by Matthew Walther
Not long ago—only yesterday afternoon, in fact—I was engaged in writing a light essay for this website when I was interrupted by an unexpected visitor.
It was not the Person From Porlock (about whose business Coleridge was curiously reticent) but Hans. How can I possibly describe to those of my readers—the majority, alas—who have never met this delightful but reclusive gentleman, this impoverished scholar, this weather-stained flower of the Black Forest meadow, the peculiar relish with which I look forward to his visits, however inconvenient the hour (e.g., last week, five minutes after the conclusion of Monday Night Football; two years ago, as the dawn of the vernal equinox arose; nearly every Friday afternoon during the late unfortunate lockdowns)?
The first thing one should say about my friend is that he is not a Christian. Hans, in sardonic reference to the nomenclature of the hardline East German communists among whom he passed his long-vanished youth, refers to himself as an “Impossibilist Heideggerist.” (His almost pathological contempt for established English suffixes, especially in the case of demonyms, is one of his most endearing verbal traits.) While he is known to wax poetically about the “holy midnight music of the Wittenberg Nightingale,” and in his student days wrote an unpublished monograph on the Second Epistle to Timothy (whose authenticity he considers beyond dispute), he insists that even post-Reformation “Christism” cannot be forgiven for what he calls its “Henrician dissolution-enclosure of Being.” He once showed me a curious volume, “borrowed” long ago from the library one of the esteemed theological seminaries in his home country, which he referred to as “the only great work of apologetics of the past millennium”; from what I was able to gather amid the dense Gothic printing of the seventeenth century, it was a kind of proto-Unitarian tract in which one Anthelm of Quedlinburg (an early modern heresiarch whom I have thus far been unable to trace) declares that in Exodus God had not meant to dissuade His followers from offering sacrifice to the gods of the nations, but only to express his displeasure at the somewhat uncouth manner in which the Israelities had had attempted to do so. I need hardly add that on the rare occasions when Hans has found my family in the midst of our religious devotions he has comported himself with Old World politeness. (I recall one instance in which he even joined in the singing of the “Salve Regina,” with a tenor that nearly brought tears to my eyes.)
Anyway, apart from the three Hs—Heidegger, the early Hegel, and the followers of Hermes Trismegistus—, the pre-Socratics, and the usual litany of Romantic poets, his philosophical and literary tastes run mainly to sixteenth-century travel books, philological minutiae, and (perhaps surprisingly) early twentieth-century children’s literature. I have, for example, heard him refer in passing to the “golden pen of your divine Milne!” (One can only imagine with what kind of lugubrious Teutonic grandiloquence the naive sentences of Winnie-the-Pooh had been invested by some forgotten translator encountered in Hans’s nursery!)
How exactly Hans earns his living is a subject we have never discussed. While the impression he wishes to convey is that he enjoys a kind of genteel poverty from a family legacy, occasional dark hints suggest the unspeakable: translation work, for American Big Five publishers. (This, at any rate, is how I have rationalized the occasion upon which he left behind a plastic shopping bag in which I discovered a copy of a recent bestseller and a yellow legal pad covered in Hans’s dense black letter, of which I could only make out the legend “DIE TESTAMENTE VON MARGARET ATWOOD.”) In any case, money is one of those subjects we make a point of never talking about, along with politics in the conventional sense of the word. It is a point, I will not say of pride but rather of casual indifference, that Hans does not read magazines, has never owned or even used a computer or any other digital device, and no longer maintains his landline telephone. In years past I gather that he owned a television set, an ancient black and white model that he used before the digitalization of broadcasting, to watch classical concerts on PBS. Since the Obama administration he has owned neither television nor radio, and my humble stereo is the only means by which he is able to hear his favorite music. A more cynical observer than this columnist might suggest for this reason that our friendship is for Hans a base and transactional affair, but even if that were the case I would be more than happy to be thus used.
Anyway, as I was saying, I had been engaged in the composition of an essay (on debit cards, of all miserable subjects) when I heard a knock at my office window. I should say briefly that this somewhat eccentric means of announcing his presence began as a joke about what Hans calls my “insensateness” to philosophy. “One of these midnights Philosophy herself will approach, and you will have neither the eyes to see nor the tongue to speak, as your English parliamenters say.” (In addition to the accustomed violence with noun terminations, Hans fancifully insists that all Americans are subjects of the British Crown, for reasons I have never been able to discover.) On this occasion, as I say, Hans knocked, and no sooner had I opened the window and motioned that he should enter than with a vigor that would have been astonishing in a man half his age he leaped into the narrow opening and sat himself down in one of my armchairs.
I offered him a cup of coffee, which he wontedly declined. (As a rule, Hans drinks only loose-leaf Darjeeling, which he insists upon preparing for himself, or chilled Echte Kroatzbeere, depending upon the season.) Attempting to predict Hans’s moods, if such a banal noun can be decently applied to the elysian mirths and chthonic melancholies of my friend, is always an ill-fated endeavor. So too are all attempts at what Hans, following the Master of Freibourg, would dismiss as “idle talk.” Like the spirit whose oracle is at Delphi, Hans neither hides nor reveals himself, but always gives a sign.
On this occasion, however, any such prolonged forbearance was wholly unnecessary, for even I could see that my friend was jubilant.
“It has happened, my dear Walther!” he said, pronouncing my surname in the German manner.
“What has happened, my friend?” I asked, lighting a cigarette and offering him my pack, which he accepted with trembling fingers.
“Come—we must have special music for this occasion!”
With his accustomed indifference to the norms of private property, Hans walked over to the shelves that house my long-playing records, and with a knowledge of the five hundred-odd offerings that surpasses even my own, he selected the Szell recording of Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
“Mahler was philosophically incoherent, as you know, but Hathor bestows her favor upon whom she will,” he said by way of explaining his choice. (This habit of referring to the classical muses by Egyptian appellations is one of those inexplicable Hans-isms.)
The booming voice of Fischer-Dieskau emerged like a prophet from my ancient Dahlquists, and for the next fifteen or so minutes we sat in silence. As I rose to flip the LP—the last piece on side one is “The Sentinel’s Night Song” and the hour seemed to have grown almost imperceptibly late—Hans spoke suddenly:
“Herr: es ist Zeit—the moment for which I have waited, praying and I suppose after a fashion even fasting, in my lonely vigils. Even the least watchful of their servants cannot now mistake their return.”
“Whose?” I asked somewhat desultorily, thinking that it was simply one of his humors.
“The gods’!” he almost spat. “Have you not heard? This business with the—excuse me, I must consult the lexicon.”
Here he rose and with the same ease with which he had located the Mahler record, he produced from my shelves a copy of Chambers’s Mechanical Dictionary. After several minutes of frenzied page-turning he continued in mid-sentence.
“The pipeline,” he said. “Its destruction is the renunciation of the ur-project of technological nihilism. The Rhine will flood in winter.”
As I began to understand his meaning, I found myself wondering how he had become aware of the apparent sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline. It could not have been through our local newspaper, a weekly publication that Hans takes in order to remain apprised of the supermarket specials. (Despite his customary hauteur, a certain burgher-like pride in these “good bargains” betrays what I have long suspected are Hans’s lower middle-class origins—at any rate, the local circular is a subject on which his expertise is deferred to even by my maternal grandmother.)
“Does the hunter in autumn fail to recognize the call of the silver horn? Must the captain wait for the rumor of war before he goes forth in his terrible array? How dare you suggest that I—why, even now I hear the song of Flosshilde and her gay sisters!”
After a few moments of uneasy silence I asked him what he thought of the political situation in Europe—of Putin and Scholz, for example.
“And who are these anonymous Niebelungs?” he replied, with perfect sincerity.
I explained to him, as briefly as I could, that Vladimir Putin of Russia was, with the recent death of Elizabeth II, the world’s longest serving de facto head of state, and that Scholz was the successor to Angela Merkel, who had been the chancellor of the German republic for nearly two decades. Was he really unaware of the conflict in Ukraine? He made it clear that he was, that he had in fact no knowledge of world affairs since the end of the Cold War.
“With this act of renunciation, worthy of Siegfried in his lofty and spiritual contempt for the Ring, we have discovered—nay, not discovered, but found ourselves led, by wayward paths in moonlight, to what one of your English poets calls ‘the lost lane-end into heaven.’” Here he helped himself to another of my cigarettes.
“It is at hand, my friend, the time of the final overcoming of metaphysics. Beneath Yggdrasil lie the roots, which derive their nourishment from the earth, the very ground which is nothing other than the light or truth of Being, of which Man is neither master nor teacher, but—yes, yes, you will understand this—shepherd.”
Hans rose and turned the record and we sat once more in silence.
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