Monday, January 21, 2008


My favorite passage in Büchner's Lenz reads like a desire for photography:

"Wie ich gestern neben am Tal hinaufging, sah ich auf einem Steine zwei Mädchen sitzen: die eine band ihr Haar auf, die andre half ihr; und das goldne Haar hing herab, und ein ernstes bleiches Gesicht, und doch so jung, und die schwarze Tracht, und die andre so sorgsam bemüht. Die schönsten, innigsten Bilder der altdeutschen Schule geben kaum eine Ahnung davon. Man möchte manchmal ein Medusenhaupt sein, um so eine Gruppe in Stein verwandeln zu können, und den Leuten zurufen."

In John Felstiner's translation (from his translation of Celan's Meridian):

"Yesterday, as I was walking up along the valley rim, I saw two girls sitting on a rock: one was doing up her hair, the other helping her; and the golden hair hung down, and the pale serious face, yet so young, and the black dress, and the other girl taking such pains. The Old German School's finest, most intimate pictures can scarcely give an idea of it. At times one might wish to be a Medusa's head, so as to turn such a group into stone and call people over."

Perhaps more precisely, this is a desire for snapshots, and not photography in general. Büchner was writing in the 1830s, the decade when photography began to emerge. Lenz, of course, lived in the eighteenth century, and Büchner's story takes place in 1778, but even then the desire for photography already existed.

My second favorite passage is not even in the text, but in Büchner's primary source, the diary of Lenz's host, Oberlin: "Er hatte eine Wunde am Fuß hieher gebracht, die ihn hinken machte und ihn nötigte hierzubleiben." Büchner does not include the fact that Lenz had a wound on his foot that forced him to stay with Oberlin. For two reasons, I suspect: first, Büchner wants to emphasize Lenz's psychic instability, and the injured foot distracts from that. Secondly, Büchner mentions three times that Lenz harms himself in order to use physical pain as a way of "returning to self-awareness" (or something like that). If Büchner mentioned Lenz's wound, then the self-inflicted pain would again not have the same dramatic effect. The suppression of the wound makes the story possible, as it were.

The third thing I want to know here is a point of contact between Büchner's story and Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, which I read a few weeks ago, with its emphasis on "social mimicry" as the means by which one fits oneself into unfamiliar social situations (see my post on the book). At the end of Büchner's story, before the famous "So lebte er hin" with which it concludes, comes this: "er tat Alles wie es die Andern taten."

"He did everything the same way the others did": Lenz compensates for his psychic instability, for what Lethem might call "a form of autism," with "social mimicry," and when it works, then he can "live on."

Finally, poetry as therapy, as Lenz uses poetry the same way he used physical pain, to return to himself: "er sagte in der heftigsten Angst Gedichte her, bis er wieder zu sich kam." In a state of the most terrible anxiety, he recites poems until the anxiety disappears and he is himself again.


swiss said...

you've got me intrigued now. i was before but i see penguin have a collected works which includes something called 'on cranial nerves'. that's got to be a winner!

Andrew Shields said...

Büchner did hard-core medical research. I don't know if his research had any long-term influence in the field (he probably died too suddenly for that), but he was a serious scientist.