A Guide to Incomprehensibility

Translated by John Minahane 

Deep-Sea Diving
  A few days ago, while shopping in the sports section of a department store, out of curiosity I put on a pair of diving goggles. I was struck by how the hitherto familiar objects round me became distant, almost inaccessible, from that moment. Half in jest and half seriously I continued my shopping, but with this difference, that I slowed my movement down. In the half-empty, well-lighted salesroom I first of all walked round the shelves with oat flakes, then fish conserves, brightly coloured drinks and sachets of instant soups, as if they were underwater reefs studded with rare corals. After some time I thought it proper to get out from among those, communicate with the checkout staff by means of signs, slowly make my way to the exit, and afterwards, who knows, maybe drift on further.
  That evening after dusk the same deep and at the same time diffuse picture of things came back to me. It took the form of a fever that kept mounting; it was difficult to ignore. At first I even tried to measure it, but I gave that up in the end. I was fascinated by the manner in which objects round me began to appear at these moments. They were somehow different from the usual, conciliatory and blurry. And the memory of this kindly softness remained with me afterwards, when my condition spontaneously readjusted. Things and people, however, had definitively changed for me. I cannot as previously trust the boundaries between the cold iron railings and the hands that hold onto them. Their blurry image accompanies me wherever I turn. I need only stand somewhere for a length of time, then I see something of its ambiguity before me. What is happening round about me seems to be very far away. The mighty many-floored buildings near me quickly lose their original shapes and take on some sort of simplified, liquid, aquarium-like consistency; they become less real and at the same disarmingly peaceful. It’s as if I was not standing in an urban centre at evening when all the lights are going on; rather, I seem suspended in water deep below the surface. At such moments the sustained traffic of cars merely enhances the urgency of the images and sounds that press on me from all sides: monotonous music in the shops, passers-by with their softly incomprehensible dialogues, the gentle hum of the news channels coming from the electronics outlets, and the countless letters in that blurred, liquid city which translate the sound of words into mute language for the eye. Inscriptions on walls, the cold glass of display windows, glowing lightbulbs and neon ads on the streets, the soft surfaces too of objects, generously enlarge the dimensions of the visible around me. Thanks to empty tables and chairs, gleaming steel cutlery, shining white porcelain plates and polished brass buttons, light no longer comes to me from above but is diffused in space and colourfully reflected from unexpected places. The monitors hung here, there and everywhere are entirely divested of the weight of paper and their screens light up before me more quickly than I, when leafing through heavy books upholstered with cloth, indeed with leather, could once have imagined.
From the Lives of Machines
  If the little items of stationery in the newspaper kiosks could come alive, be born and give birth, if pens could have pastel pencils which would later grow up to be thick crayons, elegant though sharp engraving tools, or huge colour markers, they would live indistinguishably from their future users: they would care for their families, enjoy times together, learn from one another, and the most successful of them would rise high, among the gold-plated fountain pens on antique writing tables, where, surrounded by white paper, they would devote whole days of effort to important issues. If the drawers, keyholes and other things came to life, no hands would be needed any more. Machines in particular would proceed much more consistently than under their present scatter-brained management; they would go by the light of their own reflectors without lunch breaks, uncompromisingly. We may be convinced of that by simply observing an insect.
  Even a brief look into the high grass can provide a picture of uncommonly persistent activity, not relaxing even for a moment, whose agents give the impression of small deliberately fashioned spring-loaded mechanisms. Long before the arrival of human beings their world had developed a system of brief unambiguous interactions which contemporary technology, if it is to be equally effective, willy-nilly must reproduce. It is hard to imagine that an ant, inseparably linked to its huge mandibles reminiscent of the scoops of a dredger, would hesitate over anything for long; and likewise the beetles and may-bugs that snarl as they crash into lamps are at work their whole lives long and do not have time for superfluous reflections and lengthy conversations about what they’re actually doing. Their day is marked by feverish activity, and in the name of the clearly-marked goal everything is permitted: hence the individual fulfilling its specific task does not go to waste but serves the coming generations as a practical source of energy.
  Modern industrial manufacture in its pursuit of efficiency imitates the reproductive capacity of the insect. It is able in a short time to bring millions of identical actors onto the scene who will manage to fulfil markedly distinct functions, only to be almost immediately replaced by a further series of the same kind. Screens, planes, cars, fridges and lightbulbs snarl, buzz and whistle, along with the mosquitos and wasps. The purposeful structure of forms which can be reproduced well gives them uncommon assertiveness and extension, though on the other hand it makes long duration impossible. Machines and the insect undoubtedly exist alongside human beings in the same world, but it is also true that the spaces where they fulfil their ambitions only partly overlap. As observers with very different priorities, pedestrians are thus distinguished from security detectors and cameras by the manner in which they evaluate the same phenomena. While strolling families have time to marvel at the fragile beauty of the moment and comprehend the surrounding natural setting in its context (which to the insects that fly to and fro is and to all appearances always will be inaccessible), yet again the beetles hidden in the grass are proceeding onwards with the tireless perseverance of ticking clocks.
Family Photography
  Not long ago I was a witness to something odd. While watching television I suddenly saw right in front of me a stranger, the father of a family, who under the eye of the camera held his breath and thrust his head into a glass vessel filled with water, while his wife at the same time was trying to build a tower with a predetermined number of wooden cubes. All of this was in earnest, with a studio audience in silent concentration and with their own children in attendance, who were watching everything apprehensively, close to tears. Ultimately the contestants managed to achieve their task. They whooped for joy and to the delight of those present they went to a corner of the studio where their reward awaited them: a new car, the object of the game, and they joyfully touched the new vehicle, snuggled up to each other and blissfully kissed to the applause of the public, not forgetting to turn the steering wheel.
  I could hardly have sat through such a performance without taking note, and not simply because this programme did not have the character of ordinary TV entertainment but was stylised with unexpected seriousness. It was striking with what matter-of-factness the principal actors and those round them accepted that bizarre task. A short time previously, if someone had urged them to plunge their heads in a vessel of water with other people looking on, they would probably have laughed at him. But once that same activity was linked with an appropriate reward, suddenly it seemed normal to them and the people round them. And so, to all appearances, there is a very simple way of explaining what one actually does. Behaviour of any kind becomes conditioned, and thus easily comprehensible, if it leads to a sufficiently definite goal. Even what from today’s point of view are eccentric forms of activity may thus be worthy of pursuit in the future. The immobility of objects does not evoke any doubts: quite the contrary, it comes across as convincing, representing an ideal goal. To be a human being means simply to think and act sufficiently purposefully, repeating words and sentences with the identical trust with which hands grip railings and fingers press electrical switches.
  Personally I must confess that it isn’t objects of great importance, for the most part, but just simple metal or plastic things that make me walk from room to room. Always I need to have something in my hands, on me, under me and round about me. To convince me of that I have not just the deep pockets on my windbreakers and jackets, drawers, briefcase, rucksack, suitcase, plastic shopping bags, the furniture standing by the wall, dishes full of crumbs and thumb-marked plates gleaming in the lamplight: there is also the history of visual art, portraits and still lifes full of a diversity of objects. The alternation of artists and cultural epochs makes one think of sailing far from the shore, a succession of deep inhalations and exhalations. If there are people on the canvas, normally things too are not far away. Archaeological excavations and the scenes on Greek vases confirm that the human situation from time out of mind has presupposed a certain sum of things. While in the scene from the Garden of Eden that function is normally performed by a not very sizeable leaf, and again in antiquity they could get by with simple vessels and a laurel wreath, in the Renaissance period the self-assured expression of the individual portrayed was reinforced by the wide-protruding headgear that covered his hair, the book or quill that he held in his hand, or the globe he was touching lightly. Even in the Baroque period, when human gestures again lost in the twilight the definition they had previously gained and became spasmodic, even then the clear lines of the half-lighted objects did not lose their significance. Whether on canvasses or in kitchens, there have always been still lifes full of cups and plates which convincingly proved that, while things can get by without human company, the scenes of everyday life would be wholly incomprehensible without dresses, wineglasses, and some few of those chairs and wardrobes.
  Human beings’ relationship to things is full of expectations. It’s on that account that TV films are interrupted by ads at regular intervals. Characters and their fates, however dramatic they may be, must then step aside while attention is directed to stories that are almost identical, but this time from the point of view of the objects. People have a place in them too, but only to a certain extent. Their role is no longer to seek their own fortune but rather to reveal the significance of diverse objects, whether those be a hoover, a telephone or a set of pots. Practically orientated life gains uncommon credibility on the screen, and also in homes and on the streets, in conjunction with the clearly definable objects amidst which it is accomplished. Each usefully spent day is actually a set of detailed instructions: this is how one sits at a table, this is how one opens doors. The individual actors in their buildings and cars seem as if unconsciously they were throwing these in a postbox, for years on end. Almost the whole title page is usually taken up by a colour photo, for example the idyllic image of a family relaxing on a scorching day on the lawn in front of the house: the kids are playing in the pool, Dad’s lying on an inflated mattress, Mum is holding her son, who has evidently just put on flippers. There would be nothing strange in this real-life scene were it not for the accompanying details typeset in small print: alongside the kids who are whooping happily in the water there is information on how much a pool costs, not forgetting a rundown on measurements and accessory equipment. Even the inflatable silver airbed which the man is lying on has its name and price, just like the other things, including the swimwear of all present.
  The role of particular people in a world full of tangible objects is to give systematic illustration of their use. Hence to live happily seems to be relatively simple. What it means is for whole days to sit on chairs, sleep in beds, eat with cutlery and drink from glasses; in the evening to watch TV, to act comprehensibly and repeatably, to surround oneself with all these things big and small, use them in proper order and appropriately, and thereby feel sure of oneself amongst them: a rool of three-ply toilet paper with a motif of roses, a razor, soap with avocado oil, a toothbrush, wrapped white bread and a toaster with automatic dispenser, a bubble bath for the feet, an electric pillow, a bottle of 12% proof beer and a bed with a pre-stressed lamella grid. The advertisement prospects actually amount to a modern encyclopaedia, a canon of the happily spent life and at the same time a child’s picture-book: under the photo of the hoover it says it’s a hoover, and again under the toothbrush it says it’s a toothbrush. The banality of this world-picture is an unavoidable condition if it is to be generally comprehensible. For myself though, who knows why, my dwelling amidst all these peculiar things tends more to provoke embarrassment. Cars and bicycles can make me burst out laughing, mixers too, wool coats or plastic spoons. To lie on mattresses, to don swimming togs, to put on shoes, to twist leather-covered steering wheels and chew salted pastry sticks, I find bizarre. These activities do not surprise me, since after all I engage in them daily, but at the same time I cannot take them sufficiently seriously. Certainly I  understand that for the future the simplest guarantee of the significance of my own acts is that they will be repeated day after day in buildings and streets like the refrains of pop songs. Looking at what the advertising newssheets are offering, though, inevitably I start thinking of all the things I’m doing now that would have seemed strange to me just a little while ago. Suddenly I understand why in the depth of night, entirely alone, accompanied only by ticking clocks and the light of an electric bulb, I walk seemingly quite without purpose from room to room, thus imitating Indian dances, and why intuitively I avoid the situations that are mechanically surfacing round me. To live in the usual way offers an alluring certainty that all those stories full of things in books and on television will have some meaning. To wake up amidst furniture of one’s own height and breadth and among human beings who are doing likewise, gives an opportunity to be very simply explicable to oneself for whole years long. To behave normally, though, does not at all mean to avoid one’s own lunacy. It just means to go mad in the usual way.
Letter to Larisa Dmitriyevna
My approach to words and things has quite naturally become impractical, but on the other hand it does not seem that I’ve lost anything important; on the contrary. In the moments when I’m cutting paper, writing something down, or just casually taking objects in my hands, I see clearly that though purposeful action and pragmatically orientated communication lead to their goals, they ultimately prove to be incomplete. As opposed to that, wandering the streets does not seem to have much justification purely in itself. Evidently it’s in harmony with that centrifugal urge when even in correspondence I take any opportunity to unshackle myself from the theme and begin a discussion of something else which neither of us, my addressee or myself, could have foreseen. The result is that I’ve a growing number of letters which I got caught up in while writing, so much so that I never sent them. In others again, without any clear reason why, I answer questions in colloquial Czech, which allows me to hold forth with relish on “kippers and Hungarian sausage” in the Prague lingo and to address my corespondent now as “Jemelínek” and right afterwards as “Borivoj”. There are further occasions when an opportunity arises to stylise the text in a 19th century spirit and title the addressee “amice”, “my brother lord”, or “eagle”, “falcon” or “boeing”. I discovered that to salute people first with one name and then immediately with another is not just more interesting but also more truthful. After all, what reason could there be for one person being called Alphonsus and someone else Ervin? “Ernest!” my parents might have called to me when I was little, as I plunged ahead on my tricycle, and I’d have got used to it. When writing, therefore, I do not lay much stress on my own name and I’ll sign myself in all seriousness as “the whistling, highly strung, ready for everything teapot”, provided it is more suited to the whole.
  I discovered that correspondence in the old Russian style can evoke a wholly distinct atmosphere. “Highly honoured Larisa Dmitriyevna”, I begin writing, and immediately I catch in the air the aroma of sour gherkins, vodka and smoked sturgeon, mixed with the pong of old coats as in a story by Anton Pavlovitch Chekhov, “the document which you request from me should already be lying quietly somewhere on your shelf, because a number of days have gone by since Mita, in foul weather, brought it to the post office. But if not, certainly an official person will entrust it willingly to your gentle hands. Before long I shall be in your county town to take part in a dispute at the Institute for the Study of Patent Remedies. I say this so that we may be able to exchange a word or two, if you should happen to be in the town on that day or the day following and not riding to hunt foxes somewhere on your estates. Now, permit me to indicate something in floral or headscarfed language. From the heights of his own idleness, with a view upon sharp meadows, erect as from a cabbage trough, greeting you with tubeteika is E. E. Em., proprietor of a silver spoon and a shining samovar.”
  I have noticed that, however serious the subject of report may be, after a certain time Mita for some reason or other will appear on the scene. Now he’ll be chopping wood, making splinters fly, and another time he’ll be raking leaves in the garden, or just puffing on his pipe. Though he does not comment on the problems discussed, his presence in the correspondence shows features of a distinctive system, while at the same time having no cogent reason; it gives the impression of something inappropriate and cannot be excused in any specific way, or explained. It’s a peculiar thing, but in fact he seems to be gradually becoming the central character there. And now that I think of it, that’s just like me and the surrounding streets, like as two hairs: how much energy is invested so that the city around me may be lucidly arranged, so that everyone can quickly get to where he’s going without asking; what power and resources it has taken to build all those shopping centres, car parks, houses, to number them, to name streets. And I use them like a wanderer in the steppe where one can never see the end, just so as to have somewhere to roam, to ramble here and there. I observe the ducks, the wild geese in the park. I ask the sparrows and pigeons the way, which I know well but it’s just to talk to them for a moment; politely I turn to the stray cats, addressing them as Nadezhdas, another time as Sonias; quite without reason I choose side streets, walking first one way and soon almost in an opposite direction.