Madness In Miniature

It is commonly assumed that Nietzsche was a madman, but in fact he was perfectly sane. The reason for this confusion is that he employed a madman to do his bidding. A pleasant thought, is it not? Couldn’t we all use a madman to assist us in our daily lives—a shameless sidekick to run errands and perform those various tasks that are just beyond sanity’s reach? How nice it would be if he came in miniature, an imp to sit on our shoulders and whisper devious advice into our ears. We could keep the mad homunculus on a leash, perhaps, and teach him to do tricks. Whenever an impractical situation arose—an ethical dilemma, for example—we could call on him to carry out the necessary actions. He could deal with all the ugliness of life, leaving us free to enjoy whatever beauty might remain.

I once befriended a dwarf who wanted to serve me in this way. He swore allegiance to my cause (though I had none) and vowed to sacrifice his life for me, should such a situation arise. I told him that he needn’t die for me, but that he could, if he had nothing better to do, act as my companion. You see, it is easy for a writer to drift through life without friends. He spends so much time in his own head that he often forgets there is a world not just behind his eyes but in front of them as well. Since the age of twenty-two I’d made a living as a writer (due not to precocity, I’m afraid, but rather to a fortunate mistake at a publishing house). I became rather successful, but when I reached the age of forty I fell into a state of apathy. I felt empty and distant, as though estranged from myself. I stopped working and instead spent my days wandering through the city, staring out the windows of coffee shops, loitering in bookstores, and watching movies late into the night.

The dwarf’s name was Leo, but he preferred to call himself “the Stump,” “the Barnacle,” and other derogatory nicknames. I insisted on calling him by his given name, and for this he secretly despised me. We met under odd circumstances. (“All of my circumstances are odd,” Leo liked to say.) I was at the zoo, commiserating with my fellow sufferers, when someone tapped me on the back. I turned around and saw Leo grinning up at me.

“They should put me in one of those cages,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied, “and me, too.”

“I wouldn’t mind joining the monkeys. They look like a friendly bunch, don’t they?”

“Yes, very friendly.”

“They’re probably just as smart as I am.”

“Oh, I doubt that.”

“No, no, I’m sure it’s true. I’m of subnormal intelligence, you see. Subnormal height, also, but I’m sure you noticed that already.”

“Yes, I suppose I did.”

“Which animals would you like to join?” he asked earnestly.

“The otters, of course,” I said. “They seem so happy, as though they were meant to be in captivity.”

“Yes,” he said, nodding at me with utter seriousness. “I too long for captivity. Freedom can get so burdensome. It would be nice to slip away from responsibility, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes, it would, but I’m not sure if committing oneself to a zoo would be the best way to achieve this.”

After a thoughtful hesitation, he said, “The animals don’t belong in the zoo any more than we do.”

I nodded in agreement. He patted me on the back, shuffled his feet, and finally thrust his hand into the air and introduced himself. He then invited me to have lunch with him, and I followed him to a small café across the street from the zoo.

“I drink twenty-three cups of coffee a day,” he informed me as we sat down. When the waitress arrived at our table I ordered a sandwich. Leo asked for coffee and three bars of chocolate. “When you’re in the state that I’m in,” he said, “you don’t really care about what you eat.” He laughed briefly and added, “I haven’t eaten a vegetable in five years.”

We had a friendly conversation throughout lunch. Leo listened closely to the things I said, but occasionally he was distracted by the waitress. She was very short, and this appealed to him tremendously. “I want to be able to look my lover in the eye,” he said.

 ***

My ramblings about Leo could go on forever. He was such an unusual person, after all, that every experience with him is worth retelling. But, as Leo was so fond of brevity, I feel obliged to limit myself to one final anecdote.

We were at an exhibit of Native American artifacts in the basement of the art museum. Leo had just finished a lengthy speech on the significance of dwarves in European folklore. (“I may not be impressive in reality,” he concluded, “but as an imaginary creature I am second to none.”) We wound our way through the various display cases positioned throughout the room. The glass door to one of these cases was unlocked. Leo slid it open and with my assistance climbed inside. He wrapped an intricately patterned blanket around his shoulders, placed a feathered headdress on his head, and picked up a long, slender pipe.

“Close the door, please,” he said.

I protested, but Leo, perhaps for the very first time, interrupted me. “I don’t ask for much,” he said, and it was true. He seemed so determined to stay there, dressed up like a Native American, on display, an artifact rather than a man, that I couldn’t refuse his request. As soon as he was sealed inside the display case he became completely still. I watched him for a few minutes, waiting for him to grow tired and return to his normal self, but he continued to stand there in rigid silence. At last I walked away to explore the other exhibits. When I returned, Leo was gone. I searched the entire museum, but I never found him. In fact, I never saw him again.

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Abraham Elm lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works as a writer and editor.