Commonplace Book: “Life Raised to a Higher Power”

Two essays on modern German-language literature caught my attention recently. First, a piece from 2017—which I saw linked somewhere as “timely” on social media—in The New Criterion by Jeffrey Meyers on illness in the life of Franz Kafka and the work of Thomas Mann. Meyers claims that Kafka might have been a character in The Magic Mountain:

Kafka, terminally ill, was forced to face the reality of corrosive tuberculosis and impending death. The Berghof sanatorium satisfies Castorp’s Romantic infatuation with disease, encourages the morbid fascination with his own condition, and fulfills his death wish. It stimulates his interest in the psychology of suffering and acquiescence in disease, which is both spiritual and physical, exalting and degrading. Mann’s aesthetic point of view is tragicomic, Kafka’s personal view is necessarily tragic, but both writers thought the artist’s attempt to love was doomed and he had to suffer in order to create. They believed in the Nietzschean paradox that disease could bring new awareness to the author who survived its grave assaults and that physical pain could be transformed into creative achievement. “Sickness itself can be a stimulant to life,” Nietzsche declared, “only one has to be healthy enough for this stimulant….We seek life raised to a higher power, life lived in danger.”

The Signet Classics edition, designed by Milton Glaser, in which I first read Michael Kohlhaas. (Image via Steve on Flickr)

Nietzsche, Kafka, and Mann were anticipated in their ironical and doomed aesthetic romanticism by Heinrich von Kleist. Appropriately, then, Mike Crumplar in The Washington Examiner reviews Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas in its new English version by Michael Hofmann (last seen in these electronic pages pugnaciously translating Berlin Alexanderplatz).

Crumplar interprets Kleist’s tragic-ironic novella—an influence, he notes, on the aforementioned Kafka—as an inherently doomed and romantic quest for absolute justice, one defeated not by Kafkaesque bureaucracy, which didn’t quite exist yet, but by the bluff and blundering facticity of corruption. Kohlhaas is more Don Quixote than Josef K.:

In a sense, what he really is up against is not a sinister and regressive legal system but the vanity and stupidity of a few privileged people (as abundant today as in 16th-century Germany). Alas, Kohlhaas too is ultimately motivated by a need for order that overcomes his anarchic crusade for justice. His stubborn belief in the righteousness of his own cause and the reliability of the proper legal channels leads to his downfall, when he disbands his victorious army so that his case may finally go to trial. While Kohlhaas gets the satisfaction he desires — his case succeeds, and the house of Tronka is forced to pay restitution — he is nevertheless executed for his rebellion, the very act that made such a verdict possible in the first place. He made his point, but was it really worth it? Like Kleist himself, who ended his life at age 34 in a suicide pact with a terminally ill friend, Kohlhaas is driven by a restless, romantic striving toward an illusory ideal, invariably cut short by the cruel irony of the real world. But Kleist is nothing if not self-aware, portraying Kohlhaas’s solipsistic blindness as the other side of his righteous lucidity.

I note that both these essays were published in conservative journals, though there’s nothing detectably conservative in either piece, and Crumplar’s is at least nostalgic for the possibility of revolution. I did for some reason expect the New Criterion to get around to elevating Mann over Kafka. Meyers doesn’t quite do so, but when he argues that Kafka might have been a Mann character, he probably also implies that Mann is greater than Kafka simply because he encompasses him. But is this a conservative position? The best-known thinker to have held it was the 20th century’s most famous communist literary critic, Georg Lukács. (Anyway, if you want to read the American “liberal” media, you can always head over to The Atlantic for the heinous theocratic musings of another Mann character, one based on Lukács: I refer, of course, to Leo Naphta—or rather, to Adrian Vermeule.)

Mention above of Michael Hofmann reminded me of a poem he translated, a most unromantic—not even ironically romantic, but just brutally not-at-all-romantic—reflection on nature and mortality by the German pathologist, expressionist poet, and disappointed fascist Gottfried Benn:

Little Aster

A drowned drayman was hoisted on to the slab.
Someone had jammed a lavender aster
between his teeth.
As I made the incision up from the chest
with a long knife
under the skin
to cut out tongue and gums,
I must have nudged it because it slipped
into the brain lying adjacent.
I packed it into the thoracic cavity
with the excelsior
when he was sewn up.
Drink your fill in your vase!
Rest easy,
little aster!

If you’ve made it this far, you might be interested to know that I am writing my own narrative of sickness, death, and illiberalism: yes, the dreaded quarantine novella. Not a novel—who the hell has time for one of those?—but a novella. I did see a Tweet about the dreadful possibility of “mediocre coronavirus autofiction self-published by dudes,” so let me put your fears to rest.

First, I don’t believe in autofiction. I believe any novelist should be able to make up an interesting story. Kleist, Mann, and Kafka did it—do we think we’re better than them? Writers who have to use their own lives should at least, like Joyce and Proust, transfigure their memories so thoroughly in rich language and inventive imagery that we might as well be reading fantasy.

As for “self-published,” well, why wouldn’t I? The cumbersome apparatus of mainstream publishing seems inappropriate for a work meant to be timely, inappropriate in general for the pace of the 21st century. I want to defend literature as the most democratic of all the arts, the one that can be made with minimal materials in emergency conditions as an existential protest against that very crisis. And “dudes”? I plead guilty to that, I guess, but if you can forgive me such a vile transgression, I promise I’ll at least deliver plot, characters, and poetry.

I am far enough along to be sure of finishing, so I don’t mind at least alerting you, reader, that it will soon exist. I don’t have a title yet, unfortunately. And I won’t trouble you with a plot summary—it’s too soon for that—but will share below a seasonable excerpt. All you need to know is that the novella dramatizes the eventually fatal ideological and emotional conflicts that break out in a quarantined apartment building inhabited by poor artists, underfed intellectuals, and desperate fanatics.

Part of my purpose, admittedly following the DeLillo of TV-era White Noise, is to capture the unprecedented unreality of experiencing such a crisis on the Internet in a time when no institution can command public trust. We are supposed to “trust the experts”—and certainly I follow all lawful government orders—but I can’t pretend this confidence exists in our world when it manifestly does not. On an aesthetic note, I imagine the severer partisans of modernism saying they find the following passage too journalistic, but don’t worry—the finished product as a whole will have enough non-journalistic strangeness to satisfy the children of Kleist and Kafka. Please enjoy!

News of the novel virus remained terrifying but inconclusive. 80% of the population would inevitably become infected, warned some experts, while others insisted that some epidemiological law of diminishing returns would have the malady exhaust itself before it had afflicted any but a minuscule number, in which case the economic collapse and civil disorder portended by the quarantine would prove to have been in vain. But even that best-case scenario might strain health-care provision and endanger the most vulnerable, so extraordinary measures would have to continue. Some said the virus came and went like a bad chest cold; some said it permanently calcified the lungs, petrified the heart, abraded the spine, insulted the liver, and lacerated the very organs of generation.

There was no sorting fact from fabrication online, no discriminating between the unbelievable but true rumor and the merely plausible hoax. Martial law was coming, some said—some even spelled it right. Soon the police—or, still worse, the military—would shoot to kill if they saw any citizen abroad without a surgical mask. Soon men in hazmat suits would be cramming the feverish, as their screams burbled through blood-foam coughs, into the Black Marias, never to be seen again. There would inevitably be a vaccine—and a digitally implanted certificate to go with it, the eyes of the state and of the corporate monopolies blinking forever in your epidermis. We would see tank treads crack the stones of the avenues; we would see stadia requisitioned just to hold the massing dead. No traffic bothered the streets, so I could hear in those warm, humid, early-spring days the returned birds sing at all hours. Yes, my heartbeat was elevated.


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