Issue 177, Summer 2006
Anyone who asked Professor Gauss about his early memories was told that such things didn’t exist. Memories, unlike engravings or letters, were undated. One came upon things in one’s memory that one sometimes was able, on reflection, to arrange in the right order.
He remembered that he had started to count before he could talk. Once his father had made an error when he was counting out his monthly pay, and this had made Gauss start to cry. As soon as his father caught the mistake, he immediately fell quiet again.
But even the memory of that afternoon felt lifeless and secondhand. Maybe he had heard the story too often; it seemed unreal. Every other memory had to do with his mother. He fell, she comforted him; he cried, she wiped the tears away; he couldn’t sleep, she sang to him; a neighboring boy tried to beat him up, but she saw, ran after the boy and managed to catch him, trapped him between her knees, and hit him in the face until he had to grope his way home, bloodied and deaf. Gauss loved her beyond words. If anything happened to her, he would die. It was no mere figure of speech. He knew he would never survive it. That was how it had been when he was three years old, and thirty years later it was no different.
His father was a gardener, his hands were almost always dirty, he didn’t earn much, and when he spoke, it was either to complain or to give orders. A German, he kept saying, as he wearily ate his potato soup in the evening, was someone who never lolled. Once Gauss asked, Was that all? Was that all it took to be a German? His father thought it over for so long that it beggared belief. Then he nodded.
His mother was buxom and melancholic, and aside from cooking, washing, dreaming, and weeping, he never saw her do anything. She could neither read nor write. He had become aware quite early on that she was aging. Her skin loosened, her body became shapeless, her eyes steadily lost their sparkle, and every year there were new wrinkles on her face. He knew this happened to everyone, but in her case it was unbearable. She was wasting away before his eyes, and there was nothing he could do.
Most of his later memories were of slowness. For a long time he had believed that people were acting or following some ritual that always obliged them to pause before they spoke or did anything. Sometimes he managed to accommodate himself to them, but then it became unendurable again. Only gradually did he come to understand that they needed these pauses. Why did they think so slowly, so laboriously and hard? As if their thoughts were issuing from some machine that first had to be cranked and then put into gear, instead of being living things that moved of their own accord. He noticed that people got angry when he didn’t stop himself. He did his best, but often it didn’t work.
He was also troubled by the black marks in books that seemed to say something to most grown-ups, but not to his mother or him. One Sunday afternoon—what are you standing there like that for, boy—he got his father to explain some of it: the thing with the big bar, the thing that stuck out at the bottom, the half circle and the whole circle. Then he stared at the page until the unknown things began to complete themselves of their own accord and suddenly words appeared. He turned the page, this time it went faster, in a few hours he could read, and that same evening, the book, which was boring moreover and kept talking about Christ’s tears and the repentance of the sinful heart, was finished. He brought it to his mother so that he could explain the marks to her too, but she laughed and shook her head sadly. That was the moment when he grasped that nobody wanted to use their minds. People wanted peace. They wanted to eat and sleep and have other people be nice to them. What they didn’t want to do was think.