Friday, February 10, 2006

Was darf die Satire?

What May Satire Do? (1919)
By Kurt Tucholsky

Mrs. Vockerat: "But one must have one's enjoyment from art."
Johannes: "One can have much more from art than enjoyment." (Gerhart Hauptmann)

When someone around here makes a good joke, half Germany sits on the sofa and takes it badly.

Satire seems to be a thoroughly negative thing. It says: "No!" A satire that calls for an increase in the war debt, is none. Satire bites, laughs, whistles and beats the gigantic trooper's drum against everything that is stagnant and unresponsive.

Satire is a thoroughly positive thing. Nowhere do those lacking character betray themselves quicker than here, nowhere does he show himself swifter, that tomfool without a conscience, one who attacks this today and that tomorrow.

The satirist is an offended idealist: he wants the world to be good, it is bad, and now he runs up against the bad.

The satire of an artist rich in character, one who fights for the sake of good, does not deserve society's contempt and the outraged boos and hisses with which this art is dismissed.

The typical German makes one primary mistake: he confuses that which is represented with he who does the representing. If I want to show the consequences of alcohol addiction, in other words, fight against it, I cannot do so with pious bible quotes. The most effective way is with the gripping representation of a man who is hopelessly drunk. I lift the curtain protectively spread over the decay, and say: "Look!" - In Germany they call this "crassness." But alcohol addiction is a terrible thing. It damages society, and only the merciless truth can help. That's how it was back then with the weaver's misery, and with prostitution it is still that way today.

The influence of small town thinking has kept German satire inside its paltry borders. Major themes are nearly eliminated. "Simplicissimus" alone, back then, when it still held the huge, red bull dog on the right side of its coat of arms, dared to touch all the sacred German symbols: the physically abusing sergeant, the mold-speckled bureaucrat, the teacher with his switch, the streetwalker, the fat-hearted businessman and the nasally speaking officer. Of course one may think of these topics however one wishes, and anyone is free to consider an attack unjustified, and another to consider it exaggerated, but the right of an honest man to take the whip to his time must never be negated with thick words.

Does satire exaggerate? Satire has to exaggerate and is, in its deepest nature, unjust. It inflates the truth to make it clearer, and it can do nothing more than work according to the bible verse: the just will suffer with the unjust.

But nowadays, deep in the typical German, sits the bothersome habit to appear not as an individual, but to think and present oneself as classes, as corporations, and heaven help you if you step on the toes of one of these. Why are our joke pages, our farces, our comedies and our films so lean? Because no one dares lay a finger on that obese octopus crouching among us, smothering the entire land: fat, lazy and life-extinguishing.

The German satire did not even venture to attack the country's enemy. We certainly should not imitate the worst of the French war caricatures, but what power lay in them, what elemental rage, what design and what affect! Admittedly: they stopped at nothing. Next to them hung our modest computational tables with u-boat tallies, harming no one and read by none.

We should not be so narrow-minded. We, all of us, school teachers and shop owners and professors and editors and musicians and doctors and public officials and women and representatives of the people - we all have our shortcomings and comical sides and foibles great and small. We must not be so quick to protest ("Butcher's Guild, protect your holiest of goods!") when once in a while someone tells a really good joke about us. It might be mean, but it should be honest. There isn't a proper man or a proper class that cannot stand a fair shove. He might defend himself by the same means, he might strike back - but he should not turn away injured, outraged, offended. A cleaner wind would blow through our public life, would they all not take it badly.

But this way the constant darkness swells into delusions of grandeur. The German satirist dances between classes, confessions, local institutions and occupational groups a perpetual egg dance. It is quite graceful, to be sure, but, after a time, somewhat tiresome. True satire cleanses the blood: and whosoever has healthy blood, has also a pure complexion.

What may satire do?

Everything.

----
"Was darf die Satire?" Kurt Tucholsky writing under the pseudonym Ignaz Wrobel in the Berliner Tageblatt #36: January 27th, 1919.
The German original may be read here.

Notes:

Weaver's Misery: This is a reference to the Weaver's Rebellion, but I could find no English language description of this. The German language Wikipedia has a detailed history. The weavers were a professional group in Germany hit especially hard by a combination of cheap foreign competition and excessive taxation/fees which they could not pay. This culminated in the Weaver's Rebellion of 1844, which is interpreted as a classic example of hunger revolt and pre-industrial era worker unrest. There had been rebellions in the previous century but this was the first time the issues were discussed extensively in contemporary literature and publications. The rebellion was put down harshly and is cited further as the precursor of the failed German revolution of 1848, because of the political awareness that arose from it.

Simplicissimus: For more information about this German satirical magazine, please refer to the English language Wikipedia article. The German language article shows a picture of the bulldog.

Gerhart Hauptmann: The author Tucholsky quoted is covered in this Wikipedia biography. The play quoted here is "Einsame Menschen" (1891). It has been translated into English as "Lonely Lives." I could not find a text online, but the Gutenberg project has other translations of his, including a play about the Weaver's Rebellion. Hauptmann won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1912.

10 Comments:

Anonymous weirsdo said...

I really like this piece. I'm would like to write it and this blog up on the "Free Radical" site soon.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Indeterminacy said...

Thank you for the write-up. There are some interesting discussion going on over at that site.

11:34 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

I like this piece, too. And I'm glad you decided to translate some prose.

At the same time, people, now including the dead, keep pointing out to me that a cynic is a frustrated romantic. Why can't a romantic be a dull cynic?

4:41 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Hahaha, Indie. I bet you're right.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Indeterminacy said...

Hey Doug: Glad you enjoyed this. I should have included an acknowledgement to Friedhelm Greis of the German Tucholsky blog who brought my attention to the actuality of this particular piece.

Tucholsky's poetry is great, but I don't know if I am the best person to translate it. I do my best, and I'm glad David is taking over with formal verse renderings (he's a little behind right now, but still there).

(A romantic would probably be a cynic who just had a date with Alice. You lucky dog, you)

(The preceding comment is in response to this comment, which I reposted because of some typos).

1:13 PM  
Anonymous pia said...

Wow--this was wonderful

I'm not easy to anger anymore. Got that all out my first couple of years of blogging

When I saw the photo of a man on top of the Trade Center and a plane looking as if was going to hit and the blogger said this was great satire, my instinct was to leave a comment saying I know satire and this was just tasteless--but I didn't. Then I had nightmares about it

See I can see somebody satirizing me and my reaction to 9/11--that would be funny--and as the female New York Al Franken--I deserve it--actually I might

This article was wonderful--will link to it

Thanks

8:02 AM  
Blogger Indeterminacy said...

Hi Pia and thanks for the nice feedback. I agree that the word satire is used too often these days to justify anything. And humor in general has been deteriorating in taste.

I really have to get going and post a new translation here. There are so many unknown classics of Tucholsky's still to cover.

2:41 AM  
Anonymous Todd said...

Danke. Der Weg ins Freie (Schnitzler's work) through another Weg. All my German. Thanks for the time and effort you put into the blog. I enjoyed my time in Potsdam for the Marathon there a couple of years ago.

In Miami,FL, in Temple, I met a German Jewish Doctor who fled Munich, W. Germany in the 1980's, yes, 1980's, introduced me to Kurt T, Borchardt, Zweig, Feuchtwanger, and more. My friend was on the medical faculty at Munich and the only Jew. When Judenhass about a NY Jew doctor visiting came from the head of the faculty and only one nun spoke out against, my friend left W. Germany, the next day (if I remember correctly).

11:28 AM  
Blogger Indeterminacy said...

Thank you Todd for the nice words, and the interesting story you relate. It has been an amazing experience for me to come to Germany and learn of these same authors you mention, by word of mouth, by coincidence or my own reasearch. German was the language to read in the 1920's and early 1930's.

6:00 AM  
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11:34 PM  

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