Anthony Mellors: Winter Journey – introduction and ten poems

Winter Journey

(Winterreise: Untriangulieren Leben)

Daniel zur Höhe

Translated by Anthony Mellors


‘Outside, one has a hundred eyes; at home, hardly one’




I wer thinking how some fents poals and a gate make all the differents.

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker


Like an iceberg, there is more of a trig point below the surface

than above it.

Daniel zur Höhe, Jedem das Sein: Conversations in the Beech Forest.


To say that Daniel zur Höhe’s version of the Winterreise plays fast and loose with Wilhelm Müller’s verse would be an understatement. More of an homage to Schubert’s re-ordered and partially rewritten settings of Müller’s twenty-four poems, at first glance it seems to offer little to the reader looking for a commentary on German Romantic lyric and the Lied tradition. Consequently, my English translation of zur Höhe is anything but a guide to the most beautiful and profound of all song cycles. I should like to think, however, that it does provide a twenty-first century ‘accompaniment’ to the Schubertian vision of wandering, introspection, exile, and political repression, just as zur Höhe’s strange poems extrapolate from the original a vision of paranoid, eroticized subjectivity, born in the ideological struggles and contradictions of the Cold War and maturing in the terminal crisis of late capitalism (terminal here meaning, pace Freud, also interminable). Moreover, the musical dimension of the project is problematic. Clearly, zur Höhe has attempted a kind of translation into his own tongue of the song cycle rather than the poems in isolation, yet he has neither followed the prosody of the lyrics nor tried to imitate their musical interpretation, and in any case a complex structure made up of words and music cannot be converted back into words alone. Instead, he has built into his poetic fantasia a pattern of musical analogues which, random and capricious as they seem, form an allusive network of verbal images, metonymies, and puns entertaining the conceit of writing as a form of ‘composition’.

Since completing Winter Journey in 2014, the author has disappeared from view, leaving behind a handful of literary works, a scant official paper trail, and a couple of abandoned social media sites. His Leipzig home looks occupied, yet he has not been seen in public for years, and the love of his life, Johanna Stenson, denies any contact with the poet following her sudden departure from the city in autumn 2015. As far as we know, zur Höhe has barely moved outside a small but important ring of German cities including Berlin, Weimar, Leipzig, and Dresden, none of them very far from his birthplace of Dessau. As a student in Berlin, he lived in the working class district of Pankow, so all his residences are situated in what used to be the DDR. He spent many years living in semi-rural isolation in an ancient house in Schraplau (at the time of writing up for sale, including the two pedal organs owned by the poet and presumably kept there by the present owner) with its metre-thick walls and yellow tile stoves, before relocating 80 km away to a modest apartment in Leipzig. The speed of change in these former communist cities has been extraordinary, and while zur Höhe has welcomed the demise of the corrupt East German bureaucracy with its fatally flawed economic model (restrictive and monetizing in uneasy measure), he is highly critical of its replacement by a ‘free market’ managed by a globalizing bureaucratic power, its repression subsisting in its mantra of delivering commerce at all costs, and its chief virtue being that it is not as corrupt as many other economies – such as the UK. Berlin has clung to its decadent, techno-obsessed counter-culture for a very long time after re-unification, and its outsider-chic status has lingered even with the return to capital status. Property prices and rent are well below that of the bürgerlich outpost of Munich, which somehow also manages to feel more Hitler-tainted than Berlin: gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten. Rentiers and foreign investors have been relatively slow to see the potential for gentrification in Berlin, yet they are always quick to recognize the crucial difference between the white-faced minstrelsy of hipsters and the unreconstructed ‘prolets’, and inevitably the capital’s low rents are yielding to the forces of social cleansing. Sensing this hollowing-out of cultural value, zur Höhe escaped into the countryside before re-entering the lion’s den at one remove by moving to Leipzig. An important factor in the poet’s lack of wanderlust is his conviction that nowhere else in the world do you find the uncanny conditions in play in the former East Germany, the centre of a central European country that is arguably the capital of Europe and also the most marginal and out of phase place in Europe. It’s as if everyone has forgotten that Leipzig, Jena, Dessau, and – especially – Weimar were at the heart of the Romantic culture we still inhabit, filtered through modernism and the postmodern yet still vitally of that self-divided subjectivity and its communities. Biedermeier, revolutionary, possessive, neurotic, conservative, libertarian, projective, the post-Enlightenment sensibility has now become so ‘post’ it is threatened at the start of the twenty-first century by its own nightmares: the figure of the sociopath as a model for the successful individual, all too capable of separating fantasy from ‘the real world’, yet determined at all costs to realize its fantasies; the return to a Hobbesian view of human nature, displacing Rousseau; and a new form of rentier entrepreneurship, which exploits the human capital of its workers, blurring the line between ‘engineering’ as technology and social manipulation. zur Höhe’s obsession with the urtexts of the manic, melancholic modern citizen –  the subject constituted by capital yet outlawed by it  –  can be said to be motivated entirely by his exile, his experience of disunity at the heart of reunification. In Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden, like nowhere else in the ‘west’, one sees history enacted, and the poet cannot resist dissecting the process of his cultural Spaltung.Dessau is now firmly on the map as the location of the Bauhaus, and it was in a small house on the suburban Törten Estate designed by Walter Gropius that zur Höhe was born in 1960. His parents were typical working class residents of the estate, less than impressed by the austere design and keen to upgrade the basic facilities. Their son and his younger sister Monika (who became a fashion designer) were evidently in love with the Bauhaus aesthetic from an early age, and by the time the DDR authorities ‘rediscovered‘ Bauhaus Dessau in the mid-70s, the adolescent zur Höhes were already nostalgic for the steel doors and windows and the earth closet of their birthplace (which had already gone by 1960). Central Dessau was pretty much wiped out by Allied bombing in 1945, after which it became one of the major industrial centres of the DDR, crammed with Plattenbau (concrete slab) architecture. Yet its flat countryside is full of woodland and parks, including the Wörlitzer Gartenreich, a vast landscaped area developed in the late eighteenth century in the English style. This classical fantasia is conflated in zur Höhe’s mind with the domestic and civic monuments of early modernism, and it is significant that Wilhelm Müller, poet of Die Schöne Mullerin and Die Winterreise, was born in Dessau – and in 1794, about the same time as the Garden Realm came into being. For zur Höhe, Schubert’s settings of Müller’s poems in Winterreise (1827) are the fundamental expression of the displaced, melancholic, phallic subjectivity he sees at the heart of modern Europe; the song cycle is the defining moment of the Romantic sensibility and avant-garde enough to prefigure many of the aesthetic gestures of modernism and its popular declensions. Like Dessau itself, it forms a strange fusion of the classical and modern.

Winterreise is an obsessional work that treats romantic love as a symptom of existential crisis rather than as an end in itself. Throughout the cycle, we cannot tell whether the wanderer has been jilted by the bourgeois object of his affections or has in essence rejected himself. In spite of his ritualistic observances of erotic despair, he seems motivated by the apprehension of a more primordial lack in being, intimated by the rustling linden tree and then manifested in various self-immolating reflections as the death drive. These histrionics are a familiar feature of the Romantic descent into decadence as mapped by Mario Praz (when not articulating the differences between aristocratic and Biedermeier conceptions of interior decoration), and were Winterreise merely an early account of such paroxysms, it might have remained maudlin and generic. Yet its uncanny underdetermination claims a manic ‘Romantic’ sensibility while chipping away at its identity, displacing affects even as it indulges them. And if its faux-völkisch lyrics seem typical of sentimental Hausmusik, the cycle is far removed musically from the domestic and commercial banality of both the contemporary salon and modern Schlager. From the stark, estranged opening of ‘Gute Nacht’ through the chromatic ironies of ‘Der Lindenbaum’ to the gaunt minimalism of ‘Der Leiermann’, the compositions anticipate fractured, introspective rock ballads and the pared-down, repetitive structures of post-serialism. Even the form is ambiguous: unlike Schumann’s Liederkreis, op. 39, which is structured by mood and symbol rather than narrative order, Schubert’s monodrama is both genuinely cyclical (in that it returns to where it begins) and uncannily open-ended (in that it remains inconclusive).

Various translation issues abound. The most obvious one is primarily graphic in nature: the crossword puzzle standing in for ‘Im Dorfe’, here called ‘Global Village’. I’ve had to compose a completely new, parallel puzzle to complement the original. In theory, the spirit of the thing is retained even though the layout and letter has had to change. But thank heavens zur Höhe didn’t compose a cryptic puzzle, in which case anything resembling a translation would have had to be abandoned. German is full of idiomatic turns of phrase which don’t translate easily. This will hardly come as a surprise. Therefore I’ve tried to find English substitutions that make some kind of sense in terms of the overall ‘logic’ of a poem and its place in the sequence. The first lines of ‘Süße Traüme’ present a good example here, in which the fox and the hare say goodnight to one another. While the phrase allows zur Höhe to allude to the original title of the first song in the cycle, ‘Gute Nacht’, it means that the stranger or wanderer is lost ‘in the middle of nowhere’.  I should have liked to keep the figurative colour of the original, but for the sake of sense in English prefer ‘the back of beyond’, effectively blurring the distinction between space and time, which is one of the procedures of zur Höhe’s cycle. The poem’s title could have easily been rendered as ‘Sweet Dreams’, so here is an example of an expression that stays the same across German and English; perhaps perversely, however, I have chosen the title ‘Night Night’ in order to keep the poem’s allusion to Müller’s original as well as zur Höhe’s cod-sentimental rewrite. Throughout, I have been troubled by the problem that any translation risks making the original language disappear; it is always an appropriation and should not therefore be misrecognized as a medium that attempts anything more than carrying over the original into another, different yet related, form. No matter how much it ends up departing from the original it should not play fast and loose with the text, but be as faithful to the original in spirit as it can be. As we shall observe in the case of the musical score, ‘interpretation’ is inevitable, and translations / interpretations are necessarily multiple, especially over time; but this does not mean that they should neglect the need to disclose the truth of the text, no matter how fugitive and fleeting that disclosure may turn out in the end.

Elsewhere, English is already in place, and even a cursory reading of the sequence reveals zur Höhe in dialogue with poets as diverse as Coleridge, Frost, Stevens, Geoffrey Hill, and John Cooper Clarke, as well as songwriters such as Bob Dylan and David Bowie. Gene MacLellan’s ‘Snowbird’ morphs into the LaFlammes’ ‘White Bird’ (both from 1969), ‘Ring of Fire’ looks back to ‘Der Sandmann’, Arthur Lee rubs shoulders with John Martyn, RZA with Art & Language, and throughout there are capricious English / English and English / German correlations. To get the sense of variation, I have tried to ring some of these changes myself: if ‘Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening’ inevitably remains the same title in the original and in my ‘translation’, ‘Incomer’ (a term used in both German and English) turns into the East Anglian vernacular ‘Blow-in’.

Other titles have different dynamics. The ‘excess pleasure’ of ‘Überschüssiger Genuss’, for instance, has been imbued with a more forthright Lacanian sense (‘Surplus Jouissance’) to emphasize the psychoanalytic bent of the sequence, which is evinced in a number of allusions to the Dream of the Burning Child in Freud’s Traumdeutung and Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts, and suggested obliquely in the oneiric knocking that occurs in ‘Allegorie des Winters’. zur Höhe is not a surrealist – in fact he has argued that the history of surrealist poetry has been hamstrung by its disinclination to stomach figurative dérèglement, and nowhere more so than in English writing – yet there is a powerful strain of surreal association at work in his work, a delirium of correlatives acting as a kind of straying guide or Irrlicht. He sees the Winterreise as a toy box containing what Walter Benjamin calls ‘the debris of a former world’, and as a flea market full of part-objects to be recommissioned or recombined, much as Lacan found in Parisian brocantes the origin of Lautréamont’s festering amalgamations. The Romantic missed encounter, which we still call today a ‘relationship’, becomes in Winter Journey something like the description of the ‘sex drive’ in Seminar XI, where Lacan presents an image of the drives as a montage, a machine with ‘a dynamo connected up to a gas tap’, from which ‘a peacock’s feather emerges, and tickles the belly of a pretty woman, who is just lying there looking beautiful’.1 (At the same time, zur Höhe is rarely quite as imagistically random as the surrealists. He is perhaps too Teutonically sociological in his approach to poetic pathology, realizing that the ‘pretty woman’ in this fantasy is, like the ‘Stiff Kitten’ and the ‘Junge Mädchen mit ein Electra-Komplex’ in ‘Nachrüsten’, a dubious male projection of femininity. Therefore, surrealist brio must be tempered with Western Marxist dialectic and the kitsch surreality of the German lifeworld, with its fragments of vestimentary space and ‘pharaonic heaps of mining slag and battered schnapps factories’.2  Eldritch tropes of derealization are everywhere related to the history of lyric as song, reminding us that, as Daniel Tiffany argues,

Romanticism in both its German and British formations helped to elaborate, to be sure, the archetype of poetic kitsch, yet the histories of antiquarianism and imposture really began with the ballad revival in Britain during the first two decades of the eighteenth century

and ‘the “distressed genre” of the counterfeit folk-poem made available a new palette of eccentric and even spurious poetic diction.’3 Theodor Adorno insists that the poet Eichendorff (1788-1857)

achieves the most extraordinary effects with a stock of images that must have been threadbare even in his day. The castle that forms the object of Eichendorff’s longing is spoken of only as the castle; the obligatory stock of moonlight, hunting horns, nightingales, and mandolins is provided, but without doing much harm to Eichendorff’s poetry. The fact that Eichendorff was probably the first to discover the expressive power in fragments of the lingua mortua contributes to this.4

These ‘effects’ barely translate into another language, and they are perhaps the reason why Eichendorff and German Romantic poets such as Mörike, Rückert, and Müller, all adored by composers of Lied, have never been much appreciated as poets by foreign readers: their stock of faux folk images are simply too German to signify beyond the orbit of their own richly steeped iconography. Outside Germanic culture, the nostalgic parade of castles, maidens, post-horns, forests, and lost gods seems less the maguffin for a proto-modernist exploration of the rustle of language, as Adorno contends, than a kitsch paean to tradition, strangely disturbed yet reified by an archly self-immolating subject. Adorno is determined to rescue Eichendorff from a reductive melancholia, finding instead a generous suspension of the ego, which has no interest in self-preservation. Yet he has to admit that the sentiments in Eichendorff’s poems, as in Die schöne Müllerin, are only accessible to those who have internalized their popular settings and glee club renditions, so that many of the lines ‘sound like quotations, quotations learned by heart from God’s primer.’5 The kitsch element in Volkslieder, then, derives from miniaturized versions of an already simulated idiom, which enters ‘tradition’ by virtue of its translation into forms less self-conscious than the original. Clement Greenberg’s description of kitsch artefacts as simulations of genuine culture is not only inverted – ‘fake lyrics sometimes shape and even transform canonical poetry’6  – but complicated by being simulations of simulated culture, with the imprimatur of God as the kitsch icing on the top. Adorno’s rereading of Eichendorff as an allegorist of dead forms is intended to rescue the poetry from its ‘prettified’ reputation; yet the dialectics of kitsch anticipate that rereading while suspending Adorno’s insistence on the poetry as ‘transcendent’.

Having come to this conclusion, I should like to agree with Adorno that a kind of transformation takes place in the realm of the song cycle, which ‘avoids the danger inherent in all song, that of prettifying the music by putting it into small genre-like formats, through a process of construction: the whole emerges from the complex of miniature-like elements.’7 Schumann’s cycle of Eichendorff poems achieves this ‘whole’, paradoxically, by eschewing the cyclical closure of the traditional song cycle (effectively placing it under erasure in the title Liederkreis) and bringing out the potential of the lyric toward abstraction, dissonance, and non-identity, music exceeding the poetic image and realizing its Mallarmesque ‘rustling’. At least, that is how Adorno’s commentators tend to summarize his account, and certainly Adorno leans toward characterizing Schumann as an early member of the Second Viennese School. Yet the language he uses in the Coda to the Eichendorff essay is somewhat less edgily modernist. Key terms are ‘expression’, ‘balance’, ‘delicacy’, ‘feeling’, ‘symmetry’, and – to take one example – the exquisite ‘Mondnacht’ ‘approaches the structure of the medieval lyric and Meistergesang; like an Abgesang, the last stanza reproduces the poem’s expansive gesture, while the last two lines recapitulate the beginning and close off the transcendent structure.’8 Here, Schumann doesn’t so much as deconstruct Eichendorff’s lyrics as amplify them and extend them tonally into infinity, an appraisal that does little to support more recent musicological claims for the improvisatory nature of Schumann’s ‘fragment clusters’.

While such claims are not made for the earlier, more mimetic ‘rustlings’ of Schubert’s settings of Müller,  Winterreise is singular in the intensity of its lyrical, fractured, völkisch yet intellectual, manic, and minimalist transformation of its poetic material. Ian Bostridge notes of ‘Der Lindenbaum’ that

[t]hat gentle rustling – of the leaves of last summer rather than the winter branches of the present, specified later in the poem – is then itself gently interrupted by horn calls, the Romantic sound par excellence, the call of the past, of memory, sensuality at a distance, “distance, absence, and regret,” as Charles Rosen puts it in his book The Romantic Generation.9

If this seems a more orthodox approach than Adorno’s, it is not without its own allegorical and political dimensions. The linden tree, Bostridge suggests, is a symbol of Gemeinschaft, representing precisely the kind of conservative nationalist sentiments we might expect from such a nostalgic lyric. But within the context of the cycle as a whole, with its oblique references to the repressive Metternich regime (see my notes to ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’), the song takes on a refusenik note:

In the political wintertime of the 1820s, the dreams the dreamer dreams in this song might well be of an idealised past in which Germans of all sorts governed themselves under the linden tree, free from foreign interference or bureaucratic pressure alike.10

As with Eichendorff’s ‘heartfelt’ poems, however, the wistful, folkloric bent of the song helped to make it popular outside the salon and concert hall, reduced to a strophic pattern by Friedrich Silcher in order to simplify further the folk song simplicity of its main tune:

The fabulous rustling in the piano had to go; the melodic line was altered in the direction of greater psychological uplift. You can hear the great Lieder, Mozart, and operetta tenor Richard Tauber sing Silcher’s version, liederhosen and all, in a 1930s movie, Das lockende Ziel…’11

Suddenly we’re back in the kitsch realm of the school choir, the glee club, campfire singing, slap-dancing cameraderie, yodelling ‘in der Fremde’, and Nana Mouskouri. Before yielding to this division between noble and debased versions of ‘Der Lindenbaum’, however, we should remember that Schubert’s original version lent itself to a ‘higher’ form of kitsch as a death-wish lullaby, which, ‘sprung from the profoundest and holiest depths of racial feeling’, lures Hans Castorp into battle at the close of The Magic Mountain.12 The earlier ‘Snow’ chapter in that novel, with its ambivalent exploration of loss and its fetishization, reads for Bostridge as ‘a good imaginative and mental workout for singing, or experiencing, Winterreise.’13 zur Höhe’s preferred ‘workout’, though, is Mann’s later novel Doktor Faustus (1947), especially the parts dealing with the Kridwiß circle of apocalyptic poets, functioning, as Kirsten J. Grimstad describes it,

as an intermediary channel from the socially detached artist’s utopia of form that is not of this world to an aestheticized worldly political utopia in which emotionally charged effects – monumental architecture, swelling music, rousing nationalist festivals, banners, flags, mythic symbols – combined to form a seductive veil hiding the ugly reality of the Nazi state.’14

While a critique of fascist aesthetics informs Winter Journey, there are few overt references within the text to Nazism (a notable exception being ‘Nachträglichkeit’), the poet concluding that to poetize such atrocities after Celan would be capricious and risks its own kitschification. In any case, zur Höhe is interested in Nazi kitsch primarily in terms of the way it affects what we might call Stasi kitsch, which in turn interests him less as a joke at the expense of the former DDR than as a point which connects the repressive regime of his childhood to surveillance culture in the West today. The Hermetic element in the sequence is a combination of metaphors of secrecy, paranoia, narcissism, and the effects of gentrification, all significant elements composing twenty-first century subjectivity.15 If kitsch plays a part in this, it is because, as the postmodern mode par excellence, it troubles both classical and modernist facture and inhabits the lifeworld to such an ‘aestheticized’ extent that people find it hard to distinguish between genuine and fake emotions. Translated into modern youth culture, for example, the Romantic dream of death generates miniaturized epiphanies of self-harming, which paradoxically may not be about death at all but self-preservation (like ‘Der Lindenbaum’ itself, in the final analysis). The composers of the song ‘Let It Go’, from Disney’s Frozen (2012), claim to have been ‘thinking in an emo kind of way’ when turning a narrative of self-disgust and exile into a power ballad. The song’s helium ascent from minor to major mode represents Elsa’s pyrrhic victoriousness as she refashions herself into an ice queen, yet the irony is (apparently) lost on the multitude of teens who experience the song as a sugar rush of empowerment. Turning loss into gain is of course a way of coping with feelings of shyness and rejection in a society that values only self-confidence, conventional beauty, and conformity (compare Mann’s emo novella Tonio Kröger (1903) ), yet Elsa rejects the ‘perfect girl’ image only to make herself over into an even more perfect vision of mainstream glamour – there are no goth combat boots and assassin hoodies here. Even though Frozen courageously rejects standard romantic fantasies in favour of sisterhood and friendship, it appeals to the same appearance of conformity it criticizes, recognizing that narcissistic defense-mechanisms can be as deceptive as they are empowering. The major mode might be euphoric, but this should not overcome the sense that the bravado of Elsa’s final cry ‘the cold never bothered me anyway’ is, like her claim ‘you’ll never see me cry’, a confession of vulnerability in invulnerability. Similarly, the wanderer in Schubert’s ‘Irrlicht’ asserts that finding his way out of the abyss into which the will o’ the wisp has lured him ‘liegt nicht schwer mir in dem Sinn’. He’s not bothered, yet we know this can’t be the case. This song, however, deploys a B-minor tonality, and here’s the thing: the meaning of major and minor modes in song is influenced by context, and lyrics sometimes work against the emotive grain of the key.16 One of Schubert’s innovations was to create an ironic dialogue between the lyric and its accompaniment, and although in Winterreise the piano does more than merely ‘accompany’ the voice of the wanderer, dogging his footsteps and taunting him with the rustle of external nature, it never emerges as a figure separate from his unstable subjective world. Except, perhaps, as Bostridge suggests, in the last song ‘Der Leiermann’ – once again in B-minor – where the piano imitates the droning repetition of the hurdy-gurdy and projects its player’s bare life as the new horizon of the Wanderer’s existence.

zur Höhe has been anxious not to crowd his reading of ‘Der Leiermann’, knowing that almost any supplement to the original destroys the space necessary for its minimal, (in)conclusive lyricism. This must seem rich coming from a poet who has to all intents and purposes trampled over Müller’s faithful homage to the Wunderhorn tradition and extended the Winterreise remit out of all proportion to its folk simplicity. Nevertheless, by the end of the cycle, zur Höhe manages to return to something like a folk idiom with ‘Der “Leier” Mann’, although, as the title indicates, this is in a characteristically bracketed way. ‘Papa’s bag was full of shit / and we still ain’t hip to it’ runs a fugitive plaint from the early years of hip-hop, and the modern poet strives to register the history of popular lyric as a form of détournement or culture jamming. But it’s also a desire to be faithful to what Bostridge calls the ‘anti-music’ of this piece, which has inspired recently a non-classical tradition of cover versions in addition to unorthodox performances that reach back to its conceptual origins. Even here, though, innovation is too often too additive, from the inevitable overkill of Covenant’s techno anthem to the carefully wrought paroxysms of ‘Improvisation – Schubert Transgression’ by Laurence Malherbe, Laurent David, and the Kadenza Quartet. Thrilling those these are, they are too busy, somehow too ‘musical’, and one is left yearning for the uncanny iciness of the original piano version. Schubert composed for the fortepiano, and performances on contemporary instruments reveal the droning, clanking repetition of the original accompaniment, bringing the whole piece back in tune / out of tune with the hurdy-gurdy. Strangely, a real hurdy-gurdy sounds more lyrical than the fortepiano, as can be heard in the fine recording by Mirkovic De-Ro and Loibner. In criticizing wild interpretations of the song, I do not mean to reject modern interpretations in favour of mistakenly objective notions of the authentic. As Adorno argues in ‘Bach Defended Against His Devotees’, interpretation is not a supplement to the ‘original’ work but the condition of its temporal development: ‘[t]he musical score is never identical with the work; devotion to the text means the constant effort to grasp that which it hides.’17 Bach’s compositions are not pickled artifacts – they anticipate their realization by new performances and new technologies. And while Bach’s preference for the pliability of the tonally poor clavichord over the harpsichord and early piano provides an insight into his conception of The Well-tempered Keyboard, this hardly restricts the work’s disclosure to performances on an instrument that now signifies (as a ‘period’ instrument) in a dynamically different way from its use in the eighteenth century. Similarly, a performance of Winterreise on archaic instruments looks two ways; if the creaking fortepiano revives the work’s folkish resonances, its ‘authenticity’ is really a novelty experienced only because we are used to the greater range of feeling allowed by the pianoforte, which now seems to have been invented in order to realize the dynamics of Schubert’s compositions.

So when we find the lyrics of popular songs flickering like will o’ the wisps in and out of zur Höhe’s ‘Leiermann’, the intention is I feel not so much born of a desire to appear ‘postmodern’ as to register both with and against the grain of the Schubertian legacy, a need to acknowledge its powerful influence on non-traditional folk idioms (e.g., ‘there’s a shadow running through my days / like a beggar going from door to door’) and to counter the vapid appraisal of Schubert as the inventor of the pop ballad, which emerges as a desperate attempt by conservative members of the classical music community to make dark, complex songs accessible to an easy listening audience. Just as Bach’s inventive keyboard music instantly dispels the image of a composer of fusty church music, Schubert’s tonal world, transfigured by chromaticism, intervallic cells, and dissonance, is neither Biedermeier nor populist but the beginning of a new tradition in which the art song erases the distinction between popular and classical forms. This is perhaps why zur Höhe, while satirizing Schlager, respects Nico and Jackie-O Motherfucker as much as Hugo Wolf and John Cage. There are various ‘classical’ works informing Winter Journey, such as Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, Schumann’s second Liederkreis, Schoenberg’s Erwartung, and Birtwistle’s opera Punch and Judy, yet only lyrics which touch upon Schubert’s icy thematic are directly quoted or alluded to in the text, their evocation of winter connecting one way or another with the ‘romance’ of the Cold War and its legacy, given a political edge that zur Höhe identifies with Schubert’s facture.

This existential politics helps to explain why zur Höhe – at least for the time being –  has gone into hiding. The Winter Journey poems, with their obsessional implication of domestic surveillance in all aspects of social and intimate life, suggest that the poet has gone off-grid as a way of resisting the new global order of subjection. He becomes the Wanderer: de-phallic, dispossessed, and risking social death in order to overcome alienation in a way he cannot yet articulate. Moreover, zur Höhe is a highly educated man, urbane, immaculately dressed, possessed of an elegant if slightly autistic mien and a precisely articulate if slightly affected speaking voice; yet he calls himself a member of the Lumpenproletariat, that class Bakunin described as being ‘almost unpolluted by bourgeois civilization’ and Marx, less approvingly, identified with ‘ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie’ as well as decayed roués,

vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la boheme.18

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the ‘literati’ find themselves next to ‘organ grinders’, a term often conflated with ‘hurdy-gurdy players’. No coincidence, either, that in Martin McDonagh’s extraordinary film In Bruges(2008), the ‘hitman’, kitsch representative of the outsider in Hollywood mythology, turns out  to be haunted by ‘Der Leiermann’. zur Höhe, then, not only rewrites the outsider poetic, he lives it, exploiting his paranoia and negating it in the hope of transporting his readers to a place beyond the pure misrecognition of the lonesome subject. If Winter Journey doesn’t quite achieve its aufhebung, which is dialectically impossible anyway, it nevertheless avoids the pathos into which so-called literary works have descended, fetishizing  and maintaining the subject of loss in political apathy. It would be simplistic to say that ‘serious’ art resists the euphoric trick of turning minor into major modes. To be sure, what we call the literary novel (as opposed to genre fiction) usually goes in the opposite direction, to the point of inane self-parody, and there’s a particular ‘voice’ that goes with conservative anecdotal poetry, which affects a dying fall as the poem’s culmination, as if the natural state of art were regretful, elegiac, descending down to darkness on extended wings. Winterreisealmost qualifies as an example of this tendency, being ‘a work devoid of any happiness or even tranquility’ though not without its strivings and revelations, its glimmers of hope, no matter how illusory they turn out to be.19 And yet, and yet…the difference between these ‘dying fall’ works and critical negativity is not always easy to define, but I would say it has something to do with a resistance to the constituted real on the part of an engaged work. The literary novel and the anecdotal poem treat reality as a natural fact, which the form of the work represents without irony or ambiguity, and the reader is invited to empathize with this fact, to accept its pathos as the heart of existence. The work disavows its own artifice, it wants not to be a work of art but a window onto reality ‘itself’. Truly negating works, however, retain the joy of artifice. No matter how miserable their subject matter, they treat the real as mythical, contingent, ideological, something that cries out for intervention and transformation at the level of imagination and praxis. Poetry says ‘fuck you’ to Julian Barnes and the literary novel, just as it sticks its fingers up the noses of the new puritanical avant-garde, the academics, the subjectivists, the anecdotalists, and the instagram ego-massagers. Its mode of critique is the suspension of sense, its lack of ‘expression’; it does not compute, it does not therapeut. Its emotions are possible worlds, not an indulgence in content platitudes and formal stock-responses. The art of the outsider, therefore, can never be allied with tribal affiliations, no matter how radical and ‘innovative’ these claim to be. The moment innovation becomes a shibboleth, it begins to take on the characteristics of an orthodoxy it disavows; before long, the clerical exponents of the avant-garde will fail to be able to read any text that diverges from a set of easily assimilable formal traits. To some extent, innovative literature merely inverts the order of the mainstream, naturalizing tendency in art: where the latter sees only expressive content, poured into utilitarian form, the former seeks expression through form alone, while policing content for signs of the expressive conservatism it rejects. If the horizon of the mainstream is resignation to the powers that be, that of the avant-garde is helpless anger. This anger – as a rejection of the status quo – is all too often circumscribed, splenetic,  and repressive. Torn between a belief in libertarianism and a liberal desire for social justice, it condemns any form of self-expression not conforming to the righteous anger it theorizes. Rimbaud, Artaud, Cendrars, Lautréamont – these are all cherished figures of the wildly, subversively innovative. Yet their impulses are useful to the current post-neo-avant-garde only to the extent that they can be codified and scrubbed ideologically clean for the purposes of peer review in today’s creative industries.

Whatever zur Höhe’s work achieves, if anything, it is surely dedicated to the overthrow of writing as ‘industry’. Not a rejection of the commercial so much as a deep distrust of the tendency towards homogenization and the instrumental-professional. Poetry today takes place within tribal communities where expectations of form and expression divide taste, criticism, and politics to the extent that the work of a poet valued by more than one ‘tribe’ will generate quite different interpretative contexts.  At a certain level, there is no getting away from these affiliations and structures, their qualities and their limitations, and I should be dishonest if I said I was indifferent as to whether zur Höhe’s poems and my versions of them are seen as conservative or innovative. If poetry is to achieve anything genuinely new, it should prove equally distasteful to both mainstream conservatives and those who fetishize innovation at the expense of having something to say. Therefore, if it is to resist orthodoxy, it must risk being hard to assimilate to the values of the tribe. Poetry does not purify the dialect of the tribe but messes with tribal idioms and the belief that those values are in way pure. If its horizon is then the creation of a new tribe, so be it, just as long as it manages to resist the cant of creativity for a few fleeting moments.



Anthony Mellors, Norfolk / Cambridge / Berlin, 2017/18




1. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. (Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1981), 169.

2. Simon Winder, GermaniaA Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern (London: Picador, 2010), 32.

3. Daniel Tiffany, My Silver PlanetA Secret History of Poetry and Kitsch (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 9.

4. Theodor W. Adorno, ‘In Memory of Eichendorff’, in Notes to Literature I, 66

5. Adorno, ‘In Memory’, 57. Eichendorff features prominently in the Hermann Broch’s 1950 lecture ‘Notes on the Problem of Kitsch’, where ‘Abenlandschaft’ is described as lurching from ‘the most beautiful German lyric poetry ever written’ to ‘the most insipid and sentimental imitation of popular poetry’. (in Gillo Dorfles, ed., Kitsch: An Anthology of Bad Taste (London: Studio Vista, 1969), 53-3.

6. Tiffany, My Silver Planet, 9.

7. Adorno, ‘In Memory’, 73.

8. Adorno, ‘In Memory’, 77.

9. Ian Bostridge, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, 115.

10. Bostridge, Schubert’s Winter Journey, 120.

11. Bostridge, Schubert’s Winter Journey, 122.

12. Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, quoted in Susan Youens, Retracing A Winter’s Journey: Schubert’s Winterreise (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 168.

13. Bostridge, Schubert’s Winter Journey, 135.

14. Kirsten J. Grimstad, The Modern Revival of Gnosticism and Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus (New York: Camden House, 2002), 217. See also Chapter 5 of Raymond Furness’s Zarathustra’s Children: A Study of a Lost Generation of German Writers (New York: Camden House, 2000).

15. The inquisitive reader will find it hard to dispense with Libbrecht and Quackelbeen on traumatic hysteria, the findings of Dwork and Wobber on cryptology, and Burgers and Musterd on gentrification (see Bibliography).

16. Bostridge’s reading of ‘Irrlicht’ is less gloomy than that of Youens. Nevertheless, both commentators share a sense of ambivalence in the song, of saying otherwise: ‘The wanderer’s attitude throughout the cycle so far has been one which seesaws between the expression of true emotion, and a sort of ironic distancing from it, even an embarrassment at it.’ (Bostridge, Schubert’s Winter Journey, 204)

17. Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Bach Defended against His Devotees’, in Prisms, 144.

18. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, in Surveys from ExilePolitical Writings, Vol. 2. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), 197.

19. Youens, Retracing A Winter’s Journey, 75.


Click here to read: Ten Poems from Winter Journey





Anthony Mellors. Recent work includes’Modernism After Modernism’ in Alex Davis and Lee Jenkins, eds, A History of Modernist Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 2015), ‘Eurydike’ in Snow 7 (Spring 2019), and Steven Hitchins’s Canalchemy Microanthology (2019).  ‘ “Williams Mix”: Collage and Synthesis’ appeared in Junction Box 11. Latest project is Red Cills Three: Poems of the 2010s.




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