An English-language resource for people interested in Jakob Wassermann.

As a first point of reference, the excellent German website has a wealth of information. It is well worth a visit, even if your German is as poor as mine.

Details about Wassermann's life and work are hard to obtain in English: I hope this helps, in part, to correct that.

Comments, suggestions, and corrections are more than welcome. Contact.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Jakob Wassermann, Columbus, Don Quixote of the Seas

Christoph Columbus: Der Don Quichote Des Ozeans was first published in Germany in 1929. The English edition appeared the following year, translated by Eric Sutton.

Wassermann’s subtitle for the book – ‘Don Quixote of the Seas’ – explains, in part, his choice of subject: Columbus, for him, was as much a dreamer as an explorer, the New World he discovered both a real and an imaginary place. Artists and adventurers have a basic affinity, Wassermann suggests: both venture into the unknown, both strive thereby to test themselves. The desire to gain materially – however strongly it may assert itself at other times – remains, at crucial moments and fundamentally, subservient to the urge to discover. Columbus was driven primarily by an imaginative vision, a monomania that earned him few friends and many enemies. This vision, which enabled him to achieve his goal, was at the same time a form of blindness: he looked on helplessly – perhaps even with indifference - as his New World was ravaged.

The picture Wassermann presents of Columbus is, largely, an unflattering one, yet it is in his subject’s failings that he finds grounds for sympathy. Columbus, for him, is a tragi-comic figure, part sinister, part ridiculous, part heroic. He may even have been the inspiration for Cervantes’ fictional hero, Wassermann contends: ‘an abiding prototype of humanity, of human folly, delusion, and greatness!’

In the first chapter – ‘Intimations of the Unknown’ – Wassermann outlines the difficulties facing any would-be biographer of Columbus. The opening paragraph is worth quoting in its entirety as it gives a flavour of what is to follow:

‘The life and fortunes of Christopher Columbus are highly significant of the fact that even a man destined to great deeds can only be explained by reference to his age and his environment. Our imagination is far too prone to endow an immortal figure with attributes deduced from the results of his achievement and in no way connected with his earthly existence and personality. Fame is a highly mysterious process of crystallisation, in the course of which much dross is purged away. For that reason, contemporaries misinterpret such a phenomenon, or even fail to notice it at all; while posterity, by its knowledge of the ultimate results, now embedded in the course of history, can no longer form a fresh and vivid impression of these mighty figures. Thus all our judgements on historical epochs as well as on historic personages are like much-worn coins, whose value is only investigated for some special reason. Every tradition survives through the mass of errors that are bound up with it: it could not, indeed, be otherwise, since error is a creative element; it creates the hero and his legend, and invests him with a tradition that can never die. Who could bear the truth, assuming that the truth exists? The truth would mean the destruction of every enthusiasm, every illusion, and every ideal that defeats reality. Such truth has little to do with research into documents and the ordinary practice of history – it is hidden like veins of gold in raw and rough material, and to dig it out and hammer it into significance calls for much toil, much devotion, and a certain courage; for the human soul, in which alone it is found, is a dark labyrinth peopled by terrifying ghosts.’

Finding the man behind the myth – the ‘earthly existence’ hidden by the legend - becomes a voyage of discovery in its own right. Columbus is an unknown continent – to find him we must leave behind the enthusiasms and illusions fostered by tradition. The hidden ‘veins of gold’ will not be uncovered by a strictly positivist view of history (‘research into documents’), but only by a willingness to explore the ‘dark labyrinth’ of the human soul. In other words, it takes a fellow inventor of fictions to understand someone like Columbus: he must be imagined in his reality.

While this might suggest a lack of rigour on Wassermann’s part (it implies a reluctance to engage in thorough research), he nevertheless assures us that Columbus’ life and achievements are more than a passing interest:

‘Over a period of twenty years, with certain intervals, I have been engaged on the study of this history: and every time I took it up again I had to ask myself: Is this authentic? Is not this merely legend? Are not such and such events apocryphal, and these others no more than probable?’

In the absence of footnotes or a bibliography it is difficult to gauge the extent of Wassermann’s research. Secondary literature, at the time he was writing, was a fraction of what it is today. Washington Irving’s A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) – itself a work of ‘romantic history’ in which extensive documentary research (Irving was given access to archives recently published by the Spanish government) is combined with a healthy (or unhealthy) amount of invention - was perhaps the best-known work on the subject. It seems safe to assume that Wassermann had read it, or was at least familiar with parts of it: the book was widely available in Europe. It also seems safe to assume, therefore, that his book was in some ways a response to Irving’s history: a condensation aimed at isolating the ‘essence’ of the man.

We must turn to the text itself – as Wassermann no doubt intends – to test the authenticity of his conclusions. If his account seems plausible then we might concede that his Columbus is close to the actual historical figure.

We should bear in mind, Wassermann reminds us, that reliable information about various aspects of Columbus’ life is sometimes wholly absent. An element of conjecture is inevitable:

‘A certain mystery – almost suspicion – hovers around the figure of Columbus from the very beginning. Everything is disputed – his character, his achievement, his development, the events of his life, and his origin.’

What we do know is that ‘[h]e rose from nothing, a vagabond Italian adventurer, to become Grand Admiral of Spain, and Viceroy of a mighty Empire; he paid for seven years of glory and of power by sudden ruin and such humiliation as few men have known: and, after a feeble afterglow of fame, he died a lonely death, almost forgotten.’

This element of tragedy is what interests Wassermann most. How did Columbus, after years of trying to gain support for his adventures, after his eventual success in winning the favour of Isabella, after his discovery of a new continent – a discovery that effected ‘a revolution in the imagination’ of his contemporaries - then fall into ruin and humiliation?

Wassermann’s answer: The same vision and single-mindedness that led to his success led to his downfall:

‘Certain it is that from the very beginning his purpose was bent upon one object and one only, and with something like maniacal energy he made himself master of anything likely to serve that end.’

Once this end was attained, Columbus, effectively, lost his way. He returned to the New World three more times, and would have kept on returning – almost compulsively – had he not fallen out of favour. His maniacal energy was then diverted into more ignoble ambitions: trying to re-establish his status at Court, demanding the financial restitution he believed was his due. ‘One of the most tormented figures that history has ever known,’ it was paradoxically his success that proved his undoing. He found what he was looking for, what he had dreamed about most of his life, only to realise the reality was incommensurable with his vision:

‘Why did he go on? What was the cause of his profound unrest? What was it that drove him again and again beyond the sea? Was it the fact that it was his world, his very own, a world that he had found? Or was he one of those so tragically deceived by destiny who do not recognise their object when they grasp it in their hands? We may not credit him with more perception than the age admitted, and what was instinct in him ceased to be effective as soon as he personally was concerned. He was a figure without mercy: he knew nothing of inward peace: the mighty deed he had accomplished marked him, as a murderer is marked by his guilt. Blindly he sailed the seas and trod inviolate lands, ever thinking of something other than what the hour demanded, helpless before a present necessity, knowing no human face, master of no human heart, buried in his own dark self, a joyless exile.’

Columbus’ blindness – towards others and towards himself – leaves him an exile from the world. Like Don Quixote, he sees only what he wants to see. While, up to a point, this delusion can be sustained, eventually reality defeats him. Having discovered a New World, he cannot understand why greater rewards are not forthcoming. If he hungers after financial recompense and royal approval it is because he does not know what he truly wants. His unrest remains. Between what he can imagine and what the world can offer him is an ocean he cannot cross. This distance – so Wassermann hints - is something the creative artist understands better than most.

The strength of Wassermann’s argument is that it allows us to understand Columbus without excusing him the worst of his actions or condemning him outright. The weakness is that the failing we are asked to acknowledge – his overriding imaginative vision – is not enough to make him a sympathetic figure. It may explain certain aspects of his personality and his behaviour, but it does not make him likeable. Ultimately, Wassermann struggles to convince us of Columbus’ heroic stature. Columbus may indeed have been the inspiration for Don Quixote, but it is Don Quixote who emerges as the real hero.

The final sentence in the book – ‘His fame is a collection of fragments: put them together carefully, and suddenly a spirit soars upward who looks at us with friendly eyes’ – strikes something of a false note. The spirit that emerges from these pages is one who rarely soars and whose eyes are far from friendly.

From Jakob Wassermann, Columbus, Don Quixote of the Seas, (Little, Brown, and Company, 1930, trans., Eric Sutton)

287 pages


‘Religious zeal was one motive; the commercial spirit was another.’

‘In this connection the question arises how far men of past ages are capable of grasping reality. This capacity was quite different in the fifteenth century from what it is now. There is now a fidelity to fact that was wanting in times of immaturity; the idea of truth was then as ill-defined as the obligation to truth was unrecognised. Between the object and the image of it there was still too much empty space which fancy filled with preconceived ideas, with the imaginings of fear, desire, and dream; it diminishes but gradually with increasing knowledge and co-ordinated experience.’

‘In that head chaos reigned, - a murk and confusion of the mind that no longer recognises any scale of thoughts and values, and, had it not been so, the tremendous deed could never have been accomplished. Knowledge begets cowardice; the will can only drive steadily onward in a half light.’

‘He never knew who he was; he only knew who he wanted to be.’

‘There is no need to vindicate Columbus’ honour, palliate his faults, or paint him in glowing colours. We are not to set up a statue on a pedestal but to portray a man, whose peculiar greatness, darkened though it be by shadows, may first be discerned behind the traditional story.’

‘It must not be forgotten that he was a humble hanger-on of the Court and perhaps not even that – a man who wandered about with petitions in his pockets, a haunter of antechambers, a man of many schemes. Such persons are instinctively mistrusted and are continually in danger of paying for their failings as though they had been crimes: and, in addition to this, few people can be found to take them seriously.’

‘A man, it seemed, of uncommonly narrow mind, but at the same time predestined to enlarge the intellectual confines of his time in a manner beyond all expectation, and to revolutionise its world of ideas. He was a pious Catholic and, consequently, replete with pagan superstition regarding all natural laws and occurrences. His subjection to his Idea was almost hysterical and, indeed, nearly reached a point at which his individuality was submerged: yet he bowed to every force from without, listened to every whisper, and fell a victim to every fraud. Practical, astute, and competent in the composition of his plans, in their execution he showed himself amateurish, short-sighted and capricious. He was as morose as a monk, crafty as a peasant, without a glimmer of humour – a character unrelieved by a single ray of cheerfulness. A man of sighs and lamentations, misery and gloom. But for all that, his capacity for suffering and his patience in the bearing of it were prodigious and are strangely touching, like stories from the life of a saint. He learnt almost nothing, and knew everything that might serve his ends. He was sickly, and bore the most incredible hardships with iron endurance. He sprang from the lowest level of society, and had the manners of a grandee and the epistolary style of a Machiavelli. He knew no enjoyment of life, a home meant nothing to him, his wants were as few as those of a dervish, yet he died of worry because he could not get the forty thousand pesos owed him by the Colonial Administration.’

‘His most remarkable trait, and the one most suggesting Don Quixote, is his pride, even arrogance, in his destiny – undeniably a force, but a very isolating force, the most fatal effect of which is to make its possessor misunderstood and to set him apart from life. Who could love a Don Quixote, except as a figure of romance; who could understand him except three hundred years after his death? I could not have passed a day with him; I should have found his observations intolerable, and everything he did repugnant. And yet, what an abiding prototype of humanity, of human folly, delusion, and greatness! Here, his pride in his destiny or what he thought to be his destiny, is based ultimately on a profound redisposition of stern Spanish Catholic dogmatism, through which the character, as the essence of the national entity, appears greatly sublimated and softened, and rich in cross lights; it stands like a monument somewhere between the figures of the Cid and the sinister Torquemada.’

‘As a faithful Catholic, any freedom of the mind or judgement was forbidden: he could not have claimed it and been proud of it. His achievement did not seem to him something unimportant and fortuitous: it was in his eyes so tremendous, so inexpressibly great, that it could only be achieved by the direct assistance of God.’

‘One may premise an utter insensitiveness, not merely of the kind common to all men of his time against non-Christians, naked heathen, and savages in the darkness outside the faith; it was more: it was the blindness and deafness of a man, obsessed as he was by his idea, to every phenomenon on earth, unless he needed it to make that idea more fruitful and more effective. For this reason, it is not correct to speak of Columbus’ avarice, as is often done: his insatiable lust for gold has other roots than common greed. Don Quixote is not avaricious when he weaves his fancies about the treasures of the Emperor of Trebizond: he looks on them as tribute owed to his destiny, he needs them to establish his position.’

‘Columbus’ attitude to the Indios was, from the very outset, cowardly, treacherous, and capricious. On the one hand he cannot sufficiently praise their simplicity and honesty, and on the other he racks his brains over the best way to make the most profit out of them, for he regards them as his own property – primarily as his own, and after that the property of the Spanish Crown.’

‘To “understand” was not an ambition or a characteristic of the time. It did not interest the men of that age. They neither could nor would “understand” the individual natives as fellow creatures, nor would they understand another order of nature, another system of law, or another world. To say that all that interested them was colonisation, conquest, and robbery would be too facile a conclusion: it was in truth a bursting of the narrow bonds of the ego, and it was of little or no consequence whether another ego was destroyed in the process. It was a primitive movement of expansion, affecting kingdoms as well as individuals, without regard to love, humanity, or justice.’

‘No contemporary historiographer or chronicler has been at pains to write down an honest and unvarnished account of the unholy beginning of the colonisation of America; all have slid over them with a few meaningless phrases, as though one of the certainly regrettable but unavoidable inconveniences of discovering new territory was the necessity of abolishing the property rights of the inhabitants, enslaving the men and youths, violating the women, dishonouring the girls, and cutting down in cold blood any one who made the slightest resistance.’

‘No other religion, no other system, treated foreign faiths and forms with such contempt, with so stony an intolerance, as Spanish-Catholic Christianity.’

‘It needs a certain courage and a certain humility to recognise the past of the human race for what it really has been: an unbroken chain of injustice, fraud, theft, outrage, and murder.’

‘At the time of its discovery the island of Espanola had a population of roughly three and a half millions. Ten years later there were only thirty-four thousand left, - scarcely one-hundredth part. The carnage began and proceeded under the seeing-unseeing eyes of Columbus, and whether he felt any grief over this holocaust, or whether, in his dark fatalism and stony isolation of soul, he regarded the process as an inexorable law, is not to be discovered in any chronicle. The truth must be sought, if anywhere, in the man’s own heart.’

‘We cannot now change America into Columbia; it remains America, and there is a certain dark humour about the fact, quite in accordance with the spirit and career of its discoverer, that as a result of a misunderstanding and the mean intrigues of petty people, the continent sails, as it were, under a false flag.’

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Jakob Wassermann, H.M. Stanley, Explorer

Bula Matari was first published in Germany in 1932. The English edition – re-titled H.M. Stanley, Explorer – appeared the same year, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul.

Wassermann prefaces the book with a brief introductory chapter explaining his choice of subject:

‘A good while ago, some of my friends asked me what I was working at. When I told them that I wanted to write a life of Henry Morton Stanley and had, with this end in view, been studying the subject for several years, they were very much surprised. What, they enquired, could interest me in a man whose doings had been of little moment in his lifetime and would leave no conspicuous traces in history – a man whose name had already lapsed into oblivion? I dissented from these opinions. Stanley’s name, I rejoined, was haunted by that melody of fame which arouses responses in the unconscious; it was characterised by the rhythms which derive from a mention by millions upon millions of tongues; and what they styled “oblivion” was no more than a passing forgetfulness.’

Stanley, at the time Wassermann was writing, was a marginalised figure. His reputation had been sullied by accusations of cruelty, his adventures in Africa linked – unfairly - to the colonial exploits of Leopold II. Public recognition of his achievements had consistently been undermined by ‘calumny’. Numerous ‘falsehoods’ were attached to his image.

Challenging these falsehoods thus becomes a key aim of Wassermann’s project: ‘to describe a great man as he actually was and actually lived.’

A second aim is to understand the ‘lure’ of his subject, to explain why he chose Stanley, or why Stanley chose him.

‘[Y]outhful impressions have undoubtedly played their part in the matter. Stanley’s triumphs were gained when I was an adolescent; the whole world was talking of him then; he was the hero of the lads of my generation.’

However, the enduring appeal of Stanley relies on something else, something harder to define:

‘My concern is with the balance between doing and being, or rather with the impossibility of achieving this balance in the contemporary world; and in that sense Stanley’s figure has become symbolical for me... What made things so different for Stanley from what they were for the men engaged in conquest and discovery when the Middle Ages were over and the New Times were in the article of birth, was that Stanley’s mind had been formed in a European or (if you will) European-American community; in a community which never allows its sons even for an hour to follow without reserve the promptings of the heart, which keeps them in bondage by invisible ties, dictates their resolves, inoculates them with laws and moral regulations, prescribes for them standards of social behaviour, allows them only just so much time and just so much money as it thinks proper, and will promptly outlaw them and destroy them if they disobey an injunction or overstep a mark.

Stanley, therefore, was not a free spirit... he could not disregard the instructions of the man who had commissioned him, nor shake off the authority of the land where he had been born and the country in which he had been nationalised; he was a salaried employee quite as much as if he had been sitting at a desk editing a newspaper.’

This image of Stanley – as a man employed to discover and explore – strikes Wassermann as particularly modern. It constitutes both the tragedy of Stanley’s fate and his saving grace. Had Stanley been free to do as he wished, he might have achieved a great deal more. He might also have succumbed to the extremes of cruelty his detractors later accused him of. As it was, he was restrained by a ‘lengthening chain’:

‘Five thousand miles from London and ten thousand from New York it clanks along after him at every footstep through the African forest, where, even in the boundless wild, he is but a subordinate. By temperament he was a man to found empires; and indeed he came near to establishing the Congo State with Henry M. Stanley as its undisputed ruler. Certainly this was his dream – and, instead, he had to pen books, to compile popularly written accounts of his travels. This was the new feature about the man, that the explorer and empire-builder was, first, last, and all the time, a reporter and journalist. This made his work scintillating, enigmatical, and, from a certain outlook, magnificent.’

The thought that Stanley could so easily have become a monster exerts a fascination on Wassermann. Likewise, he is intrigued by the paradoxical idea that Stanley was condemned – by the very forces that restrained him - to a life of ‘measureless activity’. Prevented from wholly ‘being’, he was forced instead to ‘do’: the would-be conqueror remained, ultimately, an observer and recorder (the role of actual conqueror fell, among others, to the un-restrained Leopold). The paid explorer was never allowed to discover himself.

Stanley’s achievements – not least his refusal to join in the wholesale brutality and sadism of his European and Arab contemporaries – seem remarkable given his upbringing. Born John Rowlands - to a father he never knew and a mother he saw ‘only two or three times’ - he was left ‘for good or for evil, to the care of unloving relatives’. At six years old he was sent to the St. Asaph Union Workhouse, where, in the hands of the Master, James Francis, a ‘remorseless lunatic’, he quickly learned ‘the unimportance of tears’. This early acquaintance with hardship might have resulted in a lack of feeling or sensitivity. However, the religious piety Stanley showed in later life – ‘one of his most conspicuous traits’ according to Wassermann – reveals a clearly defined sense of right and wrong. He was very much a product of his age: reproducing both its failings and its strengths.

As a young man, now living in America, Stanley was infected by ‘the war-fever sedulously disseminated by Southern propagandists.’ He fought for the southern states, only to realise almost immediately his mistake:

‘ “This enlistment was, as I conceive it, the first of many blunders; and it precipitated me into a veritable furnace, from which my mind would have quickly recoiled, had I but known what the process of hardening was to be... I had to learn that what was unlawful to a civilian was lawful to a soldier. The ‘Thou shalt not’ of the Decalogue was now translated ‘Thou shalt.’ Thou shalt kill, lie, steal, blaspheme, covet, and hate; for, by whatsoever fine name they were disguised, every one practised these arts, from the President down to the private in the rear rank.’

This moral aversion to war led him to desert the army at the earliest opportunity (but not before fighting, briefly, for the other side). His autobiographical writings – Wassermann’s main source of information – suggest a profound horror of large-scale conflict. As Wassermann writes:

‘We have the impression, often enough, that we are reading the utterances of some champion of pacifism, of a disciple of Tolstoy or Romain Rolland, although these thoughts were conceived many decades before the officially organised slaughter which is called war came to be stigmatised by such great teachers as no less criminal than private murder.’

However, Stanley’s squeamishness – certainly at this point in his life – seems to be reserved for the white race. His attitudes to native Americans and to black slaves are not quite so consistent:

‘At that time the Indian problem was a focus of unrest in the States, just as the Negro problem is to-day... Stanley to begin with leaned towards the side of the oppressed Redskins, though he regarded the southern Negroes as of little account... But in the end he swung over to the other side, justifying his change of front by arguments which are not entirely convincing... It seems probable that he was one of the principal initiators of the scheme to establish Indian reservations, a politically sound one, from the Whites’ outlook, seeing that its enforcement did so much to hasten the decay and disappearance of the Redskins!’

The fact that Stanley felt he had to choose sides at all is revealing. His apparent indifference to the fate – first of southern slaves then of native Americans – puts his pacifism in context. He may have been more sympathetic or sensitive than many of his contemporaries, Wassermann suggests, and he was certainly not the tyrant his enemies made him out to be, but he was still, nevertheless, burdened by the prejudices of his time, his race and his social position.

This burden – the true ‘white man’s burden’ as Wassermann sees it – is viewed with ambivalence throughout the book. While deplored for the licence it apparently grants to European colonialists, it is nevertheless responsible for the restraint which ultimately saves Stanley. Wassermann’s argument seems to be that Stanley’s definition of what it means to be ‘civilised’, while questionable by today’s standards, was nevertheless preferable to the more widely-held interpretation. For Stanley – as for Wassermann – civilisation is something problematic. This becomes clear when Stanley returns from his first trip to Africa:

‘In the wilds, he could function as one of the pioneers of civilisation; but when he was in London or New York, its institutions oppressed him like a nightmare.’

Stanley, in effect, becomes and remains an outsider: his experiences in Africa render him unfit for European or American life, yet his Western background – and the fact that he must answer to his employers - prevents him from fully immersing himself in African life. As Wassermann notes:

‘Although he was wholly a man of the nineteenth century, with all the defects and all the merits characteristic of those who belonged to that epoch, he sometimes produces the impression of being a man who does not belong to any particular age, or of being one whose unconscious endeavour it is to transcend the limitations of his era.’

The phrase ‘unconscious endeavour’ seems to be most significant here. For Wassermann, Stanley could have freed himself from the restrictions of civilisation had circumstances been different; had he been a different man, in other words. He was clearly one of civilisation’s discontents. So what was it that held him back? Not just the fact that he was answerable to his employers (he might easily have ‘gone native’); and not just his piety or his pacifism (he could forget both when it suited him): Stanley’s aim, his vision of himself and his role in Africa, his personal ‘civilising mission’, was different. Where others saw an opportunity to gain – both financially and in terms of power - Stanley was more idealistic, almost naively so:

‘His recipe for the moralisation of the African natives was typically simple. Africa and Europe were to enter into trade relations, and, thereupon, as a result of conjoined philanthropic zeal and scientific labour, within a brief space of time the Golden Age would come into being for Africa.’

If Stanley stands condemned by history, Wassermann suggests, it is for his innocence in this matter, for not anticipating the sequel to his voyages of discovery (quite what he could have done to prevent the carnage that followed is another matter). His idealism – a more benign form of the colonialism practised by his peers - saves him from the worst excesses yet simultaneously exposes his helplessness.

His faith in ‘the superiority of the white race' and in 'the benefits which their mental and material goods would confer upon the blacks,’ a faith soon to be betrayed, ultimately betrays Stanley himself:

‘Soon these natives will be wearing the red caps of soldiers and the discarded liveries of Brussels footmen; their fields will have been occupied by factories and trading companies; they will have sold their birth-right for whisky and gin; and in the eyes of megalomaniac officials from Europe, equipped with unrestricted powers, the privileges they have been granted will be mere scraps of paper. Stanley does not know this, and had a prophet foretold it, he would not have believed it. The vision which has obsessed him makes it impossible for him to draw logical inferences from actual experience. But as far as he himself is concerned, he remains free from megalomania. He remains free from the presumption that is so common in the apostles of European civilisation, whose inflated sense of power is often in an inverse ratio to their real worth in the human scale, and who incline to seek compensation for their natural inferiority in the wilderness where no writ runs.’

The accusations of cruelty and self-aggrandisement that plagued Stanley until his death – and afterwards - seem easier to understand in this context. They reveal the bad consciences of his accusers. Because he refrained from the sort of sadism and greed that was expected of him he shamed – or at least embarrassed – many of his compatriots. He was perhaps a little too civilised for these apostles of civilisation: such is Wassermann’s contention. Wassermann also suggests that there is a sexual element. Stanley, he asserts, almost certainly slept with African women. His silence on the subject of sex between whites and blacks – even when discussing the worst exploits of his fellow Europeans - is a noteworthy omission. More than mere delicacy or discretion, this hints at a deeper ambivalence. The subject is taboo, not only for the guilt associated with it, but for the pleasure. If Stanley chooses not to write about it, Wassermann hints, it is because he does not (or cannot, without hypocrisy) disapprove. This ambivalence is then detected by his enemies (the Victorian reading public, as Foucault points out, would have been keenly alert to such signifiers). Perhaps, too, there are rumours. Perhaps anecdotal stories have followed Stanley back from Africa. In any case, Stanley’s liking for black women (real or exaggerated) thus becomes additional ammunition to be used against him:

‘... it would be superfluous, almost undignified, to allude to the matter, were it not that in England, above all during the later years of his life, evil rumours were attached to his name, especially in the way of accusations that he had treated the natives cruelly. But, except for occasional corporal punishment of the men he had hired (corporal punishment which he inflicted reluctantly, only when his patience had been strained to the uttermost, only when discipline could be maintained in no other way), there is absolutely no warrant for these accusations. There is not a shadow of ground for the belief that Stanley ever became afflicted by what has been termed “tropical frenzy”; that he ever manifested the sadism to which so many Europeans in out-of-the-way parts of Africa fall a prey, so that they degenerate into torturers and executioners as soon as they possess powers of life and death over their black-skinned fellows... The man’s whole story, the epitome of it here presented, suffice to prove the contrary; and no one has seriously and honestly endeavoured to put forward proof that his behaviour towards the blacks was anything but exemplary, a blending of comradeship and authority, of sympathy and educational endeavour. I think, therefore, that the evil repute to which I have referred can only be the outcome of whispers concerning this particular form of sexual “misconduct,” which to Stanley’s prejudiced fellow-countrymen seemed repulsive and blameworthy.’

As an argument it is not entirely convincing. To accuse Stanley of cruelty towards black men because he had slept with black women seems confused. Surely, to have accused him of being too fond of black people in general would have suited his accusers just as well.

The weakness of Wassermann’s book is that his source material – secondary literature being so slight at the time – is almost exclusively Stanley's own writing. Wassermann must therefore read between the lines of what Stanley says about himself in order to gain critical distance from his subject. While this allows (invites) an intimate reading, and while Wassermann is certainly vigilant enough not to be taken in by everything Stanley says, it nevertheless leaves him, at times, having to resort to conjecture.

A lot more has since been written about Stanley, and a more comprehensive picture of him has been formed, but Wassermann deserves credit for his attempt to redeem Stanley’s public image. As he suggests – more convincingly - elsewhere, Stanley’s unpopularity perhaps stemmed from nothing more than personal dislike:

‘... there was no intimacy about him, by repute he was hard and unfeeling, he was taciturn and averse from company... he was never hail-fellow-well-met, but always strict and formal, with an inclination to melancholy and bitterness.’

Wassermann’s achievement is to turn this dislike into at least a grudging respect. Stanley might have been cold and taciturn, his attitudes might seem unpleasant, even deplorable, but he was far from being the tyrant he is often portrayed as. As for the impact of his exploration of Africa, Wassermann cautions us against over-hasty judgement:

‘Whatever the primary motive may have been, and no matter whether (measured upon a scale of moral absolutes) it be regarded as a high one or a low one, its effective valuation cannot be made until after the event. Thanks only to such enterprises does it come to pass that there are new things in the world, things which no one had previously seen or imagined, a new law, a new path for mankind, a new idea of the commonwealth, a new image of the godhead.’

‘His relations with the blacks led to a decisive change in the general view of the African races held by Europeans – but, all the same, he himself was never freed from the European delusion of the need for the “occupation” of Africa. Hence, in part, the tragedy of the Congo Free State.’

‘His honest endeavour was to protect them, for the very reason that he was endowed with a “higher intelligence.” What disastrous results that higher intelligence was destined to bring in its train remained hidden in the future. Yet all too soon his beloved “Free State” was to become the arena for conscienceless exploitation and oppression.’

This exploitation and oppression was only indirectly Stanley’s ‘fault’: something we should bear in mind, Wassermann urges, when we judge him.

From Jakob Wassermann, H.M. Stanley, Explorer, (Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1932, trans., Eden and Cedar Paul)

271 pages


‘To speak of him merely as a traveller or an explorer is deceptive; we do him more justice when we regard him as the founder of a colony; in truth he was a belated condottiere or conquistador. During the sixteenth century he would have made history in quite another fashion than was possible to one born into a lukewarm and jejune era. His kinship with the great navigators and land-stormers who flourished between 1500 and 1700 is conspicuous. The modern scientist devoted to the service of what is called civilisation (he was fond of the word) was in him continually overridden by the man of action and the conqueror.’

‘Within a particular epoch, individuals have on the average a destiny characteristic of that epoch.’

‘ He loved the blacks. Few Europeans have been more intimately acquainted than he became with their customs, their rites, their character, and their institutions.’

‘The reader must continually bear in mind that it was more than sixty years ago, when no European Power had as yet dreamed of colonising these parts, and when, in the maps, most of Central Africa was still represented by blank spaces.’

‘Should we approve the conquerors, those who belonged to a race having an enormous preponderance of power at its command, those whose ultimate victory was inevitable despite the numerical excess of the blacks locally, and their desperate resistance? Or are we, on the other hand, to consider that a dark-skinned people, heroically defending its freedom and independence, was unjustly chastised for the endeavour to avoid passing under foreign dominion?’

‘Every foot of his journey has to be conquered, not only in the sense of exploration, but also in the sense of guarding against the menace of the natives, inasmuch as these latter (with good reason) are extremely averse to what Europeans term the “opening-up” of their country.’

‘Their instincts may have been savage and cruel, but the instincts were sound enough, seeing what they had to expect from the white invasion. The white invaders, in their turn, were but simpletons if they expected to be received with open arms by these unsophisticated folk among whom they established themselves by force and by guile, bringing with them all the blessings of civilisation – such as distilled spirits, syphilis, forced labour, speedy degeneration, a fall in the value of all produce, and the dispossession of the natives from their lands. We gather, however, that Stanley had no such forebodings. In these matters he was as innocent as a child. He had no doubt as to the superiority of the white race, or as to the benefits which their mental and material goods would confer upon the blacks. When, half a century later, a man of wide knowledge, Andre Gide, visited the Congo region, he was to be reduced to shame and despair by the study of what had happened to the natives under the rule of civilised nations.’

‘From the time of his arrival in Boma, he never lost the conviction that he had discovered a continent, or at least the largest and most important part of a continent; had discovered it and won it for Europe. But discovery and a nominal taking possession of this part of the world in the name of the white race were only the first steps. The next, more responsible if not more difficult, was the introduction of civilisation. He had laid open a tract comparable in extent and resources to the basin of the Amazon or the Mississippi. What his vision saw, what his supreme effort was given to, was the transformation of its millions of people from barbarism: the transformation of those who were oppressed by all the ills of ignorance, superstition and cruelty, into happy and virtuous men and women... ’

‘Elsewhere Livingstone declared, and more than once, that he had only encountered resistance and enmity in places where other white men had been before him, or where reports of what white men were like had found their way. In the uncorrupted wilds, he had always met with the most cordial hospitality.’

‘One of the most tragic pages in the story of his return to the Congo describes his coming upon a series of villages just ravaged by a ferocious slave-raid of the Arabs, and of his afterwards encountering a herd of the wretched captives chained and guarded. It is a terrible picture. Over a hundred villages had been devastated; and the 5000 carried away as slaves stood for six times as many slain, or dying by the roadside...

‘”Every second during which I regard them the clank of fetters and chains strikes upon my ears. My eyes catch sight of that continual lifting of the hand to ease the neck in the collar, or as it displays a manacle exposed through a muscle being irritated by its weight or want of fitness. My nerves are offended with the rancid effluvium of the unwashed herds within this human kennel. The smell of other abominations annoys me in that vitiated atmosphere... Many of those poor things have already been months fettered in this manner, and their bones stand out in bold relief beneath the attenuated skin, which hangs down in thin wrinkles and puckers. Who can withstand the feeling of pity so powerfully pleaded for by these large eyes and sunken cheeks? What was the cause of all this vast sacrifice of human life, of all this unspeakable misery? Nothing but the indulgence of an old Arab’s wolfish, bloody, starved, and ravenous instincts. He wished to obtain slaves, to barter profitably away to other Arabs...’

‘But what will be the result if such Dantesque pictures are sent home to the civilised world? A few missionary societies will be stirred to send out their emissaries. This will do nothing to cut at the roots of the system. It will merely salve the conscience of the man of illusions!’

‘ “Every tusk,” writes Stanley, “every scrap of ivory in the possession of an Arab trader has been steeped and dyed in blood. Every pound weight has cost the life of a man, woman, or child; for every five pounds a hut has been burned; for every two tusks a whole village has been destroyed; every twenty tusks have been obtained at the price of a district with all its people, villages and plantations... Because ivory is required for ornaments or billiard balls, the rich heart of Africa is laid waste.”... To-day, forty-five years later, things have come to such a pass that, great game-preserves notwithstanding, it seems not unlikely that the last African elephants will soon be shot. Meanwhile, the slave-trade continues to flourish; or if, in semblance, it has been abolished, its place has been taken by what is euphemistically termed “forced labour,” and by refined but still brutal methods of exploitation. The modern system may be less obviously and palpably cruel, but it goes on sucking the blood of the natives like a gigantic vampire.’

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Jakob Wassermann, Caspar Hauser

First published in Germany in 1908, Caspar Hauser, oder Die Trägheit des Herzens appeared in an English edition in 1928, translated by Caroline Newton. The English version was given an alternative subtitle: ‘Enigma of a Century’. The original subtitle, as Wassermann explains in his introduction to the English edition, means, ‘literally, the Slothfulness of the Heart.’ For the forthcoming re-issue of the English translation (due to appear some time in 2012) the subtitle has been changed to ‘Inertia of the Heart’ in line with Wassermann’s intention. The accuracy of the rendering might seem unimportant, but as Wassermann writes, the subtitle provides a clue to understanding the aim of the novel:
‘This, too, [the subtitle] emphasized the contrast: Caspar Hauser versus the world. One can thus see that the actual incidents had ceased to be of primary importance; they could be brushed aside in order to make place for what solely charmed me in the material: the tragedy of the child, the general tragedy of the child, or, differently stated, the repeated recurrence of an innocent soul, unspotted by the world, and how the world stupidly and uncomprehendingly ignores such a soul.’

The ‘actual incidents’ are, broadly, as follows:

On May 26th 1828 (‘on Whitmonday about five o’clock in the afternoon’) a young man, about seventeen-years-old, suddenly appears in Nuremburg, ‘standing on the Unschlitt Square not far from the New Gate.’ Barely able to walk and having ‘looked about for a while in a disturbed fashion’ he falls ‘into the arms of shoemaker Weikmann who happened along at that moment.’ Pointing to a letter he is holding, ‘a letter bearing the address of Cavalry-Captain Wessenig,’ the young man is ‘dragged with some difficulty to the Captain’s house.’

There it transpires the young man can speak only a few phrases (‘he constantly stammered the same half-idiotic words’). He writes his name – Caspar Hauser - on a piece of paper in ‘big childish letters.’ In response to questioning he shows almost total incomprehension. He cannot explain who he is or where he has come from. The letter he carries with him is unsigned and gives only vague hints: that someone has cared for him since taking custody of him as an infant; that he has been taught to read and write, and has been instructed in the Christian religion; that he has never set foot outside his custodian’s house; that he would now like to become a cavalryman ‘as his father was’; that should Captain Wessenig choose not to take him in, he should instead be hanged.

At a loss to know what to do with him, the authorities in Nuremberg first imprison him in the Vestner Tower of the Castle, before placing him in the care of a local schoolteacher, Friedrich Daumer. While staying with Daumer, Caspar remembers more details from his past. He has spent his life locked in an underground cell, he reveals, in permanent darkness, with no human contact and only bread and water for sustenance. From time to time, he recalls, his drinking water had a bitter taste; after drinking it he would fall asleep then wake up with his hair and nails cut and with fresh straw on his bed.

His first contact with another human being had occurred shortly before his release. The man – who kept his face hidden – taught him to write his name, taught him the few words he was able to speak and taught him to walk, before taking him to Nuremberg and setting him free.
The mystery of why he was imprisoned, where, and by whom - and why he was freed - remains unanswered.

Almost immediately Caspar becomes the centre of attention – first locally, then nationally, then finally across Europe. Theories and rumours abound, the most controversial of which is that Caspar is the son of Charles, Grand Duke of Baden and Stephanie de Beauharnais. This allegation wins both powerful supporters (most notably, Paul Johann Anselm Ritter von Feuerbach, President of the Bavarian Upper Appellate Court) and powerful opponents. The latter dismiss Caspar as a charlatan and opportunist; to them, he is little more than a con-man out to get what he can from a credulous public.

On October 17th 1829 Caspar is attacked by an unknown man: he suffers a head-wound. The attack is disputed by his critics, the head-wound dismissed as self-inflicted. Caspar’s character from then on is increasingly called into question. More and more people accuse him of being a liar. As he is passed from one ‘protector' to another, his life becomes more unsettled and miserable.

On December 14th 1833, having agreed to meet a stranger who claims to know his true identity, he is stabbed in the chest. Again, the incident is dismissed by his critics: the figure of the stranger is another invention, they suggest; the stab wound is again self-inflicted – Caspar accidentally pushing the knife too far into his own flesh.

Three days later Caspar dies of his injury.

The mystery of his death – like the mystery of his life - therefore remains unsolved.

In the following years debate rages. Evidence is presented by both sides, with both claiming the last word. Eventually his critics gain the upper hand. Caspar Hauser is widely considered to be a fraud. (Even today, prevailing opinion is one of scepticism – as a glance at the Wikipedia page will reveal).
For Wassermann, however, prevailing opinion is wrong. Caspar Hauser, oder Die Trägheit des Herzens is an attempt to redeem the image of Hauser as an innocent foundling maligned and persecuted by an uncomprehending world. As Wassermann has written elsewhere:
‘The idea of Caspar Hauser was to show that people of every degree of spiritual and intellectual development, of every type, from the grossest to the most refined – the ambitious climber and the philosophic thinker, the servile toady and the apostle of humanity, the paid police spy and the teacher with his heart in his work, the woman aflame with sensual passion and the noble representative of earthly justice – are one and all absolutely callous and absolutely helpless when confronted with the phenomenon of innocence; that they simply cannot conceive that anything of the sort should exist on this earth; that they foist upon such a phenomenon their own intentions, unclean or purposely obscured, making it the instrument of their intrigues and their principles, and appealing to it for the confirmation of this or that law, as the explanation of this or that event; that they never see the phenomenon itself, that unique, ephemeral, glorious image of divinity, but rather soil its pure, delicate, dreamy nature, lay officious and sacrilegious hands upon him, and in the end murder him.' (My Life as German and Jew, pp. 114-115)

The novel is thus a piece of propaganda designed to reclaim Caspar’s innocence.

Somewhat disingenuously, Wassermann asserts his fidelity to real events:
‘The literary narration has in no way deviated from the actual facts as they occurred.’

Today, such a claim would not be taken seriously; and even when Wassermann made it – in 1928 (in his introduction to the English edition) – it must have struck readers as bold, to say the least.

Likewise his assertion, in the same introduction, that ‘it was, of course, not my task to meddle’ in the ‘quarrel’ over Caspar’s true parentage. Wassermann clearly is meddling; he takes sides; he must have known what sort of stir his novel would create. His surprise and dismay at the way the novel was received, can also, therefore, be viewed as less than honest:
‘I cannot deny that I looked forward to the publication of the book with unusual hopes, the hopes cherished by one who feels that at last he has testified to the truth within him. I imagined I had given the Germans an essentially German book, a book that had grown out of the soul of the people... But these expectations were disappointed. To begin with, a disgusting squabble arose in the newspapers about the historic person of Caspar Hauser. A shower of malicious abuse and arrogant rebuke fell upon me, together with the accusation that I had rehashed and dished up the old fiction of the foundling’s princely descent only for the amusement of a sensation-loving public. I was informed that Professor Mittelstadt, in his famous essay, and the school-teacher Mayer, in his documentary presentation of the case, and anyone else you please in this pamphlet, had long ago convinced everybody that Caspar Hauser was a half-witted impostor who had duped German and European public opinion; that to revive his old wives’ tale, now happily buried for half a century, and to make it an object of further discussion and dispute, spoke of naive presumption and ignorance; and that in my hunger for literary material I had better turn to less controversial fields, to themes of a less disturbing and vexatious nature.

'As it happens I am as convinced to-day as I was then that Caspar Hauser really was the young prince whom Daumer and Feuerbach believed him to be – and others after them, whose protests were killed by a conspiracy of silence or calumny. I have seen and heard more than enough documentary evidence and trustworthy testimony of this; some day more will come to light out of archives which are dishonestly suppressed. The meaning of the intrigues was unmistakable; there are still, in high positions, people who know, and some of them confided in me; nor did they cherish any doubt on the point which the armchair-psychologists so lightly denied. To-day as then I am convinced that the name, the life and death of Caspar Hauser constitute an unpunished crime, the evil of which continues to spread as such evil always does.’ (My Life as German and Jew, pp. 109-111

Wassermann’s hypocrisy here – his professed shock that anyone should have doubted his motives in writing the book – is deliberate. It serves both a defensive and a provocative function. On the one hand, he wants to protect himself from accusations of sensationalism: his motives may not be entirely pure (he courts controversy), but this does not mean they are not genuine (his interest in the story of Caspar Hauser and his belief in Hauser’s innocence are, undoubtedly, sincere). On the other hand, he wants to paint himself as an innocent – much like the person he is defending – because it strengthens his argument (and weakens his opponents'): the more he is attacked and vilified for his 'disinterested' intentions, the more sympathetic he – and by extension Caspar – appears. As a rhetorical strategy, this works by contrast: either you believe me, and believe Caspar, Wassermann is saying, or you are on the side of his detractors, that is, the uncomprehending, callous, helpless, insensitive people whose ‘slothfulness of heart’ condemned an innocent man.

Wassermann can perhaps be forgiven this strategy, if we consider what he was up against. When the novel was first published, and later when he was writing the introduction to the English edition, he was voicing a deeply unpopular opinion and was raking up something many Germans wanted to forget. To be reminded of this scandal – by a Jew, moreover – doubtless antagonised many of his readers. Despite his claims to the contrary, I would argue, Wassermann was prepared for a fight: he invited it, partly because he wanted to provoke the reading public (and, obviously, sell books), but partly because it was a fight he thought he could win.

As he hints, his interest in Caspar Hauser was a longstanding one. He had researched his subject thoroughly, conducted interviews with numerous people; there was even a personal element:
‘The figure of Caspar Hauser had been familiar since my childhood. My paternal grandfather, who had been a rope-maker and then a merchant in Zirndorf, had seen him in the Vestnerturm at Nuremberg, and spoke of him as a very mysterious person. Others too, the simplest and most sober people, always spoke of his case as a mystery that was best not discussed aloud. I knew the places where Hauser had spent his queer, troubled life, and where he had died: the castle tower and the Tucher house in Nuremburg, the little street where the teacher Mayer had lived in Ansbach, the Court garden with the octagon which bears that beautiful inscription; all the things that had remained as they were, and even what was left of the landscape, were magically appropriate to his destiny.’ (My Life as German and Jew, p.106)

The real question, then, seems to be: does the novel succeed as propaganda?

The narrative we are presented with is certainly plausible. Wassermann’s central assertion – that no one entrusted with the care of Caspar Hauser knew how to treat him, and that this inevitably and tragically led to growing mutual incomprehension – is a persuasive one. Again and again, Caspar is treated as a problem to be solved: the question of how to turn him into a ‘useful’ member of society occupies both his friends and enemies (it is not hard to imagine that this is how he was treated, precisely because it is so hard to imagine him being treated any other way). Different people try to mould him in different ways, but ultimately they all want to make him obedient and pliable. If Caspar lies, Wassermann intimates, it is because he learns to do so from the people around him. He understands, over time, that people rarely say what they mean in the pursuit of their desires, and so, in order to get what he wants, he imitates them.

Then there are simpler – and perhaps just as effective – arguments.

Daumer, when he first hears someone question Caspar’s motives, replies:
‘ “What human being with sense or ability would consent to live on bread and water for the pleasure of deceiving others, and to reject with disgust everything that is pleasing to the palate?... and for what advantage?” ’

Even Caspar’s enemies, Wassermann suggests, are unable to answer this question. They all accuse him of duplicity and deception, but it is hard to see what Caspar actually gains from his ordeal. From his first appearance in Nuremburg to the time of his death he remains a virtual prisoner (an irony not lost on the author); he is followed constantly by the police, supposedly for his own protection; he does not become wealthy; he is rarely allowed to travel; he attains no real power or influence; he does not sleep with any women; he remains largely indifferent to the rumours of his royal parentage (his detractors seem far more obsessed by this – another irony exploited by the author); he wants only to see his mother and seems uninterested in her wealth or status.

And this is not merely poetic license. The events themselves – even as presented by those who see Caspar Hauser as an impostor - reveal just how little advantage he gained. Which begs the question: if he was an impostor why did he bother to prolong the deceit? Or, at any rate, prolong it in the way that he did? Why not try for more? Why – if he was such an accomplished liar – did he not benefit more substantially?

The usual answer is that he was a ‘half-witted’ impostor, which surely is self-contradictory: if he was genuinely half-witted, then his deception would have been easier to discover. The fact that nothing was discovered - in spite of the concerted efforts of many individuals over a number of years to wring the truth from him - either means that he was fully in possession of his wits (and therefore – inexplicably – incapable of benefiting from his deception) or that he had nothing to hide.

Ultimately, in the absence of compelling evidence, this dilemma will remain unresolved. The events of Caspar Hauser’s life and death will always be open to question, it seems. Perhaps all we can decide is which account seems more plausible: the dominant version, in which an unscrupulous young man desperate for attention and material gain maintains - for years - a lie that yields an unpleasant amount of the former while remarkably little of the latter; or Wassermann’s version, in which the victim of an unimaginable act of cruelty is then released into the world only to be re-imprisoned by a society that refuses to comprehend his plight?

From Jakob Wassermann, Caspar Hauser, (Horace Liveright, Inc., 1928, trans. Caroline Newton)

467 pages

Monday, 21 November 2011

Jakob Wassermann, Wedlock

Laudin und die Seinen was first published in Germany in 1925. It appeared in English the following year, re-titled Wedlock, translated by Ludwig Lewisohn.

Set in the years 1923-1924 in an unnamed city (possibly in Germany, possibly in Austria – one of the only geographical references is to Kottingbrunn), it describes a period of crisis in the life of its protagonist Dr Friedrich Laudin. Now forty-eight, Laudin is a partner in a successful law firm. Following a landmark case in 1910, he has become ‘one of the leading lawyers of his country, especially in matters of domestic difficulties.’ Renowned for his ‘incomparable tact... judicial acumen and profound learning’, he appears, on the surface, to be leading a calm, steady, irreproachable life. His marriage to Pia – twelve years his junior – seems a happy if uneventful one. His relations with his three children likewise seem untroubled. However, for some time Laudin has been experiencing a growing discontent. His near-constant entanglement in other people’s ‘wretchedness and dissatisfaction’ appears at last to have affected his own domestic happiness, prompting him to question not only his marriage to Pia but the institution of marriage itself.

Laudin’s discontent at first takes the form of a wish to become another person: ‘ “I’d be perfectly satisfied if only I weren’t myself”’ he admits at one point.

Over time his desire to escape his present existence becomes more intense: ‘Why not throw aside this old and weary and threadbare creature that one was and become and be another? Vanish from one’s own self, as it were, and be reborn out of that vanishing.’

His profession, once a source of satisfaction, now frustrates him: ‘ “A man tied to a profession is in a groove which he is not free to leave, bound for a goal in the determination of which he had no voice... We seem to will, but that is appearance not reality. Free obligation and sordid compulsion have become identical. And few of us attain a spiritual height where will and duty merge into that higher compulsion which is the impulse of the master, not the obedience of the slave.” ’

Clearly, he is waiting for a catalyst, for something to provoke the inevitable crisis.

The catalyst proves to be the suicide of a friend’s son. Driven to despair by an actress with whom he has fallen in love, Nicolas Fraundorfer shoots himself in the head. His distraught father, Egyd Fraundorfer - Laudin’s best friend - asks Laudin to investigate. He shows Laudin a photograph of the actress – Louise Dercum – hoping for Laudin’s ‘incorruptible spiritual penetration’; hoping, in other words, for confirmation of his own negative appraisal. Laudin, however, sees something else entirely. He is captivated by the image. Where Fraundorfer sees only a ‘play-actress’, Laudin sees ‘ “a face of indescribable, of quite astonishing veracity and innocence.” ’

The scene is significant not only because it poses the question, whose evaluation is correct? – (a source of dramatic tension only resolved later in the novel) – but because it reveals the projections of both men. Fraundorfer wants to see nothing but Louise Dercum’s guilt and duplicity; Laudin, nothing but her innocence. Neither man has met her but already they have formed judgements. Fraundorfer keeps the photograph in his coat pocket, together with ‘a few bank-notes... a piece of chocolate to which breadcrumbs were sticking... [and] a few cigar stumps’ – proof that, for him, Louise is purely a physical, material being and hence unworthy of special treatment. Laudin, when he first handles the photograph, blows away ‘the dust, ashes and tobacco’ and only reluctantly, the text hints, does he hand it back to Fraundorfer, who stores it ‘away again in its former unclean receptacle.’ The word ‘unclean’ is all-important (not least because it anticipates what is eventually revealed). Fraundorfer wants proof of Louise’s degradation; Laudin – desperate for something to help him escape his daily experience of wretchedness – wishes to elevate her.

As if to confirm its importance, the scene is repeated later in the novel. Fraundorfer takes the photograph from a draw, where ‘it lay amid bills and letters and banknotes. ’

‘He threw it over to Laudin. “Take it,” he said, with ill-restrained rage, “it may serve you as an identification.”

Laudin regarded the picture. The expression of the face seemed as gentle and thoughtful as it had on the day when he had seen it first. He talked as though to himself. “It is easy and obvious to assume deceit or self-deception, but the very illusion of certain qualities is a delightful thing. How much there can be in a human countenance! And think of the masks that we have to put up with in daily life. Every evening when I leave my office I feel like washing my body with a powerful acid and laving my eyes and scrubbing my hands.”

“You have become Dyskolos,” Fraundorfer murmured. “Were you not once Eukolos?” ’

Laudin realises that what he sees in the photograph may indeed be a mask, that the gentleness and thoughtfulness may be illusory, yet he chooses to be fooled. He trusts in the delightfulness of the illusion – seeing in it paradoxical evidence of a noble character. When he meets Louise his fascination with her intensifies, so much so that he believes her protestations of innocence. Her relationship with Nicolas had never become physical, she maintains. The attraction had been entirely on his side. His decision to kill himself had shocked her.

Reporting his conclusions to Fraundorfer, Laudin is greeted with scornful mockery:

‘ “Our friend here is wholly ignorant of the true character of lying. He neither knows its power nor its significance! He is aware neither of its shameless self-sufficiency, nor of its eel-like slipperiness. All he knows is the common or garden variety of lies, which can be aimed at and hit at a distance of three paces. He does not know the lie which is implicated with the rooted evil at the core of space and time, the lie of the world demon, the lie for its own sake!” ’

As the narrative progresses it becomes clear that Fraundorfer is right and Laudin mistaken. Louise reveals herself to be as mercenary and deceitful as Fraundorfer suspects. Laudin’s former acumen has apparently deserted him: his professional conduct becomes erratic; he is persuaded to lend Louise and her coterie larger and larger sums of money; he avoids Fraundorfer; grows more distant from Pia and his children; leaves himself open to gossip and scandal. Yet he is not wholly blind to this. He knows he is being used. (‘ “I was deluded and sought to be so” ’ he later admits.) If he does nothing to stop it, it is partly because he wants to expose what he still maintains is the ‘truth’ beneath Louise’s mask, and partly because he wants to be humiliated.

His deception and self-deception are weapons turned against his former life. He wants to cause a scandal among his former peers – ‘the watchmen of the ordinary’ – and to lower himself in their eyes so that he can finally break free of them and the order they represent (initially this desire is unconscious, only gradually does he understand it). Louise – although a liar – is independent, a quality ‘that impressed him above all things.’ She represents a fundamental challenge to bourgeois society because she refuses to abide by its rules. Her independence – however questionable its cause – encourages Laudin’s rebellion:

‘Thus it had been. Laudin, imprisoned in his rigidity, unredeemed from himself, met at the crossroads of life, Louise Dercum, the eternally changeful, the daily changeable. Here was a miracle of fate. Nothing of settled character was here; everything was fluid and discontinuous and this seemed to Laudin, by contrast, tending toward salvation.’

What, to bourgeois society, seems like dissolution and damnation, seems to Laudin to be a path to salvation. Only by sinking under can he rise above. Personal pleasure, he realises, outweighs professional duty:

‘He had come to a conclusion something like this: that he had denied himself these noble relaxations from the ordinary slavery of life on principle; that he had been too cowardly, too confused, too downtrodden, to enjoy them; his education had petrified him, and the uninterrupted expenditure of strength without equivalent inspiration had disillusioned him. Thus the overburdening of his motor system had revenged itself by crippling his capacity for impressions and for inspiration.’

Yet his final illusions must still be stripped away. Fraundorfer at last confronts Louise with the truth – the truth Laudin still believes is essentially noble. Fraundorfer’s son, a virgin until he met Louise, not only slept with her but contracted syphilis. Unable to defend herself against this accusation (her usual wiles prove ineffective against the pitiless – because grieving - gaze of Fraundorfer), Louise stands exposed for what she really is:

‘Perhaps it was because horror and fear had gotten hold of her entirely, or perhaps it was because the mere bodily appearance of that huge judge and recorder drove her forth from all her accustomed means of defense; perhaps it was because the enormity of his threat, the unthinkableness of an attack upon her body, almost robbed her of her reason (dark pictures from her earliest past undoubtedly rose before her) – whatever the cause, she began to tremble like an aspen leaf; she let the glass fall on the carpet and bowed her head into her hands and began to cry with the whining crying of a school-girl.’

Her maliciousness and duplicity are thus revealed as childish irresponsibility, the reaction of the powerless to the threat of the world. Wassermann is not as pitiless as Fraundorfer: the phrase in parentheses hints at an abusive father, unwittingly re-embodied by Fraundorfer, the ‘huge judge and recorder’ (the father figure could also represent patriarchal society). We feel no great delight in seeing Louise exposed: she becomes in that moment as much an object of pity as of scorn. ‘ “[T]his is no criminal court which can examine or condemn a culprit” ’ observes one of the onlookers – and we perhaps read here Wassermann’s own reservation: rather than condemn Louise outright – by humiliating her further - he leaves the scene on an ambivalent note. Laudin, now fully aware of his own self-deception, leaves with Fraundorfer, who has done as much as he can for his son’s sake. Louise and her hangers-on remain behind, drunk, in disarray, temporarily stunned, but perhaps unchanged in any significant sense.

Laudin now undergoes a complete breakdown, and is only saved by the ministrations of his wife. Aware of everything Laudin has done, and fully prepared to grant him his freedom should he ask for it, Pia reveals the true nature and extent of her love for him. She proposes that Laudin abandon his career, move to the country and recuperate. In time, she maintains, he will find his true calling. Laudin, still reluctant to admit defeat, only gradually accepts what she is saying:

‘One must not earn money with half justice, with justice that miscarries, with justice that fails, with justice that is its own contrary. Though he could say to himself that he had, to the best of his ability, defended the ignorant and the defenseless against the arbitrariness and false assumptions of those powers of stone, yet he had himself become too profoundly the victim of those powers to continue to draw self-respect from so poor a consolation.’

Should he want a divorce, Pia intimates, she will not fight him. Should he ask her to go with him to the country, she will gladly follow. She will happily live with less, she tells him. The judgement of society means nothing to her: let other people sneer, it does not matter as long as Laudin is happy.

Thus Wassermann shows Pia’s rebellion to be as radical as Laudin’s: she is willing to sacrifice as much, if not more. Indeed, her transformation seems even more profound for having been effected in silence and obscurity. Laudin suddenly realises that his former wife has disappeared, and that the woman in front of him is a new person. The struggle he has undergone in public, she has undergone in private:

‘... it was something different and wholly new, a new form, a new eye, a new face, a new mind, which had grown up without his knowledge or his intervention and which now came to companion him, between one moment and the next on the decisive crossroads between his old life and his new.’

Laudin realises that what he has been seeking has been his all along. Rather than an obstacle to change, his marriage becomes the means of attaining it. Pia does not chain him to society: she will help him free himself.

From Jakob Wassermann, Wedlock (Boni & Liveright, 1926, tr. Ludwig Lewisohn)
344 pages


‘But the fates and confusions of men are not always so simple, nor their characters so easy to judge, that any man, even the most experienced and the most schooled in knowledge of the human heart, can, by the mere purity of his own character, avoid situations in which he finds himself at variance with his own convictions.’

‘People were generally of the opinion that man needs things. But this opinion seemed utterly foolish and perverse; in reality, the matter stood quite differently. It is things which shamelessly and impudently and importunately stand in need of man, and demand and misuse his strength and his time, as seems fitting to them.’

‘ “People who are always dealing with irreconcilable contradictions make me quite tired,” he growled. “They are usually pirouetting on the dash that separates their antinomies.” ’

‘... one cannot revoke what one has seriously uttered. The spoken word is irrevocable.’

‘All that she did, desired, demanded, her very life and breath, was the final result of regulations and conventions having no substantial nature of their own: of all those iron rules which had gathered rust in the course of the centuries, of all the agreements, bulls, enactments, prescriptions and charters which, from the very invention of the state on, had been decreed and petrified in order to change right into compulsion, security into terror and good custom into the spirit of the eternal penitentiary. It might be asserted without fear of contradiction, that through the slow and industrious digging and corroding of this representative and her followers, all noble spontaneity had been destroyed and was being destroyed more and more. To her and to her like, the whole of humanity, men, women and children, were but a single debtor. She conceived of herself as having a perpetual lien on law, morality, love, fidelity, good faith, on God himself. And in so far as she conceived of herself as having been disappointed in her claims upon happiness and satisfaction – in precisely that measure she believed all human society to be in her debt.’

‘The pain that a created thing suffers is something absolute. It is alone with that thing and with God.’

‘What is evil? It is the discouraged submission into which untruth weaves us with a subtle lightness of touch, thread by tiny thread; amiably playing with us and – God protect us from that – sustained by an apparently magical element.’

‘ “... the institution of marriage can no longer bear us up and no longer possesses the principle of life within itself. Anarchy would be better or chaos or universal nothingness. Away with it! We must begin anew, whatever this new thing be. Only let us do away with this lie, this evil caricature, this world-shame. This unblessed mixture of compulsion and revolt, of public morality and of vice, which in a more modest age was secret but which is now perfectly public. It makes people evil; it makes them stiff-necked and vulgar; it does so more and more each day.” ’

‘ “The central point of all our thinking and action is the I, is the self. We are drowning in self-assertion and self-consciousness. We are concerned over the extinction of the I or its separation into component parts or its deliquescence and reformation. If an individual is dissatisfied with the form of its existence, it will seek a new one, a more joyous one, one that is more conformable to its needs. I can no longer resist the conviction that the individual personality, in consequence of the modern overemphasis of it and especially since Christianity has ceased to function effectively, has lost its significance. We must prepare a new loam from which new creatures are to grow. I find that the individual is no longer important to society, in so far as we are dealing with society’s spiritual and moral state. The pair is important. I am thoroughly persuaded that for each man and each woman there exists but a single possible complementary personality. It surpasses all imagination what human society would gain in peace, in delight, in elasticity, in purity and cleanliness, through the constant multiplication of such truly constituted pairs. And it is for this reason that I want all barriers to choice to fall. Neither men nor women must be hindered in their choices. No moral odium, no burden of paternity, neither motherhood nor premiums on virtue, must prevent them from testing and experiencing all the forms and even the fancies of love that they either desire or imagine. If they possess any true instinct, that instinct will be sharpened; if any social willingness stirs in them, they will be led to the same goal. And be that goal what it may, it must not be what is now called marriage. Nor should we be concerned over a possible dissolution of morals and a so-called lapse into savagery. Nothing more evil is conceivable than that which now weighs on our hearts and darkens our spirits. No price is too high to pay for the mere attempt at transformation. In every human being, even in the most apparently lawless, there is a natural inclination toward some sort of equilibrium. It is this inclination which will, in the end, conquer all temporary and dangerous forms of eccentricity. It is a mere hysterical convulsion that ties our present world to laws and customs, which were once significant and necessary, but which to-day have left behind them only the empty forms. The abolition of capital punishment decreases the number of murders. Crimes create criminals; penalties create criminals. There is something wonderful in the spirit of man – an inextinguishable longing to trust the good that is in it, even if of that good there is but the tiniest seed.” ’

‘A man does not realize the number of his own conventional attachments until others begin to throw theirs aside.’

‘The state was obviously the biggest and most unscrupulous of all counterfeiting concerns. Behind the notes it issued there was a promise, and this promise was generally a lie.’

‘Man becomes inured to nothing as quickly as to the inadequate.’

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

'... perhaps the invisible stars are shaken by it...'

'Well, let us turn the pages, a summer afternoon, heat which parches one's lungs, the mazes of the stockyards; the sky a curious reddish yellow, the air sticky and thick enough to cut. Passages miles long, wooden tunnels, labyrinths of tunnels crossing the streets, the death-bridge for the animals which are to be slaughtered. A dull bellowing, oxen and calves in endless trains, a quiet fateful stamping. At a particular place the hammer falls upon them, in a minute hundreds die and fall into the pit. It is oppressive to be there, so close to countless creatures about to die; I see them stepping forward, shoving and shoved, the necks of the rear ones resting upon the flanks of those in front, from morning till night, day in, day out, year after year, with big brown eyes full of foreboding and wonder, their distressed lowing resounds through the air; perhaps the invisible stars are shaken by it; the pillars tremble with the heavy bodies; the sweetish smell of blood rises from the tremendous halls and warehouses, a constant cloud of blood hangs over the whole city; the people's clothes smell of blood, their beds, their churches, their rooms, their food, their wines, their kisses. It is all so tremendous, so unbearably immense, the individual scarcely has a name any longer, the separate thing nothing, nothing to differentiate it. Numbered streets, why not numbered people, perhaps numbered according to the dollars they earn with the blood of cattle, with the soul of the world?'

From Jakob Wassermann, The Maurizius Case (George, Allen & Unwin, 1930), p.326

' "We have become too many. There is no time to respect and honor all the animals we need to feed ourselves. We need factories of death; we need factory animals. Chicago showed us the way; it was from the Chicago stockyards that the Nazis learned how to process bodies." '

From J. M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals, (Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 52-53

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Jakob Wassermann, The Goose-Man

First published in Germany in 1915, The Goose-Man appeared in English in 1934.

It tells the story of Daniel Nothafft, a composer born in 1859, in Eschenbach, near Ansbach.

Eschenbach, so Wassermann reminds us, is the birthplace of Wolfram von Eschenbach, whose epic poem Parzival was later turned into an opera by Wagner. Parzival’s search for the Holy Grail becomes, in Wassermann’s text, the artist’s search for formal perfection and critical recognition.

As if to demonstrate the arduous nature of this quest, the novel has a dense, complicated plot, albeit a compelling one.

The mutual hostility between artist and society forms the major tension in the narrative. Daniel is a restless, troubled figure, unable to conform to the demands of bourgeois society. From earliest childhood he is marked as different, ‘driven by a force beyond his control to cling to all and sundry who had the power of making music.’

His own musical talent is recognised by only a few. Most of the people around him – including his family - have no appreciation of his art, or his character. (We see here clear parallels with Wassermann’s own troubled childhood.) This incomprehension results in the ‘despairing passion, the rebelliousness, the fierce and sullen rage’ that over time shape Daniel’s life. His intransigence – born of artistic integrity – wins him few friends but many enemies.

The first – and one of the bitterest – of these enemies is the brother-in-law of Daniel’s mother. Jason Philipp Schimmelweis plies ‘his trade as a bookbinder in the Cornmarket of Nuremburg.’ Having ‘won the respect of all by his ready command of language’, Jason Philipp appears to be a respectable businessman. In private, however, he is discontented, ambitious and cruel. When Daniel’s father approaches him for a favour, Jason Philipp is quick to exploit the situation.

Sensing that he does not have long to live, Daniel’s father decides to entrust his modest life savings – three thousand thalers – to Jason Philipp, on the understanding that Jason Philipp will guard the money and in time become a father to Daniel. The deal is struck in secret between the two men. When Daniel’s father dies shortly afterwards, Jason Philipp conveniently forgets their agreement, using the money instead to branch out into bookselling. At the same time - out of guilt and a ‘bad conscience’ – his aversion to Daniel increases. Rather than help his nephew, he does everything in his power to thwart him. Daniel is desperate to pursue a career in music, so Jason Philipp attempts to force him into a business career. He enlists the help of Daniel’s mother, convincing her of her son’s worthlessness.

Daniel, eventually, is forced out on to the street – a ‘fugitive’ who must now make his own way in the world. Penniless and hungry, he lives an itinerant life, working and composing when he can. He settles, uneasily, in Nuremburg, where his frustrated ambition becomes the object of ridicule and derision among his neighbours.

He is saved by his friendship with Doctor Friedrich Benda, whom he meets by chance, and in whom he at last finds a kindred spirit. Like Daniel, Benda is misunderstood, unappreciated, maligned. A Jew, he is treated with contempt by others in his field (biological research). He too lives in opposition to bourgeois society, ‘defiant and lonely.’ To make matters worse, he is in love with a married woman with whom, he knows, he can never have a physical relationship.

(Out of despair he leaves Germany for Africa, only to return towards the end of the novel.)

A shared sense of hopelessness and frustration bring Benda and Daniel together. As does their affection for Lenore Jordan.

Lenore is seventeen when she first meets Daniel; her temperament and beauty are ‘like a lamp that is carried through dark chambers’:

‘People disapproved of her because her eyes were so radiantly blue, and because her astonishingly regular white teeth were always flashing between her soft, peach-like lips. She was flighty, a regular butterfly, they said... whose heart was set on finery and worldly trifles.’

In fact, Lenore is quite the opposite: the world does not concern her; at least not in a materialistic sense. Her ‘temperament was such that life never quite touched her... she dwelt in the centre of a crystal sphere. If she was in trouble, if painful doubts oppressed her, if the vileness of a base and perverted world reached out for her, all that happened was that the crystal shell expanded and the things that whirled round its periphery became still more impalpable.’

The accusation of covetousness thus reveals more about the nature of her accusers than about Lenore herself. She cannot be possessed by society – its vileness cannot touch her – so she must therefore be made ‘palpable’ through slander.

Like Daniel and Benda, Lenore is an outsider – something underlined by her decision to go out to work and also by her refusal to contemplate marriage (she rejects the proposal of a suitor, Eberhard von Auffenberg, another ‘outsider’ who will be discussed later). Her independence is precisely what society most distrusts. Non-conformity has something unnatural about it, as far as the petits bourgeois are concerned; whenever it arises it must be transformed into something more easily dismissed.

Lenore’s sister Gertrud is similarly ‘withdrawn from the ordinary affairs of life’, but in her case this is due to religious piety:

‘She went to church every day, and had a secret leaning towards Catholicism, by which her father, a convinced Protestant, was greatly troubled.’

Gertrud is in many ways the opposite of Lenore: she represents darkness; her eyes, rather than being radiant, seem to be permanently downcast; she is ‘indifferent, if not hostile’ to Daniel’s presence, unlike Lenore who, from the first, seems to sympathise with him.

Yet strangely it is Gertrud, rather than Lenore, who attracts Daniel’s attention. Gradually, almost reluctantly, Gertrud’s feelings change. Gertrud and Daniel marry, but not before Daniel has seduced – and unknowingly fathered a child with – a domestic servant.

Through the discreet intervention of Lenore, the presence of this child remains hidden from Daniel and Gertrud for several years. The child – a girl named Eva – is raised by Daniel’s mother and in time becomes the means for reconciliation between mother and son.

(Eva eventually disappears one day in her eleventh year, having run away with a troupe of travelling performers, never to be heard from again... until she reappears as a major character in Wassermann’s later novel The World’s Illusion. Wassermann, here, was emulating Balzac, re-introducing characters to vivify his fictional world.

Herr Jordan - Lenore’s and Gertrud’s father, a retired insurance inspector - spends most of his days alone in a tiny attic room, working on a secret project. This project is eventually revealed as the construction of a walking, talking doll. The doll – or a derivative of this prototype – reappears in Gold [Ulrike Woytich in the original]: further evidence of Wassermann’s growing command of his medium.)

Owing to their restricted financial circumstances, the newly-married Daniel and Gertrud must share a house with Lenore and Herr Jordan. Almost inevitably – given their close proximity and their natural affinity – Daniel and Lenore fall in love. Their mutual acknowledgement of this coincides with the revelation that Gertrud is pregnant. When the child - another girl, named Agnes – is born it seems that Daniel and Lenore will never consummate their passion.

But then Daniel confesses to his wife. Out of love for her husband and sister, Gertrud effectively gives them her blessing, and the three now form a sort of ménage-a-trois (typically, Wassermann treats this with sensitivity: he clearly disapproved of monogamy, yet did not feel the need to force this opinion on his readers). The local rumour-mill, already sensing something unusual and possibly scandalous in Daniel’s relationship with Lenore, becomes even busier.

Daniel, unwittingly, earns the nickname ‘the goose-man’.

The Goose-man fountain stands in a marketplace in Nuremburg. On top of the fountain, which is surrounded by metal railings, a male figure, made from bronze, poses with a goose beneath each arm. From the mouths of the geese come streams of water. The figure looks slightly comical, yet the expression on his face, according to Wassermann, is serene and hopeful.

In the minds of the locals, Daniel is a ludicrous figure; his musical ambitions derided as futile. The geese beneath his arms are Lenore and Gertrud; clearly ‘silly geese’ as far as the locals are concerned, having ruined themselves for Daniel’s sake. Together, the three of them have offended against the rules of so-called respectable society. Their downfall is eagerly anticipated.

Drawn to this potential spectacle are two of the strangest and most sinister characters Wassermann has created. The first, Herr Carovius, is described as ‘the Nero of our times’:

‘The death of others, the discomfiture of others, the misery of others, the treacheries committed, the tyranny of the powerful, the oppression of the poor, violence done to justice, and the sufferings that thousands have to bear every day – he was gratified by all these things; they engrossed his attention and gave him a pleasant sense of security... He was a petit bourgeois with uninhibited instincts. He was a rebel of conservative behaviour. He was a Nero without slaves, without power, and without an empire... He was moved not by grief, nor by brotherly love, but by hatred of a world in commotion in the midst of which he stood condemned to immobility.’

Carovius is attracted equally by his loathing for Daniel and his attraction to Lenore. His desire to see both humiliated has a strange, almost sexual undertone: the voluptuousness of corruption.

The second character is Philippine Schimmelweis, daughter of Jason Phillip, and cousin to Daniel. When, as a child, she overhears her parents mockingly dismiss the idea that she and Daniel should be intended for one another, it paradoxically implants the notion in her mind. From then on she harbours the secret conviction that she is destined to be Daniel’s wife. She does everything she can to ingratiate herself with Daniel, Lenore and Gertrud. When she discovers that her father has cheated Daniel of his inheritance she exposes the fraud, using this act as a pretext for winning favour. She installs herself in Daniel’s home as housekeeper and nanny to Agnes. Once there, she exerts a malignant influence on all around her – an influence that will contribute to more than one tragedy.

Gertrud, despite her best efforts, cannot continue to share her husband. She becomes increasingly convinced she is in the way, prohibiting a closer bond between Daniel and Lenore. She commits suicide, hanging herself in the attic. Philippine discovers the body, and – in a sort of sexual frenzy – sets a fire (the first of two she will set). The neighbourhood gossips are appeased by the tragedy, seeing in it divine condemnation of Daniel’s and Lenore’s transgression.

Over time this transgression is forgotten, if not forgiven. It is widely expected that Daniel and Lenore will marry. They do - to the mortification of Philippine. Meanwhile, their financial circumstances continue to worsen. Daniel still cannot make money from his music, so Lenore must work. She manages to sell bouquets of flowers on behalf of a local florist, little realising that the bouquets are all being bought by the same person: her former suitor, Eberhard von Auffenberg.

Eberhard is the son and heir of the Freiherr Siegmund von Auffenberg, an immensely wealthy baron. For years, however, father and son have been estranged. Eberhard has forsworn his birthright, eschewing all contact with his father. Rather than swallow his pride and ask for help, he accumulates more and more debt – his main creditor being Herr Carovius.

Eberhard’s position is thus similar to Daniel’s, Lenore’s and Benda’s: he is an outsider, despite his background. His rejection of wealth makes him suspect in the eyes of society. His attachment to Lenore in some ways parallels Daniel’s pursuit of his craft: both men cling to an ideal discounted by the commercially-minded.

When Lenore dies in childbirth the two men are drawn to each other. In one of the most beautiful and remarkable passages in the novel their likeness to one another is revealed:

‘Eberhard rose and signed to Daniel to follow him. They went along a narrow passage and ascended a tiny staircase. On the landing Eberhard opened the door of the attic.

An overpowering smell of decay assailed their nostrils. Daniel recoiled involuntarily, but the Baron pointed in silence to the walls.

“What’s all this? What does it mean?” gasped Daniel.

The four walls were completely covered with bouquets, garlands and wreaths of withered flowers. From most of the blooms the petals had long since fallen, and now lay strewn about the floor. The green leaves had become brown and wrinkled, the grasses were reduced to threads, the stems had rotted. Many of the bouquets and wreaths were bound with ribbons of faded red or blue; many had golden threads on which the rust had set its mark; many, like the engraving downstairs, were illumined by the setting sun, in whose ruddy beams danced a thick stream of dust.

It was a floral burial vault, a mortuary of dead memories. Daniel guessed the explanation. His tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, a shiver ran down his back, and his eyes swam with burning tears as Eberhard began to speak.

“These flowers were plucked and arranged by her hands, by Lenore’s hands,” said Eberhard. Then, after a pause: “She made the wreaths for a florist, and I bought them all, without her knowledge.” That was all he had to say.

Daniel looked back over his life, as from a pinnacle up which he had been dragged by an invisible hand. He looked, and his soul was filled with dismay and anguish and remorse.

What was left to him now? Two graves were left; and a broken harp; and withered flowers; and a plaster mask.

He saw the dead stalks and the mouldering blooms. Once Lenore’s fingers had touched them all, and, like ghosts, her fingers hovered still about the lifeless blossoms. The dusty cobwebs harboured the wasted hours, the omitted words of kindness, of consolation, encouragement, and sympathy; the missed opportunities of happiness. Oh, this neglect of the present, of a living life, of the wonderful day, the breathing hour! This stumbling, falling, weltering in the night of desire and delusion! This vain, this criminally vain discontent! Oh, angel, angel, where are you now, and how can one invoke you?’

In time both men move on; both marry (Daniel for the third time); yet neither marriage proves successful. Eberhard still clings to the memory of Lenore, something his wife realises and is unable to change; while Daniel commits an even greater blunder in marrying a woman much younger than himself, a woman who proves to be frivolous, self-centred and – ultimately – unfaithful.

Daniel confronts his wife and her lover. A violent struggle ensues. Meanwhile, Philippine – who has had a hand in exposing this infidelity – decides she has waited for Daniel for too long, promptly returns to the house and sets fire to the musical scores Daniel has worked on for years. She then disappears, leaving Daniel in a near-catatonic state, utterly devastated by the loss of his life’s work.

And now, finally – after 500 pages - the full significance of the novel’s title becomes clear. In a strange, dream-like passage, Daniel is visited by the Goose-man. Wearing ‘quite a pleasant expression’, the Goose-man sits by Daniel’s bedside, gently chiding him for having lived his whole life in an ivory tower. Daniel’s mistake, the Goose-man tells him, was to see himself as above other people, to see art as something removed from the world. The admonishment seems ill-timed, yet proves to be precisely what Daniel needs in order to recover. Reviewing his life, realising his art until now has been completely misconceived, paradoxically allows him to carry on:

‘ “Had you been more sensitive and less thickly armoured! Had you only lived, lived, lived, truly and wholeheartedly, like a naked man in a thicket of thorns! You would have been trodden underfoot, but your love would have been real, the hatred you inspired real, your misfortunes real, the lies real, the mockery and treachery real, even the ghosts of your dead ones real. And the poison of the Nessus shirt would not merely have burnt your skin, it would have made its way into your blood, into the most silent, most sacred depths of your soul, and then your work would not have been accomplished in wrestling with your own darkness and your narrow sufferings, unfree in the eyes of mankind, unblessed by God. Do not imagine you have borne the sorrows of the world; you have but borne your own – loving-loveless, selflessly-selfish superman that you were – no true citizen!... How can a man create if he stint and defraud the humanity within him? It’s not a question of ability, Daniel Nothafft; it’s a question of character.” ’

This call for generosity, for greater immersion in the life of the world, comes as a profoundly ironic blow at the end of a novel about a struggling artist. Everything leading up to this point is thus thrown into question. Daniel’s tragedy is revealed as unnecessary and self-inflicted. Which is not to say that his journey is unnecessary. The greater the disillusionment, the greater the eventual reward, Wassermann seems to be saying. We have to fail in order to succeed.

The conflict between artist and society can only be resolved by a renunciation of ego on the part of the artist. Believing oneself to be better than humanity ‘stints’ and ‘defrauds’ the humanity within oneself.

This is not simply a banal call for greater populism in art; it is about recognising the fundamental connectedness of artist and audience, about responding to incomprehension, philistinism and resistance with patience and wisdom. Art that turns its back on the world loses something invaluable in the process, and perhaps ceases to be art at all.

We should perhaps remember that Herr Carovius, Philippine and even Jason Philipp are all outsiders too; yet because they succumb to their hatred of the world, they each become destructive, rather than creative.

One must be like a statue, Wassermann suggests: standing still, in the middle of a marketplace, watching life, absorbing everything.

The holy grail thus proves to be something visible rather than hidden; something commonplace rather than extraordinary. It cannot be located through selfish struggle, but only through openness and acceptance.

Daniel, at the end of the novel, is fifty years old. He has returned to Eschenbach, where he teaches music:

‘He exercised a mysterious influence over everyone with whom he came into contact, and there were many who sought counsel from him in their troubles. His pupils idolized him; he had the gift of arousing their interest and inspiring them with enthusiasm. The means he employed were of the simplest: his luminous personality, his harmony of word and deed, his earnestness, his kindly glance, his whole-hearted devotion to whatever he took in hand.’

When asked by one of his pupils about his work, Daniel only smiles in response.

The serene, hopeful smile of the Goose-man.

From Jakob Wassermann, The Goose-Man, (George, Allen & Unwin, 1934)

541 pages