Monday, 28 September 2015

On the vision of renewal within Georg Kaiser's Von morgens bis mitternachts (From Morning till Midnight, 1912)

Before we examine whether the Kassierer’s vision of ‘Erneuerung’ or renewal in Von morgens bis mitternachts is in itself convincing, it is of course necessary to turn our attention to what kind of man or world is in need of renewal. If that which needs renewing does not seem sufficiently renewal-worthy, how can the renewal convince? Kaiser’s portrayal of both the Kassierer and the ‘Gesellschaft’ within which he functions – with all the mechanics that verb implies – is from the outset moribund, stultifying, and essentially more dead than alive (in other words, in dire need of renewal). The play opens with reference to a ‘Stahlkammer’ or (bank) vault, with the instant associations of imprisonment. The Kaiser’s task, the work he goes into perform every day of his working life, is repetitive and functional, as though he is merely a cog endlessly turning in a ghastly, inhuman apparatus (or in Landauer’s words, ‘Anhängsel am Räderwerk der Maschine’). He barely speaks, is merely a nameless, voiceless function, nothing more than an automaton in the background. When he opens his mouth his voice is croaky from lack of use and all he can do is utter the incomplete phrase ‘Holen Sie – Glas Wasser’ (water, of course, being associated with the giving of life viz. the coming of rain within the cycle of seasons, or Moses producing water in the desert). This is a dry, skeletal man in decline, just as society is in decline: institutions and bureaucracy are trapping and killing these people.
It is not just his ‘Arbeitplatz’ that cries out for inspiration and renewal, but also the stifling mediocrity of his ‘Haushalt’. As with the first scene of the play, Kaiser represents the familial characters as stock figures playing roles and archetypes. Dialogue is repeated in a maddeningly cyclical fashion, to the point of sounding obscure and/or bizarre. This familial cosiness is in the Kassierer’s words, a ‘gelber Sarg’: mediocrity abounds and creativity, vitality is dead. Such stilted scenes may have been highly theatrical and non-naturalistic, but the stilted feelings within them, into which Kaiser taps with an alarming sincerity, were evidently real enough in many a Wilhelmine German household. Small wonder, then, that this man feels hemmed in by the ‘Polizei des Daseins’, by worries of mortality, of the futility of life – an ‘Existenzangst’ that comes to the fore toward the end of the play’s first part. The Kassierer converses with a skull, is reduced himself to a near-skeletal state through words such as ‘Stirn’, ‘Fleisch’, ‘Gebein’, ‘Knochen’ and biblical imagery of death such as ‘Schädelstätte’, and when asked where he has come from gives the answers ‘vom Friedhof’ and ‘aus dem Grabe’. There is little ambiguity that renewal is urgent and vital. The question now is: what will the source of this Erneuerung be?
The Kassierer sets out on a quest to free himself of the decaying world of home and work, to become in his own words ‘ein verwahrloser Wanderer auf der Straße’. Throughout the play, there is a form of dichotomy between his words and his actions, although it is not as easily divisible as that sounds. Generally, the language he employs is biblical, rife with classical allusions of rebirth and of being remade, while his actions fall down squarely on the side of a more Nietzschean hedonism – of ‘worldly renewal’ rather than ‘spiritual renewal’, so to speak; nevertheless, as the play progresses, more of his imagery conforms to the worldly ideal, whilst a crucial action toward the end of the play – heading to the ‘Lokal der Heilsarmee’ – belies an interest in, if not quite an acceptance of, religious salvation or at least religious fervour. Thus the distinction between the two is never fully resolved, never made fully unambiguous, and this denies us a cohesive judgment of the source of the Kassierer’s ‘Erneuerung’ (that is to say, what exactly it is he wants to obtain).
The immediate prompt of the ‘Erneuerung’ is his apparent smitten-ness with the erotic, hedonistic potential of the materialist world, as personified in the stunning Italian ‘Dame’ who is utterly incongruous in the drab male-dominated world of the bank (in keeping with the importance of the sensuous classical tradition on German literature in works such as Goethe’s Römische Elegien V and Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig). This mode of being was previously inconceivable to him, and even causes him to ape Hamlet by saying ‘solch ein Mensch ist doch ein Wunderwerk’. Clearly, an element of what the Kassierer seeks is pervaded by this fascination with the worldly and the materialistic. The action by which he permits ‘Erneuerung’ involves stealing 60,000 Marks from his own cash till, and frittering the money away over a single 24 hour period. This goes through several stages, most of which are concerned with value or ‘Wert’ and are therein suffused with Kaiser’s bitter view of a society obsessed with consumerism and monetary value (‘Ja, wer braucht keins?’ is asked of money in the opening scene) at the expense of ‘Geist’. Examples include the discourse on the relationship between value and art, the huge cash reward the Kassierer provides at the velodrome, the caviar, the elegant dress, and the sensuality of the women in the ballroom.
Nonetheless, it is quite evident throughout that the Kassierer is not seeking mere ‘worldly’ contentment, however much it may be in the worldliest of places that he makes his search. He wants something spiritual, a kind of ‘Erfüllung’, such that the hedonism is rendered valuable rather than valueless. What the Kassierer wants is ultimately rather elusive (although that is arguably part of the play’s greatness), but we can at least pin it down to fervour, to untrammelled liberation and to the rather vague, unhelpful term ‘Freiheit’. It is notable that the Kassierer heads for the city of B., almost certainly Berlin, at the time a burgeoning industrial metropolis where liberalism was the order of the day and humanity could be spontaneous and unconstrained – as is also epitomised in the frenzy of the velodrome. He seems far more interested in the psychological reaction of the crowd than he is in the sport, or indeed in the amount of money he is giving away: ‘die Wirkung ist fabelhaft’ he remarks. He is witnessing ‘Geist’ in the people: something is driving them. This he calls ‘Leidenschaft’, on which he makes the explicit judgment ‘das ist es. Das lohnt’. He wants ‘Verschmelzung’, or ‘freie Menschheit’. Later he refers to it as ‘Menschen im Tanz’: not merely sensuality, but intellectual and physical movement, vitality, ability to express oneself – a phenomenon quite naturally at the heart of Expressionism both in the artistic and the literary sense.
Though his ontological quest may aim for Nietzschean unconformity, absence of mediocrity as defined in terms of escaping the drudgery of the ‘Hammelherden’, it is heavily influenced by Christian imagery and concepts. Von morgens bis mitternachts takes the structure of a ‘Stationendrama’ whereby the Kassierer stops off at different junctures whilst on the route to his inevitable end point. While this borrows from the unavoidable narrative progressions of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy – ‘what’s done is done: it cannot be undone’ – it also recalls Christ’s Passion, since the ‘Stationen’ are most commonly associated with the (varying in number) stations of the cross emblematised in most Protestant churches. Christ, of course, is one of the world’s most potent symbols of ‘Erneuerung’, in the form of the triumphant resurrection, and centuries of historical belief in rebirth, new life and reinvention have left their mark on the Germany about which Kaiser writes. If the Kassierer seems a somewhat incongruous figure to serve as the centre-piece for this crucial struggle for ‘Erneuerung’ takes place – a shabby bank clerk afflicted by the mid-life crisis to end all mid-life crises – that is only the trappings of Expressionism at work on the traditional Christian orthodoxy, the Expressionism which saw ‘humanity in the whores and the divine in the factories’ (Edschmid 1960).
However, the point about the Christian journey is that Christ succeeds – Christ is genuinely resurrected, whereas Kaiser’s is that the Kassierer fails. The elusive element of freedom of being which is sought within this quasi-Christian narrative is denied him again and again in a series of disappointments. At the velodrome the appearance of royalty returns everyone to the traditions of social class and hierarchy; the vision of man as a mass fades as quickly as it arose. Similarly, the Kassierer’s hopes of such fervour in the ballroom are dashed in their turn. The women are ugly, or drunk, or wooden-legged, and not the beauties he fantasises lie behind their masks. The hedonistic world does not provide the ‘Geist’ he had imagined it would.
Kaiser’s trump card is the closing section of the play in the ‘Lokal der Heilsarmee’, which is effective because of the conclusiveness with which he undermines attempts at ‘Erneurung’. To recapitulate, the play has seen the Kassierer’s quest for renewal consistently fail to convince, as illustrated by the succession of failures. In his desperation, the Kassierer turns to religious fervour as a means of salvation; that this too turns out to be empty charade and moralistic pretence is (almost literally) the final nail in the Kassierer’s coffin. Kaiser expressed this himself by saying ‘jedes Dichtwerk verrichtet eine vernichtende Niederlage der Geborgenen’. The crucible whereby he hoped for purification is nothing but superficiality. The girl who has over the past few pages represented his conscience, as a morally edifying figure, betrays him to the police for that ‘Belöhnung’: she may pose as a do-gooder but is too tempted by money in the end, like all the others. This leaves the cashier completely disillusioned and inert about life and the world; it is little surprise that, like many a Greek tragic hero, he begins to question a way out: ‘wer entrinnt? Wo ist der Ausgang?’
Although it remains undefined, a key element of the Kassierer’s ‘Erneuerung’ seems to involve escaping the fear of death, so of course it is to death that he eventually succumbs at the play’s close. He croaks his final words as ‘Ächzen’ and ‘Hauchen’ – just as he croaked his first, bringing him full circle. Fundamentally, despite the torrent of words he has let loose throughout the play, his verbosity and his attempts at inspiration, he is the same croaking bank clerk. The imagery of skeletons and death at the heart of his earlier monologue is also evoked, as the light seems to form the shadow of ‘eine menschliche Gerippe’ on the ceiling. Similarly, he is ‘mit ausgebreiteten Armen’ like Christ on the cross, but this too is a failure: Huder sees it fundamentally as no ‘Kreuzweg’ – it has been no resurrection, rather a journey of ‘Einsamkeit, und der unüberwindlichen Gefangenschaft des Ichs’. That the Kassierer ends much as he began, that he is a failed Messiah (‘einem gebrochenen Christus’ – Huder), and that every vessel into which he pours his aching need for renewal is ultimately disappointing or malicious: these facts all contribute to one undeniable conclusion, which is that the Kassierer’s ‘Erneuerung’ fails utterly to convince us as an audience. We are left with little sense that his journey has been one of worth. ‘Es ist ein Kurzschluß in der Leitung’ says the constable dismissively: the Kassierer’s end is so insignificant, so pathetic that it is almost tragi-comic.
However, it could be argued that this is precisely the purpose of Kaiser’s play, and that by failing to convince us of the Kassierer’s ‘Erneuerung’ he is conveying exactly what he wants to convey, that ‘Erneuerungen’ in themselves, intrinsically, do not convince. One of the most lucid moments in the Kassierer’s damaged ranting occurs in the velodrome, where he makes clear that he wants is ‘rein nicht, doch frei’. Purity, morality, these things are insignificant: the key word is ‘frei’. But it is never explained what ‘frei’ actually means in practical terms, because renewal by seeking freedom is judged here as fundamentally flawed. He is an insubstantial, solipsistic figure, in that no one we meet throughout the play shares his vision – but of course, he is also a nameless ‘everyman’. Kaiser seems to be saying that we are all solipsistic, that any one of us that yearns for infinite desire will reap only meagre outcome. Those other figures in the play who have been living mechanically continue to do so, despite the allegedly life-or-death vitality sought by the Kassierer. We have no means by which to ‘renewal’ ourselves: ‘the remainder of his journey is a quest to find a new value-scheme to replace the one that he has lost, but since his unit of exchange remains money, he will be doomed to failure’ (Williams). ‘Erneuerung’ is, indeed, impossible in such a world – it is futile in itself. Thus the question is no longer whether it convinces, but why it does not.

Esslin, Martin, ‘Modernist Drama: from Wedekind to Brecht’, in Modernism (ed. Bradbury/Macfarlane), Penguin, 1976.
Kaiser, Georg, Von morgens bis mitternachts, Reclam, 2012.
Williams, Rhys W., ‘Culture and Anarchy in Kaiser’s Von morgens bis Mitternachts’, in The Modern Language Review, vol 83 No 2, 1988.

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