Authors: Rachel Cusk
The others had by now turned the corner into the alley and Hermann set off again, walking rapidly until we emerged into a public park, where he stopped on a path to wait once more. This park was a very pleasant place, he said, though it had a bad reputation, because its crime rate was higher than that of other parks in the city. It also represented a very convenient shortcut by bicycle from his home on the other side of the river to his college, to the extent that it would have taken him fully ten minutes longer to make the same journey along the roads. It astonished him that his classmates, many of whom had to do the same or similar journeys, had not performed the simple calculation that revealed a greater risk of injury from the
road than from the park, and continued to take the more hazardous option. Their parents, they admitted, insisted on it, and his mother had explained this anomaly to him by saying that the biological basis of parenthood was essentially antithetical to reason, and as such could be seen as a whole system of inverted logic. She was generally speaking a logical person, he said, and although she admitted the near-impossibility of bringing up a child without sentiment coming into it, he recognised that she had done her best to attain that goal, in this case continuing to support his choice of route even after the college head himself had approached her with concerns for his safety.
The park was a long, sloping stretch of green that descended to the riverbank, with wide sandy paths where people walked or sat on benches in the dusk. In the distance, a group of men wearing high-visibility jackets could be seen standing in a circle on the grass, and Hermann explained that these men were employed to prevent people crossing that particular section of the park. In the attempt to regenerate the area, he said, a new concert hall had not long ago been built that represented a triumph for compromise, in that it satisfied both the city planners' ambitions for progress and the conservationists' determination to keep things as they were. Instead of destroying the park to make way for the new building, the architect
had devised a brilliant scheme for constructing the auditorium underground. It was only when the work had been done and the life of the park was permitted to return to normal â without a single thing, superficially, having changed â that it became apparent the acoustics of the concert hall were caused to function in reverse by the traffic overhead. Instead of magnifying the music, the sound of even a single person walking across the grass was intensified in the hall below to quite deafening proportions.
Since the whole thing had been designed to be unnoticeable and for the appearance of the park to be unaffected it was seen as absurd to put up a barrier or fence around an apparently empty stretch of grass, and for the same reasons â because they couldn't see the change â people continued to traverse the grass as they always had. The solution the planners found to this problem, he said, was to employ these men to act as a human fence when there was a concert underway. What they failed to recognise, he went on, his brilliant smile intensifying, was that a fence or sign has a meaning that is clear to almost everybody, whereas a human individual â even one wearing a high-visibility jacket â has to explain himself. When at certain times of day someone approached the section of grass, he said, which the rest of the time they were permitted to cross freely, one of the men would have to explain why
they couldn't, and this elaborate procedure, Hermann said, had to be repeated over and over again each day, until inevitably issues of aggression and enforcement arose, since no actual law existed to prevent people crossing the grass and even the fact of a concert being underway didn't strike some as sufficient justification to change their route. Meanwhile, the people attending the concert were becoming infuriated by the noise and asking for their money back. I believe, he said, that some of the incidents that ensued have actually gone to court, and since the purpose of the law is to determine objectivity, it will be interesting to see the outcomes of those cases. He liked to study knotty legal points in his spare time, he added, some of which were actually quite entertaining. His personal favourite was a case in which a woman was driving her car through town when an entire swarm of bees flew in through the window, which she had left open a couple of inches because it was a very hot day. In the ensuing panic she drove the car into the shopfront of a nearby patisserie, causing a great deal of damage â though luckily no loss of human life â for which both she and her insurers believed she was not responsible, a belief in which they were thoroughly confounded by the judge.
I asked Hermann what kind of college he went to and he said it was a specialised school for maths
and the sciences that took students from all over the country. Before that he had gone to his neighbourhood school, he said, which he hadn't enjoyed quite so much, though towards the end of his time there he had in fact become quite popular with the other pupils, once it became known he was able to help them with revision for the public exams. He hadn't got on all that well with his teachers, however, and had often had to hear his mother be criticised on his account, for which he was very sorry, but since she herself had never criticised him he had proceeded on the assumption that all was well. It was human nature, his mother said, for people to wish cruelty on one another simply because they had been shown cruelty themselves: the repetition of behavioural forms was the curious panacea with which most people sought to relieve the suffering caused by precisely those same forms. He had tried to find a way of expressing this contradiction in mathematical terms, but since it was inherently illogical he had not yet succeeded. As far as he knew a problem couldn't be solved simply by infinitely restating it, unless you relied on infinity itself to break certain factors down.
The others were now drawing close to us along the path and Hermann set off again downhill across the grass towards the river, pointing exaggeratedly with his hand raised above his head to signal our direction.
He apologised, he said, if I found him too talkative: he liked talking, and had always been encouraged by his mother to ask questions, so it had surprised him to discover that other people rarely asked each other anything. He had come to the conclusion that most questions were nothing more than an attempt to ascertain conformity, like rudimentary maths problems. Two and two did indeed usually equal four: it was when you gave a different answer, he had discovered, that people got upset. According to his mother he had been completely silent until the age of three: she had got into the habit of talking to herself aloud with no expectation of a reply, and she was therefore very surprised when one day as she was looking for her keys and asking herself where she'd put them, he informed her from his highchair that the keys were in the pocket of her coat, which was hanging in the hall. After that he had talked non-stop, and if his mother found it irritating she had always been too polite to say so. Interestingly, he had recently made a friend at college who mispronounced nearly every word he used, because although his vocabulary was impressive, he had read far more than he had spoken, and in complex conversations such as those he had with Hermann, he was uttering words aloud that until now had remained as mere meaningful letter sequences in his head. Hermann was lucky that he had been able
to talk so much with his mother, who understood most of what he said: he realised that for many parents and children, this wasn't always the case.
Part of what he enjoyed about college, he said, was that for the first time he was meeting people whose experiences resembled his own and who thought about the world in much the same way he did. It was funny to think that all along, while he'd been sitting at home looking out of his bedroom window, these other people in other places had been looking out of theirs, all of them thinking about similar things, things no one else appeared to think about. He wasn't, in other words, in a minority any more; in fact, he had even discovered that a few of his classmates had a superior grasp in some areas, for instance his friend Jenka, with whom he spent a great deal of his time. He and Jenka got on extremely well, and their mothers had become good friends too. The two women had recently gone on a walking holiday together in the Pyrenees, which was the first holiday his mother had ever taken without him, so he hoped she hadn't missed him too much. He and Jenka were quite different, he added, which interestingly seemed to be the reason they were friends. For instance, Jenka seldom spoke, while he found it difficult to shut up: that was an example of compatibility, in that two extremes were modified by being combined. It was said by certain people at
college that Jenka was possibly the most intelligent person of her age in the country. She never said anything unless she had something important to express, which made you realise how much of what people generally said â and he included himself in this statement â was unimportant.
At the end of the year, he went on, the college gave a special award to its most outstanding male and female student. It was interesting that in conferring this award, the fact of gender was retained beyond that of excellence: at first it had struck him as illogical, but then he had decided that having never personally found gender to be a factor, he was perhaps not in a position to fully understand its significance. He would be interested to hear my opinion on that subject, if I had one. His mother, for instance, believed that male and female were distinct but equal identities, and that having two awards was as far as it was wise to go in honouring human achievement. But many other people felt that there should be only one award, given to the best student. The caveat of gender, these people believed, obscured the triumph of excellence. His mother's response to that was interesting: if there was no caveat, she had said, then there was no way of ensuring that excellence would remain in a moral framework and not be put in the service of evil. He had found that argument a little old-fashioned, which was
surprising since his mother was usually quite forward-thinking. Her use of the word âevil' in particular had been quite a shock. He wondered sometimes what her life was going to be like, once he left next year to go to university, but though he did appear to possess certain talents, unfortunately a good imagination wasn't one of them.
We were now walking directly beside the river, on a wider paved path where people sat outside cafÃ©s with large, luminous glasses of beer in front of them, talking or looking at their phones or staring absently at the greyish water. It wasn't much further to our destination, Hermann said, but this was the riskiest part of the journey since it was more crowded here, and the possibility of things going wrong tended to be proportionate to the size of the human element. Also, he was finding our conversation very interesting, so there was the additional danger of forgetting where he was supposed to be going. But he did wish to hear my opinion of the topics discussed, and most particularly of his mother's remarks, that is if he had managed to relay them correctly.
I said I had been struck by the idea of gender as a bulwark against evil, because the biblical myth gave one precisely the opposite impression: that, far from preventing evil, the mutual distinctness of male and female constitutes a unique susceptibility to it. Eve is
influenced by the serpent and Adam is influenced by Eve: I didn't know very much about maths, I said, but I would be interested to know whether that could be expressed as a formula, and if so whether the serpent would be an illogical element of it. In other words, I imagined it would be hard to ascribe a value to the serpent, which could be anything and everything. All the story proves, I said, is that Adam and Eve are equally capable of being influenced, but by different things.
Hermann furrowed his brow and said that it might be easier to see it as a shape: expressed as a triangle, for instance, the Adam/Eve/serpent relationship is more tangible, since the function of triangulation is to fix two points by means of a third and therefore establish objectivity. If I was interested in metaphors, he said, the serpent's role is merely to create a viewpoint from which Adam's and Eve's weaknesses can be observed, and thus the snake might be representative of anything that triangulates the relationship of two identities, such as the arrival of a child might triangulate its parents. He went on to say that as far as this last point was concerned, his own case was more complicated, since through force of circumstances he had played Adam, as it were, to his mother's Eve. He had never met his father, his having left the planet a few weeks before Hermann arrived on it: he had been worrying that he had failed to include this piece of
information in our conversation so far and was glad I had given him the opportunity to fit it in. As it happened he had often wondered whether he and his mother would be triangulated, and if so by whom. Unfortunately the only available role was that of serpent, he added, and he admitted that he had kept an eye open for the arrival of that disturbing presence. But to date his mother had not remarried, though she was very beautiful â that was merely an opinion, by the way â and when he had asked her what the probability was that she ever would, she had replied that such a step would require her to become two people, and that she would prefer just to remain one. His mother rarely spoke figuratively, because she knew it upset him, but he accepted that on this occasion she had decided on it as the lesser of two â if I would permit him to use the word again â evils. He believed she meant that her biological role as his mother would be incompatible with the role of wife to someone biologically unrelated, and this realisation had made him feel guilty, to the extent that he thought the best thing would be for him to leave the house immediately and find some means of destroying himself. But happily she had offered a clarification, which was that she was happy with things as they were.
To return to the subject of the college's award, he said, the name they had chosen for it was âKudos'. As
I was probably aware, the Greek word âkudos' was a singular noun that had become plural by a process of back formation: a kudo on its own had never actually existed, but in modern usage its collective meaning had been altered by the confusing presence of a plural suffix, so that âkudos' therefore meant, literally, âprizes', but in its original form it connoted the broader concept of recognition or acclaim, as well as being suggestive of something which might be falsely claimed by someone else. For instance, he had heard his mother complaining to someone on the phone the other day that the board of directors took the kudos for the festival's success while she did all the work. In light of his mother's remarks about male and female, the choice of this fabricated plural was quite interesting: the individual had been superseded by the collective, yet he believed that it still left the question of evil entirely open. Admittedly, despite extensive research, he had been unable to find anything to corroborate his mother's use of the word in a context of misappropriation. Could prizes be given to the wrong person, without malintent coming into it?