The Bridge

All kinds of things happen. I remember this biker. I was sitting in front of the chalet, watching him. I was waiting to see him getting bored. He was mounting the steep slope for the forth time around and, as soon as he reached the top, he would turn his bike into a smooth, soundless descent back to the valley. The fifth time, it unavoidably happened; the accident, I mean. I carried him into the chalet, unconscious and covered in blood. I sprinkled some water on his face. He awoke and, to my surprise, recognized me. "I thought you'd never return. I waited for you last year, too, around this same time." I didn't understand. "I think you're mistaking me for someone else," I told him. "This is not my chalet. A friend of mine has offered it to me for a week." He was smiling. "I know this is the rule of the game: to pretend you've never known me. But it's me, Emanuel." And he starts telling me. All sorts of odd, incredible stories. I cut in several times. "But all these things are not true. You know they can't be true. You've made it all up." "What about the accident?" he smiled at me. "Have I made up the accident, too?" He pressed the handkerchief on his upper, blood stained lip, candidly watching me with almost unnoticeable irony. I hesitated. It was hard for me to tell him the truth, to tell him he was amnesic. Eventually, I had to make up my mind. If he had fainted again, I would have had to take him to the hospital – the whole situation would have got so much, much more complicated. "There has been a confusion," I told him gently. "You are here by error. You're mistaking me for someone else. You belong to a different world, a different society. You may be a writer or a wanderer, anyway someone full of mysteries, with fabulous adventures flooding your past, as well as your future. I am a common dweller of a humble, unchangingly plain, world. You couldn't have known me. I'm telling you again, this is not my chalet; it belongs to a friend. I'm here for the first time…" He kept staring at me, pressing the handkerchief against his lip. I let him go, although I knew he would get lost. He was amnesic. What were the odds of him joining the people who were waiting for him, the ones who had been waiting the previous year, as well? He was amnesic, and the rule of the game – I think that was what I had grasped from his words – was that he was not supposed to be recognized from the very beginning. So, he would have had to return again and again, but how was he supposed to know to whom he should go, since he was amnesic? He left, and I was well aware that he would get lost. I was starting to feel sorry for letting him go. He was an interesting man. The patience he had shown, going up the hill with his bike so many times and then descending to the valley, all the way down to the valley, just in front of the bridge… "Yeah, all kinds of things happen," Onofrei interrupted me. (I knew why he would cut in; I had lost my focus and hinted at the bridge.) "All kinds of things happen. This spring, for instance, we were walking along Princess Street. I saw a cavalry lieutenant coming out of a yard. I stood flabbergasted on the sidewalk, watching him. He was so handsome, one could only have referred to him in terms of negative theology. I was smiling. This is the way he should be described, I thought to myself. Through a language different from everyday words. The language of theology, for example, or of metaphysics. I said to myself: a cavalry lieutenant depicted in terms of negative theology is in itself a mystery, a paradox. Coincidentia oppositorum, in the words of Nicholas of Cusa. I enjoyed my very own line of thought. Suddenly I had lifted myself into a different world, I was entering a universe of essences and archetypes. I was smiling, happily, – and maybe it was this smile of mine that encouraged him. I mean the young man, my sidewalk comrade – not the lieutenant. The lieutenant had passed by." "I, too, have admired him," he told me. (It only took one look at him for me to see he was an intellectual.) "I can tell you he is much more than a handsome man, so handsome he could only be described in terms of negative theology. I know him. He has a thirst of culture. He's reading the Upanishads. And I can tell you something else: he's looking for a house with two students. I mean, please don't misunderstand me: he wants to rent a house with two other students; an entire house, not an apartment. A house with a garden, a yard, a porch. He probably didn't like this house," he said, taking one more look at the façade. "As far as I know him, he would have liked something more spacious. For conferences, for parties." I was listening to him, fascinated. He knew the other man so well. He understood him. "Obviously," he went on, "he likes to ride back home, this is why he chose to join the cavalry. But the colonel forbade him. A man that handsome, mounted, in a cavalry uniform, on these streets with so many fading leaves, during fall, such melancholic streets leading to the sunset…" "And all the girls watching him from their windows," I added. "The colonel was right…" "No, it's not that," he went on. "It's the melancholy, the sadness of sunsets in Bucharest. For, if you allow me, sir," he addressed me in the most polite manner, "we have been either blessed, or doomed, to live in the most melancholic city of the world." "Then I know him, too," Gologan cut in. "I've met him once. He likes to approach strangers on the street. Quite an original chap." "I am grateful to him," Onofrei went on, "because it was through him that I got to know the lieutenant. The lieutenant and the two students… when I said coincidentia oppositorum, I didn't exaggerate at all. Obviously, Cusanus used that expression to define God. But, let us get straight, I am not implying that the lieutenant might resemble, or may be compared to, or is in any way similar to God. No, I'm not saying that. But I can assure you that one can only refer to him in terms of negative theology. Not only has he read the Upanishads. But ever since he has read them, he started questioning different things. I think you understand what I'm pointing at: neti! neti! And the others: the ultimate reality, the being, atman, eventually. When I went to see him for the first time, with my friend Blanduzia…" "I don't think that's his name," Gologan cut in. "If it is that same original chap I'm talking about, the one with the melancholy of Bucharest and so on, then his name is Gorovei. Iancu Gorovei." "I can assure you his name is Blanduzia," Onofrei went on. "Actually, it really doesn't matter at all," Gologan shrugged. "I, on the contrary, think it does matter a lot. It is important to know whether or not we are referring to the same person. I, for one, am talking about Blanduzia, my and the lieutenant's friend. When I went to see him for the first time, at their new place on Priestesses Street, I was very much impressed. I must add that these very special people, the lieutenant and the two students, have a very different way of life than ours. I could go on and say they have turned their existence into a ritual. For instance, everybody knows that the lieutenant is impatient about his meals. And so they have come up with this ritual: in the evening, when he gets back from his regiment – I have already told you why he cannot ride back – his orderly waits up for him at the street corner. When he sees him getting off the tramway, the orderly runs back, yelling from the yard: "He's coming!" Then, the first student opens the first bottle of wine. The second student dashes at the lounge door and locks it up. And I must tell you why he does that: at that time, in the lounge there usually are three, four, sometimes more young women, young ladies, ladies – wives, I mean – widows, divorcées, and the lieutenant, in agreement with the others, has decided to… Oh, But this is probably one of their secrets, I shouldn't be telling you about it. Although, this is the starting point of life lived as a ritual. Ritual, in the sense of secret, mystery, sacrament… it's strange, if you come to think of it…" We all waited curiously, respectfully, for him to go on, but Onofrei smiled in a puzzled way. "It's true, all kinds of things happen," Zamfirescu started. "Things we often forget. I once found myself looking at an elderly woman. I think she was blind; a little girl was holding her hand, guiding her. But the way in which she was guiding her… they had just walked through the gate, when the little girl stopped. She was holding an open book in her right hand; she raised it and started reading. The old woman was listening, tense, almost devotedly, striving to grasp its meaning. She was listening while holding the young girl's left hand. I was just thinking of that, of the woman holding the girl's left hand, when I realized that all of this had happened a long time ago, and I had forgotten about it. It is, indeed, as I tell you. A long time before – a month, maybe, maybe more, a few years, I wouldn't really know – I had once found myself in front of a house. I couldn't tell you why I had stopped there, but it was as if I had been waiting for something. I only understood it later on. There was an old, dying woman in that house. She had been in that state for a long time, but she couldn't die among strangers. She wanted to go home and die in her own country, and be buried there, in their land. But how was she to get home? She could hardly move. I was wondering about that, I was tackling that question – I mean – when a little girl, a neighbor's daughter, a fourteen or fifteen year old, told the old woman she would lead her home. And then – I know that, in a certain way, it is almost unbelievable – the old woman left her bed, took the girl's hand and off they went. 'But we have no passports,' the young girl said. 'I need to fetch a book and a map. I need the book to look into and find my way.' Gentlemen, what I then saw was a scene of extraordinary beauty. The old woman had already grown tired and she was sitting on a chair. And the girl was reading to her from the book. A scene of rare beauty. The girl was reading admirably, emphasizing every word, slowly raising her voice every time she was referring to going home. Yes, this book – I know nothing of its title, nor its author – this book actually boiled down to a very simple matter. It was about home, about getting back home – your home, I mean, wherever that might have been. It sounded so very familiar to me. I wondered if it wasn't some new Odyssey: new, in the sense of a more beautiful one, one especially written for women, elderly people and children. But I soon realized that I had been wrong. And this was my error: soon afterwards, a young man came by. I must add that the young girl, who had seemed of about fourteen or fifteen years old to me, now looked a bit older. Not older than nineteen or twenty but, anyway, in broad daylight she looked very beautiful. And of course, that young man, who had come from God knows where, stopped out of curiosity when he saw her reading the book and – I do understand him very well – started wooing her, in a way. I said in a way, because he was very delicate. I perfectly recall his opening line: 'Oh,' he said, 'you're an idealist, a teacher, a poet. You like to read. I have books of my own,' he added with discrete modesty. 'I have ideas.'" "I know him," Onofrei cut in. "That is Blanduzia. Although he's a young man of rare modesty, he never made a secret of his books and ideas. His friendship with the cavalry lieutenant, and with the two students, is actually based on that: they all share the cult of noble worlds, of ideal universes. I've already told you that their existence unfolds at a higher, I would even dare to call it a metaphysical, theological level. For, in the end, what is it that these young people are looking for if not the ultimate reality, the one which is blurred and shadowed for us, humans, by so many errors and illusions? They look for it and I would even go as far as to say that they do find it from time to time. You should hear the lieutenant talking about atman or, even more tragically, about the myth of Adonis! You do understand what I'm hinting at. Not at his looks that match the looks of Adonis but, unfortunately, at his personal tragedy, a metaphysical tragedy, actually. I think I've already told you: it all started with the Upanishads. When the lieutenant asked himself: 'who am I?' and rightly answered: 'I, the true me, am atman, who is identical with Brahman' (in Sanskrit: aham brahmāsmÄ«ti or, by another expression, ayam ātmā brahma), something broke deep inside of him. It was what some people call a metaphysical rupture. In his case, there was a total trauma. Just as Adonis had been wounded by a wild boar and so, indirectly, castrated through the wish of Aphrodite, a great goddess whose lover, son or husband he was – the lieutenant was traumatized by his discovery of the ultimate reality, the mystery of the brahman-ātman identity. But I wouldn't want you to misunderstand me. I wouldn't want you to believe I am referring to a physiological or even psychosomatic accident. I've already told you that his tragedy is a metaphysical and theological one. The number of women with whom the lieutenant is sleeping is of no importance. When the first student met him, he was sleeping with twelve. When I met him, then, he was sleeping with eleven. But please do not regard this difference in number as a gloomy prophecy. The matter is much more serious. By going on behaving like a Don Juan, the lieutenant actually behaves like an Adonis. You know what I mean: spiritually, he is already detached. And, as far as he is concerned, the spirit is the only important aspect. His tragedy is a spiritual one. But, as you may imagine, this idea changed his life dramatically. The lounge, for instance, which used to be intended for parties and conferences, has now turned into… how shall I put it? I would be exaggerating to call it sanctuary, but it is something very much in that sense: a place for meditation and ceremonies. You may ask me: what about those women, all those beautiful young women, young ladies, wives, widows waiting for him there every evening, the ones the students lock up the minute the orderly cries out from the yard: 'He's coming!' Well, if you can formulate this question correctly, you'll soon discover that the answer is implicit. Please do not linger on either the key or the door – these are decrepit symbols to a person of the lieutenant's high spiritual level. The answer is in the very definition we have started from: the lieutenant can only be described in terms of negative theology. You have the answer in the concept of coincidentia oppositorum. Think of this detail: eleven women, but detached. In other words…" He paused again, and smiled meaningfully, as if to himself. "Have you ever found yourselves in a dead-end situation, one which would be absurd precisely because it has no starting point and, consequently, no way out, no solution on either level of the immediate reality? Or, if you allow me to use a different metaphor, have you ever been in a room with no exit, no doors, no windows, one in which you would find yourselves, without knowing how you got there, and out of which there would be no reasonable escape?" He paused again and looked at each of us, continuing to smile. "It was just a question. You are the ones who should come up with an answer." "I know what your point is," Gologan began his argument. "I did find myself in a situation like the one you described – a total dead end. I was with a few friends at someone you haven't met, Stavroghin, the famous Stavroghin, the one with the grocery shop. Although it's been more than thirty years, I can remember it very well. We had gathered there after a baptism. The baptism had taken place that morning, but, obviously, in a different home, a different environment – secondary teachers, priests, pensioners – much farther, in a suburb. We were at Stavroghin's, and those who haven't met him cannot possibly imagine what that meant in those years. I only have to tell you that the grocery store was at the ground floor, part of Stavroghin's family was living at the first floor – it would be too complicated for me to tell you why, who and how – the other two floors, meaning the second and the third, were inhabited by Stavroghin and the other part of his family, some of it being, nevertheless, inhabited by Stavroghin alone, – that was because, as you may see, he was quite an original fellow, he was wealthy, he had his own grocery, he could, in the end, afford anything. So, as I was telling you, we were at Stavroghin's, after the baptism. When, suddenly, the doorbell rang and the lord of the house himself went to open the door. We were all curious. Who could it be? For, you see, nobody knew we were at Stavroghin's. Everyone imagined we were at the baptism, in the other environment, at the end of the city, in the suburbs. Stavroghin opened the door and, fancy that, a very polite, neatly dressed old man examined each of us and one could tell that he hardly believed his eyes.'Allow me,' he addressed Stavroghin. 'With whom do I have the honor?''Stavroghin,' he introduced himself.'And these, of course, are your friends. I can consider myself lucky, then. I tried all the other floors with no result.''The others are at the baptism,' Stavroghin explained.'I imagined that,' said the old man."He approached every one of us and, stretching out his hand, he introduced himself: 'Herghelie'[1].'This is where I usually have my meetings,' he added. 'At one of these floors. Last year not everybody could come. The Baron, for instance, was in the train that was blocked by the heavy snowfall at Valea Larga[2]. You must remember the fuss.'"Of course, we could all remember it quite well.'So, the Baron couldn't come. But there were some unexpected surprises. Look, Mrs. Pelican, whom you may see here, was also present last year, although she had written to us that she couldn't come.'"He approached her and gallantly kissed her hand. Then he introduced us, rather unifying: 'Stavroghin's friends,' he said. We approached her one by one, each kissing her hand while she introduced us to her own lady friends. They were all quite striking ladies, they were elegant and many of them were foreign. It was curious to hear so many foreign languages in Stavroghin's apartment. But you may well imagine Stavroghin's position, in such good company, mostly consisting of foreigners, and unable, as he was, to utter a full phrase in French. (He could speak Greek a little better, but not much better, as we discovered that evening). Luckily he could profit from the preparations made for the baptism: champagne, caviar and all the rest. Soon, Stavroghin went down to the store, with two of us, and brought another case of champagne, stockfish, delicacies. All the chairs, armchairs and sofas were taken – we had offered our seats to the ladies while we, Stavroghin's friends and the rest, were lined up, leaning against the walls and the furniture. But what interesting conversation! The places those people had been to! They usually met in multi-floored houses. And they explained to me why. But it is strange that now, when I am telling you the story, I can no longer recall the reason. And something even more bizarre: there was a lady there whom I had already met at the Swiss Embassy and whom, I can now confess, I had unsuccessfully been trying to woo. Of course, she recognized me on the spot and was tactful enough not to remember my courtship. This time, on the contrary, she was much more friendly. 'I see you have a very interesting life,' I said to her. 'The kind of life which is full of embassies and social gatherings, and, certainly, of distinguished people.''Oh, yes,' she replied, 'I have a thing for multi-floored houses. You get up, you get down. Up, down. There's no tiring of that. No getting bored, I mean.' "And then I suddenly remembered that, for that once, I had not climbed the stairs to Stavroghin's apartment. I had no idea how I had got there, but I was sure that it hadn't been on the stairs. So I went to Stavroghin.'Tell me,' I whispered, 'how did we get here? As far as I know, you have no elevator.''No, we don't,' Stavroghin confessed. 'And I keep wondering myself as to how we got up here. I can very well remember that I went down to the store just a while ago; I remember climbing down the stairs, but I don't remember climbing them up.''So, the point is that we can climb down any time, can't we?''We can. Don't worry.'"I cooled off immediately. Nevertheless, I said to him:'What if we went back to the baptism?''It's far away,' Stavroghin replied, 'it is at the other end of the city.''We could meet interesting people there, too,' I tried to persuade him. 'But I have these people to attend,' he said, pointing at the rooms filled with guests.'The Baron is here,' I said. 'The Baron will see to it.'"And, eventually, I convinced him. But you can imagine the situation. It made no sense at all. Because none of us could remember climbing up the stairs. Luckily, we could get down undisturbed… so, I do understand your point," he added while staring at Onofrei."I don't think it's the same thing," Onofrei said. "In your situation, there was a way out. You could escape it.""It's not just that," Zamfirescu interfered. "You were exposed to a distinguished bunch of people, social, embassy persons, who had already been initiated. I mean, who had already figured out the secret of the floors: getting up and down, up and down. The old woman, the young girl and the young man I was referring to were, I'd say, lost in the world, they hadn't found anything yet. That was why it was so hard on them. Many months after that, I met them again, in a railway station. They must have been waiting for a train. The old woman was still on the little chair, holding the girl's hand, her left hand, and the girl was reading to her. Oh, but how many things had happened in the meantime! One could have died of sorrow merely by listening to what the girl was reading. The things that had occurred since they had left! That little boy, the one who had been living in her home, the one to whom the old woman had used to talk, that little boy was all grown up, he was in all kinds of trouble, he had so many hardships to face. Of course, the girl was reading so that she could find her way. As I have already told you, they had no passports. So, they needed the map, to make sure the direction was right. Luckily, they had found the good direction. But how much sorrow in the pages she was reading then, waiting on the railway platform. Moreover, the girl was now alone. The young man who had approached her there, in front of the house, had vanished.""He hadn't vanished," Onofrei interrupted him. "It's just that Blanduzia never leaves Bucharest. He has a soft spot for this city, for Bucharest. And ever since he got friends with the lieutenant, and with the two students, his life is almost entirely devoted to his inner perfection. I shall never forget the conversation I was given the joy of witnessing. Even so, with all of those women locked up, every night, in the lounge, the atmosphere is still uplifting. In vain do the women, sometimes, hit the door with their fists, in vain do they scream and menace. It is as if they didn't hear them. And you can see why: the life of these superior beings is daily sanctified through ritual. When they are seated at the table, all of their attention is focused on the supper. It is, actually, their only meal together, because the lieutenant has lunch with his regiment, while the students eat at the canteen. But the evening meal is a ritual, and no one has the right to disturb them."You must have imagined that, during their second course, the second student would open the second bottle of wine. I thought so, too, but I was wrong. It is the lieutenant who opens the second bottle of wine. The orderly stands next to him, ready to take the bottle as soon as he has opened it and fill up the glasses. But it is the lieutenant who must open the second bottle. I don't know if you understand what I'm hinting at… I was asking you a while ago whether you did find yourselves in a dead end situation. The best metaphor is still that door and windowless room – or, maybe, this one is even better: at the end of a tunnel one discovers the wall of the mountain and then wants to go back, but it is no longer possible. Not even one turn of the body is possible, for the wall is just there, behind, one can be hit by it, and it is also over their head, closer every time, as if menacing to crush the intruder – and, nevertheless, one thinks: 'there has to be a way out!' Well, gentlemen, I assure you that there is a way out. But, of course, into a different dimension. And I would even dare to be specific: in a dimension of the unreal. You understand what I mean: negative numbers, paradox, in the end, denying denial – it brings you back to the light the minute you, a poor man of no imagination, declare yourself forever caught in that stone-made sarcophagus, locked up in that narrow, freezing crypt inside the mountain. You understand now why the lieutenant opens the second bottle of wine. I gave you the key: think of the history of religions, of what I may call the mystery of the first repetition, the mystery of that expression: the second time, an apparently devalued expression by its being overused and, so, defiled through language, which preserves, however, well hidden, fragments of a primordial revelation. The second time, meaning born for a second time, re-born, resurrected, in a nutshell, born in the realm of the spirit. The second bottle of wine differs, in quality, from the first, as well as from the third and the tenth. It doesn't matter how many bottles of wine are emptied every evening in Priestesses Street. But you see that the answer to the apparently dead end situation lies within the second bottle, the one opened by the lieutenant. If I were to tell you it is a question of transfiguration, I would be exaggerating. Because, at first glance, nothing is being transfigured. The orderly is still there, with the tray and the glasses, and the students go on talking, raising their voices at times, while the lieutenant has unbuttoned his collar, reciting verses, sometimes, or meditating, or even recollecting childhood memories. But, I repeat, all of these only happen at first glance. "In reality, once the second bottle has been opened, one can sense everything around transforming. At first, it is almost unnoticeable. One holds the glass, sincerely delighted by the taste of the wine while listening to the conversation, when one suddenly spots something odd, almost unreal. One tastes the wine again – and it is unbelievable. Steps, whispers, giggles – they're all around! One turns his head in astonishment. There's no one behind. So one looks restlessly to the right, to the left, straight ahead, especially at the lieutenant. He's talking about his regiment and about horses. Then you understand. The idea of seeing him riding home, at dusk, as splendid as the evening star, and yet detached, wounded, hearing the horse trotting on the fallen leaves, when the light is slowly fading away, and the streetlamps are lit – that idea makes one wonder: what for? What is the meaning of all of these? Why are we born if we cannot understand, if we cannot recognize him? No, the colonel was right in forbidding him to ride home. One cannot face melancholy unprepared…" The second sip of wine came almost unaware. One keeps listening to the lieutenant telling his stories, expecting him to remain there, at the table, for at least another hour, maybe two – this is the extent to which he identifies with his own delight – when, suddenly, he buttons up and rises, a bit excited, holding his glass, and utters: "We stand defeated. Show yourselves!…." And they all start laughing, and we see them all there, behind us, in front of us, all young, all beautiful, and we find it hard to believe that they are real, made of flesh and blood, and we can't stop wondering about how they got in. The ritual requires the second student to also rise, blushing, and show them, lifting it as high as possible, the key to the lounge. And then the girls start laughing again. Obviously, if one is not a regular guest, it would be impossible to guess that the lounge is only separated from the dining room through one curtain. One cannot guess because one cannot dare to imagine it. But should one possess enough imagination, he could see the curtain immediately. And then he could understand this terribly simple thing, which, nevertheless, nobody can grasp without support: the fact that there is a doorstep, and a curtain, there, right in front of one's eyes. But it can only be seen the second time. It is what I like to call the mystery of the first repetition… He was smiling happily, and he seemed to have surrendered like an epiphany to our hot, piercing gazes. In A Great Man (written in 1945, first published in 1948 in exile), the scholar and historian of religions, Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) apparently portrayed a case of macranthropy ("the transformation of the human body into a microcosmos, an archaic theory and practice, examples of which have been found almost all over the world," in Eliade's own words); however, as his entire prose is highly symbolic, this was also considered a "hyper-enciphered" story in which some critics have identified the figure of the Iron Guard leader, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, and the ascension of fascism in interwar Romania. Both stories may also point to the author's juvenile experience with drugs that distort the perception of space and time, especially during his stay in India.
[1] Herd of horses (Romanian)[2] The Large Valley (Romanian)

by Mircea Eliade (1907-1986)