Primal acquaintance

Now, on the afternoon in question I was sitting inside the Cafˇ des Deux Magots in Saint-Germain-des-Prˇs, where I was waiting — I forget for whom. Suddenly, and with compelling force, I was struck by the idea of drawing a diagram of my life, and knew at the same moment exactly how it was to be done. With a very simple question I interrogated my past life, and the answers were inscribed, as if of their own accord, on a sheet of paper that I had with me. A year or two later, when I lost the sheet, I was inconsolable. I have never since been able to restore it as it arose before me then, resembling a series of family trees. Now, however, reconstructing its outline in thought without directly reproducing it, I would instead speak of a labyrinth. I am concerned here not with what is installed in the chamber at its enigmatic center, ego or fate, but all the more with the many entrances leading into the interior. These entrances I call ‘primal acquaintances’; each of them is a graphic symbol of my acquaintance with a person whom I met not through other people but through neighborhood, family relationships, school comradeship, mistaken identity, companionship on travels, or other such — hardly numerous — situations. So many primal relationships, so many entrances to the maze. But since most of them — at least those that remain in our memory — for their part open up new acquaintances, relations to new people, after a time they branch off these corridors (the male may be drawn to the right, the female to the left). Whether cross-connections are finally established between these systems also depends on the intertwinements of our path through life. More important, however, are the astonishing insights that a study of this plan provides into the differences among individual lives. What part is played in the primal acquaintanceships of different people’s lives by profession and school, family and travel? And above all: Is the formation of the many offshoots governed in individual existence by hidden laws? Which ones start early in life, and which ones start late? Which are continued to the end of life, and which peter out? ‘If a man has character,’ says Nietzsche, ‘he will have the same experience over and over again.’ Whether or not this is true on a large scale, on a small one there are perhaps paths that lead us again and again to people who have one and the same function for us: passageways that always, in the most diverse periods of life, guide us to the friend, the betrayer, the beloved, the pupil, or the master. This is what the sketch of my life revealed to me as it took shape before me on that Paris afternoon. Against the background of the city, the people who had surrounded me grew close together to form a figure. [Berlin Chronicle, vol 2 p 614]

I have long, indeed for years, played with the idea of setting out the sphere of life — bios — graphically on a map. First I envisaged an ordinary map, but now I would incline to a general staff’s map of a city center, if such a thing existed. Doubtless it does not, because of ignorance of the theater of future wars. I have evolved a system of signs, and on the grey background of such maps they would make a colorful show if I clearly marked the houses of my friends and girlfriends, the assembly halls of various collectives, from the “debating chambers” of the Youth Movement to the gathering places of Communist youth, the hotel and brothel rooms that I knew for one night, the decisive benches in the Tiergarten, the ways to different schools and the graves that I saw filled, the sites of prestigious cafˇs whose long-forgotten names daily crossed our lips, the tennis courts where empty apartment blocks stand today, and the halls emblazoned with gold and stucco that the terrors of dancing classes made almost the equal of gymnasiums. [Berlin Chronicle, vol 2, p 596]

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