Work and Life

1920, October 9 - 1991, September 11

“I was born in Stockerau on 4 June 1920 and did not learn anything because I could not deal with it. Then I joined the company Vogel and learned the art of typing.”

This is the very short CV Ernst Herbeck wrote in 1975. At that time, he had already lived as a psychiatric patient in the Lower Austrian state hospital of Gugging near Klosterneuburg for 30 years. Herbeck was born with a cleft of the lip, jaw, and palate, which is why he was only able to speak with a slur and great effort, an impairment that could not be remedied by several operations. “

Nicht jeder Mensch hat einen Mund / mancher Mund ist disqualifiziert /oder operiert.So wie bei mir“ [Not every human being has a mouth / many a mouth is disqualified / or has undergone surgery. Like in my case], is what he wrote in a poem tens of years later.

The son of a civil servant, who was born in Lower Austria in 1920, never arrived at feeling at home with everyday-life speaking and nevertheless he created a one-of-a-kind poetic body of work by virtually reinventing language as the “Not-wendigkeit der Menschen“ [human necessity but also agility in hardship].

Herbeck’s distinctive linguistic creations have fascinated their readers since they were first published in the 1960s, and we could no longer imagine the literary canon of the Germanspeaking world without them due to their poetical idiosyncrasy and forcefulness.

Ernst Herbeck’s Writing Process and His Publications

All his life, Ernst Herbeck only wrote when his doctor, Leo Navratil, invited him to do this and, most of times, was present. He also had to provide the respective titles as inspiration, and he stored the texts which where thus sporadically created over tens of years. From 1960 to his death in 1991, Herbeck wrote about 1,700 poetical notes, initially on postcard-sized cardboards, later mostly on A4 sheets of paper. Today, the autographs are for the most part in the Department of Manuscripts, Autographs and Closed Collections of the Austrian National Library. In 1966, Leo Navratil published a selection of 83 texts written by Ernst Herbeck under the pseudonym of Alexander for the first time—in the book Schizophrenie und Sprache (Schizophrenia and Language), then still as case examples of psychopathological writing. As Navratil said repeatedly, he felt poetically touched already by the very first text his silent patient wrote upon his request, and precisely this poem, Morning, which was written in the early 1960s, became one of Herbeck’s most-quoted texts in later years:


In fall the wind-of-fairies
as in the snow the
manes beat.
Blackbirds whistle afield
in the wind and eat.

(Curator Gisela Steinlechner about Ernst Herbeck)

2015: "ernst herbeck.! i prefer a silent language." exhibition at museum gugging on Ernst Herbeck

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