From My Life: Poetry and Truth - Book 2, pages 73-78

Perhaps when everything goes back to its original position the gate will be visible again and I will do everything I can to have a new adventure. However I don't know if I'll be able to tell you about what I encounter or if it will be strictly forbidden for me to speak of it at all.


This tale, of whose veracity my sympathetic playmates seemed to be convinced, received great approval. Without letting me or the others know, each attempted to find the spot where the nut tree, the tablet and the fountain were located. However each item was distant from the others. Each eventually admitted this because over the years it is hard to keep a secret. One friend assured me the objects never moved from their spots and they remained the same distance from each other. The second friend maintained that they moved but stayed the same distance from each other. The third agreed with the first concerning lack of movement but said the nut tree, tablet and fountain were closer to each other. The fourth friend claimed to have seen something remarkable; the nut tree was in the middle and the tablet and fountain were on either side as I had indicated. Their stories also variated concerning the gateway. And so they gave me an early example of how people could have conflicting opinions about easily confirmed facts. * Since I stubbornly refused to continue my tale they often requested that I repeat the first part. I was careful not to change much of the details and thus through narrative uniformity

I was able to transform the fable into truth for my audience. *

By nature I was averse to lying and dissimulation and I never did so frivolously. I was more interested in showing the internal gravity I had witnessed in myself and the world. There was a certain seriousness to my demeanor which often received friendly comments while other times it elicited sarcasm. I was never without good and well-chosen friends but we were always a minority pitted against those more than happy to stand up against us and abruptly shake us out of the fabulous and self-satisfying dreams, which I had created and my friends had enjoyed and into which we had gladly lost ourselves. It was here we became aware that, rather than giving ourselves up to gentle existence and fantasy, we had to become hard in order to endure life's unavoidable evils or counteract them.

Among the exercises in Stoicism I studied, as seriously as any boy can study them, is the exercise needed to endure corporal punishment. * Our teachers often handled us unkindly and roughly with their slaps and blows * and we had to steel ourselves all the more because insubordination or counteraction were strictly forbidden. Many games of youth are based on competitions in endurance; for example, when two fingers or entire hands are alternately hit until they are numb or in certain sports where blows are supposed to be withstood calmly. In the wrestling ring one shouldn't become distracted by the pinches of a half-beaten opponent.

One also has to withstand the injuries associated with teasing and react indifferently to the slaps and tickling young people regularly inflict upon each other. Our exercises gave us a great advantage which others could not quickly take from us.

Since I had made a profession of my indifference to pain it increased the need for others to show me that depravity knew no bounds. They soon drove me past my limits. I will tell one story rather than many. The teacher had not come for a lesson. As long as we children stayed together we entertained ourselves quite sociably. However once my friends felt they had waited long enough and left, I was alone with three miscreants who bullied, shamed and pushed me around. They left me alone in a room for a minute, then they came back with twigs they had broken off a broom. I knew what they intended but believing the end of the hour was near I was resolved to stay until the clock struck the hour. They mercilessly began to whip my legs and calves with the twigs. I did not move but then I realized I had miscalculated because the pain made the minutes last forever. My anger grew and as the clock struck the hour I grabbed the one least expecting it, yanked him by the hair and sent him sprawling to the ground. I pressed my knee to his back. The second fellow, younger and weaker, came at me from behind. I clenched his head through my arm and throttled him soundly as I pressed him against me.

There was still one fellow remaining and he wasn't the weakest. I only had my left hand with which to defend myself. I grabbed him by the clothes. The quickness of my action sent him sprawling to the ground with his face to the floor. There was plenty of biting, scratching and kicking. The need for revenge filled my senses and my limbs. Using the advantage I now had, I slammed their heads together repeatedly. They eventually let out cries for help and we were soon surrounded by everyone in the house. The scattered twigs and the condition of my legs, from which I had shed my stockings, testified for my case in self-defense. They did not punish me and they allowed me to leave the house, but before leaving I declared that if they every bothered me again I would scratch their eyes out, rip their ears off or throttle them senseless.

This incident, although soon forgotten and occasionally a source of bemusement as are most childhood events, was at the time the reason why communal classes of instruction were tapered off then done away with altogether. Once again I was restricted to the house and my sister Cornelia, only one year younger than me, became an ever more satisfactory companion.

I shall not leave this subject without relating a few more stories concerning unpleasant matters I experienced because of my playmates. It is through the communication * of such instructionally rich situations that an individual learns how life is different for others and what he may expect from life in the future so that, whatever may occur he knows things happen because he is a member of the human race. It is not because he has had

a particular stroke of luck or misfortune. This knowledge doesn't just serve to help us avoid evil situations; it teaches us how to endure and even overcome them.

This is the proper place to make some general comments concerning a very large contradiction the growing children encountered in their cultured setting. What I mean is our parents admonished and instructed us children to behave moderately and reasonably, never to contribute to people's annoyance through willfulness or bad temper, and at all times to suppress any spiteful outbursts. However for the youngsters it is just the opposite because in practicing what they have been taught by their parents they endure the pain caused by others for behavior against which they have been warned and strictly forbidden. Thus caught between circumstances of nature and civilization the poor creatures become, each in accordance with his or her character, either spiteful or downright malicious when they have to contain themselves for long periods of time.

Force must be driven back with force and a good-natured, loving and sharing child knows little on how to defend himself against insult and ill will. Although I knew how to ward off the the attacks of my associates I was in no way prepared to deal with their gibes and insults because in such cases where one defends himself, one always loses. There were verbal assaults which caused me to be angry and lash out with physical force. Other times they provoked incredible thoughts which could not remain without consequence. Some miscreants begrudged me the advantages I enjoyed resulting from

my grandfather's position as chief magistrate. He was first among his peers and this had a strange impact on his family. One time after the Pipers' Court, as I tried to recreate the image of my grandfather standing amid the sheriffs, one step higher than the others and under the picture of the Kaiser on his throne, one of the boys scornfully said I should think of my paternal grandfather as a peacock looking down at its feet. He had been the innkeeper at the Weidenhof and had no claim to throne and crown. I retorted that I was not ashamed. There may be aristocrats and elevated gentry in our father city but each citizen could consider himself an equal and conduct his business profitably and honorably. It pains me that this good man has been dead for so long. I wish I had known him personally. I often looked at his portrait and even visited his grave. As was my duty I contemplated the inscription on the simple gravestone, which celebrated his former existence. Another miscreant *, the most malicious of them all, took his friend aside and whispered something in his ear. They gave me a scornful look. The gall began to rise in me and I told them to say it aloud. "It doesn't matter," the first one said, "if you really want to know. What he meant was, you could search around for a long time before you found your grandfather." I warned them in a threatening tone to make their meaning clearer. They recited a story they had overheard from their parents.

Go to pages 79-84

Text provided by the Lockwood Library, State University of New York at Buffalo.
Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks