Document I

by Peter Weiss, translated from the German by Georgette R. Schuler

Related: Peter Weiss

Only those who have been here from the beginning can stand life in this town. Even poverty can be endured—if only one has grown up here!

The sun is rising to the zenith. The stars are revolving in their regular orbits, and, deep down in the city, there is confusion and aimlessness. The fault must be hidden somewhere. Where is the root of these distortions? How is it possible that they can all live here—do they do it merely out of habit, without asking? I am living too! I jump up, I slap my body; my skin under the cloth is warm from the blow. I dig my nails into the palm of one hand; there are jagged white marks. Whenever I want to, I can prove my existence to him who stands next to me, by shrieking. But I have to admit that I and my hunger are as good as nonexistent. Not before this hunger expresses itself in action will people begin to be aware of me. How could I make myself understood—I who have come here as an outlaw? I do not know any of the trades they have here. And yet, I have a peculiar acuity of vision. I know this town, I know its challenge. It is as if, when still far away, I had already absorbed and realized everything.

I came here as the one I am, and that is what I wish to appear. I want the impossible: I want to sing and dance here. I begin to sing in a voice hollowed out by hunger, and I dance with movements shaky with hunger. I am wide-awake. I know what impression I am making, but I still do it—because there is nothing else I can do. I dance right in front of the round, bird-seed plank; the birds flutter up in droves, their wings creak and squeak. I dance my pantomime, my voice is drumming the rhythm; I am dancing, tense, ready to flee. Spectators have gathered. A little girl grasps the hem of her skirt and dances with me. If I had a platform, maybe people would have tolerated me. However, as I am on the ground, on the same level as anybody else, they feel worried, even threatened; a woman pulls back her child, it begins to cry, disappointed because the spectacle is abruptly at an end; there are shrieks and invectives, people are coming nearer, but cautiously, as if approaching a runaway, wild animal. But I am gone before they can catch me. In the next street, I begin dancing again, because this is all I can do, because dancing has started within me. And again, quickly, spectators are gathering around me. This time, it is more dangerous. Retreat is blocked by a house wall; right and left, a tightly-packed mass of living bodies with seeing eyes, and before me, incessantly thundering, metal vehicles chained to each other, biting into each other,

I dance right through the crowd and talk to all, and all talk to me. Everything is asking questions: every man, every animal, every cart, every stone. My dancing is my answer. It is the only possible answer I can think of, I can no longer talk in any other way than with the play of my fingers, with the hymn of my disguised voice, with the language that comes, as it were, from a strange star.

It is as if I gave the town a conscience, a soul. And yet, I am just a vagabond who sneaked into it, in the dark, seen by nobody.

In an enchantment that is lifelong—or two steps long, maybe—I dance into the stream of bodies. I feel the acrid taste of their woolen coats between my teeth, on my tongue there is the saltiness of dogs’ fur, when they have come out of the sea water. I kiss eyes, ears, throats, shopping bags, hat pins. I dance the give and take, credit and debit. I dance the creditors’ attack: how they cling to you, jump around you, lock you into their arms and legs, how they clench their fists in front of you, and threaten you, and growl. I dance of how they know all about you, take down in their books each of your words and actions, and tuck these notes securely away, so they can use them against you. I dance the questions’ dance: how questions are consuming you with their unsolved problem of guilt: Why have you not shown yourself? Why have you not cooled my forehead? Why have you gone so early? Why have you not given me what I asked for? I dance the heavy, dark eyes of unfulfilled promises. I dance installment pay offs. I dance how you defend yourself, how you shake off importunate creditors, how you allow yourself to be drawn into a conversation with somebody whose blackmail you can no longer avoid; how you cry with exhaustion in the arms of a woman who, really, had come to you to get back a brooch she had forgotten in your rooms. 

I dance among the prostitutes in the great town brothel. I dance how they have all sold themselves to each other, how deeply they are in each other’s debt, how they all the time exhort each other to pay. Every one has a claim, and every one wishes to have more claims than debts, that is what keeps them alive; among the enslaved, there reigns an imperious, high tension. I dance how the serf goes around in the livery of the potentate, sells one of his hands, buys two back (at a discount, one as a spare), now somersaults at somebody’s command, now has a weaker man dancing to the tune of his flute; the weaker man vanished, murmuring abjectly, bowling reverently, and, in his turn, finds a lisping hunchback whom he can beat with his little bamboo cane. I dance how, everywhere, there is but one question: What can I do for you? Eyes are blinking, hats are swiftly taken off, ears vibrating, chins wagging; everywhere there is an underlying question: and what do I get in return?

I dance a song to the unknown woman who emerges suddenly, whose voice can not be perceived, her whom I can never reach; for it is always too late. She is standing with me at the railing of a ship; her clothes are fluttering in the breeze, the coast can be seen; but it is too late for me to speak to her now. I have been silent too long. It is too late, the train is moving, it is too late to return, to go back the long way, it is too late, the beach is empty, the house is empty. I should have followed her into it, now it is too late; I do not know through which door she has vanished. I dance her whom I keep always losing.

I dance how no one can be without the other, how all ask each other for a word, a single word, I call: eye of a needle, shoelace, evening walk, vase with flowers! Many call: you! I call back: you I you! I dance the great lack from which we all suffer.

I dance by the vendors who are standing behind their counters like heroic defenders of lost positions. Their faces look as if they were about to tear, the corners of their mouths are twitching with the price of their merchandise. But they are holding out! They are holding out! What are you talking about? What do you mean? What do you want with these electrical rabbits, these sculptured cooking pans, these regulations for the hanging of brushes? 

I dance that I am hungry and need help; but before I have time to hold out a hand, danger is closing in on me, there are sabers, helmets, whistles, excited shouts; I break through the noose in a zigzag leap, and rush into the streaming torrent of steel and glass. 

Here you have me, take me if you can. I am nothing but eye and ear! I tear through arms that stretch out after me, hop across legs that block my way. Flashing cups are tilted out of houses above me, gigantic toothbrushes hack down on my neck. Above each other, beside each other, the same faces are staring, these blue eyes eyes eyes, this twirled moustache, tache, tache, bubbly, flooded by glue, its small red cheeks puffed-up. One would like to bite into them! Look! Orders filled! Bang! A bicycle tire is punctured. Somebody is swearing, standing near it, somebody in a checkered vest. Do take a message, an apple, a fountain pen, immediately! Don’t be silly, come with us! Come with us, rely upon us entirely! We give you prompt, reliable, and confidential service, prompt, reliable, and confidential, from the cradle to the grave, prompt, reliable, and confidential. Reasonable. You can not hold me; even if you should want to, I am quicker! I have broken all speed records! You cannot hold me, I am encircling you in more than life-size distinctness, all but blinding you! Warning, fresh paint on the floor, don’t walk on it! Come with us, we are starting, starting; have your name engraved in china, or better, have your old family portraits fixed up, we are starting! All aboard, there is plenty of room! We are starting! Round trips, round flights, carousels, tops, coffee mills, last day today, today is still time! Come with us, we are starting! We are starting, a drama of unheard-of dimensions is going on, listen to the great dialogue of jealousy, spoken by our old charwoman! Bathroombed for $—— —no, no—certainly, yes, certainly!—It was set on fire! Listen to the star in her passionate love scene, embarrassed teenager that she is! She gushes: “One must measure it carefully, count it all, all, be careful, one can never be sure!”—Have you heard: the girl has been raped, for the ship has been launched, tickets were sold out, because he turned on the gas, the minister wrote on the paper, because the train was late, he won the jackpot, for her had long felt threatened by his neighbor! Oh, the terrible nooses for the spark of thought! Where are we going? Where?

Ragged porters are dragging a crude cross, a bulgy buddha is sitting on it, a house on his head; masses of prisoners have escaped and spread over the streets. The ships are ours! The vehicles are ours! Freedom is ours! We are going to celebrate, and everybody may be with us!

I am present at my own conception, I see a man and a woman on a creaking bed in a basement; a shot is cracking outside, a blood-flooded face looks through the window, groaning: I am hit! I see something of myself in the dark nomad who is sitting near the fire in the steppe; his horse is feeding under the tree, a child is whining in the tent, women are quarreling.

Deep inside, a beast is shrieking in a metallic voice; black, steel-like shoulders are brushing me; I race over a smooth plain with skates and iceboats.

A tomato is trundling on the ground; a woman chases it, stoops, holds out grasping fingers. A coin is rolling forward eagerly, mocking the man who lost it. I pick it up, it lies in the palm of my hand like a tiny animal. I leap aboard the tall ferryboat that is gliding by. For a few seconds, I find myself suspended above the hardened arena; I feel like an acrobat on a trapeze; then, I push my way through the passenger-crowd on the rocking gangway,. I am hanging ina living grape cluster: eyes surrounding me, cheeks rubbing against me, hot breathing on my ear. Soft hips are pressing into mine, cushions shoot into the bend of my knees, I do not bend my knees, I cannot bend my knees; it would be impossible, the bodies all around me keep me upright. A broad leather back is a shield for my chest; an old woman near me is bowing her grey head, her scalp is gleaming through her sparse hair, her flabby breasts have come to rest on my elbow, I can feel her heartbeat. A young man is sporting a tie, he wears it like a flag. What are you fighting for? The question is not understood. Flashing, the flag is hanging down; mud is rising all around it. An archer is raising his weapon above the shoulders of the people around him, he takes aim, jammed in among their heads, he sends his arrow towards a far-away bird. The bird wags its red and gold feathers; wounds gash through its eyes and beak. The quiver is unsatiable, but this bird has a thousand lives; pierced by arrows it escapes from the hunter. 

Pennies clatter through the conductor’s rounded, metallic hand. It is of iron. Small paper bills are distributed by the grey hand, white grain is snowing down, cut out of paper. A child crouches down among all the legs, picks up the small grain: big shoes tramp on its legs, smashing its fingers. Big shoes tramp on its shoulders, break its collarbone; big shoes tramp on its chest, smashing the frail, pale cathedral of the ribs. There are its jawbone and some small, sound teeth on the ground. I wriggle free from the body-crowd. Through its various coverings, blossoming plants are standing upright; their flower-cup faces rocking to and fro, following te movements of the ferry. Where are they bound for? Who is the owner of the garden? Is he hidden away in the puzzle of these assembled plants? Is he lying on his side, or hanging head downward? Could he be found by turning the picture about long enough? “Is it you?” I ask of all those who are lying on their sides or standing on their heads. Nobody answers. Many eyes have hidden behind thin membranes; they are in a room with all the curtains drawn.

I am fascinated by wrinkles and tiny shades of complexion, hair waves, blouse collars, lip movements. I am fascinated by muscle vibrations, telltale underneath pink or bluish skin; everything happens under this skin, every one is sitting in his tent and blowing from the inside; every one is knotted into his sack and giving knock signals from within. I push forward, stark naked. But my nakedness is unobserved, people are standing in too dense a crowd, the cloth of their garments is rubbing me, handbags, umbrellas, portfolios are scratching me, elbows poking into my ribs. “Anybody else with no clothes on?” cries the conductor. “Anybody else who has not redeemed his clothes?” I am being pushed towards the door, thrust out like something superfluous; new life is crowding in from behind; I hop out, fleeing. I still see a small, mirrored face, the face of the driver, heavy, attentive features, grave eyes that have been given responsibility in tumultuous waters. I am off. Where are these frail blossoms headed for?

I have sentenced myself to this town. I have entered this town like an illness, longed-for, because it felt it was to be unavoidable. It is there now, and that is fine. Once in it, you need fear no longer. You just let yourself be burned to pieces by the fever.

Once you are here, the best you can do is to give yourself up to it entirely, to resist no more, to refuse nothing. Its sudden gusts of music must exhaust their fury. It cannot be helped. All you can do is to let it flood you, let the piercing noises go down into the deepest cellars. Above all: patience, patience! It will pass. And, besides, these things mean well. Are these sounds not agreeable, and do they not make you feel pleasantly dizzy? They have no purpose but that of nipping doubt in the bud. In the interest of the general blunting of our minds, this spectacle is of outstanding value, like all those pictures projected on house walls—they are merely meant to keep us in good spirits. Everything here serves the best interest of the community. New devices to make things easy and pleasant are being invented every day. We have lots of ideas when called upon to protect ourselves against the grim teeth of the cogwheel that stands for the basic defect underlying everything. And when enjoying such life-protection to the full, we like to hear loudspeakers blare everywhere: “Everything is in order; everything is in perfect order; everything is O.K.!”

There is nothing here that we could change. I alone can save myself. And the only salvation is the wound-fever of wideawakeness.

I can see some who go in search of themselves with the grave-robber’s or the poacher’s furtive look. Many look for themselves in the fat cross-word puzzle magazines which you buy at street corners; others devote themselves to curious occupations as soon as they doff their working clothes. They install complicated lighting systems in their rooms to show off to their friends in the evening. Others finger their snapshot collections or rig up small, eager contraptions according to directions and build unseaworthy boats in their backyards.

Everywhere I touch upon man’s destinies. Flashes: fragments of conversation, reflections of faces. I see a woman dragging a restive child. It wants to go to the other children playing in the sand heap, but it has to go with her. Go it shall, and nicely. I see a young vendor looking forlorn among icy, metal cases, looking out of their nickeled frostiness. I see a man high up on a pole, working away with strong pliers. I see a handsome, regular face; a half-open mouth indulging in an intensely satisfying cigarette, a light streak of blue smoke. Somebody collapses right here, lying terribly in the way in the gutter, his legs kicking like wheels in a sawmill, darting up into the sky as suddenly as if they were about to have to support it. Froth is bubbling from his mouth, his eyes are wide open, blood is dripping from a skull wound, dripping on a girl’s nylons. He is lying there in a humiliating position, among strangers, a well-groomed gentleman with a briefcase jammed under his arm, his shoes highly polished, his tie knotted with care, a clean hanky in his breast pocket.

I kneel down on the sidewalk and drag him up, open his collar, ease his tense fingers. I look down into his white, astounded face. His eyes are staring at me. Somewhere in myself there is a terrible pity, but nevertheless I am frozen into a sharp, cool curiosity. His glance locks itself into mine, asking for mercy, and I cannot do a thing. Far away in the distance I can hear the ambulance siren. It is approaching, hurrying, its scream is becoming high-pitched and breaks forth in victory. Stretcher-bearers lift the man, carry him away without a word, without so much as an unnecessary movement, as if this was the moment they had long been waiting for. I go on, making my way slowly through the crowd, while people are still standing around, eyeing the pool of blood, until a big black dog comes and licks it up. The white of his eyes is gleaming.

Where shall I go? Where shall I go in this merciless glare? The sun-axe is rising to scaffold height. Everything is bound to spiral, on and on, in infinite succession. Everything is bound to shift and change again. I could paint pictures on the sidewalk pavement and strangers’ feet would carry them off; I could say words, and people would listen to me or turn away; I could go in whatever direction I chose; I could lie down and people would lift me and put me to bed somewhere and afterwards put me back where I had been like a vase.

Where shall I turn in this immense mass of life? One has to restrict oneself to a minimum here. What would happen if one broke out of this existence taking out just a little bit above this given minimum of possibilities? Nothing would be enough any more—no house, no vehicle, no street, no jewel, no signal. One bit only! One would then sing in an entirely new way, one would dance, one would throw away whatever one was holding. One would pronounce new words, one would become aware of the fact that hitherto one had never really spoken to another, had never expressed a single thought or feeling; one would expand one’s chest and breathe freely; a new light would sparkle in every eye. But everything is rushing forth in a dull rush, so compactly, so gigantically, that even the most enormous efforts are made in vain.

Where shall I go? Where shall I go in the nausea of this noon? I can only wade deeper and deeper into this test of my strength and perseverance, into this consuming, metamorphosing ordeal, until I may finally give myself up to the depth of the ocean that is waiting.

There is still so much life in me. Sprawling on my little leaf afloat on the water, my skin gnawed by sun and salt, my tongue swollen, my eyes half-blind, I still can see the city come toward me with its radiation of apocalypse, and find a foothold on the swaying ground; the raft carries it.

A policeman’s eyes are upon me. His golden buttons are shining, the handle of a bayonet is sticking out of his coat. Slender and tall, he comes near me with springy steps, in black elegance. He sees that I do not belong. He takes off his white glove nonchalantly, and spreads his sinewy fingers.

—What are you doing here, what kind of a person are you? he asks, with repressed energy.

—I am a nobody. I haven’t got a name. I am a kind of seismograph.

—I beg your pardon. What is your business here?

—I wonder what all this is for. The high walls over there for instance—residences. Can you make out how much truth there is in my words, sir? Is it true that you have only to push a button in there to stand before an altar decorated with statues? Candles are lit, you hold them and find yourself walking through vaults. There is also a game they play around here; it is called thumping. You have to answer the most surprising questions, have to stand all cross-fires; you get excited and talk and talk to prevent them from getting the better of you, but you can’t get away from them. All the time, the questioners are scuttling around you; you can’t get away. Maybe the whole thing is quite different, after all. What is going on here?

—Where do you live?

—Where should I live? I wish I knew! Is there any place for such as me?

—If you do not answer in an orderly fashion, I will have to arrest you. You act very strange. Have you a job? Can you identify yourself?

—I am working nonstop. Day and night. But the results are only a few crystals in a mountain of dross. My work consists in a sort of conversation: in an anonymous way, we exchange our experiences.

—Who is we?

—We nameless ones. We write little notes, and throw them away for people to find. At twilight, we trumpet softly in the back yards, and those who want open their windows a little.

—Spying, eh? Will you please tell me what you are aiming at?

—Aiming I am not aiming at anything. I do not have the slightest possibility, not even the wish to attain anything.

—Show me your papers! Have you a right to be here?

—I wish I knew! But why not, if you are here? I don’t have any papers. For whom should they be made out? I do not even know who I am.

—I shall take the matter in hand. This case has to be examined. Follow me!

However, I do not follow this activated principle of the law. My instinct for flight bears me off, in one oblique like that of an antelope. Since I do not own anything but myself, I have nothing else at stake. I do not shun uncertainty in order to avoid the certainty of a prison. There is no justice for me but that which I choose myself.

And here, in this black, shining car—did they open the door for me, did arms help me in? 

I am in the middle of something hard and stiff and soft and polished, something that is humming faintly. I make myself look like a mourner. Slender, pale, with eyebrows furrowed in grief. I push toward the veils. The larger the following, the greater the honor for the dead. I am mourning with you, take me along!

But out of the silence there come glances, out of the shadow of the high, well-brushes top hats, out of the breathing gauze. I can guess at the bodies under their black cocoons. Some of the figures open their garments a little, a white armor is shining, well-rounded over a chest. They are dark knights, these men, their dark hair is clinging to their temples. The skin of their faces is oiled as if for a tournament. They are too dignified to talk to me, but they would like to drive me away with their eyes. Suddenly, a window has been pushed down; as they are lifting me toward it, a hand is touching me softly, a reminder: I feel a spark within me as if it had touched my heart. “Let him stay,” says a voice, and I know that I have heard this voice before. The gleam in the woman’s eyes behind her veil is singeing me. Her face cannot be seen, only a wisp of hair is showing, black, glowing, not mourning.

There is a long struggle between the voice that lies in the air like the sound of a string, and the hard, armored eyes. The eyes win. The car stops. The door opens in front of the cemetery door. The carriage step gives way under my foot. The asphalt hits my soles. The car drives right through the portal; behind the walls, there is the rustle of trees, there is the smell of wreaths. Somebody cries: “Did they think you did not mourn enough?”

Men are leaning against the doorplates, waiting. They are sitting on the ground, with sprawling legs, or pressing against the walls, hands high up as if they had been hung. And they ask, pointing their fingers at me: “Did those fellows want to keep their grief to themselves? Did you not get anything, not even a nickel? Other people make good money that way. Have you got a butt?”

I turn my empty pockets inside out, once, twice.

They wag their hands in contempt, someone makes a bored, croaking sound, another emits a coughing laugh.

I sit down among them, waiting for the veiled woman to reappear. Again, around us, a vision is soaring, is blown away, and re-emerging: a vision of wishes and expectations; we are spinning it, upon empty reels, while near us, workmen are covering an open part of the road with cobblestones, they are pressing and twirling the blue-veined stones into the sand, and letting their hammers fall down on them with high-pitched sounds, others are putting small trees with young leaves into the holes that have been dug near the curb. Inside the park, a bell is beginning to ring. The wind comes, bringing fragments of a litany. Earth is thrown above the roots of the planted trees, heavy muddy boots tramp it down, and the ground is smoothed with spades. A big steam-roller is set in motion; a man in faded-gray overalls, working a long time among the wheels, finally makes the machine hum; black smoke is puffing out of the chimney, the large rollers are moving, slowly; after many maneuvers, back and forth, and aside, they creak over a layer of new stones. The stones are wedged evenly into each other, and the workmen rest on their spades, their arms on the spade handles, one foot on the edge of the metal, their grimy hands folded.

The black figures are coming back along the cemetery avenue. They are walking in a big cluster, closely together, the sun is dancing through the leaves and playing upon them as if with little golden balls. She is there: I know her by her gait. She is holding a white flower against her breast. Her skirt and veil are fluttering in the wind, she is gliding along. Like a sea, like a night, passing the purple-green walls of a bush. They are going home on foot; no cars are waiting for them. 

I am standing near them at the edge of the steel rails, under the gallows of the station; I am standing right near her, but she turns away, she does not take any notice. The whole group is ruled by a matron who is carrying her belly like a slope; the dark men support her, holding her by the arms and hips. They call her Mother, caress her, tap her on the shoulder; one after another, they take her hand and give it to each other, sharing it among them; even I become entangled in the movements of their arms, I say: “Mother,” and take the hand. I feel the tear-moist cloth of her gloves between my fingers. But that is wrong, everything is wrong. I do not belong here; two black backs slide together before me like the wings of a folding door, sharply pointed cuirasses are bared at my side. However, the trolley car is already advancing, emitting shrill sounds, it stops with a jerk, its advertising panels rattle against the windowpaned inside.

If only the woman for whose sake I am standing here would give me one look, if only she would show that she knows about me! But she boards the car with the others, without looking at me. She climbs in lightly, still holding the flower against her breast. I call: “Look at me!” But the door closes behind her, wheezing contemptuously, dull-black and shiny-black are moving for a second behind the windows, then, the car hisses off, in a sparking hurry, its conducting wires are swinging to and fro, howling.

The men near the wall have followed the march of events absently. Now they are commiserating. “Did you not get anything for it?” says one, and another: “You must be more submissive—or else be firm and show your weapon at once.” A third says nothing. Grinning, he pushes his index finger through a hole he is making with the fist of this other hand, and shoves the finger in and out. Laughter: “That’s what you wanted”