Occasionally––as regular readers of this blog will have noted––I allow myself a post tinctured by my own life experiences. What follows is in that vein.
Recently, while on a trip to Uppsala via Frankfurt on Lufthansa, I was exposed to the sounds of German, which recalled my own family milieu, where German was spoken from time to time by my parents, both of whom spoke it fluently from childhood and were educated in Germany (Berlin, Freiburg, Leipzig) in the 1920s. Just before embarking on this trip, I had thought for the umpteenth time about the line from Goethe’s poem «Grenzen der Menschheit» («Limits of Mankind»), which is this post’s title («What distinguishes gods from men?») and which I had memorized as a schoolboy in Hollywood during my first year of German study. This reminiscence was prompted also by the fact that I had just used the line as a motto to the poem by my father that I’d distributed to my students in the Philosophy of the Russian Novel course I taught this past semester at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, and had declaimed to them as a sample of Russian verse by a twentieth-century Russian poet––a poem composed, nota bene, while the author was on a train traveling from Indianapolis to Los Angeles. Here it is (in a very rough translation by the blogger):
Константин Шапиро (1896 -1992) Constantine Shapiro
Направо и налево горы, To the right and left are mountains,
Кругом лишь кактусы растут. Only cactuses grow all around.
Колючие то дети флоры, These are prickly children of flora,
Среди них люди не живут. Among them people do not live.
Но кое–где видны жилища, But here and there dwellings are visible,
Вот мельница, и колесо There’s a mill, and a wheel
От ветра крутится, есть пища–– Turns from the wind, and there’s food––
Хоть достается не легко. Even though it’s not easy to get it.
Я видел даже три коровы; I even saw three cows;
Наверно есть тут и трава. There’s probably grass here too.
Кондуктор с ликом из Кордовы The conductor with a mien from Cordova
Со мной беседовал слегка. Conversed with me a bit.
Я ночью спал довольно крепко, I slept quite soundly through the night,
Хоть жестко было и теснò. Even though it was hard and crowded.
Сосед в Париже был и метко My neighbor had been in Paris and aptly
Описывал свое житье. Described his life.
Мне с острым клювом снилась птица I dreamt of a bird with a sharp beak,
И вот ко мне летит уж вкось, And it’s already flying at me at an angle,
В руке моей вдруг вижу––спица: Suddenly I see a knitting needle in my hand:
Ее прогнать мне удалось. I was able to chase it away.
Омлет в вагоне–ресторане I ate an omelet in the dining car
Я скушал, кофеем запил, And drank it down with coffee,
Потом, рассевшись на диване, Then, relaxing on the divan,
Судьбу свою благословил. I blessed my fate.
Блажен, кто может вдохновенье Blessed is he who can know inspiration
Познать душой и отдохнуть. In his soul and rest.
Ему грехов его забвенье The oblivion of his sins
В нирвану открывает путь. Opens a path for him to Nirvana.
Блажен, кого небесным звоном Blessed is he whom the Angel
Наполнил Ангел с юных лет, Has filled with the heavenly peal,
Кому в глаза, как пред амвоном, Before whose eyes, as before the ambo,
Сияет философский свет. Shines forth the light of philosophy.