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Loki and Death, by Eugene Garber.

 

"Loki and Death" is one of fifteen stories in a collection entitled Vienna 00. All of the stories are set in a partly real and partly imagined Vienna of 1900. Loki, a distant cousin of the artist Egon Schiele and a fin-de-siècle avatar of the Norse god of discord, appears in several stories, always as an outlaw and acerbic critic of contemporary Viennese art and culture. "Venice," another one of the stories in the Vienna series, appeared in Offcourse Issue #10, Summer 2001.

 


¥
here in my crabbed prison cell I scribble and paint
yes paint Alfred that soft soul has brought me
paint pallet canvas easel
but I do not love him
he is one of the those that has damped the fire of art
KUNSTFEUER
one of the so-called Secessionists
but what have they seceded from
not money
not fame
not the emoluments of STATE
not the stroking of the Emperor
not masked balls
not ladies in satin
not Kunsttempels
not the thumpity thump thump of Mahler's Wagner
the stage awash with Alfred's glitzy sets
not ermine
not
p
e
n
d
a
n
t
s
by Koloman
what then


¥
once art was a living fire
KUNSTFEUER
lit images of running bison in the caves of our ancestors
heated oracles' bowels
danced drunkenly on apostles' heads
but the Secessionists have reduced it to gold
beaten it into casein
wear it in their teeth
and here in the State's verminous pen look how the flame of the warden's lantern
which might have lit his face as vividly as a La Tour
lops over like the Emperor's spent
S
 c
  h
   w
  a
 n
z


¥

so I must paint the desperately struggling KUNSTFEUER of this ashen age
consigned though I am to dreary incarceration for offenses against public morals
to wit debauchery of models and prurient paintings
but to my surprise I still find remnants of KUNSTFEUER in this cold city of
TOD
unpredictable crevices of suppressed fire
I remember for instance the judge's hair a tangle of red snakes aspiring to flame
I pitied him
what crueler master than an abstraction called Justice
I remember when Alfred's eyes burned with the fire of a true artist
eyes clouded now by the imagined obscenity of my paintings
bush too bright
cleft too dazzling and sanguineous
teat and aureole too brightly tipped with lambent flame
what Alfred and all of you must learn is that the only way out of TOD is through
the purifying flame of
KUNSTFEUER


¥
TOD
who would have guessed that after the Empire and God had died the new almighty
would be
TOD
only the Jew mind doctor of Bergasse sees it
in the eclipsed eyes of encouched clients
in the black images of their recitations
in their tics tears nose bleeds
in the tranced simulacrum
of rigor mortis when
he swings before
their dazed eyes
a golden watch
tick tock


¥

but you good doctor
despite your reports of hysterical Viennese ladies
imagining abuse by fathers brothers husbands
impugning the noble pater familias of Austria
you are still free to ply your trade in comfortable quarters on Bergasse
while I the painter of KUNSTFEUER am cribbed and confined
well which of us is right
you say Eros versus Thanatos
I say KUNSTFEUER versus TOD
oh I like Thanatos all right doctor
with its velveteen falling cadence
but we must get to the inky punctual thing itself
TOD
so I have set myself the task of catching the old ruffian in paint
a canvas utterly without luster
no winking obsidian to hint at a Presence on the other side
no soft motherly maw in which the viewer is churned to sweet clabber
nothing but nothingness
das Nichts
TOD
and when I have caught him I will burn him to ashes with the blinding brightness
of
KUNSTFEUER


¥

for the further purposes of this idiotic scribbling that keeps imagining itself a
painting with a shape and color which it does not have because it is only
words words words
I will call myself Z
not the cryptic X or the infamous K but Z
Z for zed
Z for zero
Z for zeitlos timeless
do you get it wordmongers
I'm doing time I'm eternal I'm out of time


¥

hear now wordmongers the enthralling story of Z's adventures with
KUNSTFEUER und TOD
a story that poses the old question
how to lure TOD into living light so that you can consume him in
KUNSTFEUER
this is the opposite of the old tale of Hans and Marta of Waldkirch
remember
Hans to escape his rendezvous with TOD instructs Marta to tell TOD that he has
gone to Altenmünster when in fact he has gone to Winterbach to which TOD says
to Marta that's odd for I have an appointment with Hans in Winterbach
this is what passes for irony in the world of words BAH


¥

in this story Z must use all his wile to lure TOD into the light so that he can plunge
him into
KUNSTFEUER
But TOD will not make an appointment for a sitting not even in Vienna
Z tries to enhance his appeal to TOD through various regimens
deep sleep drugs hypnotism mediums eastern meditation sensory deprivation
fasting all boring and none apparently pleasing to
TOD
Z lays on his canvas the lusterless black of Nichts but winks of Being
peep out mischievously like the scintillance of extinguished stars
so Z understands that he cannot catch TOD in painterly surfaces
but must snare him in intimations lying below the pigment
therefore
cherchez la femme


¥
here wordmongers imagine a disquisition on the indwelling blackness of
Woeman
with clever puns on dying
however Z must find not just any Woeman but the one in whom blackness has
taken up such settled residence that it clearly houses
TOD
to find this rarity will not be easy Z knows for through the streets of Vienna walk
scores of Woemen who judging by their bruised and furtive eyes and their feline
stealth might seem to harbor the furtive TOD but do not
accordingly Z follows a stratagem whispered him by an old crone
walks the streets carrying in his arms something in swaddling cloth
something that makes a plaintive mewing


¥

before him the Woemen of the street part left and right
like sea froth before the cutwater of the Flying Dutchman
none ask what is this terrible burden you bear O man
or other such poetic query as found in the olde tales
thus night after night is seen this specter of inverse gender bearing his mewing
burden until Z wonders if the old sister has cast him in the wrong kind of play
for you literati know that one must know the genre before he can act the part
is this a farce in which TOD is a bumbling ghost or a noxious fart
or is it a dark comedy in which TOD takes the maiden to wife
or an allegory of Chance TOD the caster of the sortes
or an olde tragedy TOD the vice singing a wormy song as he lugs the guts offstage
O Woeman
host of TOD
heroine of the play
where are you cries Z


¥

truth to tell
when the long awaited one exhales from the dark a vacant hsst
a kind of suspiring nothing
Z feels in his bowels as much dread as triumph
maybe it's the razor thinness of the sibilant greeting
maybe it's the appalling mix of perfume and necrotic breath
maybe it's that Z's imagination takes him down into even ranker regions
all of which may signify that our hero is not as intrepid as we thought
or as dedicated to the task of consuming TOD in KUNSTFEUER
nevertheless because there is no other course
he reaches his hand out to the Woeman and drops the mewing thing
which hisses and slinks off into the night


¥

the Woeman comes to Z's studio
proves a pliant model
two deep black eyes
two cavernous nostrils
two tufts of black in the portals of the ears
two luxuriant black bushes under arms
another nethermost black bush
two nay three sets of dark sanguineous lips
numerous swatches of shadow behind knees between breasts buttocks fingers toes
thus Z perceives many entrances to the Underworld
all he needs is a sappy twig or a sop for the Keeper


¥

Z understands well that to slip through the Woeman's portals into TOD's domain
so that he can blast him with KUNSTFEUER
he must never confuse the ontological with the carnal thrust
herewith therefore wordmongers a matrix for a paean to chastity

   
 woman in heat     angel spears hostel and heart
  laughter     
 trag ó V flagellant         folly Santa Teresa
 mud     crystalline waters  
  the bitch   a piece of meat

 

¥
nevertheless
despite nettlesome abstentions
despite working and reworking of paint
Z does not penetrate to
TOD
meanwhile the Woeman permitted at each session's end a look at the day's doings
and finding all her portals glinting in oil several of them detached from the
corporal nexus and shining like moonlit clefts in an empty sky and being permitted
by Z to speak albeit with ill humor and no expectation of wisdom
the voice thin and necrotic
soul and intelligence whelmed by the fulsome body

¥

well noble Artist I know that in the modern fashion you are not really painting me
that I am only dust on a mirror or a butterfly's wing or the powder that bees carry
from flower to flower or the first lace of snow on a roof
or a shadow without a skin or wind without a sail
and so for you I would be this nothing if I could but I cannot
my heart sends out its little rivers to my fingers
my lungs draw air into my nose
meat and bread warm me
so I am not for you
adieu
which might have moved Z were it not for the pretentious fillip of French rhyme


¥

Z does not release the Woeman
though her body is burdened with various metaphors
rivers bellows hearth
for who could ask for flesh richer in darkness
the problem is not her but the very paint itself
matter attempting to capture the immaterial
no matter TOD must be consumed in KUNSTFEUER
and the way is through the Woeman
but what if TOD is not immaterial after all but an old man with a white beard and
a scythe looking quite kindly if it weren't for the barely concealed erection under
his tattered robe
or is a vicious dog or a nightjar or a flying worm
Scheisse


¥

and now wordmongers we come to the place in ye olde tale where the hero hears
the inevitable still small voice as of a cricket or a bird speaking in riddles that can
only be unraveled by a certain sibyl in a cave in the Carpathians who requires for
her services copulation which does not change her into a golden haired virgin
or
the still small voice comes as a riddling song sung by a child murdered by the
Jews
there are roles here also for toads foundlings and changelings
to which the hero must tune his ear with the greatest care
against the din of imperial proclamations and Wagnerian clamor


¥

well
it turns out that Z's still small voice comes in sleep
a bubble of paint on his palette forms itself into a puella mirabilis who
says
tight-rope walkers and corpses defy gravity
abysses yawn only if exposed to old texts
the eagle catches in her talons the new light
who would suck the paps of dawn let him cease upon the midnight
the snake strikes always thrice
the badger pretends death with a faux grimace


¥

Z's swears vehemently at these opaque aphorisms
and yet they teach his paint to pierce flesh and reach essence
the Woeman comes forward in all her glory
such rosy skin that the very air burns as with petals of KUNSTFEUER
such glistening portals that one leaps to dodge the lances of light
such heat that the canvas billows as if filled by a blast from a sun god's mouth
and mirabile dictu this portentous carnality yields at last access to
TOD
the old Shapeshifter exposed paradoxically by this irresistible display of
sumptuous matter
ho
there he creeps in an unctuous crevice like a worm in leaf mould
there shudders like an oily pendant to a clitoral crest
there squinches in a tight bum
there in a nostril quivers on silvery cilia
ho ho Herr TOD
out of the Woeman's flesh Z dread bearer of KUNSTFEUER is assembling you
piece by piece


¥

here an interruption in the story of Z occasioned by a visit from Alfred the Kind
bearing brandy disguised as painter's spirits
paint cloth brushes canvas
a clean smock
saying
dear Z as you know peripheral vision though unfocused intincts the central image
with diffuse colors and shapes and thus a soiled smock makes a sullied painting


¥

I intend always to be courteous to Alfred my benefactor but this bit of Puritanism
stings so I rip from my painting of Woeman the rags of modesty I have thrown
over it to protect the innocent eyes of jailor and warden
voila Alfred
KUNSTFEUER
to which Alfred says
my God Z have you no sense at all
this is exactly how you got here in the first place
to which I say
never fear Alfred because here is no flesh and blood model to be debauched
in fact the painting is fictitious being merely a counter in an olde tale


¥

pressing ahead in ye olde tale Z inspired by KUNSTFEUER
has by strokes of supra-carnal art
lured into narrow defiles
the stinking old Protean
the Shapeshifter himself
TOD
see the old vulgarian skittering inside the Woeman like a Dybbuk in a possessed
wife popping a shiny member out now here now there like a wet little finger
but scurry as he may
Z's quickening hand and eye catch minim by minim the artful dodger
never mind that you wordmongers would see only fleshy Woeman
Alfred comes to the cell and with his artist's eyes though tainted by prudery
sees the truth of the painting
Z has seized TOD and KUNSTFEUER
on a single canvas
a masterpiece
my God Z
what if the jailor sees and reports to the warden
this work must be saved
I will smuggle it out
no
Z
seized by the ecstatic joy of self-immolation
or by the recognition that the public can not bear so much truth
or by some other motive let the hermeneuts decide
has a plan more in keeping with the tale


¥

oh Warden
the Devil got into me
I have painted what I should not
I have not painted what I should
I have not loved my art as myself
and there is no health in me
I must be shriven
purged with the purifying flame of
KUNSTFEUER
or I will be consigned to everlasting perdition
oh Warden let me make a blaze in the yard
and there burn these satanic oils
and thus by means of a self-ignited auto-da-fé purge sin and self
there wordmongers
you can't ask for a more literary act of contrition


¥

so Z and A and a bemused warden attended by an unamused jailor hie to the yard
where a pile of rough hewn wood is coaxed into a handsome
KUNTSFEUER
upon which is cast the glowing Woeman
whose orifices soon sizzle bubble and burst into lusty flame
all pretty much as expected by those in attendance
but then comes what only Z has slyly foreseen
the inflamed painting belches a horrible pall of noisome smoke
composed of a myriad of tiny black worms
that quickly find a home in the hair skin and clothes of the four onlookers
Z shouting
run
the Black Death
clutching his throat
gargling
all my sins come home to roost
a hackneyed and inappropriate metaphor but verbal invention just now throttled by
the paroxysms of pretended
TOD


¥
here of course several possible endings
ashes ashes all fall down in which case
TOD triumphs over KUNSTFEUER
or tongues of fire light the heads of the four in which case
KUNSTFEUER trumps TOD
or a general condition of confused sputtering choking cursing in which case
KUNSTFEUER and TOD are inextricably entwined
or how about an anarchic climax sure to please the rabble
Z seizing on the confusion to snatch the warden's keys unlocks all the cells
the prisoners pouring out onto the streets of Vienna like plague-ridden rats
or maybe something miraculous for the gentlefolk
the painting rising from the ashes like a Phoenix all its glory restored
or something for the satirists
the Woeman's orifices restored but grotesquely pox-ridden
well
be assured the chosen ending will sum up the meaning of the tale
as demanded by the established practices of you wordmongers


¥

here in my crabbed cell I scribble and I paint
yes paint Alfred that soft soul has brought me
paint pallet canvas easel
but I do not love him
he is one of the those that has damped
KUNSTFEUER


Eugene Garber has published two collections of fiction: Metaphysical Tales, winner of the AWP Award for Short Fiction in 1981, and The Historian, winner of the William Goyen Award in 1992. His fiction has been anthologized in The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction, Best American Short Stories, and The Paris Review Anthology, among other compilations.

Please write to Eugene Garber in care of Offcourse@albany.edu.

 



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