Unsent Letters from Lockdown: Emily Dickinson, Simone de Beauvoir, My Children
Kerstin Preiwuss Writes From Quarantine
When did you decide to no longer leave your house and then even your room? To no longer enter the garden, or no longer go for walks? To avoid people and eat in solitude? When was it sufficient to look through the window and already know in advance all that was happening on outside?
I am looking for advice because we are about to stay inside in our rooms. It isn’t a decision, it’s enough to make one despair, and we’re falling over with numb brooding or sitting rigid with fear. Who knows what will have command over us.
So please tell me, when did your distances became shorter, and did what was closer always seem greater and more wonderful than that which was unknown to you? At what point did you decide to remember everything you knew and take it with you into your room? Toward which state did you proceed? And how does one get accustomed to it? Because I think it’s better to become accustomed to something than to resign yourself to it.
You, who, in lieu of real encounters, spun a web of letters that enabled you to have a reality that was autonomous, who otherwise remained unreachable. You didn’t seek out the public and yet you remained in contact with it. You were carried by the knowledge that you had made a decision, and although it was not obvious, it was profoundly radical and immensely self-confident. So teach me, I beg you, teach me quickly, for I’m doing everything as if I were asleep. Although I’m watching myself as I do it, I can barely feel anything anymore. Completely mechanical, but is it possible to live mechanically? To what should I attach my longing?
Emily, please tell me how do you endure sleeping. How does your day end? What do you do with the thoughts that begin to circulate in the evening, how do you hide from them, where do you crouch to avoid their eyes? Are they birds or elves or harpies? Which hollow, which cave is waiting for you? Even when I sleep, I feel awake.
I do not discover fear in your poems, they follow events with interest, and the letters also never speak from a position of helplessness. I’m not even able to understand what I read, let alone what I write. But does that mean anything to anyone?
I always thought that I was alone but never lonely. Even before, my day proceeded from a place of observation. I’m accustomed to it, but not in this way, not with the knowledge that we all have to go to the place where until now I’ve retreated voluntarily. Now nothing reverberates, no echo returns.
You say after great pain a formal feeling comes, now repeat after me. Instead, tell me how you feel about intimacy. Doesn’t one run the risk of unlearning intimacy if one learns how to act this way? As the better option under adverse conditions, have thoughts moved into your house instead of people? Does it comfort you? What does it get out of us, what will we have to become like to survive it? Will we be lenient, or will it harden us? I am just a husk, a dummy, representing life so I can live under laboratory conditions.
In this way I go through the days until eventually I no longer want to hear anything about the next day. In this way nature, mother earth, regretting mother earth, or whatever you want looks back at us indifferently with its undead life, and I don’t have to guess, I can feel who has an abyss inside themselves. But where does it start? Is it still ahead of us, or already under our feet? And is it just a crack or as long as eternity, and can we leap over it? How did you deal with it? From here it looks as if you let yourself fall and made the abyss into a cave that you explored until it was second nature to you.
Just look at us, how in the beginning we were still wasting our energy, how we do everything to make ourselves noticed, and then gradually let it go. Because it becomes increasingly apparent that there is no alternative to staying put. Like how plants fall into dormancy, animals go into hibernation, tardigrades lapse into lifelessness. Just like the people in Siberia in the 19th century gathered around the fire in a room, hardly moving, let alone speaking. Life on the back burner, staying put, persevering until conditions improve. You can survive everything, even that, and nothing is in vain!
This is not the time to spare or fool yourself. You have to become sure of yourself so you work inside yourself, not get outside of yourself. I believe, you hear, I believe that we can become accustomed to it, endure it for a while, so that it becomes a part of our decision and thus has a decisive effect. I go to my room and sleep there night after night, and the night does not want to end, but every morning I wrap my hands around my joints and check the time and place, and I tell myself who I am and what I want to be there for.
You don’t have to answer any of my questions. Every question already knows its answer and every answer knows its question. Thus, Emily, be my genie in the bottle, my blue djinni, my open sesame, and say it to my face. Think for your freedom’s sake, think of something!
Faithfully, from here to there
For you it’s all a game. At least you don’t let me sense that the anxiety in which we all live has been passed on to you. I got it and I’m thankful for the way you run around the apartment without a care. The way you argue, fight, play, eat what I cook every day, tell me that once again it didn’t taste very good, sleep, and twitch. You still cry with the same fervor when you feel you haven’t been treated fairly and accuse me again of having played favorites. Your grief doesn’t go deeper than that. You’re young, you’re wild parakeets, you hang in there and don’t even notice the exceptional situation we’re in. It’s possible that when you read this at some point you’ll remember the spring when you got up a little later every day, when you listened to hundreds of audiobooks and watched movies, when we gathered wild garlic and hiked along the river, when you learned to use your inline skates, and you tilled the garden and planted your own plots.
When I allowed you to stare at the computer screen for hours because that is the only way you could skype with your friends. When you walked around your room with the tablet to show your friends something, or just placed it next to you so we could do crafts together in different places. Regardless of what it was that you did for the first time, it never seemed like the first time. It was just exciting, the next thing in a series of occurrences and experiences that you gathered in the course of your childhood.I am overwhelmed by the necessity of thinking up a new meal every day. I am overwhelmed by the necessity to keep you in good spirits, to keep you animated, to stimulate you.
You play and I cough. You don’t leave any time for me to worry. You’ve already given me a couple rounds of basic immunization anyway, all the infections I had with you that only randomly showed up in the blood work afterward. Inconspicuously I went through those illnesses with you, didn’t even notice that it was mononucleosis. It only showed up years later, at a routine checkup. The flu was bad when I had one of you in my belly as I watched the other in the hospital crib for ten days, how little artificial nutrition does for your health, and how only your own body can recover to the point that it regains its functions.
This time it’s different and playing without a care is still part of the game for you. A game called life. I admire you for it because it’s not easy for me right now. I simulate your day by putting it together again from other pieces, in no time at all I have developed rhythms with which others live so differently, from how we do now. It overwhelms me. I’m overwhelmed by the overabundance of virtual things, which now come streaming toward you through me because I’m the eye of the needle through which the world comes to you. I am overwhelmed by the necessity of thinking up a new meal every day. I am overwhelmed by the necessity to keep you in good spirits, to keep you animated, to stimulate you, and I am grateful for every audiobook or movie that lets you be dependent on yourselves, and not me. I can hardly think, I can only hold it all together.
Because in my world, the world that doesn’t come to you through the eye of my needle, everything is dissolving. There are terms for it: open, dynamic, in sight. But it means: dissolving. And it can’t be understood in terms of anticipation. Just endurance. There is no everyday life, but there is for you, and therefore a little bit for me as well. Because you are not old enough to think in anticipation.
Every evening I gather you together and tell you that we are the hedgehog family and what do hedgehogs do when things get dangerous? They roll up tight. And then we practice it before we roll through the room, tickling each other.
And every evening I sing you that old lullaby Der Mond ist aufgegangen and I’ve never been so touched by the lyrics, that the world is a quiet chamber where you can sleep through the daytime’s misery and despair, that you only have to look up to behold the moon, round and fair, even if it’s only half of it. That there are things we ridiculed because our eyes didn’t see them, and that we have to widen our eyes like our nostrils due to a lack of experience, that we only have them for looking out the window, but that everything that we still see are firm, unshakable facts. We don’t know much at all, we chase pipe dreams, and search for delusions, and lie down in the evening and ask to be spared from punishment, and we ask not only on behalf of ourselves. I sing it twice, once for you and once for me.
They say many people feel the need to seek your advice, so why should I be an exception. So I’m asking you because you understand deprivation as experience. What certainties can be found when all certainties are fleeting? Do we care about this or do we not care?
What I can say is that a catastrophe has occurred.
What I can say is that everyone is suffering simultaneously and differently at the same time. The tension makes them bend like an overburdened spring.
There is this insanity in all lines of thought. Reality can’t be prevented by forcing a possibility that corresponds as little as possible to reality. Time passes anyway and it awakens the needs of the soul, it makes us feel them. We are already no longer in a state of shock, no longer inhaling every case number, no longer look behind ourselves anxiously. We are also no longer in the phase of metamorphosis, where we adapt to altered living conditions. The catastrophe has already outpaced its first expansion. The fact that time is passing makes us feel accustomed to it. In the news we are no longer anxious in anticipation, but instead looking back. We expect a revival.
But it will take time. What makes us fall into line has no end in sight and has an effect. The duration will change us, we will live differently in the future. We will teach it to our children and in that way change the future, because their expectations for life will be different than what we have, or better yet, had. Maybe we will rebel against it again but we will ultimately become accustomed to it. We will become attentive instead of oblivious, and try to touch as little as possible so that nothing is passed on to us. This will creep from the body into one’s way of thinking. What will we retreat from in the future, what would we rather not think about, what do we not want to have contact with?
I’m still amazed at how quickly we walk the line. How we find the good and the bad in the facts, facets in which we cloth ourselves, with which we distract ourselves, through which we entertain ourselves. There is so much to tell. People, deprived of opportunity, interrupt each other, hardly let anyone finish their point. We are overfull and overflowing. How to assert oneself when the adversary is so vague that it can change everything and adapting to it becomes the basis of our reason.
There is an effort to make comparisons. There are public revelations. There is the hope of an echo of shared suffering. Revelation is helpful in the role of advisor. But everyone knows the same thing. All the public statements are just for having something to say, for putting something out there, for giving expression to one’s thoughts. If you take this literally, it means: squeezing out, emptying, draining the reservoir in the hope that the underground spring will provide replenishment. The imagination is constantly at work for its own sake. Self-revelations impoverish, they revolve around the void. Even letters no longer know any other topics.
You would say that that’s exactly how deprivation reveals itself. It will lead to nothing, only intensifying and drawing energy from base motives. Only hardship allows the contradiction be felt, effort without a sense of purpose, sense of purpose without a purpose.
It takes complex and ambivalent feelings to understand it, you will answer, that desperation put on display is not enough. Those who suffer try to share their suffering with others. This is human mechanics. Desperation, you will say, is not deprivation, the urge for description is not deprivation, sentimentality is not deprivation, nor is it an epiphany. Comparison, prophesying, warning about the end of days is not deprivation, it’s merely momentous for the world. Pleasure in confirmation, satisfaction with what has been achieved, admiration, and the desire to be understood are illusory fulfillment, not deprivation.
Tips obscure it, conspiracy theories use it, utopias ignore it. Deprivation will wander, reveal itself in ever new places, and will be transformed continually in the process. If we think we are rid of it, it has already accustomed us to it. Because it escapes us, it sticks to us, so that we soon feel it as a blemish, and then God have mercy on us, because when deprivation becomes a blemish, there is no we, just an us and a them.
If deprivation becomes a part of our behavior, then we have lost, because we have also become accustomed to what is missing. But we must not become like this, we must feel and name a void and comfort ourselves with the need for what is missing.
That is why more than ever I need someone to speak to me, so that the gears that keep my life in motion do not stand still. So I turn to you because you understand deprivation as experience. Where does one find the energy to do something for nothing in return? Where is the tipping point where deprivation creates abundance? What is consolation, if not to feel a disproportion between needs and circumstances and to give longing a direction that leads to beauty. To invent what it takes to endure deprivation. There is something missing, but that also gives me the freedom to imagine something. I can conceive what is missing. I can invent an agency.
Translated from the German—appearing here, originally—by Bradley Schmidt. Schmidt lives and works in Leipzig as a translator and teaches writing and translation classes at Leipzig University.