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Sunday, 3 April 2011

Franz Kafka / Edward S. Curtis: Divestment (The Wish to Be a Red Indian)


Sioux Chiefs
: very often two or three men would form themselves into a war-party and ride away to be gone weeks or months; sometimes they returned with scalps or horses, or women; and again the war-party, whether large or small, met defeat and none survived to bring back to anxious wives and children the story of the disaster: photo by Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), 1905, from Curtis: The Teton Sioux: The Yanktonai, 1908 (Northwestern University/Library of Congress)

If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind, kept on quivering jerkily over the quivering ground, until one shed one's spurs, for there needed no spurs, threw away the reins, for there needed no reins, and hardly saw that the land before one was smoothly shorn heath when horse's neck and head would be already gone.

The Scout -- Apache: photo by Edward S. Curtis , c. 1911, from Curtis: The Apache: The Jicarillas: The Navaho, 1910 (Northwestern University/Library of Congress)

Wenn man doch ein Indianer wäre, gleich bereit, und auf dem rennenden Pferde, schief in der Luft, immer wieder kurz erzitterte über dem zitternden Boden, bis man die Sporen ließ, denn es gab keine Sporen, bis man die Zügel wegwarf, denn es gab keine Zügel, und kaum das Land vor sich als glatt gemähte Heide sah, schon ohne Pferdehals und Pferdekopf.

Night Scout -- Nez Perce: photo by Edward S. Curtis , c. 1910, from Curtis: Nez Perces: Wallawalla: Umatilla: Cayuse: The Chinookan tribes, 1911 (Northwestern University/Library of Congress)

Artisan Ch’ui could draw as true as a compass or a T-square because his fingers changed along with things and he didn’t let his mind get away… The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?

-- Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi), 19

Franz Kafka: The Wish to Be a Red Indian (Wunsch, Indianer zu werden), written between 1904 and 1912, from Betrachtung (Meditation), 1913, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir in The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces, 1948


Ed Baker said...

that Chuang Tzu was

we sure messed up by adopting that European
Religious/Cultural Kulchur in:stead of the Indians'
we murderied the Indians'
& put 'em in The Circus & in front of Cigar Stores.
& in stupid John Wayne



"instantly alert"

"once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words"


first light coming into sky above still
black ridge, planet next to pine branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

now becomes physical, which
changes and addition

suggests may be looked upon,
as description, that

sunlight reflected in windblown channel,
whiteness of cloud to the left of point


to this day there's still a strong "red indian" romanticism in Kafka's former stomping grounds, much influence from one writer, the same one Kafka was probably riffing/lampooning, German-speaking Karl May. In the late 1800s he wrote a series of fanciful Westerns (though he never made it out there) that most of the place grew up on. Germans made kitschy films out of them that were dubbed into Czech, now the sole language of the place German-speaking Kafka once called home. In fact the literary establishment of Czechia is in tension with Kafka like the dominant culture in the USA is with the Native Americans (many German-speakers were ethnically cleansed from Bohemia and Moravia after WW2), he's something disowned, trotted out for tourists, let's-avoid-the-subject

Ed Baker said...

here is how the Europeans learned all about The Indians
& our "Wild West"
he took his circus all around Europe!

the Queen of England came out of mourning to see the show.
EVEN the pope (in Rome) saw the show.

The Pony Express was a main attraction

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I've mentioned it already, but I've got a very nice book of Plains Indians drawings, if you can get hold of it (it's out of print).

TC said...

It's true that, as Ed points out, Europeans weren't the original -- or only -- fabricators of a marketable Myth of the West.

Artur, those Plains Indian drawings you posted are as splendid as you say they are. Your saying they make Uccello's battle scenes come off as static in comparison would be an impossible hyperbole... were the evidence not there before our eyes to prove you true.

And speaking of I don't know if I've mentioned it already (it's been one of those nights/days/weeks), you may recognize that same style being openly imitated, in a sort of homage, in the bottom-most (is that a word?) of these Louis B. Siegrist posters for the Indian Court at the Golden Gate International Exposition, 1939.

(Did I mention that already?)


"once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words"

...and then there's forgetting the words before you've gotten the meaning, a stage that lately seems to be stealthily yet rapidly approaching, perhaps not unlike a Night Scout on the Plains.

TC said...


About Kafka's decision to write in German rather than Czech, I don't know enough (well, any) Czech, and you do, so I'd have to ask you about this... but the way so much can be loaded on a terminal verb, in a German sentence, seems to have been invented for this writer who was so given to extracting so much from a final syntactical twist. Could that also have been done in Czech?

Thanks for bringing up the Karl May trace, which is surely one of the most interesting threads in the strange weave that was the literary imagination of Kafka.

The period influence of May's strictly mythological Wild West tales (would strictly fraudulent be the more accurate term?) was, as you suggest, widespread. Einstein said of May, "my whole adolescence stood under his sign". Hitler blamed his bad school grades on his obsession with Karl May's Minnetou trilogy. (Every truant has his excuse, of course.) The Führer remained loyal to this youthful passion for ersatz romance, later distributing May's "Westerns" to his generals and soldiers at the front and holding up the mythical Winnetou as an object lesson in the arts of "tactical finesse and circumspection."

I've been looking at bits of some of the Karl May movies, pretty funny in an awful sort of way. They are online, here and there. And then there is this spoof:

The Shoe of Manitou.

Michael Hofmann, writing on the unfinished novel Amerika or Der Verschollene (1927), Franz's account of his own made-up America, remarks on the odd similarity of May's Wild West, "peopled by Indians and Saxons," to Kafka's, "an exploded Bohemia".

He would not be the first to have noted that there is something deeply Unnatural in Kafka's Nature Theatre of Oklahoma.

TC said...

"Karl May (1842-1912)[was]a Saxon weaver’s son, jailbird, self-described linguist—and the man who single-handedly invented the wild west for generations of Europeans. Long before the Lone Ranger, May was giving unruly cowboys what-for, befriending Winnetou, a great Apache warrior, and generally bringing peace and order to the frontier.

"Though he is virtually unknown to the English-speaking world, May is possibly the most-read German author of all time: his books have sold an estimated 100m copies to date. The Germans have a saying: 'We know Goethe, but we read Karl May'... Hermann Hesse. who called May’s work 'fiction as wish-fulfilment', was a life-long fan. In Germany today, Winnetou is synonymous with 'Indian', and hundreds of 'Indianer' clubs meet at weekends to practice tribal ceremonies in traditional costume.

"No matter that May wrote his most famous 'travelogues' (there were close to 80 in all) without ever leaving Saxony. Born into poverty in the small village of Hohenstein-Ernstthal, he spent much of his early adulthood engaged in petty fraud and impersonation—good training for his subsequent writing career. May’s extended sojourns in jail, meanwhile, gave the voracious reader plenty of time to absorb just about everything he could get his hands on concerning strange peoples in faraway lands.

"Having found his calling, the young masquerader churned out a number of first-person accounts of Arabian adventures, with considerable success. But it was the 2,000-page 'Winnetou' series, completed in 1893, that turned May into a rootin’-tootin’, sure-shootin’ sensation. Picking up where Buffalo Bill Cody’s 1889 German tour left off, he came up with the ingenious idea of presenting a western adventure in which a German novice, Old Shatterhand, out-lassos, out-hunts, out-shoots and finally out-wits Yankees and Indians alike. Throw in the hero’s great alliance with Winnetou, the stoical “red gentleman”, and May had created both a patriotic epic and a popular monument to the Native American race.

"With the smell of success in his nostrils, May was unstoppable. He put it about that his narrator-hero’s exploits were actually his own, even showing off a lock of hair taken from his “blood brother” Winnetou. He posed for photographs with 'Silver Nail' and 'Bear Killer', the rifles he said he and the Apache had used in the west. At his Villa Shatterhand in Radebeul, he surrounded himself with big game skins, Indian scalps, peace pipes, carpets, Arabian tea sets and other exotica. He set himself up on the German lecture circuit as the learned Herr Doktor May.

"For a time even May’s publisher was taken in—some scholars have suggested that May himself was too. By the turn of the century, however, these role-playing antics had begun to take their toll, and the author spent much of the last decade of his life squabbling over publication rights and narrowly avoiding scandal. In 1908, the beleaguered May finally travelled to America. But he was destined to remain a true greenhorn: he made it no farther west than Buffalo, New York.

"Karl May’s version of the American west bears little relation to any historical reality—which no doubt accounts for much of its charm. It remains irresistible to readers from all walks of life...

"So deeply rooted is the Karl May legacy today that the Native American Association of Germany, a small group started by Native American soldiers stationed in Europe during the cold war, has recently launched a campaign to re-educate Germans in the facts of Native American history. But they have an uphill battle against Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, who, like the west itself, were legends almost before they appeared in print. As a seasoned frontiersman tells the newly arrived Shatterhand at the beginning of one of his Great Plains adventures, 'It’s amazing what they make you people learn over there.'"-- The Economist (2001)

TC said...

Also re. Karl May, some interesting images:

Karl May as "Old Shatterhand"

Karl May blood brother, him take many scalp

Ed Baker said...

what the hell is a 'terminal verb" ?

I thought all verbs were at least "transient' (transitive' and more probably .... nouns

or is it the other way around all nouns are verbs ... of 'being' ?

TC said...

Ed, It's not a great secret that Kafka made use of the quirks of German syntax.

Sometimes this happens in short sentences, sometimes in long sentences that seem to go on forever... and then, just stop, exactly where he wants them to.

These sentences often produce a surprising blow just before the final full stop, "putting a fine point", one might say, on the drift and focus of the whole.

These tricks are made possible by the German language.

In the construction of certain kinds of sentences in German, the verb is positioned at the end of the sentence.

Such constructions are virtually impossible to duplicate "naturally" in English, and wise translators do not try.

One example out of many from Kafka's short tales, Die Abweisung /Rejection, which ends with a verb:

»Ja, wir haben beide recht und, um uns dessen nicht unwiderleglich bewußt zu werden, wollen wir, nicht wahr, lieber jeder allein nach Hause gehn.«

Willa and Edwin Muir's translation observes "proper" English word order:

'Yes, we're both in the right, and to keep us from being irrevocably aware of it, hadn't we better just go our separate ways home?'

"'...hadn't we better just our separate ways home go?'" -- sounds funny, right?

Ed Baker said...

not just via German Lang
but French .... also

just revisit Apollinaire

and with absolutely dropping all punctuation (signs/marks)

wish I was a fluent reader of Italian, French AND German

as it is takes every ounce of my wit-and-widom
to get a decent 'run' in my own language...

thanks for shedding to trying to shed some light on

I just don't know

now? off to read an English translation of Paridice Lost ..

in the "original" (sanctioned) formatted /rhythms

GAWD this Poetry "stuff" is h a r d. I should have
taken up

Ed Baker said...

I made a mistake ... which is NOT like me>
NOT Paradise Lost !
but rather that
Inferno 'thing'
done by that other "hack" writer

the manics who write / create the BIG 'stuff"
now a lot...

TC said...

...und alzo little Franzl a great rider of horses was.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, look at that¡ I missed that post of yours. Too bad, I should have responded then.

TC said...

(If he stood perfectly still he could hear the distant drumming of the hoofbeats, far out over the Plains.)

Anonymous said...

OOps¡ Have I got my Spanish keyboard on¿

Ed Baker said...

not a sounds funny in that sentese before..
it s jus how

translates from Ger to Eng as a straight-line' an elisic of sorts.

TRY out


from the kanji poems on the left to his English trans on the right!

WOWOW! His introductions to each section.... a
do-not-ignore/miss ... event!

Part 1 opens:

" Concrete examples before abstractions. First, a short poem by the eighth-centiry Chinese poet Meng Hao-jin, laid out according to the original order (etc)."

TC said...

(Oops, I didn't mean Artur could hear that, only little Franzl -- whose favourite horse however does look a bit of a sheep, though not a patch on a goat.)

(That tell-tale Spanish keyboard excuse again, even worse than lipstick on the collar caused by walking too near the cosmetics counter.)

TC said...

(Sorry, must have meant not the Spanish keyboard but The Spanish Prisoner... it grows late here, or rather early... and the front steps have, in fact, collapsed.)

Ed Baker said...


old Chinese saying (I am just making up):

when front steps collapse use back

it s going to 76 here today
so naturally am going up to Target to get a new blanket for next winter....

they should be now on sale.



Yes, let's forget the words -- find the trace of the trail, you the Night Scout at 04:32 this morning. . . .

This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed Baker said...

twas an humor not so much as an "ho ho ho ho" type

but an existential type dark humor via the ironic and into the Absurd...

sort of was born out of Jarry and Apolinaire


we Romance the Languages ... as we can?

Anonymous said...

I'm very sorry to hear about your steps collapsing. What with your recent accident, isn't there anyone else who could repair them? The minimum needed would be two stringers (3x12?) and some new treads. It oughtn't to be too hard a job (he said from 6,000 miles away).


TC said...

Artur, thanks for your interest -- in fact, the interest of a professional, yet.

The handiman we've brought in has now, after literally punching his ample fist through several pulpy, spongy stairs, diagnosed seven rotted stairs and worse, a good deal of rotted siding, and has rolled his eyes, and recommended licensed contractors.... we have heard this song before.

To paraphrase another piece of classic Western Myth Making, Lewis Carroll's
sendup of Longfellow's "Indianization" of Finnish epic (can this be what Eliot meant by "the tradition"?):

All the residents in order
Sat before him for their estimates:
Each in turn, as he was taken,
Volunteered his own suggestions,
His ingenious suggestions...

Around here there are self-important civic licensing boards that issue licenses and permits with which one is enabled to apply for more licenses and permits, bids are taken and reckoned, & c., until everyone is secure in the knowledge they have profited -- "benefitted," yes, that's it... that's just the beginning of the contractor route. And the end of me.

Yet someone reminds me that, however I may like or not like it, "this is real life" (as opposed, I guess she means, to that odd, and in many respects quite unreal dwelling-in-the-Cloud also known as blogging).

So it's all a bit of a conundrum at this stage.

It comes to mind that the Plains Indians would have had none of these problems -- a tepee on a steep hillside, with multiple rain-exposed wooden stairs: absurd idea on the face of it.

Ed Baker said...

for those 35 + years that I was a "Poetry Scene Drop-Out
I WAS a licensed General Contractor... a One Man Wood Butcher
specializing in restoring old / rotten houses, building decks and ...
saving people money.

THEN "they" changed the license requirements.. lots of new fees, completion bonding, insurances, taxes when you used a "sub contractor, etc etc etc etc.

all the mirroriad requirements JUST TO SAW A BOARD OR BANG IN A NAIL...

HOWEVER I did not "join up"

there is an "escape clause"


"My H O M E IZ MY CASTLE" is sacred in 'meriks]a...

SOOOOO... I was The VOLUNTEER "HELPER" (HE HE) and The Owner was "doing the work... with his or her eagle eye.... There

just in case the fuzz showed up with a
"where's your permit?"

which never ever happened a county inspector shows up ONLY when one of your neighbors ..rats on you...

so, find yourself a couple of $12 per hour hispanic guys.. THEY know how to do EVERYTHING

I'd come out there and help you however I got a leak in my roof and at 70 ...

...what-the-phuch I gonna do ?

exactly, go up there I've located the exact nail that made the hole that allows the water in
and seal it ... forever and a day

if you hire a contractor they'll make a magjantial VERY costly job out of it... after all

they are in the "game" to get as much $$$ out of it as they can... make a biggest mountain out of your termited punkiness sit.

so, after 35 years as a Drop-in carpenter

NOW that I am back in this Poetry Game ..
I Fly By Night

Full Moon
Here seventy years
Big Fucking Deal

just take a Skil saw cut about a foot beyond the sidings rot take a pry bar remove the outside skin and SEE WAT YOU GOTTA DO what you gotta cut out beneath the siding and so do...

You can sit in a rocking chair hold a tape measure and if anybody strange ask "Gee, this is harder than i thought. Good thing I have these three helpers ... helping"

and, with the $$$ that you save... you can help pay-down-the deficit, buy some new socks, fund the NEA AND buy a copy of my
Stone Girl E-pic

TC said...

A great sum of good sense and good advice there, partner. Many thanks.

Poets who also have real life skills, yet -- what's the world coming to?