Left-wing melancholy: On Erich Kästner’s new book of poems

Walter Benjamin
Die Gesellschaft
Vol. 8 (1931)

Today Kästner’s poems are already available in three imposing volumes.[1] However, anyone wishing to study the character of these strophes is advised to stick to the form in which they originally appeared. In books they are too crowded and somewhat stifling, but they dart through the daily papers like fish in water. If this water is not always of the cleanest and has quite a lot of refuse floating in it, all the better for the author, whose poetic minnows can fatten themselves thereon.

The popularity of these poems is linked to the rise of a stratum which took unveiled possession of its economic power positions and prided itself as none other on the nakedness, the unmasked character of its economic physiognomy. This is not to say that this stratum, whose only aim was success, which recognized nothing else, had now conquered the strongest positions. Its ideal was too asthmatic for that. It was the ideal of childless agents, parvenus of insignificant origin, who did not, like financial magnates, provide for their families over decades, but only for themselves, and that hardly beyond the end of the season. Who cannot see them — their dreamy baby eyes behind horn-rimmed spectacles, their broad pale cheeks, their drawling voices, their fatalism in gesture and mode of thought? From the beginning, it is to this stratum and to this stratum alone that the poet, has something to say, this stratum that he flatters, insofar as from dawn to dusk he holds up a mirror to them, or rather holds it against them. The gaps between his stanzas are the folds of fat in their necks, his rhymes their thick lips, his caesurae dimples in their flesh, his full-stops pupils in their eyes. Subject matter and effect remain restricted to this stratum, and Kästner is as incapable of striking the dispossessed with his rebellious accents as he is of touching the industrialists with his irony. This is because, despite appearances, this lyricism protects above all the status interests of the middle stratum — agents, journalists, heads of departments. The hatred it proclaims meanwhile towards the petit bourgeoisie has itself an all too intimate petit bourgeoisie flavor. On the other hand, it clearly abandons any striking power against the big bourgeoisie and betrays its yearning for patronage at last in the heartfelt sigh: “If only there were a dozen wise men with a great deal of money.”[2] No wonder Kästner, in settling accounts with the bankers in a “Hymn” is as obliquely familial as he is obliquely economic when he presents the night thoughts of a proletarian woman under the title “A Mother Strikes the Balance.”[3] Ultimately home and income remain the leading strings by which a better-off class leads the mewling poet.

Melancholia, by Jacek Malczewski (1894)Melancholia

This poet is dissatisfied, indeed heavy-hearted. But this heaviness of heart derives from routine. For to be in a routine means to have sacrificed one’s idiosyncracies, to have forfeited the gift of distaste. And that makes one heavy-hearted. It is this circumstance that gives this case a certain similarity with that of Heine. The notes with which Kästner indents his poems, to give these shiny children’s balls the appearance of rugby balls, are routine. And nothing is more routine than the irony which, like baking powder, helps to raise the kneaded dough of private opinion. It is only unfortunate that his impertinence is as much out of all proportion to the ideological forces at his disposal as it is to the political ones. Not least does the grotesque underestimation of the opponent that underlies these provocations betray how much the position of this left radical intelligentsia is a lost one. It has little to do with the labor movement. Rather, as a phenomenon of bourgeois dissolution, it is a counterpart to the mimicry of feudalism that the Kaiserreich admired in the reserve lieutenant.[4] Left radical publicists of the stamp of Kästner, [Walter] Mehring, and [Kurt] Tucholsky [5] are the decayed bourgeoisie’s mimicry of the proletariat. Their function is to give rise, politically speaking, not to parties but to cliques, literarily speaking, not to schools but to fashions, economically speaking, not to producers but to agents. And indeed, for the last fifteen years this left-wing intelligentsia has been continually the agent of all spiritual conjunctures, from Activism, via Expressionism to New Objectivity.[6] However, its political significance was exhausted by the transposition of revolutionary reflexes, insofar as they arose in the bourgeoisie, into objects of distraction, of amusement, which can be supplied for consumption.

Thus was Activism able to impose the face of a quasi-classless sound common sense on the revolutionary dialectic. It was in some sense the sale week of this intelligentsia’s department store. Expressionism exhibited the revolutionary gesture, the raised arm, the clenched fist in papier-mache. After this advertising campaign New Objectivity, from which Kästner’s poems spring, was added to the catalogue. What then does the “spiritual elite” discover as it begins to take stock of its feelings? Those feelings themselves? They have long since been remaindered. What is left is the empty spaces where, in dusty heart-shaped velvet trays, the feelings — nature and love, enthusiasm and humanity — once rested. Now the hollow forms are absent-mindedly caressed. A know-all irony thinks it has much more in these supposed stereotypes than in the things themselves, it makes a great display of its poverty and turns the yawning emptiness into a celebration. For this is what is new about this objectivity — it takes as much pride in the traces of former 30 spiritual goods as the bourgeois does in his material goods. Never have such comfortable arrangements been made in such an uncomfortable situation.

Walter Benjamin in his library (early 1930s)

In short, this left-wing radicalism is precisely the attitude to which there is no longer in general any corresponding political action. It is to the left not of this or that tendency; but simply to the left of what is in general possible. For from the beginning all it has in mind is to enjoy itself in a negativistic quiet. The metamorphosis of political struggle from a compulsory decision into an object of pleasure, from a means of production into an article of consumption — that is this literature’s latest hit. Kästner, who is a considerable talent, has all its means at his fingertips. By far the most important of these is an attitude expressed even in the titles of many of his poems. Among them are an “Elegy with Egg,” a “Chemically Purified Christmas Carol,” “Suicide in the Mixed Bathing,” the “Fate of a Stylized Negro,” etc. [7] Why these dislocations? Because criticism and knowledge are ready to intervene; but they would be spoil-sports and should on no condition be allowed to speak. So the poet must gag them, and their desperate convulsions now have the same effect as the tricks of a contortionist, ie, they amuse a wide public, insecure in its taste. In [Christian] Morgenstern, nonsense was only the obverse of a. flight into theosophy.[8] But Kästner’s nihilism conceals nothing, as little as a mouth that cannot close for yawning.

Poets early became acquainted with this curious variety of despair: tortured stupidity. For the truly political poetry of the last decades has for the most part hurried on ahead of things as a harbinger. It was in 1912 and 1913 that Georg Heym’s poems [9] anticipated the then inconceivable constitution of the masses that came into the open in August 1914, in repellent descriptions of never-glimpsed collectivities: of suicides, of prisoners, of the sick, of sailors or of the insane. In his lines the earth armed itself for its submergence in the red deluge. And long before the Ararat of the Goldmark was the only peak sticking up above the flood, every inch of it besieged by Feeding-Trough, Belly-liner, and Sweet-Tooth. Alfred Lichtenstein,[10] who fell in the first days of the War, had brought into view the sad and flabby figures for which Kästner has found the stereotypes. Now what distinguishes the bourgeois in this early, still pre-expressionist version from the later, post-expressionist one is his eccentricity. Not in vain did Lichtenstein dedicate one of his poems to a clown.[11] The clowning of despair was still deep in the bones of his bourgeois. They had not yet shifted eccentricity outside themselves as an object of urban amusement. They were not yet so totally satiated, nor had they so totally become agents that they did not feel their obscure solidarity with a commodity whose sales crisis is already on the horizon. Then came peace — the collapse of the market for the human commodity with which we have become familiar as unemployment. And the suicide for which Lichtenstein’s poems are propaganda is dumping, the disposal of this commodity at ruinous prices. Kästner’s strophes have forgotten all this. Their beat very precisely follows the notes according to which poor rich folk play the blues; they correspond to the mournfulness of the satiated man who can no longer devote all his money to his stomach. Tortured stupidity: this the latest of two millennia of metamorphoses of melancholy.

Erich Kastner

Kästner’s poems are for the higher income bracket, those mournful, melancholy dummies who trample anything or anyone in their path. With the rigidity of their armor, the slowness of their advance, the blindness of their action, they are the rendez-vous that tank and bedbug have made in man. These poems teem with them like a city café after the stock exchange closes. Is it surprising that their function is to reconcile this type to himself and to establish that identity of professional and private life which these men understand by the name “humanity” but which is in truth the genuinely bestial, since authentic humanity — under the present conditions — can only arise from a tension between these two poles? In this tension, consciousness and deed are formed, to create it is the task of all political lyricism, and today this task is most strictly fulfilled by Brecht’s poems. In Kästner it has to give way to complacency and fatalism. This is the fatalism of those who are most remote from the process of production and whose obscure courting of the state of the market is comparable to the attitude of a man who yields himself up entirely to the inscrutable accidents of his digestion. The rumbling in these lines certainly has more to do with flatulence than with subversion. Constipation and melancholy have always gone together. But since the juices began to dry up in the body social, stuffiness meets us at every turn. Kästner’s poems do not improve the atmosphere.


Erich Kästner: Herz auf Taille, Leipzig 1928; Lürm im Spiegel, Leipzig 1928; Ein Mann gibt Auskunft, Stuttgart 1930. Reprinted in Gesammelte Schriften Band I : Gedichte. Zurich 1959. A selection of Kästner’s poetry in English translation is available under the apt but gruesome title, Let’s Face it, edited Patrick Bridgwater, Jonathon Cape, London 1963. Erich Kästner (b 1899) is most well-known in England for his children’s book Emit and the Detectives and its sequels, but he was also the writer of occasional verse, novels for adults, and journalistic pieces.

2. “Ach, gabe es nur ein Dutzend Weise/ mit sehr viel Geld…” from “Ansprache an Millionare,” Ein Mann gibt Auskunft, Ges Schr, Bd I, op cit, pp 176-7.
3. “Hymnus auf die Bankiers,” Larrn im Spiegel, ibid, pp 135-6; “Eine Mutter zieht Bilanz,” Lürm im Spiegel, ibid, pp 105-6.
4. In Wilhelmine Germany, those undergoing higher education, ie, the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia, could obtain reserve lieutenantships after a year’s voluntary military service instead of the liability to two years’ service and ten in the reserves. Originally introduced in part to lessen the predominance of the aristocracy in the Prussian army, the institution became a mechanism for inculcating an aristocratic lifestyle in the bourgeoisie, helping to cement the Junkercapitalist ruling class bloc in the German Empire.
5. Walter Mehring (b 1896), satirical journalist, song-writer, novelist and playwright, contributor to Die Weltbühne, active in Piscatorbühne 1928-30, emigrated to USA 1935. Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935), journalist and song-writer, contributor from 1912 to Die Schaubühne, later Die Weltbühne, editor of the latter 1926-7, otherwise lived in Paris from 1924 until his death. Die Weltbühne, Mehring and Tucholsky acquired their prominence for their attacks on the reactionary bias of the judiciary of the Weimar Republic and their exposure of the secret reconstruction of the German Army.
6. Activism was a movement associated particularly with Kurt Hiller (1885-1946) and dating from the years of the First World War in Germany; it called for the “spiritual elite,” i.e., intellectuals and artists, to engage actively in politics, but not in politics as at present institutionalized, but rather to intervene in the name of and in the interests of culture itself. Literary expressionism is usually regarded today as a movement of the period 1910-1920 characterised by an extension of subject-matter to the personal and pathological on the one hand and to a political messianism on the other, and a breakdown of poetic and dramatic form in the direction of futurist parole in liberta or of Whitmanesque free verse. Benjamin seems always to use the term to refer to the later, more public and political phase of the movement, particularly in the years after the November revolution; thus, in this essay he describes Heym and Lichtenstein as pre-expressionist poets, whereas most modern classifications would refer to them as early expressionists. Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity was a movement in literature and other arts that arose in Weimar Germany as a reaction to expressionism; it prided itself on its realism and its more pessimistic side is summed up in the title to the English selection of Kästner’s poems: “Let’s face it.”
7. “Elegie mit Ei,” Herz auf Taille, Ges Schr Bd I, op cit, pp 94-5; “Weihnachtslied, chemisch gereinigt,” Herz auf Taille, ibid, pp 82-3 (English translation “Christmas Carol (Chemically Purified),” Let’s Face it, op cit); “Selbstmord im Familienbad,” Ein Mann gibt Auskunft, Ges Schr Bd I, pp 193-4 (English translation “Suicide in “Mixed Bathing,” Let’s Face it, op cit); “Schicksal ernes stilisierten Negers,” Ein Mann gibt Auskunft, Ges Schr Bd I, pp 196-8.
8. Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914), German poet, famous for his nonsense poetry, especially Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs, 1905), became a follower of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical movement towards the end of his life.
9. Georg Heym (1887-1912), German poet, author of one book of poems published in his life-time. His poetry is simple in form, but characterized by a dream  or nightmare-like atmosphere and imagery.
10. Alfred Lichtenstein (1889-1914), German poet and short story writer, his poetry is characterized by a satirical tone and a desperate eccentricity of content.
11. “Die Welt,” published in Dammerung, the only collection by Lichtenstein printed before his death, now in Gesammelte Geschichte, ed. Klaus Kanzog, Zurich 1962, p 61.

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