“It was when I came here from New York. (Ha, I say ‘it was,’ as if there was something to it at all…) But at any rate…at any rate: not ‘it was!’ If we have to say it that way, then not ‘it was’ — I should say, ‘they were.’ And I don’t deny it: such combinations of things, really, there were. And maybe that’s the whole point…how all sorts of things were connected this way…things that are easier to misunderstand than understand…the way it is when one considers journeys and their travelers…I mean to say, travelers on a journey…and so?
“Right. When I came here. I came here. Why? Why did I come here? What did I hope such a journey would accomplish? But that almost doesn’t seem relevant, I mean, to the meat of the thing. But haven’t you heard me say all this already? Like everyone who’s ever thought about his life since time immemorial, I too came to the realization that this riddle, the riddle of this life, ‘shall never be solved,’ for whatever comes after my life I won’t see or understand until the end of time…or at all, really…as it’s said, ‘Nothing shall be’…and even worse, not just what comes after my life — what my life itself is I’ll never understand, and what I am in this world and what I was before I was myself, and what I’ll be after I’m gone…(look, the moon…trembling silvery gold…what day of the month is it today?)…yes. By whose hands was I hurled into the fullness of this world to breathe, to live, to take in the heavens and the earth, to be warmed by the rays of the sun and chilled by daggers of cold? (I mean, I’m not cold now, I’m speaking generally). Yes, to suffer in early springs and be weighed down with sorrow in gloomy falls, if one can use a poet’s tongue, and behold, such a wonder: through it all I always saw that final moment, after which nothing comes, the final moment, destined to come, forcing me to think about it at all times, after which everything changes, no dreaming, no waking, for the rest of eternity, that same moment that nullifies all…what are you laughing for? My turns of phrase or just that I dwell on all this so much? (Look, you’re sitting right next to the cactus, you’re going to get pricked…)
“In short: that same moment, before which there is truly neither sacred nor profane, neither beauty nor ugliness, no beloved, no hated, no important, no unimportant, and even so, with all the travails of life and the impossibility of understanding it, we don’t want it to come, that is, lifelessness…
“And so…when I came here…I knew already…I knew all about these shopworn opinions (almost shamefully shopworn and banal, yes indeed, shopworn, banal — and still true!)…and I knew as well (for has so much time really passed since then?) that despite these opinions of mine, and despite my feelings, here I was, like everyone who ever opined or felt anything throughout time, compelled, against my will, despite my best intentions…to heed my own will…yes, my own will…and like everyone around me, like you and like others as well, the thoughtful and the thoughtless, the heedful and the heedless…to fill that all-consuming empty space, which can’t be filled until one’s final moments, and perhaps not at all…who knows…
“In New York — you’re not asleep? you’re listening? — in New York, where I was for eight years, ever since leaving Ukraine, the land of my birth, I spent every moment in a factory (a sweatshop, actually!) where I would cast into the yawning abyss button after button — the same I would sew onto tens of thousands of pants every single month (in a vile “workshop,” utterly and disgustingly vile, I have to tell you!)…and truly I knew, I felt, that the mouth of this gaping abyss was nothing more than diverted, pushed aside, by whatever I threw at it (of filling it there was no hope whatsoever!), yet on the other hand, it was no secret to me that the buttons weren’t entirely at fault, and that this abyss of terrors, to frame it in the proper words, couldn’t be bridged by oranges either, the kind I would pick and carry by the crate in the orchards of the Promised Land, when I arrived there (when there was work to be had, when I wasn’t overcome with malaria)…and still, off I ran! Because I was, so to speak, full of life — feh, what am I saying? — I meant to say, full of life’s clever notions — you understand? That is, full of the hidden, unconscious power of life, the kind that rules over our instincts and sometimes, sometimes manages by itself to make our search for meaning almost pleasant…yet I couldn’t, I wasn’t willing, to free myself from this irrational aspiration, so to speak, towards something else, some other notion, some other place — that’s the inherent attraction of it, really…so my understanding, the same understanding come to by Qohelet the son of David, king in Jerusalem, was one thing, but the direction of my actual life, oh, that was another thing entirely…something devoted, when I could direct it without falling victim to the influence of the understanding part of me, to…my necessities! Sewing, salary, The Free Worker’s Voice, a pair of shoes, the torments of sex — just the concerns of the hour alone!
“And don’t I know it? Perhaps in the depths of my soul something trembled and pricked me on to travel, if one can speak in a literary fashion, and also to heed the stirrings of longing for a new, more beautiful horizon (after all, I never sat on a tel like this after work in New York!), and perhaps even for some kind of homeland, which, as a Jew, I’d never known since I first breathed the air of this world, all my life, all…even if I include the early days of my childhood under the sweetly beloved skies of Ukraine with its lovely shiksas, who would toss your clothes into the water every time you bathed in the sweetly beloved river — hah! I don’t know — what do you think of it all? — I don’t know, perhaps deep inside me fluttered some little shred of hope, to…to find a foothold, any foothold at all, to absorb something there, in that promised land, on the fringes of Asia, where the tents of the Bedouin, maybe the sons of the sons of Abraham the Hebrew, are pitched to this day; where there are camels to mount, just like Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, did in his time; and where (and this is the heart of it!) the third- and fourth-generation descendants of tax collectors for the Polish nobility try to walk in the plow’s furrows…there…I mean to say, here…ahh, ‘let me go over and see that good land, that goodly mountain, and Lebanon…’”
“Nu, and in the end? Did you find a foothold? Are you ‘absorbing?’”
Yet immediately I felt that there had been no good reason to interrupt him. My voice seemed off to me, crudely dissonant.
He absentmindedly plucked a blade of grass and crushed it between his fingers.