Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Creation from "nothing"

     Christian Otto Josef Wolfgang Morgenstern (1871-1914) was a German writer whose poetry often involved paradox or nonsense and whose witticisms are oft-quoted by his German admirers;  for example, the following line from "The Impossible Fact" ("Die unmögliche Tatsache", 1910): "Weil, so schließt er messerscharf / Nicht sein kann, was nicht sein darf." which may be translated as  "For, he reasons pointedly / That which must not, can not be."  

      My first acquaintance with Morgenstern's verse was on a website offering his work in the original German and in translation by Max Knight.  Here, from that site, is "The Picket Fence."

The Picket Fence        by Christian Morgenstern

One time there was a picket fence
with space to gaze from hence to thence.

An architect who saw this sight
approached it suddenly one night,

removed the spaces from the fence,
and built of them a residence.

The picket fence stood there dumbfounded
with pickets wholly unsurrounded,

a view so loathsome and obscene,
the Senate had to intervene.

The architect, however, flew
to Afri- or Americoo.

Ths poem and its paradox of making "something" from "nothing" entertained me and, even more so, when I found two additional translations of it. This next was translated by F . C. Hull and comes from Vicious Circles and Infinity: An Anthology of Paradoxes  (Eds Patrick Hughes, George Brecht; Penguin Books, 1978)

There was a fence with spaces you
Could look through if you wanted to.

An architect who saw this thing
Stood there one summer evening

took out the spaces with great care
And built a castle in the air.

The fence was utterly dumfounded--
Each post stood with nothing round it.

A sight most terrible to see --
They charged it with indecency.

The architect then ran away
To Afric- or Americ-ay.

A third translation (by Jerome Lettvin) comes from Wikipedia:

Disinterment       by Christian Morgenstern

Once there was a picket fence
of interstitial excellence.

An architect much liked its look;
protected by the dark he took

the interspaces from the slats
and built a set of modern flats.

The fence looked nothing as it should,
since nothing twixt its pickets stood.

This artefact soon fated it,
the senate confiscated it,

and marked the architect to go
to Arctic - or Antarctico.

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