The Comprehensive Incubus
When Night in her rustie dungeon hath imprisoned our ey-sight, and that we are shut separately in our chambers from resort, the divell keepeth his audit in our sin-guilty consciences, no sense but surrenders to our memorie a true bill of parcels of his detestable impietis. The table of our hart is turned to an index of iniquities, and all our thoughts are nothing but texts to condemn us. The rest we take in our beds is such another kinde of rest as the weerie traveller taketh in the coole, soft grasse in summer, who thinking there to lye at ease, and refresh his tyred limmes, layeth his fainting head unawares on a loathsome neast of snakes.
This is my confession. An account of the events and circumstances leading to the murder of Doctor Felix Nussman.
Doctor Felix Nussman arrived three years ago, in early October. He took possession of the ground-floor apartment identical to and opposite mine; five hexed rooms occupied by a succession of unsuccessful lawyers and physicians. His arrival, as were his medical predecessors’, was openly reviewed by a considerable gathering; the public auditing his belongings and assessing him (shabby instrument cabinets) for trust—with reverse blessing, God forbid—in the middle of some night, and secondarily debating (paper cartons, bundles, books) whether he’d sustain himself (pieces of much tried plain furniture) by drugs or abortions. Were it either, if only it were, I’d give . . . strange, what exchange could I make, stranger yet I can’t even fantasize how life would be without my present determination.
Where has he arrived at? A part of New York City described by my student-self, many years ago, while courting successfully a baker’s daughter and being so pleased by her admiration of these lines, not realizing this was the lowest rung on the progression of pleasures required by tradesmen’s daughters. Lines I include along with the scant papers this present exegesis concludes with. (Why not, there’s no other place for them.)
There must have been a first one, lost somewhere; a first model from which these buildings come. These counterfeits. But, as they are so perfect, is the original important after all? Buildings painted without color, recalled a moment later as shades of dark. Buildings with fire escapes shoelacing the windows. They were put side by side, roof to roof, block after block, on and on until the horizons were gone. Too late, the only place left to look was up.
Written, now, I must admit it seems an overly long and sententious way of saying “tenements.” Of commenting that this, here, was no place to bring a career. Here where the gravity is more intense, this Sovereignty of Burdens, a place to fall to.
For my own career, I did once actually inquire after a professional suite uptown during that personal incandescence when grief for my mother’s passing abated. But, then I even entertained hopes for a family as well as success.
However, getting on . . . at first, intercourse between Nussman and myself was slight, reflexive politeness and courtesies. This, on my part, was due to more than my natural reticence. My profession, dentistry, requires a social insulation, being a caste beneath that of medicine and law, one drifting down toward that province of regard where pharmaceutists, optometrists, and chiropodists dwell. No matter really, this reserve allowed me to observe the doctor with a detachment immediate friendship makes impossible. A detachment which I was, fortunately, able to revive after our intimate relations began.
By observing the tall, thin man it was soon apparent—honing my curiosity finer—that he had suffered no career misfortune. Rather, he was an accomplished medical gypsy, knowing enough to distribute his small shopping throughout the neighborhood stores, to give unhurried curbside consultations, to minister to juvenile gutter casualties, and hastily attend prostrate senescent.
Thus did the doctor sow himself and in a short time reaped a subsisting practice consisting mainly of first aid, blood testing, immunizations, and one- and two-visit influenzas. This puzzled me, as there was no doubt, judging from circulating anecdotes, that he was more than a passingly competent physician . . . a puzzle unsolved until my own influenza.
Retributively, I suppose, my wife called Nussman instead of Lang, our regular physician. I’ve always paid a penalty for my debilities which Sylvia determines as caused by irresponsibility and therefore a personal humiliation.
Mine, as the preceding indicates, has not been the best of marriages. There’s been a persistent debate going on in myself while writing this, whether or not to include certain facts about it. Surely, they’ve affected me through the years and must contribute to my present condition and intention.
Also, really, I must admit that this is perhaps the only chance I’ll have to get at Myer Rosenbaum. Why shouldn’t he be brought into this? He and his Royal Princess Fur Salons in Forest Hills and Scarsdale. He and Sylvia have been carrying on a liaison for more than a decade. She won’t leave me and I can’t throw her out. She has come and gone never bothering to explain or lie.
For years, I’ve covered them with curses but I’ve never cared less than I do now. I mention them, they’re only facts.
Anyway, Nussman came to attend me. It is difficult to recall through the haze of fever and discomfort his exact manner during that first visit. Efficient, no doubt, for the morning after an injection and a few tablets I eagerly anticipated the visit he said he would pay that evening.
He came rather late, after eleven, annoying Sylvia to the extent that she ignored us completely. That is, initially.
He was quick in taking my pressure, temperature, pulse, and percussing my chest; prescribing “. . . a few days in bed, books, and tea” in his pleasant European-accented voice.
I inquired, while he collected his instruments, to what amount his check ought to be made but he dismissed his fee as professional courtesy. Pleased and flattered, I offered the bottle of cognac I’d been using medicinally. He accepted and seated himself near my bed.
Sitting there, occupied with his drink, so close to me I had my first opportunity to examine his face for details unavailable to me at the distance we formerly kept. I guessed he was about my age. His hair, a middle shade of gray, was straight, beginning above a high forehead, and needed cutting. The lines of his face were long and square. His light complexion and pale blue eyes gave the effect of a face poorly seen or mis-focused. In all, what I believe is termed in fine literary style, a palimpsest face, where character and strength are written over a poorly erased handsomeness but neither effect succeeding beyond the effect of erasure.
I spoke randomly of my health, the season, my practice, setting up a rambling smoke screen behind which my curiosity paced restlessly; being further agitated at this point by a series of Sylvia’s entrances and exits, darting in and out to empty and refill my water carafe, in and out to empty and replace my waste basket, in and out to inquire whether the doctor had sufficient cigarettes. I knew she was building up a case, bustling and scurrying; in a few days I’d recover and she’d be worn out . . . there’d be a crisis and maybe she’d leave again.
Perturbed by the first phase of Sylvia’s departure, I cursed myself, I cursed her, I cursed my smiling visitor. Thus, mindless, my autonomous prattlings—touching, prying about where he’d practiced and what he’d done—they too turned malevolent and a question burst free to my shame and horror, “Why in God’s name did you come here?”
Upset, immobile, I floundered in embarrassment and agitation, only to realize worse . . . he had answered me, an answer I didn’t hear! But, I blundered on, pretending I’d heard, guessing it was some indifferent and noncommittal reply and in response I was again enumerating the difficulties of neighborhood practice.
Interrupting, actually fixing me against my propped pillows with his pale blue eyes, that turned hard and bright, he said, “Would it be enough for you for me to say that I have a . . . para-medical interest?”
Lost, completely lost, I who petrify before bank tellers and information windows needing questions and questions to capture the simplest sense because of distrust of myself, ready to publicly defame myself in apology but always spared by my adversary’s impatience . . . I faced my strange guest and said abjectly, “Is it enough?” meaning to go on and say that it was more than I deserved to know, to confess my shameful bungling when I noticed his discomposure. Somehow, I had struck a blow!
A moment before he’d been sitting back comfortably but now he leaned forward, his head lowered, his vaguely drawn features being further effaced by a violent emotion. He put his drink aside, excused himself and quickly departed.
Now, these years later his behavior is, of course, no mystery. My phrase, “Is it enough?” answering his, ending with “. . . para-medical interest,” caught him off guard, piercing through to a private doubt he carried, but momentarily forgot was hidden. This brief shattering, I should say “mutual shattering” of self-assurances was the beginning of our exchange of confidences. He, I, could no longer pass each other with just neighbors’ salutes. And, I am forced to conclude, it must also be marked as the beginning of my resolve to kill him, for it was at this point that simple curiosity turned to suspicion.
I do not mean by this to slyly evade the stigma of betrayal. For there was and still is as Nussman lives, sleeps, and breathes across the hall, nothing between us. Nothing in the way of friendship to be betrayed. Because, logically, how can two elderly men both in the shadow of the imminent prospect afford even splinters of feeling, sentiment, and whatever else youth squanders building friendship? No, I insist it cannot be. There isn’t even a model, some classic, heroic example, something one might expect to find in the Bible or Shakespeare. There, if anything, exists between Felix and myself a crony-ship, and if that can be betrayed, I accept the petty stigma.
Well, no matter what name is given to our relationship we began by spending one, two, and then many of the week’s evenings together. Talking to no single point except to tell the other of self. Nussman had been born in Delatin, a small town in Austria, of modest merchant people. He’d studied medicine in Lausanne. It was here, in his final year, a year he finished with high honors, that he came under the tragic influence of Doctor Zelig Helfmann.
(I will not interrupt my testimony to deal with Helfmann’s cruel and fantastic hypothesis. I will append at the conclusion of my testimony a copy of a speech, translated and given to me by Nussman, which Helfmann delivered on August 28, 1927, at a congress marking the opening of the Fachadété Clinic in Bern. A congress Nussman unfortunately attended. And, it is my further suspicion judging from the amount, diversity, and consistency of Nussman’s foreign correspondence that there are other physicians from Nussman’s class working surreptitiously under the same cruel aegis.)
To continue, most especially I remember the first summer. Sylvia had made her hegira to the seashore and her sister, so I had every evening for talk with Felix. Evenings? Rather, night and mornings. The heat making sleep not only impossible but also unnecessary as the days were passed in a sort of coma. Until this time, our opinions had been offered impersonally, aloof, as two experienced and devoted museum visitors would exchange. Having been, seen, and colored with an irony, a sadness that soon the exhibit would close. Or, more precisely, that our passes would soon expire.
Is it difficult to understand the pleasure, for me, when in passing he’d remark . . . something like bonum et laudum, bringing back to me in a rush my student days. Days when I thought I knew something about life because I knew and was not afraid of bonum et laudum, good and praiseworthy . . . the clinical reference to pus, a sign received by us who were ascending above the mysteries . . . strepto, green and sweet, staphaureus, yellow gold, staphalba, pure white and smelling like rancid butter . . . is all this difficult to understand?
And, in this way we came to talk of love, women, and sex. That particular evening—our whiskey and ice—I remember clearly intending to remark on the emptiness in my marriage, the absence of children. I meant a mature and dignified reproach against fortune, but there flew into my mind thoughts which I could not contain but attempted to pass off humorously. I suddenly had to say, “You know, what’s always intrigued me about fathering a child, I mean it must be some sort of universal law that fathers must, so to speak, cadge a few . . . sips. Of milk, I mean. For the taste. But, then it occurred to me that no doubt the mother herself would like . . . a sample. And that destroyed my interest.” I had an anxious moment trying to force a laugh but it came, encouraged by Felix’s chuckle.
“My dear Leo, I give you a toast . . . in this base potion, die Liebfraumilch!”
“And . . . the mammalian hangover.”
Oh, no. No further. I must interrupt. Can I be taken seriously by merely testifying? After all, I am not only a witness, I am a will. Who I really am, what I really am must be explained or else the murder I will commit presently qualifies as little more than an accident.
I shall be brief. In truth, I am a crank who intends to kill a crackpot.
Further, I waive any claim to exculpation. I accept all consequences. Perhaps now, I seem a fool. To accept my destruction, the fear, the humiliation, all that, being photographed manacled to fat detectives. Nevertheless, I accept all, the screams I shall be able to suppress and those I cannot, I accept everything, the pity and charity of my final judgment . . . oh, well, a crank killed a crackpot.
Why, if I see all this, must it inevitably come about?
Have my faculties failed me? No. I am wholly resolved to act thusly. Resolved emotionally and rationally.
I have had, without a doubt, the longest continuous rational existence conceivable. I have been thinking, thinking through all my days and nights. More than fifty years of thought undisturbed by pleasure or frivolity. I know, for example, that to be conventionally rational I ought to go, right now, tonight, into the streets and find a policeman. Together we would break into Nussman’s flat and force him to be merciful. To stop, to leave off, to answer for the past. It’s even easier than that. I only need telephone for some big goon. Come with me, I’d say, there’s a horror that must be ended.
Couldn’t I sell tickets to that comedy?
But, no, I cannot protect myself by such a poor specimen of irony while the true and bitter haunt me. I cannot escape the bitter irony that it is actually the coward in me speaking, as he does incessantly. Forcing me here to avoid and abandon my testimony, setting me off in all directions. The coward in me, alone, trembling, and conniving against the positive knowledge of what must be done and paid for.
And, the first irony allowed, others pour in. That I, I who set down this examination of resolution, I am incapable of giving up cigarettes. I, who own a moral dossier fifty-six years old which shows no entries, a dossier in eternal preparation, smudged, handled, yellowed, unused.
Because the shalt nots have never troubled me. Negatives suit the passive. That plus the accidental circumstances of my life, of always being surrounded by untemptables, of uncovetable goods and neighbors’ wives. Or, just as good for the record, wives who’d probably never have had me, anyway.
Well, where is all this leading? Toward the conclusion that I will kill Nussman from altruism? From selfishness?
Truthfully, Nussman doesn’t really offend or threaten me. I’ve allowed nothing in fifty-six years to offend or threaten me. But, I realize he should, and practically speaking, how many opportunities will there be or can there be for me to think this way?
I say “think this way” purposely, for I’ve been unable to “feel any way” for so long I cannot trust the idea.
Or, is all I’ve done is to throw my rational competence into doubt? I once kept count, how many, many crises ago, of my rational competence vis-à-vis anguish. Of never cracking. First I kept record of plights, then of periods, then of years . . . no matter. The question is raised and I won’t allow it to slip away. Like a last meal, I can’t be denied this.
I submit the following. A proof of rational competence made during . . . never mind, let it speak for itself and answer for my logical ability.
Isism And Isn’Tism
An apostasy from the question of yes or no, and others?
Since contemporary professional thought has progressed to a state of pause in the pursuit of essence and is seemingly content to toy and finger the facts of existence, there is time during this warm, lazy, ontological afternoon to consider questions which perplex salesmen, clerks, and schoolgirls. They are:
- What happens when the irresistible force meets the immovable object?
- Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
- Yes or no?
All three propositions have in common the appearance of a conflict of opposites, of choice possibilities. However, examination reveals the first proposition to contain mutually exclusive elements, elements which cannot exist in the company of one another; but, which are necessary, by reference, in defining the other. In other words, what/when one is the other isn’t.
Passing on to the second proposition we again have alternatives poised and the appearance of choice. But, the true choice is not given. Actually, what came first was neither but something that either the chicken or the egg developed from. Here we have a situation of evolving states of is vying for primacy.
(In attacking the question of yes or no, it will be done without an object, which eliminates value and casuistry.)
Can we apply the criticism of mutual exclusiveness to yes or no as was done with proposition number one? Could we maintain that either (positive or negative position) is independent of the other? If that were true each would preserve its integrity in the other’s company, whereas, we know in fact that simultaneous yes and no becomes maybe. Again, one is only when the other isn’t.
Further, can we apply the truth derived from the second proposition; namely, that of primacy of evolving states, which came first, yes or no? Here, prudence suggests retreat, for were it ever solved whether Man’s first construction was positive or negative, would not such a trifle ignite the final arbitrary war and reduce the rubble of value to dust?
Ultimately, we can only approach the understanding of opposition—a concept with supportive opposite, reversible figure and ground—as fractions of experience, numerator over denominator. This provides us with three seminal inferences:
- True relationship between language and experience can be found where integer concepts exist; a whole concept with no opposite. For example, time, having no antonym (certainly not timeless, death, or eternity) but alone encompasses an aspect of experience.
- Mere Negation Is Not Opposition.
- The tension between numerator and denominator truly reflects the experience principle of conflict, the basis of genesis, another integer concept (not opposed by destruction, erasure, etc.).
Have we, by way of the last item above, come to prepare for the Dialectic?
No. We have come to remedy the Dialectic. It implies, and we must agree, that all experience occurs between the poles of opposition and not beyond them. It implies conflict and genesis. But, the error of the dialectic is that it employs parthenogenic opposites.
Opposition, of necessity, must be engendered, some yin and yang applied, a Mendelian schema prepared for the ensuing litter of alternatives. Experience will then no longer be a case of is or isn’t with the single synthesis of perhaps. Experience will be as it actually is and isn’t: isful, isn’tful, isable, isn’table, isless, isn’t-less, etc.
As generations of qualifications increase they will expand the finite boundaries of opposition into infinitude and freedom will at last be possible.
Have I not acquitted myself rationally? But, for myself, what does it mean to the murder I intend? Simply, this little exposition releases me from the alternatives normally available, namely:
- to do good (refrain from evil) allows evil to persist;
- to do evil allows good to exist.
Therefore, the choice between good and evil is merely one of sequence.
Enough, enough, too much of reason.
I have one more consideration to deal with before resuming my testimony. I said I was wholly resolved to the act of murder. I said emotionally, also. That is, if the word “emotionally” encompasses this truth . . . a truth I’ve derived with no a priori, no givens, a truth derived from a problem not even given, but taken.
It’s taken great cost but now I know that guilt is the corpse of love, love murdered, and though one shudders to think the soul a cemetery, it is. The soul is nothing more nor less than a cemetery.
It is, and I, after fifty-six years, am digging my first grave, burying guilt without a coffin of excuse or rationalization but naked, thereby to hasten corruption for I need desperately the fetor of putrefaction . . . which is fear, and who knows, possibly prayer.
How do I know that, now, before my first experience? Easily, because I’m a Jew. That, as anyone knows, accounts for my aptitude for atonement . . . for the pain and now the release from pain, my instinct free sending me heaving and panting to sacrifice, to shrive, to expiate, to forfeit.
Yes, I anticipate and reject the charge that I seek a synthetic martyrdom, manufacturing and justifying my circumstances. I anticipate and reject the charge that I’ve ignored the common trough of guilt, fasting until now for the bonne-bouche Nussman will make. It’s simply that I’ve gone hungry while others are fed to death.
This is possible and this is how it is possible. That such a man as myself is a Jew means something. That there has been in him since childhood an unused loyalty, an unreasonable urge to congregate and, at times, an ache to cheer and applaud someone, something, an agony to abandon himself in service. That this has been denied, stifled in him . . . means everything. It means that he became a lonely old Jew.
Is that comic?
Is it comic that through cowardice he became egregious, suffering, and is it comic that despite cowardice he cannot rid himself of the notion that he will die and be dead alone, alone again, unless he can join the assembled dead by corrupting and putrefying entirely.
There, isn’t that enough of a motive, enough of a lure? But, do I muddle my case for soul-estrangement with the irrelevancy of being a Jew? Do I? If that need be asked, the whole point is missed.
Because one isn’t only born a Jew, one is conscripted into Israel. Drafted into an army, an army that has deserted me, and what can a soldier do who’s too timid to inquire where the war is? Make haste, the orders read, into the fight, for love! Stand until death and after, pursue love, capture love though you know it will perish in your custody, as God’s did.
But, alone, what could I do? A guerrilla? No.
I spied, poorly, with no hope of effect until Nussman, a Jew renegade. Now, I can act and fall, but no longer alone. I shall have comrades . . . like Jesus, our unknown soldier known, hero of the jilted army.
If this is where I forfeit patient consideration for the indulgence the insane receive . . . too bad. Too bad, for this is where a Jew’s truth begins. It begins if you will accept the words of another Jew, “The man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror. . . .”
That Jew was Freud and what extremes did he not go to to show how much truer it is if one is the only child. A child wooed to and cooed to unceasingly. A child with a Joseph-father, a cab driver afflicted with a prodigy, a man with no taste or heart for a dynasty, siring a warrior who camped in his mother’s arms, a sentry in her lap, a picket before her bosom . . . earning at last his commission: Jesus a God and I, I, a dentist!
Ridiculous, isn’t it? The identical process . . . a dentist who would at this date . . . no, I have talked away the sympathetic shelter of irony, talked away any attempt at tragedy. As though a boy of twenty having begun a suicide note looks up to find a dozen volumes and fifty-six years later that he’s talked too much, talked away death’s significance . . . as there’s only a bit more rotting to be done.
I suppose what kind of creature I am is quite obvious.
I conclude these remarks with the information that I have secured a revolver and I’m confident that I can manage to operate it.
To resume my narrative again. I left off at a point of dialogue between Felix and myself which prefaced an examination of sexuality. Soon after this exchange a discussion of sexual pathology followed and Nussman’s story of Madame Pfister.
(I cannot report the exact sequence of discovery, hundreds of allusions, clues, hints, of Nussman’s “para-medical” interest, Ephialtes, the nightmare. Suffice it to say that it was revealed piece by piece after his recounting the episodes of Madame Pfister, of the medical student in Baltimore, and, finally, of the Lehrer brothers, known to me.)
Nussman had been practicing in Innsbruck, perforce a non-specialized practice because of his commitment to Helfmann. He was called one morning to attend a Madame Pfister, wife of a senior magistrate. She was young, in her late twenties, childless, and uncommonly beautiful. He found the poor girl bearing the marks of a violent physical encounter. Since her husband refused to have her hospitalized Nussman could do little else except perform first aid treatment and sedate the girl. Nussman assumed that he, unknown to this circle of Innsbruck society, had been called because of the scandalous nature of the woman’s condition. This was true, the magistrate though innocent of abusing his wife was extremely sensitive to the disgraceful aspect of the situation. Shortly thereafter, Madame Pfister, the marks of her encounter not yet gone, visited Nussman. Most probably on her husband’s direction.
She complained of insomnia and anxiety but did not respond to the doctor’s ministrations. Her regular visits became frequent. Finally, she confessed her original ordeal. She admitted, after may false starts, that it was a visitation, an Incubus. But, more than that, she desired it again.
(Here, I must state again that I shall decline to comment on Helfmann’s hypothesis except to note that for a disciple, Nussman, Madame Pfister was a rare prize, perhaps the rarest. Further, Nussman confided to me some time after that summer night, that he himself was in the severest of agonies. For, though he had a subject he had not yet developed a method.)
So, aside from drugs and many unsuccessful post-hypnotic attempts, Nussman could do nothing for his patient except listen as she relived her horrible ecstasy. Remembering details, condemning her memory for the meager scraps of joy it yielded, yearning, dreading . . . all the while the substance of her obscene adventure was slipping away, and so was her life. Until the end she’d made her body a shrine, cutting herself off from all company except Nussman’s, who was allowed to offer drugs . . . and listen.
The details, the use to which her fantasy put her are superfluous to my testimony aside from the obvious remark that it was too much pain and pleasure for her to bear unaided. And, as it concerns the doctor, the questions are: Did he act as he was sworn or cheat his oath with anodynes, forsaking equivocal orthodox psychological treatment in the hope of securing an insight into the dubious hypothesis he supported; and lastly, can he justify his failure to seek consultation?
I judge him guilty.
A postscript to the death of Madame Pfister was a call paid by the magistrate who assured the doctor that he was in no way considered responsible for the poor woman’s death. But, since he was party to such distasteful information the doctor could understand that the presence of such information in Innsbruck loomed as a possible compromise toward the magistrate’s performance of his duties. And, after all, the doctor was still a young and skillful physician and could easily establish himself elsewhere. In this way began Nussman’s dislocation, a dislocation for a long time sustained by European politics and after, by habit.
This story was in essence revealed to me, I repeat, primarily as an anecdote illuminating a discussion of sexual pathology. And, it was after that particular evening that Nussman’s personal footnotes were added.
Now, there should be reasons for such confidences. Gould they stem from that mutual nonplussed moment at my bedside when he betrayed the presence of his secret, his being undone by half? Or, was it my unwitting encouragement, like revealing to him the shameful reason for my discontinuation of gas anesthesia? Yes, probably these things contributed but not nearly so much as I suspect something else, something I term, for my own uses, the sublimated Odyssey instinct.
By that I refer to an urge, an instinct for adventure which has become intellectualized (and conversationalized) so that now it is manifest by a desire to leap from the common gallery to the lectern and recount the flight. Talk. Talk. Talk. An insatiable need to talk.
But, in the case of Nussman, as time and failure widened the gap, there was only myself. Enough I suppose, wandering in out of the dull weather of my life, a solitary listener, who will applaud the speaker with bullets.
But, to proceed. The second . . . notable case Nussman encountered was in Baltimore. About ten years before he arrived here. It involved a young boy, just entering medical school and his parents. I will use only his first name, David, but possess other clues through which he might be traced, if he is still alive.
Nussman had been called to attend the father. I must make clear at the outset that though David was well-formed and extraordinarily gifted his parents were both grotesque examples of the kind of rubbish the human womb can expel. Unfortunately alive. They were both deaf, mute, and palsied. They were mated as these situations are commonly handled through mutual circles of family and friends, the mother from Baltimore and the father from St. Louis, endowed with a modest and secure income and forgotten.
When Nussman was called, the father was in the terminal stage of intercurrent pneumonia; meaning that the poor spastic wretch’s twisted posture made normal aeration of the lungs impossible and death swift.
In the two years following, Nussman and David became close friends. Naturally, on the basis of the boy’s studies and the doctor’s profound knowledge of medicine. And, somewhere in their talks the boy revealed the nature of his torment. That he had been since childhood, in effect, an antenna, translating sound and speech into a petite semaphore; that he had and could not restrain himself since childhood and until the death of his father from making nocturnal expeditions into his parents’ room—darkness muting their only vital sense—to observe their palsied love-making; that all his thinking could be and was done aloud even after he learned and came to feel the treasons everyone commits in the company of others while in the privacy of themselves . . . this impossibility to think voicelessly imprisoned David with his parents.
Soon after the death of his father, he revealed, he had his first nightmare. He dreamed he was lying on a surgical table when a gigantic pair of hands appeared and began to remove his senses, his eyes, ears, nose, and tongue. Finally, the hands moved toward his genitals. At this point he awoke to spend the rest of the night recuperating from an agonizing dread, a conviction of absolute paralysis, and a heavy oppression that threatened to stifle him. These, according to Nussman, the classic symptoms of Ephialtes.
Months and months went by, the same dream over and over again without variation and increasing in frequency. And, the boy in frantic alarm at the prospect of sleep, haggard and failing at his studies.
In this state is it any wonder though Nussman equivocates that reason would quit a mind denied rest? Nussman answered that the state of psychological knowledge being what it is he was justified in hoping to rebuild David’s mind after its inevitable collapse; and, I’m sure, in doing so experiment with the constituents. He hoped for this until he was called, as he usually is, to attend a midnight tragedy.
It appears as though the poor boy, getting no relief from his physician, has tried to solve himself. I, being no expert admittedly, judge that those terrible dream hands were identified by his last shreds of reason as belonging to his parents. But, this is the limit of his rationality . . . instead of the retributive hands of his father he thought them to be his mother’s.
His almost continual waking state was by this time probably also governed by the laws of his nightmare. It was learned that he had taken from his laboratory surgical tools and ether, intending in fact to amputate the offending hands. But, instead, he destroyed the hands by blinding himself.
To all this, to my look of horror, Nussman concluded with, “I could not fight such an Oedipus.”
The doctor left Baltimore leaving mother and son bound together more tightly than any lovers could hope to be, two together equivalent to one set of sensibilities. He left and wandered until now, here, and the surviving Lehrer brother.
Does it seem that I have . . . painted this episode more vividly than Madame Pfister’s? I mean, that my condemnation here is more intense? Does it seem from what is known of me so far that I’m more incensed at the loss of a precious son than of that poor girl? A son through whom I might have. . . .
Perhaps, at times I’ve suspected myself of elaborating this entire indictment where in reality any incident by itself would be sufficient for . . . what is expected of a normal man. But, I cannot be sure . . . sure enough to dismiss these papers and go straight to my revolver. And, as that is so, I must complete.
To complete the Baltimore . . . inventory, I should note that Felix had, at least, developed a method. He called it exhaustion of phenomena. It included such devices as baffling the dream message, confounding and misdirecting it, to ravel and muddle, perplexing and addling it at every turn so as to seal it hermetically. That done, the patient a virtual test-tube, the observer would have the dream field before him uncontaminated by a therapy system. It would be pure, the burden of intelligibility falling away revealing the mechanism. I must remark, anticipating the appendix to these pages, that it was entirely consistent with the Helfmann hypothesis as it satisfied the empiric requirements and disdains the human.
And yet, I cannot leave it entirely like that. I’ve wondered that, as Nussman tells me and as I’ve learned, a symptom is a means to suppress motive force and once the analytic situation is established, symptoms do not progress, as a rule. Then, respite is achieved . . . character change achieved . . . under arrested motivation. Nussman’s exhaustion technique would, logically, create a more profound and deeper respite . . . oh, bother, I’m beginning to believe all psychology bores one to health. And, besides, it is too late to save Nussman or myself.
As the conclusion of my testimony approaches . . . and the morning does also, I submit that part of which there can be no doubt as to its veracity; of the Lehrer brothers, known to me since childhood.
They, Avrom the elder and Reuben the younger, have always lived down the street in the same apartment they’d occupied with their parents, now long dead. Neither brother had married, going into the family dry goods business after rudimentary schooling. This placid existence was maintained by the not quite middle-aged bachelors—always known as polite, considerate, and retiring neighbors—until five years ago when Avrom committed suicide by hanging, in their apartment.
Afterward, the younger Reuben continued to occupy the same rooms, inheriting along with the Lehrer estate his deceased brother’s share of solitude. This he bore with no noticeable change until the last few months when his natural neurasthenic appearance became more marked, about the time when he began visiting Nussman.
Again, I cannot present things in their sequence of discovery but retrospectively constructed. I learned that the brothers had for many years been victims of identical nightmares. They had each seen themselves alone on a vast plain, a sack tied around their necks. They were impelled to walk but each step was made with the greatest of agonies for some living thing slept within the sack. If they woke the beast, its struggle to free itself would throttle them. They walked, each night, and suddenly a mis-step, the beast stirred, woke, and began a violent frenzied thrashing which strangled the dreamer awake. This same dream, shared by two, repeated countless times during the better part of their manhood.
Both men, being even simpler than I imagined, probably kept the secret thinking it signified a terrible shame. Keeping it together until the elder chose what is assumed to be a dream-proof sleep.
Reuben came to Nussman—an attraction of aliens—complaining of incapacitating neurasthenic symptoms: insomnia, a constant lassitude bordering on collapse, and persistent tinnitus (ringing and buzzing in the ears). In the course of these visits, the nightmare was exposed as well as the fact that Avrom’s suicide had suspended its appearance. Poor Reuben, however, could not endure the reprieve purchased by his brother’s death, and poorly purchased at that, for he knew the dream would return.
I suppose at this time I was an accessory, not implicated by Nussman but self-invited. I, too, waited with a fascinated, excited horror while Nussman fatted his subject with tonics, vitamins, and tranquilizers; marking each night as an experiment, whether or not the dream would return.
It did, finally. The night before last.
Yesterday morning, while I was in Felix’s apartment for coffee as usual, Reuben burst in a few moments after I’d arrived. He and Nussman merely exchanged looks and abruptly abandoned me in the kitchen.
Letting myself out of the apartment I passed the consulting room and overheard these bits of conversation.
“No . . . it wasn’t the same as usual.”
“So, in what way was it different?”
A long pause. “I had . . . two bags around my neck. Avrom’s also.”
“Can you tell the difference?”
“Yes. His is bigger.”
I knew it was going to begin again, the exhaustion, the baffling, the confounding . . . and it did, “Which would you want to open first?”
I tried many times yesterday and last night to see Felix. Mustering my strength and courage to convince him not to continue. But, he wouldn’t see me, coming to the door and excusing himself because of work! He spoke with no look at all on his face. . . . Oh, I’ve never understood a word that blue eyes spoke. . . .
These twenty-odd hours without his company have given me time . . . no, I will not pretend that I’ve come to see my human responsibility. No, not that.
I’ve had time enough to realize that I’m a nobody living in deepest nowhere, not even sure that I’ll kill him for rejecting me . . . or that I know he’ll fail again and leave me, anyway. Or succeed and leave me. For truthfully, before he came I knew so little of love and affection, even self-love, so useless to myself . . . could anyone believe that it’s only just occurred to me that I’ve long neglected to examine the handkerchief or toilet I’ve used . . . can a self mean less?
I’ve finished. Sylvia’s waking up and I have no goodbye for her. She can have Rosenbaum and both Royal Princess Fur Salons . . . if he’ll have her without the spice of an obliging cuckold.
If there is any good in what I do, Reuben will be saved, Nussman’s papers found—the letters of conspiracy, his comprehensive nightmare, his Summa on the Incubus.
The crank must go out now, cross the hall, and wake the crackpot with death.
I will put these papers in my inside pocket. When arrested I shall not speak but offer them instead, if I can manage not to lose them in the excitement.
* * *
(This speech, the only real evidence I have, given to me by Nussman, was delivered August 28, 1927, before the congress celebrating the opening of the Fachadété Clinic in Bern. The original copy was secured by Nussman and his classmates from the Recording Secretary who struck it from the meeting’s minutes on a motion carried unanimously by the assembly. In fact, Felix related, the audience had all except for the students abandoned Doctor Helfmann before he had finished his speech. These students sought but were denied an interview with Helfmann who I’m told, broken in spirit, died that year.)
Colleagues, students, and guests. When I first communicated to the Committee my desire to speak I was prepared to accept scheduling somewhere in the backwaters of the program. Or, to accept apologies, refusal, and a semi-prominent chair. Instead, finding myself selected to offer the meeting’s opening address I feel I must, for the sake of the young faces I see at the rear, briefly explain what may seem as a curious designation of privilege.
It is fitting, as the Committee doubtlessly assumed, that in marking a new high point in our history there should be some reference to the old. That is, myself. And, it is equally fitting that the old themselves recognize and rejoice that their movement can afford—if only to temper rivalry—sentimentality. More so for myself, who authored no antique paper, fashioned no antique method, but simply gestured. A gesture which most appropriately compliments those young faces in the rear of the auditorium, heresy.
That is honored, that I declined a significant neuro-surgical stature at a critical time for a psychoanalytic apprenticeship.
Today, I have put myself forward not to expand and publicize, to counter a neglected epitaph, and not to account my recusancy in gain and loss. But to note that the first and most difficult heresy makes the second easier and more imperative, illuminating the third and others which contend among themselves only in irresistibility. That is the nature of heresy.
I hope, therefore, my intention is framed. I intend to dwell on and examine the process of conversion. Not, however, as a personal adventure. On the contrary, it has become impossible for me to maintain the illusion of purposely, melodramatically, transferring faith and allegiance. It is on the impersonal aspects I wish to comment, to focus on the forces that select us and we appropriate, in the narrow between free will and determinism, and call our credos.
Therefore, I begin at once to develop my theme, renunciation. First of Müller, Broca, the knife, architectonics, cytoarchitecture, all exchanged for the invisible topography and invisible forces of our movement.
It took quite some time before I questioned, being so satisfied with the seeming difference in mercy between the operating theater and comfortable dialogue surgery. I can say there was not a single misgiving until the first of my patients terminated analysis. Then, I found of all I had renounced I could not renounce my idea of cure. True, there was remission of symptoms but not obliteration. The patient was independent of me but yet required and probably always would require the insights, the principles as medication. It seemed that their adjusting was as much teaching, an inculcation of duplicity of self and soul. Their dreams were fibs to be found out, their anguish a legacy, and in the biography of cause, effect, and forces, reassurance of the presence of a self was to be given, somehow.
In short, I was a surgeon again. Cutting through, exposing but not extirpating, hoping the cancer would wither and die under the light of my special reason.
It was then that I thought that, perhaps, a concentrated study would eliminate this excess of qualm which I supposed was usually diluted by a more extensive professional experience than I possessed. I began work even hopefully that some day I might stand before a meeting such as today’s and present a paper on the analyzed personality. A paper which would determine the quality, the aspects of adjustment related to my own personality. Discovering why the self-amity my patients achieved insistently suggested to me that I had cored them. And more, to chart all the levels of vitalism, even those modifications noted by the patient’s family and friends, the changes in general composure, threshold of response, and inventive capacity. Finally, if failing in all this, at least to make the first crude scale to assess the depth of analysis. That was my program.
In pursuing it, however, I declined psychological anecdotal methods and terms in preference for methods and terms which would satisfy empiric procedure. I substituted metaphrases until the reason itself which I was metaphrasing spoke out. Gasping out as it were, a farewell message: I had repudiated it!
Once admitted, it could not be dismissed.
It was left for me to examine my metaphrases and equivalencies. And, it was not left for me to conclude other than that concepts, such as strata of consciousness, far from resisting my method had never actually gained my whole support. And, this perspective revealed to me the obvious contumacy of my metaphrasing.
I had led myself for a while even so far as to believe, for example, that stratification of consciousness was quite the same for my purposes as an emulsion, as it were, of conscious curds in an unconscious whey. This, particularly, was later discerned by myself as a never established commitment to the functioning of philosophical entities as quasi-biological elements governed by the laws of psychological buoyancy, joy, and pain.
At this point, scrutiny and organization of my notes disclosed an alternate and private chiarascuro to express the tissue of consciousness—characterized as able to reflect, continue, and manipulate impression—in relation to its pathological state.
Briefly, it indicated that consciousness behaved as substance with characteristics such as these. Rather than tiered, it is a diffusion of corpuscles; corpuscles attenuated out of definition and into an a conscious medium. These corpuscles have a tendency toward constellation, their density varies and is to precision unascertainable. They are a priori activated, though dimensionless, without experience, as shown by the congenitally sense impaired who lack the corresponding sense quality in dreams and experience.
Memory, repression, and anxiety phenomena can be related by analogy as dependent on centrifugal, centripetal forces and entropy. Likewise, dreams analogized to function by the principles of inertia.
This, then, emerged from the study undertaken to alleviate my dissatisfaction with the first of my clinical successes. Myself, no surer, but with an additional debate. Beside the original argument against design, wrangling with the consequences of my metaphrasing.
More explicitly, having abandoned the dictum that the only access too many have to joy is the sexual and in its place substituting a mechanical paradigm, I could not resist the natural ontogeny of my thoughts and pursue truth by analogy to the newest realm of physical investigation, atomics.
Toward this, the epiphany of affinity between the convulsions of sub-atomic matter as demonstrated by the eminent Rutherford and the convulsions of consciousness by the nightmare, decided my course irrevocably. And, ironically enough, was at the same time the limit of my strict analogizing.
My research, preparatory to dealing with the nightmare phenomena, extending back into history as it did, put forth the natural conclusion of process, that of syncretization. It was inescapable to conclude other than that the Ephialtes, the Incubus, the Alp, the Kikimara, the Ardat, the Langsuior, the Ciuateteo, the Autu, all these, the entire index of recorded nightmare figures, have become lodgers in the psychotic house we have built. Whereas, before, they were brief and occasional visitors, geographically and culturally particular, now, they can only be found as personal and symbiotical familiars.
A subordinate yet cogent corollary to this is that much of psychosis as it is known can be said, though ruefully, to have been incubated in the nightmare, filtered and expelled from the content of previous sanities by social and educational processes, the gnawing notion suggests itself that the process is potentially reversible.
This brings me to state my respectful opposition to the position and to its distinguished and regrettably absent proponent, Doctor Ernest Jones, and his notable papers, Der Alptraum and Schriften zur angewandten Seelenkunde. An opposition so keenly held by myself that I omit the confutation courtesy of assigning to his works the lesser value of “necessity” while I propose the “sufficiency.”
The doctor finds, once more, in the nightmare another extension of the primordial conflict over incest while neglecting the prime aspect of the manifestation, a height and depth of fear incomparable to any other experience of value conflict. Fear, it seems, is considered simply as a texture to experience, a coloring and consequence to a disturbed sexual mechanism.
For myself, I totally resign from this view. I cannot choose sexuality as a guide only up to the frontier of the psychotic, while fear, the cosmopolitan, has a passport.
Fear, I submit, has for too long been easily disposed of in the bin of symptomatology while at the same time it is what we term adjustment and sanity as concern with common fear systems and neurosis and insanity by indifference to these or response to an exotic collection. Fear, then, is accepted as the denominator of sanity but no more than that. Its illumination of the basic tissue of consciousness—that which is neither sane nor insane, that which is asane, unafraid but capable of reflecting, continuing, and manipulating the impression of fear—this is ignored.
Now, instead of proceeding directly to a definition of fear and to other conclusions of mine I would prefer to take an oblique path and introduce questions, albeit seemingly naive, asked of me by a prominent young writer I have in analysis. He asked after reading much of the clinical material now in popular circulation if I could explain why the introductory portions of these reports satisfied him aesthetically and emotionally more than the concluding which dealt with successful termination?
Secondly, it seemed to him that the incidence of psychic upset as explained on the basis of individual constitution and perception was meaningful only as it implied a new Calvinism. In this vein he was interested in characters he was developing for a satire in which he intended bringing de Sade’s “Justine” up to date with the ingenious twist that his heroes were to be male midgets. One evil and unscrupulous like Juliet and the other noble and moral like Justine, but both extremely ugly. These freaks were to contend with all institutions and aspects of contemporary society. At that time he was considering a psychoanalytical encounter.
My response to the first question was to suggest that he, as an artist, responded to the conflict presented by the patient as a formal hero’s dilemma—involving love, hate, and ethical commitments—abstracting a moral predicament and being disturbed by the application of naturalistic values by and through analysis. He was, in effect, responding to the conclusions as though he’d respond to bad art, art for example as resolved by deus ex machina.
As for the second question, I accepted his simile of a new Calvinism, but did not encourage him to apply it so simply to his characters. Especially, when he revealed his intention to have the evil midget reform when he realized he had been victimized by his grotesque appearance into becoming a diabolical agent; and the moral brother turn to evil when he came to understand that he had been sublimating his passions and their fulfillment.
Actually, through our continued conversations I came to realize that the answer I’d proposed for the first question, in abstract, was the solution to the problems with his characters. Namely, that both were suffering from an interference of continuing values toward resolution which is not solved by substituting alternate values.
On this basis the patient himself understood his heroes by introducing the concept of dissonance between value and its vehicle. His midgets were unfortunate continuators or resonators seeking out the analyst for resolution, but not in terms of values available. Rather seeking release from the process of continuation.
Thus, I was brought to the most profound impasse in my researches, ironically, by hypothetical patients. Patients who sought aid in the most fundamental sense, release from process.
I had to grapple with the understanding of the basic myth and fiction of existence. Of the never verified and objectified mystery of material phase generalized into immaterial sequence. I was forced to examine the basic problem of material and immaterial, constructions of the mind and terms by which it is constructed, one or the other or dually.
For this I have developed the following dispositions. They are wholly arbitrary and I realize seemingly cryptic, what can be called a syllogism of paradoxes. They are put forth to inspire new reflections on obsolete, obstructive conceptions. When considered, in concert, they are deeply felt not to be far removed from our parochial interests.
The concepts of material and immaterial are subordinate functions of Man’s affinity for design. His silhouette is kinesthesized by that which is NOT self between and beyond that which is also NOT self.
The concepts of material and immaterial are insupportable individually or in combination. For example, given the concept of infinite space and infinite matter, that space is more infinite insists itself. For, what is meant by infinite matter refers to distribution. An equal infinitude of matter would displace space.
Matter characterized by extension is in conflict with space characterized as unsubstantial. So much so that to say matter abhors space is necessary. Extension is as much the nature of matter as the purpose, it being a self-limiting property that prevents more than one body occupying the same point in the ultimately accommodating unsubstantial.
The Mind, though rooted in the material, adventures in the immaterial. Therefore, its nature must encompass the qualities of both. UNSUBSTANTIAL EXTENSION, such as a cast shadow. The problem concerning the science of the Mind, modifying and controlling, will require a new empiricism for shadows, the laws of which are available even to children: Mimicry and Parody.
From this, I propose in all earnestness, that we consider as a model of the 20th Century Mind of Man, a shadow, embodying as it does extension and unsubstantiality, claiming equal parts of reality and illusion, a perfect methodological paradigm, as impure as experience itself and most importantly, capable of supporting design.
Its laws, as I’ve stated, are Mimicry and Parody and these can only be suspended by the torch of materialism raised overhead to a height—guaranteed impossible by Planck and Heisenberg and their exposure of mathematic’s limits—that would drive man’s shadow beneath his feet. It offers us a principle of more durable promise and less degrading consequences than the corroded Oedipus, Ego, and Id.
With perhaps less development than is necessary, I submit that the mind of man is a shadow cast before his birth, to which he must fix himself. And, since surety of whether his action will be mimicked or parodied is absent—the condition of fear—necessarily our concern should be focused on the figure rather than the reflection where alteration is unthinkable. Therefore, by modifying the posture of man, taking advantage of the infinite permutations of mimicry and parody, the mind of man can be cast to offer no threat to its bearer. In plain words, the distorted figure can cast a perfect shadow.
By distortion, in plainer words, I mean the renovation of the content of sanity as known.
The casting off of archaic forms as the arts have anticipated. The casting off of all resolutions from the popular “happily ever after” and “just deserts” to departure from key and tone relationships in music, rationality in literature, and pictorial sense in painting.
All this just as we have attacked moral symmetry by struggling against guilt.
That, is the direction of the future and we must follow willingly, cautiously, and hopefully, mindful of the gamble that if design is obliterated, continuation toward resolution will abate.
Beyond that, waiting lucidly is the essential—at last vulnerable—paradox of man, to solve the drive for resolved limits which itself constitutes a threat to his extension and causes the basic human anxiety and palliative religion.
To conclude, there is in the thoughts placed before you latitude for the obvious satire that Helfmann’s theoretical man is afraid of his own shadow. That I cannot ignore and, sincerely, I would not care if at least the satirist would first consider the excruciatingly complete solipsism of a shadow imprisoned in a darkened room.
That is my evocation of the nightmare and psychosis.
I submit it to the wisdom of my colleagues and to the imagination of the industry, and most importantly, to the courage of students.—Dr. Zelig Helfmann
August 28, 1927