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.


Mynona, “Idea for a Telehaptor” (1913)

So, then, we have telegraphy, telephony, the television is as good as ready-to-go. All that’s left to wait for is telehaptics, the telehaptor, the teletoucher. What use is the entire oeuvre of H.G. Wells, if he shrinks back from this idea? But the matter is much more miserable than one might suspect: We are lost if we do not learn how to telehapt. As long as our sense of touch remains frozen as if in stone, and only its refinements, the senses of sight, smell, and hearing, are free to roam around in the world, we will remain pitiful prisoners. But there’s no need to cry yet! We need some words of encouragement. Some things are not found only because nobody ever has the idea to look for them. The thought of telehapting the sense of touch, once grasped, will have to be realized!

I am not now in Bessarabia, I am here in the place where some people with a healthy digestive system always ask: What is the German’s fatherland? Take them…

Yes, the cuckoo sometimes sings too prettily, Frau Werner—What I wanted to say just now: I am here! But I am not everywhere…apart from…apart from…apart from my little—sense of touch?

Well, there lies the rub! My vision reaches as far as the Milky Way, my hearing potentially for miles, my smell unfortunately into the toilet of the lyrical poet Expresber. I hear the little prostitute Kleptomanopatra here, whenever she speaks during sexual intercourse in Cairo. I sense the elegant novelist Paul Juchheyse (with the sense of intuition, of course), whenever I, so far away from him, think of nothing. But I can only taste and touch my dears when I have them right next to me (which, by the way, heaven forbid!). Nevertheless! What is clear from all of this is that whenever somebody asks, “Where are you?” he actually means, “Where can you be touched?” For you could also be seen, heard, smelled somewhere else. Yes, this heavy and clumsy sense of touch! We have to pry it out, thaw it out, pull it through wires, and finally send it wirelessly into every distance. How easy!

You see, dear Frau Scholz, before you go to the trouble of putting on your stockings and shoes, powdering your nose, going to the train station, getting into a coupe, and still needing fourteen days until you’re not even in Japan yet, where Prince Ten-tsim-po will take you into his frail arms—simply stand naked, as, if we are not mistaken, God made you, on some kind of scale, whose counterpart at the target of your destination will react accordingly: With a flick of the wrist, everything about you that can be touched or weighed will be transferred over there telehaptically! Soon, we’ll be able to send along clothing too; for the time being, the teletoucher resists…shamefully!…anyone who is not stark naked. This is probably the reason why it does yet function properly.

Be that as it may, the teletoucher—which, of course, as Professor Abnossah Pschorr had the kindness to inform me, includes the telesmeller, teletaster, teleheater/cooler, etc.—is the ideal mode of all transportation…and so healthy, so amusing, so modern, that it promises to have a directly refreshing effect, especially in the field of erotics, which up to now has been somewhat…awkward? Yes, Mother Kobelke, have you heard that a teletictor, a telegestural apparatus is definitely envisaged for the future?

All the things that are true! Having oneself telehapted costs a little will power, giving away a little of oneself for a moment. Oh, my dear colonial grocer Schwach from Halle, rid yourself of the delusion that you’re not in Burma: You are everywhere. But without the telehaptor, you’ll hardly experience it! What’s Halle to you? How beautiful Burma is!

Simply have yourself telehapted, on account of your blessed memory in Halle! So that people lament your passing!

And what would be really delightful is the (still to be realized) forced telehaptation! In a single go, we could shoot off an entire regiment of deplorable people to Timbuktu, and destroy the device for them to get back. Good heavens, wouldn’t that be cathartic!…

What do you mean, you sheep nose? You take the thought to be fantastic, you uninvited fool?! Won’t you be silent, you boar! Did you make the festival celebrating 1813 on my behalf, you old party-animal! Did you think perhaps you might be among companions here? You vulture! Do you take these kinds of ideas for hollow eggs full of gas? What? Light waves and such rubbish are supposed to propagate rapidly—and haptic vibrations are not? Are you crazy? Or are you perhaps only the dumb goose who only goes with officers? You disaster!

Source: Mynona (Salomo Friedlaender), “Idee vom Ferntaster,” Der Sturm 4, no. 170–71 (July 1913): 66–67.



Paul Scheerbart, “Self-Advertisement” (1913)

The old man sprung up onto a little table in his laboratory, cleared his throat heavily, and said, “Gentlemen, I will now give a speech. I am not a practiced speaker. But I still hope that I can make myself understood.

“I maintain that Europeans and especially the Germans esteem their famous men of science too much, much too much! Whenever one of them expresses a halfway reasonable opinion or has invented something imposing, he immediately becomes an ‘authority’. Unfamous people say to themselves, ‘The man once did or said something reasonable, so everything he has to say will probably be reasonable too.’ That’s easy, gentlemen, isn’t it?

“Now let’s get to the point. A marvelous example will illustrate what I’ve said perfectly. As is well known, Robert Mayer formulated the great law of the conservation of energy very clearly in 1849. And to this incredibly modern ‘legislation’, he added the observation that a perpetual motion machine is impossible. And for sixty years, all scientists parroted it without taking any trouble to investigate the matter.

“Now, we’re not going to doubt the law of the conservation of energy. But we will definitely debate the claim that the impossibility of a load motor proceeds from this law. As is well-known, Robert Mayer was occupied with the perpetuum mobile for three full years. When he recognized that he would not be able to solve the problem himself, he said solemnly: ‘If I can’t do it, then it’s not possible! For nobody can be more clever than I am!’ This is how (or, roughly how) his really excellent book on the conservation of energy came about. What wisdom did the great Robert come up with? Only this: If a load goes down, it must be taken up again, so it cannot work perpetually if it goes down.

“However, it is still possible that a load sets a system of wheels in motion without approaching the earth. Why shouldn’t this be possible? Whatever is not found today could very well be found tomorrow. Furthermore, every millwheel in a river that is free of ice and never dries up, is already a perpetual motion machine. Admittedly, the evaporation of water takes care of taking up the load again. But the sun takes care of this process of being taken up again perpetually.

“I believe the respected physicists cannot yet position themselves or their imaginations, for the purposes of their cosmic observations, outside of the earth’s atmosphere, and, from this position, view the very strange perpetual attraction of the earth. Converting this force of attraction into perpetual motion may not be so easy: But we cannot declare it to be impossible. The principle of the conservation of energy does not affect the conversion of a force of attraction into motion. Admittedly, there are no dead forces in this world. Every object at rest exerts some pressure, and, in doing so, it does work.

“Physics may be a difficult matter. However, that does not justify anyone in claiming and believing all kinds of things for the field of this marvelous science. Furthermore, I declare that I have never met a technician who has not attempted to invent a perpetuum mobile in secret.”

The old man got down from the table and drank three cognacs without sitting down.

Then I said, “My esteemed Laboratory Director, I completely agree with you and I’ve also been working for two and a half years to invent a transportable load motor that functions perpetually only through the support of a weight. I believe I’ve done it. In any case, I’ve written a book about it, which has appeared through Rowohlt’s Press in Leipzig under the title The Perpetual Motion Machine. It has twenty-six drawings, and can be acquired in bookstores for fifty pfennig.

“That’s truly splendid!” the director said. “I congratulate you!”

“I congratulate myself too!” I said amiably.

Source: Paul Scheerbart, “Selbstanzeige,” Die Zukunft 47, no. 20 (Aug. 1913).



Christian Morgenstern, Selected Diary Entries (1907)

As a schoolboy, I attempted for the first time to create a vivid picture of what we call the endlessness of the universe. At night, I would lay down in the garden on a folding chair in an almost horizontal position, and I would try to penetrate into the reality of the starry sky beyond its purely visual appearance. I succeeded in experiencing the following: One second of this kind of absence from the earth, one single little step further, and my brain would be lost forever. I broke off the unearthly experiment. Now, some fifteen odd years later, the same danger threatens me in the light of day. It began on a steely blue spring evening in a garden in Obermais with my gaze directed at the mountain chain upstream from the Vinschgau Valley. The mountains formed something like a molehill, the places around me lost their significance. My little trough seemed no more significant to me than a thumbprint in a wax ball, and the huge yet small planet carried me around on its back through space like a single-celled organism. I was gripped by a light, spiritual feeling of vertigo, a presentiment of motion sickness of the soul. The concepts above and below disappeared into a third. I sat there due only to the mercy of barometric pressure.

Were it not for my such great love of the present, were it not for this love like a great, secure parachute, I would have fallen into the abyss long ago.

Well, then, I come from painters—and have to experience the collapse of nature as an image within myself.

I am like someone who, without a guide, climbs up into the high mountains using only maps and occasional information from shepherds and hikers. Nobody would guess the agony I had to pay for it or that a quick death would have often been a divine blessing for me. No, my ‘dilettantism’ was not fun, not coquetry. It is my fate, but I cannot escape it. Since my spirit was always willing, my body always lacked that last gasp of energy that always has to provide support whenever something great should come about in the world.

I have a lot of luck, both the luck that conceals my limits from me and the luck that my limits seem to enable me to extend myself out into the indeterminate. I have a lot of talent at living—if only life had more talent for me. But sometimes a gust of wind will blow away every warm protective illusion and then I momentarily see my silhouette and…shudder.

I have only one real and true enemy in the world and that is myself.

Whenever I’m among people, it’s like I’m on vacation. And that’s why I shouldn’t go out among people anymore and, least of all, among friends. For none of them know that I’m only with them and lend them an ear as a guest, that I’ve lost the last bit of passionate attention for much of their lives and goings-on, as though I was a man listening to beautiful and huge music in a big hall—but outside his wife is secretly standing in front of the door and waiting for him, and, due to pure inner unrest, he only listens with one ear, and hardly hides his distractedness, and, for many sharp observers, would rightly not be considered to be a very expertly engaged listener.

I wander around in these European countries like a bird in a greenhouse. People think that my life is enviable because I travel from one place to another. They don’t know that in the end every one of these places is disappointing—because the bane of European civilization, which the places had been spared a hundred, even fifty years ago, has been poured out over every last one of them. The appalling sobriety of the past 30, 40 years creeps around after you everywhere, indeed, even stains you. In the end, you hopelessly spend your time in hotels. For if there’s not a hotel, there’s no room for you with your massive traveling suitcase and your standard German language. I, too, believed in the greatness of our epoch of technology, but now I only feel one thing: that it disenchants the earth by making everything common.

The alternating buzzing of two or three wasps reminds me of the responsorial songs in the Catholic church. I can see the well-fed churchmen, the priests celebrating on the steps of the altar and even the altar with its slim little candles and old paintings.

I began this fall with evil deeds. On two hot days in September, I killed five or six wasps that had come into my room and were bothering me. It was completely and utterly out of character for me and can only be explained with the unrest and lack of self control that had come over me under the influence of the southern wind perhaps just as it had the wasps.
Later comment: I can still remember how much the “stupidity” of the animals, in particular, had gotten me worked up at the time, how they would fly around the ceiling for hours, up and down, back and forth, without finding or wanting to find the open balcony door. If we transfer my impatience and hurry to the relation between gods and man, then the gods would really have nothing to do all day long other than kill people.

My entire life I’ve been searching for the stinger I could press into idle flesh—and I never find it.

Today, I could still play in the woods like a boy: build houses out of stones and pieces of wood, mark off streets with dry little branches and create groves, elevate a piece of rock to the status of an Alpine peak, and bestow the dominion over everything on a stag beetle and his wife. And this little kingdom would make me happier, and occupy and work up my fantasy in a more intricate way than even the largest kingdom found in reality. So, once, at age 35, I spent eight days on a beach on the island of Salt creating and building a seaside hut. Honestly, I have seldom been so happy at heart as during this harmless game.

The older I become, the more one word becomes my word above all others: ‘grotesque’.

If I was a musician, I would compose a work for a mixed choir with an orchestra—”The Choir of Convalescents”—and not even in heaven itself would the singing be so deep, so ardent, and so sweet.

Source: Christian Morgenstern, “1907,” in Stufen: Eine Entwicklung in Aphorismen und Tagebuch-Notizen, 22-26 (Munich: Piper, 1918).


Lost & Found: New Translations

In the coming days, I’ll be sharing the following translations. Most are relatively unknown, short-form texts related to my current research on media, science, and technology around 1900: