Blesok no. 77-79, March-August, 2011
Prose


Time of Lies (Taboo I)
Excerpt from the novel

Sibila Petlevski


Pandora’s Box

    Paralyzed, with a spinal fracture and internal injuries, he was lying in a tent of a field hospital. A pretty clumsy and callow orderly, whose round face featured a thin moustache, tried to pour lemonade down his throat – yes, a lemonade, probably the same way Sub lieutenant John Pollard nurtured Admiral Nelson after the battle with the French. Given the serious condition of the patient, the taste of sweetened water with a couple of drops of half-rotten lemon could barely reach captain Peter Meier, only touching his lips and dripping down his blood-soaked chin.
    Why are heroes’ last wishes so trivial, so bloody typical in their shallow poignancy? It is almost as if at the very last moment those people were trying to connect with lost ideals through a seemingly marginal detail such as Admiral Nelson’s lemonade, to get somehow the final confirmation on what had just happened. They know it all too well – although the realization sinks in too late – that every goal they helped achieve and sealed with their blood has the exact same amount of glorious feeling of victory that it takes to squash the thick armour of a cockroach that stains the soles of their army boots with its grey-green insides. Deep down inside – somewhere in their gut, not their hearts – they feel that each goal they helped accomplish, strangely enough, managed to lose its purpose. The eyes of doctor Viktor Tausk started to tear up: in spite of it all, he admired people like Peter Meier.
    A faint sound of artillery fire was coming from the outside. Still conscious, Peter asked the doctor, should he be the luckier of the two, to go to Pölah, a nice little place by Lake Fuschl in the Province of Styria and deliver to his fiancée an object of great value to her. Captain Peter Meier was practically cut in two with a knife-sized shrapnel between the second and third vertebra. In fact, the piece of metal stuck in his spine was longer, heavier and more massive than a regular blade of a bread-knife.
    During examination of the torso, pronounced twitches in the knees. When pinched on the inside of his thigh, the patient’s leg stretched fully, accompanied by reflux urinary and bowel discharge. We regret
– the end of doctor Tausk’s medical report said – that the circumstances did not allow investigating plantar reflux and clonus.
    Among Peter’s possessions, the doctor had no trouble finding what he was supposed to take to Kristina Egger in Pölah. It was a smallish metal box without ornaments, which did not look like a jeweler box and, at first, it was not quite clear what it was for, only that it contained a dear keepsake. He could not resist: he opened the lid. There was a small plaque inside, with a pattern of tiny meanders, metal dashes and dots, no bigger than a headpin. What he saw was more precise than a watch mechanism, and yet, it most surely did not belong to any watch.

* * *

    “Where did you come across that information?” Tvrtko asked, with an expression that carefully disguised his interest. Both of us were fascinated by Viktor Tausk’s life story and decided to investigate it, each in his and her own way. It started like this: I was on a train to Vienna, and as always, I had bought all the daily newspaper. Among the heads of politicians and columnists, a big, round face of a friend who had celebrated his 25th career anniversary beamed at me. If he weren’t a passionate explorer, he would be a scientist. While reading, I could not help but laugh out loud – he is like a love-struck youth – he leaves the spheres of boredom to university professors, but does not manage to hide his obsession. Tvrtko’s nature is passionate, he skilfully relates any issue to whichever current preoccupation he might have on his mind, and sometimes, he inadvertently slips the name of his new “love”. In this way, he puts his cards on the table for the journalists and the general public who have so often been seduced by scumbags from the infamous chapters of domestic history while forgetting its heroes. There are some interesting topics to write about, he muses, and there are people who remain unknown despite the fact that, supposedly, everyone knows about them.
    “And little is it known what they have done for us,” he said.
    Why are certain deserving and exceptional ghosts despised by the quiet stepmother, that is, the past, where their unconventional fate only awakens a flash of interest here and there in people such as Tvrtko and I? These sparks of desperate recognition get devoured by darkness in a blink of an eye – immediately after they delineate the zigzagging of a brilliant mind – as though even to recall such a mind only confirms its absence, because another name etched in vain on the black billboard in the sky has disappeared for good.
    Perhaps Tvrtko could explain the reasons – given the time he spent in prison, on several occasions, when not only did he remain keen on various manifestations of life, but he also stretched his natural curiosity to its limits, while his social scrutiny became as sharp as a knife – and tell us what kind of material is used for the universal fixer-upper that, with time, exterminates all the great figures unsuitable to small social environments, those same great figures who lived in foreign cities where they were highly appreciated, but their traces have been lost in the metropolis of the “universal” spirit.
    This happens because they always come from “somewhere”, and when they die, there is no one left to defend the qualities that established their greatness in the first place, the same qualities that were worthy of attention while they were alive, which made them the citizens of a world much broader than a herd of sheep from the idyllic plateau of the old country.
    “On whose behalf did they act upon? Whose people are they anyway? Where did they come from? To whom does their work belong?” And finally – “Does anyone really need their work?” – these are the main topics covered in their eulogies.
    “The mourning of foreigners is a scene with a mother missing; the bloody mother country,” I say.
    “Of course, you know how he killed himself; you found out exactly how he killed himself?” Tvrtko asks.
    I found it out all right, and now I keep imagining his suicide over and over again.
    A bottle of homemade brandy in the middle of the table, cigarettes and bacon lying around. Viktor was writing to his youngest sister: “Thank you for reminding my palate of the old country.” Then, he sealed a couple of envelopes with a few beautifully written letters, which he wrote when certain restlessness, somewhat close to remorse, came over him. After that, he began listing his possessions. Inflation had rendered worthless almost everything he owned. Maybe not the books, he thought. They should definitely be included in the inventory of nonsense. How many boxes to pack and take? Twenty? Or less? The books are staying put. In boxes, if need be. For the future.
    When he finished, he took his officer’s pistol from the bottom drawer, got up, opened the curtains and looked at the street. A brief lull after a raucous night, it will be dawn soon, shortly before waking up to a new day at work, but for now, the people of Vienna were asleep. The pigeons between the beams of a loft in the building across the street were also asleep. A boyish smile crossed his face for a fleeting instant before it was ironed out with numb indifference. The weather was very agreeable that early summer morning, around four o’clock, Thursday, July 3rd 1919. The street was wet: it had rained for a little while that night. He made a noose from the rope of the curtain, tied it around his neck, climbed the window, put the pistol to his temple and fired. The burden of Viktor’s brain scattered across the carpet, curtain and window, finally relieved of its mind frame, leaving behind material proof of his last, and possibly only free decision. The twitch of a half-blown head pulled down the weight of the rest of his body. In his suicide note to Doctor Freud, Doctor Tausk said that killing himself was “the healthiest thing” to do in his “wasted” life.
    And it could have been a day like any other; just a hint more typical than a typical July 3rd in the life of Viktor Tausk, PhD! In the early afternoon, he went to the tailor’s to pick up a suit for a wedding, without even realizing how depressed he actually was, how he could not care less, as a matter of fact. He thought he had to be walking like an old horse, blindly trying to find his way back to the stable, and noticed that his quick-paced, businesslike steps were outside of his control. Goal-oriented, self-sufficient, smug, you could even say, Viktor’s legs were ploughing on, taking him to the tailor’s. Most unexpectedly, this created space for his tired soul to wander aimlessly, somewhere near or rising above the mechanic discipline of the body to the light-blue sky above the Austrian capital, where the wind whipped the tiny white clouds they call sheep, trying to chase them into a corner. Viktor missed his homeland, the whiff of a country that he could call his own in moments of weakness and scuppered sentimentality. Was it a mistake to come back to Vienna? No, there was no other choice: he had to come back. Was it a mistake to leave Kosa, after a mute fight in which he could not express his feelings? Kosa Lazarević knew better than anyone what he needed, what he wanted and what troubled him. He was speechless. She knew that when he left after rough sex, which was only a desperate disguise of exaggerated, seemingly passionate movements designed to hide the fact that he was fed up. He was not fed up with Kosa’s body; he was fed up with the city. He did not like Belgrade. In fact, he could not tell what he did or did not like anymore or when he stopped wanting something and began wanting something else. Does he want Hilde now? Did he leave Kosa Lazarević for Hilde Loewe? Or did he still love Kosa, if he had ever really loved her? Does anyone in 1919 have the moral right to ask himself or herself or anyone else: what is love, really? What is it nowadays? Tausk’s spiritual wanderings were abruptly anchored when he thought about ending a patient’s treatment, whose records he kept only under a first name and an initial, Natalija A. He thought she was the last in a long line of deranged patients, a thirty-year old of Latvian origin, former philosophy student, charming and totally deaf due to an illness she suffered as a child, serious problems with “ego boundaries.”
    During the final phase of her illness, Natalija A. was convinced that the doctor became part of a machine that controlled her thoughts, behaviour, menstrual cycle, all physiological activities and libido. She claimed that it was a forbidden machine built in Berlin and that she was one of several guinea pigs that were being experimented on. When she found out about Doctor’s suicide, her opinion of him was less harsh, she even felt sorry and all of a sudden everything became clear. She rushed into the precinct, and handed in a piece of paper demanding to see the Chief Inspector with regard to the death of Viktor Tausk, her physician. A clerk welcomed her, introduced himself as detective inspector and offered her a seat. She could lip-read very well, and, in principle, she could speak, but she did not want to, so she communicated in writing. It was the first time after many years that she opened her mouth at the police station. A baffling, painful and ugly grimace contorted her face and out came a sound. It was nothing short of a miracle. As if a chain around her tongue had got loose and a stream of throaty sounds gushed out:
    “They killed him. It’s their doing. Because he refused to cooperate. It was a mean kill, made it look like suicide. I know everything about it. Ask me. After all, he was a good man,” she said excitedly. The police clerk attributed her strangely articulated speech to the fact that Natalija, as a foreigner, a Slavic woman it would seem, did not speak German very well.
    “They had to. They had to… When the guilt became unbearable, when he saw where all of it was leading to, I mean, the manipulation of people, the death machines…” – she took out a handkerchief and wiped her tears – “he wanted to get out. But he couldn’t: he knew too much and they had to do it. Yes, I can testify, they had to do it, I know, because they tried the same with me. First they took my hearing, and my voice, and my period, then they began whispering to kill myself, every night, day in, day out, for years. They invaded my brain directly: Natalija, now you have to take the knife. Natalija, go to the kitchen and take the knife. Take knife. Take knife, take knife…”
    Her voice was piercing. She screamed, “Kniiife!” took a paper knife from the table and stabbed the back of her hand as hard as she could. It took two police officers to hold her and take her out. Once outside, she seemed calm, agreed for the officers to escort her home, when suddenly she tore off from their grip and ran away to the market, where she got drowned in the crowd.
    The schizophrenic machine that made Natalija run like a dog chasing its own tail was not endemic only to her kind of madness. It was a common feature of the imagination among a special class of people, marginalized as psychos and dangerous lunatics. What was so specific to the imaginary machine made doctor Tausk stop and look for a logical explanation: the description of technology and the basic principle on which the machine operated were similar, almost identical from patient to patient, even with other doctor’s patients, regardless of age, educational background or gender. He took the following note:
    “Schizophrenic manipulation machine is a device of mystical nature. The patient can only hint at how it is constructed. It consists of boxes, handles, levers, buttons, wires, batteries and similar parts. Patients try to discover more about the machine based on their technical knowledge, but it seems that with the growing number of popular scientific publications, they gain more advantage to explain common technological principles on which the machine functions. However, all the scientific discoveries in the world cannot suffice to describe the striking abilities of the machine that all of the patients claim to be haunted by.”
    The machine produces images similarly to a magic lantern or a cinematographer, on a single surface, as if they were projected. Patients say that it implements or eliminates, if necessary, thoughts and feelings from their minds using waves or radiation of mysterious origin, which they cannot explain, given their limited knowledge of physics. They usually talk about a “suggestive apparatus”, whose construction is indescribable, but each and every one of them can clearly state the machine’s primary function: transmission of thought and feeling from one side and their “suction” on the other side, where they mention one or two sleuths who operate the machine. The machine of their madness produces loco motor phenomena, causes erectile dysfunction with uncontrolled ejaculation, which patients claim to be aimed at exhausting their power, to cause weakness and fatigue. Also, they mention different types of waves that transmit the suggestions: air, electric, magnetic, radio waves and other sorts of waves they had read about or could not know about because they were discovered after the patients died. Phenomena induced by thoughts which are, in turn, manipulated by the machine are unfathomable and alien even to the patients themselves sometimes, as if they did not belong to their bodies, and there is a mechanical stranger who came crawling out of the cracks at the borders of their human identity, a stranger that lay dormant for all this time, waiting to finally take full control.
    As with all other Viktor’s schizophrenic patients, Natalija’s identity was unstable, osmotic to the very limits: it could be shaped like dough, populated by crumbs of sensation, events and casual encounters, and yes, this was precisely why Viktor thought there was a slim, theoretical chance to help her recuperate a normal human ability to separate inner from outer reality, even if it required “lending” her some of his strength, some of his “I”. Freud would have never agreed to that. Viktor felt the urge to oppose the figure of the Great Master, but never lost his respect for him; Freud’s fatherly authority surpassed even the bitter disappointment after Freud flatly refused to analyse him personally and handed him over to the inexperienced Helene Deutsch, who had entered “the sacred circle” not two years before. As if the circle of followers of the Great Master had worn out in an incestuous series of mutual psychoanalysis, so instead of being broadened by new ideas, it shrunk and became devoid of creative energy. It lost all effect in a simple mechanism of establishing or dismantling authority, a banal combination of professional jealousy and personal insecurity, painful, pathological need to open people up on a routine basis to see what is inside, and to bravely offer your mind to be dissected, like an old tin of soup that had to be opened with a knife, in a time before tin-openers. There would always be a small blood red smear on the knife; both the real knife and the psychoanalytical one, used to cut souls. The blood red innards marinated through centuries in our damned and awfully exhausted souls do not spill over or smear the blade which has wounded us: the technology holds the key to many things.
    How terribly misguided are the people who think that the way we perceive ourselves is as pure as virgin snow and completely independent from technological development. The fact that the findings we obtain from dissecting our own bodies, brains and feelings are equally devastating, even hopelessly sad – does not change anything – technology participates in the human need for self
-delusion, brings it to the forefront and perfects it – Tausk wrote. The ultimate recognition of the human position in the universe will be entirely synchronized with mechanisms of death. They will make the blood invisible. Who knows, maybe the casualties of the last war of our future will die of a muderless weapon, a mind-manipulating machine, his notes on Natalija A.’s case read.

* * *

    The meticulous nature of Viktor’s act – the simultaneous shooting and hanging – was proof enough of absolute nihilism. It was a lot more than disappointment or giving up on everything. The pedantics of the gruesome endeavour ceaselessly amaze me. Reasons may vary, but one thing is certain: the man had no doubts. He did not leave anything to chance. It was not a hesitant suicide. He was not one of those who change their mind at the last minute and want to cry for help if only they had more time. He did not go about it in a histrionic way either, exposing his suffering only to be saved in the nick of time.
    “Who was Viktor Tausk, really?” That is a question my friend Tvrtko and I are trying to answer. He is interested in life.
    He wants to know: “What did this man live for?”
    He wanted to know his motives, the forces in motion that influenced his actions, the twists and turns of life. My angle is different. For a start, I am interested in his death.
    I just wonder: “Why? Why like that?!”

* * *

    Sigmund Freud was on a train to Dubrovnik, with “some stranger”, according to his own words, on his way to a “place in Herzegovina”, and while they were travelling, the coincidental passenger – very young, extremely well-mannered, and, it could be said, very highly educated – and himself were killing time and talking about Italy, about charming little Mediterranean towns that one had to visit. He recommended to the stranger to visit Orvieto and have a look at the frescos. But wait? What was the painter’s name? The painter’s name was on top of Sigmund Freud’s head, and a lot of names popped up, including Botticelli and Boltraffio – but he could not recall the actual name. As these things usually happen, the conversation continued, but the thing that he could not remember was still very much on his mind, and the more he strained his thinking muscle, the more his flow of thought led him further and further away from it.
    Shortly before the talk about Italy, they discussed Bosnian Muslim tradition. Freud told the stranger how one of his colleagues, a doctor who practiced medicine in those parts, described the locals in comparison to Europeans and their peculiar ways regarding medical authority; complete resignation written all over their faces, accepting whatever fate may have in store for them, although they have every confidence in their doctor. The belief in kismet, what and how fate determines their lives, does not prevent them to pay a visit to their doctor. If you say to the patient’s relatives that there is nothing more to be done, they will respond: “Oh, well, Mister, what can I tell you? If he could have lived a while longer, we are sure you would have saved him!”

* * *

    Somewhere on his way from Dalmatia to Herzegovina in 1898, Freud happened to have an utterly trivial encounter with an ordinary, although civilized and handsome young man who spoke fluent German. The young man was awe-struck by the authoritative figure of his travel companion, so much so that he could not even turn the conversation around and talk about what he knew better than him, the mind set of the local people. He knew it like the palm of his hand, because although he was a Jew born in Slovakia, he had lived in Sarajevo his whole childhood. That young man was Viktor.

* * *

    “You made that up. Admit it,” Tvrtko says.

* * *

    The next piece of information is unquestionably true: that same year, Freud published an article in Psychiatry and Neurology Monthly about “The Psychical Mechanism of Forgetfulness”. A casual, superficial meeting with a young man, a complete stranger on top of that, was documented only because the famous psychoanalyst decided to explore the reasons of frequent forgetfulness regarding names we know very well most of the time. What is more, the process of remembering is so convoluted that, as a rule, we remain trapped in the web of an even bigger confusion. In the article, Freud explained the complicated mechanism of partial blocking of information where the conscious and the unconscious cross paths. On the basis of personal experience, he tried to analyse all the associations that led him to the names of people and places mentioned while incidentally conversing with a fellow traveller. He broke down the words such as Signorelli (for that was the name of a forgotten fresco master) into the Italian Signor and connected it to the German Herr when he translated a sentence from the story about the fatalistic Bosnian who shrugs his shoulders when his cousin is dying and forgives the doctor, Oh, well, Mister, what can I tell you? Salvation lays in the hands of our Lord the Father, or Allah, or whomever, Freud thought anyway, agreeing with the Bosnian from the anecdote.
    Yes, another thing is that the German Herr audibly blended with Her, the first syllable in Herzegovina. To this bizarre line of thought, the great psychoanalyst playfully added Bo, the first syllable in Bosnia, which appears as the first syllable in the names of the artists that came to his mind while he tried to recall Signorelli’s name, to no avail. In Freud’s mechanism of forgetfulness, therefore, a secret link was created between things that were seemingly unrelated: Bosnia, Botticelli and Boltraffio as a magical trinity, dissected with Freud’s linguistic knife. He made another cut, severing – traffio from Bol – with a pang of guilt – he remembered that on that day in 1898, while he was getting ready for his trip to Bosnia, he had received the news of a patient’s suicide. The news got to him in a place called Trafoi. Deep down, he wanted to suppress the bad news and the failure to mend the patient, a man of violent and insoluble sexual urges, whose therapy had a deadly outcome, instead of offering a cure. He wrote down: “Unconsciously, I was forgetting one thing, while I consciously tried to forget something else. While my repulsion was aimed at the contents of an idea from a memory, my helplessness to recollect appeared in an entirely different context.”

* * *

    “It is unlikely that Freud would recognize Tausk, a close associate, as the young man from the train, but Viktor would have remembered their encounter for sure. He would have told Freud. Reminded him.”
    “Are you sure he would’ve reminded him?” I ask Tvrtko.

* * *

    Finally, in the text on mechanism of forgetfulness, Freud concluded that although we forget names, sometimes for very simple reasons, there are other times when we repress memories on a subconscious level.
    In view of Viktor and Sigmund’s relationship, a lot of it is still unclear; something was buried in the dark of the subconscious, and some of it lost forever, not only from Freud’s memory, but the collective, historical memory as well. The first real encounter between them happened much later – in autumn of 1908 – almost by mistake, it could be said. It happened in a way that would seem strange even if it belonged to an excerpt from a novel. Both versions of Viktor and Sigmund’s first meeting, from the ones that are possibly true to the ones that have been documented in correspondence, feature the exact amount of chance, or a little less, contained in the idea of kismet – just enough to illuminate a brief and sceptical glance of a European intellectual. While mocking the indifference with which an Easterner accepts even the worst of fates, a Westerner cannot fully hide the fascination. Although he is not able to accept the idea of kismet, he admires a foreign, frightening idea of appeasement, even when it is based on partial misunderstanding, it still leaves an indelible trace on a Western intellectual, especially the one such as Viktor Tausk who had been exposed to frontal collisions of various creeds and cultural heritage, not to mention the monstrous concoctions of utterly dissimilar traditions, which culminated in atheism.
    Meddling with fate, which after all, includes suicide, becomes a necessity, a natural solution for people like Tausk, who see it as a rational answer to not becoming a manipulatory device. Even though he had spent most of his life fighting manipulation in its multiple forms: from sensory manipulation and imposition of values in traditional family upbringing, through the hypocrisy of romantic relationships and friendships, exploitation of patriotic and scientific ideas, to confronting more and more organized political madness that fuels the masses – Viktor suddenly sees that he did not manage to be happy, let alone free.
    Lou Salomé, Tausk’s short, but passionate affair, love of whom he shared with Sigmund, receives Freud’s letter telling her Viktor had killed himself. Freud’s news kept coming late, even months after Viktor’s funeral. He writes with an emotional distance that does not reveal a lot of intimacy with the deceased, perhaps only a tinge of well-disguised male jealousy, quenched now that Viktor, “the animal of passion”, is finally dead.
    Poor Tausk, whose friendship, at one point, was incredibly strong, committed suicide in a very radical manner. He came back tired, daunted by the horrors of war, it must be noted that he tried to recover in Vienna under unfavourable existential circumstances when the troops returned from the battlefields. He tried to bring a new woman into his life, he was supposed to marry her in eight days’ time… but he decided differently. The suicide notes to his fiancée, first wife and me are touching; they prove he was completely lucid, he does not blame anyone and they point towards his shortcomings and a life of frustration, shedding no light on the suicide itself
.

* * *

    Blame it on the war – or perhaps not war, but post-war disillusion! At least, that is what it seemed to Freud, and possibly, it was the easiest way to interpret Viktor’s tragic case in the public eye.
    Freud was right to a certain degree, although Viktor did know how to cope with the traumas of war – other people’s traumas as well as his own. As a field doctor, he had no time to think. His intellect was focused on helping the injured; there was no time for emotional outbursts. He shared the shocks and tremors with those poor, highly agitated fellows under gunfire – a topic open to psychoanalysis and academic discussion a couple of years later. If it had been different, Viktor could have already killed himself in August of 1915, or would have found another way to escape the absurdity of war. In any case – his health was weak, but he came back alive. In Belgrade, March 3rd, 1917, at the Ninth Symposium of Medical Officers, he finally had the opportunity to elaborate on the psychology of deserters. He could approach the subject from two angles, both of which he knew well: as someone with a doctorate in law and a doctor from the first line of battle. He offered a classification of war deserters with a sense of pioneer pride. However, while he was calmly explaining the issue of war deserting in front of medical and military experts, inside he was hiding a feeling of unease, a terrible feeling that he was forced to participate and continues to participate in an immoral act, that he took part and is taking part in an absurd act of cruelty that he could not prevent, firstly, because he was in no position to react, secondly, because he was dangerously alone in thinking that way, and thirdly, he lacked the necessary power of persuasion. Viktor was knowledgeable, bright and intuitive: he was an attractive, handsome man, he drew attention in many respects and made a lot of people jealous, but – unlike his famous role model Freud – he had no charisma. If Viktor had been a prophet instead of a doctor, he would have been Cassandra – no one would have believed him. The worst thing about the war did not happen in the midst of it all, but in court, when he was a jury member that had to reach a verdict regarding a couple of young, scared and stupid deserters. And it was a well known fact that no matter how substantial the psychological, legal, medical or simply human arguments may be – those poor men would end up in front of a firing squad. He was outvoted, and the worst moment was when circumstances required him to cut into the dead deserter’s brain with a scalpel. The man whose brain he was cutting into was his patient. Viktor’s scalpel reached into absolute nonsense, as if the transcendental in all its complexity boiled down to nothing but absurdity, hoisted up by the grotesque, perverse and utterly pointless need to satisfy academic curiosity. The secret that became clear when he opened up a deserter’s brain was not, of course, measurable according to scientific parameters. It was more like a Pandora’s box.


Translated by Una Krizmanić Ožegović




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