How Real is a Dead Person?

Issue 3/1979 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An Extract from the Novel Sirkus (‘Circus’). Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

Once again I seem to be moving towards a deeper understanding of these people who figure in my recollections, most of whom, by now – by this particular Friday I am now experiencing – are already dead. And this, in its turn, sets me wondering about the degree of reality, if any, that they can claim to possess. How real is a dead person? Is he, perhaps, totally unreal? In memories, of course, he is real to the extent that the memories themselves are real. But objectively, independently of memory? But here a sadness comes over me, many-headed, hard to take hold of.

And in any case I think it is time I came to a clearer understanding of the economic circus founded by my grandfather Feodisius. Uncle Ribodisius has also already made the front pages of the newspapers, and the Bilbao has published an interview.

But I have left a picture unfinished. Father’s cardboard boxes! The separation from Dianita – and from the children! And I have broken off in the middle of these curious memoirs of mine. Thinking of which, I find myself grinding to a halt again, stuck with Yellow-Handed Fred and Haius and Desmer, Lesmer and Sesmer – until I realize that instead of coming to a clearer understanding of my grandfather’s economic circus, I am on Lesmer’s estate, one evening in late May – a couple of months ago – listening to the trilling of an unusually talented song-thrush. Perched on the top of a tall spruce, he goes through the repertoire of all the other birds he has ever heard, both native and foreign – creating, however, new combinations of his own; not content with mere mimicry, he rattles, croons, wails, whistles, whirrs, twitters, flutes, sighs, chirrups and shouts his way through a complete set of variations on themes provided by the rest of the bird world: like some rather advanced medieval chronicler who, no longer content to record faithfully (if perhaps chaotically, as Auerbach points out) what he saw, heard, thought and smelt, had begun to create personal shapes and entities – thus preparing the way for the greatest miracle in the history of world literature, the advent of the perceptive reader.

And beyond the thrush’s song I hear first of all my grandmother’s silence, and then, in some layer of my memory, the angry racket that would emanate from my mother, Esmerita, when, for some unfathomable reason, the picture she was working on stopped still in its tracks and refused to develop into a work of art, ‘with an inner form that, blast and damn it, ought to correspond to the calm breathing of a mystery, how the hell can anyone create a work of art in this bloody place, with one of you cramming shavings into cardboard boxes (author’s note: my father, Theodisius), another lugging in hordes of grandchildren (Fesmerita, my half-sister) a third bringing a different woman here every month (me, me!), and a fourth (my brother Äsmer) trying to study, to study, for Christ’s sake, how to be a businessman! God’s testicles, how can anyone create anything great and serious with your stupid little faces all around the place? Your kind of reality distorts artistic truth, distorts me, distorts the whole universe. You make me small, you make me a woman; Christ help me, you make me a bleeding mother, do you hear? (Steady, Esmerita, says my father.) Yes, you do, when what I am’ – and at this point my mother doubled up as though struck in the midriff, or as though preparing to leap in the air, rather than merely to finish her sentence – ‘when what I am is something quite different, something princely, royal, imperial, celestial, transcendent, supramundane, superhuman; and this is what you tug at and tear at and drag back here with your eating and your copulating and your sleeping and your grunting and your groaning, this is what you fondle and talk to and look at just as if I were – as if I were flesh and blood! Hell’s bells, you crush me, knock me down, kick me into the ditch, jump on me like a horde of Huns, trample me into the mire, drown me, suffocate me – using your dreary everyday concerns to quell me, to make a slave of me – you tedious torturers, you catspaws of the humdrum, you apostles of falsehood, you forces of spiritual poverty, extinguishers of light, straighteners-out of waves, holders-back of winds, components of the traffic in the streets, pillars of trade, wheels of politics, tillers of the ground, gardeners, weeders, aligners, hedgers and ditchers – Christ, you can’t call this place Hope Lodge, it’s much more like Despair!’ And my mother went back to her studio, and my brother Äsmer sighed, and my father went off to his study – presumably to write down what my mother had said, though I have found no record of this particular occasion in the thick bundle of papers, tied up with string, that bears the inscription Everyday Events Within the Home.

Well, since it seems that I am unable to concentrate either on the reality­ value of dead people (owing to sadness) or on the economic circus founded by Feodisius (owing to lack of interest – one can read about it in the newspapers, anyway), and since I can no longer hear the song-thrush and haven’t the energy to comment on my mother’s long monologue, I might as well immerse myself for a while in Father’s Everyday Events – if that’s all right with me. Here goes, then.

Under the title of Everyday Events Within the Home my father Theodisius has recorded for posterity such contemporary happenings as: meals, morning ablutions, going to bed, arrival of the post, house-cleaning, clothes-washing, washing up, going to the w.c., watering the flowers, cleaning the windows, tidying the rooms, getting dressed, putting on make-up, combing the hair, family quarrels without blows, family quarrels with blows, electric shocks, cooking, morning coffee, arrival of unexpected guests, chance moments of free self-expressions alone and in company, wall-gazing, looking out of the window, amusing or displeasing incidents occasioned by the children – and, among much else, the accidental overturning of a bookcase, which he describes as ‘in one way an unusual event, but one that is perfectly possible in a contemporary home, always assuming that a person weighing almost 100 kilograms, attempting to recover his balance after stumbling, clutches violently at a bookcase which has not been attached to the wall by any of the methods I have described in the section on Bookcases.’

This bundle of papers, dealing with ‘everyday events within the home’, was found in cardboard box no. 5. The same box contained another, even thicker, bundle labelled Everyday Events Outside the Home. In this second compilation my father records journeys by train, omnibus, aeroplane, tram, ship, car, horse-drawn vehicle (‘less common these days’), sailing­ boat, motor-bicycle, pedal bicycle, motor boat; visits to offices, banks and shops; there follow descriptions of a traffic accident, the fall of a man from a fifth-floor window, a street fight, a pocket-picking, a normal cyclist, a normal pedestrian, a normal crossing of the road, an abnormal pedestrian (‘walked with short shuffling steps, stopped, sighed, waved his hands in the air as though chasing off flies, moved on again with short shuffling steps, and disappeared round the corner’), a normal shop­ assistant, a normal customer, a slightly abnormal shop-assistant, a rest on a park bench, unexpected meeting with acquaintance who does not stop to talk, unexpected meeting with acquaintance who stops to talk, facial expressions of 100 persons seen in street – but against this item my father has pencilled the following instruction to himself: ‘Transfer these to separate section entitled Facial Expressions of Contemporary People – come, come, my dear sir, facial expressions are not events!

The same cardboard box, no. 5, also contained a number of literary compositions by my father on the theme Typical Working Day of Contemporary Mankind. In one of these drafts my father, writing as a ‘partly hair-covered creature’, begins with the observation that in his day, at any given moment, half the human species is awake and the other half asleep. This he puts down ‘partly to the spherical shape of the earth and partly to the different jobs done by different people’. According to him, those persons who are sleeping have no conception of those who are awake, and vice versa – except that those who are awake do have the possibility, through researches of various kinds, of studying those who are asleep and making conjectures about the contents and values of their world. ‘Sleeping and waking are completely different modes of life: when I am asleep, I do not understand the person that I am when I am awake. A sleeping person does not undertake researches into the contents and values of the waking state: the sleeping do not run waking-state laboratories in the way that the waking have sleep laboratories. This puts the sleeper at a disadvantage, in that he cannot make use of modern research techniques to study waking behaviour; at most he obtains symbolic glimpses of this behaviour in the course of his dreams, and these cannot be regarded as giving him anything like as clear a perception of waking life as is given of sleeping life by the electronic devices in sleep laboratories, which record the electrical impulses of a sleeper’s brain during the various stages of his sleep. Nor can a sleeping person analyse the experiences of a waking person, in the way that a waking person can analyse the dreams of a sleeper. Freud, when awake, wrote a book called The Interpretation of Dreams; when asleep, however, he did not write a book on The Interpretation of Waking Experience.’

There follows a small collection of random notes, such as: ‘Only very seldom does a sleeper dream that he is in the room in which he physically is: but, generally speaking, a person who is awake cannot, even in a daydream, believe himself to be anywhere but where he actually is.’ And on one slip of paper my father asks: ‘Which is the more intense form of life, waking or sleeping?’

After which, reverting to a more general approach, my father writes (wrote, I should say, before he died): ‘One half of mankind is permanently in a state of blissful unawareness as to what the other half is doing. Half, or at least one-third (find out what proportion of mankind is awake at any given moment, i.e. average ratio of sleepers to wakers.) Blissful unawareness – or at any rate a very vague awareness. When awake a person does not know what he does when he is asleep; when asleep he does not know what he does when he is awake. And yet they say that man is distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom by the possession of consciousness!. Whereas in fact man is apparently never fully conscious of himself, being ignorant at certain times of his waking self, and at certain other times of his sleeping self.’

From these baffling problems my father takes refuge in a discussion of the theory that ‘man’s most important function is to sleep, and that the sleeper makes use of his waking hours to ensure himself the proper requirements for further sleep, namely a well-fed body and a safe bed’.

This theory, which turns upside-down the accepted idea as to the purposes and desirable achievements of waking life, is closely related to the theory that the egg produces cocks and hens purely in order that further eggs shall be produced; or, in more general terms, that genes produce new individuals so that these shall produce more genes. The waking, conscious person is in fact only a means of ensuring sleep and thus, on a genetic level, the continuation of life. A splendid theory in its way! But rather frightening! Am I at this moment, as a waking person, a mere bubble of consciousness issuing from the depths of a stream of genes and dreams, a bubble that goes with the current wherever it flows, and can do nothing more than be aware of the landscape as it glides past, and of the power and unfathomability of the stream? Theo, Theo, at this rate you will never even get started on your description of the normal everyday life of contemporary man; go back to the fork and make that your fixed point of reference; put that fork into the hand of some normal human being and start from these – but where are you going to find a human being so normal that a description of his everyday life can serve as a description of the normal everyday life of the whole of contemporary mankind? Lesmer, my second wife’s brother, the bull-tamer? Or my second wife Esmerita herself? Or my brother Ribodisius? Or me? My brother Gabodisius? Some Japanese person? An Algerian? A Kenyan? My second wife’s lover, Red-Bearded Fred? Someone from Chicago, from Porvoo, from Cairo? A politician, a civil servant, a workman? Or one from each nation and one from each social class? Young or short? Clever or stupid? Or one of each kind, in pairs, male and female, making me a kind of Noah, saving part of contemporary mankind for the future. A representative part? And am I to describe their day as they themselves see it, or with the detachment of an outside observer? And am I outside? There is a very ancient Arabian theory that the whole of mankind is really just one person, who changes his form and moves from place to place with such incredible rapidity that he thinks he is many.’ – (Materials for a compilation by Theodisius Nameless, cardboard box no. 5. But I have already mentioned which box these papers were in. Why did I mention it at all, I wonder? In the interests of truth.)

What kind of a world did my father live in, and what kind of a world do I live in myself? Despite my present lack of interest, I cannot help directing my attention to the fact that our circus has bought a New York skyscraper – and the world’s second highest skyscraper at that. At least, that’s what it says in Bilbao. I would never have found out about this if it hadn’t come out in the interview with Uncle Ribodisius. I hadn’t previously known that the most powerful company in our circus was called Inter Ltd. It’s ages since I paid much attention to our local newspapers. And I only bought that copy of Bilbao because someone had told me it contained a review of a book on the philosophical, religious and artistic aspects of truth.

In this interview Uncle Ribodisius was pressed to explain why Inter Ltd., through its Kuwait subsidiary, had helped B.P. and Esso to evade an oil blockade of Rhodesia by exporting B.P. and Esso oil in the name of the said Kuwait company, as a result of which somebody called Sith or Schmidt had been enabled to remain in power. Had a multi-national corporation no conscience, my uncle Ribodisius was asked. ‘It has many,’ he seems to have replied.

Some time I shall have to ask Uncle Ribodisius to explain the workings of the circus, and its organization, in more detail: this circus, which provides my sustenance, seems to be a much more powerful entity than I, a lost wanderer in intellectual forests, had realized. But I don’t expect I shall find it any more interesting, even when it has been explained.

I also learnt from this issue of Bilbao that our circus has shares in an energy company that owns five nuclear power stations and is believed to export the raw materials required for the manufacture of atomic weapons to every country in the world.

Perhaps, after all, I shan’t need to question Uncle Ribodisius at all. In essence, the principle upon which the circus operates seems to be the one I remember describing somewhere near the beginning of these memoirs – only I didn’t know, then, that Ribodisius had already left the selling of clocks and toys far behind him, and that in any case the activities of the circus were on a far larger scale than that.

How often, I wonder, do people have an entirely false impression of the scale of what is happening around them? Essentially – although on a larger scale than I had imagined – Ribodisius (and Äsmer!) – here, there, somewhere – are simply continuing to trade in all the things that I try to depict or create in my pictures, and to explain in my philosophical treatise. Only one must bear in mind that the gnat has turned out to be a camel. And that the same may hold good for the world of Red-Bearded Fred (now Minister for Foreign Affairs), possibly even for the world represented by my mother’s brother Sesmer, the clergyman. It may be true, too, of many other things which, in these memoirs of mine, I have unknowingly presented as small and insignificant.

Even the sun, shining up there beyond the trees, just above my parents’ old home, looks no bigger than a dinner-plate.

 

Translated by David Barrett                                

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