By Kurt Tucholsky
On the Sixth Day of Creation as God saw what He had done, it was indeed good, but this was because the family had not yet arrived. The early optimism avenged itself and humanity's yearning for paradise may be seen primarily as the burning desire to once, just once, be permitted to live one's life in peace without family. What is family?
The family (familia domestica communis, the common house family) is found in Central Europe in its primitive form, in which condition it usually persists. It consists of a congregation of many persons of different genders who see their main task as sticking their nose into your affairs. When the number of family members exceeds a certain magnitude they are referred to as "relations." The family generally appears balled up in horrible clusters and during times of rebellion would run serious danger of being gunned down, because they always stick together. The family as a rule is a powerful force of revulsion. The family relation is a breeding ground for a disease that is extremely widespread: all members of the guild are constantly taking umbrage at something. That aunt that sat on the famous sofa is a fiction because first of all, an aunt never sits alone, and secondly, she takes umbrage at anything - not only on the sofa: but sitting, standing, lying down and on the subway.
The family knows everything about each other: when little Karl had the measles, how Inge is satisfied with her dressmaker, when Erna will marry the electro technician, and that Jenny, after the final confrontation with her husband, has decided at last to stay married to him. News of this kind propagates from midmorning between eleven and one via the defenseless telephone. The family knows everything, and disapproves of it on principle. Other tribes, of wild Indians, live either on the warpath or smoking the pipe of peace: the family does both at the same time.
The family is extremely exclusive. It knows what the youngest nephew does in his spare time, but if that young man should suddenly have the idea to marry a stranger, watch out! Twenty Lorgnons descend on the poor victim, forty eyes dissect her, twenty noses sniff distrustingly: "Who is that? Is she worthy of this high honor?" The other family does the same. In these cases both parties are usually infused with the idea that they have sunk deeply below their station.
If, however, the family has accepted the stranger into its midst, it then lays the large hand of the clan on his or her shoulder. The new member must now commit sacrifices on the altar of family; no holiday, that does not belong to the family! Everyone curses this, no one actually enjoys doing it - but may God have mercy on the one who refuses! With a deep sigh, they all bend under their bitter yoke. . .
Nevertheless this "sociable get-together" of the family invariably leads to a fight. In the usual manner of interaction one finds those sweet-sour tones best compared to a summer night's mood shortly after a thunderstorm. Which in no way, however, impairs the feeling of coziness. The blessed Herrnfelds had a scene in one of their plays in which a family split terribly into factions staged a wedding party, and after they had all smashed each other's heads in, a prominent member of the family rose and stated in the sweetest tone of voice the world had ever known: "Let's sing a song!" They always sing a song.
One reads in the grand sociology of Georg Simmel that no one can cause as much pain as close members of the caste, because they all know exactly the victim's most sensitive areas. They know each other too well to share a love from the bottom of their hearts, and not well enough to feel affinity.
There is a certain intimacy. A stranger would never dare to press as close into your personal space as your sister-in-law's cousin, by mere virtue of kinship. Were not the relatives of the ancient Greeks their "most dearest"? The youth of today's world use a different name. And suffer under the family. And found one of their own later, then carry on just the same.
No member of a family ever takes another family member seriously. If Goethe had had an old aunt, she would surely have travelled to Weimar to see what the boy was up to, taken a lozenge from her pompadour, and departed thoroughly insulted. Goethe, however, did not have such aunts, but peace and quiet - and that is how "Faust" came into existence. That aunt would have considered it over-the-top.
It is advisable to give the family something on birthdays. There's no great sense to it, by the way; they all trade it in for something else.
There is no possibility whatsoever of escaping the family. My old friend Theobald Tiger may have sung:
Don't get involved with family -
It won't work,
It won't work!
But these verses sprang into being out of a stupendous ignorance of life. One never involves oneself with family - the family does that on its own.
And when the world finally perishes, one may rightly fear to be met in the Great Beyond by a Holy Angel, silently waving a palm leaf, speaking the words : "Tell me - aren't we related - ?" Hurriedly, appalled and broken to the core of the heart, you rush away. To hell.
But that doesn't help you at all. Because that's where the others are, all the others.
Die Weltbühne, 12.01.1923, Nr. 2, p. 53
The German original may be read here.
Note: This translation is a joint effort. It is the result of a request by S.K. who who planned to use the German text at a birthday party, presenting an English translation for the non-German speakers. I thought it would be a fun text to translate and was right. She sent me her own first draft in English. I did my own draft before looking at what she sent, then drew on her choice of words in the many passages where my translation seemed weak and hers seemed great. It was great teamwork. P.S. S.K. and I are not related.