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On Kaspar Hauser

By Austin Woerner

A piece in this month's issue of WWB, by the Greek writer Dimitris Chatzis, compared the plight of the immigrant to the legend of Kaspar Hauser.

For those who haven't heard of Kaspar, a brief intro: in 1828, a boy of sixteen years was discovered walking down the road in Nuremberg, Germany. He carried a mysterious note, whose writer claimed to have raised the boy from infancy in a small windowless cell, with no human contact. He was, in modern parlance, a feral child. His linguistic and intellectual capacities were severely impaired: when first discovered, all he could utter was "Horse! Horse!" and "I want to be a cavalryman!"—inspired, apparently, by the toy horse which was his only stimulation in his cell. At the time, the foundling's story became a sensation; he was adopted by various noblemen and eventually assassinated, sparking rumors that he was the last descendent of the royal house of Bavaria. You can read an excerpt from Diane Obomsawin's graphic-novel adaptation of the legend, also published in WWBlast month.

Chatzis's piece is an evocative, if a little morose, day-in-the-life of a Greek immigrant to Germany, who lives in a tiny windowless room and shuttles to a repetitive factory job. He lives his life like, as Chatzis puts it, a man on a tightrope; like Kaspar Hauser in his cell, his world is capsule-like, solipsistic, a snowglobe of ennui. And like Kaspar, he finds himself on the precipice of a "big wide world"—every day, schlepping cargo from his factory to the neighboring train station, he watches the trains come and go, and feels a kind of homesickness for the vast otherwhere into which they disappear, a homesickness that, unlike other Greek immigrants, he does not feel for his village back home.

Yet, he realizes, the "big wide world" is an illusion, for no train departs for it—every train has a destination, and that destination is a small world, a Greek village, or a Stuttgart. He has already arrived at his destination: this is it, folks.

Ever since the man-without-a-past appeared on the streets of Nuremburg, writers and artists have mined his story eagerly for universals. It's interesting to trace the evolution of the Kaspar legend—with the help of Wikipedia's handy list of "Cultural References"—and watch how his situation has been interpreted and re-interpreted. Closer to Kaspar's time, writers fixated on the boy's innocence, the cruelty of his treatment at the hands of his captor and later handlers. A 1908 novel by Jakob Wasserman entitled Caspar Hauser: The Inertia of the Heart, which was largely responsible for the popularization of the Kaspar myth, envisioned it as "a great injustice perpetrated by a harsh world against a completely innocent party&38230;from which the conscience of an entire society would remain poisoned until it acknowledged and then atoned for this wrong" (from the Encyclopedia of German Literature, 2000, by way of By contrast, Werner Herzog's 1975 film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser focused more on the story's metaphysical implications, portrayed the otherworldly foundling thrust into an implacably alien world and struggling to comprehend its ordinary fixtures which we all take for granted. A world of strangeness and wonder.

Chatzis's piece has a bit of both visions. Society is indicted, subtly, for its austerity and distance, for being a jungle-gym of menial jobs and third-rate apartments and dispassionate landlords through which the immigrant toils in solitude. "[My home is] no different," our Kaspar laments, "from the way things are at the factory. But there it's the other way around: there I get paid and see nothing—here I pay and see nothing. Endstation." At the same time, there is a sense that home is "somewhere out there," an undiscovered country, alien and yet familiar, what the boy must have felt as the first crack of sunlight widened around his dungeon door. I personally found this Kaspar take a bit long on golly-gee-the-world-sucks and short on the wonder, so to speak, but still I savor the image of those trains rumbling out to the "big wide world," to a yet-undiscovered home.

Published Mar 20, 2009   Copyright 2009 Austin Woerner

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