Cover image for Powderhouse : scientific postscript and last protocol
Powderhouse : scientific postscript and last protocol
Bjørneboe, Jens, 1920-1976.
Uniform Title:
Kruttårnet. English
Publication Information:
Chester Springs, PA : Dufour Editions, 2000.
Physical Description:
201 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
Translation of Kruttarnet.
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The second novel in Bjorneboe's "History of Bestiality" trilogy. The story is told by Jean, a janitor in a mental hospital in southern France. Jean keeps protocols, keeps for himself a written record of those events occurring around him. Also in the

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Novel has become a cover-all term. These two philosophical works, ultimately about freedom, are fictional, but are they novels? Ackroyd parodies the Socratic dialogues of Plato. The year is 3700, the place is London, and the speakers are a philosopher, Plato, and his friends. This Plato seeks to know what the ancient Age of Mouldwarp, 1500^-2300, was really like, and much of the book's amusement arises from conjecture based on such Mouldwarp remains as the fragments of On the Origin of Species, regarded as the only Charles Dickens novel that has survived in any form, and a strip of images called "Hitchcock Frenzy." Eventually, Plato discovers Mouldwarp London in the underworld and appreciates its delight in growth and change, qualities foreign to the perfectly limited, limitedly perfect London of 3700. Like Socrates long ago, Plato is put on trial for corrupting the young and, though acquitted, sentences himself to the freedom of exile. The protagonist-narrator of Bjorneboe's book is self-exiled from Norway. He is the garbage collector and the confidant of every staff member and patient at a French asylum for the criminally insane. Maybe he is also an inmate. A little plot stems from two suicide attempts, one unsuccessful (the man's slit throat is patched up in a giddy, William S. Burroughs^-like surgery scene) and the other really a murder. So whodunit, and how will the police be bribed to cover it up? Those questions are less important than the book's reflections on humanity's cruelty and destruction in a world of paradisiacal beauty that is, for all we know, the only world there is. Three long lectures--the protagonist's on witch killing, the unsuccessful suicide's on public executions, and the asylum director's on the historic murderousness of the Christian churches--and a Russian character's dissection of homicidal Soviet Communism are the meat of a Dostoevskian book that exudes tolerance, especially of sex, and forgiveness of individual criminal compulsions while it questions the freedom to wreak carnage. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

La PoudriŠre, or the Powderhouse, is an old munitions storehouse in Alsace that has been converted into a private mental hospital. Ivan/Jean/Jochanaan, narrator of this polemical novel (his name varies according to the nationality of the person speaking to him) is, apparently, employed at the hospital as a janitor, on hiatus from a more cosmopolitan world; he may also be a patient. The hospital is run by Doctor LefŠvre, whose methodsÄhe drops acid with Ivan, for instanceÄare unorthodox but plausible in the late 1960s. LefŠvre's patients include a Russian diplomat's wife who howls like a wolf; an American general who is a racist and a psychotic killer; and a Belgian executioner, Lacroix. Another patient, a Hungarian mercenary, is found hanging from a tree on the grounds. Though at first it seems he has committed suicide, it later becomes clear that he was murdered, but the murderer's identity is never revealed. Instead of focusing on plot, Bjírneboe structures the book around three lectures. Ivan's lecture is a chapter from his work in progress, the History of Bestiality, which takes witch hunts as an example of the legitimization of atrocities in the modern era, identifying a strain of authoritarianism common to Luther, Calvin and Lenin. More interesting than Ivan's easy nihilism is Lacroix's speech, in which he describes the difficulty of executing humans painlessly. Even the guillotine, according to Lacroix, can't guarantee the immediate cessation of sentience. In the third lecture, Lefevre examines the nature of heresy. Ivan's dark worldview is lightened, just barely, by his affair with Christine, a nurse. Originally published in Norway in 1969, the novel, the second in a trilogy built loosely around the narrator, exudes the intermittently charming hippie disaffection of the '60s. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One    LA POUDRIÉRE Whitsunday morning, Prairial 6, the year 176 This morning the hospital cat piddled on the Minister of Finance. The paper lay folded with His Excellency's portrait turned upward. Whether the occurrence has a deeper or a higher significance is not easy for a layman to determine. Yet it is remarkable that this desecration of the worthy economist took place on the morning of Pentecost, the very feast of the Holy Spirit, and that it was a French puss which relieved itself on Franz-Josef Strauss's visage--in other words a cat which, as compatriot of Stendhal and La Rochefoucauld, must already be accorded a far more intimate bond with the Paraclete than most cats. One is thus tempted to conclude that the urination has a higher significance.     Even if the newspaper is now too wet to be read with edification, I can nonetheless state that henceforth the creature has my permission to leave its wee-wee on every single one of our contemporary politicians.     It is a beautiful, sun-drenched, quiet Sunday morning. There is a smell of dew, grass, manure, and damp earth. There is no wind, not a leaf is stirring in the vineyard around the house where I have lived alone for ... many months, perhaps a year or more. It is the first day of Whitsuntide.     The chief physician, Professor Dr. Lefèvre, was already down at my place before eight o'clock. He brought the medicaments with him; as usual, neither of us had touched food or drink beforehand--not even smoked a morning cigarette; the effect is cleaner and surer that way. "Greetings, great clinician," I said; "what a splendid morning!" He smiled and raised his large, heavy head--looked out over the garden, off toward the woods, and finally toward the sparkling cobalt-blue mountains far away. They seemed to be made of glass, floating above the earth.     "And what a country!" he replied. "Do you know what France's last great cultural contribution was?"     "No."     "It happened in Africa," continued the doctor, "during the wars down there. It was the invention of the electro-method. Since then France has been silent.     "The exploitation of the field telephone's political potential was an intellectual achievement of the first order. Thousands and thousands of military men had been dragging the apparatuses around without an inkling of what they could be used for; then one day--in Africa, or perhaps in the Indochinese jungle--there's a scholarly dispute on the point--then one day an ordinary French junior officer and breadwinner, a simple, ordinary, dutiful chief of interrogation, is sitting there with his cognac or his pernod, and all at once he sees the possibilities of the field telephone. It facilitated things enormously for the interrogators. You simply couple one electrode to the subject's rectum or his glans penis, and the other to his nostrils. Then you turn the crank, and depending on the speed and energy you put into the cranking, you send a suitable voltage through the patient, so that he dances a regular St. Vitus's dance of glee. He'll confess anything you want. It takes a people with culture to invent something like that. Only we have such sergeants and lieutenants. The invention was a feat of genius, and the Americans have inherited it from us. But it required the last powers of the nation's spirit, the last resources of the national soul. Since then France has been resting. The country is exhausted."     "The contribution was unique," I replied; "the Krauts never thought of anything like it. And neither the cowboys nor the Russians managed it."     Lefèvre shook his head:     "Culture is culture and always will be," he replied; "you have it or you don't."     "For centuries we've disseminated our culture in Africa and Asia, and today it has become the colonial peoples' most precious heritage. There's not a single one of our former colonies where we haven't left behind at least ten million empty wine bottles and six million empty tin cans. Come, let's make our witch's brew!"     We went into the house, and at the kitchen counter he mixed us each a portion of LSD, in fresh, ice-cold water which I'd fetched from the brook beside the house. We raised our glasses in a toast before downing the limpid magic potion.     Afterwards we went out to the grape and tomato arbor, where everything is trained up onto espaliers taller than a man, so that we could stroll around between them as in a labyrinth with a hundred passageways, with sun and shadows in the foliage and the blue sky above us. The earth is moist and snails crawl about between the stakes, right up until they're big enough to eat. Straight through the garden runs the brook from Les Vosges in a channel a few yards wide, built up along the sides with ancient blocks of gray stone. Now and then a dark and soundless fish glides through the cold, clear water, in which stripes of sun at times press through the treetops and draw the trout's shadow on the bottom of the brook.     I was wearing pajamas and sneakers, a bathrobe and a soft silk scarf knotted under my beard, which has gone rather gray. Dr. Lefèvre was in his usual off-duty costume--khakis, a summer shirt and sandals, surmounted by a large Arab headdress. Thus he had come down from La Poudrière on his day off, leaving Dr. al Assadun in charge of the whole Institute.     al Assadun is our assistant doctor; Lefèvre brought him from Algeria, where the professor too may have been born. They speak Arabic together for the most part, and to judge from the frequent bursts of laughter they carry on a continual banter of unheard-of cynicisms and obscenities. The two of them present a remarkably suspect and frivolous picture when speaking Arabic together: the middling-tall, slender, golden-brown assistant doctor and the huge Frenchman, over six feet and of uncommonly heavy build--with his large, yellowed, dirty mustache drooping over the eternal cigarette. Always the same laughter which follows Lefèvre's words! Always the same atmosphere of unmentionable secrets.     What I know about them isn't so unmentionable; Lefèvre once found the fourteen- or fifteen-year-old Arab boy on the street or in some alley in the slums, and--lecher that he's always been--took the pretty boy home and installed him in his household. Later he discovered al Assadun's uncommon talent and paid for his medical studies at the Sorbonne. The more intimate side of the relation has cooled long since, the professor being over sixty and the Arab boy nearing forty--but they've remained friends, and work splendidly together.     We strolled among the grape vines and the tomato plants for just a few minutes, then seated ourselves in the weathered old garden chairs outside my house. Dazzling spots of sunlight danced on the whitewashed wall, and the light dripped down between the leaves.     "Actually I like only the sun," said Lefèvre. "Only the sun is good."     I looked at him.     "Only the sun," he repeated.     I felt a faint dizziness and a slight chill down my back. The light and the colors and the sun and the shadows around me intensified. I lit a cigarette and saw that the smoke was filled with the colors of the sun. The tabletop shone gold and a strange, color-saturated white. Lefèvre's large, ever-brown hands and sunburned face shone like copper now; his face was golden, and the huge mustache was of ivory. The whole garden was filled with the red color of the sunrise, but it also glittered orange and violet. The sky was of gold, a kind of seething, boiling gold in which the blue was moving in stripes and lines, lines which were soft and snaky and full of life.     "The sun," repeated Lefèvre, "it's the only thing which is true."     I understood at once what he meant, and noticed that above me the sun had now spread out over the whole sky--all was gold and sunshine, gold and sunshine. Everything was itself and its own explanation--the cascades of color in the foliage, the spurting fire in the brook, it all overflowed in a waterfall of color.     Then came the sea, the endless, dark blue, golden sea, the foam and the gleam, and the whole was embraced by the sun, the earth was borne by unending arms of flame, entwining and sustaining it. At the same time a stream ran out of the sun, a cascading, gushing flood of gold and sunshine. An endless yellowed and noble parchment poured out over the world, a document from Columbus's ship, stamped, sealed and inscribed in an old, old script. The truncated pyramids were of gold where they rose from the golden sand. The sky above them was of gold, and all the while the same flood of gold continued to stream from the sun. Once more all was gold and sunshine, gold and sunshine. Everything, everything in the world was gold and sunshine, billowing, flaming, liquid gold.     Mexico was sand and the sand was gold and the gold was sun and truth and there was nothing in the world but sun and gold, gold and sun, and truth was truth and there was no more falsehood left in the world. And the sun was everything.     Lefèvre was talking, but I couldn't hear the words, and when I looked at him I understood what he meant, and he saw by looking at me that I understood what he meant and that everything was its own meaning and explanation.     Then the sun overpowered me again, in a whirling porridge of flame, a wheel which turned from horizon to horizon, and the sea and the ship and the sails and the document and the pyramids and the desert and the sky and Mexico and the earth all turned to gold and sunshine, gold and sunshine, gold and sunshine. And I was in the house of the sun for three hours.     I saw Dr. Lefèvre lie down on the grass and stay there, but he was far away. Only the colors remained, and I was moving through space on a long, long journey, I was on the way toward the earth, and I was tired, exhausted.     A while later the great journey was over; I sat clear and tired in my chair and looked at Lefèvre, who was still in the midst of his visions, repeating over and over some very simple words which for him still contained the whole meaning and aim of the universe, the irrefutable explanation of things-in-themselves. For me there remained--aside from the tiredness, which was not a feeling of abnormal fatigue, but a healthy exhaustion after violent exertion of nerves, brain and senses--there remained a fierce intensification of color in all things, stones, plants, the table and the chairs around me. In form and outline the objects were as usual, but their colors had an incomprehensible harmony and strength, with a clear, logical correspondence between them. It was like being inside a picture by one of the great impressionists whom this remarkable, brutal, swinish and wonderful land has fostered--this greedy, avaricious peasant nation of coarse exploiters, oppressors, and soldiers, of pimps, painters, and whores, saints and sodomites, but above all of painters. The colors filled me with a faint and peaceful sensuality; they ran through my body and surrounded me at the same time.     Lefèvre sat up; he too was back again now.     "Are you hungry?" he said.     We were both hungry, and we knew that now we could eat and drink again without interrupting the visions.     The resonance of our Pentecostal ascension would last for several hours yet--simply as a boundless increase in the beauty of this world, of this garden of Eden which we have been given to dwell in.     I brought out bread, dark and moist; meat, fish, and cheese. Butter, oil, lemon, salt, pepper. A bottle of apéritif and a big bottle of the local wine. Glasses.     We ate as if we had never eaten before. The same enhancement of the sensory faculties which made the colors around us visible as they really are , applied also to the taste buds. Just bread and butter, with a mouthful of wine to go with it, contained the whole world's wealth of taste, of sun, earth, and rain, of wheat and of the milk the butter came from. It was afternoon.     The brook lay in shadows again.     We began talking about wars and revolutions. That's the usual topic here.     "The most bothersome thing," he said suddenly, looking up at the unbroken blue plane above us, "at bottom the most bothersome thing is to think how, while the planets follow their feeble-minded, fantastic, pedantically ordered paths around the sun--round and round and round--it's in the midst of all this idiotic precision that the slaughters go on. The bloodbaths--in what ever form you prefer them--bombing, shooting, poisoning, burning--the bloodbaths take place in the midst of a cosmos which is ordered with mathematical pedantry. So far as we've been able to tell, the heavenly bodies are forced to go on and on repeating their circles, ellipses or whatever--apparently they have no freedom. It's a consolation that there's no discernible life on other planets....     "Naturally there's much to indicate that not only we, but Nature too is mad. Or at least strongly neurotic."     We talk a lot about this at La Poudrière.     I accompanied him partway up the road to the main buildings, through the big park, until we could see the old stone wall around the oldest building of all, the tower with its wings in the same stone, in other words the real poudrière --which is rightly named, since it was in fact built as a munitions tower, or powder magazine. It's still the center of the complex, in that it houses both the archives of sexual pathology and the chief physician's office and private quarters.     The wall around this holy of holies, as well as the wings and the round tower, are overgrown with ivy, but there are fruit trees too, both in the garden and outside.     Next to this very old nucleus, the real La Poudrière, stand the newer buildings, which are very large. They make up the clinic. And around it all lies the park, which covers about fifty acres, including the "kitchen garden"--but not the vineyards.     This is our world.     Behind it all lie the mountains--to the south.     When we'd come in sight of the wall we parted and went each to his own; he to rest awhile, and then to work in his office--I to ... yes, actually ... to do what?     It's late afternoon, and begins to smell of evening; the landscape stretches and yawns after the mighty day of sunshine, the air is cooler, the leaves on the trees hang lifelessly. This hour before sundown is full of odors, of ants and of mould. The honeybees and the bumblebees are gone. The flowers are closing. In a little while everything will take on that wondrous good blue cast. All is peace. And night is coming on.      It is absolutely necessary to take this question seriously--the one Lefèvre mentioned: the fantastic sense of order, the monstrous pedantry--the absurd, petty-bourgeois exactitude which marks the cosmos. The worst, of course, is the solar system--it's governed by the same finickiness, the same petty niggling, as the bookkeeping department in the office behind Monsieur Anatole's secondhand store--but with what a difference in dimensions! And yet pedantry in used goods--small change, buttons, ribbons, and safety pins--has a clear and unambiguous, albeit a rather idiotic, meaning . And it's this which is lacking in the solar system. The contrast between the total meaninglessness of the whole enterprise and the elaborate, foolish mathematical pedantic logic in the enormous calculation--all this is pure and undiluted, unqualified lunacy.     It's well known that madness doesn't always express itself in a lack of logic, but just as often in the fact that logic is all that remains of reason; counting and ordering is all that's left of the lunatic's consciousness. The meaningless screams, but the pedantry is perfect. Everything is made by a mad schoolmaster.     Justice, or injustice, which has occupied so much of my life, is one of the plainest examples of this--and it follows its course, like seasons and planets, like banking and theology.     Yet there's this difference, that the solar system has a kind of authority, because it was there first . That's the heart of the matter.     Besides, the solar system has authority because it doesn't defend itself . While war profiteers, theologians, politicians and judges defend themselves, venture to claim that they have a justification, the solar system has never said a word to apologize for its existence.     It's compellingly necessary to declare that nature--or "God," as some people call it--it's compellingly necessary to declare that "nature" is mad. We can't avoid declaring God to be just as insane as we ourselves. Otherwise nothing is left but metaphysics.     The discrepancy between the gigantic compulsion neurosis in the "natural laws" on the one hand, and their lack of content and meaning on the other, is the fatal, damning proof of insanity.     With humankind it's different; we've tried to imitate this ordered, pedantic and idiotically meaningless cosmos for thousands of years--from Paul to Lenin (a juxtaposition I'll return to later) we've done nothing but try to overcome our dread of freedom by making "laws"; and to strengthen the authoritarian power of the "laws" we've even invented such a phenomenally idiotic expression as "laws of nature"--as if "nature" were some kind of criminal being which must be enjoined to obey "laws"!     But nature has no such core of wild, capricious freedom; only we have that.     So I hereby declare "nature" or "God" or what you will, to be totally insane, even an idiot.     It has grown dark around me in my grape and tomato arbor. The shadows between the trellises are coal-black. All is stillness. But I can hear the brook running. Someone howls up at the clinic. Then it's still again.     I bring out a kerosene lamp and a pitcher of wine and a beaker, and set them on the table. Despite the evening coolness it's warm enough to sit comfortably outside in the pitchdarkness.     I can't get rid of the thought of seeing my own tiny little life against the background of this mechanical, pedantically ordered watchmaker's shop of a universe. Our "culture" complains about rebellions and revolutions which break everything down, overturn everything.     Why in the world shouldn't everything be broken down, overturned? We can break the "laws." The planets can't.     And my own, teeny weeny little life--and my tiny little consciousness which embraces everything!     Again I think about this one single life, which is still the only one I really know.     For a resident of such a distinguished and well-known madhouse as La Poudrière I must admit that I feel fine, and enjoy a bewildering degree of freedom of thought, expression and movement. At any rate greater than the stars'. And then there's my own highly ambiguous position at the hospital. As caretaker and a kind of jack-of-all-trades (including that of observer) I have at my disposal one of the gardeners' cottages, along with the abovementioned grape and tomato arbor: they lie at the park's outer edge and are surrounded by a high, palisade-like fence with a heavy, lockable gate, so that when I wish, I can be wholly isolated in my own world. For example, I can get drunk in peace, though that happens very seldom now. And I can smoke hashish with al Assadun, though we usually do that up in the tower at Lefèvre's, where he has installed a first-class hi-fi set--since music is an almost indispensable part of the hash. Likewise, Dr. Lefèvre and I can travel to the sun as often as we wish; this always happens at my house.     But that isn't the most important thing; most important are the mornings and the nights, when I can be utterly undisturbed in my work, and can sit in the garden with my breakfast before proceeding up to the Institute or the clinic to discharge my more routine duties.     The grape and tomato arbor I've described, but the house is just as important; it's old, whitewashed and very simple, like the oldest peasant houses in this district: dirt floor, open fireplace, heavy ceiling beams and a very small sleeping alcove. Outside: the brook, some leafy trees and the plants. Best of all are the mornings, going out barefoot and almost naked right after sunrise, feeling the spicy, fresh scent, the cool morning air, and looking at the light in the treetops or the espaliers. I get a boundless pleasure from these simple things; strictly speaking it's the only happiness I have. I prefer each day to be exactly like the one before.     This has brought me complete clarity of soul, the old man's peace, a quiet heart. Perhaps I miss the sea at times, I don't know.     I said "as caretaker." Of course it's not that simple. It turns out that nothing, absolutely nothing, is simple when you look a bit more closely. Now, for example, there's someone howling up in the clinic again; it's probably the Russian ambassador's wife. She cries like a wolf. In the soundless night this lonely wolf-howl from the ward cuts loose like a stripe on the black night sky, like the trail of a shooting star. The ululating, drawn-out cry is repeated a couple of times. Why do the wolves in the forest also howl thus? For all its wolfishness it's still first and foremost a human howl. She's probably up there hanging onto the window bars while she howls, as she usually does during attacks. If it continues Dr. Lefèvre will have to leave his desk and his work and go over to the ward to take care of her. al Assadun can't do it because she always tries to rape him. It's very clear that at a Soviet embassy in a Christian country this is not compatible with diplomatic dignity and etiquette. And it's evident that for the wife herself these diplomatic years beside her silent, flawless ambassador-husband were pure purgatory, before she finally said to hell with it and took to howling and raping freely. That's how she came here. Nothing is simple.     Of course I'm not a "caretaker," but--as Lefèvre puts it--"combination caretaker and physician-in-chief of the Institute," and as such I naturally have a radical insight into all that goes on here, into everything that happens. Now when I say "physician-in-chief," that's of course to be understood in a higher, so to speak purely spiritual sense--as chief ideologist and father-confessor to nearly everybody. From the viewpoint of the employment roster I'm a caretaker. Janitor. Cleaning man.     This last point in particular--my being the place's trusted renovation worker--must not be underestimated from an epistemological standpoint. How else, for example, would I have had any awareness of the stupendous quantities of prophylactics with which the diplomat's wife fills her wastebasket between attacks? What, indeed, would I have understood of anything at all without access to wastebaskets and garbage pails?     Another side of the matter is that I have full opportunity to pursue my studies and my research here. My interests are the same as before, even though I've acquired an ice-cold scientific attitude to reality. Of course, while collecting my documents I had to come sooner or later to one of the central points in our Christian culture--possibly to its heart, to the matter's core. It's natural too that I began on the topic in just the geographic situation in which I now find myself: in a landscape which has been the historic arena for our culture's very innermost concerns. One is located even more centrally if one travels some miles further to the northeast, up to Trier. It was impossible to continue with The History of Bestiality without taking up the Christian churches' heretic and witch trials.     I must add at once that this isn't a theological matter alone, but to just as great a degree a secular, judicial problem--one dear to the hearts not only of theologians, but of jurists as well. The two disciplines must not be separated too strictly. What would the church's power have been without support from the legal profession? It would have been built on sand. But it happened, and it had to happen, that love and justice, those two main pillars of good, united in the great crusade against Evil.     Theologians and jurists shrouded themselves in their black robes, in the color of love and justice, and they were victorious in the fight.     As I said, for a man in my field--bestiality and demonology--making the connection was inevitable, though I postponed it as long as I could. A tempting theme it wasn't. But it illuminates a great deal.     Now I'm getting off the track; for now I only mention the matter to illustrate how my position as chief ideologist and head physician at La Poudrière may develop. It's not enough that I can pursue my studies here, and my record keeping; but when I outlined my plan of work for Lefèvre he reacted with enthusiasm, and asked me to prepare a couple of lectures on the subject--lectures which will be given at the Institute, both for staff members and for that part of the clientele which isn't (with a couple of exceptions) domiciled in the security ward.     Part of Lefèvre's therapeutic method consists of regular evening lectures of this sort.     I'm as good as finished with lecture number one, and not many days are left before I give it. It will contain certain insights into the history of both the church and the legal community--a topic in which, above all, the coupling of the two orientations is my own idea. Later I also want to deal with the relation between the servants of righteousness and the world's profane masters and rulers after the church had lost its untrammeled power.     But the first lecture will deal with the Christian heretic and witch trials, under the title: THE WITCHES' REVOLUTION Satan's seizure of power in Europe A prelude to Satan's world empire     She just howled again up in the ward. The long, lonesome wolf howl. I could almost answer her by howling back.     But a renovation worker doesn't do such things.     A couple of centuries ago the diplomat's wife wouldn't have been able to sit in a fashionable luxury madhouse and fill her wastebasket with prophylactics; she would have been burned like other witches, since it would hardly have been possible to drive the wolves from the soul of a woman who was still alive.     Many have tried it, but few were chosen.     By the way, plenty of men were burned too.     It goes without saying that in my lectures the Inquisition won't be treated in a moralizing or hostile manner, but from a purely medico-philosophical, psychiatric point of view--as an important piece in a pattern. As a stone in a mosaic about our culture, which can help to portray its true face and to explain why it has brought us where we are today.     Can a nobler motive be imagined?     About "nature" we know a great deal, thanks to its being subject to "laws." About humankind we know almost nothing, for we are not subject to "laws." We've made only scattered observations, among them an overriding human need for two things: bestiality and falsehood. Cruelty and hypocrisy are almost the only things all races, colors and nations have in common--but we've found no law of gravity in the circus which would make these traits wholly necessary and inevitable, like for instance the madness in outer space. There is no necessity in our mental illness.     Again, I think of the apostles Paul and Lenin, the two holy men in the theologies of love and brotherhood.     And then we have a few examples in God's own France, too.     Of La Poudrière it must further be told that it is truly an asylum on earth, an advanced and fashionable place of refuge for the privileged of every land. One can mention our American general, or our magnificent little sex murderer from Belgium; both would have been under lock and key within the confines of the criminal law had they been in less comfortable economic circumstances. The young lust-murderer has his millionaire papa behind him, and the American is backed by the prestige of his by no means indigent fatherland.     We also have old M. Lacroix, who despite his Gallic name is of foreign origin, and who in his homeland practices a profession of a highly distinctive sort. I've talked with all three often, and they're unquestionably hospital cases, albeit choice morsels for the criminal law as well.     I shall further mention--this time a pure case of illness with no criminal ingredient--the government prosecutor Dr. Marescot, formerly an outstanding official and a highly educated and cultured personality.     Why I've come to be so sought after as a curator of souls I'm not clear about--but I think it's because I have gradually, and in my own way, acquired the ability to forgive sins. This was a gift which appeared very late in my life. Later I may be able to explain why it appeared at all.     It has something to do with the lecture I'm going to give.     Here I'll briefly mention yet another of the patients with whom I've often conversed. He's an engineer, Dr. Stephan Báthory--Hungarian by birth, but today a French citizen. Báthory is a man of somewhat less than my own age, still in his mid-forties, with an unusually powerful build, so muscular that you can see his arm and shoulder muscles clearly through his clothes. His face is brown and gaunt but at the same time round, with sandy hair and very blue eyes. In Hungary his father was killed by the Communists; Báthory joined the Waffen SS and fought long on the Eastern Front. After the defeat he fled through Germany, sneaked across the border into France and reported to the French Foreign Legion. At different times he fought both in Africa and in "Indochina," and had spent eight years as a legionnaire by the time he retired with a long list of decorations, French citizenship, and a pension for life. In a short time he finished his doctorate in engineering; got an excellent, highly-paid position with the Americans as an advisor in the Corps of Engineers; and married the daughter of a nationally known, extremely wealthy French industrialist.     His face has a sullen and antagonistic expression, and the whole man is stamped by the fact that he spent so many years as a professional soldier in active combat. He's still a wholehearted fascist, and not shy about saying so. Dr. Báthory is very attractive and very repulsive. His breakdown came a couple of years ago, in the form first of protracted crying jags, and then of total apathy. He has made significant progress under Lefèvre's treatment and will probably be entirely "well" again, provided that the word means nothing more than being able socially and economically to take care of oneself. The healthiest thing he could do would doubtless be to go on crying as long as possible. He hates al Assadun with a pure passion.     By contrast our other warrior, the general from Texas or Ohio or whatever it's called, is a thoroughly pleasant and amiable person. "Le généràl," as he's called here, is quiet, introspective and polite unto meekness. You wouldn't see that he has the Pentagon behind him. The only thing about him which might give a military impression is his haircut; he's as closecropped as can be--an upright, wiry man of medium height in his late fifties, very slender and very well-dressed. For awhile it was the hospital's duty to keep him in the security ward because of the deeds he committed in his homeland, but he was transferred months ago to the open part of the Institute. You often see him strolling around in the park--quiet, alone and rather melancholy.     It had grown late in the evening, and I took the lamp, glass, and jug indoors, where I began to undress. All was still now; there was just the night.     A while after I'd gone to bed the alarm bell rang.     It's very loud and is used only in case of dire emergency. It would be utterly impossible to sleep through it. The signal calls for the immediate attendance of the whole staff, because a situation has arisen which those on duty can't handle alone. I relit the lamp and dressed hurriedly. The most likely bet was fire in the hospital building, and that was the first thing I looked for when I came out into the night.     But there was nothing to see, and when I'd come a ways up into the park the buildings were standing as usual--with only a few windows lit, and with the searchlights on as always.     I walked on rapidly, in through the kitchen entrance and over to the duty room.     It was empty.     I went on, and on the second floor the hall was soiled with blood. As expected, the trail led to the operating, or first-aid room, as it's called.     When I entered the blindingly lit room, al Assadun and two nurses were bent over something which lay unconscious on the operating table. They were hard at work. You could see only their eyes and a bit of the assistant doctor's brown, hairy arms. A group of male nurses stood over by the far wall. In the middle of the floor stood Lefèvre with his white smock open, a cigarette in his mouth and his huge arms akimbo. He turned his head toward me and said amiably:     "Bonjour, mon cher enculé !"     This base and untranslatably vulgar word, which designates the passive partner in male intercourse per anum , caused both the male nurses and al Assadun to roar with laughter.     "What's happened?" I said.     "Nothing," replied the chief physician; "practically speaking, nothing at all. It's only that old corpse-fucker Lacroix, who has made a new suicide attempt. In some shitty way he got hold of a gardener's saw, and had almost cut off his head before he was discovered. It looked awfully bloody for a minute; the wound was uncommonly large and dirty, to be made by a man of his former profession, and he was bleeding a great deal. At first we thought we'd have to drive the remains to the slaughterhouse in the district hospital, and so we rang for you--as chauffeur.     "But then it was nothing after all, nothing; and now our little sodomite of a sal arabe --the anarcho-surgeon Harun al-Rashid--is in the process of basting him together again."     Le sal arabe --"the dirty Arab," which is one of Lefèvre's pet names for the assistant doctor--raised his head and repaid the notice with an expression so untranslatable that a man in my modest position can't allow himself to quote it--but only to hint that it implied that the senior physician was troubled by gonorrhea in a place where it isn't comme il faut . The male nurses laughed again.     The Arab bent over old Lacroix's earthly and mortal parts, but went on talking.     "Now his block will soon be firmly back on," he said. "But this is the first time I've seen anyone do anything like this with a saw. It reminds me a bit of the grenade splinters in the old days."     This last was directed at Dr. Lefèvre. The two of them worked together as doctors during the battles in Africa--on the Arab side, of course.     "Okay," said the doctor, "the rest I leave to you. Good night." He took my arm, and we went out into the hall. He padded straight through the pool of blood outside the door, leaving a line of huge bloody footprints down the corridor behind him. He wears at least a size 14 shoe.     "How's the ambassadress?" I asked. "She was howling some toward sunset this evening, but then she quieted down."     "I went over there myself."     "What did you do with her?"     He laughed:     "If the police knew that, I'd be sitting behind bars in a couple of days. But now she's quiet."     He was still holding my arm as we walked over to his tower.     "So you gave her some pictures?"     "Oh, yes. The most advanced, the rawest I could find in the Institute. Now she's lying there eating them up. It helps."     A faint breeze had begun to blow, and we could hear the rustling in the treetops. There were stars in the sky.     He looked up, then he said:     "Blood and shit and wind and stars!"     Up in his study we drank a couple of glasses of cognac. He was clearly tired, and used the smock which he now stood holding in his hand to wipe the sweat from his brow. Then he put it down.     "Oh Lord!" he said slowly. "Oh Lord! They howl and masturbate and copulate and saw off their heads, and around it all go Jupiter and Saturn and Uranus and Pluto and the whole heavenly madhouse. Tell something! Tell me a story about something else."     And I thought of a story I hadn't told him yet, from Russia a long time ago. The windows stood open to the garden and the stars, and a faint breeze came in to us, a breath of the wind outside.     "All right," I said, "but I want wine, not cognac. I don't like liquor. Get a couple of bottles of wine, and then I'll tell you a story."     He brought out the wine and opened two bottles. It was an excellent wine--humane, round, and soft. Then he lowered himself into the big armchair and sat there looking at me. Now Lefèvre was just a tired old man. The big, strong, vital body had shrunk into itself, the face was sunken, and the huge shoulders, the thick arms, the hands and the big head all seemed like a heavy, heavy burden to bear.     "Please," he said, "tell!"     A new breath of wind from the starry sky brought the night and the garden into the room, and along with the wine there arose in me pictures from another night, from another life, a night alone in Russia, in a large city, a night in a sickroom in a polyclinic, where I lay awake in the darkness and talked with a stranger--with a young man crippled for life. There too we had wine, several bottles, on the nightstand between us, and we lay in the half-darkness and talked together softly as the dawn began to lighten in the pale Leningrad night....     It began with my coming to the city on a ship, and I had alcohol poisoning as I've hardly had it before or since. Crossing the sea, the Baltic, I'd been drinking day after day, with anyone who could spare the time. One night I fell down all those steep steps to the hold, and I fell as softly and unresistingly as a wet towel. I didn't break anything, but my body was like a Chagall painting the next day, full of violet and red, green and blue bruises from my knees to my neck, and I stood on deck and looked out over the sea before I went on drinking. When we arrived in Leningrad I was found in my bunk with blood all over my face and the bedclothes. I must have been bleeding for several hours, perhaps most of the night. What's more, I had pissed on myself. I couldn't sit up, and they came with the ship's doctor, and he thought it was a bleeding stomach ulcer, for around my mouth there were thick crusts of congealed blood. He laid an icebag over my midriff and prescribed ice-cold milk for me to drink, but I couldn't get anything down but cognac. And I lay there thinking, "Oh Lord, just let me croak soon now, just let me croak, then all this will be over!" But at the same time I was immensely afraid of dying, yes I was terribly afraid of dying. But I got down a little more cognac and everything was better.     A bit later they came with a stretcher which they laid me on, and brought me safely ashore on Russia's holy earth. Precisely thus did I make my entry into the Holy Land, full of blood and cognac and piss, borne by four men clad in white as if I'd been a long-lost son.     With wailing sirens and whistling tires the triumphal procession conquered Leningrad.     Never have I my made my entrance into a strange land in such a fashion, and around me there was not one person who spoke a word of anything but Russian. Everything was soft and friendly, and it sounded as if they were whispering to me inside the ambulance.     When the car stopped I was borne across a cement-paved square, past a reception desk and through a large hall, full of stalls with upholstered benches inside. Between the benches were partitions about six feet high. On one of these benches they laid me, and I felt tired and calm and content, and I said " Papyros! " to one of the stretcher bearers, who took a pack out of his smock and laid it on the nightstand beside me. Then they got me some tea, a large glass of it, and I smoked and strewed the ashes on the floor.     Everyone who came past me smiled and nodded, and there was no doubt that I'd been awaited and missed. But now I was come. Beside me, in the next stall, a man lay dying and dying; his throat rattled and he wheezed for awhile and then he was still.     A nurse gave me an injection and lifted my head so that it was easier to drink from the tea glass. My body had gotten all warm and soft and I felt good, despite the fact that I was sober. I lay still with open eyes and looked around me, for everything was different from all the clinics and hospitals I'd been in before. It was like coming far back in time, and the room here had no plastic or glass bricks or steel; it was brown and rather in need of paint, more or less like the schools, like old schools looked in my childhood, and it wouldn't have surprised me if I'd met my old gym teacher in here. All other clinics remind me of La Morgue in Paris, which I once visited out of pure vulgarity, just to see how I would look someday. But I didn't get far before I turned back; the smell of the well-greased, sterilized cadavers from the Seine or the alleys was such that along with the glass bricks they drove me to the door again. Here, in the polyclinic in Leningrad, there was no odor of corpses and chemistry, but only the good healthy smell of tobacco and people. In my Baedeker of Europe's polyclinics it will be the only one to get three stars....     While I lay there I may have slept a little with my eyes open, for all at once a band of angels stood before me, a group of white-clad Samaritans, doctors and nurses of both sexes, with a large, stout man as the center. He had a huge apron tied up around his chest and a white skullcap on his head, so that he was dressed like a butcher. He stood smiling with one arm around the shoulders of a female angel, holding a male angel by the hand with the other. He said some gentle words with a lot of z 's in them, and everyone broke out into uncontrollable mirth. Then he bent over me and smiled:     "I speak a leetle Jairman," he said; "a meeligram of bet Jairman!"     That consoled me, and I understood that he was the archangel at the polyclinic. I smiled and answered that he spoke a Jairman that Goethe could have been immensely proud of. He turned beaming to the assistants, of whom there must have been about fifteen, and translated my reply. They all cheered. Then he pulled off my shirt and undershirt and felt my shoulders and torso with large, powerful hands. He smiled again:     "How old are you?"     "Forty-three."     He laid his hand heavily on my chest and tried to press it inward, again with the same beaming, fatherly smile:     "You are very young for your age. You are a strong young man, you will never die, you will live to be a hundred!"     "Jesus!" I said.     He examined me for a moment, especially in the mouth.     "Have any of your relatives had difficulty stanching blood ... perhaps after shaving ... from small wounds.... And you yourself, does it ever happen that you have small cuts that don't stop bleeding?"     I understood what he was driving at, and I opened my eyes wide and stared at him, a wild, Russian, gloomy stare:     "All we Romanovs," I said, "nearly all we Romanovs have had that morbid trait, it's a family thing...."     He leaned back his head and laughed so that it echoed all over the hall, a high, resounding, cheery laughter through the whole polyclinic. The flock of angels crowded expectantly around him, and while he sat beside me, still with his hand on my shoulder, he translated my remark. It hit like a bomb among the doctors, and for a moment the laughter was deafening. Then he stood up and bowed in my direction:     "Welcome!" he said. "We haven't seen a Romanov in almost fifty years! We wish you a hearty welcome!"     While the laughter continued he let the doctors examine me one by one, and it was clear that I was a cherished collective possession. When they were finished, he held them in turn by the hand or around the shoulders and let them propose their diagnoses without interruption. Afterwards he waved his hand in an ineffably friendly gesture which said that everything was wrong, but not despicable or inferior. Then softly and quickly he spoke a few sentences, and at once it seemed as if they all understood. He put his arm around one of the youngest male doctors and added a few more words. It all happened with a humanity, an egalitarianism, a humor and a kindness I had never seen before.     When he had explained his diagnosis he looked at me, and once more began to laugh. He sat down beside me again.     "My dear Romanov," he said, "you're an unusually sound and healthy young man, but you lack vitamin K, owing to a way of life unworthy of a Romanov. We'll give you a shot of vitamin K every two hours, and tomorrow you'll be well. We often give vitamin K to pregnant women, too, to strengthen blood-clotting ability before the birth.     "Thanks," I said. "When's the baby due?"     "But you mustn't drink vodka or beer," he added, shaking his head while he translated this into Russian.     Then he stood up and embraced a couple of the angels, and the company moved on to the next patient.     By now it was evening, and I was very weak when they wheeled me up to the room. There it had begun to get dark, and the others were already asleep--or lying completely still. Someone undressed me and disappeared with my clothes. I lay awhile in the twilight, and noticed that one of the patients was lying not in a bed, but on a kind of high table with a rack above him. He was sleeping on his stomach, with his hands above his head, and then I was gone ... it all flowed away in the half-light. A couple of times I woke up and received an injection, after which I went back to sleep. But around two or three o'clock I awoke fully and my head was sparklingly clear, entirely clear for the first time in weeks. I was somewhat weak but not unwell. By now I had a certain impression of the clinic, of the halls and the room, and it all had something of the Left Bank about it, something of my beloved Quartier Latin.... I was continually reminded of France or Italy. When I turned on my side, facing the window and the gray dawn outside, I thought I was delirious: on the windowsill stood four bottles of Beaujolais, four familiar bottles of a well-known sort. Beside them a pile of cigarette packs: Gauloises. It was all totally unreal to me, and I looked at the light in the green bottle glass, at the almost black contents. I understood nothing, and turned on my back again to consider it more closely.     The man beside me groaned. He'd done so once before tonight, and had gotten an injection, probably morphine, for he had quieted down afterwards. But now he'd begun again, and I could hear his breathing clearly. It seemed that he was in great pain, and on the point of being awakened by it. He was also moving his head slightly, back and forth, the way one does when one is in pain. Now I could clearly see the structure over him; it was a steel frame with a container above, from which a tube ran down and in under the featherbed. Right next to it another tube came out and hung down to a kind of bottle which stood on the floor. It was clear that he was seriously ill, and that it was the depth of sleep, in other words the morphine, which determined whether he felt pain or not. He moaned yet a couple of times, then he was still. Thus one could hear whether he slept deeply or not, and how severe his pain was. Now he was utterly still, and I couldn't even hear his breathing. I turned over again and looked toward the window and the light, which was gradually growing whiter. I lay thus for a good while, and when I turned over again I suddenly discovered that he'd raised his head and was lying with his open eyes turned toward me. He had black, bushy hair and had propped his chin on the backs of his hands. He was biting his lower lip, but was no longer groaning. He was awake.     "Bonjour, monsieur," I said.     "Are you French?" he replied, bewildered. Then he smiled.     I answered that I wasn't, but that I was a stranger in Russia.     After awhile I asked if he were in great pain.     "Yes," he said. He fumbled for the clock on the nightstand and stared at it for a moment, as if with great effort: "But in half an hour the nurse will bring some morphine."     He clenched his teeth and was silent for a moment, then softly mumbled something about a car crash and a crushed pelvis. He moved his head backward toward the apparatus with the rubber tube and said:     "That's why I have this laboratory hanging up there."     He fell silent and smiled again, his lips pinched, and immediately afterwards he nodded toward the window:     "Can you manage to get a bottle?" he said.     I sat up and found that I was able to get out of bed. I placed the bottle and a pack of cigarettes on the nightstand, and lit a cigarette for him.     "Take one yourself," he said, "and have some wine if you like." I got a glass from the sink, and on the way back I glanced at the other two patients, who were still asleep. Two more black heads. They seemed very young. The Frenchman was probably something over thirty. I poured some wine for us both and lay down again under the featherbed. As we drank up the bottle I told him about my arrival and about the doctor in the polyclinic. He too laughed at the Romanov incident.     "Do you know who he is, the senior physician?" he asked suddenly.     "No?"     He mentioned a name with Professor and Academy and Doctor in front of it, and added:     "He's one of the great names in Russian medicine, one of the greatest surgeons they have, and that's saying quite a bit. But he has his hours of duty here at the clinic like everybody else. That's the way it is here."     We lay talking softly, while it gradually got light outside. It still was no later than four o'clock, all was perfectly still. There was only the night around us.     Everywhere, far out over the city and the land, the same white night lay around us. What we talked about I no longer recall, it was something about Russia and something about books. He was with the cultural attaché in this city. The nurse came in with a tray bearing glasses and needles, and we each got our dose again. Then things were quiet, and it was a relief to see how his pain eased. He laughed feebly a couple of times, and I was glad that the night was long and that the conversation continued, and we drank another bottle.... I had never seen him before, have never seen him since, but I felt that he was closer than people I've known for decades, and nothing in the world made me happier than that his pain abated. I saw that the dose must have been very strong, and with the wine it made him forget everything, likewise the thought of whether he'd ever be wholly well again, or be able to walk normally.... At times it was like sleeping with one's eyes open--the room, the light and the shadows were near and unreal at the same time, and I felt that I was a human being, and the night was long, and we heard the breathing of the two others in the room. Slowly, without knowing it, I dozed off for a bit, then I was awake again and saw that he was still lying with open eyes, and we exchanged a few words again ... slept a little, or dreamed....     By morning I'd really gone to sleep, but only after he did. So it was. This was my first night in Russia.     When I woke up a young, blond Russian was sitting beside my bed. Since there was no vacant stool he sat on the floor, supporting his back against the bed. When he noticed that I was awake he took my hand and smiled. He held it for a long time, and went on sitting beside me into the afternoon, perfectly still, without trying to make himself understood by word or gesture. He just sat there, silent and friendly, as if he were supposed to take care of me or protect me.     Now and then he held my hand.     In our room there were only foreigners, all dark-haired; the two others, besides the Frenchman and me, were a Cuban and a North Korean boy. During the bath and the morning ritual they were both as bashful and embarrassed as young girls; they held the sheet and blankets around them as if to defend their virtue against the nurses who were supposed to be helping them. One of them--the Korean--even drew a towel over his head out of shame. The Frenchman lay smiling, his lips pinched together.     This room with the foreigners seemed to be very popular among the Russian patients, and when after the morning bath the door to the hall was opened wide, it swarmed with friendly guests. My friend on the floor remained sitting faithfully by my bed--it was obvious that I was his foreigner.     Later that afternoon, when I'd got my clothes and was leaving the hospital, the Frenchman was once again in great pain. No sound came from him, and since he was forced to lie only on his stomach, I couldn't see much more of him than the back of his head; but he was unable to speak when I said goodbye and wished him a good recovery. He just looked up and smiled with his lips pressed tightly together, and waved to me with the fingers of one hand.     My Russian walked down the hall with me, clapped me on the shoulder and waved through the bars of the staircase railing.     The city was big and strange.     All this was very near to me as I sat there telling it to Lefèvre. And I saw that it cheered him up to hear it, and that he'd soon be in a condition to sleep.     I was still thinking about this endless night with a stranger long ago as I walked down over the gravel in the park on the way to my own house, my own room. Copyright (c) 2000 Esther Greenleaf Mürer. All rights reserved.