KR OnlineNonfiction

Symptoms

From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Winter 1981, Vol. III, No.1

Dreams and Resentments
Cello and bassoon. Why do I not like the cello? I can even say I hate it. It is a respectable instrument, sensitive, dignified, profound, manly, grave. It is the instrument of full self-achievement in life. It dominates others and itself to such an extent that it can afford to become suave, melodious, calm, and mild. All this follows, it would seem, from its restrained force. Actually, it is nothing of the kind. For what will happen to all this rounded and controlled manliness in case of real need? How does a cello react when in danger? Can a cello get angry? Who has ever seen an unleashed, raging cello? In such situations, its impotence is ridiculous. True, its polished and oily tone lashes about pathetically, grievously, but it remains pitiable and powerless. A cello is incapable of becoming crazy, heroic, or violent. In fact, it is incapable of humor, too. The cello’s comical range does not go beyond the sociable anecdote, vapid, dull, conformist. The cello has sentimental elegance, is a mature and experienced Don Juan, but without substance; the cello is a prevaricating instrument. Nor is it mendacious out of purposeful wickedness, lying has merely turned into its second nature; lying is its way of being sociable. The cello simulates what other instruments are. Take the bassoon. True enough, the bassoon is boorish, inexperienced, clumsy, stumpy, abrupt; it does not slither around with the false and benevolent smile of the cello, it has none of the noble-syrupy optimism, or the profound-ostentatious suffering of its cousin. On the other hand, it is sincere and straightforward, humorous and unaffected, fair-minded and chivalrously valiant, perhaps a little narrow-minded (none of the broad worldly horizon of the cello), but it is genuine. It may be full of bias and oddities, like an elderly bachelor, but it compensates for this with deep love and generosity (hidden, but real) for its fellow human beings. Hardworking in its way, reserved and simultaneously impulsive, by turns subdued and then boisterous, modest, yet proud; there is one you can rely on when in need. It has courage and knows what duty is. The cello, under a noble and benevolent mask, is sly and treacherous. It is the bassoon, not the cello, that has character.

 

Observations about Tolerance and Guilt,
Happiness and Death

One generalization. We should behave very amicably towards existence. Existence in general, but ours in particular. Our existence is a younger, frailer friend who must be protected. Any carelessness or brutality towards it is deplorable, sometimes outright criminal. Towards existence we should show affection, solicitude, attachment; we should give proof of permanent care and attention. We should behave towards it in a loyal, sincere, and chivalrous manner. At the same time, naturally, we must never forget that it won’t do to identify with your existence, that it is a friend but just that, a friend, one of the best, sometimes the best, but never the only reliable one, and certainly not our chief purpose. Let nobody come along and suggest I should sacrifice myself to my own existence. Conversely, in great peril, one has to be firm enough to sacrifice one’s own existence: for oneself. It goes without saying that such extreme measures must be carefully pondered and resorted to only when there is absolutely no other way out. Existence has then an auxiliary, and subservient, role. It is an instrument: one that becomes musical, harmoniously tuned in the great orchestration of Creation, as Haydn has taught us.

One illustration. Among the happiest people in the world I count the makers of heavy quilts. The whole day long they can sit inside shopwindows or in the vicinity of drapes and carpets; you see them sprawling on beds, basking in silks and leisurely softness. They seem invulnerable and calm. They never put on boots unless they go out; it is impossible they should ever be cold or be otherwise worried by foul weather. Prone, they prattle; their hands effect a light, mechanical work. Everybody knows how soothing it is to lie in a clean bed, resting and convalescing after a light, transitory illness: this is an illustration of happiness. You will read, speak, take a little light and carefully chosen food, you will be tidy and calm. This state is not produced at whim: a healthy man lying in his bed feigning illness will be agitated, fretful; soon he will rumple sheets, pillow, and blanket. He will run to answer the phone, will often climb out of bed for other reasons, his conscience will bother him, finally he will fall seriously ill. Happiness is not an artifact. Its formula is: invulnerable coziness plus natural duty. Of all crafts and occupations, professional quilt-making may be the only one to match this ideal.

Against intolerance. Of late, many troubles and discontents may be explained as fierce hatred of the Absurd. Far from having discovered the Absurd, our century merely discovered a hatred of it, something hardly known in the past. Writers and columnists tremble with fear when faced with it, but never cease their provocative insults and mockeries; they pursue it tenaciously and uncover it in the most hidden
corners. Why so much intolerance? Even its most desperate detractors admit that the Absurd is part of human nature. Where is the Baroque mansuetude, where the Romantic humor which used to assure our leisurely coexistence? Erasmus would discover absurdity and tap it patronizingly on the shoulders. But roused, ever again wickedly hunted, the Absurd is pushed to extreme actions. Any species will defend its claim to existence. Stubborn hatred lacks grace. Let us be milder and more indifferent to the Absurd, let us not envy its petty prerogatives. We can tame it again: the harmony of worlds needs it.

A theoretical compromise. Bitter medicine often has a sweet coating. Sarcasm is a bitter coating around a bitter pill so that the latter should seem, by contrast, less bitter. Your mordant practitioner is like an ugly fellow wearing a horrible mask. The overbiddings of evil—sarcasm, cynicism, the grotesque, poetic mendacity, and the like—differ in their purposes; we can include them in different categories although in most respects they are similar, and, anyway, we deem them all as examples of the basic cunning of evil which reckons it can thwart moral vigilance by disguising itself as itself. But a different interpretation could also be suggested: it may be that evil considers itself the more attractive, the worse it is. That is why it will disguise itself as something still worse: we must not recognize it as simple evil. In cynicism and the
grotesque we detect evil’s inferiority complex.

Insisting. There are many things I can forgive, but not good intentions. When somebody does not try to be good, I can understand and forgive him. When he tries to be good and fails, he is beyond forgiveness.

Briefly, in praise of lying. It is said that relations between people are ruled by the incommunicable. “Ruled” is apt: it suggests an absolute monarch dispensing laws and commandments, who is not really capable of enforcing them absolutely, of verifying compliance with all provisions in each separate case. There are still many opportunities for occasional, if not systematic, evasion. This king of Incommunicado is, after all, human: vigilant, not ubiquitous. It’s easy to imagine that to achieve fraudulently some genuine communication you need experience and practice. Of course, what we are talking about is not to make yourself understood (this monotonous and unceasing exercise had been the cause of communication breakdown to begin with) but rather to understand somebody else. And if the purpose is to understand something or somebody alien, then the exercise chosen should be as difficult and radical as possible: for he who proves able to run ten stadia shall certainly be thought fit to run three stadia. But he who understands Vice itself, Evil itself, will he not be able to understand the mere otherness of his neighbor? So if we want to communicate, if we want to be altruists, we must, as a first exercise, praise vices and sins, find their good sides and exalt them.

Now consider lying. How many wonderful qualities are required from the man who would be a true liar! He must be good and kind: what is lying but a desire to see a better and more beautiful world than the scruffy, potholed dump in which one lives? He must be adroit and moderate, or else who will lend him credence? He must be like a poet, an architect, or a musical composer, or else how will he be able to design this arbitrary, fiercely new edifice over which he has sole responsibility and which is called a lie? Let us next recall the boldness of the liar: like the adventurer or the pioneer, he will risk exposure or disqualification at every step. Then recall how firm and tenacious the liar is in hiding the truth inside himself; he shelters and cradles it like a priceless treasure, which only a few eyes are worthy to behold.

Such is, in outline, the rampart of high qualities erected around the hard core of vice; sin is a magnet for the virtues, uses as auxiliaries the good qualities that it could not survive without. Evil is heavily indebted to goodness. Alas, it is so embarrassing sometimes to cash in your IOUs!

A favorite landscape. How I love the beginning of spring! Am I therefore a sentimental lyrical slob? Earliest spring is a season of death. Snow has melted away, except for some shameful dirty remnants in nooks and corners, and the earth again appears black, barren, and stripped of hope; at most, here and there, a glimpse of yellowish, senile, tired tufts of grass. Even the mud is dead. The trees are stark naked. In the clear air, against an indifferent, remote, blue sky, their branches stand black, cold, relentlessly precise. Some taciturn pedant has traced their every detail. The sky is blue, round, and perfect. The sun’s grin carries fresh and vivid menace, that of a ferocious young tyrant. Verdure, little birds, and insects have not yet dared to emerge. The wind is light and timorous, the clouds do not venture sudden noisy movements. Nature pauses, glittering and cruel, for a short moment before falling
prey to rhythms of irrational tumult.

Elegant interests. To commit suicide you may choose a slow-acting agent; in that case you must resort to it at a point when there is no reason yet for such an extreme decision: in the fullness of happiness. In return, at the right moment, death will follow of itself, with no further fuss. This principle is worth bearing in mind.

Explanations. “Suicide” I believe is a very general term which covers diverse things, much as in the seventeenth century they used to call “fièvre” no end of illnesses that had nothing in common with each other, or as today many maladies hide under the generic term “cancer.” But in the case of suicide we are dealing with things different in their very substance.

Distinctions. Why should killing an animal or breaking off a flower be blamed only sometimes (usually from an aesthetic point of view), while destroying a human always? I cannot see any other explanation than the singularity of the human. Flowers and animals are replicas of a prototype, or an integral part of a whole or wider species. The disappearance of one exemplar does not really harm the whole. To murder an animal or plant you must exterminate the species. Hence there is no species Homo; each individual, being unique, is a species.

There are exceptions. Some animals or flowers may be contaminated by human love and thus transmuted. They are invested with additional external meaning. They are axiophoric. Similarly: we forbid the killing of animals belonging to endangered species. Each human is himself an endangered species, hence “thou shalt not kill.”

 

Notes on Animals and Monsters
The prestige of animals. Over the years, a highly variable item. Consider the donkey. The Ancients used to respect him for power, stubbornness, male potency; nowadays he is held in contempt. There were some feeble attempts by the Christians to rehabilitate him, as a symbol of meekness, yet his appearances in Jammes or Péguy sound jarring. So it goes with most domesticated animals in the last sixty or seventy years. No case is more typical than the horse. Obviously, the First World War marked a sudden decline. Not that he is scorned nowadays, but he is certainly old-fashioned and stirs at best some sympathetic feelings of pity. Dogs and cats have similarly declined in this century: they have become pets, that is, functional objects. Their status is similar to worry beads. They are neutered, they are made larger or smaller at will. The cow (a holy animal to the Hindus, respectable, like the steer, to Europeans—a maternal symbol) merely swells the ranks of second-class animals, useful alimentary raw materials—joining pigs and yard fowls. Even the rooster, a dignified creature as late as the Romantic period, is now a little démodé. Things have gone so far that some American city fathers have set up little zoos for domestic animals (geese, goats, pigs, cattle)—a rueful farewell. The hue and cry for ecological protection comes mostly from the descendants of those who had corralled the Indians in reservations for their own good. Perhaps the animal kingdom will thrive in the comfortable old folks homes now being prepared for it—but are we really surprised that its prestige as a whole has been plummeting?

Where are the lions and tigers—glory and terror of yesteryear? Huge, automatic, danger-free hunting parties have put them to shame, no less than their frequent appearance in circus and zoo: lions pulled by the tail, jumping through hoops, fearful of the whip, servile, cowardly, well-trained. (Remember the lady with the tiger: as late as the 1920s she was still sending sexy thrills down the spines of human males.) Lions and tigers are now experiencing what had earlier happened to jackals, panthers, lynxes, who had been in the Middle Ages dangerous and daring beasts, whereas already in the nineteenth century they were considered dastardly and benign. The myth of sharks and crocodiles goes the same way: now they are becoming annoying and minor impediments for bathing in the ocean or in streams. Only film makers deem themselves heroic in facing them. We are afraid of them in the same way (irritated, impatient) as we are of vipers, rattlers, scorpions, big spiders.

Homo is more than ever the supreme master: he governs, punishes, gives promotion whenever he sees fit (though once in a while he weeps bitterly over his decisions). Microbes turned small, I suppose, to escape his attention: did they, in their wildest dreams, expect to be gathered in parks, colonies, camps, to be stuffed and sacrificed like poor stupid mice and guinea pigs?

Additional loss of prestige was incurred through the dwindling of rural village economy as a social factor. For better or for worse, fox and wolf, polecat, marten and chicken hawk, sheep and goat were an important, integral factor in a rural system: they went down loyally with it. (Statistics would surely demonstrate that in American usage the pun “foxy” is used more often than the original noun.)

While the wild beasts are being reduced to the ranks of the domesticated, and the domesticated are being demoted to that of the inanimates, another group is making its bid for recognition: archaic animals, unadapted and rare, with strange, almost monstrous shapes. Thus the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, the ostrich, seal and walrus, penguin and pelican, perhaps the lizard, the bat, too, tried to enlist. Not much came of it since, although some of them showed an interesting social life (seals, penguins). Most of them are disarmingly stupid and stubborn: remember when East African rhinoceroses had to be forcibly saved from drowning, ten years ago or so? Put to sleep by gas, they had to be lifted by crane and plane a few dozen miles—the idea to move by themselves would never have occurred to them. In fact, the real beneficiaries of the “bid” or “revolt” were others, even more primary in their structure: mollusks, sepias, the hydrae, jelly fish, and the like. Nobody expects too much from them anyway, but their indeterminate shape, their ambiguity, their halfway position between the vegetable and animal kingdoms can exert a more permanent fascination. (See also the chemical experiments of Adrian Leverkiihn’s father.)

Meanwhile, there are obviously many birds who managed to retain important positions: not least the eagle, the nightingale, the lark (she may be a little overvalued of late), even the parakeet, cardinal, and blackbird. Similarly, a number of fish have been fighting hard for greater recognition: trout, salmon, sturgeon, and sterlet. Their main strategy seems to have been to reduce their own numbers.

All this does not mean that a new animal elite is not slowly taking shape. It is not yet generally recognized, but its qualities are homogeneous and besides there is no one else in sight. Its members are balanced animals, quiet, kind, powerful, but calm and unaggressive, intelligent, often skilled, organized in family or other small groups. Thus the elephant, the dolphin, the stork, the beaver, the bear, the hedgehog, obviously also the bee, the badger, and the whale. I think with pride and pleasure of such admirable representatives of the animal kingdom. What is the lion when compared to these? Who would still speak of the lion as the king of these animals?

One last remark. Some animals have remained rather constant. Thus the monkey with its special, slightly embarrassing position of poor relative. Or again, curiously enough, the wild boar and the swallow. Also, certainly, in a better position than the horse is the deer, a very special creature—half goat, half horse; half tame, half wild.

A finding. As human society evolves, the names of sins become increasingly long and complicated.

The style of monsters. Every culture, every stylistic period has its own monsters, unmistakably its own. From this point of view it is irrelevant that there are recurrent motifs and analogies or that there is a common epiphanic ground to many religions.

But clearly there are features of evil, formlessness, irrationality, and destructiveness common to monsters. In the same way, all deities of water or of rocks, no matter where they are or when they appear, have certain common features.

The monsters and the demons of any culture are themselves defined by contrast to the meanings and values, the “soul,” of that culture. Thus in Greek civilization, the Apollonic mainstream, the statuary principle, the emphasis on clear and precise outlines, easily grew their own opposing monsters: the Eumenides, blind Bacchic unleashings, ultimately all Dionysian or even Orphic ravings, misshapen beings, and so on. Conversely the Faustian world of the West embraces the dynamic principle; therefore monsters appear as fixed shapes—the dead, the robot, the Statue of the Commodore. You can go on with pleasant speculations and observe that Chinese culture identified with vile dragons, Aztec culture with all kinds of metamorphic, tortuous images; while the Renaissance of pastoral harmony and blue-skied serenity
feared the night and its ugly creatures. The study of a culture’s demons and monsters can lead to interesting conclusions about the major meanings of that culture.

Thus in a culture based totally upon evil and irrationality, reason and beauty may well become favorite examples of the monstrous.

Types of monsters. Monsters may appear either towards the end of an organic cycle—a culture, for instance—or during its blooming and vitality. When a living form is settled in with full vigor it subjugates primal nature and will let it move only within certain boundaries; more often than not, that nature is kept boiling under the crust, and seething in the viscera. There is always a cellar of hidden instincts, of rats and roaches under the pavement, of scary creatures in the dark of the forest, of smoldering repression and anger. Never will formless energy content itself with subjection, but it is often too weak: only seldom can it erupt: that is when your best known and most often quoted monsters will present themselves—feisty, plump monsters, confident and strapping fellows, whose lot it is to be relentlessly chased and readily demolished: sexual aberrations, frauds, rebellions and heresies, bizarre fashions, reckless fantasies, blind iconoclasms, fairies and dragons, epidemics and natural catastrophes.

But it is at the end of cultures that monsters rear their heads again: numerous, pallid, and powerful—powerful because of the weakness of their opposition, not because of their own desperate explosion, regretfully accepted, inevitable and calm. They don’t even always care to be violent, for they are perfectly certain of victory anyway. Thus the childishness of old age, arguments at the end of a love relationship, world wars and religious apathy, serpents and frogs in dilapidated country homes, Angst, unbridled modernisms and wanton Romanticisms, chronic illnesses, the revival of superstitions combined with mechanicism and so on.

The monsters at the beginning of cultures and personalities are never perceived as monsters: they appear to be simply nature.

The function of monsters. From a practical point of view, it is important to learn the correct relationship between demons and monsters. Chesterton explains how a pragmatic and mercantile spirit, controlled by the ethos of efficiency and obsessed by results, will be the first to seek demonic alliances. Conversely, it is plain that magnanimous and gratuitous gestures of disinterested serenity are environments inimical to demons. But such serenity (let us take for instance the Biedermeier attitude of the aged Goethe, of Stifter and Schubert) is the simple outcome of a rather complex harmony of components. Among these: self-confidence, indolence, humour. Well, monsters too will find themselves disarmed by these, as soon as by anything else.

Let us now compare antonyms: parts and wholes. It may be inferred that monsters are partial demons, the missing part being a direction or sense. So—put down this—monsters are demons devoid of sense. On the other hand, the etymon tells us they are signs (monstrumn, that is, an apparition, a portent). The concentration camp, for instance, monstrously signals a demonic power, but at the same time is part of it. By analogy, a group of phonemes signals a sense, but is also part of a linguistic whole. Monsters could thus be called the communication system of demons. Not only theirs, but of other phenomena too (biological, historical, and so on). So a provisional definition of the monstrous could be: a system of signs which participates in the substance of the demonic, but is employed by a wider circle of phenomena.

The charm of graveyards. Cemeteries are so wonderfully soothing in daytime, because they relax so serenely after the mysterious tensions and the dangers of their nights.

Kenyon Review logo
Virgil Nemoianu is William J. Byron Distinguished Professor of Literature and Ordinary Professor of Philosophy at CUA, where he has taught since 1979. He has also taught at the Universities of Bucharest, California (Berkeley), Cincinnati, London, Cambridge, and Amsterdam. He has held leading positions in the International Comparative Literature Association, the Modern Language Association and the Association of Literary Critics and Scholars; he is a member of the European Academy of Arts and Sciences (Vienna). Nemoianu has written, edited, or translated 16 books, written over 600 articles and reviews, and given more than 65 lectures in Europe, America, Africa, and Asia.