The Dancer and the Body

More than a hundred years after its first publication in German, NYRB Editions has released the collection “Bright Magic: Stories”—edited and translated by Damien Searls and with an introduction by Günter Grass—which allows us to read Alfred Döblin’s early expressionistic work along with some later fables and “incomprehensible stories”. One of its entries “The Ballerina and the Body” (“Die Tänzerin und der Leib”) was first published in the journal Sturm in 1910. It comes below in an alternative English version prepared by me for a British doctor’s monthly in 2009.


The Dancer and the Body


At age eleven she was destined to be a ballet dancer. With her propensity for twisting her limbs and pulling faces and with her singular temperament, she seemed admirably suited for this vocation. Until then her every step had been awkward; now she learned how to train her elastic ligaments and her double joints; she insinuated herself, cautiously and patiently, further and further, into her toes, her ankles, her knees, greedily ambushed the slender shoulders and bend of her thin arms, lurked over the play of her disciplined body. She managed to waft a chill over the most voluptuous dance.


At eighteen her figure was a bare trace, as light as silk, her eyes dark and oversized. Her face was sharp in profile and long, like a boy’s. Unseductive and unmusical, her voice was a shrill staccato; and she walked briskly, impatiently. She lacked affection, threw an unpitying gaze on her untalented colleagues and got bored stiff with their complaints.

A wasting disease affected her at nineteen. Fringed by a blue-black chignon her face took on a China-doll look. Her limbs grew heavy, but she continued to train. When she was alone, she stamped her foot on the ground, threatened her body and struggled with it. She spoke to nobody about her weakness. She gritted her teeth in the face of this stupid, childish thing she had just learned to overcome.

When Ella bit her lips in pain, her mother threw herself onto the sofa and wept for hours. After a week, the old woman made up her mind and told her daughter, while looking at the floor, that she had to put a stop to this and go to hospital. Ella made no reply, and simply shot a hateful look at the wrinkled, hopeless face.

The next day she went to the hospital. In the carriage she sobbed beneath her blanket for rage. She could have spat at her body, so bitter was her scorn for its suffering; she was disgusted by the nauseating flesh to whose company she was condemned. She opened her eyes with a kind of mute fear and touched the limbs that no longer belonged to her. She was powerless, she was utterly powerless. They clattered over the cobblestones of the courtyard. The hospital gates closed behind her. She was aghast to see doctors and patients. The nurses lifted her gently into bed.

Then the dancer lost her tongue. She could no longer hear her own voice’s commanding tone. Everything happened without her will. They paid attention to every manifestation of her body, treated it with excessive seriousness. Daily, almost hourly, they asked the dancer how her body was faring and wrote it all carefully down in documents: at first she was indignant and then she became more and more astonished by it. Soon she entered a state of black fear and groundlessness; her body filled her with horror. She didn’t dare touch it or even cleanse it; she stared at her arms and breasts, and shuddered when she inspected herself in the mirror. Her mouth swallowed the medicine that she gave it to drink. She followed the bitter drops as they trickled down her throat and wondered what her body made of them, this childish body, this dark master. She became as small as a fly; at night the fear of death stood behind her bed. Her eyes peering into blank horror were out on stalks. The sarcastic girl with the boyish face became pious and prayed at dusk with the nurses. Her mother was alarmed when she visited her daughter: her child had never been so dejected, so needy. “We are all in God’s hands,” said the mother to comfort the broken creature who clutched at her sleeve. “Yes,” whispered the dancer, “we are all in God’s hands.”


The regular activity around her calmed her again, and her fright disappeared as quickly as it had come. Her aversion to the other patients in the ward flared up. And the indignation stood out on her sharp features that they should pay respect to this corrupt and corruptible thing while she was treated as if she were already dead. This was an affront to her imperious self. So she imprisoned her body, locked it in chains. Now it was her body, her property, over which only she had claim. She lived in this house; they ought to leave her house in peace. Every day they tapped her chest with hammers and eavesdropped on her heart’s conversation. They even drew her heart on her chest, so that everybody could see it; and dragged into the light what had hidden within it. Yes, they robbed her of everything. With every question they took a bit of her away with them. They infiltrated her with poisons that were subtler than needles and probes; came at her with every trick in the book, drove her back into her bolthole. They robbed her of everything, the thieves, so it was no surprise to her that every day she felt weaker and just lay there, deathly pale. Then she became embittered and resisted. She lied to the doctors, refused to answer their questions, and even kept quiet about her pain. And when they came to ask her yet more questions, she went all rigid in bed, pushed the nurses away, and even laughed in a sudden blaze of hatred in the face of the doctors, who shook their heads. She shot them a sarcastic grimace.

But she couldn’t maintain this frantic bravado for very long. Daily, without respite, the white coats went through the ward, percussing the patients, writing everything down. Daily, hourly, the nurses brought food and remedies: these made the dancer weaker. She resigned herself again to the game, and with a sour disdain let them do to her what they wanted. It was no business of her what happened. A childish being lay there, and it was the source of her misery: why bother fighting on its behalf, what part of its dignity could she rightfully envy? She lay listless on her bed. The body was lying beneath her again, a piece of flesh; she paid no attention to its suffering. At night when it throbbed and tormented her, she said to it: “Be quiet until they do their rounds tomorrow; tell it to the doctors, your precious doctors, but leave me alone.” They ran separate households; the body could come to its own arrangements with the doctors. “It will soon be taken down in writing.” The burden of speaking was no longer hers.

Often she found herself smiling in commiseration with the stupid sick child lying in her bed. Calmly and conscientiously she recounted the source of its suffering. With indifference and a trace of mockery she observed the doctors, and noticed ironically that their efforts were having no effect. A tenseness, a hilarity came over her again, along with a fierce and uncontrollably malicious glee at the ineptitude of the doctors and the deterioration of the body. She pressed her mouth into the pillow to smother her bout of laughter: the old mockery and coldness had returned.


At midday, when soldiers paraded past the hospital with their sonorous march music, the dancer sat up abruptly in her bed, eyes shining, lips pressed shut, completely doubled over. After a while a sharp but discreet voice called the nurse over to the bed. The dancer wanted to sew and needed silk and canvas. With a crayon she dashed off a strange picture on the white cloth. There were three figures: a round misshapen body on two legs, without arms or head, nothing more than a fat ball with two legs. Beside him stood a large meek man with giant spectacles who caressed this body with a thermometer. But while he gave his full attention to looking after the body, on his other side a little girl jumped around barefoot, thumbing her nose at him with the left hand while stabbing a pair of sharp scissors into the body with the right hand from beneath, so that it leaked out in a thick spurt like a punctured barrel.

The dancer crudely embroidered the picture in red threads and laughed out loud to herself from time to time.

She wanted to dance again, to dance!

Like long before, she wanted to feel her will in action—when her taut body had moved like a flame and her mastery wafted a chill over the voluptuousness of her dancing. She wanted to dance a waltz, a marvellously suave waltz, with the one who had become her master: her body. With a movement of her will she could once more catch him by the hands—this body, this indolent animal, and throw him down, turn him around: he was no longer her master. A triumphant hate rose up within her; they weren’t going to move, he to the right and she to the left, but both together—they were doing a soubresaut together. She wanted to roll this barrel, this limping manikin, along the floor, to spin him head over heels, to stuff his mouth with sand.

She called for the doctor in a voice all of a sudden become hoarser. Bent double, she looked up at his face, and saw the look of astonishment when he caught sight of her embroidery. Then she said to him quite calmly: “You—you jerk,—you jerk, you wet blanket.” And throwing off the covers, she stabbed the sewing scissors into her left breast. A piercing shriek froze somewhere in a corner of the ward. Even in death, the dancer’s mouth still bore a cold, contemptuous expression.


Translation © Iain Bamforth, 2009 (first published in British Journal of General Practice)


A brief note on Alfred Döblin

Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) was one of the major representatives of the generation of great German writers that came to maturity during the First World War and found itself removed from the source of its inspiration by the Second. His life and works reflect the extraordinary disarray and creativity of those times. While continuing his medical studies in Berlin and Freiburg, he distinguished himself with his work for the stage and his short stories for the journal Sturm (in which “The Dancer and the Body” was first published in 1910), one of the broadsheets of German Expressionism. These stories were published a few years later in a collection with the title Die Ermordung einer Butterblume (The Murder of a Buttercup).

Döblin came into his own as a writer while working as a neurologist-psychiatrist in the Berlin public hospital system (his MD thesis had been on Korsakoff’s syndrome) and as an army doctor during the war. With his novel Die drei Sprünge des Wang-lun (The Three Leaps of Wang-lun, also published by NYRB Editions) he developed what he called a new “epic” style in which he examined social movements and upheavals. He was surely exaggerating, if only slightly, when he told Martin Buber in 1915, “I never have a conscious intention. I always write completely involuntarily, and that’s not just a turn of phrase.” He was certainly a remarkably prolific writer. Wallenstein, a historical novel set during the Thirty Years War, appeared in 1920. This was followed by a dystopian science-fiction work, Berge, Meere und Giganten (Mountains, Seas and Giants), in which a future society struggles with a rampant technology in a manner reminiscent of the film Bladerunner; but it was his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) which consolidated his reputation with the reading public. Throughout his writing life, Döblin experimented with form. Having already been one of the first writers to adopt the free indirect style, in Berlin Alexanderplatz he developed a form of montage, in which a “village chorus” sounds out around the circumstances of his simple but not unsympathetic main character Franz Biberkopf, an ex-con trying to make good in a coldly manipulative world. The village chorus includes the narrator himself, in ironic overdub. Montage has its origins in the conviction that the traditional novel, with its focus on the individual psyche, cannot do just to the nature of experience in a modern city. Although the mass media were in their infancy, Döblin was astute in allowing newspaper headlines, popular songs, emblems and even advertisements to impinge on his narrative. It is a technique which has been replicated hundreds of times afterwards, but critics of the period, including Walter Benjamin, were quick to recognise it as a major formal achievement. Berlin Alexanderplatz is a city novel that bears comparison with Joyce’s Ulysses and Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer. It owes its fascination essentially to the way it is told—what some critics have called “Kinostil”.

Berlin was Döblin’s home, his window on the world. He admitted in an autobiographical sketch that he was “a Berliner with vague notions of other cities and regions.” When the Nazis seized power in 1933, he fled with his family to Paris via Switzerland. Although the French gave him citizenship in 1936, he was never entirely at ease outside of his archetypal metropolis. His eldest son Wolfgang (Vincent), who committed suicide during his military service in the French Army in 1940, turned out to be a brilliant mathematician; although his parents and younger brothers, who had since fled to Los Angeles, only discovered his fate at the end of the war. Like other German writers (Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht), Döblin ended up in Hollywood. A year later he converted to Catholicism, and returned to Europe in 1945, working for the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs. His later novels included a massive tetralogy, November 1918, which examines the failed revolution in Germany in the closing months of the First World War. He died of Parkinson’s disease in 1957, and is buried with his wife in Housseras, the same village in the Vosges where his son Wolfgang was buried in 1940. His collected work comprises 17 novels, and a host of smaller pieces.

Perhaps his strongest supporter in the post-war period has been Günter Grass, who has gone on record as saying that “without the Futurist elements of Döblin’s work from Wang Lun to Berlin Alexanderplatz, my prose is inconceivable.” Outside of specialist circles, however, it is Berlin Alexanderplatz for which Döblin is almost exclusively known. It was filmed, in an extraordinary faithful rendition by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who in 1980 adopted it for German television in thirteen parts (15 hours), and promptly declared it his masterpiece. Although Döblin himself regarded all his works—which range from the jungles of the Amazon to the rivers of China, and extend chronologically from the seventeenth to the twenty-seventh century—as interrelated and taking up questions left unanswered by their predecessors, there is no doubt that having the city as protagonist in Berlin Alexanderplatz helped to impose a framework on his teeming, tropical, almost hypertrophic imagination. The novel is a rare celebration of the exuberance and misery of the modern metropolis that is still very much worth reading.


A brief note on “The Dancer and the Body”

Dualism seems to have been part of his Döblin’s nature. In an amusing early “interview” My Double, he divides himself into “Döblin the neurologist,” a harassed clinician who has no time to read books, and “Döblin the writer” who positively fawns on his association with the neurologist with the same name. It is a humorous way of telling the reader that the homo urbanus who was beginning to become known for his left-leaning novels into the sordid reality of the big city, with all its temptations and dangers, is not necessarily the same man who works on the public wards in the morning. Even his novels exhibit a kind of dualism, shifting away from Europe to examine alien tracts of geography and history, only to return to Berlin as a default theme. Döblin’s humanity derives from the fact that he is a writer uneasy both with his role in society, and with the way that humans in general are treated in that same society. Although he called his working method “Naturalismus,” the same term Zola used to describe his naively positivistic world-view in his novels, he was much more sceptical than the earlier writer. Döblin was a scientist and physician but he doubted whether the application of science would solve all the dilemmas of human life. This scepticism would deepen as he aged.

“The Dancer and the Body” comes from the early period of Döblin’s creative life, when he was most consciously avant-garde and even Futurist in his approach to writing fiction. It is a brief, matter-of-fact description of an exitus, in which a young girl on the verge of adulthood loses control over a body she has honed to a high degree of expressiveness: she is a virtuoso, of a highly technical kind. Döblin has chosen a theme that was a staple of the literature at the end of the nineteenth-century: the consumptive woman. In fact, his child-woman’s illness is very sketchily described, although it appears to be a classic case of tuberculosis. Ella, whose artistry emerges solely from her will-power, seems to lack not just sensuousness—“She managed to waft a chill over the most voluptuous dance”—but also fellow-feeling. Once hospitalised, she and her body embark on a monumental struggle before dissociating completely to run “separate households.” Her moods fluctuate from childish helplessness, through fear and dread, to frank revulsion at the medical staff and other patients around her. In spite of the absolutely dispassionate (“clinical”) narrative stance, which to some degree mirrors Ella’s own distance from her fate, her plight and desperation are obvious. She is primitive panic reinstalled as modernistic nervous frenzy. The “dark master” asserts its prerogatives until Ella, already unbalanced, orders needle and thread, and embroiders a cloth with the situation as she perceives it symbolically. But far from reconciling body and mind, it is her last attempt to restore the terms of the old power-relationship: she wants to dance “a marvellously suave waltz with the one who had become her master.” She however intends to be the leading partner. Calling for one of the hapless medical staff, she kills herself in his presence with the scissors. The story ends on what could almost be taken as a model phrase from a manual of Expressionist writing techniques: “A piercing shriek froze somewhere in the corner of the ward.”

There is a final dualistic irony in the fact that the ailing body described in this story is that of a dancer, for it was precisely in the first decade of the 1900s that dancing, as epitomised by Isadora Duncan and Nijinsky, became an image of liberation. Dance was a cult. Against the hammering repetitiveness of the machine stood the figure of the body as pure form: Duncan owed much of her fame to the fact that her body appeared to think for itself in what was called “the fully plastic art of the human body,” liberating women from their stifling bondage to nineteenth-century clothes. Ella, however, is fated never to become a dancer or a sexual being (which would have been incompatible with her kind of dancing); and Döblin would have shocked his contemporary public by portraying her as refusing to be ennobled by her suffering. Perhaps this dancer’s closest relatives are to be found in the canvases of Döblin’s contemporary, the Viennese artist Egon Schiele, who before his death in the 1918 flu epidemic painted many self-absorbed figures whose wracked bodies suggest, as mercilessly as Döblin’s story, how the body betrays the mind that pretends to own it.


© Iain Bamforth


Further reading

Alfred Döblin, Die Ermordung einer Butterblume, Sämtliche Erzählungen. Walter Verlag, 2001.

Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf, translated by Eugene Jolas. Continuum, 2002.

David B. Dollenmayer, The Berlin Novels of Alfred Döblin, University of California Press, 1992.

“Alfred Döblin, My Double,” in The Body in the Library, ed. Iain Bamforth. Verso, 2003.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, director. Berlin Alexanderplatz. Criterion collection, 7 remastered DVDs with subtitles, 2007.


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