Issue 28, Summer-Fall 1962
Whenever, like two people turned to stone, we sit down to a meal together or meet at the door at night because each of us has just remembered about locking up, I feel our sadness is an arch, a great bow extending from, one end of the world to the other—which is: from Hanna to me-and in the drawn bow an arrow aimed straight at the heart of the unmoving sky. When we go back through the hall, she is two paces ahead of me, she goes into the bedroom without saying goodnight, and I take refuge in my own room, at my desk, where I sit staring at nothing, seeing always her bowed head and hearing always her silence. Has she gone to bed and is she trying to sleep, or is she still awake, waiting? What for?- since she isn’t waiting for me!
When I married Hanna it was less for her sake than because she was expecting the child. I had no choice, did not need to make any decision. I was stirred because there was something on the way that was new and which emanated from us, and because the world seemed to be waxing-like the moon, which one is supposed to bow to three times when it first appears again, exquisite, wan as a puff of breath, there at the beginning of its cycle. There were moments of distraction such as I hadn’t known before. Even at the office - although I had more than enough to do - or during a conference I would suddenly drift off into this state in which I was concentrated solely on the child, unknown, spectral being that it still was, sending all my thoughts towards where it lay captive in the warm lightless womb.
The child that we were expecting changed us. We scarcely went out any more, and neglected our friends; we looked for a larger apartment and settled down more comfortably, with a certain finality. But because of the child that I was waiting for everything began to change for me; I stumbled upon thoughts, unexpectedly, as though walking on mined ground -thoughts of such explosive power that I might well have recoiled, and yet I went on, reckless of the danger.
Hanna did not understand. Not being able to decide whether the pram should have big wheels or small ones made me appear indifferent. (I really don’t know. Just as you like. Oh yes, I’m listening.) When I stood about in shops while she was choosing bonnets, little jackets, and nappies, hesitating between pink and blue, woolen mixture and pure wool, she reproached me with not taking an interest. But I was, if anything, too much.
How on earth am I to explain what was going on in me? It was like being a savage who is suddenly made to reahse that the world in which he moves about between his camp-fire and his bed, between sunrise and sunset, between hunting and eating, is the same world that is millions of years old which will pass away, which occupies a trivial place in one among many solar systems, and which revolves at great speed on its axis and also round the sun. All at once I saw myself in other contexts, myself and the child that, at a definite point in time, at the beginning or middle of November, would have its turn, starting its own life, exactly as I once did, exactly as everyone did before me.
Just try to imagine it—all those generations! It’s like the black and white sheep you count before going to sleep (one black, one white, one black, one white, and so on), a device that now makes one all dull and drowsy, now leaves one desperately wide awake. I never could go to sleep by means of this prescription, although Hanna, who got it from her mother, swears it’s more soothing than any sedative. Perhaps many people find it soothing to think of this chain: And Shem begat Arphaxad. And Arphaxad lived five and thirty years, and begat Salah. And Salah begat Eber. And Eber begat Peleg. And Peleg lived thirty years, and begat Reu, and Reu Serug, and Serug Nahor, and each of them thereafter many sons and daughters besides, and the sons all begat sons in their turn, namely Nahor begat Terah, and Terah Abram, Nahor, and Haran. I tried, a few times, to run through this list in my mind, not only forwards but also backwards, right back to Adam and Eve, from whom we are doubtless not descended, or back to the hominids, from whom we may originate, but in either case there is an obscurity in which this chain is lost from sight, and so it really doesn’t matter whether one clings to Adam and Eve or to some other couple. Only if one doesn’t wish to cling, but prefers to ask what each of them, in his time, had his turn for, one can’t make anything of the chain and has no use for all these begetting, for either the first or the last of those lives. For each gets only one tum in the game that he finds going on and is required to understand—procreation and education, economics and politics and in which he is allowed to concern himself with money and emotions, with work and inventions and justifying the rules of the game, which are called “thought”.
But since, as it turns out, we do go on increasing with such confidence, I suppose one must resign oneself to it. The game needs the players. (Or is it the players that need the game?) I was myself brought into the world with the same confidence, and now I was bringing a child into the world.
I was beginning to tremble at the very thought.
I began to look at everything in relation to die child. My hands, for instance, which would some day touch and hold it, our third-floor apartment, the Kandlgasse, the VII. District, the ways that one could take criss-cross through the town right down to the Prater Meadows, and finally the whole world, with all that’s in it, which I would explain to the child. It was from me that it should learn the names: table and bed, nose and foot. And also such words as: spirit and God and soul, useless words in my opinion, but ones that could not be kept from it, and, later on, words as complicated as: resonance, diapositive, chiliasm, and astronautics. I would have to see to it that my child learnt what everything meant and how everything was to be used, a door-handle and a bicycle, a gargle and a printed form. My head whirled.
When the child came, there was naturally no chance to put the great educational scheme into operation. There he was, jaundiced, crumpled, pitiful, and the one thing I was not prepared for was that I must give him a name. Hanna and I hastily came to an agreement and had three names entered in the register: my father’s, her father’s, and my grandfather’s. None of these three names was ever used. By the end of the first week the child was called Fipps. I don’t know how it came about. Perhaps indeed it was partly my fault, for, like Hanna, who had an inexhaustible gift for inventing and juggling with nonsensical monosyllables, I tried to call him by pet names because the real names were so entirely unsuitable for the tiny naked creature. Out of the flux of geniahty there arose this name that came to exasperate me more and more in the course of the years. Sometimes I even blamed the child himself for it, as though he could have protested, as though it hadn’t all been mere chance. Fipps! I shall have to go on calling him that, shall have to go on making him seem ridiculous even beyond the grave, and us as well.
When Fipps was lying in his blue-and-white cot, awake or asleep, and I was of no use except to wipe away some dribbles or some regurgitated milk from round his mouth or to pick him up when he cried, in the hope of making him easier, it struck me for the first time that he might have some plan of his own affecting me, but that he was giving me plenty of time to discover what it was, indeed was determined to give me plenty of time, like a ghost appearing to one and vanishing into the darkness and appearing again, always with the same impenetrable gaze. I would often sit beside his cot, looking down into that face in which there was so little change of expression, and those unfocused eyes, studying his features as if they were some ancient script that could not be deciphered because there was no clue how to begin. I was glad to observe that Hanna imperturbably confirmed her attentions to his immediate needs, feeding him, putting him to sleep, waking him, turning him over, changing him, and so on, according to the rules. She cleaned his nostrils with little plugs of cotton-wool and dusted between his chubby thighs with whole clouds of powder, as though conferring a permanent benefit on him and on herself.
After a few weeks she tried to inveigle him into producing his first smile. But when he did at last surprise us with it, for me it was a grimace at once enigmatic and irrelevant. And then when he began to turn his eyes to us always more often and more directly, or stretched out his little arms, I suspected that it did not mean anything, that only we were beginning to supply him with the reasons that he would later accept. Hanna was not the person and perhaps there could not have been a person to understand what was going on in me, but it was at this period that I began to be uneasy. I am afraid it was then that I began to drift apart from Hanna, excluding her more and more, shutting her off from my real thoughts. I discovered a weakness in myself it was the child that brought about the discovery and the feeling that I was approaching some defeat. I was thirty, like Hanna. She looked delicate and young as never before, but the child had not renewed my youth. In proportion as he extended his scope, I reduced mine. I was being driven to the wall by every smile, every cry of delight, every yell. I lacked the strength to smother this smiling, this chirruping, and these cries, right from the start. For that is what I ought to have done!
The time left to me was passing quickly. Fipps sat up in his pram, got his first teeth, cried a lot; soon he was stretching, managing to get on to his feet, growing a little steadier all the time, crawling about the room, and then one day produced his first intelligible words. There was no more stopping it, and still I didn’t know what to do.
Well, what? Previously I had thought I would have to teach him about the world. Since my mute dialogues with him I had begun to doubt that, and finally realized it was not so. Was it, for instance, not in my power to conceal from him what things were called and not to teach him the use of things? He was the first human being. Everything had its beginning with him, and there was no saying that everything might not also become quite different because of him. Should I not leave the world to him, immaculate and without meaning? After all, I didn’t have to initiate him into functions and aims, into good and evil, into what was real and what only seemed to be so. Why should I educate him into my own likeness, causing him to know and to believe, to rejoice and to suffer! From here, from where we stand, this is the worst of all possible worlds and nobody has understood it down to this day; but from where he stood nothing was decided. Not yet. How long was there still to go?
And suddenly I realized: it’s all a question of language, and not merely of this particular language of ours, which was created with all the other languages at the Tower of Babel in order to bring confusion into the world. For under them all there’s another language smouldering away, a language that extends into gestures and glances, into the evolving of thoughts and the ebb and flow of emotions, and it’s here that all our griefs begin. It was all a question whether I could save the child from our language until he had founded a new one and could so begin a new era.
I would often go out alone with Fipps, and whenever I recognized in him what Hanna had done to him, the caresses, little vanities, playfulness that she taught him, it horrified me.He was taking after us. But not only after Hanna and me no, after people in general. Yet there were moments when he was a sovereign law unto himself, and then I would observe him very closely indeed. All ways were the same to him. All living creatures the same. Hanna and I were undoubtedly of more importance to him solely because we were always busying ourselves about him in some way. It was all the same to him. How long would it still be so?
He would be afraid. But not yet of an avalanche or of some infamy, but of a leaf stirring on a tree. Of a butterfly. Flies would throw him into a panic. And I would think: How will he be able to live when some day a whole tree sways in the wind, if I leave him in this ignorance!
He encountered a neighbor’s child on the step; he reached out clumsily, right into the other child’s face, and stepped back, perhaps not knowing that this other was a child like himself. Previously he had yelled whenever he felt uncomfortable, but now when he yelled it meant something more. It would often happen at bedtime, or when one picked him up to bring him to the table for a meal, or if one took away a toy from him. There was a great rage in him. He would sometimes lie down on the floor, clawing at the carpet and bellowing till he was blue in the face and foaming at the mouth. He would scream in his sleep as if a vampire were at his throat. These screams confirmed my belief that he still dared to scream and his screams had the desired result.
Oh, some day!
Hanna’s way was to resort to tender reproaches, telling him that he was naughty. She would hug him to her, kissing him or gazing at him gravely, teaching him not to make his mother sad. She was a wonderful temptress. She would stand ceaselessly bending over the nameless river, trying to draw him across, walking up and down on our shore of it, coaxing him with chocolate and oranges, spinning-tops and teddy-bears.
And when the trees cast shadows, I seemed to hear a voice saying: Teach him the shadow-language! The world is an experiment, and it’s enough that this experiment has always been repeated in the same way and with the same result. Try another experiment! Let him go to shadows! The result hitherto has been a life of guilt, love, and desperation. (I had begun to think everything in generalizations; then such words would occur to me). But I could save him the guilt, the love, and every sort of doom, making him free for another life.
Yes, on Sundays I would take him for walks in the Vienna woods, and when we came to a pool, something within me would say: Teach him the water-language! The path would become stony. Then full of roots. Teach him the stone- language! Root him anew! The leaves were falling, for it was autumn again. Teach him the language of leaves!
But since I knew no word of such languages, nor could discover any, having only my own language and being unable to get beyond the limits of it, I would carry him up and down the paths in silence, and home again, where he learnt to form sentences and went into the trap. He was already expressing wishes, asking for things, giving orders, or talking for the sake of talking. On later Sunday walks he would tear off blades of grass, pick up worms, catch beetles. Now they were no longer all the same to him; he would examine them, and would kill them if I was not quick enough to take them from him. At home he pulled books to pieces, and boxes, and his gollywog. He snatched at everything, tried his teeth on it, wanted to get his hands on everything, and threw it away or took it to himself Oh, some day! Some day he would know his way about.
At this period, when Hanna was still communicative, she would often draw my attention to things that Fipps said; she was enchanted by his innocent glances, his innocent talk and behavior. But I couldn’t discover any innocence in the child now that he was no longer defenseless and dumb as in the first weeks of his life. And at that time he was doubtless not innocent either, but merely incapable of expressing himself, a bundle of delicate flesh and sinew, with faint breath, and with a huge dull head that served, like a lightning-conductor, to deaden the world’s piercing messages.
When he was a little older Fipps was sometimes allowed to play with other children in a bhnd alley beside the house. Once, on my way home at lunchtime, I saw him there with three other little boys, scooping up water from the gutter in an old tin can. Then they stood in a circle, talking. It looked like a conference. (It was the way engineers conferred about where they would begin the boring, where the first well should be sunk.) They squatted down on the pavement, and Fipps, who was holding the tin, was on the point of emptying it when they got up again and went three paving stones further. But this place also seemed to turn out unsuitable for the undertaking. They got up once again. There was tension in the atmosphere. What masculine tension! Something must be done! And then, a yard away, they found the place. They squatted down again, becoming silent, and Fipps tilted the tin. The dirty water flowed over the cobbles. They stared at it, silently, solemnly. The thing had been done, it was finished. Perhaps it was a success. It must surely have been a success. The world could rely on these small men; they would keep it going all right. I was now quite certain that they would keep it going. I went into the house, up to the apartment, and threw myself on the bed in our room. The world had been kept going, the place had been found whence some more progress could be made, and it had been done, a move in the same old direction. I had hoped my child would not find that direction. And once, a long time ago, I had even feared that he might not find his way about at all. Fool that I was, I had feared he would not find the direction!
I got up and flung a few handfuls of water, cold from the tap, into my face. I wanted no more of this child. I hated him because he understood things too well, because I could already see him following in all the footsteps there were.
I went about extending my hatred to everything that emanated from human beings, to the tram-routes, the number-plates on houses, titles, clocks and calendars, all that ingenious tangled mess that is called orderI hated the collecting of garbage, programs of series of lectures, registrar’s offices, all these wretched institutions that it’s now futile to attack and which indeed nobody even dreams of attacking, all these altars at which I too had sacrificed but at which I had no mind to see my child sacrificed. What had my child to do with it? He had not set the world up the way it was, he had not caused the damage done to it. Why should he set himself up in it just the same way! I screamed at the census office and the schools and the barracks: Give him a chance! Give my child just one single chance before he goes to the dogs! I raged against myself because I had forced my son into the world and had done nothing to set him free. I owed it to him, I had to act, I must go away with him, go off to some island with him. But where is there an island from which a new man can found a new world? I was trapped together with the child, condemned from the very beginning to keep on keeping on with the old world. That was why I dropped the child. I dropped him out of my love. For this child was capable of everything, only not of stepping out of the ranks, breaking through the satanic circle.
Fipps played his way through the years until it was time to begin school. He played them away. I was glad that he should play, but not these games, which were showing him the way to later games. Hide and seek, counting-out games, cops and robbers... I wanted quite different games for him, pure play, and fairy-tales different from those already known. But nothing occurred to me, and he was bent entirely on imitation. One wouldn’t think it possible, but there it is: there’s no way out for the like of us. Again and again everything divides into above and below, good and evil, light and dark, into quantity and quahty, friend and foe, and in the fairy- tales, whenever other beings or animals appear, before you know where you are they have taken on human form again.
No longer knowing how or for what I should form his mind, I gave it up. Hanna noticed that I was no longer bothering about him. Once we tried to talk about it, and she stared at me as though I were a monster. I couldn’t produce all my arguments, because she got up, cut me short, and went into the nursery. It was evening, and from that evening on she began to do something that she would earlier no more of thought of than I: she began teaching the child to say prayers. Now I lay me down to rest... Dear God, make me a good boy. And so forth. I didn’t bother about that either, but I dare say they gradually built up a considerable repertoire. I think she hoped it would somehow protect him. Anything would have done, so far as she was concerned: a cross or some little mascot, a spell, anything. Fundamentally she was right, since Fipps would soon fall among the wolves and would soon be howling with the wolves. “God bless” was perhaps the last chance. We were both delivering him up each in our own way.
When Fipps came home from school with bad marks, I didn’t scold him at all, but I didn’t comfort him either. Hanna secretly agonized. After lunch she always sat down and helped him with his homework, “heard” what he had to memorize. She did it all as well as anyone could. But I didn’t believe in the thing at all. It was all the same to me whether Fipps later went to a grammar school or not, whether he turned out well or not. A labourer wants his son to be a doctor; a doctor wants his to be at least a doctor. I don’t understand that. I didn’t want to think of Fipps being either cleverer or better than ourselves. Nor did I want him to be fond of me; he didn’t have to obey me, didn’t ever have to do as I wished. No, what I wanted... All I wanted was that he should start all over again from the beginning, show m,e in a single gesture that he didn’t have to reproduce our gestures. I never saw anything of the sort. I was bom anew, but he was not! It was II was the first human being, I had played everything away, squandered everything, done nothing!
There was nothing I wished for Fipps, absolutely nothing at all. I merely went on watching him. I don’t know whether it’s right for a man to watch his own child like that. Like a research-worker observing a “case”. I was observing this hopeless case, the human being—this child that I could not love as I loved Hanna, whom after all I never quite dropped because she couldn’t disappoint me. She already belonged to the species “human being”, like me, when I first met her, a fine specimen, experienced, slightly individual and yet not particularly so, a woman and then the woman I married. I was all the time building up a case against this child and my-self—against him because he cancelled out a tremendous expectation, against myself because I could not prepare the ground for him. I had expected that this child, because of being a child—yes, I had expected that he would redeem the world. It sounds monstrous. And I really did behave monstrously towards the child; but there was nothing monstrous about what I hoped for. It was merely that I had not been prepared for the child, like everyone before me. I had thought nothing of it when I embraced Hanna, when I was at peace in the dark womb—I couldn’t think. It was good to marry Hanna, not only on the child’s account, but I was never again happy with her, only intent on seeing that she did not have another child. She wished it—I have grounds for assuming that, although she never speaks of it now and makes no move of that kind. One might think that now, more than ever, Hanna would think of having a child; but she is as though turned to stone. She doesn’t go away from me and she doesn’t come to me. She bears me a grudge in a way that nobody should bear a grudge against another, since he is not lord of such incomprehensible things as death and life. In those days she would have liked to raise a whole brood, and I frustrated that. She was prepared to accept all conditions, I—none. Once when we were having an argument she explained to me everything that she wanted to do and to have for Fipps. Everything: a sunnier room, more vitamins, a sailor-suit, more love, all love, she wanted to lay in whole stores of love, enough to last a lifetime, because of the world outside, because of people... a good school, foreign languages, developing his particular gifts... She wept, she was hurt because I laughed at her. I don’t think she considered for a moment that Fipps would be just one of the people “out in the world”, that he would be capable of causing pain and humiliation, of getting the better of others, of killing, like them, even that he would be capable of a single mean action; and I had every reason to suppose it. For evil, as we call it, was there in the child like a focus of infection. I don’t even need to recall the affair of the knife by way of example. It began much earlier, when he was about three or four. I came in as he was going around, crying with rage: a tower he had built of toy bricks had fallen down. Suddenly he stopped howling and said quietly and emphatically: “I’ll burn the house down. I’ll smash everything. I’ll show you.” I took him on my knee, petted him and promised to build the tower up again for him. He repeated his threats against us both. Hanna, who came in at that point, was for the first time at a loss. She admonished him and asked him who taught him to say such things. He answered firmly: “Nobody.”
Then there was the little girl who lived in the same building—he pushed her down the stairs, was then, I think, very frightened by what he had done, promised never to do it again, and then did do it again. For a time he was always hitting out at Hanna. That too passed off.