by Simon Olling Rebsdorf
If I did not wear the mask that apparently makes me who I am, then I could have been the resident across the street watching television every night when the children are put to bed, and who raises the national flag when there is a birthday to celebrate, who likes playing with his chainsaw in the garden on Sundays and subscribing to the province’s local newspaper.
I could have been my own father, who had all the trouble of giving me an appropriate upbringing and, hopefully, believes he has succeeded.
I could have been the vicar who connected the bonds of God between my father and my mother at that time in the happy sixties, but who, later, had to witness their separation and divorce.
I could have been the Christian protestant’s God who would, once again, feel cheated by the naive belief of human beings in the future, combined with a lack of willingness to live together because they do not want to put up with anything. I could have been any deity—Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus, Mary, Thor, Zeus, Mars, Satan.
I could have been Pinocchio, who wanted to be a real boy; Grandma Elviry Duck, who made another pie for the windowsill; or, for that matter, Cornelius Coot, who founded Duckburg. I could have been the girl who was unhappy in Tintin because she realized the impossibility of him coping with a woman when his life served more important purposes.
I could have been anyone in my family: my grandmother, who cut the red, sweetly scented roses while thinking back on Aunty from the countryside who didn’t read books but still was the warmest human being that grandma had ever known.
I could have been my sensitive, romantic, and aggravating grandfather, who eagerly swung the conductor rod when enjoying another noisy tape recording of the Opera La Traviata, doing so in front of the whole family who was often obliged to follow his hand’s every movement, otherwise he’d get mad and sad for the rest of the evening.
I could have been my big brother, who was once athletic, skilled at playing badminton, but who hadn’t had so much luck with the girls, at least not to the extent that his little brother was informed. I could have been my bro’s elderly high school teacher of French, hated by everybody, mostly because she was rather old-fashioned, but perhaps just the first to discover the exchanging glances between a certain girl in the class and my big brother. I could have been the organist playing the newlyweds out of the church several years later.
I could have been the competitor of the class who wished to be the lucky guy, but unfortunately, wasn’t, got educated as a bank clerk, and then married a handball girl and bought a suburban house with all the works.
I could have been the headmaster of the state upper school who repeatedly glanced at a younger, very elegant, French high school teacher who, in contrast, was quite popular, especially among the young and strong boys in the classes. I could have been the same principal who signed both my big brother’s high school diploma and mine.
I could have been anyone at the high school, really, except perhaps our biology teacher, Ole the Willy, who stopped after two years of employment, probably because he did not teach. No, I could have been him as well, especially when he was stubbornly sitting behind the biology teaching room’s school desk shooting in our direction with a water gun, most of his students hurtling past him, whilst, at the same time, only the very best of the class’ students were studying yeast cells through a microscope, as they apparently had an urge to learn something.
I could have been Franco, Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin. I could have been Lenin, who traveled under a wig, under false passport during his flight to Finland in 1917 as the worker Ivanov. I could have been the customs officer who recognized the worker as being Lenin but didn’t blabber about it to anyone.
I could have been anyone of significance in history. I could have been Alexander Fleming, discovering the bactericidal fungus Penicillium notatum on a petri dish; I could have been the doctor Hippocrates who got the idea of the current medical practice; René Descartes, who got the idea of dividing human existence into body and soul, or Gottfried Leibniz inventing the infinitesimal calculus. I could have been Isaac Newton, having been credited with coming up with the same idea, and who, in a longer exchange of letters with a colleague, explained God’s almighty presence and intervention in the lives of the world’s constituents in order to maintain universal stability. I could have been one of the first sociologists who tried to describe Newton’s scientific status from social contexts that had nothing whatsoever to do with optics, laws of gravity or forces. I could have been Florence Nightingale, who got the good idea that hygiene could play a significant role in the recovery of hospital patients. Anyone is who I could have been.
I could have been Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake due to merely thinking—and stating—that all locations in the universe are equal. I could have been Nicolaus Copernicus, beforehand having not become known for sending his theories of a geocentric (sic!) model to a peer review with the pope, but who was later honored as the father of revolutionizing the cosmological worldview. I could have been the pope who, in the fifties, avowed that the big bang had indeed taken place once, a very long time ago.
I could have been Aristotle, who was inspired by examining nature, instead of just thinking about it and stating facts about it on that basis. I could have been the pope who condemned 277 statements in the medieval Latin translations of Aristotle. I could also have been Plato, describing the five regimes in his Republic. I could have been the first Athenian couch merchant, who was too lazy to leave his soft bed just to meet up and vote on the square about yet another painstakingly dull law that had nothing to do with his private life.
I could have been the storyteller Herodot, when he first traveled from the Greek autostrada, from Susa in Persia to Sardis in Lydia. I could have been Tutankhamun, who might have regretted the construction of such a large grave, but then realized that once the work had been commenced, there was no reason to stop it anyway.
I could have been anyone. I could have written the “Moonlight Sonata,” I could have signed the Declaration of Independence, I could have taken a small step for man and a giant leap for humanity in only one leg movement, or I could have held a speech about having a dream that white and black children could play in harmony at the playground. I could have been Marie Curie, who inadvertently put radioactive substances in her pocket, eponymously giving her name to the element polonium, appropriately named after her motherland.
I could have been the historian who devoted his whole life to describing the history of the Western World in the belief that it was more culturally interesting than, for example, the African States’ diverse but barely-as-well-written stories. And I could have been the editor of the historical magazine who chose not to print a critical article on historical one-sidedness because it threatened my professional territory.
Also, I could have been the physicist Alan Sokal, who intentionally submitted a rubbish article to a high-ranking sociological journal and got it accepted by the highly academic referees. I could have been the editor of the magazine, who, scornfully, read Sokal’s own disclosure of the parody of his article entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which was a physicist’s own social experiment with the postmodernist discourse of cultural studies on the objective reality of the physical world! After all, those sociologists could just come and visit his 21st-floor apartment and try out their own postmodernist theories of objective reality by jumping out the window.
I could have been a canteen lady at an American university, who heard a group of physicists making fun of maverick sociology of science, but who were not the slightest interested in the science war debate or other academic airy-fairy. I could have been her husband who was looking forward to meeting her at Promontory Point in south-side Chicago to enjoy the summer weather and let Lake Michigan’s summer breeze from the east caress her hair, then going home, quietly holding hands.
I could have been anyone. I could have been John Coltrane when he recorded his life’s saxophone solo in Giant Steps in 1960.
I could have been the Russian forest worker Vasily in Tunguska, who saw a meteor dropping from the sky in 1908 setting a giant forest area on fire, and who died a few weeks later from radiation sickness.
I could have been the journalist John Gunther, who avoided being captured by Nazis, despite being on Hitler’s death list due to his writings about the dictator in extremely critical terms during the Second World War.
I could have been anyone. I could have been the psychopath roaming the streets of Victorian London, raping girls and boys and then cutting their throats. I could have been Mohammad Atta, who assisted in forcing a passenger plane into the World Trade Center. I could have been one of the two 10-year-old boys who killed a 3-year-old on a roadbed without knowing why he did it and what the consequences could possibly be. I could have been anyone. I could have been the scenographer who staged the cruel incident at a theater a decade later, and made the audience aware that it could happen again, any time, even tomorrow.
I could have been Gandhi, who thought that the term “Western civilization” sounded like a great idea.
I could have been the best man at the Britney Spears’ wedding, getting so plastered that he revealed having had sex with her too, long ago. I could have been the teenage girl who was considering trying to cut herself in her arm with a razor blade because she did not look like all the others and because she had heard that cutting the arm with a razor blade was normal for young frustrated girls.
I could have been the journalist of Der Spiegel, who intercepted the story of Britney’s best man but unfortunately managed to print it before it became apparent that the story was fake, and thus had to be called on the carpet in front of the editor-in-chief and write a retraction being located appropriately somewhere unnoticeable in the dullest places of the German newspaper.
I could have been anyone in any German newspaper. I could have been the descendant of a Jewish family who had been decimated in Nazi KZ camps. I could have been another German writer, who later wrote about an English revisionist believing that the deaths of the camps were deeply exaggerated. I could have been any reader of the article, feeling ashamed of his past, or of his present time. I could have been any Dane who was ashamed of our treatment of Jews before the outbreak of the Second World War and about the fact that this part of history was not exactly well described after the liberation.
I could have been any of the conspiring internet writers who have so much spare time that they try to refute historical events. I could have been the man somewhere in Nevada pretending to take a giant leap for humanity. I could have been the secret connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. I could have been the good-looking and dandy Russian role model, Yuri Gagarin, circling around the globe for barely two hours in 1961, and I could have been the mason who, in 1961, put the last brick on the fortified wall, destined to fall 28 years later.
I could have been a farmer in Nigeria who was used to regularly losing a worker to the kingdom of death because the sought-after medicine for Africa’s people’s disease was too expensive for the state. I could have been married to the director of a multinational company who prospered due to maintaining high world-market costs for AIDS medicine in third world countries.
I could have been anyone. I could have been Ray Charles, who lived in another world of sound, smell and feeling, and directed the band with his legs. I could have been anyone.
I could have been the obsessive, neurotic mathematician, now a physics student, who had fallen into a mental hole, therefore often not shaving one side of his face, sometimes falling asleep in the university’s bicycle basement, and defecating in his sorry pants so the fresh university students have to look away on their way to the lecture room. I could have been the older physicist, who was known to run around the university area with his arms held high, flapping them like wings on a bird. I could have been the high-shouting physicist who best understood the world in an eight-dimensional continuum of superstrings, but who had not learned to operate the university’s candy machine. I could have been the Mars scientist who didn’t allow himself to walk on the joints between the floor tiles and consistently stroked his fingers along the wall when walking towards his university office because it gave him a special sense of security, recognition, and control.
I could have been mentally ill and in a Danish psychological treatment center. I could also have sworn that I would never have ended up there, had I just been proven right in my legal case. I could have been the suicide candidate now strapped to a bunk in a locked, whitewashed chamber in a treatment home, because she was willing to take her life rather than be strapped to a bunk in a locked whitewashed chamber in a treatment home, filled with pacifying pills. I could have been the schizophrenic patient who never received support for his original idea into a revolutionary pure energy form, but instead was sedated by growing amounts of psychiatric medicine, just to be safe. I could have been a member of the staff at the treatment home and feel happy that I finally had gained a little more peace with those new sedative pills for those insane patients.
I could have been the gardener, who sweatily wandered home after a full day in a warm lawn-mowing tractor, after the green areas of the entire outdoor of the treatment home had been cut properly. I could have been the gardener’s son-in-law, who still answered “No” to taking over the horticultural firm because he would rather educate himself at the university.
I could have been the cleaning lady, who had been hosting a hostel for more than twenty years, but who had been forced to sell it and was now employed to clean the university’s offices. I could have been this cleaning lady, who needed to be employed by the public sector because she had tried to clean up a private outsourcing company, perhaps yielding a higher salary, but on the other hand made her life a living hell due to inhumane amounts of bustle.
I could have been anyone. I could have been the liberal minister, who said that tax cuts should go to those who made extra effort but, at the same time, kept the equality between high income and extra community efforts. I could be this minister who lived outside the public transport systems, outside of a world of nurses, teachers, or housewives, who indeed made an extra effort and who had become accustomed to the fact that it probably wasn’t him that the politicians were talking about when they spoke of the extra effort to society.
I could have been the former home care officer, who was now at the head of the third-largest anti-elitist political party, self-proclaiming that she was the political embodiment of truths about society that we all tend to think but not say aloud, and for far too long have been kept in the dark. I could have been anybody who made wrong or right decisions, but for the heck of it all wouldn’t accept being regarded as Mr. Anybody.
I could have been any of my lovers. I could have been anyone, and anyone could have been me. Anyone could have experienced what I have experienced, in the same order, and with the same genotypical background. Anyone could have sat down and written these namedropping words and sentences in this exact and particular way, and anyone could have been reading them. Anyone could have danced my dances, drunk my beers, made love to the same girls, scolded with the same lovers, looked embarrassed for the same people on the street, worshiped the same idols and idiots, stated the same deliberate lies, created the same stories to make me look better than I was. Anyone could have travelled my travels, smoked my joints, touched the same breasts, heard the same depictions from any friends, anywhere.
Anyone could have had the same problems of understanding as mine. Anyone could have cheated on the tax bills, invented the same fictional friends as mine. Anyone could have had the same bad thoughts about the same fellow human beings. Anyone could have been me.
Anyone could have used the same restrooms I have used, in Sofia, in Phuket, in London’s Topshop, at a farm all summer in 1991 with the sweaty rubber boots standing on the stairs. Anyone could have experimented with sexuality at the same late times of life, and anyone could have crossed the United States in a rented Pontiac from Hertz. Anyone.
Anyone could have eaten the apples, chewed the gum, and delivered the same newspapers that I did as a paper boy after school. Anyone could have played my bass lines for a wildly dancing audience and drawn the same drawings that I once drew.
Anyone could have fallen on my bike and been woken up in shock in the hospital’s intensive care. Anyone could have solved the equations that I have solved, watched the movies I have seen, read the books I have read, played the same music I have played. Anyone could have had the same obscene fantasies that I have had. And anyone could have had just as hard a time standing by the obscene fantasies as I. Anyone could have sent the table tennis ball in the exact same curved trajectories right over the green table when skipping history classes at the same upper secondary.
Anyone could even have stolen the same groceries that I have stolen, and anyone could have been taken by the retail detective who, by pure compassion, chose to let me and my friend go while he revoked the police report and threw it in the trash can, while I sobbed and cried in utter relief. Anyone could have been able to feel the same mercy and devotion to the infinite humanism by such an authority.
Anyone could have smiled just as fakly, yet politely, and been subordinate to municipal case workers, teachers, employers, elderly family members, police officers, and even judges, directors, or any authority, and hated themselves for doing so, because deep down, they are also merely monkeys requiring heat, sleep, food, safety, sex and attention.
Anyone could have looked out at night and feared the ghosts of the past emerging from the dark. Anyone could have had the same teenage nightmares as I had about nuclear ramps hidden underground just outside our hamlet, and anyone could have thought, like I did, that it could happen any time. Anyone could have survived until now, like I have. Anyone could have heard the complaints I have heard, could have been rejected or accepted as a result of a job interview, like the lot I have experienced, and everyone could have written my diary, thought my suicidal thoughts, held my lectures, given my talks, written my books, had my feelings and political attitudes, and anyone could have had the same trouble hiding a high mental capacity as I do.
Anyone could have lived my life. Anyone could have written that they could have been anyone. I could have been anyone. And anyone could have been me. Anyone could have been anyone. Anyone could have been anyone. Anyone.
The idea of an “I” as the center of personality is an idealistic illusion. We must all acknowledge that we exist as a collection of masks
—Luigi Pirandello, Italian theatre poet
. Published in Telicom: The Journal of the International Society for Philosophical Inquiry – ISPE, 2018, Vol. XXX, No. 3, July-September, p. 61-66.]