They know

I am sitting and reading a poet. There are many people in the hall, but one doesn’t feel them. They are in their books. Sometimes they move in the pages, like people who are sleeping and who turn over between two dreams. Ah, how good it is to be among people reading. Why are they not always so? You can go up to one and touch him gently: he feels nothing. And if you gently bump into your neighbour as you stand up, and excuse yourself, he nods towards the side on which he hears your voice, his face turns to you and does not see you, and his hair is like the hair of a person asleep. How good it feels. And I sit and have a poet. What a destiny. There are now perhaps three hundred people in the hall who are reading; but it is impossible for every single one of them to have a poet. (God knows what they have.) There aren’t three hundred poets. But look, what a destiny. I, perhaps the most the most wretched among these readers, a foreigner: I have a poet. Although I am poor. Although my suit, which I wear every day, is beginning to show through in certain places, although this or that objection might be made against my shoes. Of course my collar is clean, my shirt too, and as I am I could go into any café, possibly even on the grand boulevards, and confidently thrust my hand out to a plate of cakes and take something. No one would take this amiss or scold me or throw me out, for it is still a hand of the better classes, a hand that is washed four or five times a day – there is nothing under the nails, the index finger has no inkstain, and the wrists especially are spotless. Poor people don’t wash up that far, that’s a well-known fact. So one can draw certain conclusions from their cleanliness. One does, too. In shops one draws them. But there are a few lives, on the Boulevard Saint-Michel for instance and in the rue Racine, that don’t let themselves be put off, that don’t give a damn about their wrists. They look at me and know. They know that I am really one of them, that I am only playing a little comedy. It is, after all, carnival time. And they don’t want to spoil my fun; they just grin a little and wink. No one sees it. Otherwise, they treat me like a gentleman. But if somebody happens to be near, then they even grovel, act as if I were wearing a fur coat and my car were following along behind me. Sometimes I give them two sous and tremble lest they refuse them, but they take them. And everything would be in order if they didn’t grin and wink a little again. Who are these people? What do they want from me? Are they waiting for me? How do they recognise me? It’s true my beard looks somewhat neglected, and it is vaguely reminiscent of their sick, old, faded beards that always impressed me. But don’t I have the right to neglect my beard? Many busy people do, and it would never occur to anyone to immediately lump them together with the outcasts on that account. For it is clear to me that these people are outcasts, not just beggars. No, they’re really not beggars; one must discriminate. They are trash, husks of people spat out by fate. Damp from the saliva of fate they stick to a wall, to a lamppost, to an advertising pillar, or they slowly ooze down the street, leaving a dark, dirty trace behind. What in the world did that old woman want from me who, carrying the drawer of a night table in which a few buttons and needles were rolling around, had crept out from some hole or other? Why did she always walk beside me and look at me? As if she were trying to recognise me with her watery eye that looked as if some sick person had spat green slime onto her bleeding lids? And how, that other time, did that small grey woman come to stand for a quarter of an hour beside me before a shop window while showing me an old, long pencil that protruded with infinite slowness from her filthy, closed hands? I acted as if I were looking at the goods displayed and didn’t notice anything. But she knew I had seen her, she knew I was standing there and wondering what she was really doing. For I understood quite well that it could not be a question of the pencil: I felt that it was a sign, a sign for the initiated, a sign that the outcasts recognise; I felt that she was indicating to me that I had to go somewhere or do something. And the oddest thing was that I could not shake off the feeling that there really was a certain appointment to which this sign belonged, and that this scene was something I ought to have expected.

— Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (trans. B. Pike)


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