A RETURN TO CALM
able to hate nature, able to be hated by her
“Yes,” replied Lenz, without looking up, to the offer of a cigarette. The state of things had changed and the uproar was over. The weapons that events seemed to have pointed at Lenz’s head, saying “Act!”, had been lowered. Dr. Lenz B. could smoke a cigarette without worrying.
“The storm has passed,” somebody said, but the truth was that it hadn’t been a storm so much as a lack of synchrony between the organic fragility of the soldiers and an activity perhaps more extreme than the way most humans tend to pass their time. Deep down, a catastrophe is an excessive demand for action on the part of events: human beings just aren’t capable of accomplishing so many things in such a short span of time. Everything that is very fast—instantaneous, even—is stronger than man; and strength, therefore, is really a synonym for speed. In natural cataclysms, too, the elements involved are simply quicker on the draw.
Lenz had no illusions about the earth on which he walked: between nature and man there was a breaking point that had been exceeded long ago. There was a new light in the cities, the technical light, a light that produced substantive transformations that no animal had ever achieved before; and this new brightness only increased the hatred that the most ancient elements in the world seemed always to have harbored for man. Lenz was just as frightened of an earthquake as he was a sunny day during which unknown birds seemed to be beginning an eternal friendship with pairs of lovers who hadn’t met each other yet. On those peaceful days, Lenz saw a healthiness that was fake, a preparation for cruelty—someone was carefully cleaning the gallows the night before the victim was due to set foot on it. He felt no excitement at all in the order of the elements—he knew full well that it was a system that had nothing to do with the order of the cities, where conductors, laws, and policemen point the way for the proper progression of music and criminals. But all the things that nature found to be orderly were alien to the city.
Sometimes Lenz went so far as to formulate the question—steering his mind toward some peaceful garden—“What’s it thinking about?” as though he and nature were engaged in a contest where rationality was key (though strength of muscle and strength of will all mattered too, of course). To Lenz, a peaceful day was just a day when nature was healthy, and in that sense a day when she was gathering the strength that sooner or later she would use to launch an attack against humanity. Lenz did not trust nature.
They—that is, men and the elements of nature—were, deep down, simply things that had been put in the same space, but which did not share a single historical moment. Nature had no history, actually—everything repeated itself; the concrete elements of a landscape that hadn’t yet seen the wheel, that was still traveled over by carts, while men had long ago built high-speed airplanes. Really, the history of nature was still at its starting point, it hadn’t even begun, the second day had not yet dawned, it was still the first morning; nature hasn’t even invented fire yet, Lenz used to say, repeating an idea of Frederich Buchmann’s, his father.
There wasn’t a single historical difference between the wind that he could now feel blowing through a hospital window and the wind that had touched the face of a Roman emperor. And that immutability wasn’t a symptom of weakness. On the contrary, its impermeability to history, to the changing conditions of things, that was nature’s major weapon, and in that sense this was where its danger lay: the tip that burned. Meanwhile, if materials and the ways of transforming them by means of those useful methodologies of torture—twisting, dissolving, fusing—had indeed evolved, human passions had nonetheless been immobilized. Not a single new feeling had appeared in Lenz’s generation. Contrary to what the Bible says, new things do exist under the sun, but what doesn’t exist is anything new under the skin. The heart fights the same battles and it faces the same decisions as hearts of old. Yes, new techniques and new medicines (of which Lenz was a faithful representative) did of course allow prolonging of the passions; but for Lenz this only meant that human beings were now able to hate till later.
To prolong one’s lifespan, that most existential of questions, was—Lenz believed—merely to provide an additional period for the incubation of hatred, for the incubation of the battles and disjunctions between the opinions, aims, and customs of various human beings. It was quite clear to Lenz, each time he saved a person’s life by way of some surgical procedure, that he was saving only one man—a statistical nonentity. Statistics are a precise way of demonstrating indifference.
what does a finger matter?
Looking at a chart of population statistics, with its successive columns of numbers, had always been an experience that allowed Lenz to understand each of the actions perpetrated by the most violent of regimes. The numbers made up a negative intensity that completely cancelled out any proximity of two individual bodies.
As he held a chart that showed the number of doctors and hospital employees distributed by section, a chart without any names, showing only the quantity for each medical specialization and operating theatre, as he held this “document,” Lenz sometimes amused himself by asking his colleagues—as he pointed to the numbers in the table—where they were.
And some of them, the more naïve among them, played along, and tried—using ordinary logic—to locate their position, their place in that heap of digits. Deep down they were trying to transform a number into a name, and their efforts to find the column and row in the chart to which they belonged was received by Lenz with a cynical smile of sympathy: he seemed to be listening to the pleas of a man condemned to the gas chamber, begging not to be next. The question was too serious, however: if you don’t want to be next, tell me who should go in your place. Give me a name to replace yours. Lenz knew it was this tragic cynicism that could synthesize humanity. Tell me who should go in your place.
But the world didn’t stop moving, and Dr. Lenz Buchmann was interrupted in the middle of his reflections and the cigarette he was smoking by a small commotion: a civilian who’d suffered a work accident (and so nothing to do with the explosion) and who had lost his right index finger, was disturbing the hospital’s silence with his persistent yells. He was trying to get the attention of a nurse and insisted on getting out of bed. He was there, this little man, right there in the corridor, when Lenz approached him to reprimand him:
“What’s your name?”
“Well then, Mr. Joseph Walser, please behave yourself.”
The little man was quite evidently embarrassed, and Dr. Lenz turned his back on him. What does a finger matter? Nothing but a coward, he thought.