Film by Samuel Beckett (1963)

I’ve commented many times on the tendency of Beckett’s later works to feature increasing amounts of increasingly precise and pedantic stage directions, until some of the works consist more of stage directions than content.

This tendency span off in a number of directions, into works which lack words altogether and are effectively mimes, into others which consist entirely of very precise physical movements, like Quad, which are more like modernist ballets.

Yet another experimental outlet was film. Having written half a dozen radio plays by the early 1960s, engaging with the medium of film was in many ways the next logical step for Beckett. In the event the experience was not a happy one, as the impressively long and thorough Wikipedia entry on Film makes clear.

The two products of the project are the 17-minute film itself and the characteristically obsessive screenplay Beckett created for it. The screenplay is divided into sections.

Ontology

Probably the most striking element is the GENERAL section which begins with general philosophical statements about the nature of perception and being. Most screenplays do not start with a philosophical disquisition.

Esse est percipi.
All extraneous perception suppressed, animal, human, divine, self-perception maintains in being.
Search of non-being in flight from extraneous perception breaking down in inescapability of self-perception.
No truth value attaches to above, regarded as of merely structural and dramatic convenience.

‘No truth value attaches to above’ so we can ignore it. More important is that the one and only protagonist is ‘sundered’ into Eye (E) and Object (O).

Until end of film O is perceived by E from behind and at an angle not exceeding 45°. Convention: O enters percipi = experiences anguish of perceivedness, only when this angle is exceeded.

For me the important part of this is the phrase ‘anguish of perceivedness’. Beckett seems to be repeating a core idea of Sartrean existentialism which is that: to be perceived is to be reduced to the status of an object, to have one’s humanity abolished. It is this which causes ‘anguish’. The dynamic interplay between feeling like an autonomous perceiving consciousness and suddenly realising that for everyone around you, you are in fact a mute object of their gaze, is a core dilemma of Sartre’s stricken, anguished fictions, many of which I have reviewed on this blog.

The stuff about the angle of perception is repeated with Beckett’s characteristic obsessive fastidiousness, most of which was abandoned in the actual filming, but however it’s phrased the core idea was obviously to try and exploit the medium of film to somehow capture the doubled nature of human consciousness: as self-aware agent but simultaneously operated-on object.

I worked in TV as a producer and director. None of this is necessary in a screenplay or shooting script. This prolegomena is quite obviously aimed at the scholars and commentators who Beckett knew were, by this stage, paying detailed attention to everything he wrote and said.

Tone

Of more practical use is the brief description of the tone and style intended, namely

The film is entirely silent except for the ‘sssh !’ in part one. Climate of film comic and unreal. O should invite laughter throughout by his way of moving. Unreality of street scene.

So it’s a silent movie (apart from the shhh) which, obviously, implies no dialogue. More like his mimes. The other noteworthy point is that it mixes comedy and unreality, the latter perhaps interpretable as surreal.

Structure

This grand masterpiece is meant to be in Three Parts:

The street (about eight minutes). 2. The stairs (about five minutes). 3. The room (about seventeen minutes).

As usual the text gives six pages of very, very, very detailed description of precisely what happens, how, at what speed and angle, and so on, an obsessive iteration of the sole protagonist’s mechanical movements, the same kind of obsessive description of the minutiae of human physical activity which characterises all his prose works but especially the super-obsessive-compulsive text of Watt.

Notes

As you might expect, the ‘screenplay’ itself is then followed by almost as many pages of ‘notes’, detailing, with mathematical precision and accompanied by 19 diagrams, the precise physical movements of the protagonist throughout. Monomanic attention to physical movement doesn’t begin to convey the obsessive attention to precise movements, one of the central Beckett attributes, present in all his works.

The actor

It’s a piece for one actor who has no dialogue at all but has to perform the exact sequence of Beckett’s obsessively detailed actions. According to Wikipedia, both Beckett and the director Alan Schneider originally wanted Charlie Chaplin, Zero Mostel or Jack MacGowran but couldn’t get any of them and so eventually settled on the great genius of the silent era, Buster Keaton.

Beckett was set throughout the filming (the only time he ever went to America, apparently) getting progressively more disillusioned by what is actually required in film-making i.e. the immense amount of time setting up each shot and shooting multiple takes. You can’t just boss the camera round like you can an actor onstage. There’s a whole crew and all the heavy equipment of camera and lights which have to be moved every time you change something or want to shoot a new shot. In other words, you have to be crystal clear what you want before you start, and even then plenty of movies go awry because things don’t end up looking as the scriptwriter envisioned.

The film

Thankfully, the film itself is available online but, very irritatingly, only in a version which someone has decided to overlay with a ridiculously twee and sentimental pop song. Beckett’s skinny skeleton must be spinning in his grave at such a desecration. Here it is. Watch it with the sound turned down.

Much was changed between script and shooting, as anyone who’s shot a script knows is common. Some things work, some don’t, you can never be completely sure till you try.

As to the content, as so often much of it is trite and hackneyed and very familiar Beckett tropes. The shabby old man. The battered hat. The mechanical gestures. Isolation, loneliness. Trapped in a room which, the script says, is his mother’s room (Beckett’s obsession with parents, it especially recalls Molloy’s return to his mother’s room/womb/tomb to die).

A view

Well, if you start from a consideration of the long tradition in Western Philosophy which pitches Being against Perception, from Plato to Sartre via Berkeley and many others, then it is possible to spin an extended essay out of the text Beckett has written and probably never stop.

But if you come to it as a viewer, as a cinema-goer, well, it’s a tough 17 minutes to watch. It doesn’t exactly come over as ‘comic’, just weird and disturbing. Why is the figure running along by a wall? Why is he wearing a hankie on his head? When he bumps into the couple, why are they dressed as Edwardians on a day trip? Why does he pass an old lady on the stairs in similar period costume? Why does she grimace into the camera and then collapse?

Once he has arrived in a grim, barely furnished room (natural habitat of all anguished existentialists) the way he takes stock of all its fittings only makes sense if you’ve read the screenplay i.e. he covers every source of gaze or watch, anything which can observe and objectify him.

The screenplay suggests that when we are looking at the protagonist the lens is clear, but when we see his point of view, the lens is blurred. The thing is: a) ten thousand other film-makers have been aware of the difference between the objective camera view and the individual’s point of view, which has been conveyed in thousands of other movies, much more effectively; b) I could only access the film in a poor quality copy on Vimeo so the entire thing looked blurred and degraded, thus destroying at a stroke the supposed distinction between objective view and subjective view.

Above all the film, as a film, seems hackneyed and clichéd. The theme of a nutcase who behaves oddly and obsessively in his room is a common subject of umpteen movies, from shoestring budget student films – picking this topic because mental deviation is cool and because they’ve no budget for props or actors – to Hollywood or German Weimar movies about loner, oddball killers. The protagonist’s need to cover up paintings, close the curtains, hide the parrot with his blinking eye, the goldfish with his haunting eye, and throw out his cat and dog don’t seem remotely novel or interesting, but are par for the course for all manner of movie psychopaths and weirdos.

And the deeper theme of the perceiving eye and the eye of the camera, the camera moving to observe the subject, the switch to point of view, all these are themes or techniques which have been explored to death in film, the correlation between the organic eye of people or animals and the eye of the camera, my God, it’s the stuff of a million GCSE media studies essays, it’s tediously entry level. As every single commentator has pointed out the extreme close-up of the eye reminds everyone of the eye scene in Bunuel’s Chien Andalou of, er, 1929.

Beckett’s assaults on the conventions of theatre had real bite because they were unprecedented, inventive and often thrilling. Three characters in urns, speaking only when the spotlight clicks onto them, still feels unusual today, whereas a ‘film’ about a shabby obsessive alone in his room, scared of anything he thinks is ‘looking’ at him, is the stuff of thousands of psycho movies.

This foray into film tends to demonstrate the medium’s intrinsic limitations: it all looks the same, projected up there into a flat, passive screen, whereas the human voice – onstage or broadcast over radio – is capable of infinite inflections and moods. That is why his plays and radio plays are so vastly superior to this effort. You can see why Beckett only tried film once.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • The Lost Ones (1972) Short story
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • All Strange Away (1976) Short story
  • Fizzles (1976) Short prose pieces
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1989) Short prose

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett (1961)

Beckett wrote a lot of plays, 19 of them according to the Beckett On Film project, more than 30 if you include the seven plays for radio and the various fragments and dramaticules.

But only a handful of them are ‘full length’ enough to sustain an evening at the theatre, being: Waiting For Godot (1953), Endgame (1958), Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) and Happy Days (1961).

To verify this assertion I made this table based, in a very rough and ready way, on the duration of the plays as filmed for the Beckett On Film project (indicated by an asterisk) or according to the durations of the most popular recordings on YouTube.

Play Duration   
*Waiting For Godot (1953) 120
*Endgame (1958) 84
*Happy Days (1961) 79
All That Fall (1957) (Radio play) 70
*Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) 58
Beginning to End (1965) (Television production)   49
Embers (1959) (Radio play) 45
Words and Music (1961) (Radio play)   42
*Rough For Theatre II 30
*Footfalls (1976) 28
Quad I and II (1980) (Television play) 23
Cascando (1961) (Radio play) 22
Eh Joe (1967) (Television play) 20
*Rough for Theatre I 20
*A Piece of Monologue (1978) 20
*That Time (1975) 20
Rough for Radio I (Radio play) 17
Rough For Radio II (Radio play)
*Play (1963) 16
*Act Without Words I (1957) 15
*Rockaby (1981) 14
*Not I (1972) 14
*Ohio Impromptu (1980) 12
*What Where (1983) 12
*Act Without Words II 11
… but the clouds … (1977) (Television play)   10
*Come and Go (1965) 8
*Catastrophe (1982) 7
*Breath (1969) 45 seconds 

Obviously, performance times can vary quite a bit from production to production, so these figures are the opposite of definitive, they are merely indicative, but the result tends to show two things:

1. Only a surprisingly small handful of Beckett plays amount to anything like an evening in the theatre, and that’s why they’re the ones we’ve heard about. The great majority of Beckett’s plays are short, often very short.

2. The last evening-length drama he produced was Happy Days in 1961. From that point onwards, for the next 23 years, Beckett’s plays become progressively shorter and can only be staged in an evening of such fragments, as additions to the other plays. That’s why the Beckett on Film project was so very useful, because it allows us all to see stagings of ‘dramas’ which are so brief or fragmentary that they might never be staged in a theatre in our lifetimes. Many of them are almost like thoughts or sketches for dramas, hence the word dramaticules which is often used about them.

Happy Days

The premise of most of even the full-length Beckett plays is simple. There is generally just the bare minimum of characters required to enable a dialogue. Thus:

  • Waiting For Godot is mostly about the relationship between Vladimir and Estragon
  • Endgame similarly is mostly about Clov and Hamm
  • Krapp’s Last Tape is (ingeniously) about the relationship between an old man and the tape recordings he made of his thoughts as a young man

And Happy Days follows the formula by being entirely about just two characters, Winnie (a woman of about 50) and her husband Willie (a man of about 60). Like Godot it is a play of two halves and, exactly like Godot, if the first half finds the characters in a bad plight, part two shows a significant deterioration in their condition.

Thus the first half of Happy Days finds Winnie buried up to her waist in a mound of sand or rubbish. Surreally, she completely ignores her plight, accepting it all as completely normal, wakes up and starts fussing about her day. She fusses about her handbag and applies her makeup, all the time throwing comments at her husband who is lying on the other side of the mound, out of sight of the audience, apparently reading a paper, mostly ignoring her endless prattle, occasionally grunting a reply.

In part two the curtains open to reveal Winnie now up to her neck in sand or detritus or whatever the play’s producers choose. Throughout her fiddly fussy prattle she repeats the refrain that it is ‘a happy day’, a lovely day, mustn’t complain, can’t grumble, and so on.

In other words, Happy Days is a classic epitome of the theme of decline and fall, degradation and entropy, which characterises all of Beckett’s work. It’s also typical, in a slightly less obvious way – to anyone who’s read quite a lot of his works, as I now have – in the extreme banality of the content.

Many of Beckett’s works, from the early novels through to the late mimes and dramaticules, may be off-the-scale in their avant-garde experimentalism. But it is striking how utterly thumpingly banal much of the actual content is. Characters prattle on about catching their train, or how tight their boots are, fuss – as here – about their lipstick and makeup, remember inconsequential details of their former lives, love affairs, sitting on Charlie Hunter’s knee, her first kiss – a torrent of trivia.

Now, learnèd professors and Beckett scholars have managed to find in his works a steady stream of references to many aspects of Western philosophy, quotes from Spinoza, rebuttals of Descartes, critiques of the Rationalist tradition, and so on. They argue that these fragments and snippets provide a kind of foil against which is set against the bustling twaddle of Winnie’s monologue. And even a non-philosopher like myself can spot it when the characters suddenly switch register and quote a bit of Shelley, or are suddenly dazzled by a memory or phrase which clearly indicates a moment of deeper reflection or emotion…

Nonetheless, the most powerful impact of so many of these works is of a prattling inconsequentiality completely at odds with the dramatic and stricken situations in which the characters find themselves.

My reading of Albert Camus is that this is what he meant by The Absurd – the yawning gap between human beings’ longing for meaning and purpose in their lives and the steadfast refusal of the universe to give them any – in fact its tendency to block and frustrate petty human wishes at every turn.

But there’s another feeling you get from watching a play like this which is that the mis-en-scène is striking and imaginative, like a surrealist painting, like a mind-blowing picture by Max Ernst. But as soon as the characters start talking there’s an odd sense of letdown and anti-climax. Very rarely does anyone in a Beckett play say anything which really lives up to the astonishing starkness of the scenarios he’s thought up.

Almost all the common Beckett quotes come from Waiting For Godot which was not only the turning point in his career as a writer, but somehow summarised the best of the preceding prose works, their complex interweaving of themes and registers of language, in their peak form. For this reason, maybe, it is by far the longest of his plays. It feels like he’d stumbled across the new format and tried to pack everything into it, with the result that it is by far the richest play to read and study, there’s so much going on.

Less so in Endgame, which is still long and complex and (hauntingly) set in an apparently post-apocalyptic world. A lot less so in Krapp’s Last Tape, one sad old man in his garret. And again, here in Happy Days, the scenario is astonishing, but then the actual words you listen to are, well, a bit disappointing.

It’s amazing that just 31 pages of text result in an hour and twenty minutes of stage time. It shows the importance of:

  1. the numerous pauses throughout the play
  2. the often elaborate stage ‘business’ that is involved in Beckett plays, in this case Winnie’s fussing and fretting with her handbag and makeup

Film version

This is a very good film version of the play starring Rosaleen Linehan as Winnie and Richard Johnson as Willie, directed by Patricia Rozema.

We watch a woman buried up to her waist in sand woken by an alarm bell, saying her daily prayers, brushing her teeth and then nattering on and fussing about make-up and medicine while her husband sits wearing his boater occasionally reading out bits of his newspaper (Reynolds News, according to Winnie towards the end of the play).

Maybe the point is how most people comfort themselves with endless natter and chatter while ignoring the reality of their ‘plight’, in the view of the existentialist school of philosophy, thrown into a godless universe, abandoned, stricken, trapped in lives of pointless repetition and futile routine.

Going on

Just like Malone and the Unnamable, and as Vladimir and Estragon frequently point out that they’re doing, maybe Winnie talks interminably simply to be able to go on with life, but the obvious objection to this entire train of thought is that it only makes sense if you think that ‘going on’ i.e. carrying on living, is an enormous challenge which requires the tactic of endlessly prattling and telling yourself interminable stories to make it at all manageable.

But language is not an abstract form like painting or music. Language is a means of communicating, and that is what becomes, ultimately, so wearing about the Beckett Trilogy of novels, that the reader submits to reading so many hundreds of pages which convey almost no information at all.

I understand the point (I think): that language in all of Beckett’s works is not intended to convey any important information – or maybe that all language is equally meaningful or meaningless, and that, therefore, language’s ultimate purpose is as a flow of sound designed to comfort the speaking characters, and insulate them from the ‘horror’ or ’emptiness’ of existence.

And thus the entire play amounts to yet another enactment of the basic principle defined in the talismanic phrase which ends the 1953 novel, The Unnamable:

You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

In Winnie’s characteristically more verbose rendering:

So that I may say at all times, even when you do not answer and perhaps hear nothing, something of this is being heard, I am not merely talking to myself, that is in the wilderness, a thing I could never bear to do – for any length of time. [Pause] That is what enables me to go on…

‘That is what enables me to go on’. Happy Days is cast in a different setting, in fact in a different medium from The Unnameable (stage compared to prose). But it is the same idea. The identical idea. Repeated. Again and again. I can’t go on. I’ll go on. I’ll tell myself stories. That is what enables me to go on…

Details

The ringing bell reminds me of the whistle blown to torment the protagonist of Act Without Words I or the whistle Hamm blows to summon Clov in Endgame.


Credit

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett was written in English in 1961, and the author then translated it into French by November 1962.

Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

  • All That Fall (1957) Radio play
  • *Acts Without Words I & II (1957) Mimes
  • *Endgame (1958) Stage play
  • *Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) Stage play
  • *Rough for Theatre I & II – Stage plays
  • Embers (1959) – Radio play
  • *Happy Days (1961) – Stage play
  • Rough for Radio I & II (1961) Radio plays
  • Words and Music (1961) Radio play
  • Cascando (1961) Radio play
  • *Play (1963) Stage play
  • How it Is (1964) Novel
  • *Come and Go (1965) Stage play
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965) Short story
  • Eh Joe (1967) Television play
  • *Breath (1969) Stage play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • The Lost Ones (1972) Short story
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • All Strange Away (1976) Short story
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1989) Short prose

Acts Without Words I and II by Samuel Beckett

Act Without Words I

Act Without Words I (a mime for one player) is a short mime piece written by Samuel Beckett. It was originally performed after Beckett’s major play, Endgame, during the latter’s first run in London. It was Beckett’s first attempt at the genre and dates from a period when he had just experimented with his first play, Waiting For Godot, and his first radio play, All That Fall. You can view a modern production of it on YouTube.

The scene is a desert on to which a man is abruptly ‘flung backwards’. Mysterious whistles draw his attention in various directions. A number of more or less desirable objects, notably a carafe of water, are dangled before him. He tries to reach up to the water but it is out of reach.

A number of cuboid boxes, obviously designed to make it easier for him to reach the water, descend from the flies, each one’s arrival signalled by a blast on the whistle. But however ingeniously he piles them on top of one another, the water is always moved to be just out of reach.

After ten or so minutes of painfully frustrated efforts, in the end the protagonist sinks into complete immobility. The whistle sounds – but he no longer pays attention. The water is dangled right in front of his face, but he doesn’t move. Even the palm tree in the shade of which he has been sitting is whisked off into the flies. He remains immobile, looking at his hands.

The meaning(s)

It’s a variation on the theme of Godot except with one protagonist instead of the four we meet in the play.

Tragic

If you take a bleak and nihilistic view of Beckett, then the mime depicts a man flung on to the stage of life, at first obeying the call of a number of impulses, drawn to the pursuit of illusory objectives by whistles blown from the wings, but finding peace only when he has learned the pointlessness of even trying to attain any of these objective, and finally refusing any of the physical satisfactions dangled before him. He can find peace only through ‘the recognition of the nothingness which is the only reality’.

Actually a number of Beckett critics including Ruby Cohn and Ihab Hassan have dismissed it as too obvious and too pat. ‘Oh dear, life is meaningless, what shall I do?’ When stated that bluntly, it is a cliché.

Comic

That said, the putting of a man through a number of humiliating tasks which he can never achieve, in a wordless mime, is strikingly similar to early, black-and-white, comedy films. Take the 1916 short film One am written, directed and starring Charlie Chaplin. In its 34 minute duration a posh man in a top hat who is very drunk is dropped off outside his house by a taxi and then spends the next 30 minutes trying to find his key, get into the house and then taking an awesome amount of time getting up the stairs.

Or take the Laurel and Hardy comedy short, The Music Box, in which the hapless duo are deliverymen tasked with delivering a big, heavy piano up the longest flight of stairs in California.

Viewed through this lens, the protagonist is reduced not to nihilistic despair, but to sulky refusal to take part in this stupid game. Both, it seems to me, are valid interpretations of the work and, if you like, of ‘life itself’.

Portentous

In The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett, C.J. Ackerley and S.E. Gontarski suggest that the protagonist’s final refusal to play, to be tempted by the water dangling in front of him, is not a sulk, it represents his rejection of purely physical needs and his rebellion against his fate. In refusing and rising above purely physical needs, he is enacting the psychological process described by Albert Camus in his lengthy sociological work, The Rebel (1951). Maybe…

From a deluge of words to wordlessness

What strikes me about this play or mime is the fact that a mime, in effect, consists entirely of stage directions.

In this respect Beckett’s work presents an interesting trajectory, from the vast solid cliffs of prose in The Beckett Trilogy via the light and fast-moving dialogue of his main plays (Waiting For Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape) to the abandonment of the written or spoken word altogether and the reduction of the dramatic event to action, pure and simple, of wordless mime consisting solely of stage directions.

Beckett’s stage directions

It also reminds the viewer of the extreme precision and pedantry of Beckett’s stage directions. Beckett was always obsessive about the physical behaviour of his characters, regarding humans as closer to automata than people, as evidence in the numerous obsessively detailed descriptions of physical options and behaviours in the novel Watt.

He carried this obsessive attention to the minutiae of physical action over into his plays and became notorious among directors and actors for the extreme precision of his stage directors and his inflexible insistence that they must be followed to the letter, precisely as he had written them.

As you read through the plays, as you come across more mimes and musical movements and so on, you realise that the composition of the stage directions was every bit as precise and detailed and calculated for effect as the actual prose and dialogue and speeches.

And of course no member of the audience is aware of this but the reader of the piece sees that it ends with the four-times repeated stage direction He does not move, reminding us of the famous stage direction at the bitter end of Godot – They do not move.

Suicide

Speaking of Waiting For Godot at one point in Act Without Words the protagonist takes the length of rope he’s been given and obviously plans to hang himself from the palm tree which is more or less the only feature in the desert landscape.

This reminds us of Estragon’s throwaway suggestion in Waiting For Godot that the two tramps hang themselves and, of course, both suggestions turning out to be fruitless. You don’t get out of it that easy, this thing called life.

Act Without Words II

Act Without Words II is another short mime, written a few years after the first one. It, also, was composed in French before being translated into English by the author although, being a mime, there was no dialogue to translate, just the stage directions. The London premiere was directed by Michael Horovitz and performed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on 25 January 1960.

Even more than the first one, number II is another work which depends entirely on the precision of the choreography. Two men are in sacks. A long stick enters from stage right and pokes one of the sacks. Character A struggles out of his sack and elaborately gets dressed before picking up the second sack and placing it further from the stick, before undressing and getting back into his sack. The same procedure is then applied to the other sack containing Character B, who is poked, struggles out of his sack, does callisthenics, cleans his teeth, gets dressed and so on. His job is to move the other sack, containing Character A further along the stage, before he, too, undresses and gets back into his sack. And so on, Forever.

Anyone who’s read Watt or Molloy will recognise the helpless, Aspergers syndrome-like obsessiveness of the repeated behaviour, of numerous apparently pointless repetitions carried out with minute variations and exasperating precision. This, the work says, is how utterly pointless our lives are with all the gettings-up and breakfasts and showers and dressing and going to work. All variations on the same bloody pointless and endlessly similar actions. Is this it? Is this all?

To emphasise the precision he wants and the clinical emptiness of the actions, Beckett includes a diagram of the changing positions of the sacks relative to each other.

The Goad

At the height of the Swinging Sixties, in 1966, photographer Paul Joyce (the great-grand-nephew of James Joyce) saw Act Without Words II as part of a Sunday evening performance at the Aldwich theatre and thought it would make a fun short experimental film. Joyce approached the cast, Freddie Jones and Geoffrey Hinscliff, and they said okay, so, after a little thought, Joyce transposed the production from the theatre to a rubbish dump in Rainham, Essex.

The way there are two characters who fuss about their clothes, and wear silly outfits, and both wear bowler hats, reminds us of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting For Godot – just as Character A eating a carrot reminds us of Vladimir offering Estragon a carrot, who proceeds to make such a palaver about eating it, in act one of Godot.

Having started to think about silent comedy classics, it’s hard not to miss the suggestion that Character A’s ill-fitting suit and round hat is at least in part a reference to Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character, while Character B’s skinny physique, bony face and pork pie hat is strongly reminiscent of Buster Keaton.

It is an absurdist reductio ad absurdum, but it is telling us something less about Life, than about literature and film – namely that the comic and the bleakly nihilistic are very closely allied. If you slip on a banana skin and band your nose it’s a tragedy; if someone else does, it’s a comedy.

Both these mimes strike me as having next to nothing to say about ‘Life’ – what a ridiculous idea! – but do make you reflect a bit about the thin line which separates tragedy from comedy, the humdrum from the absurd, the serious and po-faced from the farcically hilarious.


Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The full set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

  • All That Fall (1957) Radio play
  • *Act Without Words I & II (1957) Stage plays
  • *Endgame (1958) Stage play
  • *Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) Stage play
  • *Rough for Theatre I & II – Stage plays
  • Embers (1959) – Radio play
  • *Happy Days (1961) – Stage play
  • Rough for Radio I & II (1961) Radio plays
  • Words and Music (1961) Radio play
  • Cascando (1961) Radio play
  • *Play (1963) Stage play
  • How it Is (1964) Novel
  • *Come and Go (1965) Stage play
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965) Short story
  • Eh Joe (1967) Television play
  • *Breath (1969) Stage play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • The Lost Ones (1972) Short story
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • All Strange Away (1976) Short story
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1989) Short prose

Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett (1953)

ESTRAGON: Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!

Beckett dashed off Waiting For Godot in just four months, October 1948 to January 1949. It was written in a break between the second novel of the Beckett Trilogy, Malone Dies (written November 1947 to May 1948) and the third and final instalment of the trilogy, The Unnamable, which Beckett laboured over from March 1949 to January 1950.

Godot was, therefore, written during the Berlin Airlift (June 1948 to September 1949) when many people thought Europe was on the brink of a Third World War, when nuclear apocalypse was on a lot of people’s minds.

All these books were first written in French, as was Waiting For Godot, whose original French title is En Attendant Godot.

Waiting For Godot was first produced at a tiny French theatre, the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris, starting in December 1952. It was an immediate critical success, moved to a larger theatre, and at a stroke established Beckett in the front rank of contemporary theatre, aligning him with the movement called Theatre of the Absurd. The English-language version premiered at the Royal Court in London in 1955.

It’s odd to consider that Godot came at the end of such a sustained run of prose writings. It’s not as if it was the glorious conclusion of a lifetime spent in the theatre, the exact opposite; with the exception of a minor play, Eleutheria, which wasn’t published in English till 1996, Godot was the first proper play Beckett wrote and certainly his first staged play. I wonder how many other playwrights achieved such international fame on the basis of their first play?

Roots in the Beckett Trilogy

The prose of its immediate predecessors in Beckett’s oeuvre, Molloy and Malone Dies can be characterised in lots of ways, but among these are that it is:

Dense

Molloy only has two paragraphs, the second one being well over a hundred pages long. The point being the reader is confronted with a solid, uninterrupted, dense and clotted wall of prose which is very difficult to parse and make sense of it. Reading blocks like this makes you realise how hugely important it is that most texts (novels, poems, newspaper or magazine articles) are chopped up into bite-sized chunks, into paragraphs, sometimes with headings, into chapters, sometimes with titles, and in a conventional novel, when there’s dialogue each new speech from different characters generally starts a new paragraph. Not in the Beckett Trilogy texts.

Episodes

This explains one of the most salient but little-noticed aspects of the three novels, which is that, when they are presented, for example in readings, dramatic productions, on the radio or on TV they are broken up into episodes. This indicates both that it is very hard to process the novels as one continuous block, but also indicates that, despite the appearance of a wall of text, they are in fact composed of discrete sections, up to a point anyway.

Comedy

If you have the stamina to read them closely, you also notice there’s actually quite a variety of styles in the prose. A high-level categorisation might suggest about four approaches.

There’s the main, core Beckett style in which characters bemoan their fate – ‘no hope, I don’t know, I don’t understand, was it he, am I me, I can’t go on, I must go on’ – that kind of thing. In the play Vladimir is fond of repeating ‘Nothing to be done’.

There’s the learnèd style, when the character, on the face of it a tramp or derelict or senile hospital inmate, surprises you with a learned disquisition, begins to talk about hypotheses, and let us consider the evidence, and on the one hand this but on the other hand that – and slips into Latin and makes learned references to Greek myths or the arcane mysteries of astrology or uses rare and obscure terminology.

The ‘academic’ style reaches a deranged apogee in Lucky’s long, dementedly learned soliloquy in act 1.

There’s the swearing. Not many of the commentators I’ve read mention the fact that Beckett’s characters from time to time drop the pretence of being university lecturers and just say fuck it, balls to all that, what a load of ballocks, and go on to dwell at length on their ability to have a good shit, piss against a tree, masturbate with a good hard prick and gain entry now and then to a cunt.

In Waiting For Godot the tramps suggest hanging themselves on the basis that at least it will give them erections, and half-way through act one, Vladimir runs offstage to have a pee. Elsewhere, swearwords are freely used.

VLADIMIR: That seems intelligent all right. But there’s one thing I’m afraid of.
ESTRAGON: What?
VLADIMIR: That Lucky might get going all of a sudden. Then we’d be ballocksed

And there’s the moment towards the end when Vladimir, Pozzo and Lucky are in a heap and Estragon asks, ‘Who farted?’ It doesn’t get more crude or Rabelaisian than that?

Lastly, there’s the comedy. Some is broad physical farce, as when the characters fall over as when Moran and his son fall off their overloaded bicycle. Some derives from the demented precision with which his autistic characters describe physical processes in autistic obsessive detail, as when Molloy takes a page to describe all the ways he can arrange sixteen sucking stones in his four pockets. Some could almost come from a character-based sitcom, as the couple of pages describing the romance of mad Malone and senile old Moll.

Othertimes there’s sly comedy, as when the unnamable says he’ll stop asking questions and immediately goes on to ask four questions in a row. And there are other, more elusive moments of humour, which depend on the switch from one register to another as when, after a prolonged learned lecture about something, the narrator might make a very blunt, down-to-earth Irish comment (and this is where a lot of the swearing comes in).

Differences between the monologues of the Beckett trilogy and a stage play

So, quite clearly, I am not considering Waiting For Godot as a standalone play, but considering it as situated, almost embedded within, the writing of the Trilogy, which took place around it, before and after it, and with which it shares almost all its themes and style.

From this perspective, there are four standout features about the play – its brevity, dialogue, action and the present.

The qualities of a monologue

Part of the reason the novels are so dense is because Beckett cast them all in the form of monologues. Now the thing about a monologue – as Beckett and his readers find out, to their cost – is you can’t have an intermission. In a novel, characters can come together and have an important scene but then you can cut away, to anything you want, other characters, description of the setting, philosophical musings, whatever. But a monologue, by its nature, has to carry on.

By contrast, Waiting For Godot is broken up into dialogue, true dialogue, dialogue which doesn’t have to explain everything (as a monologue tends to have to), which can be supplemented by the actors’ physical gestures, and so can be brief, incredibly brief, sometimes just a few words, sometimes no words at all, just a look or gesture.

So someone like me, who has just struggled through the 400 or more dense pages of the Beckett Trilogy, can hardly believe how empty Waiting For Godot is. There’s more empty space on the page than text.

And, as mentioned, you also realise what an enormous amount of information is conveyed when two characters converse. As any human knows, the real meaning of an exchange need not be at all what is said in the words. It can be the opposite of what is said, or fractions of the overt meaning which are refracted through sarcasm, irony, tone of voice and the situation, such as saying ‘Oh great’ when the wings fall off your airplane.

Dealing in dialogue creates entire new dimensions of meaning which were unavailable in the monologues.

Physical activity

Third aspect is physical activity. Characters can do things onstage which are just as eloquent as any words they say, such as shoot someone, kiss someone and so on.

Now the characters in the Trilogy monologues often remembered incidents and conversations, such as Jacques Moran’s arguments with his maid Martha and his endless bullying of his son. But these dialogues or conversations, such as they are, are always viewed through the narrating consciousness and this, in all three books, is mad, weird, demented, gaga, deranged, so highly biased. Everything is perceived through the same rather grim, grey spectacles.

In the real world

Lastly, it happens before our eyes. It’s difficult to over-emphasise what a difference this makes from the huge, leviathan monologues. In those vast swamps of prose, each word or phrase potentially brings to mind other incidents or characters or phrases we have read about earlier, creating a hyper-complex polyphonic texture of references and echoes, which Beckett works hard to make sometimes unbearably dense and heavy.

Now, human beings are predatory mammals and we are designed to watch, monitor and assess all the activity in our surroundings for threat or promise. So by startling contrast to the book-bound monologues, there is a huge sensory and psychological pleasure to be had just from watching people move about on stage. We are designed to always be fascinated by what other people are doing.

And the vital corollary of this is that it is sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much easier to watch a couple of guys pottering about onstage and, at long intervals saying a few words to each other, sooooooooooooooooooo much easier than it is reading the monologues. It feels like Friday night down the pub after a very hard week’s work. Waiting For Godot is an almost physically easier, lighter, more understandable and pleasurable read than the Trilogy.

Waiting For Godot, the plot

So a couple of tramps, Vladimir (‘Didi’) and Estragon (‘Gogo’), are onstage, representing outdoors somewhere, fussing with their boots, squabbling about trivia, and tell each other (and thereby the audience) that they can’t go anywhere or settle to do anything because they are waiting for Godot.

Now whether you want to interpret the poverty of their language, physical decrepitude and mental abilities as a comment on the human condition or just take them as a pair of tragi-comic tramps, and whether you want to interpret Godot as referring to God or Death or some other factor which brings meaning to human life but which is always just out of reach or unattainable – all this is entirely up to you.

The play is in two parts. Now, given that Beckett’s central theme is decline and fall and entropy and collapse and deterioration, if you think about it, the minimum number of parts he’d require to dramatise this theme is two – one before and one after, or, more accurately, ‘Now’, followed by ‘A little later’.

Beckett could have used more parts, but a third or fourth part would simply have demonstrated even more decline and collapse. It is more tactful – it says enough – just to have the two. Thus in part two we meet the two tramps exactly where we left them, except worse off, degraded in clothes and attitude.

Then there’s the other two characters, Pozzo and Lucky. Coming to it cold, it feels very much as if the play, as well as the characters, are killing time a bit before Pozzo and Lucky arrive. Pozzo is a fountain of energy. He is leading Lucky (ironic name) by a thick heavy rope, Lucky being little more than an exhausted slave who he abuses, whips and insults.

And it is entirely predictable that, when they reappear in act two, this pair also will be significantly degraded – most strikingly, and cruelly, in the fact that the once-ebullient Pozzo is now blind.

Details

Bowler hats

All four characters in Waiting For Godot and several characters in the Trilogy wear hats, specifically Gaber when he comes to give his ‘mission’ to Moran. On an obvious visual level, Vladimir and Estragon with their bowler hats and their incessant repartee can easily be made to appear an absurdist Laurel and Hardy.

There’s a small tic or trope which combines the comedy of their repartee with the more ‘serious’ theme of the way they’re blocked, the way their conversations, their language – like them – gets nowhere. This is when their conversation turns a bit lyrical and they try to outdo each other with comparisons or analogies:

VLADIMIR: It’s only beginning.
ESTRAGON: It’s awful.
VLADIMIR: Worse than the pantomime.
ESTRAGON: The circus.
VLADIMIR: The music-hall.
ESTRAGON: The circus.

The point being the way that in these little passages, Estragon always repeats his comparison definitively and aggressively with an air of finality, bringing the pair’s little flight of imagination to a roadblock halt.

VLADIMIR: It’d pass the time. (Estragon hesitates.) I assure you, it’d be an occupation.
ESTRAGON: A relaxation.
VLADIMIR: A recreation.
ESTRAGON: A relaxation.

Maybe it’s a tiny symptom of their lack of imagination, or maybe Estragon’s refusal to let the flight of fancy fly… but either way, it’s a small symptom of the way they are trapped, cabined and confined by themselves.

Comedy

Obviously everything depends on your definition of comedy or your sense of humour, how dark or light it is. The notion that they suggest hanging themselves (‘well, it’d pass the time’) is funny. When Estragon comes to the front of the stage, looks out over the audience and declares ‘Inspiring prospects!’, that’s funny, and like lots of tricks is repeated in act 2 when they contemplate escaping in the direction of the auditorium, but then recoil, as if in horror of the audience!

Or when at the start of act 2, Vladimir tries to lift Estragon’s mood by persuading him to say ‘I am happy’ and then, after a pause, Estragon dolefully says, ‘What shall we do now we’re happy?’

Godot

Estragon says he’s Vladimir’s friend. Vladimir says Godot said he’d be along for them on Saturday. At least he thinks it was Saturday. Godot has a horse. Pozzo knows that Godot has the tramps’ immediate future in his hands. Estragon asks why they don’t just drop waiting for bloody Godot and leave?

VLADIMIR: He’d punish us.

Inconsequentiality

I identified the central role played by inconsequentiality in the monologues, the way subjects often crop up with no relation, or the narrator says something, rejects it, moves on as if it doesn’t matter, in fact all the monologuists continually repeat the notion that ‘it doesn’t matter’.

Similarly, when you look at the dialogue in Godot you realise Vladimir and Estragon move from one subject to another with no link or thread. Their arbitrary disconnectedness is part of the so-called absurdity.

For example, Estragon suggests they hang themselves which sounds quite tragic, but then goes onto undermine any sense of seriousness by commenting, ‘After all, it would pass the time’. Nothing matters. Or only the trivial matters, like who’s wearing whose shoes, or hat. That’s what I mean by the play’s studied inconsequentiality.

Lucky’s monologue

It may seem deranged to the average theatre-goer, but it is a small excerpt of the kind of thing you encounter in the Trilogy by the hundreds of pages.

One of the thieves

Vladimir points out to Estragon that one of the thieves was saved, a ‘reasonable percentage’. Now, the story of the thief who was saved (Christ was crucified in the middle of two thieves undergoing the same punishment; one of them said he believed in Jesus and Jesus promised he’d see him that day in Paradise) occurs not once but twice in the trilogy (once in a particularly grotesque satire, because the decrepit old lady Moll has two ear-rings which depict the two thieves, and one massive canine in her mouth which has been ingeniously carved to depict Christ on the cross).

The extended and comically pedantic explanation of the theological problems this story throws up are reminiscent of the comically pedantic episode of Molloy and the sucking stones and its avatars in the other novels. The elaborate swapping round of inanimate objects anticipates the comic business with the hats in act 2.

Passing the time

Basically the play is about the activity of waiting. It consists of the two characters wondering how to pass the time before Godot arrives. This is more or less the same plight as Malone in Malone Dies who spends some 150 pages telling himself stories to pass the time until he, well, dies, and, in a much more confused way, in The Unnamable where the narrator talks interminably about making time pass and creating an endless discourse to fill time.

Vladimir asks Estragon if ‘they’ beat him, certainly they did, Estragon replies. This interested me because an omnipresent and menacing ‘they’ dominate the long text Beckett went on to write immediately after this, The Unnamable. What’s notable about this little exchange – as so many aspects of Beckett – is how inconsequential it is. The characters don’t seem to care much and the subject doesn’t recur.

At one point in act two Estragon remarks ‘that wasn’t such a bad little canter’, referring to a patch of conversation they’ve managed to rustle up, to pass the time. In act two they have the bright idea of abusing each other (‘it’d pass the time’). This is exactly the mentality of Malone, who tells the reader he is going to try out different subjects, and tell entire stories, to while away the time until he dies.

Estragon says they’ve been trying to pass the time like this for half a century.

Philosophy

Obviously Godot was premiered just as the Existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and to some extent Albert Camus was sweeping the cultural strongholds of the Western world i.e. art, literature, theatre and universities. Everyone wanted to live in Paris, wear black polo-necked jumpers and shades, smoke Gauloise cigarettes, and talk smoochily about the pointlessness of life, the futility of existence, and outdo each other’s expressions of Despair.

Beckett’s novels were little known because they are so damn difficult to read, but Godot, for the reasons I’ve explained above, is a masterpiece of simplification and dramatisation. It’s almost like an advert for the Existentialist movement, with the ‘why are we here? what is it all about?’ existentialism of Gogo and Didi, supplemented by what could easily be interpreted by communist and Marxist critics (ten a penny in Paris – France had the largest Communist Party in the free West) as the searing indictment of the Master-Slave relationship in the characters of Pozzo and Lucky.

It had the lot.

But 70 years later, in the post-modern era of identity politics and digital technology, a lot of the so-called philosophy of the piece has been superseded. For most students nowadays, the meaning of life is trying to find a job, somewhere to live and pay off their student debts. All of us are now caught up in the coronavirus pandemic and some of us were very worried about global warming before the virus hit.

In this content, I tentatively suggest that the philosophy of the play feels dated and contrived. The most famous moment in the play is when Pozzo, in the second act now blind, suddenly bursts out in anger at the endless questioning of Vladimir and says:

POZZO: One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.)

And then delivers the play’s Big Message.

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

In the Faber edition I have, and the online edition I used, this line is printed in bold, just to make it perfectly clear to the slow learners at the back of the class that this is THE AUTHOR’S MESSAGE. I couldn’t help finding that rather funny.

But also find it, how shall I be tactful – untrue. I was present in the operating theatre when they delivered my children, both times by Caesarian section, and my wife did not give birth astride the grave. My kids are now in their twenties and, believe me, their lives have not consisted of a brief gleam of light and then the grave, but an incredible number of nappies which needed to be changed, meals cooked, and school runs undertaken.

When I was 17 I could work myself up into hysterics about the fact that I was going to die, Oh my God! Die! Cease to be! Is there a God? An afterlife? Will I go to hell? What if there’s nothing? What if you feel the worms eating through your rotting flesh etc?

But you grow up. You have to get a job, find somewhere to live, maybe marry, maybe have kids, then find yourself on the treadmill of mortgages and schools. Nothing feels that dramatic, pure and intense any more.

To sum up, for me Godot resonates with not one but two kinds of nostalgia. Nostalgia for a Paris of the 1950s and 60s which I never experienced but read about and seemed so cool and ‘deep’ and intense. And nostalgia for myself at 17, when I found statements like this impossibly deep and meaningful, when they shook me to my core.

Now reading Godot doesn’t stir me in either of these ways, but it does impress me with the artfulness of its construction, the variety of tones and registers, the range of humour and comic styles from bleak nihilism to Charlie Chaplin slapstick. Now, I am impressed by its complexity and success as a work of art and for the way that, while you read it and a little afterwards, its stirring rhetoric and bleak vision is genuinely moving and disturbing… until the realities of the actual world reassert themselves.

Going on

The phrase ‘go on’, as in ‘I can’t go on’, ‘we must go on’ emerges as the key phrase and concept of The Unnamable and is given pride of place right at the end of that text.

… it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know. I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Two points:

1. This same phrase, about ‘going on’, is also used throughout Waiting For Godot. Both Vladimir and Estragon, at various points, wailing that they can’t go on.

2. But Beckett wasn’t a fool, he wasn’t going to use the same phrase to conclude two big works of art, and so Godot ends with another talismanic phrase, ‘Let’s go’ and the famous stage direction (They do not move).

What I’m getting at is the way Beckett a) very consciously ended these works with heavily meaningful and symbolic phrases, and b) that they are carefully prepared for by seeding the phrase (and idea) throughout the preceding text. Thus the simple words ‘let’s go’ have already appeared at least half a dozen times in the course of the play, meaning that by the time they’re used as the final words they have built up a poetic charge, a resonance, which strikes the imagination.

This careful preparation, this artful leading up to their final words partly explains why, for many people, the last words of both The Unnamable and Waiting For Godot are the best known. (And they share the word ‘go’ and the underlying thought that ‘going’ is impossible.)

Summary

Any reader of the Beckett Trilogy can see how Beckett took its themes and tricks of style and structure and reduced them, in Waiting For Godot, to an almost bare minimum. But by casting them in dramatic form, with undeniably ‘real’ physical characters, and tapping into all the energy and dynamism created by real dialogue and physical activity onstage (there’s a surprising amount of running about, falling over, whipping, dancing and so on in the play), created a completely new thing – a devastatingly brilliant, funny, terrifying, and linguistically powerful, varied and haunting work of art.

Godot may no longer have the impact it once had because social conditions and beliefs have changed so much. But it is still a work of genius.

VLADIMIR: That passed the time.


Credit

En Attendant Godot by Samuel Beckett was published in French in 1953. The English translation by Beckett himself was published in 1958. Page references are to the 1988 Faber paperback edition.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was part of the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939-45

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

  • All That Fall (1957) Radio play
  • *Act Without Words I & II (1957) Stage plays
  • *Endgame (1958) Stage play
  • *Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) Stage play
  • *Rough for Theatre I & II – Stage plays
  • Embers (1959) – Radio play
  • *Happy Days (1961) – Stage play
  • Rough for Radio I & II (1961) Radio plays
  • Words and Music (1961) Radio play
  • Cascando (1961) Radio play
  • *Play (1963) Stage play
  • How it Is (1964) Novel
  • *Come and Go (1965) Stage play
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965) Short story
  • Eh Joe (1967) Television play
  • *Breath (1969) Stage play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • The Lost Ones (1972) Short story
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • All Strange Away (1976) Short story
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1989) Short prose

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse (1927)

A wolf of the Steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns and the life of the herd, a more striking image could not be found for his shy loneliness, his savagery, his restlessness, his homesickness, his homelessness. (Steppenwolf, page 22)

Brief summary

Part one Steppenwolf was Hesse’s tenth novel. It starts in a fairly low-key, realistic style and for the first hundred or so pages is an extended exercise in self-pity, as the self-described ‘Steppenwolf’ dwells at length on his unhappiness, his broken marriage, his abandonment, loneliness and social isolation.

Part two However, about half way through the book he meets a woman, Hermine, a fun-loving dancer and courtesan at a popular local bar, and she completely turns his life around. Hermine introduces him to dancing and jazz music, providing him with a wonderfully sensuous lover (Maria) who reveals the hitherto unsuspected glories of sexual pleasure, and introducing him to a super-relaxed jazz player (Pablo), who smiles wisely, says little, and offers a variety of recreational drugs, including cocaine.

Part three And then, in the final forty pages or so, the book turns into a really delirious sequence of fantasy scenes, played out in THE MAGIC THEATRE (“For Madmen Only; Admittance Charge – Your Mind”), where each doorway opens into a new, extravagant, hallucinatory scenario.

The Magic Theatre almost certainly doesn’t exist because the sequence introducing it begins with Pablo, Hermine and the narrator sitting round in a room, after a long night dancing the night away at the town’s annual ball, drinking some of Pablo’s drug-spiked liquor and smoking drug-spiked cigarettes.

After an extraordinary series of fantasies (which include taking part in ‘the war against the machines’; reliving all the love affairs of his entire life but which, this time, are all positive, life-enhancing experiences; and meeting Mozart, who delivers a lecture about eternity and time) the novel ends without the narrative returning us to the ‘normal’ world.

One of the fantasy scenes involved our hero meeting a man sitting on the floor behind an immense chess board with many more squares than usual. This player prompts the Steppenwolf to take out of his pockets not just the two sides of his personality, but the hundreds and hundreds of aspects which Goethe and Mozart and Hermine and all the other wisdom figures in the novel have told him about. The player then arranges these avatars onto his board and plays a complex game with them. Moral: Life is just a game, it’s up to you how you play it.

And that is how the novel ends – not with the character returning sober and hungover to the ordinary, mundane reality it started in; it ends with the Steppenwolf taking up all these multiple aspects of his life, and determined ‘to begin the game afresh’, to live life in the light of everything he’s learned.

And it is this final, mad whirligig of fantasy stories – deeply mixed up with themes and ideas from the rest of the novel about suicide, death pacts, love, sex, the meaning of life, the multiple aspects of the human mind and so on – which, I think, leave a powerful, indeed bewildering impression on the reader’s mind, and whose garish extremity completely eclipses the mundane, realistic opening half of the novel.

You put it down feeling genuinely inspired, thinking, Wow, all these other lives are possible – sex and love and drugs and jazz and dancing and multiple ways of seeing not only the world, but your own life and experience – it’s all there waiting for you ‘to begin the game afresh’.

On the word ‘Steppenwolf’

The use of the single word ‘Steppenwolf’ in the English title makes it sound like a name (with distant echoes, for those of us of a certain age, of the English rock band which called itself Steppenwolf, and whose big hit was, appropriately enough, ‘Born To be Wild’).

But the title in German is The Steppenwolf, which makes it clear that the title doesn’t refer to one person’s proper name, but to a type of animal. In fact, Der Steppenwolf is German for ‘the Steppe Wolf’, also known as the Caspian Wolf, a distinct species of wolf which inhabits the steppes of southern Russia and the Caucasus.

Moreover, although the central character refers to himself as ‘the Steppenwolf’, the treatise about Steppenwolves embedded in the first part of the novel states quite clearly that there are thousands of Steppenwolves i.e. men who consider themselves part-sociable man, part-lonely, haunted wolf.

Part one – Steppenwolf’s self-pity

1. The nephew’s account

The thirty-page introduction is written in a muted, sober, naturalistic style by an unnamed youngish man. The nephew’s aunt rents out furnished rooms and one day, a few years earlier, a scruffy, nervous, 50-year-old man with short cropped hair (p.7) presents himself as a lodger. Against her nephew’s advice, the aunt lets out a bedroom and a living room to this stranger.

Over the first thirty or so pages, this nephew shares with us his impressions of the new lodger, whose name is Harry Haller. Haller refers to himself in conversation so often as ‘the Steppenwolf, that the narrator ends up using that name as well.

The nephew describes various encounters with the Steppenwolf, within his aunt’s house and sometimes in the local town, as he slowly forms an opinion about him. This is that Haller is a rebel. He doesn’t have a job but appears to have independent income. He drinks heavily and keeps anti-social hours (goes to bed late, gets up late). His bedroom is full of bottles of booze, but also of books by fashionably earnest and intense writers such as Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, as well as photos from magazines and watercolour paintings which he himself paints.

The nephew comes to think of the Steppenwolf as a man torn between two extremes – sometimes a savage, angry, ironic loner; but at other times a perfectly sociable and civilised man, who the nephew bumps into attending a classical concert. He is defined by this tearing dichotomy in his soul.

One day the Steppenwolf packs his bags and goes. The nephew and aunt never hear from him again. But he leaves behind a manuscript diary, a sort of journal, and it is this manuscript which makes up the rest of the book, about 220 pages in my Penguin edition.

2. Harry Haller’s manuscript

The bulk of the book consists of this manuscript written by its protagonist, a middle-aged man named Harry Haller, which he leaves to the nephew when he leaves the house, and which the nephew finds himself arranging for publication and writing a short introduction to.

Broadly speaking, as described above, this manuscript is in two parts:

  1. Part one – Haller wanders the town feeling inconsolably sorry for himself
  2. Part two – Haller meets life-affirming Hermine who takes him on a whirlwind journey of self-discovery

In the first half, what comes over at great length is that the Steppenwolf is a loner, an outsider, a man who thinks his mind was made for great heights, for great achievements, who looks down on ‘ordinary’ people and the complacent comforts of the bourgeois middle classes, a man whose penetrating gaze has pierced to the heart of the human condition, no less:

The Steppenwolf’s look pierced our whole epoch, its whole overwrought activity, the whole surge and strife, the whole vanity, the whole superficial play of a shallow, opinionated intellectuality. And alas! the look went still deeper, went far below the faults, defects and hopelessness of our time, our intellect, our culture alone. It went right to the heart of all humanity, it bespoke eloquently in a single second the whole despair of a thinker, of one who knew the full worth and meaning of man’s life. It said: “See what monkeys we are! Look, such is man!” and at once all renown, all intelligence, all the attainments of the spirit, all progress towards the sublime, the great and the enduring in man fell away and became a monkey’s trick!

This is from the nephew’s account and shows the nephew falling under the Steppenwolf’s sway, and tending to see the world through the eyes of this super-clever but super-sad loner.

Yet the Steppenwolf is a conflicted man, a man of two halves, for the outcast loner also desperately yearns for all the little bourgeois comforts. He loves the tidy potted plants on the landings of the trim little boarding house, and the clean hallways, and venerates Mozart.

The Steppenwolf’s curse is that whichever mood he’s in – over-educated angst-ridden loner or polite, music-loving bourgeois – the other half of his personality consistently sabotages it. He can never be at rest.

This basic duality, and the Steppenwolf’s inability to settle his curse of being permanently at war with himself, recurs again and again, both in the nephew’s introduction and in the main text:

I saw that Haller was a genius of suffering and that in the meaning of many sayings of Nietzsche he had created within himself with positive genius a boundless and frightful capacity for pain. I saw at the same time that the root of his pessimism was not world-contempt but self-contempt; for however mercilessly he might annihilate institutions and persons in his talk he never spared himself. It was always at himself first and foremost that he aimed the shaft, himself first and foremost whom he hated and despised.

You can see why this kind of book would be a Bible to troubled teenagers and students. It perfectly captures that sense of being special, exceptional, blessed with superior wisdom and insight, of living a:

lonely, loveless, hunted, and thoroughly disorderly existence

And despising your comfortably bourgeois parents, poor drones who’ve never read Dostoyevsky or Nietzsche. Whereas you, the special soul who responds to Hesse’s book, have read the entire ‘How to be a tortured existentialist’ reading list, and so are blessed to wake up every morning feeling like a wild wanderer over the wide world, scorned of men and rejected by society.

And yet, and yet… deep down… at the same time… you don’t really want to leave home, where your mum can be relied on to do your washing and ironing and cooking and cleaning, and where there’s a nice hot meal every evening at teatime.

As Harry himself puts it:

‘But though I am a shabby old Steppenwolf, still I’m the son of a mother, and my mother too was a middle-class man’s wife and raised plants and took care to have her house and home as clean and neat and tidy as ever she could make it. All that is brought back to me by this breath of turpentine and by the araucaria, and so I sit down here every now and again; and I look into this quiet little garden of order and rejoice that such things still are.’ (p.20)

The two eras theory and ‘the sickness of our times’

The text is packed with sweeping generalisations about human nature and society, which read well but are of questionable practical use. Typical is a passage where Haller tells the nephew his theory about overlapping ages.

It interested me not because I think it’s true, but because something very like this idea of people tragically caught between two changing eras and marooned between two changing value systems underlies Hermann Broch’s immense trilogy of novels, The Sleepwalkers.

‘A man of the Middle Ages would detest the whole mode of our present-day life as something far more than horrible, far more than barbarous. Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and ugliness; accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. A man of the Classical Age who had to live in medieval times would suffocate miserably just as a savage does in the midst of our civilisation. Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence. Naturally, every one does not feel this equally strongly. A nature such as Nietzsche’s had to suffer our present ills more than a generation in advance. What he had to go through alone and misunderstood, thousands suffer today.’

I think this is questionable as a theory of history or historical change or historical eras. But where it is a little useful is as indirect evidence of just how widespread the feeling was in Weimar Germany that society’s values had collapsed:

a whole generation is caught…between two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security

This isn’t the only time the text confidently expands Haller’s feelings of confusion and unhappiness and projects them onto the whole world:

I see [Haller’s manuscript] as a document of the times, for Haller’s sickness of the soul, as I now know, is not the eccentricity of a single individual, but the sickness of the times themselves, the neurosis of that generation to which Haller belongs, a sickness, it seems, that by no means attacks the weak and worthless only but, rather, precisely those who are strongest in spirit and richest in gifts.

These records, however much or however little of real life may lie at the back of them, are not an attempt to disguise or to palliate this widespread sickness of our times. They are an attempt to present the sickness itself in its actual manifestation. They mean, literally, a journey through hell, a sometimes fearful, sometimes courageous journey through the chaos of a world whose souls dwell in darkness, a journey undertaken with the determination to go through hell from one end to the other, to give battle to chaos, and to suffer torture to the full. (p.27)

Ah, but it is hard to find this track of the divine in the midst of this life we lead, in this besotted humdrum age of spiritual blindness, with its architecture, its business, its politics, its men!

This kind of rhetoric sounds good, sounds wonderful if you’re of this kind of mindset, but means almost nothing.

Which generation has not been afflicted by a sense of collapse and confusion? We know this way of thinking was widespread among ancient Greek and Roman writers (‘O tempora, o mores’, meaning ‘Oh what times! Oh what customs!’  lamented the Roman orator Cicero in 70 BC). Anyone familiar with Anglo-Saxon or Norse literature knows that its characteristic genre is the elegy, a sense of irremediable loss of once glorious standards and values. The Middle Ages repeated these laments for a golden age, and any generation afflicted with plague (throughout the Middle Ages, Renaissance and into the early modern period) thought itself especially damned, especially punished for its sinfulness and moral laxity.

If you pick up any of the Victorian novelists or thinkers you will find them packed with laments for the collapse of civilised values (Thomas Carlyle was a leading offender, his 1829 essay Signs of The Times lamented ‘an artificial Morality, an artificial Wisdom, an artificial Society’), and most of the other Victorians lamented living in the sick world of frenetic activity which they find themselves plunged into.

In other words, this mood of lament for ‘the sickness of our times’ is one of the most consistent tropes in all Western literature, right up to and including the present day, with social media awash with laments that Donald Trump is the worst leader anywhere, ever, and the world is experiencing unprecedented horrors.

1. Actual corruption On one level the accusation is, of course, true. The grown-up, adult world is, once you’ve seen something of it, chaotic, confused and corrupt. It’s just that it’s always has been so, and young bookish men, raised on the beautifully clear and lucid works of the philosophers and poets, always end up disgusted to discover just how far short of those wonderful, inspiring works the actual world of marketing and business deals falls. The times are sick and corrupt. Thing is, they always have been.

2. Freudian interpretation Freud makes it simpler. He says everyone who thinks and writes like that is grieving for the lost certitudes of childhood, the warmth and simplicity of the nursery, when mummy and daddy protected you, and maintained a world of infant certainties, all gone, while you mope and moan about the sickness of the times.

3. A psychological interpretation And there is a third way of looking at this time-honoured trope, which is that it really boils down to saying that your times are special and that, as a result, you, the writer, and you, the reader who is aware enough to realise just how sick the times are, well, you also are special – blessed with a superior mind and perceptions but cursed, oh alackaday, to live through such a sick and chaotic era.

The hidden ‘appeal to specialness’ explains why these kinds of passages start off being about this generation or society as a whole, but have a tendency then to focus in on specially sensitive and wise individuals who are set against ‘the sickness of the times’, wise and sensitive souls who are doomed to suffer, precisely because they are so spiritual and superior and wise and noble.

You can see this tendency in the first passage I quoted which starts out lamenting whole epochs in history, and the collapse of values in our time, before moving on to worship an exception – a hero who stands out against it – in this case, Nietzsche, portrayed as an especially sensitive and prophetic soul.

And praise of Nietzsche leads, by an easy transition, into the idea that everyone who reads Nietzsche – reads and really understands Nietzsche – people like you and me dear reader, the elect, the elite, the special ones, that we are especially sensitive, what spiritual souls we are, that we, too are also condemned to suffer, suffer awfully, because of our special and superior sensitivity.

I am in truth the Steppenwolf that I often call myself; that beast astray who finds neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him. (p.39)

We – you and me and Nietzsche and the Steppenwolf – are not like ‘normal’ people, ‘ordinary’ people, ‘little’ people, those uninformed, ignorant, narrow-minded philistines who are happy with our fallen age, content in these sick times, quite at home in our degraded society and its paltry pleasures, those little people who, sadly, do not share our superior insights and sensitivity, and whose silly superficial pleasures we cannot lower ourselves to understand. The Steppenwolf is not slow to skewer the little people:

Among the common run of men there are many of little personality and stamped with no deep impress of fate…

I cannot understand what pleasures and joys they are that drive people to the overcrowded railways and hotels, into the packed cafés with the suffocating and oppressive music, to the Bars and variety entertainments, to World Exhibitions, to the Corsos. I cannot understand nor share these joys…

At every other step were placards and posters with their various attractions, Ladies’ Orchestra, Variété, Cinema, Ball. But none of these was for me. They were for ‘everybody’, for those normal persons whom I saw crowding every entrance…

It has always been so and always will be. Time and the world, money and power belong to the small people and the shallow people. To the rest, to the real men belongs nothing. Nothing but death…

There is much more in this vein, written in a very persuasive melodramatic style. All in all, the first half of the novel is a kind of handbook for troubled teenagers.

But to the older reader, there is also something broadly comic about this self-dramatising, self-pitying, late-Romantic pose. And it is indeed very, very Romantic – Hesse’s phraseology is often drenched in unashamed romanticism which wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1830s or the fin-de-siecle 1890s:

How I used to love the dark, sad evenings of late autumn and winter, how eagerly I imbibed their moods of loneliness and melancholy when wrapped in my cloak I strode for half the night through rain and storm, through the leafless winter landscape, lonely enough then too, but full of deep joy, and full of poetry which later I wrote down by candlelight sitting on the edge of my bed! All that was past now. The cup was emptied and would never be filled again. (p.37)

It is as helpless and self-pitying as Shelley.

Treatise on the Steppenwolf (p.51-80)

Only twenty or so pages into what purports to be Harry Haller’s manuscript, he describes following a mysterious street-seller in the midnight streets of the unnamed town where all this takes place, a man who turns and hurriedly stuffs into Harry’s hands a little book, then is gone.

When Haller looks, he sees it is A Treatise on the Steppenwolf – Not For Everyone. (Note the ‘Not For Everyone’ – here as throughout the first half of the book, the implication is that only the special ones, the sensitive ones, the élite, those who know care allowed to share these sensitivie feelings and insights.)

This turns out to be another description of Harry Haller, but presented as if written by some kind of omniscient authority, almost a naturalist. it is, in effect, the third text about him (after the nephew’s description and Harry’s own memoir) and one of the interests of the book is this multi-textuality or multi-dimensionality i.e. the differing perspectives given by a) the nephew’s account b) Haller’s manuscript c) the Treatise, and then d) the mad fantasia at the end.

The Treatise repeats the ideas of the previous sections, that the Steppenwolf is half-beast, half-man, but of a specially superior lofty type. He is explicitly compared with the greatest artists of the ages. He looks down on ordinary, ‘normal’ people.

The Steppenwolf stood entirely outside the world of convention, since he had neither family life nor social ambitions. He felt himself to be single and alone, whether as a queer fellow and a hermit in poor health, or as a person removed from the common run of men by the prerogative of talents that had something of genius in them. Deliberately, he looked down upon the ordinary man and was proud that he was not one. (p.62)

Again and again his individuality and his independence are emphasised, and we know from all his writings that these are the core values which Hesse valued:

With this was bound up his need for loneliness and independence. There was never a man with a deeper and more passionate craving for independence than he…

He was ever more independent. He took orders from no man and ordered his ways to suit no man. Independently and alone, he decided what to do and to leave undone. For every strong man attains to that which a genuine impulse bids him seek…

Overuse of the word ‘hell’

All the characters are too free and easy in describing their self-centred depression as ‘hell’. Having nursed a parent with dementia, and then cared for children with mental health issues, I now know that even when I’m feeling depressed or guilty myself, it is very very very far from ‘hell’, and nothing compared to what they were going through.

Thus I couldn’t help despising the nephew and then the Steppenwolf for throwing around this serious word so glibly, for cheapening it:

  • These records… mean, literally, a journey through hell, a sometimes fearful, sometimes courageous journey through the chaos of a world whose souls dwell in darkness, a journey undertaken with the determination to go through hell from one end to the other [no they don’t]
  • Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap…
  • Haller belongs to those who have been caught between two ages, who are outside of all security and simple acquiescence. He belongs to those whose fate it is to live the whole riddle of human destiny heightened to the pitch of a personal torture, a personal hell.
  • He who has known these days of hell may be content indeed with normal half-and-half days like today
  • Despising the bourgeoisie, and yet belonging to it, they add to its strength and glory; for in the last resort they have to share their beliefs in order to live. The lives of these infinitely numerous persons [the Steppenwolves] make no claim to the tragic; but they live under an evil star in a quite considerable affliction; and in this hell their talents ripen and bear fruit
  • And supposing the Steppenwolf were to succeed, and he has gifts and resources in plenty, in decocting this magic draught in the sultry mazes of his hell, his rescue would be assured.
  • And every occasion when a mask was torn off, an ideal broken, was preceded by this hateful vacancy and stillness, this deathly constriction and loneliness and unrelatedness, this waste and empty hell of lovelessness and despair, such as I had now to pass through once more.
  • How had this paralysis crept over me so slowly and furtively, this hatred against myself and everybody, this deep-seated anger and obstruction of all feelings, this filthy hell of emptiness and despair.
  • And since it appeared that I could not bear my loneliness any longer either, since my own company had become so unspeakably hateful and nauseous, since I struggled for breath in a vacuum and suffocated in hell, what way out was left me? There was none.
  • Then the world would be a desert once more, one day as dreary and worthless as the last, and the deathly stillness and wretchedness would surround me once more on all sides with no way out from this hell of silence except the razor.

Silly man.

The rebel

In this constant sense of being an outsider, Steppenwolf has a lot in common with the writings of Albert Camus, who wrote his classic novel, The Outsider fifteen years later (and mention of Camus makes you realise he is situated smack in the middle of the tradition of literary ‘outsiders’ which flourished, more on the Continent than in England, which would include Kierkegaard and Nitzsche, just for starters.)

According to the Treatise, the numerous ‘outsiders’ of which the Steppenwolf is merely one, play a vital role in maintaining the boring bourgeois world of law and order, as explained in this typically convoluted paragraph:

The vital force of the bourgeoisie resides by no means in the qualities of its normal members, but in those of its extremely numerous “outsiders” who by virtue of the extensiveness and elasticity of its ideals it can embrace. There is always a large number of strong and wild natures who share the life of the fold. Our Steppenwolf, Harry, is a characteristic example. He who is developed far beyond the level possible to the bourgeois, he who knows the bliss of meditation no less than the gloomy joys of hatred and self-hatred, he who despises law, virtue and common sense, is nevertheless captive to the bourgeoisie and cannot escape it. And so all through the mass of the real bourgeoisie are interposed numerous layers of humanity, many thousands of lives and minds, every one of whom, it is true, would have outgrown it and have obeyed the call to unconditioned life, were they not fastened to it by sentiments of their childhood and infected for the most part with its less intense life; and so they are kept lingering, obedient and bound by obligation and service. (p.65)

It’s eloquent, isn’t it? Eloquent and articulate and very readable and plausible and yet, in my opinion, not particularly useful.

I thought of Camus because as well as this hymn to The Outsider, the Treatise also contains an extended section about Suicide and suicides and the suicide mentality (pp.58-59).

According to the Treatise, ‘suicides’ are not defined by the act itself, but by a sensibility for whom suicide is always a realistic option. They have to fight against it as the kleptomanic fights against his urge to steal everything. the thought of suicide is a constant companion and way out which pops up every time the ‘suicide-minded are blocked, frustrated, embarrassed or humiliated.

Compare and contrast Camus’ lengthy essay about suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). It’s not the specific of the ideas, it’s the fact that both writers thought it worthwhile devoting extensive though to the subject which is revealing.

The final section of the Treatise berates Harry for being so simple-minded as to think man is made up of just two souls, in his case wolf and man. Man is made up of thousands of parts and pieces, man is a kaleidoscope of confused and clashing wishes, dreams, desires, intentions, plans, moods and memories and emotions.

The author of the Treatise closes by dwelling at some length on Eastern philosophy and Buddhism for indicating the complex nature of the human soul, and how hard it is to fully own and possess it in order to transcend it and encompass the All.

Back to sad Harry

Then the Treatise ends and it’s back to sad Harry.

Granting that I had in the course of all my painful transmutations made some invisible and unaccountable gain, I had had to pay dearly for it; and at every turn my life was harsher, more difficult, lonely and perilous.

Things happen:

  • Harry wanders round town feeling sorry for himself
  • he bumps into an old acquaintance, a professor of Eastern philosophy, who invites him for dinner that evening at 8.30pm, throwing him into paroxysms and anxiety and self-loathing and, sure enough, he makes a horlicks of it by getting into an argument about a portrait of Goethe the professor and his wife have which our hero thinks is too sentimental
  • Harry storms out of their house and wanders the streets, as usual giving into thoughts of shame and guilt and suicide, eventually plunging into a noisy smoky inn
  • here he sits next to a fancy women (a prostitute?) who quickly gets his measure, within a few minutes she realises that Harry is a helpless baby who needs to be looked after, who needs mothering, who has memorised his Nietzsche and is an expert on despair and hell and inauthenticity, but doesn’t know how to talk to a girl or dance, who knows, in fact, nothing about actual life
  • Harry falls asleep at the pub table and dreams a dream of Goethe, who starts off lofty and admirable but slowly becomes more fanciful and jokey, the medal on his chest turning into flowers as he explains that one must escape time, time is an illusion, in heaven eternity is a brief moment just long enough to tell a joke (reminding the reader of the reflections about time in Siddhartha)

After a week of anxiety worthy of a 16-year-old on his first date, having washed and dressed in new finery (new shoelaces!) he returns to the Black Eagle pub and meets the pretty flirtatious slender young girl there.

For a moment she reminds him of his boyhood friend Herman and he hazards a guess that her name is Hermine, the female equivalent. She nods delightedly but who knows, she is an experienced prostitute, maybe she’s lying.

[Rereading The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33 ed. Stephanie Barron and Sabine Eckmann (2015), I was struck by the way all the essays in it at least mention, if not make their central theme the issue of gender-bending, gender alterity and gender fluidity in Weimar Germany. the book includes numerous photos and paintings of women, especially, dressed in men’s clothing, or with slender boyish figures and bob haircuts, all of which I was reminded of in the short moment when Hermine reminds Harry of a boy. He even asks if she’s a boy, and she jokes that, yes, she might be a boy in woman’s clothing (p.127). And a lot later, towards the climax of the book, at the big town ball, Hermine arrives dressed as a man, in a gentleman’s smart suit and fools even Harry into thinking she’s a male.]

Part two – Hermine

It isn’t formally divided into a new part but in practice, from the moment he meets Hermine, the book takes on a steadily different tone. In a nutshell, Hermine teaches Harry in a hundred and one ways to stop being so self-pitying and self-centred, to come out of himself, to engage with the world, to lighten up, to live a little (the variety of phrases which spring to mind indicate how widespread this injunction has become in the English-speaking world).

Almost immediately Hermine realises that despite all his fancy learning Harry is basically a child. He needs to be mothered. I thought I’d been reasonably clever in spotting this within a page or so but she then goes on to make it super-explicit quite a few times, telling him he’s a baby and needs a mother and she’s going to mother him. She makes him swear he will obey her in all things, so there’s an echo of the mistress-slave relationship in the world of S&M, or BDSM as it’s called nowadays.

Hermine teaches Harry to dance and like jazz. Characteristically, Harry initially hates both and nurses a long-standing dislike of jazz, and is ready at the drop of a hat to pontificate about the greatness of Bach and Handel and Mozart.

[Jazz] was repugnant to me… It was the music of decline. There must have been such music in Rome under the later emperors. Compared with Bach and Mozart and real music it was, naturally, a miserable affair; but so was all our art, all our thought, all our makeshift culture in comparison with real culture…

(In an interesting footnote, Hesse makes his character dislike Beethoven and really dislike both Brahms and Wagner: by their time music had, in his opinion, become too clotted and heavy; he prefers the infinite lightness and grace of Mozart).

Anyway, this is where the saxophonist Pablo comes in. ‘A dark and good-looking youth of Spanish or South American origin’, Pablo is effortlessly cool, rarely speaks but, when the band has finished playing a set comes and sits with Hermine and Harry and listens in silence while Harry rants on about Bach and tonal colour and harmonies.

Finally Pablo breaks his silence and reveals that he knows all about Bach and counterpoint but that is not his job. He is paid to play music which makes people tap their toes, and then their legs, and get to their feet, and start dancing, and lose their inhibitions and be happy.

The text tells us that ‘A new dance, a fox trot, with the title “Yearning,” had swept the world that winter’. Here it is. This is what these wild characters are jitterbugging to, getting drunk, taking cocaine, clasping each other tightly and dancing the night away to:

Hermine may become Harry’s mistress, but she doesn’t have sex with him. That, she says, is reserved for a special day, when he has finally completely fallen in love with her. Meanwhile, Hermine fits Harry up with a gorgeous dancer at the club, Maria, sleek and sexy in her velvet dress. With her Harry rediscovers not just sex – he had sex with his wife – but a magnificent new world of sex, of all kinds of subtle sensualities, of looks and poses and aspects and ways of touching and kissing which are completely new to him.

In other words, his body is brought to life just as much as his soul. The Steppenwolf rediscovers the radical innocence of sex (p.183-4).

The book continues to be packed with ideas and issues except that now he is not mulling them over in isolation and stewing in self-pity. He gets to discuss them with Hermine, with Pablo and with Maria, all of whom shed interesting and unexpected lights on the Steppenwolf’s obsessions. Thus there is:

War An extended discussion about war – we learn that the Steppenwolf was a writer and wrote an article during the Great War calling for moderation and less hatred, and was roundly condemned by conservatives and militarists and subjected to a campaign of hate and vilification. We know from his biography that exactly the same thing happened to Hesse himself, in fact this is straight autobiography. Harry is full of foreboding that all part of sciety – politicians, journalists, business – are greedily galloping towards the next war, which will be far worse than the last. Very prophetic. In fact Hesse left Germany to live in Switzerland precisely because he was a pacifist and wanted to dissociate himself from his countrymen’s crude militarism and lust for revenge. (pp.228ff)

German intellectuals There is a damning page where Harry harshly criticises the entire German intellectual class for their ineffectiveness. (p.159)

Weimar sexuality At their very first meeting, Hermine strikes him for a moment for her boyishness, and this theme recurs for the rest of the book. At the Town Ball Hermine arrives dressed as a man. But at one of the druggy sessions with Pablo and Hermine, Harry feels someone kiss his closed eyelids and knows it’s Pablo and doesn’t mind. In fact Pablo stonedly suggests a threesome, explaining how wonderful it would be, but Harry can’t quite bring himself to go that far. On one of the occasions when Harry discusses Maria with Hermine, Hermine makes it quite clear that she knows Maria is exceptional in bed because… she’s slept with her too. You can almost feel Harry’s mind being expanded. This is an aspect of Hesse I whole-heartedly approve, his completely relaxed, candid and honest attitude to sexuality. It seems extraordinarily ahead of his time, the 1920s. Then again, it was the Weimar Republic, where anything went. (Hesse on Weimar women p.162, and bisexuality p.194, 196.)

Time and eternity For me the best thing about Siddhartha was the profound discussion of time, what it means to be trapped in time, as we all are, and what it might mean to be able to escape time. What life, or existence, would feel like if there was no time. This theme is picked up here again, and is, for me at any rate, a particularly thought-provoking aspect of Hesse’s philosophy.

Part three – The Magic Theatre

As described in my brief summary, the book processes through these successive awakening of Harry’s narcissistic and self-pitying soul – jazz, sex, dancing, flirting, sensuality, relaxing, stopping being aloof but plunging into life – before heading towards the giddy climax of the Magic Theatre.

Harry attends the annual Town Ball in the town hall which has been converted into a catacomb of entertainments, with different bands playing in different rooms. This epic night of dancing and debauchery is vividly describe, it sounds almost like a rave, he makes it sound like London nightclubs I used to go to, where you dance all night long and eventually lose yourself completely in the throng, in the great mass of pulsing bodies, leave your poor pitiful ego behind and join a larger rhythm and music.

Anyway, as dawn comes up and the last of the dancers finally stop shimmying and the band packs away its instruments, Pablo takes Harry and Hermine to a small drab room where he feeds them spiked booze and a jazz cigarette and then… takes them through a doorway and parts a plush curtain to present THE MAGIC THEATRE (“For Madmen Only; Admittance Charge – Your Mind”). It is like the curved corridor which runs behind the private boxes at a grand theatre, except that each door has a motto on it, indicating what you will experience inside, a little like Alice in Wonderland. These include:

ALL GIRLS ARE YOURS
ONE QUARTER IN THE SLOT

JOLLY HUNTING
GREAT HUNT IN AUTOMOBILES

MUTABOR
TRANSFORMATION INTO ANY ANIMAL OR PLANT YOU PLEASE

KAMASUTRAM
INSTRUCTION IN THE INDIAN ARTS OF LOVE
COURSE FOR BEGINNERS
FORTY-TWO DIFFERENT METHODS AND PRACTICES

DELIGHTFUL SUICIDE
YOU LAUGH YOURSELF TO BITS

DO YOU WANT TO BE ALL SPIRIT?
THE WISDOM OF THE EAST

DOWNFALL OF THE WEST
MODERATE PRICES. NEVER SURPASSED

COMPENDIUM OF ART
TRANSFORMATION FROM TIME INTO SPACE BY MEANS OF MUSIC

LAUGHING TEARS
CABINET OF HUMOUR

SOLITUDE MADE EASY
COMPLETE SUBSTITUTE FOR ALL FORMS OF SOCIABILITY.

GUIDANCE IN THE BUILDING UP OF THE PERSONALITY
SUCCESS GUARANTEED

And so Harry indulges in some of them – namely the car hunting one which is set in a future war between machines (cars) and men – All Girls Are Yours in which he relives every feeling and encounter he’s had with a girl or woman except that they all turn into beautiful love affairs instead of occasions for frustration and anger. Then he goes through the door marked:

MARVELLOUS TAMING OF THE STEPPENWOLF

Which isn’t such a good idea because he sees both man and wolf being pitifully tamed and humiliated.

He meets the chessplayer with a super-sized board who explains to Harry that he has not two but two thousand aspects to his soul and proceeds to play vast super-complex chess games with them, demonstrating to Harry that Life is a Game. Make of it what you will.

Finally he is back in the corridor and the next door he sees bears a sign:

HOW ONE KILLS FOR LOVE

This needs explaining. At several moments during their conversations, Hermine had explained to Harry that he must obey her in all things, up to and including the final one – she will command him to kill her. I wasn’t happy with this idea, since it seemed to me to take us back into the melodramatic, late-Romantic world of the Steppe Wolf, but here it is.

In fact before anything happens, Harry sees himself in a vast floor-to-ceiling mirror and sees a wolf. He reaches into his pocket and finds a knife. Ah. Mack the Knife, weapon of choice for the Weimar murderer. In a weird (it’s all beyond weird) twist, Harry ends meeting Mozart and has a lengthy conversation with him about art and music and time and eternity.

But Mozart laughs the cold, icy laughter of eternity, of those who have transcended time and Harry finds himself entering a room to find the naked bodies of Pablo and Hermine sleeping side by side as if after sex.

Beautiful, beautiful figures, lovely pictures, wonderful bodies. Beneath Hermine’s left breast was a fresh round mark, darkly bruised – a love bite of Pablo’s beautiful, gleaming teeth. There, where the mark was, I plunged in my knife to the hilt. The blood welled out over her white and delicate skin. I would have kissed away the blood if everything had happened a little differently. As it was, I did not. I only watched how the blood flowed and watched her eyes open for a little moment in pain and deep wonder. What makes her wonder? I thought. Then it occurred to me. that I had to shut her eyes. But they shut again of themselves. So all was done. She only turned a little to one side, and from her armpit to her breast I saw the play of a delicate shadow. It seemed that it wished to recall something, but what I could not remember. Then she lay still.

Pablo stir and is not greatly upset by what has happened. Maybe because it hasn’t happened. Mozart reappears and laughs at Harry’s stricken guilt. he says Harry must learn to laugh, too. All humour is gallows humour because we are all on the brink of the grave. Harry must learn the laughter of the gods of the immortals, a cold glacial laugh of eternity.

HARRY’S EXECUTION

The final scene is Harry’s trial, where he is convicted of the murder of Hermine but, in an unexpected twist, the court sentences him to live and laugh him out of the court.

At which point Mozart and the court disappear and Harry is talking to Pablo. Pablo, in his wise understated way, is a little disappointed with Harry for bringing the mud of reality and passion into his Magic Theatre but forgives him. None of it is real. The figure of Hermine appears as a toy, a little model. Could things be more trippy?

He took Hermine who at once shrank in his fingers to the dimensions of a toy figure and put her in the very same waistcoat pocket from which he had taken the cigarette. Its sweet and heavy smoke diffused a pleasant aroma. I felt hollow, exhausted, and ready to sleep for a whole year.

I understood it all. I understood Pablo. I understood Mozart, and somewhere behind me I heard his ghastly laughter. I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket. A glimpse of its meaning had stirred my reason and I was determined to begin the game afresh. I would sample its tortures once more and shudder again at its senselessness. I would traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being. One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh. Pablo was waiting for me, and Mozart too.

Those are the book’s final words, the final words of the manuscript the Steppenwolf left with the nephew and which he promised to publish way back at the start of what is, physically, quite a short book, but one which feels like it’s taken us on a trip right around the universe of human possibilities.

Conclusion

I spent a lot of energy ridiculing the morbid self-pity of the lead character in the first half of the book, only to realise by the end that this was a narrative strategy, that Hesse took the maudlin self-pity he himself was prone too, especially after his second marriage collapsed in the 1920s, and blew it up out of all proportion… in order to make the character’s transformation all the more vivid and memorable.

So the real interest of the book is in the way the Steppenwolf is humanised, literally brought to Life and instructed in how to Live it and Enjoy it, by the beneficent guidance of Hermine, the hermaphrodite healer. The journey is packed with weird and wonderful scenes involving Goethe and Mozart, discussions of suicide and time and eternity and human nature and music and sex, it is a gallimaufrey of intensely felt ideas and insights.

And then the final forty pages take it to a different level altogether, a mad science fiction / horror / drug trip fantasy which in its combination of weirdness and philosophy does something hardly any other book I’ve ever read manages.

What an incredible book!

Credit

Der Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse was published in 1927. This translation by Basil Creighton was published in 1929. All references are to the 1973 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

20th century German literature

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959)

The Weimar Republic

German history

The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. (The Plague, page 63)

The plot

We’re in Oran, coastal port and second city of the French colony of Algeria, in Camus’s day (1940-something, according to the first sentence), a city which at the time had a population of around 200,000.

Rats start dying and then people, too. After some weeks of denial the authorities acknowledge that there is a major outbreak of plague and close the city so that no one can get in or out. The narrative focuses on Dr Bernard Rieux as he tries to treat the first few victims and slowly comes into contact with a cross-section of characters from the city.

The plague doesn’t relent but keeps getting gets worse and worse, and Rieux plays a key role in reporting every step of its development and helping the authorities to cope – setting up isolation wards, establishing quarantine for all diagnosed patients, organising Volunteer Squads to go out checking each district of the city and so on.

The book can be analysed out into three strands:

  • The narrator’s factual, third-person overview of the progress of the plague and its impact on the population’s morale.
  • The narrator’s interpretation of the events in terms of its impact on individual psychologies and community morale – an interpretation which invokes contemporary 1940s ideas derived variously from Catholic Christianity, revolutionary communism, and liberal humanism.
  • And the character development of the half dozen or so major characters who we follow all the way through the plague, and who represent different types of humanity with different coping strategies. All of these characters come into contact with Dr Rieux at one stage or another, as acquaintances who he treats or as friends who he listens to pouring out their souls, their stories, their hopes and fears. Like planets round the sun.

I found the first hundred and fifty pages of The Plague a struggle to read because of the lack of detail about the disease, the lack of much incident and the lack of scope among the characters; but the final hundred pages significantly altered my opinion, as the characters reveal more and more about themselves, as the mental strain of their medical work or of being locked up in the quarantined city give them more depth, and as we begin to witness actual deaths among those close to Dr Rieux.

The turning point (for me, anyway) is the pain-filled death of Jacques, the young son of the city magistrate, Monsieur Othon. Jacques dies in agony, wailing with childish pain, witnessed by almost all the main characters. From that point onwards the debates about God and judgement and sinfulness and exile and abandonment and so on – which had seemed abstract and flimsy in the first half – acquired a real depth. Not only was the boy’s death terrifying in itself – towards the end he begins screaming and doesn’t stop till he expires – but the impact it has on the main characters is genuinely unsettling. Grown men are shaken into rethinking their whole lives, forced to face up to the fundamental questions of existence – and Camus’s depiction of the child’s death makes this completely believable.

Although it has its faults of style and long-windedness, the second half in particular of The Plague very powerfully brings to life a whole raft of issues which concerned mid-twentieth century minds, and convinces you that this is indeed a masterpiece.

The characters

The Plague is narrated by a man who calls himself The Narrator, who explains how – after the plague had finally expired – he has assembled eye-witness accounts and various documents and so is able to give third-person descriptions of events and people.

Dr. Rieux is the central character of The Narrator’s account. Aged 35 i.e. around Camus’s age when he wrote the novel, it is Rieux who first stumbles on a dying rat in the hall of his apartment block, comes across the earliest plague patients, phones around other doctors for their opinion, begins to lobby the authorities, helps put in place the quarantine and isolation wards, and liaises with his older colleague, Dr Castel, about the latter’s home-made attempts to devise a serum. He is a prime mover of the medical strand of the narrative.

But Rieux is also the copper-bottomed humanist who, we can imagine, most closely resembles Camus’s own humanist position. It is Rieux who has several in-depth discussions with the novel’s priest about God and divine Justice; who discusses the meaning of exile (i.e. being stuck in the city and separated from the woman he loves) with the journalist Rambert; who becomes good friends with big, strong Tarrou, who represents the political strand of the book.

Rieux is, in other words, a sort of still point around which the other characters rotate, confiding their life stories, sharing their views, debating the ‘meaning’ of the plague, and of their ‘exile’, of ‘justice’, of ‘love’.

Father Paneloux is a Jesuit priest, the representative of Catholic Christianity in the novel. He gives two lengthy sermons in the city’s cathedral. The first, in the early stages of the plague, castigates the city’s population in traditional Christian terms, saying the plague is a scourge sent by God against sinners for turning their backs on Him. It introduces the metaphor of God’s ‘flail’ or ‘scourge’ swishing over the stricken city, an image which comes to haunt several of the other characters.

Then, at the turning point of the story, Father Paneloux is present at the bedside of little Jacques Othon during the latter’s painful death. The priest offers prayers etc but, of course, nothing works or remits the little boy’s agony.

There then follow inevitable dialogues between Father Paneloux and the atheist characters, the latter asking how a caring God could torture children. Paneloux roughs out his explanation in a conversation with Rieux, and then goes on to give a powerful exposition of it in his Second Sermon.

This Second Sermon is, in its way, even fiercer and more unrepentantly Christian than the first, but in a more personal way. For a start, Father Paneloux stops saying ‘you’ to the congregation and starts saying ‘we’. He is down among them, he is one of ‘us’.

Father Paneloux’s argument is that you either believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you must not only accept but embrace the suffering of the world, because it must be part of his plan. It passes our human understanding, but you must want it and will it. If you say you believe in God but reject this or that aspect of his plan, you are rejecting Him. It is all or nothing.

There is a Nietzschean force to this Second Sermon which I admired and responded to for its totality, for its vehemence, as, presumably, we are intended to.

After the death of little Jacques, Father Paneloux becomes much more interesting and psychologically resonant as a character. He throws himself into the voluntary work being done among the sick. When he himself falls ill and is nursed by Rieux’s mother at their apartment, his decline has depth and meaning, and so when he dies it is genuinely moving.

Jean Tarrou is a big, strong good-natured guy. He keeps a diary which The Narrator incorporates into the text and which gives us independent assessments of many of the other characters such as Monsieur Othon, Dr Castel, Cottard and so on. On the practical level of the narrative, it is Tarrou who comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague i.e. going round checking wards, identifying new patients, and arranging their conveyance to the isolation wards.

On the level of character type, Tarrou early on lets slip that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the losing, Republican, side. This explains why he was hanging out in the Spanish quarter of Oran when the plague began. He is the political character in the novel, the image of the ‘committed’ man who resonates throughout existentialist thinking. The man who validates his life by giving it to a cause.

After the little boy’s death, Tarrou’s character moves to an entirely new level, when he confides in Rieux the key incident from his childhood. Tarrou’s father was a kindly family man with an entertaining hobby of memorising railway timetables. Tarrou knew he was a lawyer but didn’t really understand what this meant until, aged 17, he accompanied his father to court one day and was horrified to see him transformed into a begowned representative of a vengeful Justice, shouting for the death penalty to be imposed on a feeble yellow-looking fellow – the defendant – cowering in the witness box.

The scales dropped from Tarrou’s eyes and he ran away from home. He joined a worldwide organisation devoted to overthrowing the ‘injustice’ of ‘bourgeois society’, which stood up for the workers and for the humiliated everywhere. But then Tarrou found himself, in turn, acquiescing in the executions which the leaders of his movement (presumably the communists in Spain) claimed were necessary to overthrow the unjust regime.

Tarrou gives a particularly unpleasant description of an execution by firing squad which he attends in Hungary, in graphic and brutal detail. The size of the hole shot in the executed man’s chest haunts his dreams.

Tarrou is telling Rieux all this as the pair of them sit on a terrace overlooking the sea. The mood, the background susurrations of the ocean, and the seriousness of what he’s saying, all chime perfectly. It is a great scene. Having rejected the orthodox, bourgeois, legalistic world of his father, Tarrou has also walked away from what is not named but is pretty obviously the Communist Party. Now all he wants to do is avoid murder, and prevent death. And then – using the characteristically religious register which domaintes the novel – he tells Rieux that he wants to be a saint. But a saint without a God.

This conversation, and Tarrou’s agonised journey from bourgeois rebel, through communist activist and fighter in Spain, to would-be saint is – for me – the best part of the book. For the first time in reading any of Camus’s books, I felt I was getting to grip with the issues of his day dramatised in an accessible way.

It is all the more heart-breaking then when, just as the plague is beginning to finally let up, the death rate drop and the city begin to hope again – that tough noble Tarrou himself contracts it and dies. Characteristically, he demands that Rieux tell him the truth about the deterioration in his condition right till the end.

Raymond Rambert is the third major character who rotates around Rieux. He was a journalist visiting Oran to write about conditions in the Arab Quarter, when the plague struck. When the city is closed, Rambert finds himself trapped and spends most of the novel trying to escape, first legally by petitioning the authorities, then illegally by paying people smugglers.

This latter strand is long and boring, involving being handed from one dodgy geezer to another. He is told to be ready to be smuggled out of one of the city’s gates by ‘friendly’ guards, only for the attempt to be permanently delayed due to all kinds of hitches.

Presumably Camus is deliberately trying for a realistic, unromantic and unexciting narrative effect – the opposite of a Hollywood adventure movie. Somewhere The Narrator describes the plague as grimly unromantic, as drab and mundane and boring, and that accurately describes this thread of Rambert’s frustrated escape attempts.

Apart from this rather dull thread on the level of the plot, Rambert as a type is the main focus for discussions of ‘love’. He wants to escape so desperately in order to get back to the wife he loves and left in Paris. His energy and devotion, his loyalty, his quixotic quest, are contrasted with the apathy on the one hand, or the frenzied debauchery on the other, of most of the other trapped townsfolk.

Again, like all the characters, Rambert is transfigured by Jacques’ death. It follows just after the latest disappointment in his many escape plans and after it, Rambert confides to Rieux, he has stopped trying to escape. After nearly a year in plague-stricken Oran, Rambert has realised that the plague is now his plague; he has more in common with the stricken townsfolk than with outsiders. He will stay until the work here is done.

These are the three major characters (beside Rieux) and you can see how they are simultaneously real people and also function as narrative types who trigger periodic discussions of the political and social issues of Camus’s time, great big issues of justice and commitment, loyalty and love.

Minor characters

Joseph Grand is a fifty-something, somewhat withered city clerk and a kind of comic stereotype of the would-be author. In numerous scenes we witness him reading aloud to Rieux and sometimes some of the other serious characters, the opening of his Great Novel which, in fact, has never got beyond the opening sentence which he tinkers with endlessly. This is pretty broad satire on the self-involved irrelevance of many litterateurs. On the other hand, once the plague kicks off, Grand uses his real skills to compile the tables and statistics which the city authorities need and finds himself praised by The Narrator as demonstrating precisely the kind of quiet, obscure but dogged commitment to work and efficiency which The Narrator considers the true nature of bravery, of heroism.

Cottard lives in the same building as Grand and we meet both of them as a result of an incident, when Grand telephones the doctor to tell him that he’s just found Cottard as he was attempting to hang himself. The doctor rushes round and he and Grand save and revive Cottard. Cotard recovers but, from that point onwards, is shifty and consistently evades the police and the authorities, since attempted suicide is a crime. Once the plague kicks in Cottard becomes much more peaceable, maybe because everyone else is now living in the state of nervous tension which he permanently inhabits. He becomes a black marketeer and pops up throughout the story. When the plague winds down he goes a bit mad and suddenly starts shooting out his window at random passers-by, a scene Rieux and Tarrou stumble across on one of their walks together. He is not massacred as he would be in a Hollywood movie, but successfully arrested and taken off by the police.

Dr. Castel is a much older medical colleague of Rieux’s. He realises the disease is bubonic plague far more quickly than anyone else and then devotes his time to creating a plague serum, using the inadequate facilities to hand. His efforts tire him out and, although his serum is finally mass produced and administered, it’s not clear whether it has any impact on the plague or whether the plague declines because it had worked its way through the population anyway.

Monsieur Othon the city’s pompous well-dressed magistrate, is often to be seen parading his well-dressed wife and harshly-disciplined children around Oran. Until his son Jacques dies – at which point he becomes greatly softened. As the relative of a plague victim, Othon is sent to one of the isolation camps for a quarantine period, but surprises everyone when, upon leaving, he decides he wants to go back and help.

Comments on the characters

Summarising the characters like this makes it clearer than when you actually read the novel, just how schematic they are, how they represent particular views or roles which combine to give a kind of overview of how society reacts to calamity.

Having just read three of Camus’s plays (Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Just) I now have a strong sense that this is how Camus conceives of characters, as ideological or issue-driven types. Additional comments:

1. Note how none of them are women. It is the 1940s and still very much a man’s world. Experience only counts if it is male. In any actual plague there would be thousands of mothers concerned and caring for their children and probably many women would volunteer as nurses. The only women named are the remote ‘love objects’ which motivate the men – Rieux’s wife, who is lucky enough to be packed off to a sanatorium at the start of the novel for a non-plague-related illness, and Rambert’s wife, back in Paris. In the main body of the narrative no women appear or speak, apart from Rieux’s ageing mother who comes and stays with him. The mother is a holy figure in Camus’s fiction (compare and contrast the centrality of the (dead) mother in L’Etranger.)

2. You will also note that there isn’t a single Arab or Algerian among these characters. Seven years after The Plague was published the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Algerians began fighting for the freedom to write their own narratives of their own country in their own language.

In this respect, in the perspective of history, The Plague is a kind of European fantasy, set in a European fantasy of a country which soon afterwards ceased to exist. (Algeria achieved its independence from France after a horrific war, 15 years after this novel was published, in 1962.)

The medicine and science

There is some medical detail about the plague, some description of the hard buboes which swell at the body’s lymph nodes, how they can be incised to release the pus, some descriptions of the fever and pain and the last-minute falling away of symptoms before the sudden death. Enough to give the narrative some veracity, but no more.

But Camus is more interested in personifying and psychologising the plague than in describing it scientifically. It is described as a character with agency and intent.

Thus over a relatively brief period the disease lost practically all the gains piled up over many months. Its setbacks with seemingly predestined victims, like Grand and Rieux’s girl patient, its bursts of activity for two or three days in some districts synchronizing with its total disappearance from others, its new practice of multiplying its victims on, say, a Monday, and on Wednesday letting almost all escape, in short, its accesses of violence followed by spells of complete inactivity, all these gave an impression that its energy was flagging, out of exhaustion and exasperation, and it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto. Rieux was confronted by an aspect of the plague that baffled him. Yet again it was doing all it could to confound the tactics used against it; it launched attacks in unexpected places and retreated from those where it seemed definitely lodged. Once more it was out to darken counsel. (p.232)

In the first hundred pages or so I was hoping for more science, more medical descriptions, and was disappointed. Maybe Camus’s novel reflects the medical science of his day. Or maybe he only did as much research as was necessary to create the scaffold for his philosophical lucubrations.

Either way the book’s science and medical content is underwhelming. Early on Dr Rieux advises a plague victim to be put on a light diet and given plenty to drink. Is that it? Paris sends a serum but it doesn’t seem to work very well and there’s never enough. Rieux tries in some cases to cut open the knotted lymph glands and let them bleed out blood and pus – but besides being messy and crude, this doesn’t seem to work either. The only real strategy the authorities have is to cart the infected off to isolation wards where they wait to die before their corpses are taken to massive plague pits and thrown into lime.

In this respect, the science and medical side of the narrative is closer to the medicine of Charles Dickens than to our computer-based, genome-cracking, antibiotic-designing era. It seemed pathetic and antique how the novel describes the isolated old Dr Castel plodding along trying to develop a serum locally, by himself, working with the inadequate means he has,

since the local bacillus differed slightly from the normal plague bacillus as defined in textbooks of tropical diseases. (p.112)

and that the narrator considers this feeble old man’s home-made efforts as truly ‘heroic’.

If it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth its due, to the addition of two and two its sum of four, and to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.

(Incidentally, this is a good example of the obscurity typical of so much of Camus’s prose — ‘This will render to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.’ As usual I find myself having to read Camus sentences at least twice to decipher the meaning, and then wondering whether I have in fact learned anything. Does heroism have a secondary place just after, but never before, the noble claim of happiness? It sounds so precise, so logical, so confident. But it’s meaningless and instantly forgotten.)

Camus’s worldview

As Jean-Paul Sartre usefully, and a little cruelly, pointed out back at the time, Camus was not a philosopher. Although he studied philosophy at university, it wasn’t to anywhere near the same level as Sartre, who went on to become a philosophy professor. Sartre also denied that Camus was even an ‘existentialist’ – by which maybe he simply meant that Camus wasn’t one of Sartre’s coterie. But then, Camus himself was ambivalent about using the term.

Instead, Camus can maybe be described as a kind of philosophical impressionist. Without much conceptual or logical rigour, he is interested in depicting the psychological impact, the feel, the climate, produced by a handful of interlocking ‘ideas’.

Chief among these is the Absurd, the result of the mismatch between the human wish for order and meaning and the obvious indifference of a godless universe.

Exile is the name he gives to that sense humans have of being removed from their true domain, the place of consolation, meaning and belonging.

He uses the word hope to denote the delusions humans create to hide from themselves their complete abandonment in a godless universe.

Thus the brave and heroic Absurd Man faces down a ‘godless universe’ and lives without hope i.e. without resorting to fond illusions.

And finally, Revolt – the Absurd Man revolts against his condition. The notion of revolt arose from his discussion of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus (do not kill yourself; face the absurdity; overcome it; revolt against your fate) and was to be developed at length in his later ‘philosophical’ work, The Rebel.

Why is this relevant to The Plague? Because the advent of a plague, spreading unstoppably and leading to the closing of the city, throws up a wide variety of dramatic situations in which his cast of seven or eight main characters can act out and think through and express, various aspects of Camus’s worldview.

Very little happens in the ‘plot’ and the medical aspect, as I’ve pointed out, is medieval.

No, we read the book to find in it a steady stream of dramatisations of Camus’s worldview. His other two novels – The Outsider and The Fall are much shorter, at around 100 pages each. The Plague is by far the longest fictional depiction of Camus’s theory of the Absurd. Reading it at such length led me to isolate three distinct themes:

  1. The centrality of Roman Catholic Christianity to Camus’s worldview
  2. The realisation that the Law – with its ideas of justice, judgement, crime and punishment – is much more important to Camus than the ideas around ‘the Absurd’
  3. Camus’s horribly long-winded style which makes stretches of The Plague almost impossible to read (and which I deal with in a separate blog post)

1. The role of Christianity in Camus’s philosophy

It was talking Camus over with my 18-year-old son (who has just completed an A-Level in Philosophy) which made me realise the centrality of French Roman Catholicism to both Camus and Sartre.

Both Frenchmen go on and on and on about the ‘anguish’ and the ‘absurdity’ of living in what they never cease to tell us is a ‘godless universe’.

But it is only so distressing to wake up to this godlessness if you ever thought it was godful. I was brought up by atheist parents in the mostly atheist country of England, where, by the 1970s, most people thought of ‘the Church’ as a retirement home for nice vicars. The Anglican worldview is one of moderation and common sense and tea and biscuits. There haven’t really been many great Anglican thinkers because thinking hasn’t been its main activity. Running missions in Africa or the East End or organising village fetes in the Cotswolds have traditionally been Anglican activities. The Anglican church has been a central topic of gentle English humour, from Trollope via P.G.Wodehouse to The Vicar of Dibley.

French Roman Catholic culture couldn’t be more different. It is both politically and philosophically deep and demanding and, historically, has played a vindictively reactionary role in French politics.

The Catholic worldview is far more intense, making the world a battlefield between the forces of God and the Devil, with a weekly confession in which you must confront your own innermost failings. Its educational élite are the mercilessly intelligent Jesuits. Its theological tradition includes Pascal with his terrifying vision of a vast universe, indifferent to us unless filled by the love of God.

Politically, the French Catholic Church led the attack on the Jewish army officer Dreyfus in the prolonged cultural civil war over his false accusation for treason – the Dreyfus Affair (dramatised by Robert Harris in his novel An Officer and a Spy) – which divided France from 1894 to 1906.

Since the French Revolution, very broadly French culture has been divided into conservatives who line up behind the reactionary Catholic Church, and liberals and socialists, who oppose it.

Think how repressive, how reactionary, how dominating their boyhood Catholic educations must have been in the 1910s and 1920s for young Jean-Paul and Albert. Think how much of a mental and psychological effort it must have been for them to struggle free of their Catholic education. It meant rejecting the beliefs which their parents, their wider family and the entire society around them, deeply cherished. It meant standing alone. It meant being an outsider.

Thus my suggestion is that the extremely negative value which Sartre and Camus attribute to the idea of realising that there is no God and that you are free – indeed that you are condemned to be free – to make your own set of values and decisions, derives from their powerful emotional feeling that this knowledge involves a loss, the loss of their once life-supporting Catholic faith.

So it seems reasonable to speculate that a lot of the emotional intensity of their ideas and fictions derive from the intensity of the struggle to break free from the Catholic Church. Sartre calls this state of lucid acknowledgement of your freedom in the world ‘anguish’. They both describe the state as a state of abandonment. Camus in particular again and again uses the analogy of it being a state of exile.

All of this terminology is powerfully negative. It suggests that there once was something vital and life supporting – and that now it is lost.

In Sartre and Camus’s works they refer to the lost thing as the ‘illusions’ or ‘habits’ of bourgeois life, but my suggestion is simply that Sartre and Camus don’t themselves realise how fundamental their lost Christian faith is to their entire worldview.

Godless. Over and over again they refer to the horror and terror of living in a ‘godless’ universe. Well, if you weren’t brought up to expect a godful universe you won’t be particularly surprised or disappointed, let alone thrown into mortal anguish, when someone tells you that it is godless.

It was my son who pointed out to me with calm rationality that there is no logical need to be upset or anguished or ‘exiled’ by living in a ‘godless universe’. You can quite logically accept that there is a ridiculous mismatch between our wish for meaning and comfort and security in the world and the absurdity of people being run over by cars or blown up by terrorists – without giving it an emotional value – without making it the source of catastrophic emotional collapse.

Just as you can acknowledge the reality of gravity or the speed of light or that humans are mammals, without feeling the need to burst into tears. It is just one more fact among thousands of other facts about the world we live in, pleasant or less pleasant, which most people process, accept and forget in order to get on with their lives.

Camus, like Sartre, thinks of these ‘ordinary’ people – people who, alas, aren’t writers or philosophers – as sheep, cattle, as ‘cowards’ or ‘scum’ (which is what Sartre – rather surprisingly – calls them in Existentialism is a Humanism) because they are hiding from or rejecting or denying the Truth. I think, on the contrary, that most people are perfectly capable of grasping the truth about the world they live in, they just don’t make the same song and dance about it as two French lapsed Catholics.

This line of thought was prompted by slowly realising that the supposedly ‘existential’ or ‘atheist’ worldview depicted in The Plague is completely reliant on the ideology and terminology of Christianity. Thus it is no surprise that the Jesuit Father Paneloux is one of the central characters, nor that the book contains two chapters devoted to sermons delivered by him, nor that one of the central moments in the book is the confrontation between the humanist Dr Rieux and the Jesuit Paneloux following the death of little Jacques. Christianity is key.

When the priest insists that God’s Plan ‘passes our human understanding’, the doctor replies:

‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’ (p.178)

Likewise, God also features in several of the conversations between Dr Rieux and the thoughtful Tarrou:

‘Do you believe in God, doctor?…’ His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God…
‘After all,’ the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, ‘it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.’
Tarrou nodded.
‘Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’
Rieux’s face darkened.
‘Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.’
‘No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.’
‘Yes. A never ending defeat.’ (p.108)

This is Camus’s attitude. Revolt against fate. Rebel against the godless universe. Resist. Fight, even if it’s without hope.

But – and this is my point – note how the secular, Absurdist, existentialist, call it what you will, attitude can only emerge by piggybacking, as it were, on the back of Christian theology.

This plucky godlessness only really has meaning by reference to the lucky godfulness which precedes it. Camus and his characters can’t discuss the meaning of life cold, from a standing start – there always has to be a preliminary clearing of the throat, some philosophical foreplay, involving God this or God that, do you believe in God, No, do you believe in God etc? It’s a kind of warming up and stretching exercise before the characters finally feel able to get round to saying what they do believe in – justice, freedom, human dignity, and so on.

The entire discourse of the Absurd absolutely requires there to be a Christianity to reject and replace before it can express itself.

2. The importance of the law, judgement and punishment

Reading his other two novels has slowly made me realise that pretty old-fashioned ideas of crime and punishment are central to Camus.

The Outsider (1942) is about a man who commits a crime (murdering an Arab) and is punished for it. The entire ‘drama’ of the story is in the mismatch between his inner psychological state of almost psychotic detachment from his life and actions. But where this absurd mismatch is brought to life, where his detachment from social norms is misinterpreted and distorted to make him appear a monstrous psychopath, is in a court of law.

The Outsider becomes a study of the process of the law and a questioning of the idea of human ‘justice’. The entire second part of the book mostly consists of the protagonist’s questioning by magistrates, then the long courtroom scenes featuring the prosecution and defence lawyers doing their thing, followed by the judge’s summing up. It is a courtroom drama.

The Fall (1956) is even more Law-drenched, since it consists of an uninterrupted monologue told by a lawyer about his own ‘fall from grace’. It is a text saturated with the imagery of crime and sin, punishment and redemption, judgement and forgiveness. There are a few passages about ‘the Absurd’ but really it is ideas about crime and punishment which dominate.

But also, look at the title. The Fall. A reference to the central event in all Christian theology, the fall of Man. The Law is absolutely central to these two novels, and it is a notion of the law inextricably interlinked with Christian theology and imagery.

Religion and Law in The Plague

So I was not surprised when I began to discern in The Plague at least as much discourse about religion (about sin and punishment) and about the Law (about justice and judgement) as I did about the ideas Camus is famous for i.e. the Absurd and so on.

In particular, it comes as no surprise when Tarrou, one of the most intelligent characters, reveals that the key to his character, to his entire career as a political activist, was revulsion at the vengefulness of his father’s bourgeois form of justice, and a resultant search for some kind of better, universal, political justice.

And I have already noted the centrality of Father Paneloux, and the debates about God which he triggers wherever he goes.

Many commentators then and ever since have thought that The Plague is a clever allegory about the occupation of France by the Nazis, and the stealthy way a sense of futility and despair crept over the French population, numbing some, spurring others into ‘revolt’ and resistance.

Every time I read about this interpretation I wonder why Camus, who apparently was ‘active’ in the Resistance, didn’t at some stage write a novel of what it was actually like to live under German occupation and to be a member of the Resistance. That would have been of huge historic importance and also directly tied his ideas to their historical context, making them more powerful and meaningful.

Maybe it’s petty-minded of me – but it is striking how none of Camus’ three novels (published in 1942, 1947 and 1956) mention the Second World War, the defeat of France, the German occupation, Nazi ideology, France’s contribution to the Holocaust, any aspect of the work of the Resistance, or how he and his compatriots experienced the Liberation.

On one level, it feels like a vast hole at the centre of his work and a huge opportunity lost.

Anyway, this historical context is completely absent from The Plague. What there is instead are these dominating issues of law and justice, sin and forgiveness, and the all-pervading language of Law and Religion.

Over The Plague hang the shades of Dostoyevsky’s characters interminably discussing whether or not there is a God and how his love and/or justice are shown in the world – and also of Kafka’s novels with their obsessive repetition of the idea of a man arrested or turned into an insect for no reason, no reason at all. Kafka was another author obsessed by the idea of law and justice.

(Camus includes a jokey reference to Kafka on page 51 where the dodgy character Cottard says he’s reading a ‘detective story’ about a man who was arrested one fine day without having done anything – a transparent reference to The Trial.)


Key terms in The Plague

Because the entire translated text is available online, it’s easy to do a word search for key terms. The following results tend, I think, to support my argument – that the novel is far more about ideas derived from Christian religion or the Law and jurisprudence, than the ideas of Camus’s brand of existentialism.

References to Camusian concepts

  • absurd – 7 times, and never in a philosophical sense
  • revolt – 6 – ‘Weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.’ (p.178)
  • abandoned – 4
  • futile – 4
  • suicide – 3
  • godless – 0

There are, then, surprisingly few direct references to the main concepts which made him famous.

References to Christian concepts

Now compare and contrast with the frequency of religious terms. These are far more common, far more fully expressed and explored.

  • God – 46 instances
  • saint – 15
  • religion – 12
  • heaven – 8
  • hell – 7
  • salvation – 6
  • purgatory – 2

References to the law

And finally, legal terminology:

  • law – 14
  • justice – 10 – ‘When a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice, hideous, witless justice.’ (p.156)
  • judge – 6
  • crime – 6
  • punishment – 4
  • judgement – 2

Again, there is more reference to basic ideas of justice and injustice than to the concepts clustered around his Absurdism.

Exile

The one Camusian idea which is very present is that of ‘exile’, which is mentioned 27 times – ‘the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile’.

This is, if you like, a kind of metaphorical embodiment of the central idea of Camus’s version of existentialism – the literal sense of loss, separation, exile from home and loved ones standing for the metaphorical sense of exile from the (Christian) belief systems which give our lives purpose.

But it is typical of Camus that this key term is not a philosophical idea – it is a metaphor for a distressed state of mind, for the deprivation of the comforts of home which, deep down – as I suggest above – is in fact caused by the loss of religious faith.

Interestingly, the most commonly used abstract word in the book is ‘love’, occurring 96 times. This suggests the, dare I say it, sentimental basis of Camus’s humanism.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition (which cost 35p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Albert Camus on Franz Kafka (1942)

In 1942 Albert Camus published his famous long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus in which he addressed the issue of Suicide i.e. Is the world so empty, pointless and absurd that we might as well cash in our chips?

He takes a hundred pages or so to answer No, the basis of his argument being that at the core of every man is a Revolt Against His Fate.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Rather oddly, Camus added on to his passionate essay a 14-page appendix about the work of Franz Kafka, to be precise:

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka

The whole art of Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread.

This is comparable in its bluntness to Walter Benjamin’s thought that the most important thing about Kafka was his failure. But then critics are much given to saying the most important thing about x is y — it is a structural limitation of the genre (and, maybe, of how we think about aesthetics).

Anyway, Camus is approaching Auden’s view that Kafka was the master of the parable which everyone interprets in their own way, from a different angle, from the insight that you get to the end of a Kafka story and are left wondering what it meant. Hence you are forced to reread it.

Camus speaks of Kafka’s symbols as overflowing with meaning, as refusing to deliver a pat meaning.

His summary of the plot of The Trial makes it sound quite a lot like his own novel The Outsider in that he focuses on the last act where Joseph K is brutally murdered and more or less skips the weird atmosphere, the strange encounters, the agonisingly long dialogues and the eerie details (all those attic rooms) which characterise the previous 250 pages.

He is on to something when he talks about the ‘naturalness’ with which Kafka’s characters accept their inexplicable predicaments.

The more extraordinary the character’s adventures are, the more noticeable will be the naturalness of the story: it is in proportion to the divergence we feel between the strangeness of a man’s life and the simplicity with which that man accepts it. It seems that this naturalness is Kafka’s.

Other critics have brought out the way that Kafka’s language is calm and sensible, and lacks almost all metaphor and simile: is flat and factual and precise. Early on Camus begins to impose onto Kafka his own conception of ‘the Absurd’.

He will never show sufficient astonishment at this lack of astonishment. It is by such contradictions that the first signs of the absurd work are recognized.

I’m afraid I recoiled at much of the pretentious rhetoric Camus employs in this essay. In my review of Camus’s other essays in The Myth of Sisyphus collection, I highlight the contrast between the pre-war essays full of lush verbiage and inflated rhetoric and the post-war essays which are immensely more chastened, more overt and accessible. This one definitely belongs to the pre-war, hothouse period.

The Castle is perhaps a theology in action, but it is first of all the individual adventure of a soul in quest of its grace, of a man who asks of this world’s objects their royal secret and of women the signs of the god that sleeps in them. Metamorphosis, in turn, certainly represents the horrible imagery of an ethic of lucidity. But it is also the product of that incalculable amazement man feels at being conscious of the beast he becomes effortlessly.

But Gregor Samsa feels no amazement, none at all, at changing into a giant insect, in fact neither do his family. He never does and his family, after their initial shock, settle down to accepting it s part of everyday life. That’s the whole point.

Camus wants to impose on Kafka a simple set of binary oppositions of which one is his pet notion of The Absurd.

These perpetual oscillations between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday, the absurd and the logical, are found throughout his work and give it both its resonance and its meaning. These are the paradoxes that must be enumerated, the contradictions that must be strengthened, in order to understand the absurd work.

Though he is correct to point out the reconciliation in Kafka’s stories of the mundane practical prose of everyday life on the one hand and, on the other, an almost supernatural anxiety.

There is in the human condition (and this is a commonplace of all literatures) a basic absurdity as well as an implacable nobility. The two coincide, as is natural. Both of them are represented, let me repeat, in the ridiculous divorce separating our spiritual excesses and the ephemeral joys of the body… Thus it is that Kafka expresses tragedy by the everyday and the absurd by the logical.

Or – the horrific, the terrifying is all the more effective if it is understated. As with all his early essays Camus veers in and out of making sense.

The human heart has a tiresome tendency to label as fate only what crushes it. But happiness likewise, in its way, is without reason, since it is inevitable.

Contrary to what he said a moment ago about the ‘incalculable amazement’ Gregor feels at turning into an insect, he is closer to the mark when he points out the combination of the extreme and the everyday. Thus this man to whom befalls the most amazing thing that has ever happened to anyone, ever, is a boring travelling salesman whose first thought is concern about what his boss will say when he’s late for work (Gregor having, in a very characteristic Kafka way, not yet acknowledged that he is never going back to work).

Camus tries to persuade us that The Castle complements The Trial in ‘a barely perceptible progression’ which represents ‘a tremendous conquest in the realm of evasion.’

The Trial propounds a problem which The Castle, to a certain degree, solves. The first describes according to a quasi scientific method and without concluding. The second, to a certain degree, explains. The Trial diagnoses, and The Castle imagines a treatment. But the remedy proposed here does not cure. It merely brings the malady back into normal life.

Like a lot of Camus this sounds good but melts in your hands. If it is an interesting idea it deserves to be expanded and explained at greater length. He is right to point out how K. is the more buoyant of the two protagonists, never gives up hope, remains optimistic even though he quite obviously will never make it into The Castle, never realises or accepts that each new chapter ‘is a new frustration’. Camus notes how K. strives endlessly to try and become normal, to become one of the villagers, like everyone else – to be accepted.

Camus refers o God a lot in his discussion of The Castle and talks about Kierkegaard’s notorious leap of faith (Kierkegaard thought man can never know whether or not there is a God; he has to take a leap). He refers to Nietzsche and uses words like ‘existentialism’, but without persuading the reader that he really understands what he’s talking about. As with his other early essays we see the triumph of rhetoric over meaning.

That stranger who asks the Castle to adopt him is at the end of his voyage a little more exiled because this time he is unfaithful to himself, forsaking morality, logic, and intellectual truths in order to try to enter, endowed solely with his mad hope, the desert of divine grace.

He tries to appropriate Kafka for his own concerns, and in particular the special use of the word ‘hope’ which he had developed in The Myth of Sisyphus. In that essays ‘hope’ is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world.

The word ‘hope’ used here is not ridiculous. On the contrary, the more tragic the condition described by Kafka, the firmer and more aggressive that hope becomes. The more truly absurd The Trial is, the more moving and illegitimate the impassioned ‘leap’ of The Castle seems. But we find here again in a pure state the paradox of existential thought as it is expressed, for instance, by Kierkegaard: ‘Earthly hope must be killed; only then can one be saved by true hope,’ which can be translated: “One has to have written The Trial to undertake The Castle.’

Clever sounding, but what does it mean? In the essay’s final page he tries to do the same thing as in Sisyphus, which is bring a discussion which began with despair and the Absurd round to a positive conclusion, something along the lines of: Embrace the Absurdity, relish the challenge of the universe’s meaninglessness. Feel the fear, and do it anyway 🙂

It is strange in any case that works of related inspiration like those of Kafka, Kierkegaard, or Chestov -those, in short, of existential novelists and philosophers completely oriented toward the Absurd and its consequences – should in the long run lead to that tremendous cry of hope. They embrace the God that consumes them. It is through humility that hope enters in.

If you say so. But I think Camus is hopelessly [sic] distorting Kafka. There is no hope in Kafka. There is no uplift or rejoicing. By this stage I’ve realised that Camus is imposing his own dynamic onto Kafka (as, according to Auden, everyone does). I realise that he is imposing his own newly minted concept – The Absurd – on Kafka in order to make Kafka perform the same movement from despair to hope, or Revolt and lucid hope, which he has enacted in Sisyphus.

The absurd is recognized, accepted, and man is resigned to it, but from then on we know that it has ceased to be the absurd. Within the limits of the human condition, what greater hope than the hope that allows an escape from that condition? As I see once more, existential thought in this regard (and contrary to current opinion) is steeped in a vast hope.

1. I don’t think this is a very accurate or useful summary of the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre or the earlier existentialist philosophers. 2. There is no hope in Kafka, in fact the essay on Kafka by György Lukács which I’ve just read references a characteristically bleak and wry quote from Kafka on precisely this subject:

In conversation with Max Brod, after Brod had asked whether there is ‘hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know’, Kafka is said to have replied: ‘Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.’

Now that is the true Kafka note, the bleak humour but also the teasing quality, the feeling that, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, he is privy to some kind of doctrine or knowledge that none of the rest of us understand: that his works are all fragments pointing towards some amazing new doctrine which, however, was never completed and never could be completed.

Comparing Camus’s superficial references to Kierkegaard and ‘the existentialists’ against this quote from Kafka, or against the force of Benjamin’s tremendously powerful essay, makes me realise that Camus is out of his depth.

He simply isn’t mature enough, clever enough or deep enough to grasp the unfathomable abyss which Kafka is plumbing. Thinking he can go from a set of superficial remarks about Kafka’s symbols and the elementary observation that The Castle complements The Trial before hurrying on to declare that, in the end, embracing the Absurd is paradoxically hopeful and uplifting — Camus comes over as an excitable teenager. His concluding remarks are painfully trite.

His work is universal (a really absurd work is not universal) to the extent to which it represents the emotionally moving face of man fleeing humanity, deriving from his contradictions reasons for believing, reasons for hoping from his fecund despairs, and calling life his terrifying apprenticeship in death. It is universal because its inspiration is religious. As in all religions, man is freed of the weight of his own life.

But Kafka emphatically was not freed of the weight of his own life. Camus is thinking about the emotional journey which he himself has just been through in The Myth of Sisyphus and not at all of the actual writer Franz Kafka who was more oppressed from start to finish of his career by the unbearable weight of his own life than any other writer in history. Who couldn’t escape himself or the delusion of trying to escape himself, no matter where he turned, who saw error building upon error and doors closing at the end of every corridor.

You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid. (Kafka, Letters)

Camus’s distance from Kafka’s books is symbolised by the mistake he makes about the end of The Trial where he has the two men who arrest Joseph K. ‘slit his throat’, whereas, in fact, ‘the hands of one of the men closed round his throat, just as the other drove the knife deep into his heart and turned it twice.’ Camus has maybe misremembered this because it is, at some level, a little more capable of redemption that what Kafka actually wrote, which seems to me to be absolutely pitiless. Into the heart goes the metal knife. And then they twist it. There is no hope or rejoicing and no clever paradox about it. Camus’s final remarks are incoherent and, I think, profoundly irrelevant.

For if nostalgia is the mark of the human, perhaps no one has given such flesh and volume to
these phantoms of regret.

‘Phantoms of regret’ is a wholly inadequate phrase to convey anything to do with Kafka’s work. Camus’ prose is overblown, romantic, melodramatic and immature whereas Kafka’s was precise, understated, and unsparing.

The translation

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka was translated by Justin O’Brien. Is it O’Brien’s fault or Camus’s that the text is often badly phrased and poorly structured, sometimes becoming incomprehensible?

A symbol is always in general and, however precise its translation, an artist can restore to it only its movement: there is no word-for-word rendering.

There are works in which the event seems natural to the reader. But there are others (rarer, to be sure) in which the character considers natural what happens to him.

In the fullest sense of the word, it can be said that everything in that work is essential. In any case, it propounds the absurd problem altogether.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of other books by Camus

György Lukács on Franz Kafka (1955)

Brief biography of György Lukács

From the 1920s to the 1960s György Lukács was one of the leading Marxist philosophers and literary critics in Europe.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1885, the son of a very affluent Jewish banker, he benefited from a superb education and was a leading intellectual at Budapest university, combining interests in literature and (Neo-Kantian) philosophy, and founded a salon which featured leading Hungarian writers and composers during the Great War.

The experience of the war (although he was himself exempted from military service) radicalised Lukács and he joined the Communist Party in 1918. His cultural eminence led to him being appointed People’s Commissar for Education and Culture in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic which lasted from 21 March to 1 August 1919 and took its orders directly from Lenin. Lukács was an enthusiastic exponent of Lenin’s theory of Red Terror.

When the Republic was overthrown by army generals who instituted the right-wing dictatorship which was to run Hungary between the wars, Lukács fled to Vienna where he spent the 1920s developing a philosophical basis for a Leninist version of Marxism.

In 1930 he was ‘summoned’ to Moscow to work at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, although he soon got caught up in Stalin’s purges and was sent into exile in Tashkent. But Lukács survived, unlike an estimated 80% of Hungarian exiles in Russia, who perished.

At the war’s end he was sent back to Hungary to take part in the new Hungarian communist government, where he was directly responsible for written attacks on non-communist intellectuals, and took part in the removal of independent and non-communist intellectuals from their jobs, many being forced to take jobs as manual labourers.

Lickspittle apparatchik though that makes him sound, Lukács in fact trod a careful line which managed to be critical of Stalinism, albeit in coded and often abstruse phraseology. Due to his experience and seniority he was made a minister in the government of Imry Nagy which in 1956 tried to break away from Russia’s control during the so-called Hungarian Uprising. Nagy’s government was suppressed by the Soviets, and Lukács along with the rest of the Nagy government was exiled to Romania. Nagy himself was executed, Lukács only just escaped that fate. Yet again he had experienced the brutal and repressive force of Soviet tyranny.

He was allowed back to Budapest in 1957, abandoned his former criticisms of the Soviet Union, engaged in public self-criticism, and was allowed to keep his academic posts, continue writing and publishing his theoretical and critical works, up to his death in 1971.

His was a highly representative life of a certain kind of Central European intellectual in the twentieth century. He was reviled at the time by the people whose lives he blighted and by a wide range of liberal and conservative opponents.

Modernism as a symptom of capitalist society

In 1955 Lukács delivered a series of lectures on the clash between Realism and Modernism and a year later the lectures were published in essay form in a short book titled The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.

The message is simple: Realism good, Modernism bad. Simple enough, but the interest and, for me at any rate, the great pleasure to be had from reading this book is in the secondary arguments, in the premises and working through of the ideas and theories and insights which support this basic conclusion.

He begins with a sweeping premise: the era we live in is dominated by the conflict between capitalism and socialism. Looking back at the nineteenth century we can see how Realism in the arts emerged with the newly triumphant bourgeoisie, and was a result of the new social conditions brought about by their rise and overthrow of the last vestiges of power of the European aristocracy.

(Realist authors would include Stendhal, Balzac and early Flaubert in France, Tolstoy in Russia, George Eliot in England, Mark Twain in America.)

Realism in literature was followed by Naturalism in the final third of the century, which paid determined attention to the grim social conditions of mature capitalist society but also, in the hands of a novelist like Zola, began the process of reducing human beings to ciphers worked on by malign environments. Darwinism could be made to make people appear simple tools of their genetic inheritance, socialist theories could make people appear pawns and slaves of their working environments.

Zola saw his novels as sociological experiments. For Lukács he had already lost the tricky balance the realists maintained between character and ‘type’ – which helps to explain why Zola wrote nearly forty novels without a single memorable character in any of them.

(Naturalist authors are spearheaded by Zola in France, with maybe Jack London in America, George Gissing and Arthur Morrison in England.)

By the end of the century a shoal of movements erupted which prioritised an interest in decadence, perversion, the macabre and gruesome, the so-called Decadent movement and the gloomy atmosphere of Symbolism.

This brings us to the eruption of Modernism about the time of the First World War, the movement which, Lukács claims, is still praised and defended by bourgeois capitalist critics at the time he’s writing (1955). But for Lukács, Modernism represents a colossal failure of humanity: it turns its back on history and society, its protagonists are almost all loners undergoing nervous breakdowns, hopelessly alienated from societies which are portrayed as stuck, static, incapable of change or improvement.

From T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land to Samuel Beckett in Waiting For Godot Modernist writers depict complete psychological collapse, in Beckett’s case the degradation of human beings into almost wordless vegetables. He backs it up with references to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and other European works which foreground hopelessness and despair, and he was, of course, writing during the heyday of French existentialism, which became a byword in the 1950s for black sweaters and anguish.

All of these works and writers, Lukács argues, are symptoms of the alienating effect of living under Western capitalism. All these writers, artists and composers bear out Marx’s insight that in the capitalist system people are alienated from each other and from themselves.

Specific points

This makes Lukács sound like a cumbersome Stalinist commissar, but in fact the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish because i) it moves relatively quickly, not belabouring the points ii) it makes references to all kinds of writers, most from the European and not the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and iii) it features a whole series of thought-provoking ideas.

Time There is a fascinating discussion of subjective versus objective time, and how Modernists of all stripe, including Modernist philosophers, became fascinated by trying to describe the undifferentiated flow of sense impressions and ideas which became known as stream-of-consciousness, most famously in the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

He compares and contrasts their approaches with the way Thomas Mann uses what, at first sight, is stream of consciousness to capture the thoughts of the poet Goethe in his novel Lotte in Weimar. Mann is a realist writer and so, in Lukács’s opinion, the stream of consciousness is deployed as a tool within which particular individuals and events emerge against a clearly defined social backdrop.

Static versus dynamic Joyce’s worldview is static. More than one critic pointed out how Ulysses portrays a Dublin trapped in stasis and his masterpiece, Finnegan’s Wake, portrays a vast circular movement. But, says Lukács, human beings only achieve their personhood, only become fully human, by interacting with other humans in a constantly changing, dynamic society. Realist authors select characters and details to portray their understanding of this ceaseless dialectic between the individual and society.

Solipsism and nihilism A full and proper understanding of society in all its relations is empowering, an analysis and understanding which gives people the confidence to mobile and change things. By contrast, Lukács accuses Modernists of turning their back on healthy interaction with the world, of rejecting society, and rejecting a historical understanding of how societies change and evolve.

And it is no great leap to go from the belief that nothing ever changes, to despair. Rejecting society and history leads the protagonists of Modernist fictions to:

1. be confined within the limits of their own subjective experiences (Joyce, stream of consciousness)
2. ultimately deprive the protagonist of even a self a personal history, since that history is (in a normal person) largely the interaction between themselves and the host of others, starting with their family and moving outwards, which constitute society

By exalting man’s subjectivity, at the expense of the objective reality of his environment, man’s subjectivity is itself impoverished. (p.24)

Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments. (p.26)

Lukács invokes the teachings of Heidegger, as the godfather of 20th century existentialism, with his fundamental idea of Geworfenheit ins Dasein, of having been ‘thrown-into’-Being’, abandoned in a godless universe etc etc, all the self-pitying tropes which were promoted by existentialist philosophers, critics, playwrights, novelists, film-makers, rock stars and millions of teenagers in their lonely bedrooms ever since.

The individual, retreating into himself in despair at the cruelty of the age, may experience an intoxicated fascination with his forlorn condition. (p.38)

By contrast, Lukács invokes the fundamental insight of one of the founders of western philosophy – Aristotle – that man is a social animal: we only fully live and have our being in a social context. This insight goes through to Hegel in the early nineteenth century, who applies his mental model of the dialectic to the continual interplay between the healthily-adjusted individual and the society they find themselves in.

How does this play out in fiction? Well, the realist novelist such as George Eliot or Tolstoy chooses representative types, puts them in a narrative which represents realistic actions which capture the possibilities of their society, and selects details which highlight, bolster and bring out these two aspects. By and large things change in a realist novel, not least the characters, sometimes against the backdrop of dramatic social events (Middlemarch, War and Peace).

It is the interplay between a character and his or her fully realised environment, from Homer’s Achilles to Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkuhn, which gives us fully developed sense of character and, deeper than this, a dynamic sense of human potential. At bottom, the subject of the realist author is human change and development.

Moreover, he goes on to point out that all literature is, at some level, realistic. It would be impossible to have a totally non-realist novel (as you can have an utterly abstract work of art). More to his point, about the value of society and history:

A writer’s pattern of choice is a function of his personality. But personality is not in fact timesless and absolute, however it may appear to the individual consciousness. Talent and character may be innate; but the manner in which they develop, or fail to develop, depends on the writer’s interaction with his environment, on his relationships with other human beings. His life is part of the life of his times; no matter whether he is conscious of this, approves or disapproves. He is part of a larger social and historical whole. (p.54)

The Modernist, on the other hand rejects all this. More often than not their characters are extremes, psychopaths, neurotic, going mad, and he points to all of Samuel Beckett’s characters, but also the many mentally challenged characters in William Faulkner, of the man adrift on a sea of phenomena in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities. Details are chosen not to highlight their representativeness but to bring out the freakishness of themselves and the uncanny world they inhabit. And the plot or story is often sick and twisted, or barely exists, or revels in degradation and decline (Beckett).

(I laughed out loud when he described the way Beckett stands at the end of this tradition, as an example of ‘a fully standardised nihilistic modernism’, making him sound like a standard edition family saloon or entry level fridge freezer, p.53)

In a striking manoeuvre he invokes Freud as a godfather to Modernism, pointing out that Freud himself openly declared that his way of gaining insight into the structure of the ‘normal’ mind was via study of a colourful array of neurotics, obsessives and phobics. I.e. one of the major planks of though underlying all Modernist psychology, Freudianism, is based on the morbid and the unnatural (p.30)

Franz Kafka

Which brings us to Kafka. Kafka, for Lukács, even more than Beckett, for all his genius, represents the acme of the sickness that is Modernism. He points out a detail I’d forgotten which is that, as Joseph K is being led away to be executed, he thinks of flies stuck on flypaper, tearing their little legs off. This, Lukács says, is the vision at the heart of all Kafka’s fiction and at the heart of the Modernist worldview – humans are helpless insects, totally impotent, paralysed in a society they don’t understand, trapped in unintelligible situations.

Kafka’s angst is the experience par excellence of modernism. (p.36)

Lukács dwells on Kafka’s brilliant way with details, his eye for the telling aspect of a person or situation which brings it to life. But Lukács uses this fact to bring out the world of difference between the realistic detail in a realist fiction, which has been chosen because it is representative of the real world, properly conceived and understood – and the details in Kafka, which he chose with absolute genius to convey his sense of utter, paralysing futility and nonsense.

Kafka’s fictions are absolutely brilliant allegories, but allegories of nothing, allegories of emptiness (pp.44-45).

Thoughts

Pros

This is just a selection of some of Lukács’s insights in this short and, for the most part, very readable book. He may have been a slimeball, he may have been a criminal, he may have been a hypocrite, he may have been a toady to power – but there is no denying he was a clever man, very well read, and he conveys his learning fairly lightly. He doesn’t set out to be impenetrable as most French theorists do.

And he’s candid enough to admit that many of the experiments and new techniques and works written by the Modernists were dazzling masterpieces, and to concede that much of the stuff written under the aegis of Stalin’s Socialist Realism was tripe. He’s too sophisticated to defend rubbish.

But his basic critique that the Modernist works which Western critics, to this day, tend to uncritically adulate, do tend to foreground the outsider, the alienated, the loner, often with severe psychological problems, in fictions which often lack much plot or any interaction with other characters, and in which both hero and author have largely turned their back on wider society – this is very insightful. His analysis of the aspects of Modernist fiction is useful and stimulating.

And, having just read Kafka’s biography, his diagnosis of Kafka’s writings as the brilliant masterpieces of a very sick mind are completely spot on. I like the way he brings out the important of the just-so detail in Kafka’s works, the precise details which tip the whole thing over into paranoid nightmare.

Cons

But all that said, later on in the book an unnervingly more dogmatic tone emerges. Scattered references early in the book about the Cold War and the Peace Movement coalesce into political polemic. He links his concept of the Good Realist writers directly with the 1950s Peace Movement, which was strongly promoted by the Soviet Union amid disingenuous claims to want to end the Cold War (while all the time retaining a vice-like grip on Eastern Europe and funding destabilising communist insurgents around the world).

By contrast, he explicitly links some of the philosophers and authors of angst (most notoriously Heidegger) with Nazism and so tries to tar all Modernist authors with the taint of Fascism.

In other words, Lukács disappoints by making a direct and rather crude connection between a writer’s underlying worldviews and developments in international politics. He is not crude enough to blame individual writers for Fascism or capitalism – but he does point out repeatedly that they base their works on the same worldview that accepts the exploitation and alienation implicit in the capitalist system.

For most of the first half I enjoyed Lukács’s dissection of the psychopathology of Modernism. But when he began to directly relate it to capitalist-imperialism and to lecture the reader on how it led to The Wrong Side in the Cold War, the book suddenly felt crude, simplistic and hectoring.

When he suddenly states that:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing (p.77)

I thought, How can such a clever, well-read man write something so crude?

  1. Kafka’s visions of human life crushed by a faceless and persecuting bureaucracy could equally well have come out of Czarist Russia with its notorious secret police.
  2. Kafka didn’t in fact live in an advanced capitalist society such as America, Britain or Germany – the endless useless bureaucracy of his books is not that of snappily efficient America or Germany, but precisely that of provincial Bohemia, a sleepy backwater entangled in the vast and impenetrable civil service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  3. And Kafka would have been horribly out of place in any social system, at any time, as his biography brings home.

Worst of all, when, in the middle of the book, Lukács says that what counts about a writer isn’t their actual works, not their words or pages or techniques or style, but the general tendency of their thought… the implication is that this tendency can be measured by a commissar like himself, and suddenly I could hear the tones of Zhdanov and the other Soviet dictators of culture, whose crude diktats resulted in countless artists and writers being arbitrarily arrested and despatched to die in the gulag, crying out as they went that they meant no offence – while the apparatchiks calmly replied that they weren’t being punished for anything they’d actually said or done: they were being condemned to ten years hard labour for the tendency of their work.

At moments in this suave and sophisticated book, you suddenly glimpse the truncheon and the barbed wire of actual communist tyranny, which gives it a sudden thrill and horror not normally encountered in a genteel volume of literary criticism.

So it’s a complicated business, reading Lukács.


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The Great Wall of China by Franz Kafka (1917)

my investigation is purely historical

I remember this story giving me a funny feeling when I read it as a teenager because of the heady, sweeping vision of history it gives you. I was too young to realise that any ‘history’ it contains is used for purely aesthetic reasons, to feed the purposes of the parable and of Kafka’s distinctive take on human existence.

The Great Wall of China imagines what it was like to be one of the builders of the Great Wall. It is told from the point of view of an articulate member of the generation who were raised to build it, trained to build it, and indoctrinated to build it, a man from a southeast Chinese province ‘almost on the borders of the Tibetan Highlands’.

The first half of the text describes the excited and patriotic ‘spirit of the times’, the narrator being lucky enough to have turned twenty and graduated from school just as the mammoth project was commencing.

And goes on to describe the wall less as a engineering and logistical challenge but more, as you might imagine from a creative writer, as a psychological challenge. Thus, according to the narrator, the main challenge to be overcome was exhaustion and despair. It would take a gang of workers and supervisors about five years to build five miles of wall by which time

the supervisors were as a rule too exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the wall, and in the world.

And so after five years they were moved to a new region hundreds of miles away, the sole purpose being to show them other sections of the completed wall and parade them past cheering fellow citizens to bolster their morale.

The wistful tone

But rereading it now I think what appealed to me was the tone of the narrator. Most of Kafka’s other stories are told in real time – this happens then this happens then this. But the narrator of the Great Wall is looking back, wistfully and nostalgically to the early days of the wall which coincided with his flush of youth. He wants to ‘convey the ideas and experiences of that time and make them intelligible’ and the story is littered with phrases which hark back to that hopeful and optimistic era:

  • In those days the book was in everyone’s hands…
  • At that time for many people, even the best, there was a secret principle…

The whole text is bathed in an unusually warm and humane tone of voice.

The mysterious high command

The legendary vastness of China gives Kafka a new location to situate what you could call the core essence of the Kafkaesque, the notion of an endlessly ramifying hierarchy of unknowable authorities:

It is possible that even these considerations, which argued against building the wall in the first place, were not ignored by the leadership when they decided on piecemeal construction. We—and here I’m really speaking on behalf of many – actually first found out about it by spelling out the orders from the highest levels of management and learned for ourselves that without the leadership neither our school learning nor our human understanding would have been adequate for the small position we had within the enormous totality.

In the office of the leadership—where it was and who sat there no one I asked knows or knew—in this office I imagine that all human thoughts and wishes revolve in a circle, and all human aims and fulfilments in a circle going in the opposite direction.

Note the litotes in the first line – ‘It is possible that even these considerations… were not ignored by the leadership – which he uses to create a characteristic sense of uncertainty and speculation…

Slowly we realise that the story is in fact cast as an essay, a historical enquiry, into one odd fact, the fact that the wall was built in standalone sections which were often not linked up for decades or ever. Pondering the wisdom of the high command, the author talks himself into believing that the wall was in fact never a practical defence against invaders from the north: it was more a categorical imperative to unite Chinese society. More than that, it had an almost supernatural source.

I imagine that the high command has existed from all eternity, and the decision to construct the wall likewise. Unwitting northern people believed they were the cause; unwitting emperor who imagined he had given orders for it. We who were builders of the wall know otherwise and are silent.

This I found a breath-taking and vast and mysterious vision.

The remoteness of the emperor

In the second half of the short text the author goes on to expand it by subjecting the figure of the Emperor to a thorough Kafka-isation i.e. turning him into a figure so remote and mysterious, that no one knows or can know about him. The same idea he’s applied to the notional ‘Court’ in The Trial. 

We would think about the present emperor if we knew who he was or anything definite about him. We were naturally always trying… to find out something or other about him, but, no matter how strange this sounds, it was almost impossible to learn anything, either from pilgrims, even though they wandered through much of our land, or from near or remote villages, or from boatmen, although they have travelled not merely on our little waterways but also on the sacred rivers. One hears a great many things, true, but can gather nothing definite.

The idea is developed to visionary or phantasmagorical lengths, with the author stating that the empire is so vast that it is impossible ever to hear anything about the emperor, malicious court conspiracies may overthrow him, but the author’s people, far in the distant south, will never hear about this. Nobody knows the name of the current emperor resulting in ‘universal uncertainty’.

In fact the text contains a one-page-long parable of haunting beauty.

The parable of the emperor’s message

The Emperor has sent a message to you, his humble subject, a tiny shadow cowering in the furthest distance from the imperial sun; the emperor on his deathbed has sent a message to you alone. He ordered the messenger to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message into his ear. He thought it so important that he had the messenger repeat it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of the verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those who’ve come to witness his death – for all the obstructing walls have been broken down and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs – in front of all of them he dispatches his messenger.

The messenger sets off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he encounters resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forward easily, unlike anyone else.

But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvellous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. He will never he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years.

And if he finally did burst through the outermost door – but that can never, never happen – the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, crammed to bursting with its own refuse. Nobody could pushes his way through here, even with a message from a dead man.

It is Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, redone in a mystical fictional form. If this had been in The Trial both teller and auditor of the fable would have reflected (at length) on how impossible it is to ever establish any truth or knowledge, to ever receive the message, to ever find out what is going on.

But The Great Wall of China is different. It has, as I mentioned, an unusually warm and mellow tone about it. And thus this page-long parable ends not on a note of hopelessness, but with an image of acceptance.

But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream that message to yourself.

Kafka is rarely this forgiving to himself or his readers. It is this twilight, nostalgic and forgiving tone which makes The Great Wall of China stand out among all his other works.

And it also makes you realise that his fundamental tropes of distant rulers and unknowable hierarchies and universal uncertainty need not necessarily be negative. Precisely the metaphors and tropes which make Kafka a patron saint of existentialist angst can give just as much support to a mellow, almost Zen-like air of detachment and mellowness.


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Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1912)

Five years ago Gregor Samsa’s family fell on hard times when his father’s business went bust, owing a lot of money. Gregor had been working as a clerk, but stepped into the breach by becoming a travelling salesman and was soon earning enough money to cover all the family’s costs. During those years his father grew old and fat and used to trudging round the apartment in his dressing gown, his mother grew frail and increasingly prone to asthma attacks, and his little sister, Grete, went from being a schoolgirl to a young woman of 17. Only Gregor’s hard work and iron discipline kept the little family afloat, financially.

Then, one morning, Gregory awoke from a bad night’s sleep to discover he had been transformed into a man-sized insect, something like a wood louse.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. (Willa and Edwin Muir, 1933)

Gregor Samsa woke from uneasy dreams one morning to find himself changed into a giant bug. (J.A. Underwood, 1981)

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. (David Wyllie, 2002)

Thus begins one of the most famous short stories ever written, The Metamorphosis. The plot, as such, is easily summarised. His family is horrified at his transformation but, once they’ve overcome their initial shock and repugnance, the main impact is financial: they realise they’ll have to go out to out to work, and so Grete takes a job as a shop assistant, Gregor’s father gets a job as a bank commissionaire and his mother takes in lingerie to darn and repair.

Gregor, for his part, on the first day of his change, is mostly concerned that he’s going to be late for work i.e. keeps on thinking the harassed thoughts of a much put-upon employee in a big firm. So he is mortified when the Chief Clerk from his office turns up to find out why he’s late. The striking feature of this early section, as of the work as a whole, is how everyone accepts the miraculous fact of the metamorphosis, and continues thinking their mundane anxious thoughts.

Quite quickly a pattern settles onto the little household: Gregor’s sister brings in leftover food for him to eat before leaving for work, then removes the leftovers in the evenings. (Kafka gives some thought to what a giant insect would eat, thus he completely ignores the initial offering of bread in milk, and he, and they, learn that he prefers rotten vegetables.)

The Samsa’s cleaning woman quits in horror, but another, more working class one is brought in, who treats Gregory phlegmatically, threatening him with a broom or a chair if he comes out from under his sofa (his favourite hiding place) when she’s trying to clean his room.

Although Gregory can perfectly understand what everyone else is saying about him, when he tries to speak it comes out as an unpleasant squeaking sound and they understand nothing. Thus, from the moment of waking that fateful morning, he continues to have entirely human thoughts and feelings but can express them to no-one. They think he has become an animal and thinks like an animal.

The third-person narrator continually explains Gregory’s feelings to us, and the striking thing about them is how little he is changed, how utterly unfreaked-out he is by what’s happened to him, but instead how he tries to make it up to his family, continues to feel guilty that he is no longer the bread-winner, wishes he could join them at the family dinner table like in the old days, and so on.

But in reality, his new body has other plans. Just as it prevents him from speaking and from expressing his human thoughts, so it foils his human wishes. Only slowly does Gregor learn what makes it happy, namely scurrying all over the walls and even the ceiling of his room, leaving sticky tracks everywhere.

In one scene half way through, his sister realises he’ll be happier if they remove all the furniture getting in his way and so gets their frail old mother to give her a hand manoeuvring heavy wardrobes and tables out of his room. Although it is also marks a psychological turning point, marking the moment when he and his family realise the old Gregor is never coming back.

It’s during the furniture moving that Gregor unwisely comes out of the bedroom, the sight of him making his mother hysterical (she has mostly refused to enter his room or accept what’s happened). And it’s at this moment that his father, much revived and invigorated by his new job as a bank commissionaire, arrives home from work, and chases Gregory round the family living room, before starting to pelt him with apples from the fruit bowl.

One of these apples lodges in Gregory’s back (it’s not explicitly described how but this fact only really makes sense if Gregory has a highly segmented shell like a woodlouse) and, over the coming weeks, rots and seems to spread infection through his body.

In the final act the Samsa family take in three lodgers, and there is some characteristically dry Kafka humour at the expense of these three pompous, formal, grey-bearded old men, exactly the kind of dry pompous nitwits he satirises in the later novels. Their role here is to demand that breakfast and dinner are served precisely on time and exactly as they like it, while the Samsa family are forced to go and eat their meals in the kitchen.

One evening Gregory’s sister Grete starts practicing her violin in her bedroom, which prompts the three worthies to ask Mr Samsa to ask her to come out and perform for them in the living room (everyone dressed, remember, in Edwardian frocks and top hats). Unfortunately, the door to Gregory’s room has been left open and he lets himself be so entranced by the music that he inches into the living room on numerous scrappy little woodlouse legs.

Suddenly the lodgers spot him. Now what makes this moment very Kafkaesque is that you or I, if we were in a room listening or playing music with friends, and a giant, human-sized insect slowly nudged its way through the door, you or I might start screaming and run for the window. But I think the most telling fact I know about all Kafka’s work is that, when he read his stories out loud to his small coterie of literary friends, they would often laugh out loud at various incidents and Kafka himself often had tears of laughter streaming down his face.

Kafka didn’t know there was going to be a Holocaust, that the Bolshevik experiment would lead to mass famine and show trials, that concentration camps would be set up across Europe from Alsace to Archangel within a few years of his death. In other words Kafka wasn’t privy to the enormous weight of historical, sociological, political and cultural weight which was going to be assigned to his writings by later, especially post-war, critics and readers.

If you do read all this catalogue of disaster back into his writings then it is easy to make them prophetic of the bureaucratic dehumanisation of human beings which was the central characteristic of the twentieth century, and make him into a prophet of anxiety and alienation.

On the other hand, if you try to put to one side the enormous freight of existential angst with which the works are now cluttered, then that allows you to be more flexible in your response – for example, to see that it is genuinely funny that the three pompous old men don’t run screaming out the room when they see a giant insect aproaching, but immediately turn to Mr Samsa senior and, not only give him formal notice that they are quitting his rooms, but also insist that they are not going to pay a penny of the rent they owe, knowing as they now do, that they have been living next to a monster!

In the end Gregory dies. He stops eating and wastes away. Is it due to the infection caused by the rotten apple lodged in the plates of his back? Or to the subtler process, which Kafka records slowly coming over him, whereby he slowly loses his vision and becomes more and more insect-like in his behaviour?

Or is it because, after the three tenants serve notice to quit, Gregor for the first time overhears his family discussing what to do with it, and realises that for the first time his sister, who had been so quietly sympathetic and thoughtful (realising what kind of food a giant insect would want, clearing the furniture out of his room) has given up on him, no longer recognises the inset as Gregor, and now regards him as just an insect, a piece of vermin which needs to be eradicated.

Whatever the reason, the story has to end and the only way Kafka can think of doing so is by killing off his protagonist. As he does in The Trial and intended to do in The Castle.

Summary

So what does the Metamorphosis tell us about the ‘Kafkaesque’, what does it have in common with The Trial or The Castle?

  1. It has one central male protagonist.
  2. He is lower-middle-class but has a respectable white collar job (i.e. is not a writer or poet etc).
  3. He is oppressed by the squabbles and rivalries and office politics and pressures of his job.
  4. One day his life is changed by a catastrophic event.
  5. But the nature and meaning and character of this event remain puzzlingly obscure.
  6. But what is almost more puzzling is the way everyone carries on acting as if things are more or less normal. For example, Gregory’s main thoughts aren’t at all about finding a ‘cure’ for his condition, but, initially, are guilt about being late for work, or not turning up day after day as he has become so used to doing – and then almost entirely about wishing he could help the family with the ensuing financial crisis. So the ‘Kafkaesque’ is something to do with the clash or juxtaposition between the Weird and the extremely mundane, boring, quotidian setting and concern of the characters. For example, I was struck by the way the Samsa family doesn’t consider consulting a doctor, let alone bringing in scientists or informing the authorities – no, they just carry on life as before except that, irritatingly, they now have to go out and get jobs and, oh yes, there’s a giant insect living in one of their bed rooms.

And 6. as mentioned above, the only way the story can really end – as with most of his other stories – is with the death of the protagonist because the plights they are condemned to are lifelong, are existential, are unalterable.

Kafka’s verbosity

One of the other really consistent characteristics of Kafka’s fiction is the astonishing verbosity of the characters. They never say something in a sentence when they could take a page and a half.

This extreme verbosity also allows for another Kafkaesque quality, which is the hand-wringing-, hyper-sensitive way the characters over-think and super-worry about even simple situations, even about whether to speak to someone else, or what someone else meant when they just said something, they can agonise for paragraphs.

For example, on the first day of the transformation, a few hours after Gregory has failed to turn up for work, the Chief Clerk from his office pays the Samsa family a visit. As soon as Gregory hears the Chief Clerk’s voice through the door, he is thrown into a (characteristic) state of anxiety and resentment:

Gregor only needed to hear the visitor’s first words of greeting and he knew who it was – the chief clerk himself. Why did Gregor have to be the only one condemned to work for a company where they immediately became highly suspicious at the slightest shortcoming? Were all employees, every one of them, louts, was there not one of them who was faithful and devoted who would go so mad with pangs of conscience that he couldn’t get out of bed if he didn’t spend at least a couple of hours in the morning on company business? Was it really not enough to let one of the trainees make enquiries – assuming enquiries were even necessary – did the chief clerk have to come himself, and did they have to show the whole, innocent family that this was so suspicious that only the chief clerk could be trusted to have the wisdom to investigate it? And more because these thoughts had made him upset than through any proper decision, he swung himself with all his force out of the bed.

Wherever you look it up, you’ll find definitions of the ‘Kafkaesque’ invoking ideas of the nightmareish struggle of the individual against a huge, faceless bureaucracy.

Kafkaesque – characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka’s fictional world.

But just as important and intrinsic to his style is the extreme long-windedness of the dialogue, the extraordinary inability of the characters to say in a sentence what can’t be stretched out into a couple of pages of tortuous, shifting, ambiguous and anxiously self-interrogating prose. It’s this quality more than anything else – more than the ‘meaning’ or the symbolism or even the oppressive atmosphere – which makes the novels so hard to read.

Here is (part of) the exchange between the Chief Clerk speaking through the door to Gregory.

The chief clerk now raised his voice, ‘Mr. Samsa,’ he called to him, ‘what is wrong? You barricade yourself in your room, give us no more than yes or no for an answer, you are causing serious and unnecessary concern to your parents and you fail – and I mention this just by the way – you fail to carry out your business duties in a way that is quite unheard of. I’m speaking here on behalf of your parents and of your employer, and really must request a clear and immediate explanation. I am astonished, quite astonished. I thought I knew you as a calm and sensible person, and now you suddenly seem to be showing off with peculiar whims. This morning, your employer did suggest a possible reason for your failure to appear, it’s true – it had to do with the money that was recently entrusted to you – but I came near to giving him my word of honour that that could not be the right explanation. But now that I see your incomprehensible stubbornness I no longer feel any wish whatsoever to intercede on your behalf. And nor is your position all that secure. I had originally intended to say all this to you in private, but since you cause me to waste my time here for no good reason I don’t see why your parents should not also learn of it. Your turnover has been very unsatisfactory of late; I grant you that it’s not the time of year to do especially good business, we recognise that; but there simply is no time of year to do no business at all, Mr. Samsa, we cannot allow there to be.’

‘But Sir’, called Gregor, beside himself and forgetting all else in the excitement, ‘I’ll open up immediately, just a moment. I’m slightly unwell, an attack of dizziness, I haven’t been able to get up. I’m still in bed now. I’m quite fresh again now, though. I’m just getting out of bed. Just a moment. Be patient! It’s not quite as easy as I’d thought. I’m quite alright now, though. It’s shocking, what can suddenly happen to a person! I was quite alright last night, my parents know about it, perhaps better than me, I had a small symptom of it last night already. They must have noticed it. I don’t know why I didn’t let you know at work! But you always think you can get over an illness without staying at home. Please, don’t make my parents suffer! There’s no basis for any of the accusations you’re making; nobody’s ever said a word to me about any of these things. Maybe you haven’t read the latest contracts I sent in. I’ll set off with the eight o’clock train, as well, these few hours of rest have given me strength. You don’t need to wait, sir; I’ll be in the office soon after you, and please be so good as to tell that to the boss and recommend me to him!’

It seems to me that the oppressive or nightmareish quality of the stories is conveyed just as much by the long-winded verbosity and over-elaborate articulacy and self-justifying loquaciousness of the dialogue as it is by the actual ‘plots’.


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