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, 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