Gargoyle 9cover drawing by Ashby Northpublication date 3/23/1978
My father was a zoologist and spent his life writing the several volumes
of work about amphibians that is praised in expert circles. He considered
the literature in this area insufficient and partly erroneous. His work
never really interested me, perhaps for the wrong reasons, although at
our house there were many frogs and salamanders whose way of life and development
would have merited my study.
My mother had been an actress before her marriage. The climax of her career
was a performance as Ophelia in the Landestheater in Zwickau, and she never
surpassed such a climax. It is probably owing to this fact that I was named
Laertes, a name that is fine-sounding but a little far-fetched. However,
I was grateful that she didn’t call me Polonius or Gildenstern, although
now it is naturally a matter of indifference.
When I was five years old, my parents gave me a magic chest. I learned
to cast spells, although of a childish kind, before I had learned to read
and write. With the powders and instruments in the chest one could change
colorless water to red and back again to colorless water; or one could
halve a wooden egg by a simple inversion in which the other half disappeared
without a trace. One could pull a cloth through a ring and it would change
color. In short, there was nothing in the chest that would have represented
a miniature of reality, and that is the case with most toys. Indeed, the
manufacturers of this fantasy instrument seemed inclined to have no regard
at all for an educational purpose and to suppress a child’s awakening feeling
for the useful. This fact exerted a decided influence on my later development,
because the pleasure of transforming a useless object into another useless
object taught me to seek happiness on the path of least resistance. I did
not find this happiness, to be sure, before my transformation.
At first, however, my ambition was spurred on. Soon the magic chest did
not satisfy me any more, because in the meantime I could read, and I read
on the cover the degrading inscription, "The Little Magician."
I still remember the afternoon when I went into my father’s workroom to
ask if I might receive magic lessons. He was sunk in the world of amphibians
and looked at me absentmindedly. I presented my plea, and he agreed immediately.
I cannot restrain the impression that he thought it was a matter of piano
lessons, which also follows from the fact that he asked me some time later
if I were now playing Czerny etudes. I replied to this question in the
affirmative, because I was certain that I would not have to prove my claim.
I took magic lessons, then, from an artist who played in several music
halls in our city and, as I concluded from his remarks, had to his credit
successes in London and Paris; after several years–in the meantime I attended
secondary school–I had advanced so far that I could pull a rabbit out
of a top hat. I remember with satisfaction my first performance, which
I gave before parents and relatives. My parents were proud of my capability,
which I had as a matter of course, so to say, obtained for myself, and
which I would practice in the future in place of music, along with my future
profession, of which they had no definite idea. But I had other plans.
I had outgrown my teacher and now experimented for myself, but I did not
neglect my general education for this activity. I read a great deal and
interacted with school friends, whose development I observed. One of them,
for example, whom someone had given an electric train in his youth, was
preparing himself for a career as a railroad official. Another, who had
played with lead soldiers, applied himself to the career of an officer.
The general population was governed, therefore, by early influences, and
each took up his profession, or better yet, the profession took him up.
I thought to arrange my life according to other points of view.
Here I would like to add that in the decisions I made in the course of
the next years I was not at all dissuaded by the thought that I was considered
either eccentric or absolutely odd in the eyes of others. Rather, it was
the growing recognition that one could not merely, in the middle-class
sense, take up a profession without at the same time encroaching on the
rights of his fellow man in some way or other. For that reason a career
as an official seemed to me especially immoral, but I even rejected other
professions considered more sociable. In this light even the activity of
a doctor, who could save lives with his intervention, seemed to me dubious,
for it might be that the person saved was an out-and-out rascal whose death
was most yearningly desired by hundreds of oppressed creatures.
Along with this recognition came another, namely that facts can be gathered
only from the momentary position of things. It is thus idle to want to
draw some kind of conclusion or gather experience from them. I decided,
therefore, to spend my life inactively and to contemplate nothing. I provided
myself with two turtles, lay down on a deck chair and observed the birds
above me and the turtles beneath me. I had given up magic, because it had
reached a state of perfection. I felt that I was able to transform men
into animals. I did not make use of this capability, because I believed
I could not justify an intervention of this kind in the life of another
The first appearance of my wish to be a bird occurred at this time. At
first I did not want to admit this wish to myself, because it indicated
to a certain extent a defeat: I had not yet succeeded in rejoicing contentedly
in the pure existence of birds; my feeling was clouded by yearning. In
spite of that, I was weak enough to play with the idea of its realization.
Indeed. I was even proud that I was in a position to be able to gratify
my wish, whenever and as soon as it suited me. It necessitated merely a
rehearsal of my art.
This opportunity soon presented itself. One afternoon–I lay in the garden
observing my turtles–My friend, Dr. Werhahn, visited me. He was a newspaper
editor. (Someone had given him a printing press in his youth.) He lay down
on the deck chair beside me and began to complain, at first about the malignity
of newspaper readers and then about the inadequacy of today’s journalism.
I said nothing, for people do not like to be interrupted when they complain.
Finally he came to the end as he said, "I’m fed up," and when
one of my turtles crept forward under his deck chair, he added, "I
wish I were a turtle." These were his last words, because I took my
magic wand and transformed him. Dr. Werhahn’s journalistic career was ended,
but his life has probably been lengthened by this transformation, because
turtles grow very old. For me, however, it was a success. Moreover, I now
had three turtles. (In order to avoid any suspicion, I wish to assert herewith
that I had bought the other two animals as such.)
Before my own transformation I practiced my art once more. I do not think
about this occasion without a certain discomfort, for I am not quite clear
whether I acted justly.
One afternoon in June–I had spent the day in the country–I sat in the
garden of an inn under a linden tree and drank a glass of new cider. I
was happy in my solitude. But soon a crowd of five young girls entered
the garden and sat down at the table beside mine. The girls looked fresh
and neat, but I was angry about the disturbance and grew more angry when
they began to sing, whereupon one of them accompanied the song on mandolin.
First they sang Muss i denn, muss i denn zum Stadtle hinaus, and
Wenn ich ein Voglein war
Und auch zwei Flugel hatt’,
Flog ich zu dir.
I have always felt this song was quite stupid, especially since two wings
are the natural appendages of a bird. But now it was the wish expressed
in the song that drove me to make an end to it and transform the singers
into a swarm of sparrows. I went to their table and swung my magic wand,
which for a moment may have looked as if I wanted to conduct this quintet,
but not for long, because five sparrows rose up and flew away screeching.
Only five half-empty beer glasses, a few uneaten pieces of bread and butter
and the mandolin that had fallen down–a still life that disconcerted me
a little– indicated that just a few seconds before, full young life had
been in process.
At the sight of this devastation a slight feeling of regret came over
me, because I thought that the desire to be a bird had perhaps not been
directly and plainly expressed with the singing of the song, and that moreover
the phrase, Wenn ich ein Voglein war did not unconditionally mean the wish
to be such, although it is naturally the tendency of the song (as far as
one can talk of a tendency in such a song). I had the feeling that I had
acted in an emotional state under the influence of my–in any case, certainly
I felt this was not worthy of me, and therefore I decided not to hesitate
any longer with my own transformation. I would like to emphasize that it
was not anxiety about the consequences of my act, some kind of legal prosecution,
that decided me to assume another form (how easily I could have transformed
the penal authorities into toy fox terriers or something similar upon my
imprisonment!). It was, rather, the certainty that for technical reasons
I would never attain the undisturbed peace I required for pure, untroubled
enjoyment of things.
Somewhere or other a dog would always howl, a child scream or a young
The choice of the form of a nightingale was not arbitrary. I wanted
to be a bird, because the thought of being able to fly from one treetop to
another enticed me very much. Also, I wanted to be able to sing, because
I loved music. Naturally,
considered the thought that now I myself could be the one who interfered in
the life of another by disturbing him in his sleep but now, since I myself
am no longer a human being, human thought-processes and interests do not affect
me. My ethic is the ethic of a nightingale.
Last September I went into my bedroom, opened the window wide, bewitched
myself and flew away. I have not regretted it.
Now it is May. It is evening and growing dark. Soon it will be night.
Then I will begin to sing.
–Translated by Patricia Haas Stanley