on Mr. Zed’s Reflections, prose fiction by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, tr. by Wieland Hoban (Seagull Books)
What do we know about Mr. Zed? Not much. The narrator of Mr. Zed’s Reflections begins with these meager details:
“One has to imagine Mr. Zed as a person who keeps his ulterior motives to himself, bears his worries with composure and does not like to forego good things. Of a stout, round build, he will only catch the observer’s attention through his calm and the facts that he is wasteful with his time. If he has a profession, he never mentions it.
“His pike-grey eyes are wide awake, but anyone watching him will notice his shirt-sightedness. Along with his old-fashioned suit with its salt-and-pepper pattern, he wears a brown bowler hat that he usually places beside him on his bench.”
The bench is located in a park where Mr. Zed carries on a colloquy with a small group of regular attendees – a woman in a tweed jacket and riding boots, a zoologist, an irritable philosophy student, a sociologist, an elegant man wearing sunglasses, a young man in a bomber jacket, and an energetic pensioner. Many others stop to listen and speak up, some come and go.
On warm days, Mr. Zed removes his jacket and discourses (always tersely) in shirtsleeves, but he does not remove his bowler hat. He is perhaps a descendent of Sophocles and Erasmus, provoking discussion among citizens in the agora, praising folly and the pleasures of simplicity and contemplation. But he doesn’t feel worthy of having disciples and doesn’t recruit them. By his own admission, he often contradicts himself or speaks in riddles, a tendency that annoys some of his unbidden audience (“Contradict me. Above all, contradict yourselves. One should always adhere to what one doesn’t say”). About our narrator we know even less except that he assiduously recorded Mr. Zed’s speeches and interactions, presented here in 259 brief entries, some only a few sentences in length.
Concerning art, Z. pointed out: ‘No matter how urgently one advises young people against it – it will be in vain.’
There was nothing wrong with fortune-telling, Z. declared, even though no one had made such an objection. It was among the oldest professions in the world. ‘The astrologers and their contemporary successors ensure variety, serve to entertain and are rarely more stupid than their clients. I like their boldness, and their forecasts are thought-provoking even when they are wrong.’
‘There’s no such thing as the whole. Neither our science nor our imagination are capable of grasping it.’ Z. often came back to this assertion. Any talk of ‘totality’ made him feel ill. It was always motivated by some dishonest intention of a religious, political or intellectual nature. He, at any rate, was not only content with the partial – he cherished it and delighted in it.
When he noticed that one of us was on the point of nodding off, Z. used it as an opportunity to speak about sleep. ‘I am glad,’ he said, ‘that this is a mystery to science. The cause of this blessing from nature is, despite all expertise, unknown. Among the living creatures we know, there are short sleepers, long sleepers and hibernators. Yet no one can say why a mouse closes its eyes for 20 hours but a giraffe makes do with a tenth of that. The somnologists in their laboratories measure duration, depth and frequency, but there is a severe lack of explanations and no cure either for insomnia or hypersomnia. The one thing that is never in short supply is the dream interpreters. The only certainty is that humans cannot do anything bad as long as they are asleep. For that reason alone, one should not wake anyone unless the house is on fire.’
In entry #37, Zed praises those who use invective effectively, such as when Karl Marx called Bakunin a Mohammed without a Koran. “He was surpassed in this only by that most gifted curmudgeon, Schopenhauer,” Zed says. Of course, Zed himself has a reputation as a curmudgeon – and so does his creator, Hans Magnus Enzensberger. A poet, critic, political commentator, travel writer, and essayist, Enzensberger was born in 1929 in Swabia. Like his contemporary Günter Grass (b. 1927), Enzensberger is among the last of his generation whose writings have been shaped by direct experience with Hitler’s Reich. In 2009, after having been awarded the prestigious Sonning Prize for “commendable work that benefits European culture,” Enzensberger accused the European Union of “unbounded megalomania.” More generally, he has indicted his fellow Germans for a lack of self-reflection.
In a gust of praise, Charles Simic has called Enzensberger “the best German poet since the Second World War.” Superlatives aside, he is certainly the most strenuously topical and satiric poet writing in German. During his Lannan Foundation conversation with Simic, Enzensberger admitted he “cannot decipher” Paul Celan’s “hermetic” poetry. He has castigated certain young poets as “people who learn to be avant-garde at the university,” and he is famous for having mocked the “consciousness-raising industry.”
Here is Mr. Zed:
There was too little appreciation, said Z., for the stupidity of poets, which bore remarkable fruit time and again. It remained a mystery, for example, what the young Rimbaud was trying to tell us when he declared: ‘Il fault être absolument moderne.’ He could only warn others of this demand. Nor did it gain anything from being pepped up with a prefix like ‘post’ or numbered the Second or Third or whatever. It always implied the laughable notion that one was a more intelligent, diligent sort – in short, simply more developed than the descendants to whom we owe fire, the bed, the shoe, astronomy and the gods.
Mr. Zed goes on to praise the poetry of Wisława Szymborska: “Her words do not puff themselves up, yet each line is a surprise. One can understand every word, even in translation. So old fashioned, and so convincing!”
His pronouncements extol frivolity, sufficiency, open-mindedness, restraint, contentment, slowness, contradiction, moderation, the classical, peace, honesty, and independence. To read Mr. Zed's Reflections is implicitly to ask: where do these values fit in our polarized, globalized, commoditized world?
For Mr. Zed, of course, the values pertain to and illuminate a broad range of topics (though he takes up those topics without a partisan's fervor), some as current as certain issues faced by the EU:
‘There are politicians in Europe who are aghast at the possibility of national bankruptcy,’ said Z. ‘To me, these people are like doctors who have never heard of the existence of tuberculosis and are surprised when their patients spit blood. Now, I am certainly no historian. But it is enough to read a paperback over the weekend … It lists the national bankruptcies of 65 states. Among them, Greece stands out for being insolvent for half of the time between 1822, when it proclaimed its independence from the Ottoman Empire, and the present day.’
Enzensberger’s Mr. Zed, part teacher and part wisecracker, represents a plea for reasonableness, the deflation of extremes, the admission of folly, and a return to the middle path. With humor, variety, nimble turns, and the terse cadences of his prose, Enzensberger has created a thoughtful entertainment that gleefully grates against the headlines and antagonisms of our global news and media culture – as well as against the cultivation of grievances. The “budding philosopher” who attends these gab sessions explains that Mr. Zed may be a curmudgeon but he “should not be confused with the caviler, the niggler or the whinger. For Mr. Zed does not get worked up, he does not get loud in the manner of the bellyacher. The things he notices and laments scarcely surprise him. Unlike the sourpuss, he is not ruffled by the fact that humans are not all cut from the right cloth.”
[Published January 15, 2016. 171 pages, $21.00 hardcover]