Harp & Altar
Joshua Cohen
from North Vain, Bluff

Evelyn Hampton

Lily Hoang

Peter Markus

Bryson Newhart

Robert Walser
translated by Mark Harman and Walter Arndt
For Zilch

For Zilch
Robert Walser

The piece of prose that apparently wants to come into being here is being written in the dead of night, and I am writing it for Zilch, the Cat, that is to say for everyday use.

Zilch is a kind of factory or industrial enterprise, for which writers produce and deliver daily, perhaps even hourly, with steadfast zeal. It is better to deliver than merely to enter upon pointless discussions about delivery or in chatterboxious prattle about service. Here and there even poets will create for Zilch the Cat, telling themselves that they find it more sensible to do something than to refrain. Whoever does something for her, for that quintessence of commercialization, does it for her enigmatic eyes. You know the Cat and you don’t; she will slumber and purr with pleasure in her sleep, and looking for an explanation, one is faced with an impenetrable riddle. Although it is recognized that the Cat jeopardizes something like personal development, one seems unable to get on without her, for Zilch is the very time in which we live, that for which we labor, which gives us work to do, the banks, the restaurants, the publishing houses, the schools, the Leviathan of business, the phenomenal range of manufacturing activity, all this (and more if I were to list in numerical order—a thing that just might happen—all I consider redundant) is Zilch, Zilch. Zilch to me is not merely anything that is good for the running of things, that is of any kind of value to the machinery of civilization, but she is rather, as I have said, the whole works themselves. And only such items could possibly aspire to be exempt from Zilchery as can demonstrate so-called eternal values, as for example the masterpieces of art or the deeds that tower high over the hum and drum, the rush and roar of the day. Whatever is not eroded and consumed by favor and distaste—by the Cat in other words, who assuredly is an august entity—may be taken to be lasting and to gain the port of a remote posterity, much like some vessel of freight or state. My colleague Binggeli in my opinion writes for Zilch in every respect, even though his prose and verse are extremely demanding. Regarding the Zilchitude of his otherwise doubtless excellent literary output, Dinggelari (who calls a ravishingly beautiful woman his conjugal own, who dines and sups famously, takes splendid promenades every day, inhabits a flat in a romantic setting) is a prey to egregious error in that he persists in thinking that the Cat will have nothing to do with him. While she considers him her own, he strains to think that he is unsuitable in her eyes; which by no means squares with the facts.

The Cat Zilch is my name for the contemporary world; for the afterworld I do not presume to have a colloquial term.

The Cat is frequently misunderstood, people turn their noses up at her, and when they give her something, they do so with a quite inappropriate attitude—remarking arrogantly “It’s for Zilch,” as if all human beings had not busied themselves for her from time immemorial.

All that is achieved goes to her first; she eats with relish, and only what lives on and works despite her is immortal.



Translated from the German by Walter Arndt



This selection appears with the permission of Suhrkamp Verlag and the translator.