Navid Kermani on Faith & Reason
Moritz Pollesch has a friend called Albrecht, who claims he is going to kill his nine-year-old son within two to three years. Although Moritz cannot imagine Albrecht would be capable of such a deed, he is naturally concerned and horrified that his friend could even consider the idea, a friend who, as Moritz insisted when he came round this afternoon to ask my advice, had always seemed to him the incarnation of virtue, a thoughtful and, for all his somewhat irritating perfection, thoroughly kind-hearted person. The only conclusion, as far as I can see from what Moritz, as the sole repository of Albrecht’s confidence, has told me, is that his friend is serious about his horrendous proposal, at least for the present, although Moritz maintains that there is every hope he will eventually see reason. After all, he pointed out, his boy—a fantastic little lad in Moritz’s opinion—was of such a sunny disposition, surely Albrecht’s heart would be touched? To my suggestion of discussing it with Albrecht’s wife or, if the worst came to the worst, informing social services, or even the police, Moritz replied that, of course, that had occurred to him already, but Albrecht was such a principled character that nothing in the world would stop him carrying out a decision he considered right. Since, Moritz went on, Albrecht would expect the punishment, indeed would certainly hand himself over to the police and accept both the rupture with his family and the loss of his position in society, there was no sanction strong enough to stop him killing his own son. If one were to take preventive measures to thwart him, he would probably—for all his parade of ethics, he was a cool, calculating type—simply deny ever having expressed the intention of killing his son. And even if, for the sake of argument, one were to imagine that, for whatever reason, he lost custody of his son, the latter would still not be safe, since they could not put his father in prison for life and it would be just as absurd to try and get him committed to a psychiatric clinic when he did not show the slightest pathological symptom in his normal, everyday life.
He had, said Moritz, observed in Albrecht a tendency to be somewhat extreme in his remarks on morality, philosophy or politics, an inability to make allowances for other people, especially those politicians who in his eyes were guilty of opportunism, unnecessary compromises or a lack of consistency, but the idea that his friend might have gone mad had only occurred to him after yesterday evening, despite the fact that Albrecht had appeared completely normal, indeed rational, as he spoke of the forthcoming murder of his son. Albrecht had explained his motives so clearly, with such compelling logic, that all Moritz had been able to do was to declare him wholly mad, without being able to refute his arguments in detail. But why for God’s sake did Albrecht want to kill his son? I asked, to which Moritz explained it was Albrecht’s view that the only happy years in the life of a human being were in childhood, if at all, roughly up to the age of six. Faced with the question of whether he wanted children of his own, Albrecht had told him he had hesitated for a long time before coming round to the view that it was worthwhile being born for childhood alone, though life became increasingly unbearable, as he knew from his own experience. The only reason he did not kill himself, he had said, was that his personal philosophy demanded he defy the enemy, which was how he regarded fate, but he felt he could not, with a clear conscience, burden a child with life, nor with the agonising decision whether to end it by its own hand or to wait until the end came of its own accord. Since, Albrecht had gone on to explain, he was acquainted with the happiness the early years could bring a person, he had acceded to the request of his girlfriend of the time, now his wife, to have at least one child, at the same time secretly deciding to make its life a bed of roses at first and then to kill it off before life had the chance to become a torment. Though his own personal opinion was that early childhood alone was worth living, he did not, he told Moritz, want to rush anything and had resolved to act on the logic of his own perception only when it was beyond doubt. As a man of great experience and even greater reflection, he knew that the gnawing uncertainty, which appeared with puberty at the latest, never disappeared, at most it would infiltrate even deeper levels of a person’s mind, assuming the person remained conscious of their fate. For his part, he said, he had no intention of fathering a child for it to go through life lacking self-awareness.
Without spoiling him, Albrecht had said, he had given his son the happiest childhood imaginable, had enjoyed every minute with him and made sure that the boy enjoyed life too, that he had fun and friends, a home where he felt secure and loved. But in two or three years time at the latest, he had continued, when his son became aware of his own loneliness, he would not be able to help him a ny more, given that he himself was helpless in face of the horror. Then there would be only one thing left that he could do for his son, and that was to save him from the rest of his life. Moritz confirmed that the boy seemed strikingly well-adjusted and carefree, and even went so far as to remark that there might well be something in Albrecht’s view that his son’s contented childhood was, at least in part, due to his—Albrecht’s—decision to put all his love into those first years. What about the mother? I objected. How could Albrecht do that to his wife, kill her only child? Naturally he had asked Albrecht the same question, Moritz replied. His friend’s answer had been that it was impossible that his wife would suffer more than he would. In addition to the maximum grief he would be faced with, he would have to endure the destruction of his whole life, his marriage included, prison, the stigma, as well as the pangs of conscience which, despite his conviction of the virtuousness of his action, would torment him for the rest of his life. But he would not permit his wife, any more than himself, knowingly to let his son end up in misery simply because she believed she could not bear the loss herself.