THE FACE OF AN ENEMY
from Things That Happen While Reading Rilke
After a day
of storm and tempest I’m impatient to get
out of the house. ‘Une atmosphère
obscure enveloppe la
ville.’ A suffocating cumulus from the
with rims of hellfire red, hangs overhead. The only electricity is in
sheet-lightning, so I can’t even read a book. The dark
outside finally breaks into a downpour. The end of the world
comes to mind.
The bronze statues of angels covered with snails radiate a silver light. I pause at the crumbling vaults of the unremembered which are being refurbished to accommodate the newly dead, whose families are willing to pay. What happens to the dug up bones? Rilke, in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, answers. ‘The earth, that poor debris of a vase which remembers that it once was clay.’
As I round the corner to the Church a tall automat of a man walks into me. His boot catches the little toe of my right foot. He charges on, emitting a word which sounds German. ‘Offhands.’ Aufheben. Someone has got in my way. Stamp him out. I must be almost half his height, and being brushed off without an apology makes me feel even smaller. I’m not sure I could bear him leaning over me and saying, ‘Are you all right?’ It occurs to me that maybe he was too embarrassed to think up what to say in the circumstances, a joke or a word of consolation to put our collision down to pure accident, neither of us responsible. No harm done. But all he could manage was to curse himself for lack of the social graces, or maybe me for confirming it.
I think, though, I deserve praise for not yelping like a dog, or throwing myself on the ground like a football player faking a trip. Either/or, it was too late. I content myself with hopping on one leg and shaking my fist. Not that it makes any difference. The German’s receding figure doesn’t look back. Consequences are none of his business. There is no such thing as an accident waiting to happen. The inevitable is achieved by the confluence of coincidences arising from carelessness, or indifference to other persons. It happens by a deeper design. You don’t arrive at an event, but with it.
For instance, a broken toe excruciates for a few seconds, throbs for a minute and then goes dead. What led to it happens in a flash. Vivid, but too soon to be painful. Over almost before it begins. Retelling drags it out, like the footage of a film shot in slow motion. Not for Rilke’s Malte. He knew an existential fact is ‘an event under description’, and you either re-enact it speeded up to real time like a keystone cop short, or keep it under your hat, not to pretend it didn’t happen but to put it in the past. That’s why he abandoned his diary and let it grow into snippets of history, recaptured as though he was there.
The Guardian Angel of Rilke’s Duino Elegies guided him. She was outside time, and could put things in an eternal perspective. I prefer to dwell on immediate events, and describe them fact by fact as they occur to me. The devil is in the detail, or maybe the devil is the detail. Either way I’m its servant, for better or worse. My Angel is dark. Goebbels wrote in his diary, just before poisoning his six children and shooting himself, ‘This was the Angel of History. We felt its wings flutter in the room. What we have waited for anxiously has arrived’.
I can still feel the roughness of the maladroit’s clothing as he brushed my shoulder, and sense its distinctive smell, not offensive, probably starch. I saw enough of him to satisfy me that he is an incidental tourist escaped from the cruise ship parked like a floating prison in the harbour, and registered in
The footwear was a disappointment. Trainers not jackboots. But his weight was sufficient to crush my moccasins. A fat German, I decide, inside a thin German, for he was as thin as a rake. I’m glad he didn’t say sorry. As a victim I don’t like to be patronised. I prefer pure hate on both sides. I calculate it’s sixty-five years since the Nazis blew up the port. He would have been a Hitler toddler then.
I put a paper hanky inside my shoe so I can walk. I haven’t far to go. And I wonder about his curse, ‘Offhands’. It could have been the Danish Ophaeve. In Kierkegaard’s Repetitions, it means the same as Aufheben, stamp out, and comes with a philosophic footnote. Hegel used it when the thesis and anti-thesis cancelled one another out. Annul the argument. It’s going nowhere. So the man could be a giant Dane like Kierkegaard’s father, and possibly deaf and dumb and nearly half-blind to boot. Whether that’s the case or not, I could be accused of allowing my prejudices as a war-baby to rule my judgement (‘No good German except a dead one’, my mother used to say). Or it could be said it was a misunderstanding when the balance of my body was precarious.
Second thoughts are not accidental. Neither are misreadings. I never thought of any of the characters in Malte Laurids Brigge as Danish. It isn’t specifically mentioned. Except that Sten, the Chamberlain’s valet, was a man of
Rilke himself, maybe inspired by Malte, his own creation, became a de luxe vagrant after the Great War, travelling between Europe and