Dem Bürger fliegt vom spitzen Kopf der Hut,
In allen Lüften hallt es wie Geschrei,
Dachdecker stürzen ab und gehn entzwei
Und an den Küsten – liest man – steigt die Flut.
Der Sturm ist da, die wilden Meere hupfen
An Land, um dicke Dämme zu zerdrücken.
Die meisten Menschen haben einen Schnupfen.
Die Eisenbahnen fallen von den Brücken.
Whisked from the Bourgeois’ pointy head hat flies,
Throughout the heavens, reverberating screams,
Down tumble roofers, shattered ‘cross roof beams
And on the coast – one reads – floodwaters rise.
The storm is here, rough seas come merrily skipping
Upon the land, thick dams to rudely crush.
Most people suffer colds, their noses dripping
While railroad trains from bridges headlong rush.
- Translated by Richard John Ascárate
Apocalyptic vision in iambic pentameter, Jakob van Hoddis’ “Weltende” seemed at first merely a clever blend of sardonic wit and cool observation, betraying none of the passion and pain found in, say, Georg Trakl’s works. The poem’s simplicity had deceived me, however, as I discovered a few days later while attending a screening of Fritz Lang’s “M.” The opening scene showed children standing in a circle playing a game. Reciting a rhyme to determine whom the bogeyman would take next, they were unaware that a child murderer (Peter Lorre in his greatest role) truly did lurk in their neighborhood. The singsong rhythm of recitation despite the seriousness of the subject brought me back, there in the dark theater, to Hoddis’ poem. Didn’t he also depict the world’s end in nursery rhyme form, the man-on-the-street seemingly oblivious to imminent disaster? Didn't his alternation of mundane and apocalyptic in abba cdcd schema disburden the poem’s content of ominousness? A medium different from the printed page had opened my mind to speculations about the poem’s images, the poet’s technique.
Hoddis’ images are simple; no rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem, no slow thighs plodding through the desert (Yeat’s Second Coming – 1921). Yet, their simplicity conceals richness of expression. The hat, for example, serves two symbolic functions. First, it indicates the Bürger’s class-consciousness, is part of his costume of bourgeois respectability, of self-satisfaction verging on smugness (Hobsbawm 287). This explains why the hat rests upon a “pointy head,” for “spitze(r) Kopf” may be compressed to “Spitzkopf,” a term loaded with meaning. Christoph Grieb’s Deutsch-Englisches Wörterbuch of 1885 defines a “Spitzkopf” not merely as a pointed, misshapen head, nor as someone with the misfortune to carry such, but as a subtle, or subtile, person. “Subtile,” of course, comes from the Latin subtilis, meaning “fine, delicate,” ironic in view of the Bürger's obliviousness to events around him. This hapless man-in-the-hat brings to mind the faceless subjects of Magritte’s paintings, or even Mr Magoo. In the former the artist juxtaposes the common and the surreal. None of the bowler-crowned gentlemen raining from the skies shows any alarm in the 1953 Golconda.
Second, the hat flying from the Bürger’s head parallels the roofers tumbling from the rooftops two lines down. “Hut” suggests the German, “behütet,” meaning “protected, sheltered.” When the bourgeois gentleman loses his hat, he has been stripped not only of head covering but also symbolically of any refuge in the confusing and rapidly changing modern world of 1911. The roofers’ demise indicates that any attempts to construct shelter are vain. By using the verb “entzwei gehen,” Hoddis dehumanizes the workers while adding a childlike, innocent air to the poem. The deaths are described as though toys, puppets, rather than human bodies, have been broken.
Indeed, man and his toys, his mass-produced products of modern technology, fare badly when set against the powers of the natural world. Human devices are passive; nature, active. Hence hats fly off, dams collapse, trains fall from bridges, whereas the heavens scream, seas flood the coasts and hop on land. These celestial screams may allude to biblical verses in which such cries or trumpet blasts precede physical destruction of varying degrees. Examples are legion. One need only turn to Joshua 6:20-21 to read about the fall of Jericho, or the last cry of Jesus in Matthew 27:50, Mark 15:37, or Luke 23:46, and the subsequent rending of the temple curtain, the shaking of the earth, the splitting of the rocks--“entzwei”--or to Revelation 8:7-12, 9:1, 9:13, and 11:15 with their seven trumpets and ensuing plagues and pestilences. And just as the deluge in Genesis 7:21-22 caught all but Noah and his family unaware, the bourgeois gent in Hoddis’ poem is passive despite the onset of the apocalypse, stupefied by what he reads--“liest man”--in the papers, non-reactive. How did this catatonic state come about?
Before the poem appeared in 1911, newspaper illustrations and Bilderbogen served as primary visual stimuli for the masses, as television and the Internet do today. In 1870-1 alone, a firm in Brandenburg produced 3 million images, including among them “battle-scenes . . . and sensational events such as shipwrecks (later airship crashes) and natural disasters” (Burns 43). The ubiquitousness of such images, especially when they were placed among frivolous stories and advertisements, must have drained them of any personal and emotional significance. More sophisticated than our forebears, we call this phenomenon “desensitization.” Newspapers devolved into montages of bold-lettered, random facts, all presented with equal weight and value.
Only a year after publication of "Weltende," for example, the front page story for April 16, 1912, of a Baltimore paper relating the sinking of the Titanic and loss of 1,200 lives shared space with advertisements for a “Beer with Snap,” a free exhibition by the hypnotist “Marvelle,” and the “Al Reeves Big Beauty Show.” The day I composed this piece, my Internet provider’s homepage offered streaming video of the World Trade Center towers collapsing and links allowing me to “relax to classical music,” have my dreams interpreted interactively, and to find the answer to the burning question: “Riding horses: Healthy?”
So Hoddis’ poem reflects the media juxtaposition of comic and tragic; seas hopping/dams collapsing, hats flying/roofers falling, floods/sniffles (both problems of flow). Railroad cars fly from bridges, bringing back childhood memories of Lionel electric trains and ill-fated if hilarious circuits about the family living room. (Didn't Gomez Addams also delight in exploding his toy trains as they crossed bridges?) What else about the world of 1911 might have contributed to Hoddis’ fractured depiction? A poem, like a flower, doesn't grow in isolation. There must be some nutritive medium. No less than turn-of-the-century scientific developments and shifting temporal-spatial paradigms provide a possible answer.
Einstein published three papers in 1905, two of which revolutionized the way at least other physicists looked at the world. One of these, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” introduced the theory of special relativity, showing that gravity and acceleration are indistinguishable to one within a closed box. The frazzle-haired German scientist also contended that the speed of light is constant regardless of one’s reference frame. Hoddis’ milieu, then, was one in which old views had recently been fractured and the world was suffering the birth pangs of modernity.
As in the poem, Nature was not to be outdone by man. On December 28, 1908, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck off the Italian coast, centered in the Messina Strait. Moments later, a forty-foot tsunami crashed ashore. Messina’s population fell from 150,000 to just a few hundred in minutes. The death toll for all of Italy was about 200,000. Contemporary illustrations of the disaster seem to have been ordered for Hoddis’ description of the world’s end. In May 1910, about a year and a half before “Weltende,” Halley’s comet swept across the skies. Many observers took the visitation as a portent of doom, believing the comet¹s tail would wreak havoc.
Newspaper stories of the phenomenon and the induced emotional reactions abounded. Did the comet itself or the Medienlärm about it prompt Hoddis to write: “In allen Lüften hallt es wie Geschrei”?
The poet proved prophetic. The Bürgerwelt was, after all, shortly to come crashing down in 1914 with WWI. Hoddis’ childlike descriptions of apocalyptic disasters seem to suggest that the end of the world was just fine with him. His piece reminded me of a Sprichwort from the waning and carefree days of another empire, the Austro-Hungarian: “Der Fall ist hoffnungslos, aber nicht ernst.”
Notes by Richard John Ascárate
- Hobsbawm, Eric. “Mass-Producing Tradition: Europe 1870-1914.” In Hobsbawm, Eric (Ed.). The Invention of Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
- Lenman, Robin, Osborne, John, and Sagarra, Ed. “Imperial Germany: Towards the Commercialization of Culture.” In Burns, Rob (Ed.), German Cultural Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.