Reading Robert Walser’s “The Battle of Sempach”

Robert Walser’s short story “The Battle of Sempach” was written in 1908 about a Swiss rebellion in 1386 and addresses the collision course of history pertinent even today in 2011.

It begins on a day not like today for many of us: an oppressively hot day. Dusty, there; perhaps merely feeling and tasting of dust, here. A day made of or even for death, the question hanging of whose. Theirs, the noblemen of money & class whose imposition on the lives of others is assumed as a given? or those to whom they so indolently impose themselves? There is a war, but they, the nobleman are not wont to regard it as such.

Hasty sips of wine were taken, roast fowl consumed and the inedible bits spat out with a leisurely, light-hearted ease; after all, it wasn’t some serious, chivlarous war they were off to, but rather to inflict punishment, rape, commit bloody, scornful, theatrical deeds, that’s what each of them thought; and each could already see the mass of lopped-off heads that would bloody the meadow.

They enter the town of Sempach without resistance and quickly grow as bored of its occupation as they were fatuous en route. Until, that is, they are accosted by a sound most unholy:

They had grown somewhat thoughtful; then without warning it began again, horrible, as though the thing had sprouted wings and was riding toward them on the backs of fiery monsters, flaming and shrieking, a long, drawn-out cry: Here we come! It truly seemed as if an underworld were suddenly seized with the desire to break out through the hard earth. The sound was like a black, gaping abyss, and the sun now appeared to be shining from a darkened sky, glaring down more dazzling than ever, but as through from a hell, not the heavens.

The soldiers’ smiling faces are those now borne of fright. “Here we come!” From the heat and the haze screams a horn that does not announce the end of time but rather reveals what was always there, pacified by scenic nature contoured and class divisions accepted, a battlefield.

It is a massacre.

The rushing crowd, apparently full of passion, drew closer. And the knights stood their ground; suddenly they seemed fused together. Iron men held out their lances; . . . lance upon lance stuck out so mindlessly, firm and unyielding–just the thing, you might think, for such an impetuous, raging human breast to impale itself on. Here, an idiotic wall of spikes; there, people half-covered with shirts. Here, the art of war, the most prejudiced there is; there, people seized with helpless rage.

The crowd is made impotent by its own rage; and yet, it is precisely this rage that makes them a crowd. They are half-dressed: their wills outmatched by their wishes; the knights are iron-clad: their wishes already met by their wills. Death for one; scorn for the other.

It takes but the will of one who is without a wish of his own to upset the bloody balance initially achieved. A nameless one throws himself onto as  many lances as possible, seizing them with his breast “as though he couldn’t possible embrace and clasp enough iron spikes to make his destruction complete,” and in so doing, he creates a momentary bridge for his countryman to cross, “this noble thought meant to be stepped on.” The narrator casts this noble thought as “a trick”–an indispensable artifice whereby a nobody pretends to be somebody. “Pitted against art, art becomes indispensable”: by his playing as though a noble figure willed by a noble thought, the violence of nobility is effectively turned against itself. The result is not the cool litany of abuse anticipated above (rape, punishment, etc.)

It is a massacre.

There’ll never be anything to equal the battering with which these  light mountain and valley men, driven and elevated by their fury, now battered their way into the clumsy, despicable wall, smashing and ripping it apart like tigers ripping apart a defenseless herd of cows. . . . Those on horseback were flung down like paper, with a crack like that of a paper bag blown up and burst between one’s hands. . . . Heads were grazed by blows, appeared only grazed, yet proved to be bashed in. Blow followed blow, horses were knocked down, the fighting grew more and more frenzied, more violent, duke was slain; it would have been a miracle had he not been. Those striking accompanied their blows with shrieks, as though this were only right, as though killing alone were not enough, a mere half-measure.

One battle; two massacres, the furious violence of each instigated by the rage of slaves. In the first instance, they prove to be the objects of their own furious violence, out-classed in every way; in the final instance, they become its very instrument. As with the nameless one above who weaponized his own death, a rage made noble is its own weapon, made especially to throttle the noble: “A few shepherds who’d lost their murder weapons attacked their adversaries from below with their heads and napes like wrestlers in the ring, or threw themselves, dodging the blows, upon the necks of the knights and throttled them to death.”

Afterward, time and life moves on. Thanks are given. Dead are buried. People go home. The instruments of battle are put away, but those of rage, they only subside, or slip into the past–the effect we might memorialize in some way, but eventually, over time, we forget.

A great deed cannot obliterate the laborious succession of days. Life doesn’t stand still on the day of a battle, far from it; history alone makes a momentary pause, and then it, too, impelled by imperious life, must rush on.

I’m inclined not to spell out the contemporary or future relevance of Walser’s story. I am allergic to didactic clarity. Suffice it to say, otherwise I would not have written all this, it moves me tremendously & has provoked much thought, and will, I hope, do the same for you.