Monday, November 7, 2011

Look at the disgraceful pair - looking at Max and Moritz

I have been rummaging around in a peculiar book, The Genius of Wilhelm Busch edited and translated by Walter Arndt, who I know as a translator of Pushkin.  Busch was an artist who inadvertently invented the comic strip, or at least a plausible prototype, particularly with the 1865 Max and Moritz, which Arndt calls “possibly the most universally cherished and quoted work of art in the German language,” which explains a lot.

Ah, the wickedness one sees
Or is told of such as these,
Namely Max and Moritz; there!
Look at the disgraceful pair!

Max and Moritz are a pair of hideous children who play seven hideous tricks which culminate in a hideous punishment, which they either deserve or do not, depending on whether Max and Moritz are actual children or kobolds, evil spirits.

The woodcuts are always accompanied by rhyming children’s’ verse.  The text is integral to the images.  Busch never tells a story with nothing but images – or Arndt does not include any examples where he does.  I am drawn to the images that do stand on their own, like this unusually complex heist:

I need the text, though, to know what the woman in the basement is doing:

With a ladle to scoop out
Just a dab of sauerkraut,
Which she has a passion for
When it is warmed up once more.

Ah, so that is the cellar sauerkraut bucket.  Mmmm.  Those chickens were murdered by Max and Moritz as their first trick, stolen and eaten in the second.   At least gluttony and greed is a motive here, but the little monsters mostly spread chaos among complacent working people – a tailor, a baker, a miller.  There is also a teacher, but as an educated person he presumably deserves to have his pipe filled with gunpowder.

Master Lampel’s gentle powers
Failed with rascals such as ours;
For the evilly inclined
Pay preceptors little mind.

Max and Moritz are destructive chaos agents, gleefully destructive, with no independent existence, meaning Busch never made a panel with just one of the pair.  They are sinister critters.  They can be baked in an oven with no lasting consequences.  The barnyard fowl get their revenge in the end, though.

Well, this has not been much besides “Look, ain’t that something.”  I’ll keep looking.  More Busch later, maybe.  “Painter Squirtle” or “Jack Crook, Bird of Evil,” Max and Moritz rolled into one ugly, drunken crow.

I borrowed the color images from this file.  The book was published by the  University of California Press in 1982.


  1. There's a gleeful bloodthirstiness found only in German fairy tales (and fairy tale-like stories) that, as you say, explains a lot. I realize I haven't read much German literature (aside from a whole lot of Gunter Grass). Last night I read Mann's Death in Venice and, well. I kept thinking it was as if Henry James had read Lolita, which doesn't sound as complimentary to Mann as I mean it to.

    Anyway, what's in this Busch book other than Max and Moritz? What? I could just look at myself?

    ~scott bailey

  2. Gleeful bloodthirstiness - yep. Struwwelpeter is 20 years older than Max and Moritz, Grimm 30 years before that. The first edition of their fairy tales included, somehow, a Heinrich von Kleist anedcote that is so gruesomely awful I don't even want to think about it.

    Grass writes in this spirit. Think of the fate of The Flounder's flounder.

    I've barely scratched The Genius of Wilhelm Busch. It has "comic strips" ranging from 1864 to 1894, which is itself amazing. Who knows what oddities and marvels might be contained herein.

  3. Struwwelpeter! I know that one, somehow, from my youth though I can't say why I know it. I'd forgotten all about it.

    Yeah, Grass certainly has that literature of punishment gene. The Danzig trilogy is all about the whipping of children, sort of, and one could build a case that all of Grass's work is a Grimm tale with Poland being an errant child falling into the claws of evil witches and trolls, etc. I am sure I'm wrong about everything I just said, but I won't unsay it.

    ~scott bailey

  4. Oskar Matzerath certainly has a lot of either Max or Moritz in him. I just put up something about another ancestor, another Moritz.

  5. Their end shocked me quite a bit as a child but it was also delightfully grueseome.
    I suppose you know the Struwelpeter? That's quite a problematic book, some premises are similar but it's much more educational. This all ended in the German's cherished black pedagogy. Schreber and those people.

  6. What a link. I had no idea Mark Twain translated Struwwelpeter!

  7. How shameful...I didn't raed the other comments or I would have seen that you mentioned Struwelpeter.
    I would like to contradict the Geeman fairytale bloodthirstiness. The y are yes but
    Perrault is far more gruesome than the Brothers Grimm.

  8. Entirely fair point, Caroline. Not just Perrault, but (some) Yiddish folk tales, some Italian fairy tales, some Native American legends, etc. The stories are not bloodthirsty - they are primal.

    It's when the folk tale is civilized (which might well include Perrault and the Grimms) that it may become mannered, gruesomeness as shock or cool weirdness. At their best, though, even the retold stories are little windows on those fundamental forces, like death.