Seeking out the Alleyways...
At twenty-one, I went to a metropolis for the first time -- not the city in which I now live -- in order to begin my studies.
On the day of my arrival I took a look at the streets. It was raining. Everything was murky and dirty. The people all showed the same indifferent but hurried pace, one just like another. I felt myself overcome immediately by an inner barrenness. I stopped in front of a billboard to see where I might spend the evening. I read one poster that called for a meeting in favour of prohibition. A man came with a pastepot and brush and pasted a beer bottle poster over it.
Then suddenly I understood the significance of the mood that had taken possession of me since I arrived in this city: it was foolish to wish to improve human beings.
Disabled people stood to the right and left on the streets, yet no one had time to consider their misfortune. Women passed by and offered themselves and nobody showed pity or indignation. Suddenly it seemed to me almost astonishing that the shopkeepers did not come out of their shops to smash everything to pieces and shout, 'What does it matter?' But then I perceived that the only reason that people did not despair was because they were already too commonplace, too cunning, too thievish. They were entirely too much at home in these alleys.
And did I then despair? I must confess that I greedily sucked up the mood of this alley. With a shuddering lust for death I took in the certainty that everything was on the way to destruction. The people who met me bore the unmistakable signs of degeneration. The houses reeked of corruption. Even the gray sky seemed to drop something heavy and inevitable from its clouds.
This feeling grew stronger in me. In this state of soul i sought out almost unconsiounly darker and darker alleys. I went into courtyards full of refuse. I stared into windows and witnessed dreadful crimes. I read the notices that swindlers and procuresesses thrust into my hands. Finally, I climbed aboard one of the buses that roared with terrific power through the streets. I closed my eyes. The thundering noise rumbled through me like a hymn of death.
Suddennly the vehicle stopped. I stooper over and heard a few indifferent words. A child had run across the street, had been caught under a wheel and was carried away dead. We continued on our way.
From this moment on something within me was paralyzed. I could now see the horrible thing that this city was, and it no longer horrified, angered, or disgusted me. It seemed to me quite natural.
More: I had to laugh at anybody who wanted to change it.
Could a person move otherwise in this fever of hunger, thirst, and passions?
My father came from a family of pastors. He studied natural science and absorbed its results with great enthusiasm. It made him clear in thought, thorogouh, broad-minded and, in the truest sense of the word, human. He applied all his powers to the investigation of the sensory world. The supersensible did not interest him. At least, I learned nothing of it from him.
In my childhood I adopted his view of the world without investigating whether its theories might be one-sided, just as an admiring child recieves the truth from his father. But I did not yet possess his steadfastness of character that is acquired in the course of life, nor the religiousness he inherited from his ancestors, which he denied, but which was nonetheless in his nature. I did not have such a stock to live on. No pious practices were taught me in my youth that woudl have enriched and deepened my soul and could have worked on further in me.
Perhaps this is why the effect of scientific knowledge on me was different from what it was on my father. That inner inheritance prevented him from carrying over into life what he had attained as knowledge. In my case it was quite different; this single day had the effect of reversing, so to speak, the direction of my will.
My father confessed to an intellectual satisfaction when he reflected that the human being is dissipated after death and no longer exists. The certainty of this, and it seemed certain to me, evoked in me a sort of ecstatic impulse to self-destruction and, as a result, heartlessness and lust for crime.
That evening I had become empty, void of feeling, and cruel, and I did not say <em>No</em> to these characteristics. In the succeeding time I lived entirely without scruple. And just because my action arose not from an impulse that I was unable to master, but from a certain logic and strength of will, the effect on me was twice as disastrous. I knw this. I was absolutely wicked.
After a while a gentleman sat down opposite him whose face struck him because it bore an astonishing likeness to his own. It was pale, lean, smoothly shaven, but with somewhat more witch-like lines.
A peddlar came, put his glasses on his nose, untied a bundle of picture postcards and, with a sleight of hand rapidity, put them first before Arthur, then before the stranger all the while looking into the face of the one under whose nose he held them as if he might see his chances there. Arthur turned away in disgust. The stranger went through them carefully and selected about ten, which he put together and tore to pieces. 'These persons should not be given the opportunity to earn anything,' he said to Arthur. 'Of course he will order a double supply of those I purchased. They were the most dreadful of all. But I saw so many decent working class couples here that I was afraid he would show these cards to them.'
'How can anyone look at such pictures?' asked Arthur.
'Surrender yourself for a moment, without resistance, to the fumes in here, and you will see that figures take form in your soul whose movements are just as ugly as is depicted on the postcards. What are our places of entertainment today other than hells? You need only test your feelings after you have left them -- smoke, fumes, prostitutes. You do not take anything noble away with you.'
'Why are you, then, in this dangerous place?' asked Arthur.
'Because I consider it necessary that someone should be here who is disgusted. The thought of the necessity for disgust in our time came to me a few days ago at an exhibit of Greek vases. The Greeks did not need to be disgusted in order to attain to beauty. They lived in it from the beginning. But we need this disgust if we wish to stand completely in life, in order to value the world correctly, in order to come to the spirit within us, in order to protect the God within us. It was different with the Greeks. When they surrendered themselves to life, they fulfilled also the laws of the spirit. They did not need to constantly defend and arm themselves. The work of man everywhere made the human being beautiful -- the buildings, the art, the customs, the utensils, even to the smallest thing. But we become ugly through everything that surrounds us -- streets, posters, movies, popular music -- everything makes us barren, everything destroys us...'
(Albert Steffen, Arthur in 'The True Lover of Destiny' (Der rechte Liebhaber des Schicksals)