Walter Serner’s Letzte Lockerung (hard to translate: last loosening? final loosening?) was one of the guidebooks of my teenage years. It billed itself as a guide to conmanship, and contains several hundred themed aphorisms and directives on how to live life with a certain kind of haute grifter style. It is imbued with a 1920s disdain of the established order and a familiarity with a borderless demimonde that entirely disappeared in WW2.
Serner was born in Carlsbad in 1989, at the intersection of many different cultures. Born Walter Seligmann he converted to Catholicism at age 20. He became involved with the Dada movement, then wrote a series of novels set in the criminal half world of the 1920s.
Die Letzte Lockerung offered up a way of living life one step removed, with a cool detachment, in another order, that only vaguely intersected with any kind of painful reality. Like other such texts it was a form of self-anesthesia in response to the barbaric slaughter of World War One. Life, passion, emotion, commitment, sentimentality were no longer to be trusted. It treated life like Brechtian theater does, a suspicious facade, prone to collapsing at any moment.
Cool detachment had protective powers in those strange years but, like so many other strategies, crumbled in 1933.
Persecuted in the 1930s – being Jewish, insolent and a writer – Serner moved to Prague. In 1942 the forces of evil and stupidity caught up with him. He was deported from Prague to Theresienstadt on 10th of August1942. He was then deported with his wife Dorothea Herz on transport Bb, Train Da 402 to Riga on 20th of August, 1942. He was finally transported to and murdered in the Maly Trostenets camp near Minsk.
No English translations exist, as far as I can tell. To give the reader an idea of these instructions, I’ve translated a random few of the full 590.They cover a number of categories and come with instructions on what to order while reading (eggs Florentine, pineapple with kirsch etc).
1. Fundamentally, there are neither masters nor slaves. Everyone is a slave to their abilities and temperament. Always be aware of this and you will have no difficulty directing yourself and others.
2. If you are not feeling well, try to conceal it. However, if you are feeling well, hatred and envy will grow around you. That’s why you should affect a lung or kidney disorder and buy a burial plot. All animosity will disappear.
3. Vis a vis the powerful, who do not care about your riches beyond wanting to tax them, play tired. The tired are seen as harmless.
4. Always pretend to take life seriously. The wise – if they believe you – will believe you to be trustworthy; and if they don’t believe you, for wise.
5. As long as you are suspicious about yourself, you are sentimental.
8. In the not-so-easy-to-avoid hours in which the yearning for some kind of inner stability overwhelms you and a deep self-disgust makes you more lucidly aware than usual of the catastrophe of your situation, the torturous awareness of the Giant Nothing: drink two cups of hot chocolate, take one aspirin and go to bed. (These hours would have been easily avoided by better sleep or the avoidance of exhaustion, which both create the predisposition for such inner backsliding).
19. Never dramatize, always simplify.
33. The best way to save your own life often is to be a coward. Only be courageous if it is worth it; and remind yourself that courage is nothing but the cursed tendency to want to put up a fight when you’re in inferior shape or outnumbered.
44. When overtaken by a feeling of uncontrollable anger, do something immediately. If there is nothing else within reach, explain the power of the moonlight to a six year old girl.
89. If someone eats frankfurters with sauerkraut at 10 in the morning, you can’t expect to ever hear anything smart from him.
115. It’s bearable everywhere. But it’s most bearable abroad.
122. Large provincial capitals are particularly suitable fields of operation. The lack of diversions and the absence of the distractions of large cities will make your charm and tricks particularly effective.
234. If you find yourself running out of material for conversation, talk about suburban bars, factory neighborhoods, sleeping under bridges. Much that is relatively banal and ordinary becomes interesting when talked about (or written about).
289. Never defend yourself. Merely tire.
310. Never sing or whistle. Not even when you are alone. It works like damaging auto-suggestion.
316. Avoid any kind of pastry, white bread, dishes made with flour, tea, beer and all kinds of beans. Eat only a little meat (never fat), but eat plenty of fruit, salads and green vegetables. Breathe deeply often, bathe only twice a week (ten minutes, lukewarm) and miss a meal every four days. Limit yourself to two cups of good coffee, four glasses of wine and eight cigarettes or three cigars a day.
320. Excess is necessary once in a while. After two months of living with regularity, your body is fed up. Give it a short, but intense storm.