A Solitude for Two

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I am really amazed, really delighted! I have a precursor, and what a precursor! I hardly knew Spinoza: what brought me to him now was the guidance of instinct. Not only is his whole tendency like my own—to make knowledge the most powerful passion—but also in five main points of his doctrine I find myself; this most abnormal and lonely thinker is closest to me in these five points precisely: he denies free will, purposes, the moral world order, the nonegoisitical, evil; of course the differences are enormous, but they are differences more of period, culture, field of knowledge. In summa: my solitariness which, as on very high mountains, has often, often made me gasp for breath and lose blood, is now at least a solitude for two. Strange!

Friedrich Nietzsche, letter to Franz Overbeck, 1881. Translated by Christopher Middleton

Leavetaking and Vanishing Point by Peter Weiss


“I read of the world of the Russians and the French, of the English and Americans and Scandinavians, and nothing stopped me feeling at home there. I was akin to Gaugin in Tahiti, to Van Gogh in Arles, to Myshkin in St. Petersburg, to Lieutenant Glahn in the Norwegian forests and to Fabrizio in the Charterhouse of Parma.”

Being exiled is a training ground for a dedicated reader, rootless, inwardly alone and never without the lonely good company of a book. In Leavetaking and Vanishing Point, the twentieth century as the age of alienation finds eloquent expression. Peter Weiss writes: “For me there were no lost home and no thoughts of return, for I had never belonged anywhere.”

Cosmic and social unity is gradually displaced by commodification and selfish individuality, transformations accelerated during the industrial revolution. The wars of the twentieth century and the continuing aftermath: perpetual crisis, wars and persecutions make rootlessness a common experience for countless individuals. But even those fortunate to lead relatively settled lives are, to borrow Camus’s term, irremediable exiles.

Peter Weiss’s two autobiographies are possibly the best I’ve read on the emotional and intellectual manifestation of that feeling of not belonging and its concomitant desire for security, yet fear of loss of freedom. Like many lonely wanderers, Weiss turns to literature, both as reader and a writer. In these two spiritual autobiographies he recollects his tentative beginnings as an artist and reflects on the literature and experiences that provided a formative substratum. Without a home, all literature is foreign, but in what is strange or unfamiliar we can feel alive.

The Name Had Found Me

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The secluded, the mysterious, this hiding away with myself and my games, that is still with me and stirs within me even to this hour, it makes itself felt every time when I get deep into my work. I was my own master, I created the world for myself. But somewhere lingered the premonition of a calling, of the calling that would at once resound, that would roll across the garden toward me. The expectation of this calling was always present somewhere and even today the calling persists, even today the fear persists that everything could suddenly come to an end.

Peter Weiss, Leavetaking, translated by Christopher Levenson

Blessed Longing (Selige Sehnsucht)

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Tell it only to the wise,
For the crowd at once will jeer:
That which is alive I praise,
That which longs for death by fire.

Cooled by passionate love at night,
Procreated, procreating,
You have known the alien feeling
In the calm of candlelight;

Gloom-embraced will lie no more,
By the flickering shades obscured,
But are seized by new desire,
To a higher union lured.

Then no distance holds you fast;
Winged, enchanted, on you fly,
Light your longing, and at last,
Moth, you meet the flame and die.

Never prompted to that quest:
Die and dare rebirth!
You remain a dreary guest
On our gloomy earth.

J. W. Goethe, translated by Michael Hamburger

Nocturnal Worlds

“A popular tradition warns against recounting dreams the next morning on an empty stomach. In this state, though awake, one remains under the spell of the dream. For washing brings only the surface of the body and the visible motor functions into the light, while in the deeper strata, even during the morning ablutions, the grey penumbra of dream persists and, indeed, in the solitude of the first waking hour, consolidates itself. He who shuns contact with the day, whether for fear of his fellow men or for the sake of inward composure, is unwilling to eat and disdains his breakfast. He thus avoids a rupture between the nocturnal and the daytime worlds-a precaution justified only by the combustion of dream in a concentrated morning’s work, if not in prayer; otherwise this avoidance can be a source of confusion between vital rhythms. In this condition, the narration of dreams can bring calamity, because a person still half in league with the dream world betrays it in his words and must incur its revenge. To express this in more modern terms: he betrays himself. He has outgrown the protection of dreaming naivete, and in laying hands on his dream visages without thinking, he surrenders himself. For only from the far bank, from broad daylight, may dream be addressed from the superior vantage of memory. This further side of dream is attainable only through a cleansing analogous to washing, yet totally different. By way of the stomach. The fasting man tells his dream as if he were talking in his sleep.”

Walter Benjamin, Breakfast Room from One-Way Street, translated by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter