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Jorge Luis Borges – Deutsches Requiem

Song Info: Presenting you Jorge Luis Borges – Deutsches Requiem.

Jorge Luis Borges – Deutsches Requiem

My name is Otto Dietrich zur Linde. One of my forebears, Christoph zur Linde, died in the cavalry charge that decided the victory of Zorndorf. During the last days of 1870, my maternal great-grandfather, Ulrich Forkel, was killed in the Marchenoir forest by French sharpshooters; Captain Dietrich zur Linde, my father, distinguished himself in 1914 at the siege of Namur, and again two years later in the crossing of the Danube. [1]

As for myself, I am to be shot as a torturer and a murderer. The court has acted rightly; from the first, I have confessed my guilt. Tomorrow, by the time the prison clock strikes nine, I shall have entered the realms of death; it is natural that I should think of my elders, since I am come so near their shadow—since, somehow, I am they.

During the trial (which fortunately was short) I did not speak; to explain myself at that point would have put obstacles in the way of the verdict and made me appear cowardly. Now things have changed; on this night that precedes my execution, I can speak without fear. I have no desire to be pardoned, for I feel no guilt, but I do wish to be understood. Those who heed my words shall understand the history of Germany and the future history of the world. I know that cases such as mine, exceptional and shocking now, will very soon be unremarkable. Tomorrow I shall die, but I am a symbol of the generations to come.

I was born in Marienburg in 1908. Two passions, music and metaphysics, now almost forgotten, allowed me to face many terrible years with bravery and even happiness. I cannot list all my benefactors, but there are two names I cannot allow myself to omit: Brahms and Schopenhauer. Frequently, I also repaired to poetry; to those two names, then, I would add another colossal Germanic name: William Shakespeare. Early on, theology had held some interest for me, but I was forever turned from that fantastic discipline (and from Christianity) by Schopenhauer with his direct arguments and Shakespeare and Brahms with the infinite variety of their worlds. I wish anyone who is held in awe and wonder, quivering with tenderness and gratitude, transfixed by some passage in the work of these blessed men—anyone so touched—to know that I too was once transfixed like them — I the abominable.

Nietzsche and Spengler entered my life in 1927. A certain eighteenth-century author observes that no man wants to owe anything to his contemporaries; in order to free myself from an influence that I sensed to be oppressive, I wrote an article titled “Abrechnung mit Spengler”, wherein I pointed out that the most unequivocal monument to those characteristics that the author called Faustian was not Goethe’s miscellaneous drama [2] but rather a poem written twenty centuries ago, the De rerum natura. I did, however, give just due to the sincerity of our philosopher of history, his radically German (kerndeutsch) and military spirit. In 1929 I joined the party.

I shall say little about my years of apprenticeship. They were harder for me than for many others, for in spite of the fact that I did not lack valor, I felt no calling for violence. I did, however, realize that we were on the threshold of a new age, and that that new age, like the first years of Islam or Christianity, demanded new men. As individuals, my comrades were odious to me; I strove in vain to convince myself that for the high cause that had brought us all together, we were not individuals.

Theologians claim that if the Lord’s attention were to stray for even one second from my right hand, which is now writing, that hand would be plunged into nothingness, as though it had been annihilated by a lightless fire. No one can exist, say I, no one can sip a glass of water or cut off a piece of bread, without justification. That justification is different for every man; I awaited the inexorable war that would test our faith. It was enough for me to know that I would be a soldier in its battles. I once feared that we would be disappointed by the cowardice of England and Russia. Chance (or destiny) wove a different future for me—on March 1, 1939, at nightfall, there were riots in Tilsit, which the newspapers did not report; in the street behind the synagogue, two bullets pierced my leg, and it had to be amputated. [3]

Days later, our armies entered Bohemia; when the sirens announced the news, I was in that sedentary hospital, trying to lose myself, forget myself, in the books of Schopenhauer. On the windowsill slept a massive, obese cat — the symbol of my vain destiny.

In the first volume of Parerga und Paralipomena, I read once more that all things that can occur to a man, from the moment of his birth to the moment of his death, have been predetermined by him. Thus, all inadvertence is deliberate, every casual encounter is an engagement made beforehand, every humiliation is an act of penitence, every failure a mysterious victory, every death a suicide. There is no more cunning consolation than the thought that we have chosen our own misfortunes; that individual theology reveals a secret order, and in a marvelous way confuses ourselves with the deity. What unknown purpose (I thought) had made me seek out that evening, those bullets, this mutilation? Not the fear of war—I knew that; something deeper. At last I believed I understood. To die for a religion is simpler than living that religion fully; battling savage beasts in Ephesus is less difficult (thousands of obscure martyrs did it) than being Paul, the servant of Jesus Christ; a single act is quicker than all the hours of a man. The battle and the glory are easy; Raskolnikov’s undertaking was more difficult than Napoleon’s. On February 7, 1941, I was made subdirector of the Tarnowitz concentration camp.

Carrying out the duties attendant on that position was not something I enjoyed, but I never sinned by omission. The coward proves himself among swords; the merciful man, the compassionate man, seeks to be tested by jails and others’ pain. Nazism is intrinsically a moral act, a stripping away of the old man, which is corrupt and depraved, in order to put on the new. In battle, amid the captains’ outcries and the shouting, such a transformation is common; it is not common in a crude dungeon, where insidious compassion tempts us with ancient acts of tenderness. I do not write that word “compassion” lightly: compassion on the part of the superior man is Zarathustra’s ultimate sin. I myself (I confess) almost committed it when the famous poet David Jerusalem was sent to us from Breslau.

Jerusalem was a man of fifty; poor in the things of this world, persecuted, denied, calumniated, he had consecrated his genius to hymns of happiness. I think I recall that in the Dichtung der Zeit, Albert Sörgel compared him to Whitman. It is not a happy comparison: Whitman celebrates the universe a priori, in a way that is general and virtually indifferent; Jerusalem takes delight in every smallest thing, with meticulous and painstaking love. He never stoops to enumerations, catalogs. I can still recite many hexameters from that profound poem titled “Tse Yang, Painter of Tigers,” which is virtually striped with tigers, piled high with transversal, silent tigers, riddled through and through with tigers. Nor shall I ever forget the soliloquy”Rosenkranz Talks with the Angel,” in which a sixteenth-century London moneylender tries in vain, as he is dying, to exculpate himself, never suspecting that the secret justification for his life is that he has inspired one of his clients (who has seen him only once, and has no memory even of that) to create the character Shylock. A man of memorable eyes, sallow skin, and a beard that was almost black, David Jerusalem was the prototypical Sephardic Jew, although he belonged to the depraved and hated Ashkenazim. I was severe with him; I let neither compassion nor his fame make me soft. I had realized many years before I met David Jerusalem that everything in the world can be the seed of a possible hell; a face, a word, a compass, an advertisement for cigarettes—anything can drive a person insane if that person cannot manage to put it out of his mind. Wouldn’t a man be mad if he constantly had before his mind’s eye the map of Hungary? I decided to apply this principle to the disciplinary regimen of our house, and… [4] In late 1942, Jerusalem went insane; on March 1, 1943, he succeeded in killing himself.[5]

I do not know whether Jerusalem understood that if I destroyed him, it was in order to destroy my own compassion. In my eyes, he was not a man, not even a Jew; he had become a symbol of a detested region of my soul. I suffered with him, I died with him, I somehow have been lost with him; that was why I was implacable.

Meanwhile, the grand days and grand nights of a thrilling war washed over us. In the air we breathed there was an emotion that resembled love. As though the ocean were suddenly nearby, there was a tonic and an exultation in the blood. In those years, everything was different—even the taste of one’s sleep. (I may never have been happy, but it is common knowledge that misery requires paradises lost.) There is no man who does not long for plenitude—the sum of the experiences of which a man is capable; there is no man who does not fear being defrauded of a part of that infinite inheritance. But my generation has had it all, for first it was given glory, and then defeat.

In October or November of 1942, my brother Friedrich died in the second Battle of El Alamein, on the Egyptian sands; months later, an aerial bombardment destroyed the house we had been born in; another, in late 1943, destroyed my laboratory. Hounded across vast continents, the Third Reich was dying; its hand was against all men, and all men’s hands against it. Then, something remarkable happened, and now I think I understand it. I believed myself capable of drinking dry the cup of wrath, but when I came to the dregs I was stopped by an unexpected flavor—the mysterious and almost horrific taste of happiness. I tested several explanations; none satisfied me. I feel a contentment in defeat, I reflected, because secretly I know my own guilt, and only punishment can redeem me. Then I feel a contentment in defeat, I reflected, simply because defeat has come, because it is infinitely connected to all the acts that are, that were, and that shall be, because to censure or deplore a single real act is to blaspheme against the universe. I tested those arguments, as I say, and at last I came to the true one.

It has been said that all men are born either Aristotelians or Platonists. That is equivalent to saying that there is no debate of an abstract nature that is not an instance of the debate between Aristotle and Plato.

Down through the centuries and latitudes, the names change, the dialects, the faces, but not the eternal antagonists. Likewise, the history of nations records a secret continuity. When Arminius slaughtered the legions of Varus in a swamp, when he slashed their throats, he did not know that he was a forerunner of a German Empire; Luther, the translator of the Bible, never suspected that his destiny would be to forge a nation that would destroy the Bible forever; Christoph zur Linde, killed by a Muscovite bullet in 1758, somehow set the stage for the victories of 1914; Hitler thought he was fighting for a nation, but he was fighting for all nations, even for those he attacked and abominated. It does not matter that his ego was unaware of that; his blood, his will, knew. The world was dying of Judaism, and of that disease of Judaism that is belief in Christ; we proffered it violence and faith in the sword. That sword killed us, and we are like the wizard who weaves a labyrinth and is forced to wander through it till the end of his days, or like David, who sits in judgment on a stranger and sentences him to death, and then hears the revelation: Thou art that man. There are many things that must be destroyed in order to build the new order; now we know that Germany was one of them. We have given something more than our lives; we have given the life of our beloved nation. Let others curse and others weep; I rejoice in the fact that our gift is orbicular and perfect.

Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age, we who are now its victim. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules. If victory and injustice and happiness do not belong to Germany, let them belong to other nations. Let heaven exist, though our place be in hell.

I look at my face in the mirror in order to know who I am, in order to know how I shall comport myself within a few hours, when I face the end. My flesh may feel fear; I myself do not.

[1] It is significant that zur Linde has omitted his most illustrious forebear, the theologian and Hebraist Johannes Forkel (1799-1846), who applied Hegel’s dialectics to Christology and whose literal translation of some of the Apocrypha earned him the censure of Hengstenberg and the praise of Thilo and Gesenius. [Ed.]

[2] Other nations live naively, in and for themselves, like minerals or meteors; Germany is the universal mirror that receives all others—the conscience of the world (das Weltbewußtsein). Goethe is the prototype of that ecumenical mind. I do not criticize him, but I do not see him as the Faustian man of Spengler’s treatise.

[3] It is rumored that the wound had extremely serious consequences. [Ed.]

[4] Here, the excision of a number of lines has been unavoidable. [Ed.]

[5] In neither the files nor the published work of Sörgel does Jerusalem’s name appear. Nor does one find it in the histories of German literature. I do not, however, think that this is an invented figure. Many Jewish intellectuals were tortured in Tarnowitz on the orders of Otto Dietrichzur Linde, among them the pianist Emma Rosenzweig.”David Jerusalem” is perhaps a symbol for many individuals. We are told that he died on March 1, 1943; on March 1, 1939, the narrator had been wounded at Tilsit. [Ed.]

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