Read The Eternal Philistine Online
Authors: Odon Von Horvath
“Well, if things keep up like this,” he thought, “I’ll forget all about my Egyptian lady. And the foreign convertibles—I’m not even thinking about them anymore. I’ve almost entirely forgotten myself. Hopefully now I’ll be able to sleep till Milano—that’s the Italian name for Milan. I can sit around there until I pick up the connection to Ventimiglia. It’s going to be a long journey, as small as our world actually is nowadays. And it keeps getting smaller, even smaller and smaller every day. I won’t be around to see it get really small—”
And thus he attempted to collect himself, though it gave him an unpleasant feeling. He felt like the man who forgets on Thursday what he did on Wednesday.
“First class is the only way to travel!” sighed Kobler. “My
ass is already hurting me from the wood. My goodness, I do declare I’m sore!”
And so he moved into a compartment in second class. There was already a gentleman in the corner. He was sitting behind his raincoat and seemed to be fast asleep. He only had a small handbag with him, but for that a fabulous amount of newspapers. The editions were scattered everywhere, on the floor and the baggage rack alike. He must have fallen asleep while reading them.
Twenty minutes after leaving Verona, just when Kobler was about to fall asleep, the gentleman woke up. At first he yawned rather indistinctly. Then he peered out from behind his coat and, after catching sight of Kobler, gazed at him in amazement, rubbed his eyes, focused in on him more precisely, and then asked in a rather relaxed German: “How did you get in here?”
But Kobler was annoyed that the gentleman had not let him fall asleep and was brusque with him: “I came in through the door.”
“I suspected as much,” said the gentleman. “I suspected as much indeed! Surely you didn’t come flying in through the window. Was I really so fast asleep? Yes, I really was so fast asleep.”
“Weird!” thought Kobler. “At once he pronouncedly addressed me in German. Perhaps he, too, is an informant?” He observed the gentleman mistrustfully. He was already somewhat gray and smoothly shaven.
“How is it that you knew I was German,” he asked him suddenly, taking great care to appear as harmless as possible.
“I can tell by the skull,” said the gentleman. “I can tell by the skull straightaway. You see, Germans all have thick
skulls, but of course only in the true sense of the word. In fact, I’m also half German myself. What am I not half of? I’m half everything! Such is life! And so here we are, sitting across from each other, riding through the Po Valley. I’m coming from Venice, and you’re …?”
“I’m just now coming from Verona,” said Kobler.
“Verona has a magnificent piazza,” said the gentleman. “The Piazza d’Erbe is the center of folklife. And there’s a large military presence there—it’s pretty well fortified. Along with the fortifications in Peschiera, Mantua, and Legnago, it forms the frequently mentioned defense square. Defense from whom? From Austria-Hungary. And why from Austria-Hungary? Because it was allied with Italy. But what was an alliance in the age of secret diplomacy? The arms industry provided assurance. And what’s an alliance today? Or do you think that we don’t have secret diplomacy anymore? We’ve got nothing but secret diplomacy!”
“Is he a windbag or what?!” Kobler thought grimly.
“It feels so good to be able to chat a smidge, because I’ve hardly said anything sensible for the last three days,” said the windbag with a friendly smile.
“Oh, now, what’s next?!” The thought flashed through Kobler. He hated the gentleman. “You shithead,” he continued thinking, “I’ll never get to sleep with you around. What you really need is a punch in the face. Oh, but I know what I’ll do.” And he said, “May I have a look at some of your newspapers?”
“Of course you may!” cried the gentleman. “You may very well indeed! I can’t even look at a newspaper anymore. Do you just need the German ones, or would you also like the Italian, French, Czech, and—oh my goodness—here’s a Polish one too! How’d this Romanian stuff get in here?
I guess I must’ve bought it somehow. It’s a pity about the money—out ya go!”
He opened up the window and flung out every one of his non-German newspapers into the roaring darkness.
But he had hardly finished closing the window when a member of the fascist militia appeared, a so-called Blackshirt. The Blackshirt stepped into the compartment solemnly and spoke to the gentleman in a calm yet stern manner. The gentleman made some deflective gestures and spoke perfect Italian, whereupon the Blackshirt retreated and was quite aggravated.
“What did the Fascist want from you?” asked Kobler.
“I’m wondering the same thing myself,” cried the gentleman, trying to dodge the question. Then he continued: “I’ll translate for you what he wanted from me. He wanted to know if I had just thrown my newspapers out of the window, because they flew in through an open window farther back and hit him smack-bang in the face, and with some momentum at that. Of course, I told him right away that I’d never before in my life thrown a newspaper out of a window. You can’t catch me off-guard! Believe me, I’m an experienced traveler!”
“Where’s that penetrating stench coming from?” asked Kobler.
“That would be me,” said the experienced traveler. “Hopefully it won’t bother you too much, mister! If I’m not mistaken, I’m twenty years your senior. So tell me, were you ever a soldier?”
“I’m going to Milano now,” answered Kobler evasively.
He had actually not been a soldier because he had still been a teenager during the war. And the fact that he had not been a soldier sometimes bothered him when he was
around older gentlemen whom he suspected had probably been wounded.
“I’m going to Milano,” he repeated to himself stubbornly, “and then I’ll go on to Marseille because I’m going to Barcelona.”
And now something unexpected happened.
The experienced traveler acted as though he wanted to spring up from his seat. He leaned over stiffly and cried, “So he’s going to Barcelona!” Hereupon he recoiled and took a deep breath.
“Well, now, the strongest effect my words have had yet,” thought Kobler, gazing at the man in front of him with satisfaction. “A strong effect!” he thought.
“That’s some coincidence!” the gentleman spoke up again, and smiled as though he were truly happy: “You see, I’m going to Barcelona too.”
This stunned Kobler. “That is indeed a coincidence,” said Kobler, grinning sourly. He was piqued about the competition.
“Might be more than a coincidence!” said the competition, getting excited. “I’m not going directly to Barcelona, though. I’m going to get off in Marseille for two days in order to acquaint myself with the city. It’s an exceedingly colorful and, above all, ethnologically fascinating harbor city, you see, boasting instructive insights.”
“This is what I’ve heard,” said Kobler. “This Marseille has got to be a hooker heaven. I’ve been wondering whether or not it’s worth a look, too. Then again, it might not pay off. I’m quite skeptical.
“But there you do Marseille a bitter injustice! Allow me to introduce myself: Rudolf Schmitz from Vienna.”
Rudolf Schmitz was an editor. Among other things, in Vienna he represented an evening paper from Prague, a morning paper from Klausenburg, an afternoon paper from Zagreb, a weekly paper from Lemberg, and a gutter paper from Budapest.
As a native Austro-Hungarian from Ujvidék, he had a colossal gift for languages. For this reason he could command all the languages of the former double monarchy, but for this reason sadly none of them perfectly. Nevertheless, during his adolescent years he had fancied himself a poet. He composed poems in those days—an entire series of them.
An Early Summer in Hell
was the title of the series; it had been influenced by Western decadence. But no publisher wanted anything to do with
. “Here’s two Gulden—now give it a rest already!” said one of the publishers. And Schmitz did just that, because at the end of the day, he was just an intelligent guy and a healthy egoist. Over the years he grew more worldly-wise. “After all, even Rimbaud turned away from writing poetry in order to live a life of poetry,” he slowly realized, and then step by step became a correspondent.
Sociologically speaking, he hailed from families of Imperial and Royal officers and civil servants, only he had never been keen on being bourgeois. He was a born bohemian. He was walking around hatless as early as 1905. His weakness was metaphysics.
And now he asked Kobler, “What is coincidence, my dear sir? Nobody knows what coincidence is and that’s precisely what it is. Coincidence—it’s the hand of a higher power. The dear Lord reveals himself in coincidences. If it weren’t for coincidences, then we wouldn’t have a dear Lord at all! That
is to say, the ability to think through and elaborate on things is a human quality, but the absolute senselessness of coincidence is divine.”
He put his legs up on the upholstered seat opposite him, this position being most conducive to philosophizing.
And just then the Blackshirt from earlier reappeared. He demanded gruffly that he put a newspaper beneath his shoes. “Now, of all times!” thought Herr Schmitz angrily as he took down his legs and stopped philosophizing.
The Blackshirt left the compartment and was already in a somewhat better mood.
“A pyrrhic victory,” muttered Schmitz. And as soon as the Blackshirt was out of sight, he sighed: “That’s their idea of a revolution! The Fascists ride around like this in every train, making sure that nobody chucks newspapers out the windows, or carelessly messes up the lavatories. That’s how they raise their nation! And what are they raising their nation for? For war.”
“Against who do you think?”
“Against everybody, my dear sir!” moaned the philosopher. “Yes, this here is basically a pedagogical revolution. As you well know, every revolution is basically a pedagogical problem, but pedagogy is also a revolutionary problem. As you can see, it’s all very complicated. But is Fascism really even a revolution at all? No sign of it!
and nothing else!”
“Well, I personally don’t care much for revolutions,” said Kobler. “Now, sure, I wouldn’t have anything against everybody being better off, but I just don’t believe that revolutionary leaders are business men—they’re simply not business-minded.
“The age of businessmen,” nodded Schmitz.
“We businessmen have got a long way to go before we reach our peak, don’t you think?” asked Kobler hastily. The thought of sleep was suddenly gone.
“Who are you telling this to!?” cried Schmitz, and proceeded to pontificate. “Just listen here: the businessmen will have reached their peak only when every last human value has been assessed fair and square on the basis of their own commercial worldview. Then things will eventually go downhill again for the businessmen, and then a new age will dawn for another social class. That’s the eternal ellipsis. That is, it’s no circle.”
“I can’t imagine a social class that might be dawning behind us businessmen,” said Kobler bleakly.
“But that’s not possible!”
“Why shouldn’t it be possible?” asked Schmitz, astonished. “If you’d told Alexander the Great back then that businessmen would be ruling the world today, he’d have had you buried alive. I warn you not to play the role of Alexander the Great.”
The conversation was interrupted here by a conductor entering the compartment to inspect the tickets.
Kobler had to pay an additional fee. Schmitz also had to pay an additional fee because he too had just a third-class ticket.
The conductor spoke broken German and conversed with the two gentlemen while changing their money. He said that he greatly esteemed and respected Germany because he knew a German family, and they were extraordinarily decent and accommodating people. Granted, they were not actually pure Germans, but rather Germans from Russia, so-called emigrants. They had fled Russia because
the Bolshevik criminals would’ve forced them to start working, and you can’t just start working if you’ve never worked before. And so they had to leave all their belongings behind, fleeing in the dead of night with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Then they bought a hotel on Lake Garda—a gorgeous hotel!
“Here’s another windbag,” grumbled Kobler while Schmitz was regarding the windbag fondly.
“Switch trains in Milano,” the windbag continued, gratified. “Mussolini was in Milano the other day; the sun was shining. But no sooner had Mussolini left than it started to rain. Even the sky supports Mussolini.” He grinned and wished both gentlemen a pleasant trip. A silence ensued when he left.
“He was a mischievous fellow,” Schmitz once again let his voice be heard. “Another contribution to the philosophical-metaphysical mentality of the suppressed classes.”
“I take it you’re not a businessman,” said Kobler.
“No,” said Schmitz, “I’m a man of the pen and I’m traveling to the World’s Fair as a special correspondent.”
Another silence ensued.
During this silence both of them thought about each other. “Up to now I’ve really only known one man of the pen,” thought Kobler. “He was a poet whose head was in the clouds unless somebody was talking about hyacinths. Not a practical man. He could only have hurt me, nothing else. But this Schmitz here seems to be an erudite and obliging man, and you should only associate with people who can do you some good. Of course everybody does this, only most people aren’t aware that they’re doing it. Perhaps this man of the pen could help me somehow, maybe I can even use him. As a man of the pen, he’s sure to have plenty of female
admirers—he’ll probably even have some in Egypt. Oh, I’m starting to believe in providence. If only he didn’t stink so!”
And Schmitz was thinking: “Perhaps it was stupid of me to have immediately offered to be his traveling companion. It was definitely stupid. Oh, I’m so stupid! And why am I so stupid? Because I’m a pushover. But I can also be forceful. Maybe he’s a mooch, trying to hit me up for some money. I’m very forceful. So he says he’s a businessman. Who isn’t one today? And what sort of businessman might you be, my dear sir? Of course it’s really not my affair. Definitely a swindler, otherwise he wouldn’t be going to Barcelona at his age. That is, he doesn’t belong to the upper bourgeoisie—I can tell that by the way he moves. Could he be a fraud? No, because I would also be able to tell that by the way he moves. In any case, he’s stupid. My goodness—what a bad match for me! I’ll get rid of him however, whenever, and wherever possible! I’d even jump out of the train while it was moving!”