From the Front, c. 1967
Prose · Translated from German by Ruth Martin · Expressions: From Darwin to Contemporary Arts, edited by Bergit Arends · London: The Natural History Museum, 2009, pages 78–79
The front teeth were those of a predator. At first their setting was a damp cave of just a few centimetres. Back then there was only a lump of flesh there, which sat upon ineffable treasures like the dragon in the fairytale, entrenched behind a bulwark of milk-coloured dentine. If the creature wanted to amuse or deceive, it wiped its tip across the balustrade; if it felt fear or rage, it withdrew itself, tip aquiver. But after five or six years the first watch fell and was replaced by a second generation. The changing of the guard had something humiliating about it – he realised the original soldiers had not fallen in battle. For a short time the cave transformed itself into a defenceless grotto, unsure about its proper function. Then the new guard shot up.
The rows were still sparsely populated, but four cornerstones rose in a conspicuous position, their appearance reminiscent of the palisades that he built in summer. Sitting on the beach, he created castles, which he provided with fortifications by letting wet sand trickle from his fist. It did not require much imagination to see that the new formations were of a similarly stalagmitic origin. When he learned that they were called ‘canines’, he recognised what dogs had in their mouths. His own canines were so pointed that using them alone he could carry objects or injure enemies. From time to time they tore open the inside of his mouth, proof enough that they did not deny their animal nature just because, for once, he was not fighting with his surroundings. Yawning in front of the mirror, he could see them three steps from the middle of each jaw, heroes from an earlier era of evolution, closer to both gods and animals than their neighbours. In one case, on the upper left side, the tooth that separated the canine from the incisor was missing, making the line of defence less compact than desired. As a warrior, however, he knew his canines had roots that extended up into the heaven of the upper gums, down into the underworld of his chin. With such a pedigree they would not yield easily. Half celestial, half chthonic, they became the tongue’s body guard.
A List of Involuntary Places
Here follows a list of the areas of the body over which he exerted no control:
(1) The telegraph (the left knee which, caught in soulless trance, jiggled under the school bench, its mechanical energy sending ever the same signals to an irritated universe);
(2) The zero (whenever he was uncertain, the area between his eyebrows knitted together, transforming itself into the surface of a walnut. One day he heard that the oval spot Indian women painted between their eyebrows was not a sign of their caste but a cosmetic measure. When the teacher explained that its Indian name could mean ‘zero’, he was strengthened in his belief: the source of his bafflement, too, was a nullity);
(3) Small containers filled with the twittering of birds (the occasions were few, but always unpredictable: a grandiose self-sacrifice in one of the books he devoured, surprisingly cold water, a monster made of air and darkness under the bed – and suddenly the hairs on his arms and legs stood on end. At once his skin seemed covered in bloodless insect bites. He took them for what they were, however: small containers filled with the twittering of birds);
(4) God’s fingertips (two indentations on his cheeks, equidistant from the bridge of his nose. Since they only became visible in connection with joy or sadness, anger or tribulations, he felt betrayed by them. Again, God had pressed His fingertips into his cheeks – as a warning); as well as
(5) The cloud (a weightless something that rose through his belly, mostly associated with expectation, but sometimes also with the sole – and incomprehensible – sort of happiness capable of assuring him: he did not only exist inside his own coat of skin).
Each time he experienced fear, his tongue would swell and thicken. Suddenly his mouth harboured an alien creature, and he was unable to speak. Whatever he did, he was never able to predict its arrival, much less prevent it. Did the animal live in his lower jaw? Did it descend from his palate like a terrible deus ex machina? He could not even spit it out, so one day he decided he had had enough. Climbing the ladder to the diving boards, he knew fear would set in ten metres above the ground. He had hardly walked to the edge of the highest board before his tongue swelled and stiffened. It was now or never. Shaking with adrenalin, he stepped into space. In the act of falling a transformation must have occurred, for barely had he left the board when a scream escaped his lips. The tongue had shrunk again, and now he could make himself heard. As he broke the surface of the water, he realised that good advice did not come cheap. The creature may have been chased away, but the scream had used up all the air. When finally he breathed again, his mouth was like a funnel. After this the creature never returned. Instead, its place was taken by anxiety. And his mouth transformed itself into what it would remain: a cage, out of which only oxygen could escape.
Practice Makes Perfect
The emotional states that, with time, he learnt to control so well that it pleased him to bring about their natural consequences, included: false smiles, crocodile tears, feigned astonishment, even the occasional fitting blush. Sometimes he became so overwhelmed by what he had evoked, that his creation took control and he became his own hostage.
In school, he learnt that a human being was wrapped up in two square metres of skin. After this he saw himself as surface. He thought: horizon. He thought: bottomless. He also thought: In every story there comes a point beyond which he cannot see. He hated this point. He knew it was necessary. He thought of it as a navel.
O, Sing of the Rage
When his father lost his temper, his tongue made a hump. With the tip pressed against the inside of his lower incisors, he lowered the upper teeth until the tongue sat as if in a vice. This was the definition of anger. There was no power more primordial. Steam collecting, wrath mounted behind the bulging flesh. Now it would only take an additional irritation for the pressure to become too great. Then the steam rose through the darkness where his father’s foreign mother-tongue had its home – a murmur turning into a roar.
When he read about the first steam locomotive built in Sweden he found a name for this anger. Finished in 1853, the ‘Firstling’ rolled on connected wheels which produced a muffled, increasingly loud noise. It was not difficult to recognise his father’s rage in the train. Or to understand why he could not hold himself back once the pressure had built up. Now there was only one possible outcome: the fury had to take its course. Usually this meant a punishment that was in direct proportion to the pressure. The anger had a weakness, however. Like a locomotive travelling on fixed rails, it was predictable. Once the child had realised this, he could steer it by making his father aware that he had foreseen the outcome. Suddenly the steam would dissipate, the wrath coming to a standstill on its own.
Still, once he made the mistake of turning his own tongue into a hump. When his father noticed the expression, he lost control. Suddenly his open right hand shot through the air. The power was so great that the son turned right round on his axis. Whilst his father was trying to undo what had been done, the child realised there could only be one Firstling. But also that he, juvenile but devious, possessed a power that could call parentage into question, without putting anything else in its place.
He knew that he had a readiness in him to take what he loved and smash it to pieces. Holding the object over his head, he looked grimly about him. His body quivered, the dimples became visible. An eternity passed. As he put the object down again, he was overflowing with relief and wildness. Overflowing. With relief and wildness.