Part One of the Sehnsucht Trilogy
What a thing is Man, this lauded demi-god! Does he not lack the very powers he has most need of? And if he should soar in joy, or sink in sorrow, is he not halted and returned to his cold, dull consciousness at the very moment he was longing to be lost in the vastness of infinity?
What story does a symphony tell? Perhaps only one. This one.
In the year 1877 I was enrolled in the faculty of medicine at the University of K . I was a passable student, living as so many of my fellow passable students did, in the garret of one of the city’s less-reputable boarding houses, attending to my studies by day, and spending my evenings engaged in one or another of the vices to which the young men of every generation are susceptible. It was during this, my second year at the university, that a few of my closest comrades and I embarked on the yet-greater dissipation of founding a literary and philosophical society. After an evening at the pub or brothel, we would retire together to one of our Spartan little garret rooms. Drunk, penniless, sexually enervated, we argued about only the loftiest, most venerable subjects—the Just, the Right, the Beautiful—until we could see motes turning in the dirty light from the single small window and the steeple bell tolled morning. And then it was to breakfast, and to our respective classes, where I would spend my mornings nodding off to the smell of ether and arsenates, the Latinate words denoting parts of the anatomy mixing in my dreaming brain with the Just, the Right, and the Beautiful, until the day’s lectures had ended, and I went out—O youth!—to do it all over again.
There were six of us, what we might call the core members, I the only student of medicine … but then I was the only medical student who had joined my more metaphysically-minded peers in decrying the elimination of a philosophy requirement for aspiring natural scientists. My mornings were dedicated to learning the secrets of that marvelous machine called the human body, observing the dignified spectacle of a man discoursing over the flotsam and jetsam of human remains, his hands buried up to the wrists in viscera. My nights, on the other hand, were devoted to arguments over the existence, origin, proper cultivation, and ultimate destination of that yet-finer material, the human soul. Not that I really believed that one day a more powerful microscope would enable us to count angels dancing on the head of a pin. I was a firm adherent of the Helmholtz school, at least insofar as medicine was concerned. Darwin was all the rage in those days—there wasn’t a discipline his thought had left untouched—while among my comrades, shrill cries of “back to Kant!” dominated our debates, with Feuerbach trotted out here and there as a sort of anodyne. I seemed to be welcomed precisely because I questioned things they took for granted. Is man, then, simply a higher form of the lower animals? Is man only a machine? And while my rational mind recoiled from those arguments that began with the most fantastic a priori assumptions and then went on to build elaborate castles in the air, there was something inside me that positively craved this. In fact, I was something of the prime mover and dynamo of the group—to the point that my comrades joked that if “our medical student” were one day to disappear, it was unclear whether our little salon would have the impetus to continue.
We were all incurable romantics. In hindsight, it is hardly surprising that only half of us made it out of our twenties, and only those among us who tethered ourselves most closely to material things: Rolf, who repudiated his studies after just two years, married a jolly, fat wife, and immediately set about fathering an enormous brood—I can still see them following him around in the street like goslings; Werner, who followed in his father’s footsteps, became a watchmaker, though in his case the reason for abandoning his studies was purely financial. According to his frequent letters, he still stays up late into the night, reading metaphysics—the reason, perhaps, why the family business has fallen on hard times: I can just imagine him trying to focus on the minutiae of springs and gears, his eyes bleary from all that reading, ideas dancing before them like motes! He never fails to close a letter with some remark about the “golden years” of our little metaphysical society. I appear to be his confidante in this, and so have stopped bothering to remind him of the three of us who never reached the ripe old age of thirty. Perhaps he would have preferred to end up like Kristof, found swinging from a beam, his toes grazing the floor, all over some prostitute with whom he had apparently fallen in love! No, I refuse to coddle Werner’s nostalgia. But neither will I burst the comfort of the bubble in which he has chosen to live. I imagine it is all he has left.
As for me, I subjected my passions to a colder eye; I sublimated my romantic yearnings for the Beautiful and the Right to the labor of examining diseased kidneys and swollen crania. Swollen crania! We all had a touch of encephalitis in those days—a tendency to mania, and melancholia; a bit of hypochondria—diseases of excess, imbalances of one kind or another that I can give names to today, though no more than names. I spent a number of years teaching as well, always with an eye out for the dreamy-eyed student nodding off, thinking of anything other than the vicissitudes of the flesh. As soon as I had noticed him, I would do what any man of medicine must do when confronted with a fever he is afraid might spread: quarantine and treat the patient, and closely monitor the surrounding population for symptoms, lest the individual case develop into an outbreak. Simply put, I caned it out of the poor sod, and admonished the rest of the class not to make him a role model. Of course, this sort of thing is much less common now. The Liedenschaft that defined my generation has cooled; the students of today by and large regard me with a jaded skepticism. The war, I presume. So much for incurable romanticism.
But then I used to think that nothing was incurable. I have since come to realize that this, too, was a holdover of my idealism; that the opposite is true: nothing is really curable.
The event in question happened while I was still a medical student, during the headiest days of our salon. One afternoon, as we were all marching arm-in-arm toward the nearest pub, likely whistling a melody from Die Meistersinger, we happened upon a broadside still damp from the poster’s brush. It announced that the orchestra of Herr V would be performing at the Konzerthaus, City of R in just over two weeks’ time. Fifty years ago, Herr V was hardly the image of staid musical conservatism he has since so assiduously cultivated. Fifty years ago, Herr V was the enfant terrible of the art world, notorious for championing new and difficult works, for lewd, ecstatic, and vitriolic outbursts from the podium, and for siring an orchestra of bastards with a bevy of aspiring sopranos. Barely ten years our senior, he was the vanguard of “our” generation … and a personal hero of mine. But it wasn’t just the presence of Herr V ’s name on the bill, or the announcement that Balcony seating was to be free—“for the glory of Art,” the broadside proclaimed, “and the future of the German Empire”—that prompted us to dance a half-quadrille in his honor. It was the program. For Herr V , it turned out, had assembled the most massive orchestra Europe had ever seen, in order to fully realize the majestic final symphony of Herr B .
Dubbed “The Symphony of a Hundred Violins,” the work had been left unpublished at the time of Herr B ’s death more than a decade earlier. No conductor had yet dared tackle it. The symphony was instead known through a series of piano and chamber reductions prepared by Herr B ’s acolytes and devotees. These were frequently performed—so frequently, in fact, that the symphony’s principle themes were as well known as any of the most famous arias of Mozart. Performing Herr B ’s original score, however, was another kettle of fish. For the hundred violins were just the beginning. There was the choir of kettle drums. And the hundred-pound alpine horn—the weight was specified in a footnote in the score. And the company of soldiers, marched in at the beginning of the penultimate movement to perform a variety of quasi-musical functions. The composer had even left behind sketches of how the orchestra and incidental ordnance should be arranged. It resembled a gargantuan church organ, with the musicians in the place of stops. Of course, the exaggerated size of the orchestra was justified—perhaps “excused” would be the preferred term today—by the work’s grandiose theme, which purported to tell the story of Man from his Creation to his future apotheosis.
Attitudes toward such spectacles have cooled over the preceding half century. I am fully aware that the symphony has become little more than an historical curiosity, Herr B ’s name known only among elite circles of appreciators, as well as through the pilgimmages to holy memory undertaken by men my age. I would be surprised to learn that the symphony had been performed more than a half-dozen times over the last fifty years, this though larger orchestras have become the norm, and the manufacture of musicians has assumed something of the character of the manufacture of munitions during wartime. Many would no doubt laugh at those critics who once hailed Herr B as L. von Beethoven’s only legitimate heir … particularly if they were to remember how many of these same critics lambasted Herr B ’s early works, calling them too discordant, too cacophonous—that is, too harmonically adventurous—for the taste of a public which, according to their own timid convictions, it was their job to represent, rather than help shape. And so it is difficult to communicate to the modern reader the excitement we all felt at the prospect of hearing the symphony for the first time in its entirety, as the composer had intended. If it is a work whose legend has outlasted its popularity, perhaps this was to be expected. Its initial fame, after all, resided largely in its unperformability—in its being, as the composer himself called it, a copestone left to posterity. What Herr B could never have predicted—what none of us could—was just how brief would be its moment in the sun. We might blame Herr V for this: for his overweening ambition to perform a work which might exist in its full scope and grandeur only in the listener’s imagination.
How to describe the follies that laid waste our waking hours in the weeks that followed our encounter with that broadside? The symphony came between us and every other intention—our studies as much as our debauchery. Our symposia became orgies of anticipation, as disquisitions on the symbolic or aesthetic import of certain passages and arguments about the composer’s intention—which, we agreed, was to affirm the triumph of Spirit over a materialistic, Darwinian view of Nature—usurped all debate, and then themselves devolved into impromptu a capella performances. We lived the glory of that symphony a thousand times before the concert arrived. Mind you, it was hardly just our salon that reacted in this way. The whole school was abuzz. If one student started to whistle a theme from the symphony, it wasn’t long before a second picked it up, and then a third; the whistle turned into a hum, the hum a song. We drummed the rhythms on the rails of the auditoria, driving our professors to furious distraction. And then there were the notes with bits of the score written on them, which we left in each other’s books and slipped into each other’s shoes and the pockets of each other’s frock coats. We began to vie for the oddest place to leave them, until one mistakenly appeared at the bottom of the rector’s soup bowl. By that time the disruption had become so general that the rector had no choice but to call an assembly, with the purpose of stamping out the demon of romantic inspiration. He spoke at length about the dangers of excess and the beauty of moderation. He praised the Greeks. The Greeks! With our Germanic blood coursing through our veins! Anyway, the decision had already been made: anyone caught humming, whistling, or otherwise reproducing a melody from “The Symphony of One Hundred Violins” would be subject to immediate disciplinary action, up to and including the possibility of expulsion.
Not even such threats could dampen our spirits. We had but little control over our wills; we were as men mesmerized, ventriloquized by a force greater than ourselves. And so collectively, if unconsciously, we called the masters’ bluff: they could not expel all of us. In the end, they must have decided it was better to let the day come and pass, and allow things themselves to return to normal, than to try to fight it. We had won.
As the day of the concert drew near, our society formulated a plan: we would catch the train to R the evening before, arriving at least twelve hours ahead of the majority of our classmates. Imagine our surprise, then, on finding the station already thronged, echoing with noisy conversation, hazy with the smoke of dozens of pipes. Had one of us told, or let slip, our secret? On seeing that crowd, I remember feeling disappointed. Every devotee probably believes himself more fanatical than the next. It is how he defines his adoration: the figure becomes his and his alone. But my disappointment was soon dispelled: I could not begrudge others for adoring what I did; and once I recognized this, our camaraderie became yet more fantastic. How many others, I wondered, had launched similar “secret” plans, only to confront a station full of brothers, just like us?
It was a joyfully rowdy trip. Arriving at R just past midnight, we trekked the half-mile to the Konzerthaus singing the opening Allegro in clipped double time, like soldiers marching off to battle. And as the great gloomy mass of that cathedral of art appeared in the distance, what did I see but yet more students crowding the gaslit Kuntzplatz before the gates? I admit, I felt the same twinge of disappointment—and then, once again, a surge of elation. Like the symphony, the concert was bigger than us, bigger than our university. They had come from all over Germany—from Heidelberg, from Leipzig, from Munich—from anywhere there was a university, anywhere art was made, loved, quarreled over. There was even a small group from as far away as Trieste, and one wild-eyed comrade who kept his distance claimed to be from Petersburg—certainly his thick accent suggested someplace exotic. Not for one moment did I sense any real jealousy or resentment between those already arrived and those who would continue arriving, in smaller and larger groups, all night and over the course of the next day. Each made immediate and fast friends with all. Oh, there was competition—intellectual competition, compared to which the debates of our little salon seemed but the bubblings of a tidal pool on the fringes of a sea. The group from Heidelberg claimed that the Symphony had no intrinsic meaning outside of its form—that its meaning was its form, or vice-versa. They were eventually shouted down by the group from Leipzig, who had assembled a detailed narrative around the work’s theme, keyed with the most fantastic exactitude to every passage in the score. They had even prepared a pamphlet for distribution. And when the debates broke up, we sang. And sang. How we sang! Who would not have believed art’s ability to create a Brotherhood of Man, seeing all the students of my generation engaged thus, debating, singing, telling stories, and passing casks of wine back and forth? If there was any dark spot in this brightest of nights, it had not anything to do with us, but rather that, as the morning drew on, and the crowd grew larger, so did the presence and boldness of the police. We cursed their dark, centaur-like figures, watching their horses’ breaths, occasionally launching a snowball or two at them. Anyway, we did not allow them to dampen our spirits any more than the masters had. We were the new generation triumphant; the future was ours.
I will never forget the moment of Herr V ’s arrival. He stepped out of a carriage, beyond the equine barricade the police had formed between the Konzerthaus gates and the throng in the Kuntzplatz, his long black cape flying, the stitched opening bars of the Ode to Joy rippling across it. Our reaction was immediate: we once again broke out in song. Somehow, we all managed to select the same melody, although neither I nor my closest comrades would remember any instructions being passed around to sing such-and-such melody when the maestro arrived. As for Herr V , his reaction was just as impromptu, and one for the ages. He paused; his small, square frame stood erect; he handed off his cane; his trim goatee twitched once; and then he began to conduct us with an invisible baton. For at least ten minutes he humored us in this way. Nor did we falter under his sure direction. And when he had brought our performance to a successful close, he turned to our imaginary audience—the edifice of the Konzerthaus—and bowed lengthily. Then he turned back to us, and made a motion as though for all of us to stand. Of course, we were all already standing; but when he turned again to bow, we followed his example, and then burst into applause as he marched off around the corner of the edifice, one fist held triumphantly aloft, cape flying.
This was at five. At six they opened the doors. There was no announcement; a breach simply appeared in the barricade of mounted police, and they sidled their horses so as to make a funnel toward the entrance. Then someone in the crowd imitated a trumpet call; we all recognized it as the climax of the Allegro. How could we not? We had been singing it all night. And perhaps we should not have reacted as we did; but it was indicative of the spirit of the moment that we all lurched forward together. What did they expect from a group of young men in the midst of living what was likely the greatest passion of our lives?
Rolf called out for the six of us to lock arms, and together we were impelled forward by the mass behind us. Our objective was the Balcony, affectionately known as the chicken coop: the space where, for a pittance or, as in this case, for free, students were more than happy to stand pressed shoulder to shoulder, all rank and disheveled, breathing the manly sweat of each other’s excitement, and frowning down on our powdered and perfumed betters. The Konzerthaus was the only place where we assumed our rightful position at the top of the spiritual hierarchy. But then it is said that the sound is better there, too, purified by its journey upwards, by the spirits of the great composers who have performed here: the notes are carried, as it were, on their breaths. Or perhaps it is because the experience is largely purified of vision: unless you happen to be against the railing, you will be staring at the back of somebody’s head, or at the chain of the great chandelier, or at the ornate moldings, or at the names of composers engraved in a band, or at the motes turning in the warm air … or simply closing your eyes and listening.
And yet, something about this performance compelled me to want to see: the sketch brought to life, the risers connected through elaborate networks of step-ladders, the arrangement of the orchestra itself a work of art—and still and all, what with the size of the assembly, the stage so crowded that the musicians practically had to sit in each other’s laps. To witness the miracle of a hundred violins bowed in unison through twenty measures of demisemiquavers. And I, who had always prided myself on my athleticism, began to feel held back—trying to run ahead of the pack, while the chain of my comrades yanked me every direction but forward.
For make no mistake: what a moment before had been the paragon of camaraderie had suddenly degenerated into a war of each against all. And I don’t know, will never know, if it was I who wrenched free of Rolf’s grip, or if Rolf simply decided to let me go, or if the violence of the seething throng simply tore us apart, like we were a chain of paper dolls. Whatever the case, I felt myself pull or pulled free.
We were not too far from the gate, rushing for the foot of the staircase that draped over the marble floor of the lobby like the hem of a gown. Woe to any usher who stood in our path; he was immediately submerged in the tidal wave of people. It was indeed a miracle that no one was trampled to death in the violence of our ascent. I saw one poor fellow who had gained the first landing, knocked to the floor but still crawling, kneed in the face, and his hand ground mercilessly into the carpet under someone’s stumbling heel. I myself clotheslined another, this in the act of using the head of a third as a pivot—in the heat of the moment I had mistaken it for a finial—and took the next flight of stairs three at a time, hoisting myself by whatever limbs happened to be around, the way a hiker will use the trunks of small trees to help propel him up a steep trail.
At the Dress Circle I was forced to hurdle two gentlemen locked shoulder to shoulder, snorting like rams vying for a mate. Two flights from the Balcony, my competition had begun to dwindle—and since the fewer we were, the more certain we were of achieving our objective, we stopped fighting amongst ourselves, and thus further increased our distance from the thrashing mob. At the next landing I couldn’t resist the urge to peer over the railing: a gale-tossed sea of students still struggling for position at the foot of the staircase, clinging to any available body part or article of clothing that might afford them a momentary advantage. It was enough. Laughing wildly, I sprinted the last dozen steps, and was one of the first handful to make the mad dash for the railing—so mad, in fact, that the lot of us almost toppled headlong over it, and into the empty Orchestra seats below.
For a few moments we were alone, a single row spread along the railing, in a hall silent but for the heaving of our breaths, the battles raging on the stairs barely audible. We gazed down upon a crush of unattended instruments and music stands and empty chairs, and on a fantastic network of step-ladders and risers whose fanlike shadows were thrown against the rear wall by lamps affixed to the loges and by the hundred flaming eyes of the great chandelier. The riser on which the alpine horn stood was almost level with the balcony; I could see clearly down into its maw. Although I had been to the Konzerthaus twice before, I felt that I was seeing it for the first time, so complete was the transformation wrought by this elaborate new construction.
We had only a moment to contemplate our surroundings in near-silence. It was like standing in the surf with our backs to a restless ocean, knowing at any moment its capricious violence might break over us. I don’t think anyone had been admitted to the Mezzanine yet, but if so, I can only imagine how terrific the stampede must have sounded, like the Spanish running of bulls. I had to cling to the railing with both hands, pushing back with all my might, as I was pummeled from behind by wave after wave of body upon arriving body, like the floors of a collapsing building, until their sheer weight threatened to cut me in two.
For the following several minutes there was a fair amount of cursing, and not a few scuffles broke out. I was pushed and pulled by people around me jostling for a place, forced to defend my ground with cocked elbows. Slowly, the atmosphere settled. And then all at once it exploded again—but now with the opposite emotion: the entire balcony broke out in cheers. We were inside! Someone patted me roughly on the back, as in congratulations. Turning, I did not know him; I could not even be sure it was he who had done the patting. We smiled beatifically at each other nonetheless, like fellow missionaries. I could not see the door for the sea of faces, all of which looked vaguely familiar, though not one of which I recognized. I experienced a fleeting sensation of despair, a desire to give up the place I had fought for so dearly in order to be with my comrades. It was dispelled by the thought that we were all comrades, brothers; and that, although we were here to enjoy the symphony collectively, the music itself could only be experienced personally, privately.
Meanwhile, the seats below us had begun to fill with the paying patrons, and musicians were milling about the stage. Restless, we occupied our time chanting, and occasionally cracking jokes at the expense of our betters, some of whom scowled up at us and threatened to have us ejected. Such empty threats were the best jokes of all. The slowly coalescing movements of the audience and musicians reminded me of nothing so much as the bacterial colonies I had observed under the microscope—at least, up until a few minutes before seven, when the influx became a torrent, everyone rushing up ladders and down aisles to assume their designated places. The last stragglers in both the orchestra and audience were just settling down when the first violin—first of a hundred!—appeared, and wended his way through a phalanx of bows raised like pikes, played the fatal note that would bring every individual strand of the orchestra together into a powerful unity of purpose.
Just as the last of these tones was fluttering away, the maestro made his entrance. The orchestra rose at his presence. The whole hall seemed to rock with their collective movement, as though audience and orchestra were sitting at opposite ends of a boat. Herr V had shed his cape, and traded his cane for baton; but in all other respects he was immediately recognizable as the man who had led our performance two hours earlier. Barely five feet tall, square-shouldered, hard as flint, with piercing blue eyes, he cleaved a remarkably straight path to the lip of the stage, where he took three quick bows and then assumed his place on the podium. The applause that greeted him was so thunderous I could barely hear my own hands clapping, and on the balcony we stomped our feet as well, until the whole Konzerthaus seemed threatened with collapse. But Herr V refused to wait, or to acknowledge us in any way beyond those brief bows. Perhaps the music, the event, history, impelled him too forcefully; and I imagine that, had it not been for the first massive A flat seven chord, seized upon by every musician in the orchestra, with all twenty kettle drums at full roll, we would still be applauding to this day. The sound settled over us like a blanket of iron. It was an object lesson in the power of that orchestra: no matter how loudly we could applaud, with a wave of the baton Herr V could easily drown us out. Not we, but he, could reduce the walls of the Haus to rubble—or make the whole marble and stone structure peal like a bell—or lift it a few feet off its foundation, and carry it wheresoever he desired. And I, too, would be carried with it, to spin on that lofty merry-go-round with the spirits of the eminent dead hovering around the chain of the chandelier …
After the first few minutes there was a perceptible falling off in my feeling of bliss. The main theme had developed from a lacuna directly following that introductory chord, and for its first few bars I could hear the whole balcony quietly humming along, until we were overtaken by the crescendo, and buried once again under the weighty beauty of the music. My ear, however, was growing accustomed to the hugeness of the sound. Heaven, I thought, must be a place of ever-changing splendor, or perhaps splendor so great it makes every attempt at earthly beauty seem squalid by comparison, our habituation to even the most glorious sensations just a measure of our distance from God. And yet, I counseled myself to be patient. I knew the symphony would carry me to yet-greater heights—would, in fact, carry me through every stage of human life and human civilization: from birth and youth through maturity, adulthood, middle age, and death; and from the Creation to the Fall, the enslavement and exile of the Jews, the measured wisdom of the ancients, the coming of the Redeemer; war, industry, capital, empire, and beyond, into our race’s glorious future; and that, at different moments, I would experience every sensation human beings were privy to: fear, pain, anger, sorrow, longing, exaltation, love … and in some moments, all of these at once. And so I was patient, and abandoned myself utterly to the music, as to some fantastic lover with whom I desired to be joined in apocalyptic copulation.
My symptoms—I can call them nothing else—started as twinges: a heart flutter; a sudden jerk in my veins, as though my blood had lost its viscosity, or hit a circulatory snag. Each faded almost as quickly as it appeared. I took them for what they no doubt were: responses to some of the more glorious passages in the music. The blood-snag, for example, happened near the finale of the “Pastorale” movement, after the symphony had wafted me over winding valleys shaded with the most delightful woods, tumbling streams bubbling with rain, up mountains clad foot to peak with mighty trees, to craggy peaks that plunged directly into the sea (shimmering flutes pounded by a battalion of horns, a lonely oboe now and again punctuating the tumult). Some such corporeal effects were to be expected, I reasoned—and not just expected, but welcomed, as evidence of the power the symphony exerted over every aspect of my being. My eyes did wander occasionally, to the faces on the other side of the balcony, lost in various attitudes of attention; my mind sometimes fled to my studies, my family—my father in particular; he loved music as I did. This was only to be expected; the performance was estimated to last more than four hours, longer than the train-ride of the evening before. On any great voyage, a man must occasionally look behind him, as though to assure himself that he could still glimpse the shores of his home country, fooling himself with clouds, all the time aware that he is at the mercy of the terrifying, relentless, Columbus-like figure bent over the bow, shaking his fist at the gale, swearing that there are unknown shores yet to be discovered.
In fifth movement, however, just as the symphony was beginning to build toward its most famous climax (the so-called Night-Clash of the Armies of the Spirit, or, The Festival of Cymbals), something within me underwent a radical change. I found that I could not draw a full breath. The more I tried, the more my throat constricted. And then my heart intermitted again—stopped—one beat, two—before lurching into motion again. Only it seemed to have lost its rhythm. As if it were searching for the rhythm of the symphony to beat to, and, unable to find it—but at the same time loathe to return to its original rhythm, mine—it remained stranded in a between-place, neither of my body nor of the eternal infinite.
My hands fumbled for the railing, gripped it tightly, just as they had before the concert, when I had defended my bit of ground. Only now it was me I tensed myself against—my heart, heaving in slow, dull, irregular thuds; my heart, no longer mine.
This was when it occurred to me that I was dying.
Dying! Yes, I was dying. In the middle of a throng too enraptured to notice or be in any way moved by my plight. Even if I slipped down to the floor, or doubled over the railing, they would take it as just one more manifestation of euphoria … and an opportunity to get a better view. My death would not be discovered until the concert had ended, my body stiff as a board, my hands still clamped to the railing …
My brain began to run through possible medical explanations for what I was experiencing. I had not eaten anything in almost twenty-four hours, and had drunk copious amounts of wine. Clearly I was dehydrated; and this, in combination with the exhaustion, excitement, and empty stomach, was causing my symptoms. I was faint, that was all; a cup of water and five minutes sitting, and I would be fine. The problem was where I was going to find a drink of water, and where to sit, packed as thickly as we were. I would never even make it to the landing, let alone out of the building. Add to this that I was not convinced of my diagnosis—that is, I could not convince myself I was not dying. Even on the off chance that I was able to find one of my comrades, what possibility did I actually have of convincing him of the gravity of my situation? They would no doubt chalk it up to a temporary effect of the music. I would cry out, saying, “No! No—you fool! Can’t you see? I am dying!” And in the event they could actually hear me, and distract themselves long enough from the music to understand what I was saying, all the while smiling that idiotic beatific smile, they would say, “Yes, yes—we all are! Isn’t it beautiful?”
And yet, what if they were right? What if, as I had originally suspected, it was the effect of the music? But if everyone was experiencing the same stimulus, then why weren’t we all experiencing the same symptoms? Why wasn’t everyone, anyone else, looking around them in a mad panic? Everyone I could see seemed immersed in the music, whether resting their elbows on the railing, chins perched on the heels of their hands, or listening with eyes closed.
Was it the case that I had abandoned myself too completely to the music—at the peril of my life? If so, why the fear? Was not my fear a product of my inability to abandon myself entirely to the music’s power, to allow myself to be spiritually eviscerated, my soul elevated to the point that it willed itself to part with my body and remain among the angels?
My hands loosed the railing, closed around my throat. Except it was not my throat my hands closed around, but rather that other, invisible pair of hands that had me in their grip. The reeling questions were replaced by pathetic visions of my earlier life: my father as a young man, smiling from behind the counter of our dry goods store; my sister in swaddling clothes; the lake beside my boyhood home, a rowboat moored among the reeds; a cart full of apples parked beside the stables … Yes, I was dying—of that I was certain. But how I was dying! I was dying the most perfect death possible. Greater than any soldier’s in the deciding battle of a war. Greater than a mother’s for her only child. More perfect than a glutton drowned in chocolate, an adulterer smothered between his mistress’s thighs. I began to imagine my body coming apart in the air, my atoms and its atoms vibrating together; or as a lump of some chemical salt slowly dissolving in the musical liquid into which I had been dropped. To think I might have spent my life dying like the good Protestant I was, frugally wasting away—my mother had died such a death. Or in a stroke of bad luck, like had taken some of my friends, one of whom had stepped in front of a tram on the way to visit his fianceé. I, I alone, had been chosen to die this way. Such a beautiful death was the greatest privilege that could be bestowed on any human being. Even more, this greatest of honors would make a legend of me. A rash of new young Werthers would follow in my footsteps, planning their own elaborate deaths to coincide with the climactic moments of great symphonies. The work had singled me out, decided to make of me its glorious victim; and here I was, the wretch, the hypocrite, desperate to find a way out!
Now, the most perfect death—in a sense the only death possible—would have to occur at the climax of the Symphony, during the Festival of Cymbals. And so I began trying to modulate my death, the way a master composer will a great theme: moving it into new and unexpected key areas, in the quest to suspend the ultimate resolution, my own perfect authentic cadence. I clenched and unclenched my damp hands; I ground my teeth together; I opened my eyes as wide as they would go, squeezed them shut again. The whole time I was thus engaged, my brain was flooded with visions of a hundred deaths, each more grotesque than the last, and yet also more beautiful. In one, the conductor’s baton became a sacrificial knife, the podium an altar; and the whole orchestra were transformed into eagle warriors, gathered round the High Priest of the Sun, eagerly awaiting the appearance of my heart, ripped from my chest, still beating!
In the meantime the ecstatic march toward the Festival of Cymbals had begun: the winds played a busy pianissimo that wound ever-upwards, like ashes in a flue, over a rumble of tympani more felt than heard. The remainder of the orchestra were all in a hush. And then the strings entered—not all at once, but piecemeally, sawing longingly beneath the winds. More entered with each measure, adding figure after figure, and the character of the music altered radically, like the surface of the sea under the first gusts of an arriving tempest. The horns came last, picking up the original sighing melody abandoned by the strings, while the latter grew more and more frantic, and the tympani louder. And then the soldiers, who since their arrival at the beginning of the movement had stood still as toys, began to march in place, resembling nothing so much as dancers of Ireland, or Spain. I glanced down at Herr V , his left hand slowly rising, as though pushing up the orchestra, the music, the very sky, while the baton in his right stood straight as a lightning rod, ready to pierce that sky, or pointing to somewhere above it.
By this time my legs had begun to tremble and my arms felt too weak to lift. Black dots had appeared before my eyes, which I now closed in order to focus wholly on the music. I thought I could hear the sound of a triangle, as though from a great distance, and took one wobbly step backwards. I felt myself cradled by unfamiliar arms. I was preparing to fall forward, and did not want to go over the railing, and have my death mistaken for a suicide, or an accident. They might say a vessel had burst, and that much would be true: the vessel of my body!
It would happen just as I had hoped—during the Festival of Cymbals! I had been resisting, ever resisting, but now my whole Will was behind it: I surrendered the whole of my being to the infinite; I was sure it had already begun to fill me. The triangle had disappeared; the hoofbeats of Death’s horse emerged from within the sanctum of the tympani. His scythe would fall the moment the cymbals began to crash, shattering my body like a beaker, while my volatile spirit was carried off, Death pulling it up like an awaiting maiden onto His steed …
Nothing. I drew a full breath, almost a yawn. My heart pitched and settled. I belched once, loudly, probably from all the air I had swallowed. It was unlikely anybody heard, what with the orchestra at near-full swell. The newspapers the next day would not report “Climactic Moment of Great Symphony Ruined by Loud Belch.” But neither, I now realized, would they read “Romantic Medical Student ‘Carried Off’ by Great Symphony.” I would not be the toast of future artistic circles. Maestros would not make pilgrimmages to sit under my linden trees. My name would not be whispered among aesthetes yet to be born. No, none of this would be mine. I was not dying; I was not dead.
Was I glad to have my life back, gulping down mouthfuls of air? Did I rejoice at the steady beat of my heart? The air smelled musty, the people around me rank. I felt hot, and exhausted, and sick to my stomach. I could barely keep my back straight. I wanted nothing more than a cold drink of water, and to lie down in my bed.
My bed! My wretched, bug-ridden little cot! When a moment before …
The cruelest thing about it was this: the climax hadn’t yet arrived. The crescendo was still building. It would have been one thing to return to normal after that supreme moment. Then I might have said to my friends, “You know, I thought I was dying for a while there, but when the horn sounded at the end of the Festival of Cymbals, I was miraculously restored to life.”
Of course, this was exactly what I would tell them. I could not bring myself to ridicule myself. I could never have said, for example, “It turned out to be just a bad case of indigestion.”
I was seized by a sudden desperation to die. I could still die during the Festival of Cymbals, I decided, if I just focused my whole being upon it. And so I prayed for death. I chanted the word silently to myself: die, die, die. I clenched every muscle in my body, bowel to jaw, as though by doing so I could stamp out all involuntary life processes—respiration, circulation, peristalsis. I pressed my chest against the rail until those black dots reappeared before my eyes, drove my nails into the wood. The pain only served to remind me that I was still alive. Still alive! I would have beat my brains out, let them rain down on my betters—except that would have been too forced, too obvious. A moment later, I was watching the whole spectacle of my desperation as though from across the balcony, and nothing could have looked more ridiculous. What I was attempting now was but a vain parody of that most glorious of deaths
In the end I couldn’t even make myself black out. I stood there heaving, tears welling in my eyes, as the Festival of Cymbals began. And when I threw my head back and screamed, it was not out of rapture, as everyone around me surely presumed, but complete and utter despair. The Festival of Cymbals was no more than a cant name for a cacophony pretending to spiritual exaltation. Of course, I was convinced that it sounded like this only to me: only I had been struck blind to all beauty at the very moment I should have gained Paradise. And at the time I could not decide whether it was I who was the coward, without the fortitude to follow the music—not my heart, not my blood, but my mind—my stupid, bitter, stubborn, jealous, rational little mind; or whether it was the music that had cruelly spurned me at the gates, and with a firm kick in the arse and great sneering laugh thrust back into my body as into a suit of rags, to live the rest of my life in desire, without hope.
What is left to tell? I spent the endless, meditative last movement contemplating whether to throw myself off the balcony. It was Rolf who spotted me slinking along the alleys on my way back to the train, hiding amid the chanting hordes. He must have seen the haunted expression I threw back at him when I heard myself hailed. Reunited with my comrades, I tried as best I could to pretend to exult with them. Of course, they all wanted to know whether and what I had been able to see; Werner had not even made it inside the auditorium. They razzed and prodded me, roared with laughter, waited with immense expectation. I tried to describe for them what I had seen—this, and the experience of thinking I had been dying, until the Festival of Cymbals … the Festival of Cymbals … had rescued me. It was not a lie, exactly. It was an anticipation, a syncopation. Twenty measures. It could be easily overlooked. I hoped they would take the trembling of my voice, my inability to find the appropriate words, as a sign that I was overwhelmed with emotion. But I was sure they saw through my waxen smile. At least Rolf did, and as we neared the station he grew more and more quiet. Whatever Rolf had understood, my own perspective was more terrible: I could not make myself believe that my comrades were telling the truth about their own emotional experiences. In my eyes, we were all impostors.
I left the society, which disbanded shortly after. Neither did it take long for things at the University to return to normal. The masters, it seemed, had been right. I doubled up on my studies, and at the end of my third year surprised everyone by announcing that I would not become a doctor. But I had the soul of a doctor, the masters counseled me. I was born for medicine, my father said. I deeply cared about people. Rubbish! Animated clay, the lot of us. Motorized sacks of bone, blood and sinew. No, my mind was made up: I was going to be a pathologist.
I graduated with honors.
I have spent more than fifty years rummaging through cadavers, every one of them (by definition!) once a living, breathing human being, each with his own memories, and desires, and dreams. I have spent half a century trying to cajole the secret of life from them. Not once have they ever answered back. And so I have come to take their muteness for proof: there is no secret. I still make my query—these days it is really pro forma—and once I have done so, I go on to explain, with the first incisions, that I would have been where they are now, many, many years before, only I had gotten wise, seen it all for a mirage, and decided it was not my time to follow.
Now, however, my body gives me no choice. They—my colleagues, that is; the ones who send me the cadavers—have given me three months to live. Not that they have been able to find anything wrong with me. But given the current state of my health, and the progress of my “disease,” and provided we are unable to find any way to halt its ravages …
No matter: I have been provided with more morphine than I shall ever need. They might have given it to me fifty years ago. A lifetime of pain. A lifetime spent trying to discount the experience of one evening, to chalk it up to some imbalance of mood, or fever; to convince myself that it was a hallucination brought on by an excess of stimuli and heat exhaustion; a harsh lesson intended to cure me of those myths my comrades and I had argued over so passionately. What do I mean, intended? You see the problem, how hard it is to pull idealism up by its root. I have never been able to disbelieve entirely. If I had, I might have lived happily. I might have been a good doctor.
For fifty years I have watched the world decline. They say another war is coming, but it is hardly necessary. Humanity is finished; everybody knows it, the young as well as the old. Among the many techonological advances I witnessed over the course of those decades, the vast majority of them ways to maim and kill with more brutal efficiency, there is one I have grown partial to. It is that little invention called the gramophone. If for many years I listened to no music at all—if I avoided invitations to concerts, and fled the room the moment a colleague broke out in song, or sat down at a piano—if occasionally even the mere mention of music was enough to nauseate me—if I have preferred the silence of the lab and the charnel-house to the supposed murmurings of the spirit—granted all of the above, none of it stopped me from purchasing one of these machines the moment Herr B ’s great symphony became available. To my knowledge, it has not been recorded again. But then it is something of a miracle that it was recorded at all. And not just because of its present-day obscurity. It spans thirty-six records, each of which must be turned, and then removed to make way for the next. The Festival of Cymbals itself takes up one whole side. It would be difficult to think of a medium less well suited to such a monumental work—or, for that matter, better suited to the anonymous, ephemeral primitivisms I hear blaring from cafés I pass on my nightly walks. That said, it was recently explained to me that, because of the great variety of sounds and dynamics Herr B ’s symphony employs, it has served as a sort of test-case for what the new technology can or cannot reproduce. Through just such ludicrous contingencies are some of the greatest works of art preserved.
By repeated listenings I have been able to reconstruct the events of the evening I have just related. It appears that each moment’s perception, each hair’s-breadth shade of emotion, had been preserved in a species of cerebral amber, awaiting the sound of the symphony to re-liquefy the resin in which it had been trapped, and restore it to life. It has allowed me to pinpoint the exact moment of my fall, my loss of faith; to scrutinize it, like a bacterium under a microscope. But more—oh, so much more—it has given me hope of restitution. One night, after taking a few extra drops of morphine, I will assume my customary position beside the machine, the horn just inches from my face, so that I can look right down into it, as into the blackest abyss, the Festival of Cymbals on the platter, and, with the disposition of a diver standing on a cliff’s edge, slowly begin to crank the handle. It is not much, this bit of wax Liebestod, this effigy of Spirit, this prosthetic transcendence—turning and replacing records, cranking the handle of a machine. Nothing can ever be replaced, but some things can be substituted.