A Little Fable


Arts & Culture

From the cover of Bright Magic.

The German writer Alfred Döblin (1878–1957) is best known for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz; Bright Magicout this month from New York Review Books, is the first collection of his stories to appear in English. In this later story, an imaginary citizenry surrenders their rights with glee. 

Once upon a time there was a continent called Allbark and Nobite, and in it a country called the Kingdom of Tongue-Tied. The sun and the moon shone their light upon it, in their customary alternating fashion, but mighty rivers flowed through and rugged mountains towered above it, giving rise to a sense of the exceptional and heroic. The kingdom was named Tongue-Tied following the wishes of its own people, since there was nothing they respected as much as language. Because of their idolatrous worship of language, they used it as little as possible. Education was therefore directed primarily toward vigorous exercise, business, and sports, and also music, and noise, but with no words or meaning. Language, they taught, was not worthy of a true Tongue-Tiedian; precise thinking was likewise not held in very high esteem. People made themselves understood with looks, short nods, or hand gestures, and deaf-mutes enjoyed great honor throughout the land. 

Every city in the kingdom had at least one newspaper, consisting of sixteen white pages and a similarly expressive advertising supplement. The editors were carefully screened but there was hardly a flood of applicants for the jobs, since it was a difficult, arduous task to present the text and advertising in new and interesting ways and keep everybody happy. The familiar ABC letters of the alphabet, as well as the type in the typesetters’ cabinets and printing presses, had had to be replaced by the corresponding mutescript, or white-letters; the white color had had to be delicately modulated—snow white, lamb white, egg white, and so on—with whole generations of typesetters devoting their lives to the task, while the sharply edged black letters of an earlier era were taken out of circulation. These newspapers were read with different-colored eyeglasses—that was all the variety people got. There were mutephones in the editorial offices: When a call came in, a black light on the device blinked against a black background. Trained telephone operators (almost exclusively men; under the new conditions, women were no longer suited to this old occupation of theirs) took down the news, which was at once set in whiteprint and disseminated throughout the country on posters and placards. Crowds of people stood in front of the sturdy placard pillars or lines of lights running around the buildings; bill posters tore down old newssheets and pasted up new ones under police protection. Excitement filled the air, though everyone kept their self-control.

The candor of the historian obliges me to report that this great tradition in the kingdom was eventually carried on almost exclusively by official bodies; the general population gradually fell back into idle chatter. But tradition was preserved in the government’s dealings with the people. Gradually, the sacred whitescript (scriptura alba regia) and honorable mutespeech came to be, for all intents and purposes, reserved for government matters, taking on a kind of cultic character not unlike that of Latin in the past. Important news affecting the life of the people, negotiations with neighboring states, royal intentions, and suchlike were communicated solely mute and in whitescript, as befit the seriousness of the content. (Once, a new young king felt the need to institute a change: He felt that, instead of speaking mutely and writing in whitescript, people could just as well scream, shout, and sing random words, or print random words in black; but they quickly stopped doing such things and he was removed from office—the old ways were better.) The government had also gotten the people accustomed to filing their complaints about abuses of power in whitescript and mutespeech, which was likewise how such complaints were promptly resolved.

The countries that love to prattle have named their representative bodies “Parlamente”; the Tongue-Tiedian assemblies were called Silencorias. They were held, once the members were elected, in a grand hall across from the ministry. People greeted each other in friendly fashion, drank beer and light tea paid for by public funds, spent half an hour bowing in all directions—to each other, to the minister, to the king’s portrait on the wall (the auditoriums were known as “gymnastics halls” from all this bowing, and older citizens were encouraged to run for office for that very reason)—everyone stayed silent, smiled, and looked around, until a bell, rung by the presiding representative, signaled that the discussion was over. There were people who, unfamiliar with the country’s way of life, claimed that the royal government was perfectly happy with this arrangement, wanting nothing more than to prohibit speech and then act however it wanted. But reasonable people pointed out that the TongueTiedians had everything other countries had: Order and abuses, justice and corruption, in fact they had even more abuses and corruption than other places so why should they bother going back to speeches and blackprint?

Now the neighboring state to the south of this kingdom was the Duchy of Freedom. And just as people in the Kingdom of TongueTied respected the word and honored language so highly, those of the duchy to the south celebrated freedom so much that they kept it locked up in an undisclosed location in the ruler’s own castle and never let anyone get near it. Once a year, the Freedomards marched in an annual procession to the castle, sang their thundering songs, and praised the prince for protecting freedom at whatever the cost. Then the prince himself stepped out onto the balcony, said that he wanted to tell them all about freedom’s state of health, and proceeded to do so. The people could well believe that the prince was serious about freedom, because he set up jails and penitentiaries throughout the duchy as a defense against the attacks on it people were always launching. If they wanted to hear how the freedom they personally had among them looked at the time, the answer was, according to castle employees, that she was a little old lady with a bad cough who walked bent over and spit up into her handkerchief, the duke led her around by the arm, she was practically blind and walked with a cane. She was, to hear several courtiers tell it, not unattractive, down-at-heel as she was. The duke told her all about what was happening in the country as they ate their meals together, and the old lady picked at her food, smiled a melancholy smile, and dreamily said, “What do they still want with me? I don’t understand. After all, there’s a time and a place for everything. I’m only a prejudice.” The duke continued to think of her with respect and deference, however, and saw her as his most valuable possession, the jewel in his crown. He always kept his jails and penitentiaries full in her honor, for where can anyone learn to respect freedom better than there, he said, where they have to do without it. Therefore, everyone had to take their turn passing through jail once; the duke granted no exceptions. And whenever anyone, furious that he’d have to go to jail anyway, committed an actual crime, the duke immediately chopped off his head for being pushy. The Kingdom of Tongue-Tied and the Duchy of Freedom maintained good relations with each other and used to trade a certain percentage of their populations annually, in order to rear as great a race of good citizens and exemplary human beings as possible. These two states lasted a very long time, and it is even possible that they still exist today, but little is known on that topic since our geography and history focus primarily on the stratosphere.

Translated from the German by Damion Searls.

This story appears in Bright Magic, a collection of Döblin’s stories available now from New York Review Books. Reprinted with permission.