Christoph Schlingensief does not look particularly tired. He doesnít look ill either. Maybe a few more wrinkles around the eyes, heís lost some weight, the hair greying a little. Still, thatís not what youíd expect someone to look like, whoís fought with the demon and defeated it for now. The demon thatís sometimes called Ďcancerí or death, while always being a part of oneself as well.
He is ordering a hot chocolate and an ice cream sandwich with brown and white and red stripes, at the fast food place here in the Duisburg-Nord country park. Where steel used to stream leaving behind the old furnaces and rusty pipes like organs of a long perished body. We sit down in the sun on two plastic chairs. One red, one yellow. A soft breeze is ruffling the birches. Schlingensief is directing here. On 21 September, his oratorio ĎChurch of Fearí will have its premier at the Ruhr-Triennale. Therefore he built a monstrance that shows an x-ray picture of his lungs. ĎIím drinking lots of hot chocolateí, he says, Ďand Iíve been living off these ice cream sandwiches for a whileí.
He had actually already cancelled this meeting beforehand. ĎI want to workí, īhe texted me, Ďafter seven months of horror, Iím slowly and anxiously re-emerging to lifeí. Actually, heíd rather no talk to the press.
But here we are, talking. Heís telling me about his father, who died in 2007, and about the chemotherapy and the doctors and of fears and anger. So many things to say, such few words.
ĎWhen your life turns into tragedy, try to become an observerí. Thatís one of the sentences that Schlingensief recorded during his long nights in the hospital bed with a voice recorder. It turned into a 420 page long manuscript, parts of which made it into the production that deals with the illness.
The rest of it is an impressive protocol of self inspection. Never has Christoph Schlingensief been the provocateur that people enjoy taking him for. Heís always been a wounded, a hurt person. Now that he is actually ill, his life changes and so does his art. Along with it changes the image that we have of Christoph Schlingensief.
It has to change.
In January of 2008 he was told that he, who had never been a smoker in his life, was suffering from lung cancer. He had just returned from Naples, where he had filmed the ritual cremations of the dead. He couldnít manage to get rid of a nasty cough. He saw a doctor, got x-rayed Ė and earmarked.
I donít know if I ever experienced a day like this one. Maybe once, when I was eleven and found a jar containing a pigeon on the field of Mr. Mewes. As I touched the thing, the pigeon shot out with a loud bang and my arm almost got squashed inside that metal mechanism.
It was a hawk trap. The hawk is supposed to dive down for the pigeon, the trap snaps, the pigeon escapes and he is trapped.
Dr Bauer came straight to the point when he asked me for a word. Heíd love to be able to tell me otherwise, but weíve got the results and thatís a proper mess. Weíre talking of an adenocarcinoma.
Pretty soon, I considered killing myself. Or, perhaps just running off to Africa. Making sure, I got some morphine or something with me, and then sit down somewhere and stare into the landscape. A cobra might pass and one could just offer her a bite and be suffocated.
Thereíre only two possibilities. Run off for good and say: just let it grow then, itís in me now; itís a part of it. The alternative goes: Oh no, please, please, just one more infusion, a little vomiting, just let them take out little bits and pieces, here and there.
Thatís whatís making me aggressive. Iím thinking, I canít just run off, of course not. And least of all can I run from myself, I canít lock myself out and say, well, I shall just wake up again later and all is going to be alright.
At this moment, I am thinking: How can I get rid of this rage, the aggression, where does it leave me?
Suicide is not my thing, though. At least not yet. Although I like having the opportunity. But the Christian talk spoils this idea a little: He shirked his responsibility, he ducked out, while we did everything we could. We offered him intensive care and heís just letting himself go. My answer to this is, Jesus let himself go as well, without there having been any intensive care.
But who am I talking to, anyway? Itís not like youíre bothering to answer me. All Schlingensiefs are being wiped out, right after being divided into four and deep-fried. And by whom? Whoís doing this? Who is it? I am very disappointed and sad. The initial draw/pull towards God and Jesus has subsided. It might return in the end when one is completely screwed. I am finding this a very daunting prospect, nevertheless. Why think about this? Why hope for a blessing?
I am deeply disturbed in my trust in God, in my devotion to life, to nature Ė and besides, I am overflowing with anger and malice. I might have carried this around with me all my life. Thereís an incredible filth flowing out my pores, my brain, my nose. It smells good however, in some ways even better than the scent of incense and of the red bauble that I was brought to attend to, the altar and everything else.
God it is, then. Former altar boy Christoph Schlingensief used to rebel against the church and create performances that lay between celebrating birthday parties and church services. In front of the disease, old biases crumple.
ĎI believe in Godí, so he says, ĎI always believed in himí. But the anger needs to be stored somewhere. And thatís what his recordings tell us. Thatís why they are important. Especially in times, where the breast cancer of celebrities are being debated on by the yellow press, where the true nature of illness is camouflaged by our discussions about healthcare and Ďcost explosioní and idolizations of hospital chronicles.
Schlingensief shows us that there are no simple truths, that doubt is the one constant, that there is no theory before illness, that there is only reality.
I became really quiet, I looked up to the cross and at that moment, I had a warm, wonderful and comforting sensation. Suddenly, I was someone that said, just shut up, be quiet, all is well, itís ok.
My God, why did you forsaken me? Iím convinced that Jesus did not say that while he died at the cross. What pure nonsense. The message was not: Yes, I am just as weak, as the rest of you. I believe he just hang there real quietly, said ouch and I donít know what else, but he never complained about having been forsaken by anybody. He simply stated: I am autonomous.
Luckily, Schlingensief is still talking as much and as rapidly, as he used to do.
The question of absolution, his blind father, the daughter of concentration camp leader Amon GŲth are covered rapidly before changing to the cactus of Adornoís piano and finally praising the beauty of the commonplace.
The cancer started growing about three of four years ago, so the doctors said Ė at the time when Schingensief directed the ĎParsifalí in Bayreuth. A piece that deals with a wound that will not heal, of salvation and a dead father. Today Schlingensief says that at the end of it, he had felt empty, defeated, that he didnít know, just how to go on.
On first hearing about cancer, he believed it was his fatherís Ďtoxic breathí that was to blame for it. Now heís quite glad that cancer dates back longer than the death of his father.
Illness is complicated; family is complicated. But the anger needs to be stored somewhere.
The path towards freedom entails following oneís own rules. Of course these are more than ever made up by someone else. Right now, granting this access, being able to say, I am being cared for, there is someone to hold hands with and so on; it just seems impossible.
I will have to make up my mind about whether Iíll shoot myself in the head, but I donít have a gun; whether Iíll get in the tub and open my veins, whether to somehow drop out the window, but itís not high enough. Or if Iíll hopefully get a hold on some pills and other things: The strength to keep living, the belief that - oh Christoph, he is a tough enough guy, heíll bear up - is all gone.
Iíve been weary for a long time. I struggled long enough. I went on long enough. Just the thought of being eaten up by something creeping in my insides, forcing me into the mould of a handicapped, breathless individual struggling for survivalÖ. nah! Thatís not how it should go.
Somehow itís over. Iím staring into the fireplace; itís empty. I also donít even feel like watching something burn.
Thereís no more flowers that I care about, no withered ones either. Thereís only hatred for my father and hatred for my mother.
Iím dead on the inside. And no, I will not just let them rip half of my lungs out just to see how the world looks like running around in it with only half a portion of breath. Merely dragging oneís feet. Nah, I wonít do that. Back on the bedside again. Just checking once more. This is incredible! Itís all incredible!
Iím leaving to where suffering is still allowed. Where pain is not straight away detected by the system. Thereís places, where pain becomes more acceptable. Iím retreating. And I know that when I wake up, thereíll be no one there to want to extract some liquid from me or wants to share their power with you. These games are simply not played anymore. Enough of them.
Next comes the great enlightenment. Jesus revealed himself to me in the chapel by calming me and suddenly everything went warm. There you go, smartass! It really was a beautiful experience, I have to admit. It did something for me. I enjoyed it. Still, Jesus isnít here. God isnít here. And neither is the virgin Mary.
Everything is quite dead. Quite cold. No one has remained. I am so annoyed and offended and hurt by this thing. 47 years of age. What an incredibly huge insult!
Death approaches. Thatís the trivial fact, which lead to a great stir when Schlingensiefís disease was made public in the middle of his next opera production: destiny is strange, fear is familiar. So youíre looking into this face to try and understand what the illness is speaking of. What it means to be marked. What it means to have seen death.
His father had smiled on his deathbed. Schlingensief felt this to be unjust. A smile indicates that it must be pleasant, where one is going. But Schlingensief had to stay. Slowly, the ice cream sandwich is melting in his hand.
There are so many things that I would still like to do. The only question is, will I have to do those wearing an oxygen apparatus, or lots of different drain tubes or carrying those shit bags around the midriff. In the end I suppose Beuys was right in saying that the world is somehow also made up of suffering and that death is part of this life.
Anyhow: There were so many moments, where I simply did not allow happiness. This Friday though I had a good experience; when I walked down the street to fetch some breakfast and there was a sudden twitch in my chest from the puncture.
Only then I did realize, just how slowly I was walking and how carefully. It was this careful walk and this slow walk that showed me, how much I care for my own survival. Thatís what this pain trifle shows: Christoph, take care of yourself! Donít mess up now!
And thatís how it will be. Once I wake up, I will simply breathe differently, and things will simply be different at the beginning.
Schlingensief often runs his hand over his chest, probably unconsciously. The spot where his left lung is missing.
He decided to stay and fight instead of going to Africa to slowly fade away. He understood why he always wanted to make his parents feel that everything was alright. He understands, why he never used to like himself, Ďsimply did not like myselfí, he says.
The operation, during which his left lung was taken out, went well. Is he cured now? Thatís always the question one is asking. But these things continue of course. That is the one realization the tests and the waiting hours bring: It never stops.
Alright, Iím back. The operation is over, after four or five hours. I wasnít afraid of it, of driving in, the anaesthesia, the cut, waking up. Iím going in quite relaxed, looking forward to the comfort and warmth. A pleasure to let go. And that is just wonderful.
Now, Iím just very weak and tired. The left half of my chest is filled with secretion from my body. It gurgles and wobbles. There is one tube connecting with six further ones in my arm. They can enter a cannula from there straight into my heart to check, whether thereís too much liquid in it. There is another tube in my back.
It all began with a night of having the shits. I entered the anal phase. It was all very liquid, which enthralled my doctors, because itís a good sign: If your guts are letting it go, the liberationís starting.
And then another strange thing happened today. I heard a little kid cry in the room next to mine. I thought, God, the child is dying; itís miserable, too; itís also sad and lonely and craving for some affection. I said, let the child live and let me die instead. I meant it. I had this feeling.
Once I had uttered this, the electronic machine, the one that measures my blood pressure, pulse oxygen level and what not, went off. Thatís when I thought, there you go, somethingís wrong, now Iím actually dying.
But I donít feel like dying! I was thinking, panic ridden. Please love me Maria, what is going on with all of you? Please, please, I want to live, and for a long time, too, Iíve got so much stuff to do, I want to do so much more on this planet. Thatís when the kid stopped crying. And thatís when I thought, oh God, the child is dead.
The machine got quiet again. I asked the doctor about the child. He said, yes, it had a little operation, everything went well Ė thatís when I remembered that I had seen it already before, in the arms of its mother and I had asked her what was wrong with it. She had said that it set down the ball of its foot in a strange way. Do you know, why your kid is doing that, I asked her? Because your child is a super intelligent human being, an autist. Heís thinking a lot and tiptoes through this world. The woman had been terribly happy at that moment and had smiled at her child, as if she had just apprehended it anew. And when they rolled me off, she smiled at me. The child and I, we both wanted nothing more than life. This may sound a little lofty, but I believe that somewhere in the rhythm of this story lies something, namely that one always only knows the either and the or and never the togetherness.
One thing is for sure. I cannot change completely. I sensed death; it was inside me. This death has left for now. Weíll see how things evolve from here. I have struggled. There will most probably be more struggles to come. I believe I do have strength. It can be broken. But I am strengthened - not in arrogance or conceit, but in self-love.
I let myself fall in there. I want to find out, why I didnít really like myself in the past. I want to understand, why it used to be so important to me to get my brains knocked out by a bottle of red wine every night. I do not want this anymore. I want to be loved.
My greatest wish to God, Maria and Jesus is to have a chance to work this thing, with the chemo and all these disembowelled nymphs and glands. Then you have to make sure to keep yourself mentally clean and also physically clean.
And to relax.
And love life.
by Georg Diez