by Rafaël Newman
For the staff of Flussbad Oberer Letten
On a warm evening in late August I was basking by the Limmat, the river that runs through downtown Zurich, alongside substantially fewer than the 400 permitted in the public bathing area in the past several weeks: school holidays had just ended and work had begun to pick up again, so the crowd of bathers that had recently thronged the city’s riverside and lakeshore beach sites was diminished. Many of my companions had the dazed appearance of people lately freed from the fluorescent confines of the office – as had I – and were blinking warily in the natural light as they prepared for a dip in the pleasantly cool stream.
Three acquaintances, each from a separate area of my life – a client from my freelancing days, a former neighbor, and a waiter from a favorite restaurant – all stopped by, one after the other, to greet me where I reclined on my towel, paperback at the ready, resting my eyes on the soothing vista of parkland and wooden boardwalk across the river. Each of them rejoiced briefly in the pleasures of outdoor semi-nudity in the middle of a busy city, before cautioning me that it would rain the next day:
“Morn chunnts go schiffä.”
The remark is stylized, virtually a cliché, and I have heard it on various occasions, typically as summer draws to a close, since I moved to Switzerland over two decades ago. It has never been entirely clear to me in what spirit it is offered: conspiratorial – upbraiding – mocking? Am I to feel ashamed of the challenge to the weather gods (a certain Petrus is charged with meteorology in Germanic-Christian syncretic folklore) implicitly issued by my brazenly bare limbs? Is it an expression of sympathetic embarrassment – what is known in German as Fremdschämen or “vicarious shame”, AKA cringeworthiness – at the spectacle of me whistling in the dark, closing my eyes to the encroachment of frost on my balmy idyll?
In a more conciliatory mood I have occasionally sensed, in this stock observation, the echo or inheritance of a sentiment that first rises in the Augustan age, under the influence of eastern philosophies brought back to Rome by its imperial soldiers, with Horace’s often quoted and frequently mistranslated “carpe diem” (more nibble or graze the day than seize it, virtually a 12-Steps “Just For Today” avant la lettre). The genre famously continues through the Renaissance, as Robert Herrick’s virgins are cautioned to gather rose-buds, and Andrew Marvell’s coy mistress is seduced with images of the sepulcher. This is a lyrical genre that whispers “memento mori” even as it prescribes pleasure, counseling its reader to “make the most of time” because “The grave’s a fine and private place / But none, I think, do there embrace.” In “Mignonne”, Pierre de Ronsard, a 16th-century French pamphleteer and court poet whose work echoes the Epicurean amatory verse of the Romans in a distinctly post-classical setting, enjoins his belovèd to view with him the waxing and waning of the natural world, and derive a lesson for her own life:
Darling, come and walk with me
And see our choicest flower:
This morning blooming merrily,
Its blush was like yours in degree;
Perhaps the nearing evening hour
Has robbed it of its power?
Alas! behold, in what brief stead,
My darling, it has drooped;
Alas! and all its beauties fled!
Oh nature cruel, with talons red,
No bloom at dawn all gaily grouped
But by the evening stooped!
Thus, darling, if you’ll heed me now,
While youth your bloom attends,
I bid of you a solemn vow:
Pluck, pluck your youth from off the bough!
For like this flower that sadly bends
Your beauty, too, will end.
Thus Ronsard’s advice to the ironically named Cassandre, bearer of unheeded prophecies, in this case deaf herself to the bad news. Have my Swiss interlocutors been attempting to alert me to the same truth, to stir in me an appetite for the pleasures of the day, enjoyed all the more lustily in the shadow of the night? But that makes no sense, since the warning is inevitably uttered while I am already visibly in the process of plucking my youth (or what’s left of it) from off the bough. Are they simply indulging in the pleasurable masochism Yeats ascribed to his fellow Irish, who were said to preserve an abiding sense of the tragedy of human existence to tide them over during good times? But such a construction doesn’t jibe with the routine stoicism of the Swiss, who observe a virtually British injunction against grumbling that is reinforced, rather than belied, by a parallel tendency to “make a fist in their pocket”: to swallow their grievances, and to air them, if at all, only privately.
The début and continued run of COVID-19 this year has suggested a new interpretation of the stock phrase. What I now believe I have been experiencing, as the summer wanes and the traditional flu season approaches, is a Helvetian version of the pastoral fatalism expressed in Rilke’s celebrated “Herbsttag”, or “Autumn Day”:
Lord, it’s time: the summer was immense.
Cast down your shadow on the sundials now
and loose your squalls upon the meadowlands.
Bid flourish one last fruit along the vine!
Grant it one extra sunny, southern spell;
harass it to perfection, and impel
one last sweet drop into the heavy wine.
No house? You won’t be building now.
If you’re alone, you will be for a while:
read through the night, write long epistles,
and roam restless up and down
the avenues amid the rustling leaves.
It isn’t autumn yet, not quite. The astronomical season begins, in the northern hemisphere, on September 22. But there is a distinct drop in the temperature these days, the first leaves on the tree outside my balcony are turning yellow, and I am reminded of the fact that the season I have come to refer to as “autumn”, among fellow language services providers from the British Isles supplying translations to Swiss financial institutions in their preferred “UK English”, is the one I had grown up, in North America, calling “fall”. And “fall” feels like a better word for the time approaching us now, as well as for the sentiment expressed in the Swiss commonplace: not only because the (il)logic of naming prompts me to fantasize a connection between signifier and signified, but because “fall” crystallizes two powerful but opposed streams of western ideology, one religious, the other economic. “The fall” describes at once our predetermined descent into sin, and the inevitable dip in the business cycle. The first sense is dire, since in Christian, particularly Protestant, terms we are bound to fall, being the heirs to Adam’s original sin; while the second offers implicit hope, as the mechanics of the cycle ordain an eventual return to growth and prosperity. And thus the observation that “it’ll be pissing down tomorrow”, offered to a last-minute merrymaker, takes on a less balefully threatening character: the fall is coming, says the voice of Christendom, AKA Europe, because it has been preordained; but, like every year, adds the voice of the pre-Christian pagan subsisting beneath the surface, it will then eventually give way to a fresh rise. We are weak, suggests the first voice, happily oblivious of our sinful condition as we disport ourselves in the sun; but that is to be expected, says the second, and will soon be made right by the coming torrents – which recall the Great Flood, rejoins the first voice, and our early punishment at the hands of a disappointed and vengeful God. From which humankind rose up again, chimes in the second voice, suddenly in exegetical mode, thanks to a dove and an olive branch.
For those same torrents will water the crops to be harvested in the season known as “autumn” or “fall” – or, in Rilke’s German, Herbst, which is cognate with the English word “harvest”, both derived from the Greek καρπός or “fruit”. (Think of Keats’s “Ode to Autumn”, which invokes the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”) These torrents are, however, also the harbingers of the cold season – the fall in temperature that resonates in the North American name – which will likely be more hospitable to the novel coronavirus: and thus herald the burgeoning of a different, less benevolent crop. The second wave, perhaps, of our present inundation.
And thus the Swiss commonplace – “It’s going to rain tomorrow” – is revealed in this current climate as unexpectedly germane, if internally incoherent: a complex of congratulation and encouragement to the late-season celebrant, admonishment to the naively optimistic, reminder of the inescapably linear course of human fallibility, and reassurance that the cycle, both agricultural and economic, is merely running its course. In the midst of life we are in death, it says, in the words of Notker Balbulus, a monk in medieval St Gallen, offering a memento mori that is also a confirmation of the life we are in the midst of. The Swiss cliché is both a recognition of the inevitability of decay, and an exhortation to make the most of what vitality is left us. It is an acceptance of finitude that is also a promise of cyclical rebirth: rebirth of a dreaded virus, perhaps; but also of our hopes. A Totentanz, like the celebrated mural in Basel, a dance of death that celebrates amid the ruins. Like the Imagines mortis (images of death), engravings produced during the 1530s, in a time of plague, by Basel’s adopted son Hans Holbein the Younger, a roster of human types variously depicted going about their vital doings in the company of grinning skeletons. In the midst of life: amid the masked and the unmasked, the physically distant and the socially proximate, those who have discounted the threat and returned to business as usual, and those who are scrupulously heeding the guidelines issued by the department of health.
Just this past week, in conformity with those guidelines, the Basler Fasnachtscomité, the body responsible for Basel’s renowned annual carnival or “Fasnacht”, announced that the event would not take place in its traditional form next year. Public processions and performances by the “Cliques” or carnival brigades would simply pose too great a risk; in particular, the famous “Morgenstreich”, which crowds thousands of people into the middle of town for a predawn reveille, has been rendered unthinkable by hygienic provisions. The coronavirus has figuratively rained on their parade.
Nevertheless, in February of 2021, at the cusp of another season, as fall’s successor, winter, cedes slowly to spring and the cycle of death and rebirth about to commence comes full circle, the Fasnachtscomité promises an atomized version of carnival, featuring neighborhood cortèges and local reveilles; concrete details are being discussed. And thus the round that began, in Holbein’s rendering, with Adam and Eve cast out of the garden, continues; the seasons follow one another, perhaps less distinctly than in the past, though with familiar rituals to underscore muted meteorological phenomena; the threat of rain reveals itself as a promise; and we dance on, despite the leering skeletons all around us, which do not always observe the prescribed distance. For the time being, those of us who already have houses will be keeping to them once again, reading through the night, and writing long epistles. And if we do venture outdoors, it will indeed only be to roam restless up and down the avenues amid the rustling leaves: since the riverside bathing area closed for the season this very day, and we have now been cast out of that paradise for another year.