I was recently enjoying Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project, in much the same way one enjoys a dish of ice-cream.
The dust-jacket of this volume, handsomely produced by Mr. Farrar and Mr. Straus, ably aided by Mr. Giroux, is French-vanilla, with touches of peaches-and-cream. The paper is like fresh butter. The translation, by Mr. Franzen (with, one suspects, an occasional or possibly frequent assist from Messers. Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann[**], absent from the dust-jacket but present in the notes to the text), is superb. Really, truly superb. Occasionally, the German original even reads like an awkward back-translation from the English, as “Der Gedanke ist ein Gefundenes, ein Wiedergefundenes” => “… a discovered thing, a recovered thing”. (And later: "erfindet das Gefundene" => "invents what he has found": a perfect description of found poetry.)
Yet, rather than now praise it further (that for later), I’ll now talk back to it a bit.
[** This is the same Daniel Kehlmann who wrote the best-selling Die Ermessung der Welt. We examine the film version here.]
Kraus (“Heine und die Folgen”), in the course of his long dismantling-job on Heinrich Heine, writes and quotes:
Kein Dichter ruft einem Fräulein, das den Sonnenuntergang gerührt betrachtet, die Worte zu:
Mein Fräulein, sein Sie munter,
Das ist ein altes Stück;
Hier vorne geht sie unter,
und kehrt von hinten zurück.
Franzen chimes in in a footnote (p. 83):
Boy, does Kraus nail what’s wrong with Heine’s sunset poem. And yet, when I was twenty, I found this poem hilarious. … [And yet again:] Heine’s poem about the girl and the sunset is smart-ass. It shouldn’t wear well as you get older.
Now, I cannot testify as to that, since this is the first time I read it. But I found it -- mildly amusing: and this, though fall’n into the sere, the silver leaf. Certainly not worth making a fuss against. Smart-ass? -- freilich; but so is that indispensable reference-work, The Onion.
Yet I wish to say something more substantial than to defend a limerick against the charge of not being an epic.
Falls Sie im Doktor-Justiz-Sammelsurium
Bitte hier klicken:
[Sprightly background music for this section:
The Forellen-quintett, splendidly performed by some young Asian guys you never heard of.
The prejudice (as we watch young Asians take over, say, my meta-alma-mater, UC Berkeley) is: Technical brilliance, to be sure; but they can scarcely capture the echt Viennese Gspaß und Gemütlichkeit. -- Only, they do. They do not at all overdo the technique; the performance is full of humor. And -- like that quatrain of Heine -- as simple and silver as a fish.]
Let us take that rhyming trifle, not “on its own terms” (in the anemic way of New Criticism) but as having been written by a Man in Full, Heinrich Heine. And the literalistic simplicity of the poem’s depiction of the eternal wheeling of the Sun, suggests an equally literal simplicity at the human level. I had spent much of the morning reading his Viennese countryman and contemporary Sigmund Freud; perhaps that suggested this unchaste thought to my mind, but in any event: Any red-blooded poet or artist, beholding some buxom Mädchen waxing wet around the edges at the spectacle of the beauties of Nature, has only one natural reaction: Invite her up to your Bude “so that I may show you my etchings”. Then -- vorne slides the Schlüpfer down; while the frock comes up behind.
Following which instruction, the girl is certain to emerge with a more deeply deepened appreciation of the cycles of Nature (even if her own might be somewhat disrupted by the aftermath). The only point being, that while that “snatch” of doggerel (permit me the word) still falls sort of the Iliad, neither is it purely deflationary, but on one natural reading points forward and upward and inward, to a more fructuous development, which could even result in the birth of a child.
So much for the smutty reading. But there is also -- as so often -- an anagogic, of a sort especially perceptible to the more contemplative elderly gentlemen, who are long past de-frocking Fräuleins. For indeed, there is a subtlety here.
[Background music for this part of the essay:
This symmetry of the sun setting before us, and rising behind, is not an elementary fact of perception, but is a non-obvious cosmological hypothesis, and fallible as such. Certainly, as a child, it never occurred to me to connect the two widely-separated events. You see the sunset, you go to bed; sleep happens; you get up and eat your oatmeal, and run out to play; the sun is already back in the sky, just as Mom & Dad are once again up and about. What’s to explain?
Later, in school, or from our parents in a pedagogic mood, we learn abstruse suppositions about things called “East” and “West” -- not easily observable in themselves, and which go all cock-eyed the instant you race your bicycle around the corner, but in principle localizable via consultation of a completely magical and paradoxical little novelty-item called a “compass”: you turn the thing this way and that way, trying to get the little needle to move, but it’s like herding hamsters. Later still, they teach you poems to memorize: “The Sun rises in the East, and sets in the West.” (Or is it the other way about? One can never remember.) As with the Alphabet Song, and the one about Columbus and the Ocean Blue, knowing such poems is constitutive of becoming an educated grown-up.
And superficially, Heine’s ditty is bringing in that magisterial scientific description, with deflationary intent, to crush the girl’s vesperal (and vestal) sentimentalism. But, note: it does not.
It does not evoke a uniform isotropic curvilinear coordinate system in a comoving Lorenzian reference frame, together with (all the fixings): Rather, it leaves the human perceiver still planted in the center; unbudging from sundown to sunup, so that the great renewal of the diurnal earth now sneaks up on her from behind, like a jack-in-the-box popping up to surprise you. The bland planetary fact of a hemi-diurnal rotation is here collapsed into a single poetic instant; the sentient experiencer is at once epiphanically aware of the unity of these mirror occurences, much like that of the right and left hand. This vision is -- strictly mystical. More fundamentally even than the astronometric account, this perspective succeeds in taking a literally quotidian fact of existence, and making it new -- making it strange.
~ Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for an epiphany,
this is what I would be reading: "
(Ich heisse Heinrich Heine, and I approved this message.)
Indeed, the Kraus-quoted quatrain immediately called to mind one of Rilke, about Symmetry as observed by a mooncalf (we quote it as part of an essay here):
Ach was ist das für ein schöner Ball !
Rot und rund wie ein Überall.
Gut, dass ihr ihn erschuft.
Ob der wohl kommt wenn man ruft?
Superficially, in both rhymes, the language is naïve; in reality, faux-naïf. On the surface, rather unpleasantly, immaturity is being mocked, here in a simpleton, there in a Backfisch. More profoundly -- Ah, but, it is difficult to plumb the profound. I have simply circled around it, approached it from different faces and facets, in a series of poems and parables, which you may sample via any of the following thematic labels:
And for an extravagantly anagogic take on a scatological joke, try this: