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Home | 2016

Do not sleep

Posted by Thersites on UTC 2016-04-13 15:31.

In the good old days, each event, crisis, scandal or moment of despair followed its predecessor in a slow-moving, orderly stream. We had time to digest, ruminate, take a position and then forget, before the next in the series rolled past us on the great conveyor belt of history.

Nowadays we have to parallel-process all such moments. Just a few: Obama, Clinton, Trump, EU, Cameron, Osborne, Syria, Iran, Egypt, China, Japan, North Korea, catastrophic global warming, migrant hordes, impending economic disaster, safe spaces, twitter storms – and so on.

When Billy Joel (1949-) sings in 'We Didn't Start the Fire' (1989) that he 'can't take it anymore' he is referring to the forty years of his life up to that point. These days we have the same quantity of events in one internet browsing session.

I have to say that a moment of resignation and apathy overtook me this morning, until, that is, I remembered Günter Eich.

The German author and playwright Günter Eich (1907-1972) wrote a series of five radio plays called Träume (Dreams), the first of which was broadcast on 19 April 1951, 65 years ago, as it happens, so a good time to think of him. The plays were shocking and shocked listeners: in hindsight we can only stand amazed that a radio station could broadcast them at all. But this was Germany, the horrors of the Second World War had given way to the privations of the postwar world of rubble barely five years before. There were plenty of people listening who had experienced much worse at first hand: radio plays were a popular distraction for the many blind people left behind by the war.

The overall theme of Eich's drama series was a call for everyone to pay attention to all the things that were happening in the world and not just focus upon the problems of everyday life, a focus which, during the thirties and during the war, had been the refuge of so many who desired neither to see nor to know. During the time of recovery and rebuilding after the war there were plenty of pressing problems for everyone close to home. The big problems could be safely ignored.

Eich closed the series with a poem that sums up this theme. The last verse is often quoted, particularly by German anarchists and troublemakers, but leaving out the preceding verses misdirects its message.

We dedicate our literal translation to the confused of our times, who 'can't take it anymore' – the last verse is definitely for you:


Wacht auf, – denn eure Träume sind schlecht! Wake up – your dreams are bad!
Bleibt wach, – weil das Entsetzliche näher kommt. Stay awake – because the horror is approaching.
Auch zu dir kommt es, der weitentfernt wohnt von den Stätten, wo Blut vergossen wird, auch zu dir und deinem Nachmittagsschlaf, worin du ungern gestört wirst. Even to you who lives far from the places where blood is spilt it is coming, even to you and your afternoon nap, in which you don't like to be disturbed.
Wenn es heute nicht kommt, kommt es morgen, aber sei gewiß. If it doesn't come today, it will come tomorrow, rest assured.
"Oh, angenehmer Schlaf auf dem Kissen mit roten Blumen, einem Weihnachtsgeschenk von Anita, woran sie drei Wochen gestickt hat, "Oh, pleasant sleep on the pillow with red flowers, a Christmas gift from Anita, who spent three weeks embroidering it.
Oh, angenehmer Schlaf, wenn der Braten fett war und das Gemüse zart. Oh, pleasant sleep, after the juicy roast and the tender vegetables.
Man denkt im Einschlummern an die Wochenschau von gestern abend: Osterlämmer, erwachende Natur, Eröffnung der Spielbank in Baden-Baden, Cambridge siegte gegen Oxford mit zweieinhalb Längen, - das genügt, das Gehirn zu beschäftigen. Falling asleep, one thinks of the news broadcast from yesterday evening: Easter lambs, Nature awakening, the opening of the casino in Baden-Baden, Cambridge wins against Oxford by two-and-a-half lengths – that's enough to keep the brain busy.
Oh, diese weichen Kissen, Daunen aus erster Wahl! Auf ihm vergißt man das Ärgerliche der Welt, jene Nachricht zum Beispiel: Oh, these soft pillows filled with top-quality down! On them one forgets the annoying things of the world – that report for example:
Die wegen Abtreibung Angeklagte sagte zu ihrer Verteidigung: Die Frau, Mutter von sieben Kindern, kam zu mir mit einem Säugling, für den sie keine Windeln hatte und der in Zeitungspapier gewickelt war. The woman accused of performing abortions said in her defence: The mother of seven children came to me with a newborn child for whom she had no nappies and who was wrapped in newspaper.
Nun, das sind Angelegenheiten des Gerichtes, nicht unsre. Man kann dagegen nichts tun, wenn einer etwas härter liegt als der andre. Und was kommen mag, unsere Enkel mögen es ausfechten." Well, that's a matter for the court, not our problem. One cannot do anything about the fact that some have it better than others. And what will happen in the future is a matter for our grandchildren to sort out."
Ach, du schläfst schon? Wache gut auf, mein Freund! Schon läuft der Strom in den Umzäunungen, und die Posten sind aufgestellt. Ah, you are already asleep? Wake up, my friend. The electricity is already flowing in the fences and the guards have been posted.
Nein, schlaft nicht, während die Ordner der Welt geschäftig sind! No, do not sleep whilst the stewards of the world are busy!
Seid mißtrauisch gegen ihre Macht, die sie vorgeben für euch erwerben zu müssen. Be suspicious of their power, which they pretend to need to acquire for your good.
Wacht darüber, daß eure Herzen nicht leer sind, wenn mit der Leere eurer Herzen gerechnet wird! Make sure that your hearts are not empty when someone counts on the emptiness of your hearts.
Tut das Unnütze, singt die Lieder, die man aus eurem Mund nicht erwartet! Do useless things, sing the songs that one does not expect from your mouth!
Seid unbequem, seid Sand, nicht das Öl im Getriebe der Welt! Be troublesome, be sand, not oil, in the gears of the world.

There are moments when this anarchic, nihilist nonsense is really quite attractive: 'Make sure that your hearts are not empty when someone counts on the emptiness of your hearts'. Quite.