A trilogy composed of three novels: Pasenow, or Romanticism; Esch, or Anarchy; Huguenau, or Realism (in German, Sachlichkeit). The story of each novel takes place fifteen years after that of the preceding one:
1888; 1903; 1918. None of the novels is bound to another by causal connection: each has its own circle of characters, and its construction is unlike that of the two others.
It is true that Pasenow (protagonist of the first novel) and Esch (protagonist of the second) meet on the stage of the third, and that Bertrand (a character in the first novel) plays a role in the second. However, the story that Bertrand lives through in the first novel (along with Pasenow, Ruzena, Elisabeth) is completely absent from the second novel, and when Pasenow appears in the third novel he carries with him not the slightest memory of his youth (which is treated in the first novel).
There is thus a radical difference between The Sleep-walkers and the other great twentieth-century “frescoes” (those of Proust, Musil, Thomas Mann, etc.): In Broch, it is continuity neither of action nor of biography (a character’s or a family’s) that provides the unity of the whole. It is something else, something less apparent, less apprehensible, something hidden: the continuity of one theme (that of man facing the process of a disintegration of values).
Possibilities What are the possibilities for man in the trap the wor. has become?
To answer this, one must first have a certain idea what the world is. One must have an ontologic, hypothesis about it.
The world according to Kafka: the bureaucr~
universe. The office not merely as one kind of social phenomenon among many but as the essence of the world.
Here lies the resemblance (a curious, unexpected resemblance) between Kafka the hermetic and Hasek the popular. Hasek does not describe the army (in the manner of a realist, a social critic) as a milieu of Austro-Hungarian society but as the modern version of the world. Like Kafka’s Court, Hasek’s army is nothing but an immense bureaucratic institution, an army-administration in which the old military virtues (courage, cunning, skill) no longer matter.
Hasek's military bureaucrats are stupid; the pedantic and absurd logic of Kafka’s bureaucrats is also devoid of wisdom. In Kafka, stupidity is swathed in a mantle of mystery and takes on the quality of metaphysical parable. It intimidates. Joseph K. does his utmost to make some sense of its actions, its unintelligible words. For, terrible as it is to be condemned to death, it is intolerable to be condemned for nothing, to be a martyr to senselessness Despite his innocence, K. therefore consents to his guilt and searches for his
offense. In the last chapter, he shields his two executioners from the eyes of the municipal police (who might have saved him) and, moments before his death, reproaches himself for not having the strength to plunge the knife into his own chest and spare them the dirty job.
Schweik is just the opposite of K. He mimics the world around him (the world of stupidity) in so perfectly systematic a fashion that no one can tell if he is truly imbecilic or not. He adapts so easily (and with such delight!) to the reigning order not because he sees some sense in it but because he sees it has none at all. He amuses himself, he amuses other people, and by his extravagant conformism, he turns the world into one enormous joke.
(Those of us who have experienced the totalitarian Communist version of the modem world know that these two attitudes—seemingly artificial, literary, exaggerated—are only too real; we’ve lived in the realm bounded on one side by K.’s possibility, on the other by Schweik’s; which is to say: in the realm where one pole is the identification with power, to the point where the victim develops solidarity with his own executioner, and the other pole the nonacceptance of power through the refusal to take seriously anything at all; which is to say: in the realm between the absolute of the serious—K.—and the absolute of the nonserious—Schweik.)
And what about Broch? What is his ontological hypothesis?
The world is the process of the disintegration of
values (values handed down from the Middle Ages), a process that stretches over the four centuries of the Modern Era and is their very essence.
What are man’s possibilities in the face of this process?
Broch finds three: the Pasenow possibility, the Esch possibility, the Huguenau possibility
The Pasenow Possibility Joachim von Pasenow’s brother dies in a duel. The father says: “He died for honor.” These words are writ forever in Joachim’s memory
But his friend Bertrand is amazed: How is it possible that in the age of trains and factories, two men can stand stiffly face to face, arms extended, revolvers in hand?
Upon which Joachim thinks: Bertrand has no feeling for honor.
And Bertrand goes on: Sentiments resist the changing times. They are an indestructible underpinning of conservatism. An atavistic residue.
Now, the sentimental attachment to inherited values, to their atavistic residue, is Joachim von Pasenow’s attitude.
Pasenow is introduced by the uniform motif. In earlier times, explains the narrator, the Church, as Supreme Judge, ruled over man. The priest’s robes were the mark of supraterrestrial power, whereas the officer’s uniform, the magistrate’s gown represented
the profane. As the magical influence of the Church gradually faded, the uniform replaced the sacerdotal habit and rose to the level of the absolute.
The uniform is that which we do not choose, that which is assigned us: the certitude of the universal as against the precariousness of the individual. When the values that were once so solid come under challenge and withdraw, heads bowed, he who cannot live without them (without fidelity, family, country, discipline, without love) buttons himself up in the universality of his uniform as if that uniform were the last shred of the transcendence that could protect him against the cold of a future in which there will be nothing left to respect.
Pasenow’s story culminates on his wedding night. His wife, Elisabeth, does not love him. He sees nothing ahead but a future of lovelessness. He lies down beside her without undressing. That “twisted his uniform a little, the coat skirts fell open and revealed the front of his black trousers, but as soon as Joachim noticed, he hastily set things right again and covered the place. He had drawn up his legs, and so as not to touch the coverlet with his glossy boots, he strained to keep his feet on the chair beside the bed.”
The Esch Possibility The values handed down from the time when the Church completely dominated men’s lives had long been shaken loose, but for Pasenow their content is
still clear. He has no doubt about what his country he knows to whom he should be faithful and who his God.
To Esch, values are masked. Order, loyalty, sacri fice—he cherishes all these words, but exactly what -they represent? Sacrifice for what? Demand what
of order? He doesn’t know
If a value has lost its concrete content, what is left it? A mere empty form; an imperative that
unheeded and, all the more furious, demands to b~ heard and obeyed. The less Esch knows what h wants, the more furiously he wants it.
Esch: the fanaticism of the era without Gc
Because all values are masked, anything can be considered a value. Justice, order—he seeks them first
the trade union struggle, then in religion; today in police power, tomorrow in the mirage of America, where he dreams of emigrating. He could be a terrorist or a repentant terronst turning in his comrades, or a party militant or a cult member or a kamikaze prepared to sacrifice his life. All the passions rampaging through the bloody history of our time are taken up, unmasked, diagnosed, and terrifyingly displayed in Esch’s modest adventure.
He is discontented at the office where he works, he has a quarrel, he is dismissed. That is how his story begins. He believes that the cause of all the disorder that upsets him is a man named Nentwig, a bookkeeper. God knows why him in particular. In any case, Esch decides to denounce him to the police. Isn’t it his duty? Isn’t it a service he owes everyone who, like himself, wants law and order?
Notes Inspired by “The Sleepwalkers” But one day, in a bar, the unsuspecting Nentwig genially invites him to his table and offers him a drink. Beside himself, Esch tries to remember Nentwig’s offense, but “by now it was so bizarrely insubstantial and vague that Esch suddenly saw the absurdity of his project, and with a clumsy gesture, a little ashamed after all, he seized his glass.”
For Esch the world divides into the kingdom of Good and the kingdom of Evil, but, alas, both Good and Evil are equally impossible to identify (he has only to run into Nentwig to lose track of who is righteous and who wicked). In the great masquerade that is the world, Bertrand alone bears the stigmata of Evil forever on his face, because his crime is beyond all doubt: he is a homosexual, a disturber of the divine order. At the start of his novel Esch is ready to denounce Nentwig; at the end he mails a letter denouncing Bertrand.
The Huguenau Possibility Esch denounced Bertrand. Huguenau denounces Esch. Esch did it to save the world. Huguenau does it to save his career.
In a world without shared values, Huguenau, the innocent arriviste, feels perfectly at ease. The absence of moral imperatives is his freedom, his deliverance.
There is a deep significance in the fact that it is he who—without the faintest sense of guilt—murders Esch. For “it is always the adherent of the smaller value system who slays the adherent of the larger
system that is breaking up; it is always he, unfortt nate wretch, who assumes the role of executioner in the process of value disintegration, and on the
when the trumpets of Judgment Sound, it is the man released from all values who becomes the executioner of a world that has pronounced its own sentence.”
In Broch’s mind, the Modern Era is the bridge between the reign of irrational faith and the reign of the irrational in a world without faith. The figure who appears at the end of that bridge is Huguenau. The cheerful, guilt-free murderer. The end of the Modern Era in its euphoric version.
K., Schweik, Pasenow, Esch, Huguenau: five basic possibilities, five lodes tars without which I believe it impossible to draw up the existential map of our time.
Under the Skies of the Ages The planets that wheel in the skies of the Modern Era are reflected, always in a specific configuration, in the individual soul; it is through this configuration that the character’s situation and the sense of his being are defined.
Broch speaks of Esch and all at once compares him to Luther. Both belong to the rebel category (Broch analyzes it at length). “Esch is a rebel like Luther.” We tend to look for a character’s roots in his childhood. Esch’s roots (his childhood remains unknown to us) are to be found in another century Esch’s past is Luther.
To understand Pasenow, that man in uniform,
Broch had to place him in the midst of the long historical process during which the profane uniform took the place of the priest’s habit; immediately he did that, the whole celestial vault of the Modem Era lit up over this paltry officer.
For Broch, a character is conceived not as a uniqueness, inimitable and transitory, a miraculous moment fated to disappear, but as a solid bridge erected above time, where Luther and Esch, the past and the present, come together.
It is less in his philosophy of history than in this new way of seeing man (seeing him under the celestial arch of the ages) that Broch in The Sleepwalkers prefigures, I think, the future possibilities of the novel.
By Broch’s light, I read Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, a novel that examines not only the life of a composer named Adrian Leverkuhn but several centuries of German music along with him. Adrian is not only a composer, he is the composer who brings the history of music to an end (his greatest work is called The Apocalypse). And he is not just the last composer (the author of The Apocalypse), he is also Faust. His gaze fixed on his country’s diabolism (he wrote the novel toward the end of the Second World War), Thomas Mann ponders the contract that the mythical doctor— the incarnation of the German spirit—made with the devil. The whole history of his country suddenly looms up as the single adventure of a single character:
a single Faust.
By Broch’s light, I read Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra, in which the whole great Hispanic adventure (European and American) is encompassed in a wonderful
telescoping, a wonderful oneiric distortion. Fuentes transforms Broch’s principle, Esch is like Luther, into a still more radical principle: Esch is Luther. He provides us the key to his method: “It takes several lives to make one person.” The old mythology of reincarnation materializes in a novelistic technique that makes Terra Nostra an immense, strange dream in which History is made and continually traversed by the same characters endlessly reincarnated. The same Ludovico who found a hitherto unknown continent in Mexico turns up several centuries later in Paris, with the same Celestina who centuries earlier was the mistress of Philip II. And so on.
Only at the end (the end of a love, of a life, of an era) does the past suddenly show itself as a whole and take on a brilliantly clear and finished shape. For Broch, the moment of the end is Huguenau; for Mann, Hitler. For Fuentes, it is the mythical frontier between two millennia; seen from that imaginary observatory, History—that European oddity, that smudge on time’s pure surface—looks finished already, abandoned, lonely, and suddenly as humble, as touching as some little personal story we’ll forget by tomorrow
Indeed, if Luther is Esch, the history that leads from Luther to Esch is merely the biography of a single person: Martin Luther-Esch. And all of History is merely the story of a few characters (a Faust, a Don Juan, a Don Quixote, a Rastignac, an Esch) who have traversed Europe’s centuries together.
Beyond Causality On Levin’s estate, a man and a woman meet—two melancholy, lonely people. They like one another and secretly hope to join their lives together. All they need is the chance to be alone for a moment and say so. Finally one day they find themselves unobserved in a wood where they have come to gather mushrooms. Ill at ease, they are silent, knowing that the moment is upon them and they must not let it slip by The silence has already lasted rather a long while when the woman suddenly, “involuntarily, reflexively,” starts to talk about mushrooms. Then silence again, and the man casts about for a way to declare himself, but instead of speaking of love, “on some unexpected impulse” he too talks about mushrooms. On the way home they go on discussing mushrooms, powerless and desperate, for never, they know it, never will they speak of love.
Back at the house, the man tells himself that he did not declare his love because of the memory of his dead mistress, which he cannot betray But we know perfectly well: It is a false excuse he invokes only to console himself. Console himself? Yes. Because we can resign ourselves to losing a love for a reason. We would never forgive ourselves for losing it for no reason at all.
This very beautiful little episode is a kind of parable for one of Anna Karenina’s great feats: bringing to light the causeless, incalculable, even mysterious aspect of human action.
What is action?—the eternal question of the novel, its constitutive question, so to speak. How is a decision born? How is it transformed into an act, and how do acts connect to make an adventure?
Out of the mysterious and chaotic fabric of life, the old novelists tried to tease the thread of a limpid rationality; in their view, the rationally accessible motive gives birth to an act, and that act provokes another. An adventure is a luminously causal chain of acts.
Werther loves his friend’s wife. He cannot betray his friend, he cannot give up his love, so he kills himself. Suicide with the transparent clarity of a mathematical equation.
But why does Anna Karemna kill herself?
The man who talked about mushrooms instead of love wants to believe that he did so out of loyalty to his vanished mistress. The reasons we might give for Anna’s act would be worth just as little. True, people are treating her with contempt, but can she not do the same to them? She is barred from seeing her son, but is that a situation beyond appeal and beyond hope of change? Vronsky is already a little less infatuated, but after all, doesn’t he still love her?
Besides, Anna did not come to the station to kill herself. She came to meet Vronsky She throws herself beneath the train without having taken the decision to do so. It is rather the decision that takes Anna. That overtakes her. Like the man who talked about mushrooms, Anna acts “on some unexpected impulse.” Which does not mean that her act is senseless. But its sense lies outside rationally apprehensible causality
Tolstoy had to use (for the first time in the history of the novel) an almost Joycean interior monologue to reconstruct the subtle fabric of fleeting impulses, transient feelings, fragmentary thoughts, to show us the suicidal journey of Anna’s soul.
With Anna, we are far from Werther, and far from Dostoyevsky’s Kirilov too. Kirby kills himself because he is forced to it by very clearly defined interests, carefully delineated intrigues. His act, however mad, is rational, conscious, meditated, premeditated. Kirby’s character is based entirely on his strange philosophy of suicide, and his act is merely the perfectly logical extension of his ideas.
Dostoyevsky grasped the madness of reason stubbornly determined to carry its logic through to the end. The terrain Tolstoy explores is the opposite: he uncovers the intrusions of illogic, of the irrational. That is why I mention him. The reference to Tolstoy places Broch in the context of one of the great explorations of the European novel: the exploration of the role the irrational plays in our decisions, in our lives.
Con-fusions Pasenow is seeing a Czech whore named Ruzena, but his parents arrange his marriage to a girl of their own milieu: Elisabeth. Pasenow loves her not at all, yet she does attract him. Actually, what attracts him is not she herself but all that she represents for him.
When he goes to see her for the first time, the streets, the gardens, the houses of her neighborhood
radiate “a great and insular security”; Elisabeth’s house welcomes him with its happy atmosphere of “a safe and gentle existence, filled with friendship” that will someday “give place to love,” which in turn will someday “die away into friendship.” The value Pasenow desires (the friendly security of a family) presents itself to him before he ever sees the woman who is to become (without her knowledge and against her nature) the bearer of that value.
He sits in the church in his native village and, eyes closed, imagines the Holy Family on a silver cloud with the ineffably beautiful Virgin Mary in its midst. Already as a child he had been carried away by that same image in that same church. At the time he was in love with a Polish servant girl on his father’s farm, and in his reverie, he confused her with the Virgin and imagined himself sitting on her lovely knees, the knees of the Virgin turned servant girl. This time, his eyes closed, he sees the Virgin again and, all of a sudden, notices that her hair is blond! Yes, Mary has Elisabeth’s hair! He is startled, he is shaken! It seems to him that through the device of this reverie, God himself is telling him that this woman he does not love is in fact his true and only love.
Irrational logic is based on the mechanism of con-fusion: Pasenow has a poor sense of reality; the causes of events escape him; he will never know what lies hidden behind the gazes of other people; yet although it may be disguised, unrecognizable, causeless, the external world is not mute: it speaks to him. It is like Baudelaire’s famous poem where “long echoes.., are confounded,” where “the sounds, the
Notes Inspired by “The Sleepwalkers” scents, the colors correspond”: one thing is like another, is confounded with it (Elisabeth is confounded with the Virgin), and thus through its likeness makes itself clear.
Esch is a lover of the absolute. “We can love only once” is his motto, and since Frau Hentjen loves him, according to Esch’s logic she must not have loved her late husband. This means the man misused her and can only have been a villain. A villain like Bertrand. For the representatives of evil are interchangeable. They become con-fused with each other. They are only different manifestations of the same essence. It is when Esch glimpses Herr Hentjen’s portrait on the wall that the idea comes to his mind: to go immediately and denounce Bertrand to the police. For if Esch can strike at Bertrand it will be like wounding Frau Hentj en’s husband—as if he were ridding us, all of us, of a small share of the common evil.
Forests of Symbols We must read The Sleepwalkers carefully, slowly, linger over actions as illogical as they are comprehensible, in order to perceive a hidden, subterranean order underlying the decisions of a Pasenow, a Ruzena, an Esch. These characters are not capable of facing reality as a concrete thing. Before their eyes everything turns into a symbol (Elisabeth the symbol of familial serenity, Bertrand the symbol of hell), and it is to symbols they are reacting when they believe they are acting upon reality
Broch shows us that it is the system of con-fusions, the system of symbolic thought, that underlies all behavior, individual as well as collective. We need only examine our own lives to see how much this irrational system, far more than any reasoned thought, directs our attitudes: a certain man who, with his passion for aquarium fish, evokes some other who in the past caused me some terrible misery will always excite insurmountable mistrust in me..
The irrational system rules political life no less:
along with the last world war Communist Russia won the war of symbols: it succeeded for at least a halfcentury in providing the symbols of Good and Evil to that great army of Esches who are as avid for values as they are incapable of discriminating among them. This is why the gulag will never supplant Nazism as a symbol of absolute evil in the European consciousness. This is why people hold massive demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and not against the war in Afghanistan. Vietnam, colonialism, racism, imperialism, fascism, Nazism—all these words correspond like the colors and sounds in Baudelaire’s poem, while the Afghamstan war is, so to speak, symbolically mute, or at any rate beyond the magic circle of absolute Evil, the geyser of symbols.
I also think of those daily slaughters along the highways, of that death that is as horrible as it is banal and that bears no resemblance to cancer or AIDS because, as the work not of nature but of man, it is an almost voluntary death. How can it be that such a death fails to dumbfound us, to turn our lives upside down, to incite us to vast reforms? No, it does not dumbfound
us, because like Pasenow, we have a poor sense of the real, and in the sur-real sphere of symbols, this death in the guise of a handsome car actually represents life; this smiling death is con-fused with modernity, freedom, adventure, just as Elisabeth was con-fused with the Virgin. The death of a man condemned to capital punishment, though infinitely rarer, much more readily draws our attention, rouses passions: confounded with the image of the executioner, it has a symbolic voltage that is far stronger, far darker and more repellent. Et cetera.
Man is a child wandering lost—to cite Baudelaire’s poem again—in the “forests of symbols.”
(The criterion of maturity: the ability to resist symbols. But mankind grows younger all the time.)
Polyhistoricism In discussing his novels, Broch rejects the aesthetic of the “psychological” novel in favor of the novel he calls “gnosiological” or “polyhistorical.” It seems to me that the second term, especially, is rn-chosen and misleading. It was a compatriot of Broch’s, Adalbert Stifter, founding father of Austrian fiction, who created a “polyhistorical novel” in the precise sense of the term when in 1857 (yes, the great year of Madame Bovary) he wrote Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer). The novel is well known, Nietzsche having ranked it among the four great books of German prose. To me it is barely readable: we learn a great deal about geology, botany, zoology, about all the crafts, about painting and archi
tecture, but man and human situations stand way off at the margins of this gigantic instructive encyclopedia. Precisely because of its “polyhistoricism,” this novel completely lacks the novel’s specificity
Now, this is not the case with Broch. He pursues “what the novel alone can discover.” But he knows that the conventional form (grounded exclusively in a character’s adventure, and content with a mere narration of that adventure) limits the novel, reduces its cognitive capacities. He also knows that the novel has an extraordinary power of incorporation: whereas neither poetry nor philosophy can incorporate the novel, the novel can incorporate both poetry and philosophy without losing thereby anything of its identity, which is characterized (we need only recall Rabelais and Cervantes) precisely by its tendency to embrace other genres, to absorb philosophical and scientific knowledge. So in Broch’s perspective, the word “polyhistorical” means: marshaling all intellectual means and all poetic forms to illuminate “what the novel alone can discover”: man’s being.
This, of course, implies a profound transformation of the novel’s form.
The Unachieved I shall take the liberty of speaking very personally: I like and admire the last novel of The Sleepwalkers (Huguenau, or Realism), in which the tendency to synthesis and the transformation of form are most advanced, but I also have some reservations:
—the “polyhistorical” purpose demands a technique of ellipsis that Broch has not completely worked out; architectural clarity suffers for it;
—the several elements (verse, narrative, aphorism, reportage, essay) remain more juxtaposed than blended into a true “polyphonic” unity;
—even though it is presented as a text written by one of the characters, the excellent essay on the disintegration of values can readily be taken for the author’s own thinking, for the novel’s truth, its statement, its thesis, and thus may damage the relativity that is indispensable to novelistic space.
All great works (precisely because they are great) contain something unachieved. Broch is an inspiration to us not only because of what he brought off but also because of what he aimed for and missed. The unachieved in his work can show us the need for (i) a new art of radical divestment (which can encompass the complexity of existence in the modern world without losing architectonic clarity); (2) a new art of novelistic counterpoint (which can blend philosophy, narrative, and dream into one music); (3) a new art of the specifically novelistic essay (which does not claim to bear an apodictic message but remains hypothetical, playful, or ironic).
Modernisms Of all the great novelists of our time, Broch is, perhaps, the least known. It is not so hard to understand why He had scarcely completed The Sleepwalkers
when he saw Hitler in power and German cultural life annihilated; five years later he left Austria for America, where he remained until his death. In such conditions, his work—deprived of its natural audience, deprived of contact with a normal literary life—could no longer play its proper role in its time: gather to itself a community of readers, supporters, and connoisseurs, create a school, influence other writers. Like the work of Musil and Gombrowicz, it was discovered (rediscovered) after a long delay (and after its author’s death) by those who, like Broch himself, were possessed by the passion for the new form—in other words, who were “modernist” in orientation. But their modernism did not resemble Broch’s. Not that it was later, more advanced; it was different in its roots, in its attitude toward the modern world, in its aesthetic. That difference brought about a certain embarrassment: Broch (like Musil, like Gombrowicz) was seen as a great innovator, but one who did not conform to the current and conventional image of modernism (for in the second half of this century we must reckon with the modernism of fixed rules, the modernism of the university-establishment modernism, so to speak).
This establishment modernism, for instance, insists on the destruction of the novel form. In Broch’s perspective, the possibilities of the novel form are far from being exhausted.
Establishment modernism would have the novel do away with the artifice of character, which it claims is finally nothing but a mask pointlessly hiding the
author’s face. In Broch’s characters, the author’s self is undetectable.
Establishment modernism has proscribed the notion of totality—the very word that Broch, by contrast, uses readily to say: In the age of the excessive division of labor, of runaway specialization, the novel is one of the last outposts where man can still maintain connections with life in its entirety
According to establishment modernism, an impregnable boundary separates the “modern” novel from the “traditional” novel (this “traditional novel” being the basket into which they shovel all the different phases of four centuries of the novel). In Broch’s view, the modern novel continues the same quest that has preoccupied all the great novelists since Cervantes.
Behind establishment modernism there is a residue of ingenuous eschatological belief: that one History ends and another (better) one begins, founded on an entirely new basis. In Broch, there is the melancholy awareness of a History drawing to a close in circumstances that are profoundly hostile to the evolution of art and of the novel in particular.