Eternal Youth

My father was horrified when I told him that I was getting married and that the date and place were already set. He shook his head with his typical facial expression, a mixture of repugnance, incomprehension and resignation. As long as he made this face at me all the time, I knew that he still couldn't see me as an adult.

It wasn't the fact that I was getting married that so upset him. Nor did he have anything against the woman I wanted to marry. What bothered him was the wedding date. Of all days, it had to be that one. How can anyone get married on that day, he cried, shaking his head. What were you thinking? He tapped his forehead. You weren't thinking at all, as usual.

I objected that it was a day like any other—

A day like any other? That day?

I don't know what you mean. We want to get married, we want to get married as soon as possible, and November 9 is the next available date at the Ischl marriage bureau.

That was not a good argument, but at the same time it was the best one: There had been nothing else behind our choice of the date.

In a sepulchral voice my father said how everyone would be overjoyed, how the whole family would celebrate, cheerfully and festively, and would always remember what a happy day it had been—

I should hope so!

He asked me to think about it one more time. The ninth of November! He wanted to give me another chance! I should think! Was that really an appropriate date?

I said that I'd thought long and hard enough. I wanted to get married and I was going to do so on the arranged date.

The ninth of November, my father said, stressing each syllable, is the anniversary of the so-called Reichskristallnacht—and my son wants to turn it into a day of joy, into the happiest day of his life.

Bah! History!

Why did this come back to me now, years later in Paris, during a conversation with a friend from my youth, Michel?

We were sitting in a café near Les Halles, I was depressed in an inconsequential way and, for that very reason, happy, because Michel once again displayed his talent of listing so many objective reasons for depression that anyone who was not depressed had to be considered unhappy. A ray of sunlight shone in through the large glass windowpane, struck my face, which then grew hot. I closed my eyes and opened them in astonishment only when Michel, who had meanwhile kept talking, suddenly said that after the oatmeal of childhood—simply stirred and with more or fewer raisins mixed in—and before the inevitable depressions of adulthood, youth was the only time when a conscious and, as a direct result, contradictory, thus genuine, experience of happiness was possible. Youth, he said, was a flicker of light, and the only people who were happy in the end were those on whom, in their old age, not only the inevitable shadows, but also a ray of this light fell.

It's hard to tell a story about a weekend in Paris, to tell it properly, as a storyteller does, when you spend most of your time with a philosophy professor who celebrates his disgust for life with relish and can't strike a match to politely give you a light without at the same time expounding a thesis about coldness. I spent almost all the breaks between the conference lectures with him, the time during the boring lectures we sat together in cafés, and in the evening I was all the more at his mercy, since he was putting me up in his guestroom. It was a friendship as artificial as he claimed the world in general was—it was based on two years during our school days, which he, then the son of a French diplomat in Austria, had spent in the same boarding school as I. It was a time, this I grant him, that had undoubtedly left an unhappy imprint on his as well as my own disposition—and this was the sole basis of what we, after meeting again later, somewhat mellowed by age, decided to call our "friendship."

But how could I not tell this story, when, like two powerful hammer blows, a ray of light shining through the glass windowpane of a café in Paris and at the same time the peculiar sentence about youth as a "flicker of light" tore down a wall that a moment ago had still seemed to divide life eternally in two: misery on this side, cynicism over there, or vice versa.

Childhood is the time of innocence that we rightly forget so as to be able to live at all later on as an adult, I said, and Michel waved the remark aside. I could have stopped there. But I had to tell him this. Flickers of light, I said, listen. I happened to spend my childhood in Bad Ischl, a little town in the heart of the Austrian provinces that had been the favored summer resort of the former Kaiser of Austria. Each year thousands of people from around the world visit Bad Ischl to spend their vacation in a place known for catering to tourists but willing to remember only one tourist: the dead Kaiser. His old empire has shrunk to the size of this little town, which has made the memory of the past into its commercial basis, and my empire of childhood wasn't even as large as the town: I have a dim memory of a street that ran along a river, a quay that, like an archaic border, marked the border of my world: I didn't know what was on the other side of the bridge, behind the backdrop of the row of villas on the opposite riverbank. The town of memory gave its children no chance to experience anything that they could later remember.

I know Bad Ischl, said Michel, the town with the highest suicide rate in Europe.

I didn't know that, I said.

Neither did I, but I can't imagine it otherwise.

In any case, I went on, basically my only dim, movie-theater dim, memory, is of a visit to the cinema—because it would be the first in my life. One day our teacher, Herr Zeger, entered the classroom and announced with the facial expression of a Santa Claus that we would be taken to the movies the following week. Our cries of joy were reminiscent of bullfight howls. At the time, I was eight years old, and we didn't call the movies in Bad Ischl "movies," but "flicks," or "flickers." For days my schoolmates and I had pestered the teacher to finally reveal what we were going to see. But he fueled our curiosity, our anticipation, with persistent silence. Ultimately, we couldn't pry anything out of him beyond the declaration "a movie, an exciting movie! You'll see!" Eventually one of his pet students reported that Herr Zeger had told him that the title of the movie the class would see was: "The Battle of the Matador."

Finally sitting in the movie theater, we first saw a short film, a report on the summer Olympic Games that had taken place the previous year in Rome, then a film about mountain climbers, which we sat through, bored, taking it to be another short. When would the bullfights finally come? The battle of the matador?

Never. The lights went up in the theater, my memory grows dim, only this much remained: We'd seen the movie "The Battle for the Matterhorn"—no bullfights, but rather the drama of the first ascent of a mountain, in which, as you can read today in reference books, an Austrian Nazi actor especially shone.

Luis Trenker? asked Michel.

Yes.

I announce before history the first ascent...

Be quiet! Listen! During that visit to the movies there was one thing, in any case, of historic impact, in an inconsequential way—that is, merely anecdotally—and that was the following: The short about the Olympic Games had also shown the finish of the hundred meter race—in slow motion. We children were children in the most beautiful sense—

Oatmeal beings!

Yes. So naive that we thought that slow motion was its own Olympic discipline—which from that point on it was our greatest ambition to master. We practiced "slow-motion running" for weeks, and had this ever become an official Olympic competitive discipline, we Bad Ischl students would have been unbeatable, with all our suffering from the gravity of circumstances.

And then?

Then we got older. That is, young. One is young as long as one tries to make oneself older. And—

Finally a beautiful sentence! said Michel. His speech was already slightly slurred from the wine. He was scarcely receptive any longer, and the story was still far from over—or rather, already over, but not yet told.

In any case, I said, at the age of sixteen, for example, I had no opportunity to go to the movies and pass myself off as eighteen. I was confined in a boarding school, in a closed educational institution, kept as a child, cheated out of my youth. Like you.

Like me, yes, kept as a child, condemned to remain eternally a child, afflicted with an aging body.

No, Michel, no! That's exactly what I want to tell you, that that's not true. The point is: we became young only very late, but to make up for it we remain so eternally.

Merde! he said, took a sip of his drink, and then: Eternally young? Go on!

Well: when I finally turned eighteen and could leave the boarding school—you'd already long since gone back to Paris with your parents—I was nothing; too inexperienced to be able to make myself credibly older in the face of the experiences of older people, and yet already too old to be happily indifferent to them. It's a strange experience to begin "life" at a time when there seem to be no contemporaries far and wide, not even as a mirror image.

That, my friend, was different for me in Paris.

You can tell me about that later! But when the gates of the boarding school, where I'd been locked out of reality, opened for me, when I was able to step out into freedom and into a university, I was immediately surrounded by nothing but veterans: former student leaders, former commune founders, former revolutionary poets, former self-liberators, former creative spirits, who now haunted the present as dogmatic specters. My bad conscience was boundless, I had made the unforgivable mistake of not having already been twenty years old in sixty-eight. It was impossible to escape these veterans; there were no alternatives. What was there? Students' associations? Upper class daughters with their Hermès scarves? No, there was nothing reasonably opposed to the mainstream of the opposition, and simply to be "affirmative" was, for a thinking disposition, never as impossible as it was then. So I sat in lecture rooms, which at the same time and above all were the veterans' waiting rooms, in which they planned to "hibernate" until "history" would again take to "the streets," where they believed themselves to be experts capable of leading the movement once again. But nothing moved. Not even in slow motion. What I learned back then ad nauseam were reminiscences, as shamelessly exploited as the Kaiser in Bad Ischl: WE, the veterans, made history! We intervened in history! We, with our beards and metal-rimmed glasses, have world-historical significance. Admire us and let us have our way with you so you learn what freedom is!

And? Did you let them have their way with you, Monsieur Ischl?

Let's forget about that! I would have forgotten about it if it hadn't been for November 1989. Then I really learned what history is. Then I experienced, with the liberation of people from Stalinism, my own liberation. The overturning of thought, of knowledge, of reality in my conscious lifetime. What else is a historic event if not that? Now, at long last, we, who had come too late for the 68ers, had our own great historic experience. We are, if we can reasonably be called anything, 89ers. With this year our life stories took root in history, our thinking became the thinking of the era.

Pathos, my friend, but you're right.

Yes. And now comes what I wanted to tell you: No matter how old "I" am today, "I" is an 89er, who can make himself a few years older with the obvious excuse that he is already very many years older. Do you know where I was on the night of November 9–10, 1989?

In front of the television, I assume!

Exactly! I sat in front of the television set and could not tear myself away from those images, which showed the mass triumph of the individual. The storming of the Berlin Wall. THAT was a first ascent! The climb to a height that just the day before would have meant certain death. A mass, but that's the wrong word, a face that became en masse the face of every liberated human being, a face that had said Yes, because it had decided in favor of a future, moaned and wept. It was my wedding night.

What?

Yes. My wedding night. Nothing else happened that night. The love of my life, who had just become my wife—

Elisabeth?

Yes. Elisabeth and I, we sat in a hotel room in front of the television set and stared at those images. It was our late and happy wedding to contemporary existence.

And then?

That's all: The next day, rather puffy from tears and a good deal of champagne, we left the bridal suite and the hotel—we had gotten married in Bad Ischl, yes, in Bad Ischl, because—why? I had wanted to reconcile the beginning of my adult life with my childhood. And this little imperial town of my childhood, I had thought, was after all a nicer place for this occasion than any musty Viennese marriage bureau. But how meager all this suddenly was on the day when my generation would reconcile itself with history. It had snowed heavily that night, and we tramped along the quay, not in slow motion, nor with the measured steps of veterans, but in real time, across to the Kaiser Promenade, and everything had lost its meaning or taken on a different one. We tramped through yesterday's snow—and were the first to leave our imprints in it.

Beautiful! said Michel. Really beautiful. Let's have another drink!

Translation of "Ewige Jugend." By arrangement with Suhrkamp Verlag. Translation copyright 2009 by Ross Benjamin. All rights reserved.