Some thoughts on Wislawa Szymborska`s Pierwsza fotografia Hitlera [Hitler's First Photograph] (1986)*
and Irina Mashinski`s В Югендстиле. Браунау-Ам-Инн [In Jugendstil. Braunau am Inn] (2000)**
| Lothar Quinkenstein
In a line of reasoning to prove the primary power of good, Confucius once used the image of a child, playing next to a river bank: the first impulse of any human being would be to save the child from falling into the water. By creating a poetic framework in which the reader views Adolf Hitler as an infant or baby, or both, Wislawa Szymborska and Irina Mashinski cast the reader into a similar perspective. Even this child — no matter how fiercely historic knowledge may work against it — is the child at the river bank, triggering the same spontaneous reaction which served Confucius as proof of the potential good in humans. Any thought of feeling anything other than empathy would bring the reader close to the brute the authors have banned from the explicit plane of their poems. In addition, the child — as a topos — stands in a specific occidental context, which amplifies, even if connected only indirectly, the effect of Confucius's narrative: ever since romanticism children have been viewed as the embodiment of innocence, whose alleged genuineness has been used as an argument against the rationality of enlightenment. Both poems (or more precisely all three poems, since Irina Mashinski`s Russian and English texts both have to be treated as originals — more about that in detail later) are linked to this suggested innocence of childhood — Wislawa Szymborska`s for instance, with her tender tone of diminutives reminiscent of baby talk; and Irina Mashinski`s with, in some phrases, a seemingly enchanted scenery. Also, the toying with old ideas of prophecy connects the poems. The questions Wislawa Szymborska is posing regarding the future of the child (while leaving them all unanswered), as well as the dream-like moments in case of Irina Mashinski, literally evoke the appearance of a "daimon", only to leave the reader alone with his expectation of a fateful answer.
Despite these similarities in the basic constellation, both concepts, differ from each other significantly: The first difference consists of Wislawa Szymborska referring to a picture (to be found in almost any comprehensive Hitler biography), while Irina Mashinski leads us — at least at first glance — 'truly' into the newborn's bedroom.
Let's return to the construct of childhood in this very German romanticism. The notion that pre-rational thinking is superior because it is closer to the origin (Nature), triggered one of the most momentous revolutions in thinking. The idea that Nature (as the epitome of liberty) constitutes 'good', whereas culture and civilization (as the epitome of social constraints) constitutes 'evil', lead in the circle of the early romantic poets from Jena, who postulated the unrestricted freedom of the artist. From the perspective of a literary critic, one may think that the precarious thing about it is that the cult of the irrational this created didn't stay limited to the matter of esthetic debate. On the one hand, with Nietzsche and Wagner, in the glacial cold of high culture so to speak; on the other, in those lowlands in which generations of high school professors fantasized their crude melodramatic intellectual flights. Such romantic speculations were raised to be the quintessence of the German spirit and even Thomas Mann, as dedicated ''apolitical' (!) and as late as 1918, counterposed this immeasurable deep spirit to the — in his opinion — stale pragmatism of democracy. Wislawa Szymborska`s poem does not deal with social-political backgrounds explicitly, but it is exactly this at the end of the 19th Century already brittle and therefore fiercely defended image of the blissful province that her provokingly innocent tone brings to mind.
After the political defeats of the middle class in Austria, as well as Prussia (1815, 1848) the idealistic ambitions have been more and more dilapidated. Instead of a republic, a German Empire was launched with considerable pomp. Nationalism underwent an enormous rise, and while the cultural conservatives in the metropolises of Vienna and Berlin were arguing with the avant-garde, behind the backs of the fiercely debating artists there was a history taking place, which will later enter the books as the 'short 19th Century'. Meanwhile, in the provinces where the fear of anything modern (which the Nazis later knew how to inflame and exploit so skillfully) had already long started brewing (just read Jean Améry`s disillusioning chapter "Bad Ischl — Wien" in his book "Örtlichkeiten"), the yawning history teachers in Brandenburg as well as in the Waldviertel clung to the (since Napoleon) long-tested rationale that there is no better remedy against the evil of the entire world than the retreat into the wing chair.
Romanticism, however found its extension not only in neo-gothic enthusiasm, Wandervogel-pathos, and ethnic (nationalistic) queerness. It also led — by the same means of dream — to psycho-analysis which attempted to transfer the murmur of the 'hidden poet' (Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert) into the brighter language of enlightenment and self-awareness. Thereby the echoes of romantic premiss (family and society deform the primarily non-evil human) on the one hand underwent a progressive transformation, on the other — the mythological imagery was individualized. Not the depth of cosmic space frightens the therapist`s mind but the depth of the soul. No one will argue that mystical images, as expression of profound human needs, represent a priceless creative potential. It is equally indisputable, however, that their tempting suggestiveness can be easily misused. Nobody recognized this more clearly than Sigmund Freud, who in his last book ("Moses and Monotheism") spoke of exactly that seduceability for which he recommended as antidote — in the sense of critical abstract thinking — the lessons of the prohibition of images.
Impossible not to read these lines as well while reading Wislawa Szymborska`s poem. Equally impossible, however, to remove oneself from irritation because the poem lures the reader onto familiar paths, only to let them end at the critical moment. What is being presented is as simple as it is obvious, and no syllable hinting on a connection between the child and the future dictator. Any expectation informed by the usual explanation patterns of our modern time will be disappointed by this poem. There is little 'Adolfek' as a child; the voices of the adults, blending into oblivious chatter; idyllic moments; but what else? What are we to do with this? And most of all: where is the key to what happens later? And in refusing to offer a plausible connection, which — as weak as the explanation may be — at least would offer us the consolation that an explanation is possible, the poem once again poses the most important question of any theological philosophy: Unde malum? Which is not to say that the lessons learned from psychology have to be discarded — for instance think of Alice Miller`s study of Hitler in her book "Am Anfang war Erziehung" (translated into English as "For Your Own Good") which is trying to give a post-Freudian answer to this question. After all, nothing would speak against posing the question about the genesis of evil in psychology as well as theology. Idealism once gave the answer in the classical verses of the 'Lord', in the 'Prologue in Heaven' of "Faust". In a recourse to patterns, which can be found with the ancient Greeks as well as the church fathers, evil here appears as a temporary weakening of good, but not as an absolute power:
"Divert this spirit from its primal source
And if you can lay hold on him, you may
Conduct him downward on your course,
And stand abashed when you are forced to say:
A good man, though his striving be obscure,
Remains aware that there is one right way."
(Translation: George Madison Priest)
As we try to answer the question Unde malum? today on the paths of these verses, we don't find ourselves in the calming prosody of the Weimar humanism but in the 'Binom Weimar-Buchenwald' (Jorge Semprún) instead. And from there we cannot, as much as we may try, return to a blissful province, may it be with pedagogical ambitions or simply in a late Biedermeier slumber.
As already mentioned, Irina Mashinski doesn't simply use a photograph as her template but instead leads the reader 'directly' into the newborn's room. The window is open, the curtain billows in the wind, and for a few seconds a compressed atmosphere arises which, very disturbingly, reminds the reader of mystic moments. The imploringly innocent language in Szymborska`s poem equates to an imploring magic of the moment but with this begins the confusion just in the same moment as the title 'In Jugendstil' tries to redeem itself with this mood and tone. The magazine "Jugend, Münchner Illustrierte Wochenschrift für Kunst und Leben" came into being in 1896. Gustav Klimt founded the Vienna Secession in 1897 and Aubrey Vincent Beardsley had just published, in the year of Hitler's birth (1889), a few drawings in a school paper with his actual creative phase still ahead of him. That doesn`t fit, we are inclined to say … Yes — it does fit, in its own logic, we simply must let go of the assumption that we are dealing with some kind of realism. The seemingly authentic in Irina Mashinski`s poem — and this is true for both, the Russian and the English version — is equally the result of distanced reflection as is Szymborska`s view of the photograph.
Let's first have a look at the Russian poem which begins with this line: "Ночевала тучка золотая". The double citation — Michail Lermontov`s poem "The Rock Ledge" and Anatoly Pristavkin`s novel1 which uses the line as a title ("A golden cloud slept through the night")2 — renders the living room of the Hitler family as a retroactively arranged space of memory, equipped according its own specific ideas of time and signification. This doesn't mean, however, that the reader makes the already mentioned escape into poetry as the 'better life', on the contrary. Rather, by avoiding the chronology of 'true' history, Irina Mashinski brings the deeper layers of history to our consciousness.
Two painters are invoked (in both poems): the founder of the 'Vienna Secession' Gustav Klimt, and the British artist Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, and these names seem to provide far more than just contemporary decoration. If Klimt was one of the most innovative and controversial Viennese painters of his time, then Hitler, as occasional painter of mediocre vedute, was his antithesis.
With the suggestive, erotic mood of many of his paintings Klimt caused quite a scandal. Time and again Beardsley found himself accused of pornography because of the all too revealing, depictive scenes derived from ancient vase paintings. And one must remember that the already mentioned magazine "Jugend" was founded in 1896, the same year when Freud coined the term 'psychoanalysis' for the method of treatment which revolutionized the insights into the human psyche, respectively the soul.
What would have happened if Hitler had been able to establish himself as an artist, albeit as a mediocre one? What if he — to say it bluntly — could have fulfilled his wishes in ways other than that demagogical destructive form? Or, to urge the thought to its' final end: What if he had landed on Freud's couch?
Fruitless speculations, perhaps, but these kinds of subtexts literally impose themselves during the reading of the poem(s). And at the intersection of art and therapy (art as a kind of self therapy?) the title of one of Herbert Achternbusch`s films comes to mind, "Heilt Hitler!" (Heal Hitler!), which imperative in its pun, seeks shelter from the oppressive certainty of what has happened. That any art and any evocation is powerless in light of these events, is illustrated in the first line of the (Russian) poem: "A golden cloud slept through the night". Lermontov's nature-magic, Caucasus dream returns in Anatoly Pristavkin`s novel as the nightmare of Russian orphans tossed around in the turmoil of World War II, homeless, helpless victims of a chain reaction of violence, which reignites old national conflicts. However, this cloud's prophecy on this day in April doesn't materialize through supernatural powers, rather literarily through dialog. It is not destiny that has been decided on that day, as this baby will cause endless suffering, but links will develop instead, which can indeed be analyzed; 'neither sociology nor political science nor psychology will be able to deliver the "final" answer.
While the Russian poem poses the Theodicy-question more between the lines with the calculated contamination of the romantic quote, there's a striking passage in the English version which uses the words 'good' and 'evil' verbatim: 'and Evil / shows through the golden gaps of Good'. Let's recall once again Goethe's "Faust" as it also poses the question of the very basis of the world. Mephistopheles is using a linguistically confusing game whose ambiguity possibly stems from the realization of his own powerlessness in front of the 'Lord': "Ich bin ein Teil des Teils, der anfangs alles war,/ Ein Teil der Finsternis, die sich das Licht gebar…"3 — ("But I'm part of the Part which at the first was all,/ Part of the Darkness that gave birth to Light, ..."; Translation: George Madison Priest). When Irina Mashinski makes evil visible 'between the golden gaps/ of Good', this gnostically-inspired image does not invoke either the 'Lords' confidence in the outcome of the bet for Faust's soul nor the mephistophical pleasure in ironic games with one's own limitations. Rather, these limitations — of Evil — seem to be suspended, and the world which experiences a moment of 'gilding', will one moment later be beyond redemption. Likewise it becomes apparent at this point, that the two poems create their settings at different times of the day. The Russian version evokes — with the verb of the Lermontov/Pristavkin quote — a night hour that, with the radio at the end, blends into morning. The English poem with its 'gold' reminds readers of late afternoon or early evening. This difference, however, probably results from a very practical consideration. Since it can be assumed that for most of the English readers neither Lermontov`s poem, nor Pristavkin's novel are "ready on call", the literary prophecy of the cloud had to be transformed into a different level. Irina Mashinski decided to utilize a tune, which appears in the poem as a lullaby: "Donna, Donna". According to the chronology — once again an obvious contravention — according to the inner logic of the poem nothing but consequent. The song, with the calming repetition of the one word in its melodic refrain truly having the sound of a lullaby, is deeply familiar in English-speaking regions. Joan Baez or Donovan for instance, sang it countless times, there is no folk song collection that does not contain it. The story of the song's origin, however, leads us directly to the history unleashed by Hitler: Aaron Zeitlin and Sholom Secunda wrote it in 1940 for a musical, the original lyrics refer to the Shoa (probably not known to everyone who got to know the English version as the 'original') and the word of the refrain, presumably only a sound of syllables, stems from the form of address 'Adonai'.
In this tension of meanings, the curtain — also present in the face of both poems — appears now in a new light. The movement between the inner and the outer world, moments of disguise and revelation, remind us of the central thought of mysticism, that all visible reality is a veil in front of the truth. Heraclitus already said that "nature loves to hide". "God`s veil over things makes them all riddles", writes Saul Bellow in his novel "Herzog".
It is not so much the beauty of the mystical, or the undecipherable presence of the creator in his creation that we meet in the poem, but rather — with the knowledge of subsequent events — a veil, concealing God himself. "Oh, what else has to happen until You reveal Your face to the world again?" Zvi Kolitz` Jossel Rakover asks in the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto. When this notion of God's hidden face ("hester ponim") is evoked by the moving curtain, the dreaminess of the Art Nouveau scene once and for all turns into the glaring light of history. It is a coincidence, by the way, that the magazine "Jugend" ceased to exist in the same year the song "Donna, Donna" was written. A coincidence, of course, though at least worth mentioning when it comes along with poetry.
At the end of the poem a radio sounds: in the Russian version it actually plays, in the English version it is imagined by a comparison ('like a radio'). The final lines also differ significantly: in the Russian text it is 'songs from (the) wire', in the English 'wired waltzes'. What does appear once again as a reminiscence of Vienna, actually of the cultural quintessence of the city — the waltz — leads (in the English version) into a peculiar distortion.
The English word 'wire' means 'filament', 'strand', 'line', also 'telegram', yet the radio of all things is 'wireless'. In this divergence between signifier and signified, the crack is expressed, the irreparable damage that consciousness and reality have suffered. For the Vienna waltz measure is not only reminiscent of Hofburg, Sachertorte, Tafelspitz (boiled tri-tip) and the operetta glamour of Habsburg, but it also reminds us of the city of Karl Lueger, the "world capital of Antisemitism" (Robert Schindel), the year of 1938, the dactyls in Paul Celan's "Death Fugue". Additionally, for the reader of the Russian poem, the final lines will probably trigger further associations, not only regarding the Third Reich but reaching beyond the year 1945. In every 'modern' dictatorship the radio functions as the medium of propaganda.
In view of the two versions, both in their own way trying to fill the dreamy atmosphere of that April day with meanings of prediction (without being literally 'prophetic'), it is difficult to identify an original. Both texts are originals and for all intents and purposes a parallel reading of both versions would reveal the poem — as a Russian-English one — most clearly.
"From things merely beautiful leads no path into reality", wrote Hannah Arendt in her "Denktagebuch", and this sober and clear-sighted poetic statement may be read as the exact counterpart to those romantic schemes which seek to comprehend art as a neatly secured island of bliss surrounded by an inhospitable world. Wislawa Szymborska's poem as well as Irina Mashinski's poems strive for the rationale of this sentence. They know of the possibilities of beauty and offer them to us, the once self-evident confirmation that beauty also equals good, however remains absent. They force us to examine once again our established patterns of thought, question them one more time, what awareness we have of them, and what part of our awareness is only a matter of habit.
1 The novel was translated into English as "The Inseparable Twins".
2 An English translation of the poem was made by Guy Daniels.
3 The German original gives two possibilities of understanding, as the relative pronoun (die) could be either nominative case or accusative case. If we read nominative case (as George Madison Priest does), the Darkness gave birth to Light; if we read accusative case, the Light gave birth to Darkness. Hard to believe, that Goethe who was familiar with Gnostic philosophy built this phrase "by accident".
Malbork (Poland), 2011
Translation: Christian Wiendl & Kris Iden