Roving thoughts and provocations

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Berlin and the Artist

Madrid, Fundacíon Collecíon Thyssen-Bornemisza
George Grosz: Metropolis, 1916-1917

Over the next few days, we will be running several excerpts from Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories, which have been translated into English for the first time by Susan Bernofsky, and just published in a new edition by New York Review Classics. Walser arrived in Berlin from Switzerland in 1905 and wrote hundreds of short reflections about the city’s charms. As Bernofsky writes in her introduction, “The chirpy delight some of his narrators take in the city’s hum and bustle also reflects his own status as an outsider who enjoys blending in with the crowd.” The story that follows is drawn from a longer piece. —The Editors

A city like Berlin is an ill-mannered, impertinent, intelligent scoundrel, constantly affirming the things that suit him and tossing aside everything he tires of. Here in the big city you can definitely feel the waves of intellect washing over the life of Berlin society like a sort of bath. An artist here has no choice but to pay attention. Elsewhere he is permitted to stop up his ears and sink into willful ignorance. Here this is not allowed. Rather, he must constantly pull himself together as a human being, and this compulsion encircling him redounds to his advantage. But there are yet other things as well.

Berlin never rests, and this is glorious. Each dawning day brings with it a new, agreeably disagreeable attack on complacency, and this does the general sense of indolence good. An artist possesses, much like a child, an inborn propensity for beautiful, noble sluggardizing. Well, this slug-a-beddishness, this kingdom, is constantly being buffeted by fresh storm-winds of inspiration. The refined, silent creature is suddenly blustered full of something coarse, loud, and unrefined. There is an incessant blurring together of various things, and this is good, this is Berlin, and Berlin is outstanding.

The excellent gentleman from the provinces, however, should by no means imagine that here in the city there are not lonelinesses as well. The metropolis contains lonelinesses of the most frightful sort, and anyone who wishes to sample this exquisite dish can eat his fill of it here. He can experience what it means to live in deserts and wastes. The metropolitan artist has no dearth of opportunities to see and speak to no one at all. All he has to do is make himself unpopular among certain arbiters of taste or else consistently fixate on failures, and in no time he’ll have sunk into the most splendid, most blossoming of abandonments.

The artist who is crowned with success lives in the metropolis as if in an enchanting Oriental dream. He hastens from one elegant household to the affluent next, sits down unhesitatingly at the opulently laden dining tables, and while chewing and slurping provides the entertainment. He passes his days in a virtual state of intoxication. And his talent? Does an artist such as this neglect his talent? What a question! As if one might cast off one’s gifts without so much as a by-your-leave. On the contrary. Talent unconsciously grows stronger when one throws oneself into life. You mustn’t be constantly tending and coddling it like a sickly something. It shrivels up when it’s too timidly cared for.

The artistic individual is nonetheless permitted to pace up and down, like a tiger, in his cave of artistic creation, mad with desire and worry over achieving some output of beauty. As no one sees this, there is no one to hold it against him. In company, he should be as breezy, affable, and charming as he can manage, neither too self-important nor too unimportant either. One thing he must never forget: he is all but required to pay court to beautiful, wealthy women at least a little.

After approximately five or six years have passed, the artist—even if he comes from peasant stock—will feel at home in the metropolis. His parents would appear to have lived and given birth to him here. He feels indebted, bound, and beholden to this strange rattling, clattering racket. All the scurrying and fluttering about now seem to him a sort of nebulous, beloved maternal figure. He no longer thinks of ever leaving again. Whether things go well with him or poorly, whether he comes down in the world or flourishes, no matter, it “has” him, he is forever under its spell, and it would be impossible for him to bid this magnificent restlessness adieu.

—translated by Susan Bernofsky

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