Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Penned between 1906 and 1912, the following fragment of fiction is among the earliest writings of critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin. This tale—along with many other of his fables, parables, riddles, and novellas—are gathered in The Storyteller, forthcoming in late July 2016 from Verso Books.
ONLY FOR GROWN-UPS. NERVOUS TYPES—BEWARE!
Above the landscape hung such storm clouds as cause that specific fear of storms among young people known to physicians under a Latin name. It was a gently apprehensive mountain scenery. The path was steep and tiresome; the air was very hot and high temperatures prevailed. A mature man—greyed by the passing of the years—and an adolescent moved as inaudible points through the silence. They carried an empty stretcher. From time to time the gaze of the younger man fell upon the stretcher and his eyes would fill with tears. It was not long before a doleful song streamed forth from his mouth, reverberating from the mountain with a thousand sobs. “Red of the morning, red of the morning lights the path to an early death.” In the distance, bloody bolts of lightning tinged the sky. Suddenly the singing broke off and was followed by a faint groan. “Permit me for a moment,” the young man said to the elder one. He rested the stretcher on the ground, sat down, closed his eyes and folded his hands.
At the peak of the landscape we find him again. A ruin stood there, overgrown by the green of nature. Storms and tempests roared more fiercely here than elsewhere. The place was created for the indulgence of every conceivable suffering… Special weight was placed on melancholy, which took place between seven and eight o’clock each evening. A valley located in the shadow of the sinking sun turned out to be suitable. Moreover, a box of eyeglasses with black and dark-brown lenses was on hand, which could enhance the melancholia to a state of horror and raise the evening temperature from 37° to a feverish 40°. When the moon was full, 40° was the minimum temperature and a flag was raised to signal mortal danger.
The beautiful summer nights were used for sleeplessness. Nevertheless, the patients were awoken as early as five am for their morning diagnosis. Monday and Friday mornings were devoted to testing for anxiety; Sundays were for nightly indigestion. Thereafter ensued six hours of psychoanalysis. Subsequently hydrotherapy, which was administered telepathically due to the water, which tended to be wet and cold throughout most of the year. There followed a break at noon. It was dedicated to telephone consultations with European luminaries and to the theoretical exploration of diseases that have hitherto remained untargeted.
The meals are served in a chemically cleansed Bazillopher, [a neologism coined by Benjamin which plays on the word Bazille, meaning “germ” or “bacteria.”] surrounded by ether and camphor fumes. The physicians oversee the procedure with a loaded rifle in order to slay any attacking germs. After being checked for various pathogens, the germs are doused with hot water, anatomically dissected, and killed. They then either appear on the supper table or in the exhibition rooms of the library, which contains the directory, description, danger and cure for all the diseases weathered by the patients to date.
For the twenty-fifth anniversary of each disease, a splendid monograph with cinematographic images is published. The library is open to patients between four and five every day and serves, above all, to incite new illnesses.
After dinner, physicians and patients organize germ hunts in the park. Oftentimes it happens that a patient is accidentally shot. In such cases a simple bed of moss and forest herbs is prepared as the patient sinks to the ground. Bandages lie ready in the tree hollows.
Everything has been provided for. Should the physician fall ill, an automatic operating room is provided, whose automated apparatuses perform all procedures upon the insertion of three to twenty pennies. At three pennies, the cheapest operation entails the chemical cleaning of the nose; for twenty pennies one can get treatments with life-threatening consequences.
One evening, a serious tête-à-tête took place. The following morning, the physician disappeared on a clinical study tour to explore the latest diseases.
Translated by Sebastian Truskolaski.
Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was a German-Jewish Marxist literary critic, essayist, translator, and philosopher. He was associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory and is the author of Illuminations, The Arcades Project, and The Origin of German Tragic Drama. In 1940, he was in Spain, fleeing the Nazis and en route to the United States, when Franco’s government cancelled his visa. Expecting repatriation, he took his own life.