Sunday, 20 March 2016
On Consumerism, Mortality and Nietzschean Philosophy in Georg Kaiser's "Von morgens bis mitternachts" (1912)
Georg Kaiser’s work ‘Von morgens bis mitternachts’, which débuted in 1917, retains the tradition present in ‘Liebelei’ and ‘Frühlings Erwachen’, namely of offering a vivid critique of a slowly modernising society. However, Kaiser’s piece seems to be on a broader canvas than the others – dealing as it does neither with the fripperies of love nor with the onset of puberty, but a wider, more overtly philosophical debate: what does it mean to happy? How much is money worth? And, crucially, is it possible to always buy what you want and need?
The first, crucial thing to notice is the dramatis personæ. Every character is anonymous, and a choice so striking is never accidental. In presenting bourgeois German society through the prism of nameless figures, Kaiser ensures we remember one key aspect about these people: they are not unique. The Kassierer is a one of many such small-town bureaucrats; there are innumerable ladies from Florence littered across Northern Europe; Mütter and Töchter abound; there are too many Herren to count. In other words, the events of this play, although they do happen to particular unfortunate, insecure people, are replicated time and again elsewhere; there are many such people of similar misfortune and insecurity. Indeed, Kaiser might argue, we are all afflicted by it. The anonymity of these central figures, and of the time and the place, lends the play an aura of egalitarianism, of modernism, and of individuality which places it firmly in the 20th century rather than the burgeoning romanticism of the 19th. Perhaps Schnitzler or Wedekind could not have written such a play; certainly Goethe and Schiller could not. This might sound unimportant or obvious, but to place ‘Von morgens bis mitternachts’ within a framework of German history seems crucial.
Kaiser is writing at a time of great change – a statement which has become a non-statement, since in literary criticism all artists work on the ‘cusp of great change’. But there can be little doubt that Germany’s shift from its feudalist, hierarchical past to a more industrialised nation – which was taking place at the beginning of the 20th century – brought some rapid alterations to its social fabric. What is particularly interesting about the anonymity of Kaiser’s characters – who are more than once listed as ununterschiedbar – is that in one sense it sits uneasily with the increasing personal freedom and individuality of the 20th century. At this point people were being treated more like individual figures rather than as social status. Personal freedom in 1917 may not have been vastly different to that of 1897, when ‘Liebelei’ first appeared. But the scenes one would see in 1927, 1947, and 1967, were of course hugely different. The individual became king in the consumerist society, off the back of Smith’s economic beliefs that consumer demand, the wish of the individual, drove all produce in a market system. Similarly Social Darwinism and Nietzsche’s beliefs in the Übermensch – Nietzsche being one of the writers whom Kaiser evokes here – played an important role in shaping the belief at this time in the will, the self, the Ich. Why, then, such anonymity? Perhaps the answer lies in a pertinent, pithy aphorism of the Viennese public intellectual Karl Kraus: “Believe me, you colour-happy people, in cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads”. In other words: the destruction of hierarchy and the constant assertion of selfhood reduce every being to insignificance. ‘All civilisation depends on restraint’, warns Jonathan Franzen (who has produced translations of Kraus’ works); this would certainly seem to strike a chord with Kaiser’s message and his portrayal of the desperate, neurotic Kassierer’s quest for self-fulfilment at the expense of communality, shared experience and social mores.
From the beginning it is clear that Kaiser’s play will be explicitly concerned with money. We open in the Kassenraum of a bank; much of the first scene follows the money as it trades hands, rather than the characters, as though it is money rather than people that makes the wheels of society turn; people are judged on the value of their clothing – the woman from Florence arrives in a Geknister von Seide; and the pertinent statement is made, upon hearing ich brauche so notwendig das Geld, by the bank’s director: ja, wer brauchte keins? In this context money and value seems to be all that is discussed. Jewels and paintings are assessed by their value: what are they really worth? Are they worth the amount of money that is paid for them, or does it depend on the sentimental or cultural value as a status symbol for the collector? Is the caviar that the Kassierer serves as valuable as the amount he pays for it, or is he paying for the privilege of impressing his guests? Kaiser throws these questions into the air but does not answer them.
Banks, and consumerism, are portrayed as futile and oppressive. The institutions themselves are compared to dungeons – places in which der Zuzug hat kein Ende. Sporting events, too, do not escape the criticism: they are eternally bound up with Prämien, as though human beings compete only for financial gain. Similarly, the Kassierer provides such outrageous, rapturous prices weil die Wirkung fabelhaft ist. The effect of providing a carrot is incredible to watch; it amuses him. To see how human beings are driven by the love of money fascinates. In many ways the play feels quite prophetic of the Ellbogenmentalität that would plague Western societies in general toward the end of the 20th century, in particular in Germany following die Wende – lines such as einer muß das erste werden, weil die andern schlechter fahren could almost have been said by a Reaganite finance advisor. The fights and competitions here are an almost gladiatorial display of egotistic clashes. Similarly, the do-gooders in the Salvation Army meeting are quite willing to scrabble for money when it is thrown down in front of them.
The greed of the central character is similarly pierced by Kaiser’s pen. He will quite willingly, as a ‘philanthropist’, give £50 000 as a prize but when he is requested to pay 10p for a programme he is irritated. He sees the freedom to spend as something philosophically vital; the ability to invest one’s cash where one chooses is the key to unfettered humanity, or as he puts it, freie Menschheit. A proper 20th century turbocapitalist, he grants money to the one with the most pleasing eyes. The endowment of financial aid depends on whimsy rather than principle. This is all eventually expressed and perceived by the Kassierer himself, in what could be termed anagnorisis or awakening: mit keinem Geld aus allen Bankkassen der Welt kann man sich irgendwas von Wert kaufen. The most perceptive line in the whole play, perhaps, is a riff on the same theme: man kauft immer weniger, als man bezahlt. This sentence forms a useful bridge between the two strands to explore: consumerism and greed, and something more.
There is a wider, more philosophical dimension to Kaiser’s play that renders it more interesting than simply an attack on the wealthy, or an attack on consumerism. Like Fitzgerald’s masterpiece of the following decade, ‘The Great Gatsby’, Kaiser uses the issue of money, of consumption, and of a belief in the ‘orgiastic future’ to lay bare mankind’s aching heart and his need for security. What he explores is not so much the corruptive influence of money per se, but the corruptive influence of falsely assigning the significance of life to monetary needs. In other words, this single day of squandering is a manual for how not to live your life. It is the belief that money will prise you away from more pressing concerns, allow you to avoid the elephant in the room, which Kaiser seeks to destroy (in his own words jedes Dichtwerk verrichtet eine vernichtende Niederlage der Geborgenen). This particular issue is an existential one and, much like Wedekind did with burgeoning sexuality in ‘Frühlings Erwachen’, the author here links consumerism into a wider matrix of concerns about selfhood, society and death.
It is probably not correct to call this a Marxist play, in that money as the root of evil or the exploitation of capitalists is not directly explored. Kaiser does not, of course, condemn the use of money. It is the spending habits of his society he criticises, specifically the belief that money can lead to ultimate fulfilment. It is the belief that money can save one from death or insignificance. But in another sense, the play has a Marxist sensibility in its strong emphasis on collectiveness, on society as a whole rather than as a fragmentation of individuals. This becomes one of the play’s principal concerns. Adam and Eve, as portrayed by Cranach, experience their wirkliche Sündenfall in their separation from one another – they are vor allem die zwei getrennt. It is no accident that the first electrifying element of drama in the play occurs here, as the cashier exclaims ich bin im Bilde! He recognises his own yearnings and insecurity in this depiction of fundamental dissolution, lack of connection, and failure to communicate. That it occurs in a painting of – as perceived in the Christian world at least – the first two human beings in history only accentuates the timelessness of this problem.
The cashier’s attitude to family and society is equally telling of this phenomenon. The mother and the piano-playing, embroidering daughters seem typical of German society 100 years ago. Similarly, the servants are almost entirely parrot-fashion and functional. But to him, it is not all comforting cosiness (though he is not above recognising the advantages of stability): in fact, such vertraulicher Zauber, the routines of family life that are the bulwark of communality for a nation, seem to him decadent and conducive to the death of creativity (gelber Sarg; ein Jahr wird nicht das Klavier gespielt). He feels an increasing disconnectedness from society, from family; he would rather be ein verwahrloster Wanderer auf der Straße; he feels only scorn for the pretence of family intimacy, saying sind die Bande so eng verknüpft – daß, wenn sie zerrissen, im geballten Leid es sich erfüllt?; he has little or no empathy for the death of the grandmother; he has minimal scruples (at least at first) in stealing from the till – and, given Kaiser’s message, it would of course be the account of a building society from which he thieves. He is unable to understand communal sport and the way it brings people together, but is perfectly happy to provide cash prizes for the individual winners. In a crowd, he asks, wer kennt seinen Nachbar? The biblical phrasing is typical of this play, perhaps again to highlight the significance of the theme.
In trying to escape this oppressive net of connections to other human beings, the cashier feels completely lost. One of the most memorable set-pieces of the play occurs at the end of the first part, in his deluded, giddy monologue as he crosses the snowy field. His thoughts ever more and more fragmented, we see a certain degree of method in his madness – he is preoccupied with thoughts of frittering his life away, with death. He seems to be losing control over his own body (wie gebärden sich meine Hände?); and the symbolism of his own insignificance is quite powerful, as we see in the language he uses to describe the ephemerality of his tracks: überdies ist meine Spur über das Schneefeld wirkungsvoll verwischt. Similarly he mocks the pointlessness of the cufflinks he flings from him, spitting das Lamento plärrt durch die Küche. Towards his duties he is nachlässig and he feels menaced by death, or as he poetically puts it, Polizei des Daseins. The resulting search for meaning in the ever-present desire to spend stems directly from his feelings of worthlessness.
As he develops in his quest for meaning, he subscribes more and more to this Nietzschean view. He enthuses at the sports event kein Widerstreben – keine Keuschheit – keine Mütterlichkeit – keine Kindschaft: Leidenschaft! He has no time for human connections, for the things which bond society together, but sees freedom of individuality, the freedom to do what one wants with one’s time and one’s money, as the ultimate goal in life. Das lohnt, he exalts. Das ist es. That is the significance of being. Similarly, the genius of selfhood comes at the expense of others: es geht nicht ohne Tote ab, wo andre fiebernd leben. In the privacy of his own apartment, he elaborates on this hedonist philosophy of living fervently, but his assertions strike one more as fearful and in denial than as stoicism: Menschen im Tanz – ohne Tanz Leichen. Tod und Tanz – an den Ecken des Lebens aufgerichtet. The simple poetry of these words expresses a core idea not unlike Auden’s ‘the formal order, dance while you can’. Both suggest that since all humans are born only to die, hedonism (in both examples represented by dancing) can be the only answer as to how to live a fulfilling life.
‘Von morgens bis mitternachts’ is a play about how this philosophy fails, in its three aspects: firstly, that money can bring happiness, always and unfailingly; secondly, that it is more important to be true to oneself at the expense of family and society; and thirdly, that hedonism leads to fulfilment. Kaiser exposes them in a thrilling finale at a meeting of the Salvation Army that is morally and thematically complex. The figures are gathered to confess and atone for their various sins. The religious dimension, and the slightly airy language used by those who confess, may seem fanciful to modern Western sensibilities but held an indisputable sway over society at the time; it serves the dramatic function of pricking the cashier’s conscience. There is a real poignancy in lines such as niemand paßte mir auf und ich mir am wenigsten and indeed ich geniere mich gar nicht (not a million miles away from Édith Piaf’s je ne regrette rien, words almost invariably spoken by people who have a great deal to regret). The tension in this scene is particularly well heightened, especially through the constant exchange between the girl and the cashier (bist du bereit?/noch nicht).
His eventual confession and remorse, when it does come, is heartfelt. As he perceives the futility of questing after money, he reaches a state of anagnorisis. He is no longer the child finding its way in the world, with those tender images of prüfenden Blicks, tastender Finger, wählenden Kopfs – he has understood the key message that Kaiser is trying to convey. Alas, like most Greek tragedies the realisation comes too late. His shakily acquired moral confidence is almost immediately destroyed by two fatal blows which come in the form of Kaiser’s most perceptive studies of character. Firstly, the money that the cashier gets rid of attracts huge crowds of the greedy, allegedly present to cleanse their souls of selfishness. This grim and glorious irony comes in the skilful sentence dann ist heißer Kampf um das Geld entbrannt. It is a literal fight as in the sports arena. The use of entbrennen confirms the near-hyperbolic frenzy to which the human psyche is reduced with regard to competition and money.
The second is yet more sickening. The girl who has over the past few pages represented his conscience, as a morally edifying figure, betrays him to the police for that key word Belöhnung – reward – 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?
The beautiful theatrical device of the dark human skeleton formed by the wire framework echoes the skeleton earlier in the play, and shrouds the final moments of the play in a deathly lattice. He sees little point in his exertions when he will end up as a skeletal carcass. The note dies, his last call is desperate. The lights go out with him. In the constable’s words es ist ein Kurzschluß in der Leitung. There was no way for him other than death, because the one final vessel in which he had poured his love and money turned out to be mere hedonistic illusion. The crucible by which he hoped he could be purified was moralistic pretence.
Having rejected the warmth of family life so that he can live by the words man muß lange Finger machen, um hinauszugreifen, he is disappointed by beauty and by art, by mass hysteria, by drinking and haute couture, and by the exploitation of those who feel lost for the pretence of solidarity. Zuletzt mit der Transponierung des Ichs ins Nichts are the words Huder uses to describe this conclusion. Perhaps this is closest to what Kaiser wants to show. I feel that ‘Von morgens bis mitternachts’ is a repudiation of the Nietzschean worldview, destroying the idea that one can find fulfilment in oneself. Whether he offers an alternative way to live one’s life is harder to determine; the religious echelons of society are certainly undermined. Perhaps sheer familial closeness comes closest to being idolised, but even that is criticised as stale, flat and uninspired, enough so as to drive the cashier to steal and flee. Huder ends on a remarkably positive note, saying Kurzschlüße sind reparierbar. Whether Kaiser thought so is not necessarily explicit in this play.