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The Literature Collection

Sandemose, Aksel, 1899-1965 / The werewolf; Varulven (1966)

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Horns for our adornment

"There is something I've had in mind telling you, Felicia. Something one dares not say. Terrible taboo-words."

"If you're going to use dirty words, you can do it somewhere else."

"I'll say the disagreeable with beautiful words; I hadn't thought of quoting from a pornographic dictionary. Anyway, it's your own fault you can't stand those words which I have no intention of using."

"I realize words in themselves can be good enough, whatever they are, Erling, but due to our particular sufferings some of them are apt to awaken memories of our past. When you use them with me the result is opposite to what is intended—but what have you in mind?"

"It is rather difficult to state, and it won't take much to stop me, so please, don't sidetrack me again."

He thought a moment. "I know very well there should be nothing in the way of my settling down here at Venhaug, because—"

Her slight movement indicated she would listen to every word.

"Let's put it this way—I'm a teller of tales and an illustrator. I get nowhere without pictures and examples. Be patient with me now; I'll get to the point eventually. You said Jan knows more of the art of living than any one of us. I won't discuss this—I don't like competitions. But he knows more about practical philosophy than anyone I've met. He has an unusual ability to look experiences in the eye and build his life upon them. He is one always to gain wisdom from damage done. Concerning one definite and very serious experience, three men gained wisdom from the damage. Few would become much wiser from that damage. It was therefore rather remarkable that we should know each other, we three. It was Jan, myself—and Steingrim. The other two were younger than myself, but Jan was first to gain wisdom, then Steingrim, finally I. Perhaps I've never been completely honest with you when you have talked about my living at Venhaug. I've never been afraid of Jan in that connection, though you mustn't draw the conclusion we have discussed it. But we have long ago come to an agreement about something behind the whole matter. About some deviltry we have managed to kill. Because   [p. 261]   of this, he and I have never had any reason to discuss anything in a way to make it appear we discussed you."

Felicia whispered, "I know you never have."

"Because there was nothing to discuss; we have the Werewolf tethered. Steingrim saw it, and felt it, but he never managed to bind it completely, and the Werewolf took him at last. This was the logical consequence when he had seen it and not conquered it. Now I wish to tell you about a man by the name of Kare Svaberg. He had the Werewolf at his side, and ought to have seen it, but did not. Men of that sort go insane. Most people neither see nor hear the Werewolf, but become generally poisoned by it.

"One evening long ago, while still living in Oslo, I was at home, talking with Kare Svaberg. It was after twelve when he left and I decided to walk a bit with him. It was a summer night, peaceful and light. He was telling me what had happened to his wife a few years earlier when she had gone to a psychiatrist for her nerves or something. I don't know if you've noticed how helpless one feels when being told about such for no reason; one just accepts it. The matter doesn't concern oneself, and for all one cares it might be a fabricated story which never has taken place. One's sense of criticism does not come into function for there is nothing to stir it; one doesn't feel involved, one doesn't know the people involved. If some small doubt should arise one suppresses it, because one's interest in the whole is minimal. I had no reason to doubt Svaberg was telling the truth, and I would soon have forgotten the incident except that the psychiatrist mentioned occupied a prominent position. Possibly I did help in the matter, but I've no recollection of so doing.

"Svaberg had tried to bring court action against the psychiatrist but without success. The doctors always stick together, he said. Such incidents could take place free of any possibility of criminal action. I said well and yes, and I remember I wondered that he would tell the story; we weren't exactly intimate. If he couldn't get at the criminal, at least he didn't help his wife by telling the story. Moreover, I had some doubts afterward; Mrs. Svaberg was no young thing, though older women can, of course, be quite charming. But Mrs. Svaberg wasn't that either. I knew the name of the doctor and what he looked like. To me it was not convincing that he needed to use wolf-tricks to get along with women.

"Later, as my interest in the story grew, I would keep my ears open when the doctor's name was mentioned. It appeared he had always been successful with women; it was his special gift, so to speak. When women looked at him they got that weakening in the loins, you know. It is dangerous when such is documented in a court; what is a definite point   [p. 262]   in his favor becomes in court suspicious circumstantial evidence. Those who preach morality believe others have nothing to do but rape any woman anywhere, even if she were dying from cholera. Common sense should tell us this is the case only with people sexually confused, which morality preachers usually are.

"I believe a couple of years passed before I saw Svaberg again. There was nothing special about him now either, but this time my suspicions were aroused when he related troubles with some other doctor. He just mentioned it casually and immediately went on to something else, but I had a feeling he was on his guard. Perhaps it's an afterthought of mine but he didn't seem sure of himself. Anyway, our meeting reminded me of Leo Tolstoy's bloodthirsty attack against the medical profession in The Kreutzer Sonata and Anna Karenina, where he speaks of those vile men who choose their work so that they may see young women naked, and be paid for it. If Tolstoy had not been writing in the heat of sexual excitement something must have dawned on him. Our diseases are not in the clothing, not even in the pants, and if the panic-stricken Tolstoy thought anything at all, it must have been that it was better for a woman to die than be healed by a man. As you know, there were no women doctors in those days—this too would have been in opposition to a modesty that must be defended, even to the doors of the mortuary.

"At our second meeting, then, I started to wonder about Svaberg. Going home one winter evening I met a musician I knew. That was about the time when I first met you, Felicia. He came from a concert, in tails under his heavy coat, with a fur collar turned up over his ears. He roared to me to make himself heard, there was a blizzard and the snow filled the streets like smoke. He wanted me to go home with him for a nightcap. I could feel the wind through my clothes as we beat our way forward against the stinging, pelting snow. We swung off to a side street where it didn't blow quite so hard, and passed an entranceway where a man stood crouching. I barely noticed the gaunt face as we struggled by; it seemed unusual to be standing out there but it did not call for a comment. A few minutes later we reached the musician's flat.

"His wife was waiting with sandwiches, and something to drink. Then he said to his wife, 'It's unbelievable, but Svaberg is standing out there in this horrible weather.'

"She nodded without saying anything. 'Svaberg?' I asked. 'The face seemed familiar—was that he standing there? What's the matter with him?'

"Then I was told the whole story. It had gone from bad to worse, but for a long time no one had realized the man must be crazy. He did not   [p. 263]   disturb anyone and it was difficult to do anything. He lived across the street, not far from the entranceway where he could keep an eye on his flat. When anyone entered the door to his building, he crossed over to the opposite sidewalk and looked up to his own windows. Then he would dash across the street and up the stairs. His wife lived in a veritable hell as he searched through the apartment for her 'lover.' For many years people had assumed she was philandering but felt he could at least keep it to himself. The more sceptical still insisted there was no smoke without a fire, even if Mrs. Svaberg was careful with the fire.

"That time I came to the conclusion," said Erling, "she must once have been unfaithful to him; then in his confused and disturbed condition he had invented the stories about the doctors because he couldn't keep it to himself, but later he cracked. I wasn't sure he had gone completely insane—well, Felicia, you have seen for example me.

"Then one day I happened to tell Svaberg's case to a psychiatrist. He said, 'One would think you had read the case history. We have him in our institution.'

"'What do you call the disease?'

"'It's related to delirium diseases, in my opinion the result of brain injuries difficult to trace. This special symptom we call jealousy-delirium.'

"'And the background—faithlessness and all that?'

"'It's wholly unimportant. She would've had the same hell whether she had cheated him or not. Obviously he would have triumphed had he caught her in the act. Had he done so he would have had no need to invent those doctor-stories. I've met her a few times in connection with the case—she swears no doctor has ever treated her with disrespect; he accuses her of being in collusion with them. He even spread about that some had raped her. Now when she dares to speak, she explains it is all inventions of his mind. Anyway, she is rather sickly and entirely disinterested in men. This had further disturbed him.'

"I asked if it was a usual professional risk for doctors, but this he denied. If anyone showed such tendencies it usually ended up in nothing, or pure comedy. He knew practicing doctors who were not even aware that a risk was involved. Mostly specialists were the targets. Perhaps the words special, specializing, specialist worked suggestively on such men, or perhaps they simply found a wider field by letting the wife try as many as possible when she was referred to a specialist."

"What are you trying to tell me with this story?" asked Felicia. "And what is your own opinion about the Svaberg case?"

"It must remain only what I believe concerning this faithlessness that   [p. 264]   all immediately hook on to. Mrs. Svaberg has never been faithless to her husband, and I believe with the doctor that this has plagued him the most. He has felt painfully hurt that no one has wished to share her with him. He has felt himself insignificant for this reason, but does not suspect it. It has smouldered within him. He was a victim of the Werewolf. You ask what I am driving at, and it is difficult to express. But it'll all appear in due time, little by little. It is much easier to explain to a woman one is in love with—when at last one wants to speak up."

Erling felt he had unintentionally said something which would make her listen more attentively.

"I have no illusions," he resumed, "as so many half-educated people have, that I can master a whole list of sciences. My reading is too sporadic and varied, however great. I lack the important elementary basis. I can hold my own with the psychologists, but not the psychiatrists. But what I believe is that neuroses, psychoses, and what we usually call mental diseases, all are different degrees of brain injuries. The names are sufficient as long as one discounts anything but the degree. If we use the expression mental diseases we can say that only those caused by bodily injury or a definitely established bodily disease, have a chance of healing (let's exclude those born mentally weak). The others are incurable, both the mildest and most severe cases. This is due to the fact that the patients have been exposed to problems against which they tore their minds to pieces, and there is no chance to think it whole again. The damage has been done. They are marked for the rest of their lives, and this no one doubts, not even one who leaves the analyst as cured; what has taken place is not a cure, rather a possibility for a new start with a changed consciousness.

"Whether we like it or not we must return to the old concept—for it was right!—that a despairing person will think his mind to pieces. It is not true that insanity is lying in wait when our consciousness is blurred by sorrow, mistakes, mistreatment, degradation—and from thoughts and wishes one was so afraid of seeing in clear daylight that one rather sacrificed one's mind. People have always known one can think one's brain to pieces, and one of the methods used to rule people is to force them to think their brains to pieces. The funny thing, though, is that if the brain has been harmed only mildly, the person might grow above and beyond his original ego, and become dangerous as a rational being. Those damages caused through a person's own thoughts can be divided into three groups. The mildest one, which we can recognize ourselves when regaining balance after the damage, the more difficult one, which we can recognize, as well as its size, with outside aid, and then the   [p. 265]   extremely difficult cases which must be handled by others, until possibly we get far enough to manage the last part of the road by ourselves, back to light, or definitely alone in darkness.

"There is this fortunate thing about it, that all who grow above and beyond the damage they have suffered, gain more than they lose. The consciousness develops into something greater and higher than before around the injured point. Through a remarkable process the injured place becomes a feeding-center, makes us develop, grow wiser—but we can't call it recuperation. Thus it is that a new and greater life grows round an old knife-wound.

"One symptom remains constant: the melancholy that thrives and grows through all experience, through every development of consciousness. But until the light burns down in old age, nature has endowed life with brightness only. Anyone with eyes can see this. It is un-nature that creates un-lust. Melancholy is the price we pay for enlightened consciousness, and for what we call recuperation, the symptom of the old inner damage. Therefore it is murderously depressing to see melancholic children. Adversities, mistakes, sorrows, disappointments, as all know, might be so great that they change the course of life. When they more or less are conquered, then we have become greater human beings—but we have become melancholiacs, under one mask or another, often with a shield of humor, sometimes openly.

"The melancholiac will recall the time he barely escaped bleeding to death, and therefore he easily observes the transitoriness of all things. He is right, is even considered wise, but isn't particularly appreciated. The healthy will always say: 'He is so very right, we must die, we must decay—but why take all this in advance? After all, if there's a question of doing wrong against life, or a godhead, then this wrongdoing must consist of taking life tragically.' Thus the melancholiac is right only superficially. Who knows if everything is transient or illusory? Some melancholiacs, indeed, do not believe so, and have become entangled in contradictions without end. It is possible that the type of melancholiac who considers everything ashes, sawdust, and straw, is not at all the wisest, but rather one who has managed to dupe us with a solemnity and knowledge which concerns only details and commonplace. Isn't the melancholiac one who is tied up with his own obliteration, but only to a degree that he must constantly remind others he won't be alone?

"Felicia, once upon a time you encountered that unlucky bird, Erling from Rjukan, and you came away with a brain injury, on top of whatever injuries you already had. God knows we cannot be grateful to whoever was responsible for our meeting; yet, you lost something, and gained   [p. 266]   something else and greater, and you did not get stuck in melancholy, you rose and broke a hole in the wall and came out stronger on the other side. I had little honor from anything that happened during those years, but you yourself say that without all this you would never have become Felicia.

"You have a remarkable instinct, Felicia. You encountered me that time when I had seen the Werewolf but dared not admit what I had seen. To that extent at least I was still quite normal. I had been as submissive as most. But when we met again in Sweden, the Werewolf was walking life-like at my side, baring its teeth. It was just before I dared see what jealousy is—and became well; since then I have been envious of no one. Jealousy dies in him who has dared look the Werewolf in the eye.

"Jan was much younger, yet he had had the same experience long before me. But first you met Steingrim, he who also had had his fight with the Werewolf and managed to keep it clearly before his eyes. Don't you know why he left you? Because he couldn't bear exposing you to people who were still ruled by that monster—that's to say most human beings, so many one can almost say all. His courage failed him. The fact is he retreated from the solid majority. He did not retreat because of me, that you know. But do you know he shied away because he was ruled by—I'm inclined to say—democracy. He wanted us three to continue to be together. He wanted to be with you and share you with a man who at last also had stuck the knife into the throat of the Werewolf and broken the terror of jealousy. But he retreated to save your name and reputation."

Felicia kissed him and said, "Didn't you think I knew that, Erling? Did we need so many years and so much anxiety to say it?"

He looked away from her. "Yes, we needed so much time. The Werewolf is a terror-god. You can stick a knife in him, you can learn to know him and despise him, but kill him you cannot. He is the world-conqueror.

"And Steingrim was an unusually valiant—and scared—warrior. He saw the sneer among the refugees in Stockholm and elsewhere. He who knew the Werewolf and had conquered him as far as that victory can be won, he was himself married to one of the werewolf-pack. He saw the sneer directed at him from all those who, without exception, also had encountered the Werewolf, but in deadly terror had suppressed the sight. He held you too high to expose you to the slaves of the Werewolf; he was also afraid, and then also there was this with Viktoria. Mostly, he couldn't bear to see the sneer that followed you. Perhaps he didn't realize   [p. 267]   how tough you were. Then there was that little disappointment—he had thought he could have a woman without complications, a hair-raising thought in Steingrim Hagen's head! Then he left you so no one would sneer when they saw you. He became unwillingly moral, and left for your sake—so that you could marry me only. Your underlying feeling—that you only wanted to be sure of me, rule me, unable to endure someone else taking me, but unable to think of me as a legal husband or father to your children—all this was far outside Steingrim's thoughts, I believe."

"Erling, you know yourself that—"

"Steingrim was terribly innocent and naïvely chivalrous, Felicia. Then came Jan Venhaug, whom you knew—you had even killed people together. You knew that he too was a warrior, but one from the farm lands, one who had conquered the Werewolf, whom I hadn't as yet fully comprehended although he was walking at my side day and night. Of us three men I was the oldest but the last one to gain comprehension. In some respects I believe I had come further than Steingrim, and indeed, he was the one to commit suicide, not I. But I was still squirming in my last jealousy-delirium. Don't cry, Felicia! We were three men whom you understood better with the heart than with the head. You would have liked to have all three of us."

"No, no, Erling," she said quickly. "There you're wrong. Steingrim dropped out. I saw he couldn't cope, so I never made demands on him. And no, he is dead long ago. I wanted him and I didn't want him. I could never have endured that he must guard my reputation. There was something lacking in Steingrim. He was afraid. He thought it would be easier with someone stupid. I hope you eventually will explain to me what you are driving at with all this talk about the Werewolf—but something like that had got its teeth in him."

"That is exactly what I'm trying to say. And has Jan never talked to you about women, and encounters with the Werewolf—perhaps in different words?"

"I believe there was something about a girl from Kongsberg. I've never been sufficiently interested in her. Once it escaped him that someone had wanted him to sell Venhaug. By then I knew enough. Was she perhaps a werewolf?"

"Nonsense, Felicia. The Werewolf has been with us since the beginning of time, and has no sex. Something that is and has always been alone, has no parents and no children. It is neither woman nor man, nor anything in between. One cannot attribute sex to either the godly or the satanic; the angels have no one to preen themselves for. No, when Jan   [p. 268]   discovered that the girl cheated on him with 'civilized' city-men, then he met the Werewolf. He 'discovered something,' he said, but did not call it the Werewolf. Then he received his brain injury, and turned from a well-grown but rather ordinary birch into a mighty oak. One must use solid and pastoral parables in speaking of Jan."

"Well!" said Felicia, as if hearing something new. "But what about your brain injury?"

"Obviously more than one. Many small ones, as they hit all people. Anyway three or four of the worst. Among all they brought me, large and small, was also the name Erling from Rjukan, which you learnt before the war. When I heard it myself for the first time, I had already worn it for long. Strange that it should bother me so in those days—it is in the same class as Harek of Tjøtta, not to mention Erling Skjalgsson from Sole—and to one not familiar with the background there was nothing degrading in it either for me or for the hamlet of Rjukan. I don't know who invented it but he must, in his undeniable nastiness, have had a feeling for the fitting. Now that label is gone, as far as I know—because I accepted it in silence. I am Erling from Rjukan.

"Now it doesn't matter what the brain injuries were. The important thing is what they brought me. The sickness made me tired of elegant mahogany furniture when I could afford it. The sickness in other respects let me grow to recognize the difference between a Cézanne and a picture-postcard. The sickness gave me ability and courage to see through and ridicule the puny snobbery of little Erling from Rjukan. An incurable brain injury has opened my eyes to the good earth and the heavens above it. It forced me to use reserves, it showed me the road away from the kingdom of the dead. The road has been long, yet I would not wish to have missed any part of it, absolutely nothing, not even the bitterest shame. The goal I'll never reach, but this too is good—it gives me a sort of eternal youth to have every day bring a new and dear surprise.

"Look at Svaberg. They got him. Not the doctors he has in mind—and who would shudder at the thought of having slept with his wife. Nor she. Not the host of imaginary lovers who fill poor Svaberg's brain. The Werewolf got him. At some point in life, at a point not now discernible, he did not take the bull by the horns—"

I lost my way in beastly forest
Round about the elves' stones—
The Giant's daughter lured me,
I lost my way home.
  [p. 269]  

"He must have been jealous sometime, some flare-up once, and he saw the Werewolf, but dared not look at it. He used a chisel on his mind until he split it in two. What now is whirling about in his brain out at the asylum concerns fellowship, sharing, love. Poor Svaberg's dream of joy and peace, suppressed and turned into a horrible delirium in fear of once more seeing the ray of light he had seen. The Werewolf took him."

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