Friday, January 06, 2017

A Translation of "Natur" (Aphorisms on Nature) by Christian Morgenstern


Of course we all live at the bottom of the sea (at the bottom of the sea of air).—Vineta.
The stars nothing but whole notes.
The spring nixie’s hair undulating in fountains.

The green obelisks of the cypresses.
The perfume of things is the yearning that they arouse in us in their wake.
Who knows whether thoughts themselves do not produce an infinitesimally faint sound that may be detected by the most sensitive instruments and deciphered empirically (i.e., by means of comparison and experimentation).

Rhythmically animated air is in a certain sense colored air.  The effect of bells.

Why are hills more beautiful than mountains?  Because they reveal the conceptual contrast between the mountain range and the lowlands, those gladdening natural refractions and elevations of level ground, with more vitality and expressiveness than do the unyielding rocky peaks, which in a manner of speaking have more naked conceptuality and less emotional warmth about them.

Nature knows only transitions between colors, not colors.
Yesterday a gentleman from Bremen retorted to me: “What?  You lament the death of a seal?  Those animals should be exterminated.  Do you by any chance believe that they are useful?  They are the worst fish-thieves in existence, completely harmful, useless creatures!”  I recalled the moist, dark eyes of those good-natured animals, and they seemed to me to be much more likeable than these views of a pedant whose own boundless thievishness as a human being was self-evident.
For the time being I have no need of anything but the chattering of the sea birds, the self-swaying of the prickly dune grass, a bit of sand running through my fingers, and the grayish-blue-green expanse before me with its curious unconditionality.
The wastefulness of nature is excessively great.  And this is the most bitter consideration: our accusatory thoughts, be they ever so lofty, are nothing but nameless, interchangeable birds smashing into a crystal-enarmored flame for the mere sake of falling to the ground discarded, squandered, like the essence that gave birth to them.
As I observe a hollow burrowed into the sand crumbling and trickling away, I am reminded of a pair of the most tragic impressions that have ever been made on me.  The first I experienced at the baths of Caracella, and that which is a mere image and semblance here was a melancholy reality there.  Almost uninterruptedly, mortar and weather-worn masonry trickled away from the mighty ruins of the vaults, and every now and then, when the gentle wind momentarily strengthened, even a fairly sizable stone would fly rumblingly into the depths. It was an uncanny and unsettling conversation from the past, a conversation inhabited by the wanderer in his vulnerability; and at the same time the sepulchral whispering of a civilization that will perhaps endure even if St. Peter’s Basilica hoists its own.  The second impression I was afforded by the mountains of Norway with their eternal rock-falls, in which their lofty peaks seemed to be gradually descending to the ground.
Great reposefulness and profound peace are to be found only among you, ye dear distant mountains.
Much worthier of wonder than a simple mirror is a translucent mirror—i.e., a window which looks out on a landscape and in which at the same time the objects of our room are reflected.  

How can treetops resemble a young woman; nay, even more—seem to encapsulate her entire character?  And yet often enough they do.
Today I refrained from plucking a pair of flowers for you so that I could bring home to you their…life.
I hear a bird incessantly piping “sur-ger-y!”
These two young dachshunds here before me; how lovely they are in the youthful naturalness and tenderness they evince towards each other!  Truly, in point of charm no scene in human life surpasses seeing the male of this pair following his comrade with his eyes, or the female in the sun-gilded moss laying her head on her spouse’s back in a movement imbued with great grace and a need to nestle.
And what a profound contentment with life they evince when with their noses buried in the warm moss they soak in the solar warmth-drenched sylvan air with its manifold charms of which we have but a crude conception.  And what a perpetually lively interest in all the faint and mighty sounds that incessantly suffuse and invigorate the landscape.
The woofing sound of a dog’s “Attention!”
The nervousness caused by the sound of children crying.
A suspicion that it might be directed at him.
Danger! (Fear, Anger, Tension)
Verbal abuse (because it has no consequences)
Self-righteous anger (more monological)
Feeling of communication (need for gossip)
(he communicates the business of the external world)
Quittances over many matters
                    with other dogs
Gratuitous indignation
A feline-induced hangover[1] that tries to benumb itself
It is the same with landscapes as with people: one never finishes getting to know them.  Under certain circumstances every person and every landscape is capable of passing by stages from the paltriest ugliness to the liveliest beauty.
A grove of birch trees shimmers through pines like your distant youth into and through my thoughts.
Nature is the great reposefulness poised against our mobility.  That is why humankind will love her more and more as it becomes ever more subtle and mobile.  Nature gives it the basic contours, broad perspectives, and at the same time the image of a lofty placidity in the midst of all unremitting evolution.
It is a curious feeling to think our way perpendicularly into the earth beneath our feet.  One doesn’t get very far; one’s imagination literally suffocates.
No locale consists of any elements but ones with which we are already familiar.  We know this, and yet we dally at surmising mysteries in a landscape as long as we are not familiar with it in precise detail.

A sign from a dream: the sweet mountains struck me as soft and silver-embroidered.
There is something majestic about the springtime.  But this is the springtime that was never bound to come again, that has come once more only thanks to superterrestrial grace, the springtime that is unnamable.
What is the basis of, for example, the enchantment of the forest, the profound feeling of security that it imparts to humankind?  Perhaps the feeling arises chiefly from the fact that the forest confronts us with an incalculable number of individual plants of a specific species that unite contentment with life and the will to live with the most extreme purposiveness.  The trunk of a montane spruce is the archetype of a placid, internally consolidated strength; a powerful will to live that nothing is capable of destroying or even impairing once it has manifested itself.  But its boughs, branches, and needles radiate such an extreme purposiveness in all directions, and in their unity with the trunk and roots constitute a body so sagely attuned to the internal and external world, that one apprehends that here one is presented with the solution to a problem on which perhaps immeasurable ages have labored.  
The flies, those sparrows of the insect world.
In the cat you have suspiciousness, lechery, and egoism, the three virtues of the Renaissance man since Stendhal and certain others.  It is for this reason, I would hazard, that it is the most concentrated of animals.  The dog, in contrast, is faithful, selfless, and erotically philistine.  At present our civilization is approaching the level of the dog.  Christianity is a priori anti-feline in orientation.  When everything has run its course, in a few centuries, we may expect the arrival of the human being.
The amour-propre of a cat is extraordinary.
The cleanliness of the cat is completely different in character from that of the human being.  A human being washes himself, combs his hair, brushes and beats his clothes; in a word, he divests himself of his dust and returns it to the water, to the air, to the earth.  A cat, in contrast, laps up its own dust with its indefatigable tongue, merges with this dust, demolishes it—but in the most fruitful way, by frankly incorporating it into its living organism.
For an entire big-city winter you have been yearning in vain for an instance of unaffected natural grace.  Perhaps sitting behind you on the otherwise empty sofa there is a roughly one-year-old cat that visits you every now and then to spend a half an hour elaborately grooming itself and then another half an hour slumbering with profound contentment—and you behold what you were seeking, the aboriginal suasiveness of unconscious nature.
One of the most egregiously impertinent attributes of humankind is its tendency to give an emphatically erroneous name to this or that animal, as if there had ever been a being more erroneous in its relation to other beings than a human being!
Why do grasses, a meadow, a fir tree, fill us with such unalloyed delight?  Because we behold in them something living that can be destroyed only by external forces and never by itself.  The tree will never die of a broken heart, and the grass will never lose its mind.  From without they are menaced by every possible danger, but within they are invulnerable.  They do not stab themselves in the back like a human being with his spirit, and they thereby spare us the repeated spectacle of our own equivocal life.
Why should we not settle for living in a temperate, a highly temperate landscape, inasmuch as we only need raise our eyes in order to plunge into an utterly intemperate one, and our thoughts in order to feel how little it would take to be set adrift in the savage ocean of eternal uncertainty, on a smoothly planed shelf, or on an uprooted tree trunk.  
Perhaps someday the clouds will be accorded a peculiar veneration in virtue of being the sole barrier separating humanity from endless space, of being the propitious curtain hanging before the exposed fourth wall of our terrestrial stage.
It is a remarkable feeling to realize that we are attached to this native earth of ours in a manner not much different from that of those little rubber suction cups that you stick to the wall so that you can hang watches and keys on them.
Just as a despairing head seeks protection, rest, and warmth in its hands, in its arms, so does God or man seek protection, rest, and warmth in that other, duller side of his being that we term nature.
A dark blue Chinese lantern, lit from within by a single candle, hung against the night sky.  A vision of a phantasmal planet in the nocturnal twilight.
Via nature God pacifies himself over and over again.  Woe indeed will have prevailed if God as embodied in man ever destroys himself via the unhappy fever of civilization.

Anybody who had not grown up accustomed to the world would be bound to lose his mind thanks to it.  The miraculousness of a single tree would suffice to annihilate him.
I believe that any blind person would necessarily have a highly superior understanding of plants.
What is the use of a flower to God?  It allows God to be pleased.  In the flower, as a flower, he dreams his happiest dream, in which nothing strives against him.      
I don’t recognize any “separate territories.”
How beautiful a hen becomes as a mother.  Before she always seemed a bit ridiculous.  But with the chick attached to her, in my view she belongs among…the constellations.
A handsome, stalwart white cow with curved horns and a large, sonorous bell—that is a fine symbol of a people’s devotion to church-going.  So is a bull…
Who can know what dark, peculiar feelings the peal of bells triggers in the minds of, say, birds.  Perhaps they too then momentarily “rise above themselves,” but only in a kind of vague yearning.

A bone-idle dog that hunts at its own slack pace; and a loyal, obedient dog constrained by deeply inculcated rules to do what it is told in the midst of the fiercest fire—even these are degrees of divinity.
It is delightful to observe that wasps and ants are every bit as perturbed and irritated as we humans are by the importunateness and thick-skinnedness of flies.
What a sense of itself a tree may come to during a proper storm!  What a marvelous sight is a birch in the storm!  How divinely graceful it is!  How ineffably picturesque!
Larches, birches, alders, a womanly forest!
The tall firs say: we are not sorrowful and we are not mirthful; we are steadfast.
Behold a tiny scrap of a spider’s web full of raindrops—who imitates this?
On reflecting that the earth like the sea ebbs and flows under the influence of the moon, I ask myself why the human body’s combination of blood and brain should not have tides of its own.
Air travel will impart new nutriment to the religious genius of humanity.  To the great furtherance of comic moods: the airspace will now still come to the forest, the sea, and the desert.
We rather seldom attain more than a modest measure of strength and success when we have a try at limning other inhabited heavenly bodies.  And yet—a landscape, varied ad infinitum!  What a spectacle!
Every landscape has its own peculiar soul, like a person who is living face-to-face with you.  You will feel this most distinctly if you compare the impression made in your soul by a landscape of the present with the impression formerly made in it by a different, earlier landscape.  Perhaps if you contemplate a slice of the present landscape that quite easily could form part of the one from the past—such that for a while you are possessed by a highly uncanny sensation akin to that of seemingly holding the hand of a person who is absent, or even dead, when you know full well that this hand belongs to the person standing face-to-face with you.  
I foresee a far from distant time when the air and the sea will have been so thoroughly explored that humanity will proceed to install a shaft in some prairie or desert and, using all the available means accumulated by generation upon generation, bore its way ever deeper beneath the surface of the earth.
The reason that nature is so profoundly comforting is that it is a world asleep, a world dreamlessly asleep.  It feels neither joy nor pain, and yet both before us and for us it lives a life full of wisdom, beauty, and goodness.  We, too, once slept thus, and to this state we shall someday return, but with the difference that we shall then be aware of this surplus of joy, this surplus of sorrow, and that we shall no longer have any need of dreams then either, for we shall have a direct and open view of the heavens themselves.

The small in nature is usually greater than “the great.”  For the small is quite often the ongoing labor of God, whereas the great is the finished work of mere gods.
The seeds of life lie everywhere, everywhere.  Such being the case, you may proceed as follows—and here it is a question of heeding either of these two complementary calls: “Thwart not the prosperity of the living in any place!” or “Pay no great mind to the occasional individual in your household who is forever preaching and courting wastefulness!”
The mushroom is the parvenu of the plant world.
For you the Alps are not high, not mysterious, enough; you dream of the Andes, of the Caucuses, of the Himalayas.  And yet here more than anywhere else it is possible to stretch one’s soul to its limits and experience ultimate elevation.  Are not all these mountains identical cliffs of the great blue radiant divine and spiritual sea that it is our noblest destiny and liberty to gaze into time and again, nay, sooner or later, to navigate with manful intrepidity?

Humankind still has very little sense of reality.  It seems to maintain only an approximate idea of the habitual position of the sun.  Can one really be said to experience reality when in the course of a lifetime one is untouched by such a phenomenon except as a general occurrence?  Or isn’t the truth rather that people don’t even look at the sun at all?
Not even the trees, not even the flowers, simply wait for our recognition.  With their beauty and wisdom they tout in all directions for our comprehension.
Have you never yet felt: things must change!  When, for example, you were sitting in the forest and gazing at all the lovely trees and grasses around you, from which you were nevertheless separated by such a world-sized abyss of non-recognition!  What essentially were they; where was their soul; where was the point at which you could meet each other fraternally, not only in vague love on your part, but rather as it were while gazing into each other’s divinely fraternal eyes?  Would it not be preposterous if in such a world, one so expansively and lavishly laid out, everything always stayed the same, never changed? Must it not change?  And does not this need and necessity trigger something in you that says: Yes, it must become better, and day after day I will run to meet the spirit and the spirits of things, even though they have surely been on their own way to meet me for the longest time.

[1] in German: ‘Katzenjammer’


Translation Copyright ©2017 by Douglas Robertson

Source: Christian Morgenstern, Stufen. Eine Entwicklung in Aphorismen und Tagebuch-Notizen (München: R. Piper & Co. Verlag, 1918), pp. 35-47.

I thank flowerville for drawing my attention to Morgenstern’s aphorisms and advising me on this translation, selections from which have previously appeared in Reliquiae.

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