Life views of the cat Murr
When I was still at school, I had a professor whose thankless job it was to start the first fire in our hollow heads.
And he failed miserably.
And we just sat there, with our youthful blind eyes, and stared scornfully into his face.
I remember how his smile froze and he finally turned away, lonely and alone.
Perhaps it was the first time we felt the intoxicating power of our youth and the strength that lies in not wanting to know.
And maybe it was beautiful then.
But now it hurts my soul to think about it.
The old man, standing there.
Before him a wall of silence.
Years later, long after I had left school, I discovered the book at a second-hand shop. Spotty, dog-eared and in the cheapest edition you can imagine.
It was the time when everyone broke with their past and threw away everything they once were.
For me it was a silent protest against my own youth and the friends who were no more, that I secretly put the book to myself and then left.
At home I threw it on a pile and almost forgot about it, until one evening it fell at my feet.
I began to leaf through it and read.
Do you know what it’s like when you open a book and suddenly it catches you?
You fly over the first pages, happy to put out the light soon, but after a few chapters, after a few words only, the story takes you away and suddenly it’s three in the morning?
And you know that a difficult day is coming, you should actually sleep and rest, but you still want to read this one page, just this one chapter.
And suddenly you hear the chirping of the birds and you know that the night is almost over and you wake up from your dream.
That’s what happened to me back then with “Kater Murr”, the only funny book in classical literature that can stand alongside Ch. Dickens “Pickwicker”.
It is a boon to read about the Murr cat and his world. To feel the fine humour with which Hofmann plays and with which he describes the nature of people and their work in his time.
But besides this wonderful story Hoffmann offers us a second story.
For lack of available paper, tomcat Murr has written his confession on sheets of paper that he tore out of a strange beech tree. And the printer of the story, out of sheer courage or ignorance, simply had both pages printed and bound into a book.
And so, in addition to the life story of tomcat Murr, we also gain an insight into the life of the Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler. And this book is full of bizarre, coarse jokes and resembles a par force ride through the soul life of a brilliant artist.
That is the basic form and the truly refreshing idea of this work.
On the one hand the educational story of a cowardly Philistine, recounted in the life of a tomcat.
And on the other hand the soul of a bourgeois fright, a socially non-conformist artist and misunderstood genius, who stomped with angry steps through the cultivated gardens of his contemporaries.
And yet, even though the book is easy and amusing to read throughout, it describes a deep conflict that can be found in all advanced civilizations and from which so many, especially young people, suffer.
For one cannot simultaneously soar with wings into the realm of poetry and be bound to the hard clods of reality.
Or, to put it another way, the book tells of the eternal conflict between the young artist who wants to create something new and an ossified society that is only interested in preserving the old.
Hofmann’s efforts to achieve this are made by the pair of tomcats Murr and Johannes Kreisler.
He shows the tomcat as a ponderous citizen who, after a brief period of youthful exuberance, swings into the comfortable waters of his given existence. In the firm belief that he is still the audacious and daring hero of his youth.
Johannes Kreisler, the ingenious artist, the demonic creative man, for whom the life of others is only play and stage, only material from which he weaves his dreams, stands against this.
In the end, all that remains is the way out into madness, the downfall of his soul, while the Philistine continues to sit by the warm stove, warming his fat legs.
And yet it is a team that is mutually dependent and needs each other!
For just as intertwined as artists and citizens have been for centuries, the one as the material and raw material of all being, the other as a warning reminder of the suffering self, this book is just as intertwined.
The story of the wonderful E.T.A. Hoffmann.
And today I also understand the smile of my professor better.
For isn’t a teacher a strange hermaphrodite? With one leg soaring up in the world of the arts and free science and the other firmly rooted in the hierarchy of his time?
To whom he should give the most important thing there is – a fully educated person.
How much that must have pulled on him.
Maybe he was an artist himself in his youth. Maybe he had secret dreams, longings, a quiet laugh for the intricacy of our world. For our youth, our folly and his own longing for it.
Perhaps the dying smile was not even for himself. Maybe it was for us. Because he saw that the spark could no longer be transmitted.
An experience that every teacher must have.
And a bitter one, like nothing else.
But maybe he was in reality just a feisty citizen like tomcat Murr, who laughed out of an ossified citizen’s soul at our high-flying dreams and got a bloody nose in the process.
Just as if the tomcat Murr had jumped into his face.