The Allegory of the Bear

If you had been on the train that ran from Prague to Krakow on the 7th of October 1925, you perhaps would have wondered about the unscheduled stop close to the Polish Border. If you could have looked down at the train from on high, you would have observed two events that occurred almost simultaneously at this unscheduled stop, one certainly more curious than the other.

Near the front of the train on the Northern side of the tracks, a group of five men dressed in dull gray overcoats, two inspectors and three policeman, entered the train just behind the coal tender. On the southern side of the track, a few cars up from a yellow caboose, and quite a distance from the car where the five men had entered, a cargo door opened quickly, a ramp clumsily lowered and a woman led a bear wearing a top hat and a tuxedo jacket off the train. 

A young boy followed behind carrying a large red ball. A man hopped down to lift the ramp back into the train car, urging them to hurry as quietly as he could. The woman led the bear into the nearby woods and indicated in her manner for him to remain there. The young boy, who was crying now, pushed the large red ball into the woods near the bear. Then the woman and the boy ran back to the train. The man hefted them each into the car just as the train was pulling away. He leaped into the car after a short run. He closed the cargo door and, in the narrow space before it shut, whispered a quiet curse for the bear abandoned out there in the woods.

The bear's name was Trakl. During that time just after the Great War, he was famous for his graceful dancing and ability to balance on a red ball. The drawing of Trakl the Bear with his top hat and tuxedo coat was a beloved image on many posters and handbills all over Europe. The shows where he performed were always sold out.

One of the accidental effects of the formation of the new state of Czecho-Slovakia in 1918 was that it was now forbidden to capture and train wild bears. This was seen by many as just one more excuse by the government to harass the Romani people who often kept bears in their camps as pets and performers. They often taught them to dance and perform various tricks. They were also known to get the bears drunk and beat them unmercifully. Regardless, owning a dancing bear was now a violation of the law. And as famous as Trakl the bear was, transporting him through Czecho-Slovakia was still a crime. A crime the police inspectors would not allow to be flaunted with such public impunity.

Trakl was just the sort of bear that had been captured as a young cub, torn away from his mother, and taken into a Traveler camp where he was trained to gracefully dance and balance on a red ball. He was also regularly given alcohol and laughed at in his drunkenness. He was also beaten unmercifully. And now he sat in woods beside the railroad tracks with his top hat, tuxedo coat and red ball with no understanding of why he was there or what he was to do. So he did what he always did when confronted with the great unknown and no whip or goad to compel him otherwise: he ambled over to the his red ball, curled around it and fell asleep.

For the first time in his life, Trakl dreamed. He saw himself performing in front of a large crowd of happy faces. He danced around as he had been taught but not because he was being forced to. He danced because he wanted to. Then he climbed on the red ball and walked it easily around the stage, taking delight in the amazed silence of the audience. And then he danced upon the red ball in a manner he had never done before. His heart filled with a joy had never known. He felt as if he could dance upon the red ball forever.

When Trakl awoke the next morning, he didn’t remember where he was or why he was there. He sat up next to the red ball. At first he was scared. But as he thought back over the day before and his dream during the night, his fear turned to loneliness and sorrow. He was also hungry. Trakl had no idea how or where to find any food. But he could smell the faintest of odor of something wonderful in the air. So with the top hat affixed to his head and still wearing the dusty tuxedo jacket, Trakl set off through the woods, pushing the red ball before him.

He walked on, stopping every now and then to raise his nose to the sky and reassure himself the fine threads of air that indicated food were still there. Indeed they were. And as he got closer to the source, his head was filled with a fragrance he had never known. It filled him with a great hunger and desire. He pushed his red ball onwards, ever faster.

He stepped out of the woods of a sudden into a clearing. In the center of this clearing was a dead tree. And in the hollow of this dead tree, was the source of the fragrance. It was honey. Trakl was overcome with his hunger and rushed to plunge his face into the honey.

He was almost to the tree when a great bellowing sound stopped him in his tracks. Charging at him from the other side of the clearing was another bear. Trakl had known other bears and had no fear of this one. In the past, when other bears came towards him, they were always controlled by their trainer. Nothing bad had ever come from another bear. However, something bad came from this one. For this was a wild bear.

The angry wild bear slammed into Trakl, knocking him off his feet and sent him sprawling into the brush. The top hat fell from his head. The wild bear then leaped on him and began to tear and rip at Trakl’s face and exposed belly, ripping the tuxedo jacket off. But even though Trakl had never been in a fight before, he was much more agile and graceful than the wild bear. He quickly slipped from underneath the beast and ran to his red ball.

The wild bear was furious with anger and roared a terrifying roar. Trakl by this time had made it to the red ball. He quickly jumped on top and began to dance around the clearing. What he hoped to accomplish by doing this, even he did not know. But the wild bear instantly stopped his pursuit and watched Trakl dance around clearing atop the red ball. The wild bear seemed to not understand or believe what it was seeing. After a moment, the wild bear sat down and began to watch, reminding Trakl of one the many humans he had performed for in his life.

As Trakl danced around atop the red ball, he could not stop thinking about the honey. He watched the wild bear carefully as he slowly walked the ball closer to the honey tree. If he could just get one taste, he thought. Just one lick of that fragrance that was driving him to do what he knew in his heart was a foolish thing to do.

He had now positioned himself between the bemused audience of the wild bear and the honey. All he had to do was to move slowly back and he would be close enough to jump off the ball and sink his head into the tree. He danced with greater exuberance, hoping to distract the wild bear from his plan. And when he was almost upon the tree, the honey filling his head with such desire, the wild bear suddenly saw what Trakl was up to and, with a snarling growl, charged right at him. Trakl swiftly adjusted and maneuvered the red ball to the far side of the clearing as quickly as he could dance.

He made it to the edge of the woods before he looked back to see the wild bear was not pursuing him. Instead, the beast was standing at the honey tree guarding it and watching Trakl with unveiled threat.

Trakl climbed down from the red ball which made the wild bear growl louder but remain where he was. Trakl breathed the fragrance of the honey as deeply as he could, wishing he could eat the air. Then, with a huff of resignation, Trakl turned his back on the wild bear and the honey tree and walked back into the woods.

He had not traveled far when his nose picked up another smell. This faint odor was nothing like that of the honey, but it did smell like it might be food. And Trakl was hungrier than he had ever been. So he walked steadily in its direction, pushing his red ball ever onward before him.

As he moved closer, the odor became stronger. He also recognized another smell along with the new smell. He smelled dogs. He had been raised around dogs and was excited to find them. He and the dogs had always been friendly to each other. And he knew that if the dogs had food, they would gladly share it with him.

However, these were not dogs that Trakl found. They were wolves. Trakl had never seen a wolf. There were three of them, gaunt and mangy, ripping away at the carcass of a dead deer. Trakl has also never seen a deer. But he could smell the blood and the meat and his mouth watered.

The wolves, in their ferocious feasting, did not notice Trakl until he was quite close. Trakl nudged the red ball ahead of him and it rolled from behind a tree and continued on ahead of him until it bumped to a stop against the dead deer. The wolves were startled and lept back in surprise from the balloon. Then Trakl ambled into view. The wolves snarled at him viciously, quickly positioning themselves between him and the deer. The muzzles were red from their feeding and as they snapped their teeth, foam flecked blood flew into the air. This made Trakl acutely aware of his hunger.

He considered that perhaps the wolves were like dogs often were: more bark than bite. He stepped gingerly towards the dead deer. If he could only have a small bite, he would be on his way, troubling the wolves no longer. But this was not to be. The largest of the rangy wolves charged at him and snapped his teeth on to Trakl's front paw. Trakl, who had suffered many cruel beatings and whippings at the hands of his trainers, had never felt as sharp a pain as the wolf's teeth.

He instinctively let out a terrible cry, jerked his paw away from the wolf, then, surprising even himself, swung his mighty paw against the wolf's body, sending it flying over the deer into nearby brush. He turned to the other two wolves, opened his mouth wide and let out a startling explosion of sound from deep within him. The two wolves shrank bank from this display of awful ferocity. The one that he had thrown into the brush, turned tail and slunk away into the trees. In a moment, his two companions followed. Trakl was left alone, his red ball still resting against the half-eaten carcass of the deer.

Trakl had, of course, never eaten a freshly killed animal. Mostly, what he had been fed all his life was offal and refuse, half spoiled meat and other unwanted leavings. This meat was steaming with hot blood. And while it didn't intoxicate him in the same way as the honey he had smelled earlier, it did give rise to a kind of frenzy in him. The wolves had torn a ragged opening above the deer's foreleg. Trakl shoved his snout in to the bloody hole and tore at the rich hot flesh.

The freshly killed deer meat in his mouth was like nothing Trakl had ever experienced before. He sensed a current of energy welling up from deep within him, surging through his body. He plunged his great mouth deeper into the deer, again and again, ripping the red meat from the bone, until he could not help himself from rising up onto his back legs and sounding forth with an enormous roar. It hushed the forest with its terrible joy.

Not far away, the two inspectors stood silent, listening, rifles ready in their hands, smoking cigarettes.

What Trakl knew of rifles was only a frightening noise. He knew nothing of bullets and killing and death. But after the first rifle's cracking report broke apart the air of the forest, he was instantly alert. He sat motionless for a moment in the electric stillness. Then he caught wind of the sharp odor of men and the tobacco in their hair. A second rifle reported. Trakl heard the ripping through the air next to his head, saw the bark of a tree explode. He knew this was not good.

Trakl quickly ran back in the direction of the clearing. He ran for several minutes. Then he stopped. He was perplexed. He wondered what was wrong. Then, he turned and lumbered back to the deer carcass. The men were close by. He could hear their breathing and smell their musky fear. He tenderly nudged the red ball with this nose and crept away into the woods, the ball rolling carefree in front of him.

Not far down the path, the delicious intoxicating fragrance wove through the air. And once again, Trakl was at the clearing where the wild bear was guarding the honey. He gave the red ball a powerful shove into the clearing. 

As soon as the wild bear saw the red ball bounce out of the woods, he charged. Trakl, however, did not follow, keeping behind the trees. The red ball bounced along towards the wild bear. He slapped his great paws against it causing it to bounce high into the air. He chased after and again slammed it down upon the earth making it bounce even higher. Trakl moved quietly through the trees to the other side of the clearing. He watched as the wild bear's anger careened the red ball around the clearing, bouncing off rock and tree.

He watched as the wild bear's anger suddenly changed into happiness. For the wild bear was no longer attacking the red ball. He was playing with it. The wild bear no longer fought against the red ball, running amok this way and that. Now he gently batted the red ball about, learning how to control it, play with it. After a short time, the exhausted bear sat huffing air with both of his front paws resting possessively on the red ball. Trakl, his head full of honey scent, waited.

The two inspectors saw the bear sitting near the center of the clearing, resting against a red ball. They each fired their rifles at the same time. One of the bullets hit the wild bear, sinking deep into his heart. The other bullet hit the red ball. The stricken bear fell heavily upon the ball. A pathetic whistling cry filled the clearing as the bulk of the bear pushed the air out of the red ball until they were both flat upon the ground.

Trakl watched from the shadows at the two men cautiously approached the dead bear. They fired two more shots into his head. One of them tugged the remnants of the red ball from underneath the bulk of the bear. The other collected the torn tuxedo jacket and broken top hat. They walked back into the woods.

Trakl felt no sorrow over the loss of the red ball. He licked his teeth with great anticipation as he emerged from the shadows of the forest and headed to the dead tree full of honey.

If you had looked down upon that clearing in a Czecho-Slovakian forest close to the Polish border on the last night of October 1925, you perhaps would have seen a great bear asleep beside a dead tree under the light of a full moon. You might notice as you moved closer that the bear's great head and paws were covered in an iridescent glaze of golden honey.

And then, if you could've looked into that bear's dream, you would've seen him dancing, gracefully and perfectly balanced, upon the moon itself as he rolled it around the great stage of heaven, weaving without care or any human concern between the stars.


A Note

Trakl was named after the Austrian poet, Georg Trakl, who died of a cocaine overdose in 1914, exhausted from holding open the wound of his heart to the world, from caring for all the soldiers that were dying, from the guilt over the love he had for his sister and the tragic impossibility of living up to Wittgenstein's hopes for him. Although he was buried on November 6, 1914 in  Kraków's Rakowicki Cemetery, his remains were disinterred and transferred to Mühlau near Innsbruck on October 7th, 1925.

De Profundis

It is a stubble field, where a black rain is falling.
It is a brown tree, that stands alone.
It is a hissing wind, that encircles empty houses.

How melancholy the evening is.
A while later,
The soft orphan garners the sparse ears of corn.
Her eyes graze, round and golden, in the twilight
And her womb awaits the heavenly bridegroom.

On the way home
The shepherd found the sweet body
Decayed in a bush of thorns.

I am a shadow far from darkening villages.
I drank the silence of God
Out of the stream in the trees.

Cold metal walks on my forehead.
Spiders search for my heart.
It is a light that goes out in my mouth.

At night, I found myself on a pasture,
Covered with rubbish and the dust of stars.
In a hazel thicket
Angels of crystal rang out once more

A Further Note

The allegory is certainly flexible enough to encompass several disparate interpretations.

I have been stimulated by the artist Shelton Walsmith's explorations of the Enigma, that down in the working engine of art, there is a fundamental mystery. One of the problems we face as a hyper-literate online society (culture here is in question) is how much we take for granted. What widening gyres of massive computing pulse underneath the simplest of searches - literally and metaphorically? What shaping forces are working behind the scenes, restricting our views of the world, channeling our thoughts? 

In the days before internet, the invention of books worked as the extension of our memory. In the days before books, poetry and myth, rhapsodic recitation of epic dramas, contained our cultural (the word here relevant) meaning, as a sacred vessel might contain intoxicating wine. Metaphor is naturally enigmatic. Looking back to those first recorded Western attempts to understand the world, metaphor was supreme: the Universe is made of earth, air, fire or water or some other enigmatic alchemy.

There, powering this engine of thought, is the metaphor, this bridge of understanding that takes two frames of reference and bridges them together.

His face is an open book.

Love is a bleeding wound in my heart.

Death is an endless night.

What amazes me is how often I, we, use this powerful tool to communicate with no thought to the essential enigma of how it works. Burroughs spoke of the "Third Mind" when referring to the mysterious presence that arises when two separate entities work together. Two artists collaborate and the resulting work will have a "life of it's own". Or, take two photos and montage them together and the resulting image has a resonance never dreamed of. Eisenstein wrote:

"The combination of two hieroglyphs of the simplest series is regarded not as their sum total but as their product, i.e. as a value of another dimension, another degree: each taken separately corresponds to an object but their combination corresponds to a concept. The combination of two ‘representable’ object achieves the representation of something that cannot be graphically represented."

To paraphrase and extend: something that cannot be graphically represented but which has a felt presence is an enigma.

Wittgenstein said of the poems of Georg Trakl:

“I do not understand them, but their tone makes me happy,” he wrote to Ludwig von Ficker, Trakl’s patron. “It is the tone of true genius.”

I have thought the same. The best and most memorable poetry (much the same to me), through it's highly rarefied metaphorical  juxtaposition, gives rise to this "Third Mind" or "tone of genius".

I was first introduced to Trakl's poetry through Heidegger and his beautiful exploration of one line from Trakl's poem, Ein Winterabend / A Winter Evening (Hofstadter, trans.):

Window with falling snow is arrayed.
Long tolls the vesper bell,
The house is provided well,
The table is for many laid.

Wandering ones, more than a few,
Come to the door on darksome courses.
Golden blooms the tree of graces
Drawing up the earth’s cool dew.

Wanderer quietly steps within;
Pain has turned the threshold to stone.
There lie, in limpid brightness shown,
Upon the table bread and wine.

The line that haunted Heidegger and which in turn became a kind of mantra of endurance for me is:

Pain has turned the threshold to stone.

Standing in line at the DMV, stuck in traffic, hitting my thumb with a hammer, drinking alone at a bar, waking up from dream of deep sorrow, moved to tears by a sudden memory of someone dead, in each of these, I have recalled that Trakl line, not as an anodyne, but as an enigmatic prayer that offers no explanation, but renders a form of absolution.

It's been a long time since I have seriously involved myself in writing on a daily basis. There once were those days when it was the bread and wine and blood of my day. I have always had admiration and envy for Walsmith's daily practice of painting. I have questioned and doubted my commitment to writing and The Word and The Work. I have been haunted and hectored by the real possibility that it is too late for me. My ship set sail long ago. But you know, when the ship was at the dock so long ago I wasn't ready in many ways (intellectually, emotionally, spiritually) to get on it. I was always suspicious of my writing, that I was merely an idiot savant automatically filling page after page with pseudo-divinely inspired scribbles. I wanted control of the daemon moving my hand. I wanted an experience and maturity that could only be gained through time. And so now, on the other side of the ocean of time, I'm no longer worried about the ship coming in.

I am out here on the edge of the world digging up all the corpses I once buried in a madness of predatory preparation, knowing I would need them "some fair day" up here in the future. One of those corpses was Georg Trakl. Over the years, I had left piles of words and prayers on his grave. Re-collecting those words, I felt like a bear awakening from hibernation, knowing precisely where he needed to go first to find the honey he needed. According to my fascination with bones, I remembered that over 10 years after Trakl's unfortunate death, his remains were disinterred from a cemetery in Krakow and transported to a cemetery in Switzerland - where he was buried next to a friend. I often thought about this extraordinary event. The practical aspects of it. Wondering if anyone would ever be inclined to do that for me. And why would a friend want to do that? Anyway, these thoughts danced around with each other in my mind.

Also present was an image I have often had of myself as a dancing bear - sort of variation of Hesse's Steppenwolf. While I was in Bellingham, I often felt like a trained bear performing with my ball, this ball being an enigmatic symbol of inexpressible desire and also something ephemeral, maybe hope or a nostalgic longing for a home that was not home: expressed in the Portuguese word saudade or the Russian toska.

There is always an aura of the enigmatic to the allegory. That metaphorical bridge mysteriously constructed between two worlds to imply a third is never fully comprehended, graspable. It's amusing to me that often when I consider allegory, the image of Bottecelli's Calumny of Apelles comes to mind. 

Years ago, I stood in the Uffizi mesmerized before this painting. I read everything the museum had available concerning the subject matter, but it continued to perplex me. It was all radiantly beautiful but possessed with an opaqueness of meaning that I worried over like a man who believes he has a missing tooth, constantly probing around his mouth with his tongue, but never finding the empty place.  After all these years, the painting still fascinates me.

With all of this in mind, I figured to write an allegorical story of a dancing bear being abandoned in a forest as a sort of homage to Georg Trakl and as a "word mirror" wherein I might re-present something of my present condition. In the later drafts, I have tried to make this less enigmatic, if not more clear, by adding more information about Trakl: the date of his final burial, accenting the references to Krakow.