We discover ourselves as we interact with others. Through friendships our true selves find the courage to emerge. Through bitter feuds we discover our capacity for conflict, or lack of capacity. Through struggle we define our strength, or — to our dismay — learn of our weakness.
In Enno’s case, I found all of this and more, for it was Enno who gave me the courage to let my true self find release. Only later did I recognize what the game we had played would cost me.
Had I once been strong? Or did I only believe myself so? Did I once possess the light of life? Or was I only deceived by flashes from illusory sparks on the retina of my mind’s eye?
Magenta tapestries, mauve curtains, lace bouquets and sprigs of baby’s breath, honeysuckle and sweet nothings splashed across memory’s mantle. I weep alone now, frightened by what will never be.
The truth never owns itself, but rather, gives itself away. That is to say, we do not possess truth. We only encounter it.
Even so, there is nothing certain, even in the most profound revelations, for is it not true that yesterday’s experience is soon but a dream. Gone, like a mist… and verifications escape us. The enigma of time swallowing itself like the dragon its horny tail.
So you see, he has fallen prey to doubt. (Of course I am speaking of myself here. I am a writer, and it is a habit of ours to speak in third person as if we are speaking of other people.)
No, that’s not entirely true, though in large measure it is to the universal in all of us that one hopes to appeal. Certainly it was the universal in me that Enno touched. That is, the universal sense of the tragic. Thus we returned together to his apartment and poured ourselves drinks while dashing all hope against the unpalatable night.
He lived alone at that time, in the days before his fame. How could I have known what lay ahead of us then. We tape our hopes to the wall, but we hardly imagine the good thing will come. Years go by and we are left with only the dust taste, the stench of stagnant waters in the cellar of our souls. We conceal our tears, but to no avail. We find little comfort in this solitary stance.
So it is we find our way back to the society of men. We rub shoulders, make small talk, pay attention occasionally, repeat a joke or two and give the appearance of feeling at home in this world, their world, a world not our own.
Then we meet someone rare, someone complete and full of years, who has lived a life not unlike our own, but in a different span of time. We meet in a chance encounter that has the earmarks of the Providential. We open our hearts and minds and find a resonance so complete it seems to defy probability and chance. Like two long lost friends finding themselves in an alien land, we rejoiced. How strange it seems now, for he alone was the immigrant.
(How foreign I have always felt myself from that which surrounds me, suffocates and imprisons me.)
Our first affinity was books. “When I was a young man in Poland,” Enno repeatedly told me, “I spent all my waking hours in the library.”
We were both lovers of books, European authors best we both agreed. Americans had clever writers, but few great minds. The American experience is a corrupting experience, teaching us to value only the surface of things, causing us to miss the substance of things themselves. Whether it be art or literature, even music, Americans seem incapable of touching anything remotely passionate in the human breast. Perhaps it is because for most it has always been too easy.
He had come through the war and that, more than anything, sets one apart from most of the American experience. Pop psychology has little to say to survivors of the war experience. He had been a survivor of one of man’s greatest invented nightmares. And in 1949 he gained his passage to New York City, freedom’s shores.
“No one will believe the truth. So we do not talk about the truth any more.” He said this many times, too. “People prefer fictions. Fictions require no commitment. Fictions require no risk. Truth is a risk. Truth demands a stance.” Thus was his posture fixed, in an attitude of provocation.
Life is essentially tragic, he was fond of saying. I did not accept this thesis at the time, that is, in the beginning, but events persuaded me and in the end I was forced to bow to his undeniable conclusion.
“What took you so long?” he asked me when I finally came around. The forked query found its mark and perforated the cloak which served as my last refuge from myself. For you see, it was from myself that I was fleeing. And in Enno, the mirror would not go away. How strange the progression as I was drawn in, at first magnetized, then bewildered and, at the end, humiliated and shamed. It’s funny how we never understand the real meaning of our lives until it is too late to do us any good.
One wonders…. I wonder, if our hatred of things in others is chiefly due to our fear of discovering them in ourselves? I cite weakness here. When I am not guarding myself I find myself intolerant of weakness in others. Stupidity, too. I hate stupidity. Do I fear being considered stupid?
It’s not an obsession, but maybe I fear I am lazy as well. I won’t allow myself the luxury of rest and diversion. We live but once and have but one opportunity to leave our mark in time.
I remember when I learned that Marco Polo was not the first to find a road to China. His name has been preserved only because he had the ill luck of being forced to share a prison cell with a writer. Writers love good stories. It gives them something worthwhile to practice their craft on. This was how Enno had impressed himself upon me. He would be the object of my art.
Immortality was a recurrent theme in our talks. He claimed that the true immortals were those who most fully understood and embraced the futility of their lives and their work.
But it is not so much the quest for life as the fear of death — the void and Nothingness — that drives us. Anything, anything to escape the solitariness of our passage through time toward the predetermined end.
He questioned me about my own work, but I couldn’t help feeling my answers did not interest him.
This was only natural, of course. He existed in a world of his own. I frequented that world, sought to experience it, capture it, record, it, but could not expect him to have the same interest in mine.
When I expressed interest in his stories, his experiences, he clucked and trilled like a bird, twittering with delight. If, because of some temporary melancholy, I were somewhat less enthusiastic about hearing his autobiographical discourse, he clammed up, even turned on me, accusing me of hating him.
“I am not interesting enough for you, eh?” he said bitterly. My protests would finally win out.
The game — we both knew it to be as such — required two players. His role was to act insulted, mine to abase myself. It’s a curious thing, these interpersonal dynamics. The eagerness with which I seek the worm position, prostrate, ashamed… And for what reward? The friendships it provides, I suppose.
Was it love or fear, however, that brought me here to seek Enno’s company? It would have been easy to say love, my concern for a crusty old man who had no one else save me.
But the truth, always less comforting when faced honestly, remains quite otherwise. Was it not loneliness that compelled me? In my selfishness I needed a companion, lest my earthly sojourn be a tad bit too solitary.
Depressing above all is this: the feeling of futility associated with all my efforts to achieve something worthwhile. Is my labor in vain?
Now seated on the emerging threshold of a new year, I see the expanse of time uncoiling before me and I ask myself, What? Which? How do I determine what is worthwhile and what is futile? Is it for love or money that we pour ourselves out?
At certain times our conversations gave me the feeling that I was standing poised on the rim of a mammoth crater, a terrible cavern of the soul that had been left vacant through some diabolical and catastrophic event in a former era of this man’s life. He gave me glimpses of it, in the way he held his head, the compressed line of his mouth, in his words, his mannerisms, his stillness.
Then there were the glimpses when the shutter of his eye flashed horizontally and I saw, with clarity, but for an instant, the terrain of his heart, the whole devastated landscape, my vantage point being the rim of this terrible hollow crater, immensely deep, wide.
I would never have asked him to speak of it, but it was evident the time had come when he raised the matter himself. Like all other topics we examined, he would begin falteringly at first, backing into it by accusing me of not being interested in yet another tale of his, chiding, almost childishly, my disinterest. When at last I would concede, he would put me off further still, until I was torn between begging and giving up. Crazymaker he.
Now here it was. He would tell of the scar which time had never healed. He would speak of it plainly. He would tell the story that had never been told. Together we would examine his sorrow.
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Originally published at https://ennyman.com.