‘Geschichte eines Braminen’ (‘Story of a Brahmin’) by Karoline von Günderrode (Translation)

As regular readers will know, my final post for German Literature Month has tended to be a fun parody in which a number of the participating bloggers take a well-earned (fictional) holiday, one that usually ends horribly.  I may well revisit that idea in the future, but this time around I was tempted to try something a little different – well, very different, in fact.

My nine posts so far for the month have reviewed books by five men and four women, and while I was thinking of a way to bring the total up to an even five each, I found myself browsing (as you do) the copyright-free texts on the German version of Project Gutenberg – where I eventually stumbled across an interesting piece.  A couple of weeks later, and this is the result…

So, without further ado (and with absolutely no guarantees of accuracy, faithfulness to the original text or pretensions to literacy greatness), here is my translation of early-nineteenth-century poet Karoline von Günderrode’s short story ‘Geschichte eines Braminen’ (‘Story of a Brahmin’) – enjoy 🙂

*****

I was born, said Almar, in Smyrna. My father, a rich businessman of French extraction who converted from Christianity to Islam, treated me, on the rare occasions I appeared in his presence, in a cold and unfriendly manner, and my mother died before I could form any memories of her. I felt abandoned by my father, and often harboured deep bitterness towards him. Children, when they first begin to observe life with the eyes of their spirit, are unsettled by the habits, relationships and demands of human society, and only the gentle hand of good parents can guide them relatively painlessly into the unfamiliar realms of life inside and outside the home. It is by way of their parents that nature first speaks to children.  Pity the poor creatures should these first conversations be cold and unloving!

As reflection brought more unpleasant than pleasant ideas in its wake, I soon refrained from it completely; even the rituals of the Mahommedan religious services which I was made to take part in each day failed to arouse a curiosity to understand their meaning. My father often remarked that religions may well be useful political institutions, but for enlightened individuals fully superfluous. I found my tasks in the ceremony problematic; thus I was only too happy, for my own comfort, to wholeheartedly concur with this opinion.

I was sixteen years old when my father (whose desire it was that I become a businessman) sent me off to a business partner in one of the largest cities in Europe. The impression that the novelty of so many objects left on my soul was slight, as I observed it all more with my eyes than with my spirit.

I was obliged to fill the majority of my hours each day with business; I used those that remained to me for pleasure. I frequented plays, and beautiful women, and spent time with empty-headed young men; nevertheless, there remained a certain element of discomfort and gaucheness in my dealings in society, which those of us from the Orient are rarely able to shake off completely, as our way of living is rather unsociable.

Several years went by like this, where I knew no better than to earn money merely to find pleasant ways to spend it. It was the news of my father’s death which first gave me pause for thought. I didn’t lament his death, but I regretted my insensitivity at his loss and inwardly reproached myself for it. On top of this, there arrived a new circumstance to rouse my spirit from its slumber. The businessman for whom I worked lost almost his entire fortune; he and his wife spent days with me worrying about the matter, and we drew up a hundred vain schemes to ward off the misfortune. After I had racked my brains to a pulp coming up with ways to save the couple, I asked myself: Are riches and pleasing the senses really the only things worth striving for? This question suddenly revealed to me the hitherto unknown depths of my nature. I clambered down into a crowd of thoughts, like an underground cave into which new, fresh springs perpetually flow. I had been on this Earth for a good while, now I began to live, and my spirit’s wings braved their maiden flight. The hitherto invisible moral world revealed itself to me, I saw a community of spirits, a realm of effect and counter-effect, an invisible harmony, a reason for people to strive, and a true good. I was lost to the demands of my work from the moment I found this beautiful land, I gave it all up, for before confining my activities to a certain sphere, I first wanted to know: who am I? what should I become? what station becomes me? and which laws rule in the kingdom whose citizen I wish to become?

To begin with, I considered my nature and destiny separately and only with regard to myself; I found that in the absence of wisdom and virtue, the welfare of my spirit would suffer; I found that wisdom and virtue, the objects of my highest aspirations, could be obtained by controlling sensuality and passion, and by exerting my strengths in noble and useful activity. If I wished to regard myself as a citizen of the moral realm, then I found myself duty-bound to advance its welfare, as much as my own, with all my powers, to offer up everything to it and to consider myself as its property.

With what joy did I withdraw myself from the constrained circle of allocated tasks into the unrestricted activity of a reasoning being that decides upon the purpose of its own actions, from the restrictions of self-interest into the great brotherhood of all peoples for the common good. The sheer mechanical and animalistic life I had fled lay like a dark prison cell behind me; I stepped out into the world with all my senses and exerted my forces to overcome many impulses, to arrive at many difficult virtues. Through careful observation, I soon learned to discern the humanity in people, yet the divine was still to be revealed to me.

My proud reason soon took total control of my being; I desired everything to be reasonable. Naturally, this demand left me entangled in constant conflict both with myself and the world; the resistance of my own nature against these commands left me dissatisfied with myself; the constant struggles of the world against these demands confused me, an over-fine criticism found everything worthy of censure, nothing could satisfy this sense of reason. There was a time when I offered it up a great sacrifice, I spent the longest time mulling it over; finally, an inner voice spoke to me: Why is everything on this earth good, with the exception of mankind? Why do only we turn out other than we are? Should we only call virtuous those who can stand upon the ruins of their own spirit and say: Behold, these ideas disgusted me, but they have fallen, I have triumphed over them all! – You barbarian! Delight not in your victory, you have waged a civil war; the defeated were the offspring of your own nature, you have slain yourself in your victories, you have fallen in your battles. I had nothing with which to counter this voice other than the disorder into which the moral world would slide if none chose to struggle against their inclinations. But this response failed to satisfy me; the peace bought through such sacrifices was gained at too high a cost, and I could no longer bear the thought of partially destroying myself in order to better maintain the rest of me. How can I tell, I continued in my thoughts, what belongs to the true nature and harmony of my being and what has been transferred to me through education and outside influences? Perhaps, if my soul were still untainted by foreign bodies, perhaps there would then be in me no should, no murdering the one so that the other flourishes the better. It is surely the world, with its confusions, the current of its deep ruination, the cowardly kindness that it often bestows upon us, that has distanced me from myself and formed me into a creature of such a contradictory nature.  From the moment this became clear to me, I tore myself free from all human ties, I even left Europe and returned to my homeland; there, I wished to purify my soul in silent contemplation and become my whole self again.

With what joy did I gaze upon Asia once more! A sultry breeze brought the subtle scents of oriental spices. Syria’s silent coast bathed in the hot Mediterranean, and evening clouds rested atop the mountains; a significant epigraph at the entrance to this land, in which, since time immemorial, the terrestrial and the heavenly, the human and the divine, have existed side by side.

I decided upon a palm grove on the Persian Gulf as a resting place. This tranquil abode served me as a harbour against the shallows and cliffs of the world; but this world is not so easy to separate oneself from. A thousand hidden ties connect us to it, and the decision separating us from it is not much smaller than the step from this life into the next.

“I can,” Lubar interrupted the narrator, “as little approve of this step as of suicide; both are just as disadvantageous for human society, and what would become of this society if each of us chose to kill ourselves for its sake?”

My young friend! countered Almor, not everyone can or will do what I did, and it’s not for everyone, for as different as people’s outer forms are, so too do their natures, their lives and their desires differ. Some are formed by the world, its confusion adds to their skills, its resistance tests their strength. Others form the world, and their deeds echo on long after they themselves are gone; these and similar natures belong to the world, they can and may not remove themselves from it. My case is very different, I never belonged to the world, there was an arrangement of sorts according to which the world gave me those of its treasures that I found indispensable and I gave back what I could. This arrangement has ceased, the world can give me nothing more, its noise deafens me to the language of my own spirit, its relationships confuse me, I would become lost there for nothing. Here, in this tranquil solitude, I have found my sense of self, my peace, my God, and a thousand spirit voices speak revelations to me that I was unable to make out amidst the turmoil of life.

The struggle (Almor continued with his story) of the individual with society, of freedom against necessity, of idiosyncrasy against common laws and of ethics against its obstacles ceased to concern and torture me as much. It had long been clear to me that right is the basis of civil society and morality the basis of human society.  These two relationships had once sufficed; I had sought to make my disposition conform to them. I now discovered parts of me that were no longer satisfied with these limited connections, my reason yearned insatiably to know more, my imagination sought a larger expanse for its creations, my longing an everlasting object of its desire, and my innermost feelings sensed an invisible and mysterious connection with something as yet unknown and upon which I would have liked to bestow a form and name. I looked up at the stars and was saddened that my eyes enjoyed the sight and were yet chained to the earth; I so adored the red of the morning sky that I longed to fly up into its embrace, and the restless sea to the extent of wishing to plunge myself into its depths. In this longing, in this passion, the spirit of nature spoke to me, I heard its voice, but I was still unaware of its origin; the more I listened out for it, the clearer it became that there existed an elemental force in which everything, the visible and invisible, were intertwined. I named this force the Essence of Life and sought to reach out to it with my consciousness (for I was certain of being secretly and unconsciously descended from it). I searched all possible paths to reach it, from the earthly to the celestial; at last, religion seemed to me to provide this path. It was a passage from the Koran that once occurred to me that made me think this; with passion and enthusiasm, I studied Mohammed’s teaching and life. My own spirit transformed in the contemplation of his; I saw how early the consciousness of the divine had stirred in his soul, how a powerful longing had driven him to take this offshoot from the tree of eternal life to graft onto the time-worn trunk of his people, but also how this fragile growth, which can only bloom and bear fruit in earth purified by morality and culture, had taken on a twisted, strange-looking form and nature; saw his efforts, by means of laws, the hope of heaven and the fear of hell, to lay a bedrock of morality beneath their rough dispositions; saw finally how ambition, an untamable power of imagination and the power of circumstances had seduced him into combining base means and ends with the divine. After I had seen how the spirit of the world had been reflected in this individual, I went on to examine its image in the spirits of other religious figures; I made my way through the teachings of Zoroaster, Confucius, Moses and Jesus, the remnants of the wisdom of Egyptian priests and the holy stories of the Hindus. As differently as the spirit had spoken from all of these, I found just one mind in these forms, to which mine intimately bound itself, becoming broader and stronger in the process.

You demand of me, my young friend, that I lead you through the gates of the eternal temple of religion. Know this! Their inscriptions are eternity, and speech is finite. However, I will attempt to unveil for you the holy statue of Isis in Sais (under which the words “I am what is, what was and what will be” stood). But unless your inner senses are aroused for this goddess, you will be unable to envision her, be it by means of reason or knowledge.

It is an everlasting strength, an eternal life, which as it is everything, what is, what was and what will be, which conceives itself in mysterious ways, continues eternally through all developments and even death. At the same time, it is the basis of all things and the things themselves, the condition and the conditioned, the creator and the creation, and it divides and apportions itself to many different forms, becomes sun, moon, stars, plants, animals and human at the same time, flows through itself in fresh currents of life and observes itself in certain pious souls. This contemplation of objects, the contemplation of their very basis, is the innermost soul of all religions, differently tailored to each individual; but if you examine them, all systems of religion, you will find in each something everlasting, invisible, from which the finite, the visible came forth, something divine that turned into man, a crossing from temporal life to the eternal. The sense of this eternal life has risen in me here in the midst of religious contemplation, by contrast the temporal has, in a certain sense, dwindled away, and my spirit has a rather different view of what is truly important.

I have come to loathe the philosophy that views each individual as a part of the whole, a whole that only consists of individuals, a philosophy that constantly asks, “how useful is this or that for the others?” and that considers each part as a fruit that has blossomed and ripened merely to be consumed by the whole; a philosophy that plants a wide variety of plants in a garden and expects to grow oak trees and roses using the same methods. For me, each individual is sacred, they are God’s work, they are an end in their own right. If they become that which their nature allows them to, then this is enough, and how they can serve others is irrelevant. For me, every idiosyncrasy is sacred; that part of us that belongs to the world, our actions in it, should act according to its laws and after its fashions, but no external law may touch the inner freedom of my spirit, disturb the unique nature of my disposition, which, were it to be complete, would form a pure harmony with no discords. Yes, there must come one day a time of consummation, when each creature will live in harmony with itself and with others, when they will melt into one another and become one in the great chorus, where each melody streams into the eternal harmony.

Just as for mere animals, life, health, survival and reproduction are the highest needs, so too is humanity, in the broadest sense of the word (to which belong morality and culture), the highest requirement for people as people; in this sense humanity acts as something for us to work with. Our pure relationship with morality is complete in itself, is self-sufficient and requires no further motivation or prospects than itself and morality. Those who require some form of religion as a crutch for their ethics lack a pure morality, for morality must exist in and of itself according to one’s nature. In this way, we can cope without religion and, when we merely consider the human aspect, our gaze never reaches this realm. However, our spirit seeks out the spiritual, its thirst drives it to search for the source of life, it seeks for its strengths, which can find no relationship here on earth, an unearthly relationship, a never-ending object of contemplation for its spiritual eye, and it finds all this in religion; it is the highest want, and life within it is purely spiritual. Thus, we live on three levels: animalistic, this is our relationship with the earth; humanistic, this is our link to humanity; spiritual, this is our connection to the everlasting, the divine. Those who fail to live on any of these three levels will feel the lack, and something will be missing from their facilities.

This fresh view of matters brought my disposition eternal peace. The Persian palm groves were my Elysium, but a certain longing led me on to India; I wandered over towards Tibet through the gorges and valleys of the Kingdom of Mustang, and on down the Ganges to where it pours its holy waters into the Bay of Bengal, and back again to Delhi, the old capital of the Mongolian sultans. Not far from this city, I made the acquaintance of a wise Brahmin, who soon took a liking to me, allowing me to stay in his home on the banks of the Ganges and instructing me in the Sanskrit language. Together, we wandered to India’s remotest regions and searched for monuments of the land’s past majesty. An ardent love towards his people lit up the Brahmin, he grieved their fall as if it were his own, and boasted of their former glory; and the manner in which I enthusiastically joined in with this praise made me ever dearer to him. He helped me to see the history of his homeland more clearly, and I saw with astonishment that India’s culture stretched back to an age when the calendars of other peoples were as yet unborn. Much as the proud Europeans, he once said to me, might boast of being the centre of the educated and enlightened world, it is in the Orient that each sun that ever lit up and warmed the earth rose; only later, and paler, does it send its rays towards the west. The fog of oblivion obscures the tombs of the world that came before, only a few great figures shimmer through; our mighty gods have flown, we were trodden underfoot by the coarse Mongols, we are slowly being bled to death by the profit-hungry Europeans.  The zenith of each people is akin to a spring that comes but once and then flies off to bring joy to other regions.

The more I came to know this man, the more I found him to be a true priest, an intermediary between God and humankind.  In his soul, the divine and the human were intimately intertwined. The earth was holy for him as an antechamber of Heaven, its colourful turmoil failed to confuse him, all developed clearly before his spirit, and he remained pure and innocent amidst the eddies of corruption. He stood, like Moses, atop a high mountain where none could follow, and God spoke to him, and through him to the people. He soon forgot that I was a stranger and initiated me into the wisdom of the Brahmin. He taught me how the path to eternal perfection lay in every aspect of the never-ending spirit of nature, how elemental forces moved progressively through all forms until consciousness and thought developed into people; how from humanity onwards a never-ending series of travels await our souls, roads which lead to ever greater perfection; how our souls eventually, in a mysterious fashion, come together and join the original force from which they departed, and become one with it, and yet remain themselves, thus uniting the divinity and universality of the creator with the individual.  He taught me how a community consists of people whose inner sense, and spirit for the world, has developed. “I have lived through,” he told me, “months and years in which the spirit was silent, before it suddenly offered up great revelations, then, in an instant, things became clear to me, things I had striven in vain for years to understand. Everything around me then took on a new and completely different meaning, a fresh stream of life flowed through my breast, my thoughts moved more boldly, more quickly; I felt like someone who through bleak solitude had virtually forgotten the sounds of language and to whom a good and great person steps up and offers a friendly greeting. However, when the voice fell silent, with the closing of the heavenly window through which divine clarity had entered my dark soul, then was I downcast, and I was unable to rejoice in anything except the memory of the light I had seen.”

It seemed to me that there was a duality to the old man whenever he spoke in this way, and a spark of his spirit was transferred to mine. I couldn’t leave him, I accompanied him constantly, with the exception of a few summer nights which he spent with another old Brahmin amidst the ruins of an Indian temple on the Ganges in secretive consecrations and ceremonies of his religion. There came a day when he returned from one of these treks looking extremely fatigued and pale, and ordered me and his seven-year-old daughter Lasida to accompany him to the shadows of some palms which stood by the Ganges, and over which loomed a high cliff adorned with inscriptions. He sat down in the shade of the trees and for a long time lacked the strength to speak. Finally, he said in a weak voice: “Almor! Be you the father of my Lasida when I am gone, live with her and talk to her of me, I wish to live on in her love. Almor, fare thee well! For you, I will not be dead, for my spirit will continue in you. Once again, fare thee well! and now leave me alone; I wish to die in the undisturbed contemplation of death, to silently breathe my spirit back into the silence of nature.” I left him, and when I returned that evening, I found him dead. His friend, the old Brahmin, arrived that same evening; he claimed to have known of his friend’s death and buried him at midnight at the spot where he had passed away.

I stayed in Lasida’s house, lived like a Brahmin and did very little to bring the girl up, I left it more to her own beautiful nature. Ten years have passed since her father’s death, and he still lives amongst us. Indeed, Lasida is reluctant to leave this house to visit her lover as she fears that any brief absence will lead to her being shut out from this close communion with her father. And I will never again leave this hut, these palms, this stream; I am bound here as if by magic, and the peace I enjoy will never leave me.

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3 thoughts on “‘Geschichte eines Braminen’ (‘Story of a Brahmin’) by Karoline von Günderrode (Translation)

    1. Thomas – Well, I have already had something published (very short, and from the French!), but I doubt it’ll turn into a regular gig 😉

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