“Remembering The Tales of Hoffmann”
by Robert Walser
I was living in the tranquility of rural, provincial isolation, in the flat countryside where fields and forests lie about motionless and mute, the plains and plots of land appear endless, broad wide regions often prove to be only narrow strips, and vast estates slumber peacefully one beside the other.
Brown, yellow, red autumnal foliage, fog that mysteriously wrapped the wintry earth in veils; large, wet, fat snowflakes tumbling down into a morning-dark courtyard, a white park covered in snow, a winter village with village lads and village women and geese in the village street—all this I had seen.
I’d seen a poor, sick, unhappy day laborer forgotten by all the world, lying in her squalid bed of sufferings; I heard her sighs.
Forests, hills, plains silent and wordless in the dull hush of the gleaming winter sun. Here and there a solitary person, an insignificant little word, an isolated sound.
One day I left all this remoteness and all this silence behind and set off for the seductive gleam of the capital, where soon thereafter I saw The Tales of Hoffmann at the Komische Oper.
I felt like an astonished hayseed amid all that gleaming intoxication, the graceful, sense-beguiling tumultuousness and the blindingly elegant society gathered there.
But when the interior of the grand edifice became as silent as a tiny chamber filled with reveries and fancies of the soul, as the might and art of sound opened their divine mouths and began to sing, ring out, and resound, beginning with the overture that wheedled its way into all our souls with its bright and dark, gay and earnest melodies, only to entwine them—now constricting, now liberating from constriction—with heavenly bliss, and then soft warm song burst from the lips of the singers and songstresses, images brimming with delicate, noble, magical colors and magical figures lightly and gaily emerged to delight the eye and taste, music and painting most beautifully took possession of every heart, eye, and ear, and everything became suddenly quiet as a mouse, only to resound once more as if it wished never to stop so beautifully resounding and conquering its listeners with its desired, delightful force: pain and sounds of joy mirroring the adventure of existence, exemplifying the meaning of life, and soaring up and down the scales like angelic figures ascending and descending Jacob’s ladder!
Oh, everything was so regally beautiful and luxurious all about our tear-filled, feverish eyes and in our hearts. All of life could now cease outright or else begin utterly anew.
What a presence to partake of! Thousands of hours flowed together to form this one single hour. Yes, what a beautiful, good, meaningful evening this was.
It’s come to my attention that a rumor, of which I am the sole authority to its verity, has been pinging through the halls of our fine institution. He, the normal student, M—, enrolled in a program that would take at least one hundred years to complete—this being the exception, established by the Exceptional Student—supposedly reported to me that were it not for the existence of such an exception his “anxieties and pains” may have been relieved; the dream of graduation in just 99 years would not have evaporated. Red-rashed, he’d said, according to the halls, the normal student rushed a letter to the Advisory, only to be told to consult the framed statement on the wall that details the circumstances of this particular exception; he’d see it on his way to the Advisory, near the door to the infirmary, which often doubles as our morgue.—Before I continue, the Advisory, the governing body pro-tem, now entering its seventh century, having caught wind of this normal student’s experience, would have me preface this with the acknowledgment of said student’s discomforts, and their, let’s say, profound effects.
Read the rest of “Physiognomy of a Dog.”