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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Christmas of the Grotesques. By John von Daler

                    The politicians came on board two by two, talking, laughing, tweeting, iphoning, texting and facebooking. Next to the gangplank stood the man everyone called "Dangerous Dan". He was the captain of a little ferry that plied the inland waters of Northen Denmark, way away from Copenhagen, New York and other news centers. Locally, the news reporting was about weather, harvests, tides and taxes.

                Dan was known for his shenanigans and actually that was what had drawn all these well-known people to his boat on this Christmas Eve; they were all on their ways to visit families of their own here in Jutland, so they had found it easy enough to say yes to his invitation just to sail a while and eat a meal with him. They all needed the support of these backwater communities and Dan's notoriety was enough to get out the local press when they heard that he would be sailing with all these famous people. Cameras and television trucks had filled the docks while everyone was going on board. Then he pulled up the plank, drew in the ropes, and pushed off from the dock.  The television people went home for Christmas.
                As his partner piloted the ferry out of the tiny harbor, Dan ushered his guests down into the dark little room beneath the deck where two tables had been set up side by side. On them were plates, glasses, beer, snaps and lots and lots of bowls of pickled herring. The politicians quickly sat down; there was not room enough here to stand around. Dan took all their coats and communication devices and locked them away in a steal cabinet in the corner, all the while teasing them with threats that, Nobody gets telephone calls, messages or seasick on board the good ferry Happy Times! Soon they were lustily munching on the good, Danish rye bread covered with herring while drinking beer and just one (or two) snaps to celebrate the season, as the ferry putt-putted its way around the inland sea.
                After a half an hour Dan got up, as he said, just to check how things were going on deck with his partner. The politicians, even though they were from parties with very different political views, loved to sit and exchange tall tales - and today was a great opportunity. The salt, sea air made them feel invigorated, healthy, back to their roots. As their talk crescendoed, no one noticed that the motor on the ferry no longer said putt-putt.
                All of a sudden a kind of loud, crackly sound began to come out of a little brown loudspeaker nailed to a beam in one corner of the little room. It hung over the oval window out of which one could see the gray skies and green waters surrounding the boat. As they looked in the direction of the disturbing noise they could have noticed, but did not, that the boat was making almost no headway.
                After a minute or so of heavy static a kind of mechanical, distorted voice eminated from the loudspeaker. It was Dan.
                "Merry Christmas", Dan said. "You may be wondering what happened to me. Well, I went up on deck to steer this boat. And you see, there ain't much to steer, because the motor has just broken down. Now my partner and I are going to try to repair the damn thing. And we want you to be pleasantly occupied while we get that job done. Come to think of it, that's not a bad thought for people - like yourselves - who steer our whole country in real life: pilots should want their passengers to be pleasantly occupied while being sailed around."
                The politicians below deck started to look at each other. This was not the kind of speech they were used to hearing.
                "Now I want you to have a good old time down there. And I want to give you something to talk about while we are waiting..." and here the politicians started getting up from their seats. They had secretaries to call, families to contact, newspapers to inform. But Dan just went on, "...and you will be waiting because your communication devices are locked up in the world's best cabinet and I think I even may have accidently locked the door to the deck on the way up." Here one of them tried climbing up the ladder to the door and, sure enough, it was locked.
                "I though that before I use my limited mechanical knowledge to try to start that old motor I might read something for you. It's something I always have wanted you to hear. Some of you may even know it. I can read it now and then while I get this boat started again, maybe you could think about it ---- or ---- maybe you might even get to talking about it. At any rate, there's plenty of beer, snaps, bread and herring."
                "The passage I want to read for you was written by a kindred spirit, an American, I fancy him a country boy just like me. He knew a lot about people, at any rate. Let me read for you part of the introduction to his book called "Winesburg, Ohio". It's writing that'll sizzle your gizzard:

The old writer, like all of the people in the world, had got, during his long life, a great many notions in his head. He had once been quite handsome and a number of women had been in love with him. And then, of course, he had known people, many people, known them in a peculiarly intimate way that was different from the way in which you and I know people. At least that is what the writer thought and the thought pleased him. Why quarrel with an old man concerning his thoughts?

In the bed the writer had a dream that was not a dream. As he grew somewhat sleepy but was still conscious, figures began to appear before his eyes. He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes.

  You see the interest in all this lies in the figures that went before the eyes of the writer. They were all grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques.

  The grotesques were not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful, and one, a woman all drawn out of shape, hurt the old man by her grotesqueness. When she passed he made a noise like a small dog whimpering. Had you come into the room you might have supposed the old man had unpleasant dreams or perhaps indigestion.

For an hour the procession of grotesques passed before the eyes of the old man, and then, although it was a painful thing to do, he crept out of bed and began to write. Some one of the grotesques had made a deep impression on his mind and he wanted to describe it.

  At his desk the writer worked for an hour. In the end he wrote a book which he called “The Book of the Grotesque.” It was never published, but I saw it once and it made an indelible impression on my mind. The book had one central thought that is very strange and has always remained with me. By remembering it I have been able to understand many people and things that I was never able to understand before. The thought was involved but a simple statement of it would be something like this:

  That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.

  The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.
And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

  It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.

  You can see for yourself how the old man, who had spent all of his life writing and was filled with words, would write hundreds of pages concerning this matter. The subject would become so big in his mind that he himself would be in danger of becoming a grotesque. He didn’t, I suppose, for the same reason that he never published the book. It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man.
               Dan stopped reading. Everything was quiet below deck as much as above. A little crackling from the loudspeaker was all that could be heard. The politicians sat in their places. Some looked annoyed, others were moved, others were laughing, and still more were just staring into space: that happens sometimes when you read something out loud.
             Dan came back on the microphone. "I'll come down when everything is fixed. Might take some hours. Talk together, eat and drink...and think," he said. "And by the way, Merry Christmas!" Then the crackling stopped.


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