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Büchner, Georg

BÜCHNER, Georg

Nationality: German. Born: Goddelau, Duchy of Hesse Darmstadt, 17 October 1813. Education: Carl Weitershausen's school, 1822-25; Gymnasium, Darmstadt, 1825-31; studied medicine at University of Strasbourg, 1831-33, and University of Giessen, 1833-34; University of Zurich, doctorate, 1836. Career: Politically active as a student in Darmstadt, founded the society, Gesellschaft der Menschenrechte, 1834, and wrote the political pamphlet Der Hessische Landbote, 1834; fled Germany for Strasbourg to escape impending arrest for sedition, 1835; studied biology, earning a doctorate from the University of Zurich, 1836. Lecturer in comparative anatomy, University of Zurich, 1836-37. Member: Strasbourg Societé d'Histoire Naturell. Died: 19 February 1837.

Publications

Collections

Nachgelassene Schriften, edited by Ludwig Büchner. 1850.

Sämtliche Werke, edited by K. Franzos. 1879.

Gesammelte Werke und Briefe, edited by Fritz Bergemann. 1922.

Complete Plays and Prose. 1963.

Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, edited by Werner R. Lehmann. 2 vols., 1967-71.

Plays. 1971.

Complete Works and Letters, edited by Walter Hinderer and HenryJ. Schmidt. 1986.

Complete Plays, edited by Michael Patterson. 1987.

Werke und Briefe, edited by Karl Pörnbacher. 1988.

Short Stories

Lenz. In Telegraph für Deutschland, January 1839; translated asLenz, in Complete Plays and Prose, 1963; also translated in Three German Classics, edited by Ronald Taylor, 1966; in The Penguin Book of Short Stories, 1974; in The Complete Plays, 1987.

Plays

Dantons Tod (produced 1902). 1835; as Danton's Death, 1939; also translated in Classical German Drama, edited by T.H. Lustig, 1963.

Leonce und Lena (produced 1895). In Mosaik, Novellen, und Skizzen, edited by K. Gutzkow, 1842; as Leonce and Lena, in From the Modern Repertoire 3, 1956.

Woyzeck (produced 1913). As Wozzeck, in Sämtliche Werke, 1879; translated as Woyzeck, in The Modern Theatre 1, edited by Eric Bentley, 1955; also translated in Complete Plays and Prose, 1963.

Other

Der Hessische Landbote, with Pastor Weidig (pamphlet). 1834 (privately printed); as The Hessian Courier, in The Complete Plays, 1987.

*

Bibliography:

Büchner by Marianne Beese, 1983.

Critical Studies:

Büchner by Arthur Knight, 1951; Büchner by H. Lindenberger, 1964; "A World of Suffering: Büchner" by J.P. Stern, in Re-interpretations. Seven Studies in Nineteenth-Century German Literature, 1964; Satire, Caricature, and Perspectivism in the Works of Büchner by Henry J. Schmidt, 1970; Büchner by Ronald Hauser, 1974; The Drama of Revolt: A Critical Study of Büchner by Maurice B. Benn, 1976; "Büchner's Lenz " by Martin Swales, in The German Novelle, 1977; Büchner and the Birth of Modern Drama by David G. Richards, 1977; "Büchner's Lenz—Style and Message" by Roy Pascal, in Oxford German Studies 9, 1978; Büchner by William C. Reeve, 1979; Büchner by Julian Hilton, 1982; Büchner's "Dantons Tod": A Reappraisal by Dorothy James, 1982; Lenz and Büchner: Studies in Dramatic Form by John Guthrie, 1984; Love, Lust, and Rebellion: New Approaches to Büchner by Reinhold Grimm, 1985; Büchner in Britain: A Passport to Büchner edited by Brian Keith-Smith and Ken Mills, 1987; Büchner's Woyzeck by Michael Ewans, 1989; "Modes of Consciousness Representation in Büchner's Lenz " by David Horton, in German Life and Letters 43, 1989-90; Büchner: Tradition and Innovation edited by Ken Mills and Brian Keith-Smith, 1990; Büchner, Woyzeck by Edward McInnes, 1991; Georg Büchner: The Shattered Whole by John Reddick, 1994; Disintegrating Myths: A Study of Georg Büchner by Adolph R. Winnifred, 1996.

* * *

The sum of Georg Büchner's narrative prose is a single text, of some 25 pages, less fragmentary than is often alleged, but lacking final revision and polish. Yet, by its intensity, its feel of modernity, and its influence on German writers from Hauptmann to the present, Lenz (written in 1835 and 1836, posthumously published in 1839) has a significance comparable to that of his dramas Dantons Tod (Danton's Death) and Woyzeck, sharing their pioneering stylistic radicalism and their concern with human beings isolated, emotionally dislocated, subject to forces beyond their control.

Like Büchner's dramas, the story has roots in documented fact: the visit of the poet-dramatist Jakob Lenz, early in 1778, to the pastor and philanthropist Johann Friedrich Oberlin in Waldersbach, Alsace, entrusted to his care after a physical and mental collapse. Oberlin's report of Lenz's precarious stabilization and then intensified mental breakdown became Büchner's principal source.

The strikingly abrupt beginning confronts us immediately with the tensions of a mind that has no steady, coherent relationship to the surrounding world. Lenz walks through the mountains, "indifferently" (translation by Henry J. Schmidt), then inwardly searching, "as though for lost dreams"; the earth seems to him to shrink, his sense of space and time is dislocated. Energized by a violent storm, which Büchner evokes in a magnificently turbulent sentence, he feels a surge of ecstatic, almost erotically aggressive intimacy with nature—he "lay over the earth, he burrowed into the cosmos, it was a pleasure that hurt him"—but returning sobriety dissolves such experiences into a mere "shadow-play." Later he feels a panicky sense of abandonment, "nameless" fear. He hurtles down the slopes, "as if insanity were pursuing him on horseback." He is soothed by the lights, the radiant calm, the intimate response at Oberlin's house, but then alone in a dark room his sensibility, his very sense of self, threatens to dissolve; desperate, he inflicts physical pain on himself and plunges into icy water.

Amidst this restless agitation a play of opposites is discernible: calm and panic, vitality and apathy. Other oppositions follow: communion and isolation, eventually solipsism; lucid eloquence—above all, when Lenz expounds, at the center-point of the text, his (and Büchner's) anti-idealist aesthetics—and cryptic, jaggedly exclamatory outbursts, or sullen silence. Comforting memories of his mother and his beloved Friederike are later beset by irrational guilt, and he declares himself their "murderer." Faith yields to atheistic revolt.

Seeking a summary formula, critics invoke polarities of activity and passivity, movement and stasis. Neither such pole is simply "positive" or "negative." Stasis, for instance, can mean calm repose, but also numb ennui. Alternatively, one can find the several strands of the narrative converging in Lenz's struggle to regain or sustain vibrancy of feeling, sheer substance, against the constant threat of insubstantiality and insensateness—a horror vacui common to Büchner's works (and experience, as letters of March 1834 reveal) and to writings of the historical Lenz. For "the emptier, the deader he felt inwardly, the more he felt urged to ignite a blaze within himself," recalling a past when "he panted under the weight of all his sensations; and now so dead." His reawakened religious interests reflect this impulse; his would-be resurrection of a dead child embodies, symbolically, a desperate urge to self-reanimation, as well as a test of faith. Pain, though tormenting, affords proof that he is; in his "not wholly serious" suicide attempts he seeks "to bring himself to his senses through physical pain." And it is precisely to insensate indifference, a "terrible void," that Lenz finally succumbs.

Such antitheses yield a framework for the narrative structuring of what might otherwise dissolve into an inchoate flux of mood pictures. They generate the image patterns of the text, in turn underpinned by emphatic use of key words ("alone," "empty," "cold"), most insistently words connoting peace (linked in German by the morpheme ruh: Ruhe, ruhig, ruhen). Antithetical episodes are disposed in near symmetry: sermon and seizure by atheism; first evening at Oberlin's and the uncannily disturbing night in a mountain hut. By such means, too, Büchner reins in the centrifugal energies of self-contained episodes abruptly juxtaposed, predominantly paratactic syntax, and often elliptical constructions, which all generate their own effect of breathlessness to mirror Lenz's agitation.

Psychiatrists have praised the clinical accuracy of Büchner's portrayal of a schizophrenic psychosis. But Büchner's most memorable and influential achievement is the quite "un-clinical" intensity, the imaginative empathy with which the processes of Lenz's consciousness are represented. True, this is achieved within a firmly objective narrational framework, given by an impersonal narrator whose most characteristic register is one of laconic report-age (after the manner of Oberlin), eschewing explanatory commentary and explicit gestures of compassion; yet laconism, too, can be searing: "He felt no fatigue, but at times he was irritated that he could not walk on his head." This impersonal narrator can exercise the privilege of omniscience in orthodox representation of Lenz's consciousness via indirect discourse, but again and again will abruptly switch to the mimetic immediacy of free indirect discourse ("he stirred up everything inside him, but dead! Dead!"), or intermediate forms—elliptical formulations suggesting uncoordinated sense-impressions, audacious metaphor, words so emotively charged that they seem to emanate from Lenz—in which the perspectives of narrator and protagonist fuse into what the critic Roy Pascal calls a "dual voice."

Such intimate access to Lenz's experience makes for compassionate understanding. More, his perceptions assume at times a haunting and persuasive poetry: "Do you not hear the terrible voice, usually called silence… ?" At times, too, Lenz voices the revolt against conventional ideological comforts—artistic or metaphysical—that is common to all Büchner's works. But the sobriety of the detached narrator's voice is equally important: to affirm the solidity of the world from which Lenz becomes ever more alienated—and to which his aesthetic credo, informed by social and ethical commitments, had declared allegiance and obligation; and to register the disintegration of Lenz's mind, the loss of sensibility, the human waste.

—Derek Glass

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