AT THE 1998 FRANKFURT BOOKFAIR*
THE TRAVELLER INTRODUCES HIMSELF
he traveller began travelling. He cast a sleepy glance at Donaueschingen. He was a professional traveller; travelling was his occupation. In his younger days he had concocted great literary plans, and had with his literary efforts in his homeland, which is called Hungary, and where Hungarians live, who speak Hungarian, or, more accurately, throw Hungarian words in one another’s faces, eat Hungarian, chomping Hungarian meat between their Hungarian teeth, make Hungarian love, with their Hungarian heads resting on Hungarian thighs, are born Hungarian, and die Hungarian, with Hungarian light falling on their cradles and Hungarian soil falling on their coffins, on their velvety or, as the case may be, wasted Hungarian bodies, and they live Hungarian, in his homeland, that treasure chest which lay like a treasure chest in the lap of the Carpathians, he, with his literary efforts had even made a name for himself, but then, when it became clear that even God had created him to be a traveller, he became a traveller. […]
PRACTICAL JOKE FROM DONAEUSCHINGEN
TRAVELLER: Name your sources!
In a film, someone claims that New York is the heart of the world, to which someone else angrily replies that the world has no heart (and also that he shouldn’t have come in before his number was called, because all this takes place in a famous Turkish bath in Budapest).
The heart of the Dune is Ulm.
Or so Engineer Neweklowsky maintains in his painfully painstaking book, The Hegel of the Upper Danube. He refers, above all, to a central point, a centre that conceals its emotions. In one place he describes – and here one might suspect a printing error – a ‘gigantic centre of gravity’, and, in his own punctilious manner, he provides interesting calculations to support this theory (‘nothing is more practical than good theory’), which are not only utterly convincing, but also offer a nice, quiet example of the not unusual marriage between German pedantry and leisurely madness.
In his intellectual experiments, Neweklowsky simply stands the Danube on its head. That is to say, he inverts the real distribution of water volume. His calculations demonstrate that the centre of gravity of the figure weighed in this fashion is Ulm, or more precisely, the Iller estuary. It speaks volumes for the integrity of the indefatigable engineer that he express some doubt as to whether we might receive any result with the same delight, for the centre of gravity will always fall at exactly the place where it falls.
The fundamental question is whether we are to see the Danube – and with it, the truth – as some kind of discovery (aletheia), the discovery of a given order, that is to say, the apparently chaotic Danube is based on an order which we will (at some point) discern, because it is discernible, or, on the contrary, we are to admit that there is no such order, only eddies, spray and current, and the apparent order – for ultimately we are speaking of something here, after all, and if we board the hydrofoil in Vienna, then we can arrive in Budapest – is not something we have found, but something we have added ourselves, and then forgotten, and now, hearing the hydrofoil sound its horn, our smiles stretch all the way to our ears. In place of discovery, rediscovery. Flusser aptly remarks that Copernicus is not truer than Ptolemy, but simply more convenient! What order is, ‘I’ decide, who utter the letters o, r, d, e, r. The relationship between the law of Free Fall and geometrical progression (it gets better and better, just think of the man who fell from the tower of Ulm, or of 1, 4, and 9) is nor some miracle, but a category of mind; the mind recognizing one of its own categories. But this, once again, can be called a miracle. The laws of nature are not the creation of God, or the angels, or even of nature herself, but of man! He is the only one who tampers with all thes things.
The following legendary story, with which Neweklowsky, as a genuine chaos-researcher, presents us, is actually quite typical, playing, as is does, on Goethe’s Janus-faced Mehr-Licht!/Mehr-nicht! After a life-long preoccupation with the Danube, the engineer is said to have cried out on his deathbed: Where, oh where, is the man who can distinguish between Danube, and not-Danube?! From the utterance of this sentence to the moment of his death (that is, some seventeen hours) he howled and hollered so loud that they had to close all the shutters in his house. But the people of Ulm could hear him all the same. Now the Danube is dying, they said, nodding their heads. […]
Vienna is not a Danubian city. Vienna doesn’t appreciate the Danube. As soon as it notices the river, it invites the canal to come in and show off, and splashes about a little in the Alte Donau. Perhaps this is why the Traveller, on reaching the Danube – and let’s not forget he is a Danube traveller – begins to ruminate about his life. He sits down in a park, a Viennese park. These parks are Vienna’s magic mirrors, in which the whole town can see itself reflected. And all at once everyone is there, Schnitzler and Trakl, ‘the fire off rococo-hedonism’ and ‘the smoke of dry, brown, deathly, autumn brushwood’. (There’s no smoke without fire.) The dead stroll along the well-kept paths. It is easier to join the ranks of the dead in Vienna. Young people exchanging grass and dope in the back alleyways of the Burggarten, old men in cravats, doddering old society dames, so many picture-postcards that will never be sent. Vienna has more than its fair share of dead. It has a fine bagatelle tradition in the living dead. The Traveller is seized by a passionate and somewhat ridiculous fit of self-pity. […]
Like my country under the Russians, the gravel beneath my feet moaned and groaned and … remained where it was. You are this and that, and I build upon this gravel etcetera. The Fürstenberg Castle is like an offended, twilight face. By the source my gaze slowly ventured its way towards the solemn slab; Hier entspringt die Donau. In other words, here rises the Danube! What a moment! The beginnings, the origin! All beginnings are pure? Or – but I don’t even dare go on. Well, what did I care if it looked like water in a stagnant bowl, a provincial Trevi Fountain where, when throwing in one’ money, one doesn’t think of one’s desires, nor of the Earth, nor of the heavens, but simply of how the Deutschmark stands right now against the dollar… […]
From so much Danube and so much talk of Central Europe I didn’t so much get sick – which is anyway the wrong word – as get angry. (In matters of patriotism, Thomas Bernhard remains the crucial authority, although as far as Hungary is concerned, you have to change Hochgebirgstroll to Tiefebenetrottl…) All that stuff about Danubian thought, Danubian ethos, Danubian past, Danubian history, Danubian suffering, Danubian tragedy, Danubian dignity, Danubian presents, Danubian future! What does it all mean? All that flowing became suspicious. Danubian nothingness, Danubian hatred, Danubian stench, Danubian anarchy, Danubian provincialism, Danubian Danube. Poor Gertrud Stein, were she alive to hear this! The Danube is the Danube is the Danube…
According to a rather weak joke, the answer to the question of what holds a football team together is partly alcohol and partly a shares hatred of the coach. And that’s all. That’s all Central Europe ever was. At least, it was only the Soviet Union that kept Kundera’s definition alive. How it appealed to me in those days! And how obtuse and immature I found Handke when he called Central Europe a purely meteorological concept. Yet how right he was! And in no way was this a condescending treatment of the subject. Nature, as a court of appeal, is no trifle. Just try talking to someone from Murmansk about the cold. Or to an Indian about heat or rain. It’s cold, it’s raining, there’s a storm raging and the Inn bursts its banks: here I know what I’m talking about. Clouds, stars, winds and storms, water-level, rainfall, common wisdom, folklore (Mátyás the ice-breaker, April showers, St Swithin’s Day).
To sum up: we are neighbours. The same horse looks through the window, we look out onto the same garden, can appeal to the shared knowledge of hailstorms and floods, forks of lighting, the August horizon, snatches of fog, slippery roads at dawn, a spellbinding woman, an angelic little boy, an unmovable man, great, pubic, orgiastic misunderstandings. […]