No Comment, Quotation — September 20, 2009, 5:23 am

Hofmannsthal – Der Kaiser und die Hexe

boecklin-isle

Merk Dir: jeder Schritt im Leben
?
ist ein tiefrer. Worte! Worte! ?
Merk Dir nichts als dies, Tarquinius:
?
wer nicht wahr ist, wirft sich weg! ?
. . . Doch vielleicht begreifst Du dies
?
erst, wenn es zu spät ist; merk’ ?
dies allein: nicht eine einzige ?
Stunde kommt zweimal im Leben,
?
nicht ein Wort, nicht eines Blickes ?
ungreifbares Nichts ist je ?
ungescheh’n zu machen, was
?
Du gethan hast, musst Du tragen,
?
so das Lächeln wie den Mord!

Take note: every step in life
Is deep. Words! Words!
Note nothing beyond this, Tarquinius:
He who is untrue, throws himself away!
. . . Though you may well appreciate this
When it is too late; note
This alone: not a single hour
Comes twice in the course of a life,
Not a word, not a glance
An incomprehensible nothing may
Never be undone, if once it was done,
You must bear it,
The smile as well as the murder!

Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Der Kaiser und die Hexe p. 25 (1900)(S.H. transl.)

Hofmannsthal may be best known today for his masterful operas that resulted from his collaboration with Richard Strauss, but I love his early works, all of which have a strong lyrical quality. We see in them a parade of noble, elegant figures speaking ethereal, highly sculpted words. There is always an other-worldly quality about them—they are taken from a world of myth and fairy tale and there is only very rarely any demonstration of passion or violence. Hofmannsthal’s object is beauty; he projects a strong aesthetic sense in which everything is heavily laden with meaning and symbolism. This passage from Der Kaiser und die Hexe tells us something about his aestheticism and the growing anxiety with which he approaches his craft as a writer. But this piece is about words and deeds, and among Hofmannsthal’s early work it also carries a complex message of social justice—an unusual element for a writer who was, particularly at this time, a strong cultural conservative. This dramatic poem opens with the emperor out on a hunt, though he almost immediately asks himself—am I the hunter, or the hunted? He is absorbed with thoughts about a witch, whose clutches he is trying to escape (raising a typically fin-de-siècle theme about the relationship between men and women, in which the later routinely appear as seductresses)—but that theme is ultimately secondary to the question of accountability he faces for his acts as a ruler. He has, we learn dealt wrongly with political rivals, and they chance to cross his path as wretches. There is no undoing a misdeed from the past, he says, but his noble inner voice also admonishes him not to be bound by it in the future (“Grauenhaftes, das vergangen / Giebt der Gegenwart ein eignes / Leben, eine fremde Schönheit, / Und erhöht den Glanz der Dinge / wie durch eingeschluckte Schatten”). But this work has a dream-like quality, and it ultimately presents only a series of dichotomies—between words and deeds, fact and fiction, the powerful and the powerless, the masculine and the feminine—without offering clear moral solutions or answers. The press of death hangs over this work. The emperor’s acts are guided by consciousness of his mortality and apprehension about his misdeeds. Hofmannsthal tells us that those who wield temporal power face extraordinary temptations that can bring them low, and having fallen once, they may fall serially to preserve the aura of their innocence. Death is presented as the great leveler and point of accountability for the powerful.

The Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin is best known for The Isle of the Dead, a painting that he recreated several times, and which was extremely influential in the waning days of the nineteenth century. It presents an aesthetic image much like the one Hofmannsthal weaves in Der Kaiser und die Hexe, and it is masterfully realized in musical terms in the orchestral poem “The Isle of the Dead,” op. 29 (1908) by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Listen to a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Rachmaninoff himself:

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2016

American Idle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

My Holy Land Vacation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The City That Bleeds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

El Bloqueo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Vladivostok Station

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ideology of Isolation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The City That Bleeds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing."
Photograph (detail) © Wil Sands/Fractures Collective
Post
Inside the July Issue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tom Bissell on touring Israel with Christian Zionists, Joy Gordon on the Cuban embargo, Lawrence Jackson on Freddie Gray and the makings of an American uprising, a story by Paul Yoon, and more

i. stand with israel
I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. Confident masculine voices telling me the enemy is everywhere and victory is near — I often find it affirming: there’s a reason I don’t think that way. Last spring, many right-wing commentators made much of a Bloomberg poll that asked Americans, “Are you more sympathetic to Netanyahu or Obama?” Republicans picked the Israeli prime minister over their own president, 67 to 16 percent. There was a lot of affected shock that things had come to this. Rush Limbaugh said of Netanyahu that he wished “we had this kind of forceful moral, ethical clarity leading our own country”; Mark Levin described him as “the leader of the free world.” For a few days there I yelled quite a bit in my car.

The one conservative radio show I do find myself enjoying is hosted by Dennis Prager. At the Thanksgiving dinner of American radio personalities (Limbaugh is your jittery brother-in-law, Michael Savage is your racist uncle, Hugh Hewitt is Hugh Hewitt) Dennis Prager is the turkey-carving patriarch trying to keep the conversation moderately high-minded. While Prager obviously doesn’t like liberals — “The gaps between the left and right on almost every issue that matters are in fact unbridgeable,” he has said — he often invites them onto his show for debate, which is rare among right-wing hosts. Yet his gently exasperated take on the Obama–Netanyahu matchup was among the least charitable: “Those who do not confront evil resent those who do.”

Artwork: Camels, Jerusalem (detail) copyright Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Post
Europe’s Hamilton Moment·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"We all know in France that as soon as a politician starts saying that some problem will be solved at the European level, that means no one is going to do anything."
Photograph (detail) by Stefan Boness
[Report]
How to Make Your Own AR-15·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Even if federal gun-control advocates got everything they wanted, they couldn’t prevent America’s most popular rifle from being made, sold, and used. Understanding why this is true requires an examination of how the firearm is made.
Illustration by Jeremy Traum
Article
My Holy Land Vacation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"I wanted to more fully understand why conservative politics had become synonymous with no-questions-asked support of Israel."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson

Pairs of moose-dung earrings sold each year at Grizzly’s Gifts in Anchorage, Alaska:

6,000

An Alaskan brown bear was reported to have scratched its face with barnacled rocks, making it the first bear seen using tools since 1972, when a Svalbardian polar bear is alleged to have clubbed a seal in the head with a block of ice.

A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today