It was around this time that I began to get bored. Not with Warsaw, but with the story, and I decided to smash it up somewhat. As with most things in my life, my imagination seems to tire easily from the pressure of sustained concentration. Spontaneous combustion seems the only way to kickstart my imagination into gear.
So with that in mind, my editor Yankl Musernik died in a fire that destroyed Der Trakhtner and every member of its staff except for myself and Shaya, who were visiting Gizl for the first time since our respective departures. It was the day after Simchas Torah 1896 when Shaya and I learned that we were without jobs and nearly friendless - it is a new beginning for us in this enormous city which seemed so small only a month earlier.
We temporarily move into Rivke’s apartment. But she cannot support us on her salary and the first day she comes home she sees us reading on the courch she immediately screams at us to get off. In spite of some newfound Communist agitator friends, Shaya decides that it would behoove him to find a good living by becoming a kosher butcher. I, on the other hand, am teaching myself the rudiments of French so that I can make my way to Paris.
Rivke is abusing me nightly when she comes home from work. She’s correct to do so, as I’ve refused to get a new job and have no plans to do so in the near future. I nightly tell her that tomorrow shall be the day, and then I spend the days reading in Praga Park, which is nearly empty since the opening of Ujazdow. These days, she seems to be far more comfortable with Shaya than she does with me. I know what’s coming, if it hasn’t happened already. All the same, I’d be curiously fine with it. My future is not here, and if I am still in Warsaw when they tell me what’s transpired, I will have far larger problems than Rivke.
I am utterly disgusted with Warsaw; the threats of violence and coarse laughter of drunk Poles in the streets, the constant smell of sausage and dogshit, the French fashions of the upper class, the presence of the Russian police at every establishment. It feels like a city trying to deny the precariousness of its position, and failing miserably.
Shortly after my expulsion from the self-proclaimed paradise of Der Trakhtner, a letter came from me with a French stamp and a return address in Paris. I eagerly tear it open to read the following letter:
I apologize for my poor Yiddish, a language for which my use is purely scholastic. However, I must tell you that I was utterly heartened to finally read a reviewer who understands me. I warmed greatly to all your praise and your critiques of the book mirrored my own perfectly. While I realize that inferring the moral character of writers from their output is a groundless pursuit, I still felt that the offense which writers such as Nietzsche and Ibsen give to common sense merits a sufficient rebuttal which not a single writer in Europe is yet willing to offer. In this quest, ad hominem attacks are unfortunately necessary. I hope that through my example, others will become similarly brave so that we may stop a civilization from falling into terrible morass. Criticism must always be personal, or nothing worth.
Furthermore, it is quite telling that much of the Yiddish world is so receptive to influences like Schopenhauer and Marx who personify the very egocentricity of which I warn. I fled Budapest nearly a quarter-century ago because it is a city, much like Warsaw, which wishes nothing more than to be accepted as the equal of a culture which has no greater desire than to destroy everything it has built. To be accepted by these people would mean to be destroyed with them.
Please write back and let me know some of your own projects. Surely you must have them. You have enormous potential as a thinker in your own right and I would be happy to aid your progress in any way I can.
Dr. Max Nordau
For nine months, Dr. Nordau and I have maintained a voluminous correspondance. Barely a day goes by without a fifteen page letter from him. I try to answer back as often as possible, but even in my current state of inertia I get at least two letters from him for every one I write back, and all of them far longer than any response.
Nordau is a keen mind possessing a hair-raising erudition in volumes both Jewish and Gentile, and contempt for nearly all of both. There is not a single book which escapes his attention, and barely a single book of which he seems fond. For a man so devoted to the life of the mind, he seems to see little value in what he does. Instead, he professes a fanatical devotion to the most time-honored notions: family, marriage, community, small pleasures, common good, common persistence, the necessity of compromise and the acceptance of what fate bequeaths. So devoted is he to tradition that I can’t help but wonder why he devotes so much energy to the new intellectual trends he loathes (though I don’t dare put that in a letter).
Every one of his letters to me includes obsessive diatribes about some element of contemporary perversion. I’ve gotten pages long denunciations of famous artists, many of whom I know less than nothing about. In these letters I count lacerations of Tolstoy, Liszt, Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Lessing, Fichte, Marx, Feuerbach, Stirner, Kierkegaard, Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Mallarme, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Hugo, Gautier, Dumas, Maupassant, Whitman, Blake, Ruskin, Swinburne, Wilde and the Rosettis that go on for at least seven or eight pages each. I read long, multi-letter denunciations of how Jews have betrayed the Haskalah, how Jews want nothing more than to live as slovenly as Goyim, how the Yiddish revival is an embarrassing joke perpetrated by quacks afraid of the larger world, how contemporary Paris is a disgusting corruption of the French Revolution’s ideals, how contemporary art is an excuse for voyeurism, how the very concept of fashion is an idea grounded upon a vicious lie, how alcohol and drugs are destroying the minds of youth, how pseudo-oriental mysticism is corrupting the minds of students, how the sociopaths of society masquerade as artists and convince the world to honor them for their sins, and how mass suicide will be the end result of an epoch whose torpor remains unchecked. But then there were his derogations of Wagner, Ibsen, Zola and Nietzsche which go on for forty pages each; with not a single repeated insight or citation one can find in ‘Degeneration.’
He details his loves just as obsessively; discussing his interpretations of Goethe, Heine and Shakespeare at length and the finer points of Schlegel’s German mistranslations of Hamlet. He copies out his favorite passages from Dostoevsky and Turgenev for me by hand in the original Russian and personally translates his favorite excerpts of Voltaire, Diderot, Racine, Stendhal, Montaigne, Flaubert, Balzac, Cervantes, Dante, Tasso, Spencer, Milton, Richardson, Fielding, Thackeray, Darwin, Mill and Locke into German. He sends me postcard prints of Leonardo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Valdez, Callot, Zurbaran, and Breughel. He sent me piano reductions of some Beethoven and Mozart. One day a package arrived with a vocal score of a new Italian opera called ‘Cavalleria Rusticana.’ In my next letter I finally summoned the courage to tell him that I neither learned to read music nor played the piano. A package arrived three days afterward, inside lay a textbook of music notation.
His discourse can turn to other humane subjects as well. As a doctor he clearly has a particular interest in biology which he details all too lovingly. He writes me that he has grown particularly obsessed with neurology and occupies himself with the idea that the stimuli of the modern world is rotting our brains.
I’ve grown both fascinated and exhausted by his regular stream of opinions. Every one of them seems a masterpiece of categorical resentment. Pronouncement after pronouncement he issues in a way that is utterly predictable at the same time that one has to marvel that he has stayed so consistent in his refusal to deviate an inch from his belief system. This man is a magnificent tyrant of thought from whom there is as much to learn as fear.
Shortly before has invited me to stay with him in Paris for as long as I like and assures me that a Jew in Paris can get by perfectly well speaking German. I can’t say that I’m overwhelmed with excitement. Nordau is hardly an idiot, but the very presence of his letters feels suffocating. He is hardly a man without humor but his beliefs are so intense that it would seem impossible to think independently in his presence. Sometimes I wonder if he’s aware that other people have the capacity for thought. Clearly, he has a far greater interest in telling you what he thinks than in listening to you. Even so, much of his own thought is powerful indeed. He is only in his mid-40’s and I very much believe in the potential for him to be a thinker who can lay the foundations of twentieth-century philosophy as powerfully as Kant did for the nineteenth. I have nothing better to do than to learn at the feet of a master, and even if Nordau flatters me to gratify himself, he clearly sees enough promise to think me a potential disciple.
Nordau’s coachman picks me up at Gare D’Austerlitz train station brings me to Nordau’s house in Le Marais. This driver can’t be more than fifteen and he speaks to me in an extremely plush Viennese German. He issues me into the car, and I am far too exhausted to even look out the window.
When we stop, he wakes me up and insists upon unloading my bags as though I am a proper French gentleman. As he unloads, I get out of the coach and another adolescent opens the door to tell me that Herr Doktor Nordau is making a house call and shall return momentarily. He beckons me over to the door and tells me to have a seat in the parlour room before Herr Doktor returns
As I walk from a plusher hallway than I’ve ever seen into the parlour room, I quickly realize that there is nowhere to sit. There are four children who are dusting the floors, sofas, frames, and walls. Frankly, I can barely breathe and since I left Warsaw I’ve found myself fitfully coughing as I’d only ever seen my Uncle Herman do.
As promised, Herr Doktor breezes into the room. The children immediately stand at attention, he puts a finger over each wall, each frame, each sofa, and the floor. He whispers a comment to one of the boys and tells them all to leave the room - which they do immediately.
Nordau turns his attention to me and smiles wistfully,
“Children...They’re like small criminals unless ruled with an iron hand.”
“You never mentioned any opinions on children in your letters.”
“You’re exactly as I imagined you Herr Charlap. A ball of intellectual energy waiting to be unleashed. In these walls you shall find the liberation for which you have searched.”
It was at this moment that I felt a wave of exhaustion overcome me. Dr. Nordau must immediately perceive the water in my eyes.
“Oh no. You cannot be tired. I have a wonderful evening planned for us. We shall be dining at the Braunsteins tonight. Your attire is upstairs. Please be ready in forty-five minutes."
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