Arthur Rubinstein

Arthur Rubinstein

Cosmic Consciousness II

Arthur Rubinstein:
Rebirth & Revolution

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Arthur Rubinstein was born in Lodz, near Warsaw, Poland on January 28, 1887. He began playing the piano at age 3, and gave his first public performance at 8. In 1906, at age 19, Rubinstein traveled to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall, followed by a 75 concert tour of America. Rubinstein became one of the great pianists of the 20th century, especially a creative interpreter of Chopin's music. I saw Rubinstein performing at Cornell University in 1965. Sitting in the 5th row center, I was amazed at Rubinstein, then 78, leaping off his bench for several dramatic touches. He was very gracious backstage, however apologized for not autographing programs on doctor's orders to protect his arthritic hands. A woman admirer gushed out "Mr. Rubinstein, I'm so happy to be born in your lifetime to hear you play!" I was just ecstatic to be close to the master. When Rubinstein published the first volume of his autobiography My Young Years (1973), I was surprised to read this sad episode of his youth that led him to contemplate suicide when he was 21 years old at the Hotel Bellevue in Berlin. The experience led to his rebirth— "a revolution in my whole psychic system", an event that may be categorized as an example of cosmic consciousness. Here then, are Rubinstein's own words:

And this time [first week, January 1908], alas, things looked even worse. I had nothing to show; my career had come to a stop... Out in the street, all alone, cold and hungry, I felt pretty miserable. Mr. Metzger, the hotel owner, sent me a stern letter about my unpaid bill. My credit at the restaurant was canceled, he wrote, and no food would be served in my room unless it was paid with cash.

My daily diet consisted now of no breakfast at all, of a wurstel and dry roll at Aschinger's Automat, which cost ten pfennigs (2-1/2 cents), and the same menu for dinner. And the rest of the day? A vague fumbling for some right notes on the piano, a listless wandering along the streets, and a chronic state of despair.

But just at that time, a curious phenomenon occurred: every night, the moment I fell asleep, the most fantastic, extravagant dreams invaded my unconscious mind, and in all of them I played the role of a powerful and happy personality. I was recurrently a famous composer, I conducted my new symphony, which was received with endless ovations, or I played my own piano concerto, a most original work. All the beautiful women were at my feet. In other dreams, I fought victorious battles for Poland, I would be saving Jews from persecution, or I was fabulously rich, the benefactor of humanity. My awakening brought the usual painful, tragic contrast, another disagreeable letter from the manager under the door, the hopelessness of the situation, and my empty pocket.

In my distress I decided to accept my dreams as reality and my days as mere nightmares. I tried to sleep as long as I could.

Two more weeks went by without news, and I gave up all hopes. I had reached the bottom. The idea of death by suicide was not novel to me, it had been on my mind before, but from that moment on, I couldn't think of anything else— it became an obsession. There was nothing left for me, life had driven me into an inextricable position. I wanted to die; I was ready for it. But even a decision as final as that had its problems. How to carry it out? I had no arms, no poison in my possession, and the idea of jumping out the window was revolting— I might have to go on living with broken arms and legs. The only thing to do was to die by strangulation, to hang myself. Well, on that sad afternoon, left so utterly alone, not even able to think of anyone to write to, I prepared for the finish.

I took out the belt from my old worn-out robe and fastened it with a knot. My bathroom had a clothes hook which was placed high enough to hold me. I pulled up a chair, secured the belt on the hook, and put it around my neck. As I pushed the chair away with my foot the belt tore apart and I fell on the floor with a crash.

If I saw today such a scene on television, I would roar with laughter, but in my role as the living hero of this tragicomedy, my first reaction was a severe nervous shock; I cried bitterly, disconsolately, for a long time, lying where I had fallen, with no strength left. Then, half-consciously, I staggered to the piano and cried myself out in music. Music, my beloved music, the dear companion of all my emotions, who can stir us to fight, who can inflame in us love and passion, and who can soothe our pains and bring peace to our hearts— you are the one who, on that ignominious day, brought me back to life.

When one stops crying, the suffering subsides, the same as when laughter dies, the fun is gone. And so, nature claiming its own, I began to feel hungry. "This time I shall have two sausages," I decided.

Out in the street, however, a sudden impulse made me stop. Something strange came over me, call it a revelation or a vision.

I looked at everything around me with new eyes, as if I had never seen any of it before. The street, the trees, the houses, dogs chasing each other, and the men and women, all looked different, and the noise of the great city— I was fascinated by it all. Life seems beautiful and worth living, even in prison or in a hospital, as long as you look at it that way,

This revelation is easy to explain: in attempting suicide I was completely dismissing the world I was going to leave behind, so no wonder that after my "suicide manqué" I felt as if I had been reborn. My "rebirth" brought yet another surprise: it created a revolution in my whole psychic system. I suddenly start to think. The life I had been leading consisted of a series of events for which I had no responsibility; I acted entirely by instinct, following blindly the road drawn out for me by circumstances; I never tried to analyze anything.

Well, on that night, right there in the street, on my way to Aschinger's for my dinner de luxe, my brain was full of philosophical thoughts, and it resulted in a new conception of life and a new criterion of values, all for my private use. The eternal, unsolved question— What gave birth to the universe? What is the reason for its existence?— would involve a long dissertation. Let me say only that in this chaos of thoughts I discovered the secret of happiness and I still cherish it: Love life for better or for worse, without conditions.

Arthur Rubinstein, My Young Years,
Knopf, New York, 1973, pp. 254-255


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