A Performance of Bees
by Andrew Crumey
From Pfitz (1995)
Pfitz and his master, the Count, are preparing to ride on towards the great city of Rreinnstadt.
COUNT: (seated on a hillock, and struggling to pull on his boot). Confound the thing!
PFITZ: Do you want me to help you?
COUNT: No, I prefer to wrestle with it myself. That way I shall have more satisfaction when I eventually manage to put it on. Are the horses ready?
PFITZ: Their harnesses and saddles are, but as for the horses themselves, you'd have to ask them. Personally, I suspect not, but they always do as they're told.
COUNT: (still struggling). Confound and damn this boot! (He stands up, the heel bending under the foot which is not yet fully inside). Look at me - like a cripple. Perhaps if I stamp enough it'll go on properly.
PFITZ: That's it - stamp, stamp, stamp until you get what you want. Then blame the boots for being too small when it's your feet that are too big. Are you sure you don't want any help?
COUNT: There, at last! Now let's mount and go on our way. Do you think we'll get there today?
PFITZ: Neither today, nor tomorrow, nor the day after that.
COUNT: It's not so far, surely?
PFITZ: It isn't distance that I'm thinking about. As my father used to say, the longest journey of all is the one which takes you nowhere.
COUNT: And what the devil did he mean by that?
PFITZ: I've no idea. But since he was a very wise man it must have some depth to it.
The Reader will have noticed that there has been no mention so far of the physical appearance of Pfitz and his master, nor any indication of their ages. This is a deliberate decision on the part of the Author. Since he never met either the Count or his servant personally, and was unwilling to rely on the conflicting testimony of those who have tried to paint in words the evidence of their unreliable memories, the Author has decided to omit such speculations entirely.
- But if the Author has never even met Pfitz and the Count, then how can we be expected to believe anything which he tells us about them?
Because the Author assures us that every word of it is true, and since he is an honourable man (or so I am told), we shall just have to take his word for it.
Pfitz and his master ride in silence for some time. At last, the Count speaks.
COUNT: Say something Pfitz, to ease the boredom.
PFITZ: Isn't the countryside sufficiently interesting for you?
COUNT: You know how I loathe the countryside. Every tree and bush only reminds me how far I am from civilization. Tell me a story.
PFITZ: Do you want a serious one or an amusing one?
COUNT: You choose.
PFITZ: Long or short?
COUNT: Just long enough to reach its end.
PFITZ: And do you want it to have a moral in it?
COUNT: What could you ever teach me about morals?
The Reader will also have noticed by now that in presenting his account of the two travellers, the Author has avoided those lengthy passages of narrative in which florid language is used so as to dress up and pad out a lack of interesting events. He could, for example, have told us a great deal about that boot which the Count struggled a little earlier to put on - he could have told us where it was manufactured, and how it had served the Count through numerous battles and adventures. He could have spent three pages or more on the putting on of that boot; the vainly repeated attempts, and the sensations of crushing and squeezing which the foot meanwhile endured. There are many other Authors who would choose such an approach (and many Readers who would prefer it), however our Author is not one of them.
By now, Pfitz had finished his story.
- That's not fair! I wanted to hear it!
Then you should have been listening to Pfitz, instead of to me.
COUNT: Well told Pfitz, and a surprising ending. Do you think we've got much nearer yet to the next village?
PFITZ: Doesn't seem like it. Hard to tell, when everywhere is so similar.
COUNT: That's the trouble with the countryside - all looks the bloody same.
They ride on further, along lanes which need no description since they look just like any other lane. And the countryside through which these two characters travel is something which the Reader is free to construct in any way which seems appropriate. After all, when a theatre is putting on a play, it uses whatever props are available. A tree will appear in a Shakespeare comedy, and then again the following week in Corneille; a dagger will make as many different entrances as there are dramas requiring it to perform its part. And whenever you read a description of the countryside, you must construct, from the mental props available to you, something which will fit well enough with the words on the page. Naturally, any text which is too much overburdened with details will put at a disadvantage those Readers who have only a limited supply of mental furnishing (for whatever reason). It is therefore in a spirit of fair play, and so as to put all Readers on a completely equal footing, that the Author will avoid the unfair device of such "descriptive" writing.
- But I like to read descriptions! I want to have a scene painted before me, which I can enter into.
Those scenes exist only in your head. You think a book is good because it reminds you of things you already know. And what's the point of that?
COUNT: Tell me, Pfitz, what will you do when we get to Rreinnstadt?
PFITZ: I shall serve you, of course, same as always.
COUNT: No, what I mean to ask you is whether you have any intention of seeing the sights of the city, or its taverns. Its women, perhaps?
PFITZ: Lets just see how it goes. As my father always said, the best plan is no plan.
COUNT: I take it from that, that you were an unintended child?
PFITZ: All children are unintended. Their parents may want a child, but they can never want the particular child whom they get, since they don't know what they'll get until they've got it.
COUNT: There are some children, though, whose conception can only be termed an accident. Were you perhaps one of those?
PFITZ: Everything in this world happens by accident. The circumstances in which I was conceived were no exception.
COUNT: I should like to hear about it.
- Wait a moment. Before we carry on, could I at least have the right to reply to what you said to me a minute ago? I think it's very presumptuous of you to say that I only like books that remind me of what I already know. It so happens that I like books which can teach me things, and so far I haven't learned anything from this one!
Please dear Reader, can you stop all these interruptions and let us continue?
- Don't call me "dear". I won't go a step further until you let me have my say. Already we've lost one of Pfitz's stories because you talked all the way through it. Why don't you let him tell it again?
But Pfitz is telling his second story now - you can't expect him to tell two stories at the same time, surely? If you like I can summarize it for you...
- No! I want to hear it from Pfitz, or not at all.
Already the journey of Pfitz and his master has met its first obstacle, as our Reader stops by the wayside, complaining loudly. I can hear her saying something about language, and description, and narrative voice, and that books are supposed to be about the realities of life, and feelings, and characters who develop through the events which occur to them. Now someone else is saying something to her - I think he's saying that a book which only portrays the world as we already believe it to be is no better than the poorest entertainment. He's saying that the purpose of a book is not simply to go from one place to another, from a beginning to an end, all the while holding pictures up and inviting the audience to believe that they are real. But she isn't happy with this, she's pouting and stamping her foot. How can we continue without a Reader? Won't you come with us just a little further?
- Only if the Author can convince me that his work has got something to do with the real world.
The Author says that if his story is to resemble the world in any way at all, then it must be formless and without logic, proceeding randomly from one moment to the next. Then gradually, patterns will emerge which may or may not indicate events, ideas or actions. People will appear who may turn out to be crucially important, or else they may vanish after a single night, never to be seen again. And then, just when you think everything's got going, it'll all suddenly stop.
The Author says also that if his story is to resemble the world at all faithfully then he will not attempt to burrow inside the heads of his characters, and attribute to them thoughts and emotions of which he can have no knowledge. Instead, he will report their behaviour and their speech in as honest a manner as he is able. Nor will he clutter his pages with elegant description, since the world is made of things, not words, and to try and capture reality in words is as meaningless as trying to make a butterfly out of sand.
Now can we proceed?
- Only if you let me hear the story of Pfitz's conception!
Very well, with the Author's permission, we shall turn back as far as the story of how it was that Pfitz came to be born.
PFITZ: My mother came from a little village in the country, the sort of place where nothing ever happens. One day a travelling fair visited - it was a huge event for the village, and a big adventure for my mother. She was sixteen at the time and had never seen anything like it. In the evening she put on her best dress and after a lot of pleading her parents allowed her out.
The fair consisted of the usual collection of rough tents and wagons. There was a fire-eater and a juggler, and a bear on a chain. But what caught my mother's attention was a larger tent, outside of which a crier was announcing the forthcoming performance.
"Roll up! Roll up! Come and see Fernando, the incredible Bee-King."
My mother didn't know what this could possibly mean. She gave her money to the crier, then went in to join the rest of the crowd inside.
Half the village were in there, sitting on benches or standing shoulder to shoulder, all trying to see the small stage which had been put up behind a curtain of fine gauze. Some whispered that he was a magician, others that he was a freak. All had heard that his act was unlike anything else in the entire world. And then there he was, standing on the stage behind the gauze; a tall, elegant man with brilliant black hair, gleaming teeth, and a pencilled moustache. Fernando, in a long cape, with a glass box containing his collection of performing bees.
That's right, performing bees. Don't ask me how he made them do it, but out they came, one by one; fat bumblebees, the kind that seem almost too heavy to fly. At first it was straightforward stuff, flying through tiny burning hoops and so on, while the audience watched through the gauze which protected them from Fernando's strange menagerie. He produced some with little pieces of paper stuck to their bodies, so that they looked like angels, or floating clouds. Three of the bees were connected together with threads to look like a horse-drawn carriage going through the air. Fernando wasn't at all afraid that they might sting him - he even made one fly in and out of his open mouth, gathering pollen from his tongue. Finally, as the climax of the performance, there was a magnificent mock battle, in which two armies of uniformed bees clashed and swirled in a great crescendo of buzzing. The crowd went wild, and the show was over.
After everyone had dispersed, my mother still hung around outside the tent, amazed and awe-struck by what she had witnessed. Then she saw Fernando come out from the back, dressed now in an ordinary, shabby tunic. "Did you really make them do all those tricks?" she said. "Were they real bees?"
Fernando was charmed by her naivety. "Yes, of course," he said. "I'm glad you enjoyed the show," and he started to walk on.
But she called after him, "Please wait," and when he turned round she didn't know what to say; she just looked down at her toes.
Fernando came back towards her, put his hand under her chin and gently raised her face. "There is one very special trick," he said, "which I don't normally include in my act for the general public. Would you like to see it?" And he led her back into the tent.
Once inside, he lit the lamps again, and positioned himself behind the gauze. He brought out the glass box full of bees, placed it carefully on the table before him, and lifted the lid. Then he stood back, stretched his arms wide, and raised his proud face in readiness.
They were beginning to fly out; only a few at first, but soon there was a great swarm of them buzzing in the air, some with their little paper angel wings still attached, a great swirling cloud of stirring bees. And they were all flying towards the head of Fernando, circling and landing, crawling and searching. A mass of them was forming on his face, his hair; a great beard of them hung from his chin, and the place towards which they were all moving, as if led by some unseen force, was his open mouth. They were jostling on his tongue; some were pushed aside and would fly back to try again. In they were all going - hundreds, thousands of them into the mouth of Fernando and down his throat into their human hive, so that you could hear them humming inside. And within the open mouth, it was not pink flesh which my mother could now see, but the glowing yellow wax of a honeycomb.
She ran out screaming, through the crowds which still thronged around the other attractions, screaming all the way home, refusing to say anything of what she had seen. In the morning, Fernando and his tent and his box of bees were gone.
COUNT: (laughing) I don't believe a word of it. And anyway, I thought you were going to tell me how it was that you came to be born.
PFITZ: Ah yes sir, so I was. Well, six years later my mother moved to the city and married a glazier.
It had begun to rain. They took shelter under a tree. After a while the rain stopped.
- What was the point of telling me that?
The Author only mentions it because it really happened. And look, you've got wet now. There are spots of rain on your sleeve. Let me wipe them...
- Don't bother. Let's have more of Pfitz's story.
COUNT: Then how did you come to be born?
PFITZ: I told you; it happened by accident sir, just like everything else in this world.
COUNT: Is that really what you believe, that everything is an accident? Even our own thoughts, perhaps?
PFITZ: It's what my father always used to say, and I've no reason to disagree with his wisdom.
They hear a gentle bump on the ground beside the road. An apple has fallen from a tree. Pfitz gets down from his horse to pick it up.
PFITZ: And just when I was feeling peckish! Try telling me that this wasn't a piece of pure chance.
COUNT: The apple fell at that moment simply because the laws of gravity and mechanics dictated that it should. It fell then because it could not have fallen a moment sooner or a moment later.
PFITZ: But why was I here to pick it up?
COUNT: Because the laws which govern the motion of apples also govern the atoms in your body and your brain, and all of these things moved in such a way as to bring you to this place at this time. They made you decide to follow me here, and they made you feel hungry, and they made you get down off your horse. Your life is as completely determined as the course of a falling apple. Every event has a cause, and every cause is itself the outcome of some previous event. If you take the chain back far enough, you will find that everything which happens in the world does so because it is logically necessary for it to occur.
PFITZ: Try telling that to my father! I'm sure he didn't think that way when he made me.
In truth, this debate is one in which Pfitz and the Count engaged on many occasions. For not only had the Count taught Pfitz to read, but he had then made him study the works of all the great philosophers, in order that master and servant might pass the time in stimulating discourse. Thus it was, that Pfitz came to know Plato and Aquinas, Spinoza and Locke. But at the end of it all he still agreed with what his father used to say, that nothing in this world is ever black and white.
- But was it not the Author who made the apple fall? And the story of Pfitz's entire life must already be determined, since the Author knows from the outset how it will all end.
Then what of your own life, Reader? Is that a story which has already been concluded in the mind of its own Author? There are some who believe that the world itself is no more than a great book, written up above by an unseen hand, and our lives are nothing but the gradual reading of a fate which has existed for an eternity before we are even born. And there are some who believe that our life is only one of several possible books in a great library, and we shall never know which book was that of our own life until we reach the final page (by which time it will be too late to do very much about it). Still others assert that the books themselves are being written as we speak, and their plot is something over which we can have some influence. It is a matter of debate within that particular school, whether the way in which those books turn out was already dictated by some higher book, in some higher library, or whether indeed there may be an infinite hierarchy of books and libraries governing the fate of coincidences, the coincidences of fate, the fate of fates, or the coincidences of coincidences.
- Sir, are you trying now to seduce me with philosophy?
Perhaps it is written up above that this is what will happen.
- We shall see.
COUNT: But if I were to take your apple in my hand and then drop it, it's surely no accident that it falls to the ground?
PFITZ: Just because apples have always done so in the past doesn't mean they will continue to do the same for all time. What if one day you should release an apple and see that it flies up into the air like a bird?
COUNT: Then I should conclude that either I am mad or that the apple was not really an apple at all...
PFITZ: In which case apples fall only by definition...
COUNT: Or else I should have to conclude that the law of gravity had been violated.
PFITZ: And does nature habitually follow this law out of some sense of the common good, perhaps?
COUNT: I don't know. It just does.
PFITZ: Then your account of the logical reason why an apple should fall is that it "just does". And we could equally well imagine a world in which it "just doesn't". Is there any particular reason, then, why we should have happened to find ourselves in this world and not in some other?
COUNT: Well I am perfectly happy to exist in this world, Pfitz, for all its faults and shortcomings; and I hope that I shall continue to exist here for a very long time. You imagine a world which is chaotic, random and meaningless - but what about the great achievements of scientists and astronomers? What about Mr. Newton, and his explanation of the mechanisms which drive the Universe? Already, they've nearly got the whole thing sewn up. Just give them a few more years, while they tie up the loose ends, and then we (or rather they) will understand the ultimate laws of nature. We'll truly know the mind of God.
PFITZ: Now that would be very interesting indeed.
COUNT: But I'm still no nearer to learning the story of how it was that you came into the world.
PFITZ: Perhaps not, but we've managed to get ourselves a little closer to Rreinnstadt in the meantime. Have patience, sir. I shall tell you the rest later.