Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Georg Büchner: Lenz

Literary representations of madness and melancholia are not that uncommon but not many can rival Georg Buchner's short story Lenz in the truthfulness of its depiction and insights into a mind coming apart. (Buchner's play Woyzeck is another masterpiece of the genre, and Werner Herzog's movie adaptation is excellent too.) Lenz is based on the real life events from the life of the eponymous German writer (wiki page here) who was Goethe's contemporary. Lenz, after an attack of paranoid schizophrenia and following an advice from a friend, visited an evangelical minister and philanthropist by the name of Oberlin in the hope of getting some relief. The story describes Lenz's visions, torments and thoughts once he arrives in that mountainous region and ends with his departure for the town of Strasbourgh. Lenz later died in a state of complete madness.

What is most remarkable is that though the account is written in third person, it is so completely allied with Lenz's skewed perspective that it creates an uncanny feeling of inhabiting Lenz's mind and yet maintaining a detached understanding of the subject. For example this passage, it will seem as if it is being described by a detached narrator who is just trying to create a background "effect" before the arrival of the hero, but soon it turns out that it is supposed to show the mental state of Lenz and everything is filtered through Lenz's fractured consciousness. It is breathtaking long sentence...

Only once or twice, when the storm forced the clouds down into the valleys and the mist rose from below, and voices echoed from the rocks, sometimes like distant thunder, sometimes in a mighty rush like wild songs in celebration of the earth; or when the clouds reared up like wildly whinnying horses and the sun's rays shone through, drawing their glittering sword across the snowy slopes, so that a blinding light sliced downwards from peak to valley; or when the stormwind blew the clouds down and away, tearing into them a pale blue lake of sky, until the wind abated and a humming sound like a lullaby or the ringing of the bells floated upwards from the gorges far below and from the tops of the fir trees, and a gentle red crept across the deep blue , and tiny clouds drifted past on silver wings, and all the peaks shone and glistened sharp and clear far across the landscape; at such moments he felt a tugging in his breast and he stood panting, his body leaned forward, eyes and mouth torn open; he felt as though he would have to suck up the storm and receive it within him. He would stretch himself flat on the ground, communing with nature with a joyfulness that caused pain. Or he would stand still and lay his head on the moss, half closing his eyes, and then everything seemed to recede, the earth contracted under him, it grew as small as a wandering star and plunged into a rushing stream that sparkled by beneath him, But these were only moments, and then he would get up clear-headed, stable and calm, as though a shadow-play had passed before him. He had forgotten it all.

Also interesting is that how Buchner presents nature as a destabilising and oppressive force, something diametrically opposite to the romantics, or even the nature descriptions in Goethe's Young Werther.

The story also touches on an interesting philosophical debate surrounding an aesthetic issue. Lenz is vehemently critical of idealists and thinks that only simple mimetic representational role of art is valuable:

He said: God has created the world the way it should be, and we cannot cobble together anything better, we should just try to copy it as best we can. I demand in all things - life, the possibility of existence, and then all is well. There is then no point in asking whether something is beautiful or ugly; the feeling that something has been created possesses life stands above these qualities and is the only criterion in the matters of art. Besides, this is quite a rarity; you can find it in Shakespeare, and we encounter it totally in folk-songs and sometimes in Goethe. All the rest can be thrown in the fire.

It is interesting because the story itself is far from a representation of the objective world. Indeed, one of the sources of Lenz's madness is that he is not able to extricate his own consciousness from that of the outside world and that he thinks the whole world is just a figment of his imagination and extension of his own mind.

I had read Woyzeck before but I am yet to read his other plays. He didn't write much, in fact it comes as a shock to learn that he died at a ridiculously young age of 23 from Typhus. It is even more surprising because he doesn't come across as just another intuitive genius, or at least not just that, but someone who had spent a lot of time reading and thinking about other people's ideas and forming his own opinions before expressing it in his writing. I will post about some of his other works later.

8 comments:

KUBLA KHAN said...

HI
keep up the excellent work. i have linked to your blog.
ciao

Alok said...

thanks Kubla! :)

Antonia said...

i like so much you wrote about this,so few people really have read Lenz even tho it is so great.
But I have to object to one point, the mimesis thing,it is not really so much about copying nature or so, but rather Buechner wanted to declare his distance from some sort of aesthetic ideal that sort of does not do justice to human nature, because it focusses only on dead and scholarly dull art, rather he wanted something alivem that's in the discussion of the dog house, how much he despises that, dead scholarly art. I have to agree nature in Lenz is a bit of a violent force, but in general Buechner stands on the side of nature and refuses the notion that people are being pressed into systems. There is so much to say about Lenz....I always found Lenz really also does justice to all the marginalised people such as lunatics like Lenz or lowerclass people like Woyzeck etc...Lenz by the way had studied philosophy in Koengisberg and wrote a poem for Kant....and these files, of the clergyman, Oberlin, they really exist and Buechner who was himself a doctor used as well as in Woyzeck to explore these mental states in order to find a solution for the question of the sound/sane mind in lawcases, whether these people really could be held accountable for their deeds...such an interesting man, this Buechner...

Alok said...

Okay I got what you are saying. I was thinking of "ideal" in the philosophical, platonic sense. I thought that Lenz was saying that one should write about the external world, "life" and not abstractions or mental categories. In the story Lenz says these things, i didn't know Buchner also believed the same (i still have to read the introduction to the story). The story cetainly is true to "life" in in accordance to Lenz's philosophy... it is just that it is all about Lenz's mind and his subjective experience. That's why i was a little confused.

mr waggish said...

I don't have a lot to say about Lenz other than that I too love it and along with Kleist, Buchner is one of the major spirits of the age in my own constellation. Has Josipovici written about Buchner? I bet he would have something interesting to say as well.

Alok said...

I like both of them a lot too. They both have a very distinctive modern sensibility.

I am not familiar with Josipovici's writings at all.

Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften said...

I've just read Lenz and it's a coincidence that I did so right after embarking in one of the greatest and most underrated novels of all time, Broch's Death of Virgil. Both are somewhat onirical and though the impossibility of art isn't the central theme of Lenz they share the same view of it, of it's utter impossibility, a radical refusal for the need of art and it's capability of reaching truth - wich in Virgil's case leads him to dismiss and try to burn the Aeneid. It's a tour de force, but quite worth it.

Anonymous said...

not sure if you're aware of this, but lenz's case study serves as a major launching point for deleuze and guattari's epic, and incredible, 'anti-oedipus'