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The Red Countess

Hermynia Zur Mühlen

4. Feuilletons and Fairy Tales: A Sampling

The Spectacles

Hermynia Zur Mühlen
Traduction de Lionel Gossman

Texte intégral

1Once upon a time there was a big, rich country, where quiet and order always reigned. Although in this country too there were rich and poor and the poor were exploited by the rich, not a word of complaint was ever heard, let alone grumbling or threats. The King sat on his golden throne, fat, well-fed, and satisfied; the well-off citizens lived in their fine houses, fat, well-fed, and satisfied; and the poor toiled patiently twelve hours a day in the factories and in the fields. If they did not get paid enough and went hungry, they seemed not to notice it.

2Here is how this came about. Many hundreds of years before, a wicked magician, who was a friend of the King’s, had lived in this country. This magician had the power to see into the future and he foresaw that the poor would not let themselves be treated like animals for ever, that they would one day demand their rights, and that the grand lifestyle of the kings and the well-off citizens would then become a thing of the past. He wanted to keep this from happening. All his life long, the magician sat in his workshop, cutting glass into little round discs, which he tinted with various colours and made into spectacles. Then he told the king that he and his successors should see to it that each newborn child was immediately fitted with a pair of the spectacles. These were never, on pain of death, to be taken off.

3Countless pairs of spectacles, carefully placed on fine pine shavings, were laid out in a vast warehouse. A descendant of the magician was in charge of them. He was immediately informed when a child had come into the world; whereupon he selected the appropriate spectacles for it, and either fitted them himself on the child’s tiny nose or had one of his underlings do it.

4The spectacles were of very different kinds. The most complicated were those made for the children of the poor. The old magician had worked on them for almost fifty years, until he finally got them the way he wanted. The lenses were ground in such a way that, when they looked through them, the poor saw their brothers and sisters as very small, helpless, and inferior creatures, but when they looked at the well-off citizens and especially at the King, they saw them through the spectacles as mighty, almost divine beings who were entitled to everything good in the world, whose power no one could resist, and who had the right to make all others into their servants. Finding the right tint for the lenses had also required the old magician to rack his brains for many a day. For the tint had to make the wearer of the spectacles see the wretched hovel he lived in as altogether cosy, comfortable, and agreeable; on the other hand, when he passed by the mansions and gardens of the well-off or the palaces and parks of the King, he was not to see how splendid and grand they were, since he would otherwise ultimately become dissatisfied.

5The magician had an easier time producing the spectacles intended for the well-off citizens. Here he had only to mix a little gold or silver with the glass so that, wherever they looked, they would always see only gold and silver, never real living human beings. Moreover, the magician ground the lenses in such a way that the well-off saw the workers as machines made exclusively for their use and benefit.

6Making the King’s spectacles was the easiest job of all for the magician. They did not even have to be ground. They had only to be dipped once in the blood of the cruellest man who had ever lived and twice in the blood of the dumbest man who had ever lived. When he looked through them the King immediately saw all the things that kings customarily see, in exactly the way that it is suitable for a king to see them.

7There were, in addition, a small number of large, rose-coloured spectacles, which were used only very rarely. In the three centuries since the death of the old magician, his descendants had needed to fit them on only three people. These spectacles were intended for a few remarkable individuals who, though fitted with the usual spectacles, still beheld something of how things really are.

8For example, there had once been a young poet, a court poet, who lived grandly amid the pleasures of the royal court and enjoyed the admiration and respect of all the better-off citizens. He wrote fine poems in praise of the King and the wisdom of his government and agreeable lyrics for the citizens, extolling their virtues. This young poet could well have been thought to be the happiest man in the world, and in truth he too looked out on it quite cheerfully through his silver-tinted glasses. The citizens were disturbed, it is true, despite their respect for him, by the fact that he did not wish to become majestically fat like them, but as he was, after all, a poet, they forgave him.

9But one day it happened that the poet wandered by accident into the section of town where the poor people lived. It was a beautiful summer’s day and the sun’s rays were so warm that the silver on one of the lenses of his spectacles melted. And so with one eye the poet saw how things really were, and what he saw so shook and scared him that he could not help crying out. He saw tired, toiling men; haggard, sickly women; starving, emaciated children. Except for him, he thought, no one had seen this, and he had to inform everyone. He ran to the better-off citizens, buried his head in his hands and, in tears, told them of the horrors he had seen. They laughed, figuring that he had gone off his head because of the hot weather. Then he looked up and with his one eye saw the reality. “Thieves! Murderers!” he screamed at the citizens, and ran to the King, hoping to get help from him. But when he found the King and saw him sitting on the throne, he had to shout: “You wicked, cruel fool! What right do you have to sit here on the throne?!”

10The poet was put in chains, taken away, and would certainly have been executed, had not the magician, who was in charge of the spectacles, put in a good word for him and explained to the King how the mishap had occurred. And so the ranting, raging poet was dragged before the magician, who placed a pair of rose-coloured spectacles on his nose and said: “Your old spectacles had become faulty, my friend, and that is why you thought you saw such terrible things. Go back on to the street now, look around you, and you will see how mistaken you were.”

11The poet did as he was asked, and now, seen through the rose-coloured spectacles, everything once again appeared good and beautiful to him. Poverty seemed to him something sublime and holy. “Work dignifies and ennobles, “he thought. “How fortunate are those who can be ennobled twelve hours a day.” In the well-off citizens, he rediscovered his virtuous friends, and when he came before the King, he was dazzled by his splendour and fell on his knees in veneration.

12After this incident the entire country once again enjoyed many, many years of quiet and order.

13But when the young poet had become an old poet and lay on his deathbed, he pushed the spectacles away from his dying eyes, and in that split second thought he once again saw what he had seen on that summer’s day many years before. By his bedside sat a young girl who had spared no pains to take good care of him. The poet reached for her hand and stammered: “The spectacles! Take off the spectacles. Look!” Thereupon he died.

14The girl went home to her family pensive and confused. She had not properly understood the dying man’s words, for the spectacles affected not only vision but the brain. Yet they stuck in her memory and from time to time she wondered what the world might look like if it was looked at without spectacles.

15Soon after, she was married to a shoemaker and when their first child, a sturdy boy, entered the world and she saw his large, shining eyes, she remembered the poet’s words and, troubled and perplexed, thought it a shame to conceal those beautiful eyes behind an ugly pair of spectacles. Still, things followed their usual course, the magician came, fitted the spectacles on little Fritz’s tiny nose, and so everything was in order.

16But something strange happened: little Fritz could not abide the spectacles and kept trying to take them off, so that his parents had to be in constant fear that one day he might succeed in doing so, run out on to the street without spectacles, be caught by the forces of order and, in accordance with the law of the land, be put to death. All their pleas and threats were of no avail, however; as soon as Fritz was alone he would tear and pull at the hated spectacles which had been ingeniously tied to the back of his head.

17When the boy was almost fully grown, he finally succeeded from time to time in pulling the spectacles off. And then his startled eyes beheld frightful things: misery, deprivation, and impotent helplessness on the one hand; wealth, high living, splendour, and injustice on the other. But he always caught only a glimpse of this, for on each occasion his mother or sister would soon come running after him, scolding and pleading, weeping and threatening, until they got the spectacles put back on him again.

18The little he had been able to get a glimpse of was enough, however, to cause great sadness and also arouse great anger in the boy’s heart. He constantly tried to figure out how the world might be rid of the injustice he had perceived. Finally he became convinced that the spectacles were chiefly to blame for it all. If his friends and playmates could only look out on the world without spectacles, they too would recognize the injustice that had been done to them and would also see that they were in no way as weak and helpless as the spectacles had deceived them into thinking they were.

19So one day, when his father was away in the workshop and his mother and sister were busy in the kitchen, Fritz tore the spectacles off, stamped on them, and smashed them to smithereens.

20He was at first stunned, as if by a blow to the head, by what his seeing eyes now beheld. But then a fire blazed up in his heart that almost consumed him and he swore not to rest or relax until his comrades had also removed their spectacles and recovered their true sight.

21But first and foremost it was essential to conceal what he had done from the well-off citizens and the King. Fritz tied a black cloth over his eyes and explained that the light hurt them. The citizens were satisfied with this explanation for they figured that it is even harder to see through a black cloth than through spectacles.

22When the darkness of night provided its cover and protection, Fritz slipped out and went to his comrades. He recounted to them all that he had seen, and urged them to throw away their spectacles.

23At first they laughed at him, but when he succeeded in talking a number of them into taking off their spectacles for a few short minutes, those who had done so took his side. With time their numbers kept growing, until finally three quarters of the workers had become “anti-spectacles” people.

24One day, armed and ready for anything, the “anti-spectacles” people marched out toward the houses of the well-off citizens and the King’s palace, pushed their way into the houses, tore the spectacles off the citizens and the King, and demanded their rights. The King was so terrified that he rushed onto the street, began to run, and ran and ran until he came to a country where everyone still wore spectacles and peace and order reigned. At first the well-off citizens prepared to defend themselves, but as they no longer wore spectacles, they could not fail to recognize the might of the “anti-spectacles” people and to acknowledge that they themselves were pathetically dumb scoundrels. Grumbling and with rage in their hearts, they acceded to the demands of the “anti-spectacles” people.

25The latter now truly made order in the land: everyone who worked received sufficient pay, anyone who was too lazy to work received nothing. Arrangements were made to take care of the children, the sick, and the elderly, and no one possessed more than he was entitled to.

26The country in which the events in this story took place lies in the East, where the sun rises. Perhaps the light is brighter there and so people have learned to see more quickly than in other lands. Yet we all know how fast light travels; it will travel to other lands too and people there will also smash their spectacles. For once they have learned to truly see, they will also act. In those lands that are still in darkness every individual must help by tearing off his own spectacles, informing his comrades of what he has seen, and recruiting people to the “anti-spectacles” party, until their number is so great that they can become the masters of a happy and free world.


“Die Brillen” in Es war einmal… und es wird sein. Märchen. Umschlag, Initialen und Bilder zeichnete Heinrich Vogeler (Berlin: Verlag der Jugendinternationale, 1930), pp. 27–31. [First published in Ali der Teppichweber. Mit Zeichnungen von John Heartfield (Berlin: Malik-Verlag, 1923), pp. 34–38.]


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