Géza Csáth

The Surgeon

Translated by Judith Sollosy

I spotted the surgeon the very first time I went to the seedy café on the outskirts of town, where for a while I was one of the regulars. His black coat was threadbare, though clean, and it was worn down to a greenish hue. His scraggly, graying chestnut mustache and large, deep-set eyes suited his pale countenance especially well. There was a bohemian, late-night glitter in those eyes, as if they were swimming in tears. He spoke in a soft half-whisper, as doctors do when consulting with their peers. Even during the most trivial of conversations, which he engaged in with the other customers in the café over the daily papers, he’d look the person he was addressing straight in the eye, as if taking special interest in him. He invariably delivered his views in meticulously composed sentences, as if he were giving instructions to a patient. The simple aristocratic demeanor of this shabby man affected me the same way as the faded yet exquisite velvets I’d seen in the quaint mansions of the rich. I asked the waiter who he was.

“A doctor. A former surgeon. He’s been a steady customer for over a year now.”

Once he heard me asking for a medical journal, and he turned to me. He lauded the medical profession and inquired about the university. As we talked, he struck me by his erudition. I was particularly taken by some psycho-physiological views I’d never heard before. I was impressed by the ingenuity and imaginativeness with which he treated even the most trivial of subjects. I admired the way he adopted himself to his circumstances, the ease with which he accepted life, how well it seemed to suit him. But after we’d finish our afternoon coffee, I’d quickly leave him. (In those days, I was still in a hurry.)

Once I stopped by the café late at night. I found him sitting alone at a table, drinking. He raised the glass of absinthe to his lips with such greed and lust, with such slow economy of enjoyment, downing the green liqueur with his eyes shut, that there could be no mistake – the surgeon was an alcoholic, a confirmed, unabashed alcoholic who is lost and is heading in a straight line towards delirium tremens. In an instant, I understood the odd gleam in his eye, his lust for life that was yet lacking in desire, the pettiness of his sharp intellect. This man was not always like this. He couldn’t have been like this. It was alcohol that had wrought the change in him.

He was startled when he saw me. I knew that he was mortified by my presence, the presence of a colleague. He beckoned me over. I quickly ordered an absinthe, at which his embarrassment disappeared. In a little while I realized, too, that on that night he was about to bare his soul to me, and indeed, within the space of ten minutes, he launched into what he had to say.

“Listen, friend. Do you know what really counts in life?” he asked. “Why we

suffer? Why we eat? Why we love? And why we are happy? It’s for the sake of life itself. Ridiculous, isn’t it, considering that it must come to an end. It ends. But the question is: why? What is the cause preventing the scientist from completing his work, the artist from realizing his ideas, the father from seeing his son to maturity? Well, I have the answer! It’s really quite simple. Why does time pass? That is the first question.

“And now, listen carefully. First, time does not pass. We do! It’s old hat. Even Kant knew that. Time does not exist. But we have a point of conceptual reference. The realization that the body deteriorates, that the brain atrophies, that illness finally destroys us… that time exists. Still, as I have said, there is no such thing as time.

“Question number two. How did we come by this killjoy perspective on life? Well, let me tell you. It’s no more than a temporary phase in the development of the human brain. Embryology offers a wealth of analogy. It so happens that when man stepped out of the world of the primeval ape, he stepped outside of nature. His brain began to evolve at lightning speed. We don’t know how, but the brain picked up attitudes that put man and the world into a new – shall we say more sophisticated – perspective. Perhaps this new perspective is to blame for destroying man’s happiness. Perhaps this is how the concept of time has entered into his head. Perhaps it is this new point of view, this relatively imperfect yet absolutely superior, but in any case, temporary, point of view, which leads us to the biologically based assumption that time passes. But as I say, that’s all it is: temporary. No need to expound on it. Evolutionary phases pass very, very slowly… In short, time weighs heavily on the human race. That is why we are assailed by death and the degeneration that accompanies old age, by pain, and tribulation.

“A serious problem, that. Time’s poison has eaten its way into our philosophy, our art, our most mundane conversations. Man, as soon as he leaves childhood behind, is plagued by the thought of time, which will not give him a moment’s peace until the moment of death. Schopenhauer writes The World as Will and Idea, Shakespeare “To be or not to be.” If it were not for time, we would not have the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven’s symphony of Fate, in whose danse macabre we hear all our seconds trickling inexorably away like so many grains of sand. But by this I mean no more than the man on the street when he sighs and laments that we are getting old!

“And here’s my proof. As I have said, this concept of time clouds our vision only after we have left childhood behind. The passing of time is not disturbing to a child. For one thing, his body is resilient and strong, and his thoughts otherwise occupied. But first and foremost, his spiritual development is much slower. It stands to reason. In the embryo, the circulation of the future human being’s blood is quite simple, it’s got gills. It recapitulates the earlier evolutionary stages of the species. But once he is born, all this crudity – from the point of view of the race, we might even call it imperfection – disappears, having been no more than a means for him to reach the relative stage of development which we have reached today. However, development does not stop here.

The time will come when man will pass through the stages of development children and grownups are at today while still in the embryonic stage. The condition of a child ignorant of time is just such a spiritual embryonic condition. By the time, however, that his psyche has fully developed, time, like a cobweb, has woven its net around his brain, and he can never be free of it, ever again. With Europeans, this state of development comes between the ages of fourteen and twenty. It follows that the time will come when man will pass through this phase of development in childhood, possibly even in the embryonic stage. That will be the day! But till then, what can we do? It is at this point that medical science steps in, for it is capable of ridding man of this suffering, this physiological malaise. This is especially of the essence today, when man is more preoccupied with time than ever. Not even the toil of making a living can save twentieth-century man from falling into this inferno of sadness.

“We must act, sir! In similar cases, surgery is not condemned to stand by helplessly vis à vis the physiological or pathological phenomena which are at the root of such suffering. If this frenzy over transience did not exist but does so now, it must have a place in the center. But this is purely conjecture, and I have no need of it for here I am, and I can prove scientifically that this substratum of the soul’s development actually is a substratum. I can prove it! I have located its place in the gray matter of the brain, and I publicize the possibility – indeed, the necessity – of surgical procedure. Then I bring the procedure itself before the public – in short, I perform the operation – and await the judgment of Science.

“I have found where time is lodged in the brain. In all external particulars, it is just like any other brain cell, yet it is the nucleus of human illness and misery, and the senseless sorrow of time’s transience. In one man it can be a larger mass than in another.

It stretches out its appendages like a polyp, reaching its tendrils, and branches into the recesses of the healthy brain, into every nook and cranny of our thinking.

“Naturally, the surgeon is up against it. But his task is simple. All we have to know is what to excise. Well, I know, and I will offer my knowledge to Man, who wants to be free of time at all cost, who finds the thought of mortality painful and oppressive. I will help him.

“I will rent a huge hall where I can perform the operation. It will be jam-packed with observers. The operating table will be set up in the center, and three assistants will help with the preparations. The greatest financiers and men of science will rub shoulders with the simple folk… Then suddenly, the crowd falls silent. I don my robe and pull my rubber boots on my feet. Calmly, I scrub up, while I give the order, ‘Start theanesthesia!’ I put on my apron, pull on my gloves. ‘Asleep?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Blood pressure?… Fine.’ I touch his head. Slowly, I make an incision from the base of the skull to the parotid. The audience watches with baited breath. Binoculars are trained on me. I stop the bleeding. I fold back the skin and muscles in an area half the size of my palm.

‘Raspatory for the periostal!’ I have now reached the bone. ‘The chisel!’ I make an opening. Trepanation. I am at the dura mater. I carefully cut the membrane, then fold it back, too, and reach a hand into one of the folds, the one I alone know about – and extract Time!

“I simply spoon out this devilish hornet’s nest of human misery. Two minutes, and it is done. I pass the time cells around on a tray, then I suture the dura mater and fit the skull-bone back in place. I tie up the veins. I stitch the scalp, muscles and skin, and dress the wound. I am done. I wake the patient.” (At this point the surgeon sprang up from his chair, veritably shouting as he continued.) “He is the man of the future, the new man who with his fresh, clear brain can solve today’s mysteries and find tomorrow’s truths. He remembers everything perfectly, because facts do not pass away from him; they line themselves up as equals in his consciousness. The audience lauds me. They break into wild applause. I remove my surgical gown, and in my simple gray attire, bow to them.

The happiness of mankind speaks to me through their jubilation….

“In three days’ time, the wound is healed. Why three days? Have you no idea, Doctor? Yet it is so simple!

“Time is a thing of the past! All the psychic energy drained from us by the silent frenzy of the thought of mortality remains to us in the form of a tremendous amount of life-force.

“All the rulers of the world come to me to be operated on. ‘Sorry, gentlemen, but the poor people have signed up first, and I must finish with them first, because their case is graver than yours.’ And the emperors will wait, that goes without saying.

“My invention is simple, isn’t it, Doctor? Definitely worth considering. Still, until such an operation is feasible, we have another medicine against time. Absinthe. It is, admittedly, just a symptomatic treatment. But we won’t have to rely on it much longer, for the surgical method will be both radical and effective. To your health, my dear young friend! To your health!”