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Adam’s Umbrella

Although you’ve never read Wittgenstein, you worship him. Although you didn’t understand Hegel, you worship him, too. The same goes for Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. You owe this not only to your status as an academic, but also to your conviction that Ideas, especially philosophical ones, are a necessary corrective to the disgusting lives we’re sometimes forced to lead. The idea that philosophy could inspire one such life, organize it, and defend it as ideal seems blasphemous to you. I assure you, however, that something just like that is what’s going on. Your naive conviction (we’ll see how naive it really is) that thinking philosophically means secluding oneself from reality and absolving oneself of all responsibility in connection with it—and that such seclusion is the condition sine qua non of every unbiased philosophical view—stems from an insidious wish, camouflaged in a general independence of the intellect, to disavow any responsibility for this world, whereby your harmlessness acquires a completely different meaning…. The thought that logical speculations could be connected in any way with beatings and the mutilation of people’s souls seems to you to be a monstrous injustice—not against the people but against the speculations.

On a mundane level, Rutkowski’s story goes like this. He was born in 1916 in a region of Yugoslavia called Banat, formerly a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where his German ancestors settled in the fifteenth century. His father was a moderately well-off farmer. Rutkowski studied medieval history at the University of Heidelberg between 1934 and 1938 and received his doctorate there in 1940. The subject of his thesis was German-Polish relations before the Reformation. He returned home and began teaching in grammar school in a town near Belgrade. When the war came, he failed to respond to the mobilization call to the Yugoslav army and soon after the arrival of German troops in April of 1941, became a member of the SS and eventually a Gestapo officer.

He carried out his police duties in Belgrade, except for temporary assignments in D. on the Adriatic coast and later in a town in Slovenia. Following both of these periods of service, he spent time in military hospitals suffering from extreme nervous exhaustion. When the war ended, he was subject to criminal proceedings by the Allied military authorities and sentenced to what was then known as work rehabilitation, following which he spent two years without steady employment until his former professor at Heidelberg brought him as a lecturer to the university and his academic career flourished.

The special operation in D. with which his letters are concerned occurs in 1943, when, following the capitulation of Italy, which had been occupying the Dalmatian coast, the German army and police moved into the region. Rutkowski is a member of a small unit led by an old Nazi Party member and experienced Gestapo investigator, a certain Standartenführer Steinbrecher, whose mission is to take over the police station and the duties the Italians performed until recently. As they are moving into their new quarters, Steinbrecher lectures Rutkowski on the complexities of police work in an occupied state. His ideas are terrifying. He sounds to me like a brilliant follower of the philosopher Carl Schmitt, who took his anti-liberal philosophy of the state to its logical conclusions. In Steinbrecher’s view, as in Schmitt’s, a strong, healthy state must have perpetual adversaries. Enemies are the bolts that hold the machinery of the state together. Mutual suspicion, the covert desire of human beings to snitch on each other, ought to be encouraged. Since universal spying and denunciation are going to be the rule in the future, there’ll always be plenty of work for cops to do. Police will only become unnecessary if every human being on earth becomes a policeman.

Even the famous incident in the Garden of Eden ought to be studied for what it can teach us about running a state. Forbidding the fruit to be taken from one tree, fruit completely indistinguishable from the fruit in any other tree, could have had as its goal only the enthronement of prohibition as such to test its effects on people. Plucking fruit from that tree in particular proved that this was not a matter of an ordinary theft, but a premeditated act violating divine order and thus an act of rebellion. According to Steinbrecher, the original sin was the first political crime. The craving to violate the prohibition and to disturb the established order, the conspiracy of a particular man and woman with that as its goal (abetment and solicitation), the participation of the serpent as an agent provocateur and probable informer, makes it so. Finally one person, God, appears in every legal guise—as legislator, investigator, prosecutor, judge, and even the one who administers punishment in the end. Vishinsky, Stalin’s infamous prosecutor in the 1930s who argued that there is no difference between the intention and the crime, would have agreed with that view. Adam and Eve should have confessed and asked for forgiveness long before they reached for the apple in the tree.

A few days after they move to D., the Germans discover in the cellar of the police station a middle-aged prisoner left behind by the Italians. The file clerk Adam Trpkoviå«c, they find, was arrested for failing to salute the flag while passing the town hall and was subsequently forgotten by the Italians, who left in a hurry. He has survived by eating tangerines intended for the black market that were also in the cellar. To the great astonishment of the Germans, he still has with him his umbrella. They don’t know what to do with him. They want to let him go, but the presence of that umbrella puzzles them and creates bureaucratic difficulties when it comes to filling out the forms for his official release. How are they to account for it? They can’t. As one would expect, once Steinbrecher learns of the situation, he has a different view. Why shouldn’t we begin our police work with him? he asks, even though he is ready to agree that the file clerk is an insignificant nobody. Nonetheless, he’s a member of an enemy nation, and that is a sufficient reason to take a further look into his background. Rutkowski has no comment, but he’s horrified. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he still holds on to the belief that their duty is to learn the truth. His commanding officer sets him straight:

The truth? My foot! What are we, a bunch of goddamned philosophers or something? We make truths, Obersturmführer Rutkowski! We don’t learn them, we make them! That’s a creative endeavor, not an investigative one. We’re artists, my dear sir…. I’d say poets.

Rutkowski pretends to himself that he can find a way to help the clerk. For Pekiå«c, he has the intellectual’s special ability to ignore evil by explaining it away. His unhappiness comes from his dim awareness that he is a hypocrite. In the end, he does nothing to help the innocent man. He who acts, he consoles himself, has no time for balances and scales. Rutkowski needs his “although,” “maybe,” and “on the other hand” to conceal his cowardice from himself. Steinbrecher, suspecting his ambivalence, assigns him to be the one who questions the clerk. He even provides him with the transcript of one of his own prized interrogations for guidance. The full text, included in the appendix of the novel, is worth studying closely for the way in which an extraordinarily logical mind can be an instrument of iniquity.

A man can dodge even bullets, but not logic,” Pekiå«c writes. The task of the interrogator is to make the prisoner accept reason in place of reality and assume full responsibility for probable events that in truth never happened. Reality is a sin against reason for which the prisoner has to pay with his life. Chance is illogical, therefore it cannot and must not exist. In principle, it is always possible to show that it is more logical for something to have happened than not. One may say that philosophically it is necessary that everything be intentional; otherwise there can be no meaning. Because no such thing as coincidence can exist, there are also no mitigating circumstances. All circumstances in which one finds oneself are by their very nature aggravating. When our mothers warned us that someone who lies will also steal, that a thief will also commit murder, and that a murderer will end up on the gallows, they were giving expression to a view that a policeman of Steinbrecher’s school can only confirm from his practice.

The clerk he is questioning through the night is not cooperating with Rutkowski. He barely replies, doesn’t appreciate that his interrogator is suffering morally for his sake, and appears resigned to his fate. Even more infuriatingly, he is still clutching his ridiculous umbrella which no one, for some unknown, superstitious reason, dares to take away from him. How the memory of the clerk, Adam Trpkoviå«c, comes to haunt Rutkowski and becomes his vampire is the story of the letters. Writing to his brother-in-law in the hope that words can cancel the deeds, he seeks a compromise between suicide and apathy. In truth, his letters for the most part are a labored attempt to dodge responsibility and give a different explanation for his gutlessness.

Can you recognize in Steinbrecher’s linguistic jeremiad the semantic longings of Rudolph Carnap?” he writes to his brother-in-law, who, unknown to him, hasn’t even bothered to read the letters. Pekiå«c calls How to Quiet a Vampire “a sotie,” deriving the term from satirical popular plays in France in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in which a company of sots, fools, exchanged badinage on contemporary persons and events. It is a grim comedy about what happens to philosophical ideas when they end up in a police cellar. “Knowledge is the prerequisite for all evil,” Steinbrecher says. Ignorance can be wicked when it gets the chance, but crime on a large scale comes from the learned. Pekiå«c reminds us that respected scientists were asked for technical assistance to solve the problem of how to burn the most human bodies in the shortest time with the lowest expenditure in death camps. Rutkowski, as much as he denies it, is an intellectual monster himself. Once he comes to that realization, his solution to how to get rid of his remorse is equally hideous. He writes in the next to the last letter:

The problem wasn’t finding the key to my past—which was what I was passionately trying to do in my letters—but to find the one to my future. Tomorrow is what makes me human; yesterday is what makes me a corpse. The mistake was reviving something I should have taken long ago and buried forever. Our problem is not how to revive, but how to quiet our vampires. The past is a vampire and the real question is how to quiet it forever. We don’t have a third option. Either we drive a stake through the vampire’s heart or our blood is soon completely sucked dry. In order to achieve the former, we must for once begin with the excretion of the poisonous spirit of intellectual analysis from our lives.

For a short book, How to Quiet a Vampire has a complicated plot which I’ve barely sketched out. On one level, it is a psychological study of a descent into madness of an intellectual who in his ideas gradually begins to turn into an apologist for a brutal authoritarian state with its martyrs of destruction and saints of demolition. The story of the file clerk also takes many unexpected turns. He appears to Rutkowski as a ghost and perhaps even as the devil himself; his execution by hanging turns out to be a kind of mock crucifixion and resurrection. In my opinion, the realistic and fantastic aspects of the narrative are not as well intermixed as they are in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, which undoubtedly was one of Pekiå«c’s models. He strives to inflate the clerk and the guilt-ridden professor of history into even more universal symbols after it had become unnecessary to do so. Leaving some of the subplots and commentaries out—and that includes most of the appendix—would have made a brilliant novel into a great one.

For Pekiå«c, history is not to be understood as created by Hitler, Stalin, and all the countless lesser-known executioners who do their killing. Rutkowski and Adam Trpkoviå«c are more revealing of the history of our time: the one who supposedly knows better, but closes his eyes, and the one who pays with his life for that negligence. There was nothing suspicious about this wretch, nothing incomprehensible except his umbrella, Rutkowski writes. Nevertheless, Steinbrecher orders that the clerk be hung with it. “Do you sense the advantage of farce over all other forms of human humiliation?” he tells Rutkowski. “Farce kills truth, destroys faith, ridicules every feat of heroism. Can someone be a hero in his underwear while holding an umbrella?” Not even Achilles could have managed that, Steinbrecher says. The reader of How to Quiet a Vampire will disagree. The funny little man who carries an umbrella in one hand while holding on to his shorts with the other as he is being led to the gallows is the only true hero in a tragic farce.

Northwestern University Press should be commended for its series Writings from an Unbound Europe, in which Pekiå«c’s novels and dozens of other first-rate works of fiction in translation from the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe have appeared and continue to appear.

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