Disorientation | Suman Mallick

The German professor, whose main areas of research are practical philosophy, the philosophy of orientation, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s works, was recently honored in the American heartland with the formation of a foundation whose mission is—according to its website—to promote his work in academia and among the general public. I came across this news one afternoon a few weeks ago in the online edition of a regional newspaper, while conducting what we call donor prospect research in my line of work. (I am with a nonprofit that, when I co-founded it, was going to do a world of good and be my life’s calling. In the decade since, it has done quite a bit of good.) It turns out that the great philosopher’s protégé was contacted, without provocation, by a highly successful American businessman—the founder and chief-executive of a food production company—about one of the philosopher’s papers that the protégé had translated for a journal devoted to Nietzsche. The businessman asked the protégé, who was a doctoral candidate at a liberal arts university halfway across the country, if he had translated any other papers written by the philosopher and, if so, how he could get them. Then, as the conversation (or perhaps it was a series of phone conversations, or email exchanges—I wondered but could not tell from the article) progressed, the businessman offered to fly out and meet the protégé. Hearing this, the protégé’s girlfriend expressed alarm and mentioned the possibility that the protégé could be talking to a serial killer. Nevertheless, her concern for her boyfriend’s safety did not amount to a lot, because the businessman managed to convince the protégé that he was indeed interested in meeting only because he had found the paper so interesting and could not find anybody in his own town to talk to about it. So the two met and struck up a friendship, and eventually the businessman decided it was time to fly to Germany to meet the philosopher himself. They met at Kempinski Hotel in Berlin, which, the article noted, is quite famous in Germany. Over the next couple of years, the businessman, the philosopher, and the protégé attended conferences in Switzerland and visited Sils Maria, where Nietzsche wrote his books. They took long hikes together. During breaks, the philosopher philosophized. The businessman breathed in the fresh Alpine air and the philosopher’s wisdom. His work—of growing his company from one to four meat-processing plants and thereby becoming the leading supplier for a nationwide fast food chain—had been his primary focus for many years. The company, despite longstanding antagonism from the animal rights activists and the environmental activists and the labor activists, and on top of that, more recent competition from upstart makers of plant-based meat substitutes, had indeed turned out to be highly profitable, and left its founder and chief-executive a very wealthy man (which is why his name appeared in my donor prospect research to begin with)—obviously wealthy enough to have the time to go looking for the meaning of life in Nietzschean journals and the means to be able to afford multiple visits to Switzerland and at least one stay at the famous Kempinski Hotel in Berlin. But now the businessman, who was obviously going through a period of crisis in his life—what the others who peopled his life merely referred to as “being out of whack”—came to see this crisis as a “disorientation,” the philosopher’s term for his malaise, the first course of the cure for which was obviously an education in the philosophy of orientation, a subject in which the philosopher was an expert. The philosophy of orientation, the businessman learned, is about how everyone, consciously or subconsciously, tries to adapt to new situations in their lives by finding footholds and establishing routines. The philosopher taught him that in life nothing holds forever, and therefore, when one foothold breaks loose, a new one needs to be found in order to reorient oneself. The businessman was astonished by the discovery that such immense truths that form the very foundations of society and life remain hidden inside books that remain hidden inside libraries and rundown stores peddling used books, and the only trickle down to the common populace was in the form of self-help manuals, television talk-shows, and so on. He was quoted in the article wondering if people knew what was in all these texts on philosophy. He appreciated the philosopher’s descriptions of what ailed his soul rather than the alternatives—prescriptive doctrines, or worse, dogma, or even worse, anti-depressants. He had previously attended an academic symposium on philosophy at the local university only to be flabbergasted by the spectacle of speakers arguing over a sentence for hours and nearly coming to blows over the placement of a comma within that sentence. But the practical precepts of the philosophy of orientation appealed to the businessman’s common sense a lot more, especially since neither his politics nor his religion, which were already deeply rooted, ran counter to the philosopher’s teachings, and therefore need not be cast aside in order to embrace this newfound knowledge. The businessman therefore decided to honor the philosopher. The philosopher flew from Germany to attend the opening gala of the newly created foundation to honor his life’s work. The protégé, who had already been commissioned by the businessman to translate the philosopher’s works into English, was appointed Chair of the foundation, and his newly translated book was released as part of the celebrations. One of the state’s two senators, whose political action committee is also a beneficiary of the businessman’s generosity, attended, as did other luminaries from the local community and numerous employees of the businessman’s enterprise. The journalist covering the event interviewed one of those employees, who noted that the businessman liked to talk philosophy. An annual competition for an essay on orientation was announced at this opening gala, with the winner or winners to receive not an inconsiderable sum of money. Several photographs accompanying the article showed an elegant setting at an auspiciously named venue, elaborate presentations of hors’ d’oeuvres on tables upon tables bedecked with fine white cloth, and an open bar, while others confirmed that a solemn good time befitting the occasion was had by all.

The article about this very real event brought to mind a one-page short story by Thomas Bernhard, and of course I had to set aside my donor prospect research to go find the book that contained it. The story turned out to be #102 of a hundred and four such one-page stories in the collection called The Voice Imitator, a collection which, unless one is already infected by Bernhard’s particular form of macabre, I recommend staying at least six feet away from. In this story, which is called Genius, “a man was found dead in the hotel of the inner city who with complete lucidity had written a note stating the reason for his suicide and had pinned this note to his jacket.” The genius had pursued an idea for decades and written a treatise on it, only to be denied any appreciation for his efforts, and even after he had finally begged (emphasis Bernhard’s, not mine) to be appreciated and had pointed out the immensity of his achievement. Overwhelmed by the idea that his work might only be appreciated, profited from, and exploited after his death, as had happened to the works of so many of his fellow geniuses in the past, the genius, determined to be true to self until the very end of his life and unwilling to leave to posterity what it was so obviously unworthy of, burned his life’s work to a rubble of ashes before taking his own life. I was a little disappointed that Bernhard—who can always be relied upon to somewhat gleefully provide the gruesome details of the causes of death or suicide of so many of his characters, and who, it must be noted, himself died by assisted suicide—did not for whatever reason mention exactly how the genius in this particular story took his own life, and could therefore only surmise that it had to have been in some ingenious manner.

By now it was dark outside, and I realized I had been sitting on the sofa and staring out the window for quite a while. I did not know whether to feel reassured or disappointed that the real-life philosopher—the one whose main areas of research are practical philosophy, the philosophy of orientation, and Nietzsche’s works—did not suffer a fate as cruel as what befell Bernhard’s fictional genius and instead received the recognition due him within this lifetime. On one hand, it was comforting that the American heartland may not be as cruel as Vienna—the setting of Bernhard’s story and a city with which he tangled much of his life—and in it exists a leader of industry who can produce food for the masses cheaply and efficiently and make a tidy enough living off such work to be able to honor the work of geniuses. Furthermore, this happy occurrence made sense especially since the philosopher’s work involves putting the theories of philosophy into practice, teaching one how to reorient when one finds orientation lacking in life, and rising not unlike the Übermensch, as Nietzsche—whom the philosopher has spent the majority of his life studying—proposed. On the other hand, was it not Nietzsche who once stated, “I do not want to be understood for a long time?” I vaguely recalled coming across such an assertion in the Gay Science, which I had had great difficulty trying to absorb at my only pass through it. At that late hour, my eyes were dry and my head weary and I had no inclination to go searching for problematic proclamations in books that are better left hiding in bookshelves. But then, realizing that I did not want to do so made me feel ashamed of myself; the simple truth was that I lacked the businessman’s doggedness to pursue more complicated and meaningful truths, and it hit me with profundity. I got up to find my phone. The person with whom I occasionally get together, to pass otherwise lackluster evenings without either of us worrying about a romantic entanglement, had texted, suggesting that we stop worrying about all these shelter-in-place restrictions and just meet up to—if nothing else—press flesh for a little stress relief, and then texted again a little later to call me a blockhead and a fool, but I had, as noted earlier, been preoccupied. Now it was too late and I certainly felt a fool. In any case, it would have done no good to see this person on this particular evening, for I also felt drained of all vitality. It was as if I’d spent hours trying to build a spreadsheet out of a large set of data connected to multiple variables that all relate to each other, gotten to the end and written out the final formula in a cell which was supposed to reveal a magical number, like the sum of dollars that a fundraiser might raise, for example, if one variable does this and another one does that, only to receive an error message warning about a circular reference. What kept eating away at me: could anyone really be considered a genius if they were understood in their own lifetime? Did it matter who it was that understood their genius or what they did for a living or what their politics or religion happened to be? And who was I to be thinking such thoughts when I lacked the fortitude to pursue respectable conclusions? I recalled reading somewhere else recently that to philosophize is to learn how to die, and I was glad I was not a philosopher. Suddenly, I cared a lot more than ever before about not yet wanting to learn how to die. Now, with people dropping dead in droves everywhere, I wanted to stop worrying about the Scylla of finding new donors like the businessman and the Charybdis of salary reductions and cutting our already meager staff, and I wanted to live a little while there was still living to be had; I just was not sure how to go about it. But when one has spent enough time building complicated financial spreadsheets, one at least knows that the best thing to do, when getting a circular reference error message after laboring for hours, is to set aside that spreadsheet for a while. I resolved to try to get up early the next morning, to put on my mask and go for a morning walk before thinking about work, then got ready for bed and lay down, shivering a little.

Suman Mallick’s debut novel The Black-Marketer’s Daughter was shortlisted for the Disquiet Open Borders Book Prize and was published in October by Atmosphere Press.​ ​Suman is the Assistant Managing Editor of the literary magazine Under the Gum Treenow entering its tenth year. Find him on Instagram and Twitter @smalick71.