Another empathetic follower

Looking at people following people, as I did in my last post, I was reminded of another empathetic follower.

When I was much, much younger, I was caught up in the youthful works of Rainer Maria Rilke, and especially the Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.  I think what I loved most about Rilke was the depth of his empathy. I’ve never forgotten the following excerpt. It’s a little long but, I think, worth it.

Bought in the early 1960s, borrowed in the 70s, this book was returned to me a few months ago.

The narrator, out for a walk on the streets of turn-of-the century Paris, notices a group of waiters pointing and laughing together at something or someone ahead of him.

I expected, as soon as my eye had room, to see some unusual and striking figure; but it turned out there was no one walking ahead of me save a tall, emaciated man in a dark overcoat and with a soft black hat on his short, faded blond hair. I made sure there was nothing laughable about this man’s clothing or behavior, and I was already trying to look beyond him down the boulevard, when he stumbled over something. As I was following close behind him, I was on my guard, but when the place came there was nothing there, absolutely nothing. We both walked on, he and I, the distance between us remaining the same.

Now came a street-crossing, and there the man ahead of me hopped down from the sidewalk with uneven legs, somewhat as children walking now and again hop or skip, when they are happy. On the other side of the crossing he simply made one long step up. But no sooner was he there when he drew up one leg a little and hopped on the other, once, high, and immediately again and again. This time too one could quite well have taken the abrupt movement for a stumble, had one persuaded oneself that some small object lay there, a pip, a slippery fruit peel, anything; and the strange thing was that the man himself appeared to believe in the presence of an obstacle, for he turned round every time and looked at the offending spot with that half-annoyed, half reproachful air people have at such moments. Once again something warned me to take the other side of the street, but I did not obey and continued to follow this man, fixing my whole attention on his legs.

I must admit I felt singularly relieved when for some twenty steps this hopping did not recur, but when I then raised my eyes I noticed that something else had begun to annoy the man. The collar of his overcoat had stood up, and try as he would to pat it down again, fussing now with one hand, now with both at once, he did not succeed. That happens. It didn’t bother me. But then I perceived with boundless astonishment that in this person’s busy hands there were two movements: one a rapid, secret movement, with which he covertly flipped the collar up, and that other movement, elaborate, prolonged, as if exaggeratedly spelled out, which was meant to put it down. This observation disconcerted me so much that two minutes passed before I realized that in the man’s neck, behind his hunched-up overcoat and the nervous activity of his hands, was the same horrible, bisyllabic hopping which had just left his legs.

From that moment I was bound to him. I understood that this hopping impulse was wandering about his body, trying to break out here and there. I understood why he was afraid of people, and I myself began cautiously to test whether passers-by noticed anything. A cold stab went through my back when his legs suddenly made a slight, jerking spring, but no one saw it, and I thought out the plan of myself stumbling a little in case anyone began to notice. That would certainly be one way of making the curious believe that some small, inconspicuous obstacle really had been lying in the road, on which both of us had happened to tread. But, while I reflected on helping, he had himself discovered a new and excellent expedient. I forgot to mention that he carried a stick, well, it was an ordinary stick, made of dark wood with a smooth curved handle. And in his searching anxiety, the idea that occurred to him of holding this stick against his back, at first with one of his hands (for who knew what the other might yet be needed for?) right along his spine, pressing it firmly into the small of his back, and thrusting the curved end under his collar so that one felt it hard and like a support behind the cervical and the first dorsal vertebra. This attitude was not striking, at most a little cocky, the unexpected spring day might excuse that. No one thought of turning round to look, and now all went well. Wonderfully well. It is true that at the next crossing two hops got out, two little, half-suppressed hops, but they didn’t amount to anything; and the only really visible leap was so cleverly managed (a hose-line lay right across the street) that there was nothing to be afraid of. Yes, things were still going well; from time to time the other hand also seized the stick and pressed it in more firmly, and at once the danger was again overcome.

I could do nothing to keep my anxiety from growing nevertheless. I knew that as he walked and made ceaseless efforts to appear indifferent and absentminded, that awful jerking was accumulating in his body; in me, too, was the anxiety which he felt growing and growing, and I saw how he clung to his stick, when the jolting began inside him. The expression of his hand then became so severe and unrelenting that I placed all my hope in his will, which was bound to be strong. But what could a will do here. The moment must come when the man’s strength would be exhausted; it could not be long now. And I, walking behind him with quickly-beating heart, I put my little strength together like money, and gazing at his hands, I besought him to take it if he needed it.

I believe that he took it; how could I help the fact that it was not more.

At the Place Saint-Michel there were many vehicles and people hurrying hither and thither, we were several times held up between two carriages, and then he would take a breath and let himself go a little, by way of rest, and there would be a slight hopping and a little nodding. Perhaps that was the ruse by which the imprisoned malady sought to get the better of him. His will had given way at two points, and the concession had left behind in the obsessed muscles a gentle, enticing stimulation and this compelling two-beat rhythm. But the stick was still in its place, and the hands looked annoyed and angry. In this fashion we set foot on the bridge, and all was well. All was well.

But now his gait became noticeably uncertain; sometimes he ran two steps, sometimes he stood still. Stood still. His left hand gently let go the stick and rose, rose, so slowly that I saw it tremble against the air; he thrust his hat back a little, and drew his hands across his brow. He turned his head slightly, and his gaze wavered over sky, houses and water, without grasping anything. And then he gave in. His stick had gone, he stretched out his arms as if to take off and fly, and there broke out of him a sort of elemental force that bent him forward and dragged him back and made him nod and bow, flinging dance-force out of him in among the crowd.

For already many people were around him, and I saw him no more.

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One thought on “Another empathetic follower

  1. So painful. As a child I was always taught not to stare at people because it was rude, and never, never, never to mock anyone. I taught my children to always try to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. I wonder whether this sort of thing is still being taught. In our so-called “classless” society, we seem to be sinking down, not rising to higher levels. It used to be called “good manners”; now, it is just seen as weird.

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