When I first started writing, I became fascinated by German Romanticism, the art and literature. I discovered the brilliantly strange writer ETA Hofman, but also the warm, down to earth writings of Johan Peter Hebel (1760-1826), a teacher and pastor from Baden. Among his fans were Tolstoy and Kafka. One of my all time favourite books is the collection of his writings in ‘The Treasure Chest’, full of commonsense, folk wisdom and friendly advice.
Whenever people complain about how evil religion and the church can be, I think of people like Hebel, the product of an eduction based on one of the best written books ever – the Bible. Like it or not, the stories in the Bible are well structured and full of moral lessons that have long shaped our history. In fact, the English language is, probably more than any other, based on and evolved within the early church. Many people learnt their native language by reading it, but also how to behave as citizens.
The reading of the Bible, both aloud in church or at home, and as private study, was also a strong unifying thread running through our culture and has given us the wealth of metaphors and similies that we are no longer aware of, but form the bedrock of what comes out of our mouths and fingers every day.
This is one of Hebel’s short stories which I think is absolutely brilliant, and should be provided free on the NHS as a treatment for many of our modern maladies.
Despite having bags of money, rich people sometimes still have to put up with all kinds of trials and illnesses which, thank God, are completely unknown to the poor man. There are illnesses, which lurk, not in the air, but in filled plates and glasses, and in easy chairs and satin beds.
A particular rich man in Amsterdam could tell yo a thing or two about that! He’d spend all morning in his armchair smoking tobacco, provided he wasn’t to lazy to fill his pipe, or stand taking in the view from his window, but then at midday he’d eat like a peasant back from the fields, and sometimes said, “Is that a wind coming up or is it the neighbour snoring?”
All afternoon he ate and drank too, a cold slice perhaps, and then something hot, not because he was hungry or had a craving for anything but just to while away the time till evening, so that you couldn’t really tell when his midday meal finished and he sat down to supper. After supper, he slumped in his bed, weary as if he’d been shifting stones or chopping logs all day.
In the fullness of time his body became fat and as lumpy as a sack of corn. Eating and sleeping were tribulations, and for a time, as often happens, he was neither very well nor very ill. If you’d spoken to him in person though, he would have told you he had 365 illnesses, a different one for every day of the year. ll the doctors of Amsterdam were called upon to treat him. He swallowed whole firebuckets full of mixtures, powders by the shovelful and pills as big as quail’s eggs, and he was known to all and sundry as the chemists-shop-on-two-legs.
But nothing the doctors prescribed for him helped, since he didn’t follow their prescriptions, but said, “Damn it all, what’s the good of being a rich man if I have to live a dog’s life, and all my money can’t pay for a doctor who’ll make me better?”
Eventually he heard about a doctor who lived in the countryside, a hundred hours away by foot: he was said to be so adept that his patients got well as soon as he looked them in the face, and even Death slunk out of his way whenever he turned up. And so this rich man pinned his hopes on this doctor and wrote to him describing his condition.
It wasn’t long before this doctor saw what the problem was, not one of medicines but of moderation and exercise, and said to himself, “Patience, I’ll soon have you cured.” So he sent him a letter which read as follows: “My friend, you are indeed in bad shape, but you can still be helped if you do as I say. You have a nasty creature in your stomach, a lindworm with seven mouths. I must deal with this lindworm personally, for which you’ll have to visit me. But first, don’t come by coach or on horseback but on leather soles, otherwise you’ll disturb the lindworm, and it’ll bite through your innards, and cut to shreds all seven parts of your intestines. Second, eat no more than a plate of vegetables twice a day, with a sausage at midday and an egg in the evening, and a bowl of broth sprinkled with chives in the morning. Anything more than that will only make the lindworm grown bigger so that it’ll crush your live, and then it won’t be your tailor who takes your measurements, but the undertaker. That’s my advice, and if you don’t heed it you won’t hear the cuckoo next spring! But it’s your decision!”
The very next morning, as soon as he had read the letter, the patient had his boots waxed and set out on his way, as the doctor had recommended. ON the first day he made such slow progress that even a snail could have been his advance runner, and he snubbed those who greeted him on the way and trod on every tiny creature that crawled in his path. But already on the second and third morning he had the impression that the birds were singing more sweetly than they had for many a day, and he thought the dew so fresh and the poppies in the fields so red, and everyone he met on his path seemed so friendly, and so was he. And each morning when he set out from his lodgings the world was lovelier, and he walked more easily and brightly.
On the 18th day he reached the doctor’s town, and when he got up the next day he felt so well that he said, “I couldn’t have got better at a worse time, just when I’m about to see the doctor!” If only my ears were ringing a little, or if I had a touch of dropsy!”
When he went in to see the doctor, the doctor took him by the hand, and said to him, “Now then, tell me again from the beginning, what the matter is.”
He replied, “Doctor, nothing is wrong with me, praise the Lord, and I only hope your health is as good as mine.”
The doctor said, “I see a good spirit told you to follow my advice. The lindworm has gone. But its eggs are still inside you, and that’s why you must go back home on foot, and when you’re back you must saw lots of wood where nobody can see you, and eat only as much as satisfies your hunger so that the eggs don’t hatch out; and you may well live to be a ripe old age.” And he smiled.
And the rich man from the city said, “Doctor, you’re an odd chap, but I get your meanting. ” Thereupon he followed his advice and lived to be 87 years, 4 months and 10 days, as fit as a fiddle, and every New Year sent the doctor 20 dubloons and his best regards.