A Farewel To Europe

Chapter IVexcerpts The doorbell rang earnestly. I had noticed, during my long career as an art scholar, that all of my doorbells manifested a sort of unexpected zeal, an eagerness that suggested that these tiny technical devices strove to reach the condition of an animate creature, of a bird or animal. A crow, a dog, a parrot… Anyway, my doorbell knew it scared me, and it enjoyed ringing frighteningly; that was part of the pleasure of a manmade mechanism that hated its creator. I opened the door. Mr. Sommer was smiling at me in the doorway. Differently. In a completely different way. He was no longer the pathetic guardian of the city council papers, the humble servant of the great director Caftangiu: the man standing in front of me looked as the ambassador of a great power, rich in oil and dollars. He embraced me protectively and haughtily: as in a dream, still speechless with surprise, I heard his greeting: "Habe die Ehre, Herr Professor!" I felt like kissing his hand on which a ring with magic stones and exquisite symbols shone. We sat down, chatting conventionally, I don't remember in which of the suspect languages. I was now surprised to feel an unusual detachment, a superiority both noble and unrestrained, that was coming to me in waves from his eyes that were more than luminous: I would say numinous. There was no trace left of the humility and naturalism that he had displayed a couple of days before. This dandy, full of smart tricks, had suddenly transported me over meridians and parallels to other coordinates of human existence, just by entering my room and bringing with him the perfume and good taste of his clothes in which he was not merely dressed, but vested. "I think I recognize," my guest said, this time in a language that had no trace of Oriental accent, "the hand of your wife in the way these starters are arranged on the table; your wife who is not accidentally called Olympia, she knows my tastes, there was a time when we often dined together." "Mr. Sommer, before I ask you how you came to know my wife so well I would take the liberty to ask you if you would have a glass of vodka. Russian vodka." Mr. Sommer took his monocle out of the pocket of his frock coat and fixed it on with an accuracy that you can only find today with operetta singers (and not even with them), and maybe with one or two Austro-Hungarian dramatists. Then, like a magician, he pulled out a shining bottle of whisky that looked like an unreal Paris-Match advert. "Herr Professor," he said, smiling affably at me, "today we are going to drink, quite exceptionally, if you don't mind, this anti-vodka. Don't be surprised. I have inherited from my father this habit of drinking alternatively the national drinks of the great nations. We live here, you must admit, in a dangerous area where alcoholic variation is recommended. The Germans, for instance, are so unimaginative as far as politics is concerned, partly because they have always drunk beer and only beer: on the contrary, the French, just like our Finno-Ugric neighbors, are plunged in libertinism and à-quoi-bon-isms because of the too many types of wines and eau-de-vies they drink. "What's to be done, then?" "I alternate. Red wine and white wine, when I drink at home. Vodka and whisky, when I am a guest. Little nations, my dear professor, and the two of us belong to little nations, must adapt themselves to the liquors of the great ones. Thus, deep down in their heart, the notion of contrast takes shape, the diplomatic feeling of daily coexistence with any of the likely occupants. I say we should drink our first glass of this old scotch to the charm and intelligence of your wife. Hurray!" I was back home, I was swimming in the pure waters of my youth. I was no longer an orthographist. My guest (who was vivacious and flexible like a rococo centaur, a stylistic and spiritual synthesis between the Arab headgear and the Maccabean sword) was enveloping me in an enchanting incantation coming from another century and another part of the world. "That's exactly what I was thinking of before you came here, my dear Mr. Sommer: the mystery of human duplicity. I come from a region where the existence of double ethic standards is rigorously and severely condemned. In my Genopolis – at least the one where I was educated and I spent my youth, to be caught in the act of double dealing, of saying something and doing something else, meant public disgrace and utter annihilation. I realize that innocent hypocrisy and everyday innocuous lies are not alien to me, after all homo sum, but there is a breathtaking distance from these petty crimes to the Mesozoic drama I am witnessing…. Zum Wohle, I feel now, after I had only a glass of your Scottish friend, that I am dialectically moving towards my opposite. You can recognize a civilized person by the way they handle a simple toothpick: to eat anchovies and green olives, cheese and smoked turkey breast without unbuttoning your waistcoat, without hurrying or lingering over it too much, testifies to a kind of refinement that you can only find in the Middle East. The meal was not just happening, it was smoothly flowing like a dance, like a liturgy one knows by heart. "I am glad, my dear friend, and not at all surprised, believe me, to hear you saying that," my guest said. And though I am only a simple alien, an inhabitant of these fossilized foreign lands, I will take the liberty of contradicting you. I am forced by my modest reading or, rather, by the careful observing of the world, to draw your attention on the fact that our so called duplicity is only the logical outcome of Genesis. God, for reasons we are ignorant of, accepted the Devil as a co-author of His creation, maybe not equal in rights to Him, but having very legitimate rights anyway. Ancient tradition, and especially the superstitions of our primitive Christianity – I mean, primarily, Bogomilism – will have us pass through this world having two souls, two faces, two sets of moral principles, even two addresses (one on earth and one in heaven). At a wedding, for instance, in front of the altar (or of the registrar of marriages), a mystery of supreme contractual union is enacted, while the revelers shout the most obscene epithalamia behind the married couple. It's the same with wakes: the old women would wail while the men play cards and the youth paw one another taking advantage of the ambiguousness of darkness. We need an extra diploma, we need to speak several languages, to specialize in several fields, why wouldn't we be allowed to have, for practical purposes, a couple of extra points of view, a supplement of morals and character. I know, I know, character should be monovalent, at least for some of the Prussian philosophers. A transient Prussian imbecility: I can assure you, my dear friend, that nowadays the most whorish nations and ideologies are those that preach the unique truth and good from the pulpit of political Tartuffism. We are heading towards universal drama and, before long, we will divide our existence between a cathedral mystery and a domestic, relaxing bout of drinking, swearing and whoring." "Is there a middle of the road option?" "As far as society is concerned, there is no hubris. Only the stupid angels believe one and the same thing. Man is a sonofabitchish creature, the fire inside him is equally a divine and a hellish gift. Why do you think alcohol was invented? To get, at least for a brief moment, the illusion of a reconciliation between the two souls, between what is as it is, and what should be as it isn't now and will never be, believe me. Between my life, which must be spared, and my Being, which must be saved, between the aim, which is constantly being paraded before us, and the means, which replace it temporarily… but forever. Only in love, alcohol and prayer – and I am calling prayer any form of art, politics, philosophy – can we find a surrogate of the Absolute, Uniqueness, Perfection towards which all the genes of our cursed chromosomes tend because of an initial error of design. Man seems to be evolving towards his own bestiality. He was not created for love, Christ was utterly naïve, He came to the wrong world; I can assure you He will never come back, there will be nothing to which He might come back; man is a vile, whorish, criminal beast. The varnish of Christianity is wearing off, even the simple morality of simple people is doomed to a lengthy but unavoidable vilification. You will understand then why I simply adore this city where ambivalence is a religion, a supreme art, a new morality, moral or immoral. Between a modest clerk, who writes two different statistic reports, of which you can hardly choose the more untruthful, using at the same time two types of ink, two types of pen, two types of language and the most genuine saint in the Theban desert, the choice from the perspective of our relentless advance towards nothingness, can only be, by far, in favor of local whoring. I felt something was wrong, the paradoxes of his argument were turning inside my head and since my years in prisons I had learned to avoid as much as possible this kind of argumentation. "What do you think, my dear Mr. Sommer, of my bursting into laughter?" I asked, precisely for changing the topic of our conversation and bringing it to matters I was much more interested in. My guest looked at me with his green, bright eyes and I felt enveloped in an amused cloud of friendship and admiration. "My dear sir, I want to congratulate you for that laughter from the bottom of my heart, the heart of a politically active intellectual since the beginning of the world. I may look like an insignificant office worker, but I am not. I sometimes have the opportunity that any Spirit has of flying over the city and watching, just like Lesage's lame hero, from above, through the roofs and walls of human dwellings, the intricate spectacle of confused human passions. As I know almost everything about the most insignificant trifles, I take the liberty of considering your risus as a celestial event. I adore scholastics – it is a conservative weakness of mine that I can afford precisely because, in fact, I have always been on the side of progress and modernization. Your laughter, according to my humble opinion, has not been accidental or simply fortuitous. Taking into account the consequences, I believe I am entitled to consider what happened in front of that notice board a cosmic event. One having tremendous repercussions for the entire city, for the world in general, for you in particular. And your modesty, professor, doesn't diminish at all the grandeur of the event, which, as I now realize, is somehow too big for you. This is natural after all. Laughter – if you allow me to remind you – is even today a mystery to human mind. Just like the smile of children or the aura of dying people. What do we know about the real source of laughter? Practically nothing. Du mécanique plaqué sur du vivant ? That's ridiculous. That's what Bergson said fifty years ago, but the definition had to be changed several times since. "Du vivant plaqué sur du mécanique, du mécanique-vivant plaqué sur du vivant-mécanique…" and so on. In my opinion any laughter must be considered an act of liberation. An illusive one, which is still some kind of liberation. What do you think Adam did when he was kicked out of that non-working place of his and found himself condemned to history, evolution, progress? He laughed, my dear sir, he laughed heartily until tears streamed out of his eyes. Later on, in the Middle Ages, when an entire industry of fear and tears of all kinds had been created, laughter became a sort of merchandise to be traded in fairs, a rustic luxury, a sin to be confined to the poor comedians, damned ab initio to the flames and applause of hell. It is said that the Judeo-Christian good Lord (who didn't have a very good sense of humor) had in the beginning, like any great reformer or revolutionary, what Saint Thomas Aquinas calls voluntas antecedens: in other words, He had imagined a world where all people should be happy and saved. In the meantime, however, because of boredom, fatigue or change of mind, a shift was made to voluntas consequens, according to which just certain individuals, carefully selected, on the basis of detailed filtering and examinations, by means of confessions, asceticism and verifications, would be able to enjoy the limited number of seats in paradise. Well, as soon as this a priori, predestined, statistic constraint was imposed, Laughter had automatically to be invented for the vast majority of people, who were thus deprived of any chance of promotion or fulfillment, a condition they got used to. The weak laugh at the powerful, the poor at the rich, those who are smart-foolish at those who are simply smart, but still foolish, the humble at the vain etc. Do you really believe you can laugh in paradise? Like hell you can! In paradise one sings hymns, one praises and worships. Laughter – particularly at times when history goes mad – is considered to be an act of rebellion, of hooliganism, an anarchic attitude, a revolution in nuce. Voltaire, that doctor ridendo causa, believed that humble people and nations, crushed under the weight of morose tyrants, have nothing left but the mission of compromising their tyrants. How? By laughing, dear friend, as you laughed in front of that poster of scholarly ignorance. I have the deepest respect for Lord Jesus Christ, this poor Jew totally devoid of political acumen. I cannot help, however, asking myself the following question: when he listed those admirable "blessings," couldn't he say, instead of "blessed ye, who weep," "blessed ye, who laugh" or, even better, "blessed ye, who can still laugh"? The fate of the world would have been different. In fact, neither Moses nor Muhammad ever laughed, either. Those who establish religions, as those who establish military dictatorships, are unable to laugh: they ignore laughter. Risis, meretrix apostasiae, that is how they defined laughter at the time when cathedrals were built: and it is still defined like that nowadays, when the same cathedrals are being demolished, to be replaced by other miracles. It is from the perspective of this scholastic diagnosis that we have to consider laughter. Unfortunately so, I should say…" "Meretrix apostasiae," I echoed, in a trance. "I shouldn't have laughed, should I? I want to know your ultimate, categorial, axiological, metaphysical opinion on… my laughter; I would like you to tell me what would be, for instance HIS opinion? Do you understand me? Karl Marx's opinion… the man who is the source of all my misfortunes. What would He say? To me, until the first liberator appeared, He was more than a master, a classic, a guide, as far as method was concerned, a model: He was the idol of the hopes of my generation, He opened my eyes on History, on the injustice of this world, I thought He would also close my eyes as soon as my part was finished." "You hit the nail on the head. Prosit!" "Prosit! The nail, the nailed, the cause of nailing." "That's why I came here the way I came. To tell you – to the extent that I am allowed to do it – that, at this time, taking into account the tremendous complications on the world stage, not even He could give you, even if He wanted to, a precise answer regarding the rightfulness or wrongfulness of your laughter. There have been few people in the century since his death who were so widely read, and so knowledgeable in matters concerning arts or sciences. His common sense is still a model of discretion and restraint. He wouldn't laugh noisily (he hated parties, alcohol, gossip or scandal, though he had a sharp sense of the ridicule). I consider him to be the creator of not only his well-known philosophical and revolutionary system, but also of a political pamphlet that is corrosive, ironical and literarily suggestive… However, as far as you are concerned, I don't know what to say: you are a distinguished orthographist, you are, by profession and calling, a representative of the spiritual lumpen-proletariat, I would say that his undying revolutionary spirit itself took you by the ears and led you there to see that scientific nonsense. Fantastic. What do you say? On the other hand, however, do we have any certitude as to the criteria according to which one laughs in the eternity beyond, in the world of untarnished values?" "Alas, I am lost! I was hoping that…" "Bibemus, my Genopolitan! I suggest we go over to the kitchen: I know your wife has displayed there, on a wall, the compromising sheet. Lean on me, terra has become uncertain. There. In vino veritas, in vodka humilitas and in whisky stupiditas. Let's go and look him in the eye. Let's study him, to see if…" Our way to the kitchen was long and difficult, like an expedition into the unknown. The Anglo-Saxon bottle of bug-flavored liquor floated in the air on its own, leading us. "I almost burst into tears when I think of my cursed laughter. My wife – who loves and admires you – maintains, more valachico, that he who laughs last laughs best as he can also laugh at those who, laughing first, have already been impaled." "Let's not exaggerate, my dear friend: you are, however, a mere orthographist. A poor second engineer of the undersouls of these underhumans that make up the superstructure of the underculture of wine and bread production. Your wife, whom I admire and love in my own way, has the great advantage of having read nothing on this colossal subject that laughter is, and will always remain: laughter as a symptom of health or illness, laughter that inhibits or relaxes, forgives or punishes, condemns or saves. Because, if we extend the area of our former speculations, we can't help noticing that on the scale of a certain ontological evolution (or involution, or non-evolution, or revolution), homo ridens appeared much later than, say, homo faber or homo lupus, but before that despicable, pathetic blockhead, homo sapiens. In my opinion, laughter, as a sign of awareness and gratuitousness, must be placed somewhere between homo ludens and homo fictus: after caves and hunting, but before farming and animal breeding. Between totem and taboo, that is between a force that you know it protects you, and one that you must protect yourself against. Laughter and crying, twin brothers, the two sides of the same sad, devaluated coin, were only later separated, when monarchic and religious ceremonies were invented. My dear professor, the two powers of history, monarchy and religion, hated laughter, did not approve of it, banned it in their institutions. It is in fact only natural: grandeur, heroism, sacrifices of all kinds, which represent the ceremonies of power, cannot stand giggling or guffawing. As any type of laughter comes from bottom to top, any type of laughter brings down, criticizes, relativizes. It points to shortcomings. It breaks the mirror, reverses values, does justice by leveling and abolishing hierarchies. A king who laughs cannot do without a jester that acts as a lightning rod, an unfortunate intelligent guy, a hunchback wearing bells on his cap, a man who absorbs the dangerous poisons of irony. The kings have endured, but the jesters are gone: today's prime ministers are not allowed to have humor or be intelligent even if, in principle, placed in the shadow of their majesties, they wear a cap and a hunch. Moreover, you must admit, as an ex-teacher of critical doubtology, that boredom plays a major role in controlling the subjects or the faithful. Boredom, my dear sir, is, according to many specialists, having both left-wing and right-wing views, is the shortest, cheapest and safest way that leads to duly turning the common people into idiots. To stand still in a church for hours on end, while a blabbering illiterate sexton endlessly speaks in his nasalized Slavonic about hell and paradise that are waiting for you, to witness, stante pede, a coronation, decapitation or funeral ceremony, to cry "vivat!" today and to be forced to cry "off with his head!" tomorrow, all these terribly boring, and contradictory, comedies are based on boredom, this pest of history, this plague of our century that only the humble, the weak, the insignificant feel; those who strut on the stage of life without uttering one word as their part contains none. Well then, laughter is the only acid that dissolves boredom, it is the only means by which we can break the false fiction of ceremonies (and everything is today a huge, lethal ceremony) so that Truth, which is always plebeian, can triumph at least for one moment. I don't think that I exaggerate, my dear friend, if I tell you that I somehow fear that class struggle in the future, which will burst out in the next millennium, will be between the bored and those who are intrinsically boring. Allow me, however, lest I should wander away from the point, to put an end to these probably confused considerations and say just that as a conclusion: some of us function on the basis of the new cortex of reason, while others are obviously interested in coming back to the old, instinctive, animal-like cortex of Edenic times. It appears that, on a huge plane, the slow extirpation of reason, of knowledge, has been decided upon, so that mankind comes back to a reptilian brain, content with itself. Who would laugh today? The peasants might be an example. The children, the drunkards, the lunatics, too. The workers, too, during their spare time. Their laughter, however, is not dangerous: it can be isolated, annihilated. But when someone who is neither a child, nor a crazy peasant, or an intoxicated worker laughs at an official poster of the neocephalic authorities, we witness an act of blasphemy, a serious and dangerous perturbation of the protocol, a forceful disruption of the established laissez faire, laissez passer enshrined in all social reflexes through so many efforts and sacrifices. That's about it! Let me pour you some whisky, your hand is trembling and so is your soul. However, you shouldn't despair: fortunately, Torquemada is dead, Mao is dead, Robespierre is compromised, crushed under a pile of controversy. Do not cry! Prosit!" "Master, I implore you, let's pass to world literature." At the very moment when our fingers rested upon the respective chapter, our kitchen seemed to blow up like a sea mine. An extraordinary burst of laughter – Niagara, Nagasaki, Ploieshti – filled in the room with a cheerful vapor. Who had started? I have no idea. All the crockery laughed, Olympia's pots; I laughed, too and so did Mr. Sommer, but the washing powder, the brass mortar, the corkscrew and the coffee mill had also joined us and laughed. But I swear on the immortal soul of my forefathers that it wasn't I who broke the plates on the table against the kitchen floor. I swear it wasn't I! The Romanian version of the novel may be read at www.liternet.ro© Cartea românească, 1992 A marginal of Romanian literature, I. D. Sîrbu (1918-1989) was a satirist whose both work and posthumous renown remind of Bulgakov's; although it is his earlier (1957-1963) experience as a political prisoner of the communist regime that he drew on in A Farewell to Europe (which he had labeled, at some point, "the Gulliverian-Candidian summing-up of my lucidity"), the action is set in the 1980s, when the "religion of fear" instituted by the "Sultan" Ceauşescu (mocked in countless ways in the novel) had engulfed Romania like a hopeless gulag.

by I. D. Sîrbu (1918-1989)