On a hot summer afternoon, especially on Sundays, I’m always compelled to think back on one specific experience from my early childhood. I must have witnessed it often and it must have made, despite its endless dullness, a big impression, for otherwise I cannot explain why I keep thinking back on it. It was always pretty silent around where we lived; there was hardly any traffic, besides the occasional cyclist. But on summer’s Sunday afternoons that silence could suddenly become an entity on its own. Then it wasn’t silent, but there was the silence. That silence was present and besides that there was nothing except for heat. Or perhaps I should say that there was only that languid heat, hot silence over a dusty world. A summer afternoon back then still was: a dome of silence over warm sand and breathless trees, so rural that nobody knows about it, because it is yet to be discovered.
Those summers are gone and that rural character has been broken open, made productive for recreational purposes. Only the memory is still there and it keeps coming back. But my memory is not one of a tourist who has experienced a siesta in an Italian village; it is one of a native who didn’t know what he had until he lost it. That is a tremendous difference. We know nothing as well as that which we can remember from very early on. And it is precisely that which we’ll never find back, no matter where we look for it, for we only know it thanks to the fact that it is no longer there.
But the scenery, which so far has been written and thought about often, has to be supplemented with a sole, essential trait. With that silence, that heat and that dust, went the continual, yet somewhat languid cackle of chickens. To my ears it didn’t sound triumphant or liberated, as when they laid eggs, but more moaning, complaining and powerlessly protesting. While the people and the trees were resting and waiting, it appeared as though the chickens got the feeling they were left alone and that panicked them. They were sitting in the warm sand to deliberately make themselves dirty and then repeatedly stood up again to shake their feathers. Others were in the henhouse, grumbling and whimpering. But their protest against the silence completely belonged to the warm Sunday afternoon, it was a built-in disruption that only confirmed order. That dumb and droning cackle was the network in which the silence was being caught and held.
From such afternoons came an endless, but summery dullness. That happens, I think, because there was such an abundance of it. The hour did not need to be taken advantage of, it was there anyway, like lost time between lunch and praise. It wasn’t really in the program, it was more of a leak in closed time. We didn’t impatiently wait for it to be over, but underwent it without realisation of time. On such a hot afternoon time stood still for a while and nobody knew with certainty whether it would start up again afterwards. Maybe that’s why the chickens panicked a little and with their cackle started to count the seconds of a lost hour, a misplaced rest of activity in a moment saturated with boredom.
For me, I don’t remember what I did in those afternoon hours and whether I did anything. Looking back I believe that I had my hands full with undergoing the situation and had no need to do anything with it. The consideration that the elderly shouldn’t be disturbed in their much-needed rest did not play any part in it, as far as I can remember. Existence in its entirety had suddenly become static. Compared to that tremendous silence the dumb cackle of the chickens was almost nothing, no more than the classical barking of the dog in the distance. But that was at night.
The strange part of such a recollection is that it, no matter how personal and individual it seems, can be shared so easily. Then it turns out to be a possession of many. Our own autobiography coincides for a surprisingly large part with that of others. It all seems very subjective, but in the end it relates to the same world with sun, sand and chickens. People are in touch with each other through the things, more than directly through their feelings. So the summer afternoon is a given that keeps coming back in literature.
Friedrich Nietzsche has based his philosophy of ‘the great afternoon’ on this and about that one books have been written also. It has something to do with the experience of a Southern afternoon, dangerous and blissful, with the completion of the times and the eternal return. A somewhat touristy homesickness to the far and idealised South marks a part of these thoughts -to my taste- as book wisdom and scholarly foolery. Without autobiographical recollections there is no wisdom to be expected from the great afternoon, only statements such as these: ‘That is the great afternoon, in which man stands in the middle of his trajectory between animal and Übermensch.’ When I read something like that, I suddenly hear cluck, cluck, cluck. With Nietzsche, there are no chickens cackling through it; sir does not wish to be disturbed in his dream. To my ears these disrupting false notes of dumb chickens sound like the most beautiful music: they keep the Übermensch at bay.