Excerpt from 'Mordechai Schamz'
By Marc Cholodenko
Dalkey Archive PressCopyright © 1982 Hachette
All right reserved.
Mordechai Schamz went to the swimming pool last summer. Upon sighting those practically naked bodies by the waters, he took to thinking-no, it wasn't actually a thought, but rather a feeling, a sensation, more precisely. The sensation took hold of him that this spectacle was not for him. What is a spectacle? he said to himself, what is this something that is given us to see if not an offering, a present, a promise, yes, the possibility of a possession? Concerning this possession, its manner, no doubt, could never be made precise to our mind, and yet this imprecision subtracts nothing from the subtle reality our feeling confers upon it. Perhaps because the possibility is what counts more than the possession. And from what is possible, obviously, nothing can be subtracted. And this question of possibility is precisely what I refuse. Or rather I see it refused myself, by myself-that is more exact. Even so I would need to know what this possibility is. How could I find this out? What to choose, within this spectacle, that could become the object of an eventual possession? Must I, in the end, choose: is not the totality what is offered me? No doubt: here is the water, here the bodies, their nakedness, but also what is concealed from me, the faces, the beautiful blue sky, the boards, the bathing huts (oh oh-the huts), and from the unified whole, myself not being allowed to disregard or to distinguish any feature, something manifests itself to my mind, which my mind refuses to recognize and does not want to admit. Is it a single word? Several words of a single sentence? An entire sentence? A speech? Or something else entirely? What is the point, however, of this interrogation since I refuse to answer? All that I will know and all that I want to know is that from this refusal I draw the day's happiness. Yes, here is a day most calm and most cheerful. A most lovely day. And, breaking off there, Mordechai Schamz went bathing.
Such a gaze he has, this Mordechai Schamz! Such a gaze! He's a sorcerer. He deserves neither praise nor blame: as you know, this is the way it is with all sorcerers. The instant his gaze falls upon you, you find yourself clothed in loose-fitting, solemn but nonetheless plain garments. You sense that, if you were to make the slightest move, the clothes would behave exactly like water at night in this atmosphere steeped in secrecy, and create brief shimmers of light. You alone are important in the heart of a new world where you are held by Mordechai Schamz's gaze. Nevertheless, the impression has faded, and now you could not really explain what was so peculiar about those eyes. The man himself, as a matter of fact, does not strike you as special in any way. What he has that's exceptional he holds fast around himself, like a swarm of very tiny birds that otherwise might risk escaping. This must explain the gaze: he lowered his guard for a very brief instant and let it escape. He is a man like any other; you were simply distracted for a moment and, what's more, his eyes are not even large. There's nothing about him that sets him apart from the hundreds of people you objectively see every day. As for the subjective experience, perhaps he leaves behind, briefly, the regret of not having taken him by the shoulders so you could tender your eyes once again to his gaze and assure yourself that it really didn't happen. This experience of being present face to face with him in a place other than where you found yourself. But, as for the feelings a man inspires, each one of us can say everything, and even invent everything, with no risk of incurring any sanction from reality since in such a matter objectivity cannot be said to exist.
Quite recently, Mordechai Schamz bore witness to an accident-more precisely to its immediate aftermath. In all likelihood, it had only just occurred when he passed in the vicinity of the scene. He did not stop. Who does not have, at these moments, the idea of putting himself in the victim's place, simultaneously with a thought of gratitude for the providence that has spared us, yet once again, such a fate? Thus it was, of course, for Mordechai Schamz. Then, persevering in this direction, he wondered what would become of him if he found himself in the place of the person he had just come across. But no answer could be hoped for. It was but possible to vaguely dream of such an eventuality. All told, he continued, such is the way we live each passing moment-and the process is so habitual that a bit of blood is needed at the very least to make it remarkable for us. Our world consists only of glances we have of its periphery, with no hope of ever seeing anything but what we are able to imagine. It is empty, and consists only of our dream of what the surrounding worlds are. Absent to itself, it is composed exclusively of the equal absence of the worlds it verges on. Quite like a road: a road exists only by virtue of the space it displaces, traverses, and continues through unawares. Whether it go on, madly seeking to pierce its neighboring secrets by every conceivable detour, turn, and zigzag, it would not to any less a degree continue to be the very thing that pierces and traverses in ignorance. In conclusion, he concludes, one hardly is, and the little that one is, consists of what one is not. Thus Mordechai Schamz went on, continuing along his path, for he could not do otherwise, all the while saying to himself that what he had so hastily thought (this is the only way he can think-with the idea that his thought is something real, existing as an object, and whose nature is to flee him) had perhaps been distorted by the very haste which had conceived it.
A memory from the early childhood of Mordechai Schamz. Do you remember the poodle Dagobert, Mordechai? A large, very elegant beast, always impeccably groomed, lion-style. What have you learned since you knew that expression? Anyway: it is wintertime-autumn's final days; a pond bordered with trees at dusk, under a sky that had been uniformly leaden all day long; he no longer knows how far from the water, leading he doesn't know quite where, a stairway, very wide and very short, a single flight but whose steps, long and low as they are, seem to the little man as so many landings. He had climbed a few when the incident took place, in connection with the dog. He never found out if this connection was one of causality or simultaneity. This he knows, and he remembers in the language of his boyhood: there is the dog and he falls. His parents told him that he had fainted. As for him, he only remembers the tumble on the stairs, before the water, under the sky, with the dog. He even recalls the smell of the dog, unless it be the scene's itself. Therein are found the numberless components of the incident, all compressed in the memory of this smell, and which he will never be able to separate from each other, isolate in words, sentences, thoughts. It's a great loss, for the incident had its importance, and its importance was held in its components, and its components are now found in a place that is not within his intellectual power to attain, ignorant as he is of the space comprising it. A loss, no doubt, but of what? Mordechai Schamz says to himself. It is in this way, in the end, that all things remain with us that were important: through memory, emptied of what they were, of the fact they were important.
While Mordechai Schamz was walking along in the street, this sentence came to his mind: When my heart opens, it's like a stone splitting apart. It surprised him, since he could not attach it to any of his preceding thoughts and, especially, because it was based on nothing. Had he ever actually felt his heart open? Well, no-even less so this stone splitting apart. Yet it seemed to have imposed itself upon him as an obvious fact, the pure truth. The pure truth-a striking expression: perhaps, after all, the truth must never have been in contact with experience for it to reach us utterly pure, and present itself intact to our eyes. The more he sought to discover in his past an experience that might render it objective and the more this search appeared vain, the more, in an opposite way, was strengthened within him the feeling of the obvious fact inspired by this affirmation that seemed to have been made by itself. In the end, why not accept it as an element of information provided by an authority, of which he had not the least proof that it might not be as infallible, or even more so, than that of his own consciousness? Thus he did, and polished the formulation in the following manner: When the heart of Mordechai Schamz opens, it is like a stone splitting apart; this stone having grown hard not only through all the pain undergone by those which it made to suffer but furthermore by all the pain it has spared itself (if one grants that a heart which has already suffered its share, by opening, must leave place equally large for all the happiness it can conceive, to all the pain that others have borne in its place), then, once estimated the exceptional density of the matter needed to be dissociated, an idea can be formed of the force necessary to open Mordechai Schamz's heart. Despite everything, he had no clear idea of what that meant-along with the feeling of having somewhat exaggerated.
Observant and sensitive as he is, Mordechai Schamz was born to be a poet. But if the Muse, until now, has not offered herself to him, it is because he has never opened his arms to her. About her, nevertheless, as about the effects her company had upon others, he knows far more than those who fancy themselves in her favor. Obviously, not the slightest envy nor contempt; that's not Mordechai Schamz's style-and then, is he not far more the poet than they, a poet of life? It is a statement of fact for whomever has seen him, if only for a brief instant. Everything in his look and his ways proclaims it: Mordechai Schamz is a bird and what to a bird are the branches of trees, the state of the air and the prodigality of the fields, such to him is life itself. The matter requires an explanation, and yet how to provide it? Is Mordechai Schamz a bird because, like a bird's, his gaze never seems to settle or because he seems not to have any attachments or because he seems not to have any feelings or because he seems always on the point of leaving? To affirm one or the other of these things would be only to explain appearance by means of appearance, one comparison by another. But what an explanation cannot provide, perhaps an example will. Thinking one day about poetry and about what held him back from composing some, Mordechai Schamz said to himself: would it not be a good thing to live only on charity! To expect everything from someone other than oneself! Not only for drink, for food, and for lodging but equally for sight, touch, smell, thought, sleep, dream and even giving! And this thought for a long while placed him in a great state of exaltation. Of course these thoughts, this state, ephemeral as they were, could equally well be considered as appearances; but what we know of the bird is also appearance.
Yes, on occasion, but only in his thoughts, Mordechai Schamz is virtually mad. Now those are two rather restrictive adverbs. Are they present to signify that he is no more mad than the majority of people? Perhaps and perhaps not. Come on now! The joke has gone on long enough; a decision must be reached-some examples, some facts. Here is one: it happens to him that he does not feel he is a man-does not feel he is fit to be a man. Yes. Where would I be today, he says to himself, if man had invented, for his children, the proof concerning the eagle that Brunetto Latini describes thus: "And whereupon an eagle begets its offspring, it holds them in its claw directly to the sun's rays, and those that look directly without flinching are retained and nourished as worthy, and those whose eyes flinch are rejected and thrown from the nest, as bastards, not through cruelty of nature, but through rectitude of judgment; for the eagle does not hunt them as its offspring, but as alien creatures." No doubt if being cast down had not befallen me, I would be better off than I am today. I would have found my place. But what can be the place of a man who seems to be a man and is not so? And, furthermore, does not know in what respect he is not so? What place does man make for those of his fellow creatures whom he rejects? Aside from the insane asylum and the prison, I see no other. Would I be comfortable there? That I would know only if I were there. But what would best suit me, I think, would be to be a man-for I am, in a definite way although not known by me-without a number. Neither beside nor above nor below, but simply not counted-an oversight in the great account of mankind. Whatever I may say or do, nothing that would issue from me would be counted. But who knows, Mordechai Schamz suddenly asks himself, if through some extraordinary favor this is not already the way things are?
Here is what led Mordechai Schamz to institute the practice of his celebrated monologues. If the reality of the things concerning us, members of the human race, he mused one day, is often conceived in the silence of thought, it is nonetheless irrefutable that this reality is only brought to completion in the sound of the linguistic utterance, as is proved by the evidence of these famous, exemplary, and extreme expressions: I love you-fire!-I don't love you-cease fire, etc. And if what is expressed is not always what is signified (thus "The weather's nice" may mean "I love you," "let's go," "fire") nor what is signified is recognized by the person who is signifying (the man expressing his opinion about the weather can be unaware that he is declaring his love), nevertheless the thing will have been, whether you like it or not, duly inscribed in the large, eternal, and exhaustive register of reality. Therefore, it is not a good thing that I remain silent, but on the contrary every day I must ensure the production of a few completed realities by means of one or more verbal exteriorizations. And this is why, since that time, Mordechai Schamz has not let a day go by without piercing his silence with a few remarks. Their content is of no importance to him. All that is important is that they hold fast around themselves, as the barnacle on a plank, as the mother-of-pearl with a grain of sand, a part of what ceaselessly moves about and passes by within the sounding secret of this tacit being. In this both modest and scrupulous manner, Mordechai Schamz does not despair that one day far into the future, or not all that far, within the span of time which will have been allotted him, and after having said almost nothing, that he may have expressed everything, perhaps. And then, since pleasure is what counts most in this life, what delicious moments will have been spent dreaming about everything meaningful-such a frail skiff, this: "Oh, such a lovely tree," isolated upon the ocean of a long day-about everything that will have grown up around it, trailed after it, without taking into account what it carries in its flanks and draws close to its sides.
Mordechai Schamz's physical appearance. What's that, the fellow is wondering, that sort of big tramp? That big sort of tramp-that big and strange sort of bum. It's due to the fact that, without being particularly remarkable, at bottom, nor, to all appearances, filthy, the initial purpose of his clothes seems to have been perverted-even though this is not the case. Is it his silhouette, then, which seems to have been adapted, by a sort of compression, to the shape of his clothes? Whatever the case may be, and without being able to define its nature and origin, Mordechai Schamz's appearance inspires in the fellow a powerful impression of strangeness. And what if it was his gait? This might well be possible. Indeed, although once again with nothing particularly out of the ordinary about it, it could be compared-and only compared-to a tired man's gait whom events oblige to simulate an almost youthful drive and animation, but it could just as well be the gait of a child assuming the airs of an adult. Now this is quite confusing. Perhaps he's a madman, you say to yourself; then you decide otherwise-you are even a little embarrassed about having contemplated such an easy solution. No, it's all expertly controlled, perfectly of a piece and in impeccable order. He's not a madman, nor a tramp; he's a normal man, yes, quite normal, at bottom, and even rather elegant-very elegant, in fact. That's the reason he seems so strange-no, strange is not the word; why he seems so foreign, perhaps. He is an elegant stranger who hails from a foreign country whose manners and customs are unfamiliar in our land-that's all. And what's more, you don't wish to ponder this matter any further; suddenly you have had enough of the attention you have brought to bear on this man. It has even angered you a little. Disheartened is the accurate word-even though you hide it from yourself. You have already seen him too much-you have had your fill of him. That's all: you have the impression that he has come out of a place you would not have liked to be-and you feel even less like following him where he is headed. However, this is not reason enough to make Mordechai Schamz unlikeable.
Excerpted from MORDECHAI SCHAMZ by Marc Cholodenko Copyright © 1982 by Hachette. Excerpted by permission.
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