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"Fantastic Night", by Stefan Zweig (extract)

Extract from :

Stefan Zweig

Fantastic Night


"... I walked alone through the night to the exit from the Prater. All inhibition had left me, I had been like a man missing, presumed dead, but now I felt my nature flowing out into the whole infinite world in a plenitude I had never known before. I sensed everything as if it lived for me alone, and as if in its own turn it linked me with that flow. The black trees stood around me, rustling, and I loved them. Stars shone down from above, and I breathed in their white salutation. I heard singing voices somewhere, and I felt they were singing for me. Now that I had torn away the carapace from my breast everything was suddenly mine, and the joy of lavish abandonment swept me on. Oh, how easy it is, I thought, to give pleasure and rejoice in that pleasure yourself: you have only to open yourself up and the living current will flow from one human being to another, falling from the heights to the depths, rising up again like spindrift from the depths into infinity.

At the exit of the Prater, beside a cab rank, I saw a street trader, tired and bowed over her paltry wares. She had baked goods for sale, covered with dust, and a few fruits; she had probably been sitting there since morning bending over the few coins she had earned, and weariness bent her back. Why not make her happy too, I thought, now that I am happy ? I chose a small pastry and put a banknote down in front of her. She began busily looking for change, but I was already walking on and saw only her start of delight, saw the bent back suddenly straighten, while her open mouth, frozen in amazement, sent a thousand good wishes after me. Holding the pastry, I went up to a horse standing wearily in the shafts. It turned and gave me a friendly snort, and its dark eyes showed gratitude when I stroked its pink nostrils and gave it the sweet morsel.

And as soon as I had done that I wanted more: to give more pleasure, to feel how a few silver coins, a few notes printed on coloured paper can conquer fear, kill want, kindle merriment. Why were there no beggars here ? Why no children who would have liked to have the bunches of balloons on strings which a surly, white-haired cripple was taking home, disappointed by the poor business he had done all this long, hot day. I went up to him. “I’ll take the balloons.” “Ten hellers each,” he said suspiciously, for what would this elegant gentleman of leisure want with his coloured balloons at midnight ? “I’ll take them all,” I said, giving him a ten-crown note.

He swayed on his feet, looked at me as if something had dazzled him, and then, trembling, gave me the string that held the whole bunch together. I felt the taut string tug at my finger; the balloons wanted to be gone, to be free, to fly through the air. Go then, fly where you like, be free ! I let go of the strings, and up they suddenly rose like so many coloured moons. Laughing people came up from all sides, lovers emerged from the shadows, drivers cracked their whips and called to each other, pointing out the freed balloons drifting over the trees towards the houses and rooftops. The onlookers all glanced cheerfully at each other, enjoying my happy folly.

Why did I never know before how easy and how good it is to give pleasure ? All of a sudden the banknoteswere burning a hole in my wallet again, twitching in my fingers like the strings of the balloons just now. They wanted to fly away from me into the unknown too. And I took them, those I had stolen from Lajos and my own — for I felt no difference between them now and no guilt — and kept them ready to be given to any who wanted one. I approached a street-sweeper morosely sweeping the deserted Praterstrasse. He thought I wanted to ask him the way, and looked up with a surly expression; I smiled and held out a twenty-crown note. He started, uncomprehending, then finally took it and waited to see what I wanted in return. But I just smiled at him again, said: “Buy something you like,” and went on.

I kept looking around to see if anyone wanted something from me, and when no one came up I just handed the money out myself: I gave a note to a whore who accosted me, two notes to a lamplighter, I threw one into the open hatch of a basement bakery, and so I went on, leaving behind me a wake of amazement, thanks and pleasure, I walked on and on. Finally I crumpled notes up and scattered them around the empty street and on the steps of a church, liking the idea of the old ladies who would come to morning service, find all those banknotes and thank God, or of a poor student, a girl or a workman ontheir way out coming upon the money in amazement and delight, just as I had discovered myself in amazement and delight that night.

I couldn’t say now where and how I scattered all those banknotes, and finally my silver too. There was some kind of delirium in me, an outpouring like love-making, and when the last pieces of paper had fluttered away I felt light, as if I could fly, and I knew a freedom I had never known before. The street, the sky, the buildings, all seemed to flow together and towards me, giving me an entirely new sense of possession and of belonging: never, even in the most warmly experienced moments of my life,had I felt so strongly that all these things were really present, that they were alive, that I was alive, and that their lives and mine were one and the same, that life is a great and mighty phenomenon and can never be hailed with too much delight. It is something that only love grasps, only devotion comprehends.

There was one last dark moment, and that came when, having walked happily home, I put the key in my door and the corridor leading to my rooms opened up black before me. I was suddenly overcome by fear that I would be returning to my old life if I entered the apartment of the man I had been until this moment, if I lay down in his bed and found myself once more connected with everything from which this night had so wonderfully released me. No, I must not be what I had been before, remote from the real world, I must not be the correct, unfeeling gentleman of yesterday and all the days before. I would rather plunge into any depths of crime and horror, but I must have the reality of life ! I was tired, inexpressibly tired, yet I feared that sleep might close over me, and then its black silt would sweep away all the hot, glowing, living emotions that this night had aroused in me, and I might find that the whole experience had been as fleeting and without foundation as a fantastic dream.

But I woke cheerfully to a new morning next day, and none of that gratefully flowing emotion had run away into the sand. Four months have passed since then, and my old paralysis of feeling has not returned. I still bloom warmly as I face the day. The magical intoxication of my experience when the ground of my old world suddenly gave way under my feet, plunging me into the unknown, when I felt the delirium of speed mingled with the profundity of all life as I fell into my own abyss — yes, that flowing heat is gone, but since that hour I have been conscious of my own warm blood with every breath I take, and I daily feel new lust for life. I know I am a different man now, with different senses; different things arouse me, and I am more aware than before.

I dare not say, of course, that I have become a better man; I know only that I am a happier man because I have found some kind of meaning in an existence that had been so cold, a meaning for which I can find no term but life itself. Since then I hold back from nothing, for I feel the norms and formalities of the society in which I live are meaningless, and I am not ashamed in front of others or myself. Words like honour, crime, vice, have suddenly acquired a cold, metallic note, I cannot speak them without horror. I live by letting myself draw on the powerI so magically felt for the first time on that night. I do not ask where it will carry me: perhaps to some new abyss, into what others call vice, or perhaps to somewhere sublime. I don’t know and I don’t want to know. For only he who lives his life as a mystery is truly alive.

But never — and I am sure of this — have I loved life more fervently, and now I know that all who are indifferent to any of the shapes and forms it takes, commit a crime (the only crime there is !). Since I began to understand myself, I have understood much of many other things: someone’s avid glance into a shop window can distress me, the playfulness of a dog can delight me. I suddenly care for everything; I am indifferent to nothing now. In the paper (which I used to consult only in search of entertainment and auction sales) I read of a hundred things that excite me every day; books that once bored me suddenly reveal their meaning to me.

And the strangest thing of all is that I can suddenly talk to people outside the bounds of polite conversation. My manservant, who has been with me for seven years, interests me and I often talk to him; the caretaker whom I used to pass by, thinking no more of him than if he were a moving pillar, recently told me about his little daughter’s death, and it affected me more than the tragedies of Shakespeare. And this change — although I continue to lead my life in circles of polite tedium so as not to give myself away — this change seems to be gradually becoming evident. I find that many people are suddenly on terms of warm good friendship with me; for the third time this week a strange dog ran up to me in the street. And friends tell me with a certain pleasure, as if speaking to one who has recovered from an illness, that I am quite rejuvenated.

Rejuvenated ? I alone know that I am only just beginning to live. Well, it is a common delusion to think the past was nothing but error and preparation for the present, and I can well see that it is presumptuous of me to think that taking a cold pen in a warm, living hand and recording my feelings on dry paper means that I am really alive. But if it is a delusion, then it is the first ever to delight me, the first to warm my blood and open my senses to me. And if I write about the miracle of my awakening here, then I do it for myself alone, for I know the truth of this more profoundly than any words can say. I have spoken to no friend about it; my friends never knew how dead to the world I was, and they will never know how I live and flourish now.

And should death strike me in the middle of this life of mine, and these lines should fall into another’s hands, that idea does not alarm or distress me. For he who has never known the magic of such an hour will not understand, as I myself could not have understood half a year ago, that a few fleeting, apparently disconnected incidents on a single evening could so magically rekindle a life already extinguished. I feel no shame before such a man, for he will not understand me. But he who knows how those incidents are linked will not judge or feel pride. And I feel no shame before him, for he will understand me. Once a man has found himself there is nothing in this world that he can lose. And once he has understood the humanity in himself, he will understand all human beings."

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