Monday, October 20, 2008

Hofmannsthal - Ein Brief - 1902

Hofmannsthal’s fictional Brief from Lord Chandos to Francis Bacon formulates a most eloquent complaint about the failure of language – or the failure of the speaker to harness his language. The irony is not lost on the reader, that a complaint about the inadequacy of language should be so beautifully written, but the impulse is not unfamiliar, especially to the reader of German literature. Granted, I haven’t undertaken a systematic study of English literature (or, indeed, of other literatures – even German, I’m ashamed to say), but this complaint does seem to particularly plague the German speaking world.

The Sprachkrise does seem to have something specific to do with the turn of the century and the ushering-in of modern life. However, this is a complaint that seems to reach throughout German literary history. The most famous example that comes to mind is Werther’s lament about his inability to recreate the world in drawing or in word – of course (as with most things) I blame this more on Werther than on language or any other outside force. One could also recognize this Sprachkrise in much later literature. Die Klavierspielerin comes immediately to mind, as the main character there resorts to physical violence (against herself or her mother) and music as her only outlets, while really not letting anything out at all. When thinking about that book, I think about it as silent except for the shrieking of her mother. One of my dear friends and colleagues suggested that there’s also a connection to the Sprachkrise in Kleist, but I’m ashamed to say I can’t really vollziehen that myself because I don’t know Kleist well enough. (Thanks to google, I can say now that it may be to do with the end of Amphitryon – Alkmene ends the play with a resounding “Ach!”) Really, though, you could argue that anytime a speaker in literature says “Ach!” it is a symptom of Sprachskepsis. (I’m taking Sprachskepsis and Sprachkrise as roughly synonymous… perhaps krise is more acute than skepsis?) That means you, Goethe.
Back to Modern Times, though, you can look at Rilke – Malte Laurids Brigge – for a couple of different moments where language become superfluous if not inadequate. I’m thinking especially of the vocal but inarticulate suffering during the uncle’s epic death sequence. His Stöhnen makes everyone else’s language practically inaudible and definitely irrelevant – during his days-long death, inarticulate moaning is all that counts for anything. Language could not satisfy his death-urge.

One other interesting thing about Hofmannsthal’s specific Sprachkrise is that language doesn’t just fail him in speaking, but instead also fails him in thinking. More than just his ability to express himself comes into question, then – his entire logical system is threatened when he loses a language in which to think.

In his article on Hofmannsthal’s Brief in The New History of German Literature, Nethersole points out an important aspect of the letter that seems indeed to have repercussions for the whole of the modern world. He laments the falling of the unified world into pieces –
“Es zerfiel mir alles in Teile, die Teile wieder in Teile und nichts mehr ließ sich mit einem Begriff umspannen.”
Hofmannsthal’s ability to reconcile the different parts of the world into a coherent whole (which sounds like Lacanian integration of the self, actually) fails with the failure of his linguistic/logical system.

Interesting contrast: Hofmannsthal shares many characteristics with his imaginary counterpart, Chandos. However, H. does not abandon his poetic career. Instead, he continues to write very successfully for years to come.

Nethersole also suggests that the Krise in Hofmannsthal’s Brief is more than linguistic. He suffers, according to N. under the weight of an inherited cultural tradition that is unable to satisfy any more. He is making a break with the tradition he came out of, more than with the language he first learned to think in. More than that, though, he is dealing with the realization that society is not based on anything solid any more. Industrialization and modernization destroy any kind of previously-held belief in a unity of society and encourage, instead, more fragmentation and multiplicity and uncertainty. “It can rest only on das Gleitende, and is aware that what other generations believed to be firm is in fact das Gleitende.” [H.v.H. quoted in the New History of German Language. P. 655]
“This revolt is directed against the pathological condition, the “serious illness” of mind, to which Chandos alludes, which has plagued a rationalist age, centered on the idea of a unitary self in control of the subject. Freud, in Studies on Hysteria (1895), dispelled these ideas by positing the laws of the unconscious for understanding the human psyche. The unconscious operates through a series of associations whre different trains of elements form veritable networks, with notdal points at the intersection of several lines. While Schnitzler articulated the life of emotions through the abivalence he saw between old morality and new psychological reality, Hofmannsthal, in the Chandos Letter, applies language and its ability to relate to things with semi-surgical precision.” [New History, 655]
In this letter, H. calls into question the validity of a unified self, but at the same time seeks the moment of epiphany (in Joyce), which he calls the moment of Revelation, where one experiences unity of the ego with the outside world. Nethersole also alludes to a posthumous fragment of HvH’s which says “That which is most profound in experience defies words, I always felt that words divide human beings instead of connecting them.” [New History, 656]

This critique of language was typical in fin de siècle Vienna, apparently. “First voiced by Fritz Mauthner (1849-1923), the philosopher and cofounder of the Freie Bühne Theater in Berlin, the critique of language inaugurates the linguistic turn in the 20th century, a turn from speculative philosophy and methaphysics toward a definition of philosophy as linguistic or conceptual analysis, which dominated philosophy for nearly a century.” [New History, 656] (see also Wittgenstein)

“Mindful of the oscillating quality and ultimately untenable demand of language to speak truth by which to create unity, Hofmannsthal’s plays, like the conversational piece Der Schwierige (1921), depend largely on gesture. Language reconfigured as gesture interrupts the flow of talk and opens a different kind of space where, caught up in the living flux of things, human beings glimpse the momentary possibility of togetherness. Converging on the nodal point of the various concerns with the limits of verbal expressivity that pervade the crisis of language, Hofmannsthal asks, in the voice of Der Schwierige, for ways in which a speaker can act, if speaking always already constitutes a form of cognition of the futility of action.” [New History, 657]

No comments: