I felt my solitary happiness threatened by their happiness of the herd, because they were stronger than I was.
After I bought cans of food, salami, and a huge round loaf of bread in the store, I would stop off at the pub, and the pubkeeper and villagers would come and sit down at my table and ask how I liked it here in the mountains, in all this solitude. I was enthusiastic and told them stories of things that no one had ever seen before but were actually there, and I told the stories as if I were only passing through by car, or had come for two or three days, I talked as though I were on vacation, like a nature lover, like a city person who babbles romantic drivel whenever he comes to the country about how beautiful the woods are and the mountain peaks in the mist, and how it is all so perfect that he would like to settle here for good. And I talked in a jumbled way about how beauty had another side to it, about how this beautiful countryside, like a round loaf of bread, was all related to whether you could love even what was unpleasant and abandoned, whether you could love the landscape during all those hours and days and weeks when it rained, when it got dark early, when you sat by the stove and thought it was ten at night while it was really only half past six, when you started talking to yourself, speaking to the horse, the dog, the cat, and the goat, but best of all to yourself, silently at first — as though showing a movie, letting images from the past flicker through your memory — and then out loud, as I had done, asking yourself questions, inquiring of yourself, interrogating yourself, wanting to know the most secret things about yourself, accusing yourself as if you were a public prosecutor and then defending yourself, and so arriving, in this back-and-forth way, at the meaning of your life. Not the meaning of what used to be or what happened a long time ago, but discovering the kind of road you’d opened up and had yet to open up, and whether there was still time to attain the serenity that would secure you against the desire to escape from your own solitude, from the most important questions that you should ask yourself.
“Do you love me?” I asked doubtfully, and stupidly.
She burst out laughing — with the same unfathomable drunken laughter that had so charmed me earlier. It did not charm me now. Back on the veranda, that earlier laugh had somehow soared into the summer sky, an endearing cry for help addressed to some far-off Dionysus. But now she was laughing at me, and into me, the way any woman might laugh at any man held in an embrace of perhaps half an hour. It was a common, rather vulgar, laugh, an utterly godless laugh, one that could have been heard a thousand times at that moment in any of the parks of Paris and the banlieue — and how was I any different from the thousand other poor wretches who at that precise moment were preparing for the stereotypical games of love?
— from the short story “A Garden Party in St. Cloud”
The key passage:
To your grace and to your mercy I ascribe it that you have dissolved my sins as if they were ice. To your grace I ascribe also whatsoever evils I have not done…. Who is the man who will reflect on his weakness, and yet dare to credit his chastity and innocence to his own powers, so that he loves you the less, as if he had little need for that mercy by which you forgive sins to those who turn to you. There may be someone who has been called by you, and has heeded your voice, and has shunned those deeds which he now hears me recalling and confessing of myself. Let him not laugh to scorn a sick man who has been healed by that same physician who gave him such aid that he did not fall ill, or rather that he had only a lesser ill. Let him therefore love you just as much, nay even more. For he sees that I have been rescued from such depths of sinful disease by him who, as he also sees, has preserved him from the same maladies.
— Confessions, II/7/15
They kept me far from you, those fair things which, if they were not in you, would not exist at all.
So that which is of God both keeps us from and calls us to him?
Joys that I should bewail contend with sorrows at which I should rejoice, but on which side victory may rest I do not know…. You are the physician; I am a sick man. You are merciful; I am in need of mercy.
God is the Composer, and his symphony contains both dissonance and consonance, the former to resolve into the latter?
My great-grandfather was born in the year eighteen thirty, and in eighteen forty-eight he was a drummer in the army, and as a drummer boy he took part in the fighting on Charles Bridge. The students dug out cobble-stones from the paving there to throw at the soldiers, and they hit Great-grandfather on the knee and crippled him for life. From that time on he was granted this disability pension, one gold piece every day, and every day he spent it on a bottle of rum and two packets of tobacco, but instead of sitting quietly at home to do his drinking and smoking, he went off limping about the streets and the field paths, taking a special delight in turning up wherever there were people slaving away at some hard labor. And there he’d grin and gloat over those workers, and drink this rum of his, and smoke his tobacco, and what with one thing and another, never a year passed without Great-grandfather Luke getting beaten up somewhere, and Grandfather having to wheel him home in the wheelbarrow.
But Great-grandfather only bobbed up as fresh as ever and soon was off again bragging about who was the better off everywhere he went, until somebody beat him up again in the same unchristian way. Until the fall of Austria put a stop to this disability pension he’d been drawing for seventy years. Until his allowance under the republic dwindled so much that it wouldn’t run to his bottle of rum and his two packets of tobacco any longer.
But even then, never a year passed without somebody beating Great-grandfather Luke unconscious, because he still went on dragging himself around the district flaunting those seventy years when he’d had his bottle of rum and his tobacco every day. Until the year nineteen thirty-five Great-grandfather did his bragging in front of some quarrymen whose stone quarry had just been closed down on them, and they beat him up so badly that he died. The doctor said he might very well have been with us a good twenty years yet. That was why there was no other family that stuck in the town’s gullet like ours did.
The station-master rode away on his horse, accompanied by the groom. He crossed the tracks, and the two white horses trotted along the hard field-path; you could hear the ring of their hooves, but their whiteness merged into the whiteness of the snowy plane, and all that was to be seen was an absurd rear view of the station-master and the groom, those dark clothes and splayed figures sitting, as it were, on empty air.
“Viktoria Freie.” She bowed and held out her hand.
“Viktoria Freie?” repeated Hubička in wonder.
“Your way of life isn’t compatible with premeditated murder. I don’t think you’d even pick a flower, you have such a horror of any form of violence. I don’t intend any praise by this. You are neither a good man nor a bad man: the intellectual type cannot be forced into either category. You could be capable, out of selfishness or love of comfort, of omitting to do things which any decent man would do for his fellow creatures. But you would be incapable of doing anything which might deliberately hurt another. You’re too passive for that.”
For two days she might be seen with a Chinese engineer, then for a week with a Canadian farmer, who made way for a French gigolo, who would himself be replaced by an aging German classical philologist on tour and a Polish ping-pong champion simultaneously. And all these lovers, and myself, would be told about all the other lovers, in hair-raising detail and with a total absence of emotion, though she did make occasional reference to das Moralische, which versteht sich von selbst (I never quite discovered where the self-knowledge came in) – but it was all perfectly objective, quite terrifyingly objective.
At that moment, in that spontaneous outburst of unguarded arrogance, I suddenly understood him. Just minutes before, he had said that what distinguished man from the animals was the capacity to see beyond appearances. The animal sees his mate as simply another animal, but man views his as more than human.
And for a proud man no error can be more painful than to admit that in this regard he has blundered; that the woman he has chosen is not what he thought her. For a truly proud man the worst horror of disappointment in love is not the slight he has received: far, far worse is the failure of judgement that led him to construct a myth with no basis in reality. And a man as supremely proud as the Earl of Gwynedd has thereafter to maintain the illusion, in the face of every contradictory circumstance, lest he be forced to admit to himself that he has blundered.
That was why, for all his self-control, he gave way to superhuman rage when anyone attacked the Eileen myth.
It was dark by the time we reached the car and got in. The wind searched impatiently among the trees in the woods beside the road, and every so often the bloodshot face of the full moon lit up the clouds, as they chased each other eastwards in a wild, silent ecstasy.
“You speak like someone who has no ideals.”
“True. I am a neo-frivolist.”
“And how does that differ from old-fashioned frivolity?”
“Mostly in the ‘neo’ prefix. It makes it more interesting.”