Friday, August 15, 2008

Glossary of Solecisms and Barbarisms

The 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, etc. To my mind, these ought to serve exclusively as collective designators of the years 1700-1799, 1800-1899, 1900-1999, etc., respectively. But as a number of people seem to use them as designators of the decades 1700-1709, 1800-1809, 1900-1909, etc. (respectively), the wisest policy seems to be to eschew them altogether in favor of the more upmarket near-equivalents the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century, the twentieth century (, etc., respectively). [(Avoid altogether, as in print, it may stand in either for a decade (1900-1909) or a century (the twentieth); while in speech, and in the second of these senses, it is apt to be substituted absent-mindedly for its centurial elder sibling by those who know better and assume they are speaking to those who do not. ("Hegel was a philsopher who lived in the nineteen hundreds," spake the Hegel-worshipper Francis Fukuyama in a television interview.) Write (or say) "the twentieth century" or "the first decade of the twentieth century," depending on which of the two you mean. ] I call these near equivalents, of course, because they exclude from their range of designation all 00-terminating years, (such as 1900) which fall simultaneously at the end of a century and the beginning of a teen-hundred series. [while belonging to the 1900s, is not a part of the nineteenth century; and that, say, 1920, while belonging to the 1920s, is not a part of the third decade of the century--but I challenge the reader to contrive a sentence that, while being true to the historical record, benefits in equal measure from the vagueness of decadal/centurial chronology and the precision of specific annuation. The best example I myself have been able to come up with is]: During the McKinley-Roosevelt intraregnum (i.e., the late 19th century up to and including the first year of the 1900s, along with the first year of the twentieth century [the second of the 1900s])... [I leave the composition of the subsequent clause or clauses as an exercise for Spanish-American War re-enactors and and collectors of Buffalo World's Fair memorabilia.]

Die young. It should go without saying that only a young person (either a child, a boy, a girl, a young man or a young woman) can hope ever to die young, and that a person already deceased may legitimately be said to have died young only if in his final moments he would have passed muster as a youngling. And yet, in our epoch, everyone can pretty much rest assured that if he departs from this vale of tears a day shy of the current acutuarily-mandated threescore and fifteen, his survivors will see to it that some allusion to his having died young makes it into his eulogy, and into every bit of posthumous gossip that originates within this selfsame community of his past acquaintances. can take it for granted that he will be posthumously A 25-year-old man is indisputably a young man, because, actuarially speaking, he has far fewer years behind him than before him. A 45-year-old man is indisputably at least a middle-aged man, because, again, actuarially speaking, he has far fewer years ahead of him than behind him; while a 60-year-old man is as of this writing at least disputably an old man, because (as of this writing) no human being has yet attained the age of 120. One thing is certain: both the quinquagenarian and the sexagenerian are already too old to die young. The English lexicon has long contained a word for describing deaths that fall between the actuarial means of midlife and mortality: that word is premature, and to die after having passed the first watershed but before having reached the second is to die prematurely, not young (or youngly).

An errand is something you are sent on, not something you undertake of your own initiative. So at a lunchtime rendezvous with a friend, say not, in generic summary of this morning's haircut-cum-supermarket-run, "I was running errands" but "I was doing things" (or "shit"). And in excuse for this afternoon's forthcoming sock-shopping-expedition-cum-body-massage say not "I've got errands to run" but "I've got things" (or "shit") to do.

Envy and Jealousy. The scrupulous Anglophone would do well to draw a clear, un-dotted line between the senses of these two words--to refer the first exclusively to a passion arising out of a craving for something that one lacks, and malevolently directed towards the imputed possessor of that something; and the second exclusively to a passion arising out of the fear of losing something that one already possesses, and malevolently directed either to the would-be possessor of that something or, indeed, to that something itself. So Dr. Johnson: “If we look however without prejudice on the world, we shall find that men, whose consciousness of their own merit sets them above the compliances of servility, are apt enough in their association with superiors to watch their own dignity with troublesome and punctilious jealousy, and in the fervour of independence to exact that attention which they refuse to pay” (Life of Gray); and, more equivocally, Edmund Burke: "I was, indeed, aware that a jealous, ever-waking vigilance to guard the treasure of our liberty, not only from invasion, but from decay and corruption, was our best wisdom and our first duty. However, I considered that treasure rather as possession to be secured [i.e., by “us,” the jealous] than as a prize to be contended for [presumably in a contest between “us,” the envious unfree, and “them,” the jealous free]." (Reflections on the Revolution in France).

The jealous man, then, may be likened to a miser; while the envious man is more akin to an aspirant thief. Admittedly, there is probably no native lexicographical precedent for drawing such a hard-and-fast distinction, inasmuch as our dictionaries all seem to treat jealous and jealousy as one-way synonymic ports-of-call for envious and envy, respectively (such that, according to their rules, although a jealous husband is ineligible for re-qualification as an envious one, a envious subordinate is effectively interchangeable with his jealous counterpart). All the same, inasmuch as these two words--or, rather, pairs of words--are, like many others deriving from the Latin, marked by a history that both informs and transcends the limits of current and recent usage, there is some benefit to be derived, albeit passively, from being attuned to this history and to the denotative limits potentially imposed thereby.

Late means "recently dead," not merely "dead." Thus, while as of this May 17, 2006 we may and indeed ought to speak of the late Louis Rukeyser (obit. May 2, 2006) we are clearly not within our rights to speak of the late John Lennon, let alone of the late John F. Kennedy or the late Buddy Holly. Exemptions may be granted for nonagenarians vis-a-vis Franklin Roosevelt and widows vis-a-vis their late husbands.

A ménage à trois is a living arrangment, not a sex act. A mélange à trois, on the other hand...

...And speaking of the word mélange, a lot of people seem to be using pastiche as a synonym for it nowadays. A pastiche, let us not forget, is and in English can never be anything other than, an essay in the imitation of the style or idiom of a specific author, composer, etc.--often, but not necessarily, satiric in intent (whence its utility as an alternative to parody). And speaking of pastiches and parodic intent--there really ought to be a word for a literary genre that, while aiming to embody a particular form of writing, cannot help being mistaken for an example of another form altogether. For in casting a retrospective eye over this here glossary, such as it is, I can't help being reminded of those local-society gossip columnists who string their anecdotes together with shamelessly paratactic nonsequiturs and bold every occurrence of a Proper Name. Does anyone know if there's a word for the form of culinary presentation in which, say, a canteloupe-and-pear salad is made to masquerade as a plate of bacon and eggs? If there is, I would fain poach it.

Sequence of Tenses: The Willful Flouting Thereof. “Whatever composer [Glenn Gould] championed, from whatever century, had a pronounced contrapuntal bent, and with composers about whom he was ambivalent he gravitated to their most contrapuntal essays—Mozart’s K. 394 fugue, Beethoven’s Große Fuge. Even Verdi’s Falstaff was tolerable because it has a fugue at the end” (Kevin Bazzana, Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould [Oxford, 2004], p. 92). Skewed me, Dr. Bazzana. Far be it from me to etc. etc., but shouldn’t that there has in the because clause be a had?; not that I’m contending at the moment that Falstaff hasn’t got a fugue at the end (I’ll save that contention for my forthcoming Glossary of Specifically Musicological Solecisms and Barbarisms [viz. the entry headed “Fugue for Fugato”), but rather and merely that the fact that it has got one now (i.e., in your case, 2004) could not have been of the slightest interest to Glenn Gould then (i.e., in his case, 1982 at the latest). It could not have been of the slightest interest to him because, like every other facet of your present-day ontic universe and, indeed, that ontic universe as a whole, it did not exist for him. Vis-à-vis the registration of Mr. Gould’s predilection for counterpoint, you might as well have written, “Even Verdi’s Falstaff was tolerable because in 2004 it would still have a fugue at the end.” “Ah, I see,” you say: “You mean because for all Gould knew, in the meantime someone might discover a manuscript of Falstaff without a fugue at the end?” No, it's got nothing to do with that sort of a posteriori counterfactualism; for, indeed, the interdiction on the present tense in past-tense reportage by all rights ought to extend to references to references to the most unshakeably permanent a priori and analytical truths, as in the following passage (devised by me and bearing no known relation to any facet of GG's biography): “Gould always gravitated to compositions with prime opus or catalogue numbers. Even Beethoven’s Opus 17 sonata for piano and French horn or cello, which one would have expected him to despise on strictly musical grounds, delighted him no end because 17 was a prime number.”

Turn of the last century. An absolutely nonsensical turn of phrase that willfully shoehorns “turn” into an absurdly unprecedented synonym for “beginning.” The turn in question in fact properly denotes the transition from one century into another (cf. “the changing of the guard”), and hence cannot be regarded as the exclusive property of either centennial participant in the transition. For heaven’s sake, let us, the exact contemporaries of this most recent turn, remember that one can speak, either idiomatically or notionally, only of “the turn of the century”--a phrase axiomatically employable solely by those whose memory of a preceding century is so dim—or, indeed, even nonexistent—that they have come to regard the period of its transition into the present one as an age in its own right, cordoned off from their own by stratum upon stratum of techno-socio-culturo-econo-logical ephemera; let us, further, agree to keep this phrase securely mothballed until such time when—touch wood--we find ourselves rubbing shoulders with the trans-centennial pseudo-contemporaries of the flappers and speakeasy-istes (i.e., the youth of circa 2025).

Thursday, August 14, 2008

From Bosley's Cyclopædia of Musical Anecdotes

Everybody knows that Jacques Offenbach wasn’t originally surnamed Offenbach, but few know the story behind his assumption of his famous nom de plume. It is as follows: In the early months of 1832, the young Jacques Eberst, then a promising if somewhat post-aurally humid violoncellist newly arrived in Paris, sought private tuition from the celebrated Yankee ’cello virtuoso Franklin van Vleet (father of the soon to be-even more celebrated double-bass virtuoso, van Buren van Vleet), then vleetingly—erm, fleetingly-- resident in the French capital. For Jacques’s first exercise, van Vleet assigned him the Prelude to J. S. Bach’s G Major solo ’cello suite. Now, it would be putting it very… how do you say?...charitably to say that in those days BWVs 1007 through 1012 were not held in particularly high esteem by either amateur or professional musicians; indeed, the most popular performing version of the suites was then Breitkopf & Härtel’s so-called double-duty edition, issued on rolls of perforated tissue paper with the aim of “facilitating the infant ’cellist’s elementary bowing and wiping techniques simultaneously.” Hence, it was only natural that young Eberst should, as it were, preemptively read between the scored lines of this assignment; that he should see in it an invitation to virtual co-compositiorial embellishment rather than as an exercise in mere interpretation. Little did he know what a staunchly cross-grained advocate of the Boss's recorded intentions he had met with in Mynheer--erm Mr.--van Vleet. So, anyway, young Eberst shows up for lesson number two, with liberally marked-up score in hand, and sits down to render unto his teacher not so much a straight performance of BWV 1007 I as a performance thereof with running commentary; for atop the familiar quaver arpeggios he has seen fit to lay out a lyrical legato melody composed of a languid succession of crotchets and semibreves--in short, a sort of Gounodian Ave Maria avant la lettre.

Van Vleet, suffice it to say, would have none of this. By bar five his legendarily short fuse was at its breaking point [sic]. Extracting his signature Emporia cheroot from betwixt his manifestly clenched bicuspids and stubbing it out in his equally signature Sèvres ashtray of exquisite Polish [sic] craftsmanship, he splutteringly ejaculated (in English),
“Cut...I say, cut...I say, cut that out now, son! There’s no call to jack off in Bach.” And the rest, as they say, is [makes farting noises in lieu of asterisks].

From Guisepe [sic] Verdini, Mya Life ina ze Muzic (Buenos Aires, 1896)

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Constellation No. 4

Judge, Sir, of my surprise when I found that a very great proportion
of the assembly (a majority,I believe, of the members who attended)
was composed of practitioners in the law.  It was composed, not of
distinguished magistrates, who had given pledges to their country of
their science, prudence, and integrity; not of leading advocates,
the glory of the bar; not of renowned professors in the
universities;--but for the far greater part, as it must in such a
number, of the inferior, unlearned, mechanical, merely instrumental
members of the profession.  There were distinguished exceptions, but
the general composition was of obscure provincial advocates, of
stewards of petty local jurisdictions, country attornies, notaries,
and the whole train of the ministers of municipal litigation, the
fomentors and conductors of the petty war of village vexation.


Who could flatter himself that these men, suddenly and ,as it were,
by enchantment snatched from the humblest rank of subordination,
would not be intoxicated with their unprepared greatness?  Who
could conceive that men who are habitually meddling,daring, subtle,
active, of litigious dispositions and unquiet minds would easily
fall back into their old condition of obscure contention and
laborious, low, unprofitable chicane?  Who could doubt but that, at
any expense to the state, of which they understood nothing, they
must pursue their private interests, which they understood but too
well?  It was not an event depending on chance or contingency.  It
was inevitable; it was necessary; it was planted in the nature of
things.  They must join (if their capacity did not permit them to 
lead) in any project which could procure to them a litigious
constitution; which could lay open to them those innumerable
lucrative jobs which follow in the train of all great convulsions
and revolutions in the state, and particularly in all great
and violent permutations of property.  Was it to be expected that
they would attend to the stability of property, whose existence
had always depended upon whatever rendered property questionable,
ambiguous, and insecure?  Their objects would be enlarged with
their elevation, but their disposition and habits, and mode of
accomplishing their designs, must remain the same.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

Under the pretext of founding a benevolent association, the
slum-proletariat of Paris was organized into secret sections,
each section led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist
General at the head of all. Along with ruined roués of
questionable means of support and questionable
antecedents, along with the foul and adventures-seeking
dregs of the bourgeoisie, there were vagabonds, dismissed
soldiers, discharged convicts, runaway galley slaves,
sharpers, jugglers, lazzaroni, pickpockets, sleight-of-hand
performers, gamblers, procurers, keepers of disorderly
houses, porters, literati, organ grinders, rag pickers,
scissors grinders, tinkers, beggars--in short, that whole
undefined, dissolute, kicked-about mass that the Frenchmen
style "la Bohéme." With this kindred element, Bonaparte
formed the stock of the "Society of December 10," a
"benevolent association" in so far as, like Bonaparte
himself, all its members felt the need of being benevolent to
themselves at the expense of the toiling nation. 
The Bonaparte, who here constitutes himself
Chief of the Slum-Proletariat; who only here finds again in
plenteous form the interests which he
personally pursues; who, in this refuse, offal and wreck of
all classes, recognizes the only
class upon which he can depend unconditionally;--this is
the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte without qualification. An
old and crafty roué, he looks upon the historic life of
nations, upon their great and public acts, as comedies in
the ordinary sense, as a carnival, where the great costumes,
words and postures serve only as masks for the pettiest

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

Saturday, August 02, 2008

A Translation of the transcript of Monologe auf Mallorca (Thomas Bernhard interviewed by Krista Fleischmann in 1981)

Thomas Bernhard
A Provocation--Monologues at Mallorca

I have never had a model or ever desired one. I have always only wanted to be myself and have only ever written as I myself have thought.

1. Mallorca
Mallorca in and of itself doesn't interest me at all. Because it's a country, an island that's like home too. Because of the atmosphere of the city, the harbor, the sea, what I need in order to work. Because I can only work where the climate is healthy for me and here I have both, right? The possibility of tending to my lungs, and of using my brain to make what is to be made out of whatever originates there. And my duty, to myself and to everyone else, is somehow to fetch something out of my head, in other words, to write books, or just string sentences together, thoughts--and they just come better here than up north, right? When I get a kink in my head in Austria then I just come down here--and that's ideal.
And then as far as work goes it's of immeasurable importance, for me at least, of course everyone's different, to be in a country where you don't understand the language, because you have the feeling that people are only saying pleasant things and only speaking on truly important philosophical subjects. And if you understand the language they're simply talking bullshit. And so in Spain bullshit becomes philosophical for me.
At bottom I really only write from the bottom, because a lot of things are unpleasant. Because if everything were pleasant then I probably couldn't write at all. Then nobody would write. You really can't write from a pleasant situation. Besides, you'd be an idiot to write if everything were pleasant, because you pretty much have to surrender to what's pleasant, right? You really are obligated to take advantage of it. And if you're in a pleasant mood and sit down at your desk, then that pleasant mood actually starts to self-destruct. And why should I let it self-destruct? I could even imagine myself living an entire lifetime only in a pleasant mood and not writing anything at all. But since, as [I] said, a pleasant mood only exists by the hour or for only a short time, you always come back to writing.

2. Philosophy

You don't need to worry about your anger towards your fellow men, because most of the time you are indeed annoyed by them. When you're in a coffeehouse and it's quite pleasant, at the end you have to settle up, and basically you're already angry about that in a way--because--why, actually? And when you're crossing the street and a car comes along, you get angry. Why does this car of all things come along when I'm crossing the street? You don't even need to worry about anger at all. It happens! At the moment I'm not angry at all. It's already getting a bit spooky, because there's no anger on the horizon.

How are you feeling at the moment?

It's splashing [only so]...Extremely content, I must say. The water's splashing, the sun is shining. Simple Spaniards and Englishmen who can't be understood. An ideal constellation, but it won't last long. All of a sudden some sort of flash of lightning leads you back to the whole and ruins everything.

I have a totally normal approach to life, like all other normal people too, probably, right? It isn't simply negative, but it's not exactly positive, right? Because you really do encounter everything uninterruptedly. That adds up to a life. [To say it's all negative is of course nonsense. ] But there are people who want to see it that way, to be sure.

It's really quite convenient that they say that so-and-so is a fool, right?--and all his life he's a fool, right? who will always figure as a fool, until the day he dies. And a certain other person is a lyrical, exalted writer from his twentieth year onward, and likewise remains one until the day he dies. And that's the starting point for the critics and the people you deal with, [and generally can't get rid of]. And another person writes some Punch and Judy plays, whether they're stupid or not is again of course another question, or no question at all, and he remains Punch for life.
And I'm probably the Negative Writer for life, but I must say, I feel quite comfortable in the role, because it doesn't irritate me in the slightest. Because people say I'm a negative writer and at the same time I'm a positive human being. And so nothing can happen to me, or[...]? Is this a dangerous position? I don't know. I find it all quite pleasant. Above all, when I'm far from home.

Of course, comic material always has to do with something missing, right?--with a deficiency, right? Some sort of spiritual or physical defect, right? You laugh at a clown, say he's completely normal, no one laughs, right? He has to walk with a limp, or be one-eyed, or fall over every third step, or his ass explodes and shoots out a candle or whatever, right? People laugh at that sort of thing, always at deficiencies, and at horrible afflictions. What else has anyone ever laughed at, really? Or some ancient, on-stage grandmother repeats herself every third sentence and is constantly saying "My [Eineizwilling]" or something of that kind, then people laugh. But of course no one in the world has ever laughed at completely normal, so-called normal people. As for laughing on your own, you only do that when you pinch yourself or whatever? Then you laugh up a storm. When my grandmother burned herself on one of her plates in the kitchen, I laughed like crazy, right? And when a week passed without, when a laugh-free week elapsed in our house, it was somehow completely boring. And when it got too boring for me, I would go into the broom cupboard, there was a curtain there, where the brooms were standing, and if I wanted, now my grandmother comes along, I would let my hand fall out from behind [the curtain], she--with a terrible scream, right?--would practically fall over dead of a stroke, because I frightened her. As a child. Because I was bored. But there are always afflictions and horrors.

Do you want to make people laugh?

No, but that happens automatically. I don't need to trouble myself about that. I myself sometimes actually burst out laughing, right? I think to myself I’ve actually made myself laugh. But sometimes people feel—when I burst out laughing, right?—already while I’m writing, or also when I’m reading Correction afterwards, then I do actually laugh out loud, and they don’t find it any great laughing matter, and I really don’t understand that, right? For example, if you read Frost, I’ve always produced plenty of comic material. It’s actually a side-splitting laugh every second. But I don’t know, do people just not have a sense of humor or what, I don’t know? It’s always made me laugh. It still makes me laugh today. If I’m bored or I’m going through some tragic period, then I open one of my own books and that makes me laugh. Or don’t you understand that it’s that way?

I mean that isn’t to say I haven’t also occasionally written serious sentences to make the comical sentences hold together. That’s the glue, seriousness is the glue of the comic project. Now naturally you can also say that this is a philosophically comic project that I somehow or other concocted more than 20 years ago, when I started writing.

Naturally a dry, a purely serious philosophy isn’t funny, is actually just terribly boring. But in Schopenhauer’s company I can also laugh. The glummer he is, the funnier he is. But people take it all so tragically seriously. But how seriously can you take a man who’s married to a poodle. From the outset you just can’t take him seriously. He’s a comic-cum-philosopher. These are the great historical jesters. Schopenhauer, Kant, hence, the most serious of all in the end. Pascal ranks among them too, in his own catholic, mysterious, religious way.

These really are the great comic philosophers. And the lesser ones, the second category, they’re all basically boring, because they just chew the cud that these jester-philosophers have written out for them. And I don’t read them anyway, because if I read anything, I only read the great ones. But it takes a long time for you to slowly figure out what’s great and what’s not so great. You really need a decade for that. No one ever tells you that.

Because in school everything’s categorized in the same way, right? There’s a lumping together of the philosophers, right? They all line up there like a group of package tourists or an army. There are, of course, thousands and hundreds of thousands of philosophers. And, of course, you have to pick out the greatest on your own. And, of course, nobody helps you out. But if you’re a kind of philosophical vulture, as I was quite early on, then you know which of them to pick out. And Kant and Schopenhauer are among those, because of their insane laughableness. Don’t you think so?
3. Innocence

I really only write about inner landscapes and most people don’t see them, because they invariably see almost nothing within, because they think that because it’s inside, it’s dark, and then they don’t see anything. I don’t think I’ve ever, in any of my books, described a landscape. There's really nothing of the kind in any of them. I only ever write concepts. And so it's always about the "ocean" or "mountains" or "a city" or "streets." But as to how they look, I haven't, I believe I haven't, ever described that. I've never produced a description of a landscape. That's never even interested me.

I observe uninterruptedly, when I'm not asleep, even when I am asleep I'm observing. Because a human being really does observe more intensively when he's asleep than when he's awake, in other words, in a dream, or in whatever gets called a dream. And during any given moment when a human being isn't observing, there's pretty much nothing.

I think I was already in school when it occurred to me that everybody actually does have a father, right? I didn’t even get as far as knowing that. In the first place, I never even knew I had a father, because no such person ever materialized. It was neither talked about, nor was any such person present, right? And it wasn’t even allowed to be talked about. And then I thought to myself, I have no organs like the other people who were around me, I never gave any thought to [boys versus girls], that was different anyhow.

And I can still precisely recall how my best friend in those days, he was, I guess, seven or eight years old; I always used to play with him, he was the child next door, Fakler Gusti was his name, Fakler is a Bavarian name, this was in Traunstein. He’s…within a couple of days he was dead: I mean of appendicitis. And then I thought to myself, my God, poor Fakler Gusti, who has to die because he had appendicitis, which I can never have, because I haven’t got an appendix, probably. I always thought that I simply didn’t have whatever can make you die, probably. And so why, and from what, could I die? And so I felt pretty lucky. I think I was already ten years old when it occurred to me that I also have organs that can make you die. And so the idea was, there’s no father and no organs and on the whole nothing near me that’s mortal. I think that was one of my main assumptions for years, I mean for many years. Until roughly the age of twenty. No, not until twenty, because by then I was already deathly ill. If not until then, then until when? Until fifteen, sixteen, right? All right, then, it was then that it occurred to me that “No, no, my dear fellow, you too, right?, you, too, can go the way of all flesh. And death can stretch out his hand toward you and take hold of you at his pleasure, right?" It really was then that I first realized that. But I think that at 14 or 15 I pretty much had no inkling. I didn't know either what breathing was, [or] what lungs were. I pretty much didn't perceive myself physically. Like all healthy children, I imagine. They just don't notice things at all, that's the way it is.

And sexuality?

And sexuality, that this corporeality first first emerges with, to be sure, it's pleasure afterwards, of course, and beforehand, of course, it's simply a feeling of suspense. Sexuality was for me in this respect greatly curtailed, because at the moment when it was first up and moving, right?--and I somehow noticed that, "Aha!, there are these mysterious forces that suddenly carry you along, to specific objects, right?"--then I really did become deathly ill. And so for many years, and starting very early on, it was very much dammed up and curtailed, right? Which is really a shame because at precisely the time when sexuality probably has the greatest allure, namely at its quote-unquote "awakening"--and when "your cock [Schwanzerl] is up and moving" as we say in German, well, then I was in the hospital. Then everything pretty much tapered off, more or less--and I was bedridden indoors and it was simply neutralized. And when I got out I was at first tired and a bit weak. OK, right?--so between the ages of 20 and 30, I imagine, it was entirely regular and normal in that department. Even with great pleasure, with all the ups and downs they talk about in words and images. You [/they] don't need to feel embarrassed about this. At the seaside nobody is embarrassed about anything. Or are you [/they] feeling ashamed? Well, anyhow, look, that kind of thing is all nonsense.

Well, I mean, now and then you certainly felt ashamed, and yet afterwards you think why, really, did you feel that way? It always balances out once again. But you certainly have felt that way plenty of times, right? Because you do unfairly by other people and whatnot. Sooner this shame a sexual shame or whatever else would be utter nonsense. Because to be ashamed of nature, which is as normal a thing as there is, would be an outright absurdity. Although everywhere it’s repressed. [Whenever] they look away [they] are simple people who are ashamed, or feel ashamed, as it’s so nicely phrased. And at bottom everyone goes running around as half portions, because they don’t make the most of their lives. They see it here too. These people are all sitting for a spell, instead of circulating amongst each other and saying, “What do you really want to last?” and--they’re actually disturbing our afternoon peace. They’re an assemblage of "cowards."

4. Perspectives

It’s all a matter of perspective. Everyone has another one. Thank God. And you yourself always have the right one. Even when other people consistently maintain the opposite one. For you your own perspective is always the right one. But other people always make you have doubts. And then you abandon your perspective and then you’re finished. At least in cases where you’ve abandoned it. But why, really, do you abandon it?

In the final analysis, it’s all a swindle. A gigantic one, to put it exaggeratedly. But everybody, as long as they live, feels like they’re in clover in the middle of this swindle, right? That’s how you see yourself, right? You [aneckt] every day in some sort of swindle. Whether it’s a landlord or in a coffeehouse or at the seaside or in the mountains. At bottom everything is a swindle and a self-swindle. But really marvelous. Without the swindle everything would collapse and would cease to exist. The world as a whole is really just one big swindle, right?—and the kingdom of heaven is yet another one, and hell is yet another one. So, you see, there’s a swindle above and below, and a swindle where you live, namely the earth. And when you die, that’s also a swindle. I [have], by the way, still never [been to] a cemetery [here]. Would you like to go with me to a cemetery, in Palma?

I’ve always believed in heaven. Since I was a child. The older I got, the more I believed in it. Because heaven is what’s especially beautiful. Because there people always have on freshly washed clothes. There’s no dirt, right?—there’s no chemical industry, no sanitation, because from the start everything is clean and pure. And everything is light and floating. I’m already looking forward to it. You’re completely weightless, you soar along above everything. No philosophy can swindle you anymore, or outwit you. Heaven is the ideal. So, you see, I’m one of the few people who actually believe in heaven. I don’t believe in hell. It’s too dirty, too hot, too black, too ghastly, and heaven is none of those things!

The cemetery was really quite beautiful. Naturally, you can only think of it that way if you’re not lying there yourself. More paper rustles there than in the literary world. But a literary season really is nothing but the opening of a new cemetery. When a hundred thousand new publications are put on display in Frankfurt, it’s like a hundred thousand newly-opened graves, with paper wreaths, everything rustles there. It can’t be helped.

The ladies are talking about fish soup. I’ve always been absolutely horrified by fish soup. And seafood [in general], it’s all a horror. You can’t eat any of that anymore nowadays. It’s all poisoned.

Lettuce salad, mixed grilled. None of that sounds like anything you’d embrace.

So you do have something to embrace?

I have nothing to embrace literally, with my arms.

Love is everything. Love is capable of everything. Because everything that exists in the world can be loved by someone. And so love comprises everything. Next to the word truth it’s something completely different, and that’s not exactly OK. You can’t write a description of love. You can’t write a report on love. You can only write the word love, but you can’t write a description of love. It really is a very simple statement. They just don’t know how to describe love. Not even in cheap romantic films, where love isn’t described at all, but only kitschified. When you describe love, it’s a kitschification. Because love is everything, practically, right? When I look at you, it’s love, right? When I look away from you, it’s love also. When I look at the tree, it’s love, right?

5. Religion

I am very religious, but without any beliefs. In any case, religion has no connection to belief. That’s only the case in proper religions with official charters. In officially chartered religions, they have dealings with belief. But I’ve found it to be absolutely unnecessary. I have no need to be called up as a number. There’s your licensed Lord Thy God for you, right? There's absolutely no need for it. When I was a young boy and a catholic, everyone went to communion, and especially to confession. And every time I entered the confessional box I would go in my pants. Out of panic, in the presence of Almighty God, because I thought, "He sees everything right now and is observing what's going on here." And I was afraid in the presence of the sacred. And every time I knelt down I was already wet all over. And then I was terribly embarrassed because naturally all around me there was, to be sure, an enormous amount of laughter. And then I thought, "This is for God's sake, for God who is now behind me, who sees what this dreadful event has set in motion." All of that had repercussions. Inasmuch as I was supposed to go very far thanks to the church, but, unfortunately, I couldn't, because it was too pee-shy to get me there. It has a human life on its conscience. The church, logically, has its confession booth to thank for having made me go pee. These are dreadful repercussions indeed. The threat of hell and all that to a young child. I’m very grateful, the earlier you’re confronted with abominations, the better it is for you, no? Because you arm yourself, so to speak. You get stronger and stronger. Wherever you get a thrashing you’re stronger afterwards. Scars don’t tear [anymore]. It’s all very much to the good.

Childhood is not only perpetually intimidating, but also [perpetual] intimidation. Children intimidate parents much more than parents [intimidate] children, because children are much more cunning than parents. Parents, even young parents, are pretty much already ossified because the process of ossification begins at twenty. Children are completely raw, they have these veins, and there are no blockages in them, and everything flows through them, and throughout them, like magic. That’s why children see much clearer. Adults live only in their imaginations and children live for real, that’s the difference. Beginning at twenty you live for the most part only in your imagination. You actually live only from books, from what you’ve learned, what’s been told to you. At bottom, people over twenty live from literature, for the most part no longer from reality.

Where there’s power, corruption flourishes, logically. This is why people who have power are once again deprived of their power as quickly as possible. At the moment when they establish themselves it’s like ivy on a tree. A creeping vine. And if you picture to yourself the state as a tree, that isn’t the sort of government that fosters growth; rather, it stifles it. It’s like that everywhere. Even in a country like ours the individualists are either completely isolated and hence pulverized and rendered harmless, [or declared to] the norm, and you’re free of them. Whether black or red, politicians are always the same riff-raff. Unmusical, businesslike, always abominable, in fact. They only work with hypocrisy, just like the church. And every small-time politician from his churchgoing childhood Sundays onward shows how much you need to go in order to go far. Because every small-town priest demonstrates this to his congregation, when he’s playing the hypocrite to the hilt and acting all sanctimonious, hence outright falsehood and sanctimoniousness: that was what I was first confronted with in church. With histrionics. Maybe it’s not such a negative thing. People need it, so maybe it’s of some use after all. There are indeed millions who are completely helpless without church. It’s like tearing pornographic magazines out of the hands of young people when you confiscate prayer books from the elderly. The way that young people look at naked women and men, old people look at Christ on the Cross. [Who’s] also a centerfold of sorts. One that's lasted for the longest time, up until the present, and with the hugest circulation. My first confrontation with sanctimoniousness was in church, as a child. And every couple of years, I go into a church. But whether because of faith, or because of religious reasons, or just because everything in general is interesting to me, what's going on in there leads me on. So I go into the church, to see what's going on in church.

6. Pope Thomas I

I'd like to be pope. I'd automatically say yes to that. But I worry that there won't be another pope in my lifetime. "Poet" titles are completely out of the question for me. Neither the Duke of Poetry nor the Count of Poetry nor the Baron of Poetry, nor a Poet Plain and Grandly Simple, none of those matter. No--I want to be a proper pope, the true pope. Has there ever actually been a Pope Thomas? No? Then I'll just stick to my own first name: Pope Thomas I.
And the the papal palace, which has always greatly impressed me, is a very simple, building, quite musty up to the second story, hence quite idiotically constructed. And at the back of the palace lives a carpenter. Really! Who doesn’t live there but in a house added directly on to Castle Gandolfo. I always used to think that is isolated and [into the bargain/on purpose] there is the church naturally very [refined/cunning] there the carpenter has his house. And there are hanging, as I was walking by, 15 years ago or something like that, John might still have been [pope] then, downstairs the pope’s underpants were hanging on a clothesline. Behind that was a little railing where the carpenter had hung the carpenter’s underpants. Even underpants, because it’s a very raw climate there, and so they wear long underpants even in the fall. And that made a tremendous impression on me, that the underpants of the pope and of the little carpenter of Castle Gandolfo, who was probably the coffin-maker there, that they were fluttering in the breeze right next to each other. Then I thought that the church, if you take a closer look at it, has always been unrivalled in point of sheer finesse. Which here they’ve put into effect once again. On the one hand [they’re] aristocratic, aloof, grandiose, stately, and yet again they’re [always] pulling in everything they can get on any kind of familiar terms with, completely consciously, in architecture also, as in this case.

The pope and the carpenter. There’s an opera, Czar and Carpenter. A sequel could be written to it. The Pope and the Carpenter, and in the first act, when the curtain rises, the underpants of the pope and of the carpenter are fluttering in the sunshine.

Everything that’s in the world is really a play, right? The pope is really also a great actor. Independent of the fact that he’s committed a vulgar play to memory, he’s also one of the greatest interpreters. The pope and Ronald Reagan and Brezhnev, it’s the same with Bronner, Farkas, and Wehle on a lower level, but at bottom it’s all a kind of cabaret that occasionally degenerates into great theater. But then, insufferably, it occasionally has to shrink [back] down into a cabaret. And there the high and mighty act very nicely as an ensemble. Today it’s Carter, Reagan and Woytila and then it was Il Duce and Hitler and Franco. Every age has its various leading actors. And then once in a while Eva Peron or whoever comes along. The same with Liz Taylor on the world stage. That’s no different either. It’s not for nothing that they call it a world stage, this thing that makes absolutely no sense. It’s all one big theater. Then the villain Khomeni—from stage right, right?—enters. And little Kreisky from downstage, who says, “The horses are saddled.” But it’s all very amusing.

Your role?

Well, of course I don’t appear at all onstage in the theater of the world. So [my role is] somewhere up above, at the gridiron. You can’t even raise one of the backcloths on your own, but millions or billions of people are pulling on it, right? And so somehow or other the background changes. But this pair of characters in front of it keep performing their parlor drama. And Dignity Personified is portrayed by the pope, right?—with his white gown. And the undetectables [i.e., extras?--DR]—most of them come from the East. And so the Red, the Darks, the Frightened, no? There’s Brezhnev for the time being, already badly beaten up by old age. Then somehow or other the clowns. Everything that exists. So Helmut Schmidt’s one of them, or isn’t he? Next, it’s [the hero’s] boon companions, young comrades who enter, [his] fat cousins. It’s a version of the Everyman play. And the stage is so smooth and round, like the globe. At bottom, when you open up a newspaper, you see the play. That’s why newspapers are so marvelous, the curtain rises every day in them.

7. All Theater

The main reason why I don’t go to the theater, [is] because most ladies who sit near you have hairspray in their hair, and when that mixes with sweat it’s unbearable within a four or five square-meter radius. You simply can’t put up with that for two hours. And Bayreuth, which lasts for six or seven hours, is altogether unbearable, right? Because they all spray themselves with this stuff, and on top of that in the theater you’ve got the vapor of the footlights and the dryness. It’s an incredible stench, genuinely unbearable. The more feathered-up the hairdos at the theater are, the more intolerable theater-going is.
Only in Vienna are there no scourges [i.e., hostile theater-goers or critics?--DR]! It’s because the actors in Vienna are unused to scourges that they’re so bad, right? You only have to go into the theater in Vienna, only retirees act there. At thirty they're already claiming a retirement pension. And the young actors are actually already retirees. Not on the beach at Mallorca but at Ringstrasse Beach, that’s where they act on the stage of the Burgtheater. Even the youngest little girls and boys. Very talented, but unfortunately they already have the retiree’s gait, and they know exactly what they’ve got to get hold of in numerical terms, because even the stage actors’ union stands behind them. And thus [they] put on the worst theater in the world.

Isn't that a bit of an exaggeration?

A prejudice, even. You see, that's the way it is! It's all exaggeration. But without exaggeration you can't say a single thing. Because even if you simply raise your voice, it's an exaggeration, because what are you raising your voice for? If you say anything whatsoever, it's already an exaggeration. Even if you simply say, "I don't want to exaggerate," it's still an exaggeration.

I always beat time down there with my toes when I'm speaking up here. Haven't you ever noticed? Naturally, you can hardly keep your mind on your foot and your mouth at the same time. For me [the one] is perfectly contrapuntal to [the other]. I have to do this, because I'm a musical person. I beat time to everything I say, my time with my feet. You simply can't do this when you're lying in an operating room and strapped down, right? But you're also not so talkative there. Haven't you heard it? The time-beating down under? All right, I have to be musical. I've already said that. When I can hardly speak a word, without giving time with my toes, I have to be musical. It’s become part and parcel not only of my flesh and blood, but also of my hand and foot, right? I do it with my thumbs as well. But that’s a quirk of mine [.] Look: ‘Ei’ is always with the thumbs apart, [for] ‘O’ I close [them]. You learn that in your foreign language classes. O—that goes down, ‘Ei’ and ‘I’ is up. But you don’t see what the foot’s doing with that. It’s holding the whole thing together. The same way with everything I say…has something symphonic about it: always. Don’t you think so?
Supposedly everybody dies with music in their heads, I once heard. When everything’s gone for good, mind, people, memories, there’s always still music. And when a person’s clinically dead—[it’s even been] proved, you know what that means, “clinically dead”?—there’s still music in him. First and foremost the maggots come then and keep the music going. They come first into the corner of the eye. How many players there are in that orchestra!—on this person who’s already been dead how long, right? Because the first maggot hops in there, into the corner of the eye, already at the first second of death. But it can’t precisely be ascertained whether [it’s] the left or the right one. And that’s the crux of the problem for the coroner, because they’re still quarrelling today about that, about whether the first maggot springs into the left or the right corner of the eye. And there are symposia on it, that’s very fashionable nowadays, there are these Symposia on the Corner of the Eye.
I’ve been trying the whole time to be serious. Since I’ve been [here], for 14 days I’ve been trying to be genuinely serious. And in fact I am serious. I’m totally serious, actually. The totality of seriousness. But you look at me like that, and somehow my seriousness…slips into unseriousness. So I suffer, right? Because I’m only happy when I’m serious. But this happiness, in fact my greatest, right?—you follow me, right? Only with your Palma-glance, right? I love seriousness. Not the serious master, but seriousness as master. An Austrian master, not the German master. Again, it’s death. It’s always the shadow of death that always accompanies me, and I love it because it guarantees me seriousness, right? Death for me is like a train. One that I pull behind me whenever I’m walking. That is to say, I don’t pull it, it clings to me, and I draw it along behind me. Unfortunately, again, that’s not serious. You rob me of my seriousness.
I generally don’t think about death, but death is constantly thinking about me. When should I carry him home [/will I be carried home]? That’s of course from an entirely different perspective. But I go home so unwillingly. To go home is the same thing as to die, and so to be dead [Totsein] is to be at home, to be dead [tot sein]. Pascal has already said this. When you’re at home, you’re dead. Eternal rest, eternal at-homeness, is death. That’s why I travel home so unwillingly. Because I have the feeling that when I get home, he’ll be standing there with his black hand, and I enter the doorway and I always see him, when I enter the doorway at my house, this hand of Curd Jürgens. That’s an actor, you know him. Death in Salzburg with those skeleton fingers. And I enter and then, “Cr-r-r-a-a-ck!” I feel this constant pressure here. Because of that I also have, if you look closely, a sunken shoulder here, because of this pressure of death. It can’t be taken away from me, or operated away either, at bottom. It’s my fear, which sits on my right shoulder. Like the bird of death, which has taken a permanent perch there. What I meant [can] also be put very seriously. If you simply say “death” instead of “bird of death.” Meager concepts that you can [reduce] with a single word to a cup of coffee, although, yet again, that’s not serious, right? Because if you can compare death to a cup of coffee, it’s again not entirely serious, although naturally you can compare everything to everything.
8. Truth
They’re absolutely right when they refer to a truth as a falsehood and when they refer to a falsehood as a truth, truth and falsehood really do play the leading role in the world’s law-court. And with their [i.e., philosophers’{?}] point of view they never get through it. A philosopher has nothing to testify before a court of law. Because for philosophers the judge is an envious little man, under a heavy—the cheapest possible, but still heavy—black cowl. And who hates everything apart from himself because everything depresses him. So they [i.e., philosophers {?}] don’t get very far. And if he has a sore throat, well then, they get an extra year; if he has a headache, they get two extra years; if he’s got cancer, they get a life sentence, because he’s so hopping mad. And if he’s in a good mood, then they get off with the minimum sentence. But because all judges are always in a bad mood, and I’ve never seen a judge in a good mood, it’s almost always the maximum sentence. Because they’re all suffering from cancer, because their wives are always putting it into their heads that “Just you wait and see, you’ll come down with cancer.” It’s the ruination of the world.
There really are only prejudices. My judgment can only be a pre-judgment. There are at bottom only prejudices, because even judges who pass incontestable sentences are at bottom only prejudices. A judgment is really no such thing. I mean, you’re continually passing judgment on people and circumstances as judgments, but they’re all only prejudices. Alas! Alas! Alas! And so you’re always prejudging the entire world, and it’s only a prejudice.
You can exchange everything. That’s the allure or the magnitude of nature. There’s drama there, there are generally people there, so that you aren’t fixed to [a certain] idea just because of upbringing and bad education and, above all, literature, but rather, nailed down to ideas. Everyone has nailed-down ideas in their brain and so they’re constantly raving at [/tearing through] their surroundings. That’s the real drama of the world, right? Writers are [especially] like this. Everywhere nails and ideas. Death, life, love, chastity, lechery [/lust], all of that. That’s the real drama. Here, some cross their fingers, and I hold my tongue.
Oh yes! I forgot about that. The immortal remains, naturally. I forgot about my immortality just now. That’s true. That sets my mind at rest, time and again, because I know I am, after all, immortal. Right?
And how!


Translation Unauthorized but © 2008 by Douglas Robertson

A Translation of "Don Juan" by E. T. A. Hoffmann

(For a PDF version of this translation, go to The Worldview Annex). 


A supernatural episode in the life of a traveling music lover

A piercing chime of bells; a resonant cry of "The spectacle is about to commence!" roused me from the gentle slumber into which I had sunk; contrabasses are chaotically rumbling--a stroke of a kettledrum--some trumpet blasts--a clear, sustained A delivered by an oboe--violins join in, tuning up: I rub my eyes. Had Satan, in his unflagging industry, seen fit to make my drunken self the butt of one of his jokes--? No! I find that I am in no other place than my room at the hotel I checked into, barely standing, last night. Directly above my nose is suspended the imposing tassel of the bell-rope; I give it a hefty tug, and the waiter appears.

"What in heaven's name is the meaning of this charivari next door? Is there a concert taking place on the premises?"

"Your Excellency"--I had drunk some of the house champagne at lunchtime--"Your Excellency is perhaps unaware that this hotel and the theater are one and the same establishment. This secret door gives on to a short passageway, from which you may proceed directly to No. 23: the visitor's box."

"What? A theater? A visitor's box?"

"Yes, the tiny visitor's box seating two--or, at most, three--persons, reserved for the use of distinguished gentlemen, wallpapered all in green, and with latticed windows, right next to the stage! Today, if it please your Excellency, we are presenting Don Giovanni by the illustrious Mozart of Vienna. The fee of a thaler and eight groschen will be added to your bill."

By the time he had finished speaking, he was already making way for me at the entrance to the box, so hastily had I stepped through the secret door and into the passageway on hearing the name Don Giovanni. The hall was quite spacious by small-town standards, tastefully decorated, and splendidly lit. The boxes and the pit were both packed. With the sounding of the first chords of the overture I knew that, thanks to a first-rate orchestra, I was guaranteed the fullest enjoyment of the masterpiece, however feeble the singing should prove to be. In the andante, I was overwhelmed by the torments of the infernal regno all pianto; blood-curdling premonitions of the horrors thereof pervaded my imagination. The jubilant fanfare in the seventh bar of the allegro sounded to me like a gleefully committed sacrilege: from out of the blackest night I discerned fiery demons stretching forth their glowing claws upwards towards the heedless mortals merrily dancing on the thin surface of a bottomless abyss. The conflict of human nature with those unknown diabolical forces that, in surrounding it, ultimately spell its ruin, was made manifest to me in its starkest clarity. At length the tempest subsides; the curtain rises. Chilly, disgruntled, huddled in his cloak, Leporello paces up and down in the gloom of night against the background of the pavilion. "Notte e giorno faticar"--What's this I'm hearing? Italian, in this provincial German town? Ah, che piacere! I shall hear everything, down to the last recitative, as it was received and re-conceived in the mind of the master! Now Don Giovanni comes rushing out, trailed by Donna Anna, clutching at the skirts of the malefactor's cloak. What a sight this is! To be sure, she ought to have been a bit taller, a bit thinner, a bit more majestic in her carriage; but what a face!--eyes that radiate love, rage, hate, and despair like the single focal point of a prism casting forth such inextinguishable sparks as sear the heart like Greek fire! Tresses of her dark, untied hair cascade in undulating curls along the nape of her neck. Her white nightgown perfidiously divulges no small number of irresistible charms to the spectator's prying eyes. One's heart fairly palpitates in violent protest against the enormity of the crime. And now (what a voice!): "Non sperar se non m'uccidi." Through the orchestral tempest her notes shine forth like incandescent lightning-bolts, like veritable shafts of ethereally molded quicksilver! In vain Don Giovanni tries to tear himself away from her. But does he really want to? Why does he not repel the woman with a mighty blow of his fist and make his escape? Has the evil deed rendered him impotent, or is it the struggle between love and hate that has deprived him of his courage and strength? Old Papa in his foolishness falls on his powerful adversary in the dark and pays for it with his life; Don Giovanni and Leporello, conversing in recitative, step forward to the proscenium. Don Giovanni shakes off his cloak and stands there splendidly attired in slashed scarlet velvet embroidered with silver. A powerful, majestic figure: the face is masculinely beautiful; a noble nose, piercing eyes, tenderly-shaped lips; the curious play of one of the forehead muscles over the eyebrows secondarily lends to the physiognomy a certain Mephistophelean quality--which quality, while not vitiating the beauty of the countenance in the slightest, elicits a thrill of involuntary horror. It is as if he is a past master of the magic art of the rattlesnake; as if women, once they have met his gaze, can no longer part with him and, spellbound by his uncanny power, must ineluctably achieve their own ruin. Tall and gaunt in his red and white-striped doublet, Leporello circles stumblingly around him. In the aggregate, Leporello's features evince a curious amalgam of bonhomie, roguishness, lubricity, and sarcastic impudence, just as his grizzled hair and beard stand out in curious contrast to his jet-black eyebrows. Plainly, one notes, this old boy is fully qualified to be Don Giovanni's trusty right-hand man. Luckily, they flee the scene just in time, over the wall...Torches. Donna Anna reappears with Don Ottavio: a dainty, squeaky-clean slip of a man aged, at most, twenty-one years. Inasmuch as he has been summoned hither so expeditiously, one surmises that, on account of his betrothal to Anna, he shares quarters with the family; the first audible signs of the commotion, which he undoubtedly heard, gave him more than enough time to dash outside and rescue the old man: he needed, however, to attend to his toilette beforehand; and, in any case, he generally prefers not to venture out of doors at night if it can be avoided.—“Ma qual mai s’offre, o dei, spettacolo funesto agli ochi miei!” Something more than mere despair over the enormity of the outrage itself inheres in the gruesome notes of this recitative and duet. It is not solely Don Giovanni’s cold-blooded murder—which, after all, portends nothing less than his inevitable destruction; and which, indeed, has already achieved nothing less than the death of the father--that wrests these notes from the anguished heart: such sounds as these can be elicited only by an all-consuming, do-or-die battle waged within the innermost depths of the soul.

Now Donna Elvira--tall and haggard yet evidently possessed of traces of great, albeit faded, beauty--resoundingly denounces the unfaithful Don thus: "Tu nido d'inganni," and the ever-sympathetic Leporello sagely observed of her: "Parla come un libro stampato," a remark I fancied I heard echoed by some other voice hailing from an indeterminable distance. It would have been all too easy for someone to slip in through the entrance of the box and creep up behind me--an interruption that would have been as fatal to my enjoyment as a stab in the heart. To my delighted relief, though, I discovered that I was, after all, still alone in the box, such that the myriad fibers of my sensorium could uninterruptedly continue, like the tentacles of a sea anemone, to seize hold of every particle of this most perfect realization of Mozart's masterpiece, and thereafter assimilate it to my being! A single word--quite apart from its-all-too-probable intrinsic inanity--would have served to tear me away, in the most grievous manner, from this glorious moment of poetic-cum-musical rapture! I thereupon resolved to take no notice of my neighbor; and, indeed, to absorb myself completely in the performance, and to ignore each and every extraneous word and glance. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see this selfsame neighbor, chin in hand, turning his back to me. The remainder of the performance proved more than a match for its superb beginning. The diminutive, concupiscent, love-sick Zerlina solaced that genial blockhead Masetto with suitably winsome notes and wiles. By way of therein evincing unalloyed contempt for the puny specimens of humanity whose feeble dreams and plans he had hijacked solely for the sake of his own pleasure, Don Giovanni unabashedly proclaimed the fundamentally chaotic essence of his character in the riotous aria "Fin ch'han dal vino"; throughout which aria, the twitching of his forehead muscle was more violently in evidence than it had been hitherto. Enter the masqueraders. Their trio is a prayer that radiates heavenward in lustrous beams of sound. Now the middle curtain rises. Everyone is having a high old time; glasses collide in resonant clinks, peasants mingle with an assortment of masked figures in one merry heap, all present having been lured hither by the Don's invitation to a party. Now the three conspirators resolve to seek their vengeance. The mood grows ever more festive, right on through to the commencement of the dance. Zerlina is rescued; and in the mighty, thunderous finale, Don Giovanni, with sword drawn, boldly confronts his adversaries. He strikes the bridegroom's steel dress sword out of his hand and forces his way through the vulgar rabble, throwing it into confusion as brave Roland did the army of the she-tyrant Cymork, sending everyone tumbling into and over each other in a most comical fashion, and thereby making his escape from the house.

Often enough I found myself wondering if I had not just felt a gentle breeze wafting against me from close behind, or if I had not just heard the rustle of a silk dress; which together allowed me to surmise the propinquity of a member of the Sex, but lost as I was in the poetic realm being divulged to me by the opera, I paid scant regard to the inference. But once the curtain had fallen, I took a look at my lady box-mate. No--no words can express my astonishment: Donna Anna, still clad head to toe in her costume, exactly as I had seen her on stage, was standing behind me and gazing directly at me with her piercing, soulful eyes. I felt the necessity of saying something to her, but for sheer astonishment--nay, terror--I could not move my tongue. At last--long last--the words escaped me almost involuntarily: "How is it possible to see you here?"; whereupon she immediately replied, in the most impeccable Tuscan accent, that if I could not speak Italian she would have to forgo the pleasure of my company, inasmuch as she, for her part, could speak no language but that one. The sweet words sounded like singing. Her speech imparted additional expressiveness to her dark blue eyes, from each of which there issued a torrent of lightning directed straight at my heart, every single one of whose fibers palpitated individually as my pulse grew ever faster and stronger. This unquestionably was Donna Anna. It did not occur to me to ponder exactly how she managed to be present in my box and on stage at the same time. For according to the same principle whereby a happy dream synthesizes the most curious combination of disparate images; and whereby a simple, pious faith comprehends supersensual phenomena and effortlessly conjoins them to the so-called natural events of life; I fell into a kind of somnambulistic trance in the presence of this astonishing woman, a trance wherein I discerned mysterious connections that bound me so intimately to her that she herself had been unable to abandon me during her appearance on stage. How glad I am to be setting down here for you, dear Theodor, every word of the remarkable conversation that now commenced between Signora and me; save for the fact that what she said eludes translation into German, that each of these words seems to me stiff and dull, each of these phrases cumbrous in articulation, by comparison what she with said with such ease and grace in Tuscan.

While she was speaking about Don Giovanni and about her role, the depths of the masterpiece yielded themselves to me for the first time, such that I managed to see clearly see through to them and distinctly discern the topography of the foreign country concealed therein. She said that her whole life was music, and that she often believed that hidden in the depths of her soul were many mysterious things that were inexpressible in words and yet intelligible to the singing voice. "Yes: then I understand it completely," she exclaimed with eyes blazing, and in a raised voice, "but it remains dead and cold in me, and icy hands are clutching at my ardent heart as the crowd applauds my intricate trills and well-executed grace notes. But you--you understand me, for I know that you too are aware of this marvelous realm inhabited by the enchantments of sound."

"But why should you--exquisite woman that you are--know me so well?"

"Does not the preternaturally lovesick madness of the character *** in your latest opera issue directly from your soul? I have understood you, for your heart has poured itself out to me in song! Yes, ******," (here she addressed me by my Christian name), "I have sung you; and, what comes to the same thing, your melodies are me."

A bell-tone signaled the end of the interval: all color immediately drained from Donna Anna's unrouged face; she started off with one hand to her heart, as if in an access of pain; and whispering, "Now, poor, unfortunate Anna, come your most terrible moments!" she vanished from the box.

Enthralled though I had been by the first act, the music of the second act made an altogether different and altogether more curious impression on me in light of the miraculous event that had preceded it. It was as though the long-promised fulfillment of my fairest dreams of some world to come were being realized in this life; as though the most ineffable presentiments of my enraptured soul were inextricably bound to the living notes and could not help manifesting themselves in the most curious, the most fantastic--and yet, for all that, the most palpable--of forms. In Donna Anna's scene I felt myself fairly shuddering for drunken bliss at the warm, gentle breeze that was then wafting over me; I involuntarily closed my eyes, and a passionate kiss seemed to sear my lips: but this kiss was like a single, indefinitely-sustained note bespeaking eternally unsatisfied longing.

The finale commenced in a burst of blasphemous high spirits: "Gia la mensa è preparata!"--Don Giovanni was seated at table between two girls, caressing them and uncorking one bottle after another by way of liberating the effervescent spirits hermetically imprisoned therein. The scene was set in a room of modest dimensions with, in the background, a large Gothic window giving on to the pitch darkness of night. Even as early as the moment when Elvira was tasking her sometime betrothed with reminders of his broken vows, one frequently espied flashes of lightning through the window and heard the ominously muffled roar of thunder. Finally comes the mighty knock at the door. Elvira and the maids flee the room, and then, to the accompaniment of that awful chord signifying the infernal world beneath, in strides the mighty marble colossus, before whom Don Giovanni stands like a mere pygmy.  The earth trembles under the giant’s thunderous footfalls. Through the tempest, through the thunder, through the wailing of the demons, Don Giovanni cries out his blood-curdling ‘No!’; the moment of his downfall has arrived. The statue vanishes; the room fills with thick clouds of smoke that assume the ghastly forms of specters and ghouls. From time to time, amidst and beneath the demons, one catches a glimpse of Don Giovanni, writhing in exquisite agony, and beset by all the torments of hell. An explosion like a thousand-bolt-strong flash of lightning: Don Giovanni and the demons have vanished; exactly how is anybody's guess! Leporello lies unconscious at the edge of the room. Salutary indeed, from the point of view of the spectator, is the subsequent appearance of the rest of the cast, searching in vain for the Don, whom subterranean powers have put beyond the reach of earthly justice. One feels as though one has only just now escaped from the dreadful orbit of the infernal spirits. Donn Anna seemed to have completely changed: her face was covered over with a deathly pallor; every trace of fire in her eyes had been extinguished; her voice was tremulous and of variable intonation, but therefore all the more heartrending in her brief duet with her beloved fiancé, who, now that heaven has handily exempted him from his post of official avenger, is all too keen to make short work of the marriage ceremony.

The fugato vocal ensemble had brought the work to a most satisfactorily unifying conclusion, and I hastened to my room in a mood of sublime exaltation. The waiter stopped by to summon me to dinner, and I mechanically followed him to the dining room. The company there, on the whole, was splendid; and their main topic of conversation was today’s staging of Don Giovanni. The Italian diction of the cast received general praise, as did their dramaturgical compatibility; and yet it was all too plain, on the evidence of certain casual remarks waggishly interjected from time to time, that nobody present had the slightest inkling of the deeper significance of this opera—or, indeed, of any other opera. Don Ottavio had done quite a fine job. Donna Anna, on the other hand, had been altogether too passionate. On stage, he1 opined, one must exercise a modicum of self-restraint and avoid untoward accesses of emotion. The staging of the rape scene completely nonplussed him. Here he took a pinch of snuff and exchanged an ineffably asinine look with his neighbor, who maintained that the Italian lady, otherwise quite a beautiful woman, had not taken sufficient pains on the score of her make-up or costume; in every single scene she had left a lock of hair undone and thereby concealed half of her face from the audience's view! Next, someone began softly to intone "Fin ch'han dal vino," whereupon a lady remarked that Don Giovanni himself had pleased her least of all: the Italian gentleman had been much too sinister, much too serious, and on the whole had failed to capture the character's essential jollity and frivolousness. The explosion at the end was heartily praised. Having had my fill of such twaddle, I hurried back to my room.

In No. 23: The Visitor's Box
How cramped, how suffocated, I felt in the muggy atmosphere of that chamber! Round midnight, dear Theodor, I fancied I heard your voice! Seemingly, from the vicinity of the secret door, and in a murmuring tone, you distinctly uttered my name. What is hindering me from revisiting the site of my recent, miraculous adventure? Perhaps I see you along with her who pervades the entirety of my being! How easy it is to bring along the little table, two candles, pen and ink! The waiter arrives to deliver the punch I have ordered; he finds the room empty, the secret door ajar: he follows me to the box and eyes me dubiously. At a sign from me, he places the bowl on the table and, with a question still sitting on the tip of his tongue, withdraws, casting yet another glance at me, sideways, en route. Turning my back to him, I lean out over the edge of the box and look into the deserted hall, whose architecture, magically illuminated and reflected by my two candles, stands forth in curious relief like some edifice out of a fairy tale. The curtain is stirred by a cross-breeze blowing through the hall. What if it should rise? If Donna Anna, haunted by a terror of gruesome specters, should appear? Involuntarily, I cry out "Donna Anna!": the cry expires in the recesses of the empty room, but the spirits of the orchestral instruments come to life--a marvelous vibration percolates upwards as if in sympathetic utterance of the beloved name! I am defenseless against the surreptitious onslaught of the wave, but it courses through my sinews to no ill effect.

I am becoming master of my state of mind and feel myself disposed, at the very least to adumbrate for you, my dear Theodor, how for the first time I have come to believe that I thoroughly grasp the deepest, most essential characteristic of the divine master’s chef d’oeuvre. Only the poet understands the poet; only a romantic soul can enter into the mysteries of romanticism; only the poetically exalted spirit, who has been initiated in the inner sanctum of its temple, can understand what a fellow initiate is inspired to express. To expound this poem (i.e., the libretto of Don Giovanni) without ascribing a deeper meaning to it, and thus merely to concede to it the superficial merit of dramatizing a good story, is to elicit the question of how Mozart managed to conceive and compose such sublime music out of such a trivial subject. A bon vivant, inordinately fond of wine and women, who invites to dinner a stone statue, a representation of an old man he has struck down in self-defense: granted, there is nothing particularly poetic in this, and, to be frank, such a person hardly merits installation as an exhibit in hell's Museum of Unworthies; that the statue, brought to life by a transfigured spirit, should go to the trouble of descending from his steed for the sake of exhorting this puny sinner to repent; nay, that the Devil himself should dispatch his closest comrades to transport the individual in question to his kingdom by the most grisly conveyance imaginable!--mark my words, Theodor: nature endowed the Don, her spoiled favorite child, with every quality that can exalt humanity, in its closest approach to the divine, above the vulgar rabble, above the shoddy factory-produced mannequins who figure as mere ciphers in her eyes (for, insofar as a human being can figure as anything in her eyes, it is as an integer: an entity sui generis extruded from the raw stuff of matter); and she did so, I say, to no other end but that of dominating and defeating him. A splendidly handsome, robust physique--a figure positively radiant with such intimations of the highest realm as seek and find their mark in the heart of another; a soul of profound feeling, a shrewd and penetrating intellect. But this is the terrible sequel of the Fall: that the Devil has retained his power to ambush man, to lay snares for him even within the very aspirations whereby, in striving to perfect himself, he expresses his divine nature. This conflict between divine and demonic forces begets the notion of earthly life; just as the eventual victory of the besieging army begets the notion of a subterranean existence in hell. The Don claimed the right to live; by this claim his spiritual and corporeal organization was actuated and inspired, and he was driven by an unquenchable yearning that coursed unceasingly through his veins to clutch at every earthly phenomenon that came his way, futilely seeking his quietus therein. To be sure, there is nothing on this earth that elevates man in the most intrinsically human sense to such a height as does love, by whose mysterious and powerful agency the fundamental constituents of his being are at once annihilated and transfigured. Small wonder, then, that Don Giovanni hoped to still the ardor that lacerated his breast through love, or that out of love the Devil saw fit to weave the noose he slung around the Don's neck. Thanks to the cunning machinations of the arch-fiend, Don Giovanni acquired a conviction that by means of love, by means of amorous dalliance, he would attain that fulfillment that dwells in our hearts solely in the form of the promise of heavenly salvation; and it is precisely this infinitely insatiable longing that establishes our most immediate relation to the spiritual realm. Restlessly fleeing the embrace of one pretty girl for that of another still prettier, passionately savoring their charms to the point of satiety and devastating intoxication, always believing himself mistaken merely in his particular choices, always hoping at last to discover the ideal of contentment, Giovanni needs must ultimately have found all the uses of this world but weary, stale, flat and unprofitable2; all the while generally despising humanity and revolting against its phenomenal manifestations, in which, inasmuch as he swore by them above all other things, he had been so bitterly disappointed. Each amorous encounter with a woman constituted not merely a gratification of his sensual appetites, but also a blasphemous slap in the faces of the creator and mother nature. He was impelled to his excesses by a profound contempt for the worldview of common sense (to which he felt himself immeasurably superior) and by a bitter scorn for humanity (whose bourgeois confederacy of the happily married at least bespeaks a humble intimation of the higher desires that nature has so maliciously implanted in our bosoms); against these institutions he rebelled, and in so doing he valiantly pitted himself against that elusive, omniscient Being whom, in light of the self-evident state of things, he regarded as nothing more than a character in some monstrously sadistic farce, on a par with the pathetic progeny of His congenital ill humor. In wresting him free of the fetters of existence, each seduction of a beloved bride-to-be--each irremediable, inconsolable, reputation-defiling breach in the good fortune of some hapless inamorata--constitutes for him a glorious triumph over the enemy forces: over Mother Nature and the creator! In truth, his unabating desire for the things of this life is but an intentional prelude to his eventual plunge into the pit of Hades. The seduction of Anna, along with its attendant consequences, is his high-water mark.

Vis-a-vis the endowments of nature, Donna Anna stands as Don Giovanni's perfect feminine counterpart and foil. For just as Don Giovanni was an archetype of masculinity in all of its marvelous splendor and power, so is she an archetype of the divinely feminine, impervious to all diabolical incursions in virtue of its spiritual purity. Once Satan had achieved her ruin, hell itself could not defer the providentially ordained exacting of heaven's vengeance. Jestingly, scornfully, Don Giovanni invites an inanimate representation of the old man he has stabbed to death to a merry dinner party; and this man's transfigured spirit, distressed on Giovanni's account for having witnessed at first hand the ultimate fate of the damned, does not scruple to appear before him in the most hideous of guises for the sake of exhorting him to repent. But his soul is so damaged, so riven, that nary a ray of hope of heavenly bliss can penetrate it, and thereby rouse him to aspire to a higher order of being!

You will doubtless have noticed, my dear Theodor, that I spoke of Anna’s ruin; and it would perhaps behoove me at this moment, when my soul's torrent of thoughts and ideas flows too fast and full for words, to explain to you as concisely as possible how I view the whole mutual relation of these two embattled natures (i.e., Don Giovanni and Donna Anna), as it is evinced by the music, irrespective of the libretto. Now I have already averred that Donna Anna is the Don's foil. How, then, given that Donna Anna had been destined by heaven for such a role, could the Don be apprised of his fundamentally divine nature--and thereby wrested free of the despair of his empty striving--through love, which, thanks to Satan's artifices, was bespoken as the agent of his destruction? He encountered her too late, during the epoch of his most outrageous excesses, when he was pervaded by such diabolical lusts as could only corrupt her. She was not rescued! As he fled the scene, her ruin was achieved. Her innermost being was overwhelmed by the fire of a superhuman sensuality, by an infernal incandescence, that rendered vain her every effort to resist. Only he, Don Giovanni, was capable of arousing in her that carnal mania with which she consequently overwhelmed him, and thereby imbued his soul with that devastating, infernally inspired spirit of transgression. Immediately after the consummation of the act, when he was thinking only of escape, she was suddenly wracked by the tormenting realization that she had been ruined, which held her fast in its embrace like some terrible, venomous, death-spewing monster. The thought of her father's death at the hands of Don Giovanni, and of her betrothal to that cold, effeminate mediocrity Don Ottavio, with whom she once fancied herself in love; the soul-pervading, all-consuming flame of love itself, which, having blazed up at the moment of her acutest pleasure, now smolders with the complementarily devastating passion of hatred: by all of these is her heart riven. She feels that Don Giovanni's downfall alone can secure peace for her restive, mortally-tormented soul, but this peace is her own earthly downfall. Henceforth, she unremittingly exhorts her frigid fiancé to avenge her; nay, she herself trails the violator's footsteps, and only once the infernal powers have dragged him down into Hades does she begin to feel more composed--and yet she cannot bring herself to humor her fiancé's marriage-lust: "lascia, o caro, un anno ancora allo sfogo del mio cor!" She will not survive this selfsame year; Don Ottavio will never know the embrace of that woman whose pious soul would not suffer her long to remain the betrothed of Satan.

How vividly I felt all of this in the innermost core of my soul, by way of the heart-rending chords accompanying the first recitative and the staging of the nocturnal violation! Even Donna Anna's interjection in the second act--"Crudele!"--while ostensibly referring solely to Don Ottavio, expresses most wonderfully, in its mysterious overtones, that interior spiritual state bespeaking the utter exhaustion of earthly happiness. To say nothing of those curious words the poet casually--perhaps unthinkingly--appended thereto: "torse un giorno il cielo ancora sentira pieta di me!"; what are we to make of—

--The clock is striking two! A warm, electric breeze from below is wafting over me; I discern therein the faint scent of that fine Italian perfume from which I first surmised the presence of my fair neighbor last night; I am enfolded by a blissful sensation such as I fancy can only be articulated in music. A fierce wind is sweeping through the hall--down in the pit, the strings of the piano are stirring--Good God! From off in the distance, I fancy I hear Donna Anna's voice, borne aloft as if on the crescendoing melodic wings of a gossamer orchestra, thus: "Non mi dir bell' idol mio!" Unbosom thyself to me, o spiritual realm: thou remote, uncharted Jinistan of unexampled splendor, pervaded by an inexpressible, heavenly sorrow akin to the ineffable joy of the enraptured soul that transcends all such promises of earthly happiness as are vouchsafed to the rabble! Grant me passage into the circle of thine enchanting visions! May it so happen that when my body is bound fast in the leaden shackles of sleep, some dream (against thy stirring it into a nightmare), should elect my soul a friendly envoy of us earthbound mortals, and conduct it to thine ethereal fields!

Postscript: A Conversation in the Dining Room at Lunchtime

CLEVER FELLOW WITH SNUFFBOX (slamming shut the lid of thereof): Of course, it's a pity we shan't soon be hearing another decent opera. But that is what comes of indulging in such frightful histrionics!

MULATTO-FACE: Indeed, indeed! And I certainly told her so often enough! Yesterday she seemed particularly overwrought by the role of Donna Anna, as if she were fairly possessed by it. They say that she was lying in a dead faint throughout the whole of the interval, and that more than once during the second act she succumbed to an attack of nerves--


MULATTO-FACE: Yes, of nerves! And that they literally couldn't drag her offstage afterwards.

I: For heaven's sake! I hope that these nervous fits portend nothing serious, and that we shall soon hear Signora again?

CLEVER FELLOW WITH SNUFFBOX (inhaling a pinch therefrom): Not very likely, seeing that Signora died at the stroke of two this morning.



1. Hoffmann gives no antecedent for this "he," but on the evidence of his behavior in this episode one assumes that "he" is none other than the "clever fellow with snuffbox" who will turn up later on, in the Postscript.

2. I trust the numerous patent constellational affinities of Hoffmann's Don with Shakespeare's Dane justify my Scott-Moncrieffian amplification of the original "alles irdische Leben matt und flach finden" via Hamlet (I.ii.133-134)?

Translation © 2008 by Douglas Robertson