Félix Vallotton, Sunset, 1910
by Douglas Penick
Though greatly admired by other writers, Robert Walser (1878-1956) lived on the edges of obscurity and poverty until a mental breakdown when he was 51 necessitated institutionalisation at Waldau in his native Switzerland. “The patient confessed hearing voices,” said his admission form. While there, he went on long walks and continued writing and publishing. Secretly he composed essays and stories in minute script on the back of random bits of paper which he carefully kept. When he was moved to a sanitorium in the Appenzell region, he stopped writing. He told his devoted friend, Carl Seelig: “I am not here to write, but to be mad.”
The following was written in the Walser’s tiny, crabbed and cramped script on the back of the business card of a fabric store (Import Englisher Stoffe/HANS MARTY/Burgdorf/telefon 89). It concludes a piece he titled “New Year’s Page”:
I can’t seem to resist the thought that at present we frequently have opportunity to read about crises and the like. Apparently it is practically a matter of bon ton nowadays to find oneself in a crisis of some sort.
How lovely the Christmas season was a few years ago. I walked silently through the streets, the ringing bells and silvery snow-flakes. The casual manner in which I loved my beloved, who was forever distinguishing herself by her utter absence, resembled a soft-swelling, enchanting sofa. A much-loved authoress was at just this time delighting her followers with a charming new book. New Year’s? Don’t the words almost smell a bit of wistfulness? When a year stops, another instantly commences, as if one were turning a page. The story keeps on going, and the beauty of a context is revealed.
(Microscripts– Robt. Walser- tr, Susan Bernofsky- New Directions 2010. P.107)
In writing, even in such a small scale, Walser found a context, a context of beauty for the many voices that surfaced in his awareness. As he wrote, as he drew on and formed linkages with the inherited store of words, syntactic structures, images, tropes, he found shape and direction in the chaotic flow of thoughts, memories, wishes: a way disparate voices might reveal place, coherence, and allure. (And he gives us this.)
Of course, everyone uses language, one way or another, for this purpose. But now, language, meanings, connective tissue rely far less on what women and men witnessed, learnt and wrote down in the past than on what omnipresent commercial media produces, high and low, in ceaseless seamless flow.
About the Author
Douglas Penick’s work appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.