail did bother him: While securing the temporary bolt, he noticed that the old lock appeared to have been broken. Visible above its steel body were the marks of blows and deep scratches. A little higher up, on the wooden stock, ax marks were plain to see. Feeling not a little apprehensive, Shtamm lighted a match (the corridor connecting his room to the front hall was dark) and inspected the door. But nothing else—save the white number 24, clearly inscribed on the door’s flat brown surface and, evidently, necessary for the house accounts—did he notice.
“Doesn’t matter.” Shtamm waved the thought away and set about unpacking his suitcase.
Over the next two days everything went as it was supposed to go. All day Shtamm went from door to door, from meeting to meeting, bowing, shaking hands, talking, listening, asking, demanding. At night, the briefcase under his elbow now strangely heavy and straining his arm, his steps shorter, slower, and less steady, Shtamm returned to his room, looked blearily round at the ranks of dark blue roses, and sank into a black, dreamless sleep. The third evening he managed to finish somewhat earlier. The minute hand on the street clockface jerked forward to show ten forty-five as Shtamm approached the entrance to his building. He climbed the stairs and, trying not to make any noise, turned the cam of the Yale lock on the outer door. Then he went down the unlighted corridor to room No. 24 and stopped, fumbling in his pocket for the key. The other rooms were dark and quiet, except for the hum—to the left, through three thin walls—of a Primus. He found the key, turned it inside the steel body, and gave the door a shove; in that same instant a white blur rustled by his fingers, slipped down, and stopped on the door. Shtamm snapped on the light. On the door by the threshold, having evidently fallen out of the crack in the door, lay a notebook in a broad label-band. Shtamm picked it up and read the address:
ROOM NO. 24
There was no name. Shtamm folded back a corner of the notebook: Angular jumping letters bunched in a nervous line looked up. Puzzled, Shtamm again read the strange address, but in that instant, as he was turning the manuscript over, it slipped out of its rather loose paper noose and smoothed out its paper body. Shtamm had only to turn to the first page, which bore only these words: Autobiography of a Corpse.
Whoever you, the person in room 24, may be, the manuscript began, you are the only person I shall ever manage to make happy: You see, had I not vacated my hundred square feet by hanging myself from a hook in the corner by the door, you would hardly have managed to find yourself a resting place so easily. I write about this in the past tense: an exactly calculated future may be seen as a fait accompli, that is, almost as the past.
We are not acquainted and it is too late for us ever to be so, but that in no way prevents my knowing you: You are from the provinces. Rooms like these, you see, are better rented to out-of-towners with no knowledge of local affairs and press reports. Naturally, you have come “to conquer Moscow”; you have the energy and will “to gain a foothold,” “to make your way in the world.” In short, you have that particular ability which I never had: the ability to be alive.
Well, I am certainly ready to cede you my square feet. Or rather, I, a corpse, agree to move over just a little. Go ahead and live: The room is dry, the neighbors are quiet and peaceful, and there’s a view. True, the wallpaper was tattered and stained, but for you I had it replaced, and here I think I managed to guess your taste: dark blue roses flattened along silly verticals. People like you like that sort of thing. Isn’t that true?
In exchange for the solicitude and consideration I have shown you, the person in room No. 24, I ask only for a simple readerly consideration of this manuscript. I do not need you, my successor and confessor, to be wise and subtle; no, I need from you only one extremely rare quality: that you be entirely alive.
For more than a month now I have been tormented by insomnias. Over the next three nights they will help me to tell you what I’ve never told anyone. After that, a neatly soaped noose may be applied as a radical cure for sleeplessness.
An old Indian folktale tells of a man forced to shoulder a corpse night after night—till the corpse, its dead but moving lips pressed to his ear, has finished telling the story of its long-finished life. Don’t try to throw me to the ground. Like the man in the folktale, you will have to shoulder the burden of my three insomnias and listen patiently, till the corpse has finished its autobiography.
Having read down to this line, Shtamm again examined the broad paper label-band: There were no postage stamps, no postmarks.
“I can’t understand it,” he muttered, walking to the door and standing there plunged in thought. The hum of the Primus had long since faded. Through the walls, not a sound. Shtamm glanced over at the notebook: It lay open on the table, waiting. He delayed a minute, then went obediently back, sat down, and found the lost line with his eyes.
I have worn lenses over my pupils for a long time. Every year I have to increase their strength: my vision is now 8.5. That means that 55 percent of the sunlight does not exist for me. I have only to poke my biconcave ovals back into their case, and space, as if it too had been thrown into that dark and cramped compartment, suddenly contracts and grows dim. I see only gray blurs, murk, and long threads of transparent dots. Sometimes, when I wipe my slightly dusty lenses with a piece of chamois, I have an odd feeling: What if, along with the specks of dust that have settled on their glassy concavities, I were to wipe away all ofspace? Here and gone: like a sheen.
I am always keenly aware of this glassy adjunct that has crept up to my eyes on bent wiry legs. One day I discovered that it could break more than just the rays falling inside its ovals. The absurdity of what I am about to relate occurred some years ago: several chance meetings with a girl I half knew had created a strange bond between us. I remember she was young, her face a delicate oval. We were reading the same books, and so used similar words. After our first meeting I noticed that her myopically dilated pupils inside fine light blue rims, hidden (like mine) behind the lenses of a pince-nez, were affectionately but relentlessly following me. One day we were left alone together; I touched her hands; they responded with a light pressure. Our lips moved closer together—and at that very moment the absurdity occurred: In my clumsiness I jostled her lenses with mine; caught in a wiry embrace, they slipped off and landed on the carpet with a high, thin tinkle. I bent down to pick them up. In my hands I held two strange glass creatures, their crooked metal legs so entangled as to form one hideous four-eyed creature. Quivering glints, jumping from lens to lens, vibrated voluptuously inside the ovals. I pulled them apart: With a thin tinkle, the coupling lenses came unhooked.
A knock sounded at the door.
My last image was of the girl trying with trembling fingers to press the recalcitrant lenses back against her eyes.
A minute later I was on my way down the stairs. I felt as though I had tripped over a corpse in the dark.
I left. Forever. In vain did she try to overtake me with a letter; its jumping lines begged me to forget something and promised with a naïve simplicity to “always remember.” Yes, remembering me always in my new corpse-like condition could prove useful, but . . . as I searched her letter, word by word, I knew that the glassily transparent cold in me would not abate.
With particular care I examined my name on the envelope. Yes, nine letters, all calling to me. I heard them. But I would not answer.
It was then, I remember, that the period of dead, empty days began. They had come before. And gone. But now I knew: They had come forever.
This was not a source of pain or even uneasiness. Only boredom. Or rather: boredoms. A late-eighteenth-century book I once read mentioned “Earthly Boredoms.” That’s just it. There are many of them: There is the spring boredom when identical people love identical people, when the ground is covered with puddles, the trees with green pustules. And a series of tedious autumn boredoms when the sky sheds stars, clouds shed rain, trees shed leaves, and “I’s” shed themselves.
At the time I was living not in your, forgive me, our room 24 but in an unnumbered roomlet in a small five-windowed annex in the provinces. The panes were spattered with rain. But even through the spatters I could see the trees in the garden tossing in time to the wind’s blows like people tormented by toothache. I ordinarily sat in a splayed armchair, among my books and boredoms. The boredoms were many: I had only to close my eyes and cock an ear—and I could hear them sliding lazily across the creaky floorboards, dragging their felt-shod feet.
For days on end, from dusk to dusk, I thought of myself as a biconcave creature inaccessible both outwardly and inwardly, from within and from without: Both were equally forbidden. Beyond reach.
Sometimes I too, like a tree tormented by the wind, would toss between the oak arms of my chair in time to the tedious tossing of an idea: The dead, the idea glimmered, are to be envied. Barely stiff and down goes the lid; on top of the lid goes damp earth; on top of the damp earth, sod. And that’s that. But here, as soon as you begin bumping along in a dray, they cart you on and on like that, from pothole to pothole, through spring and winter, from one decade to the next, unmourned and unneeded.
Now, when I think back on my state then, I cannot understand how an absurd trifle to do with some pieces of glass could have so wounded and discombobulated me. I cannot understand how my soul, if indeed I still had one, could have been crushed and desoulerated by such a speck of dust. But at the time, I took that trifle as an object lesson to me from my “glassy adjunct.” Even before, my attempts to penetrate the world on the far side of my biconcave ovals had been few and fearful. If the formula natura abhorret vacuum* has been disproved, I now know why its converse—vacuum abhorret naturam*—has yet to come under attack. I think it will prevail.
Be that as it may, I ceased all attempts to enter my outside. All those passes at friendship, experiments with another person’s “I,” endeavors to give or take love—I must, I thought, forget and renounce them once and for all. For some time I had been mentally constructing a flattened little world in which everything would be in my here—a little world that one could lock away inside one’s room.
Space, I reasoned while still in earliest youth, is absurdly vast and has expanded—with its orbits, stars, and yawning parabolas—to infinity. But if one tucks it inside numbers and meanings, it will easily fit on two or three bookshelves. I have long preferred the narrow margins of books to the monotonous miles of earthly fields; the spine of a book has always seemed more intelligent to me than confused lectures about “the roots of things”; the sheer accumulation of those things, everywhere one looks, strikes me as crude and meaningless compared to the wise and subtle concatenations of letters and symbols hidden in books. Though the lines in books deprived me of half of my eyesight (55 percent), I never resented them: They knew too well how to be meek and dead. Only they, those silent black signs, could deliver me, however briefly, from my importunate, listless, and sleepy boredoms. It was then, while finishing up at the Institute of Oriental Studies, that I became completely absorbed in the painstaking work of my dissertation: The Letter “T” in Turkic Languages.
I still feel deeply indebted to that little two-handled “T” for the trouble it took and the help it gave me during that black lightless time. That “T” led my eyes from lexicon to lexicon, down long columns of words, never letting me sink for even a second into oblivion; that tiny, black-bodied letter stirred up the dust on my books, showed me tangled paragraphs in old glossaries and collections of syntagms. Sometimes, in an effort to amuse me, it would play hide and-seek: I would hunt for that tiny sign, twirling my pencil along the lines and down the margins of a book, until I found it hidden in among other letters and symbols. Sometimes I even smiled at this. That’s right, I smiled. But the companion of my leisure could be of greater comfort still. “You see, ‘I’ is just a letter,” the “T” would say, “just like me. That’s all it is. Is it worth grieving over? Here and gone.”
I remember that then, between things, on a lark, I took up the philology of “I.” My notes—if only they aren’t lost—must still be in a folder somewhere. But I haven’t time to look for them now. I quote from memory (inaccurately, I’m afraid): “‘I’ has a changeable root, but always a short phoneme. One can hypothesize the process of its shortening, or ‘contraction.’ Most likely, it is the result of ordinary speech patterns. Phonetically, however, much remains unclear. Incidentally, a count of the word ‘ich’ in Stirner showed that nearly 25 percent of the text consists of ‘ich’ (and its derivatives). Keep that up, and soon the whole text will be one continuous ‘I.’ Yet if one searches life, is there much ‘I’ in it?”
Come dusk the bustling “T” would go exhausted to bed, usually under a bookmark, while I, so as not to disturb it, would pace from corner to corner in the dark. And every time, I distinctly heard my soul—with a high thin tinkle, drop by drop—dissolving in the emptiness. The drops were rhythmic and ringing, they had that same familiar glassy sound. This may have been a pseudo-hallucination, I don’t know: It’s all the same to me. But at the time I gave this phenomenon a special name: psychorrhea. Meaning “soul seepage.”
Sometimes that measured flight—drop by drop—into the emptiness even frightened me. I would turn on the light and shoo both the dusk and the pseudo-sound away. Thee dusk, the boredoms, the “T,” and the hallucinations would all disappear: It was then that that ultimate loneliness, known to only a few of the living, would begin, when you are left, not only without others but without yourself.
There was, however, another, foreign something to disturb my black leisure. From a fairly young age, you see, I had been visited by a strange figment: 0.6 person. This figment arose as follows. One day, while leafing through a geography book, I came across this line: “In the country’s northern latitudes the population per square mile is 0.6 person.” It stuck in my mind’s eye like a splinter. I squinted and saw a flat white field stretching away past the horizon, a field divided into right-angled square miles, snow slowly falling in large, lazy flakes. And in every square, where the diagonals intersect, it, a stooped, thread-paper body bent low to the bare, ice-covered ground: 0.6 person. Exactly 0.6. Not just half, not half a person. No. A small, dissymmetrizing fillip had attached itself to “just.” The incompleteness, contradictory as this may seem, had been infiltrated by a remainder, by an “over and above.”
I tried to banish the image. It would not go. Then suddenly one of those semi-beings (I could clearly see the ones in the squares closest to my eyes) slowly began to turn toward me. I tried to avert my eyes, but I couldn’t: They seemed to have fused with the dead empty sockets of 0.6.
And not a blade of grass anywhere, not so much as an ice-covered rock, not a speck; only windless air and snow slowly falling in large, lazy flakes.
From then on, 0.6 person took to visiting me on my empty days. During my black intervals. This was not a ghost, a vision, or a sleepy reverie. No, it was just that: a figment.
Now, when I try to describe the accident that befell my “I” in terms more exact, I am helped by symbols of mathematical logic. A point in space may be found, they say, only by means of intersecting coordinates.
But should those coordinates come apart, then . . . space is vast, while a point has no size at all. Evidently my coordinates had come apart, and to find me, a psychic point in infinity, turned out to be impossible.
Or clearer still: The theory of curves knows certain imaginary lines which, when they cross, produce a real point. True, the “reality” of this point is peculiar, out of fictions. That may well be the case with me.
In any event, I did not notify my “friends” and “acquaintances.” I did not ask for the expressions of “sympathy” due me. I did not trouble about a black border for my name. I thought only of how to inscribe that imaginary “psychic point” more firmly and reliably inside the close confines of my room’s square, far from the eyes of all those bad mathematicians incapable of distinguishing the real from the imaginary, the dead from the living. Relations, acquaintances, and even friends have an extremely poor grasp of non-obviousnesses; until a person is served up to them in a coffin as a cadaver vulgaris*** under a trihedral lid, with two five-kopeck coins over the eyes, they will go on obtusely pestering that person with their condolences, questions, and traditional “how do you dos.”
After graduating from the institute, I moved to Moscow and began studying pure mathematics at the university. I never finished. One day, on my way home from the main library with a four-volume dictionary of philosophy (Gogotsky’s) under my arm, I was passing down a long, vaulted corridor when my path was blocked by a crush of students jamming the entrance to a lecture hall. For a political meeting, evidently. Someone’s head stuck up out of the crowd and screamed in a strange birdlike voice, craning a blue-collared neck: “Anyone who doesn’t belong should leave. Everyone else into the lecture hall.”
The words “doesn’t belong” hobbled my legs. Clutching my dictionary volumes to my chest, I squeezed into the hall. The doors closed. First came long, obscure speeches. Then a short word: police.
The dictionary was suddenly unbearably heavy in my arms. They took our names and escorted us—between bayonets—to the Manège. Another door closed. I felt more and more bewildered. The excitement all round me had clearly subsided. Some faces looked almost abject.
I was bored. The minutes crawled by on the wall clock. The door would not open. I opened my dictionary. A sort of bibliographical curiosity from the mid-nineteenth century. My eye immediately fell upon the word ethics.
Then I understood: This old dictionary was an intelligent conversationalist. Well, of course, only old-fashioned and less-than-intelligible ethics could have shut me up inside a manège with all these people for whom I had no use.
Now, on reviewing my memories, I see that my thinking was flawed by a fatal miscalculation, a stubborn mistake that I persisted in making time and again: I considered everything that took place under my frontal bone to be absolutely unique. I conceived of psychorrhea in only one specimen. I never suspected that the process of mental deadening could be creeping—from skull to skull, from an individual to a group, from a group to a class, from a class to an entire social organism. Hiding my half existence behind the opaque walls of my skull, concealing it like a shameful disease, I did not consider the simple fact that the same thing could be occurring under other skullcaps, in other locked rooms.
The other day, while leafing through Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii by Herberstein, who visited Russia in the early sixteenthcentury, I found this sentence: “Some of them derive thename of their country from the Aramaic word Ressaia or Resissaia,which means: dispersion by drops.”
If those “some” existed so long ago, then, multiplying from century to century, they must gradually have seized hold of all the levers and signaling devices of that “life.” They saw Russia—and forced others to see it—as Ressaia: a spattering of isolated drops. Over long decades of stultifying work, they perfected and refined their technique of splintering society until they had either destroyed or numbed the connective tissue knitting its cells into one. We lived like separated drops. Like waifs. In 1893 a new University Statute tried to break us down into separate “visitors.” A century before that Chelishchev noted the emergence of products of mental dissociation: He wrote about the “stay-in-their-studies.” It is we, members of the last-born generation, who evolved the philosophical principle about someone else’s “I”: the “I” that isn’t mine is seen as foreign and foreign-born, irreducible to you. People-drops know neither channels nor currents. For them, “I” and “we” are separated by gulfs. Gulfs into which successive generations of social waifs have fallen. They need only be buried. And forgotten.
Now I understand: Any “I” not nourished by “we,” not umbilically attached to the maternal organism enveloping its small life, cannot begin to be itself. Even the mollusk hidden inside tight-shut valves, if one helps those valves by binding them with a tight metal band, will die.
But at the time we were unable to fully grasp this thought because our very thinking was deformed; the routes of our logics had been severed.
A thought thought either no further than “I” or no closer than the “cosmos.” On reaching the “threshold of consciousness,” the line between “I” and “we,” it would stop and either turn back or take a monstrous leap into “the starry beyond”—the transcendent—“other worlds.” Sight had either a microscopic or a telescopic radius: Whatever was too far for the microscope and too close for the telescope was simply lost to sight, and not included in any way by anyone in the field of vision.
It’s nearly dawn. I’m tired. I must stop for now. All around me, both through the walls and out the window, it is particularly quiet and still. My insomnias have taught me to make sense of the movements of nighttime minutes. Long ago I noticed that when the night is nearly gone, when a dark blue glimmer clings to the window and the stars go blind, there is always a particularly profound hush. As now, dimly through the frozen panes (I’ve put out the light), I can see in the dark blue gloom the dark steep slopes of roofs, exactly like the upturned hulls of sunken ships. And below them, rows of mute, black holes. Lower still, the bare, ice-covered branches of stunted city trees. Empty streets. And windless air steeped in deadness and silence. Yes, this is my hour: At such an hour I shall probably . . .
The text broke off in mid-sentence. The next seven lines had been carefully crossed out. Shtamm skipped over the inky parallels and went on reading. Through the wall a clock struck four.
The Second Night
All that playing at peacemaking might have gone on and on if not for the cannons that started to pound. At first the cannons hit somewhere far away, hit those people. Then they began pounding near at hand, pounding these people. And when the cannons had finished pounding, the stamping devices started to pound. The work of muzzles left round black craters around bodies; the stamps hit not people but their names. Even so, around their names, as around the broken bodies, were blue and black circles.
Chance threw me up on a southern beachhead. The city in which I lived changed hands thirteen times. Regimes came. And went. And returned. And left again. And with every regime came cannons and stamping devices. That’s when it happened, on the eve of another regime change, as I was sifting through a heap of old and new “identity cards,” I noticed that something was missing: my identity.
Of the cards there were quantities. But my identity had disappeared. Not a copy anywhere. I must have overlooked it: at was my first thought. But after sorting through all that stamporated junk a second time, paper by paper, I still could not find my “identity.” I had expected this. The more they made certain of my identity, the less certain I became of it myself: My old half-forgotten illness, psychorrhea, jogged by the blows of the stamping devices, was returning. The more often the ragged Remington lines assured me with a number, ornate signatures, and a seal that I really was so-and-so, the more suspicious I became of my “reality,” the more keenly I sensed in myself both this person and that. Little by little I developed a passion, a craving for more and more stamporated forms. But no matter how many I amassed, I still felt uncertain. The nearly staunched process had recommenced; the caverns in my “I” had again begun to yawn.
With each new stamp my sense of myself grew weaker. I—and I—half I—barely I—slightly I: it was melting away.
The feeling experienced by me then, poring over that pile of my stamporated names, was not one of despair or grief. Rather it was a sort of bitter joy. “Here lies,” the thought occurred, “my cold and dead name. It was alive. But now, lo and behold, it is riddled with stamp holes. So be it.”
As you, the person in room 24, can see, your predecessor has nothing against a good joke. Even the thought of my impending manipulation of hook and noose cannot keep me from smiling. Yes, I’m smiling and, who knows, perhaps not for the last time. But this is only a sketch: from—to. The material about the war will, of course, require a more detailed and serious exposition. I’ll begin:
One July night in 1914 I was working on an article about “The Axiomatism Crisis” when I suddenly heard a clattering of carts. Our side street, as you’ll soon see, is quiet and deserted. The sound bothered me: I put my manuscript aside, preferring to wait out the noise. But it would not cease. A train of empty wagons, wheels banging against the cobbles, was rattling past below and preventing the silence from closing in. My nerves were slightly ajangle from writing. I didn’t want to sleep. But I couldn’t work. I put on my coat and went out. The nighttime zigzags of our back streets seemed strangely animated. Excited people were bunched on street corners all talking at once. Over and again I heard the word “war.”
Glinting fitfully from the walls of buildings I saw paper squares. Only yesterday afternoon they weren’t there.
I walked up to one. The shadow from a cornice had cut off the top lines. I began reading from somewhere in the middle:
. . . are being bought up by the commissariat: foot wrappings —7 kop.; undershirt—26 kop.; pair of boots (mil. type)—6 rub.; also . . .
Only by holding a lighted match up to the paper square’s top lines did I learn that it was collecting not only boots and undershirts but bodies with what was in them: life. About the price of this last item, it said nothing.
By morning many-hued military flags were hanging over building entrances and gateways. Men with newspapers held up to their eyes were walking down the sidewalks; men with rifles on their shoulders were walking down the roadways. Thus from the very first day newspapers and rifles divided us all into those who would die and those for whom they would die.
At first, of course, there was great confusion and chaos. People would crowd round some gawky new recruit in his long earth-colored greatcoat in glad agitation.
“You for us?”
“We’re for you.”
But later the blurry line dividing “those who” from “those for whom” became clearer, and along that line there ran a crack; the crack opened and began to widen.
I don’t know what it was, but the early days of the war slightly excited even me. I had worked too much and too often with the “death” symbol, had included that biological minus in my formulas too systematically, not to be affected by all that was going on around me. Death—a dissociation that I imagined within the bounds of my “I” and only my “I” (beyond was of almost no concern to me)—was now forcing me to think in broader and more generalized terms. All the printer’s ink was now going to death’s accounts; death was turning into a programmatic, government-recommended idea. Officially regulated, death began putting out its own periodical, which, like any well-organized publishing concern, kept to a schedule. It was the most laconic, businesslike, and absorbing publication I had ever read: I refer to those white booklets that provided a “complete list of the dead, wounded, and missing in action.” At first glance, a journal of death might seem dull: number—name—number—another name. But given a certain imagination, the dry, lapidary style of those booklets only intensified a sense of the fantastic. They pushed one to the most surprising conclusions: Having made a purely statistical inspection of the March and April issues for 1915, I, for instance, knew that among the dead there were 35 percent more Sidorovs than Petrovs. Then again, Petrovs went missing more often. Sidorovs were evidently unlucky. Or perhaps Petrovs were cowards, or else found places at the rear. I don’t know. I only know that the distant, battle-scorched fields and crater-pocked earth were exerting a stronger and stronger pull on my imagination. I was here, one of those and among those for whom men were dying. They were dying far away, hundreds of miles away, so as not to alarm us. And their corpses, if they returned at all from there to here, returned in secret, at night, so as not to disturb us, the ones for whom they must die.
I remember I even gave up on my “Axiomatism Crisis.” Work on it had not been going well. Some nights I would quietly dress and slip out into the benighted streets. I knew the exact hours when the ambulance trams fetched up at the infirmaries with fresh batches —just arrived from that mysterious “there”—of hashed human flesh.
As a rule, I didn’t have to wait long. From around a bend in the street, steel grinding softly against steel, unlighted black cars would come trundling out. They would stop at the entrance. A light would snap on. The doors would swing quietly open and, while whispering orderlies tramped up and down the steps with stretchers, I would steal up to the cloth panels of those summer ambulance trams and listen to the muffled, almost soundless squirms and moans of dying human flesh. By the time the cars had been cleaned out, a new load would be creeping up from behind.
I found it hard only to look. Being here but drawn there, I could no longer do that. One night, I seized the moment when several orderlies, while unloading carcasses, converged in the doorway creating a jam: I walked up to a stretcher abandoned on its short folding legs in the middle of the pavement. (The carriers, given a free minute, had gone off to get a light from someone’s cigarette.) The carcass, entirely covered by a greatcoat, was unguarded. I quickly bent down and pulled back the broadcloth. I could barely see anything. Before my suddenly fogged lenses was a blurry smudge, writhing and twitching. A smell of sanies and sweat singed my nostrils. I bent down lower still, to the ear of what was lying under the broadcloth.
“For us? For me? But I may not exist. That’s just it, I don’t. So it turns out that . . .”
My tugging at his greatcoat must have hurt him, because suddenly from there, from the twitching smudge, came a soft and strained eeeee. I unclenched my fingers; the broadcloth sank down —and covered the smudge.
I hurried home, in a rush to get somewhere. Yet when I got to my door, I hung back, loath to cross the threshold. I knew that there, in that dark box, patiently waiting among the symbols and numbers, was my figment: 0.6 person.
All that night it tormented me with the relentless emptiness of its eye sockets.
Meanwhile, the white and pink squares pasted to the walls of buildings had been replaced by dark blue rectangles. The years listed, rising up the scale of time, were coming closer and closer to my “call-up year.” The distant there, glowing blue from the paper leaves, was calling to me ever more loudly and tenderly: Come.
It seemed to me that I heard it, that short simple syllable.
But then one day, at a crossroad, I met a doctor I knew. As we were saying goodbye, I retained his hand in mine.
“Tell me . . . ”
“With six diopters, do they take you?”
“Y-yes. Although . . .”
“What about seven?”
We unlinked palms. When he had gone a dozen paces, the doctor glanced back at me and made to turn round. But then he went on. At the time my vision was 7.5. My glass adjunct was stubbornly clinging to here. Still standing where the doctor had left me, I unclasped its tight metal legs, held it up to my face, and peered at its enormous oval-squinting biconcave eyes. I don’t know if it was a simple solar reflex or something else, but in the eyes of my adjunct there glittered a joyful brilliance.
It was then that my excruciating insomnias began. I gave up my late-night strolls about the streets. They no longer helped. I never could and cannot drink. People’s society to me is worse than insomnia.
But I had to fill my long, empty vigils with something. I bought thirty-two black and white carved figures and began playing chess: myself against myself. The utter futility of chess thinking appealed to me. After long struggles between thoughts and counter-thoughts, pitched battles between moves and countermoves, I could pour that whole tiny world, wooden and dead, back into its box, and not a trace of the dynasties of its black and white kings, or the devastating wars they had waged, remained—within me, or without.
Still, my games of “myself against myself” did have one peculiarity that at first intrigued me: Black almost always won.
Meanwhile long caterpillars of trains had taken away almost all of the men with rifles. Left behind were those with hands fit only for newspapers: nervously crumpled sheets full of numbers—now threatening, now falsely promising—that changed their tune from one day to the next. Purely psychological statistics don’t (yet) exist. But it’s fair to say that the war’s dialectic forced those who were more or less alive to go to their death, and gave those who were more or less dead the right to live. And if the war managed only to separate the living from the dead, then the new regime, arriving in its wake, would sooner or later pit them against each other as enemies.
Even then one sensed the approach of this new, as yet unnamed regime. It was as though the oxygen were being pumped out of the air by a slow gigantic plunger. The atmosphere was suffocating. Men from here could not and would not hide their dislike of men from there, the ones who, having snatched a two-week furlough from death, tried in vain to be happy among the unsympathetic men for whom they were dying.
One day, as I was wiping my bookshelves with a rag, a plump German tome slipped out of my fingers and dropped on the floor. A random line in that open book caught my eye, and I read on. I learned that inhabitants of the Fiji Islands have no word for “I.” Savages do without that symbol we so cherish by replacing it with something like our “to me.”
I felt that I had made an important practical discovery. Now, if I were to fall out with my “I,” I might try living in the dative case.
To me: some bread
and a little peace in Heaven. If there is any. And perhaps . . .
But the events then bearing down on us at such a catastrophic rate rendered my venture with “to me” somewhat belated.
Thee situation was becoming more and more alarming. The front lines were creeping up on us. Some people were already imagining they heard distant cannonades that didn’t exist. When small scraps of clouds drifted over the city, they said they came “from there.” And then launched into lengthy explanations of how gunfire alters the shapes of clouds. It felt as though we, the ones still here, had been billeted in an enormous thick-walled building clad in rows of false windows.
On my writing table is an amusing toy for reflection. It was given to me by an acquaintance, an engineer who worked in a vacuum laboratory: an ordinary, hermetically sealed glass vial. It contains an intricately twined and exceedingly fine strand of silver hair. Surrounding the strand is a vacuum, a carefully filtered void. For me, that is the vial’s whole point.
The engineer explained that this total evacuation, this absolute void, had taken a long time to achieve. Only recently have we mastered the technique of making an absolute emptiness, a so-called hard vacuum.
Yes. And now the moment has come when I, having hidden my thought inside a fragile vial, have entered its hard vacuum.
Incidentally, after turning the vial this way and that, I asked, “But how do you put the air back in?”
The engineer looked at me the way one looks at an eccentric or a child, and burst out laughing.
“Very simple: Break the glass.”
THE THIRD AND LAST NIGHT
I’m falling behind in my writing. I doubt I’ll manage to finish by morning. The silliest thing cut into my work: sleep. And disrupted the routine of my insomnias.
Late this afternoon I suddenly could not keep my eyes open, and I had this dream.
I dreamt that I was here in this cage of flat dark blue roses. Sitting and waiting for something. Then suddenly I heard the soft sound of wheels on snow. How odd, I thought, wheels in winter. I went to the window. A hearse was by the entrance: black with white tassels. Two or three men in dress caftans over knitted jackets were staring up at my window. No mistake there. One even shielded his eyes with his hand. I stepped back from the window, then again crept up, but from the side, so they wouldn’t see me: They were still staring. One of them adjusted an absurd hat like the upturned hull of a boat, sat down on a spur stone, and began to smoke. So they had decided to wait. Trying to make myself invisible, I hugged the wall and edged toward the threshold. Stepping out into the corridor, I heard the tramp of heavy boots by the entrance door, as though three or four men were shouldering something long and unwieldy. The door stood wide. But the doorway was narrow and their burden, dark blue with a white border, swaying on their shoulders, had gotten stuck. I stepped back, closed the door, and looked round for the key. There was no key. The dark blue burden was lurching closer and closer, banging into walls and corners in the corridor. I put my shoulder to the door and braced an outstretched foot against the bed. For good measure. And then . . . I woke up. My shoulder was twisted uncomfortably against the wall’s dark blue roses. My outstretched foot was wedged in the bed’s wooden back.
Still barely awake, I thought to myself: Am I really afraid? And have I correctly anticipated and calculated everything? What if . . .
No. What if can no longer fool me. How well I know him, that universal marplot and jester. Posing as a “grand Peut-être,”**** he outjested that jester Rabelais by inviting him “for after death.” And Rabelais believed him.
Whatif doesn’t believe in anything, not even corpses. As soon as he sees the lid being fitted onto a coffin while men wait with shovels, he slips a finger in between coffin and lid. And keeps it there till it’s pinched. He always gets in the way.
Censers may waft incense as the clergy sing of the last kiss and a girl’s trembling lips bend over the dead, tightly pursed crack, but Whatif is right there, whispering into a waxen ear: “Don’t miss your chance, Dear Departed.” Even so, I’m grateful to the marplot. He made me a gift of one day. Just one. I promised myself to remember him right before the end, and here I am remembering.
The revolution crashed down like lightning. One can hide lightning (its discharge) in a dynamo and force it, torn up and measured on meters, to flicker dimly inside the bell jars of thousands upon thousands of economic lightbulbs. But then, when the revolution was still new, we were all, willingly or unwillingly, inflamed or burnt by its jagged, all-consuming course. In an instant, all thresholds had been removed—not only from rooms, cells, and studies but also from consciousnesses. Words one had thought forever crushed by the censors’ pencils, shrunk and shunted into breviers and nonpareils, suddenly revived, and began waving and calling from red flags and banners. Having suddenly overcome my own threshold, I too crept out to meet the banners and crowds. Whatif had managed to convince even me. Not for long, but still.
On that day of mine, the first and only, the din and glints from a mass demonstration had been beating on my lenses and brain since morning. For a minute I even put away my inseparable adjunct: Spots spun round me, dancing a harum-scarum jig. The sun skipped in the March puddles. In the blue rain-washed sky, white cloud blots pranced.
For want of habit, I very quickly tired. With vibrating nerves, nearly drunk from the sounds and meanings, so new and not mine, I quietly disengaged myself from the crowd and set off through the streets. But the streets, also noisy and excited, gave my nerves no rest. Then a long cemetery wall loomed up. I turned in.
But strangely, even the peace locked inside those walls was that day somehow unpeaceful. The crosses, pitching about and waving their crosspieces, seemed to be mounting a defense; the stone wall round the cemetery resembled that of a fortress under siege.
Worn out, I sat on a still-damp bench. And immediately I saw her: a little girl of three or four. Tripping toward me down the path. She appeared to be alone. Slightly unsteady on the hard slippery earth, her little legs were stubbornly, step by step, conquering space. From under her knitted hat, a fine and seemingly familiar oval shone white. The wind ruffled her golden curls and the ends of the red ribbon in which they were tied. When she reached the empty end of my bench, I said, “Life.”
She knew that I meant her. Standing among the crosses, their dead white arms outstretched above her, she looked up at me and smiled. Her pupils, I noticed, were strangely dilated inside their fine light blue rims.
From around a bend in the path came the sound of hurrying footsteps. A woman’s voice called the child. But not by that name, my name. I quickly rose and set o& in the opposite direction, walking faster and faster. Near the gates I knocked a pious old woman off her feet.
“You owl!” she cried after me.
“Comrade Owl,” someone’s merry bass corrected, and laughed.
I laughed too.
As soon as I got home, I began hunting for that long-forgotten missive. I especially needed the nine letters helplessly and touchingly (as it seemed to me now) stitching together my name on the envelope. I rummaged through all my paper piles. Old useless jottings kept thrusting themselves into my hands, university junk, odd passages from books, official communications. The one thing I needed was not there: The small narrow envelope with the jumping lines hidden inside had disappeared. Apparently forever. That day, though, I was in luck; I had not disturbed the dust in my folders and paper piles for nothing. My attention was unexpectedly drawn to an old extract. A note in the margin read: From Kirik’s questions to Bishop Nifont of Novgorod.
And farther down:
QUESTION 41: Ought a burial to take place after sunset?
ANSWER: No. For it is the reward of the dead to see the sun at the hour of their burial.
I went to the window and opened it to the night. The day noises, now quieted, were tossing softly and sleepily among a myriad of lights. I drew up a chair and sat the whole night with my head in my hands. Between my temples, the thought fought and fought and would not be still: So I’m a corpse. So be it. But I too shall see the sun at the hour of my burial.
Meanwhile the March fury was surging higher and higher, and many were frightened by its violent rise. What had to happen, happened. At first the dead and the living lived together. Life, caught in a vise, fettered, and forced to be part of a dead mechanism monotonously counting off the days, seemed to favor the dead. They better suited the existing order. Later on, the war separated, at least in part, the dead from the living: Having finished with the living, having settled accounts with them for good, the war wanted to give life to the galvanized corpses. But the living, herded into slaughterhouses, found themselves together for the first time and so seized Life. They did not need to manufacture it by galvanic means, by stealing things from nature: Nature was in them—inside their nerves and muscles. An ordinary musculature pulled down the walls of the well-equipped slaughterhouses—and then began the planet’s first struggle or, rather, revolt of the living against the dead.
Yes, the revolution, as I see it, was not an internecine war between Reds and Whites, Greens and Reds, not a campaign of East against West, class against class, but a fight for the planet between Life and
When the revolution began to get the upper hand, then corpses too joined the fray: all those “and I’s,” “half I’s,” “barely I’s,” “slightly I’s.” And especially that variety of corpse discovered by me: “to me.” They offered experience, knowledge, passivity, compassion, and loyalty. Everything except life. Yet life was what was in demand. It gradually became clear that even outside cemeteries there was plenty of room for corpses. The revolution could “use” them as well. A doctor I knew once described to me the climacterium in women: the gradual numbing of the sexual system, the loss of sensitivity, and the physiological sensation of love. Climacteric women cannot love (purely physiologically). But they can be loved. Taking this example in extenso, I maintain that people with a numb sensorium, with an almost corpse-like ossification of the psyche, can no longer live themselves. But they can be lived. Why not?
I may be climacteric too, but I’ve understood. I cannot. And I’m ashamed, because I saw, if only for an instant, the sun at the hour of my burial.
This past summer, I was walking by the banks of the Moscow River when I noticed some boys playing skittles. The game was in full swing. I stopped to watch.
“Hey, Petka, set up the dead man,” a spirited voice rang out.
Petka, bare soles flashing, dashed into the square etched in the dirt and quickly arranged the skittles: two lay side by side—the table. A third on top: the corpse. Two more stood either side: the candles.
“R-right, and now. . .” Petka ran back to the line and picked up the bat. For a second he fixed the “dead man” with a squinting, slightly malicious eye. Then he sent the bat hurtling through the air, and the dead man, scattering skittles, was knocked out of his square. A cloud of dust rose over him and settled back down. And I thought to myself: It’s time. It’s now time.
Indeed, Dasein-Ersatz—an imitation life—used to be possible. But now it’s harder. Almost impossible.
New eyes have appeared. And people. They have a new way of looking at you: not at but through. You can’t hide your emptiness inside; they will bore into you with their pupils. No need to step aside when you meet them; they will walk right through you, as through air.
I feel sorry for all those “and I’s” and “barely I’s” still clinging to their half existence: Living for them is hard and tedious; “no” has driven a wedge into “yes”; left has run into right; the top of their life has been stove in and the bottom exposed. Even so they will all, wherever they hide, be dragged out and ripped open like old tin cans that have rusted through; better to bury oneself under a dark blue lid with a white border.
A month ago I met someone. I was walking along the Arbat, past shopwindows; in the windows were numbers on tags; under the tags were goods; but in one window, above the number, were two bullet holes caulked with a dirty gray paste. This struck me as curious: I lingered for a moment. Suddenly I heard a merry voice at my ear.
“You’re intrigued. Y-yes, skillfully patched. We’ve riddled all of Russia with bullets, but here she is again. Patched—” The voice broke off.
A couple absorbed in reading the numbers—arm in arm— walked quietly away. I glanced round: from under a leather cap, sharp pupils with a metallic shine; a narrow clean-shaven face between high knobby cheekbones; and a scar across the forehead.
“Here we see,” the man went on, “how greedy people are for things. They can’t buy them, but at least they can feast their eyes. Well I don’t need any of that,” he waved a square, stubby-fingered hand, “that’s why I travel like a bullet: either past or through. I have a rule: that all my belongings weigh no more than eleven and a half pounds.”
“Why eleven and a half?” I asked.
“Because a rifle requires it: eleven and a half pounds, and no more. So as not to overbalance the rifle’s bayonet. Understand?”
I nodded. Continuing our conversation, we started down the street and turned in at the &rst beer sign. The details are still fresh in my mind: On the wall above our table, inside a square frame, against a foaming sea of dark blue, the upturned hull of a ship was sinking.
From everywhere: that.
We asked for two beers. I barely touched mine. He drained his glass. And went on talking, while looking through me. “Eleven holes I’ve got in me, but I don’t want to die. Life interests me too much. Take the time they picked me up near Saratov—we were fighting Czechs there—I had barely any blood left: It had all run out. They said I’d die. I said, no I won’t, I don’t believe you. Or the time I was caught by the Whites. They lined us up along the edge of a ravine. As soon as I heard the word ‘R-r-ready!,’ I dropped like a stone, rolled down the hill, and ran. They came after me: bang-bang. But I kept on running, I had this feeling, you know, that they’d never get me. How could they? How could they get a man who couldn’t do without life?”
This acquaintance (I rarely allowed myself the luxury) was not broken off. The man in the leather cap even came by my room for books. With me, the books’ owner, he apparently had no business. He never once asked me who I was or what was in me. But my books he devoured. To start, I gave him a bundle of simpler things. He won’t understand, I thought. No. He understood. In his own way, but he understood. Then I gave him more difficult books. On returning the second bundle, he divided the books into two piles.
“These went past. Those went through.”
When my guest had gone I looked through both piles, taking care not to mix them up: very interesting.
Incidentally, you too may make the acquaintance of my acquaintance (if you like) since the delivery of my manuscript shall be entrusted to him. At our last meeting I told him I was going away. Tomorrow, as agreed, I shall give him the manuscript so that in exactly one week he may deliver it to room No. 24. I can rely on him. Of that I’m sure.
In the era between the two Romes (now both dead) the game of cottabus was very much in fashion. The object of the game was this: When guests had finished feasting they would fling the last drops of wine from the last goblets to see who could fling them the farthest. Evidently both eras and games repeat themselves. Well, I, a drop, agree to play the game. We’re on. Hurl me. But not the goblet. The empty goblet must remain where it is: Those are the rules of the game of cottabus.
Well, it’s time I finished: my manuscript, and everything. In the next room people are already awake. The day is beginning. So then, I must: drop off the manuscript; dispose of my books and effects; then destroy various papers. That will take the whole day and part of the night. Fine. Then lock the door and throw the key out the window, into the snow. It’s safer. Now let’s see . . .Yes, the hook is already in the wall (I hammered it in yesterday)—third rose to the right of the lintel. Its story is clear, like mine. Until the first glimmers, the hook will be bare. Then not bare. By the way, I’ve already experimented with the chair, knocking it over with a clatter on purpose. The first time someone yelled through the wall, “What’s going on?” The second time they didn’t bother. So on that point, I’m guaranteed. Now then, twenty-four hours will go by, perhaps more, and the hook will still be not bare. Then someone will call to me through the door. Then they’ll knock. Softly at first; then more loudly. Three or four people will gather by the door: First they’ll bang on it, then they’ll stop. Then they’ll take an ax to the lock. They’ll walk in. Jump back. And walk in again, only not all of them. They’ll disencumber the hook, then pull it out of the wall. After that, room No. 24 will be empty for a day, or two, or even three, until it admits you.
I’m afraid that by now you must be feeling somewhat anxious. Don’t be afraid: I won’t menace you with hallucinations. Those are cheap psychological tricks. I’m counting instead on that exceedingly prosaic law: the association of ideas and images. Even now, everything, from the dark blue blots on the wallpaper to the last letters on these pages, has entered your brain. I’m already fairly well entangled in your “associative threads”; I’ve already seeped into your “I.” Now you too have your own figment.
Be warned: Science has proven that attempts to disentangle associative threads and excise the foreign image entwined in them will only embed that image more deeply in one’s consciousness. Given all those failed experiments with my “I,” it has long been my dream to inhabit someone else’s. If you are at all alive, I have already succeeded. Goodbye.
The lines broke off. Shtamm’s eyes skimmed down the notebook’s dark blue rules for another second or two. Then abruptly stopped.
Shtamm turned toward the door and got up. To the door it was six steps. Third rose to the right: Yes, his fingers clearly felt a narrow hole.
Suddenly he jerked open the door and rushed out. Only to run up against a wall. The corridor was quiet and dark. Save for the narrow band of light from his half-open door. It helped him to see; in front of his eyes a number showed white: 25. He stood stock-still for a minute, he needed to hear a living sound, if only the sound of human breathing. The people behind that closed door were probably asleep. Shtamm pressed his ear to the number and listened hungrily. But he heard only his own blood, chafing against his veins.
Gradually regaining his self-possession, he returned to his room. He walked in and closed the door tight behind him. Again he sat down at the table. The manuscript was waiting. Shtamm pushed it aside and covered it with a book. On top of the book he placed his briefcase. That same black nighttime hush still hovered. Then suddenly (in Moscow this happens), somewhere nearby, a bell tower started awake: ringing at random, but with brio, bells banging mightily against the silence. And just as suddenly, it stopped. The alarmed copper droned on for a minute more in a low, slow-fading monotone—and again the hush closed in. Little by little the day began to glimmer. The dove-colored half-light clinging to the panes crept slowly into the room. Shtamm moved to the window. His agitation was gradually subsiding. Now through the frozen double panes he could see the metal hulls of upturned roof-ships plunging slowly into the dawn; rows of black window holes under them; and crooked cracks of side streets down below; the cracks were deserted, dead and mute.
“His hour,” Shtamm whispered, and felt as if a noose were tightening about his neck.
From somewhere far away, from the outskirts, came the long even bass of an automobile horn.
“I wonder if that man will turn up again: the living one.”
Shtamm was again—or so it seemed to him—his old self; even almost Etal.
Only now did he notice: The dark blue roses on the wall were trimmed with a thin—thin as a thread—white border.
“What of it,” muttered Shtamm, sinking into a reverie. “Can’t very well find another room. I’ll have to stay here. Indeed, I’ll do whatever it takes.”
*Nature abhors a vacuum. (Latin)
**A vacuum abhors nature. (Latin)
***Ordinary corpse. (Latin)
****Great Perhaps. (French)