Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Robert Walser: This life, how old it is


The Librarian: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, c. 1566. oil on canvas, 97 x 71 cm (Skoklosters Slott, Bålsta, Stockholm)

This life, how old it is. Even the golden
forests and the red lips of people.
Time was when people thought they were young,
but others came before them, younger still,
who grew like plants.  Every flower
is young because it does not think, but is,
and is nobler than the lovely noble minds
of people who just know, alas, their loveliness:
the loveliness of a dog is of a better kind,
shapelier than the kind a human shows.
Does death disgust us for the reason
that we in fact are much too fond of life?
When a plant dies, does it think of something?
Does a violet have a feeling when it fades?
By the loveliness of a fish how touched we are,
no legs, no hands, the round enormous eyes!

Water: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1566, oil on canvas, 67 x 51 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Robert Walser (1878-1956): This life, how old it is (Spring 1928) from Robert Walser: Thirty Poems, selected and translated by Christopher Middleton: Christine Burgin/New Directions 2012


Conrad DiDiodato said...

I'm astonished at how much the 16th century's already anticipated De Chirico and Bacon

Amazing work. The poem, Tom, reminds me of something Corman said to Samperi in correspondence about his colloquy with the ants on his daily walks (as if they knew where the great Sage from Utano would step next)

This life, indeed...

TC said...

This poem is one of the remarkable Swiss writer Robert Walser's "Micrograms" or "Microscripts".

These texts were handwritten in characters approximately one millimetre high. And often in a curious shorthand (later mistaken as code) as well.

Scribe of the Small

Conrad DiDiodato said...

'Microgram', 'microscript'...

How nearly the 16th century also anticipated L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E,

Yes, we have no right to be feeling young at all

TC said...

As to the curious 16th c. master Arcimboldo, questions have long been asked regarding the nature and source of his hallucinated Mannerist style.

"So was that madness collective, rather than confined to individuals such as Giuseppe Arcimboldo? Or were the explosions of uncontrolled fantasy simply an extreme case of the human mind's precarious balance being upset under the influence of the leaders of the day? If we knew the answer, eternal peace in a permanent paradise would start tomorrow."

Hazen said...

One could, I suppose, find a touch of the bizarre in Arcimboldo’s faces; on the other hand, the first seems simply a brilliant collage derived from what the person does—a bookish person; the second I could read as ‘natural man,’ admittedly a bit dark, yes, but made up of what one might eat, a sort of fruits de mer-man, or someone displaying the less evolved aspects of human nature. His vegetable counterpart, mentioned in the Times review, is one I’ve seen in some museum somewhere, and didn’t find freaky at all.

Years ago, reading Walser, I learned that he made his living as a butler.

TC said...


It seems Walser's spell in livery as "Monsieur Robert" was short-liveried -- er, short-lived. The life is riddled with strange twists, the microscripts perhaps emerging from the cracks in the walls at the asylum.

"Walser was not an overtly political writer. Nevertheless, his emotional involvement with the class from which he came, the class of shopkeepers and clerks and schoolteachers, ran deep. Berlin offered him a clear chance to escape his social origins, to defect, as his brother had done, to the déclassé cosmopolitan intelligentsia. He refused that offer, choosing instead to return to the embrace of provincial Switzerland. Yet he never lost sight of—indeed, was not allowed to lose sight of—the illiberal, conformist tendencies of his class, its intolerance of people like himself, dreamers and vagabonds."

J.M. Coetzee: The Genius of Robert Walser



Thanks for this, a real education in the pairing of Walser microscripts together with Archimboldo's strange (self-?) portraits --

"By the loveliness of a fish how touched we are,
no legs, no hands, the round enormous eyes!"


light coming into sky above still black
ridge, curve of moon across from branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

rotation of orbit of planet,
radian per revolution

curve starting from a point,
that is, follows that

silver edge of sun above plane of ridge,
whiteness of moon in cloudless blue sky

Anonymous said...

I have just been thinking about time the poem !!....and photos...thanks!

Hazen said...

Walser’s right of course: we think 'flower' rather than see the flower. Billy C. Wirtz—not The Rev., but the songwriter and bluesman (Wirtz ‘til It Hurts)—has a song called You Think Too Much.

‘ . . . we in fact are much too fond of life . . .’ Maybe we’re not fond enough, to judge by the blood soaked millennia in our wake, and the systematic violence we inflict on all of nature, including ourselves. Yes, I forgot about Walser's struggle with the mind. What you write about him makes me like and admire him even more.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

It is so old, then, even to the King of the books and Queen of the water. From the land of cheese with holes in it, purple cows, leather pants, and clocks with birds announcing the hour--Walser turns to nature for instruction on the distinct for a further immersion into the alpine. He writes from a bear's perspective, roaming.

TC said...

Roaming through the alpine forest, the bear comes upon a clump of animal parts glued together in a most curious way; and thinks nothing of it.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Yes, that would be breakfast, then, something to consume.

aditya said...

Thanks for this great great poem! and his (micro)script is absolutely beautiful and haunting too just like this poem. The essay by Coetzee looks great. I had never ever read a poem by Robert Walser ever before-- only a certain number of short pieces. Now that I have I feel strangely relieved.

ACravan said...

As Stephen said, a real education. And a great pleasure also. "Short-liveried" -- that's very good. Curtis

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

This post and its ensuing comments prompted me to send along Susan Sontag’s foreward to Walser’s Selected Stories (Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 1982) “Anyone seeking to bring Walser to a public that has yet to discover him has at hand a whole arsenal of glorious comparisons. A Paul Klee in prose—as delicate, as sly, as haunted. A cross between Stevie Smith and Beckett: a good-humored, sweet Beckett. And, as literature’s present inevitably remakes its past, so we cannot help but see Walser as the missing link between Kleist and Kafka, who admired him greatly. (At the same time, it was more likely to be Kafka who was seen through the prism of Walser. Robert Musil, another admirer among Walser’s contemporaries, when he first read Kafka pronounced the latter ‘a peculiar case of the Walser type.’”

And what a type he was/is.

TC said...

Kafka was a close reader of Walser's short stories, and much influenced by them. This in turn seemed to annoy Walter Benjamin, whose patronising remarks about Walser's "neglect of style", "the enigmatic Swiss" & c. appear almost to betray a regret that Kafka should have had such questionable tastes. Benjamin's problem not Kafka's, of course. Great critics always have the problem of having to have a pigeonhole for everything, and Walser makes a bad pigeonhole fit. Benjamin got in his bit on Walser in a 1934 essay which some readers of all three of the writers just named considered more than a little unfair. Still, in this essay there are sentences that show a grudging respect, and other sentences that show Benjamin to have been intrigued, against his better judgment. Walser's characters, wrote Benjamin, "share [a] a childlike nobility with the characters in fairy tales, who likewise emerge from the night and from madness -- namely, from the madness of myth."

Walser, by the way, claimed, perhaps with tongue in cheek, to have never corrected a single line in his writing. Benjamin appears to have taken this seriously, as an admission of the slapdash. Among Benjamin's flaws as a critic are a great deal of taking things too seriously.

Wooden Boy said...

Benjamin's point is important. These fairytales that lead us from the mythic comforts, that all these youthful beauties we look to are to be seen from the prison of our known and knowing, dying flesh.

Wooden Boy said...

I feel like I've really darkened the mood here. Walser keeps the serious stuff from the gravity and there's me with my dying flesh.

TC said...

Yes, I think he backed into getting that one right, in the end. Those Arcimboldo characters, who weirdly remind me of Walser characters, would probably have done poorly if locked into the prison of a mirror. They would then not be able to escape knowing that the World IS hopelessly old (not to mention latterly rendered pretty much useless) -- and that the thing about old is, to paraphrase Dr Faustus, this was hell nor was he out of it. Our Monsieur Robert, old already. Already old while yet deceptively eternally young. Even as young as fifty. Everyone who has ever lived before us is older than we are, and we are older than everyone who will ever live after we do. This truth is suspended in legend, romance and fairy tale.

Another odd thing WB says about RW: "Walser is so little concerned with the way in which he writes that everything other than what he has to say recedes into the background."

That's meant as criticism of course but I can't help hearing it as unconscious praise. Again, back handed, on the back foot, and slipping off a cliff.

Wooden Boy said...

I think it's a good thing, whether we think of ourselves as "stylists" or "plain speakers", to remember thst what we're working on are pieces of communication.

TC said...

WB, I hadn't seen that latter while answering your earlier. Yes, the mood could probably use a bit of darkening. Dying flesh frames things in a kind of chiaroscuro, the atmospheric penumbra reduced to particulate form for convenience of transmission.

To my ear there's a kind of he false elation in some of Walser's intricately force-rhymed earlier poems, the sound of someone clever submitting out of market necessity (he was a free lance writer after all, with the humiliation that entails) to the yoke of class/audience demand; demand that is for light, insipid, innocuous stuff. Walser responded by creating (simulating?) a sociable, and more importantly marketable whimsy; yet chafing at the bit even while bowed by it, he continued subtly and obliquely sending up middle-class philistine attitudes and poses of just the sort he himself was so adept, in his writings if not in his life at striking.

The poems to Trakl, Heine, Chopin and especially the one to Rilke beg to be read (be me, now, at least) as mock-sincere.

Unruffled repose,
when day is done
and off you shake,
each by each,
life's traveling shoes,
is beauty enough.
I was content to make
before your grave,
this little s speech.


(The nearest reader, I should confess, disagrees, takes those poems to the Greats as sincerely meant, and as more than slightly genuinely lame, and may well have a point, at that.)

But, speaking of criticism... where'd I put my traveling shoes?

TC said...

The "Communication" note has only now wiggled out of the holding tank, heading toward conception. Odd: it was just that drift toward communicability (which tugs this poem long toward its undeniably expressively communicative ending), that Benjamin found most commonplace in Walser. Too much content = too much common, was Benjamin's approximate formulation.

"... this cannot keep us from trying to get to the bottom of his neglect of style. We have already noted that his neglect makes of almost every possible form. We should now add: with a single exception. And this exception is one of the most common sort -- namely, one in which only content and nothing else counts."

TC said...

Again, WB on RW:

"... we are accustomed to ponder the mysteries of style through the contemplation of more or less elaborate, fully intended works of art, whereas here we find ourselves confronted by a seemingly quite unintentional, but attractive, even fascinating linguistic wilderness."

(That I think may be where the roaming bear entered the frame.)

Wooden Boy said...

There's almost a suggestion that there is some natural state of language that Walser is working with, that he can't bring himself to use the secateurs.

I have to say, I'm not sure what a fully intended work of art looks or reads like.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

The Owl and the Pussycat's boat had become crowded, it was a pleasant but unsteady ride. I left those two to their honeymoon and ventured to walk in the forest, the meadows where I felt more at home--Phil and Cynthia Schuster's voices still in my ears (intellects I met long ago)--and had a strange tour of the familiar where everything was Po. No question that everything was alive, had feelings, sensibility while Europe was lining up in rows upon rows--

TC said...

I fear that at the edge of the privileged little circle of light cast by the campfire of the mind into the surrounding darkness there does indeed lurk something masking itself as the fully intended work of art. I think another name for this beast is conceptual art. There is the temptation to think of it as a work of art, but the traces of its leavings don't seem the residue of anything organic.

The trouble Walser got himself into with certain critics like Benjamin was probably down to his continual willingness to be led off by the slightest thing -- even something as trifling as a rhyme -- toward areas he'd neither intended not for that matter even thought of venturing into.

It's at exactly that point his poems begin to take on life and surprise. Reminding us how much more interesting any work tends to be when read without regard to whatever intentions the producer has stashed therein -- which if the work is to be of any real interest, represent only a limited (and sometimes misleading) element or dimension of its total meaning.

Anonymous said...

Susan Bernofsky's edited collection Walser shorts, "Masquerade" and Other Stories, is one of my prized books, discovered purely at random, despite the fact I should've at that time at least known who Walser was. For some reason I keep returning to his story, "The Battle of Sempach". As quoted above, Walser was not an overtly political writer, but he had a way of, in his avoidance of politics, laying bare the body & history affected by it. His depiction of that classic battle, in my estimation, tells not only the history of the world, in effect, but its future.