Thursday, 5 May 2011
From the Novel
Please Call Me Servant
By MILENA ODA
My Name is Servant
My name is Servant.
I respectfully request you to address me as Servant; I am Servant, and am called Servant. An individual does not, as people imagine, require a first and second name. My name is Servant. When people persist in asking, ‘What is your Christian name, your surname?’, I turn away and decline to listen. The ladies and gentlemen refuse to grasp this? How else should servants indicate their servant status? They are astonished, shake their heads, regard me and still will not understand. ‘I cannot assist you with an answer sir.’ They ask me again, trying to unnerve me. ‘Your name is Steven Servant?’ No, my name is Servant. I have no answer to questions such as ‘Why do you call yourself Servant?’ That I must hear words such as ‘unfortunate’ and ‘pitiable’, and continually point out my vocation, pains me. You do not see a Servant? You have not noticed my resplendent livery? People rely on patterns, and if they are missing, the world dims around them. Servant is neither a Christian name, nor a surname; my name might have been Footman, Valet or Right-Hand Man. I could also be called Aide, Adjunct, Attendant or Retainer, but no word better describes my character, always ready to serve, than Servant. I have always been the quiet accompaniment to the loud melody: chestnut seller, newspaper deliverer, keeper at the artillery museum, porter, doorman. I began as a lackey and I wish to finish as one.
The fetters of selflessness and self-effacement are what entice me to servile submission and bondage. My sense of self is not self-sufficient (a servant’s sense of self) and therefore I cannot and will not live in liberty. I cannot bear a second of freedom. I steer clear of everything that is free, from every free feeling. I panic when I don’t know what I have to do. I can only do what is required of me. I wish to be released from the burden of individuality, of the free self. I willingly put myself on a lead. I want to be available to my master day and night like an object, for the master is incapable of basic tasks, and only the Servant can fulfil them for him, only he wants to. The Servant is air, his master’s air; he needs it to breathe. Only a good master knows how to treat the servant; if you wish to show your Servant consideration you must allow him to feel your superiority and you must never release him from your sphere of influence.
I am always dressed in my livery (except during my morning and evening ablutions) so I believe no-one has any reason (any more) to call me Leonard. I require a lengthy pause for breath when I hear the word ‘Leonard’ or must speak it out loud myself. If I deliberately refer to myself as Leonard, it means I wish to leave a long, deep scar on my body. I have to leave something, someone indeed, who I would like... so I speak disparagingly about myself too. There really is no-one left to whom I am Leonard. And certainly not when I face someone in my livery. I stand before him in my livery and call him, ‘my master’! He knows full well what it means – to me – to wait patiently by someone with the obedient composure of a servant.
I adhere to the old-fashioned values of a traditional English servant. I am the embodiment of this century’s most courteous courtier’s most refined servility. The searching gaze of my widely-spaced eyes betrays my congenital subservience. ‘Alongside your utter subservience there’s also a certain honesty in your plucky little boss-eyed face’, the motherly one used to tease me. My eyes are watery and bulge out. I have slight hydrocephalus, with a broad but well-formed forehead and protruding ears. My mother called me ‘my baboon’. I have large ears – an unmistakable sign of a congenital developmental disorder. My pigment-free hair points to a serious degeneracy. Nature made me ugly. When I speak I reveal a crevice between my two front teeth. When I am forced to speak I think of this repugnant gap; ideally I would prefer to communicate through sign language. I stutter, even when I have to say hello or goodbye. Simply uttering words such as good day or good evening is difficult. I have no desire to wish anyone, except for my master, a good day or a good evening. It is required of the Servant that he exchange words only with his master, greeting him only. Any attempt to bring me to speak has a crushing effect on me. My stutter results in a strange, wilful restriction on attempts to make contact. I consciously seek to maintain distance from anyone who is not interested in me as a Servant. I only like to serve in company where I can be of obedient service. I am then serving my soul, cherishing my servant psyche.
In the morning I look in the tiny mirror with one eye closed, in order not to see more than my chin and jaw while shaving. Leonard never looks in the large mirror when he is naked. Only the naked man is called Leonard. How unfit to live this Leonard is. I abhor Leonard’s degenerate masculinity. A hideous individual. I would be overcome by a ghastly angst if forced to see myself without my livery. I detest the innate asymmetry of my body. It is ten years since I last saw my deformed frame entirely naked in a mirror. It would be with pain and embarrassment, that I would suffer the sight of this grotesque body. If I saw myself naked, I would beat and tear and hate myself. Leonard’s naked, ugly physicality is a mixture of the ridiculous and the merciless; nature was making a joke at his expense when she begat him. How damned similar he is to a poor cripple in every detail of his own wounded, malformed appearance! How disgusting to be like such people! I am a precisely copy. A vile hound. This debased, naked Leonard barks helpless on his lead.
If I put on my finest livery and pull on the exquisite white silken gloves, the bland individual Leonard becomes a snappy, dapper servant. Then I stand in front of the tall mirror and admire the allure of the attractive Servant before me. What release: an unleashed dog’s euphoric cry. At these moments each morning, when I see myself in the mirror in the delightful livery I witness a style experience, feel a sense of joy. I begin my service with refreshed courage and resolve.
And I do not answer the question, ‘why do you wear your livery outside of your working hours?’ I remain silent, in line with Rule 8. I, the Servant, wear livery day and night, and this livery is my skin, my I. The livery allows me to call myself I, affords a status of noble refinement. It is the highest honour to me, to wear the livery constantly, and to be clothed in it in the presence of a master. This is dictated by the most important rule, Rule 1.
My Serving Rules
My rules are my be-all and end-all, my religion. Every day is shaped by my Master’s needs and instructions. I examine his (my) list of instructions and amend it with the latest orders. Every day I practice the instructions I have not fully mastered. I reflect on each new instruction he gives me and thus determine new rules; I am not permitted to miss a day. When my master commends me with words such as ‘praiseworthy’ or ‘admirable’, the childish Servant is delighted. Only thing only matters to the noble Servant: every action I carry out must be marked by ceremonious, perfect execution, and performed flawlessly.
My rules and principles govern myself and my behaviour. I do nothing which does not appear in my serving rules. I am the Servant the rules are to guide, therefore nothing can go askew, nor should it ever. I believe in a regulated service. Only thanks to the serving rules (and the Servant’s nature) can I achieve truly perfect service. My daily engagement with the intricacies of my rules fills me with satisfaction; I continually practice my rules, with stony rigidity, and expand them as necessary. They award my servant’s soul with a soothing sense of gratification. Every regulation I have devised receives a privileged place in my book of rules. I strive never to break a rule. The rules are my law, guaranteeing respectability and order and honouring these ideals.
Rule 1: My name is Servant. I serve with restrained zeal and composure and I always wear (clean) livery.
In accordance with Rule 1, I wish to wear the livery, my grand and glorious livery, all the time (the lowly one allows himself to stipulate this condition), even in sleep, because like the dog I am a creature of the day and the night, cheerful and loyal throughout both, ready to leap up at any moment and serve in my livery. I do not wish to wear everyday clothes. What oppressive desolation, master, if you allow me to serve in civilian, normal clothing! I am not lonely however; I have a master and belong to the fraternity of the servants, although they have not accepted me, despite my achievements. What worth, what dignity this livery lends me!
I have hung a sign on the wall in each of my rooms: As servant in the livery I feel I am a substantial and valuable I, heeding his duties and in his livery always prepared to stand in the service of the other, doggedly loyal and obedient! I repeat: I feel better in uniform than in civilian clothing. I hate normal trousers, normal pullovers. I suffocate. I suffer from a bacterial allergy when I have to wear normal clothes! My livery is the completion of myself! ‘The English servants also wear their livery at all times, within as well as outside of The Palace.’ On the streets, accusing bystanders ask ‘why such embarrassing extravagance?’ What impertinent lines of inquiry some strangers follow. Their questions make me both furious and fearful. I cannot be of service to you with an answer sir, I say. Or I remain silent and walk proudly and loftily on in my going-out livery. I do not wish to justify myself before any man. Their curiosity does not touch my heart, my servant’s heart; I do not wish to be Leonard again, not in the slightest. The normal majority of people do not understand me and my skills, and what it means to me to appear before them as the finest of servants.
If only I had been born in one of the wonderful lands of servants! There, no-one shakes their heads in amazement when I project the image of an assiduous servant in my livery – and call myself Servant. There they really understand the servant’s soul.
Milena Oda (www.milenaoda.com) lives in Berlin. This is an excerpt from her three-part novel, originally published German as NENNEN SIE MICH DIENER by VERLAG SCHUMACHERGEBLER, Dresden (www.verlag.schumachergebler.de). Translated by Steph Morris, Berlin.