The Sound of Scham

Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

ScreenHunter_931 Jan. 08 17.28You might have heard the story about the three Swiss. They were sitting around at an Inn together. They were: Arnold Böcklin (the painter), his son Carlo, and the writer Gottfried Keller. Nobody said anything for a long time. Then, Carlo said, “It’s hot.” More time passed. Finally, the elder Böcklin replied, “and there’s no wind.” Silence. Then, Gottfried Keller got up and left. As he was leaving, he said, “I won’t drink with these chatterboxes.”

Walter Benjamin told this story in an essay about Robert Walser written for Das Tagebuch in 1929. Benjamin argued that there is something distinctively Swiss about Walser’s writing style. Benjamin called this Swiss quality Scham, which Rodney Livingstone translates as “reticence.” You can also hear the English word “shame” in the German word “Scham.” The three Swiss at the Inn silently agree that it is embarrassing to express a thought or observation. Silence is best because it is safest. But silence is also hard to do. So, we talk. Then, inevitably, we feel disappointment at what we’ve just said.

According to Benjamin, Robert Walser deeply understood and experienced this kind of embarrassment. The funny thing about the embarrassment of talking is that it can lead to streams of words. When Walser does talk (and his writing is basically a stream of talking captured on the page), the words pour out in a torrent, stumbling over one another as they come. The incredible clumsiness of Walser’s writing, which is also the source of its delight, is the result, thinks Benjamin, of this root sense of shame. The desire to stop language results, paradoxically, in its profusion.

More here.