“You claim that there are people in this world without fantasies, who live without hope or illusions? In my opinion you’re quite wrong. It’s as hard for me to conceive of a human life without oxygen, as one without hope.”
The young, newly qualified doctor stroked his black goatee and continued.
“If you wish, I’ll tell you the story of a man who currently finds himself with us in the psychiatric ward. I knew him before he came to us; five years ago, he was an acquaintance of mine. I had been kicked out of the university and found myself in a circle of very interesting young people: lost, rejected and adrift. We stuck together, living as friends, bound by the vagaries of life despite having quite different characters and persuasions.
Not much is left of our little group now: some took their own lives, one is in Siberia, one died in prison, some have moved on to other careers and so on. But forgive me, I wanted to tell you about the man without illusions who is now in the madhouse. I knew him and I think I understood him well enough, though for the longest time he was something of a puzzle to me. Not just to me in fact; everyone who knew him—Gurshteyn is his name—was taken aback by the extent of his serenity and apathy. Nothing, it seemed, could stir his heart or have any effect on his blank, nonchalantly satisfied face, nor could anything wipe away the smile in those lifeless eyes of his. No event, either in the world at large or in his own circle of acquaintances, ever took him by surprise.
He had an explanation for everything. Everything had some cause, he would say, whether we knew about it or not made no difference; why then by surprised? Such a philosophy suited his lethargic disposition. It was deeply rooted in his character and he preached it to others at every opportunity.
Gurshteyn was exceptionally lazy. It wasn’t just work or physical effort that he avoided; even the effort of thinking annoyed him. His usual mantra was that there was an explanation for everything, and whenever you tried to tell him something, he’d say, “I already knew that,” with his habitual smile, feeling smug and clever, cleverer than the rest of us young hot-heads with our endless problems. Obviously he was incapable of making a living by himself. The rest of us did what we needed to scrape together enough to survive. One of us taught some private lessons, another transcribed for a lawyer, another did the accounts in a shop, another studied sculpture at an art school and had a scholarship. We seethed and argued; loved and hated; here sad, there happy, all the while plagued by some deep inner dissatisfaction. Only Gurshteyn did nothing, pretending to look for a job of some kind, living off money he borrowed from the rest of us. Yet he was calm and contented, without doubts, complaints or worries. Such rare happiness!
You couldn’t really say that we were fond of him, but he was one of us, lost and rejected by the surrounding world. On top of which, he was poor, and often went hungry; how then could we ignore him? How could we not lend him some money and treat him as a friend? And yet he remained a stranger to us. It seemed as if no one had ever shaken his hand, or given him a friendly pat on the shoulder. It was hard to imagine otherwise. I don’t think it bothered him much either. He didn’t notice it, and even if he did, he would be too lazy to think about it and would have treated us to more of his own brand of philosophizing: “Certainly there must be some explanation as to why I am so alien. Whether it lies in my birth or in how I was raised, or in my own particular intellectual development— it all amounts to the same thing.”
Sometimes we hated him though. His apathy and the manner in which he always belittled and claimed to understand everything would often spill over into cynicism and boorishness. In those moments we had sharp words for him.
At the time, we were all stunned by the deeds of a certain Kaltberg. How intriguing he was! I doubt that I’ll meet another like him as long as I live. He was an uncommonly good-hearted man, who had a profound sympathy for all those who suffered, whether close or distant. He understood everyone, right down to the hidden corners of their soul, and was always ready to help in whatever way he could. Kaltberg became acquainted with a poor unfortunate girl. She was a hunchback. Her misery touched him deeply; he never ceased to feel for that poor creature, and he announced that he was prepared to marry her. This caused quite a stir. We talked about him constantly, with wonder and passion for such a heroic deed. But just imagine how our Gurshteyn heard the story: indifferently, and with his habitual dismissive wave of the hand.
“What’s the big surprise?” he said, “He is one of those for whom nothing exists in the world but suffering. That is the scale with which he measures people. One who suffers more than others is more attractive to him. On the contrary: those who don’t suffer don’t even exist for him, they amount to a simple zero. I understand it quite well, I’ve long known him to be just such a person.”
At that point one of our company could no longer restrain himself and said angrily:
“You are a heartless man, that’s what you are! You think you understand everything!”
Gurshteyn, not expecting to be so scolded, shrugged. But the abrupt words had their effect.
Our vexed friend was only saying what we were all thinking. From then on, under the slightest of pretexts we reproached Gurshteyn for his heartlessness.
“What is a person without a heart?” He asked me once, confidentially, when we were alone, with a tone as if we were talking, not about him, but about some hypothetical person without a heart. “What is that? A foolish, empty term without meaning, I think. Can I not feel what others feel?”
But when I tried to debate him, to convince him that “heartless” was a meaningful term, he was prepared to change his mind.
“Well, maybe not, maybe I have an intellectual and physical constitution that causes me not to feel as others do. What’s wrong with that? Some people are created one way, and others another way.”
And then there was a second case, which showed the enormity of the man’s lack of fantasy and illusions, as you call it, an event which struck us all with devastating shock. One of our acquaintances, a young man, barely nineteen years old, the one who was studying to be a sculptor and living off his scholarship, hanged himself in his room. They didn’t find him until three days later when his face was already black and deformed; he was unrecognizable. He left a short note on the table in which he wrote: “I am convinced that I will never create a harmonious work of art; without harmony there is no art, and without art there is nothing left for me in life. I have lived surrounded by ugliness and die in ugliness. What choice do I have? I do not have the money to buy a revolver, and even if I lived longer I’d probably never be able to afford one. To my friends, and particularly to Kaltberg, I say my final farewell.”
The incident left a bitter taste in our mouths. We lamented the loss of our pale, young friend who died so gruesomely, recalling him with tears in our eyes. A feeling of dread befell us all. We felt like the patients in hospital when one of their number dies. Will not one of the others follow his lead and come to a similar end? And if so, who? Sadness lay on our hearts like a heavy stone. We could not bring ourselves to talk about other things, and to talk about that one thing which we were all thinking about was too painful. And then Gurshteyn showed us the full extent of his cold-bloodedness.
“I am not at all surprised that when one ties one’s whole life to one thing, when all one’s thoughts and feelings revolve around it, and when that central point suddenly disappears, then it’s little wonder that he took his own life. It’s quite possible, though, that in time he could have created something greater than he ever dreamed of. Therein lies the error…”
We hated him for saying those words, and we poured out our entire bitter hearts at him.
“A heartless man! A monster!”
He was bombarded with insults from all sides. One of us cursed him: “How are you not ashamed to talk like that? It’s inhuman! Perfidious! If life means so little to you, go on then, tell us what do you live for?”
Gurshteyn smiled foolishly, and a fire sparked in his eyes as his answered, calmly shrugging his shoulders:
“It’s not my problem… I’m alive.”
That’s the kind of man he was. Can you imagine someone colder or more austere than that? Sometimes his callousness had its own charm, like the attributes of a curious specimen. Yes, sometimes we felt a sort of respect for him, for his clear, sober intellect, so immune to being led astray. There’s a man who doesn’t know the bitter taste of disappointment, because he is never fooled, has no “illusions,” not so?
And yet—how will you believe me?—the man was a fantasist, living in a world of cobwebs, and it was his fantasy that led him to lose his mind. Unbelievable, you’ll say, but you can visit him yourself in the mental ward and my friend, the head-doctor of our department and an experienced psychiatrist, will confirm what I’m telling you. He had fed his spirit with an illusion, with a glorious illusion. Underneath the external calm and contentedness he hid a deep desire for happiness, a longing to crawl out of his swampy, impoverished, loathsome existence, to enjoy the luxuries of the world. He hoped and waited in silence, without forgetting for a moment that the life he lived now was not the real one, that soon his real life would begin. He firmly believed that. He was hoping for the day when he would become rich. It’s easy to imagine how this fantasy developed.
It wasn’t a clear hope at first, but grew steadily along with his hardship, and took root deep in his soul. With time, the hope took on a distinctive form: he would win the lottery. He walked for hours through the streets, engrossed in his daydreams, and images swam before his eyes, each more beautiful than the last. He grew in status in his mind’s eye. He became wealthy, educated, a fine person, a gentleman. “What a false impression my friends have of me!” he thought. “They see that now, all the good aspects of his character having found an expression in reality”. And then… women, love, travel under the hot skies of Spain and on the high, snowy mountains of Switzerland. He imagined it all vividly, in every detail. It was a sort of intoxication: the more you drink, the more you want. He was loath to interrupt his blissful reveries and so he continued to dream.
We often stopped him in the street while he was deep in thought. No one knew what it was that absorbed him so much that he always found excuses to get rid of us. Eventually though we discovered his secret; it was pathetic and also sad. Kaltberg with his deep feeling for humanity took a greater interest in him, felt greater empathy for him, and started to lend him money more often.
Eventually, Gurshteyn wanted to try his luck and take part in the lottery jackpot; he came to Kaltberg to borrow a few rubles. Kaltberg asked him what he needed the money for. At first, Gurshteyn was evasive, but in the end he admitted that he intended to play the lottery. Anyone else would have answered him with derision, but Kaltberg, feeling that something was not quite right, explained to him, gently, that it was nonsense; he would never win, and there were people out there starving, in need of a ruble for more important things.
And so, with his first steps towards realising his hopes, our fantasist came head on with reality. He was ashamed, in front of Kaltberg, and particularly in front of us. We heard the story from Kaltberg who never kept secrets. But that did not stop Gurshteyn from continuing to dream about the happy times to come. The fantasy soon took prime position in his life. He woke up to it, he went to bed with it, and he wandered the streets with it. It went on like this for quite some time, for years in fact.
Perhaps he knew he was living in a dream, that his reason had been beaten, but be was no longer capable of renouncing it. Thinking about it was so pleasant, he felt so happy, so free! Why stop?
Meanwhile, our company was spread far and wide; everyone did what they could. Some of us found work, some of us emigrated, and there was another suicide. The accountant made a career for himself. Gurshteyn remained unchanged, wandering around all alone with his golden fantasy, all the while starving and sinking ever deeper into poverty. And then one day he came to the happy shore: his fantasy became reality. He began counting and recounting paper banknotes: pieces of paper, which he had collected on the street.
You can see him to this day in the hospital,” the doctor concluded.
Translated from the Yiddish by Daniel Kennedy
Hersh Dovid Nomberg, (1876 – 1927) was an early modernist Yiddish writer who made a name for himself with his characteristically atmospheric short stories, mostly set in Warsaw, populated by artists, philosophers and other outcasts. When he wasn’t writing, he would be found playing billiards with gentiles or dancing tango with other people’s wives at the Yiddish Writers’ Union on Tlomackie 13.
Daniel Kennedy is an Irish-born translator based in Paris.
He completed this translation during the 2015 Translation Fellowship at the Yiddish Book Center.
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