Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863) The master tailor Nepomuk Schlägel in the search for joy

Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863)
The master tailor Nepomuk Schlägel in the search for joy
(Der Schneidermeister Nepomuk Schlägel auf der Freudenjagd)

If, dear reader, in the Augustinergasse of the town of Munich, at around the time when order loving citizens are wont to make their way to a hostelry, namely in the winter twilight between four and five o’clock, you should encounter a man of heavy set, whose unusually large mouth and superb teeth, along with his sudden halting and subsequent close scrutiny of your back should cause you to remark him, be in no way affrighted that it be a brigand, in whom your carefree ambling has given rise to wicked thoughts. It is none other than the honourable master tailor Nepomuk Schlägel, born and reared in the Albrecht Dürer House in Nuremberg, and who has never, even for one night, sat in a police cell, much less in a prison, and it is only in order to be annoyed, only in order to say, “That beats all. What a coat compared to yours, Nepomuk, and a silver pommel to his cane!” that he grants you his attention. Slowly he paces along the street, and his keen eye knows how to find in each passer-by some meritorious quality to stir his bile: on the old beggar across the way, leaning wearily on the corner, the blue cloth trousers that a sympathetic student that same afternoon had flung the near frozen pauper will not have escaped him, though its many holes certainly will, and even the peg-leg who just now trudges wheezily by will give him grounds enough for a oath, for he thinks, “The question is whether you could afford a wooden leg if you like he were to lose the fleshly”. Once, when he saw a thief being brought in from the countryside, it annoyed him greatly that the sick man, whom the doctor had found too weak to travel by foot, had been placed on a cart, and he poisonously asked an acquaintance whether he thought that one would treat him the same way in a similar situation. I would hold it a wonder if the robber and murderer who was recently called on, through the good offices of the executioner, to leave this temporal world for the eternal, did not give him, in some way, occasion to grumble over the injustice and step-motherliness of fortune toward him, the disregarded and ever neglected master tailor. Just then he meets his only customer, a sergeant whose trousers he patches from time to time because none of his colleagues, out of a righteous pride in tailoring, will bother themselves with it. Nepomuk greets him, but a prince of the blood could scarcely touch the unadorned hat of the master tailor with more repugnance than does the master tailor himself; he seems to take it from his head and brandish it solely in order to fling it away. Now he enters a baker’s, not in order to buy bread - money he has none -, but because he has heard that the rich aunt of the baker, whom he knows from his years as an apprentice, has died and has left the man her fortune; so he wants to condole and congratulate and hopes to learn at the same time that the whole thing, or at least the best of it, namely the inheritance, is a pack of lies. He would have begging children thrashed, because they don’t beg from him: “How do those guttersnipe know”, he wonders, “that I’m such a measerly beggar? Couldn’t I be an outsider, an Englander, who out of pure oddness dresses in such dilapidated rags?” “Look at the shoulders and fists on him”, he cries, as he peeks furtively at the noisy workshop of a smith, cheerily and brightly lit by the coal fire, and throws a baleful glance at the gigantic workman, who at that very moment is swinging his heavy hammer, “I believe he could shatter the anvil like glass if he wanted to. Out of you, Nepomuk, they could never have made a decent smithy, you being bundled together out of scraps of cloth. Hang it for a state of affairs.” The pair of lovers who, lost in their sweet nothings, wander by, he follows close behind, not out of curiosity, or in order to disturb them, but by lantern light to sketch, by abstraction from the girl’s regard, the contumely with which she would rebuff him were he to offer to play the Celadon. “That I have a wife this last age,” he thinks, “nobody can see, but that I’m as ugly as night they certainly can.” “’Tis pity the young maid’s no maiden”, he calls and pushes past. He bumps against the bony arm of an old woman who seems well acquainted with the gutter, in order that she might lambast his bandy bow-legs, and his beginnings of a hump-back, or at least, if she should prove, against his expectations, to not be part of that bellicose corps who by day sell fish and apples, his stupidity. If the mongrel, who, coming down the street on his evening stroll, presents the personification of contentment, does not avoid the master tailor in good time, this latter will surely furnish him a good kick, for this portly animal has been for Schlägel, whom nothing of this sort escapes, for the last minute a thorn in the flesh. “Such a creature”, thinks he, “who brings his whole wardrobe with him when he walks abroad, eats and drinks and pleasures himself, and in the end snuffs it without either torment or hospital bed.” The poodle slyly and nimbly jumps and steals himself a sausage from the table outside a butcher’s shop. “Hoy, stop”, shouts Nepomuk; then, “Thieving dogs”, he growls irefully, as if he himself had been stolen from, “should be strung up as good as men who don’t respect the seventh commandment. Why have they more right to such carry-on than I?” The butcher, who is at that moment, brass glasses on nose, reading the “Bayern Landbötin”, has noticed nothing of the crime. Nepomuk makes him a rapid report and, when this fellow in vexation pushes his cap down over his eyes and heaves out an oath, he smiles for the first time this evening. “The child has the dropsy”, he says to a girl who is carrying across the street a pale, wailing infant wrapped in cloth. “Is the doctor still pretending that it’s some curable illness? Three brothers I lost to it. But there’s one that dodged it”, he shouts, and turns into a side alley to avoid meeting an old schoolmate, already from far off waving his hand in cheerful greeting, the soap maker. “All I’ll say is that that fellow, frail as he might seem, is cast in iron. Anyone else, for instance myself, goes down to a burning gall-sickness when it gets hold of them, but it’s not a bother on him; he can already walk about again in the evening air, even though it’s rightly raw cold. But I’m not one to resent it, even if I can’t manage to be glad about that fact that the sole witness of my first and only theft of a piece of cloth, since a repetition is out of the question, seeing as nobody ever has me run up anything new, happens to have as many lives as a cat.” It suits him perfectly well that the sooty chimney-sweep, just then coming around the corner with his white eyes, long, dirty ladder under his arm and brush in his hand, doesn’t manage, with the best will in the world, to avoid him. “A blasted frock-coat;” he thinks and throws a contemptuous sideways glance at the man’s jacket, “we get what we deserve”. To a weeping blond-haired girl of seven who has lost the six-bätzner-piece with which she was to buy the evening’s beer, and who doesn’t dare return home to her wicked-tempered father, he gives, instead of the coin which the child had expected as reward for the telling of her tale of woe, the advice that she clench her fist tighter the next time, and that she not let herself be distracted by looking at the sparkling gold and gems in the jeweller’s. He would like, just for the sake of the office of punishing her, for one quarter-hour to be father to the child. What delight he would feel were suddenly to be committed right in front of him a major crime - a manslaughter would suffice -, but he must arrive too late to prevent the act, and early enough to hand the wrong-doer over to the police. Thus, once, when a fire broke out in a village where he was spending the night, nobody was as zealous in making a terrible, that is to say terrifying, racket, or in ringing the alarm bells, as was Nepomuk - once he had beforehand assured himself that the quenching of the fire, in the strong wind and given the feebleness of the hoses, was impossible. Similarly, he is the first every Sunday to tell the old, half-blind widow of the carpenter, who lives behind him in a miserable attic flat and who plays the lottery with a passion, because she wants to win a coffin and a shroud out of it, that her numbers have again failed to appear. The beautiful military music played during the mounting of the guard on the Schrannenplatz occasionally gives him great joy, but only when it’s bitterly cold or when it’s snowing heavily, so that the players’ fingers freeze: “Now,” he thinks, “they know what the king is paying them for”. On theatre evenings he rarely fails to station himself outside the theatre house. It is of some annoyance to him that the building has never, as has often happened in other towns, gone up in flames during an opera, for that would in his view be a play to surpass all others, and, Roman-style, free of charge to boot. It is also disagreeable to him that so rarely are fainting ladies or epileptics carried out. But many things offer compensation: for example a team of young, excited horses, whose provender so pricks them that they don’t want to stop or indeed bolt just as the finery dismount; a sudden downpour that soaks the ladies through to the skin who have forgotten their umbrellas; or maybe a light-footed gallant who will quickly and gracefully bound up the steps, in order that his charming cousin admire his elegance, and who in the process slips humiliatingly. He little envies those persons of quality who drive to the theatre, and in particular not at all the court, for the same reason that he doesn’t begrudge birds their wings or the heavens its stars, but is on the other hand incensed by all that fill the pit and the gallery, “For,” he says, “there belong I as well as any other, if the world were not so foul”. Pity feels he next to none when a poor thing in her strap-bonnet, whose lover, an artist and house painter, has given her a ticket for “Der Freischütz”, searches for it in vain in her plain little knitting bag when she gets inside the door of the theatre, only to discover to her horror that mice, out of hunger or boredom, have eaten a hole in it. It infuriates him that theatre attendants never die, as he hyperbolically puts it; “That potbelly there with the red nose sitting at the till,” he says “is like a pig growing fatter every day as I look at him, and yet he gawps down more air than comes in through the holes in my sleeve”. When young blades, who enter the theatre purely in order to noisily leave it during a dramatic scene, refuse those hanging about on the street a re-entry voucher, because they hadn’t actually gone about acquiring one, it pleases him somewhat. Were it possible, what with the wariness of the attendants, to even think of sneaking in, Nepomuk would have long since done so, not in order to delight in Schiller or Kotzebue - he scoffs at both, and above all at the public that lets themselves be deceived by them - but in order to say to himself, “So the made-up wax doll there is Mam’sel So-and-So, who for skipping about, pulling a face and standing there as if she were crying, pockets three thousand gulden, and the idiot decked out as the barber is Mr. So-and-So, who for his trills and runs, since four thousand isn’t enough for him anymore, gets paid six!” Holidays are gems of days to him. On Christmas Eve he cannot refrain from roaming from alley to alley through the joy-filled town that Gustav Adolf once wished wheels on, that he might carry it back to Sweden, as it shimmers in the glow of this most beautiful of divine and human annual festivals. There he indulges himself in cheering fantasies, and thinks occasionally, “How would it be then if that runner were looking for you, because he would ask you to dine at the palace”, but is soon ashamed of these material desires, and paints the scene for himself, of how it would surprise the pastry baker, whose resplendent premises he just now passed on his way, were he to suddenly smash the window; “If I were the Devil,” he thinks, “that’s how I would have fun: in every house at the moment when they sit down to their free-loading I would blow out the lights and overturn the table, or I would transform the wine into some laxative concoction and the roast into indigestible sole-leather.” Indeed from the fact that such a thing never happens he has come to the firm conclusion that there is no Devil. At the New Year he enthusiastically and wilfully encourages young people to loose gun-shots in celebration, in part because it is forbidden by the police, in part because it often costs the careless revellers a hand, or at least a finger. At the Oktoberfest he prefers to stay by the so-called rescue tent for accident victims, but seldom has the satisfaction of seeing someone who has been crushed, fallen from a horse or otherwise injured brought in, and curses the whole festival as a sham. On All Souls’ Day he visits the grave of his father, but not in order to pray alongside it, and certainly not to place a wreath, but to curse it and to reproach the dead man for leaving him nothing. “Who knows”, he thinks, “how far the power of the dead reaches, and whether he mightn’t show me the way to some treasure or give me winning numbers!” Most assiduously he visits the churches, and, since they all edify him equally, makes no distinction between Protestant and Catholic. “There they all squat”, he grumbles as he surveys the laden pews and kneelers, “big-bellied and with their full-moon faces brimming with contentment, like fattened hens sitting on a lat. Like guests getting up from the feast, they stammer out thanks for the enjoyed fare, and beg further generous remembrance; there they go contented and confident, and are sure, not like me, the master tailor, of being forgotten!” “Our Father, give her”, and as he says this he eyes a beautiful girl sunk deep in prayer and in her prayer book, with her healthily pale Madonna face tilted to one side, “give her what she wants; give her a lover, and then give her what she doesn’t want!” Occasionally his thoughts turn inward, and he is envious of himself because of his earlier years. “When I was a lad,” he thinks “and didn’t know how to value it, I wanted for nothing: my shirts were always finer than those of the neighbours’ children; no Sunday morning passed but I could go to the door or the window with a gingerbread cake and proudly look down on the cobbler’s red-haired daughter, who’d be there eating her dry roll, and if I didn’t like the dinner, mother would quietly make me a yummy pancake. Was not my birthday as well celebrated as that of the king, and didn’t we then have goose stuffed with apples and raisins and with delicious gravy poured over it? Damn and triple damn those times. If I had never eaten such geese, my mouth wouldn’t water after them now.” Beer and food establishments are for him houses of prayer, that is to say, of malediction. It is here that was formed his conviction, touching on atheism, of the infirm standing of the world, here in this tenebrous atmosphere and from a most genuine relish of beer tankards, to wit, those which he cannot fling back. But what mustn’t he withstand before he can perform his devotions! For you, dear reader, who, evening pipe or cigar in mouth, and shiny cash money in your bag, seek a conversation or a newspaper, or more substantial things, entering an inn is no act of heroism. You face into a veritable bombardment of pleasures: humble bows to receive you at the door; interesting bits of news that are being told just as you enter; a dear friend whom in eight days at the earliest you expected back from his journey, and who is waiting impatiently for you; another who just an hour ago told you that he couldn’t possibly tear himself away from the files today for even a moment, and who is sitting there at the table, laughing. This and so much more bewilders you and throws you into the centre of that sweet giddiness wherein all the buds of the delights of the senses and of the heart burst open, and purely as a reminder of the imperfection of all things earthly, the slightest of frustrations is added: that every kind of roast, bar the venison roast that you had been looking forward to, is paraded on the menu. How different the situation is for Nepomuk! There is something enigmatic deep within the landlord of an inn. He drips with charm when he drips with sweat. Torment him horribly; have him drag a hundred things from every corner and nook of his house; find nothing good enough, but demand constantly better and the best: it doesn’t strike him as excessive; he doesn’t get annoyed; he laughs at it; his good humour increases with his efforts, and he names you Baron, Count, everything you’re not, without your ever being even a Count Palatine. But woe to quiet, undemanding souls like Nepomuk, who, contented with a draught of air, however good or bad it may be, settle modestly into a corner and are fastidious about bothering neither him nor the waiter. To the landlord they are loathsome to the depths of his soul, and he makes no secret of it. Since he can’t poison them with a look, he tries to drive them out with one, and the noble Roman soul that withstands this small arms fire not only considers the victory already decided but prepares himself for the most despicable ruses of war, for defeat does not bow the enemy; it makes him sullen and malicious. And who has more grievous experience of this than the master tailor Nepomuk Schlägel? For it must be admitted, he has suffered in the Stachus Garden what a man can suffer: eyes out of which flames the whole of Hell; despicable palisading with empty tankards and bottles; contemptible removal of the candle from his table, at which he, playing with his hat in almost childlike naturalness, sits alone; even having the ignorant waiter stepping on his corns, never followed by an apology. Steadfastly he has borne it all and stomached it all, like the Dutchman did the horrors of the French Revolution, and consoles himself with, “It has an end, and every evening I am still living when I go to bed”. What does it help? Once, he had scarcely entered when the landlord in person, half-friendly, half-fell, placed before him a stupendous roast with all the trimmings, and two burning festive candles, and gave a meaningful look at his purse. As Nepomuk good-naturedly drew the man’s attention to the fact that he had not ordered anything, the boor shouted at him that he knew it well, and that this was precisely why he could get himself to the Devil, as he had never yet ordered anything. Since then he slips into the inn like a mouse into the pantry. When he can manage it, he mingles like the single bitter drop in a wave of welcome guests that is streaming in. If this doesn’t work, he enters with the appearance of one who seeks somebody, even asks after a gentleman with silver buttons on his coat or with a red moustache, and then quick as a lizard slinks into the darkest corner. Truly, Nepomuk, whoever sees you perform, with endless adroitness, this tour-de-force of accommodating yourself in the smoky corner of an inn, little does he suspect that it takes place purely so that you can count every mouthful eaten by every guest, and with each one think with gnashing of teeth of the cold potatoes that await you at home. And what else is granted you when you consider it honestly? A broken glass is of little consolation to you, for this misfortune rarely or never befalls one who has spent his last heller and can’t pay; but were it to happen one time, it would only serve to strengthen you in your conviction that nobody, excepting yourself, wants for credit with innkeepers. Naturally, with beer, rows arrive, as often as do eternal friendships, but who is put out by the receiving of a punch when he can give back two, and who makes so much of a flattened nose when he holds in his hand, to his enormous satisfaction, the ripped off ear of his opponent? In drunkenness however, many things are blurted out that would better remain unsaid, but has ever in your presence a long forgotten murder or barn-burning come to light, and so what have you from your sobriety and your attentiveness? The alehouse is indisputably the ground where dropsy and other deadly sicknesses spring up like mushrooms. But I ask you, as you see some happy-go-lucky heartily and cheerily throw back a sixth glass and call for a seventh, are the wings of your fantasy strong enough, to bear forward, quick as a febrifuge, the sick bed, and the doctor with shaking head who drains off beer as water, and in the silence gives up hope for the man’s life? Nothing is left you but the agreeable sensation of happily overcome obstacles and the triumph of being present, nothing but the sole consolation that once closing time comes, everyone will be turfed out just like you, and that the going suits you better than it does most. And so home! Granted, you have yet to hear the first grumble from your wife’s lips over the bitter poverty that she must share with you. She waits patiently for you in the unheated parlour, however long you might stay out, and when you eventually come home goes hungry to bed as she rose hungry, with never a word of complaint over her fate. But you will never bring her to have her beautiful black hair cut, and, because since the moment your neighbour the hairdresser offered you two kronentaler for it you can’t weave a single thought that isn’t bound up with this hair, you have just as much torment and pain from the woman as if she were to rage and wail. Bootless you wheedlingly sit her on your lap, call her your little dove, and ask her, all the while caressing her locks and letting them slip through your fingers, if she wants to make you happy. Bootless you try to lull her with a triumphal procession of roast goose, steaming stuffing and foaming beer tankards, which you with poetic fire and force conjure up to her imagination, and then in glides the remark like a goshawk, “And all that a person can have for two kronentaler”. Bootless you explain to her that a person can live without long hair, but not without money. She replies softly but firmly, “In the coffin you can shear me, not before”, and since, and you’ve tried, nothing can be gotten over on her in her sleep, you may well, your whole life long, with this domestic cross to bear, pay at home the price for the joys that you hunt down on the streets. And is that so unjust?