Litro #165: Breaking Borders | The Last

Translated by Jessica Sequeira.

I never knew him. What’s left to me of him are the scenes I’m able to imagine, starting with the five boxes from the archive his widow left to me. Anecdotes passed to me by members of his family, editions in German, English and French of his three books, descriptions of friends who visited him during the absolute seclusion that marked his last years, a handful of yellowing photos in which already he appears old, lost amidst his phobias, terribly distant. I also have a copy of an essay translated into Spanish by an old student of his. That same Paraguayan student who years later, once he was professor, would speak to me of the man with the excessive enthusiasm of one who believed he had known – even if only for a brief year, hedged off by the first signs of malaise in his old mentor – a true genius. That same former student who years later would convince me to travel to the Swiss Alps, in search of the archives of an anthropologist I’d never even heard of. No. I never knew Karl-Heinz Von Mühlfeld, but immersed as I am now in his archive, I can recreate his life as if it were the shape of a puzzle piece, and imagine him perfectly, lost amidst the long hallways of that Caribbean sanatorium where he would spent the last ten years of his life: his hands hidden inside the white gloves he’d begun to wear decades before, his mask always on, his slow steps those of someone who believes every step forward is dangerous. I can imagine him, hunched over his own body in just the same way he’d once hunched over his obsessions, prisoner of the same fixed ideas that years before had led him to become a well-known professor of anthropology. A man who had carried his ideas to the limit, only to look at himself in the mirror one day and tremble with horror.

I spend the free hours of my day imagining scenes like this. The rest belong to the archive. It’s there that I find the facts that constitute the biography I think of publishing someday about such an eccentric man. It’s there I find, for example, basic information: date of birth, primary studies, fixations of adolescence, first forays into anthropology. From there I’m able to draft brief and precise sentences like this one: “Karl-Heinz Von Mühlfeld, proponent of the sociology of the masses, was born on 15 April 1932 in a small town on the outskirts of München. Twenty-six years later he was awarded a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Paris with a thesis titled, according to the translation a Paraguayan student would propose years later, Imitation and Contagion: Thesis on the Psychology of the Popular Masses. It was a work marked by the profound influence of the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde on the young anthropologist. A work whose principal thesis is as easy to summarise as it is difficult to prove: in the heart of modern sociology – marked by the emergence of the phenomenon of the popular masses – one can find the principle of imitation as contagion. In other words, contagion produces culture. Culture is nothing but contact and imitation.” I write things like this with the sole intention of coming to understand this man whose ideas would later drive him insane. This man who one day decided – after years of living in the tumultuous Amazon jungle, after years of living with dozens of Native American tribes, in the heart of a natural world that did not respect any law of purity – to return to Europe, put on white gloves and distance himself from society like a good hermit, convinced as he was that the world was a knot of impurities, a swarm of floating bacteria that one day would carry him toward his own death. I write dull facts like these in an attempt to understand the precise moment at which an idea is converted into its opposite. That awful and disturbing moment when, without thinking, a man transforms into his fears. Then I go back to imagining him in his Caribbean labyrinth, lost amidst the nurses who no doubt looked at him with amazement and pity, as he stuttered phrases in German that surely no one understood except his private caretaker, convinced he’d never been as rational as he was then. I look, in the five boxes the widow gave to me, for the key that helps me to understand the precise moment at which Karl-Heinz Von Mühlfeld understood his body would be the last possible refuge from a reality that threatened him on all sides.

I do not find, however, anything but contradictions. Here, for instance: a photograph in black and white locates him, bulky and elegant, in the middle of the jungle, absorbed in a certain aura of adventure. On the back of the image I find a date and place: Paraguay, Zone of Sandro Pedro, 1957. I tell myself it must have been snapped on one of those field excursions that the young anthropologist would embark on during the second part of the 1950s, and whose investigations would give rise to his second book. After he finished his doctoral thesis, Von Mühlfeld came to grow obsessed with a specific phenomenon. Like someone trying to cure himself by means of a homeopathic potion, he seemed convinced that the only way of demonstrating his thesis on the culture of contagion was to explore the failure of the projects of utopian purity. He grew interested in studying the histories and failures of those utopian communities that from the middle to the end of the previous century had made thousands of Europeans risk their lives on long trips to South American lands. As a German, and an undeniable product of the postwar period, he thought he had found the clearest and most prophetic expression of the idea that years later would lead his country to ruin: the idea that true culture is always a product of purity. It fascinated him to sketch the posthumous history, mixed and impure, disastrous yet magnificent, of those now-forgotten towns, with their evocative names: Topolobampo, Colônia Cecília, Canudos, Nueva Australia, Nueva Germania. Utopian societies where, with the passing of the years, there would only remain, as a kind of absolute refutation of their bases, the bastard fusion between Europe and America. In those towns where blond men spoke Guaraní, he discovered the irrefutable presence of new classifications of culture. I think of things like this and tell myself that the photograph must have been taken during those years that Von Mühlfeld still believed in the power of ideas, when he was still capable of sinking his boots into the mud of the humid jungle without feeling the shivers that would later draw him to solitude and isolation.

It must have been in those same years that he came to be obsessed with one community in particular: the Nueva Germania that, in a delirium of Aryan greatness and convinced of the superiority of German culture, Bernhard Förster had decided to found in 1886, on the banks of the Río Aguaray. Like many others, Von Mühlfeld had grown interested in the story of Nueva Germania as a result of biographical coincidence. During that hallucinatory voyage that would end by setting down fourteen German families in the heart of the Paraguayan jungle, he met a woman who would later make history, or to put it another way, would be responsible for rewriting history. Among the few Germans who completed the journey was Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, the sister of Friedrich Nietzsche and wife of Bernhard Förster. A passionate reader of Nietzsche, Von Mühlfeld had come to interest himself in her sinister figure, after he read in some of the first biographies published on the philosopher about the central role she had played in the edition and reception of his work. From a very young age he had been fascinated by the scene in which the philosopher, after watching a coachman harshly punish his horse, threw his arms around the horse in a gesture of compassion. During the act, he suffered a mental collapse from which he would never recover. He liked to imagine that sad scene, which took place in the streets of Turin, as the synthesis of a thought that reached its limits and transformed into something else: into the crazed letters that Nietzsche would send years later to his friend Cosima Wagner, or the megalomaniac deliriums of the ill philosopher, or the sad story of how his thought assimilated to the spreading ideology of Nazism. For so it happened: the philosophy of Nietzsche would transform into all this when the widow Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche – after the failure of Nueva Germania and the suicide of her husband – disembarked once again in Germany, her conviction now set on guiding the insanity of her brother toward the muddy terrains of her own fantasy. It intrigued him to imagine that, from 1883 until the end of that war in whose ruins he’d spent his childhood, Nietzsche had been read as the philosopher of Nueva Germania. To explore the collapse and mixed-race survival of that false paradise lost in Paraguayan lands was his way of redeeming one of his favourite thinkers from the merciless claws of his own sister. Little did Karl-Heinz Von Mühlfeld know, however, that lives sometimes insist on repeating themselves, and that just as the collapse of Nietzsche in Turin replicated a scene dreamt in Crime and Punishment, he himself would spend his last days in a sort of asylum not so different from the one in which Nietzsche spent his, lost amidst ideas he refused to share with the world.

Now, as I revise fragments plucked from the book that emerged from all this, I go back to read his thesis on the importance of corporeal and physical contact on the construction of culture. I can imagine him in the middle of the Paraguayan jungle, conscious that in a certain form his journey repeated the fateful journey made by Förster. I can imagine him, young and brave, crossing a muddy stream on horseback, convinced that his strange but valiant repetition would end by rewriting as farce what before had been mere tragedy. By that time, I tell myself, he was incapable of discerning the dangers that hid behind his homeopathic logic. By that time, I repeat to myself, he could not even discern the fragile frontier that distinguishes the cure from the poison, or the fragile frontier that separates reason from madness. I can imagine him perfectly, sleeping in the open air, facing the mosquitos and the heat of the afternoon, totally ignorant of the frontier he had just crossed. That book, which bears the suggestive title Unreinheit des Reinen – translated by my Paraguayan mentor as The Impurity of the Pure – is full of frontiers: porous frontiers between his own life and the life of others, between the pure and the impure, between the fiction that Von Mühlfeld believed he was living and the reality which little by little managed to infiltrate amidst so much abstract theory. Whoever has read The Impurity of the Pure can testify that it is a book not merely theoretical, but one in which its author risked something greater. A book in which the reader discovers an autobiographical desire: while narrating the strange destiny of that community called Nueva Germania, Von Mühlfeld seeks to narrate himself. It is a book, one could say, that permits many readings. It is a book about a utopian community, as much as it is a text in which the author ends by seeing himself reflected in the biography of another man: Nietzsche. In the anecdotes told by the few family members and friends who saw him in those years, the same image repeats itself: the image of a man consumed not only by his theories, but by the extent of his thoughts. Those who saw him during the process of writing describe a man ever more neurotic, who seemed to shut himself over his own body with the same fury that he struggled to undo the terrible inheritance left to him by history. He is said to have travelled to Paraguay three times. Ever more fierce, ever more withdrawn, ever more lost in thought and distant. The third time, he returned skinnier than ever, wearing the white gloves he would wear for the rest of his life. They say that on that last visit, he left his house only a few times, convinced as he was that the jungle would end by infecting him with some fatal virus. That visit, he simply spent the time writing.

According to what I read in the anecdotes archived by his now deceased wife, the ones there say it was in those days that he cut off contact with all inhabitants of the region, except for a middle-aged indigenous man who helped him with the housekeeping and cooking. An indigenous foreigner who was called the mute, since he hardly spoke the local language. Two or three times a week, for the three months the stay lasted, the mute went out to buy the vegetables he later cooked for his master. He spoke little and told less, only what was absolutely necessary to communicate. Afterward he immediately returned to the old house where his employer waited for him. It is left to us, those who were not there, to imagine the strange solitude of what occurred behind closed doors. It is left to us to imagine the prematurely-aged anthropologist typing in the middle of the jungle, white gloves marking the absurdity of the scene, as by his side, the mute sat silently awaiting new orders. A scene that would take on meaning decades later, when under the title The Last Von Mühlfeld published his final book, whose pages portrayed the sad biography of that indigenous solitude, and along with it, the true reason for his silence. But that would be much later. During that unbearably hot summer, all those in the area noticed the same thing: an unusual alliance that led more than once to gossip and rumour, an alliance between a man who refused to communicate with the world and a man who refused to touch it. They saw what later his friends from university would see after his return to Europe: how Karl-Heinz Von Mühlfeld hid himself little by little behind his own body, defeated by the same ideas he had once given the world. The old friends, no longer close to him, saw him leave one afternoon in February in the boat that would carry him back to Europe, knowing the man would not return, or if he did, he would inevitably be someone else. They weren’t wrong: the white gloves that now characterised him were the first symptom of a greater unease.

Those old acquaintances guessed what was approaching: the way in which, after his return to Europe, Von Mühlfeld would hide behind his phobias and his obsessions with hygiene. The way that his ideas, arriving at their limit, would capsize on his body with the fury of the worst revenge. History, however, enjoys contradictions and enigmas. The 1970 publication of The Impurity of the Pure would end by enshrining him as a theoretical puzzle, while around him and his white gloves there began to spring up theories and conspiracies. His sudden disappearance from the public forums, his progressive adoption of anonymity and his seclusion went a long way toward encouraging this. What followed that long-awaited publication was pure silence and mystery. Decades in which the staff of the university could only speculate on the theme that occupied him, the outlines of the book the master was said to be working on in silence. Only Miguel Ángel Vera was given the opportunity to witness the writing process of that enigmatic book. We will never know what the esoteric anthropologist saw in the scrawny figure of that young Paraguayan student, but the truth is that he was the only one allowed to enter the intimacy of his home. Years later, Vera would describe that house for me with the precision of a realist painter: the absolute minimalism, the hotel-room atmosphere, the way that three maids seemed to be cleaning constantly. Everything was white in that house, everything seemed to disappear behind an orderly horizon, except for the chessboard located in the middle of the living room. Every afternoon, during the first nine months of 1971, Miguel Ángel Vera participated in the only pastime that seemed to distract the master from his fixed ideas and phobias. Every afternoon, according to what he would tell me years later, Vera presented himself at two o’clock at the master’s door. They played for three hours, at the end of which, with a precision he always admired, Von Mühlfeld announced the checkmate, excused himself with an excessively noble gesture and disappeared down the hallway, behind a series of doors that were prohibited to the young student. On more than one occasion, as he finished the cup of white wine he was always served, Vera heard the clacking of a keyboard coming from the master’s room and intuited that behind those doors, a new book was being written. He wasn’t wrong: fifteen years later, in 1986, ten years before the master’s death, The Last was published without any announcement.

When it appeared, many believed that The Last simply portrayed the late deliriums of a madman. Others thought it represented a new path in Von Mühlfeld’s work. Only his old friends who knew him during the Paraguayan years could recognise, in the figure of the protagonist, the silent outline of the old companion. Only they could recognise, in the taciturn aura of that man, the outline of the mute. It was then that they understood his lack of speech. The Last narrates the biography of a unique man: an Indian condemned to silence by the sudden disappearance of his own language. Through a biography that at times takes flight into theory, Von Mühlfeld reflects on the disappearance of native languages and the solitude of indigenous cultures. As more than one reviewer argued, it is a book that seems to go against every one of the author’s previous theories. If culture is contagion, if every culture is impure – many argued – then there does not exist such a thing as the disappearance of a culture, but only its transmutation. Such criticisms could matter little to the old anthropologist, immersed as he was in his own reflections, in a private language that would end by leading him to paralysis and inaction. In the same way, such criticisms mattered little to me. I prefer to return to that Paraguayan summer and imagine both of them – the anthropologist and the mute – seated side by side, opposite poles of a world in ruins, that took it upon itself to exile them. I like to imagine that years later, lost in a Caribbean sanatorium, the prisoner of a hygienic phobia that would ultimately paralyse him, Von Mühlfeld would recognize in the solitary voyage of the mute a reflection of his own journey. Perhaps it was then that he understood he was also the last, and that his sentence was to belatedly repeat, perhaps in a key of farce, that tragedy Nietzsche had lived a century before him, after falling into the claws of his sister. Perhaps it was then, too, that Von Mühlfeld understood that like the philosopher, he was also not safe from the claws of Nazism. By then he could do little, however, paralysed as he was in a chair facing the Caribbean Sea. Nietzsche, he repeated then, had been the first. Perhaps he would be the last.


About Carlos Fonseca

Carlos Fonseca Suárez was born in Costa Rica in 1987 and grew up in Puerto Rico. His work has appeared in publications including The Guardian, the TLS, and The White Review. He teaches at the University of Cambridge and lives in London. Colonel Lágrimas is his first novel. His new novel, Museo Animal, is forthcoming this autumn.



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