Out on the marshes
A life might run its course like a river that flows to the sea, according to the parable so often used, but perhaps we shouldn't use images as much [p. 78] as we do, for they sometimes give the impression that images are explanations, while in reality they remove us from the inexplicable which the image was meant to convey.
For many, the comparison of life with a river does not fit. There was once a man who early in his life made a decision to get away from his fate, and being young he could see no deeper nor further than that he must get away in a purely geographic sense—a misconception which has helped distribute people across the face of the earth, and in recent historical times has populated a new continent.
He pursued this misconception for a few years but ended up in darkest confusion and returned to his homeland. He settled down and again ended up in confusion. This was repeated many times. To portray his life one might imagine a man going on a long journey without any means of transportation; he must walk, and the distance is many thousand miles without a road. One morning in his early youth he had left his parental home without saying good-by to anyone. He carried neither compass nor map; he took his bearings from some paling stars and walked. He wandered for thirty-five years and lived many lives in that time, lives in out-of-the-way valleys, or on marshes he had never intended to visit but came onto during the journey, because he was tempted by short-cuts and sometimes gave up following the path according to the stars. Thus it happened that he might leave a place he had thought as good as any and start out again some early morning, without saying good-by to anyone. When he met people who asked where he was headed for he could not answer. He would have liked to answer if he had been able to, but he did not know. And after a short time he had forgotten all the people he had known there, and they seemed as unreal to him as if he had never known them, and so it was with all his experiences; he never wished to return. And it might happen that people from different places where he had lived and intended to stay forever, would meet. And they might say: "Well, it would have been better not to count on him—we weren't good enough for him." He himself recalled his attempts to stay put and would then wonder: How did I get there in the first place?
When at last he had reached his goal he wanted to review and understand what it had all been about, but he pushed it aside as long as he could and thought: Well, some other time; I'm busy now.
One day it dawned on him that he was fooling himself, as most people do in saying they don't have time, because in reality time and events rule us, and our own decisions have little to do, with it. And he realized that life had taken him up many blind alleys and out on many swamp lands [p. 79] where he had had no business being, but had experienced an ever increasing confusion, and each time he had been forced to return to his old path to see if the stars were still shining there—and they were, even the last time when he went to look for them and discovered them bright and large above his head.
He walked inside and stared for some time at the embers on the hearth. Long ago others made too many decisions for me, he thought, but later I was alone and no one decided for me any longer. This I could not manage for many years, for my will had been broken, and I strayed into the lone valleys and out in the marshes where I was hoping to find someone who needed me and would make decisions for me. Being homesick for evil I went into the remote valleys and out in the sinister marshes where stupidity and intellectual confusion made their home, and each time I left these places, flayed and unhappy, always sick and despondent, asking again for those years when others decided for me and took from me.
He remained standing and watched the embers fade, and felt as if all sin, also his own, had been obliterated once and for all.
The greatest pitfall on the road to mental health and balance is the struggle to discredit reason. This is attempted in good faith by sick visionaries, and in evil faith by religious demagogues whose interest is to neutralize the minds of others. It is a war that never can be won in the long run, because they cannot attack reason without proving that they themselves are using it also; but as in all war it spreads its pestilence. This war against reason assumes its dirtiest aspects in times of political campaigning, when members of the various party machines spit on each other and degrade themselves to make contact with those vapors that the masses call reason; during the last days before election they become positively vulgar. If this is the road to the majority of the votes, then the politicians must be right in their evaluation of the voters, but at the same time they provide an ominous indication that democracy is a swindle. It isn't the people's voice that is heard, rather the echo of the demagogues' voice. They themselves have elected themselves.
Erling suspected that no one through the years could deal in distortions, misrepresentations, and lies—in defiance of one's own good sense—and still remain uncontaminated. Confronting such a person privately, in his shabbiness and with his smirk, one realized he had indeed been deeply damaged.
Long ago, at home in Rjukan, in a home of sick people, tyrannized over by his strong brother Gustav, who now was a mountain-blaster, Erling had never relinquished during his childhood the belief that the [p. 80] grownups knew all. Especially his helpless parents and the handless grandfather: these knew all. They did not wish to let on they knew, yet they surely did and could settle everything with a single sentence, nay, in a single word, but they just wouldn't say that word. They were little gods who begrudged him the light of this single word; the word that contained the whole explanation as to why life was, everything, but more important why people were evil, and slew and slew—with a look, or a smirk, or with the fists, spitting on and destroying others—the explanation as to why there wasn't a kind word in the world. Why life was, this he had long ago given up the answer to. There was no answer. Surprisingly many explained it by saying only that life would continue when one was dead, and never end. He could not deny that life in one form or another was indestructible, but how could they call this an explanation of something that never would end? He had thought, even before school days, that they either were simple-minded or suppressed a secret when they said such things. Were they wily liars, or were they talking nonsense?
But the key word for all the calamity human beings themselves have chosen, he thought he had now at last discovered. As he had believed long ago in childhood, the explanation for everything could indeed be put into a single word, but with a lifetime of sad discovery behind it—the Werewolf.
That morning, when he received a long-distance call that Steingrim was ill—well, seriously ill . . .
Erling realized that the caller had read a little too much about "the most considerate way." He said: "With all that talk—are you trying to tell me that Steingrim Hagen is dead?"
The lady answered with a less graceful "Yes."
"What did he die from?"
There was another attempt at "considerate delay," this time rather confused, which Erling interrupted brusquely with—he was looking for a chair and couldn't find one—"Was it suicide?"
Now there was life in the lady caller: "Well, well! I must say you are—"
Erling had carefully replaced the receiver and walked over to a chair at the table. His joints felt stiff, and it seemed some fluid was floating inside his head.
During the following days and nights he walked a great many miles across the floor. Once he went to sleep in his chair, perhaps for an hour, perhaps for ten, he didn't know, he only woke up and continued to walk. Time stood still, it was night and it was day without his noticing it. [p. 81] Felicia called. When she heard that Erling had been notified she started to cry and hung up. They had no words for each other.
The day Steingrim's corpse was being cremated in Oslo he began to write something he called "Letter to a heap of ashes."
Erling had never since read the letter; he had only locked it up when he couldn't manage any more; and that was when, after many roads, after many sidetracks and interruptions, tortured with doubts, sometimes almost in desperation, he had arrived at the point he had known for many years he must arrive at: at the single word he used to think they kept from him in childhood.
Copyright © 1958 by H. Aschehoug & Co., Oslo, Norway. Used by permission. English translation copyright © 1966 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Use of this material falling outside the purview of "fair use" requires the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.
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