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“I fled Europe as one flees one’s parents’ house“

Reiner Schürmann

How I Try to Sell Myself to the Americans

in: Origins, p. 211 – 242

I fled Europe as one flees one’s parents’ house: with an insincere effort to laugh at the barbecue set, the patio and the two-car garage.

On the airplane I had a dream. I came back from the dead. I found myself in a public lobby with marble all around. I had to show my identification card at a certain desk. A man beside me grasped my hand. He spoke very fast. He wanted to convince me to give a false address, a false date of birth, a false nationality. He insisted. His face dripped with sweat. His clothes stuck to his skin. He begged me not to reveal the country of my origin, nor that I had come back from the dead. He talked and talked. But I burst out laughing. I leaned on the marble counter and signed my name. With all the required information. The fellow backed off, as if horrified. Many other people turned away. His voice grew louder as it withdrew into the distance, vanished in empty space: “We need a professor of German philosophy. But not a German.”

I recognize that lobby. The Washington Hilton. Men in business suits are crammed in there by the thousands. American philosophers meeting for a convention. A compact assembly of thinkers. Thirty-five hundred of them, Newsweek published the figure. The eastern division of the American Philosophical Association. I make a tour of the counters. There are those of the airlines, TWA, Delta, Allegheny, and those of the hotel, reservations, information, mail, cashier. A perfume shop. 
A shoe-shine place. An art gallery with pictures painted on ­vel­vet. Crowds everywhere. Thinking crowds. All profs. Looking like insurance agents, more readily imagined talking finances than dialectic. Above a bank branch is written: Christmas, Think of it as Money. A prayer for peace follows, signed Riggs National Bank. Between Christmas and New Year’s is the time for the big conventions. I stop in front of every desk as if to bring to life the scene from the dream. To palm off the terror on someone else, as if it were a counterfeit note.

Is it here that death will cease? That a new life will begin? A gypsy once told me: “There, on the other side of the ocean, your running will come to an end.” I will cling to this continent as, years ago, I clung to the last train leaving the burning city of Krefeld. But isn’t it already too late? I shall be happy only on the day I have forgotten how memory works. A vague apprehension creeps over me, communicated by all these big, hearty fellows who slap each other on the back. Fear of this crowd, and also the presentiment that some terrors are as indelible as a baptism is supposed to be. The terrors certain words spread in me, such as “massacre,” “final solution,” and even more so, those that accompany the information printed on my identity card. Whom did I see beside me in the dream? That man looked so anxiety-ridden. But also like a brother. So close to me. I wonder if he did not wear my own features. I was as if divided in two: part of me laughs at obsessions, the other part draws back in horror. It is urgently necessary to liquidate this alter ego. To fix it onto one of the heads that surround me. If I discovered here, in this lobby, the face seen in the dream, the sunny side would stay with me: the laughing face.

In spite of myself, I inspect the passing countenances. In this lobby as big as a train station, I sense a denouement preparing itself. To stop the headlong flight. Put an end to the trick of washing off a fascism that has already had its day. Put an end to the defeats, the fusillades, the phials of cyanide, the boots. Above all, put an end to the fantasy-machine in my head that blends with the mechanical whirrings in the atmosphere. Air conditioners, elevators, incinerators, crematoriums. The hope, always disappointed, that the past might henceforth be nothing more than that: past. When I came through the snow this morning, my overcoat covered with flakes, this hope again stung my eyes like a sort of acid. I will teach philosophy to the Americans. A new world. Without the bitterness of history. Their youthfulness sees only the future.

All these fat guys hailing each other. A pair of broad shoulders covered in striped cotton pushes in front of me without apologizing. The acrid odor of perspiration. A desire to press my nose between these shoulder blades where sweat must be trickling down in rivulets. The dream. This perspiring fellow at my side. I go from one physiognomy to another, to get rid of it. Toss my terror to whomever, mark that man, and go find myself a job. Through a big window one sees the taxis stop, leave again. An unbroken stream. The wind mingles the banging of the door and the loud voices of the men. It is cold out. 
The newcomers put up their collars and duck in under the awning. The uniformed doorman welcomes them with an umbrella. A gentle-eyed bouncer. He is wearing a mauve coat with frogs, and the sort of hat you see in Beefeater ads. The wind drives the snow horizontally, turns the big black umbrella inside out. The doorman comes in, a suitcase in his hand. I plant myself in front of this bulldozer like a little girl in front of a London bobby. To talk to him, find something funny to say. This morning, at the YMCA where I am staying, my English was good enough. But here nothing remains of it except a spasms in the back of my throat. For an instant we eye each other. I wait, as if destiny ought to proclaim us brothers on the spot. Then he turns aside. It is not he who will go away burdened with my fears.

I wanted to slough off the skin that burns me: coming from a race of torturers. But, in my awkwardness, I stripped away just those skins that protected me: friends, music. The one I am wearing now itches more than ever. A man in a bow tie rises up in front of me. He opens his briefcase. There appear parallel rows of electric wires, two knobs, a dial, metal plates covered in rubber. “Electrogym,” he says, “exercise in bed.” Huge, forced guffaw. Other people join in, laugh out loud, pat their pot bellies. I look at their feet, these sizes are not to be found in Europe. And what if there were a machine for doing away with memory? That one would carry in an attaché case and plug in beside one’s bed at night? A machine to stifle the shoutings to which I have never given voice?

I turn around. Two eyes are fixed on me, motionless. A porter bumps into me, the face disappears. Then the eyes come back. I go up closer to take a look. A man of about sixty, with the body of an athlete. He is wiping a spot on his yellow plaid jacket with his sleeve. In his pocket, over his heart, a battery of pens. He says: 

“I work twenty-two hours out of the twenty-four. I have eight different jobs in the Movement.”

His pronunciation is exaggerated. He speaks with a heavy accent that could be German. The tag on his lapel gives only one name: Herman. He looks me over as if he had something against me. For an instant it seems to me that I have seen this complexion somewhere before. Bilious, with little broken blood vessels.

Instinctively I make a half turn. Flight again. I pass in front of a car rental agency, the steamy window of a restaurant, a machine that sprays you with perfume. Jasmine or mint. I push open a door at random. Just to escape from these businessmen among whom I am stuck as in so much adipose tissue. I had been told: they will offer you a teaching position on the spot. Assistant professor at a university. Nothing difficult about it. A European in America is worth his weight in gold. They all have some complex about us over there.

A new room. To the right, a table covered with a billiards cloth. Piles of forms.

“Merry Christmas! Can I help you?”

She says this to everyone. Then immediately adds:

“You fill these in here, pay at the next table, make an appointment over there, then you …”

“Excuse me?”

“Merry Christmas! Can I help you?“

A feverish agitation. Nothing jovial about them. Each one holding a piece of paper in his hand. Haggard faces. According to Newsweek, the average age here: something like thirty-two point five. At the back, a platform. Two little half-circular staircases lead up to it. Along the walls clusters of men glued closely together. They jostle each other to get nearer to something. Little posters are hanging up there. More than a hundred of them. Typed on bright green paper. They are all around the room, including the dais. Stuck to the plaster with scotch tape, pinned to the curtains, thumbtacked to the wooden panelling. Impossible to read what they say.

Slowly I thread my way through.

“I was here first. Step back, please. My career might depend on it.”

The tall skinny fellow squirms. His nasal voice nearly cracks. All the while trying to scare me away — sht-sht, like at a chick­en — he pushes me back with his rear end. I change lines. I get up to one of the posters. It reads:

University: Guilfoyle.

Department: Philosophy.

Chairman: Bob Smith.

Position Offered: Assistant Professor.

Number of Positions: One.

Areas of Specialization: Philosophy of language, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, phenomenology, Marxist philosophy.

Number of Courses: Twelve hours a week.

Salary: Negotiable.

Contract: Renewed Annually.

Remarks: We are looking for a young philosopher, capable of showing original and creative thought in at least two of the fields mentioned above. Must be able to communicate enthusiasm for philosophy to science students. Must bring an element of enrichment to his colleagues. Must be ready to defend the ideals and interests of the institution.

Some words have been added by hand: “No more applications accepted.”

In the middle of the room, tables arranged in a hollow square. Receptionists dressed in orange. Non-stop smiles. One of them gets up. Her voice rises above the uproar: 

“Two more interviews for the University of Nebraska available, two!”

The crowd surges forward. A young woman loses her handbag. Someone tips over the blackboard on which the names of the candidates already hired are written. There are children too. They signal to their fathers which lists are still open, hold a place for them in the line in front of the receptionists. To be the father of a large family: the only way of being everywhere at once.

My hair is still wet from the snow. I am perspiring in my wool suit. The dream in the airplane pursues me. What did it ­presage. I begin to understand: in America, too, I will stammer out my pedigree as if it were a confession. The same old tension stiffens the back. Like walking on the thick, synthetic carpeting in this room. Your body is charged with electricity. If you put your hand on a copper doorknob, a shock traverses you from head to foot. When called by my origin as one is called by one’s name, how many times have I leaped up as if struck by such a charge?

Behind me they are tabulating the first results.

“You have an interview?”

“Two today, four tomorrow.”

“I have only two in all.”

“I had been corresponding with them”

“My boss recommended me, though.”

“This business is ridiculous. The interviewers are fast asleep.”

“No wonder. Fifty candidates a day.”

“Where I am, they change instructors every year. This is my seventh convention …”

“At my college there is no more money. At least that’s what they claim. Even the tenured professors have been affected.”

“Earlier, coming here in a taxi, I say: ‘To the Hilton!’ The driver turns around and asks: ‘To the APA?’ I say, yes. He bursts out laughing. ‘I have a doctorate in philosophy, too!’”

“Things are bad.”

“Every year it gets worse.”

They fall silent. With a blank expression, I turn around. Worried faces. Used to scuffles. And often not getting what they want. One of them has long hairs in his nostrils. The line is not moving. I noted down five universities at random. One of the posters said: “Area of Specialization: Continental Philosophy.” I asked which continent was meant. Practically speaking, it came down to “German Philosophy.” The university was called Mc-something. In Ohio. You had to fight for five minutes in front of each poster, copy everything down in two. I do not feel combat-minded. Nor do I share their fondness for big gatherings. From the Teutons I inherited a predilection for underbrush, a distrust of the word, cheap sentimentality, slow emotions, maverick moods. Behind me, the conversation starts up again.

“I was chairman for two years. I miss all the responsibilities. I like administrative work. I like people to come and bother me.”

“With us, they calculate the profitability of each professor. The investment is the salary. The return the number of courses multiplied by the number of students enrolled in each. The return has to be three times the investment. The output three times the input. Otherwise, out you go.”

“We don’t produce enough courses.”

Yoschko, why aren’t you here? A sudden need of roots. If I came back now, you would say: “Let me look at you. You seem better. A little more ravaged.” With you, beauty had to be pathetic. Your air of distrust. With the years, I would like you to become coarse.

“Hello! So nice to see you!”

An old man is speaking to my neighbor, who is about twenty-five. The old man continues: 

“Who are you?”

“Richard Blunt.”

“Hallo, Rich!”

End of conversation

From the ceiling hangs a huge Christmas wreath. Made of artificial holly. It is decorated with nuts, tangerines, tiny lemons, berries, branches of pine with long needles, branches of laurel. All made of plastic. Only the gold and silver pine cones look natural.

My turn to sign up for interviews. Four of the five lists that I had chosen are closed. I have an appointment with someone from McGeary University of Ohio.

“Tomorrow, four o’clock, third floor. Next!”

Suddenly butterflies in my stomach. Do I really want to be a professor? And in America into the bargain? I ask of a busy, dignified man the way to the men’s room.

“Where is the …”

Instead of answering, he gets annoyed, slips a calling card into my hand.

“Later! Call me at the office!”

He leaves at a run. Five yards further on he stops again to hand out a card. I read in big letters: “Professor William D. Moosewedge III.” In smaller ones: “Chase Manhattan Lecturer, Pahlevi Faculty Fellow.” Lower down and to the left, the address of the Pahlevi Charitable Foundation. To the right a telephone number.

The loudspeakers pour out their racket everywhere:

“Columbia is not hiring. Northwestern has cancelled all its interviews.”

A young Vietnamese man is distributing a xeroxed sheet. His curriculum vitae. Not so dumb. Exhibit oneself in writing. I have a brainstorm. Opposite the Hilton, I saw a copy center. Sitting on the john, I compose a biography. Twenty lines. Highlights. Only star material. The butterflies have settled down. My stomach feels fine.

A piece of newspaper is lying on the tiles. In a picture, five people from the suburbs can be seen in what looks like a drag show consisting of two angels, a shepherd, and Mary and Joseph around the baby in a manger. All of them have their heads bent. Their long robes look like sheets. The text reads:

“A Home for Him. Every evening from seven to nine the Mazzeni family recreates the birth of our lord in a living tableau. Our picture shows their window at 1142 Nevada Avenue in Swissvale. From left to right: Loretta, 17, Francis, 21, Theresa, 19, Bernadette, 23, and Michael, 15. For the tenth Christmas in a row they are representing the birth of Christ for the joy of all passersby.”

I come out of the stall. Without flushing the toilet. All I did there was read and write. A man is leaning over the sink. I see only the yellow plaid jacket. Before I can close the door again, he turns towards me slowly. He scrutinizes me. When the door of a stall opens without any water flowing, it awakens all sorts of suspicions. Herman, while rubbing his hands in the stream of air from the electric dryer, does not take his eyes off me. He has about him something decided that concerns me directly. Neither hate nor love, but an insistence that rubs me the wrong way. Is he the unknown man of my dream? An attendant comes in, dressed in a white polyester tunic. He unfolds a tissue paper oval of the same shape as the toilet. He puts it on the seat, seals it. “Sterilized for your protection.” Herman goes towards the door. The attendant busies himself about the ventilator, he turns his back to us. Herman goes out. Seeing him leave comforts me. But, and I know it, I will see him again. Under the mirrors are rows of waxed paper cups. Each one wrapped in cellophane. In red letters: “Guaranteed germ free.” With the address of a factory in New Jersey. Between the dryers there is an enamel plaque reading: “All employees must wash hands by order of the Board of Health.”

The owner of the copy center is bloated, red of face and hands, and he is constantly chewing. Gum, a toothpick, the end of a cigar. Or all three at once. I used to like Westerns. Since I have been in this country, I see only too clearly that they are not mere fiction. The brutality in the tone of voice. Only the big jaws are better shaven. And the ten gallon hat has dis­appeared. Replaced by the visored cap. I leave with two hundred sheets under my arm. An exorbitant price. I say good-bye at the door, no response. Never. Shopkeepers here are polite when you come in. Once you have paid up, so much for human relations. You are of no further interest.

In a corner of the hall, I had noticed mailboxes. Each university has a pigeonhole for letters. I put a copy of my curriculum in all of them. In the middle, at the top of my sheet: “Résumé.”

* * *

At eight o’clock in the evening the philosophers’ ball begins. The smoker, a great social event. The professors are in black tie, their spouses wear long dresses of pink or turquoise chiffon. A mink stole over their shoulders, little sequined bags in their hands. Their coiffures are well-lacquered, some of the hair constructions rise like beehives. Amid the curls, artificial violets or even sparkling Christmas tree balls.

I fold my biographical sheets carefully. I keep a dozen in my hand. The overcoat given to the lady in the checkroom holds another two dozen. In reserve. Further on I come across a huge gilt mirror. I put the sheets down, make four little piles in front of it, slip one into each pocket of my jacket. Run a comb through my hair, and step into the hall. The Grand Ballroom.

Neither music nor dance floor. Few tables. One is supposed to stand. Smiles on their lips, the philosophers wend their way from one group to another. A glass of beer in hand. Their name and that of their university is pinned to the lapel of their jackets. They must number between four and five thousand, including wives and friends. How to find an employer in this crowd! I will address myself to the fat cats with their complacent airs. Chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, velvet drapes, molding, panelling. Show-off America. It only took them two hundred years to cover all the verdure between the Pacific and the Atlantic with concrete boxes, strips of asphalt and even stucco.

On the threshold, for an instant, I see an enormous herd of mules. Their front legs have been broken, they have been driven into a swamp. Till after midnight they will flounder around in the muddy water. I will be one of them.

The beer is free. I am on my guard. I feel my drink getting warmer as I clutch my glass. I wander among the groups. Some are drinking coke too. I prowl, scouring the room with my eyes. Where are the big wheels? One eye on their faces, the other on the name tags fastened to their lapels. When they are talking, wait till they have finished.

Then pounce.

“Do you have a minute?”

“Certainly, certainly.”

“I’m German, and I’m looking for …”

“That’s very interesting.”

“You’re from New York, I see. That’s a city that has always fascinated me.”


“I wonder if your department might not have need of …”

“Well now! What’s your name?”

“Exactly, I have a paper here. Just a minute while I dig it out, there, everything written down.”

“I will look it over carefully.”

“My address is at the top left.”

“Oh, good! Good!”

“Could you perhaps leave me a message downstairs? I would like to tell you about my own highly original interpretation of Hei …”

“Hello, Bill! How are things going?!”

I draw away. Wait. They are talking about the convention. Such a good atmosphere. And you get to talk to all your old cronies. A great opportunity. One of the highlights of the year. Especially this party. Fantastic. It’s so nice when everybody gets together. Then their enthusiasm dies down. The old man to whom I had been talking casts me a glance out of the corner of his eye, knits his brows. Still here? Then he turns away abruptly. I go in search of another beer.

Under the features of these overstarched men I imagine the kids that they must once have been. It isn’t hard. A blink of your eye. Babies’ skulls wrapped in a cover of wrinkled parchment. Which barely disguises the baseball card collectors that they remain. They are as serious as children at play. Their students probably love them. At first I did not find any mystery in these faces. Now I see their paradox more clearly: to keep up a pose of self-importance without shedding their infantile instincts. In their airs, the unruly street-urchin coexists with the learned highbrow. One can examine in this way any ­physiognomy. Exhume the child from beneath the portrait of the adult. 
A distressing pastime. Like comparing a taxi driver’s picture, pasted on the dashboard, with the guy who is driving. They rarely resemble each other.

A bearded giant with graying hair is talking to one group. He wears a long chain around his neck. He says that everybody in this room has an aura. Red, black or blue, according to the degree of perfection they have attained. “All their energy passes through me.” It is the very same man who, several hours earlier, had said: “I play the game. Everything is based on dishonesty. When you know this, you play the game better. This year oriental wisdom is selling well. Next year I will have something else.”

The job seekers run from one circle to the next, talking about themselves. Like dogs that sniff each other’s rear ends and then continue on their way. The purpose of the conversations: to prove what a sensational asset you would be to them. To overwhelm them! Have opinions! An impressive record! To have read Chomsky! Be original! Cite your TV shows! Your articles!

Two men introduce themselves.

“Professor Meinert, two books, nine articles.”

“Professor Mulligan, one book, eleven articles.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

“My pleasure.”

Sometimes, accosting someone, I find that I have mistaken my man:

“Do you have a minute?”

“Certainly, certainly.”

“I should like to know if your department …”

“I’m looking for a job, too. We’re in the same boat.”


“Good luck!”

“Good luck!”

There is a young Frenchwoman there. She is excelling: 

“At this very moment, back in France, a celebrated actor is reading my best poem on television. I hope he’s doing it well! A difficult poem, very audacious. They are certainly going to censor parts of it. It is so daring. I am a revolutionary poet, you know!”

She lives in Georgetown. I ask her some questions:

“Is the friendship of Americans worth anything?”

“It doesn’t deliver what it promises. Don’t expect anything from the natives. A psychological vacuum. They are obsessed with their careers. But they are not interested in each other.”

There are a lot of German Jews here. At one table Yiddish is being spoken. Go to America to escape the past! What a mistake. She says: 

“In philosophy and the sciences, the bigwigs are always Jewish. Others were in the war, they hate Germany. Everybody sees movies and programs about the Nazis. It is almost the only non-American period of history that they learn about in detail at school. Above all, don’t tell them where you are from.”

Suddenly I see her with swollen lips. The hair of a cute blond who passes by us turns to a crisp black. Without transition, the tables are painted green. Two men move away as if they were dancing together. What am I here for? The plaster stars leer … I am a planet off course. But what country should I pick? Plodding along forever in dereliction? I feel myself turning blue, as if pickled in a jar of formaldehyde. Asphyxiation without end? Is the world an eternal plea to some absent sun? Is its voice cracked from imploring the One? The annals of history, are they only a catalogue of impossible truces? Are all human beings shattered inside? And after my death, how many uninhabitable heavens will I have to cross? Of how many countries will I become the citizen in my purgatory? Should 
I settle down on the open sea? Where there is neither past nor future? Of what abyss am I the longtime inhabitant? Do you realize that behind these ridiculous questions there is a man? A human being, a heart that trembles? How could I lie, with so many ashes as evidence? Don’t you hear the howling that rises from all those systems in which we are suffocating? Systems of oppression meeting in this moneyed, death-ridden hall.

I told myself: the country of freedom. I will arrive incognito. About nationalities they couldn’t care less … And here is that second life, so well planned out, inhibited by the same rancors as the first. Worse.

A professor says to me: 

“Cologne. Do they still make soap and candles out of human bones there?”

Another says: 

“I traveled through Bavaria. Through the villages. All those werewolf faces …”

Another says: 

“Hölderlin, yes. That fellow we executed at Nuremberg.”

It is here rather that you execute Hölderlin! Toads disguised as scholars. Drinking coke till you are ready to burst. If at the age of four you didn’t see Cologne in ruins, the smoking shell-holes, the old women piling up bricks as protection from the wind, the husbands come back on foot from Bratsk, in Siberia — then shut up. It is well known that you have lost your marbles. Lost your bearing on the North Pole and put the dollar in its place. A nation without speech. Your language is false. It is enough to listen to you here. The intellectual élite. A public auction. Your word was defunct from the day you wrote on your banknotes, “In God we trust.”

I crush a crumb of cake with my finger, let it fall into a drop of beer. A kind of pudding forms. I have drunk too much. I know that I have bad breath. Two tables away a very dignified man pulls out a notebook. He is questioning a young black man. Because of the noise, I cannot hear what they are saying. With each answer, the black man puts his briefcase down, picks it up again, turns his head, sits on the edge of his armchair, then leans back for a second, lowers his eyes. His tongue moves as if it had suddenly become too large for his throat. The other man has to repeat his questions, increasing the torture. He prolongs the interrogation, writes in his notebook. I hear something like a confession: of African origin. For thirty years I have lived like that, with the finger of the past pointing at me. Of unacceptable origin. A short while ago, a black man called me “brother.”

It is after midnight. I have distributed all my sheets. Except for one. Stereotyped responses:

I will put it on our active file.

Your biography is so impressive.

You are the man we need.

How exciting.


Leaves me gasping for breath.

The black man has left. The questioner remains alone. I still cannot see his face. Suddenly he swings towards me as if on a piano stool: Herman. He is no longer wearing his yellow plaid jacket, but a blue blazer over linen trousers. Impeccable. He has a maroon silk scarf knotted around his neck. He puts away his pen, gets up. Gives a deliberately sporting look to each of his movements.

“Can I sit down for a minute?”

His politeness is overdone. His lips are thin. When he smiles, they simply disappear. He continues right away:

“There are a lot of us in America. This country receives us better than Brazil or Egypt. I was a general in Berlin, the best period of my life. I need not tell you my real name. The history books say that I am living in Moscow. All my care is for the Movement. It continues. You know that. My field is organization and propaganda. My speciality since 1924. I should have had Goebbels’ position. But those are ancient quarrels now. Here in Washington we are starting up again. The failure of the Party in Germany brought us several excellent recruits. They came on tourist visas. They know us. But here is the problem, we are old men. We need youth. University graduates if possible, but not necessarily. And German. Some young Americans trust us, but all they think about is raising hell. They don’t really have the right spirit. Just between the two of us: they are more apt to harm the cause than help it. Discipline is necessary. And an indestructible attachment to the Führer. His commands are still alive. Read the news, listen to the politicians. We have a much better chance now than in 1933. Just as Christianity used the institutions of the Roman Empire, so we are going to use the American empire. Hitler is dead. But soon the world will be Nazi.”

His hair is carefully combed. A bit of powder on a wart on his temple. Little rolls of fat in his jowls. He toys with a plastic cup. In front of him, a bottle of ginger ale. He stops talking. He is waiting to see if he can say more. He knows that I am looking for work. Otherwise I would not be here. And that I have not found any. Otherwise I would not be so downcast. Exhausted.

I do not take up the conversation. He looks me over coldly. Too proud to ask a direct question, too stupid to hide his impatience. Suddenly, something cracks. The dry noise of a hard object splitting.

“It’s nothing.”

He is annoyed, wipes himself with a napkin. He has broken his cup. The self-control is gone. He is furious, completely absorbed in his trouser creases.

A man in a tuxedo goes by. I get up. Herman notices. He almost yells: “Stay here!”

The old habit of giving orders. Already the man in the tuxedo is drawing away. I run, tap him on the shoulder. Herman opens his eyes wide. As if in the clutch of terror. The person I saw in my dream is he. Does he fear I will denounce him? He goes away with short, rapid steps. The air is humid. I do not have a handkerchief with which to wipe my forehead. A graying man, quite amiable. I take out the last sheet of my dozen. Without saying a word. I have forgotten my ready-made sentences. 
I hold it out to him. He smiles, astonished, amused. I persist. An expression of embarrassment on his face. As if he were trying to get rid of a drunk. Then I notice my stretched-out hand. It is gripping the lapel of his tuxedo. At the same instant, I read his name tag: Sokalinsky, I have read all his books on Husserl. My hand clamps tighter. Still in silence. He takes a step backwards, seizes my wrist.

* * *

About fifty biographical sheets later, I am still sitting in the lobby of the Hilton. Every hour on the hour I present myself at the mail window. A wise guy named Bill, completely rotted away by alcohol, reigns over the messages. I suspect him of making off with some packets. He rarely rises from his chair. The papers pile up in front of him. He lets us rummage about in the disordered heaps, not even sorting them any more. He laughs at our anxieties, makes mocking toasts to us. He grasps the bottle of whiskey by the neck.

Between the phone booths wanders a crazy lady. She has come here every morning for the last five years. Somebody has stolen her soul. She is going through the telephone books of the whole world systematically. To track down the thief. She knows that she is going off the deep end, which is just why she has to find him. She does not know how lucky she is! If only I could live like her. Loss of identity, what a windfall that would be! To the contrary, I would burn all the directories. How could the Jewish head of a university hire a young German? Otherwise than after the loss of their respective souls? Life chose for me between memory and happiness. A long time ago. I know that I shall never get out of it. But I will struggle to the end to break free. In half an hour it is time for my interview.

Third floor. Uniformed guards. Printed wallpaper: flowers and carriages. After the fight for an audience, now to assume the mien of a thinker. For three days I have been sweating in the same shirt.

“This way.”

“Your appointment card, please.”

“Your name?”

“Wait near the window.”

Murmurings in the air. They speak in low voices. The same words return again and again: to hire, to fire. The impression is that of a big restaurant. Two hundred little tables fill the room. Ten across, twenty deep. Covered with white cloths. At each table, two chairs. Often only one is occupied. I try to spot the man from McGeary. A metal stand in the middle of each table bears a number. I was given a ticket: forty-six. Two feet away, a guy who looks like a truck driver pronounces Ding an sich. The Vietnamese boy from yesterday recites in a falsetto voice some praise of Lao-Tzu. A bundle of nerves from New York compares Greek philosophy and psychoanalysis: since he was eighteen, he has been on the couch five times a week and has found out that the soul is made of conflicting parts. A child wearing glasses refutes Marx. This boy repeats like an incantation: “Democratic institutions … democratic institutions.” The examiners, eyelids heavy, are like horses in August shooing flies with their tails.

“Your turn!”

The usher goes in front of me through the rows. He has bowlegs. The back of his head is flat, it forms a straight line with his neck. A smell of gasoline follows him. He moves like an attendant between cars in a parking lot. He pushes in a chair as he goes by. An authoritative gesture that seems to say: How many times do I have to repeat that they are not to be moved? With superb indifference he stations each philosopher in his proper place. The desire to ask him his name. The only person whose movements correspond to his job.

“Sit down.”

The stand in the middle of the table cuts the face opposite in half. I bend my head to the left, to the right. He stays still. A hideous face. Pale, pimply skin. His neck is as white and wrinkled as that of a tortoise covered with chalk. He gives me his line about the prestige of the McGeary faculty. Each word accompanied by a facial distortion: faint remembrance of a smile. His eyes slide around the room. He squints, and sounds as if he had a cold. It stands to reason: his eyes are jammed right up against his nose. Suppressed yawns make them water. He wipes them constantly with a lace-edged handkerchief. He glances at my papers, nods at me. A grimace that tries to be encouraging.

“An excellent record.”

I am not unfortunate enough to believe phrases like this anymore. His voice is toneless, he mutters. He must have been saying the same thing over and over for two days. The democratic farce. All the employers should see all the candidates. Equal opportunity. What a joke! This is good business for the Hilton, but as a matter of fact, they hire on recommendation: a patronage system. The comedy of the free market. Suddenly he lays down his fancy handkerchief. He looks me straight in the eye. He pushes the metal stand to one side, in order to get a better look at me. His mouth falls open. He examines me in silence. His close-set eyes irritate me. A look like that directed at you, and your self-confidence is shot for at least an hour. He hesitates a moment. His voice changes. A calm, clear delivery.

“Go back where you came from!”

Silence. He observes the effect of his words. I do not budge. He sits up straight in his chair.

“It’s a waste of time. America, I mean. For you.”

So many false starts. So much definitive settling down that did not work out. The bottle of champagne drained in the Volkswagen, before the take-off from Orly. I have visas for five or six countries in the world. I wanted to buy a house in Greece, stay there forever. I wanted to enter a Trappist monastery, stay there forever. Let all this serve as a lesson to mankind. So many projects covered with dust sheets of regret.

“You must understand. This country is no longer young. Our history is made of wars. The Revolution, Hiroshima, Vietnam — those are our Greece, our Renaissance, our Napoleonic empire. We need Germany: hating it proves to us that we have an historical consciousness. To be American means to have fought side by side. Against the Indians, the Southerners, the Nazis, the Vietcong. To be sure, there are surface reconciliations. But they are for economic purposes. We need a professor of German philosophy. But he can’t be German. Might as well ask a Sioux to teach the history of the settlement of the continent. Or Le Duc Tho the Vietnam war. No. We have to turn out good citizens.”

So much frankness is not their style. Why did he speak? Now he is laughing to himself. I want to take him in my arms. An eagerness to meet his wife, to see them naked. Two livid bodies. Both pot-bellied. To see them together. A celebration of fat. The Abominable Snowman lying on top of the Loch Ness Monster. An urge to snicker. He told the truth, he told the truth. A Yank boss told me what he thought, and I am full to bursting with joy. Who invented nations? When did this coronary accumulation of hatreds begin? I had to take a backward path: reverting beyond the muted, or vociferous, words of rejection. I cannot succeed in hating those who said them. Not out of generosity, but out of lassitude. Answer this man: “And I hate everybody whose name begins with D, or who has big earlobes, or was born in a leap year.” To air the absurdity of it. I see a reporter approaching a group of women. He speaks to one of them, holding the microphone level with his chest. “You have just heard about the death of your husband in the mining disaster at Lens. Could you tell our listeners what your feelings are?”

Go back to where I came from? Which means? I have had to pack up and leave once too often. The truth: I don’t know where on earth to ensconce myself. No more feelings of attachment. No more regrets, in any case. A new desire, perhaps. What is interesting is that a new desire always shows up. I was absorbed in my own origins for so long that I did not feel the origin. The unique one. It was coming closer all this time. First these prunings were needed. Perhaps I will soon be ready. This sentence: “Go back to where you came from,” is it a koan? What if it meant something else than another Pan Am flight? Leave the past alone. This does not mean to forget the unforgettable. Nor to jump over the blood. I was caught hand, head, whole, by this carnivorous history. I am not asking for the start of a new age. I know very well that it would stink. No tomorrows, but a today effervescent with levity. So that I can look this arbitrary past in the eye, without floundering.

“The McGeary campus is located in the suburbs east of the city …”

Again this morose tone of voice. He talks about the number of students enrolled this year. Every semester, production increases. Masters, doctorates. Continual progress. Their campus has a Westinghouse Hall, a Rockwell Hall, a Boeing Hall. Why not a Flying Fortress Hall — in gratitude to the bombers that destroyed Dresden? The budget is balanced. A flourishing business. The board of trustees, made up exclusively of industrial tycoons from Detroit, is pleased. The university is profitable. Dividends every year. Students work, professors publish, parents are proud.

Once outside, I do not lose a minute. Call Sokalinsky and apologize for last night. Then slip in a little question. Your department has such a good reputation! But all the phone booths are occupied. Lines in front of each one. The person talking turns this way and that so his supplications will not be overheard. When they are through, they need several seconds to regain an invulnerable appearance. To face scrutinizing, rival looks that say: “Has he got work? The job I should have had, perhaps?”

In a little checkroom, I discovered the employee’s phone behind a coat. Sokalinsky has already left Washington.

An hour later, a nervous crowd has formed in front of the checkroom as well. I hesitate an instant: call Herman. After all. Just to see. What would the conditions be? Would I have to carry a rifle?

* * *

The twenty-eighth of December, noon. End of the convention: “Philosophical Trends in the Contemporary World.” Near the big revolving door to Connecticut Avenue, I found a leather armchair. Everyone has to pass me in order to leave the hotel. An observation post. I settle down. The ceremony in reverse: good-bye pats on the shoulder, a check for the hotel, another for the airline. I try out poses. To be visible. But not too conspicuous. Nonchalant, but not languid. Perhaps someone was looking for me? Some academic pontiff wants to see me? What if they forgot my sheet in their jacket pocket? Are heartbroken about it, apologize? Implore my forgiveness? Come to me on their knees across this very lobby? Till I utter a redemptive “That’s all right”? Perhaps a job is waiting for me in New York? Created expressly for me? What if they should ask me to leave with them by car? Tell me that it is all arranged? That they had tried hard to find someone better qualified than I, but to no avail? America’s name is associated with blue jeans and spaceships; that of France with fashion and cuisine; I would have brought here the most sublime of all things: thought and music. That is what they should have understood. I have always been lucky. As I was the first to grasp history. At the age of four. Because I made it up. What happens to me is what counts. The events traced out on my skin, those are the most important things in the world. This stampede of philosophers, all abashed for not having hired me. Ashamed of not being more liberated from the resentments of the war. Capitulators! Antiquarians! 
I despise them from the height of this armchair in front of which they pass like the Red Army under my eyes of Stalin.

Running away. It took hold of me one day in the absence of witnesses. Running away still. A hell for soles. I live in a slipping world. It was born during my descent from the uterus. Nothing to stop the movement. A world where decampments seek their rationale. But this time I will refuse to run. Will not quit this post until the last prof is gone. Humiliated by my gaze. Will not leave the city. I had a great deal of affection for flights. Like at the beginning of love, when the mechanisms of self-defense have not yet been set up. Now this affection frightens me. Fear of bolting. Fear of starting the same defeat all over again, eternally. On every continent. Brazil — I won’t even think about it. Well-known Nazis running loose. Argentina, the same. I have moments when I see the truth. Where there is no more need to flee. Not only my truth, but everyone’s. Where divisions go up in flames like the paper walls of a Japanese house. Universal harmony by combustion and incandescence. There is nothing extraordinary about those moments. I only come back to what is most ordinary in the life of men. But how is it that these moments of knowing influence the rest of my life so little? That the flights start up again, with a vengeance? Like after a deceptive convalescence?

Already the participants in the next convention are arriving. A dog show. Old ladies with pugs and Pekingese. Muzzled mastiffs. Some breeds are huge, as tall as ponies. A Great Dane passes close to me, its collar studded with hooks turned towards the inside. It moves like a bear. Cocker spaniels of all colors arrive. Runts and mongrels. Some are in cages, the greyhounds especially. A woman in tapered pants and a pullover is flanked by two female salukis. They are trembling like gazelles. Their mistress flies into the arms of a girl, also in pants and with very short hair. This one is carrying in her arms a sort of ball of wool with a knot on top, from which emerges a tiny muzzle. Mud outlines thousands of paws on the carpet, as big as your hand or as small as your fingertip. Many of the owners resemble their dogs. Especially when seen in profile. A long life together. The hotel personnel hasten to provide solicitude. One lady holds her boxer’s pedigree in her hand. Another arrives framed by a magnificent Afghan hound and a Dalmatian. She is wearing a white opossum coat and big sunglasses.

Each turn of the revolving door lets out a philosopher and lets in a dog. The dean of Harvard pushes the door for a poodle dolled up in pink. The medievalist from Texas performs a half circle with a white collie. Like waltzing couples, they appear and disappear in the four-windowed carousel. The rector of Stanford, and an affectionate Maltese. Exit a linguist and enter a dozen minuscule Pekingese with bells on, whose leashes keep getting entangled. Here is the guy from McGeary, too. When he goes out, a woman with a Doberman comes in. In the moment of a mad wish, I see the dog throw itself on the man — fangs bared, growling fearfully. The dog is seized by a fit of rage. It leaps for the professor’s throat, and the man falls backwards. Lying there, he pleads with the animal that stands over him and threatens him. The owner of the dog strains at the leash, aided by the doorman. People pull back, as if from the scene of a crime. They jostle each other. When the professor makes a move to escape, the dog suddenly hurls itself forward. It sinks its teeth into the white neck. Screams and panic. The woman, terrified, lets go of the leash. The bystanders flee into the street or the adjoining rooms. The hotel employees entrench themselves behind the counters. The blood is soaked up by the rug as if by a sponge. One can no longer distinguish the harsh pants of the dog from those of the man. I alone remain calm, thank the Doberman as one thanks a waiter. To write: the vengeance of the vanquished. The man from McGeary does not realize what revenge I have just made him undergo. His thoughts are elsewhere. Probably he is figuring out how long it will take to get to the airport, or where to stop for dinner. He gets into a taxi. 
I see his livid, well-washed, unscathed neck. I tuck my feet up on the chair. I will not leave Washington.

  • childhood
  • post-war generation
  • identity
  • 1968
  • homosexuality
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  • primal scene
  • autobiography
  • youth
  • National Socialism
  • emigration
  • migration
  • memory
  • trauma
  • post-war period

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Reiner Schürmann

Reiner Schürmann

(1941–93) was a German philosopher. He was born in Amsterdam and lived in Germany, Israel, and France before immigrating to the United States in the 1970s, where he was professor and director of the Department of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. He is the author of three books on philosophy: Heidegger on Being and Acting, Wandering Joy, and Broken Hegemonies. Origins is his only work of fiction. He never wrote nor published in his native German.
Other texts by Reiner Schürmann for DIAPHANES
Reiner Schürmann: Origins

Reiner Schürmann


Translated by Elizabeth Preston

Softcover, 272 pages


“Born too late to see the war and too early to forget it.” So writes Reiner Schürmann in Origins, a startlingly personal account of life as a young man from postwar Germany in the 1960s. Schürmann’s semi-autobiographical protagonist is incapable of escaping a past he never consciously experienced. All around him are barely concealed reminders of Nazi-inflicted death and destruction. His own experiences of displacement and rootlessness, too, are the burden of a cruel collective past. His story presents itself as a continuous quest for—and struggle to free himself from—his origins. The hero is haunted relentlessly by his fractured identity—in his childhood at his father’s factory, where he learns of the Nazi past through a horrible discovery; in an Israeli kibbutz, where, after a few months of happiness, he is thrown out for being a German; in postwar Freiburg, where he reencounters a friend who escaped the Nazi concentration camps; and finally, in the United States, where his attempts at a fresh start almost fail to exorcise the ghosts of the past.

Originally published in French in 1976, Origins was the winner of the coveted Prix Broquette-Gonin of the Académie Francaise. In close collaboration with the author, this translation was created in the early 1990s, but Schürmann’s premature death in 1993 prevented its publication process and, as a result, one of the most important literary accounts of the conflicted process of coming to terms with the Holocaust and Germany’s Nazi past has been unavailable to English readers until now. Candid and frank, filled with fury and caustic sarcasm, Origins offers insight into a generation caught between disappointment and rage, alignment and rebellion, guilt and obsession with the past.

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