Fear and Trembling
Patrick Suskind may be internationally known for the best-selling Perfume, but it is to The Pigeon, and also to Three Stories and a Reflection, that we wish to turn here. The Pigeon opens: "At the time the pigeon affair overtook him, unhinging his life from one day to the next, Jonathan Noel, already past fifty, could look back over a good twenty-year period of total uneventfulness and would never have expected anything of importance could ever overtake him again." Yet what radically alters his life is the decidedly minor, as if by setting out his existence with such precision, the slightest imprecision could upset it: evidently so when one day a pigeon appears by his door. "He had almost set foot across the threshold, had already raised his foot, his left, his leg was in the act of stepping - when he saw it. It was sitting before his door, not eight inches from the threshold." Obviously someone who lived more flexibly would see the problem for what it is: a minor inconvenience on his doorstep. But the central character has spent many years working towards avoiding anything resembling chaos. "For he was not fond of events, and hated outright those that rattled his inner equilibrium and made a muddle of the external arrangements of life." Most of that chaos lay in the distant past: "The majority of such events lay, thank God, far back in the dim, remote years of his childhood and youth, which he no longer had any desire whatever to recall, and when he did, then only with the greatest aversion."
Part of the fearsome triviality of The Pigeon lies in the fearsome aversion central character Jonathan Noel feels towards his past life. As the narrator says near the end of the book, "he wanted to scream this one sentence, that he simply could not live without other people, out into the silence, so great was his agony, so desperate was the fear the aged child Jonathan Noel felt at being abandoned." His method of coping with this fear of abandonment, his inability to live freely, is to constrain himself as much as possible. He anthropomorphises his apartment, a chambre de bonne that the narrator describes as his beloved - "yes, for she received him with a tender embrace each evening when he returned home, she offered warmth and protection, she nourished both body and soul, was always there when he needed her and did not desert him. She was in point of fact the only thing that had proved dependable in his life."
Quite near the end of the novella, the narrator says "He was not a man to run amok, to commit a crime by reason of insanity or anguish of soul or spontaneous hatred; and not because for him such a crime would have seemed a moral abomination, but for the simple reason that he was totally incapable of asserting himself in either word or deed. He was not a man of action. He was a man of resignation." If the fearsome triviality expressed in an interior novella like Notes from Underground resides also in a character more of resignation than action, nevertheless Dostoyevsky's figure is full of internal chaos; Jonathan here, however, is full of internal fear. Where Dostoyevsky's anti-hero gets caught between thoughts and actions, between the passivity that leaves him impotent in the face of a soldier's aggression, yet impulsive with a woman who has feelings for him as he rejects her and then wishes that she return, Jonathan is trapped more deeply within himself. He is in conventional terms a neurotic, someone who internalises as much of his life as he possibly can to control an existence that eventually has almost no outwardness at all. The attempt at a life years before failed. After "obediently" signing up for military duty in the fifties, "the first year he had been occupied solely with getting used to the nuisances of life in a horde, in a barracks. The second year, he was shipped off to Indochina. The greatest part of the third year, he spent in hospital, recovering from a shot in the foot and one in the leg and from amoebic dyssentry." After returning home he equally obediently marries a girl in the village on his uncle's insistence, but she ends up giving birth to the child of another, and after that she "bolted with a Tunisian fruit merchant from Marseille."
Is it understandable that afterwards "drawing on all these episodes, Jonathan Noel came to the conclusion that you cannot depend on people, and that you can live in peace only if you keep them at arm's length." Consequently he withdraws his life savings, leaves the village of Puget and goes to Paris. Here he finds the flat that "just as the way it happens to other people, or so they say, with so-called love at first sight": he finds the flat of his dreams.
Suskind describes it as lovingly as a nineteenth century writer would detail the moment a couple first see each other, and as in the writers' Three Stories and a Reflection, he is interested in the singularity of a fascination that needn't immediately appear normally to be so. The first story in the collection, 'Depth Wish' opens with a young woman from Stuttgart who draws beautifully receiving a comment from a critic who, wanting to encourage her nevertheless, says "what you do is interesting and gifted, but as yet you show too little depth." She forgets about the remark he makes, but a couple of days later the critic offers more or less the same comment in a review. "The young artist possesses a lot of talent, and at first glance her work is very pleasing; unfortunately, however, she lacks a little depth." When she is out that evening she knows that though people are complimenting her on the work, she believes she can make out in the background if she listens carefully "No depth - she has no depth. That's it. She's not bad, but sadly she has no depth." Over the next week she draws nothing and broods over her lack of depth, and in the second week makes the attempt to draw but cannot. She becomes increasingly lost in her lack of depth, increasingly despairing over the superficiality she assumes is in her work. A week after that she goes into a bookshop and demands from the salesman the deepest book he can give her. "She was given a work by a certain Mr Wittgenstein. She couldn't get into it."
Her friends notice her sliding into depression wondering whether she is suffering from a personal crisis, from artistic problems or in financial difficulties, and ask how they can help. Unsure what it is, and with the central character unable to explain it, they restrict themselves to inviting her for dinner and to parties. She does go to one party, finds a man attractive who finds her attractive also, but tells him that she isn't deep: "on hearing this, the young man took his leave." "The young lady who had once drawn so beautifully now deteriorated noticeably. She no longer went out and she ceased all intercourse. She became fat through lack of exercise, and the alcohol and tablets made her age prematurely. Her flat began to decay, and she herself started to smell acrid." By the end of the story she is dead, after throwing herself out of a window. The aforementioned critic writes a paragraph expressing his perplexity at her demise. Now he doesn't read her work as without depth, but exactly the opposite. "Was it not discernible in her early, still apparently nave work - the terrifying discord, visible in her wilful and significant use of mixed technique; that monomaniacal aggression turned in upon itself...that fatal, I almost want to say: reckless depth wish?"
Jonathan in The Pigeon and the young lady from Stuttgart are figures at different ends of the age spectrum but both broken by the trivial. This is a crisis through the arbitrary crack, a crack not readily perceptible as expressed by Deleuze when talking of Zola in The Logic of Sense, but as the imperceptible that could come from anywhere. For Zola the crack lies in what he calls the temperaments, the "big appetites", and Deleuze says "this is why Zola's bourgeois can easily name their vices, their lack of generosity and their ignominies as virtues: conversely, this is why the poor are often reduced to "instincts" like alcoholism, which express the historical conditions of their lives and their only way of putting up with a historically determined life." In Zola, then, the crack comes from "the conditions of the conservation of a kind of life determined in a historical and social milieu." It is what we might call the large crack, and often manifests itself in a drive towards alcoholism, violence, greed and lust. What it reveals is the death instinct, Deleuze notes. But the death instinct in Suskind's novella and story can take the form of a comment so small or the appearance of a pigeon so irrelevant and the crack will nevertheless open. Let us call these the small appetites, and think of a passage Deleuze quotes from the great French writer of Journey into the Night, Celine. "The sadism which is today everywhere springs from a desire for nothingness which is established deep within man, especially in the mass of men - a sort of amorous, almost irresistible and unanimous impatience for death. In the play of man, the death Instinct, the silent instinct, is decidedly well-placed, perhaps alongside egoism."
How does this play out in Suskind's work, including the other stories in the collection, 'A Battle', 'Maitre Mussard's Bequest' and the reflection 'Amnesia in Litteris'? They are all, taking into account what Deleuze and Celine are saying, examples of nihilism and the death Instinct. 'A Battle' is basically a game of chess where "a somewhat ugly" local man of about seventy living near the Jardin du Luxemburg takes on a youngster who is "indeed the very quintessence of nonchalance." What happens is that everybody watching the game wants the young man to win, to beat the old man. "All of them had already played against him and lost for, although he was anything but an inspired player, he had the uncongenial knack of wearing down his opponent and enraging him because he never made a mistake." Here it looked as though there was someone who could beat him: "Careful Jean", they all shouted during the opening moves, "you're for it this time!" By the end of the game, though, Jean has won yet again - but something has changed. "Jean, the local matador, was not a man given to great moral perceptions. But this much was clear to him as he shuffled off home with his chessboard under his arm and the box of pieces in his hand: he had in truth suffered a defeat, a defeat that was all the more devastating and final because there was no way of avenging it and no way of becoming quits with it through a brilliant and outstanding victory in the future." Thus though not a man of great decisions, he decides to give up chess. Curiously the crack opens as Jean "wanted the stranger to win and bring about Jean's defeat in the most impressive and inspired way." Though the young man was wretchedly bad, Jean wanted to believe that he could beat him, "the self-confidence, brilliance and youthful aura of the young stranger had made him feel his opponent was invincible." But throughout the game "he had been forced to belie and debase himself and lay down his arms before the most miserable, blundering player in the world." Here we have the pursuit of nothingness as chess game.
In 'Maitre Mussard's Request', the central character, as the blurb on the back of the book says, is a "man about Paris who retires to the country and develops a world view that renders him all too soon and all too literally - petrified." This world view consists of believing the world is made of shell after one summer's day walking in the garden in full bloom. "Then it happened. I was carried away from my garden and out into darkness. I had no idea of where I might be. I was surrounded by a darkness filled with unearthly gurglings and roaring, together with sounds of crunching and grinding." After this event he was "carried into the house and put into bed, never to get up again." What he suffers from is the "shell disease, which has made an exemplary case of me, marking me out from the rest of humanity as the man who has seen the Shell." This is "a high Will that controls the universe and condemns it to petrification as proof of its own omnipresence and omnipotence..."
As in The Pigeon, 'Depth Wish'and 'A Battle', the character gets caught in a state of irresolvable despair and spirals downwards, no matter how minor or absurd the event that visits them. In 'Amnesia in Litteris', Suskind reflects on the books that he has read and wonders exactly how much of all these books he remembers. "The old sickness has me in its grip again: amnesia in litteris, the total loss of literary memory." "But what about the books over there, next to the desk, the literary ones? What has remained in my memory of the fifteen volume collection of Alfred Andersch? Nothing. What about the Bolls, the Walsers? Nothing. The ten volumes of Handke? Less than nothing." Here we have the nothingness of memory, as if all the reading Suskind has done has left no imprint and thus feels like a complete waste of time. Yet there is hope: "Maybe reading is an act by which consciousness is changed in such an imperceptible manner that the reader is not even aware of it. The reader, suffering from amnesia in litteris is most definitely changed by his reading, but without noticing it because as he reads, those critical faculties of his brain that could tell him that it is occurring is changing as well." Here the crack that appears needn't be entirely troublesome: out of the oblivion of memory can come the flame of creativity. "And for one who is himself a writer, the sickness may conceivably be a blessing, indeed a necessary precondition, since it protects him against that crippling awe which every great work of literature creates..."
Though as we've noted Suskind is best known for the novel Perfume, with its melodramatic and ingenious story of someone trying to capture the scent of a dead woman by murdering others and recreating the scent, The Pigeon and the stories are decidedly more trivial and minor, but they no less capture the nothingness that constantly threatens to envelop man in the oblivion that awaits. In a passage from Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, the philosopher says, "the ethical is as such the universal; as the universal it is in turn the disclosed. Seen as an immediate, no more than sensate and psychic being, the individual is concealed. So his ethical task is to unwrap himself from this concealment and become disclosed in the universal." But what is the universal: oceanic bliss or absolute terror? At the end of The Pigeon, Jonathan is no longer afraid as he returns to the apartment. "He walked ahead, more or less fearlessly, stepped through the light, entered the shadows behind it. The hall was completely empty. The pigeon had vanished. The splotches on the floor had been wiped away. Not a feather, not a wisp of down was left trembling on the red tiles." He seems to have resolved his fear and his trembling; he seems to have escaped his own fearsome, neurotic triviality, and perhaps lets the world in.
© Tony McKibbin