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.’

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