SEARCHING FOR LIFE

Now it is evening, and a soft breeze is blowing from above through my dormer window into the cell causing my green lampshade to stir slightly, and gently blowing the pages of the Schiller volume that lies open before me. Outdoors a horse is being led slowly past the prison on its way home and in the nocturnal stillness the clopping of its hoofs on the pavement resounds in an oddly peaceful way. From the distance, barely audible, come the sentimental strains of a harmonica, on which some rank beginner, who is strolling past, is ‘huffing and puffing’ a waltz. Some lines of poetry that I read somewhere recently keep humming in my head:

Bedded down among the treetops

Lies your little quiet garden

Where the roses and carnations

Long have waited for your darling

I don’t understand the meaning of these words at all. I don’t even know if they have a meaning, but together with the breath of air that touches my hair as through caressingly, they put me in a strange  mood. Life plays an eternal game of tag with me. It seems to me always that it’s not inside me, not here where I am, but somewhere far off. Back then, at home [in my childhood], I used to sneak across to the window – it was strictly forbidden to get up before Father was up – I would open it quietly and peek out at the big courtyard. There was certainly not much to see there. Everything was still asleep, a cat crept by on its soft paws across the courtyard, a pair of sparrows were having a fight with a lot of cheeky chirping, and long, tall Antoni in his sheepskin jacket, which he wore summer and winter, stood by the pump with both hands and chin resting on the handle of his broom, deep reflection etched on his sleepy unwashed face. This Antoni, by the way, was a man of higher aspirations. Every evening after lockup he sat on his sleeping bench on the ground floor and sounded out letter by letter, by the lantern’s feeble light, the official ‘Police Notes’, and his reading could be heard throughout the house as a kind of muffled litany. In this he was guided purely by an interest in arts and letters, because he didn’t understand a word, but merely loved to sound out the letter; he loved the letters in and for themselves. Despite that, he was not easy to satisfy. Once, at his request, I gave him something to read – Lubbock’s The Origin of Civilisation. I had gone through this book, reading it with ardent zeal as the first ‘serious’ book I had ever read, but he returned it to me after two days with the explanation that the book was ‘worth nothing’. As for me, several years later I came belatedly to the realisation of how right Antoni was. – And so Antoni would always stand for some time sunk deep in through, but he would come out of it all at once with a shuddering, crashing, widely reverberating yawn, and this liberating yawn invariably meant: time to get to work. Even now I can still hear the slurping, slapping sound with which Antoni dragged his wet, crooked, little broken-down broom over the paving and in the process always aesthetically and painstakingly formed elegant and uniform little circles around the edges, which could be taken for the finest Brussels lace trimming. His sweeping of the courtyard was a veritable poem. And that was actually the loveliest moment, before the dreary, noisy, pounding, and hammering life of the big apartment building woke up. The solemn stillness of the morning hour spread above the triviality of the courtyard’s paved surface; the window panes glittered with the early morning gold of the young sun, and way up high swam sweet-smelling clouds with a touch of pink, before dissolving into the gray sky over the metropolis. Back then I firmly believed that ‘life’, that is, ‘real life’, was somewhere far away, off beyond the rooftops. Ever since then I’ve been chasing after it. But it is still hiding behind some rooftop or other. In the end was it all some kind of wanton playing or frivolous toying with me? And has real life actually remained right there in that courtyard where Antoni and I read The Origin of Civilisation for the first time?

I embrace you with all my heart, Rosetta

– Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Letter to Luise Kautsky (September 1904)’, in Georg Adler et al. (eds.), The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (London: Verso, 2011), pp. 175-77. 

(Written from her prison cell.)

4 comments

  1. Beautiful! You are loving the letters of Rosa, aren’t you?
    Like many others of my generation, I also went through the phase of idealizing Che Guevara in my youth. I had a poster in my room in which Che cut his usual dashing figure with the words “The true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love” in both Spanish and English nestling in the swirls of his cigar smoke. I absolutely loved that quote. I still do, as a matter of fact. At that time, the words (and the picture!) seemed to so romantically capture the entwining of the personal and the political for a budding lefty. In retrospect, I don’t think I ever fully understood the depth of meaning in Che’s words until a few years ago when I started reading the letters of Luxemburg. She is intoxicating!

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    1. Hi Neeta, many thanks for sharing that quote. I definitely think that’s the ideal. (In practice, sadly, it seems as though large-scale movements also require enemies, often with unfortunate psychological and political results.)

      A friend recommended me to read Rosa’s letters, and yes, I’m in love! She’s wise as well as smart; completely politically committed yet also genuinely warm and humane. Above all, she’s so fully alive, it’s breathtaking.

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  2. Yes, humane and fully alive are better ways to describe Rosa. I’m so very glad that they published the English translation of her letters. I, too, picked up the book after I read Norman Finkelstein’s response to someone – I don’t remember to whom or to what now – in which he quoted her. He also mentioned how he found inspiration from Rosa. Indeed, I also found that she is a good one to turn to when you need to fortify your optimism of the will in desperate times. Hers is a warm counsel against dejection and passivity and for clear-eyed engagement with the world. Just like Amilcar Cabral’s cautionary words now reduced to a pithy observation, “tell no lies: claim no easy victories.” NF, I think, is also fond of summoning this one of Cabral’s admonitions nowadays. I can see why. 🙂

    Btw, congratulations on your insightful article with NF and Mouin Rabbani in the Nation! You are in excellent company. I hope this proves to be a solid partnership and your views get the consideration they deserve.

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  3. Thanks! Norman’s who put me on to Rosa, too – I hope Verso is compensating him for his services.

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