Gargoyle 9
cover drawing by Ashby North
publication date 3/23/1978

Why I Became a Nightingale

Wolfgang Hildesheimer

I have changed myself into a nightingale from a sense of conviction. Since neither my motives nor the decision for an act of this kind belongs to the realm of daily life, I think the story of this metamorphosis is worth telling.

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 person.

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 then

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 justified– disgust.

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 girl sing.

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