English translation of Jakob van Hoddis' "Der Visionarr"


                       Ludwig Meidner: Jakob van Hoddis, 1913

                                             The Visionut

                      Lamp do not soot.
                      Out of the wall drove a slender woman’s arm.
                      It was pale and blue-veined.
                      The fingers were with precious rings bepatched.
                      When I kissed the hand, I startled:
                      It was alive and warm.
                      My face got scratched.
                      I took a kitchen knife and cut a few veins.
                      A large cat daintily licked up the blood from the floor.
                      A man, meanwhile, with bristling hair crawled
                      Up a broomstick leant aslant against the wall

                      (tr. by Rolf-Peter Wille)


                          Arnold Schoenberg: The Red Gaze, 1910

               Ruminations on the Magic Charm of Arms Protruding from Walls

by Rolf-Peter Wille

I hope your hair is properly standing on end! Mine did when I failed to find a single English translation of this poem. "Visionarr", obviously, is a portmanteau of "Visionär" (visionary) and "Narr" (fool). Besides "visionut", or "visonnut" other possible translations could be "visionutty", "visidiot" or "idionary": "The Idionary Visidiot"? "Narr" need not be "idiot" though. Van Hoddis may have contemplated his own "Narrheit" in 1913. Being a very heavy smoker, a drinker and perhaps even an opium addict he was on the verge of mental illness when writing this poem and already had suffered a mental breakdown before.

I think you will certainly agree that Schoenberg's Der rote Blick ("The Red Gaze", see above) has a visionary quality, but it will not seduce your amusement. Like in van Hoddis famous Weltende ("End of the World", 1011) the "horror" in Visionarr hovers between a real and a tongue-in-cheek one. Its images—the arm protruding from the wall, or the cat, broomstick and bristling hair—are well known to us. A famous "hand-coming-out-of-the-wall" scene, a childhood memory, can be found in Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1910:
"Accustomed to the brightness above and still wholly excited by the colours on the white paper my eyes could make nothing of what might be under the table. […] "I recognized first of all my own outspread hand rather like some aquatic creature moving down there all on its own searching the area around. I watched it, I still recall, almost with curiosity; it seemed to me as if it knew things I'd never taught it; as it groped around down there so sure of itself making movements I'd never seen it make. I followed its advance, it interested me; I was prepared for anything. But how could I have been expected to make instant sense of another hand coming to meet it out of the wall— a larger and unusually thin hand such as I had never seen before. Searching in a similar manner it approached from the other side and both of the outspread hands moved blindly towards each other. My curiosity was still not satisfied but suddenly it ended and only horror was left." (tr. by William Needham)
Arms and walls also appear in Georg Heym’s Fieberspital ("Fever Hospital" or "Fever Ward"), 1910:
"The faded linen in the many beds
Blends in with walls of sickness, bare and stark."
"They shiver in the frost, and white with fear
They raise their scrawny arms, their tongue is bound."
"And from the wall that stretches white and bland
Appears an arm. And clenched around their neck
The crushing fingers from a bony hand."
(excerpts from a translation by Wolfgang Steinmann)
And in Heym’s sarcastic Die Professoren  the professors at times seem to fade, like shadows, into the whitewashed wall. Van Hoddis himself was fascinated with walls. This is an excerpt from the poem Es hebt sich ein rosa Gesicht (from Nacht):
Oh wall, that into my lifeless hours stares
Wall, wall, that my soul with wonders ensnares
With apathy and greenish Kalk
My friend. My wishes’ dirt catafalque.
          (tr. by Rolf-Peter Wille)

Walls continue to fascinate us. And do not take the wrong medicine lest you’ll get stuck in the wall like the famous "Man Who Walked through Walls" (Le Passe-muraille) by Marcel Aymé, 1943.

Arms that appear from walls, actually grabbing hands reaching out, appear in Roman Polanski’s horror film Repulsion, 1965.

And…, do I need to write about cats and broomsticks?

          caricature by Schoenberg

Here is the original Visionarr in German:

                           Der Visionarr
Lampe blöck nicht.
Aus der Wand fuhr ein dünner Frauenarm.
Er war bleich und blau geädert.
Die Finger waren mit kostbaren Ringen bepatzt.
Als ich die Hand küßte, erschrak ich:
Sie war lebendig und warm.
Das Gesicht wurde mir zerkratzt.
Ich nahm ein Küchenmesser und zerschnitt ein paar Adern.
Eine große Katze leckte zierlich das Blut vom Boden auf.
Ein Mann indes kroch mit gesträubten Haaren
Einen schräg an die Wand gelegten Besenstiel hinauf.


                     caricatures by Schoenberg


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