Thursday, 27 October 2016

In Defence of Stefan Zweig: A Lacanian Reading

To address in detail Michael Hofmann’s famously excoriating piece against Stefan Zweig in the London Review of Books might be to allow it more space and respect than it deserves. In run-on sentences piled on top of one another, Hofmann grows ever more bitterly hysterical about Zweig’s alleged shortcomings, a sizeable proportion of which seem merely to be based on the latter’s popularity. Perhaps most damning is his verdict that Zweig simply ‘tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing[1]’. Though Hofmann is of course referring to emotional verisimilitude, to whether or not we as readers recognise something of truth and value in Zweig’s works, he unintentionally hits on a fascinating question which can be applied to three of Zweig’s Novellen - to what extent is it a problem if he ‘tastes fake’? Might the flights of fancy not be intentional, to stimulate or to get a reaction rather than to receive sage nods of recognition? ‘We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,’ Pablo Picasso decreed[2]; these three novellas - Der Amokläufer (1922), Verwirrung der Gefühle (1927), and Schachnovelle (1941) - all to a greater or lesser extent dramatize an agonised conflict over what is true and what is not. The assertion that the resulting conflict ‘tastes fake’ could thus be construed as reflecting an inability on Hofmann’s part to grasp the elusive nature of Zweig’s truth, or as a too, too solid steadfastness in the correctness of his own argument. There is perhaps a faintly comic irony, then, that Hofmann seeks to stake out a firm position, a ‘centre’ from which truth can be discussed, given that Zweig expressly addresses the falsehood of objective selves and offers us the ex-centric, that is to say a destabilised centre or no centre at all.
Zweig is at careful pains to set his Novellen in what seems like the real world, particularly when telling a first-person narrative which involves an encounter between an otherwise unremarkable narrator and an ‘exceptional stranger’[3], whose story the novella really is; both Der Amokläufer and Schachnovelle firmly fit this mould. There is nothing unusual about the precise settings used for these stories (a liner arriving from South East Asia into Naples; a ship travelling from New York to Buenos Aires) and they might fit any number of realist works - indeed, it is precisely the way in which the alarming Other of these second personas appears to break into the self-assured, safe world of the narrator’s Self which gives the novellas their power. The third, Verwirrung der Gefühle, is told much more explicitly from the point of view of the key character, but the confused unreliability of this subjective account is so bound up with the novella’s thematic concerns that it is not difficult to cite it, too, as a ‘de-centring’, or perhaps an ‘un-centring’.
What we are doing, then, in rebutting Hofmann is a reading of Zweig in the shadow of Lacan. In Lacanian philosophy, the subject has no identity, no centre, because there is no centre to a human being (befitting the usually bland, identity-less passers-by who are Zweig’s narrators). The narrative is fundamentally split between different subjects, between different ‘je’s, or indeed different ‘Ich’s. The sentence ‘I am not me’ really means ‘the I is not the me’; that is to say, the je or the Ich who makes the assertion is not the same as the moi or the mich about whom the assertion is made. This is much easier to recognise in fictional form, where a multiplicity of subjective voices can compete within a single, enclosed, limited sphere: in Der Amokläufer, the (nameless) narrator and the man running amok whom he encounters on board the enclosed world of the ship share a first-person narrative; within the latter’s narrative, the woman who dies in the jungle is yet a third voice. In Schachnovelle, the (equally nameless) narrator first dramatizes the conflict between two other subjects, McConnor and Czentovic, then between the Ich Schwarz and the Ich Weiß who exist only in the mind of the enigmatic Dr B. as he whiles away his time alone in a tiny cell, and then eventually between Czentovic and Dr B. It’s even more conclusive in Verwirrung der Gefühle, perhaps, where the interior conflict is described by the narrator, Roland, at length: the shifts in tone between how he perceives, and is perceived by, his professor and his professor’s wife mean that we are always uncertain as to the reliability of these various subjects. We never really know where their centres are.
We might take this last point as our way in to Verwirrung der Gefühle - it is, after all, the ‘unreadability’ of the professor and his wife which so confuses poor Roland, the ‘heldenhaft kühn’ professor of the day before appearing the following morning as ‘ein alter müder Mann’ - or, as Roland later puts it, ‘wie habe ich gelitten unter diesem wetterleuchtend grellen, vom Heißen zum Kalten fahrenden Menschen, der mich unbewusst hitzte, um mich plötzlich mit Frost zu übergießen’. Roland cannot understand the seemingly contradictory attitudes of his professor, not until they are explained to him toward the novella’s end. The professor’s presentation of his own youth and interests, which is filtered through the additional lens of Roland’s summary, might seem a short or insignificant interior narrative in comparison to those in Schachnovelle and Der Amokläufer; however, the entirety of Verwirrung der Gefühle is an interior narrative, of course, framed by the broader context of Roland’s sixtieth birthday. There is an additional filter on top of the others: Roland’s conception of himself now as opposed to Roland’s conception of himself then. There is a kind of continuity between them, naturally, but they are not the same (‘immer wenn Enthusiasmus mich überflügelt’, says the older Roland, ‘bin ich er’). That is to say, for the rest of the time - i.e. when not in this frenzy of enthusiasm which reminds him of being twenty years old - the Ich is not the Er, the Ich does not even any longer share the same cells the Er once possessed, and, in short, we are dealing with a subject alienated from itself.
One of the fascinating ways Zweig illustrates this phenomenon is the relationship between inner and outer spaces. There are the obvious instances such as Roland hailing from ‘eine norddeutsche Kleinstadt’ to study in Berlin, only to find the oppressiveness of study a ‘Leichenkammer des Geistes’ and seeking consolation in the ‘Freizeitsgefühl’, the ‘übermächtigen Rausch’ that is his life of sensory pleasures in Berlin. Then there is a multitude of examples in Der Amokläufer, where we find ‘dem kleinen Sarg der Kabine’, evoking the enclosed-ness of the dead woman’s cabin, which we shall read about at the story’s end, and indeed the death of the child inside her. Similarly, the narrator can declare that ‘es war unmöglich, mit sich selbst auf dieser schattenlosen wandernden Schiffsgasse allein zu sein’: life on board ship is so cramped, so intimate, so familiar, that everything seems known to him - contrasting both with the wilder ‘outer’ space of the Indian jungle but also the ecstatic open space and views of the vast night sky which the deck at night-time offers.
Or, in Schachnovelle, take the tiny enclosure of the cell in which Dr B. suffered months of psychological trauma and self-induced schizophrenia: ‘schaudernd erkannte ich, es reproduzierte unbewusst dieses Auf und Ab das Ausmaß seiner einstmaligen Zelle: genau so musste er in den Monaten des Eingesperrtseins auf und ab gerannt sein wie ein eingesperrtes Tier im Käfig’. Whether these individuals find themselves in inner or outer worlds determines their state of mind, their being, their ‘centre’ as subjective individuals: Dr B. can function perfectly well in the world without playing chess, but once he is drawn back to the board, he slips once more into a destabilised state which recalls his earlier breakdown. The world-renowned chess player Czentovic in Schachnovelle is ‘a more or less psychologically stable entity’[4]: this is, of course, why he is less interesting than the mysterious Dr B, and why the story features the latter’s psychological background much more prominently than the former’s, and indeed allows Dr B. to discuss his past in his own words. Schachnovelle begins as if the narrator is most invested in Czentovic, but he then shifts his attention to McConnor, and finally onto Dr B., all of whom suffer from a chess-related monomania, albeit of rather different kinds (Czentovic’s seems to be an intrinsic quality, McConnor is fundamentally egotistical and obsessed with beating competition, and Dr B. has, through trauma, devoted his intellectual pursuits entirely to one tiny and specific area). The actual mechanics of chess do not appear to hold much interest for either Zweig or Zweig’s first-person narrator (as the numerous errors on the topic might suggest); even B., who has mastered at least 50 classical chess games and invented permutations of his own, is not particularly interested in ‘real games’ so much as finding out whether the games that he has himself invented were ‘real’. In other words, artificial and carefully regulated conflict - a game, drama which has a ludic quality - is a catalyst for B.’s examination of the truth of his past.
The ludic is one of the elements of psychoanalytic readings of texts: man is a “pawn in the play of the signifier”[5]. The significance of this image in light of Schachnovelle is no doubt obvious; ‘to be a pawn in someone else’s game’ is even now a fairly stock phrase. The Ich Schwarz and the Ich Weiß are both pawns in Dr B.’s tormented mind; both the Ich Schwarz and the Ich Weiß control eight literal, and eight figurative, pawns on an imagined chess-board; Dr B., of course, is also the pawn of Stefan Zweig the narrator, a way for Zweig - the refugee, the exile - to examine the effect of trauma, monomania and coping mechanisms on a given subject. Lacan states that the language we use arises from loss and absence (otherwise, presumably, we would not need to learn how to speak): it is alienation which forces the necessity of language and thus what lies behind every expression or utterance is frustrated and dissatisfied desire. Not getting what we want necessitates speech, from the very first moment the infant wails “Maman!” Words - signifiers - determine, and have power over, the people themselves, whether that’s the phrase ‘Pflicht, seine Bereitwilligkeit anzubieten’, even simply the word ‘Pflicht’, which seems to hold so much sway over the mad doctor in Der Amokläufer, or the words used to describe the chess games which are etched into Dr B.’s brain, or the influence over Roland of the professor’s expounding on the Elizabethan Age of literature. Of course, the pain and yet the profound pleasure of these three stories is bound up in these characters not getting what they want, being denied their desires, and impossibly yet inevitably continuing to seek them - in all three cases to an obsessive extent. In Zweig’s careful hands, the subjects all run amok, all flounder in seeking solid ground; the language they employ, the language that employs them, and the stories in which they are employed, express their de-centring. Perhaps Hofmann should consult a better dentist if the Pepsi he drinks really instigates the same sensations.

Bibliography.
Zweig, Stefan, Der Amokläufer (1922), Verwirrung der Gefühle (1927) and Schachnovelle (1941), all in Stefan Zweig: Gesammelte Werke, Anaconda, 2014.

Secondary literature:
  1. Daviau, Donald G. and Dunkle, Harvey I., “Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle”, in Monatshefte, Vol 65 No 4, University of Wisconsin, 1973.
  2. Fricke, Hannes, “‘The liquidation of the particular’: On Anxiety, the Misuse of Trauma Theory, Bourgeois Coldness, the Absence of Self-Reflection of Literary Theory, and ‘something uncomfortable and dangerous’ in Connection with Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle” in Journal of Literary Theory, Vol 7, No 1-2, De Gruyter, 2013.
  3. Galdós, Iñigo Barbancho, “The Self as the ‘Mittelpunkt’, the World as the ‘Hauptperson’: the ‘Super-Personal’ Autobiography of Stefan Zweig”, in Neophilologus 95.1, 2011.
  4. Gelber, Mark H. (ed.), Conditio Judaica - Stefan Zweig Reconsidered: New Perspectives on his Literary and Biographical Writings, De Gruyter, 2007.
  5. Hofmann, Michael, “Vermicular Dither” in London Review of Books, Vol 32 No 2, 2010.
  6. Lacan, Jacques, Écrits (translated by Bruce Fink), W. W. Norton & Company, 2007 (originally 1966).
  7. Turner, David, “The Function of the Narrative Frame in the Novellen of Stefan Zweig”, in The Modern Language Review, Vol 76 No 1, 1981.
  8. Turner, David, “The Choice and Function of Setting in the Novellen of Stefan Zweig”, in Neophilologus 66.4, 1982.


[1]Hofmann, Michael, “Vermicular Dither” in London Review of Books, Vol 32 No 2, 2010.
[2]Picasso, Pablo, cited in Barr Jr., Alfred H., Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art, Arno Press, 1980.
[3]Turner, David, “The Function of the Narrative Frame in the Novellen of Stefan Zweig”, in The Modern Language Review, Vol 76 No 1, 1981.
[4]Daviau, Donald G. and Dunkle, Harvey I., “Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle”, in Monatshefte, Vol 65 No 4, University of Wisconsin, 1973.
[5]Lacan, Jacques, Écrits (translated by Bruce Fink), W. W. Norton & Company, 2007 (originally 1966).

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