I’m a terrible influence on W., everyone says that. Why does he hang out with me? What’s in it for him? The great and the good are shaking their heads. Sometimes W. goes back to the high table and explains himself. I am something to explain, W. says. He has to account for me to everyone. Why is that?
I don’t feel I have to account for myself, W. says, that’s what it is. I’ve no real sense of shame. It must be something to do with my Hinduism, W. muses. — ‘You’re an ancient people, but an innocent one, unburdened by shame’, W. says. On the other hand, it could be simply due to my stupidity. I’m freer than him, W. acknowledges, but more stupid. It’s an innocent kind of stupidity, but it’s stupidity nonetheless.
It’s been my great role in his life, W. says, helping him escape the high table. He’s down among the low tables now, he says, in the chimps’ enclosure.
W. remembers when I was up and coming, he tells me. He remembers the questions I used to ask, and how they would resound beneath the vaulted ceilings. — ‘You seemed so intelligent then’, he says. I shrug. ‘But when any of us read your work …’, he says, without finishing the sentence.
So was he ever up and coming? I ask W. He was, he remembers. That was a golden age. Everyone looked up to him. Everything was expected of him! Each morning, he got up and read and took notes until he went to bed. He had a desk and a bed in his room, and his books and his notebooks, but nothing else. He didn’t go out, didn’t drink, but just read and took notes, day after day. What went wrong? — ‘Drinking’, he says. ‘I drank too much, I smoked too much’. Why did he drink? — ‘The sense of the apocalypse’, W. says. ‘That it was all for nothing’.
W. is impressed by my stammer. — ‘You stammer and stutter’, says W., ‘and you swallow half your words. What’s wrong with you?’ Every time I see him, he says, it gets a little worse. The simplest words are beginning to defeat me, W. says. Maybe it’s mini-strokes, W. speculates. That would account for it. — ‘You had one just there, didn’t you?’
Perhaps, W. muses, my stammering and stuttering is a sign of shame. W. says he never really thought I was capable of it, shame, but perhaps it’s there nonetheless. — ‘Something inside you knows you talk rubbish’, he says. ‘Something knows the unending bilge that comes out of your mouth’.
‘Something inside you always knew, didn’t it?’, W. says. ‘Didn’t your teachers say as much on your report card: Lars has a stutter, but it doesn’t seem to bother him’? But why was I unbothered? W. wonders. Did I imagine that my shame should end with the sign of my shame? I wasn’t ashamed of my shame, that’s the point, W. says. My shame didn’t prompt me to thought and reflection. It didn’t make me change my ways.
It’s all down to my non-Catholicism and non-Judaism, W. says. Only for a Jew and a Catholic like himself (W.’s family are converts), is it possible to feel shame about shame.
W. dreams of serious conversation. Not that it would have serious topics, you understand, he says — that it would be concerned, for example, with the great topics of the day. — ‘Speech itself would be serious’, he says with great vehemence. That’s what he’s found with the real thinkers he’s known. Everything they say is serious; they’re incapable of being unserious.
Even I become serious when a real thinker is about, W.’s observed. We remember that afternoon in Greenwich when W. was lost in conversation with one such thinker. I was leaning in, trying to listen; I had a sense of the seriousness of the conversation, W. could see it. He was impressed; for once I wasn’t going to ruin it by talking about blowholes or something.
‘Conversation!’, exclaims W. That’s what friendship’s all about. He thinks even I have a sense of that. — ‘It’s why you stammer’, says W. ‘It’s why you swallow half of your words’.
‘When did you know?’, W. says with great insistence. ‘When did you know you weren’t going to amount to anything? Did you know?’, he asks, because sometimes he suspects I never did. Well he knows, at any rate, for both of us. — ‘Neither of us is going to amount to anything!’, he says with finality. ‘Neither of us! Anything!’
W. speaks mournfully about my intellectual decline. Of course it’s not my decline he laments, but that of his own judgement, and his own fantastic hopes: how was it that he placed them in me? Why did he need to place them in anyone at all?
How’s it come to this? W. says. What wrong turn did he make? He was like Dante, he says, lost in a dark forest. — ‘And there you were’, he says, ‘the idiot in the forest’. I was always lost, wasn’t I? I didn’t even know I was lost, but I was lost. Or perhaps I was never lost. Perhaps I belonged in the forest, W. muses. Perhaps I am only that forest where W. is wandering, he says, he’s not sure.
‘Do you think it’s possible to die of stupidity?’ W. sighs. ‘Not as a consequence of that stupidity’, he notes, ‘but from stupidity. And shame’, W. asks me, ‘do you think you could die of shame, I mean literally die?’
We should hang ourselves immediately, W. thinks, it’s the only honourable course of action. We are compromised, utterly compromised.
Things are bad. We should kill ourselves, W. says. He’s thought of setting himself on fire before a crowd like that madman in Tarkovsky’s film. — ‘Not that it would do any good’, he says.
Early morning at the airport. — ‘Beer’, W. commands. ‘You can pay for this’.
We’re always renewed, W. says., when we set off once again to speak in Europe. Always young and uncowed, full of fresh hope and new happiness, toasting each other in foreign countries and falling down drunk in foreign gutters. Are we really that shameless? W. wonders. But perhaps it doesn’t matter whether we’re shameless or not: we’ll do exactly the same thing anyway and will be eternally surprised at the rediscovery of our own idiocy.
But are we really that innocent? W. wonders. Don’t we, at one level or another, know our own idiocy? Doesn’t it saturate our awareness to the extent that we know nothing else? But by some miracle, we always regain just enough innocence, just enough forgetting for it all to begin again.
‘What have I told you!’, says W. as we board the train in Frankfurt. ‘This is public space. Pub-lic. That means outside your head’. He points to my head. ‘Private’. And then out to the world. ‘Public’.
W. is a great upholder of this division. Abolish the public/private divide and you abolish civilisation, W. always says. He looks around him contentedly. — ‘See how quiet it is in Europe? It’s civilised’, he says, ‘not like you’.
Europe makes him gentler, better, W. says. It improves him. It’s the public spaces, he says. They’re so quiet in Germany. So calm.
Later, and W. is in a contemplative mood. Is he thinking of his Canadian boyhood? No, W. is thinking of his many European trips. He’s been back and forth across Europe, back and forth … W.’s travelled. Not like me. — ‘You haven’t been anywhere. It’s obvious’.
W. is an experienced traveller. Take drinking, for example. He can pace himself, he says. Morning to night, he drinks like a European. Steadily. That’s the secret. You should watch the Poles, he says, they’re experts. Poles — experts, I write down in my notebook.
The best train journey, we remember, was the long one from Warsaw to Wrocław. Small round tables like in a cafe, but in the dining carriage of a train. And waiter service — discrete, attentive, but not servile. We drank, steadily. Europe passed by the window, flat and green. All was well: our guide was with us, we felt secure, safe; like small children with their parents, we had nothing to fear.
This time, we have to look after ourselves. Of course, it’s already gone wrong. We steel ourselves: we have to concentrate. Are we on the right train? Is it going in the right direction? Left to fend for ourselves, we become panicky. Then the conductor comes round to take our tickets. Alles klar, he says, in a voice that is infinitely calm. It soothes us. Alles klar, I write in my notebook: we’re in safe hands, this is a safe country. Over the next few days, we will only have to repeat his phrase to feel secure; it watches over us like a guardian angel.
I remind W. of his photo album. Photos of the young W., happy in Canada, with his family, who are likewise happy, and then photos of W. in England. The fall, W. calls it. The move, says W., that’s when the disaster happened. His parents brought them back to England, to Wolverhampton, of all places. — ‘Wolverhampton!’ says W., ‘can you imagine!’ Ah, what he might have been, had he stayed in Canada! he sighs.
W. is lost in a Canadian reverie. They had a dog which was half wolf, he tells me, and she would follow him on his paper round, leading him by the arm. — ‘She took my hand in her mouth and led me, it was amazing. She never barked. And when we left, she starved herself to death, because she missed us so much. That’s loyalty’.
Above all, W. admires loyalty. Sal’s loyal, he says. She’s loyalty itself, just as he is. You’re not loyal, W. always insists. You’d break the phalanx. You’d betray me — for a woman. He insists on this. When have I betrayed him in the past? — ‘You will betray me’, says W., ‘I’m certain of it’.
Canada. Betrayed, I write in my notebook.
Kafka’s our spiritual leader, W. and I agree over cocktails in the Münsterplatz. He’s gone the furthest, we agree. But we need more immediate leaders, too. W.: ‘We’re stupid, we need to be led’. Didn’t we long ago decide we could redeem ourselves only by creating opportunities for those more capable than ourselves? — ‘It’s our gift’, says W., ‘we know we’re stupid, but we also know what stupidity is not’.
We ought to throw ourselves at their feet and ask them to forgive us. We always stop short of this, of course. We have to remember not to tell them, each of them, that they are our new leader. It would only frighten them off, W. says. No one should ever know he or she is our leader, we agree. Only we should know. And we should follow them in secret.
In truth, we have found several leaders. Our first leader was always an example to W. and me. — ‘I’m not very interesting’, he always insisted, ‘but my … thoughts are interesting’. My … thoughts! We were particularly impressed by the way he said it. My … thoughts … It was as though there were an infinite distance between those words. As though he had nothing to do with his thoughts! As though they had him and not the other way round! He felt a kind of moral duty to his thoughts, we remember. It was as though his life was only a receptacle for something infinitely more important.
‘He was completely serious’, W. remembers, ‘not like us’. Completely serious! And there was a kind of lightness in that seriousness, he remembers, as though thinking were a kind of beatitude. What will we ever know of the infinite lightness of thought? W. wonders. Of thought’s laughter, which laughs in the eyes of the thinker touched with thought?
But then the disaster happened, W. remembers. We told him, didn’t we? We told him he was our leader. We told him what we hoped he’d make us become. We told him of our hopes and fears … That’s where it all went wrong, we agree. We scared him off. After that, we resolved never to tell our leaders that they were our leaders, but we couldn’t help it.
Didn’t the same thing happen with our second leader? Ah, our second leader! He had an absolute lucidity when he spoke of the interlacing of his life and thought, we agree. It was like looking into the clearest of rivers, W. says. How frankly and absolutely he spoke of his thoughts, and to anyone who asked! Frankly and absolutely, as though life were a glass to look through and not to live! Or that life was lived at another level, where thinking, real thought, was possible! — ‘A level of which we have no conception’, says W.
But it happened again. ‘Which one of us blurted it out’, W. asks, ‘you or me?’ Regardless, the spell was broken. We had spoken to him of what we lacked and what he had. We spoke of cosmogony and the opposite of cosmogony, of the beginning of times and of their coming end …
Then there was the third leader. — ‘Ah, our third leader’, W. exclaims, ‘the greatest one of all’.
Everyone knows to keep quiet when he speaks, W. says. He speaks very quietly himself, and is immensely modest, but everyone knows it: here is a thinker, here is thought in person. He lives in a different way from everyone else, that much is clear. He lives another kind of life, and his quietness is a sign of his elevation.
It’s what everyone in the room knows when he speaks: he’s better than the rest of us, cleverer; he occupies the stratosphere of pure thought. Thought is here, and we are touched by a cold and fiery hand, by what it would be impossible for us to think by ourselves. To have a thought that would burn our lives away like dross! To have the whole of our lives become clear and still like pools of water in northern forests!
We lean in, listening. He speaks so quietly, and we must be more quiet than we can be to hear. And for a moment, we forget we are apes, and listen with the whole of our being.
And then it happened again. We told him all we wanted was a leader and to be led by a leader. We told him about our first leader and our second leader, and our desertion by our first leader and our second leader. We told him of the tohu vavohu that comes at the beginning and will return at the end. We told him of the apocalypse and of waiting for the Messiah …
Will we find our new leader in Freiburg? It’s unlikely, we agree as we sip our piña coladas.
Wandering back to the hotel, we lose ourselves in the streets, chancing upon the same section of waterway again and again, the same weir. The city’s closing itself against us, we decide. Against the likes of us. It doesn’t want us here. Should we throw ourselves in the river? Is that what it’s telling us?
Kafka was always our model, we agree. How is it possible that a human being could write like that? W. says, again and again. It’s always at the end of the night when he says this, after we’ve drunk a great deal and the sky opens above us, and it is possible to speak of what is most important.