Helmet Heissenbuttel

Three Texts:



Of all the writers I can think of Helmet Heissenbuttel deserves the accolade of being called an experimental writer, not that I would brand him with that absurd label ‘Post-Modern’ or ‘Modernist’ but rather in the true sense of an experimenter with words, meanings and phrases. More than most writers he could almost be called neo-scientific in the rigour that he applies to his media experimentation. In his texts – and I’ve selected the three translated below carefully to demonstrate some of the following – he uses collage, montage, tautology, humour, discontinuity and so on – now all have been used before to often startling effect by Aragon, Breton, the Dadists and a range of 20th and 21st C writers and innovators. However in Heissenbuttel’s work the absurd practice of individualism and innovation for its own sake is left far behind.


This introduction is not however intended as a critical essay just a reference point towards the work. Perhaps if I ever manage to gather enough time to publish this and other work in the textual form known as the ‘book’ that it deserves we’ll see about the other. My apologies for the poor translations – but they are based on my own poor knowledge of German and the soft and corrupted memories of Hamburger’s long out of print Heissenbuttel book ‘TEXTS’.


He painted on water. That was his invention. He painted on water that is: he didn't let coloured water run over paper like earlier painters. He didn't paint pictures for hanging up. He didn't paint pictures at all. Not what had been called pictures before his invention.


He painted on water. On all kinds of water. On rain puddles and lakes on the surfaces of filled saucepans. On overflowed water around a vase. On sea water. On bath water. He painted on smooth Water. He painted on rough water. On clear water and on murky water full of algae and deposits. Shadows and sun reflections. Even coloured water if it was available. Never [as uninitiated people might have supposed] on any other kind of liquid. It had to be water.


Sometimes he wasn't satisfied with what was at hand and he went on long journeys to find the right water. Sometimes he made do with the next best thing. It happened that a spotty flooded desk top enchanted him. It happened that he needed this one mountain lake between dark wooded slopes. Sometimes he was content to paint kneeling on the shore on the pebbles or lying on a landing-stage. Sometimes he rowed for hours to find the right light the right solitude. For a time he used a raft with a square cut out in the middle. He used several methods when painting. Usually he had various sorts of sticks. Apart from them he needed boards rubber discs hair-brushes combs fly-swatters and paintbrushes. Sometimes compass and ruler. These had a special fascination for him at one time. He could be seen among the breakers or a heavy turbulent sea in thunderstorms applying cleanly executed straight lines and far-flung arcs for hours. He painted with his fingers and with his spread hands. With his feet and even with his whole body.


He rarely used colours. If so he let the colour drip into flowing water   or drew it through with paintbrushes and sticks. He would pour in colour by the bucketful. Once he used a fountain pen.   His pictures. They weren't pictures as mentioned before. Games made   of curve wave reflection shadow of traces and traces of traces. Once when he tried to complement water painting [he too didn't want to get   stuck in a rut] with shadow modelling he suffered a relapse. After going on from combinations of plain shadows and coloured shadows he caught himself beginning to photograph his shadow modelling at one of its changing stages. That was his relapse. To preserve hold fast pass on exhibit all these were a relapse. They were the useless thing. After that he remained idle for a time. Possibly he wanted to punish himself by desisting. Possibly too something was surging up inside him out of this relapse to a purer mode of imagining. True in that case his progress would have remained imperceptible. But after an interval of seeming or real apathy he began again to paint on water. Only a very careful observer [there wasn't one] could have noticed slight changes in him. A brief hesitancy in the midst of a stroke. A more hurried departure from water to water. A stopping in work scarcely begun. 




[asked me yesterday and I answered said I know (later I admitted by  way of conversation that I don't know) said I am for it I am not for it what annoys me about the business is that]


I speak. I have opinion no opinion several opinion many opinion. Things which according to my opinon I know something about. Things which according to my opinion I know nothing about. Things with which I have concerned myself and things with which I have not concerned myself. About which I have heard something about which I have heard nothing about which I have read something or seen something or not etc.


Do you consider that your attitude is right? Do you consider that you are right to take that attitude? Don't you consider that you should take a different attitude? Don't you consider that you could take a different attitude? I take an attitude or I don't take an atttiude. I take a decision or I don't take a decision. I commit myself or I don't commit myself. [Did you support Adenauer? Do you go to the cinema? Are you keen on jazz? Would you stand up for homosexuals? Do you think that the man in the street has any use for modern art? Are you happily married? Do you smoke filter cigarettes?]


I am there. [The unpleasant thing is that one can't avoid getting involved if one is there.] I don't know what I'm getting involved in. Or I do know and don't want to or I do not want to but don't know whether that in which I'm getting involved won't have turned into something different when I am involved in it. One can go into details and give reasons for everything one can go into details and divert everything one can go into details and dissect everything. Inregardto inrelationto dependingon etc. One can also [of course] leave all that alone. 


[For instance I jumped on the bandwagon. I was predisposed to jumping on the bandwagon. But I didn't know what it was. I wanted to get to know. What I got to know was what jumping on the bandwagon means. When I got to know what it means to jump on the bandwagon I stopped. In certain circumstances I even became useless because I know what it means. But in other circumstances I became more use- ful because I know what it means to jump on the bandwagon.]


[Or one informs oneself. Gathers arranges cuts out chooses connects surveys observes perceives perceives perception accepts perception registers registers systematically destroys the system and registers the destruction and doesn't stop and informs oneself in that way. Informs oneself all round in a definite direction without direction in a backward direction too in a forward direction too etc.]


I speak. I rattle on. Take no notice whether anyone is listening. Assume that there are listeners that there is this one or anyone or any group of people. What I speak is not commitments answers acknowledgements denials. What I speak is not opinions. [My opinion is always the same.] What I speak is what is sayable. What is sayable? Something. What is sayable means I make myself understood without considering whether I am understandable. Or being misunderstood. [When I am understood I am always understood correctly.] My consideration consists in that I assume that the inconsiderateness of my making myself understood makes the non-understandable [the seemingly non-understandable] understandable.


Wrapped up in meshes of opinion and proverbs and all such camp- following stuff. All this camp-following stuff that I drag along behind me. If I stir everything is at once stirred also whole areas of stuff dragged along are set into motion. Whole areas of stuff dragged along become language ever new areas are set in motion ever new areas become language. All this ensnares me. Becomes tangled. Tautens. Tenses tears drags hangs. I keep still and everything moves through   me. I lie down and everything moves over me. Do I participate in it   at all? Groping I signal my way through the stuff dragged along. I signal my way on.




He was still disappointed. Only one side of this street had lamps. They had already been lit. He looked for a street sign. When he got to it he could not decipher it. It was deathly quiet. There are streets like this [he thought] in every city with more than a certain number of inhabitants. As he walked on he thought: Either people here go to bed at this early hour or it's later than I thought or the houses are empty. A patch of light appeared on one of the grey walls and went out before he had reached it. There was a stench of fish or something that re- minded him of sculleries. The street was on a gentle slope. Cobbles with narrow brick borders. Ended ahead of him in the air. A rectangle with only three sides. Wall pavement wall. Above them nothing. Sky. Duncoloured sky just resolved to darken.


A person. Personal pronoun third person singular masculine. A figure? The hero of a story? Someone to whom something is happening [or has happened]? Centre of a situation a story a plot? Tension: some- thing has already happened. He is still disappointed. Eventualities that offer themselves. What could have happened if. Narrate? He is still disappointed. His disappointment hasn't abated. Endures is stubborn does not diminish but rather is confirmed. Is almost a trait of character almost an action.       


Very much like identifying a photograph when one has forgotten whom it depicts. Identify what? The point is that there must have been an original. Can't a picture have been freely invented? But the presupposition is that it has not been freely invented. Can't it have been an unusually vivid dream? It could have been one of those dreams for instance that one dreamed when [when what?]. Or what good would it do one if one  knew: Rouen June 18 1940 10.30 p.m. Somewhere it        seems the specific detail must be accommodated as a part. If only as        the supposition of a part. If only as the pure fiction of a part.        


On both sides shadows emerge from the dark. Momentary tunnels of momentary searchlights. Almost without a sound. Black leaves on black branches. Now pressed to the wall. It had caught up with him. Or had he caught up with it? Now he remembered. Right the voice        had said that he remembered now. Was it right? Everything was right.  Everyone was right. One couldn't do anything. He was still disappointed.


 He was still disappointed.       


If they knew [he thought] how dreadfully indifferent it all is. How little it matters to me deep down how little I care about it. I'm not interested in how it will go on it will go on anyway. How long [he         thought] I didn't see it and yet it went on and the only things I've retained are a few dark patches and a few bright ones and if one hadn't practised again that there are such things one wouldn't know that there are such things. All this [he thought] has come together in me is not together anywhere else a collection of something and something else. Here and there something shifts to one side turns about is there from the back mingles falls but does not change does not change essentially         always remains the same. Perhaps [he thought] it is a lesson. If I stick it out keep it up I shall have finished the course before I've started it. Is the start already the finish and is it easier if one is weaned from it at 46    the same time and is it all over when it's over.


Perhaps with those one has to set up a number of objects. Has to be courteous with them and then not trouble about them. Mix with them and forget them. Hide them completely and say everything about them. For it seems they exist only from the outside. Only what comes out exists. Are they hollow inside? Hollow and the hollow filled with some- thing? Tubes of toothpaste? The whole a procedure by which one squeezes out the filling inside? He was still disappointed. What comes out. Comes out in unbroken seeming. Fixed. Or variants of fiction. Motions stirrings pilings incisions expulsions spasms curves distortions knots gleam. Something one has to learn learn by heart and learn by heart invent forget and rediscover?

VIII Dedicated to Hans W. Pump who died while playing badminton.


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