We See No More Than He: Schluter’s Schwob

Dylan Byron



Kit Schluter calls Marcel Schwob obscure, and indeed this is, to my highly partial knowledge, only the tenth translation of The Children’s Crusade to appear in 122 years. On the other hand, Brecht’s ‘Kinderkreuzzug 1939,’ also partly a treatment of the titular 13th-century European youth movement, remains reasonably well-known, and Britten’s setting of the same premiered in no less a venue than St. Paul’s as recently as 1969. Gabriel Pierné’s oratorio, instead based on Schwob’s Crusade, won a prize from the city of Paris in 1904, but has been little heard since. Why should Schwob’s hypnotically evanescent tales, here somewhat fancifully introduced by Borges, have become or remained so obscure? A prosateur, but isn’t it really poetry? Couldn’t we take our genre socially?

History’s great regain, thanks to this brilliant and hospitable Yankee doorkeeper to the darkened house of symbolism’s end. Following the words of the Roman Pontifical, to strike the cymbal and bell, open the church and sanctuary, and open the book for he who preaches. As far as I’m concerned he might as well say the whole mass. Here alone he’s given to English, historically representing something of a lapse below the level achieved continentally in what once was the fraternity of colors for vowels, an accomplishment in the poetry of translation at which Stuart Merrill, Francis Vielé-Griffin, and even Arthur Symons labored comparatively in vain in their own time. For anything near this work, we’ve been made centennially to wait. Would the French translator of Whitman and Hamlet have agreed, dictum de nullo? Speaking outside language, he has competition.

The appearance in 1902 of a translation of Schwob’s Children’s Crusade in the first pages of the June issue of Die Insel says something startling about the early context of its reception. The celebrated monthly’s May edition opened with a 70 page epic of the phallus by Max Dauthendey, later recruited by George himself to write for the Blätter, the house journal of the circle that so oddly enthralled Spicer and Duncan. Written by Clara Theumann, Maeterlinck’s Viennese translator, Der Kinderkreuzzug shared the June volume with a extravagant selection of up-the-candle Anglophone decadents and Uranians, among them Wilde, Symons, Pater, and Beardsley. For Americans there were Whitman and Poe. A notice of George’s translations of Baudelaire would appear in July.

With a symmetry befitting its anti-naturalist subject, until recently there seemed to be something like a rule of twos for Children’s Crusade translations. I’m counting the initial translation into German by Theumann (Berlin, 1902) and later by Arthur Seiffhart (Leipzig, 1914), into Italian by Giovanni Mariotti (Milan, 1988) and again by the screenwriter Catherine McGilvray (Rome, 1995), into Spanish by Rafael Cabrera (Mexico, 1917) and more recently by Mauro Armiño (Madrid, 2012). The first translation into English (Boston, 1898) was written by the irredeemably brahmin Henry Copley Greene, who once commissioned a bell from Ralph Adams Cram; a more recent version of Malcolm Parr’s was published by a small Welsh press with woodcut prints by Keith Bayliss. A lone Greek translation due to Dionysus Chalkias broke with tradition in 2006; the third English Children’s Crusade appeared this March by Schluter’s golden hand from Wakefield Press.

The book’s epigraph stands like a stele before an otherwise unmarked grave, a site of catastrophe, its memorial written in church Latin and appearing, as in the original, untranslated. Finding no attribution in print, I’m thinking Schwob’s source was almost certainly the edition of the Annales Stadensis printed in the 1859 Hanover-Leipzig Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH). The Latin is reproduced exactly, including the editor’s preferred variants; its author was Albert von Stade, a Premonstratensian abbot active several decades after the so-called crusade. The epigraph says:

Around the same time, children [pueri] without a pastor, without a leader, raced from the villages and cities of every region, and when they were asked where they were rushing, they replied, to Jerusalem, to seek the Holy Land…It is still unknown what became of them. But many returned, and when they were asked the cause of their journey, they said they didn’t know. Also around the same time, naked women ran together through the villages and cities without saying anything.

In its original context, the quoted passage follows a discussion of the unhappy Otto IV, with ‘around the same time’ implying circa 1212. Schwob’s ellipsis marks an omission. Again from the Annales Stadensis,

Many [children] were locked up by their families, albeit in vain, since all who broke out of their enclosures went into exile. When the Pope [Innocent III] heard rumors of them, lamenting he remarked, these children put us to shame, since while we sleep, they race to win the Holy Sepulchre.

Schwob unfolds a historical consciousness that is at once anti-heroic and only partly mythic in its grasping for origins. Indeed, various accounts from the MGH appear closely to inform The Children’s Crusade throughout; several paragraphs from the Chronica Albrici Monachi Trium Fontium form a palimpsest to Schwob’s fifth tale, for example. In this backwards gaze into the dream-history of dystopia, and notwithstanding its author’s reputation as a fantastic rat de bibliothèque, following Verlaine there’s more than a little of the indécis as jointly of the précis. Schwob’s procedure is certainly not that of i pensiere stretti, il viso sciolto. Rather, as Hegel remarked of the artist, his individuality demonstrates individuality’s demise; there he is, and gone. Or think again of Baudelaire’s radical negativity. Peregrinatio puerorum to nowhere.

What comes to mind when you picture the pueri? Schwob’s enfants, children? Puer/pure? Humming a little perhaps the first line of the 112th Psalm of the Vulgate, immortalized in the 1610 Vespers, Laudate, pueri, Dominum, praise the Lord, children? That line on which Augustine comments so memorably, only children praise the Lord, since the proud don’t know how, let old age be childlike, and childhood like old age. Or was your formation more wayward, friends, putting you in mind then of Martial’s Earinus, the teenaged eunuch whose name even the boy [puer] loved by Cybele, and cup-bearer to the Thunderer, would have preferred above his own? If you wanted to discover which use was primary, and which quaternary at best, you could consult the thesaurus, but I think you already know the answer. The resonance is underneath; we daren’t take such liberties.

Schwob’s reconstructions resist idealist simulacrum, a ‘mimicry imitating nothing.’ Or perhaps a sharply fragmented, thoroughly historicized nothing? If there’s something that unites Schwob’s tales, it’s the unknown, the dark. A point of unison among goliard, leper, popes, cleric, little children: ‘I do not know…but I do not know the names…I know not whence…I no longer know my face…I do not know…I do not know…I do not know…I do not know…And I, Innocent, I do not know, I do not know…but he does not know how to say it himself…children…know not what they do…faults of which I know nothing.’ The God called without name is indeed the unnameable one, ‘Master of those who do not know.’ Devotion to the dark as an exercise in translation. Following the reading of Sauf le nom, the outbursts of this via negativa of apophatic theology animate a chorus of voiceless voice, leaving its trace on the tongue, a body, ‘in sum,’ singing into the ear of the beloved brother or friend, aures fraternae ac piae.

In his only partial distrust of language, Schwob himself proved not quite pure. Yet something of the effort of rigorous synthesis, ‘fatal et mathématique,’ that Mallarmé attributed to his own Hérodiade suggests itself in these taut pages, eight disquietingly balanced tales culled from a veritable nest of medieval narrative. Here we should come to understand, by translation, intensification. Didn’t Benjamin after all demand that the translator extend his own language through the other? Will you join me for a moment in the dream-reality of the living poet’s prose? Could it really be that I prefer Schluter’s to the original?

It’s an English of fragments of intensity building in all apparent simplicity into a startling anti-alleluia of polysemous polyphony. Syntax like a fervent trance suddenly induced, sounds of icy whisper touching perfections of rhetoric. The letters of his words appear as red and blue, spotless without compare. He speaks holding pearls in his teeth. How could I possibly bear all the witness I’d like to? It’s a whole. I’m giving this book out, please let’s do.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Schluter reveals an occasional appetite for the antiquarian, as early on when when meadows are ‘laved’ instead of ‘washed.’ Apparently, the most recent instance of ‘lave’ recorded in the OED is from an 1871 translation of Catullus 64 by Robinson Ellis (the very brunt of Housman’s fury), though it’s better attested in the 17th century, deliciously in Milton’s Lycidas, ‘With Nector pure his oazie locks he laves.’ In Schluter’s Schwob the archaism is thrilling, startling, a kind of anti-proto-modernist tactic of disruption. (My own mother looked up, calling out, laved?) ‘Beseech’ (O Lord), not ‘beg,’ rings Prayer Book to my ruined ears. Likewise Schluter’s eucharistic wine ‘glisters’ (last attestation: 1685) where it could simply ‘glitter,’ ‘scintillate’ (as from Schwob’s scintillement) or even just ‘sparkle.’ But the old ‘s’ is really sensuous, and Schwobian. Don’t you hear it that way? Probably not everyone will agree; still I’m a fan-boy.

If in matters of lexical detail I have the least occasion to look askance, it again involves the historical usage of the Roman religion, as when the particular replaces a perfectly good instance of generality, pastoral for decree, or when Christ’s earthly vicar is demoted to mere curate and John the Baptist is made to eat grasshoppers instead of locusts. But doesn’t this little lapse just serve to remind us of what’s without importance? Defending Remy de Gourmont’s translations in Le Latin Mystique against Huysmans, Schwob insisted:

Here again one must hear. Gourmont has adopted a special system for rendering mystical Latin into French. He translates as a brother. He transforms and adorns the Latin because he loves it above all else and wants to make others love it. Thus did Baudelaire give style to the sometimes uncertain phrases of Edgar Allan Poe.

There’s always a lesson in Schwob, and Schluter’s tongue between stays sure.

Supposing we accept Baudelaire’s call for an art of both subject and object, of the artist’s exterior world and the artist’s own self, couldn’t we by the same token grasp the essentially dialectical unity of power and pueri in their very opposition? Perhaps like Agamben’s sovereign and homo sacer, ecclesiastically illicit, a liturgy of peasant-children, led by the ‘holy boy Stephen,’ but delivering letters in all sincerity to St.-Denis, the most royal site in Latin Christendom? After all, could you ever have the stinking corruption of Innocent III in his gilded chamber without his opposite’s unimpeachably boyish innocence? Would you be wrong to see beauty and call it surplus labor? In the children’s songs recorded in the Chronicon rhythmicum Austriacum, princes are born only of the blood of the everlasting covenant. Yet Schwob is far from the belated devotions of Huysmans, whose conversion betrayed a lingering tendency against which the German symbolists alone (if they were symbolists, a characterization to which Gundolf at least strongly objected) happily proved inoculated. Characteristically, George’s own reactionary medievalism, with its peculiar veneration of the Hohenstaufen emperor Frederick II, remained resolutely secular, however geistig. Schwob’s history is alien, not exalted. When he praises François Villon in an essay of the same name, he begins by observing, ‘His work is the strangest one can read.’ Stranger and stranger.

If we aliens to our own time struggle to assimilate the untranslatable, it’s no fault of Schluter’s. Schluter without spot. Reading eschatologically, even if we elect to interpret a celestial Jerusalem, at latest after the 7th century for a place in the world there was only Al-Quds. A children’s crusade is a crusade nonetheless, putridly, and it remains difficult to read without distant tie to the still (still!) ongoing colonial land-theft implied. Though coming from the color theory of poetic sound, and semantically closer to ‘blank,’ the persistent whiteness (blancheur) of things (‘white teeth,’ ‘white voices,’ ‘little white bones’) appears deeply raced, inviting recoil. ‘The Lord Jesus is white,’ Le Seigneur Jésus est blanc (and Schluter adds, ‘in a white land’). Strangely, Schwob’s cleric’s tale recasts as the children’s defenders the very villains of Alberic of Trois Fontaines’ chronicle, which claims thousands of crusading children were sold into slavery in Egypt by the same shipmaster and disloyal admiral of Frederick II, that eighteen were ‘martyred’ by ‘Saracens’ in Baghdad, and that even as adults, nearly two decades later, scores remained enslaved by one ‘Masemach of Alexandria.’ (Who is this?) Unlikely: the caliphate severely restricted enslavement of children, especially orphaned ones, whose plunderers the Qur’an famously warns fill only their own stomachs with fire. Still, why flatter as heroes the duplicitous Ferré and Porc, whose own name (Porcus in the original Latin) confesses ignominy? Far worse is the ‘Qalandar’s Tale,’ a barely plausible orientalist hash told from the rather stilted voice of a ‘qalandar’ (originally a Persian term for an antinomian Sufi, but after the Mongols used almost exclusively in India), who indicates that he traveled primarily in Iraq, met the Sunni Ayyubid sultans Salah ad-Din (d. 1193) and ‘Seïf-ed-Din’ (though that cognomen was hardly exclusive, presumably Al-Adil I), drinks water from a ‘calabash,’ and knows the value of a ‘caftan’ in dinars.

Again charitably, we could read Schwob as meaning a whiteness of metonymy, inscribing otherwise puer/pure. More promisingly, the ‘white voices in the night’ could be construed as invoking precisely that voiceless or toneless voice (voix blanche) of negative theology, a reading supported by a usage of Schwob’s in the tale of Pope Gregory IX. In Schluter’s translation: ‘Mute in all your white mouths [bouches blanches] that come to expire at my feet on the beach,’ the Pope says, ‘you say nothing.’ Thus voiceless apophasis again? These are very imperfect solutions to the reception of a canonical image that has become completely unavailable to us, and rightly. In the past you can get lost; another lesson, if a negative one.

Whatever their historical limits, it’s difficult to recall a period of poetry more marked by circles of friendship than Schwob’s, suggesting, if only in this singular respect, a point of continuity with our own, or even the one before it. As for Spicer-Duncan, you wouldn’t want to miss that Bruce Boone Ironwood essay, news of the republication of which, at last, in Dismembered (February 2019), one might choose to greet with bittersweet relief, the end of a passing of books through hands. Wouldn’t it then be reasonable to ask, perhaps as a social analogue of the reciprocity principle of composition and translation, to know something of a point of entry, a first cénacle, and not only for the translator? In an interview somewhere, Schluter tells the enchanting story of his own road to Schwob, illuminating perhaps more in sensibility (bearing, again?) than particulars. Perfectly, it was from a friend. Two boys trimming grapevines, translating together. Love the moment at the house in Brittany. Tolle, lege. Friends, work, the word. From a parallel point across a channel, I had to get over what George liked to call sensationalism, thinking of the market, and oddly enough it was an East German boy who told me I musst read Maeterlinck. What would a Rimbaud look like for us? Obsessing in German, though oddly enough the Bondi editions were never available on St Giles’, there was always a circulating Bresson DVD or two in Wellington Sq. for Friday nights, showing belatedly how easy it is to put one thing in place of another in montage if you’re wanting to, after all ‘symbolism’ doesn’t stop historically in painting or poetry. You could indeed look at Jean Delville’s school of Plato in the Orsay and still have no idea of French painting then. The accusation is that décadence confuses the instantiation of a particular happiness with imminent utopia in ignorance of deformation by class rule which it effectively goes so far as to celebrate. See what I mean?

Given the argument that even the original poetry of Baudelaire, as of Rossetti or George, demands consideration under the sign of translation, you’ll know I’m heading right for the converse. I’m reading everywhere through Schluter’s own work of first composition, where the strangeness of the other fills a language all its own: ‘Petrichor crepuscule thighs of the night / A thigh aglow moonlit advancing a word / An urge an urge the thighs of the night / Advancing a word advancing a word.’ The masked voice: ‘Through your throat, or inside its voice, masked as air, to have always taken this first breath in you, serrated, as a key, this breath…’ Then suddenly Apollonian: ‘widen the gates widen or if what I tell you is a readiness for love: the willing in the light.’ When you thought you’d hit a high, higher the strange promise of ‘easter skinned & from a yellow feeling.’ He hardly thought of anything else.

We return to Verlaine. Showing us how he spoke in his own time, Schwob’s voiceless poetics, dialectically historicized, coalesce around the abjection of delirium:


Is it thus possible almost to die of hunger in Paris?—It seems.—Can one have talent, publish books, and live under a branch?—It seems.—Can one have more than talent—genius, to be one of the first among French poets, to write poems that those abroad print in sumptuous editions, and that are the ornament of their libraries—and dine on absinthe?—It seems.—Can one, in a century in which letters mint coins, find neither home, nor sometimes clothes, nor medicine, nor kind souls even in hospital?—It seems.

Good people of the 19th century, come, please, to the Middle Ages. It was better than your time. It knew neither cant nor the bourgeois pride of people who write. Poets were hired songbirds and they had the right not to earn money.

Where is this world to make? Do you know which is ours, and another? ‘If I write down the precious name of Rainer Maria Rilke…’ As the book’s back cover really does! Rilke and his fine paper in the capital of the 19th century. Riding the L to the J in the direction I’m from, two grown people wonder brazenly aloud whether a ‘2 bed, 2 bath’ they might buy is big enough for their tables and chairs. They prefer square feet. It says Kit Schluter was born in Boston and lives in Mexico City. Walking into an office for teaching an unspoken language, I’m aware that the unraveling umbrella I’m carrying cost two whole macrobiotic-style meals at the Free Waldorf School canteen on Ritterstraße. ‘Could I forever be your you, and never that same your’s he?’ We were rushing in sudden rain across Canal to Lucien Samaha’s loft, it was available—capacious. I mean the umbrella, though this is also what a French performance artist said to me about Berlin, waiting on line admiring by way of contrast the intelligently compacted toilets at The Kitchen. Or did she say expansive? Weeks earlier, I’m carrying my copy under one arm and I thought Andrée Sfeir-Samler seemed curious, herself resplendent in neon orange. Did you know she was even Bourdieu’s student? Wakefield’s waxen jacket and flaps are curiously sturdy in a storm. Someone says Berlin’s over, Mexico City, artist per capita, something. Aren’t Sylvère’s friends already talking about this in 1992 in Torpor? In the old Prenzlauer Berg, I’ve found I could still live (but how?) for several hundred euros a month and, overlooking my highly imperfect speech, no one doubts Germanness; several take offense at pale denials, thinking dissembling. Boys without blue passports can’t pass, only a few weeks. Here are the countries you can enter without a visa for 90 days, I’m telling you I found the list years ago, this is the list, look London is six months. Laws deny welcome. Aren’t mine surely the least of problems? Where will children walk? Whenever the doorkeeper shows the way.