1924: That’s What the Leaves Murmured

Robert Walser - Diaz's Forest [1924]

Diaz’s Forest

Robert Walser - Looking at Pictures (2015) - coverIn a forest painted by Diaz, a little motherkin and her child stood still. They were now a good hour from the village. Gnarled trunks spoke a primeval tongue. The mother said to her child: “In my opinion, you shouldn’t cling to my apron strings like that. As if I were here only for you. Benighted creature, what could you be thinking? You’re just a small child, yet want to make grownups dependent on you. How ill-considered. A certain amount of thinking must enter your slumbering head, and to make that happen, I shall now leave you here, alone. Stop clutching at me with those little hands this instant, you uncouth, importunate thing! I have every reason to be angry with you—and I believe I am. It’s time you were told the unadorned truth, otherwise you’ll stay a help¬less child all your life, forever reliant on your mother. To teach you what it means to love me, you must be left to your own resources, you’ll have to seek out strangers and serve them, hearing nothing but harsh words from them for a year, two years, perhaps longer. Then you’ll know what I was to you. But always at your side, I am unknown to you. That’s right, child, you make no effort at all, you don’t even know what effort is, let alone tenderness, you uncompassionate creature. Always having me at your side makes you mentally indolent. Not for a minute do you stop to think—that’s what indolence is. You must go to work, my child, you’ll manage it if you want to—and you’ll have no choice but to want to. I swear to you, as truthfully as I am standing here with you in this forest painted by Diaz, you must earn your livelihood with bitter toil so that you will not go to ruin inwardly. Many children grow coarse when they are coddled, because they never learn to be thoughtful, thankful. Later, they all turn into ladies and gentlemen who are beautiful and elegant on the outside but self-absorbed nonetheless. To save you from becoming cruel and succumbing to foolishnesses, I am treating you roughly, because overly solicitous treatment produces people free from conscience and care.”

Narcisse Diaz de la Peña - The Forest Clearing (1875)As the child heard these words, it opened its eyes wide in terror, trembling, and a tremor passed through the very leaves of Diaz’s forest, but the mighty trunks stood firm.

The fallen leaves upon the forest floor murmured: “What has been written in this brief essay appears to be quite simple, but there are times when everything simple and readily comprehensible recedes from human understanding and only can be grasped with great effort.” That’s what the leaves murmured. The mother was gone. The child stood there alone. Before this child stood the task of finding its way in the world, which is also a forest, of learning to hold itself in low esteem and to drive out all smug complacency from its own person, so that it might be pleasing to others.

This essay was written by Robert Walser in 1924, but like others of his “microscripts” was considered unintelligible until recently. It was first published in English in the 2015 collection Looking at Pictures, which also contains essays Walser published in his lifetime. (The translation is by Susan Bernofsky.)

The painting is Narcisse Diaz de la Peña’s The Forest Clearing (1875).

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