The following was published in 1923 in the Berliner Börsen-Courier, for which, among many other papers, Joseph Roth was a correspondent in the years before he published The Radetzky March.
Passengers with heavy loads take their place in the very last cars of our endless trains, alongside “Passengers with Dogs” and “War Invalids.” The last car is the one that rattles around the most; its doors close badly, and its windows are not sealed, and are sometimes broken and stuffed with brown paper.
It’s not chance but destiny that makes a person into a passenger with heavy baggage. War invalids were made by exploding shells, whose destructive effect was not calculation but such infinite randomness that it was bound to be destructive. To take a dog with us or not is an expression of personal freedom. But being a passenger with heavy baggage is a full-time occupation. Even without a load, he would still be a passenger with heavy baggage. He belongs to a particular type of human being—and the sign on the car window is less a piece of railway terminology than a philosophical definition.
Baggage cars are filled with a kind of dense atmosphere you could cut maybe with a saw, a freak of nature, a kind of gas in a state of aggregation. It smells of cold pipe tobacco, damp wood, the cadavers of leaves, and the humus of autumn forests. What causes the smell are the bundles of wood belonging to the occupants, who have come straight from the forests, having escaped the shotguns of enthusiastic huntsmen, with the damp chill of the earth in their bones and on their boot soles. They are encrusted with green moss, as if they were pieces of old masonry. Their hands are cracked, their old fingers gouty and deformed, resembling peculiar gnarled roots. A few leaves have caught in the thin hair of an old woman—a funeral wreath of the cheapest kind. Swallows could make nests for themselves in the tangled beards of the old men….
Passengers with heavy baggage don’t set down their forests when they themselves sit down. Having to pick up one’s load again after a half-hour in which one’s spine has felt free for all eternity seems to weigh heavier than an entire pine forest. I know that with us soldiers, when a few minutes’ rest beckoned after hours of marching, we didn’t undo our packs but continued to drag them with us like a horribly loyal misfortune,* or a foe to whom we were bound in an eternal alliance. That’s how these old bundle carriers sit, not so much passengers with heavy baggage, as heavy baggage with passengers. And that also goes to demonstrate the fatefulness of carrying loads, that it’s a condition rather than an activity. And what do the forest people talk about? They speak in half-sentences and stunted sounds. They keep silent not from wisdom but from poverty. They reply hesitantly, because their brains work slowly, forming thoughts only gradually, and then burying them in silent depths no sooner than they are born. In the forests where their work is, there is a vast silence unbroken by idle chatter; there the only sound is that of a woodpecker attacking a branch. In the forests they have learned that words are useless, and only good for fools to waste their time on.
But in the scraps these people do say is expressed the sorrow of an entire world. They have only to say “butter” and right away you understand that butter is something very remote and inaccessible, not something you spread with a knife on a piece of bread, but a gift from heaven, where the good things of this world pile up as inaccessibly as in a shop window. They say: “Summer’s early this year”—and that means that they’ll be going out into the forests looking for snowdrops, that the children will be allowed out of bed to play in the street, and that their stoves can be left unheated till the autumn.
Actors, who relate their woes in many clever sentences and much waving of hands and rolling of eyes—they should be made to ride in the cars for passengers with heavy baggage, to learn that a slightly bent hand can hold in it the misery of all time, and that the quiver of an eyelid can be more moving than a whole evening full of crocodile tears. Perhaps they shouldn’t be trained in drama schools but sent to work in the forests, to understand that their work is not speech but silence, not expression but tacit expression.
Evening comes, an overhead light goes on. Its illumination is oily and greasy; it burns in a haze like a star in a sea of fog. We ride past lit-up advertisements, past a world without burdens, commercial hymns to laundry soap, cigars, shoe polish, and bootlaces suddenly shine forth against the darkened sky. It’s the time of day when the world goes to the theater, to experience human destinies on expensive stages, and riding in this train are the most sublime tragedies and tragic farces, the passengers with heavy baggage.
Of all the labels and bits of jargon, the epigrammatic edicts that regulate the bustle of a city, providing information and instructions, offering advice, and constituting law—of all the impersonal formulations in stations, waiting rooms, and the centers of life—this one is humane, artistic, epigrammatic, concealing and revealing its huge content.
The honest man who came up with “Passengers with Heavy Baggage” for practical purposes can’t have known that at the same time he found a title for a great drama.
This is how poetry is made.
December 5, 2002
From time to time, Roth comes quite close to Rilke. Cf. lines 16–17 of the first of the Duino Elegies: “und das verzogene Treusein einer Gewohnheit,/der es bei uns gefiel, and so blieb sie und ging nicht.” ↩