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Philipp Schönthaler
translation by Bradley Schmidt

 

The Philosopher’s Stone

 

on november 23, 1654, between 10:30 and a little after midnight, blaise pascal experiences ecstasy. his entire organism, physical and psychological, is now strongly aroused. his endorphin system releases neuropeptides in small, even intervals into his pulsating bloodstreams. pascal kneels in his room, his hands first braced on the stained planks, then raised in the air, his lips emit quiet, unidentifiable sounds in irregular intervals. his eyes are glassy, the mathematician and philosopher has thrown back his head. he gets up and stands in front of the window. in the house and outside, everything is calm, somewhere a screech owl calls, a shadow flies through the night. pascal’s hand rests on the transom, only a slight shudder rolls over him now and again, a crack sounds from the ceiling joist. it’s still dark as he turns from the window. pascal gropes his way to the desk, lights a candle. he is startled by the hissing light of the ignited flame. then he sits down, takes a small piece of pergament paper, dips the goose quill into the inkwell, writes without thinking, automatically, with nervous hands. pascal subsequently closes the inkpot, and lies exhausted but happy on his bed. the air in the room settles coolly on his sweat-soaked skin. he wraps his horse blanket more tightly around his body, and falls into a dream-lashed sleep. in the morning pascal makes a clean copy of the note. then he folds the pieces of paper and sews them into the hem of his coat by hand. pascal does not tell anyone about the documents. only sometimes, when he sits at home or is out and about on the street, his fingers feel for the thickened part in the woven fabric – he will carry the sewed-in pergament paper in his coats until he dies. when he purchases a new coat, he will carefully remove the writing from the old one, making sure that no one sees him, in order to immediately sew it meticulously in the new piece of clothing –

definition: an emotion consists of a sudden reaction that engulfs our entire organism: body, cognition, and action. every emotion arouses a particular impulse,

as a general rule: it doesn’t matter if we actually experience a situation associated with strong feelings or not, explains prof. dr. gregor wilke. the idea itself is quite enough. wilke is a specialist for stress management in the workplace. he researches the phenomenon of autosuggestion. with a little practice you can embed performance-enhancing emotions into your subconscious and retrieve them “at the press of a button”. are you nervous before a performance? are you afraid of failure? then envision a situation in which everything works out well. how do you feel? now transfer that feeling of security from the one situation to the other –

sabrina burns: senior manager of an international hotel group. she didn’t intend to make it to the top at first. she attended a school of hotel management, went to university, subsequently worked in public relations, was elected executive assistant, and hired as a project manager. she was ultimately recruited by headhunters. sabrina knows that she’s beautiful. she has thick, dark hair, a deep, smoky voice; she makes an impression on others, even if she’s been at odds with herself lately. she used to play sports, went dancing once a week. but now she has become plump, lethargic, she feels bad when she looks in the mirror. her hair has lost its luster, looks dull. sabrina stands at the panoramic window of her office on the 21st floor, looks out, the skyline sinking into the blood-red light of the evening sun. sabrina has an overwhelming task ahead, she says: a unique challenge. she rubs her palms together, raising them up to the bottom of her chin with the tips of her middle fingers, lifts her sternum against her thumbs, extended from the hands, and relaxes her shoulders, while breathing deeply through her nose. for three minutes she chants the words “om sri ram jai ram jai jai ram.” early tomorrow morning she will have to negotiate severance packages in the course of a merger, then carry out new investments. but sabrina is already following a new, entrepreneurial vision,

a fundamental rule: the more open to your own emotions you are, the better you can interpret the feelings of others. inner attention represents an important part of our emotional intelligence and humanity:

rudolf stands up. he draws the lace curtains leaving a small gap, stands with his head in the shade of the room so it can’t be seen from the street. he looks out, down to the sidewalk, to the facade on the other side of the street before he completely closes the curtains, sits back down at the kitchen table, and takes his blue linen-bound notebook from the cutlery drawer:

protocol of emotions (according to linehan/holler) april 4, friday
alarm clock rang at 10. got up at 10:30, bathroom. 131 kilograms. then a cinnamon bun, a poppy-seed roll with ham, cream cheese, nescafé. on the radio a broadcast about pirates in the waters off somalia. never before have the pirates come so close to the coast (600 km). the public pool shortly before noon. jumped from the three-meter board after much hesitation. a group of schoolgirls whispered at the edge of the pool, laughed. repeated attempt to recognize my own profile in the reflection of the white tiles. very blurred. on the second attempt turned around and climbed down from the diving platform. halfway down bumped into a man ascending. embarrassed. maybe total body hair removal after all? then bought 400 grams of ham, 250 grams of liverwurst, 2 liters of milk (skim), semolina porridge. watched the fish in the aquarium in the foyer for a long time before leaving the pool: guppies, 6 green neons, 2 flag cichlids, 1 common roach, shy among the tendrils.

axiom: the world of the happy man is different from that of the unhappy man,

the psychology professor a. schutz from chemnitz explains: the secret is transforming weaknesses into strengths. the goal is to view emotional failures and defeats as valuable resources. this is liberating and generates new energies -

now sabrina knows what she has to do: she will exchange the gummy bears in her desk drawer for cashew nuts and dark chocolate. she has already been successful with the low GI diet before. she rings her secretary but remembers that the secretary already left two hours ago. she grabs the last piece of candy, turns back to her screen, goes over her plan for the future that she will present at the general meeting tomorrow one last time,

record of emotions, may 7
alarm clock rang at 10. got up at 10:30, toilet. 131 kilograms. then a cinnamon bun, a poppy-seed roll with smoked sausage, two hard-boiled eggs, nescafé. philosophical breakfast television. topic: athletic philosophy. the best way to overcome exhaustion is to double the workload. at noon the city fountain in naschmarkt square. fed seventeen pigeons, one gull. purchased 400 grams of boiled ham, 250 grams of ham, 2 liters of milk (skim), semolina porridge. the checkout girl smiled. brief bewilderment, then spreading feeling of warmth in the lower gastrointestinal area, followed by sudden stabbing pain in left knee. cleared throat. left the supermarket with determined stride.

first rule of thumb: the immediate connection between economic losses and emotional shortcomings is still underestimated. iq alone leaves 90 percent unexplained when attempting to elucidate individual carrier success, says goalman. at l’oréal the salespersons that were selected on the basis of certain emotional competences have much higher sales numbers than salespersons from the normal selection process. in annual figures, the salespersons hired on the basis of emotional competence sold 91,370 dollars worth of products more than the rest, which corresponds to a net sales growth of 2,558,360 dollars.

emotions are our windows to the outside world

markus and ines draw up a positive interim balance: they’ve finally got themselves a note board. now they can communicate with colorful post-its, say what they dislike about each other, what pleases them, what they expect, their feelings, wishes, fantasies and so on, the written notes make it possible to freely process their interpersonal communication with a buffer, without the immediate, intrusive presence of the other and all the disturbing interfering emotions that are invariably aroused in such situations. They can butt in explains markus, because suddenly there’s so much going on when two people sit directly across from one another, virtually unprotected. prognoses, needs that one projects, are transferred from work to the relationship, from the earliest stages of childhood to your partner, from your partner back to yourself. moods, predispositions, traumatic experiences, and so forth, you’ve somehow got to wrap your head around it. if there’s no neutral ground available to momentarily put the whole thing on hold, or even a note board, then it gets hard really fast – for yourself, for the others; hard to break it down to clear personal messages, i.e. so you can be yourself, be centered, what do i want? what do the others want? create some clarity, often it’s just trifles, trivial issues: dirty dishes, socks left on the ground and so forth, which are somehow decisive in that particular moment, which influence everything and send it in a completely different direction than intended – and possibly the whole time your mother’s breathing down your neck, your father, ancestors, and ancestors’ ancestors are sitting on your shoulders breathing down your neck. old, primeval behavioral patterns, spontaneous reactions that poison the atmosphere for the entire evening; ines nods.

2nd rule of thumb: if the amygdala presses the brain’s panic button, this sets off a cascade, starting with the release of the crf hormone and ending with a flood of stress hormones, mainly hydrocortisone (cortisol). once released, the hormones remain in the body for hours, the amygdala is now highly prone to interferences,

an escalating situation:
on june 28 mike tyson and evander holyfield are in the rematch of the heavyweight title bout. the situation is tense. the fight enters the third round. the boxers are tightly interlocked when tyson pulls back for a right hook. holyfield quickly ducks to the side, escapes the blow and unexpectedly rams his opponent’s head with his shaved skullcap. now tyson is very angry, he is flooded by dark memories. holyfield had rammed him with his massive skull just 7 months before – tyson had lost the fight in the 11th round and complained about the maneuver at the top of his voice. when holyfield’s head unexpectedly hits tyson once again his prefrontal area is immediately alarmed. this is the brain’s command center; the frontal lobes are directly connected to the amygdala, the place in the brain where emotional memory is stored, which has regulated human survival for millennia and preserves the base moments of triumph and defeat, hope and fear. in a crisis the brain pursues a tried and true strategy: senses are heightened, complex thoughts are suppressed, a reflex-like response is triggered. in a tie-up, tyson quickly rolls his head over his opponent’s shoulder, almost brings his head in contact with holyfield’s. the audience is still mesmerized by the previous actions, only a few shouts, whistles. the referee, mills lane, wipes sweat from his forehead when tyson suddenly bites off a piece of holyfield’s ear. that kind of dramatic reaction can have disadvantages in modern work life or family life, declares goalman: the bite cost tyson 3 million dollars,

axiom: befriend your parasympathic nervous system

a case study:
cassy, tina, and chris are vacationing together on an island. they all embarked with the highest of expectations. they are visiting arno. arno emigrated to costa rica two years ago. he works as a diving instructor in clear hill. he lives in a bungalow on a hill above the village. it is particularly muggy this time of the year. at night the temperatures hardly sink either. even a thin linen sheet retains the heat unbearably while he sleeps. the fan’s metal propellers churn futilely through the sticky air.

in the morning arno and cassy sit on the balcony, smoke cigarettes and drink black coffee. chris and tina are in the bungalow. here it’s cooler than outside. by now the hurricane warnings are broadcast four times a day. it gets serious once they start broadcasting every hour, said arno. arno motions to the thick clouds in the sky. the radio meteorologists name the hurricane albert. up to now albert has been swelling far away in the caribbean. the islanders are urged to move to the protected zones if things get serious. tourists can be flown to the united states from their respective embassy. but arno said he was staying at any rate, his voice is free of doubt. only his eyes briefly dart over, looking for cassy. chris sits down on the veranda with a mango, says nothing, just glances over to arno occasionally. he silently carves the mango with a knife, cuts out soft pieces from the fruit. the viscous fruit juice drips onto the veranda’s stained planks without a sound.

tina ambles over the meadow to the breadfruit trees. she loves the view down to the water, the harbor. she is still astonished by the vegetation: mangos, guavas, lemons as large as women’s breasts. she bends over and picks up a guava, weighing it in her hand. there is quiet all around. tina thinks of joe, who everyone just calls bad. she wonders whether he too has been following the announcements on the radio. everyone knows that tina kissed bad. they were in reno’s bar in the village, drinking rum and coke till late in the night, talking and laughing.

bad has occasionally come up to arno from the village since chris, tina, and cassy have been here; he carries bananas, mangos, water chestnuts, he spreads them out and then lies in the hammock. he rarely says a word. when he says something, it is directed at arno. bad says little about his family, the children. he drinks black coffee without sugar, smokes pot. bad is strong, his sinews and muscles even stand out underneath his t-shirt. the calluses on his feet are as thick as elephant skin; he walks barefoot all the way from clear hill up to arno’s. chris asks, how do you do it, bad?

now cassy gets up. she’s wearing a light sundress. cassy walks over to tina. chris sees how arno’s glance follows cassy. bad is still lying in the hammock but has turned his head to the side, almost imperceptibly. tina leans against the breadfruit tree. cassy stands next to tina and asks, well, what do you think – stay or go? just this morning the german embassy called arno and asked if he wouldn’t rather leave the island. he declined. he had already started to firm up the roof on his bungalow, nail additional planks to the windows, stockpile food. tina didn’t say anything, just shrugged her shoulders, looked back to where bad lay in the hammock. for all i care it can come, that hurricane, says tina, she laughed. you’re crazy, says cassy, her hand reaches for tina’s hips, she’s suddenly excited: we should catch a flight, if that’s still possible.
cassy can no longer say why she came to the island. she says to arno, who has come to join the two women: because you invited me. that’s all, asks arno disappointed. cassy knows that there’s another reason but the thought of it scares her. her eyes rest where tina had been standing. arno steps closer, tries to look into her eyes, grabs her arm, but cassy takes a step back. three years ago they were still a couple, they had lived together in berlin. arno had invited cassy to visit him several times previously. she could stay as long as she wanted. but cassy doesn’t know what she wants. come on, let’s go to the beach, calls tina. she is standing on the veranda, her gaze wandering over to cassy, to the hammock. tina and cassy get their bathing suits. arno says, i’ll take you down to the village with the jeep. chris stays seated on the veranda –

life is full of feelings. we all have emotions but we react to the same situation differently, explains holler, looking expectantly at the group. she searches for eye contact with each participant. only the individual can assume responsibility for their feelings. the first step is gaining clarity over our emotions: what do i want, what don’t i want? clearly expressing our needs is one of the principles of non-violent communication (nvc). in the next lesson arno, bad, cassy, chris and tina learn to recognize and communicate their feelings. nvc considers individual values and needs as the source of vital energy that bubbles in every living being,

record of emotions, monday, june 3
slept through the alarm. toilet at 11:30. 141 kilograms. two cinnamon rolls, st. john’s wort butter, nescafé. in the pool by one thirty. sat on the bench next to the pool for a long time and looked at the three-meter tower. only counted five of the six green neons in the aquarium. a piece of paper on the sidewalk that looked like paper money, but suddenly there are only scraps in my hand (cola bottle). 400 grams of ham, terrine, 10 eggs, brown bread (1 kilogram).

a positive image that sabrina remembers appears as follows: the three-year-old is walking with her father in the woods, she is wearing yellow rubber boots. she walks through a stream, the water splashes to the side underneath her soles, her father holds her hand. they talk about which animals they would like to be and which they wouldn’t. sabrina would like to be a shrew or a squirrel, her father a large bird, maybe a hawk. suddenly they are surprised by a storm, there is no shelter. her father quickly throws his loden cape over his daughter. she remembers this feeling now. sabrina recalls the darkness under the coat, the heavy odor of wet wool, sweat, and aftershave, and this great feeling of comfort. for a moment her gaze rests contentedly on an indefinite distance. before her eyes lose their sheen again – she furrows her brow, explains that after her mother’s visit she felt humiliated, empty. she doesn’t understand how, in the presence of her 71-year-old mother, an established manager can feel just as small as she did 35 year before, when she was ordered to clean up her room. she places one hand on her forehead across the frontal eminences, her other hand rests on the thick bones of her spine – the forehead hold treatment is an effective strategy for reducing fear, anger, and stress, explains hofmann-hofmann: our feelings are our emotional capital. whoever learns to live in a transparent relationship of exchange with themselves, with others, is always able to transform suffering into positive energy and grows with their suffering,

increasing inner awareness
it is just after midday, outside it is still, every now and again a car drives past the house. markus is despondent. he lies prone on a coconut mat. his right leg is bent and lies over the left so the arch of his right heel is on the instep of his left foot. markus crosses his arms behind his back. his right arm now grabs the right heel, his left hand the left heel. markus inhales and closes his eyes, exhaling slowly. now he allows the negative emotions to rise, gives them space, divides this aspect of feeling from its meaning until a relaxed surge rolls over his right leg. markus rolls up the mat, stands up and leaves,

when training the regulation of emotions it is important to have concrete goals, recommends wieser. recognize what is good for you and what is not. avoid communication saboteurs. whoever has a goal also finds a path – self-confidence is the key to success.

ines says: whoever rules over themselves also rules over others
rudolf says: it’s better to listen to your heart
sabrina says: offside is when the referee blows his whistle
markus quietly counts backwards from 20 to 0, lightly tapping the dimple on his upper lip, the so-called philtral dimple, keeps his eyes shut, says: whoever rules over themselves also rules over others.

each participant is allowed to pick a small stone from the small bamboo box in parting. markus and ines choose a moonstone. moonstones have a positive effect on your emotional life, bring out the unconscious and strengthen intuition. moonstones solve physical and mental digestive problems and emotional blocks. sabrina selects a green agate. green agates grant sympathy and loquaciousness. melancholy, weaknesses of memory, nervousness and nervous disorders are repelled by the agate, as long as it is worn close to the body in the lumbar region. rudolf picks a bronzite. the bronzite helps against shortness of breath, strengthens the entire organism and grants a healthy appetite.

a story:
myths exist to be renewed, explains wieser. why doesn’t sisyphus become depressed, why doesn’t he suffer from burn-out? albert camus provides the answer in his retelling of this old story of passion: we see a tense body, straining to move the huge rock forward, who rolls it up and climbs the cliffs again and again with the stone; we see a twisted face, cheeks pressed up against the stone, see a shoulder pressing against the dirt-covered boulder, a foot pushing the stone up, the arm smoothly accepting the movement before the man pauses, taking a breather. No sooner has the goal been reached than the stone rolls back down the cliff into the valley. the man pauses briefly, feels the air on the summit streaming into his lungs, his chest expands, the wind blows through his disheveled hair. he looks around, his eyes roam over the distance, across the horizon, then down to the plains. we should be interested in sisyphus during this journey back, says wiser, quoting camus, a face that labors so close to the stone that it too has already become stone. but sisyphus is stronger than the cliffs. he is superior to his fate because he takes it into his own hands. the battle against a peak may fill a human heart. let’s leave sisyphus at the foot of the mountain, says wieser, again quoting camus: one must imagine sisyphus happy.

 

From “Der Stein des Weisen” by Philipp Schönthaler in Nach oben ist das Leben offen, Schönthaler’s first collection of stories (© Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2012). Translation © Bradley Schmidt.

 

Philipp Schönthaler studied literature and fine arts in Vancouver, Brighton and Konstanz, where he currently still lives. He regularly publishes in literary magazines; Nach oben ist das Leben offen was awarded the Clemens Brentano Prize 2013.

Bradley Schmidt grew up in rural Kansas, completed a BA in German Studies at a small liberal arts college there, studied German Literature and Theology in Marburg, and started a dissertation on Schleiermacher in Halle an der Saale before completing an MA in Translation Studies in Leipzig. He lives and works in Leipzig as a freelance translator and adjunct instructor at Leipzig University.

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MadHat, Issue 14, Spring 2013