Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On Georg Büchner (1813-1837) as failed revolutionary

  In one sense the question of whether Büchner was a failed revolutionary is an uncomplicated one – certainly, he wrote a revolutionary document, Der hessische Landbote, which cannot be judged to have been a success on any functional level (its primary aftermath was the torture and death of his collaborator). Thus by definition his later forays into drama and prose constitute a body of work by a man whose call for revolution had not in any realistic way yielded any fruit. But in order to reach such a conclusion, one would have to ignore not only the many distinct intellectual fronts on which Büchner urged revolution, but also the richness and panache with which he did so. If Büchner is a failed revolutionary, then logically Tolstoy is a failed prophet, and as such Büchner is in excellent company.
The Büchner who wrote Dantons Tod, Lenz, Leonce und Lena and Woyzeck is very clearly the same fiercely political Büchner who opened his call to arms with the rallying cry ‘Friede den Hütten! Krieg den Palästen!’ His sense of social justice, his enormous pity for the oppressed, his yearning for action, these are not qualities which desert him in his fiction. But he does not only fashion political revolution into one of his central beliefs and distinguishing features as a writer; just as essential to his body of work is an intellectual revolt against the stylistic, aesthetic and philosophical tendencies of his day. It is in these areas in which the true profundity of his success as a revolutionary must be judged.
Perhaps most obvious is his literary revolt, which would be distinctly traceable in his works even were it not for his avowed criticism of Schiller and the idealisation of German classicism. Not for him the unrealistic, idealised excesses of his age, where characters scarcely lived and breathed of their own accord but were marionettes in their creators’ hands – a metaphor he himself deploys frequently, whether it be the use of automata in the climax of Leonce und Lena or Danton’s exclamation ‘Puppen sind wir, von unbekannten Gewalten am Draht gezogen; nichts, nichts wir selbst!’ The Kantian ideal of beauty, that symbol of the ethically good and the world as it ought to be, is of little concern to Büchner, belittling as it does not only the true horrors of the world, but also the true beauty. As Benn suggests, a literary attempt to improve upon nature is for Büchner destined merely to yield a result weaker than nature by far.
Instead, the young revolutionary chooses a kind of realism: to come as close as possible to the loves, joys, sufferings, songs and dances of everyday life and real people is his aim, such that feeling, true feeling rather than anything dusty or stultifying, can be conveyed to his audience. In this enterprise it is ironically enough his background as a scientist that aids him most: the cool, clinical eye of the observer lends his depictions both a deftness and an earthiness that speak of their solidity rather than their fancy. It is this approach which brings us the psychological reality of Danton as a complex, inconsistent figure, but also the grimness of Woyzeck’s situation. Büchner takes the existing framework of Lenz’s bourgeois dramas and gives the nineteenth century its first working-class hero. The proliferation of folksongs in Woyzeck is only one of the subtle ways he achieves this: songs in which Büchner saw ‘life, the possibility of being’, songs as close to real people as it was possible to be, full of earthy cynicism, melancholia, and good humour in equal measure.
Stylistically, Büchner issued significant challenges to the accepted conventions of his day. ‘Conventionally poetic language, exalted diction and resounding rhetoric’ (Benn) exist in his works merely as parody of the Idealists – whether that be King Peter’s ludicrous philosophical musings or the humorous interlude in which Leonce, enraptured, almost drowns himself in a satire on the excesses of 18th century sensibility or Empfindsamkeit. His training as a scientist furnishes his vocabulary with a plethora of medical and anatomical terms, usually to reinforce the crudeness or graphic nature of a given situation. For similar effect, Büchner is much given to obscenities and innuendo that were often too much for the Vormärz censors but which form an effectively unpleasant attack on sexual indulgence. The author who in 1834 can write ‘die Schenkel der Demoiselle guillotiniren dich’ is not only bawdy or witty, but risky. And crucially, he is able to turn his hand to dramatically different styles: Dantons Tod is predominantly laconic, sardonic and terse, intermingled though it is with real citations from speeches by the central characters; Leonce und Lena is full of prolixity and as much ridiculously high-flung rhetoric as Büchner can skewer.
This radicalism of style extends to radicalism of form. Büchner’s preference for parataxis, giving us each scene as an isolated, enclosed one, justified primarily in itself, with minimal connection to the previous or the following one, reinforces his metaphysical concerns with the breakdown of classical unity and order. We are left with a fleeting sense of impressions, glimpsing at the truth rather than seeing it. This extends even to the short story Lenz, in which right down to sentence level we can witness Büchner’s innovations: he relies heavily on asyndeton, giving us constant streams of impression which deliver image after image with seemingly minimal connection between them. Appropriately enough, in showing us the world’s brokenness, Büchner dismantles language itself – in Leonce’s words ‘ein Buch ohne Buchstaben, mit nichts als Gedankenstrichen’.
This feels phenomenally postmodern, and must in the context of 1834 surely be viewed as a literary revolution of its own kind. In the last few months of his life, Bertolt Brecht declared the play Woyzeck specifically to be the beginning of modern theatre – and Brecht was well-placed to make such a judgment. What Büchner initiates is not just a difference in the way authors approached style, however. His metaphysical conception of the purpose of literature is fundamentally different to that of the Romantics whose shadow he in his own time never fully escaped. Büchner’s plays are suffused with his nihilistic musings, and this in itself – before Nietzsche, but around the same time as Schopenhauer – is a significant break with the 18th century conception of the world.
Though, in content, Büchner’s revolt takes a large number of forms, it is perhaps best to view it predominantly through this lens of literary revolt. In his work on Büchner, subtitled The Shattered Whole, Reddick makes it clear that one of the key motifs underpinning Büchner’s entire literary output is that of a tear, an open wound, a ‘Riß’, in the fabric of the world, in its social and material interactions, in ourselves. Things are not, have not been, nor could they ever be ‘vollkommen’ or ‘ideal’ as the Idealists would have it. This idea of brokenness permeates each of his works. ‘Es ist ein Jammer, daß die Natur die Schönheit…zerstückelt und sie so in Fragmenten in die Körper gesenkt hat’, Danton claims. But beauty is still present in the body, if only in fragments. We may glimpse an idealised world. Wholeness eludes us – it is ‘always false – a pretence, an illusion, at best a transitory state. It is particles that loom large; discrete elements that he highlights in startling isolation, or in disparate clusters and combinations that create a constant sense of paradox, multivalence and mystery’ (Reddick).
We see this motif repeated time and time again: Leonce and Lena are the classic Shakespearian lovers who have been split apart; the Hauptmann in Woyzeck is terrified of his visions of the eternal abyss and shrinks back from it to maintain his relentless clockwork existence; Lenz feels ‘das Gefühl des Gestorbenseins’ and ends his days in an unrelieved misery, insensible to love, in which he has nothing. Whether the scene is comically absurdist, crudely realist, or high tragedy, we can detect Büchner’s abyss behind every action, every moment. Most grimly, we find it in the grandmother’s fairy-tale for the children in Woyzeck, in which there is no mother, no father, and the moon and the sun and the earth are rotting, and the child weeps all alone. There is no awakening at the end, no rescue, no deity. Benn identifies it as an ‘Anti-Märchen’, a word that will later be used of Kafka’s Die Verwandlung for similar reasons. It is an apt word for Büchner’s literary revolt, particularly as he explicitly takes a very familiar framework and rewrites it in polar opposite: Leonce und Lena as inverting Shakespearian comedy, Lenz as turning Romanticism on its head, Woyzeck as a twisted reflection of bourgeois drama, and Dantons Tod as a nihilist take on the Schillerian historical play.
Büchner’s dual take on the grimness of the world is, in Benn’s words, ‘the most compassionate love and the most savage indignation’. And this dichotomy is at the core of what he represents. In fact, we can see in Robespierre’s dictum that the two things the Republic needs most of all are virtue and horror – ‘die Tugend, weil ohne sie der Schrecken verderblich, der Schrecken, weil ohne ihn die Tugend ohnmächtig ist’ – a mission statement of sorts. Büchner presents the world to us as a horrific place, one where science is dehumanising and our minds can lose any scrap of our humanity in the maelstrom of statistics and objective phenomena, one where hierarchies are oppressive, one where mental instability is victimised rather than pitied – and then he displays the most enormous sympathy for his fellow-sufferers. Danton’s last words ‘kannst du verhindern, dass unsere Köpfe sich auf den Boden des Korbes küssen?’ are painfully poignant because they are both completely futile, because we know decapitated heads cannot kiss in the manner so described, and yet they ring with real, human truth, since oppression can only steal certain things from us and how we feel is not one of them. They are profoundly suffused with pain, yes, but it is not the pain of a universe in which all is bleakness, and they are more painful for that. The enormity of Büchner’s compassion for Woyzeck, for a man undone by physical and emotional suffering arising from his social position, is what makes the play so memorable.
Is this about-turn in literary tendency, then, a failed revolution? Much of the intellectual tradition of the Western world today seems so much in line with what Büchner has to say that we can easily forget his distance. He seems an ancestor to Kafka, to Brecht, to Beckett with his famed ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on’, and to much else besides. He seems more aware of the world’s wounds than its redemption, a far cry from work being written only thirty years before he first wrote Dantons Tod. All four of his central male characters yearn merely for ‘Ruhe’ above all else, because, for Lenz as for them all, ‘sein Dasein war ihm eine notwendige Last’. Yet in the blackness of this void, Büchner still makes us feel for a poor and pitiable soldier, still captures the essence of where the Revolution went wrong, still traces with immeasurable emotional sympathy and a deftness admired by modern psychiatrists the wanderings of a feeble brain. That he still does so in the void refutes its blackness. Much as Dostoyevsky plumbs the worst of human suffering so that we can really understand people, much as Bertrand Russell declares that ‘it is only after the fullest acknowledgement of the dreadfulness of life that one can begin to be happy’, Büchner’s oeuvre proves a triumphant justification for the process of art even within a void that seems to devour language and sentences themselves. The secret aim of alchemy, of imaginative representation of the inward, is material social progress, and nowhere is this truer than in Büchner. By highlighting the plight of the poor and the oppressed, he is drawing our attention to what needs to be changed. Ideas enter our discourse, our vocabulary, our thoughts, and they stay there until humanity, sick to its heart though it may be, does something about it. Surely that is worth more than a thousand revolutionary pamphlets.

Benn, Maurice B., The Drama of Revolt: A critical study of Georg Büchner, Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Büchner, Georg, Gesammelte Werke, Goldmann, 2002.
Finney, Gail, ‘Revolution, resignation, realism’, in The Cambridge History of German Literature, ed. H. Watanabe-O’Kelly, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Hinderer, Walter, ‘Deutsches Theater der Französisches Revolution’ in German Quarterly 64 (1991).
Knapp, Gerhard P., and Wender, Herbert, Nachwort to Gesammelte Werke, Goldmann, 2002.
Müller, Harro, ‘The Guillotine as Hero’, trans by A. Homan, in A New History of German Literature, ed. David Wellbery, Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2004.
Reddick, John, Georg Büchner: The Shattered Whole, Oxford University Press, 1994.

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