Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Barber

A poem by Alfred Lichtenstein

I stand this way on cloudy winter days
From dawn to dusk and I soap heads,
Shave them and powder them and speak
Indifferent words, stupid, foolish.
Most heads are completely shut,
They sleep limply. And others read again
And look slowly through long lids,
As though they had sucked everything dry.
Still others open the red cracks of their mouths wide
And tell jokes.
For my part, I smile courteously. Ah, I hide
Deep under these smiles, as though in a coffin,
The terrible, repressed, wise complaints
About the fact that we are forced into this existence,
Jammed in, firmly and inescapably trapped
As though in jail, and we wear chains,
Confusing, hard, that we do not understand.
And the fact that each man is distant and estranged from himself
As though from a neighbor whom he does not know at all,
And whose house he has always only seen from the outside.
Sometimes, when I am shaving a chin,
Knowing that a whole life
Is in my power, that I am now master,
I, a barber, and that a missed stroke,
A slice too deep, cuts off the round, cheerful head
That lies before me (he is thinking of a woman,
Books, business) from his body,
As though it were a loose button on a vest -
I am overcome. Then the feeling came over me... this animal.
Is there. The animal... both my knees knock.
And like a small boy tearing paper
Without knowing why,
And like students who kill gas lamps,
And like children who turn so red
When they tear the wings of captured flies,
So I would like to do the same,
As if it were a slip,
To make a scratch with my knife on such a chin.
I would too gladly watch the red stream of blood spray.

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