‘Atonement’ by Daniel Schulz

a woman standing on the stairs while posing

I.

Atonement seems obsolete as an idea, but the idea keeps itself alive, precisely because the moment in which it could have been realised was not met. In sum, all we did was interpret what we have done, instead of changing it. Stunting ourselves, resigning from reality, committing to the defeatism of reason, we fail to change the world. Our appearance is what we put out as our experience, to hide the naive construct of our own innocence through jaded glasses. Nothing ever happened here. That is the truth, because we never changed our narrative.

“Are you flirting with me?” I asked her.

And she said, “You’re a thinker. Why don’t you go ahead and answer your own question?” So I put my hand on her thigh, while staring at the side of her face as she observed our friends’ conversation at the table. She brushed it down once. She brushed it down twice. And the third time she retreated. 

I wasn’t sure if this was what she wanted, until she sat down opposite from me and pale, drawing her girlfriend close to her, like a shield. That was when I got the idea, but did not say a word.

That speechless shame to have gone too far. If you’re a man, they say, you have to be assertive. I never wanted to be this way, but never having had the courage before I tried. You aren’t born a man, you see, you become one. 


II.

Leaving the bar, I went out for fresh air and left things as they were. For a moment reality settled into my conscience like a stinging cold, but it was disproportionate to the world surrounding me. I realised I had misinterpreted the signs she had given me, but did not say a word. It was too late to say anything, anyhow, I told myself. The deed was done. I didn’t change the world, you see, I just left the situation and took a breath.

Near the entrance, another woman, smoking her cigarette, had her eye on me, then looked away, not to draw attention. She didn’t belong to our inner circle. I put on an appearance. Disinterested, I stared into the night, telling myself that I was not a threat so that this stranger might believe it, too, then left.


III.

There were no consequences for me.  Some of the women I used to be friends with, kept their distance from me. But that is all I know that happened, rumours. The eyes that locked onto me and paused, because they never expected me to do anything like that. Maybe that was the point. I was the shy guy and everybody’s best friend. If I wasn’t categorised gay, I was categorised submissive. There is nothing you can do about other’s preconceptions. I didn’t mind being categorised as these things. What I did mind was to be written off as a person with no desires of his own. What I did mind was to be everyone’s personal pet and joke. So I pushed my hand underneath her skirt, thinking she might react.

Being feared is worse than being ignored, especially if people start ignoring you, precisely, because they fear you. Self-reflection cannot yield before the events of history. 


IV.

Atonement seems obsolete as an idea, precisely because life goes on. But the idea keeps itself alive, precisely because the moment in which it could have been realised was not met. I didn’t change the world, you see, because I never said a word. One evening, ten years later, I remember slipping a poem toward the clerk of an exhibition, believing the double innuendo to be clever. Revisiting the scene a day later, I saw her keeping distance, jaws locked in position, her rage and terror turned to stone. Her anger stood out like a statue in the gallery, hammered down with a weight, she would have liked to bludgeon me with, if I had not been a very special guest on this occasion. This is what happens when you have friends and business connections, you see. The space was very well known for its feminist art pieces and paying its female employees less than it did its men.

Appearance put out as experience, to hide the naive construct of a glamorous image, which is merely a construct of our minds indifferent to reality.


V.

I shed my skin a few nights ago, going through my memoirs. Longing to give some kind of confession, I entered a student bar, well known for its open readings. This is how I told the world my story. Bare of expensive clothing, I read my previous lines and sat down at the counter, realising that my life fit into a specific kind of category, a specific kind of box. You aren’t born a man, after all, you become one.

“What a depressing story,” the man next to me ranted, “Couldn’t you have read something more comedic? You come off as somebody who suffered child abuse by his parents.” Turning my head toward him, I waited for him to tell me more about what he was thinking. He continued without invitation, “Don’t get me wrong. You’ve really got talent as a writer, but if you just would do something more comedic to lighten up the room, you would really be something else, you know? You would be successful. You know? People want to have joy in their life. People want to laugh.” And with those words he handed one of the other performers his card, explaining that he was a well established media producer looking for fresh talent.

Unapologetic about his own behavior, he turned his back on me like a true conversationist and mingled with the other people reading at the bar. From afar, I got a better look at his trademark polo shirt, and the people he was leaning toward, saying he was in the city for a visit. Leaning over toward another table, he handed another group of people his card, resting his hands on the back of a chair, until his hands slid down farther and the woman he was groping told him to get off. Hands in the air, he said, he didn’t do anything, but backed away as her friends stood up. He even said so to my face. “Some people are really uptight.”

Suddenly, I felt my lips move: “I saw you slide your hands down her back.”

And as I said those words, he looked at me in astonishment and fury, self-assured about himself and answered, “No, I did not. I didn’t do anything at all.” Turning his back on me again, because I did not share his song, he interpreted his own actions in a different manner, editing reality before reality edited him out of the room. There was something hilarious about him in that moment, something that made my throat choke with laughter, simply because it was true.


Meet the Author!

Daniel Schulz is a U.S.-German author based in Cologne. He is best known for his short story collection Schrei (Formidabel 2016) and his work as curator of the Kathy Acker Reading Room at the University of Cologne. In 2019 he co-organized and curated an exhibition for the Goethe Institute in Seattle for which he edited the book Kathy Acker in Seattle (Misfit Lit 2020). He also worked as co-editor of Gender Forum‘s special edition Kathy Acker: Portrait of an Eye/I (2019). His works have appeared in the journals Der Federkiel, Luftruinen, Die Novelle, The Transnational, Electronic Book Review, Mirage #5, Gender Forum, Fragmented Voices, Divanova, Kunst-Kultur-Literatur Magazin, Versification, Salut L‘absurde, Café Irreal and Cacti Fur as well as the anthologies Tin Soldier (Sarturia 2020), Corona -Schnee (Salon29 2021), Jahrbuch der Poesie 2021 (AG Literatur 2021) and Home (Fragmented Voices 2021).  Instagram: @danielschulzpoet

Author’s Note: 

The text derives specific parts of its contents from Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, replacing the subject matter of philosophy with the subject matter of atonement and regret. As Adorno juxtaposed appearance and rhetoric of philosophy against the material reality of actual historical events and acts of discrimination and violence, his concepts could also be utilized in context of what the #metoo-movement made vocal. Appropriating Adorno’s concepts helped with the emotional, hurtful, and heavy lifting of the subject matter at hand. Below are the sentence specifically appropriated for this text, a writing technique I, in this text, have adapt in kinship to Kathy Acker’s work.

1.

Author’s Text:

Atonement seems obsolete as an idea, but the idea keeps itself alive, precisely because the moment in which it could have been realized was not met. In sum, all we did was interpret what we have done, instead of changing it. Stunting ourselves, resigning from reality, committing to the defeatism of reason, we fail to change the world. 

Theodor Adorno’s Text:

Philosophie, die einmal überholt schien, erhält sich am Leben, weil der Augenblick ihrer Verwirklichung versäumt ward. Das summarische Urteil, sie habe die Welt bloß interpretiert, sei durch Resignation vor der Realität verkrüppelt auch in sich, wird zum Dafaitismus der Vernunft, nachdem die Veränderung der Welt mißlang. 

(Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialektik. Jargon der Eigenlichkeit., Suhrkamp 2003, p. 15.)

Philosophy that once seemed obsolete keeps itself alive, because the moment of its realization has been missed. The summary judgement that philosophy has merely interpreted the world, that she, crippled in herself, has resigned from the world, becomes a defeatism of reason, after changing the world has failed. 

2.

Author’s Text:

Self-reflection cannot yield before the events of history. 

Adorno’s Text:

Ihre Kritische Selbstreflexion darf aber nicht innehalten vor den höchsten Erhebungen ihrer Geschichte. 

(Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialektik. Jargon der Eigenlichkeit., Suhrkamp 2003, p. 16.)

Her critical selbstreflection cannot stand still before the highest mounts of her history.