30 April 2018

Amnesie in litteris

In our latest frenzy of book purging, it has been shocking how few of the tomes we have re-read were actually worth re-reading.  To be fair, our sampling is highly biased as we're mostly reevaluating things we haven't read in a very long time, and our tastes/patience (as well as the standard for keeping a book) have changed over time.

Nonetheless, I was so delighted to come across this short story by Patrick Süskind that--after letting Google Translate do the heavy lifting--I've decided to share it with you.  Maybe you are still too young to appreciate it, but for me it is painfully/hysterically apropros.  Süskind's character is an author, who has been posed a question:   

What was the question again?  Oh, yeah:  Which book most influenced me, really imprinted upon me, shook me, 'got me on track' or even 'threw me off course'?  That sounds a bit like a shock or a traumatic experience, the kind that, at most, plagues you with anxiety dreams but doesn't really rise to the waking consciousness, let alone affect your writing or your public persona...hmm, it occurs to me that an Austrian psychologist, whose name I've momentarily forgotten, in a very readable essay whose title I cannot remember with certainty, but that was published in a little volume under the collective heading I and you or It and We or I Myself or something like that (and I can't say if it was recently reprinted by Rowohlt, Fischer, dtv or Suhrkamp, ​​but the cover was green-white or pale-blue-yellowish, if not gray-blue-greenish)... 

Well, maybe the question wasn't really about neurologically traumatic reading experiences, but rather a life-shattering artistic experience, like in the famous poem "Beautiful Apollo" (no, that's not it, it was called something else...the title was somehow archaic, "Youthful Torso" or "Ancient beautiful Apollo" or something like that...whatever), like in this famous poem by...umm...I can't think of his name right now, but he was really a very famous poet—with cow eyes and a mustache, and he got that fat French sculptor (what was his name?) an apartment in the Rue de Varenne, but Apartment hardly says it, it was a palazzo with a park you couldn't cross in ten minutes! (one casually wonders, how did they pay for it all)—at any rate, as it is expressed in this magnificent poem, which I can no longer quote in its entirety, but whose last line is indelibly engraved in my memory:  "You must change your life."

So, about which books could I say that their lessons changed my life?  To shed light on this problem, I (only a few days ago) walked up to my bookshelf and glanced down the row of spines.  As always on such occasions—when too many specimens are gathered together in one spot and the eye loses itself in the masses—at first I got dizzy, and in order to stop the dizziness, I reached into the mass at random, picked out a single book, slunk away as if it were my quarry, opened it up, leafed through, and got sucked in.  I soon realized that I'd grabbed a good one, a really good one.  This was a text of polished prose and the clearest of thought, peppered with interesting, unprecedented tidbits and full of the most wonderful surprises.  Unfortunately, as I write this, the title of the book no longer comes to mind, nor the name of the author, nor the content—but as one will soon see, that is all quite irrelevant or, perhaps to the contrary, even contributes to the elucidation.  It was, as I said, an excellent book that I held in my hands, something to be gained from every sentence, and I stumbled to my chair while reading, let myself down while reading, forgot while reading why I was reading in the first place, and felt nothing but a concentrated desire for the delicious and complete novelty that I discovered there page by page.  Occasional underlines in the text or exclamation marks scrawled with pencil in the margin—traces of a previous reader that I usually do not appreciate—didn't even bother me in this case, because the narrative was so exciting, the prose bubbled so cheerfully, that I no longer noticed the pencil marks, and if I did then only in agreement, because it turns out that my reading predecessor—I have not the slightest idea who it might have been—turns out to have made his underlining and exclamations in exactly the places that excited me the most.

And so, inspired by the superior quality of the text and the spiritual companionship with my unknown predecessor, I continued reading, delving deeper and deeper into the fictitious world, following with ever greater amazement the beautiful paths the author led me down... Until I came to the culmination of the story, which elicited from me a loud "Ah ha!  How well thought!  How well said!" And I closed my eyes for a moment to contemplate what I have read, which, as it were, had beaten a pathway into the confusion of my consciousness, opened up for me completely new perspectives, infused me with new insights and associations, and, indeed, given full measure to "You must change your life!".   

And practically automatically my hand reached for the pencil as I thought "you've got to underline that and write on the edge 'very good' with a thick exclamation mark behind it, and jot a few notes in the margin on the flood of thoughts this passage has just released, to aid your memory later on and to document your reverence for the author, who has enlightened you so greatly!"  But alas!  As I lowered the pencil to the margin to scribble my "Very good!" I found there is already a "Very good!" written there!  As well as a pretty good summary of what I wanted to note, and in a handwriting that is quite familiar.  Namely, my own, because my reading predecessor was none other than me.  I had read the book long ago.  I was gripped by misery; the old disease had me again:  amnesia in litteris, the complete loss of literary memory.

I was flooded with a wave of resignation over the futility of all striving for knowledge, all striving per se.   Why read, why read this book again, when I know that after a short time not even the shadow of a memory of it will remain?  Why do anything at all if all comes to naught?  Why live, if you die anyway?  So I close the beautiful little book, stand up and sneak back to the shelf like a total failure, like a beaten man, and sink it in the row with the other anonymous, forgotten volumes.  But the end of a row catches my eye.  What's that?  Oh yes:  three biographies about Alexander the Great.  I once read them all.  What do I know about Alexander the Great?  Nothing.  At the other end, there are several compilations about the Thirty Years' War, including five hundred pages by Veronica Wedgwood and a thousand pages on Wallenstein by Golo Mann.  I slogged through all of that as well.  What do I know about the Thirty Years War?  Nothing.  The row of shelves underneath is cram packed from front to back with books about Ludwig II of Bavaria and his rule.  I did not just read that material, I worked it through, for over a year, and then wrote three screenplays about it; I was practically a Ludwig II expert.  What do I still know about Ludwig II and his rule?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Well, I think, when it comes to Ludwig II, maybe total amnesia isn't so bad.  But what about the books over there, next to the desk, in the more splendid literature section?  What did I remember from the fifteen-volume set by Andersch?  Nothing.  What of the Bolls, the Walsers, the Koeppens?  Nothing.  Of the ten volumes of Handke?  Less than nothing.  What do I still know about Tristram Shandy, what of Rousseau's confessions, about Seume's walk?  Nothing, nothing, nothing.  But there!  Shakespeare's comedies!  Most read just last year.  Something must have stuck there, a vague idea, a title, a single title of a single comedy by Shakespeare!  Nothing.  But for heaven's sake, Goethe, at least Goethe; here, for example, the slim white volume: "The Elective Affinities," I've read that at least three times—and not the tiniest glimmer remains.  As if it were all just blown away.

Is there no book on this Earth that I remember?  The two red volumes there, the thick ones with the red fabric trimmings, I must know them, they seem as familiar as old furniture.  I've read these, I lived these volumes for weeks, not so long ago; what is it?  what's it called?  The Demons.  Yes, of course.   Interesting.   And the author?  Dostoyevsky.  Huh.  Yeah.  I think I vaguely remember:  The whole thing, I think, takes place in the 19th century, and in the second volume, someone shoots himself with a gun.  I wouldn't be able to say more.  I sink into my desk chair.  It's a shame, a scandal.  I've been able to read for thirty years, have read, if not a lot, still a goodly bit, and all that remains with me is the dubious memory that in the second volume of a thousand-page-long novel somebody shoots himself with a pistol.  Thirty years of reading for nothing!  Thousands of hours of my childhood, my teenage and youthful years spent reading, and nothing retained except a tremendous forgetfulness.  And not that this evil subsides, on the contrary, it worsens.  When I read a book today, I forget the beginning before I come to the end.  Sometimes my memory is not even enough to capture the lessons of a single page.  And so I move from paragraph to paragraph, from one sentence to the next, and soon I'll be so far that I can only consciously grasp individual words, which flow out of a perpetually unknown text, like shooting stars only shining in the moment they are read, only to immediately sink again into complete extinction in the dark torrent of the Lethe River [of Oblivion].  For some time now already, I haven't been able to open my mouth in a literary discussion without horribly disgracing myself by confusing Mörike with Hofmannsthal, Rilke with Hölderlin, Beckett with Joyce, etc.

When I seek a quote that hovers just beyond my tongue, I spend days looking it up because I can't place the author.  And because I lose myself reading unfamiliar texts by total strangers while haphazardly searching, until I finally forget what I was originally looking for.  How could I, in such a chaotic state of mind, allow myself to answer the question Which single book might have changed my life?  None?  All?  Any?  I don't know.  But maybe—so I think to comfort myself—maybe reading (like life) isn't that different from decision making and seemingly sudden lifestyle changes.  Perhaps reading is more of an impregnation, becoming thoroughly absorbed into the consciousness, but in such an imperceptible, osmotic way that we are unaware of the process.  The reader suffering from amnesia in litteris is in fact quite changed through reading, but doesn't notice it because, while reading, the critical parts of his brain—that might alert him to changes—are changing along with him.   And for someone who is a writer themselves, the illness might even be a blessing, almost a necessity, saving him from the paralyzing awe inspired by every great literary work, and providing him with a liberatingly uncomplicated relationship to plagiarism (without which nothing original can arise).  

I know this is a comfort born of necessity, an unworthy and lazy consolation, and I try to avoid it:  you must not surrender yourself to this terrible amnesia, I think, you must fight the flow of the Lethe River with all your might, you may no longer sink head over heels in a text but must stand over it with a clear, critical consciousness, must excerpt, memorize, do memory training, in a word you must—and here I quote from a famous poem, the author and title of which I don't quite recall, but  the last line is indelibly engraved in my memory as a constant moral imperative:  "You must," it goes, "you must ... you must"  Argh, how stupid!  Now I have forgotten the exact wording.  But that doesn't really matter, because the meaning is still at hand.  It was something like, "You must change your life!"

From: Patrick Süskind: Drei Geschichten; Copyright © 1976, 1985, 1986 Patrick Süskind; Copyright © 2005 Diogenes Verlag AG Zürich.  http://www.buecherlei.de/fab/autor/rs/suesk.htm  

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