Poem of the Day: ‘Before Breughel the Elder’ by Aleksander Wat

Before Breughel the Elder

Work is a blessing.
I tell you that, I — professional sluggard!
Who slobbered in so many prisons! Fourteen!
And in so many hospitals! Ten! And innumerable inns!
Work is a blessing.
How else could we deal with the lava of fratricidal love
        towards fellow men?
With those storms of extermination of all by all?
With brutality, bottomless and measureless?
With the black and white era which does not want to
endlessly repeating itself da capo like a record
forgotten on a turntable
spinning by itself?
Or perhaps someone invisible watches over the phono-
        graph? Horror!
How, if not for work, could we live in the paradise of
        social hygienists
who never soak their hands in blood without aseptic gloves?
How else could we cope with death?
That Siamese sister of life who grows together with it — in us, and is extinguished
       with it
and surely for that reason is ineffective.
And so we have to live without end,
without end. Horror!
How, if not for work, could we cope with ineffective
(Do not scoff!)
which is like a sea,
where everyone is an Icarus, one of nearly three billion,
while besides, so many things happen
and everything is equally unimportant, precisely,
although so difficult, so inhumanly difficult, so painful!
How then could we cope with all that?
Work is our rescue.
I tell you that — I, Breughel, the Elder (and I, for one,
your modest servant, Wat, Aleksander) — work is our

The Saturation of the Deer

Yo, behold this pleasant 1846 painting by Moritz von Schwind:


I admired it in person at the Hamburger Kunsthalle last weekend. It seemed darker in person — I think the digital version may have been brightened a little. Nevertheless, a nice chunk of late Romanticism, dusted with kitsch. The modeling of the buck's solid, sagging flesh and horns is nicely plastic.

Here is the translation of the picture's title:

Von Schwind

I chuckled over the translation of the German word tränken as "saturate". But then I became thoughtful, and stroked my chin. There's no easy translation for tränken. Tränken describes only how animals drink. Humans trinken, animals tränken. Same thing for eating: humans essen, while animals fressen. Add to that the fact that English has no simple transitive word for "give water to". You can "water" plants, but that always implies pouring water over or into something. You wouldn't water your dogs or your children, you would only give them something to drink.

The translators seemed to realize this, but then fatally chose "saturate" as the proper translation from the other entries on the dict.leo.org list. But how can we blame them? The meaning comes across, sort of, and the only other alternatives would have doubled the length of the title, which doesn't seem right.

The other titles were translated quite well.

German Rule of the Week: Postmortem Social Control

Serbian cemeteries feature family gravesites with the likenesses of all family members laser-etched into marble, even the ones who are still living:

Family Plot in Gracanica, Kosovo 2010
Jewish cemeteries feature the columns, books, pillars and obelisks you would expect from children of the Enlightenment:

Grave in Jewish Section of Vienna Zentralfriedhof, 2010
French and Belgian cemeteries are studded with Art Nouveau tombs that look like alien eggs. And Latin cemeteries in the swampy sections of the New World feature above-ground crypts that crumble picturesquely in the humidity:

Tombs in Lafayette Cemetery, Louisiana, 2001
And German cemeteries? Suidically dull, thanks to plodding, literal-minded regulations meant to ensure no gravestone will offend even the most tight-assed musty old Spießburger. And since Spießer-Ressentiment can be triggered by even the slightest trace of humor or originality, the list of rules must be long indeed.

Enter the Friedhofsordnung (Cemetery regulations) for the Protestant Cemetery of Falkenstein/Vogtl. It has 45 separate sections, including at least 5 dedicated to telling people exactly what their graves must look like — including a table (!) specifying the precise volume, in cubic meters, of acceptable gravestones. Cross-shaped headstones are permitted to be up to 20% wider than square ones, you'll be happy to know, as long as the cubic-meter measurement is not affected.

But that's just the beginning. Here's Section 36:

Section 36 Material, Form, and Composition

1.     For gravestones, only natural rock, wood, and cast or sculptured metal is allowed.

2.    The form of the gravestone must conform to the material and must be simple and well-proportioned.

3.     The gravestones must be formed from one piece of material.

4.    All sides of the gravestone must be equally well-worked in a manner consistent with the material.

5.     Finishes and fine engraving are permitted only as a design element in connections with letters, symbols and ornaments which, for their part, may only occupy an area in proportion to the size of the headstone.

6.    Surfaces may not be rounded.

7.     All materials, ingredients, and finishing and design elements that are not listed above are forbidden, in particular concrete, glass, plastic, pictures, engravings, plaster, porcelain, aluminum, etc.

8.    The Church Guidlines on Headstone Design from 15 September 1992 (Exhibit 1) are hereby incorporated by reference into these Cemetery Regulations.

The rules go on, and on, and on. I can't translate the rest — even the small excerpt above left me profoundly depressed. The English, it seems, are not the only ones suffering from ghastly good taste.

Eastern Europe is Unimpressed

Many thanks to curly, who linked to this Economist blog entry on European attitudes toward U.S. leadership:


The changing of the guard in Washington has had stark effect here, no surprises. But look at the figures for new EU member states:

The new Euros are much less impressed. I can only think of two explanations: either people in these countries were more favorable to Bush than those in the West, or they simply didn't perceive the change in leadership as very significant. In any event, it's a bit hard to imagine that the French are significantly more approving of U.S. leadership than the Poles.

Obama’s Chances in 2012

As Kevin Drum reports here, we will know in about a year whether Obama will be re-elected:

Good news for Barack Obama today! Um, sort of. Ray Fair has released a forecast of the 2012 presidential race based on his well-known political/econometric model, and he says Obama will win in a landslide.

That is, he'll win in a landslide if Ray Fair is also good at forecasting future economic growth:

It thus comes down to what the economy will be in the next two years, which is, of course, what the equations are all about. If the recovery is robust, which my economic model predicts will begin to happen in the middle of 2011, Obama wins easily. If the recovery is only modest, the election will be close, with an edge for the Republicans. If there is a double dip recession, Obama loses by a fairly large amount.

His topline forecast is that Obama wins 55.88% of the popular vote, which sounds reasonable for an incumbent president presiding over a robust economy. But if recovery is fairly flat, which is hardly out of the question, suddenly Republicans are favored to win the White House.

Bulb Bleg

Anyone out there know about plants? See, I bought these bulbs last March-ish, when purty flowers were growing out of them. Then the flowers died, and the bulbs just sat there. Somewhere I remembered that bulbs actually can bloom again sometimes, so instead of throwing them out, I left them outside on my balcony. But nothing happened. Random seeds landed and germinated in the pots. I was just about to empty them out the other day, when lo and behold, this is what I see:


So, they're now growing again. It's kind of spooky. Yet, soon I'm gonna have me more purty flowers!

My question for the botanically-inclined is: why is this happening right now, on the cusp of winter? How can I make sure it continues happening? Should I take the pots in from the balcony, or do they need lots of light?

Any help would be much appreciated.

Andre Aciman on Stefan Zweig

Andre Aciman has a beautiful essay on Stefan Zweig in Slate:

From Aus­tria, to France, to England, to the United States, and now far-flung Brazil, he must have felt like an untethered punt drifting up against a river­bank. "I ceased to feel as if I quite belonged to myself. A part of the natural identity with my original and essential ego was destroyed for­ever." He might well have been glad to build a new existence in Brazil, since, as he wrote, "the world of my own language [had] disap­peared for me and my spiritual home, Europe, [had] destroyed itself." But not at the age of 60. Suddenly, thrust into the wings of his­tory, this urbane man about Europe had be­come yesterday's man.

But the damage was done not in 1933 when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, or on Kristallnacht in 1938, or on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany unleashed World War II. The real damage was done in 1914 when the "world of security," as Zweig referred to it, came to a sudden end. Unfit for military serv­ice, he had been assigned to the archives of the Ministry of War, but by 1917, while on leave in Switzerland, was finally dismissed from service. It was in neutral Switzerland, under the aegis of the 1915 Nobel laureate Romain Rolland, that he became a confirmed pacifist. It was also in Switzerland that he became aware of a certain cast of people who, in his words, lived "amphibiously"—that is, between countries, between languages, between loyalties and identities: in short, in exile.