Harms and the Man–“Necessary Stories” Column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

    <em>Such fifid language,” Dr. Tchernikovsky observed.</em>
Such fifid language,” Dr. Tchernikovsky observed.

“I haf seen dis before,” the psychiatrist sighed, “und I know its name. ILSS – Inter-Literary Stress Syntrome.”

I’d sought out Dr. Tchernikovsky after a nearly sleepless week of a recurring nightmare in which I’d reverted to my army days. Except that instead of being dressed in my IDF fatigues, I had on a scratchy bronze helmet and a cuirass a size too big for me. Something heavy, large, and uncomfortable was strapped to my left arm, and my right hand gripped something long and hard.

Yes, that’s what I thought, too, but when, in the morning, I pieced together the other details of this nocturnal horror show it didn’t seem to fit the standard Freudian typology. It was very dark, I was thirsty and horribly cramped, and the meager air smelt of timber mixed with flatulence.

“Inter-Literary Stress Syndrome?” I asked. “This deathly panic and paranoia, the self-loathing that segues into macho elation and bloodlust? Are you sure a rugby-playing dybbuk hasn’t possessed my body?”

Dr. Tchernikovsky placed his elbow on the armrest of his overstuffed chair and stroked his soup-strainer mustache, staring hard at me, as I lay stiffly on his analyst’s couch.

“I haf encountered some rugby-playing tybbuks in my time,” he said after a long pause, “und dey haf more sense dan dat.”

In my dream, something cold and sharp touched me. “Hey! Watch that!” I hissed.

“Sorry,” a voice mumbled.

“Who’s there?” I whispered.

“Pyrrhus,” answered a Greek-accented voice. “Listen. It’s working.”

I heard the sound of muffled cheering and we began to move, bouncing up and down like we were being trundled over a rocky field. There was a loud creaking sound, followed by a slam. We rode a little farther, the cheers continued for a while and then faded away. An hour went by and then I felt fresh air on my face.

Diamanti!” Pyrrhus (also called Neoptolemus) shouted.

Diamanti?” I asked. “What’s that?”

“It’s the code word, you fool!” Pyrrhus shouted. “Now get the hell out of here and start slaughtering Trojans!”

Dr. Tchernikovsky removed his pince-nez and polished the lenses with an immaculate linen handkerchief. He held it up for me to see. “I found de frame on eBay,” he said. “Just try to fint an optometrist today who can get vun made for you. Now, you vill please tell me vat you haf been reading.”

“Reading?” I said. “What are you, a critic or a shrink?”

“You vill please tell me vat you haf been reading,” he repeated sternly.

“Well, last week I finished Amir Gutfreund’s latest novel, When Heroes Fly,” I said.

“I haf not had de prifilege of reading it,” he said dismissively.

“It’s a Hebrew best-seller,” I retorted. “Nearly everyone else in this country has read it. It’s 650-page epic about Israeli society’s journey from mythology to humanity, told through the story of Arik Broshi, a kid from Haifa who grows up in the Sixties and Seventies and goes through young adulthood in the Eighties and Nineties.”

“I see. Und ven you finished dis Ven Heros Flie, vat did you begin to read?”

“The next one on my book club’s list,” I said. “Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid, in Robert Fagles’ new translation.”

Each centurion was leading his men in a quick set of leg and arm stretches. I realized in a panic that, while I’d been trained to fire a semi-automatic rifle, an RPG anti-tank rocket launcher, and a 60-mm mortar, I hadn’t the slightest idea how to deploy a sword and shield.

“Charge!” Pyrrhus shouted, and the men immediately jumped to their feet and followed their officers off into the city around us. I followed Pyrrhus up a broad stone-paved avenue that ascended toward a huge and beautiful building.

“To the palace!” he cried. “King Priam is ours!”

“Ah, De Aeneid,” Dr. Tchernikovsky smiled. “Dat great song of heroism and patriotism, dat classic of manly falor and defotion. It is vun of my faforites. Out off de ashes of Troy comes de great Roman Empire dat brought civilization und peace to de ancient vorld. But vat is dis to Herr Guttfreund’s Ven Heros Flie? Vat is de connection?”

“The connection,” I said irritably, “is that I finished reading the one, and began reading the other.”

“Den you vuld not be hafing these symptoms,” he insisted. “Vat is de connection? Does Herr Guttfreund haf a vooden horse in his story?”
“No, of course not,” I scoffed. Then it rosy-fingered dawned on me.

“Wait a minute!” I exclaimed. “The turning point in When Heroes Fly is the first Lebanon War! Arik and his friends all emerge from it emotionally scarred, and one is killed! Of course, Guttfreund is subtle, he doesn’t say it straight out, but it emerges that they can’t reconcile the carnage and senselessness of the war with the simple black-and-white Zionism they’ve grown up on.”

“Get that sword arm going, man!” Pyrrhus barked at me, adding some juicy expletives of the type that I cannot repeat in this tribal magazine. I looked around me. The palace floor flowed with blood. Guts were spattered over the walls. Trojan screams filled the air.

“Pyrrhus,” I observed, “these are women, children, and old people.”

Pyrrhus halted in mid-thrust, just as he was about to run his spear through a princess and her baby. In the midst of the mayhem around us, he held his arm there for a full minute or more. Then he turned his sweaty face to me.

“Do you have an issue with this?” he asked me fiercely. “They’d do the same if they invaded Greece.”

“Ah, the first Lebanon War.” Dr. Tchernikovsky nodded sagely. “You are 52 years old, you said?”

“That’s right.”

“So you too vere in dis var?”

“Yes, I vas in dis var,” I stammered. “Scheiss, now you’ve got me doing your accent. How long ago did you get off the boat from Germany?”

“I am actually Russian,” he said. “But ve learn de German accent at unifersity.” He pointed to the framed certificate that hung on the wall above the couch. It read: “Ve hereby certify dat Dr. S. Tchernikofsky has completet all de requirements und training und is qualified to treat neurotics, psychotics, traumatics, und fanatics.”

Pyrrhus was pursuing wounded, bleeding Polites, son of King Priam of Troy, through the palace corridors, and I was hot after him.

“Pyrrhus, he’s disarmed!” I shouted, almost tripping over my shield. Polites darted to the left and we followed him into a high-ceilinged chamber. Carven gods stood in niches around the walls and incense was burning on a large altar in the center. King Priam and his Queen, Hecuba, were making their last desperate offerings to their deities. And just as Polites reached his parents he collapsed, “vomiting out his lifeblood before their eyes.”

“Such fifid language,” Dr. Tchernikovsky observed.

“It certainly is,” I said.

“Go on,” he encouraged me.

I recited:

“At that, Priam, trapped in the grip of death,
not holding back, not checking his words, his rage:
‘You!’ he cries, ‘you and your vicious crimes!
If any power on high recoils at such an outrage,
let the gods repay you for all your reckless work,
grant you the thanks, the rich reward you’ve earned.
You’ve made me see my son’s death with my own eyes,
defiled a father’s sight with a son’s lifeblood.’“

Pyrrhus was about to slaughter Priam on his own altar. But I couldn’t keep myself from asking the old man a question.

“I don’t get it, Priam,” I said. “The Greeks putting your city to flames and slaughtering every Trojan they can find, armed, unarmed, combatant, non-combatant. And what bothers you, the thing you find morally outrageous, the act for which you curse this man whose name will become a synonym for a bloody and useless victory, is that he killed your son in front of you? I mean, if he’d killed him somewhere else that would have been okay? And the fact that he’s killed your daughters and grandchildren is not worth remarking on?”

“So you see,” Dr. Tchernikovsky said.

“See what?”

“You haf been traumatized by reading about two fery tifferent vars back to back. Ancient vars vere all about de primal instincts of violence and conquest. Glory and fictory vere der purpose und der justification. But the vars ve haf today are different. Dey are about ideology and self-defense and dey are goferned by de laws uf var. Today ve don’t slaughter vomen and children and old people like de Greeks did in Troy. Certainly not in the first Lebanon Var. Vunce you understand that, your symptoms – de panic and paranoia, de self-loathing dat is also macho elation and bloodlust – vill simply disappear.”

“You mean,” I said, “that ancient war was a manly pursuit, and modern war is a moral pursuit?”

“Precisely!” Dr. Tchernikovsky exclaimed, jumping up from his chair. “How to you feel now?”
I looked down and saw welts on my shield arm and calluses on my sword hand.

“I’m cured,” I acknowledged. “But I feel sick to my stomach.” •

”Harms and the Man” was published in The Jerusalem Report, May 11, 2009

Links to more Necessary Stories columns

The drawing of Shaul Tchernikovsky comes from the website of the Gnazim Archive.