"The Restoration of a Dead Philosophy" by Soren A. Gauger

Categories: ISSUE 03: Edgar

The Restoration of a Dead Philosophy
When there’s nothing left to sell, only then you sell the horse. These were the words of my Grandfather Harris, an old man who had been vowing to commit suicide for well over a decade, to rid himself, quote, of all the idiots, charlatans, and bunglers, foremost among them Uncle Todd, a pragmatist, an optimist, and a man who scoffed at both religion and philosophy. Uncle Todd had, famously, once gone to Grandpa Harris in one of the latter’s particularly dark spells, to convince him that life was, after all, worth living, and, following a discussion that had gone on late into the night, Uncle Todd returned home and stuck his head in a gas oven.

Grandpa Harris is still alive and well to this day.

Only then you sell the horse. It was a bony old nag, with drooping jowls and a limping walk, but Janos Örkény, the wealthiest man in town, had offered to buy her, and I was trying to forget that Hungarians used horsemeat for their salami. I gave the horse a scratch below the ear, by the mane, a gesture I had once used to show my affection; now of course it was a sham, it only underlined my treachery, and worse, it cast doubt upon the sincerity of my original emotions for the miserable creature, it spread a sickly varnish on all my memories with the horse, and soon I was too disgusted to go on petting it.

 O Typekey Divider

Chapter One: Your Unsuspected Self

Land sakes! Entrez-vous! squealed the little Hungarian, stroking his mustache and clicking his shiny boots. An apertif? A touch of brandy? He twiddled his fingers, a favorite gesture of his. Don’t be shy! Bring the horse on into the salon! The floors are all pure marble! Imported, of course. Step this way!

And he pranced through the foyer, his boot-heels clicking as he went; whereafter followed I, past plaster busts of Roman Caesars, gem-incrusted reminders of monarchies long faded into oblivion, tapestries depicting animals that never existed, and maiden voyages of vessels sunk with all hands on board. There was a smell I could not quite fix: a festering, yet appealing odor, like old, rotting leather, or fermenting blackberries. Örkény broke in mid-step, calling my attention to a sober ensemble of beetle-browed Hungarians in portraiture. Father (a loving gesture toward the one with the monocle)–starved to death in one of those vulgar, vulgar camps. And indeed: the longer I stared at his face, the more his Central European severity and disdain melted into an expression of bland horror and–perhaps–a quiet disappointment at the human creature as such.

We walked for ages; a butler gently took the horse’s reins from my hands and I scarcely had time to see their shadows vanish around a dim corner. Örkény led me to the den, whose deep forest-green wallpaper and upholstery and heavy oak furniture seemed only half tactile in the muted light. He sat himself behind a great desk, poured me a cognac from a cut crystal decanter, and began what he imagined to be small talk before the transaction. This was a brief history of the Hungarian state, not omitting the swashbuckling contributions of the Örkény family from the 14th century to the present day. Upon reaching the Communist invasion his cheeks went purple with rage, he pounded his little fists on the desk, he listed the indignities. An Örkény was made to sweep the floors! Can you imagine a world turned so upside-down?

I confessed I could not.

Then he inquired, politely if distractedly, into my own lineage, and I had no alternative but to bore him with several stories of my ancestors, who were born into the world with nothing and ultimately amounted to very little; after which he considered the opening formalities to be closed, with a brush of his hand.

Now then, he said, stroking his mustache in earnest, if I recall correctly, I promised you two hundred and twenty-five dollars for that horse.

This was accurate enough.

Now of course, I could simply give you, he said, his eyes sparkling, the money, and we could conclude this vulgar transaction. And you would go home with your earnings, which would be spent within a month, and then you would be none the better–or the wiser–for our business. Tell me, he said, now leaning forward to get a good look into my eyes, have you ever wondered why nothing ever seems to change for the better?

I was on the verge of telling him that this had been my experience exactly, that he had read my very thoughts, and that in my view... But he stopped me with an imperious gesture.

I will tell you, he continued, twiddling his fingers. It is because people never credit us for more than we are worth. Now, I am a man of many flaws. I have a profound weakness for beautiful women and for gourmet cuisine, I simply cannot refuse a glass of cognac–he refilled both our glasses–indeed, the finer things in life leave me utterly helpless. I must take them! But amidst these weakness I have one strength–I am a fine judge of character. And looking at you friend, I perceive that you are a man who aspires to more than what this fickle world has provided. Don’t bother telling me I’m right! Some things a man just knows! You are looking all around yourself, at this house, these decorations, and you are thinking to yourself: Why on earth haven’t I deserved these things as well? And you have, of course! No one could deny it. One look tells me that you have lived an honest, industrious life. And yet, his voice dropped to a whisper, there is one thing I have got–something that generations of Örkénys have had–that you have not got. Shall I tell you what it is?

I admitted I should be obliged to find out.

Pelmanism! he cried, producing a small pile of yellow booklets from a drawer in his desk, and then more softly: Pelmanism. The age-old secret to self-improvement. He stopped and stared at the booklets with a pious reflection, and I took my turn to admire them.

From across a crowded room, he reflected, I can spot another Pelmanized mind by the very look in his eye, the way he fingers his cuffs, the way he snaps his fingers for service. At once I can feel an intimacy forming between us. Now, I cannot tell you what precisely there is in these little books–though I can quote whole passages by heart–but I can promise you, sir, that if you choose to take them instead of your two hundred and twenty-five dollars, then this day will mark the time when your life was irrevocably changed.

It slowly became evident that the conversation was taking a dangerous turn. That is, I realized now we were discussing how, unthinkably enough, I might forego the money altogether for these yellow booklets. My eyes began blinking rapidly.

But sir, I pleaded, as if begging to be removed from the horns of this dilemma, I have nothing to eat.

Well then, never mind a thing, you should certainly take the money! he snorted, disdainfully casting a wad of money down upon the desk, and next month you will find your cupboards bare once more, and then where will you turn? Oh how I squander my time with my ideals, my attempts to improve my fellow man! And with a miserable groan he made to pack the booklets back into the drawer.

Stop! I cried.

He did.

Then he sat there frozen, and we studied one another for what felt like an eternity, sizing each other up.

The sun was shining on the way home, but its warmth I found sickly, the light dejecting. The fields I walked through had once been a great hunting grounds–one could still find rifle shells buried in the tree trunks from time to time–where nobles of all castes had gathered to soak in the thick gravy of the epoch. This was where no less than an Örkény had dueled a baron with pistols over a snide quip told in Latin; this was where a stable boy was apprehended and thrashed to death for having pilfered a Havana cigar; it was here that the mediocre goings-on of the workaday world evaporated into an insubstantial mist, while the kind of Epicurean pleasures one sometimes hears about, but very seldom actually experiences–food contrived to resemble sculptures, massages performed by exotic women, a comme il faut that is less followed than virtuosically intuited–claimed a total presence. But now the keenest imagination could in no wise summon it all from the dirt path leading through the prickly undergrowth, let alone myself, weighed down by the twelve yellow booklets of Pelmanistic knowledge, whose content presently seemed a poor consolation for the miserable state of my life.


O Typekey Divider

Chapter Two: The Teachable Brain

Back at home, existence resumed its customary lack of depth, its one-to-one ratio of significance. I saw my home with new eyes, like a stranger just stepped off a train: the dilapidated table with its crooked leg, the meaningless photographs of ancestors I scarcely knew, frozen in the midst of some dreary act, the curious smell of filth and boiled cabbage, the shabby browns and soiled greens. My wife suffered my decision, but was crestfallen at the prospect of more of the same deprivations. Well, she said with a resigned sigh, I suppose you ought to start reading your little books.

This I did. The first book I covered in a single evening. It was chiefly filled with testimonials by reputed and educated figures, swearing that Pelmanism had marked a sea-change in their lives. Then there were passages of the following sort:

“You must prepare yourself to envisage the world anew. Nothing can ever be said to truly begin to exist lest it have a cleared and arable field upon which to thrive. You must discard all the prejudices that you have heretofore developed, most of all including your prejudices concerning these books. The Method cannot be a halfway measure; it demands your total conviction or it will refuse to take root. If you are unwilling to be Pelmanized to the full, you ought best to put these books aside and to spend your time more profitably.”

 

I found these terms quite rigorous, I must confess, but then, I was in no position to negotiate.

In I plunged.

I was faithful to the instructions. I washed my mind of all my doubts, I placed myself entirely in the Method’s hands with a pure conviction that, in other circumstances, might have been described as fanatical. And all the while as I read, I kept monitoring my thoughts and my bodily sensations, hoping for signs that the education was taking its effect.

All this was quite in spite of the fact that, objectively speaking, the Pelmanistic study program was quite baffling in its superficial banality. I was already beginning the fourth book, and, apart from the long-winded preparatory sections, it seemed entirely composed of word puzzles, memory games, brain-teasers and the like. But then I stumbled across the following fragment:

“It is not we, ultimately, who are to blame for our failures: it is our doubts. Now, no man alive can avoid feeling a moment’s doubt–but we are taught to have our doubts in a crippling fashion. We are taught to have doubts that overwhelm us because they are not formulated as equations; because they open up into vast, oceanic spheres that stretch as far as our mental horizons, so far, in fact, that we throw up our hands and call them infinite, and thus the task of resolving them is infinitely long and laborious. Not so! We must simply learn to formulate our doubts differently–as closed mathematical equations that allow us to proceed to the next matter. We would like to say: A doubt without end is not a doubt at all. It is merely a kind of paralysis.”

I put the book down, tilted my head back to stare at the ceiling, and realized that I could feel a strange pinching sensation just below my left ear. Something was taking its effect.

In the meantime, I had been unable to pay the rent. As my wife was serving me a bowl of bean soup, half of which I absent-mindedly spilled on my lap, the landlord came to call. He was a humorless old gentleman, not entirely without remorse or kindness toward his fellow man, but businesslike to the core. Let’s be frank with one another, he said, standing stock still, I’ve come to collect the rent payment. Then his gaze wandered up into the corner of the room, where there is an old black cobweb which I cannot knock down even when standing on a chair. I reassured him that soon I would begin earning money, much more than I had previously, that I was bettering myself through education, and that soon he would be paid in full. He shot me a look filled with pity, and instructed me that soon my wife and I would be run out of the house. I clenched my fists, my wife broke down and wept.


O Typekey Divider

Chapter Three: Do You Really See?

I can only describe it as like being on a cramped, dark train that was shuttling or burrowing into the depths of my skull. A gentle sway back and forth, a rhythmic, unhurried click-clack, the animal warmth of my fellow passengers. The only light source a candle standing under the window, burnt down to a stub. The smell of axle grease and old tobacco stains. Staring into the dense black reflections of the other passengers in the window, I tried to make out some features of their faces, some details of their clothing: a silver necklace here, a leather satchel there. The only man I could see with clarity was a fellow in a tweed suit across from me, clutching his bag to his chest, his round wire spectacles making the occasional flash in the darkness. His face was round and pale, and his beady little eyes were staring at me with a strange intensity. Whenever he shifted his legs our knees rubbed together in a way that felt close and intimate.

We’ll be travelling together, he said, in a tone that was neither a question nor a statement.

Yes, I answered.

Don’t just say yes, he said, say so it seems.

So it seems, I rehearsed.

Good, he said with an appreciative nod. His lips were not quite moving in time with his words. He pulled a file folder from his briefcase and studied the pages, shaking his head. We’ve got a long ride ahead of us. Do you smoke?

Not really.

You’ll have to start at once, he said. He took a long glance out the window. It’s a horrible thing to die, he murmured. And it is impossible to ever know if you have made the right decisions. Are you with me so far?

So it seems, I said.

Don’t overuse it, he replied. But since we never know whether the decisions we make are correct, it is essential we treat every one as inevitable. And that in making them, we breathe life into them. We give them meaning. Our decisions are meaningless unless backed by our total conviction of their propriety. And propriety is utterly equivalent to righteousness. Shall I repeat something?

I would be much obliged, I said.

Good, he said, smiling for the first time. This first part seems rhetorical but in fact it is very important. Let’s go over it again.

It’s a horrible thing to die, I found myself telling my wife, and a second later I yelped, having spilled some hot bean soup into my lap. My wife squinted at me strangely, and was just opening her mouth to reply when she was cut off by a knock at the door. I began dabbing the soup off my pants and when I looked up, there was the landlord standing in front of me. Let’s be frank with one another, he said, standing stock still, I’ve come to collect the rent payment. Then his gaze wandered up into the corner of the room, toward the old black cobweb. I looked over to my wife to see if she found this repetition peculiar as well–but in her face I saw only despair and humiliation.

So it seems, I said.

This response threw the landlord off slightly–I even noticed him fidget. He quickly recovered himself, however. When can I expect the money, he asked, but I could see that the ground under him had shifted slightly, that he was the slightest bit less certain of his footing.

One thing was certain: I had to get back on that train.

Tell me about your grandparents, said the man in wire spectacles when we had settled in.

Grandpa Silvio was no stranger to the poverty line, I began. He packaged meat and sometimes stole from the factory when his three children had nothing to eat. He liked Stetson hats and rum, but could seldom afford either. He had a command of the Romanian language, and would curse in Romanian in his sleep.

Enlarge on the Stetson hats and the rum.

A real gentleman never removed his hat in public, I said, Grandpa Silvio said, unless it was in church. But he was never able to afford a hat himself.

Next, drawled the man in glasses.

Grandma Lucille, Silvio’s wife. Raised three children in dire...

Next.

Grandma Sandra. Died in vague circumstances.

A promising start. Go on.

Probably an alcoholic. Beat her children. Enjoyed seafaring novels and tales of murder. Was fond of saying she would commit a murder herself if she could only stay sober long enough to plan it properly.

Now we are getting somewhere, said the man. Instead of beat her children, say: she was a ruthless disciplinarian. And then, with a nostalgic smile: but she was always right in her judgements.

In her last year she would eat only pralines, a box every day. She knew two songs on the piano: Chopin’s fifteenth nocturne and a waltz called “A Man’s Got to Do What a Man’s Got to Do.” In one of my few surviving photographs she is smoking a long cigar.

My interrogator was obviously pleased. He was making copious notes in my file, scratching things out, chewing the nib of his pencil, and smacking his lips.

With this we can work, he said. Now listen carefully.

I swung open the door and already saw that the diabolical bowl of bean soup was sitting there on the table, steaming, waiting for me. I greeted my wife, sat down heavily before the soup, ready to take my punishment, bracing myself for it, but then it struck me: Nothing was forcing me to humiliate myself a third time. I owed nothing to this soup! I threw down my spoon with a clatter and stood up, a triumphant expression on my face. So it was as simple as that, was it? My wife was looking at me with something like astonishment, but she had no opportunity to question my behavior, for quite predictably the landlord was soon pounding at the door.

Who could it be, said my wife, and I gave her a look that inquired how she could be so clueless. Let him in, I exclaimed, I’m ready for him.

This time when the landlord’s gaze wandered to the black cobweb I redirected it to a portrait of Grandma Sandra. Ruthless yet just! I abbreviated. A real firecracker. She would not deny herself the finest things this world could provide. Then I stared him in the eye: We amount to no more or less than our ancestors, wouldn’t you say? And then I added: Or what we make of them. Then I stepped back to observe his reaction.

This reaction was complex. First his face turned purple. Then he spluttered, and his eyes bulged a bit. What are you trying to suggest, he finally choked out.

I barely knew myself. I settled for a knowing shrug of the shoulders, hoping it would be enough to imply: Precisely what you think I am suggesting.

Here the spell was broken. He shook his head twice quickly, gave me a rough–and perhaps frightened–glance, muttered I will be waiting for your payment, and stalked out the door. He was on the verge, I sensed, but I was unable to tip him over the edge.


O Typekey Divider

Chapter Four: Go Forward or Drop Back

Third lesson, said the man in spectacles, who seemed to have grown a trim mustache in the interim, on the question of speaking first–

Just a moment, I cut in. I have something urgent.

Things fell silent. I counted eighteen clacks of the wheels, a passenger beside me stifled a yawn and excused herself before melting back into the shadows. I rubbed knees with the man in glasses. I had come to find this vaguely comforting.

What is it, he said, resting his file to one side.

The rent collector, I said. Nothing works. I have introduced some Pelmanist strategies, but he remains inflexible. I realize we are only at the beginning of our journey. But I can’t stand it.

Say: I cannot endure it.

I cannot endure it a minute longer. I cannot be expected to think properly and to absorb the Method when I am tormented on such a basic level, when my very survival is at risk. How does the Method propose I deal with this situation?

The man in the tweed suit scratched thoughtfully at his mustache, squinted through his glasses, and flipped through a few files. A steaming cup of tea with a slice of lemon had appeared next to him, and this he sipped as he furrowed his brow.

Bitter, he muttered. And then turning to the matter at hand: The fire-poker. Call his attention to something hanging on the wall, and when his back is turned, pick up the poker and strike him three times over the head. Squarely and most firmly. Your wife will know what to do with the body. Women have an instinct for such things, they are more in tune with the earth. He made a little snorting laugh, the first such outburst I had heard from him in our time together. Then he quickly righted himself.

Some would advise you to weigh the pros and cons before adopting this strategy, but that–here he rolled his eyes–would not be Pelmanistic. This strategy is not one for every day, of course, he quickly added, but if a situation calls for it we must plunge right in. A Pelmanist is not to be dissuaded by mere adversity, or by the dictates of so-called popular morality. He laid down his file and looked at me.

...to collect the rent payment, said the landlord, and when his gaze wandered up to the black cobweb I guided it to the large painting of dogs hunting a rabbit that hung over the fireplace.

Tell me, I said, have you ever noticed the small inscription on that painting?

The landlord fished for his glasses, and then moved right up to the painting to inspect it, while I, for my part, crept over to the fireside, wrapped one hand around the fire poker, and raised it over my head, when my eyes met my wife’s. She had guessed what I was about to do, naturally, and in her eyes was no condemnation, only a vast sadness, a total disillusionment that I would stoop to this, that after all this time together, it was this fire poker, nothing better, only this. And here the whole picture presented itself to me–the landlord hunched over, myself rapaciously lunging for him, the second-rate canvas–and I went limp, and had just the wherewithal to place the poker down on the ground softly before the landlord turned around and muttered: It just says Dogs Hunting Rabbits

I watched that night, numb and weak, while my wife fed the fire with the Pelmanist books, unable to protest, utterly dispirited.

What else was there to do, the following section might be titled.

With the circumstances as they were, I thought I might return to the Örkény manor and lay my cards, as they say, on the table. I had lost the Pelmanism books, of course, in the fire, but I would return and say that I had been unable to profit from the course, the lessons had been a failure, perhaps he would give me the two hundred and twenty-five dollars after all, or failing that, perhaps one hundred. I wasn’t sure precisely how I would spell it out to Örkény, if I should mention the train, the twinge below the left ear, the man with the spectacles. But I hoped that when I saw him, things would grow clear.


O Typekey Divider

Chapter Five: Doubt Vs. Certainty

It was a ramshackle sight, however, that greeted me when I arrived. The gate, once proud and menacing, now hung half off its hinges; the briars had all but overgrown the path, they tore at my pants legs as I walked to the manor. And the Örkény house, what had become of it. The angels on the banisters leading to the patio were toppled over, supporting each other like a pair of drunkards; the marble on the stairs had been plundered, leaving bare concrete slabs crawling with little black beetles; everywhere paint was chipping, glass was splintered, gilding and jewels had vanished, floor tiles echoed, history was sharpening its claws.

My head swam as I walked through the corridors, remembering portraits where now there were only the ghostly traces of rectangles on cracked walls. If the floor–now scattered with documents with stamps and seals from high offices, littering the floor in a mad array–had opened up and swallowed me, I could not have been more distressed. Wardrobes were spilled open, desk drawers vomited up their contents, a sewing machine floundered helplessly on the floor, its thread tentacles splayed out in all directions.

Eventually I worked my way out back, where Örkény had clearly made a trash pile of everything that didn’t merit taking. Stacks of old correspondence, outmoded clothing, sheets stained with wine or curtains yellowed from the sun, porcelain china with chipped edges or broken handles, cracked phonograph records, literature no longer quoted by high society, and on top of it all, with a bullet in the side of his head, his great eyes wide and dismayed, my horse, his neck bent like the arm of a swastika, legs tangled in knots, less animal than garbage.

--Story by Soren A. Gauger