Cum mortuis in lingua viva – A handover in letters. A collage. – Lars Straehler-Pohl

January 19

Dear unknown sleepless friend,
Truly it is late at night. It becomes more and more difficult to dive into sleep, to find a way to slip into your dreams. Indeed—you would have swum out hours ago to reach the shore again in time. The ascending dawn makes the distance even longer, the water even colder, the heart beat faster.
We are miles, possibly years, apart from each other. I can only help from a distance. The best I can do for you right now is to hand you a bundle of letters. Letters from people who never met and yet still have answers for each other. Separated by centuries, as we now are separated, these human beings are connected by the lines they wrote.
Dear sleepless friend, letters are the quiet expansion of the short lifetime we are given. A gift from those in former times, echoes of past despairs and hopes. Don’t take them as monuments, don´t remain in reverence. Play with them. Treat them as an invitation to a relationship.
In some moments you might be too tired to form your thoughts, in the no man’s land between sluggish wakefulness and sleeplessness. And sometimes you might be even too tired to find your own words. Do not worry. When this happens, let us start a kind of game. Take the letters I send you and pick some lines from them that seem most fitting to you in that moment. Send them back to me and I will answer you in the same manner. Send them whenever a silent voice from the outside is needed. No matter whether it is hours, days or years from now on. I will answer, we will answer. Dear friend, sleep well.

Yours, Paul


February 1 / 12:52 a.m.

The Insomniac …what a time your letters take to come! You can’t think what a difference it makes when they bring in a blue envelope.1 I’ve had to retire to bed with the usual old pain.2

12:58 a.m.

Paul This news that I hear just now, is very upsetting to me – all the more as I assumed from your last letter that you were, thank God, quite well. – But now I hear that you are truly ill!3

1:24 a.m.

The Insomniac I thank you for this new evidence of your concern for me, all the more because I am so little deserving of it with you.4 I was sick and still am today, my stomach is acting up5 …as if my stomach were a person and wanted to cry.6 Lately, for example, a wave of unrest has swept over me once more, insomnia, suffering from the slightest noise and they arise literally out of the air.7 My sense of hearing has become a thousand times sharper and yet that much more uncertain. If I run my finger over a sheet, I no longer can say for certain whether or not I am hearing a mouse. But the mice are not fantasies, as the cat comes in to me skinny in the evening and is carried out fat in the morning.8

1:09 a.m.

Paul I need not tell you, at least I hope so, how eagerly I await some comforting news from you—although it’s become my habit to always imagine the worst of everything.9

1:37 a.m.

The Insomniac I myself am untouched and my hair is no whiter than yesterday, but it was the horror of the world. What a terrible, dumbly raucous folk they are10…and now I see a fresh hole next to the door. So mice here, too. And the cat is unwell today, throwing up constantly.11
But what are you missing?12

1:39 a.m.

Paul I believe I drank too much wine last night.13 I slept quite well, with only the mice as my good and virtuous company—I had a right proper discussion with them.14

1:42 a.m.

The Insomniac You think you have nothing against mice? Of course, and you have nothing against cannibals, either, but when they crawl out from under all the boxes at night and bare their teeth, you won’t like them anymore. What I feel with mice is simply anxiety. To figure out where it comes from is a matter for the psychoanalysts, not me.15 I don’t believe that there is a writer’s or musician’s sleep that will hold out against them, and no corresponding heart that wouldn’t overflow, not really with fear, but with disgust and sadness. But even this is only in jest, because I haven’t heard anything suspicious for a long time, thanks to the cat…16

1:59 a.m.

Paul Here’s my brain now quite bright, but purely critical. It can read; it can understand.17 I could also put myself to the test in my own mouse hole. And this is it: a fear of utter loneliness.18 Hey, do you understand the feeling that one must bear, pulling a yellow mail coach full of sleeping people alone through the long night?19

2:02 a.m.

The Insomniac I have seen much that you have written.20

2:14 a.m.

Paul Yes, I do write damned well sometimes, but not these last days.21
Here is another selfish invalid’s bulletin, but I like to write to you, and you won’t mind it all being about myself22…thus you know how I feel about life, out there, stumbling along over the cobblestones, like the poor mail coach.23 But what about loneliness? Basically, loneliness is my only aim, my greatest lure, my possibility, and, assuming that one can speak at all of having ‘arranged’ one’s own life, it was always with a view to the fact that loneliness is a comfortable part of it. And yet there is the fear of that which I love so much. It is significant, by the way, that I feel so comfortable in empty apartments—not in completely empty ones, but in those that are full of memories of all the people and prepared for further life, apartments with furnished matrimonial bedrooms, children’s rooms, kitchens; apartments into which the early morning mail for others is dropped in, where newspapers for others are left at the door. But the real inhabitant must never show up, as happened to me the other day—that I find terribly disturbing. Well, that’s the story of the ‘breakdowns’.24

2:27 a.m.

The Insomniac I hope and pray that as I write this you are feeling better; but if contrary to all assumptions, this is not so, I ask you not to conceal it from me, but to write to me, or have someone write, the plain truth, so that I can be in your arms as quickly as is humanly possible.25

2:29 a.m.

Paul I ride my motorcycle a lot, I swim a lot, I lie naked in the grass by the pond for long periods.26

2:31 a.m.

The Insomniac By the way, I’m not giving up hope for you at all, I must tell you that. You are easily despaired, but also easily happy, keep this in mind when you are in despair. Safeguard your health for better times to come. What you are going through seems bad enough, but don’t aggravate it by damaging your health.27

2:35 a.m.

Paul Have you ever been as weary of someone as you are of me just now?28

2:36 a.m.

The Insomniac So, weary, but obedient and grateful: I thank you. Everything is fine now, isn’t it? And since it’s winter, we’re sitting—it’s the truth—in a room, except that the walls behind where each of us is sitting are a bit far apart, but that’s merely a bit odd and doesn’t have to be.29

3:09 a.m.

Paul Be well. You’ve helped me a lot in the last few days.30 Letters can delight me, move me, evoke admiration in me, but they used to mean much more to me, too much, for them to be an essential form of life for me now. I have not been deceived by letters, but I have fooled myself through letters, literally warming myself for years in advance from the warmth they yielded when the whole heap of letters finally went into the fire…31

3:11 a.m.

The Insomniac Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is the lightning that does the work.32 Time to go to sleep.33

3:14 a.m.

Paul I never go to bed without reflecting on the possibility that (young as I am) there might not be another day. And yet no one who knows me can say that I’m sullen or sad to be around. And for this felicitousness I give thanks every day and wish the same with all my heart for my fellow human creatures.34 But enough – don’t die –35

3:43 a.m.

The Insomniac The truth is, I have a great deal to do; and I have made up my mind not to die till it is done.36 Maybe I’ll become a village fool; the current one that I saw today appears to be living in a neighboring village and is rather old.37 Your letter is here, I step into it like someone who, weary of the field paths, is now entering the woods. I’ll lose my bearings, but am not afraid. If only every day could end like this.38
With warmest regards, yours sincerely, Franz39



11:22 a.m.

Franz Early today, between Jan. 31st and Feb. 1st, I woke up around five o’clock and heard you calling ‘Franz’ outside the room door, gently, yet I heard it clearly. I answered immediately, but there was nothing more. What did you want?40

11:24 a.m.

Paul You will not suspect me of affectation, dear friend, or of any unworthy passion for being mysterious, merely because I find it impossible to tell you now—in a letter—what that one question was.41

11:33 a.m.

Franz What are you carrying so carefully in that box? A treasure perhaps, or a proclamation, right? Well, open it up, we could use both!42

11:40 a.m.

Paul Nothing but hope for a better state of affairs.43 I feel that you cannot misunderstand me.44

[1] Virginia Woolf, 52 Tavistock Square, February 4, 1929.
[2] Virginia Woolf, Monk´s House, August 12, 1929.
[3] Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, April 4, 1787.
[4] Ludwig van Beethoven, Vienna, November 16, 1801.
[5] Franz Kafka, Prague, January 31, 1916 [1917].
[6] Franz Kafka, Prague, June 19, 1909.
[7] Franz Kafka, Matliary, May 1921.
[8] Franz Kafka, Zürau, November 24, 1917.
[9] Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, April 4, 1787.
[10] Franz Kafka, Mid-November 1917.
[11] Franz Kafka, Zürau, November 24, 1917.
[12] Franz Kafka, Jungborn, December 17, 1912.
[13] Jane Austen, Steventon, November 20, 1800.
[14] Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, June 25, 1791.
[15] Franz Kafka, Zürau, Early December, 1917.
[16] Franz Kafka, Zürau, Mid-December 1917.
[17] Virginia Woolf, June 5, 1927.
[18] Franz Kafka, postmarked November 9, 1922.
[19] Franz Kafka, September 6, 1903.
[20] Edgar Allan. Poe, May 19, 1848.
[21] Virginia Woolf, 52 Tavistock Square, June 18, 1926.
[22] Virginia Woolf, 52 Tavistock Square, January 29, 1929.
[23] Franz Kafka, Prague, August 24, 1902.
[24] Franz Kafka, Plana, postmarked September 11, 1922.
[25] Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, April 4, 1787.
[26] Franz Kafka, Triesch, Middle of August, 1907.
[27] Franz Kafka, Prague, June/July 1914.
[28] Franz Kafka, Prague, February 4, 1902.
[29] Franz Kafka, Prague, November 1917.
[30] Franz Kafka, Spindlermühle, January 31, 1922.
[31] Franz Kafka, Prague, January, 1922.
[32] Mark. Twain, Redding, Connecticut, August 28, 1908.
[33] Mark Twain, Redding, Connecticut, 3:00 a.m., April 17, 1909.
[34] Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, April 4, 1787.
[35] Virginia Woolf, Monk’s House, December 25, 1938.
[36] Edgar Allan. Poe, New York City, December 30,1846.
[37] Franz Kafka, Zürau, September 22, 1917.
[38] Franz Kafka, Prague, Early October, 1907.
[39] Franz Kafka, Prague, June 5, 1913.
[40] Franz Kafka, 1921.
[41] Edgar Allan. Poe, New York City, May 19, 1848.
[42] Franz Kafka. Kafka, January 10, 1904.
[43] Ludwig van Beethoven, Vienna, November 16, 1801.
[44] Edgar Allan Poe, New York City, May 19, 1848.

Lars Straehler-Pohl is a writer and musician based in Berlin, Germany. The centerpiece of his interdisciplinary work is the perception of presence. He holds a degree in philosophy, psychology and history from the Freie Universität Berlin and was simultaneously educated in Orchestral Conducting and Design Thinking. As a conductor, he has a strong interest in contemporary music and the recovery of forgotten, banned and lost compositions. He re-orchestrated Albéric Magnard‘s opera “Yolande”, which burned with its composer in 1914. The focus of his academic publications and teaching is on aesthetics. In his audio-visual works, he experiments on how a one-time impression can become a long-term memory.

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