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History Lesson

by Tom Whalen


All week as I walked the streets of Stuttgart where I live in modest (to some, to others immodest) retirement, I said over and over to myself, latent histories, latent histories, all time, I said over and over to myself. On the 44 bus back from downtown, in the U-Bahn out to Sonnenberg, in the S-Bahn back to Schwabstrasse, all times, all spaces, I thought, then would stop thinking about latent histories existing at all times and simply laugh out loud, sometimes astonishing my fellow passengers, not a few of whom no doubt thought me mad. Mad mad mad, I barked, then laughed again, ruffled the pages of the book in hand, Thackeray's Vanity Fair, a book I find of a certain 18th century perfection, though it was written in the late 1840s. Then today, but only today, today for the first time I turned to my neighbor on the S-Bahn in the underground between Hauptbahnhof and Stadtmitte and said, “History isn’t really my subject, but you don’t have to be a physicist to see that at the quantum level exist latent histories.”

At the time I said this, I didn't even realize that I was speaking German, I who up until this point had been able to produce only rudimentary mutterings in German now was speaking fluent German, albeit touched with a slight Texas accent.

“Was sagen Sie, man?” the woman said.

She was a large, frumpish, sixtyish woman with what I took at the time to be a friendly face, a bit worn, a bit pocked, the skin loose around the heavy jaws, the eyes recessed.

Again in fluent German, a language of which I did not understand more than a few phrases and some basic grammar, my vocabulary well beneath the threshold level, I said, “Whether on the S-Bahn or the U-Bahn or the bus, whether staring at the window on Königstrasse advertising flights to Morocco and Iran and Malaysia and Cuba for 89 euros or at the mannequins in lace bras and panties, pink, pale green, transparent lingerie, you know what I mean, yes, I’m sure you've seen them in the store windows on Königstrasse, forgive me, whether here or there, wherever I look and am, I know that at base the universe is really a multiverse, that histories exist within every moment, that at the quantum level stories are unfolding, and within those stories the traces of an infinite number of other stories, and within those stories, und so weiter, and that this ‘I’ I hear speaking to you is only one of a multitude of ‘I’s speaking to a multitude of other ‘you’s.”

“Sie sprechen gut Deutsch für einen Amerikaner,” she said, closing her copy of the Stuttgarter Zeitung and folding it on her lap, then brushing it with her hands as if she were smoothing her wool skirt or trying to brush the words off the page. I do not remember what article she had been reading, whether one about politics or sports, in part because I still, even after today’s encounter, read no more than a few words of German, and I do not recall even glancing at the headlines in the paper this morning on the train as I talked to this strange woman, because suddenly I thought, This woman is strange, she’s truly a strange woman, I’d never met any woman like her before, so I said, “You are a strange woman, aren’t you?”

She looked down at her paper and I with her and saw the leg of a football player kicking the ball. “Nächster Halt, Feuersee,” the conductor's voice crackled over the sound system as we moved into the station. But no one got off at Feuersee, no one got on, the passengers sweated in the subway's fetid, wintry heat, and we moved out of the station toward Schwabstrasse, my stop.

She raised her head again, and I looked into her eyes tucked deep away in her face framed by her stiff gray hair that sat on her like a helmet, like a cliché, but I refrained from telling her this, in fear that she would mistake my meaning.

“Ja,” she said, “ich bin eine sehr seltsame Frau, ich verstehe Sie. I, too, have felt the same way about time and history, many times, in fact, though I admit it has been years since I've thought about such metaphysical fictions. I was in my early twenties at the time and surely as irresponsible then as you are now at what I would say must be sixty-five or perhaps a little older.”

“No, Madame,” I said, “You are grotesquely mistaken. Perhaps it's the dim light here underground. I am fifty-four. But please continue.”

She took a deep breath. Her fat shoulder pressed against my ribs. Then she exhaled and I slipped my sigh of relief into it.

“In simple terms,” she said, “what you are saying is that all histories are present, all paths both open and closed at all times. The question is how to believe this when it's surely as rewarding in every sense to believe in its impossibility. As a young woman right after the war, diagrams of what I took to be absolute reality blossomed on my bedroom wall in my parent's three-room apartment here in Stuttgart West. We were one of the lucky ones after the war whose home wasn’t entirely destroyed during the Allied bombing because the bombs only sheared off the front of the house, as if a scalpel had sliced away the alcoves and then gutted the rest.”

The expression she used for gutted ausgeweidet meant truly gutted, disemboweled, eviscerated, and I savored its sweetness for a moment, then asked her to continue.

“I suspect you've been reading pop physics, whereas I was reading Leibniz and Berkeley and Bergson. But whether monads or Planck lengths, string theories or Berkeley's epistemological dualism, we all want to believe with Bergson that consciousness is distinct from the organism it animates.”

As she spoke, I became more and more conscious of this peculiar woman’s body, its thickness, the sour smell that seemed to emanate from her wool coat, her helmet of gray hair, the pores in her bloated skin. A troll, I thought, yes, another Swabian troll, like all the Germans I encounter here in Swabia. Grotesque, squat trolls that bulb up from the mountains all around and end up here in the valley, this kettle of pollution where I now make my home while my wife works all day translating official documents from one language to another and back again, until all that is left is the pure nonsense that German at base is, though a nonsense, I noted once again, that suddenly I could understand.

Compared to this woman, I thought, as she paused for a breath or to gather her admittedly considerable thoughts, I am only a thinness, a wisp falling into the deep cavities of her eyes.

A lifting of the edges of her tight mouth, a quantum trace of a smile, and she continued.

“But after a while I shifted away from the metafictions of these madmen and onto the philosophy of our occupiers. I read Peirce, James, Dewey, and later Rorty, these Americans promulgating their so-called pragmatism, but they too, all of them, Peirce, James, Dewey, Rorty, all of them I realized were and are deluded, sick madmen, who, for all I know, are worshipped by the politicians of your sick land. I imagine each and every politician of your country reading Rorty or Dewey or James's The Meaning of Truth or Peirce’s ‘Man’s Glassy Essence.’ For hours Peirce pondered Emerson's Sphinx, ‘Of thine eye I am eyebeam.’ Over and over he tried to capture the quiddity of Emerson's Sphinx, for hours repeating this inane quatrain over and over to himself. ‘I am thy spirit, yoke-fellow.’ Quatsch! And you don't think you and every aspect of your country isn't mad? Of course you are mad. Of course you don't make any sense. When was the last time your country made any sense? The War, yes, then you made some sense, though I suspect it was pure accident. Looking at your country now, how could you have made sense any way other than by pure chance? Do you know what Peirce said about that? Read his ‘Design and Chance’ and then tell me that every aspect, every grain of sand, wheat, sense of your homeland isn’t mad. ‘Everything is explicable in general.’ Idiocy. Pure idiocy, like all of your country. The riddle of the universe. He thought he could find the riddle of the universe. Just as all Americans think there is no universe other than the one they create. Even you, with your childish notions of histories and multiverses.”

She snorted, then blew her nose into a soiled tissue. What in God's name was she talking about? Yes, what a strange woman, I thought again. Eine typische Schwäbin. Sehr seltsame, sehr seltsame Frau.

“My father,” I said, “had his finger shot off in the Alsace during the war, so there’s no need for you to preach to me. But I'm not sure after all that you have understood what I was saying about histories as opposed to history.”

“No?” she said. “Then let me put it like this: A man loosens the collar of a lame dog, the dog hobbles after the Berliner Tageblatt, the paper clings to the wall like flotsam on a South Carolina beach where your mother at age twenty-one drowned. This is a configuration. And for you only configurations are real. But who’s to say this configuration is the right reality for you or me? We’re left to play in the rain while inside our parents wail to be let out. They, too, wouldn't mind a turn in the rain now and then. But you Americans, disgusting (ekelhaft) in every sense of the word, what do you know of history? You come here to live, but what you are doing isn’t living. You wander the city in a dream, a child’s dream, no, a disgusting adolescent’s dream. For that’s all you are, whether you are twenty or forty or sixty, nothing but a disgusting adolescent with an adolescent’s insensitivity and selfishness. Riding beside you on this train, I knew as soon as you spoke to me that you were nothing more than another idiot American, the kind I have had to put up with since the War, at every turn, another idiot American was there to bar my way. I could not go to school, I could not find work, my parents and I put our home back together and watched others take handouts from the occupiers, but we did not want you here any more than we wanted our Führer. For weeks we wandered the ruins of Stuttgart and wondered at our country's folly. The French came and then the Americans and you are still here. But why? We don’t want you here. Your military bases, European Central Command, your air wars that never end. You have no values because you have no sense of history. No, I think of you only as a disgusting adolescent, whether you are a retired professor or merely, which I suspect, a spoiled child grown into a madman, one who infects this city already sickened by its past. I beg you, don't say any more.”

She did not look at me. She sat with her thick hands opening and closing over her newspaper.

The S-Bahn stopped. I was surprised to see we had arrived in Vaihingen, twelve minutes past my stop. How odd, I thought. I've never missed my stop before. Perhaps the old woman was right. Perhaps I was losing my mind.

For a moment I didn’t know if she were going to let me out, her huge body did not budge, but finally she moved her heavy thighs, and I squeezed past her and hurried out before the door closed again.

 

Tom Whalen’s fiction has appeared recently or is forthcoming in The Idaho Review, Northwest Review, The Iowa Review, Fiction International, The Styles, The Texas Review, First Intensity, and Hayden's Ferry Review. He lives in Stuttgart, Germany.


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