The Call of the Void
By P.J.C. Meis
The following pages are excerpts from the diary of Dr Wilhelm Tolman, discovered by police investigators at his home after he was found dead of apparent suicide. These records have only recently been declassified and translated from the original German.
May 28, 1914
‘He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.’ Friedrich Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil.
One of my Viennese colleagues has suggested I keep a diary in which to describe the events that have led to my troubled sleep of late. He hopes that this act of narration will reveal the hidden reasons for what he has titled ‘neurotic phantasmagoria’ plaguing my mind. It is possible that the disquieting and otherworldly dreamscapes involuntarily conjured up by my unconscious are caused simply by a hitherto unnoticed defect of my mental composition. As a psychologist, I cannot discount the possibility that I am perhaps as susceptible to maladies of the brain as my unfortunate patients. And yet, despite these reservations, I cannot dispel the daemonic suggestion that I have been given new eyes to see a strange reality usually hidden from Man – that these weird dreams of mine are but windows to a world as real as the one we normally inhabit.
June 3, 1914
If I am to trace back the origins of my troubles, I must start with the day I first met a patient by the name of Joseph Wehgrund. Joseph had been a promising student of philosophy at the University of Greifswald before experiencing the nervous breakdown that caused him to be placed in my care. The first time I met Joseph he bore little resemblance to the handsome youth pictured on the medical file. Instead, his appearance was that of a man consumed by delirium. He was thin, pale and shivering, bound by straps to the hospital bed. A rough black growth of hair covered his face, as we had been unable to shave him due to the violent nature of his mania. His dark eyes, wide with fear, darted constantly to and fro. Although he seemed incapable of normal communication, he could not help but narrate the contents of his fevered mind.
Mumbling, he would describe creatures of impossible cruelty who were locked in an infinite cycle of destruction. These creatures would continually butcher one another to feed the indeterminate faceless ‘force’ governing this grotesque universe. Joseph told of endless scenes of internecine slaughter, the horror of which caused him to scream periodically. This wailing was most unsettling, so we had cause to remove him from the general ward to prevent unrest spreading among our other patients, some of whom had already taken up their own cries in response to his.
One day, as I sat by the bed of Joseph to write down more of his unconscious monologue, surprise seized me as I found him staring at me with frenzied dark eyes. Unblinking, he stared at me in silence and motioned me forward. I bent close to him and heard him whisper: ‘We will feed the abyss…the void is calling…to infinite sacrifice.’ Then, his eyes rolled up and he slumped into a mute stupor.
I must admit that those words caused me more distress than they should have. A man in my position should be accustomed to the ravings of the mad, whatever imagery they conjure up. And yet I found myself dwelling on those words night after restless night, trying to divine their meaning, as the physical and mental degeneration of Joseph Wehgrund continued unabated.
June 27, 1914
It has been nearly a month since I last wrote in my diary. While rereading the last entry I shivered to recall what followed. Since my dreams have become increasingly disturbing, however, I venture again to find out if telling this tale will finally bring relief. I wrote before that Wehgrund continued only to degenerate but in so doing I have committed the sin of omission. Before Joseph met his untimely end due to the fever consuming him, he experienced two occasions of relative clarity. Of these, I was the sole witness.
The first time he emerged from his wretched state, I was making my rounds in the usual manner, noticing that it was abnormally quiet. In an asylum one learns quickly enough that silence is not the most common symptom of madness. One mentally drowns out most of the hubbub emanating from the cells until it simply becomes background noise, ebbing and flowing like a familiar tide. It was thus with some interest that I made my way to Wehgrund’s cell to investigate why he too was silent. I peered inside and saw him lying on his bed, immediately noticing that he was not straining against the straps, as was his custom. He was lying mostly still, moving only his head with a curious expression on his face. I quickly opened the door and sat down on the chair by his bed. His eyes followed my movements, but the man did not speak. ‘Joseph,’ I said, ‘my name is Dr Tolman. Do you know where you are?’ He nodded and answered that he knew he was in a sanatorium. Following this, I could not resist asking the question foremost in my mind. ‘Do you know why you are here?’
He replied in a hoarse voice: ‘Because I broke through the veil and I saw the End of Ends. Because I saw myself, all of my various selves, marching in all possible realities to the same abyssal chasm, all inescapably marching to the same sacrificial altar; an infinite world demanding infinite sacrifice. I saw myself and all versions of myself walking through an unfathomable Golgotha of suffering, to feed the yawning void. Then upon that altar we were given orders to slaughter ourselves in each other…and so we did, endlessly, trying to flood a boundless realm with our sacrificial blood. Still we marched…all the while…’ He started trembling with emotion. I tried to calm him down, but Joseph, with a great amount of effort, seemed to compose himself. I saw tears form in his eyes. As they rolled down his cheeks, he added: ‘We were all smiling.’ After these last words, Joseph again succumbed to a coma from which he would rise but one more time.
The dreams started soon after Wehgrund spoke to me that day. The images he painted haunted me. In my dreams I too am sacrificed to this ‘void’. And in this dimension of torment I am both murderer and victim. I strike down image after image of myself with spear, sword or bayonet. I kill my smiling Doppelgangers in endless, pointless butchery. I shoot them with a rifle, blow them up with a grenade or suffocate them with gas and as they die, I become them in their suffering. I feel the spear, the sword or the bayonet pierce my skin. I feel the bullets pass through my insides, ripping me apart. I am the one who is blown apart or slowly suffocated, drowning in blood. Each night I am killed by my own hand and awaken only to the sound of my own screams.
July 27, 1917
Finally, it is time to recall the last time Joseph Wehgrund spoke to me. I have neglected to do so out of fear, but I must if I am to remain compos mentis. Developments of late have caused me to suspect that sanity is in short supply in Europe. The more I think of Joseph W. in the light of current events, the more I wonder if he was merely more perceptive than most or somehow keenly sensitive. Perhaps he was more intuitive in a manner akin to animals, whose prescience of natural disasters is well documented. I cannot, however, be envious of such intuition, knowing what suffering it brought the poor young man. I but glimpsed the horrors presented to the mind of Joseph Wehgrund and it has caused me nothing but grief.
The last time I spoke to him, he had been screaming continuously for days. Sedatives could not alleviate his distress. There seemed no way of rescuing the poor man from his own mind. Then, one day as I passed by his room, his incoherent screams changed into clearly audible words and sentences. I heard him calling my name and went in to sit down by his side. In his eyes I perceived a clarity not glimpsed for weeks. Between deep breaths he started, softly, to speak again:
‘I am almost free. I can feel it. When the world outside will become the Golgotha of my dreams, I will no longer be here. I will not live to see and hear the truth of my suffering realized, and I rejoice. I have suffered enough and desire only obliteration. But you, I pity you. You will see all that I have seen and more. You will see yourself in everyone and feel each death as though it was your own. You will know that all you see is real, unable to pretend the horrors are just the creation of a single diseased mind. And long after you sicken of blood, they will demand more slaughter. Each time the mound of bones will grow. Each time the sacrifice will be greater and all for naught. Oceans of life will drain into the Void. And you will know the truth.’ After these words, Joseph expired.
In the aftermath of Joseph’s passing, I became increasingly disturbed. Feeling myself unable to relate to anyone the horrible words I had heard him speak, I claimed fatigue brought on by overwork and took a quick leave of absence. Since that day I have not been able to sleep. I yearn now for the dreams that once haunted my soul. I no longer fear them, because I read the papers, censored though they are. I do not fear my dreams, because I now fear that my patient was telling the truth. And even more I fear that perhaps Joseph Wehgrund was the last sane man in Europe.
September 12, 1914 (final entry)
With each passing month I have seen Joseph Wehgrund’s prediction unfold. I can see those smiling men, more and more of them marching off to kill themselves. As the survivors return from our glorious conflict to the hospital where I am currently assigned, I see how bullets have torn at their flesh and how bombs have shattered minds too young to know. I see myself in their eyes. As I dress their wounded, rotting limbs, I imagine their screams echoing through eternity. I envy the dead and I pity the living, for I now know the truth – that all imagined evils pale in comparison to the infinite suffering Man inflicts upon himself.
And I have learned that the truth will not set you free…