Robert Walser, “Speech to a Button” (1915)

One day, when I was occupied with sewing together a shirt button that I had burst apart with a heavy sneeze, it suddenly occurred to me, while I was busy sewing, as if I had become an accomplished seamstress, to address the faithful shirt button, this innocent and modest little fellow, with the following words of tribute, which were murmured to myself but, for that very reason, were meant even more sincerely.

“Dear little button,” I said, “How much gratitude and great credit you are due from the one you have served now for so long and for so many years, more than seven, I think, faithfully, diligently, and remaining at his side, from the one whom, in spite of all the forgetfulness and disregard he showed you, you never admonished to praise you even a little bit, which is only happening today, once I came to my senses about what you mean and what your value is.

You, who during all your long, patient years of service have never once stepped into the foreground to appear in some advantageous, pretty light or in a flashy, conspicuous lighting effect, who have much more held back out of a moving and charming modesty, which cannot be overestimated, in the most inconspicuous inconspicuousness, where you exercised your dear, lovely virtue in the best kind of self-contentment. How you enchant me, for that very reason, showing the strength of loyalty, alacrity, and not needing the praise or recognition that anything else that does something would otherwise covet.

You’re cracking a smile, you pick of the bunch, and, as I see, you already look a little worn-out and exhausted, my dear! You excellent little thing! You should serve as an example for people who are addicted to never-ending approval, desiring to sink into their grief, dullness, and resentment, whenever they aren’t being caressed, fondled, and coddled by everyone’s goodwill and high opinion.

You, you are able to live without anyone knowing in the slightest that you even exist. You are happy because modesty is its own reward and faithfulness is at home with itself. You are able to live without anyone knowing that you don’t make a big deal about yourself. You are your own life’s work, or, at least appear to be, are devoted entirely to the silent performance of your duty. You are what one could call a wonderfully fragrant rose whose beauty is really almost a mystery to itself, emitting its fragrance without any purpose.

You are able to live without anyone knowing that you, as said before, are what you are, and the fact that you are what you are is what enchants me, moves, grips, and touches me, and makes me think that there are things, every now and then, in a world so rich in unpleasant phenomena, that give one pleasure and that make whoever spots them happy, cheerful, and bright.”

Source: Robert Walser, “Rede an einen Knopf,” Die weissen Blätter 8.1 (August 1915): 1053-54.

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Erik Born

I’m an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Society for the Humanities and the Department of German Studies at Cornell University. My research and teaching focuses broadly speaking on relations between old media and new media, and particularly on questions of mobility.