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MLN 117.5 (2002) 1069-1082

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Phantom of a Corpse:
Ophelia From Rimbaud to Brecht

Rainer Nägele

Among the many echoes of Rimbaud's "Ophélie" in modern German poetry, Brecht's poem "Vom ertrunkenen Mädchen" ("Ballad of the Drowned Girl," 1919/20) is one of the last. In this poem about forgetting, even her name seems forgotten. The figure that swam through so many waters since Rimbaud appears to swim away forever, dissolved, decomposed in the transitions and translations from river to river, from language to language: Aas in Flüssen mit vielem Aas ("carrion in rivers with much other carrion"). 1

But in this decomposition, she returns to a primal scene of modern poetry, to Baudelaire's "Une charogne," where already the forms of a female corpse are dissolving:

Les formes s'effaçaient et n'étaient plus qu'un rêve,
Une ébauche lente à venir,
Sur la toile oubliée, et que l'artiste achève
Seulement par le souvenir. 2

(vv. 29-32)

This same decomposition carries also the sketch (une ébauche) for a translation and transfiguration that preserves the dissolved forms and carries them over into another state:

Alors, ô ma beauté! dites à la vermine
Qui vous mangera de baisers,
Que j'ai gardé la forme et l'essence divine
De mes amours décomposés!

(vv. 45-48) [End Page 1069]

Brecht's poem is one of these translations, one of the last ones perhaps, while at the same time, at the end of the Ophélie series, it points backwards in time to that sketch, the ébauche, whose echo it is.

In October 1907, in one of his letters about Cézanne, Rilke evokes Baudelaire's "Une charogne" as a model of sachlichen Sagens, of an objective mode of speech. 3 The Sachlichkeit, the objectivity of this mode of speech seems far remote from that "Neue Sachlichkeit," the new objectivity of the twenties, that was proclaimed shortly after the first publication of Brecht's "Ballad of the Drowned Girl." 4 And we are confronted with the question what the nature of this other Sachlichkeit is that Rilke ascribes to the Baudelaire poem and that not only finds its echo in Brecht's "Ballad," but also continues to resonate through the later sober and political style of Brecht's writings.

For Rilke, the Sachlichkeit of Baudelaire's poem seems to have its basis in the overcoming of a resistance: "first the artistic gaze had to overcome itself to the point that it could see Being (das Seiende), that which is valid with all other being (das, mit allem andern Seienden, gilt)" even in that which is horrible and seemingly simply disgusting. Where Rilke speaks of das Seiende . . . mit allem andern Seienden, Brecht's poem speaks of Aas . . . mit vielem Aas. We may consider this one of the translations of being, and one that is thoroughly compatible with the consequence of Rilke's phrase: for the Sachlichkeit of poetic speech consists in the recognition that the essence of being, its Wesen, manifests itself in the decomposition, in Verwesen, and that its validity, its significance emerges in the disappearence of the phenomenon. The Thing cannot be had otherwise than in this kind of sachliches Sagen. The German word Sache is not identical with Ding, it is a translation of the Ding, that is inaccessible in itself, and appears only in the representation of a speech that signifies it, that gilt. (Thus, as Lacan rightly remarked, Freud speaks of Sachvorstellungen, not of Dingvorstellungen.) The Thing is the horror at whose threshold beauty has its place.

In contrast to the baroque directness with which Baudelaire's poem evokes not only the decomposition but also the sexual horror in face of the femme lubrique (thus indicating, very sachlich, what the horror of the "Thing" is all about), both Rimbaud and Brecht are strangely restrained in the depiction of the horror of the thing and its decomposing manifestation. It is as if the gaze, exposed to the horror, were interrupted at moments in order to open instead the ear all the...


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