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Literature and Ideas

Mad Mask

On my wall hangs
a Japanese mask that's
carved out of wood:
an evil demon,
laquered in gold.

I watch with compassion
its temple-veins bulge: they speak
of how hard it is to be mean.
An meiner Wand hängt ein japanisches Holzwerk,
Maske eines bösen Dämons, bemalt mit Goldlack.
Mitfühlend sehe ich
Die geschwollenen Stirnadern, andeutend
Wie anstrengend es ist, böse zu sein.

Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956)

High Horse

I rode a horse
over cloud-strewn fields,
submerging myself
in the smouldering day.

No stopping me going
to God knows where.
Not a horse, but a ship.
Not a ship, but desire.

It was a horse,
as never seen
before. The head
of a courser, dressed

in delirium. Wind
that neighs as it spreads.
I was still riding
and gestured my words:

“Follow my track,
my best of best friends,
come on, you can:
the route is restful,

the sky is uncast.
But who is it who speaks?
At this height, I lose track
of myself. So can you

work it out? I’m the one
who was speaking before.
Am I still the same person
I was when I spoke?

And, friends, are you
the same as you were?
As we climb, we change
and we blur, you and I.”
J’avais un cheval
Dans un champ de ciel
Et je m’enfonçais
Dans le jour ardent.
Rien ne m’arrêtait
J’allais sans savoir,
C’était un navire
Plutôt qu’un cheval,
C’était un désir
Plutôt qu’un navire,
C’était un cheval
Comme on n’en voit pas,
Tête de coursier,
Robe de délire,
Un vent qui hennit
En se répandant.
Je montais toujours
Et faisais des signes :
« Suivez mon chemin,
Vous pouvez venir,
Mes meilleurs amis,
La route est sereine,
Le ciel est ouvert.
Mais qui parle ainsi ?
Je me perds de vue
Dans cette altitude,
Me distinguez-vous,
Je suis celui qui
Parlait tout à l’heure,
Suis-je encor celui
Qui parle à présent,
Vous-mêmes, amis,
Êtes-vous les mêmes ?
L’un efface l’autre
Et change en montant. »

Jules Supervielle (1884–1960)

Straight and Bent

Do you know where the words “prose” and “verse” come from? It’s quite interesting, I think.

Both terms derive from ancient Rome, where agriculture was the primary mode of production: in other words, almost everyone except the elite was employed in farming, either as slaves or as wage-earners — and the upper classes were farmers, too, to the extent that they owned the land and would expect to receive a steady financial return from it.

Fields by Marzia Colonna (1951–).

In Latin, the word versus could refer to a field’s “furrow”, the trench made in the ground to prepare it before the seeds were sown. That word, in turn, came from the verb vertere, which simply meant “to turn” (think of the English “reverse”, which can be interpreted etymologically as an act of “turning back”), because the plough would be dragged in a straight line along the soil and would then be turned around to be dragged over — or, indeed, to turn over — the next line of earth. By analogy, the term came to be applied to poetry, where line would follow line in strict metrical rhythm (“free verse” hadn’t yet been invented).

If you add the prefix pro- to the original verb, you get provertere, which first meant “to turn ahead” and later came to mean something like “to move forwards”. So the adjective prorsus meant both “straight ahead” as a direction of travel and also “straightforward” in the sense of something uncomplicated. In everyday speech, prorsus became shortened to prosus, since the shorter word was easier to fit in the mouth, and from there came English “prose”, the type of text that goes on without being broken up into regular lines.

So the two English words are related through the twists and turns of linguistic history. And if we think back to the origin of “verse”, it provides a nice metaphor, the poet as ploughman, as labourer and farmhand, working steadily on hostile ground and with little certainty of success. But working the earth nonetheless. This connection was explored by Seamus Heaney in his poem Digging, where he reconciles his guilt at not working with his hands, as his ancestors had, with the hard, heady labour involved in building order out of words. So I’m going off now to reread that poem: you’re welcome to join me…

Old Flame

By candlelight
he loved to read
all through his life.

And often moved
a hand across
the flame, to prove

to himself
that he lived,
prove that he
was alive.

Since the day
of his death,
he has kept
by his side

a candle that burns.
But now he keeps
his hands cold and firm.
Tout le long de sa vie
Il avait aimé à lire
Avec une bougie
Et souvent il passait
La main dessus la flamme
Pour se persuader
Qu'il vivait,
Qu'il vivait.
Depuis le jour de sa mort
Il tient à côté de lui
Une bougie allumée
Mais garde les mains cachées.

Jules Supervielle (1884–1960)

Three Tongues

Jacob Grimm, the linguist and folklorist, was born on this date in 1785. Inspired by the calendrical coincidence, I translated this tale that was first collected and edited — or, rather, reworked — by the Brothers Grimm, as his younger brother Wilhelm and he became known. It's a simple story, intended for children, making use, as many of their stories do, of the rule of three and containing talking animals, fairytale feudalism and the pain of parental disapproval, but there must also be a political and religious subtext in that closing image of the Pope relying on his avian autocue.

The Grimms were sons and grandsons of Calvinist ministers: although they remained pious Protestants, they would have been instinctively wary of the trappings of Roman Catholicism and the extent of its this-worldly manoeuvres. They were, moreover, German nationalists, at a time when that was still considered a progressive form of politics: a single state held together by the common linguistic and cultural bonds of its citizens, rather than so many arbitrary landholdings of hereditary princes, seemed a radical and rationalistic prospect. We all know to what heinous extremes history subsequently took such ideas, but liberal democracy sprang from the selfsame source. And democrats the brothers were. It may be surprising then that members of the aristocracy feature so prominently in the tales — but they are often outwitted or shown to be stubbornly short-sighted, as in the story below.

In Switzerland, there once lived an old count, and this count had only one son, but that son was stupid and couldn't learn a thing.

So the father said, “My son, I can't get anything to stick between your ears, as much as I try. You must travel to a distant land: I am going to put you into the care of a famous scholar who will do what he can to teach you.”

The boy was sent off to a strange town and he stayed with the scholar for an entire year. After that year had taken its course, he came home again and his father asked, “So what have you learnt, my son?”

“Father,” he replied, “I have learnt what the dogs mean when they bark.”

“Heaven help us!” cried the father, “is that all that you've learnt? I will have to send you to another scholar in another town.”

The boy was sent away, and he stayed with this scholar for another year. When he returned, the father asked again, “My son, what have you learnt?”

“Father,” he replied, “I have learnt what the birds mean when they talk amongst themselves.”

The father then became enraged and said, “Oh, you lost cause, you have wasted your precious time and learnt nothing. Are you not even ashamed to stand there staring me straight in the eye? I am going to send you to a third scholar — but if you learn nothing yet again, I will no longer be your father.”

The son stayed with the third scholar for an entire year, too, and when he returned home, his father asked, “My son, what have you learnt?”

So he answered, “My dear father, this year I have learnt what the frogs mean when they croak.”

The father then flew up into a furious rage, called his attendants and said, “This one here is no longer my son: I am casting him out and I command you to lead him deep into the forest where you will take his life.”

They led him out into the forest, but when the time came to kill him, they took pity on the boy and could not bring themselves to do it. They let him go. They stripped the eyes and the tongue from the carcass of a deer so that they could take something to the old man as proof of their deed.

The young boy trekked through the woods and, after a short while, came to a castle where he sought shelter for the night.

“Yes,” said the lord of the castle, “if you want to spend the night in that old tower down in the valley, you are welcome, but I warn you that you will be putting your life at risk, because it is packed with wild dogs that endlessly bark and howl, and at certain times of the day they must be given a man for their meal: they devour him in minutes.”

These dogs have caused the whole region a great deal of suffering and pain, but no one has been able to offer any relief. The young boy, however, was fearless and said, “Just let me go down to the barking dogs, and give me something that I can throw to them. I am sure that they won't so much as touch me.”

He was determined to go, so he was given some food for the wild beasts and escorted down towards the tower. When he entered, the dogs did not bark at him but instead they gathered around and wagged their tails as though he were a friend; they ate what he gave them and did not try to bite even a single hair on his head.

He emerged the next morning in good health and unharmed — to everyone's surprise — and to the lord of the castle he said, “The dogs have revealed to me, in their own tongue, why they live in this tower and bring misfortune on the land that surrounds it. They are cursed, and are fated to guard a great treasure buried underneath the tower. They cannot rest until it is dug up. I have also heard them speak of how this must be done.”

Everyone who heard this was overjoyed at the news, and the lord of the castle said that he would adopt him as his son if he managed to complete the task. He returned back down to the tower, and, aware of what he had to do, succeeded in digging a gold-filled chest up from the basement. From then on, the howling of wild dogs was no longer heard: they had disappeared, and the land was freed from its affliction.

Gradually, the idea arose in his mind that he should travel to Rome. On the way he passed by some marshland where a group of frogs was sitting and croaking. He listened to them, and, when he was able to make out what they were saying, became quite thoughtful and sad.

Finally he reached the city of Rome, where the Pope had recently passed away, and the cardinals were not at all sure whom they should appoint as his successor. They came to the agreement, after much debate, that whoever ought to become Pope would be shown to them by divine miracle.

And as soon as that had been decided, in walked the young count, and, all of a sudden, two snow-white doves swept down into the church and rested on each of his shoulders, where they remained perched. The clergy recognised that this was God's sign and asked him outright if he would consider becoming Pope.

He could not make up his mind, and did not know if he deserved the honour, but the doves said that he should do it, and eventually he agreed.

He was then anointed and consecrated, and so what he had heard from the frogs on his way, which had made him so upset, had come true: they had said that he would become his Holiness the Pope. Afterwards, he had to sing a mass, and did not know a word of it, but the two doves remained perched on his shoulders and spoke all the words into his ear.

Illustration by Josef Scharl (1944).

In der Schweiz lebte einmal ein alter Graf, der hatte nur einen einzigen Sohn, aber er war dumm und konnte nichts lernen. Da sprach der Vater: "Höre, mein Sohn, ich bringe nichts in deinen Kopf, ich mag es anfangen, wie ich will. Du mußt fort von hier, ich will dich einem berühmten Meister übergeben. der soll es mit dir versuchen." Der Junge ward in eine fremde Stadt geschickt, und blieb bei dem Meister ein ganzes Jahr. Nach Verlauf dieser Zeit kam er wieder heim, und der Vater fragte: "Nun mein Sohn, was hast du gelernt?" – "Vater, ich habe gelernt, was die Hunde bellen," antwortete er. "Daß Gott erbarm!" rief der Vater aus, "ist das alles, was du gelernt hast? ich will dich in eine andere Stadt zu einem andern Meister tun."

Der Junge ward hingebracht, und blieb bei diesem Meister auch ein Jahr. Als er zurückkam, fragte der Vater wiederum: "Mein Sohn, was hast du gelernt?" Er antwortete: "Vater, ich habe gelernt, was die Vögli sprechen." Da geriet der Vater in Zorn und sprach: "O, du verlorner Mensch, hast die kostbare Zeit hingebracht und nichts gelernt, und schämst dich nicht, mir unter die Augen zu treten? Ich will dich zu einem dritten Meister schicken, aber lernst du auch diesmal nichts, so will ich dein Vater nicht mehr sein." Der Sohn blieb bei dem dritten Meister ebenfalls ein ganzes Jahr, und als er wieder nach Haus kam und der Vater fragte: "Mein Sohn, was hast du gelernt?" so antwortete er: "Lieber Vater, ich habe dieses Jahr gelernt, was die Frösche quaken." Da geriet der Vater in den höchsten Zorn, sprang auf, rief seine Leute herbei und sprach:"Dieser Mensch ist mein Sohn nicht mehr, ich stoße ihn aus und gebiete euch, daß ihr ihn hinaus in den Wald führt und ihm das Leben nehmt." Sie führten ihn hinaus, aber als sie ihn töten sollten, konnten sie nicht vor Mitleiden und ließen ihn gehen. Sie schnitten einem Reh Augen und Zunge aus, damit sie dem Alten die Wahrzeichen bringen konnten.

Der Jüngling wanderte fort und kam nach einiger Zeit zu einer Burg, wo er um Nachtherberge bat. "Ja," sagte der Burgherr, "wenn du da unten in dem alten Turm übernachten willst, so gehe hin, aber ich warne dich, es ist lebensgefährlich, denn er ist voll wilder Hunde, die bellen und heulen in einem fort, und zu gewissen Stunden müssen sie einen Menschen ausgeliefert haben, den sie auch gleich verzehren." Die ganze Gegend war darüber in Trauer und Leid, und konnte doch niemand helfen. Der Jüngling aber war ohne Furcht und sprach: "Laßt mich nur hinab zu den bellenden Hunden, und gebt mir etwas, das ich ihnen vorwerfen kann; mir sollen sie nichts tun." Weil er nun selber nicht anders wollte, so gaben sie ihm etwas Essen für die wilden Tiere und brachten ihn hinab zu dem Turm. Als er hineintrat, bellten ihn die Hunde nicht an, wedelten mit den Schwänzen ganz freundlich um ihn herum, fraßen, was er ihnen hinsetzte, und krümmten ihm kein Härchen. Am andern Morgen kam er zu jedermanns Erstaunen gesund und unversehrt wieder zum Vorschein und sagte zu dem Burgherrn: "Die Hunde haben mir in ihrer Sprache offenbart, warum sie da hausen und dem Lande Schaden bringen. Sie sind verwünscht und müssen einen großen Schatz hüten, der unten im Turme liegt, und kommen nicht eher zur Ruhe, als bis er gehoben ist, und wie dies geschehen muß, das habe ich ebenfalls aus ihren Reden vernommen." Da freuten sich alle, die das hörten, und der Burgherr sagte, er wollte ihn an Sohnes Statt annehmen, wenn er es glücklich vollbrächte. Er stieg wieder hinab, und weil er wußte, was er zu tun hatte, so vollführte er es und brachte eine mit Gold gefüllte Truhe herauf. Das Geheul der wilden Hunde ward von nun an nicht mehr gehört, sie waren verschwunden, und das Land war von der Plage befreit.

Über eine Zeit kam es ihm in den Sinn, er wollte nach Rom fahren. Auf dem Weg kam er an einem Sumpf vorbei, in welchem Frösche saßen und quakten. Er horchte auf, und als er vernahm, was sie sprachen, ward er ganz nachdenklich und traurig. Endlich langte er in Rom an, da war gerade der Papst gestorben, und unter den Kardinälen großer Zweifel, wen sie zum Nachfolger bestimmen sollten. Sie wurden zuletzt einig, derjenige sollte zum Papst erwählt werden, an dem sich ein göttliches Wunderzeichen offenbaren würde. Und als das eben beschlossen war, in demselben Augenblick trat der junge Graf in die Kirche, und plötzlich flogen zwei schneeweiße Tauben auf seine beiden Schultern und blieben da sitzen. Die Geistlichkeit erkannte darin das Zeichen Gottes und fragte ihn auf der Stelle, ob er Papst werden wolle. Er war unschlüssig und wußte nicht, ob er dessen würdig wäre, aber die Tauben redeten ihm zu, daß er es tun möchte, und endlich sagte er "Ja." Da wurde er gesalbt und geweiht, und damit war eingetroffen, was er von den Fröschen unterwegs gehört und was ihn so bestürzt gemacht hatte, daß er der heilige Papst werden sollte. Darauf mußte er eine Messe singen und wußte kein Wort davon, aber die zwei Tauben saßen stets auf seinen Schultern und sagten ihm alles ins Ohr.