The Life of Henry Fuckit
19 He contracts existentialist nausea
He had commenced employment with the Commercial Union at the beginning of September when the fresh spring weather was promising an end to winter and the coming of long, warm days. It was a promise that couldn't be taken too seriously. But some days the air was so cool and fragrant, the light so crisp and clear, that he was filled with restlessness and an urge to be out in the open, exploring the Peninsula, walking on the mountain, running along a beach. Certainly not sitting at an office desk. When Ivor Hopper left at the end of the month Henry was racked with envy and a growing resentment.
The room at the YMCA was comfortable enough and quiet. The food was edible, and it was conveniently situated for work and for getting acquainted with the city. He was able to extend his stay for another six weeks and when he received his first pay cheque and bought some books and a second hand bicycle his feelings of abhorrence towards the Insurance Company and its officials were temporarily assuaged. But not for long.
"Dear Lieblings-Onkel Fritz," he wrote in one of his letters to Ingachini, "you will probably be pleased to hear that I'm suffering from Existentialist Nausea of the variety described by Sartre. It's a hellish disease to contract, let me tell you, and I could only wish it on the vilest of enemies. The primary symptom is revulsion. This takes the form of a physical experience similar to mild travel sickness, and although I have not actually retched I have taken to keeping a paper bag in my jacket pocket. I also break into a cold sweat, tremble like a leaf on a branch being assailed with blows from a heavy axe, and feel what I can only describe as a 'vertiginous malaise.' The paroxysm lasts for from five to fifteen minutes and occurs invariably in places where mindless clerical work is being performed. I had a particularly bad attack when I went to open a savings account at the Standard Bank in Long Street. The sight of the tellers counting money, customers standing neatly in a queue, and clerks shuffling papers at their desks so unnerved me that I felt on the point of collapse. My hand shook so violently that I was unable to hold a pen and had to be assisted by one of the robots at the enquiries counter. Can you imagine how dreadful it is for me when several times a day at the Commercial Union Assurance Company Limited of South Africa, I am struck down? And it has everything to do with Existentialism. To put it in a nutshell, in certain situations I am unable to justify the validity of my own existence, and am so revolted that my entire system is thrown into psychosomatic shock. You cannot believe the trauma and angst, my dear avuncular mentor of Teutonic lineage. What would the heroes of the Nibelungenlied have done in my position? What a foolish question! They would have wreaked havoc among the enemy, of course. The cobbles of Greenmarket Square should be awash with the blood of the white-collared foe. If I were a valiant knight like Dancwart, and the Assistant Manager were Bloedelin, brother of King Etzel, I should draw my great sharp sword and strike him such a violent blow that - in a trice - his head would be lying at his feet. But I am no valiant knight.
Apart from the nausea I have other ailments. Autism, thought-block and hebephrenia. The work that I'm required to do is so mundane and demeaning, and my colleagues are such grey, spiritless shadows, that there are times when I feel seriously threatened as an individual. It is as if my personality is dissolving and I am forced to flee from the reality of this horrible world and withdraw into a private, self-constructed reality. On occasions, of increasing frequency, people speak to me and I hear their voices and see them looking at me but I cannot tell what it is that they are saying. Then there are times when I try to be objective and analyse my situation, and my thought processes seem to freeze solid. I am unable to think, there is nothing to be thought, there is nothing to be done. Then, without warning, I may suddenly erupt into hebephrenic chaos. I gabble incoherently about utterly nonsensical topics, burst into tears at the unbearable despair that fills me on noticing something as trivial as the dandruff on the Chief Clerk's shoulders, or start laughing hysterically at the sight of the Manager, cigar in mouth, being followed from the lift by the Assistant Manager, cigarette in mouth. The other day I was alone in the filing room looking out of the window at the pigeons, the layabouts and the scurrying citizenry, when the phone rang. Of course I ignored it. It rang five or six times and then stopped. Almost immediately it recommenced, this time with a certain shrill insistence. At five or six rings I began counting: seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve… I uttered an oath and ran to it, picked it up and threw it back on its cradle. And do you know, my dear Onkel, I was suddenly filled with a tumult of exultation. I had actually done something! My heart was pounding, my eyes had cleared, I breathed heavily, I had grown several inches in stature, I punched the air, I strode the aisles, even my anal sphincter had tightened and my thigh muscles were rigid. When the phone began to ring once more I let out a shriek of joy, a type of battle cry of the kind Siegfried would have been proud of, and rushed to the instrument, picked it up and hurled it back to its stupid place. Life had flooded back into my veins. Once more the phone rang. After three rings I lifted and replaced it. The next time it was two rings. Then one. Then silence. The pounding feet began to echo up from the stairwell and finally in roared that most furious of tornadoes, the Assistant Manager. Scheize! What language! I laughed, I wept, I could offer no explanation. My dear Herr Fritz, this was a classic case of hebephrenia: incoherence, inappropriate emotions, silliness. But I had come to life.
This is how employment in the modern commercial world is affecting me. Please feel free to offer your own diagnosis and prescription. You may prognosticate, judge and condemn. You know that, as always, I shall respect your opinion and abide by your advice. The other two uncles can also throw in their tuppence worth, if they wish."
On the last Thursday of October he received a reply. "Lieber Henry-neffe, I write with brevity on account of urgency. All is well here, quiet and with nothing to report that would shake the earth. The heat is getting very terrible, and the sweat is pouring from the temples and the armpits of the poor boys in the kitchen. Just to mention that I proceed with the fattening process of the schwein.
Now let me warn you. Achtung! This is a classic case of nascent schizophrenia, and if not treated and cured immediately your mind is surely more than halfway down the maelstrom. It is clear that the empty humming and drumming of the work you are doing is driving you crazy. You are totally without equipment for this imbecilic activity. To be able to disembark on such a career you would first be required to undertake a Lobotomy Operation. You remember this to be the clinical proceeding prescribed for me by the Teufeltochter Sarah Bellum? Your mind is too vigorous at present for this work. Also your imagination would admit suicide in such a prison. Therefore you must immediately leave this position with the Insurance Company and recuperate for three months minimum. Then you must find work that is compatible for your soul. A money order from Frau Rabinowitz is enclosed to help you make a full recovery.
In finality I would also mention Braithwaite and Witherspoon. They are in agreement with my opinions. Furthermore, Witherspoon implores you to study at the university for a proper qualification that is both high-powered and interesting. And our residential Transcendental-Mystic has a special message for you: LOOK OUT FOR A SIGN AND YOU WILL KNOW WHAT TO DO. (I am frightened that his brain is becoming atrophied.) But there it is, LOOK OUT FOR A SIGN."
This was exactly the advice Henry had hoped for. He was now fortified by their support and much closer to taking the decision he knew to be inevitable. What was delaying his decision, and what lay heavy upon his conscience, was a sense of self-betrayal. This was his first job and he had been in it barely two months. Surely he was made of sterner stuff. Could he not see out at least six months of tedium, make the most of it and save enough money for a prolonged rest, maybe even undertake a travelling holiday somewhere? Ivor Hopper had despised the work with a similar loathing, and yet he had stuck it out for almost a year, claiming that the experience had put iron in his soul. One evening, as they were leaving the office, he had stopped on the pavement in front of the marble plaque bearing the Company name and turned to Henry. "I have endured the most excruciating torment and I now feel justified in my contempt." He had hawked up a copious amount of spittle and messily fired it at the sign. Musing on this heroic display of arrogance Henry sadly acknowledged to himself that if he left now it would be an ignominious defeat, and a bad precedent. Already he was an object of pity, he was being told what he should do, money was being sent to support him in his weakness. God damn it! He must pull himself together and take control.
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