Friday, March 20, 2009

The Vulgar and Bodily Experience: "Monsieur, erlaubt, ich muß mal pinkeln." (14.II.x)*

In a work centred around a philosopher like Descartes, the mind that brought us Cartesian dualism, one would expect a philosophical subject treated in a formal register. The form of Vom Schnee, with its approximate alexandrines and half-rhymes, implies an even more elevated diction. However, this turns out to be a mistaken assumption: At times Vom Schnee exhibits a striking predilection to revel in the vulgar, be it in subject matter or lexical choice. These two aspects correspond to the definition of the vulgar applied in this post. Vulgar is whatever, according to commonly accepted societal rules, is considered improper or taboo regarding subject and vocabulary.

In many cases Grünbein could have chosen other words to convey the same meaning. The line quoted in the title could have done without "pinkeln," which is vulgar or at least associated with childish (verbal) behaviour. Describing a horse, a line reads: "Und erst der Arsch - breit wie ein Scheunentor." (22.IV.iv) Instead of "der Arsch," one might have put "das Hinterteil." Further passages that could easily be reformulated without resorting to the vulgar are 8.V.x, 10.I.i, 34.IV.ix and 42.I.x. Obviously, one might argue that both changes proposed here affect the metre, but it would be no problem at all to work around that with another minor change.

Considering this, it seems that Grünbein specifically intends to emphasize and to dwell on the vulgar. Thus, "Monsieur, erlaubt, ich muß mal pinkeln" announces a whole stanza that describes how Gillot obeys the call of nature (14.III). Two stanzas in 8., IV and V, describe the miserable situation of Descartes who has apparently wet his bed. The end of this chapter both contrasts with and anticipates 14.III (where Gillot feels uncomfortable in the presence of Descartes):
Welch ein Spaß,
Breitbeinig dazustehn und hoch im Bogen schießt
Der heiße Strahl, der dir die Tränen in die Augen treibt.
Apropos Krieg: von allen Waffen ist - verzeih, Marie,
Die liebste mir noch der Urin, die Piß-Artillerie. (

In 9. three stanzas, I., II. and VI., are dedicated to Gillot's inability to rise to the occasion during the preceding night, to the great frustration of Marie. It seems awkward that a servant would tell his master about a shameful experience like this as if he were talking to an intimate friend. Interestingly, though, this episode leads Descartes to philosophical ruminations on the relation of body and mind:
[Descartes:] "Nicht nur der Geist, der Körper bockt,
Wenn ihm der Antrieb fehlt." [Gillot:] "Ach, es war wie verhext.
Das Fleisch war willig, doch das Hirn blieb renitent."
[Descartes:] "Kein Widerspruch." (9.II.v-viii)
Gillot alludes to the saying 'The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak' (of biblical origin, see Mark 14:38 and Matthew 26:41), yet 'spirit' has been replaced by 'brain.' The main twist, however, is that 'brain' - though bodily it metonymically represents the mind - and 'flesh' have exchanged their position in the sentence: 'The flesh was willing but the brain remained inert.' Triumphantly, Descartes states that this is no contradiction. An embarrassing incident, the mention of which is normally prohibited by taboo and thus vulgar, is turned into an argument in favour of Cartesian dualism.

Even though bodily experience is demeaned by resorting to a vulgar register, sexuality seems to be deeply connected to well-being, when Descartes inquires after Gillot's: "Wie stehts mit dir? Dir geht es gut, solange er sich regt..." (23.I.vii; emphasis in the original). The cynical overtone also apparent in 30.I.iv - "Wie gehts der Venus auf dem Dung?" - might be attributed to Descartes' disapproval of Gillot's sexual needs. And yet, another passage implies that Descartes himself has had an affair with Marie which he remembers with pleasure:
Er sank nun oft zurück in eine Zeit, so angenehm
Wie seither nichts. [...]
Sah ihren Leib. Am Po die Sommersprossen, auf den Händen. (36.VII.iv-v & viii)

It might therefore be nothing but jealousy that led him to demean Marie earlier. It is probably no coincidence that Descartes compares paradise and the female body and posits the latter as more real by far: "Das Paradies, hast dus gesehn, wie den Popo Maries?" (27.V.iii)

On the whole, Grünbein's resort to the vulgar in subject matter stresses the bodily component of human beings. Vulgar vocabulary emphasizes this point further and leads to an awareness that sometimes there are no other registers available to express bodily experience. The existence of a category such as the vulgar in itself reflects the notion that the immaterial is superior to the material, which is deeply rooted in Western culture since Plato (whose work is referred to in 16.VII.iv-v). It is precisely this preference of mind and soul over the body that Vom Schnee challenges.

* Instead of page references, I use the following system: The Arabic numbers refer to the chapter/poem, capitalized Roman numerals to the stanza and lower-case Roman numerals to the verse.

Work Cited
  • Grünbein, Durs. Vom Schnee. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2003.

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