Excerpt from the novel Memoirs of a Young Man
In memoriam L. C.
The First: on teachers and students, on ecological niches and being yourself
Forging unites metals, a purpose unites beasts and birds, fear and greed unite fools, a view unites honest people
I always wanted to write you letters. In this tumultuous time, as everyone chatters over another, failing to listen to when others are speaking, perhaps the only way to tell your story is by writing letters. No one can interrupt a letter, they won’t start arguing with it; whether they like it or not, they’ll have to follow your thoughts through to the end. I’ve thought that for a long time. I always wanted to write you letters, but I didn’t send you even one. I started almost a hundred. I would write in the night as my family slept, sometimes until the early morning. Then I would collapse into a slumber for an hour or so, overwhelmed by a strange elation, and yet the morning would unfortunately and unfailingly be wiser than the evening and have me tear up that letter, fruit of so much mental anguish. I would throw it away, and it would rarely survive until noon. Sometimes I would burn it for greater effect. The paper would coil and become charred, and an unbearable smell would spread throughout the room. The paste ink of a ballpoint pen smells horribly when burning.
More than once, just after writing one, I colluded with the night to toss it in the letterbox, and then whatever happens, happens. But I didn’t post a single one: I would see your thin, sceptical face in front of me, I would sense the smoke of the smouldering cigarette in the corner of your mouth, almost knowing what you were going to answer. I destroyed those letters, I killed my thoughts, because you would have responded to them immediately.
I ached to write you letters, but I didn’t want to get your replies.
Even if I had begged you not to reply, you wouldn’t have held yourself back. As you had a distressing lack of listeners, you would have spoken sooner or later. Which is why I didn’t send you any. If I had sent one, I would have lurked around your letterbox afterwards until they brought it so that I could take it out and tear it up. And that would have been laughable. You said yourself that the worst thing in life is to be the object of other people’s laughter. You can be proud – your pupil made note of this lesson well. Along with many other things.
Along with many other things!
You were my Teacher – could I have ever said that earlier to you? To admit that to you, and then once again chat and argue with you like nothing happened? I didn’t have the courage, I was uncomfortable, and perhaps I didn’t even want to believe it myself: how could a sullen man full of irony, almost the same age, be a Teacher? I have come to believe it only now, after everything that has happened.
In these sceptical times, it’s a rare person who has a real live Teacher. The young don’t want to listen to the old – and they’re right in doing that. It’s precisely the old that created this whole phantasmagoria, today modestly called the “period of stagnation” – only the mad or the suicidal would genuinely listen to them and learn from them. However, the young don’t want to listen to other young people either – except perhaps rock musicians. No rock musician can be a Teacher. He can be a megaphone, he can be a notice board – but never a Teacher.
They say that a true Teacher has to be like God. Radiance needs to emanate from him. No radiance even thought of emanating from you. You could be angry and unkind. You did bad things to a lot of people. And to me as well. What can we do? – what is dear to us is dear, even if it brings affliction. After all, who doesn’t value their body, even when beset by all kinds of ailments? You can dislike your body, you can even hate it now and again, but you have to value it. In this way you can fail to love your Teacher, even hate him now and again, but you always believe in him. I believed in you, which is why I perished. But a destructive faith is better than none at all.
No, I didn’t pray to you, and I never listened to you unquestioningly. There were times I didn’t agree with you, I desired to argue with you, I was enraged at you, or I wouldn’t listen to you, but you were still my teacher. Now and again I would hate you, I liked to do bad things to you and even wanted to kill you, but still you remained my Teacher. I doubt you knew that. I doubt you wanted to be him. You killed me, though perhaps I should be thankful for that – at least I didn’t turn into a living corpse.
You pushed me towards the Path, and what became of that – you know yourself.
I was always astonished by your ability to push other people towards an ideal, towards a resolute fight, to the death, and remain the same as you were before: imperfect, sometimes abominable, sometimes appalling. Even now I don’t understand what forced me to believe in you. I met all sorts of intellectuals in my life: madmen in the good sense – quite a few. I mingled with parapsychologists and hypnotists, but in the end they didn’t manage to influence me.
You have a gift from God – you were a born Teacher. A Teacher without students – perhaps that’s the only way one could exist during those catastrophically godless times. Perhaps that’s the best for you as well, and your possible students. I understand that this thought of mine is horrifying, however it’s probably right. You remained there, and I ended up here. We’re both the same. We both killed our godly spark, both of us rose to flight and spattered on the ground very far from the goal.
Teacher, your one and only student sends you greetings from beyond.
I don’t know when it all started. “It all”, it seems, is none other than myself. So I don’t know when I started, was born, created myself. I don’t know when a creature of human birth, having my first and last name, turned into the true “me”. I remember one peaceful summer evening we both sat in a student dormitory room and spoke precisely about that. I complained (or perhaps was surprised) that even up till then I did not understand whether I really was me. It always appeared to me that some of my actions were controlled by another person who was distrustful, angry and dishonest. That alter ego was not simply my dark side, my dark shadow. Sometimes he would appear to be smarter than me, sometimes more tender or happier. He would often behave better than I would have myself.
You seemed to be listening carefully, but then you calmly started to pick your teeth. At once you felt my pain and made a crooked smile. You always saw right through other people with relish, but most of the time you didn’t heed them.
“Slowly the seedlings of a new person are sprouting within you,” you said tenderly. “Now and again they do something for you.”
“I don’t want any new person,” I shot back angrily. “It’s bad enough that I’m not able to deal with it myself. All I need is another person to make it even worse.”
“And how do you know that the ʽotherʼ is not your real you?” you hinted in a profound manner and, it seemed, immediately forgot what you had just said.
But I made a note of those words. More than once I stubbornly interrogated you as to whether you ever felt the effect of some sort of outside force.
“For fuck’s sake!” you shot back emotionally, “I was always me.”
And I also made note of those words of yours. My greatest misfortune was that I didn’t become myself at once. No one taught us to be ourselves. We were taught to be this and that, model ourselves on some squalid or unearthly ideal model, which we didn’t think up ourselves. They taught us to change ourselves, break ourselves. They taught us to adapt.
However, they never taught us how to be ourselves.
It’s by no means easy to be ourselves: we need a great talent for it. Now I often think that genius is simply the perfect ability to stay firmly, stubbornly true to yourself until the very end.
“The biggest mistake people make,” you once reluctantly explained, “is to stop at an ecological niche of the noosphere and try to establish themselves there at all costs, breaking themselves, befouling themselves, adapting themselves right to this very niche, the closest ecological niche. Especially if there is some esteemed, reputable sign hanging above it. Energetic men sometimes start to reorder that very niche in their own image. That’s nonsense, a deadly intoxication. Patient and thorough people plod slowly through life, trying out ever more niches – perhaps one will appear suitable to them. Sometimes they find refuge this way, sometimes they remain without a home.
“So what’s the solution?” I asked naively.
“You need to create an individual niche,” you retorted somewhat irritably.
“It’s that simple?”
“My boy, my boy,” you grumbled calmly. “Simple? Don’t forget that you will be all alone in such a niche. Alone as can be. That’s the deal.”
I hastily rushed to explain that such an ecological niche is not proper, that it’s shameful to occupy a place only for yourself, knowing full well that you can’t invite anyone to come along… You interrupted me and suggested we listen to some music. It was probably ’72. You put on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album.
Now I can write and write, and you won’t interrupt me. You’d definitely interrupt me if I were alive. You never knew how to listen to people. Well no, what was worse – you knew how, but too often you didn’t want to listen to them. Writing letters definitely has advantages. Now I can say everything without being disturbed.
After all, it’s very important who you talk to. I don’t want to talk with just anyone. I don’t want to talk to emptiness. I just want to write letters precisely to you, because you were my Teacher.
By the way, I don’t just want to you; I’m planning on writing to Lenin and Stalin, Nietzsche and Russell, Jesus Christ and Prince Myshkin. Most likely there’s been more than a few that have written to them, but I’ll try not to repeat the other people’s thoughts. Perhaps I will write to them someday. For the time being it hasn’t gone particularly well. For the time being I’m still sharpening my quill.
As it must already be clear, I don’t have a quill of any kind. So you can imagine how difficult it is to sharpen a non-existent quill.
You really can’t answer me and that’s not so good. I can’t ask you if you want to read my letters.
So I won’t ask.
You have to read these letters. That’s your duty. Who else will do it if not you? Who else, if not you, who deliberately or by accident taught me something, but who never taught me anything completely? Who else, if not you, who killed me, who casually expelled me to the other side? Who else if not you, the present-day opponent of Father-in-Law, the author of the famous opus “Reorganization in Albania”?
You will have to listen to me – whether you want to or not.
Otherwise I’ll start to haunt you. Even now you sense me, you should sense me. Even now you remember me often. You cannot fail to remember me. I’m haunting you ever so slightly even now. You recognize me in the figure of a lonely passer-by. You stop, irritated, and want to call me by name, though you know very well that it’s not me, that I can’t walk the streets of Vilnius. Suddenly you see the dent of my body on your sofa in the living room, as if I had just got up and left. You even think that you got a whiff of my scent and you hungrily pull in the air with your nostrils, much like a huge excited dog. You find an observation of mine recorded elegantly with a pencil in the margins of your book, and having forgotten that the person who wrote it is gone, you sit near the telephone, determined to challenge me. It always appears to you that I am somewhere nearby.
Essentially that’s how it is. I didn’t go anywhere, I am still here. But most importantly I can write you letters. I believe that you will read them. I know that you’ll have to read them.
Translated by Jayde Will
Forthcoming from Vagabond Voices in 2017