Michael Hersch-In the Snowy Margins (live)

Posted on June 26th, 2011 by


Michael Hersch-In the Snowy Margins (2010)

(‘Thus far and no further. But what has become of the end of the world….’)

‘In the Snowy Margins’ on the practise desk, along with ‘select preludes or Volentarys for ye Violin’ (Walsh & Hare 1705)

London Premiere

Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Violin (Stradivari 1698)
St Bartholomew the Great London
21 9 2010

Michael Hersch

‘In the Snowy Margins…’ is, like much of Hersch’s work, grounded in literature and art. The writer and Poet Bruno Schulz was shot by a Nazi officer in 1942. The title, and the ‘motto’ of this work, are both to be found in Schulz’z 1934 The Comet.  I reproduce the whole text below. I do not want to suggest for a minute that Hersch’s response to text is illustrative.  However, like Judith Bingham and Judith Weir, he seems to relish an allusory referencing to texts which speak to him very directly. He also has very particular taste in visual art-I feel that he finds a degree of common ground between the drwing of Schulze, and those of Michael Mazur, which have inspired his string quartet ‘In a Closed Ward’.

Schulze in 1934, the year he wrote ‘The Comet’

The Comet

Bruno Schulz, 1934

THAT YEAR the end of the winter stood under the sign of particularly favorable astronomical aspects. The predictions in the calendar flourished in red in the snowy margins of the mornings. The brighter red of Sundays and Holy days cast its reflection on half the week and these weekdays burned coldly, with a freak, rapid flame. Human hearts beat more quickly for a moment, misled and blinded by the redness, which, in fact, announced nothing, being merely a premature alert, a colorful lie of the calendar, painted in bright cinnabar on the jacket of the week. From Twelfth Night onwards, we sat night after night over the white parade-ground of the table gleaming with candlesticks and silver, and played endless games of patience. Every hour, the night beyond the windows became lighter, sugarcoated and shiny, filled with sprouting almonds and sweetmeats. The moon, that most inventive transmogrifier, wholly engrossed in her lunar practices, accomplished her successive phases and grew ever brighter and brighter. Already by day, the moon stood in the wings, prematurely ready for her cue, brassy and lustreless. Meanwhile whole flocks of feather clouds passed like sheep across her profile on their silent white extensive wandering, barely covering her with the shimmering mother-of-pearl scales into which the firmament froze towards the evening.

Later on, the pages of days turned emptily. The wind roared over the roofs, blew through the cold chimneys to the very hearths, built over the city imaginary scaffoldings and grandstands and then destroyed these resounding air-filled structures with a clatter of planks and beams. Sometimes, a fire would start in a distant suburb. The

chimney-sweeps explored the city at roof level among the gables under a gaping verdigris sky. Climbing from one foothold to another, on the weather vanes and flagpoles, they dreamed that the wind would open for them for a moment the lids of roofs over the alcoves of young girls and close them again immediately on the great stormy book of the city-providing them with breathtaking reading matter for many days and nights.

Then the wind grew weary and blew itself out. The shop assistants dressed the shop window with spring fabrics and soon the air became milder from the soft colours of these woollens. It turned lavender blue, it flowered with pale reseda. The snow shrank, folded itself up into an infant fleece, evaporated drily into the air, drunk by the cobalt breezes, and was absorbed again by the vast sunless and cloudless sky. Oleanders in pots began to flower here and there inside the houses, windows remained open for longer, and the thoughtless chirping of sparrows filled the room, dreaming in the dull blue day. Over the cleanly swept squares, tom tits and chaffinches clashed for a moment in violent skirmishes with an alarming twittering, and then scattered in all directions, blown away by the breeze, erased, annihilated in the empty azure. For a second, the eyes held the memory of coloured speckles-a handful of confetti flung blindly into the air-then they dissolved in the fundus of the eye.

The premature spring season began. The advocates’ juniors twirled their moustaches, turning up the ends, wore high stiff collars and were paragons of elegance and fashion. On days hollowed out by winds as by a flood, when gales roared high above the city, the young lawyers greeted the ladies of their acquaintance from a distance, doffing their sombre coloured bowler hats and leaning their backs against the wind so that their coat tails opened wide. They then immediately averted their eyes, with a show of self-denial and delicacy so as not to expose their beloved to unnecessary gossip. The ladies momentarily lost the ground under their feet, exclaimed with alarm amidst their billowing skirts and, regaining their balance, returned the greeting with a smile.

In the afternoon the wind would sometimes calm down. On the balcony Adela began to clean the large brass saucepans that clattered metallically under her touch. The sky stood immobile over the shingle roofs, stock-still, then folded itself into blue streaks. The shop assistants, sent over from the shop on errands, lingered endlessly by Adela on the threshold of the kitchen, propped against the balcony rails, drunk from the day-long wind, confused by the deafening twitter of sparrows. From the distance, the breeze brought the faint chorus of barrel-organ. One could not hear the soft words which the young men sang in undertones, with an innocent expression but which in fact were meant to shock Adela. Stung to the quick, she would react violently, and, most indignant, scold them angrily, while her face grey and dulled from early spring dreams, would flush with anger and amusement. The men lowered their eyes with assumed innocence and wicked satisfaction at having succeeded in upsetting her.

Days and afternoons came and went, everyday events streamed in confusion over the city seen from the level of our balcony, over the labyrinth of roofs and houses bathed in the opaque light of those grey weeks. The tinkers rushed around, shouting their wares. Sometimes Abraham’s powerful sneeze gave comical emphasis to the distant, scattered tumult of the city. In a far-away square the mad Touya, driven to despair by the nagging of small boys, would dance her wild saraband, lifting high her skirt to the amusement of the crowd. A gust of wind smoothed down and levelled out these sounds, melted them into the monotonous, grey din, spreading uniformly over the sea of shingle roofs in the milky, smoky air of the afternoon. Adela, leaning against the balcony rails, bent over the distant, stormy roar of the city, caught from it all the louder accents and, with a smile put together the lost syllables of a song trying to join them, to read some sense into the rising and falling grey monotony of the day.

It was the age of electricity and mechanics and a whole swarm of inventions was showered on the world by the resourcefulness of human genius. In middle class homes cigar sets appeared equipped with an electric lighter: you pressed a switch and a sheaf of electric sparks lit a wick soaked in petrol. The inventions gave rise to exaggerated hopes. A musical box in the shape of a Chinese pagoda would, when wound, begin to play a little rondo while turning like a merry-go-round. Bells tinkled at intervals, the doors flapped wide to show the turning barrel playing a snuff-box triolet. In every house electric bells were installed. Domestic life stood under the sign of galvanism. A spool of insulated wire became the symbol of the times. Young dandies demonstrated Galvani’s invention in drawing rooms and were rewarded with radiant looks from the ladies. An electric conductor opened the way to women’s hearts. After an experiment had succeeded, the heroes of the day blew kisses all round, amidst the applause of the drawing rooms.

It was not long before the city filled with velocipedes of various sizes and shapes. An outlook based on philosophy became obligatory. Whoever admitted to a belief in progress had to draw the logical conclusion and ride a velocipede. Tile first to do so were of course the advocates’ juniors, that vanguard of new ideas, with their waxed moustaches and their bowler hats, the hope and flower of youth. Pushing through the noisy mob, they rode through the traffic on enormous bicycles and tricycles which displayed their wire spokes. Placing their hands on wide handlebars, they manoeuvred from the high saddle the enormous hoop of the wheel and cut into the amused mob in a wavy line. Some of them succumbed to apostolic zeal. Lifting themselves on their moving pedals, as if on stirrups, they addressed the crowd from on high, forecasting a new happy era for mankind- salvation through the bicycle . . . And they rode on amid the applause of the public, bowing in all directions.

And yet there was something grievously embarrassing in those splendid and triumphal rides, something painful and unpleasant which even at the summit of their success threatened to disintegrate into parody. They must have felt it themselves when, hanging like spiders among the delicate machinery, straddled on their pedals like great jumping frogs, they performed duck-like movements above the wide turning wheels. Only a step divided them from ridicule and they took it with despair, leaning over the handlebars and redoubling the speed of their ride, in a tangle of violent head over heels gymnastics. Can one wonder? Man was entering under false pretences the sphere of incredible facilities, acquired too cheaply, below cost price, almost for nothing, and the disproportion between outlay and gain, the obvious fraud on nature, the excessive payment for a trick of genius, had to be offset by self-parody. The cyclists rode on among elemental outbursts of laughter-miserable victors, martyrs to their genius-so great was the comic appeal of these wonders of technology.

When my brother brought an electromagnet for the first time from school, when with a shiver we all sensed by touch the vibrations of the mysterious life enclosed in an electric circuit, my father smiled a superior smile. A long-range idea was maturing in his mind; there merged and forged a chain of ideas he had had for a long time. Why did father smile to himself, why did his eyes turn up, misty, in a parody of mock admiration? Who can tell? Did he foresee the coarse trick, the vulgar intrigue, the transparent machinations behind the amazing manifestations of the secret force? Yet that moment marked a turning point: it was then that father began his laboratory experiments.

Father’s laboratory equipment was simple: a few spools of wire, a few bottles of acid, zinc, lead and carbon-these constituted the workshop of that very strange esoterist. “Matter,” he said, modestly lowering his eyes and stifling a cough, “matter, gentlemen…” He did not finish his sentence, he left his listeners guessing that he was about to expose a big swindle, that all we who sat there, were being taken for a ride. With downcast eyes my father quietly sneered at that age-long fetish. “Panta rei!” he exclaimed, and indicated with a movement of his hands the eternal circling of substance. For a long time he had wanted to mobilise the forces hidden in it, to make its stiffness melt, to pave its way to universal penetration, to transfusion, to universal circulation in accordance with its true nature.

“Principium individuationis-my foot,” he used to say, thus expressing his limitless contempt for that guiding human principle. He threw out these words in passing, while running from wire to wire. He half-closed his eyes and touched delicately various points of the circuit, feeling for the slight differences in potential. He made incisions in the wire, leant over it, listening, and immediately moved ten steps further, to repeat the same gestures at another point of the circuit. He seemed to have a dozen hands and twenty senses. His brittle attention wandered to a hundred places at once. No point in space was free from his suspicions. He leant over to pierce the wire at some place and then, with a sudden jump backwards, he pounced at another like a cat on its prey and, missing, became confused. “I am sorry,” he would say, addressing himself unexpectedly to the astonished onlooker. “I am sorry, I am concerned with that section of space which you are filling. Couldn’t you move a little to one side for a minute?” And he quickly made some lightning measurements, agile and nimble as a canary twitching efficiently under the impulses of its sympathetic system.

The metals dipped in acid solutions, salty and rusting in that painful bath, began to conduct in darkness. Awakened from their stiff lifelessness, they hummed monotonously, sang metallically, shone molecularly in the incessant dusk of those mournful and late days. Invisible charges rose in the poles and swamped them, escaping into the circling darkness. An imperceptible tickling, a blind prickly current traversed the space polarised into concentric lines of energy, into circles and spirals of a magnetic field. Here and there an awakened apparatus would give out signals, another would reply a moment later, out of turn, in hopeless monosyllables, dash-dot-dash in the intervals of a dull lethargy. My father stood amongst those wandering currents, a smile of suffering on his face, impressed by that stammering articulation, by the misery, shut in once and for all, irrevocably, which was monotonously signalling in crippled half-syllables from the unliberated depths.

As a consequence of these researches, my father achieved amazing results. He proved for instance that an electric bell, built on the principle of Neeff’s hammer, is an ordinary mystification. It was not man who had broken into the laboratory of nature, but nature that had drawn him into its machinations, achieving through his experiments its own obscure aims. My father would touch during dinner the nail of his thumb with the handle of a spoon dipped in soup, and suddenly Neeff’s bell would begin to rattle inside the lamp. The whole apparatus was quite superfluous, quite unnecessary: Neeff’s bell was the point of convergence of certain impulses of matter, which used man’s ingenuity for its own purposes. It was Nature that willed and worked, man was nothing more than an oscillating arrow, the shuttle of a loom, darting here or there according to Nature’s will. He was himself only a component, a part of Neeff’s hammer.

Somebody once mentioned “mesmerism” and my father took this up too, immediately. The circle of his theories had closed, he had found the missing link. According to his theory, man was only a transit station, a temporary junction of mesmeric currents, wandering hither and thither within the lap of eternal matter. All the inventions in which he took such pride were traps into which nature had enticed him, were snares of the unknown. Father’s experiments began to acquire the character of magic and legerdemain, of a parody of juggling. I won’t mention the numerous experiments with pigeons which, by manipulating a wand, he multiplied into two, four or ten, only to enclose them, with visible effort, back again into the wand. He would raise his hat and out they flew fluttering, one by one, returning to reality in their full complement and settling on the table in a wavy, mobile, cooing heap. Sometimes father interrupted himself at an unexpected point of the experiment, stood up undecided, with half-closed eyes and, after a second, ran with tiny steps to the entrance hall where he put his head into the chimney shaft. It was dark there, bleak from soot, cosy as in the very centre of nothingness, and warm currents of air streamed up and down. Father closed his eyes and stayed there for a time in that warm, black void. We all felt that the incident had little to do with the matters in hand, that it somehow occurred at the back stage of things we inwardly shut our eyes to that marginal fact which belonged to quite a different dimension.

My father had in his repertoire some really depressing tricks that filled one with true melancholy. We had in our dining room a set of chairs with tall backs, beautifully carved in the realistic manner into garlands of leaves and flowers; it was enough for father to flip the carvings and they suddenly acquired an exceptionally witty physiognomy; they began to grimace and wink significantly. This could become extremely embarrassing, almost unbearable, for the winking took on a wholly definite direction, an irresistible inevitability and one or another of those present would suddenly exclaim: “Aunt Wanda, by God, Aunt Wanda!” The ladies began to scream for it really was Aunt Wanda’s true image; it was more than that-it was she herself on a visit, sitting at table and engaging in never-ending discourses during which one could never get a word in edgeways. Father’s miracles cancelled themselves out automatically, for he did not produce a ghost but the real Aunt Wanda in all her ordinarinees and commonness, which excluded any thought of a possible miracle.

Before we relate the other events of that memorable winter, we might shortly mention a certain incident which has been always hushed up in our family. What exactly had happened to Uncle Edward? He came at that time to stay with us, unsuspecting, in sparkling good health and full of plans, having left his wife and small daughter in the country. He just came in the highest of spirits, to have a little change and some fun away from his family. And what happened? Father’s experiments made a tremendous impression on him. After the first few tricks, he got up, took off his coat and placed himself entirely at father’s disposal. Without reservations! He said this with a piercing direct look and stressed it with a strong and earnest handshake. My father understood. He made sure that Uncle had no traditional prejudices regarding “principium individuationis.” It appeared that he had none, none at all. Uncle had a progressive mind and no prejudices. His only passion was to serve Science.

At first father left him a degree of freedom. He was making preparations for a decisive experiment. Uncle Edward took advantage of his leisure to look round in the city. He bought himself a bicycle of imposing dimensions and rode it around Market Square, looking from the height of his saddle into the windows of first floor flats. Passing our house, he would elegantly lift his hat to the ladies standing in the window. He had a twirled, upturned moustache and a small pointed beard. Soon however, Uncle discovered that a bicycle could not introduce him into the deeper secrets of mechanics, that that astonishing machine was unable to provide lasting metaphysical thrills. And then the experiments began, based on the “principium individuationis.” Uncle Edward had no objections at all to being physically reduced, for the benefit of science, to the bare principle of Neeff’s hammer. He agreed without regret to a gradual shedding of all his characteristics in order to lay bare his deepest self, in harmony, as he had felt for a long time, with that very principle.

Having shut himself in his study, father began the gradual penetration into Uncle Edward’s complicated essence by a tiring psychoanalysis which lasted for many days and nights. The table of the study began to fill with the isolated complexes of Edward’s ego. At first Uncle, although much reduced, turned up for meals and tried to take part in our conversations. He also went once more for a ride on his bicycle, but soon gave it up as he felt rather incomplete. A kind of shame took hold of him, characteristic for the stage at which he found himself. He began to shun people. At the same time, father was getting ever nearer to his objective. He had reduced Uncle to the indispensable minimum, by removing from him one by one all the inessentials. He placed him high in a wall recess in the staircase, arranging his elements in accordance with the principle of Leclanche’s reaction. The wall in that place was mouldy and white mildew showed on it. Without any scruples father took advantage of the entire stock of Uncle’s enthusiasm, he spread his flex along the length of the entrance hall and the left wing of the house. Armed with a pair of steps he drove small nails into the wall of the dark passage, along the whole path of Uncle’s present existence. Those smoky, yellow afternoons were almost completely dark. Father used a lighted candle with which he illuminated the mildewy wall at close quarters, inch by inch. I have heard it said that at the last moment Uncle Edward, until then heroically composed, showed a certain impatience. They say that there was even a violent, although belated, explosion which very nearly ruined the almost completed work. But the installation was ready and Uncle Edward, who all his life had been a model husband, father and businessman, eventually submitted with dignity to his final role.

Uncle functioned excellently. There was no instance of his refusal to obey. Having discarded his complicated personality, in which at one time he had lost himself, he found at last the purity of a uniform and straightforward guiding principle to which he was subjected from now on. At the cost of his complexity, which he could manage only with difficulty, he had now achieved a simple problem-free immortality. Was he happy? One would ask that question in vain. A question like this makes sense only when applied to creatures who are rich in alternative, possibilities, so that the actual truth can be contrasted with partly real probabilities and reflect itself in them. But Uncle Edward had no alternatives; the dichotomy “happy/unhappy” did not exist for him because he had been completely integrated. One had to admit to a grudging approval when one saw how punctually, how accurately he was functioning. Even his wife, Aunt Teresa, who followed him to our city, could not stop herself from pressing the button quite often, in order to hear that loud and sonorous sound in which she recognised the former timbre of her husband’s voice in moments of irritation. As to their daughter, Edy, one might say that she was fascinated by her father’s career. Later, it is true, she took it out on me, avenging my father’s action, but that is part of a different story.

 

II

 

The days passed, the afternoons grew longer: there was nothing to do in them. The excess of time, still raw, still sterile and without use, lengthened the evenings with empty dusks. Adela, after washing up early and clearing the kitchen, stood idly on the balcony looking vacantly at the pale redness of the evening distance. Her beautiful eyes, so expressive at other times, were blank from dull reveries, protruding, large and shining. Her complexion, at the end of winter matted and grey from kitchen smells, now, under the influence of the springwards gravitation of the moon which was waxing from quarter to quarter, became younger, acquired milky reflexes, opaline shades and the glaze of enamel. She now had the whip hand over the shop assistants who cringed under her dark looks, discarded the role of would-be cynics, frequenters of city taverns and other places of ill repute, and, enraptured by her new beauty, sought a different method of approach, ready to make concessions towards putting the relationship on a new basis and to recognise positive facts.

Father’s experiments did not, in spite of expectations, produce any revolution in the life of the community. The grafting of mesmerism on the body of modern physics did not prove fertile. It was not because there was no grain of truth in father’s discoveries. But truth is not a decisive factor for the success of an idea. Our metaphysical hunger is limited and can be satisfied quickly. Father was just standing on the threshold of new revelations when we, the ranks of his adherents and followers, began to succumb to discouragement and anarchy. The signs of impatience became ever more frequent: there were even open protestations. Our nature rebelled against the relaxation of fundamental laws, we were fed up with miracles and wished to return to the old, familiar, solid prose of the eternal order. And father understood this. He understood that he had gone too far, and put a rein on the flight of his fancies. The circle of elegant female disciples and male followers with waxed moustaches began to melt away day by day. Father, wishing to withdraw with honour, was intending to give a final concluding lecture, when suddenly a new event turned everybody’s attention in a completely unexpected direction.

One day my brother, on his return from school, brought the improbable and yet true news of the imminent end of the world. We asked him to repeat it, thinking that we had misheard. We hadn’t. This is what that incredible, that completely baffling piece of news was: unready and unfinished, just as it was, at a random point in time and space, without closing its accounts, without having reached any goal, in mid-sentence as it were, without a full stop or exclamation mark, without a last judgement or God’s Wrath-in an atmosphere of friendly understanding, loyally, by mutual agreement and in accordance with rules observed by both parties-the world was to be hit on the head, simply and irrevocably. No, it was not to be an eschatological, tragic finale as forecast long ago by the prophets, nor the last act of the Divine Comedy. No. It was to be a trick cyclist’s, a prestidigitator’s, end of the world, splendidly hocus-pocus and bogus-experimental- accompanied by the plaudits of all the spirits of Progress. There was almost no one to whom the idea would not appeal. The frightened, the protesters, were immediately hushed up. Why did not they understand that this was a simply incredible chance, the most progressive, freethinking end of the world imaginable, in line with the spirit of the times, an honourable end, a credit to the Supreme Wisdom? People discussed it with enthusiasm, drew pictures “ad oculos” on pages torn from pocket notebooks, provided irrefutable proofs, knocking their opponents and the sceptics out of the ring. In illustrated journals whole-page pictures began to appear, drawings of the anticipated catastrophe with effective staging. These usually represented panic-stricken populous cities under a night sky resplendent with lights and astronomical phenomena. One saw already the astonishing action of the distant comet, whose parabolic summit remained in the sky in immobile flight, still pointing towards the earth, and approaching it at a speed of many miles per second. As in a circus farce, hats and bowlers rose into the air, hair stood on end, umbrellas opened by themselves and bald patches were disclosed under escaping wigs-and above it all there spread a black enormous sky, shimmering with the simultaneous alert of all the stars.

Something festive had entered our lives, an eager enthusiasm. An importance permeated our gestures and swelled our chests with cosmic sighs. The earthly globe seethed at night with a solemn uproar from the unanimous ecstasy of thousands. The nights were black and vast. The nebulae of stars around the earth became more numerous and denser. In the dark interplanetary spaces these stars appeared in different positions, strewing the dust of meteors from abyss to abyss. Lost in the infinite, we had almost forsaken the earthly globe under our feet; we were disorientated, losing our bearings; we hung head down like antipodes over the upturned zenith and wandered over the starry heaps, moving a wetted finger across maps of the sky, from star to star. Thus we meandered in extended, disorderly, single file, scattering in all directions on the rungs of the infinite ladders of the night- emigrants from the abandoned globe, plundering the immense antheap of stars. The last barriers fell, the cyclists rode into stellar space, rearing on their vehicles, and were perpetuated in an immobile flight in the interplanetary vacuum, which revealed ever new constellations. Thus circling on an endless track, they marked the paths of a sleepless cosmography, while in reality, black as soot, they succumbed to a planetary lethargy, as if they had put their heads into the fireplace, the final goal of all those blind flights.

After short, incoherent days, partly spent in sleeping, the nights opened up like an enormous, populated motherland. Crowds filled the streets, turned out in public squares, head close to head, as if the top of a barrel of caviar had been removed and it was now flowing out in a stream of shiny buckshot, a dark river under a pitch-black night noisy with stars. The stairs broke under the weight of thousands, at all the upper floor windows little figures appeared, matchstick people jumping over the rails in a moonstruck fervour, making living chains, like ants, living structures and columns-one astride another’s shoulders- flowing down from windows to the platforms of squares lit by the glare of burning tar barrels.

I must beg forgiveness if in describing these scenes of enormous crowds and general uproar, I tend to exaggerate, modelling myself unwittingly on certain old engravings in the great book of disasters and catastrophes of the human species. But they all create a pre-image and the megalomanic exaggeration, the enormous pathos of all these scenes proved that we had removed the bottom of the eternal barrel of memories, of an ultra-barrel of myth, and had broken into a pre-human night of untamed elements, of incoherent anamnesis, and could not hold back the swelling flood. Ah, these nights filled with stars shimmering like fish-scales! Ah, these banks of mouths incessantly swallowing in small gulps, in hungry draught, the swelling undrunk streams of those dark rain-drenched nights! In what fatal nets, in what miserable trammels did those multiplicated generations end?

Oh, skies of those days, skies of luminous signals and meteors, covered by the calculations of astronomers, copied a thousand times, numbered, marked with the watermarks of algebra! With faces blue from the glory of those nights, we wandered through space pulsating from the explosions of distant suns, in a sidereal brightness-human ants, spreading in a broad heap on the sandbanks of the milky way spilled over the whole sky-a human river over-shadowed by the cyclists on their spidery machines. Oh, stellar arena of night, scarred by the evolutions, spirals and leaps of those nimble riders; oh, cycloids and epi-cycloids executed in inspiration along the diagonals of the sky, amidst lost wire spokes, hoops shed with indifference, to reach the bright goal denuded, with nothing but the pure idea of cycling! From these days dates a new constellation, the thirteenth group of stars, included forever in the Zodiac and resplendent since then in the firmament of our nights: THE CYCLIST.

The houses, wide open at night during that time, remained empty in the light of violently flickering lamps. The curtains blew out far into the night and the rows of rooms stood in an all-embracing, incessant draught, which shot through them in violent, relentless alarm. It was Uncle Edward sounding the alert. Yes, at last he had lost patience, cut off his bonds, trod down the categorical imperative, broken away from the rigours of high morals, and sounded the alarm. One tried to silence him with the help of a long stick, one put kitchen rags to stop the violent explosions of sound. But even gagged in this way he never stopped agitating, he rang madly, without respite, without heed that his life was flowing away from him in the continuous rattling, that he was bleeding white in everybody’s sight, beyond held, in a fatal frenzy.

Occasionally someone would rush into the empty rooms pierced by that devilish ringing under the glowing lamps, take a few hesitant steps on tiptoe and stop abruptly as if looking for something. The mirrors took him speechlessly into their transparent depths and divided him in silence between themselves. Uncle Edward was ringing to high heaven through all these bright and empty rooms. The lonely deserter from the stars, conscience stricken, as if he had come to commit an evil deed, retreated stealthily from the flat, deafened by the constant ringing. He went to the front door accompanied by the vigilant mirrors which let him through their shiny ranks, while into their depth there tiptoed a swarm of doubles with fingers to their lips.

Again the sky opened above us with its vastness strewn with stellar dust. ‘n that sky, at an early hour of each night appeared that fatal Comet, hanging aslant, at the apex of its parabola, aiming unerringly at the earth and swallowing many miles per second. All eyes were directed at him, while he, shining metallically, oblong in shape, slightly brighter in his protuberant middle, performed his daily work with mathematical precision. How difficult it was to believe that that small worm, innocently glowing among the innumerable swarms of stars, was the fiery finger of Balthasar, writing on the blackboard of the sky the perdition of our globe. But every child knew by heart the fatal formula expressed in the logarithm of a multiple integer, from which our inescapable destruction would result. What was there to save us?

While the mob scattered in the open, losing itself under the starry lights and celestial phenomena, my father remained stealthily at home. He was the only one who knew a secret escape from our trap, the back door of cosmology. He smiled secretly to himself. While Uncle Edward, choked with rags, was desperately sounding the alarm, father silently put his head into the chimney shaft of the stove. It was black and quiet there. It smelled of warm air, of soot, of silence, of stillness. Father made himself comfortable and sat blissfully, his eyes closed. Into that black carapace of the house, emerging over the roof into the starry night, there entered the frail light of a star and breaking as if in the glass of a telescope lit a spark in the hearth, a tiny seed in the dark retort of the chimney. Father was slowly turning the screw of a microscope and the fatal creation, bright like the moon, brought near to arm’s length by the lens, plastic and shining with a limestone relief in the silent blackness of planetary emptiness, moved into the field of vision. It was slightly scrofulous, somewhat pock-marked-that brother of the moon, his lost double, returning after a thousand years of wandering to the motherland of the Earth. My father moved it closer to his protruding eye: it was like a slice of Gruyere cheese riddled with holes, pale yellow, sharply lit, covered with white, leperous spots. His hand on the screw of the microscope, his gaze blinded by the light of the oculars, my father moved his cold eyes on the limestone globe, he saw on its surface the complicated print of the disease gnawing at it from inside, the curved channels of the book-worm, burrowing under the cheesy, unhealthy surface. Father shivered and saw his mistake: no, this was not Gruyere cheese, this was obviously a human brain, an anatomical crosscut preparation of the brain in all its complicated structure. Concentrating his gaze, he could even decipher the tiny letters of captions running in all directions on the complicated map of the hemisphere. The brain seemed to have been chloroformed, deeply asleep and blissfully smiling in its sleep. Intrigued by its expression, my father saw the essence of the phenomenon through the complex surface print and again smiled to himself. There is no telling what one can discover in one’s own familiar chimney, black like tobacco ash. Through the coils of grey substance, through the minute granulations father saw the clearly visible contours of an embryo in a characteristic head-over-heels position, with fists next to its face, sleeping upside down its blissful sleep in the light waters of amnion. Father left it in that position. He rose with relief and shut the trap-door of the flue.

Thus far and no further. But what has become of the end of the world, that splendid finale, after the magnificently developed introduction? Downcast eyes and a smile. Was there a slip in calculation, a small mistake in addition, a printer’s error when the figures were being printed? Nothing of the sort. The calculations were correct, there was no fault in the column of figures. What had happened then? Please listen. The comet proceeded bravely, rode fast like an ambitious horse in order to reach the finishing post on time. The fashion of the season ran with him. For a time, he took the lead of the era, to which he lent his shape and name. Then the two gallant mounts drew even and ran neck to neck in a strained gallop, our hearts beating in fellow feeling with them. Later on, fashion overtook by a nose and outstripped the indefatigable bolide. That millimetre decided the fate of the comet. It was doomed, it has been outdistanced forever. Our hearts now ran along with fashion, leaving the splendid comet behind. We looked on indifferently as he became paler, smaller and finally sank resignedly to a point just above the horizon, leant over to one side, trying in vain to take the last bend of its parabolic course, distant and blue, rendered harmless for ever. He was unplaced in the race, the force of novelty was exhausted, nobody cared any more for a thing that had been outstripped so badly. Left to itself, it quietly withered away amid universal indifference.

With heads hung low we reverted to our daily tasks, richer by one more disappointment. The cosmic perspectives were hurriedly rolled down, life returned to its normal course. We rested at that time by day and by night, making good for the lost time of sleep. We lay flat on our backs in already dark houses, heavy with sleep, lifted up by our breathing to the blind paths of starless dreams. Thus floating, we undulated-squeaky bellies, bagpipes and flutes, snoring our way through the pathless tracts of the starless nights. Uncle Edward had been silenced forever. There still remained in the air the echo of his alarmed despair, but he himself was alive no more. Life had flowed out of him in that paroxysm of frenzy, the circuit had opened, and he himself stepped out unhindered onto the higher rungs of immortality.

In the dark apartment my father alone was awake, wandering silently through the rooms filled with the sing-song of sleep. Sometimes he opened the door of the flue and looked grinning into its dark abyss, where a smiling Homunculus slept for ever its luminous sleep, enclosed in a glass capsule, bathed in fluorescent light, already adjudged, erased, filed away, another record card in the immense archives of the sky.

Recording Courtesy of Colin Still (Optic Nerve)

For yet more Michael Hersch click on 14 Pieces at the Janacek House, Brno

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