Home   Emily Troscianko


Writing and Publications


My musings on academia

'Early-career creativity'. Post for Women in German Studies blog, 1 December 2015.

'To failure'. A mental-health-orientated post on my Psychology Today blog (30 June 2016) about an event I organised, Overcoming a sense of academic failure.

Medical humanities in the media

'Bodies, minds, and words: A new collaboration'. Post for Beat news blog, 8 April 2015.

'"How on earth will the medical humanities make you a better doctor?" A call to arms for the next generation of medical humanities.' Post for the Durham Centre for Medical Humanities blog, 9 Jan 2015

'Prose or Prozac?' Guest blog post for What Literature Knows About Your Mind, 25 May 2014


Literature research in the media

'Thinking about Thinking with Literature' Guest blog post for What Literature Knows About Your Mind, 15 May 2016

Kafka's Cognitive Realism, New Books Network podcast interview with Phillip Witteveen (New Books in Literature series), 2 May 2016

'Proust e le memorie involontarie: un problema di definizione', Roberta Fulci in Le Scienze, 2 March 2013

'L'épisode de la madeleine de Proust n'est pas ce que vous croyez', Charlotte Pudlowski on Slate.fr, 28 Feb 2013

'Proust's madeleine study argues the episode is only kinda accurate about memory', Joe Satran in The Huffington Post, 27 Feb 2013

'Was Proust really a neuroscientist?', Christian Jarrett in The British Psychological Society Research Digest, 26 Feb 2013



Below you can find details of my academic monograph and journal papers (including book reviews), some of my Masters and doctoral work, my two publications with Adam Hart-Davis, and a translation of a poem by Rilke. For my fictional and autobiographical writing, see Anorexia.

Academic | Non-fiction | Translation



Publications| Doctorate | Masters

Full-text pre-publication versions of all my academic papers can be found on the Oxford University Research Archive, ORA.



2014. Kafka's Cognitive Realism. London: Routledge.


Edited book:

Forthcoming 2016. Burke, Michael, and Emily T. Troscianko. Cognitive Literary Science: Dialogues between Literature and Cognition. Oxford University Press.



Forthcoming 2018. Blackmore, Susan, and Emily T. Troscianko. Consciousness: An Introduction. 3rd edition. London: Routledge.


Co-edited journal special issue:

Burke, Michael, and Emily T. Troscianko. 2013. 'Explorations in Cognitive Literary Science.' Special issue, Journal of Literary Semantics 42.
(Contributions by Michael Burke, Patrick Colm Hogan, Merja Polvinen, Emily T. Troscianko, and Roel M. Williams.)


Refereed journal articles:

2014. 'First-Person and Second-Generation Perspectives on Starvation in Kafka's "Ein Hungerkünstler".' In Cognitive Literary Study: Second-Generation Approaches, edited by Marco Caracciolo and Karin Kukkonen. Special issue, Style 48: 331-48.

2014. 'Reading Kafka Enactively.' In 'Reading Literature Cognitively', edited by Terence Cave, Karin Kukkonen, and Olivia Smith for the Balzan Interdisciplinary Project 'Literature as an Object of Knowledge'. Special issue, Paragraph 37: 15-31.

2013. 'Reading Imaginatively: The Imagination in Cognitive Science and Cognitive Literary Studies.' In 'Explorations in Cognitive Literary Science', edited by Michael Burke and Emily T. Troscianko. Special issue, Journal of Literary Semantics 42: 181-98.

Burke, Michael, and Emily T. Troscianko. 2013. 'Mind, Brain, and Literature: A Dialogue on What the Humanities Might Offer the Cognitive Sciences.' In 'Explorations in Cognitive Literary Science', edited by Michael Burke and Emily T. Troscianko. Special issue, Journal of Literary Semantics 42: 141-48.

2013. 'Cognitive Realism and Memory in Proust's Madeleine Episode', Memory Studies 6:437-56 (full text)

2012. 'The Cognitive Realism of Memory in Flaubert's Madame Bovary', Modern Language Review 107: 772-795

2010. 'Kafkaesque Worlds in Real Time', Language and Literature 19 (2): 171-91.


Book chapters:

2016 (forthcoming). Feedback in reading and disordered eating. In M. Burke and E.T. Troscianko. Cognitive Literary Science: Dialogues between Literature and Cognition (pp. 169-194). Oxford University Press.

Book reviews:

2014. Review of Kafka for the Twenty-First Century by Stanley Corngold and Ruth V. Gross (eds), Austrian Studies 21: 228-30.

2013. Review of Ist das Kafka? 99 Fundstücke by Reiner Stach, Modern Language Review 108: 666-67.

2012. Review of Franz Kafka: Narration, Rhetoric, and Reading by Lothe, Sandberg, and Speirs (eds), Modern Language Review 107: 987-89.

2011. Review of Kafka und der Film by Peter-André Alt, Modern Language Review 106: 593-94.

2010. Reviews of Kafka Lesen: Acht Textanalysen by Marko Pajevic and Verkehr mit Gespenstern: Gothic und Moderne bei Franz Kafka by Barry Murnane, Modern Language Review 105: 909-11.


Conference report:

2012. 'Ccpectives on Immersion.' Report on Immersion and the Storyworld, St John's College, Oxford, 25-26.6.2012, Journal of Literary Theory.


Blog (see Anorexia):

2009-. 'A Hunger Artist'. Psychology Today.


D. Phil. in German, Brasenose College, Oxford, 2006–10

Thesis: The Literary Science of the ‘Kafkaesque’

Short abstract:

This study provides a precise definition of the term ‘Kafkaesque’ by enriching literary criticism with scientific theory and practice, including an experiment on readers’ responses to Kafka. Dictionary definitions justify taking the term back to its textual origins in Kafka’s works, and the works can fruitfully be analysed by investigating how readers engage with them through cognitive processes of imagination. 

Modern scientific developments posit that vision, imagination, and consciousness should be conceived of not in terms of static pictorialism – reducible to the notion of ‘pictures in the head’ – but in terms of enaction, i.e. as an ongoing interaction with the external world around us. Most traditional nineteenth-century Realist texts are based on pictorialist assumptions, while Kafka’s texts evoke perception non-pictorially and are therefore more cognitively realistic.

In his personal writings, Kafka wrestles with problems entailed by pictorialist conceptions of vision, imagination, and the function of language, and comes to enactivist solutions: evocation of perception that does not result in painting static tableaux with words.

In his fictional works, Kafka correspondingly evolves a cognitively realistic way of writing to evoke fictional worlds that directly engage the cognitive processes of their readers; Der Proceß is a prime example of the ‘Kafkaesque’ text and reading experience, defined by being compelling yet simultaneously unsettling.

Modulations in narrative perspective and evocation of emotion as enactive also contribute to the experience of the ‘Kafkaesque’ as compelling; yet Kafka’s texts simultaneously unsettle by preventing straightforward emotional identification with the protagonists, and destabilising deep-rooted concepts of selfhood as singular and unified.

The theoretical discussion of the ‘Kafkaesque’ experience as compelling yet unsettling is complemented and refined by an experiment testing readers’ responses to a short story by Kafka.

The term ‘Kafkaesque realism’ denotes Kafka’s compelling yet unsettling non-pictorial evocation of perception of the fictional world. Kafkaesque realism falls into the broader category of ‘cognitive realism’, which provides a framework for analysing fictional texts more generally.


Long abstract:

This study provides a precise definition of the term ‘Kafkaesque’ by enriching literary criticism with scientific theory and practice. The term ‘Kafkaesque’ is widely used to describe something fundamental about human experience in many different contexts, but its meaning is rarely clear-cut. Dictionary definitions and examples of popular usage help to clarify the term’s meaning somewhat, yielding the notion of a descriptor for a particular feeling of being in the world that Kafka’s writing induces: a contradictory feeling, at once compelling and unsettling. What precisely these two experiential constituents arise from is, however, unclear; and existing Kafka criticism specifically on the ‘Kafkaesque’ is of limited help in clarifying this issue. Criticism in this area is surprisingly sparse, and can be more subjective than analytical; German critics especially treat the term with some disdain, denying in some cases that the term ‘Kafkaesque’ can any longer be illuminated by referring to texts written by Kafka. However, dictionary definitions, and the fact that readers of Kafka’s texts first coined the term, justify taking the term back to its textual origins in Kafka’s works. Going back to the texts themselves enables us to account for the emergence and prevalence of the term ‘Kafkaesque’, and to analyse its meaning with precision.

If we accept that Kafka’s texts can help us define the term ‘Kafkaesque’, it follows that readers’ responses to these texts should be investigated: readers’ experiences of reading Kafka must be the source of the ‘Kafkaesque’. The discipline of ‘reader-response’ studies would seem, from its name, to be an appropriate way into an investigation of how readers engage with fictional texts. However, reader-response studies in fact tend to ignore the real reader as cognising subject, and instead construct text-inherent readers whose relation to the real reader is often minimal.

The emerging paradigm of cognitive literary studies, by contrast, connects literary criticism with the cognitive sciences. This is in itself a promising development, but in practice this approach tends to confine itself to an experimental focus on the reader without sufficient experimental underpinning. Cognitive theory is, however, essential to understanding the reading process and experience: we cannot understand what is involved in the reading process without knowing something about how the human mind works. Fictional texts are about characters experiencing the fictional world, primarily through the visual sense, and as readers we experience the fictional world in parallel with the protagonist. We do so through processes of imagination that incorporate cognitive and perceptual elements, and which are also closely connected to emotional processes that are equally crucial to what the reading experience feels like. To understand how texts engage readers, it is therefore important to explore how we imagine. In this way, we can attain objective criteria for determining readers’ responses in general, rather than relying solely on the critic’s personal interpretation as an exemplary reading of the text. At this point, experimental data can become highly relevant because they provide detailed evidence of individual responses to texts, which can be used to yield generalisable conclusions. Finding more objective criteria to account for readers’ responses to Kafka, and hence to elucidate the term ‘Kafkaesque’, requires us to establish the connection – and uphold the distinction – between the reader and the text, as it is mediated by the processes of imagination and emotion.

If we are better to understand the processes involved in reading fiction, we must investigate what it means to see and to imagine. As I discuss in Chapter One, we cannot thereby help but confront the explanatory conflict between pictorialism and enactivism. Pictorialist assumptions about seeing and imagining – which are essentially reducible to the notion of ‘pictures in the head’ – are intrinsically attractive and reassuring due to the apparent stability and cohesion they offer in terms of our engagements with reality; they also have a long history in philosophy and science. Yet they not only fail to account for the actual phenomenology of sensory experience; they also raise fundamental theoretical problems – notably the inevitable invocation of the ‘homuncular fallacy’ (positing, however ‘metaphorically’, a little man in one’s head looking at one’s mental pictures) and the concomitant infinite regress (the little man in one’s head must then have another in his, and so on). Pictorialism also has empirical weaknesses, which are especially clearly manifested in experimental work on ‘change blindness’ (not noticing things that change in a scene, even if they are in full view).

Pictorialism is not just a straw man: much current empirical work on vision and mental imagery is conducted within its explanatory framework. It is also highly significant in terms of the historical traditions of literary and linguistic representation, beginning with Plato and Aristotle and stretching through to classical Roman rhetoricians and ultimately the tradition of literary Realism that culminates in late nineteenth-century Europe. An important example in the German context is the writing of Theodor Fontane. Fontane’s status as a Realist has been called into question, but his writing provides a good example of the pictorialist assumptions on which Realism is based, and of their potential problems in terms of the Realist aim to persuade the reader of the reality of the fictional world.  The history of pictorialism in turn helps us understand the ways in which a non-pictorial account of vision and consciousness has gradually been developed: from Aristotle through Kant and Wittgenstein, non-pictorial strands increasingly emerge in thought about perception.

Enactivism – which posits that seeing is a particular way of exploring one’s environment – is the culmination of these non-pictorial elements, and the solution to the problems of pictorialism. The sensorimotor theory of vision and consciousness is the most extreme of current enactive theories. This theory defines seeing as consisting in an ongoing skilful interaction with the external world – more precisely, as currently exercising mastery of the relevant laws of sensorimotor contingency. The sensorimotor theory seems best to account for the facts and the phenomenology of perceptual experience.

The principles of the sensorimotor theory extend from vision to imagination: an enactive perceptual continuum of ‘seeing-as’, stretching from vision to imagination, is the basis for understanding the reading process, and hence the experience of reading Kafka. Existing Kafka criticism on perception, perspective, and fictional worlds is, however, not as extensive as might be expected; in the German tradition in particular, more emphasis has been placed on the concept of ‘space’, in terms of motifs, models, and ‘functionality’ or ‘meaning’, than on the wider concept of the ‘fictional world’ as fictional characters and readers experience it.

As I demonstrate in Chapter Two, Kafka’s reflections in his personal writings on the nature of perception and imagination, and consequently the function of language, closely echo those problems which arise as a consequence of pictorialism in general. Kafka comes to solutions to these problems that are specifically enactivist in nature. In using Kafka’s personal writings to illuminate his fictional texts, I am not concerned with the writer’s life as such, or his comments on writing, as delimitations of his oeuvre. Kafka’s world is not the world of his fictions, but his reflections on this world and on perceptual and linguistic engagement with it can help us understand his fictions better. Furthermore, since Kafka deals explicitly with precisely those issues that are of central relevance to a scientific investigation of his fictions, it is important to analyse his reflections on them.

In his diary entries and letters, Kafka wrestles with various pictorialist problems, including: the danger of actual pictures as opposed to words, in specifying too much; the difficulties entailed by imagining pictures in the head and three-dimensional models in the head; the infinite regress of imagination and of language, if imagination is conceived of in terms of an internal space of ‘consciousness’, and language tries to convey it in this way; and the illusion of the ‘Cartesian Theatre’ of consciousness, in which all experiences are played out on an internal stage, but without a spectator (no ‘self’ inside the head). Also in his diaries, Kafka demonstrates a way of writing that amounts to a solution to all these problems: describing two statues seen during a visit to the Louvre, his words evoke the statues’ forms enactively, escaping the self-referentiality and the logical impasses of many of his other evocations of conscious experience. These passages exemplify how artists (whether visual or literary) can evoke perceptual experience as irreducibly enactive, and cause audiences or readers to experience it likewise.

Kafka’s prose in these instances taps into fundamental enactive processes by which we see and imagine, in a cognitively realistic way; this is demonstrated more extensively in Kafka’s fictional practice in Der Proceß. This novel, the focus of Chapter Three, is a prime example of the ‘Kafkaesque’ text and the reading experience engendered by it, and it can be compared and contrasted with the characteristics of traditional literary Realism, to illuminate the nature of the ‘Kafkaesque’. In this novel, Kafka evokes perception as non-pictorial by means of various enactivist principles. He generally gives the reader minimal detail, especially at the opening of novel, and he evokes the fictional world by means of ‘cumulative fragmentation’: the fictional world is not really ‘built up’, but is evoked through a narrative in which each fragment is self-sufficient until the next is added. The fictional world emerges just in time, as required, inducing a powerful perceptual congruence of protagonist and reader. The cognitively realistic nature of this mode of evocation means that, although the minimal level of detail goes against the reader’s expectations (of detailed, accurate, and stable descriptions of the fictional world), and although it results in multiple indeterminacies, there is no barrier to the reader’s comprehension and enjoyment. On the contrary, when reading Der Proceß we experience the fictional world much as we do the real world, with a resulting ease and spontaneity.

Der Proceß also exemplifies Kafka’s use of a variety of linguistic tools to induce a reading experience that combines precariousness and great ease as a result of efficiently minimal amounts of descriptive detail. The narrative structure can be elucidated with reference to cognitive scripts (our expectations about what is likely to happen in a given setting) and with reference to cognitive and linguistic categorisation. Particularly helpful in accounting for the power of this text is the ‘basic level’ of categorisation, denoting the level beyond which more detail brings diminishing returns in comprehension.

Visual perception is evoked in Der Proceß in a non-pictorial and hence cognitively realistic way, to compelling yet simultaneously unsettling effect. The potential costs of non-pictorial perception are also evoked, intensifying this unsettling effect: the protagonist repeatedly exhibits failures or mistakes in recognising and understanding what he ‘sees’. This happens in particular in the context of the human faculty for ‘instantaneous perception’ (we see a room, for instance, ‘all at once’ as we enter it, rather than building up a mental picture of it bit by bit). This process gradually breaks down as the novel’s protagonist enters further new situations; the breakdown is evoked in terms of ‘natural image categories’, the perceptual equivalent of the linguistic categorisation discussed earlier. Furthermore, vision and imagination begin to blur (problematically for the protagonist) and thus the perceptual continuum of seeing and imagining is made manifest to both protagonist and reader.

The above discussion makes clear the differences between traditional Realism and Kafka’s cognitively realistic writing: Kafka demonstrates the impossibility, and indeed the superfluity, of making ‘proper’ (complete, linear) Realist narratives out of experience. The evocation of the fictional world of Der Proceß affects the entire progress of the narrative and our reading of it, as a temporally extended, enactive process like that of experiencing the real world around us. All this runs counter to our expectations of what novels are and perhaps should be, by challenging our assumptions about what seeing and imagining are; and the way in which our preconceptions are thus challenged also has a significant emotional component. We cannot talk about responses to literature without including the emotional aspect, as this connects with our response in terms of perception and cognition. Emotional reactions are, after all, crucial if we are to remain engaged in reading fictional texts.

I show in Chapter Four that Kafka’s fictions can profitably be explored in terms of how language induces emotional responses in the reader by evoking characters’ emotions and by modulating narrative perspective. In texts such as Die Verwandlung and Das Urteil, we see how Kafka evokes emotion as enactive; we see also how the reader accesses the characters’ emotions in ways that are dependent on the author’s characteristic modulations of narrative perspective, which induce frequent alternations between emotional immersion and reflection on emotion. The connections between enactive emotions and perspective are discussed in terms of emotion and cognition, using a range of short stories including Die Verwandlung and Der Bau. This allows us to link emotion, action, and perspective as they are evoked in Kafka’s fictional works in a cognitively (and emotionally) realistic way, in order to provide a comprehensive understanding of how Kafka induces emotional responses by means of enactively conveyed perception. This discussion takes in texts including the novel Das Schloß, the short story Beschreibung eines Kampfes, and stories from the collections Betrachtung and Ein Landarzt. The ways in which Kafka evokes emotion and perspective have profound consequences for our most deep-rooted concepts of selfhood: if we cannot straightforwardly identify with Kafka’s protagonists, and if what they experience emotionally is manifested only in their interactions with the fictional world, there can be no certainty on the reader’s part as to what the ‘truth’ of their experiences consists in – nor have we any way of attaining such certainty, for the nature of self as a singular subjectivity has been abandoned. This essential instability is crucial to the reader’s experience of the ‘Kafkaesque’ in terms of both imagination and emotion.

The theoretical discussion in the preceding chapters is enriched and refined in Chapter Five by an experiment designed to measure readers’ responses to Kafka’s narrative fiction. While there are many different empirical possibilities for testing readers’ responses, the method employed here is well suited to investigating the elusive phenomenon of the ‘Kafkaesque’ reading experience. It therefore also in more general terms provides a valuable starting point and testing ground for further empirical study of literature. The theoretical discussion in Chapters One to Four yields specific experimental hypotheses which, with the aid of three groups of reader participants, were tested using three versions of Kafka’s text. The three versions included, respectively, all of Kafka’s manuscript changes; only those changes relating to the evocation of perception; and none of the changes. The experiment provided empirical conclusions concerning the experience of the ‘Kafkaesque’; the experience of the ‘Kafkaesque’ as affected by the manuscript changes; participants’ recognition and identification of the story as being by Kafka; and individual tendencies to imagine and to respond empathically, derived from two questionnaires and compared with participants’ responses to the text by Kafka. Most notably, the experiment refined the theoretical definition of the term ‘Kafkaesque’ as a descriptor of an experience at once compelling and unsettling, by generating three sub-dualities within this broader one: association and speculation or extrapolation are present simultaneously with uncertainty or confusion; recognition of pattern coexists with recognition of inconsistency; and a relieved pleasure or anticipatory excitement is concurrent with frustration or annoyance. Participants also gave personal definitions of the terms ‘Kafkaesque’ and ‘realistic’, which were compared, respectively, with their responses to the text and with the tenets of Realism discussed in Chapter One. Appendices provide experimental materials, and include a case study on responses to the evocation specifically of perceptual elements of the fictional world; this adds detail and transparency to the way in which 14 categories and two continuous dimensions of response were derived (by independent judges) from the participants’ responses. The experiment as a whole suggests possibilities for future empirical studies along similar lines.

Using the definitions of the terms ‘Kafkaesque’ and ‘realistic’ gathered from the experimental participants, I posit the concept of ‘Kafkaesque realism’, which denotes the compelling and yet unsettling cognitive realism of enactivism that is characteristic of Kafka’s works and can also be used to analyse and describe fictional texts more generally. This study invites and advocates the expansion of a scientifically informed literary criticism, specific avenues for which are outlined in the Conclusion. ‘Cognitive criticism’ should combine theoretical analysis of the nature of the reading experience with empirical refinement of its theories and sensitive close-reading by the critic-as-reader. The principles discussed here with regard to Kafka and Kafkaesque realism yield a broader category of ‘cognitive realism’, a term employed hitherto in this study with reference only to the pictorial-enactive distinction, and which can now be used more broadly to denote a direct correspondence that a text establishes with an aspect of the reader’s cognitive processes. This concept can inform investigation of how literature more generally engages its readers, through forms of cognitive realism for which my investigation of Kafkaesque realism provides a starting point.


M.St. in European Literature (German), Brasenose College, Oxford, 2005–6

Supervisor: Prof. Katrin Kohl

Special Subject: The tension between realist and anti-realist tendencies in German prose and theories of fiction in the period 1880-1930, as exemplified in the presentation of space.

Special Subject essays:

1)   ‘Ungerufen wie eine Vision steigt die alte Stadt aus ihrem Grabe wieder vor uns auf. Gewiß ist das Bild, das wir uns von ihr machen, ein vielfach falsches… Die Dinge selbst sind nicht richtig, aber wir geben den Dingen ihren richtigen Platz.’ Discuss Fontane’s use and presentation of space in the light of this quotation.

2)   ‘Lange stand K. auf der Holzbrücke die von der Landstraße zum Dorf führte und blickte in die scheinbare Leere empor’ (7). How does this sentence, from the first paragraph of Das Schloß, prefigure and illuminate Kafka’s use of imagery of space and movement within the text?

3)   Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge are to be understood ‘nicht so sehr als ein[en] Untergang, vielmehr als eine eigentümlich dunkle Himmelfahrt’. How does this comment of Rilke’s help us to interpret the imagery of height found in the work in relation to Malte’s process of ‘sehen lernen’?


Essay on Method: Nietzsche’s use of space and movement in the context of genealogical perspectivism in Zur Genealogie der Moral.

Dissertation: Concepts and depictions of space in Kafka’s fictional and non-fictional works, in the context of contemporary discussions of the representation of space.



Hart-Davis, A., and Troscianko, E. (2002) Henry Winstanley and the Eddystone Lighthouse (Stroud: Sutton)


On 26 November 1703, during the worst storm that Britain had ever known, Henry Winstanley, who had defied incredible odds to build the first Eddystone Lighthouse in 1698, died in it as it was blown apart. That day, mean and animals were lifted off their feet and carried through the air, lead was stripped like tissue paper from the tops of churches, 15,000 sheep drowned, 400 windmills were blown over and 800 houses were completely destroyed. At sea, ships crowded into anchorages, and crashed into each other and onto the rocks. Eight thousand sailors drowned that night, within yards of the land.

Prior to the building of the Eddystone lighthouse, many thousands of lives were lost. The ingenious Winstanley was an engraver and Clerk of Works at Audley End and he owned a house of gadgets. In 1695, he lost two of his own ships on Eddystone and this fuelled his plans to make it safer. Determined that no more ships should be wrecked, it was three long years until he finally provided a guiding light for those at sea. After the storm, it was as if neither Winstanley nor his lighthouse had ever been. Here, you can read the tragic story of the Eddystone Lighthouse, and the man who, with grim determination, attempted to raise it against all odds. Ironically, it was the power of the elements that finally destroyed them both.


Hart-Davis, A., and Troscianko, E. (2006) Taking the Piss: A Potted History of Pee (Chalford, 2006)


So why do people say ‘taking the piss’? How do men know which urinal to choose, and why are the rules so strict? What did Arthur Miller’s mother say about Marilyn Monroe’s toilet habits? Adam and Emily have all the answers!

Inspired by his award-winning BBC Radio 4 programme, this irreverent work by author and broadcaster Adam Hart-Davis and his sidekick Emily Troscianko takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of the history and mysteries of urine. While Adam’s inimitable style brings the science leaping to life, Emily adds a sparkling dash of culture and celebrity, with the aid of Andy Warhol and Geoffrey Chaucer, the Ancient Greeks and the Rolling Stones. Funny, serious and often absurd, this sparkling work will answer questions you never thought to ask...



The following translation of Rilke's Eighth Elegy was highly commended in the Times Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation, 2005.

Rainer Maria Rilke: Die achte Elegie

Rudolf Kaßner zugeeignet

Mit allen Augen sieht die Kreatur
das Offene. Nur unsre Augen sind
wie umgekehrt und ganz um sie gestellt
als Fallen, rings um ihren freien Ausgang.
Was draußen ist, wir wissens aus des Tiers
Antlitz allein; denn schon das frühe Kind
wenden wir um und zwingens, daß es rückwärts
Gestaltung sehe, nicht das Offne, das
im Tiergesicht so tief ist. Frei von Tod.
Ihn sehen wir allein; das freie Tier
hat seinen Untergang stets hinter sich
und vor sich Gott, und wenn es geht, so gehts
in Ewigkeit, so wie die Brunnen gehen.
Wir haben nie, nicht einen einzigen Tag,
den reinen Raum vor uns, in den die Blumen
unendlich aufgehn. Immer ist es Welt
und niemals Nirgends ohne Nicht:
das Reine, Unüberwachte, das man atmet und
unendlich weiß und nicht begehrt. Als Kind
verliert sich eins im Stilln an dies und wird
gerüttelt. Oder jener stirbt uns ists.
Denn nah am Tod sieht man den Tod nicht mehr
und starrt hinaus, vielleicht mit großem Tierblick.
Liebende, wäre nicht der Andre, der
die Sicht verstellt, sind nah daran und staunen...
Wie aus Versehn ist ihnen aufgetan
hinter dem Andern... Aber über ihn
kommt keiner fort, und wieder wird ihm Welt.
Der Schöpfung immer zugewendet, sehn
wir nur auf ihr die Spiegelung des Frein,
von uns verdunkelt. Oder daß ein Tier,
ein stummes, aufschaut, ruhig durch uns durch.
Dieses heißt Schicksal: gegenüber sein
und nichts als das und immer gegenüber.

Wäre Bewußtheit unsrer Art in dem
sicheren Tier, das uns entgegenzieht
in anderer Richtung –, riß es uns herum
mit seinem Wandel. Doch sein Sein ist ihm
unendlich, ungefaßt und ohne Blick
auf seinen Zustand, rein, so wie sein Ausblick.
Und wo wir Zukunft sehn, dort sieht es Alles
und sich in Allem und geheilt für immer.

Und doch ist in dem wachsam warmen Tier
Gewicht und Sorge einer großen Schwermut.
Denn ihm auch haftet immer an, was uns
oft überwältigt, – die Erinnerung,
als sei schon einmal das, wonach man drängt,
näher gewesen, treuer und sein Anschluß
unendlich zärtlich. Hier ist alles Abstand,
und dort wars Atem. Nach der ersten Heimat
ist ihm die zweite zwitterig und windig.

O Seligkeit der kleinen Kreatur,
die immer bleibt im Schoße, der sie austrug;
o Glück der Mücke, die noch innen hüpft,
selbst wenn sie Hochzeit hat: denn Schoß ist Alles.
Und sieh die halbe Sicherheit des Vogels,
der beinah beides weiß aus seinem Ursprung,
als wär er eine Seele der Etrusker,
aus einem Toten, den ein Raum empfing,
doch mit der ruhenden Figur als Deckel.
Und wie bestürzt ist eins, das fliegen muß
und stammt aus einem Schoß. Wie vor sich selbst
erschreckt, durchzuckts die Luft, wie wenn ein Sprung
durch eine Tasse geht. So reißt die Spur
der Fledermaus durchs Porzellan des Abends.

Und wir: Zuschauer, immer, überall,
dem allen zugewandt und nie hinaus!
Uns überfüllts. Wir ordnens. Es zerfällt.
Wir ordnens wieder und zerfallen selbst.
Wer hat uns also umgedreht, daß wir,
was wir auch tun, in jener Haltung sind
von einem, welcher fortgeht? Wie er auf
dem letzten Hügel, der ihm ganz sein Tal
noch einmal zeigt, sich wendet, anhält, weilt -,
so leben wir und nehmen immer Abschied.

7./8.2.1922, Château de Muzot, Switzerland


Rainer Maria Rilke, The Eighth Duino Elegy (trans. E. Troscianko)

Creation looks with all eyes into

the open. Only our eyes are

as though turned inwards and ranged around it

like traps encircling its clear escape.

We can tell what lies outside from the animal’s

face alone; for we turn even the newest child

and force it to see, behind it,

something fashioned, not the openness that

is so deep in the animal eyes. Free from death.

Death is all we see; the unfettered animal

is ever poised with downfall behind it

and before it – God; and when it moves, it moves

into eternity, as a stream moves.

Never, not a single day, do we have

before us pure space, into which flowers

ceaselessly bloom. There is always a world

and never a nowhere without nothingness:

pure, unwatched, which you breathe and

know to be infinite and do not desire. One child

loses himself in silent contemplation of this and is

shaken. Or another dies and becomes it.

For close to death one loses sight of death

and stares out beyond, with a wide animal gaze, perhaps.

Lovers, but for their beloved other, who

blocks the view, are close to it and lost in wonder…

As if by accident there opened forth to them

behind the other… But through him

no one can pass, and there is only world for him again.

Forever turned towards creation, we

see only on its surface the reflection of the free,

eclipsed by ourselves. Or an animal,

mute, looks calmly through us.

This is what destiny is: to be opposite

and nothing else and always opposite.


If our consciousness were in the

assured animal that moves towards us

the other way – it would tear us round

in its advance. But its being is

infinite to it, ungrasped and without a glance

at its conditions, pure, even as its gaze.

And where we see the future, there it sees everything

and itself in everything and forever healed.


And yet in the warm watchful animal there is

weight and strain of great melancholy.

For always clinging to it too is that which

often overpowers us – a memory,

as if once already what you strive towards

had been closer, more faithful, and its touch

endlessly tender. Here all is distance,

and there it was breath. After the first homeland

the second is blustery, androgynous.

O how blessed is the tiny creature

that stays forever in the womb which bore it;

o how joyous the gnat that still leaps inside for joy

even when it weds: for the womb is all there is.

And see the half-certainty of the bird

that very nearly knows both these things from its origin,

as if it were an Etruscan soul,

from a dead man welcomed into an empty space,

but with the resting figure as a covering.

And how bewildered is that which must fly

having come from a womb. As if in

alarm at itself it criss-crosses the air like a crack

through a cup. Thus the trace

of the bat rips through the porcelain of evening.


And us: onlookers, forever, everywhere,

looking at it all and never beyond it!

It overflows in us. We order it. It crumbles.

We order it again and ourselves crumble.

Who then has turned us round so that

whatever we do we look like

someone who is leaving? As the man on

the last hill that can show him his whole valley

one more time turns, pauses, lingers –,

so we live and take eternal leave.





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