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Why the Benevolent God Wants There to Be Poor People

Why the benevolent God wants there to be poor people

As translated by Stefan White

The foregoing story had so circulated so widely that the good teacher moped in rilke-in-russia_photothe streets with a very offended expression. I can understand that. It is always dreadful for a teacher when the children suddenly know something which he has not told them. The teacher must be – so to say – the only hole in the picket through which one can see into the orchard. If there are other holes there, then the children jostle in front of a different one every day and will soon tire of the view. I wouldn’t have mentioned this analogy here, as perhaps not every teacher would agree to being a hole; but the teacher of whom I speak, my neighbor, first heard this analogy from me and moreover considered it extremely appropriate. And, should someone harbor another opinion, the authority of my neighbor is definitive for me.

He stood before me, fidgeted constantly with his spectacles and said: “I don’t know who told the children this story, but in any case it is improper to overload and strain their imagination with such extraordinary ideas. We’re dealing here with some kind of a fairy tale…”

“I happen to have heard it,” I interrupted him. (I wasn’t lying, as since that evening the lady next door really did repeat it to me).

“So,” replied the teacher, finding that easily explicable. “And what do you think of it?”

I hesitated, and he also continued very quickly: “To start with, I find it wrong to use religious and, in particular, biblical material freely and without authority. In any case, it couldn’t possibly be better expressed than the way in which it is laid out in the Catechism…”

I wanted to mention something, but at the last moment remembered that the good teacher had used “To start with,” so that now, grammatically and for the health of the sentence, a “then” and maybe even an “and finally” must follow before I could allow myself to add anything. And so it was. As the good teacher also communicated this sentence (whose impeccable structure would bring joy to any connoisseur) to others who would be no more likely to forget it than I, I only want to convey what came, like the finale of an overture, after that beautiful preparatory phrase “and finally”. “And finally… (setting aside the very fantastic composition) the content seemed to me nowhere near sufficiently scrutinised and not to have taken all aspects into consideration. If I had time to write stories…”

I couldn’t refrain from interrupting him: “You find something lacking in the narration?”

“Yes, I miss a great deal. From a literary-critical standpoint, so to speak. If I may address you as a colleague…”

I didn’t understand what he meant and replied modestly: “You are too kind, but I have never had a teaching position…”

Suddenly something occurred to me and I broke off, and he continued somewhat coolly: “For instance, it is not reasonable to believe that God (if one is really prepared to delve so deeply into the meaning of the story), that God, well – I say – that God never made a further attempt to see a person as he is, I mean…”

Now I believed I had to propitiate the good teacher again. I bowed a little and began: “It is generally known that you have made a thorough (and, if one may say so, not without finding an approving echo) study of the social question.” The good teacher smiled. “Now, then I may assume that what I contemplate relating is not completely removed from your interest, in particular as it enables me to dovetail into your last, very astute remark.”

He looked at me astounded: “You don’t mean that God…”

“Indeed,” I confirmed. “God is just at the point of making another attempt.”

“Really?” the teacher confronted me, “are the authorities aware of that?”

“I can’t say exactly”, I replied regretfully, “I have no contact with those circles, but if you’d like to hear my story nevertheless?”

“You would be doing me a great favor.” The teacher removed his spectacles and carefully cleaned the lenses leaving his exposed eyes ashamed.

I began: “Once the benevolent God looked down into a large city. As his eyes tired of the confusion (to which the networks of electrical wires made no small contribution), he decided to confine his gaze for a while to a single, tall apartment house, as this was much less exhausting. At the same time, he remembered his old wish to see a living person, and for this purpose his gaze dived into the windows of each story, rising up from the ground. The people on the first story (it was a rich merchant and his family) were almost just clothes. Not only were all parts of their bodies covered with expensive materials, the silhouettes of these clothes in many places indicated such a shape that one could see that there couldn’t be any body underneath. On the second story it wasn’t much better. The people living on the third story had considerably less on, but were so dirty that the benevolent God only recognized gray furrows and, in his grace, was prepared to command that they might become fertile. Finally, under the roof, in a slanting garret, the benevolent God found a man in a shabby jacket occupied with kneading clay. ‘Oho, where do you have that from?’ he called to him. Without even removing the pipe from his mouth, the man growled: ‘The devil knows where. I wanted to be a shoemaker. Here I sit and slave away…’ And whatever else the benevolent God might ask, the man was in a bad mood and offered no further answer – until one day he received a large letter from the mayor of that city. Then he confessed, unasked, everything to the benevolent God. For a very long time he had received no commission. Now, suddenly, he was to make a statue for the public park, and it should be titled: ‘Truth.’ The artist worked day and night in a distant studio and various old memories came to the benevolent God as he observed him. If he wasn’t still angry with his hands, he would also certainly have begun creating something again. But when the day came on which the sculpted column called Truth was to be carried out to its place in the garden, where God could also have seen it in its perfection, a huge scandal ensued as a commission of city fathers, teachers and other influential personalities demanded that the figure must first be partly clothed before the public should catch a glimpse of it. The benevolent God didn’t understand why, so loudly did the sculptor curse. City fathers, teachers and the others have forced him to this sin and the benevolent God will surely…My, but you are coughing terribly!”

“It will pass,” said the teacher with a perfectly clear voice.

“So, I only have a little more to relate. The benevolent God let the apartment house and public park go and wanted to retract his gaze completely, just as one withdraws a fishing pole from water, with a jerk to see if anything has bitten. This time something actually hung there. A very tiny little house with several people in it, all of whom had very little on, as they were very poor. ‘So that’s it…,’ thought the benevolent God, ‘people have to be poor. These here, I believe, are already pretty poor, but I’ll make them so poor that they don’t even have a shirt to put on.’ That was the benevolent God’s intention.”

I made a full stop here in my speech to indicate that I’d reached the end. The good teacher wasn’t satisfied with that; he found this story just as incomplete and inadequately well-rounded as the previous one.

“Yes,” I apologized, “a poet must come to invent a fantastic ending to this story, as in fact it has no end yet.”

“How so?” replied the good teacher, looking at me with an expectant expression.

“But, my dear sir,” I reminded him, “How forgetful you are! Are you not yourself a director of our local charity association…”

“Yes, I’ve been that for about ten years and…”

“That’s it: you and your association have been preventing the benevolent God for a very long time from fulfilling his objective. You clothe the people…”

“But, please,” said the teacher modestly, “that is simply charity. That is surely agreeable to God in the highest degree.”

“Are those in influential positions completely convinced of that?” I asked innocently.

“Of course we are. Specifically, in my capacity as board member of the charity association many commendations have reached my ears. In all confidence, at the next promotions they also wish my function in this fashion…do you understand?” The good teacher blushed bashfully.

“I wish you all the best,” I replied. We shook hands and the good teacher strode away with such proud, measured steps that I’m convinced: he was late for school. As I later learnt, the children did become acquainted with a part of this story (insofar as it was appropriate for them). Would the good teacher have constructed an end to it?