It was a rainy autumn night in Stockholm, a night in the middle of the week. Feeling a need to further specify the moment in time, I probably would have added: “a weeknight just before the turn of the century,” in order to emphasize the tension, or at least the sense of anticipation that should prevail at the beginning of a story or at the end of an era. But perhaps the precise moment isn’t especially important, nor the state of the weather. If I ended up waiting to recount this story until a later period in my life, time of course would determine whether it was important or not. But I don’t want to wait. There seems little prospect that some later occasion might offer an opportunity for recounting anything at all; words and energy abandon you over time; fewer and fewer people care about what you may wish to say. Especially when it has to do with small matters that require great effort to convey. What happened on that rainy evening in Stockholm may well seem trivial to an outsider, perhaps even meaningless. But that’s a risk I’m prepared to take. For my part, it meant as much as the transition to a new millennium. It was so significant that I often, at least in my mind, return to the place where it all happened.
Occasionally I’ve even gone over to the physical site and actually taken up position on a narrow, sloping sidewalk in Söder, hoping to relive once again that strange experience: to feel a sense of happy and heady exaltation which, in terms of intensity, can only be compared to its diametrical opposite: true angst. It was exhilarating, like the answer to a question or a long prayer.
Prompted by a naïve hope, I’ve recreated the conditions: by dressing the same, behaving the same way, thinking the same thoughts—a vain attempt to repeat the past! Doomed to failure. The experience has eluded me. Perhaps it’s an absurd but essential condition that a complete stranger should approach me and claim: “I dreamed about you last night!”
Standing there on that sidewalk in Söder I attracted so much attention that I was forced to explain my behavior. But that proved nearly impossible. At least in any concise manner and late at night. Occasionally I’ve made an attempt to explain it to one of those people you sometimes meet and later describe as “robust” or “solid” individuals—people who seem to stand at the very center of life with their legs firmly planted; the kind who in dramas often play the role of the sorrowful truth-sayer. But the person in question would merely shake his head. “Not everything can be explained…” Or he would respond to the whole matter with an indifferent shrug of his shoulders. “So what?”
The following is therefore another attempt. Presumably the last one that I’ll make. Sometimes, in the course of my work, I thought I could discern some sort of pattern behind this fate; in several cases I may even have touched on it.
It happened while I was on a short visit to my hometown. I was staying in a fancy hotel in the Östermalm district of Stockholm, and I was able to enjoy the city like a well-to-do tourist. That was a new experience. I had a number of obligations to tend to; I had arranged several meetings, with a former wife, a publisher, and a theater director. And I had agreed to a literary evening at a restaurant to discuss the topic “Fin de siècle.” These were all things that might make a conceited author feel important. Yet I had left my home in southern Sweden with great reluctance. No amount of drinks would ever make me believe that I personally was of any real importance in the literary circles of the capital.
Besides, I was preoccupied with other, purely practical matters back home. I lived in a fishing village on the southeast coast. That was where I had ended up after a huge breakdown in my life. My house was on a narrow street, or “lane” as the streets were called there. It was a very exposed location. Over time I’d grown tired of everyone looking in at me from the street, and I’d decided to put up a fence in front of my house. A sturdy fence, the kind that can be seen around the small wooden houses in the Söder district of Stockholm. But it was a breach of style among the fishermen’s cottages in Skåne. “That fence doesn’t belong here!” I was told by informative neighbors. The fishing village had always been inhabited by poor sods who never could afford a fence, nor did they have anything to hide. Neither did I, usually. The idea had been planted in my mind by a guest, an American woman who sat at my kitchen table and carried on a conversation with Jean-Paul Sartre. It was a hot summer day, she wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing, and she felt herself being stared at by the people walking past on the street.
“I’m on fucking display here!” was how she had expressed the matter.
“So get dressed!” I said, because I’d already grown tired of her.
We’d met in Paris a decade earlier, when I was living there. But then we lost touch after I moved back home and settled down, as it’s called. When she found out that a change had occurred in my situation, she looked me up to find out what had happened. She made her living by performing with a marionette that she called Jean-Paul Sartre—a figure that was allowed to take part in various puppet shows appearing at theater festivals throughout Europe. She was quite skilled at what she did, and I liked Sartre, but she insisted on going around naked much too often—as if she had decided that all of Sweden were some sort of nudist colony. She was beautiful to look at, but that made things difficult at the beach. A naked beauty with a big, ugly puppet by the name of Sartre understandably attracts a good deal of attention.
She finally did take off, but she left behind the idea of putting up a fence in front of the house. My decision matured along with the fruits on the trees in the garden, and by the time fall arrived, I was in the middle of building it—a neat, trim, and practical fence. Consequently I didn’t give a damn whether it belonged there or not. I didn’t belong there either.
My life down there was a form of exile, partly forced on me, partly self-imposed. I had finally left the city that had begun to seem more and more like the stage for various breakdowns. I was constantly running into those individuals who stand at a bar and lean close, saying in a confidential manner, “I know that everybody else thinks you’re an asshole, but that’s OK by me…” So I had tried to imagine a different sort of life somewhere else, and after a period of recurring attacks of terrible anxiety, I was forced to do something about the matter. Maybe it was naïve to think it was possible to flee from the anxiety, but the situation became intolerable, and even the woman I was getting a divorce from began to worry. She had no reason to show me any compassion, but the suffering that she observed elicited a concern that surprised not only me but many others.
“Get out of here, Sweetie,” she said. “This city is sucking the life out of you. And you have a child to think of…”
It was a matter of making a decision, and it could no longer be ignored. I had to find a place that wouldn’t turn me into easy prey for the torment that’s called anxiety or angst. Because it was powerful, persistent, and overwhelming. It was becoming more and more apparent that angst was the one constant thing in life.
“Greater than my love?”
And that was carrying it too far.
Previously, in other accounts, I’ve described how a person undergoing a serious crisis can lie on his sickbed and attempt, in a tragicomic way, to formulate his last words, to pay attention to his thoughts as if they were actually his very last. Testimonials regarding this condition may reveal a fatal lack of both genius and originality. You start humming old pop tunes, just bits and pieces, a few verses from pointless refrains that have lodged in your memory and now churn away like an incantation, a litany of rhyming words whose sole purpose is to keep out all other thoughts, notions that may end up signifying something frightening, a terrible insight. In my case it was an old American song that came to mind, a song called “Is That All There Is?” The question wasn’t entirely misplaced, since it was exactly what I kept confronting: Was this anxiety the only thing I had to offer, the only thing that seemed absolute and irrefutable? For quite a number of people anxiety is the strongest and only truly unambiguous feeling that exists, the only sensation that can’t be questioned or trivialized. It cannot be replaced with something else, nor can it be mastered in some way. It’s not a very pretty summation of a life.
“Is that all there is?” I’d rather leave that honor to somebody else.
The first lunch was with a publisher. He ordered only salad and mineral water. “I have to think about my blood pressure.”
I followed his example.
“But you’re certainly looking good,” he said. “Country life suits you.”
And then he asked me, of course, about what I was working on.
“A fence,” I replied quite truthfully.
“Yes, a fence.”
“I meant: what are you writing?” he said.
My typewriter had gone untouched for a long time, and I had nothing to offer, except for the idea that had long been on my mind: “…to depict what is indescribable, what can’t be put into words.”
“One of the grand passions?” said the publisher. “Happiness?”
“Even better,” I said. “Anxiety.”
His salad had just arrived, and there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it, but he looked as if he’d been served something inedible. He let slip a low “good Lord,” but it had nothing to do with the food. “Is that really necessary?”
I had expected him to react this way. “You don’t have to worry,” I said. “It’s doomed to failure.”
He started muttering something about Stig Dagerman as he glumly picked at his salad. “If a writer like him, who was so talented, couldn’t do it…”
“Sometimes a person has to tackle the one thing that he can talk about with any sort of… authority.”
The publisher had a hard time swallowing that, and the bites of lettuce seemed to swell in his mouth. “It’ll just be so… limited,” he blurted out.
“That’s the chance I’ll have to take,” I said.
He swallowed a bite and washed it down with mineral water. His natural resistance to this type of B.S. began to give way. “All right, well, what’s the angle?”
“There isn’t any,” I said. “Just go for it.”
“Go for it?”
“Yes,” I said. “No beating around the bush.”
“So the road itself is the goal,” he said.
“Could be,” I said. “But I can’t be bothered with detours.”
“But you do have some grasp of the whole concept, right?”
I had nothing to say to that; I probably hadn’t gotten that far. It was mostly a question of mobilizing enough courage to dare take on the subject at all. “A personal achievement in egocentricity,” I managed to say. “What do you think about that?”
What my publisher did next makes me wonder, as I now write this down several years later, whether sadism didn’t appear at the same time that the art of book printing hit the market and suddenly needed publishing companies.
Anxiety is still like a terra incognita, inaccessible to existing instruments of measurement. People who have been there recognize each other, but they have nothing to share with the rest of the world, except for the terror that no one can fail to see, the terror of ending up there again. Each journey is the same; there is no routine to fall back on, no solace, because it never comes to an end. You’re there in a never-ending present, a sense of unease that defies all description.
So many misunderstandings exist regarding the matter. The term anxiety itself is misused to such a degree that it has become a cliché for some sort of mawkish inconstancy. Certain circles even cultivate a romantic perception of anxiety and everything else that has to do with the suffering of the psyche. As if it were supposed to elevate a person to some higher plane. Depression is regarded as a reasonable price to pay for talent; fingers yellow with nicotine and dark circles under the eyes are considered badges of honor. Misery is supposed to be an inherent part of artistic achievement, generating a vital creativity. Bullshit.
Some people also say that we’re supposed to feel anxiety because of all the new and unfamiliar things we encounter around us. What is untested may undoubtedly have a certain influence, but only to a limited extent. What is new and unknown arouses, at best, a healthy curiosity; in the worst case an intrinsic fear. But not anxiety. The exact opposite is true. Anxiety strikes us in the most intimate and familiar of spheres—in the family. No one sits around brooding about the big questions until he goes mad, or loses his mind because the universe is never-ending. People get sick over love—love that is too strong, too weak, or misguided. It strikes you in the depths of your soul, and no matter what you want to know or how many questions you ask, the only answer is anxiety. It fills your entire being and leaves you in a state of shock. Such a powerful and violent emotion demands an explanation, but if no sensible explanation is forthcoming, you have to invent one—and then an avenger or a lover appears. They may seem like mutually incompatible extremes until you realize what they have in common.
The person who has once lost everything in his life—or, if that sounds too drastic, has at least lost his foothold—knows that in the end he loses his fear as well. It clings to the objects that are carried out the door, by a wife or an evicting sheriff; and in the end, when only emptiness remains, that person is also free of the terror to which he has grown accustomed and has taken for granted. When that is gone, something remains which, for lack of a better word, might be called courage. He is ready to make decisions.
Most people know what hesitation, anguish, and indecision mean—it’s the torment that keeps you awake at night before having to take a stand on something. You weigh the pros and cons, and if they balance out, the matter is even more difficult, but in the end you have to make a decision in order to move on. Yet certain decisions require greater courage and greater perspicacity than others, since the outcome may have a direct impact on the rest of a person’s life.
“Is that all there is?” Attacks of anxiety can leave you completely exhausted, squeezed dry, and scared out of your wits—ready to go along with anything at all, submit to any sort of agreement, if only you’ll be released from this hell. So the answer often appears quite apparent, but most people refuse to give up. There are always a few more stones to turn over.
The second lunch was with my ex-wife. She had chosen the place; that was still her prerogative. It was a place that I didn’t know, with chairs made of concrete and steel, which was surprising since the clientele consisted of women who were as thin as toothpicks.
“I only eat salad for lunch,” she said. “Drink this!” She was talking about a new type of mineral water.
We saw each other at more or less regular intervals in order to take care of unsettled matters as smoothly as possible. We had a child together, and our arrangement might be viewed as an expression of reason triumphing over the drive for self-preservation, which a person surrenders only for the sake of a child.
“You’re looking good,” she said. “Are you on the wagon?”
“I’m doing a little building,” I said.
“What do you mean? Bodybuilding?”
“No,” I said. “On my house.”
“What do you mean? A porch?”
“No,” I said. “I’m not good enough yet to do that. It’s just a few small things.”
Even though we could be quite candid with each other, I saw no reason to admit that I was building a fence in front of my house so that naked American women with marionettes would be able to carry on inside without being “on fucking display.” But ex-wives seem to have a sense for such things. I think she could hear it and see it on me. For some reason I felt quite content to have her see right through me.
After years of debilitating arguments and fights, everything had calmed down. In light of the present situation all that strife seemed more and more like an invaluable experience, a story that I wouldn’t have been able to do without, a precious asset that had cost several years of my life, but that had also provided benefits impossible to gain in any other way.
I tried to explain this to her. I think she understood what I meant. I think she even shared my view of the whole thing.
“No, I’ll pay.”
“You paid last time.”
“But I want to pay.”
“Why won’t you ever let me pay? I’m going to pay.”
“You have paid.”
“You have too.”
It had been a costly peace that was preceded by cowardly retreats, and in the end something that resembled a rout. Set free and required to answer the question “Is that all there is?” a grown man has to take a look around and then laugh. Even if it’s in the middle of a blazing battle. Most men start by heading for the nearest bar. They toss back whatever is served, wanting only to get drunk. They won’t find an answer there, but they will buy themselves some time. There’s a whole line of solitary men positioned along an infinitely long battlefront made up of bars—the men are the same everywhere, with the same posture, the same look in their eyes, regardless of whether they’re rich or poor; wrapped up in themselves and their daily lives, but timeless, making a pact with Amor and Bacchus in order to destroy Chronos. The bar is a defined space, even though what’s played out inside is solely devoted to time. Time is stopped, reversed, or sped up, allowing itself to be handled with a skill that you seldom see anywhere else. Life becomes malleable, changeable—the present situation becomes for a moment bearable, even beautiful.
But intoxication opens the door to a brothel, just as a hangover opens the door to a madhouse; the wall in between is a thin one, and in its own way permeable. At night there is heavy traffic; switches and exchanges are made so that the one who falls asleep in an embrace might wake up in remorse. You might end up saying “I love you” to someone who is more realistic and less demanding. She replies, “You don’t have to lie!” But you do have to lie, for your own sake, in order to protect something. Occasionally you may convince yourself that it’s true, but your judgment is clouded, and the horizon of sex is limited. These brief encounters in that room which always looks exactly the same—until the end of your days you’ll be able to recall them, every single one of them… Those moments when you felt desired and when the women’s lust was a force that offered resistance to anxiety, equally strong, equally random, but powerful enough that it could also be an answer, something absolute and irrefutable, that is, if it weren’t so capricious.
In that sense anxiety was more reliable—irrational, illogical, and indescribable, but as reliable as a schoolmaster. It made the loneliness greater, each time a little stronger than before. Each time that you said “I love you” and lied, unnecessarily, the feeling of loneliness increased. The words remained in a strange way untarnished, fully available to use again, in all seriousness. But what you wanted to safeguard and preserve for another life—the life that would someday begin, somewhere else—became overprotected, stunted, and inhibited. So often invoked and abused, love can live a life in the shadows. But when it has to emerge into the light, it looks like a hollow-eyed figure from Gin Lane in an illustration by Hogarth: haggard, thin, and timorous. You have deceived yourself, even though no one required it of you.
No city is big enough that it won’t one day seem spent and ransacked. You stand at a bar that is indistinguishable from all the others, and hear a man next to you say: “I don’t mind if you want to be my friend, but I’m particular when it comes to my enemies…” and then you’ll know what time it is. It’s merely a matter of packing your bags and leaving. “Is that all there is?” The question never received a worthy answer, but the stones that I had turned over were not the most precious either.
The third lunch was with a theater director who had commissioned a play that he hadn’t yet received. He had put on weight since I’d last seen him, and he took me to a new-fangled restaurant.
“Lean cuisine. I only eat salads and drink mineral water. I’m fat, fat, fat!”
“I’m sure it’s not that bad.”
“Can’t you see how it’s bulging out of me!? That’s what happens when you turn fifty. Are you fifty yet?”
He was a theater director who made decisions about people and productions; he should have had better judgment.
“I still have ten years to go,” I said.
It took him only a few seconds before he said: “You don’t have even a minute to go! When do I get my play?”
“I haven’t even started on it yet.”
“It’s already sold out, a hit show. Seizure of a Doll’s House. People will be laughing their heads off. It’s a great title.”
It was a marriage drama, which at one time had been a matter of burning importance, but the issue had cooled, and I’d lost my incentive. I had moved away from the city, and after six months of daily walks along desolate beaches, I had almost forgotten why I’d moved.
The chubby theater director stuffed himself with pieces of white bread, and it was clearly visible how each bite pained him. I thought of telling him about another idea, mostly just to have something to say, but he was way ahead of me. “There’s so much fucking anxiety everywhere. That’s all anyone writes about!”
“You don’t say,” I said.
“They make it so damned easy for themselves. It doesn’t take much art to make people feel bad, does it?”
“No, I guess you’re right.”
“Do you want to do something hard, something that nobody else can do?”
“A comedy! A Swedish comedy, and then you’ll be set for the rest of your life!”
“I’ll think about it.”
“No,” he said, “just write it. Don’t think so fucking much. It’ll just make you anxious. We’re on our knees, just like the whole damned country. We can’t afford any more anxiety.”
“I’ll make a note of that,” I said.
“You owe me something for the advance I gave you! You can’t work it off with anxiety. Just so you know.”
“Interesting,” I said. “So how can you work off anxiety?”
“With food,” he said.
It was my last night in Stockholm, an evening in the middle of the week, a weeknight right before the turn of the century, and a restaurant in Söder was going to host a literary evening on the pre-announced topic: “Fin de siècle.” It was not something to which I attached any importance. The organizer was an enthusiastic woman who was happy if you just showed up on time and gave a reading that was more or less decent. I arrived in plenty of time, looking dapper and feeling prepared. She introduced me as an “expatriate author.” As usual, the audience consisted mostly of women, several older gentlemen, and a few young people. Men my age are no longer interested in literature.
I was supposed to read my story “With Boots On,” accompanied by music by Brahms, but first I felt obligated to say something apropos the theme for the evening. I had pondered the topic and come to the conclusion that I had nothing to say; instead, I wanted to explain that in my opinion people generally attached far too many hopes to the ability of writers to prophesy the future. Most writers cultivate a self-centeredness that in many cases imperils their reason, an aspect that paradoxically enough constitutes their sole raison d”tre. Chronology is something that is highly individual, which I chose to demonstrate by reading my story.
The music of a string quartet started playing when the mother remarked: “My dear little boy, you’re upset.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see that some of the audience members reacted by shifting position and stretching, maybe because of the tone the music had set or because they suddenly realized that my story makes a leap thirty years into the future and that the boy the mother is speaking to has become a middle-aged man. If I kept reading at the right pace, the Brahms piece was supposed to reach its emotional climax at the very point where the story ends.
As the music continued, I’d be able to leave the improvised podium that took the place of a stage and go over to the bar for a drink. Few drinks are as beneficial as those that you have right after a performance; you need them to chase away a feeling of inadequacy and emptiness that shows up after you’ve stood on a stage, no matter how small it might be or how little you were trying to communicate. It’s all a matter of some sort of esprit d’escalier, a feeling that fills you, not with satisfaction but with self-criticism and despondency. So you need a drink. As usual, it was difficult to recall what I had actually said. I had spoken straight from the heart and tried as much as possible to stick to the truth, making what is sometimes so insidiously called a “recklessly candid confession” from a field in which candor is taboo. The lack of honesty made many people deeply unhappy, people who were fervent about their art and who sought an outlet for a strong passion. They were under the assumption that writing would offer them an accessible path to spiritual freedom and peace of mind. When put to the test, some people take to drink, others take up paper and pen. Certain individuals do both. But both methods are equally dubious. The person who successfully expresses himself hardly runs less of a risk of becoming mentally ill than someone who is wordless. Sometimes just the opposite is true. The number of nervous wrecks is quite high among authors, and much of our so-called national literature is nothing but one melancholy lamentation.
Access to a language is no guarantee of spiritual well-being. Words are unreliable; they can alternately heal and tear apart. For the person who takes words seriously, the manipulation of them is often filled with anguish and the strain associated with stressful decision-making situations. An author is constantly forced to make minor emergency landings in his language; words fail, thoughts don’t take off. The normal state is a quiet panic. It’s possible that words release a chemical substance, a type of adrenaline not known until now, a substance that causes harm when it’s released in large quantities and assumes too high a concentration in the body. A toxin belonging to a specific syntax. An addictive illusion of freedom. It’s not insignificant when someone sits in judgment over writers, or decides to admire them. Writers probably should be neither judged nor admired. That was actually where I was heading all along. Toward a reasonable expectation.
When the Brahms quartet finished playing there was a smattering of applause. That’s when I should have left, but the owner of the restaurant had offered me another drink, and I didn’t want to be rude and leave it untouched. The feeling of dissatisfaction had receded, to be replaced by relief. If I’d had my guard up, it was now time to lower it a bit.
This didn’t go unnoticed, because I soon caught the attention of a woman in the audience. She got up from the table where she was sitting with her women friends and headed straight for me at the bar. She came over and introduced herself, holding out her hand. I had a hard time catching her name, and her appearance didn’t make matters any easier.
“I don’t usually approach writers like this…” she apologized. “But there’s something I have to say. Have you got a few minutes?”
She was actually strikingly beautiful, so beautiful that the man standing next to me at the bar said, “That’s not just some broad that you go out with. That’s a lady that you climb aboard. She could take you anywhere.”
The woman in question had gone back to her table to get her glass. She’d asked me if I had time. I had replied, “A little.”
She came back with her drink, a cocktail in a restaurant that usually served strong beer to men who were arm-wrestling.
“Your talk…” she said. “It sounded so hopeless.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “That wasn’t my intention.”
“No,” I said. “I just wanted to…”
I had nothing more to say because my intent had already grown hazy, or else I had other things on my mind.
“It sounded as if you were thinking of changing professions,” she said.
“It’s probably too late for that.”
She nodded, as if she agreed. There was something she wanted to say, but she was hesitating, as if she didn’t yet dare.
I tried to study her as discreetly as possible, letting my gaze glide past her. She had a long neck, straight shoulders, and long dark hair swept up in a French twist. My neighbor at the bar was presumably correct in his assessment. Since the woman had so abruptly fallen silent, I tried to steer the conversation onto a more neutral subject.
“Do you usually—”
But that was as far as I got before she interrupted me and said, “It seems as if you have greater expectations of literature than of life.”
“There’s no longer any difference between the two.”
I ended up spouting that sort of sarcastic remark because I couldn’t think of anything better. She had a point.
“Is that your answer?”
“It’s so noisy here…”
The restaurant had grown rowdy, and we had to shout to be heard. I was just about to ask her if we should go someplace quieter. Any man in my position would have said the same. But I didn’t get that far, and I would soon be glad of it. She was about to utter a statement that would make all further conversation impossible.
My intoxicated neighbor at the bar had a much easier time conversing with her, of course. He accepted her offer of a cigarette, complimented her on her hairdo, and professed a knowledge of writers that I’d never heard of before. He actually turned out to be fully capable of delivering a speech on the theme of “Fin de siècle.” And as I stood there next to him, unable to get a word in edgewise, I was once again struck by the feeling that I had disappointed the audience.
It took a while before my intoxicated neighbor had to go to the men’s room. He wasn’t shy about expressing his need. “I’ve got to take a leak!” he shouted into the ear of the beautiful woman. We were left in peace, and she looked at me, now with an expression that was even more serious than before. She leaned forward, and I turned my head so that she wouldn’t have to shout.
“I have to confess something,” she said.
I nodded. I was ready.
“I dreamed about you last night.”
At first I wished that I’d heard wrong, that she’d said something completely different, but that was merely wishful thinking. I had heard right. It left me speechless, dumbfounded. Presumably the look on my face was enough to make her realize her mistake.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I never should have said that.” She stared at me with a horror which, unfortunately, was only surpassed by my own. She backed away. “I’m sorry…”
She left me and went back to her women friends who were still seated at their table. I followed her with my eyes. She looked shamefaced, devastated. She couldn’t meet my gaze. I started to feel ashamed for making her ashamed. The situation was running amok, with one thing piled on top of the other. Of course I should have gone over to her and smoothed over the situation, but I had no idea how to do that; I couldn’t understand why things had turned out as they had. I felt awkward. The whole thing was a mere trifle, a ridiculous but fateful trifle.
Because you always run the risk of ending up in someone else’s dreams. It’s unavoidable. But you don’t want to know the person who dreams about you. If a stranger dreams about you, it’s that stranger who will end up making you anxious. She can never come over and give you her dream as a gift, because you’ll receive it as a threat. Maybe that danger constitutes a predicament for the person as phenomenon. The individual who never runs the risk of encroaching on the inner life of others or getting innocently mixed up with them must be so insignificant or so isolated from the rest of the world that he has passed the stage we call personality and become subsumed into some more general creature endowed with no distinctive features. If such loneliness is even conceivable. God and morality are merely a question of other people. If God doesn’t set boundaries for freedom and responsibility, other people will do it, or their dreams will. There is always someone, perhaps a stranger, who will come up to you one day and say: “I dreamed about you last night!” You ask: “So what was I doing?” But you never find out. The only reply is a secretive smile. You leave that sort of encounter with the troubled feeling that you have control over only some of your actions. There is no defense, no guaranteed way to escape. You simply have to learn to live with the risk that as soon as some fellow human being falls asleep, you may become transformed into something alien. Maybe it’s trivial, especially for the person whose profession it is to disseminate a manifestation of his personality. Which becomes public property. If it bothers you, you should seriously consider the benefits of keeping your mouth shut. If it’s the source of terrible torment, you really have no choice, provided you’re not prepared to become a chronic masochist and ditto deceiver, constantly invoking, in self-defense, your predestined fate to die of drink.
All of the above is fundamentally nothing more than a prologue to what comes next, an examination, by turns methodical and hazy, of the circumstances that may be important to know. Now, so long afterward, it might look as if a number of preconditions were met in order to tune a spirit, to bend a soul to such a state of humility that it opened up, ready to receive a sign or a revelation, even though that term has become somewhat compromised.
The situation at the bar was beyond all control; I couldn’t manage to salvage the matter, and the only wise thing for me to do was to leave. I smoked another cigarette, emptied my glass, and tried to collect myself, but it felt as if there was nothing to collect. I was completely empty and blank inside, as if my entire nervous system had suddenly been released from a tremendous tension. No doubt most of this can be attributed to the drinks, but not everything.
It was about midnight when I went out the restaurant door. The sidewalk outside was very narrow, and I stopped abruptly as soon as I exited, to wait for what might have remained inside, something that might make me hesitate and turn back after a couple of steps.
It was still raining, a fine and cautious drizzle. I cast a sidelong glance down the street but heard no footsteps from anyone else. The traffic from Götagatan rolled by, sounding muffled. A short distance away on Östgötagatan I could hear the sticky suction of car tires rolling over soft asphalt. I waited a moment, checking to see whether I was in agreement with myself about leaving. I was, completely. I was going to head for my hotel. The evening was over. The next day I would be heading home.
All of a sudden it finally happened—the source of this whole document. I felt something pass through me, something like a spasm or an involuntary reflex, released by a stimulus of some kind. The movement itself can be objectively and plainly described in this way: my right foot is still on the ground while my left is stretched out, as if taking a pronounced step forward; my posture is extraordinarily erect, my left arm hangs idly at my side, my head is held high, as my right arm describes an arc and then extends from my waist at a right angle, my hand is relaxed with my fingers somewhat spread and my palm turned to the sky.
The movement, charged yet ambiguous, had absolutely nothing of a military salute about it. Yet there was something controlled or defined about the pattern, a demonstrable choreography that cried out to be interpreted. I could come up with no explanation. I just stood there, as if possessed by something unfamiliar at the same time that I felt pleasantly satiated, or rather as if something had been awakened inside of me that I’d never been aware of before. The feeling was so overwhelming that comparison with anything familiar completely misses the mark. It might be reminiscent of an obstacle which, after assiduous practice, simply gives way; something utterly exquisite, like a perfectly hit ball, or the first swimming stroke. As if it were a movement that had once upon a time had some meaning in a context that has since been lost—stylized into an element of a dance and stripped of its original meaning—or as if it had gained a new meaning.
It felt like a transparent clarity, as if I were carrying out something I had always been meant to do, with the conviction that suddenly, maybe for the first time ever, I found myself at the right place at the right time and properly equipped. Everything that was diffuse and ambiguous, if such even existed in the context of that gesture, presented no problem, nor did it arouse any annoyance; rather, it offered a great freedom of choice, opening up a multitude of possibilities which I myself could interpret and then assign some sort of purpose. As if it were something as simple as pulling the cork out of a bottle at a picnic in the shade of a tree; or drawing aside the curtain in a room where a woman is just waking up and opening her eyes; or bending aside a palm leaf in a dense jungle during an expedition; or delivering a whack with the back of your hand to someone who has been acting insufferable; or drawing the ramrod out of a musket barrel or a sword from its scabbard; or yanking your hand away from something hot in a smithy; or plucking a chicken and casting its feathers to the wind; or hurling a lasso into a herd of stampeding cattle; or, like a sower, spreading your grain over a newly plowed field; or flinging leaflets about a strike at the gates of a factory; or reaching up to grab the sheets of a sail while at sea; or reaching up in a thicket to pick a rose; or raising your hand in a carefree good-bye, making your exit like a grandseigneur on his last visit…
The impulse made itself felt only once, and the whole episode can’t have taken more than a couple of seconds. But it left me with a feeling of being totally in the present, the type of fullness that I’d learned to feel only at the other extreme, in the midst of an anxiety that seized control of all my powers and all my senses.
I hadn’t yet had the thought that this might be the answer to a question, the answer to a long and increasingly desperate prayer. “I’m losing my mind…” Presumably I said that aloud. “This is the end…”
But the feeling was not the least bit unpleasant. It came like a shot to the back of the head, but it acted like a drug. Somewhere Aksel Sandemose has expressed his aversion to sneezing— to be forced to surrender, to submit to an uncontrollable force that streams through your body, demanding to be released. Each sneeze becomes an insult to your integrity, an assault. I now felt equally disconcerted, but not quite as offended.
Since I was standing on a familiar street in my hometown—the city of the dead, a city of breakdowns and brawls—something could have been awakened that belonged to the past, various circumstances could have made me disposed to this gesture, which in its conformity to heredity might be the remnant of some habitual movement by an ancestor; here and now, time and space, death and oblivion, and mortality took over and became one pure repetition.
It was a way of reaching up from the language to pluck down an accent that became a greeting from the ways of my ancestors.
The next day I went home, to my new home in the fishing village in Skåne. There a half-finished fence was waiting for me. It needed attention. But the experience on the sidewalk outside the restaurant in Stockholm was still in my body, and it seemed as if this body were resisting as soon as it had to put on a pair of blue overalls. I couldn’t force it.
All I could do was walk along the beach, following the sandy stretch that flanked the village to the north and south. Horses were grazing up on the slope. Along the river, eel nets had been hung up for inspection. It was a peaceful place. The years had taught me that the mere sight of it could quiet an agitated spirit; problems assumed their proper proportions and became manageable.
After several days by the sea I had mustered enough energy to resume my work on the half-finished fence. It had to be nailed together. In the midst of a hammer swing, my arm flew out in a movement that reminded me of that gesture, and suddenly I began to think about the American woman with her marionette. I decided to name the fence after her. She had told me something that I hadn’t paid any attention to until now.
Sartre was quite tall for a puppet, almost full size, and so the strings that controlled him were quite short. They had a number of special features, including a string that she called Le Cordon Royale. While the normal strings controlled a hand, a leg, or made the head turn, this “royal” string seemed to go right to the soul of the puppet. When she pulled on Le Cordon Royale a whole series of movements resulted, or rather elements of the same gesture, as if the string actually consisted of numerous cords working together. The movement that Sartre then made was an expression of his true and innermost being.
Since I’d never been particularly interested in puppet theaters, I wasn’t the least bit impressed by these types of subtleties. Only now was I forced to acknowledge them, as I much later stood there pounding nails into a fence, reliving the movement that I had made on a street in Stockholm, and filled with that tremendous sense of exaltation that I had felt and could still feel, to the very tips of my fingers. The price of freedom is anxiety and despair. If that was a measure of the freedom I enjoyed, then I accepted it. Not as redemption, but as conciliation.
Perhaps I’ll have to devote the rest of my life to trying to understand what this means. Just like anxiety. Once again I’ve failed to describe it, although I’ve made a decent effort. I’ve mostly dwelled on the traces of its devastating progress. As usual. Maybe deep inside I’m afraid to go for the heart of the matter and really describe it; scared to succeed and then be done with it, finished, drained of all content. I would stand there with my flag, as the first man to reach the top of that peak, and wonder, “Is that all there is?”
Translation of “Vardagkväll före sekelskiftet.” Copyright Klas Östergren. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Tiina Nunnally. All rights reserved.