Sign and Symbols

For the fourth time in as many years they were confronted with the problem
of what birthday present to bring a young man who was incurably deranged
in his mind. He had no desires. Man-made objects were to him either hives
of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive,
or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his abstract world.
After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten
him (anything in the gadget line for instance was taboo), his parents
chose a dainty and innocent trifle: a basket with ten different fruit
jellies in ten little jars.
At the time of his birth they had been married already for a long time; a
score of years had elapsed, and now they were quite old. Her drab gray
hair was done anyhow. She wore cheap black dresses. Unlike other women of
her age (such as Mrs. Sol, their next-door neighbor, whose face was all
pink and mauve with paint and whose hat was a cluster of brookside
flowers), she presented a naked white countenance to the fault- finding
light of spring days. Her husband, who in the old country had been a
fairly successful businessman, was now wholly dependent on his brother
Isaac, a real American of almost forty years standing. They seldom saw him
and had nicknamed him ” the Prince.”
That Friday everything went wrong. The underground train lost its life
current between two stations, and for a quarter of an hour one could hear
nothing but the dutiful beating of one’s heart and the rustling of
newspapers. The bus they had to take next kept them waiting for ages; and
when it did come, it was crammed with garrulous high-school children. It
was raining hard as they walked up the brown path leading to the
sanitarium. There they waited again; and instead of their boy shuffling
into the room as he usually did (his poor face blotched with acne,
ill-shaven, sullen, and confused), a nurse they knew, and did not care
for, appeared at last and brightly explained that he had again attempted
to take his life. He was all right, she said, but a visit might disturb
him. The place was so miserably understaffed, and things got mislaid or
mixed up so easily, that they decided not to leave their present in the
office but to bring it to him next time they came.
She waited for her husband to open his umbrella and then took his arm. He
kept clearing his throat in a special resonant way he had when he was
upset. They reached the bus-stop shelter on the other side of the street
and he closed his umbrella. A few feet away, under a swaying and dripping
tree, a tiny half-dead unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a
During the long ride to the subway station, she and her husband did not
exchange a word; and every time she glanced at his old hands (swollen
veins, brown-spotted skin), clasped and twitching upon the handle of his
umbrella, she felt the mounting pressure of tears. As she looked around
trying to hook her mind onto something, it gave her a kind of soft shock,
a mixture of compassion and wonder, to notice that one of the passengers,
a girl with dark hair and grubby red toenails, was weeping on the shoulder
of an older woman. Whom did that woman resemble? She resembled Rebecca
Borisovna, whose daughter had married one of the Soloveichik – in Minsk,
years ago.
The last time he had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s
words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded, had not an
envious fellow patient thought he was learning to fly – and stopped him.
What he really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape.
The system of his delusions had been the subject of an elaborate paper in
a scientific monthly, but long before that she and her husband had puzzled
it out for themselves. “Referential mania,” Herman Brink had called it. In
these very rare cases the patient imagines that everything happening
around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He
excludes real people from the conspiracy – because he considers himself to
be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him
wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by
means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His
inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly
gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns
representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept.
Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. Some of the
spies are detached observers, such are glass surfaces and still pools;
others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers
at heart; others again (running water, storms) are hysterical to the point
of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him and grotesquely misinterpret
his actions. He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and
module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The very air
he exhales is indexed and filed away. If only the interest he provokes
were limited to his immediate surroundings – but alas it is not! With
distance the to rents of wild scandal increase in volume and volubility.
The silhouettes of his blood corpuscles, magnified a million times, flit
over vast plains; and still farther, great mountains of unbearable
solidity and height sum up in terms of granite and groaning firs the
ultimate truth of his being.

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