The Duel

Author: Franz Fühmann
Translator: Claire van den Broek

Back in the days when he was still toiling away on his Causal Sciences degree, an insight came to Pavlo, as it sometimes does, that the Laws of Causality should also be manifest in the history of humanity. So he decided, which was still possible at the time, to audit a few History seminars in addition to his mandatory courses in Disciplines of Philosophy and Foundations of Civic Fitness. He chose a series of lectures about the development of the legal system in the Late Middle Ages, because he had high expectations of an era in which such eminently causal thinking as that of the Romans began to unfold in an environment structured altogether differently from Roman law.
Initially he found the course deeply disappointing: the lecturer lost himself in the details of local customs and traditions that had been passed down over time, his lecture was dry, the material even more so, and instead of exposing causal chains, he uncovered only confusion. Pavlo had already resigned himself to dropping out when the lecturer announced that, during the next session, he would be performing an ocular demonstration of history with the use of a Chronoview Cabinet. The device was still undergoing trials at the time, both technically and politically. The Supreme Council on Comradeship (SuCoC) of Uniterr had decided to allow the university to use the device, to study the effects of such demonstrations on a limited audience. A few of the committee members even envisioned deploying the Cabinet as part of Uniterr’s edutainment program someday. That the committee would later distance itself from every public Chronoview display can probably be attributed, as we know now, to the outcome of this very experiment in that History seminar.
Technically, the device relied on the primitive method, but the only one available at that time, of catching up with light that had been beamed into space from past ages, through the use of an ultrafast gravitational wave which would mirror the image back towards Earth at an accelerated rate. As a result, the reflection of times gone by, slowed down again to the speed of light, would revisualize inside a projection space in the present, somewhat like a movie scene, three dimensional, in color, but still silent. A technique that could filter out every sound wave belonging to each light stream, untangling it and making it audible, was only discovered later, as was an analog technique to rediscover scents. Nevertheless, during Pavlo’s student days, each Chronoview image, however incomplete, still stirred such a sensation that tickets were scalped for almost as much money as for the boxing championships.
Since the announcement of the ocular demonstration, the auditorium had been besieged by curious scholars and students from every department, while the university was overrun by crowds of laymen. The campus police only admitted regular attendees; they first had to check with the higher-ups about Pavlo. Thanks to impeccable character references attesting to his loyalty, and his exemplary academic performance, the apprehensive Ministry decided to grant him permission.
For the demonstration they had chosen the famous episode of the duel between the Duke of Normandy, Henri VII of Traulec, and his bastard son Toul, who, sired with a maid, was considered to be of lesser birth. Little was known about the duel in question, which happened in May of 1409, except that the outcome had been exceptionally gruesome. The duel had come about after Duke Henri, appointing himself the judge of his son’s fate, had relegated him to a life as a lowly swineherd in his father’s pigpens, against all objections. Jeanne Viole du Mars, personal favorite of the royal commissary, took the Duke’s entirely ordinary judgment as justification for spreading the rumor that Toul had, in accordance with his birthright as a half-blood, decided to challenge the Duke to a duel, which the latter had refused out of cowardice. When whispers of the story reached Toul, already surrounded by his father’s pigs, he decided on the spot to turn rumor into reality; he sent two seconds, who happened to be swineherds like him, to deliver a challenge to his sire, who now had little choice but to consent to the duel, albeit under the stipulation that, as the prevailing law demanded, the conditions for the duelists would accord with their birth. The lowborn man was to be buried up to his hips in a hole in the ground, armed only with a spear and a club, while the highborn man would be given his sharp sword, and the freedom to move without restriction.
There was no wiggle room within the stipulation; whether Jeanne Viole had known about the clause, or indeed why she started the rumor in the first place, has, as we know, been the subject of entire libraries of clever hypotheses. We do know that she was a mortal enemy of Duke Henri, and supposedly she had been smitten with the profound ugliness of the bastard (he was hunchbacked, lame, leather-skinned, his face permanently marred by a grimace). There is no doubt that the duel took place. Aside from that, no other facts have survived the ravages of time, not even the fate of the protagonists during the domestic chaos under Charles le Fou, the mad king Charles the Sixth of France.
The most significant sources describing the duel are the valuable fragments of the “Luciferian Calendar” by Estienne Nouvielles, as well as the much later and unfortunately highly fragmented annals of the “Unknown Chronicler of the Duchy”. In addition there remain a few letters from Jeanne Viole and the royal commissary, a couple of references in other letters, and a handful of diary scraps. During those days, the world was under the spell of the Council of Pisa with its three popes, the reverberations of the murder of the Duke of Orleans in Paris, and the sermons of Jan Hus in Bohemia. Furthermore, the English were about to invade France once again, so who cared about the local intrigues of a third rate mistress? The Duel became famous solely because its outcome was described as “exceptionally gruesome”, a cryptic statement that inflamed historians. One hypothesis, drawing analogies to the court of Charles the Mad, envisioned a fire in which both combatants died; another theory that was particularly in vogue posited a riot among the local citizens of Traulec. The doctrine in Uniterr has always been that the swineherd defeated the Duke, although the hack writers of the ruling caste hushed up the truth, a prime example of the intellectual servitude that dominated the past and that was only overcome in Uniterr, which was so certain of this doctrine that it showed up in every schoolbook as though it were fact.
This shift from fiction to fact is part of the philosophy of history in Uniterr, but before we say any more about that, and before we finally tell you about that demonstration, the outcome of which was indeed gruesome, we should say something about the technical aspect of the process: The projection field was almost invisible, though still clearly observable as a shimmering cube no higher than 6 feet, and only 10 feet long and wide. Thus, at a scale of fifty to one, a historical scene of about 500 feet long and wide, and 300 feet into the sky, could be captured. As a result, the actors only measured an inch, a society the size of ants. A system of magnifying lenses made it possible for viewers to choose any section of the panorama and view it in detail as if through a microscope, and a camera would of course record every scene on a real-life scale. – It goes without saying that the projection process could no more be controlled by the audience than they could manipulate the image of the stars in the sky in the lens of their eyes.
So Pavlo was given permission to participate, and since admission had opened up several hours before the start of the demonstration, he missed nothing, despite the inquiry. – The oscillators purred softly; the slowing down of the super speed of the mirrored light happened far away along an avenue of satellites. Had an uninitiated person entered the lecture hall, he would have noticed nothing but a grey platform on the demonstration table, with three cables each as thick as an arm, and above it a barely visible angular shimmering. – Yet soon he would notice the pervasive tension of curiosity, that irredeemable human right. This curiosity was, above all, a desire for raw sensation; that feeling you experience before a boxing match, knowing you have come there to see something unbridled and rough, ending in broken noses and the booming sound of a man crashing to the floor as he is knocked out. These were the expectations that brought men and women together; for Pavlo – well, perhaps we should save that for later. The purring of the oscillators grows stronger, the shimmering of the helium wires, fading into the break of day, becomes the quivering aura of the tidings that the two-thousand year old light is about to return home to its planet. As flashes disperse from the edges with silent humility, Pavlo is seized by an ineffable feeling that all that is to come is already present.
Pavlo felt a sense of expectation, more gripping than any he had ever known, and somehow entirely different in nature from the feeling that word usually evokes. This was not the anticipation of the familiar (the way a child waits for his fairytale), but that of an entirely new sensation, which, grotesquely, is also a past sensation. So an unknown one, not unknown in the sense that the brain has not yet narrowed down the feeling from a supply of familiar sensations, no, this was something absolutely unknown, or, to be precise at last: the possibility of the unknown. It did not enter the conscious mind as a concept: within those confines of necessity, which presented itself as a necessary lack of alternative, the mind could not conceive of this possibility at all, and yet it made Pavlo tremble. – Only him? – We’ll assume so; if not, let him serve as a case in point for his flock of peers. Though it seems that it did actually happen to him alone.
The purring of the oscillators ceased, or rather: the sound transformed into a reverberation which, wavering on the verge of the audible, was not quite perceptible as noise, nor did it turn into hollow silence. As we said earlier, the Chronoview technology was still in the early stages of its development, unable to reproduce the original sound; the reverberation, despite being inaudible, created a soundscape before which the oppressively uncanny muteness of history began to unfold its secret. That reverberation, perceptible as silence, was a positive rather than a negative nothingness; and with the start of the reverberation, the shimmering was no longer visible either, or, to be precise again: it was no longer noticeable now that the past had materialized above the grey platform, unimaginably abrupt, and began to unfold: A crowd of thousands lined the block of North Sea air, carrying the weight of a steel sky.  So the distant past settled on the desk, while the spectators turned and twisted their macroscopes to focus on the details they wanted to see, while outside the operators of the Time Stream cameras were struggling to find the perfect angle for a wide shot. To get a good view of the duelists, who were concealed by the masses, the cameramen kept changing positions; the crowd shifted, giving the cameras a direct view – We’ll now tell you the story as Pavlo saw it.
For a moment he surveyed the scene: How tremendous the sky is! A towering mass of clouds, wind, and shades of blue. Below, at its hem, the human throng as a colorful maelstrom that withstands the dragging weight of the sky and thus reveals its power: eternity persisting in change, a bastion of constancy over the fleeting life of man. The cameras panned out, Pavlo saw colors and mass inside the cube; finally he too began to twist his macroscope and as the image grew and turned, the Lady appeared before his eyes.
She stood before him, and Pavlo’s breath caught. He saw her, nearly close enough to feel her breathe; she came closer, turned slightly sideways, in sea-green brocade hemmed with burnt umber; her head and neck rose up from her rounded cleavage like the isles of the Sirens. Her scarlet cap pointed towards the sky, and the night rested in her eyes. She approached her observer; Pavlo could almost feel her milky skin. He saw her in the flesh, as though he needed no lens; then she slid across his face. Behind her in the dust a dwarf ran crying after her mistress. The wet flesh of her tongue loomed massively; Pavlo wrested his macroscope away; a donkey’s hoof.
Now the cameras locked on the opponents: There was the back of the Duke, who pranced around with his legs spread apart, wearing the fashion reserved for the nobility of the age, the renowned mi-parti: a doublet divided into four solid panels, alternating two colors on the front and on the back, green and black in this case, with one sleeve puffed and the other tapering towards the wrist. Similarly divided into panels were his tight hose and the curly-toed poulaines with their ear-sized green-and-black tassels. Even the feathers on his red cap were green and black, the colors of the banner of Traulec. – His sword, tied low, skipped through the dust. – To the left, behind him, lay the pit in which Toul stood, up to his waist in crumbling dirt, which was as brown as his wart-covered face with that monstrous nose, its flesh spilling over like a mockery of God’s power of creation. His weapons were nowhere to be seen; he raised his bare hands and laughed, as Pavlo spotted, across the bustling crowd, the scarlet cone of the Lady’s cap. Only now did he notice that she was on horseback. She rode sidesaddle on a palfrey; the tread of the horse made her seem like a giant, in the colors of the sea, striding through the crowd. Pavlo felt dazed like never before. Anxiously twisting and turning the knob, he tried to bring the lady close to him again, but when the crowd parted he saw no more than a trace of her robe, which at once disappeared again between steel and silk. Pavlo caught only objects this way: a row of jasper buttons, a spur, a sable purse, but not the Lady, nor the Duke, nor Toul, nor the commissary, whom Pavlo had briefly spotted in front of the sea of blue around the Fleur de Lis of France, on a stand behind the arena.
So he let the optic tube of the macroscope slide, revealing the bottom layer of the Chronoview Cabinet, thin as fine lace. The people at the front were just barely recognizable as individuals. Nonetheless he was bursting with excitement, a sensation that was inflicted less by the presence of Jeanne Viole, whose scarlet bobbed further towards the sky, than by – and we cannot say this often enough – the potential for any possible outcome, a potential as boundless as yearning could be, were it not crippled in its growth. – Within the structure of the only concrete reality lay the possibility of possibilities, as a possibility of the other: For the first time in his life, Pavlo experienced a sense of being struck by something intangible which, eluding all words, dawned on him with all the horror and pleasure of a premonition. This ancient history could and might turn out to be different from Uniterr’s account of history, from what everyone expected.
But what had Pavlo expected to see?
He could not have articulated it, yet at the same time he knew it twice over, and therein lies the difficulty.
Like his fellow students, Pavlo believed, obviously, the semiofficial hypothesis that was part of Uniterr’s doctrine, namely that of Toul’s victory, which had been covered up by medieval chroniclers. There was this on the one hand. On the other hand, to accept the victory of an inferior man over his superior stood in direct contradiction to the official doctrine of history in Uniterr, which held that, before the creation of the Truly Liberated Society, all historical events served to benefit the upper classes; they predetermined the outcome of all events. This had led to numerous repressed uprisings by an increasingly angry population, who established – so far, unfortunately, only on one part of the planet – a Truly Liberated Society in which social inequality had ceased to exist. The formula of its doctrine (“The Truly Truthful Teachings of History”) was so widely accepted that people were no longer conscious of the wording, even as it shaped their consciousness. The official doctrine offered the only acceptable model for historical thinking, and in most cases it did so at the expense of any kind of demonstrability. As a result, Pavlo and his fellow students, lacking introspection, were certain that the outcome of a duel like this, between a superior and his inferior, must have been predetermined in favor of the superior. And in the event that the fight’s natural course went in the wrong direction, that is, if the Duke were not the fitter competitor, then marshals, his seconds, and the jury would secure the victory of the superior through deceptive manipulation. (No doubt they had planned out a thousand strategies to distract or obstruct the Bastard.) The unofficial assumption of Toul’s victory and the official doctrine about the rigging of events in favor of the upper classes were incompatible; so what was Pavlo expecting? If we don’t consider the word ‘expectation’ in the sense of a concrete, demonstrable imagining (which was entirely unknown in Uniterr), but rather in the sense of a predetermined certainty that what must happen will happen – we could also call it a ‘lack of expectation’ – then he may have expected both outcomes at once. Only in an abstract sense though, not concrete, and since he was not guided by the notion of demonstrability, he did not notice any inherent contradiction either. That may sound hard to believe, yet it was true, or rather: that is how it will be. After all, we are telling you what will have happened in the future.
The abstract certainty of knowing without expectation was disrupted by the unexpected, which, to say it a third time, was the possibility of any and all possibilities as a reality of the other. The concrete, by virtue of being concrete, is already other to the abstract, just as the verifiable is other to the unverifiable.  Where history presents itself as other, its appearance reveals what it is at its core: The existence of alternatives. The slightest detail gains meaning, which can only be understood by those who have experienced it. That it was possible to wear a scarlet headdress that scores the sky – not that it would be illegal in Uniterr, it just wouldn’t spontaneously occur to anyone to make such an unbidden fashion choice. – That it was possible to ride a palfrey; that it was possible to appear in a costume that bisects the body into two colors, one sleeve of which was tailored while the other billowed; that it was possible to drink wine from a clay jug; that it was possible to drag a sword through the dust; that it was possible to wield a sword; that it was possible to drive a donkey; that it was possible to be stuck in a hole in the ground and bare your teeth at the authorities –
that it was possible not to be Uniterr.

From Franz Fühmann, Säiens-Fikschen
© Hinstorff Verlag GmbH, Rostock
Translation © Claire van den Broek