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Literature and Ideas

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 deathly 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.

Returneth to Vomit

Head of a Dog (1930).

Angry Dog (ca. 1938–43).

Both watercolours are by Edvard Munch and based on his neighbour's dog, which he wasn't, I think, entirely enamoured with.

We all fuck up down here:
so many madmen run past
in pursuit of shadows that they're,
more often than not, impossible to tot.
We really ought to send them off to meet that dog that Aesop talked about.
It saw its prey was walking waterways,
so thought of nothing more than diving in to drown itself — and ended up
with both the prey and shadow splashed away.
Chacun se trompe ici-bas : On voit courir après l’ombre Tant de fous, qu’on n’en sait pas La plupart du temps le nombre.
Au Chien dont parle Ésope il faut les renvoyer. Ce Chien, voyant sa proie en l’eau représentée, La quitta pour l’image, et pensa se noyer ; La rivière devint tout d’un coup agitée. À toute peine il regagna les bords, Et n’eut ni l’ombre ni le corps.

Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695)


The Sea of Sado by Shigeko Inoue (1945–).
The oasis of air
beneath the branching echo.

The oasis of ponds beneath the bright stars’ frond-furl.
The oasis of lips beneath a thicket of kisses.
El remanso del aire 
bajo la rama del eco. 

El remanso del agua 
bajo fronda de luceros. 

El remanso de tu boca 
bajo espesura de besos.

Federico García Lorca


A blindman stands still
under the balcony
beating an old rhythm
out of old cymbals.

Its dignified sadness
transfixes my heart,
which reverberates with
its own solemn sadness.

But why are his cloudy
eyes not downcast?
They’re empty, obscured.
And watch me cowedly.

What ardour’s enjoyed
behind those sockets?
What life-forceful resolve
disguises his voids?

He looks towards me —
through my marble
forehead — and sees
clandestine agonies:

I’m stuffed to the brim
with every torturous
thing that kills
me from within.
Un cieco è sotto il mio balcone:
suona su un vecchio cembalo una vecchia
danza. M'entra nel cuor, che vi si specchia,
la grazia triste della sua canzone.

Ma perchè innalza i torbidi occhi fissi
fino a me?... Sono vuoti; e pur s'asconde
non so che fiamma in quelle orbite fonde,
non so che viva, intenta ombra d'abissi.

Mi guarda: vede. — Vede, sulla mia
fronte di marmo, il mio segreto strazio:
quel che m'uccide e di cui pur mi sazio,
quel che mi seguirà nell'agonia.

Ada Negri (1870–1945)

Antarctic Rock

Over there is where everything ends
and does not end;
there, too, is the place
where everything begins.

Rivers fling themselves across the ice,
the snow and air betrothed.
No streets nor steeds to ride
or stroll. But for that building,
built out of rock.

Nobody lives in that castle.
Not even lost souls,
those that are haunted
by cold and the wind.

Over there is nothing but solitude,
the solitude of the world.
Which explains why the rock
became music itself.

It straightened its slender stature
and rose in order to scream
or to sing,
but then it stayed silent.

Only the wind,
scourge of the whistling
South Pole.

Only the blind
expanses of white
and the sound of a rainbird's cry
over the castle where nothing survives
but solitude.
Allí termina todo
y no termina:
allí comienza todo:
se despiden los ríos en el hielo,
el aire se ha casado con la nieve,
no hay calles ni caballos
y el único edificio
lo construyó la piedra.
Nadie habita el castillo
ni las almas perdidas
que frío y viento frío
es sola allí la soledad del mundo,
y por eso la piedra
se hizo música,
elevó sus delgadas estaturas,
se levantó para gritar o cantar,
pero se quedó muda.
Sólo el viento,
el látigo
del Polo Sur que silba,
sólo el vacío blanco
y un sonido de pájaro de lluvia
sobre el castillo de la soledad.

Pablo Neruda