Arts & Culture

Albert Bierstadt, The Burning Ship, ca. 1871.

How riveted I was by the illustration entitled The Burning Ship! Is a sinking frigate not phenomenal?

If, by the way, velvet footstools and the like can be whacked free of dust and brushed on Sundays, then authorial activity must be permitted as well.

Do I not feel, when I am exercising my intellect, exactly as if I were sitting in church? Drafting a prose piece puts me in a devotional frame of mind.

How terrifying a ship on fire is. Gazing at the picture, I said to myself: The mariners find themselves faced with the necessity of fleeing the fire; but they have nowhere to escape to but the water, and soon enough they’ll be trying to escape from that as well; yet they have no choice but to take refuge in it. Beautifully spread out, the water lies there like a meadow; not the tiniest wave disturbs this mirror that conceals unfathomable depths. The mirror’s expansiveness poses a threat to the ones in peril, those desirous of rescue. Beneath the water, unknown mountain chains extend. This fact is surely known to the better educated among the mariners, and this precise knowledge makes them feel significantly more forsaken than those who enjoy perfect ignorance in this regard. Education, though reliable and helpful, is also treacherous. 

Among the passengers of the “burning ship” are two lovers of whom it might be said that each has betrayed the other—as they embraced, each was thinking of someone else. During this “memorable voyage,” the girl gazed too deeply into one of the sailor’s eyes, and the youth, who had assured her so often he’d lost count that he adored her and found her the most beautiful and beloved of all beings, nonetheless somehow managed in the course of the journey to establish a worthwhile association with another woman. But in the moment of danger they found each other again. The two of them escaped the splendid spectacle the flames presented to their terror-stricken souls, leaping entwined into the garment spread out before them in the form of water, which has the peculiar characteristic of not being a path you can set foot on, much as it appears to be offering itself willingly for such use at all times. The decorative beauty of the flames was deceptive, as was the water with its silken smoothness, which appeared—though failing to offer stability of any kind—to be a well-tended surface across which one might pleasantly stroll.

I joined the faithful, treacherous lovers fleeing the fire, which seemed unwilling to show any sort of mercy to sensitive souls, arriving along with them in the obliging-looking water, but then was astonished to discover its true composition and clutched at myself in horror. The two of them agreed it would be better if they swam separately; they carried out what appeared to be unavoidable:

“We now abandon theory for practice,” were the last words they were permitted to exchange, and at this very hour, perhaps, a conscientious thinker in a reclusively charming room on the mainland was composing an essay that would usher in reforms, and at the very moment this serious occurrence was taking place out on the water, a dandy was sitting perhaps in a barbershop, being shaved by zealousness incarnate.

How our imaginations can run away with us!

This piece appears in Robert Walser’s Looking at Pictures, out this month from Christine Burgin / New Directions. Walser wrote it in October or November 1924; it was unpublished in his lifetime. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. Read another excerpt here.

The New Museum will host a celebration of Robert Walser on November 12.