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30. September 2002
Chess is nonsense is chess – Christian Morgenstern’s "Das große Lalula”


Das große Lalula

Kroklokwafzi? Semememi!
Seiokrontro - prafriplo:
Bifzi, bafzi; hulalemi:
quasti basti bo...
Lalu lalu lalu lalu la!

Hontraruru miromente
zasku zes rü rü?
Entepente, Leiolente
klekwapufzi lü?
Lalu lalu lalu lalu la!

Simarar kos malzipempu
silzuzankunkrei (;)!
Marjomar dos: Quempu Lempu
Siri Suri Sei []
Lalu lalu lalu lalu la!


The Big Lalula (Das große Lalula) was and is still something of a puzzle. In order to characterize it, there are at least three traditions which might be born in mind:

- the Baudelaire/Rimbaud/Mallarmè "line", which for the sake of simplicity we might call "modern lyricism"
- the Lear/Carroll line - the so-called "nonsense verse"
- the magical, mystical, mantic line, which includes children's talk.

The Big Lalula is one of Christian Morgenstern's most important and popular poems. It gained, like many others of his "Galgenlieder” (Songs from the Gallows), an essential place in the German lyrical canon. He wrote it, as he did most of his best lyrics, during his early period, which was influenced by Nietzsche. Subsequently his writings assumed an increasingly religious aspect, thereby losing their experimental character. Morgenstern cannot be compared with Rilke, Trakl, Benn or Celan – his vocabulary is much more limited and his poetry does not wrestle with the inexpressible; in short: Morgenstern was not a genius - but he was ingenious.

The search for a new mode of expression is common to all of the above three traditions, whose topoi and motive could be summarized as follows:

- The old/new language is essentially all about sound. From a poetic standpoint it is the ideal language (of Paradise and the Promised Land) where the aesthetic of sound is the main concern. Sense becomes secondary. It is a freeing response to – as Derrida called it later – logocentrism.
- The new language seeks to express the essence of things. The absolute word is identical to the expressed thing itself, the separation of significant and significat is abolished. Things are only existent when we name them. Non existent things can now become reality in the regime of the new language.
- The new language is old. The old language is new.
- The new/old language is related to children’s talk. It is on the one hand authentic, original, unspoilt and undistorted but on the other, it is that which is long forgotten.
- The new/old language destroys and deconstructs traditional structures of language, whose history shows how unsuited it is for the expression of transcendence. It is likely that our contemporary language still contains remnants of its origins, despite the fact that it would then have sounded quite different.

Now, the Big Lalula might mean all this, but Morgenstern itself gave a curious explanation, when he discussed his own work. With it he violated an old and basic rule for poets: never explain your own words! It always comes down to the sentence: "I intended to say…” and then we have to ask: "Then why didn’t you say it?” With this in mind we have to be careful with his explanation; sensible as Morgenstern was, it all could just be a hoax, misleading one on purpose. He says:

"Anyone who is a chess player will recognize the Lalula-song as a chess endgame.”


Indeed Morgenstern was a chess player, he liked the game ever since his childhood, and played it regularly, he even met his later wife through chess and he wrote some poems about chess, such as for instance the Chess Sonnet (Schachsonett), but to read the Lalula as an endgame proves really difficult, despite the fact that he gave a precise explanation. It sounds like:

"Kroklokwafzi = King a 5 = (white) King a5. The question mark means: could the king have an even better position on another square?
Semememi = Ne1 (Se1, the German "Springer”). The exclamation mark means: strong position.
Bifzi, bafzi = Pawn (German: Bauer) f 2 and Pawn b2


And so on. He concludes his "explanation” with the mysterious and esoteric word: sapienti sat.


Copyright © 2002 by Christian Hörr