On the Edge of Reason
1. Human Folly
At night, when I hold conversations with myself, I cannot logically justify my constant preoccupation with human folly.
Whether human folly is the work of God or not, it does not diminish in practice. Centuries often elapse before one human folly gives place to another, but, like the light of an extinguished star, folly has never failed to reach its destination. The mission of folly, to all appearances, is universal. Folly is a celestial force, like gravitation or light or water. Folly is much enamored of itself, and its self-love is unlimited. Folly is clad in distinctions and professions, titles and ranks. Folly is decorated with gold chain like a Lord Mayor. It rattles spurs and waves censers. Folly wears a top hat on its highly learned head, and this top-hatted folly is a form I have studied fairly closely. Indeed, I have had both the honor and the good fortune to spend my whole humble, insignificant life as a modest member of the middle class, so modest as to be almost invisible, among top-hatted people.
Our domestic, autochthonous, so to speak national and racial top-hatted man, homo cylindriacus, who, as a rule, is at the head of some man-established institution, thinks of himself, in the glamour of his civic dignity, as follows: On behalf of the seven thousand doctors of all sorts, I stand at the head of my own branch of learning as its most outstanding representative, the most worthy of respect. Every word I have uttered up to this day has been right and proper in my highly learned dissertations, printed by our honorable academy. I am the chairman of twenty-three societies. In fact, the fairy guarding the cradle of every newborn infant predicted that I should be a patron and lawyer, honorary chairman and president, initiator, ideologist, funeral orator and speaker at unveiling ceremonies, and eventually have a bronze statue of myself erected in one of our parks. In the shadow of my top hat I have enjoyed the dignity of one whose name appears in our *Who’s Who *followed by four full lines of the titles and subtitles of my civil-service functions. I am a man who, on principle, has lived my orderly and honorable life within my income, without debts, without moral, civic, or other stain, without political suspicion, as an irreproachable patriot, as open as a tradesman’s books, accessible for inspection at any time, polite, composed, clear, helpful, a model both to myself and to my fellow citizens, a model citizen and toiler, a good husband who has never slept with anybody except his own wife, whom he promptly, during the first night of a happy marriage, made the mother of a future learned doctor and future chairman or future wearer of a top hat, for the Lord commanded: Be born, learned doctors, and beget future learned doctors, for that is why the universe was created, i.e., that we, wearers of top hats, might multiply.
Human intelligence today is but nervous restlessness, or rather neurasthenic fussing amid the postdiluvian conditions of reality. We neurotic individuals are surrounded by dullards, landlords, owners of soda-water factories, honorable citizens and petit-bourgeois folk wearing bowlers and felt hats as they attend one another’s funerals. Our top-hatted man is a model patriot, a member of the central committee of such and such a party, a city alderman, a town councilor, a factory owner, a benefactor and public worker who gives expression to his clever ideas in his party organ. His speech is allegorical. He protests publicly against motor transportation, yet lacks the true citizen’s courage to revolt against military parades. After the whole globe has been in flames, after who-knows-how-many-dozen European cities have been devastated in the thunderstorm that has shaken Europe like an old piece of torn newspaper, and after the whole of Asia has been plunged into bloodshed, plaque, fire, ruin, and catastrophe like a blasted stone-quarry, our *homo cylindriacus *protests against the use of ‘‘motor transport.’’
In the revolt against ‘‘motor transport,’’ hearing the walls of his own house crack, the roof over his head shake, and the glasses in the dining-room cupboard rattle, our top-hatted man protests against contemporary reality on chivalrous grounds: he lives within the golden frame of an antiquated oleograph in which armored knights fight dragons in tournaments.
Enter into such a gold-framed outlook on life as that, try to explain to this man that his bourgeois logic has frail foundations, and what would he tell you in his turn? Either that you are morally corrupt, or someone working for a foreign power with the ask of undermining our civilization, or, at best, that you are not right in your head.
For many years I lived in this stinking menagerie of a world, practically deaf and dumb, hidden and withdrawn into myself like a snail, a perfect mollusk. For years on end I contemplated human folly, vaguely realizing how a strange, obscure inner force appears behind various human actions, obstructing the individual in every movement, preventing people from living a full and straightforward life, a dangerous force poisoning and corroding them. This daily spectacle of human folly, as I saw it, was a natural phenomenon: ‘‘Man stood up on his hind legs, starred to walk like a biped, and folly trailed behind him like a shadow. Folly, the sister of darkness, would have the biped return again to his quadruped relatives in the natural world. Thus folly prevent man from soaring upward in the direction of the stars, just as gravitation prevents him from flying.’’
In the reality, I liked people. Indeed, I forgave them. I admired man’s abilities, and when human folly made its appearance and diverted some wonderful achievement of man’s will or enthusiasm to itself, dragging it in the mud, soiling it with filthy language, I interpreted the collapse of man’s noble endeavor quite naturally, in well-meaning and conciliatory fashion: ‘‘If birds fall down exhausted and do not fly forever, why should human beings incessantly worry about their own dignity?’’ Or: ‘‘The individual who wants to elevate himself above his fellow citizens is like a wheel on a muddy road: it gets on, but it also gets dirty.’’
Human folly is an obscure force. It is the chaotic force of the primeval matter within us that human beings have not yet mastered but that they will, nevertheless, undoubtedly subdue eventually, and in this lies the meaning of human progress: the level of the different civilizations is in reverse proportion to the extent of human folly.
Up to the age of fifty-two I lived the dull and monotonous life of an average bourgeois, owning a carriage and wearing a top hat. I lived the life of an orderly good-for-nothing among a whole crowd of neat, gray good-for-nothings. Bored by the so-called performance of my own futile trifling duties, I went for thirty-five-hundred afternoon walks as far as the brickkiln or the cottage in the park on the outskirts of the city. I had quiet and unutterably monotonous intercourse with my lawful wife, and we had three girls, three stupid geese. I had a fairly respectable income as legal adviser to an industrial organization and to Domacinski’s enterprises and cartels. In brief: as regards myself and my life, my private as well as my public one, there was nothing to differentiate them from the ordinary, gray and impersonal lives adopted by thousands and thousands of bourgeois good-for-nothings all over our beloved country and traceable in all the innumerable patriotic civilizations on our planet.
I inherited from one of my distant relatives a very nice vineyard with a wooden summer cottage. I lived a dull family life with my wife, the daughter of a mediocre druggist from a provincial town who ruined the digestion of a whole generation with his herb tea but who, from the profits on that tea, had built three three-storied houses in our town. I myself lived in a beautiful, sunny, very respectable apartment with a balcony in one of those three-stories houses built on the proceeds of the digestive tea. The house was my own property because the druggist had given it to me as a token of his special affection. I was on visiting terms with some senior officials of the civil service who were my wife’s relatives. Living like a householder and civil servant, I mixed with civil servants and householders of the same type-—|never, of course, meddling in local vulgar politics. Devoid of any particular passions, I listened to other people talking about wars, fighting, adventures, big plans, and, generally, about big things and events. And so I spent my life in the main listening to other people, in smoking, and in sleeping till nine o’clock on Sundays and half-past seven on weekdays: nine hours at least to rest my nerves and ensure a good and quiet digestion.
For many years I listened to talk about painting because my wife had been a student of art for three years. No one knows why, for she had practically no talent for painting. Still, she had a liking for it, visited art exhibition and bought paintings, and painters, in return, honored my house with their visits. So there were long discussions in our house about painting in general, about individual paintings and their sale, and, sporadically, about the art of painting as such. Also, there was much talk about music, as it was discovered that my elder daughter Agnes had a beautiful mezzo-soprano voice and my wife pushed her on to the conservatory. While Agnes was studying singing, preparing for the great career of a coloratura, everybody in the house talked about opera, concerts, art. As my wife was, considering our limited and backward circumstances, a cultured and highly refined soul, and as I was in my turn born into this world a naively hospitable man, my house was always crowded with people. I liked guests and derived pleasure from my sociability, always being prepared to do other people some service. As a man, so it seemed to me, I was in the main respected and liked more or less by everybody.
In our small town there was gossip and slander on all sides, as in all backwaters that want to play the role of capital cities, straining themselves beyond their capacities. But, as far as I could gather until I was fifty-two, no one ever heard a disparaging or malicious statement about me. I was, in fact, quite nameless and invisible, so discreet that nobody ever took any notice of my existence. Nobody ever said that I had stolen anything from anybody: taken a silver spoon or robbed a cupboard. Nobody could allege that I had even eaten anything that belonged to anyone else, that I had pushed my way to a better or more profitable post at somebody else’s expense. In the ridiculous whirl of our local folly, nobody ever smeared my name. as for that venereal disease that I contracted in first youth, hardly anybody knew about it. Except for that, there was nothing special in my early life. Even if this shameful experience had been known, it would have been a rather mild thing these days to launch against a popular and more or less respected citizen who wears a top hat, holds a prominent position, has a rich wife, possesses several houses in the main streets, has his own summer residence, and his own current accounts with solid banks in the center of town. Only later, after the storm broke around me and overnight I became the talk of the town, did I learn that I was a diseased pervert who had infected his own wife, that I was a cuckold, that my wife had had a lover for seven years, that I was a lecher, as I myself had admitted, and that even my own children were not mine. All this I heard after thirty years’ silence about me. I appeared to be a completely different person from the individual conceived both by myself and by my closest friends throughout my life. By the time I began soberly to find out what had been happening to me, I saw in the mirror a decrepit old man with pouches under his eyes and bad teeth, a ridiculously protruding stomach, a thick neck and a double chin, the sad features of a bald, fat, dull, lazy man with a child’s wooden sword in his hand, idiotically convinced that the fragile splinter was a rapier of pure moral determination that could be used to defend the national flag and honor against an entire pretty, backward, and ridiculous civilization.
After a short period in the civil service, when I resigned as *chef de cabinet *to a feeble-minded man under a confused elective government and took the job of legal adviser to various industrial concerns, basin factories, and sawmills, I spent my whole life preoccupied with other people’s worries, splitting my not particularly talented or well-organized head over other people’s problems. I loved the people about me persistently and selflessly, liked a genuine Samaritan, and, explaining my failures or unpleasant experiences with people in the light of a lasting sympathy for those who suffer, I derived comfort and compensation from a mild, practically Christian well-meaningness. If somebody cheated me into signing a bill of exchange, on principle I would never get angry; moreover, I never refused to sign another bill for such a scoundrel; I could always find some good, even praiseworthy feature of that particular person as an excuse to prove that my experience with the promissory note had betrayed only ‘‘a moment of weakness.’’ ‘‘People are like that,’’ I used to say, silently reconciling myself to my fundamental idea of charity-—|that one should love people because they are more foolish than wicked. I believed somewhere deep down in myself that no one has-—|over the long centuries of human experience-—|ever discovered a remedy for human folly, and that it will still remain as it is today, i.e., semihuman and semifoolish, for a good long time in the confusion around and within us.
Observing people with intense curiosity, I have often notice how they slander one another out of an incomprehensible but profound need as strong in man as the force of gravity: an obscure force dragging him downward to the earth, into the mud. People persecute one another and feel themselves persecuted by actions, by looks, by speech. They sniff at each other distrustfully, like beasts. In fact, people are only two-legged animals. They steal one another’s ideas and money, as monkeys in the jungle steal nuts from one another, and when they have had enough of stealing and belching over their foods, they go off, humming, waltzing, pissing in the underground pissoirs of their filthy nightclubs where, from a distance, one can vaguely hear the strumming of the orchestra, as if to suggest: everything is all right with us, we have been satisfied through other people’s suffering, everybody is kind to us, we are drunk, praise be to God.
Warm flesh wrapped in cloth and isolated from nature is set up on its hind legs in church, in the courtroom, on the stage, in the pulpit, in the chair, in pissoirs, in inns, in barracks. This warm flesh is dressed according to the mysterious rules of a great variety of historical costumes, classified according to sacrosanct castes, forced into a social mold and welded by the infernal machine of the state. The wretched human flesh is completely lost in the endless stream of unsolved problems; it cannot find a way out of the confusion and, separated into individuals, it is exclusively aware of its own flesh, forgetting the similar fleshiness of its fleshy neighbor. And so, from fear and foolishness, each bites the other’s throat, turned into animals by fright and terrified in face of the dark. People are filled by their upbringing with superstitions, prejudices, and lies as if stuffed with straw. People play roles like puppets, as if wound up by other people, to an alien music that is absolutely incomprehensible and unintelligible to them. People revolve in the mindless circle of the so-called social round. Like riders on a genuine merry-go-round on the fairground, these riders on the wooden horses of social prejudice are convinced that they are galloping at an incredible speed within the closed circle of ‘‘success.’’ When, from time to time, such a merry-go-round breaks down and the poor perplexed riders unexpectedly find themselves off the track, the infuriated careerists fail to adjust themselves to a life without a wooden horse. I have not yet had an opportunity to meet a single so-called clever and normal man bold enough to live his life on his own, without his business correspondence, without his office with its spittoon and seal; in brief, without prejudices and without faith in wooden gods. Army officers after lost wars, without horses and swearing; bankrupt bankers without bank credits; singers without voices; dismissed officials, rejected politicians, all those harlequins from the fairground, like shipwrecked people after a flood, float down the stream of prejudices to rubbish dumps, dismissing from their minds the essence of their human nature. These straw puppets believe that the carnival had a tragic end only because the wind had blown away their clownish caps. Had this, by chance, occurred to other maskers, it would have been a laughing matter for them. People always rejoice at other people’s disasters, forgetting that other people’s trouble is their own. In accordance with the classical dictum that all human weakness are in fact elements of the secret humanity that makes man a miserable creature worthy of sympathy, I have always had the weakness of sympathizing with everything that is human.
People deceive one another, tell lies to one’s face, and are duped by flattery and transparently insincere courtship. To them this all honestly seems incomparably bolder than telling the naked truth. People are egocentric, for they are unsatisfied and afraid of hunger; they are ill-humored because they have been humiliated and hurt; they are unfair, of course, but other people in their turn are not fair to them; they are unhappy, scarred, embittered, in rags; they snore underneath smelly feather quilts, envying each other on accounts of a cup of coffee, a clean pillowcase, a new bicycle, fussing about every trifle like jackdaws on a branch, squabbling — dialectically, of course — as to which of them, now devouring the carrion of an unknown hero, has the priority to treat himself to the man’s eye.
Excerpt from ON THE EDGE OF REASON, by Miroslav Krleza, translated by Zora Depolo, copyright ©1938 by Miroslav Krleza. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp