Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mornings at Eight

Below is my translation of “Morgens um acht”, written by Kurt Tucholsky in 1923. Tucholsky was writing at a time when one had to be careful what one said, so there are elements of the text hinting at, but not saying outright, that the authorities are paranoid oppressors. Tucholsky seems to have been an extremely sensitive soul, who did not let his career as a journalist prevent him from writing stories, poetry and songs. He left Germany in 1924 for Paris, moved to Sweden in 1930, then, in a depression, committed suicide in 1935. His work was condemned as “degenerate” by the Nazis, and burned, an ironic and somewhat prophetic outcome considering the line: “But of course it’s always better to train than to make mischief in a black cap and gown.” I hope the sense of this becomes clear after you’ve read the piece.


I saw a dog the other day — a dog going to work. He was like a stuffed, cylindrical sofa-cushion with long fur-tassels wobbling down Leipziger Strasse towards Berlin. With full sincerity he walked, looking neither left nor right, sniffing at nothing. And did none of that other something, either. He just went, without any doubt, to do his business.
And why would he have done otherwise? Everyone else was doing it.
The stream of business-goers whispered through the city. Morning on morning they did the same. They trotted thither, to that holiest holy a German knows; to work. Actually, the dog had no business being there — but if even a dog went to business, no doubt it’d be welcome.
There sat two serious men on a train, smoking, rotund, shaven and perfectly content, looking out of the windows. At such moments, one longs for a miracle, say, for balloons to float out of that soldier-policeman’s* helmet, there, on the corner, so that, if just once, everyone would unbolt their muzzle and nose! The train passed by a tennis court. The golden sun played on the pale-yellow surface — it was beautiful weather, far too beautiful for Berlin. And one of the serious gentlemen grumbled: “Look at that! Nothing to do! Mornings at eight and playing tennis! They should be off to work —!”
Yes, they should. After all, work is why we’re on this planet, serious work, the kind that fills in all of you. Whether it makes sense, whether it harms or helps, whether it’s pleasant or not (“Oooh, work’s to be plezzun’ now is i’? Yuh’ve lost yer marbles mate!”) — it’s all the same. There must be work. And mornings you must be able to go to it. Otherwise, life has no meaning.
And should everything jam up at work, or the rail workers strike, or even if it’s a bank holiday: then they sit around at a loss as to what to do. There’s nothing inside them, and nothing outside them either: so what can be done? Well, nothing whatsoever.
So they walk around like schoolchildren, suddenly at a loose end because of some cancelled lesson. They can’t go home, and they don’t feel like having any fun… They doze and wait. For the next workday. For this, among other reasons, the German Revolution failed: they had no time for revolting; they had to go to work.
Then again, it’s true one can doze off during sport, which is run like a card game nowadays: highly regulated and outstandingly dull. But of course it’s always better to train than to make mischief in a black cap and gown.
Yes, they go to work. “What do you do for a living?” — “We don’t do anything, sir. It does us.”
The dog didn’t jump. One doesn’t hop down the street. The street serves to — we know that already. And that enticing, low-hanging, patriotic poster … the dog didn’t even consider it.
He went to work.
(Kurt Tucholsky, 1923)

*”Polizeisoldaten” can’t be translated into an English word (it’s not military police, by the way) as far as Im aware, so I picked my own invention. The word seems to be reserved for soldiers doing civilian police work, but it may have some historical reference here I’m not aware of.


Debra said...

Great post.. Thanks for this translation ; it is excellent.
When I read this post, I think that the maximum subversion is letting loose the balloons on the street.
There is something else that is subversive : running. Not jogging, just picking up and running in the street.
And then you realize what's behind the work compulsion : STIFLING THE BLOOD THAT RUNS IN OUR VEINS. Walk, don't run, isn't that what education is all about, DISTANCING US FROM OUR ANIMAL SELVES ??
Have you seen "A Dangerous Method" ? Keira Knightly does a splendid job of incarnating Sabina Spielrein, who, unfortunately stifled HER instincts in order to become a shrink... Better than being locked up now, isn't it ?
But as the great.. MACHINE TO STIFLE OUR INSTINCTS PICKS UP SPEED, there is less and less we will be allowed to.. FEEL without having "civilization" decree that it must be excised in order for us to be... "civilized"...
This is where we continue to head, at this time, regardless of the regime changes, the ideology changes.

Toby said...

Thanks, Debbie, I worked hard on that translation, to make it flow and feel like an original, so to speak.

Are you aware of the Ludic Revolution? I link in the sidebar on the main page here to "The Abolition of Work" by Bob Black, which this piece by Tucholsky reminds me of. Tucholsky is not as defiant as Bob Black, but in his heart I suspect he might have agreed with the underlying impulse of the Ludic Revolution. Here's a link to another essay (short) on the topic;

What is work and why do we have it? Why is The Machine more important than humanity? Why do we enslave ourselves to that which we idolize? I wish I knew, but I'm pretty sure fear and ignorance are in there in force. I hope the state is our final idol, but I doubt it will be...

Progress is subjective though. I would tend to agree with you that machine-worship is not progress, but would probably qualify that agreement by suggesting it is part of progress, since we learn from our mistakes, or, put in a more Zen way, mistakes are opportunities we can learn from if we so choose.

swiss said...

Hi Toby,

Polizeisoldaten are mentioned in colonial context.
I guess it is the form of organization (barracking, weaponary), why the word "soldaten" is used. Although the command (over this forces) must not be military (interior ministry).


Toby said...

Hi swiss,

but this is not a colonial situation; this is a German soldier-policeman on German soil between WWI and WWII.

Was there at that time a fusion between army and policing? Because my knowledge here is poor, I took Tucholsky's use of "Polizeisoldaten" metaphorically, as an indication of the pervasive and powerful presence of the state, even on humdrum street corners.

Debra said...

I have vague memories of the complicated status of the police in Germany during the time period you are talking about.
This status persisted into WW2, I think.
I seem to remember Christopher Browning talking about this issue in "Ordinary Men", the book about the police commandos who were sent into Poland to mass murder Jews. (The title may be wrong ; I only saw the book in French.)

Toby said...

Thanks for the tip, Debbie, I'll look into it.