A legend is an attempt to explain the inexplicable; emerging as it does from a basis of truth, it is bound to end in the inexplicable.
We have four legends concerning Prometheus. According to the first of them, for betraying the gods to mankind he was shackled to a peak in the Caucasus, and the gods sent eagles that ate at his liver as it kept growing back.
According to the second, the pain of the jabbing beaks drove Prometheus ever deeper into the rocks until he became one with them.
According to the third, his betrayal was forgotten in the course of millennia: the gods forgot, the eagles forgot, he himself forgot.
According to the fourth, everyone grew tired of the procedure, which had lost its raison d’être. The gods grew tired, the eagles, too. Even the wound grew tired and closed.
The real riddle was the mountains.
A large loaf of bread lay on the table. Father came in with a knife to cut it in half. But even though the knife was big and sharp, and the bread neither too soft nor too hard, the knife could not cut into it. We children looked up at Father in surprise. He said, “Why should you be surprised? Isn’t it more surprising if something succeeds than if it fails? Go to bed, perhaps I’ll manage it later.” We went to bed, but every now and again, at all hours of the night, one or another of us got up and craned his neck to look at Father, who stood there, a big man in his long coat, his right leg braced behind him, seeking to drive the knife into the bread. When we woke up early in the morning, Father was just laying the knife aside, and said, “You see, I haven’t managed yet, that’s how hard it is.” We wanted to distinguish ourselves, and he gave us permission to try, but we could hardly lift the knife, whose handle was still almost glowing from Father’s efforts; it seemed to rear up out of our grasp. Father laughed and said, “Let it go. I’m going out now. I’ll try again tonight. I won’t let a loaf of bread make a monkey out of me. It’s bound to let itself be cut in the end; of course it’s allowed to resist, so it’s resisting.” But even as he said that the bread seemed to shrivel up, like the mouth of a grimly determined person, and now it was a very small loaf indeed.
A farmer stopped me on the highway and begged me to come back to his house with him. Perhaps I could help—he’d had a falling out with his wife, and their argument was wrecking his life. He also had some simple-minded children who hadn’t turned out well; they just stood around or got up to mischief. I said I would be happy to go with him, but it was doubtful whether I, a stranger, would be able to help him in any way; I might be able to put the children to some useful task, but I’d probably be helpless with respect to his wife, because quarrelsomeness in a wife usually has its origin in some quality in the husband, and since he was unhappy with the situation, he had probably already taken pains to change himself but hadn’t succeeded, so how could I possibly have more success? At the most, what I could do was divert the ire of the wife to myself. At the beginning, I was speaking more to myself than to him, but then I asked him what he would pay me for my trouble. He said we would rapidly come to some agreement; if I turned out to be of use, I could help myself to whatever I wanted. At that, I stopped and said that this sort of vague promise was not going to satisfy me—I wanted a precise agreement as to what he would give me per month. He was astonished that I’d demanded anything like a monthly wage from him. I in turn was astonished that he was astonished. Did he suppose I could fix in a couple of hours what two people had done wrong over the course of their entire lives, and did he expect me at the end of those two hours to take a sack of dried peas, kiss his hand in gratitude, bundle myself up in my rags, and carry on down the icy road? Absolutely not. The farmer listened in silence, with head lowered but tense. The way I saw it, I told him, I would have to stay with him for a long time to first become familiar with the situation and think about possible improvements, and then I would have to stay even longer to create proper order, if such a thing was even possible, and by then I would be old and tired and would not be going anywhere but would rest and enjoy the thanks of the parties involved.
“That won’t be possible,” the farmer said. “Here you are wanting to install yourself in my house and maybe even drive me out of it in the end. Then I would be in even more trouble than I am already.”
“Unless we trust each other we won’t come to an agreement,” I said. “Have I not shown I have trust in you? All I have is your word, and couldn’t you break that? After I’d arranged everything in accordance with your wishes, couldn’t you send me packing, for all your promises?”
The farmer looked at me and said, “You would never let that happen.”
“Do what you want,” I said, “and think of me as you please, but don’t forget—I’m saying this to you in friendship, as one man to another—that if you don’t take me with you, you won’t be able to stand it for much longer in your house. How are you going to go on living with your wife and those children? And, if you don’t take a chance and take me home with you, then why not drop everything and all the trouble you’ll go on having at home and come with me. We’ll go on the road together, and I won’t hold your suspicions against you.”
“I’m not at liberty to do that,” the farmer said. “I’ve been living with my wife now for fifteen years; it’s been difficult, I don’t even understand how I’ve done it, but in spite of that I can’t just abandon her without having tried everything that might make her bearable. Then I saw you on the road, and I thought I might make one final effort, with you. Come with me, and I’ll give you whatever you want. What do you want?”
“I don’t want much,” I said. “I’m not out to exploit your predicament. I want you to take me on as your laborer for life. I can do all sorts of work and will be very useful to you. But I don’t want to be treated like other laborers—you’re not to give me orders, I have to be allowed to do what work I please, now this, now that, now nothing at all, just as I please. You can ask me to do something as long as you’re very gentle about it, and, if you see that I don’t want to do it, then you’ll have to accept the fact. I won’t require money, but clothes, linens, and boots up to present standards, and replaced when necessary; if such things are unobtainable in your village, then you’ll have to go into town to buy them. But don’t worry about that, my present clothes should last me for years. I’ll be happy with standard laborers’ fare, only I do insist on having meat every day.”
“Every day?” he interjected, as though satisfied with all the other conditions.
“Every day,” I said.
“I note your teeth are unusual,” he said, trying to excuse my unusual stipulation, and he even reached into my mouth to feel them. “Very sharp,” he said, “like a dog’s.”
“Well, anyway, meat every day,” I said. “And as much in the way of beer and spirits as you.”
“That’s a lot,” he said. “I drink a lot.”
“So much the better,” I said. “Then if you tighten your belt, I’ll tighten mine. Probably you only drink like that because of your unhappy home life.”
“No,” he said, “why should that be connected? But you shall have as much as me, we’ll drink together.”
“No,” I said. “I refuse to eat or drink in company. I insist on eating and drinking alone.”
“Alone?” the farmer asked in astonishment. “All these wishes are making my head spin.”
“There’s not so much,” I said, “and I’ve almost got to the end. I want oil for a lamp that is to be kept burning at my side all night. I have the lamp here, just a very little one that runs on next to nothing. It’s really hardly worth mentioning, and I just mentioned it for the sake of completeness, lest there be some subsequent dispute between us; I dislike such things when it comes to being paid. At all other times I am the mildest of men, but if terms once agreed upon are violated I cut up rough, remember that. If I am not given everything I have earned, down to the last detail, I am capable of setting fire to your house while you’re asleep. But you have no need to deny what we have clearly agreed upon, and then, especially if you make me the occasional present out of affection—it doesn’t have to be worth much, just the odd little trifle—I will be loyal and hardy and very useful to you in all manner of ways. And I shall want nothing beyond what I have told you just now, except on August 24th, my name day, a little barrel of two gallons of rum.”
“Two gallons!” the farmer exclaimed, clapping his hands together.
“Yes, two gallons,” I said. “It’s not so much. You probably think you can beat me down. But I’ve already reduced my requirements to the bare bones, out of regard for you, of course; I would be ashamed if some stranger were to hear us. I couldn’t possibly speak as we just now have in front of a stranger. So no one is to hear of our agreement. Well, who would believe it in any case?”
But the farmer said, “It’s better that you go your own way. I will go on home and try to make things up with the wife. It’s true, I have beaten her a lot of late—I think I’ll let up a little, perhaps she’ll be grateful to me—and I’ve beaten the children a lot as well; I always get the whip out of the stables and beat them. I’ll ease up on that a bit, and maybe things will improve. Admittedly, I’ve tried it in the past without the least improvement. But your demands are too much, and even if they weren’t—but no, it’s more than the business will bear, not possible, meat every day, two gallons of rum, and even if it were possible my wife would never allow it, and if she doesn’t allow it then I can’t do it.”
“So why the long negotiations,” I said.
To be perfectly honest, I am not very interested in the whole matter. I am lying in a corner, watching, inasmuch as you can see anything from a recumbent position, listening, inasmuch as I am able to understand anything, other than that I have been living in a sort of twilight for months, waiting for night to fall. My cellmate is in a different situation, an adamantine character, a captain. I can imagine his situation. He is of the view that his predicament is like that of a polar explorer who is frozen in some bleak waste but who will surely be rescued, or, rather, has already been rescued, as one will be able to read in some account of polar exploration. And now there is the following schism: the fact that he will be rescued is for him beyond doubt, irrespective of his will, simply by virtue of the weight of his victor’s personality. Now, should he wish for it? His wishing or not-wishing will affect nothing, he will be rescued, but the question—of whether he ought to wish for it as well—remains. It is with this seemingly abstruse question that he is engaged: he thinks it through, he lays it out before me, we discuss it together. We don’t talk about his rescue. For the rescue, he is apparently content to pin all his hopes on a little hammer he has somehow obtained, the sort of little hammer you use to drive thumbtacks into a drawing board; he cannot afford anything more, but he doesn’t use it, either—its mere possession delights him. Sometimes he kneels beside me and holds the hammer I’ve seen thousands of times in front of my face, or he takes my hand, spreads it out on the floor, and hammers all my fingers in turn. He knows that this hammer is not enough to knock the least splinter out of the wall, and he doesn’t seek to do so, either. Sometimes he runs his hammer along the walls, as though to give the signal to the great waiting machinery of rescue to swing into operation. It will not happen exactly in this way—the rescue will begin in its own time, irrespective of the hammer—but it remains something, something palpable and graspable, a token, something one can kiss, as one cannot kiss rescue.
Of course, one might say that the captain has been driven mad by captivity. The circle of his thinking is so diminished that it barely has room for a single thought. ♦
The four stories from “The Rescue Will Begin in Its Own Time” were translated, from the German, by Michael Hofmann. A previous English translation of the first story appears in “The Complete Stories,” and translations of all four were published in the out-of-print “Dearest Father: Stories and Other Writings,” from 1954.
“We love to contemplate blue,” Goethe observed in his theory of color and emotion, “not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.”
This particular color — or, rather, this universe of hues — seems to have drawn after it more minds than any other, inking the body of culture with a written record of adulation bordering on the religious.
من بی تو همان سر زده ام فارغ باش
همواره بهم بر زده ام فارغ باش
دست از تو بمهر دیگری از سر تو
بیزار شدم گر زده ام فارغ باش
Without you, I am depraved; Be free from care.
Ceaselessly, I am unsettled; Be free from care.
[Turning] from you, I reach for the kindness of another, because of you.
Although I have done so, I despised it; Be free from care.