New discoveries in this foreign country of illness, from You Still Have Your Head, by Franz SchoenbernerMarch 23rd, 2013
I am not yet able to write in the literal sense of the word. Writing always meant to me writing in longhand with a pencil which gave the wonderful chance to erase and to change every third word, or even, if you felt like it, to begin again the same sentence on a fresh page without much difficulty. It was almost a year after the accident that I started–not to write, but to dictate–this new story not of my life, but of something which was near death: a rather long voyage pretty near to the border of the unknown country from which nobody returns. It was indeed a very strange and instructive voyage; otherwise, I wouldn’t date to recount it, because nothing is more boring than telling about your illness. I shall try to speak as little as possible of illness–and as much as possible of health: the special sort of health which can exist even when your whole body, with the sole exception of your head, is lifeless and scarcely belongs to you.
But as long as your head, your mind, is still working and is not too much preoccupied with the strange state of your body you can make new discoveries in this foreign country of illness, discoveries which may be worth sharing with others–not only those who have gone or are going through a similar ordeal, but almost anybody who in one way or another suddenly faces the necessity of overcoming some suffering, some handicap, for which he was not prepared. … as everybody knows who has a longer and deeper experience of life, even the most tragic situation often includes a strange element of humor–tragic humor, perhaps, or sardonic humor, and even sometimes simple human humor. As long as you are able to see these elements you are not entirely lost in tragedy–not lost in your suffering. You are already a little bit above and beyond the factual situation when you are able to view it with the detachment of an objective observer. There is a certain sense of the grotesque, and sometimes cruel irony which seems to be an inescapable part and parcel of the process of living.
You Still Have Your Head: Excursions From Immobility is an account of Schoenberner’s experiences and–mostly–his thoughts during his recovery from being attacked and left paralyzed from the neck down. Schoenberner had gone to complain about loud music from a neighboring apartment. One of the young men in the apartment flew into a rage and savagely struck out at Schoenberner, breaking his neck. A German intellectual who had fled Nazi Germany two steps ahead of the Gestapo–a situation he recounted in The Inside Story of an Outsider–Schoenberner responded to his situation the only way he knew how: by considering it in light of history, literature, philosophy and, occasionally, human behavior. Possessed of a remarkable resilience of spirit and sense of humor, if he ever experienced a moment of self-pity, you won’t find it here. Instead, you’ll find one man’s attempt to put a horrific twist of fate into perspective, an example of understanding reached through the disciplined exercise of a lifetime’s worth of learning.
You Still Have Your Head: Excursions From Immobility, by Franz Schoenberner
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957