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

Hofmannsthal – Der Kaiser und die Hexe


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:

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

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

United States Canada



August 2015

In the Shadow of the Storm

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Measure for Measure

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Israel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Camera on Every Cop

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


“The campaign music stopped. Hundreds of people, their faces now warped by the dread of a third bomb, began running for cover.”
Photograph © Guy Martin/Panos.
Part Neither, Part Both·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Eight months pregnant I told an old woman sitting beside me on the bus that the egg that hatched my baby came from my wife’s ovaries. I didn’t know how the old woman would take it; one can never know. She was delighted: That’s like a fairy tale!”
Mother with Children, by Gustav Klimt © akg-images
What Recovery?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Between 2007 and 2010, Albany’s poverty rate jumped 12 points, to a record high of 39.9 percent. More than two thirds of Albany’s 76,000 residents are black, and since 2010, their poverty rate has climbed even higher, to nearly 42 percent.”
Photograph by Will Steacy
Rag Time·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From a May 23 commencement address delivered at Hofstra University. Doctorow died on Tuesday. He was 84.
“We are a deeply divided nation in danger of undergoing a profound change for the worse.”
Photograph by Giuseppe Giglia
The Trouble with Israel·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.”
Photograph by Adam Golfer

Ratio of money spent by Britons on prostitution to that spent on hairdressing:


A German scientist was testing an anti-stupidity pill.

A Twitter spokesperson conceded that a “Frat House”–themed office party “was in poor taste at best.”

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


Subways Are for Sleeping


“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today