Lenz and Kleist

Written in the 1830s, Lenz is the only prose fiction by the German playwright and wunderkind, George Buchner. Kleist in Thun was written almost a century later, in 1913, by the Swiss novelist and prolific author of feutillons, Robert Walser. Both pieces are, as the saying goes, “based on a true story”, in each case the life of another writer, making four writers all told involved in these works.

The subject of Lenz is Jacob Michael Reinhold Lenz, a German poet who was born in 1751, was a friend of Goethe, and went mad, or at least had a major breakdown from which he may or may not have recovered, but following which he vanished from history. An unreliable report has him dying as a beggar somewhere near Moscow at the age of 44. Outside of Germany, where he is remembered as one of the original Sturm und Drang poets, Lenz is best-known from his appearance in Goethe’s memoirs and as the hero of Buchner’s novella.

The hero of Kleist in Thun is much more famous. Heinrich von Kleist also had a brief and unhappy life, but better luck with posterity. He’s recognised as a great poet-dramatist, although in the English-speaking world, which has never had much taste for German drama, his reputation rests on a handful of iconic novellas such as Michael Kohlhass and The Marquise of O. Like Lenz, Kleist, who was born in 1777, suffered a mental breakdown, or series of breakdowns, from which he recovered sufficiently to keep writing until he shot himself when he was 34. Like Lenz too, Kleist went unrecognised in his lifetime, and he also knew Goethe (in those days, who didn’t?). In fact, Goethe produced Kleist’s early one-act comedy The Broken Jug in Weimar although the production was a flop and Kleist became embittered with his erstwhile patron.

So here we have two poets, near-contemporaries in the early years of German Romanticism, living what we have come to think of as the archetypal lives of Romantic artists-short, intense, overshadowed by poverty and madness, and ending tragically. Now what about their fictional biographers? Buchner was born in 1813 and died, probably of typhus, when he was 23. His life was turbulent. He had to flee Germany for Switzerland due to his revolutionary politics. He studied history and philosophy at the University of Zurich, apparently intending an academic career. He was forgotten after his death but rediscovered at the end of the 19th century since when he has become a famous name in world theatre. His entire oeuvre consists of three plays, plus the prose work Lenz, and a short political tract. But two of the plays, Danton’s Death and Woyzzeck, are established classics of the repertoire.

Walser was born in 1878 and lived into his late seventies, though to all intents and purposes his productive life ended in 1933, when he committed himself to an insane asylum where he remained for the next 23 years. A self-educated man, Walser set out to be a writer and failed, except for a few years when his novels were published in Germany and he was a regular contributor of feutillons to the German press- what today we’d call a columnist or diarist. He lived and died in abject poverty and obscurity and went at least half-mad, though his eventual diagnosis as schizophrenic looks to us more like the product of clinical ignorance.

All four writers, then, had a lot in common, their lives being obscure, difficult, and cut short by mental or physical illness. The major difference between subjects on the one hand and authors on the other is not so much in their lives as in their art. Lenz and Kleist were Romantic writers. Buchner and Walser were avowed anti-Romantics. (In Buchner’s case, he was an anti-Romantic avant la lettre, since Romanticism had hardly got off the ground in his day, thus establishing Buchner’s reputation as an artist whose sensibility was far in advance of his time).

Both Lenz and Kleist In Thun are quite straightforward and traditional stories. Their styles are neither traditional nor straightforward; but the stories themselves are structured in the classic manner. Both are third-person narratives, in which the author tries to place himself in the mind of his leading character. Then he relates the various events that take place from the character’s point of view. Since Kleist in Thun is a short story and Lenz somewhere between a short story and a novella- call it an extended short story- neither Walser nor Buchner relates his character’s entire biography. They choose the crucial moment, the dramatic highlight.

The first thing to notice about Lenz and Kleist in Thun is that both our authors choose the same moment- namely, the point at which Lenz and Kleist went mad. In neither case is the choice as obvious as it may seem. Walser could have chosen Kleist’s suicide- what could be more dramatic than a suicide? Or perhaps his relations with Goethe and the crippling failure of Kleist’s first play, The Broken Jug. Buchner, who admittedly had less to go on with his man, might have tried to recreate Lenz’s childhood, or Lenz’s own friendship with Goethe. Or what about that tantalising report of a beggar’s death near Moscow? What was Lenz doing in Moscow in the first place? Plenty of room for speculation there.

Instead, our authors honed in on what they thought was most significant about their subjects, and they came to identical conclusions as to what that was. Lenz and Kleist in Thun are two studies in insanity. More precisely, they’re studies in the onset of insanity, in how insanity develops; and very detailed and analytical studies too. For imaginative works, these tales are scrupulous in how much invention they allow themselves, which is no more than is necessary or warranted by the clinical situation. Lenz and Kleist In Thun read like a psychiatrist’s case notes, albeit written by a psychiatrist with literary genius and unencumbered by any Freudian or other jargon.

We can account for many of the differences between stories- such as their length- by the difference in the available factual material. Buchner based Lenz on a diary by a pastor named Oberlin, who tried to help the Lenz during the poet’s breakdown and kept a detailed record of events. Walser, on the other hand, had only a commemorative plaque on the villa in Thun in Switzerland, where Kleist lived briefly, together with the known fact of his nervous breakdown. The difference between Lenz and Kleist in Thun is the difference between the diary and the plaque.

When Buchner and Walser set out to analyze their subjects’descent into madness, what did they come up with? Both make a link between madness and their subjects’ work as poets, as artists, and moreover as a particular kind of artist, a Romantic artist. Everybody knows Romanticism was interested in extreme states and extreme emotions. There’s an overlap with insanity right there. But Buchner and Walser turn this Romantic taste against itself, making it into a diagnosis. The roots of Romanticism, they seem to say, lie in madness.

That’s a very radical claim. It was a lot more radical in Walser’s day (and indeed in Buchner’s day too) when attacking Romanticism wasn’t the academic argument it appears to us today, operating from the safety of a certain historical distance. Romanticism was the main European opposition from the middle of the 18th to early 20th centuries. In the later part of that period, socialism begins to take over the political arena, but you don’t really get much cultural impact from socialism until after the Russian Revolution. If you were an artist, a progressive thinker, if you were at the cutting edge artistically and intellectually, and indeed politically, of European society for 150 years, then you were a Romantic- and in many ways you probably still are. In a famous lecture series, Isaiah Berlin called Romanticism, “the largest recent movement to transform the lives and thought of the Western world” and traced its roots to Germany in the second third of the 18th century.

Why was this? By around the early-to-mid 18th century, Western culture had been taken over by science and reason while emotion, poetry, instinct, spirit, everything now termed the irrational, began to get weeded out and thrown on the scrap heap. There was always a defensive element to Romanticism, due to its origins in opposition to reason and the French-led Enlightenment. The Romantics were like the first avant- garde and avant- gardes ever since have done the same thing- protested too much, gone over the top. They’ve adopted the despised and rejected and thrown them in the face of mainstream society, and the despised and rejected get ever more extreme with each passing decade, each new avant garde, from Wordsworth’s leech- gatherer to William Burroughs’ junky, and beyond. This progressive extremism is a precise measure of the psychic split that opened up with the triumph of reason in the Enlightenment and has gone on widening ever since. At some point, roughly equivalent to the rate of absorption of the theories of Karl Marx, the psychic split became a social one, a development to which we owe the fact there is no Romantic movement any more. Instead, there is an ecological movement, a feminist movement, a New Age movement, a travellers’ movement, an anti-nuclear movement, a Third World debt reduction movement, and many others.

That’s a tribute to the force of the Romantic critique even after 150 years. According to the Romantics, Enlightenment will never produce a stainless world of reason and perpetual progress. What you actually get is the Industrial Revolution, technology, mass society, Big Brother, ecological disaster, war, poverty and death for millions, etc. -a kind ofFrankenstein’s monster (a character created by a Romantic writer who was also the partner of a great Romantic poet). In the extremely broad church of Romanticism, a mansion with almost as many rooms as there were Romantics, not everybody articulated this critique with equal clarity. Since the Industrial Revolution began in Britain, and remained a British quasi-monopoly for some time, British Romantics tended to stress the social dimension. Britain’s official philosophy might be a utilitarian greatest happiness of the greatest number: the reality was the dark satanic mills. In Germany, where industrial development was late in coming, the stress was on the spiritual side of Romanticism, on the inner life, on changes in the evolution of what we call subjectivity.

The Sturm und Drang movement that included Lenz was German Romanticism’s advance guard. According to Isaiah Berlin “Lenz regards nature as a wild whirlpool into which a man of feeling and temperament will throw himself if he is to experience the fullness of life; for him, for Schubert and for Leiswitz, art, and in particular, literature are passionate forms of self-assertion which look on all acceptance of conventional forms as but ‘delayed death’.” By “conventional forms”, Berlin here means not merely literary forms but all rational, Enlightenment approaches to life and the socio-political structures that logic and reason give rise to. Berlin calls the works of Lenz and his fellow Sturm und Drang leaders “outbursts against every form of organised social or political life.”[1]


In their heyday, then, the Romantics were the rebels and the anti-Romantics were the reactionaries. But neither Walser nor Buchner could be called reactionary by any standards. Walser was a visionary artist, a William Blake without the bombast and the full-dress mysticism. Buchner was a social and political revolutionary. For people like these to come along and criticise Romanticism in the fundamental terms they did was like committed Communists turning out to be CIA agents (or vice versa) at the height of the Cold War. It was shocking stuff. It still is shocking, since there’s a sense in which the Romantic Movement never died, even if we no longer use the label. It’s safe to say that if you want more out of life than membership of the consumer society and a job as an information mechanic, tinkering with the global machine, then you can’t avoid dealing with Romanticism on some level. You can avoid dealing with socialism or with Christianity or with Critical Theory or with Buddhism, perhaps, but at some point you’re going to find yourself rummaging among the scraps of old Romantic notions about art, nature, human liberation, aesthetics and different states of consciousness- including those produced by mind-altering drugs. We’re still living with the consequences of Romanticism. And our authors’ message is that those consequences can be fatal.

Back to Lenz and Kleist in Thun. Both tales take the form of journeys. Both our heroes leave the city that is their home or their base of operations and go off into the unknown. Lenz goes off into “the mountains”- Buchner used a journey he himself made into the Vosges for background. Kleist goes to Switzerland, which is also mountainous, although Thun, where Kleist ends up, is much more civilized than the region Lenz visits, where conditions are wild and primitive, both in terms of the scenery and the local people. The two journeys are physical journeys, but they’re also mythical journeys, and the mythical journey has a claim to being the archetypal narrative form, dating back to The Odyssey. The hero leaves home, separates himself from his society and his upbringing, and goes out alone into the wild, looking for adventures that are really a way of looking for his true self. He discovers the meaning of life, both his own life and life per se, through the adventures that befall him, the tasks he has to perform and the suffering he has to endure. The form is archetypal because it’s a heightened version of the journey all of us undertake in our “journey through life”.

Being sophisticated artists, Buchner and Walser present the mythical journey as wholly mental, an inside job. Their heroes don’t go looking for external adventures: they concentrate on the “looking for themselves” part. The plots of Lenz and Kleist In Thun are sketchy. Nothing much happens in either story. There are no gods or monsters, though there’s a lot of God-talk in Lenz, calling His conduct and even His Existence into question.

In the way they approach their tasks, Buchner and Walser are already behaving like the modernists who will succeed the Romantics. They dis-assemble the Romantic ego by cleaving in two Romanticism’s equation of the world and I. Make that the heroic I and the natural world-or, the hero and nature. All the action in Lenz and Kleist In Thun takes place inside the minds of the protagonists and the central conflict, the central dilemma, comes about when they find themselves in nature. That’s the centre of gravity for both these tales, the point on which they turn. But instead of nature having its Romantic effect of healing the hero, making him whole, and enabling him to realize his true self, it has the opposite effect. It sharpens the conflict, bringing it into clearer focus.

Our heroes are more at odds than ever with nature aka the external world. As for the adventures that traditionally embody and mediate the struggle between the individual and the world, history has swept them aside. Nobody believes in quests and dragons any more. It’s the isolated individual struggling to come to terms with and to connect to the world and failing to do so, which, come to think of it, is not a bad definition of madness.

To put it another way, form and function are seamlessly united in these two stories. The journeys in Lenz and Kleist in Thun have the same shape, which looks like this- ‘U’. U is an interesting symbol. It stands for death and rebirth, for the descent of the spiritual into matter and its resurrection (or the descent of the upper world into the underworld and its return); and also for Christ. It turns up a lot in dreams, which are journeys of a kind and which also take place when you go down from consciousness to unconsciousness, from waking to sleep, from which state hopefully you awake the next morning. A journey starts and returns: it goes out and back in. U goes down and back up. U is the spiritual meaning of a journey. It reveals the secret of journeys, which is that they don’t take place in outer space, but inner space. It also reveals that a journey never returns to the same place from which it started. It may do so geographically, but never spiritually or psychologically (which for our purposes we can take as synonymous terms). Hence the space between the two prongs of the U. However, as two-thirds of a circle, the U also implies its own completion. Fill in the gap, and the U becomes a circle, the symbol of wholeness, the eternal round and the uroborous, the snake biting its own tail. All of which suggests that the meaning of the journey was present all along. The kingdom of god is spread out across the world only men don’t see it. (At this point, the spiritual becomes the mystical or, to put it another way, the journey reveals its ultimate secret: if you were really smart, you wouldn’t need to take it in the first place).

In Lenz and also in Kleist in Thun, we’re dealing with a variation of the U. Their U looks like this-(‘U’ upside down). It’s a reverse U. Both these poets’ mythical journeys are failures. They’re failures from the moment they set out: at every stage, they take place under a sign of negativity. Neither Lenz nor Kleist leaves the city looking for adventure with a smile on his lips. Instead, they’re fleeing the city, running away from themselves. And when they get out into nature, nature turns out to be their enemy rather than their friend. Rather than finding the meaning of life, or the meaning of their own lives at any rate, they find madness- anti-meaning. Lenz and Kleist commence their journeys on their own two feet. But at the end of each man’s odyssey, far from returning in triumph, agents such as friends or relatives are sent to drag them back to the city, more or less unwillingly. Symbolising their defeat, both men return sealed in stagecoaches, in metaphorical if not literal straitjackets.

So much for the similarities. The main difference between the two stories is that each protagonist goes mad in a different way. Since they were written almost a hundred years apart, you’d expect some differences, mental illness being as culturally and historically conditioned as anything else. This is where Buchner and Walser show their mettle as reporters as well as artists. The illness is the same illness in both stories, but the style is appropriate to the period.

Lenz’s madness takes the style of religious mania. The whole dialogue in Lenz, not just the actual words spoken, but Lenz’s interaction with the world around him, is framed in religious terms. The religion in question is Christianity and, since these are late 18th/early 19th century Germans, it’s Protestant Christianity in its starkest, most extreme form, the form known as German Pietism. The characters in Lenz are not specifically identified as Pietists, but the atmosphere of the piece is Pietist through and through. It’s the direct confrontation of the naked soul with God, sans intermediaries, a sort of soul-wrestling in which faith is not something natural and given but a prize you have to win in a life-and-death struggle. Which you may lose. It’s a dreadful thing to meet your maker face to face, as Moses and Job testified among many others.

You need to read Lenz for yourself to see how delicately and accurately Buchner stitches the religious motif into his account of Lenz’s deteriorating mental state. Sent to study the Bible to calm himself down, Lenz reads the Apocalypse- hardly the obvious choice! At various points in the story, he takes off his clothes and appears in sackcloth smeared with ashes, like a biblical prophet. In one bravura episode, he encounters a dying child and, when she dies, he tries to resurrect her like Christ with Lazarus. When his mental torment becomes unendurable and he can no longer stand himself, he jumps into a fountain to restore his wits. Fountain equals baptismal font. Throughout the action, Lenz’s main relationship is with Oberlin, a wise pastor who tries to help him by recommending him to God’s mercy and love. But Buchner is too much of an artist to reduce his tale to a dogmatic debate. He makes it quite clear that what Oberlin really represents is sanity itself, a complex condition having as much to do with human solidarity and a connection to the external world as it does with religious faith per se.

“Oberlin was untiring and Lenz his constant companion, sometimes in conversation, sometimes busied with manual labour, sometimes lost in Nature. This life had a salutary effect and calmed him. He often looked in Oberlin’s eyes, and in those quiet eyes, in this noble, serious face, he saw that immense peace which overtakes us in the repose of Nature, in the depths of the forest, on melting moonlit summer nights-all this seemed even closer to him in this man’s countenance.”

Lenz’s relationship with Oberlin the man rather than Oberlin the pastor is keeping him sane. But Lenz can’t hold on to the connection. His last words on the subject of his own madness are a devastating repudiation of the Romantic dream.

“Don’t you hear that dreadful cry that screams around all the horizon and which we generally call silence? Since I came to this silent valley, I hear it all the time; it won’t allow me to sleep.”

Nature is a scream not a silence! The natural world is a hell rather than a paradise. Instead of bringing peace, it destroys the greatest peace human beings enjoy, namely sleep. By the time we reach that final indictment, Buchner has set up a balance of forces which looks something like this: on the plus side, the side of sanity, are personal relationships, manual labour, the simple life, faith in god and in Christ in particular, art, peace and Nature. On the minus side, the side of madness, are hollowness, emptiness, pain, both one’s own pain and the suffering of humanity in general, the non-existence of God (or what’s worse His indifference to the suffering He created), discord, and Nature again, which is only fitting since we all know Nature is protean, as destructive and violent as she can be mellow and nurturing.

The obvious omission from this list, which will become a sine qua non of all future lists of its kind, is modern industrial society, since the Industrial Revolution hadn’t happened yet. As for the issue, or the fulcrum, on which the balance of forces pivots from one side to another during the course of the narrative it’s religion. But the same conflict also features in a discussion about the theory of art that’s become a locus classicus.

Lenz attacks Idealism- the prequel to Romanticism in German thought-- as “the most humiliating of insults to human nature.” He equates art and life and suggests that artists “immerse themselves in the life of humble people and then reproduce this again in all its implications, in its subtle, scarcely discernible play of expression.” Beauty is plastic, passing “from one form to another”. As an example he recalls seeing two girls seated on a rock. “Then they rose and the beautiful grouping was destroyed; but as they descended between the rocks they formed another picture.” “God made the world as it should be and we ought not to think ourselves capable of improving on it”, as do the Idealists. Instead, we should content ourselves with trying to imitate it.

What I want to emphasise about this passage are not the rights or wrongs of the particular aesthetic theory, but that it shows Lenz as having the tools of his sanity in his own hands-or his own head. According to Buchner, at any rate, since the author is the one who’s imagined Lenz with the means of his own redemption. But Lenz can’t hold on to them. He goes mad anyway. Which gives rise to the obvious question, why?

Before we attempt to answer that question (which may be unanswerable-the lack of any answer may be a point these authors want to make) let’s see what happened to Kleist. It’s a hundred years later- not for the real Kleist of course, who was Lenz’s near-contemporary, but for Walser’s fictional Kleist And the first thing that stands out from the text is the near-total absence of religion. That’s not necessarily what you’d expect despite the hundred years This is a story about madness, and madness and religious terminology often go together, even today. Somebody suffering a mental breakdown in the 21st century, as much as in the 19th or 18th centuries, might well express himself in religious or quasi-religious terms. Still, that caveat aside, the absence of religion in Kleist In Thun is historically accurate. It reflects the rise of Romanticism itself since among other things, Romanticism offered a replacement or substitute for Christianity. The world has moved on. In Lenz the characters express themselves through debates on religion and on art. By Walser’s day it’s just art.

The young Kleist arrives in Thun. He’s full of ambition to be a great writer. He’s on fire to express everything that’s within him and he needs to be completely alone to write. So he finds lodgings and sets to work. And things go with him the way they often do with writers. At first, the work goes smoothly, but then he grows increasingly frustrated, he’s struck more and more by the gap between what he wants to say and the words he manages to put on the page. Still, he enjoys his enjoys Sundays off in Thun. He observes the villagers and the peasant farmers from the surrounding countryside going in to church, but he feels no urge to join them, nor does watching them inspire him to any religious reflections. On the contrary, he observes them as an artist, and we get his artist’s response in the form ofa detailed description and recreation of the scene- the bells, the hilltop church, the “sun-bathed little town”, the “girls and women in tight black –laced bodices with silver spangles”, the “big muscled handsome young men” come down from the alpine pastures.

Besides Sundays, Kleist likes market days (he likes to be in a crowd. Put him in France and he’d be a flaneur, taking his strolls through the centre of Paris). The market day and the down-to-earth market sights and smells- we’re told of the “smell of cheese” and a man beating his “rosy piglet with a stick”- prompt the only direct religious reference in the story. The market, rather than the church or the churchgoers, make Kleist feel “he would like to pray”.

He doesn’t get any farther than feeling he’d like to. And the content of those feelings becomes clear in the next line: “He finds no majestic music so beautiful, no soul so subtle as the music and soul of all this human activity.” As religious impulses go, this ranks on a par with the worship of nature. They’re what people believe when they don’t believe in the Church or prescribed doctrine any more. Anyway, that’s the only religious reference in Kleist In Thun, not counting a use of the word “God” in a conventional oath (“..God in heaven..”).What takes the place of God in Kleist In Thun is not nature, not even human nature, but art (or maybe it’s the artist. The Romantics had trouble distinguishing between the two). Kleist comes to Thun to write, he spends his time in Thun writing, and he goes mad because he’s having trouble with his writing. He is, or aspires to be, the full-dress Romantic artist as godlike hero, the Byronic creator. When art becomes a religion, every artist can harbour the hope of becoming God, since the worshipper is really worshipping Him or Herself. In therapeutic terms, this is a recipe for extreme narcissism. Hence the demonic element in Romanticism, which gives us the basis of an answer to the question about why Lernz and Kleist go mad.

The second thing to notice about Kleist In Thun is that cutting out God and religion simplifies the hero’s plus and minus list, as well as cancelling a lot of the histrionics-although histrionics are no bad thing in a study of madness. Kleist’s plus and minus lists looks rather different from Lenz’s version. On the plus side for Kleist, we have the human solidarity implicit in the market scene, which stands in for personal relationships in general ( Kleist is totally alone during the main action of the story) ; art; and Nature. Although it’s not as explicitly stated as it is in Lenz, the worth of the simple life and simple people is woven through Kleist In Thun. Kleist thinks about giving up poetry for farming at the start of the story. There is a reference to the “The good fortune to be a sensibly balanced man with simple feelings.” Above all, the portrait of Thun on market days and Sundays is so lovingly observed, in such sharp detail, that it amounts to its own endorsement.

On the minus side for Kleist are hollowness, emptiness and pain, a demonic trinity, all three of them specifically linked to isolation i.e. the opposite of human solidarity; then art again; and then Nature again. The equation in Kleist In Thun is a more elegant equation than the one in Lenz. In fact, the whole analysis of madness is more modern and direct in Walser’s tale. Kleist has withdrawn a lot of projections that marked Lenz. For instance, Kleist no longer thinks the suffering of humanity is a reason for his madness; nor does he view his struggle for sanity through the prism of a theological debate or a theological struggle, a kind of wrestling with God. He’s not blaming his problems, or looking for the answers to them, on the outside world, in either its material or spiritual incarnations. He knows his problems are in his own mind. As if to reflect this heightened awareness, which amounts to a superior level of consciousness in Kleist as compared with Lenz, the story itself is simplified, stripped-down, more focused.

Lenz has two main characters, Lenz and Oberlin, and a lot of the action takes place as dialogue between them. Kleist In Thun has only one main character, Kleist himself, and no dialogue. Lenz still retains a residue of plot, of the adventures on the mythical journey-in Lenz’s case, they include trying to resurrect the dead child, giving a sermon to the villagers, having himself tied up as a murderer and holding the debate on art, which is triggered by the arrival of the friend of Lenz’s father in Oberlin’s village. Kleist does nothing but write, walk around Thun and swim in the lake. His confrontation with his incipient madness is direct, unmediated by anything but his art and the surrounding scenery-in other words, by nature- while Lenz drops ambiguous hints that his disturbance has its origin in an actual trauma involving a girl he loved “whose fate hangs upon me like lead”. The context suggests the girl is a phantasm, a figment of Lenz’s increasingly deranged imagination, but Buchner never quite closes the possibility that she’s real.

There’s an ambiguity in the whole atmosphere of Lenz, which is very different from the atmosphere of Kleist In Thun. In both these works, “atmosphere”, which is usually in the background, steps into the foreground and plays a major part. It’s like watching a drama in which the scenery and the lighting join the cast and play leading roles. For scenery and lighting read nature as landscape and nature as weather. Both are crucial to these tales because together they represent the external world from which madness is a desperate flight. As we saw, both stories describe flights into what their characters hope will be sanity but which, once they’re face to face with Nature, turn out to be the opposite. But the atmosphere of Kleist In Thun is calmer and more down-to-earth in all senses of the phrase than it is in Lenz. The difference may be partly geographical, the difference between Switzerland and Germany, but mostly it’s a deliberate strategy on the part of each of our authors.

Except for a single paragraph describing Thun in bad weather, Kleist In Thun shows nature at its most benign, its most mellow and inviting. The quintessential scene in Thun is that the story is taking place beside a Swiss lake at the end of a perfect summer’s day when the heat starts to drain from the air, the light turns golden and everything is peaceful. The quintessential atmosphere of Lenz, by contrast, is a storm-tossed winter’s day in a wild, remote valley in the high Alps. Given the way nature appears in Kleist, it seems all the more ungrateful and perverse of Kleist himself not to feel comfortable, not to adjust his mood to this natural mirror of balance and harmony, but rather to insist on cutting himself off from the world- which is precisely Walser’s point. Everything in Kleist In Thun serves to highlight Kleist and Kleist alone as the source of his own insanity. His madness stems from his mental state and his mental state leads him into madness.

For two thirds of its length-and the whole tale is under 4000 words long- Kleist In Thun takes the following form: a paragraph showing Kleist in a natural setting. We see what he sees. It’s beautiful, restful, whatever. Sometimes our hero joins his own activity to the natural activity, for instance by rowing a skiff or swimming in the lake. Then comes the twist at the end of each paragraph, or sometimes in the middle of the paragraph. Kleist turns on nature. What delighted him suddenly repels him. He flings himself away from it, literally or metaphorically. “What rapture this is but what an agony it can also be”. “ He wants a brutal war, to fight in battle…” “He shudders, compelled to admit how unfeeling his relation is to the world around him.” These are all the last lines of paragraphs. It’s as if Kleist was being lulled into feeling alright with the world until, at the last moment, he rouses himself and jerks himself away because, for him, to be at one with nature aka the world is to lose his own identity. On the other hand, to retain his identity means to live in an isolation so complete it virtually ensures he’ll go mad.

In Lenz, the scream-the madness-seemed to come out of Nature and the external world itself. In Kleist, the scream is in his own mind.

Walser makes very subtle use of nature, whereby nature represents healing and wholeness, just as the Romantics claimed it did, but the fault, the block, is in the Romantic artist-hero himself. Something nasty lies at the bottom of the Romantic psyche that pretends to worship nature but secretly can’t abide it. In Lenz, nature had a more traditional role when it reflected Lenz’s struggle for sanity point by point. When Lenz feels sane, nature appears beautiful and harmonious. At other times, its turbulence matches the poet’s inner turmoil. Buchner’s use of nature looks backward as well as forwards: it’s pre-Romantic as well as Romantic. Sometimes he uses nature in the Romantic way as a kind of ideal lifestyle, a template for wholeness. At other times, he uses it the way his great master Shakespeare used nature in King Lear, the cosmos reflecting the condition of the individual (and vice versa. It was a complex symbiosis in Shakespeare). If we were to sum up the historical development Buchner bridges, we could say that for a Renaissance artist like Shakespeare, the motto was “as above, so below”. For the Romantics, it was more like “as inside: so outside”. The external world no longer reflected the individual. Instead, the individual reflected the external world within himself. The relationship between the two had exchanged its terms, but it was still a relationship.

Walser’s achievement in Kleist In Thun and other works (notably his last novel The Robber) is to show us exactly how and why this relationship broke down. It’s a breakdown that led politically to the collapse of 19th century bourgeois society into the nightmare of the First World War, and artistically to the change from the Romantic era to modernism. The answer Walser proposes, which is also the answer as to why our two poets suffer mental breakdowns and lose their minds, is that the Romantic formulation of that relationship was unstable from the start: in short, it was a lie.

With his usual economy, Walser punctures the lie in two sentences. The first sentence comes when Kleist “wants a brutal war, to fight in battle; to himself he seems a miserable and superfluous sort of person.” Walser wrote that sentence in 1913. One year later, according to Eric Hobsbawm, “we observe the curious phenomenon of a bourgeoisie, or at least a significant part of is youth and its intellectuals, which plunged willingly, even enthusiastically, into the abyss. Everyone knows of young men who hailed the outbreak of the First World War like people who have fallen in love”

The second sentence occurs when Kleist starts to write his story ‘Battle of Sempach’ and thinks, “He wants to abandon himself to the entire catastrophe of being a poet: the best thing for me is to be destroyed as quickly as possible.” By the next paragraph, he’s gone mad, tortured by voices in his head. For Kleist, the final split in his personality announces itself in his own verses that “resound in his brain…..like the croakings of ravens.”

Psychologically speaking, these two sentences take us from the outdoor world of nature and the Romantics to the indoor world of the consulting room and the psychiatrist’s couch. Kleist’s problem turns out to be frustration and repression-he’s a “miserable and superfluous sort of person”. Combined with the urge to self-destruction, they make two of the four apocalyptic horsemen of the mentally ill (the other two being fantasy and despair). Kleist is the artist as Romantic hero, trying to play god in his art, just as Lenz, who we gather has abandoned his own art as Buchner’s story opens, tries to play god in the literal sense by resurrecting a dead child.

At the root of the crisis for both Kleist and Lenz is pride, the one mental illness Freud thought untreatable. Our two poets fail in their mythical journeys because their journeys only exacerbate their problem, the problem of the isolated individual. Romanticism claimed to have the answer to Western ego-ism, but its answer only re-stated the problem in opposing terms. Emotion, art, nature and spontaneity replaced science, reason, progress and industry. The Romantic subject was the same as the liberal, bourgeois subject but with different priorities. Either way, the individual was left cut off from the world, whether he was trying to rule it through the Industrial Revolution or recreate it inside himself via Romanticism.

The only person (if He is a person) who gets to stand outside the world is God. Anybody else who attempts to do so goes mad trying. From this accumulated wisdom, Romanticism dissented. Or rather, the Romantics tried to use this insight for their own purposes. They used it as the basis for their critique of rationalism and of the strand in the Western intellectual tradition that separates subject from object, man from the world, thereby isolating him either as the world’s conqueror or as its bewildered victim. But the same hubristic tendency was involved in their own alternative, in their strategies for reuniting men with nature..

Both the real-life Kleist and Lenz lived at the very outset of German Romanticism. They were among the first to reject and revolt against the German classical tradition as represented by Goethe, although both men counted themselves as Goethe’s friends (an embittered friend in Kleist’s case, who thought Goethe had let him down). “Reject” and “revolt” don’t really apply to Germany, where classical liberalism was always weak, viewed as either soulless or French, and where the Idealist element in the German tradition is directly linked to Romanticism via “Naturphilosophie”. Goethe himself was an ambiguous writer who was the father figure of the Sturm und Drang poets and provided German Romanticism with some of its key texts before turning increasingly to classical values as he aged. Germany’s political underdevelopment meant that different cultural trends tended to be mixed up in German life, with Idealism leading to Romanticism in a relatively seamless process. The attack on Idealism in art that Buchner puts in the mouth of Lenz, for example, could have been written word for word against Romanticism twenty years later.

Then again, throughout Europe, Romanticism was notoriously shapeless as a movement. According to Eric Hobsbawm, “as a style, a school, an era in the arts, nothing is harder to define or even to describe in terms of formal analysis” but “the romantic critique of the world, though ill-defined, was not negligible. The longing that haunted it was for the lost unity of man and nature.”

Buchner and Walser’s novelty is to turn this romantic critique on its head. Instead of healing the social and historical fracture, Romanticism, in their analysis, widens it, becoming a recipe for individual self-destruction. To Buchner and Walser, the fate of Lenz and Kleist, their decline into madness and death, shows that there was a sickness at the very root of Romanticism; that it was, to borrow Karl Kraus’ famous phrase about psychoanalysis, a “disease of which it purports to be the cure”. The heroic individual, even the heroic artist, can’t put humpty dumpty back together again. Neither Buchner nor Walser attempt to solve the Romantic problem, but they provide the parameters for any solution, the terms against which a solution must be judged. By showing the flaws in Romanticism, they destroy the Romantic assumption that man and nature were natural complements in the first place. Whatever the lost unity was, it must have been a union of opposites. As for its disintegration, that continued apace with the triumphant onrush of bourgeois society and technology ending in the train wreck of 1914-18. The images of the shell-cratered, mud-soaked Western Front are the most striking we have of man and nature not so much divided as blown to smithereens although, by the end of the 20th century, there were images of peacetime environmental destruction and pollution to rival them

Which is why these same notions of pride and a kind of Western hubris leading to the destructive conquest of nature resurfaced in the environmental movement in the 1970s. After a hundred years of industrialism, the emphasis by then was on the damage to the external world rather than to the internal world of the individual psyche. There were even religious overtones to early environmentalism, for instance the world as a quasi-spiritual Gaia, as there were to other movements that emerged from the Sixties mix of radical politics, Eastern religion, romantic utopias and communes, hippie philosophies of the simple life and back to nature, and altered states of consciousness. To put it another way, all modern movements that set out to oppose the dominant Western society, with the exception of Marxian socialism (though not excepting its predecessor “utopian socialism”), have drawn on the same elements, selecting and emphasizing different ones.


Early Modernist writers were as keen as, or keener than, the Romantics had been to diagnose the “lost unity” in their own terms and attempt to find a solution. The union of opposites was taken up by, for example, Musil, who argued for the need to reunite reason and emotion, and DH Lawrence, who saw it as the union of sexual opposites. When these attempts failed in their turn, they collapsed into the existential despair that is one of the most distinctive notes- though by no means the only one- of later modernism in artists like Samuel Beckett.

By then, the Romantic subject who dares heaven and goes mad had given way to the comic anti-subject who is the helpless puppet of forces beyond his control, symbolized by the great, and absent, Godot. Buchner and Walser’s legacy played no part in that transition, except for their stress on humility, a stress that starts to take concrete form, later in the19th century, with a line of fictional characters who are “little men”, clerks, minor bureaucrats and the like, in Gogol, Walser, Kafka and on down to Charlie Chaplin and Beckett’s tramps. It’s no accident that the prototype, the great anticipator of this trend, is Buchner’s Woyzzeck.

How do Buchner and Walser present humility as the counterweight to Romantic inflation? Well, they adopt very different strategies from one another. Typically, Buchner is explicit where Walser is implicit and indirect. In Lenz, Buchner uses two strategies. Firstly, he embodies humility and modesty in the character of Oberlin. Secondly, he dramatizes it as a conflict in Lenz’s own mind. Lenz’s calmer and saner moods and reflections are always linked to the simple life he is able to lead in the mountains, close to nature and to “the people”, whose needs he tries to minister to as Oberlin’s assistant.

But as Lenz’s madness deepens, “he grew completely confused and at times was driven by a deep impulse to associate despotically at least in his mind with everything around him-Nature, Man; only Oberlin was excluded. He amused himself by standing houses on their roofs, by mentally dressing and undressing people, and by thinking up absurd practical jokes.” He goes from trying to help people to making fun of them- making fools of them, more to the point. Buchner tells us explicitly that this symptom of Lenz’s growing insanity is the result of a “despotic” mental tendency. In other words, it’s an ego problem, which equates to the conscious or rational mind gone out of control. The ego is the very thing that will destroy the unity of man and nature, the individual and the external world, including our fellow human beings, at the same time as it frees us from superstition, obscurantism and nature’s tyranny.

Finally, Buchner states the need for humility at the conclusion of the debate about art, where a humble holism is necessary cause and also sufficient reward: “One must love mankind in order to penetrate the particular existence of each thing; there must be nothing too common or too ugly.”

That’s Buchner’s strategy. What about Walser? The issues in Kleist In Thun were urgent personal issues for Walser. Walser also lost his mind, though by all accounts his case was different from Kleist’s. The issues raised by Romanticism and the Romantic ego pervade everything Walser wrote and give his work its distinctive character, the character of an extraordinary mental balancing act. As with any balancing act the point lies in the execution. What rivets our interest is not that the circus performer walks a few feet along a wire or stands on someone else’s shoulders, but the skill with which he performs these simple actions and the risk he runs of falling off. Translated into literary terms, the interesting thing about Walser is in his style, a syle that constantly runs the risk of becoming incoherent or simply irrelevant but always keeps its balance, and in doing so, restores the balance between man and nature, the external and internal worlds.

According to Susan Sontag, “the moral core of Walser’s art is the refusal of power; of domination”. Since a writer’s style is his morality (and vice versa), Walser’s refusal takes place on the page. Kleist In Thun is the story of a Romantic artist’s nervous breakdown that will eventually end with his committing suicide, so it’s highly dramatic material, but Walser’s style is modest, calm, deliberately undramatic- the antithesis of Buchner’s style for Lenz, which is deeply emotional and highly wrought. Both Lenz and Kleist In Thun are uneven narratives, full of compressions and unexpected juxtapositions. Reading them one is aware that the authors have omitted important facts; left situations unexplained or assigned whole scenes to take place offstage, outside the text. But where Buchner refuses us continuous content, Walser refuses us both continuous content and continuous tone.

Buchner leaves out linking paragraphs. Walser leaves out linking sentences. Whenever the drama and the emotion in Kleist In Thun start to build, Walser undercuts them, changes the subject. The continuity in Kleist In Thun is supplied by the writing style itself, which embodies and displays the very qualities Kleist lacks, or can’t keep in mind. These are the qualities Walser summed up in his own aphorism “God is the opposite of Rodin”. Tragically, Walser himself couldn’t hold on to these qualities in the end, but was defeated by some of the same conditions that defeat Kleist in Thun- the solitude of a writer’s life; the self-absorption; the thin line between illusion and delusion or between creation and fantasy.


Lenz ends dramatically, with the broken poet’s return to Strasbourg where “he seemed completely rational, spoke to people. He did everything the others did; still there was a dreadful void inside him, he no longer felt any anxiety, nor any desire. His existence was an inevitable burden. And so his life went on…”

Kleist In Thun also ends with the broken Kleist returning to the city in the company of his sister. And we get the idea that Kleist too is facing the prospect of “doing everything the others did”. His sister wants him to get a job, live a normal life, and give up this Romantic nonsense about being an artist. Again, it’s significant what our authors don’t tell us, the facts they choose to leave out: we know that Kleist later shot himself and that Lenz vanished into a slow suicide of his own. But the two stories have their natural ending in these returns to quote unquote normal life, which for both Lenz and Kleist amounts to leftover life to kill. They’ve already died with the death of their individual projects. Their recoveries are, at best, going to be a hollow shell.

Buchner ends Lenz at that point and it’s a perfectly sound ending. It does the job. But Walser goes one step farther. He interrupts and extends this natural ending by stepping in to his own story. And the effect is to turn it around completely. This is how Kleist In Thun ends:

“But finally one has to let it go, this stagecoach, and last of all one can permit oneself the observation that on the front of the villa where Kleist lived there hangs a marble plaque which indicates who lived and worked there. Travellers who intend to tour the Alps can read it, the children of Thun read it and spell it out letter by letter, and then look questioning into each other’s eyes. A Jew can read it, a Christian too, if he has time and if his train is not leaving that very instant, a Turk, a swallow in so far as she is interested. I also, I can read it again if I like. Thun stands at the entrance to the Bernese Oberland and is visited every year by thousands of foreigners. I know the region a little perhaps, because I worked as a clerk in a brewery there. The region is considerably more beautiful than I have been able to describe here, the lake is twice as blue, the sky three times as beautiful. Thun had a trade fair, I cannot say exactly but I think four years ago.”

By describing Thun, the place that drove Kleist crazy, the site of so much sturm and drang, in the most commonplace, down-to-earth terms, Walser restores the balance. Walser’s description is the opposite of Romantic, and in itself an example of how to “penetrate the particular existence of each thing.” Penetrating the particular existence of each thing means sharing that existence. So Kleist In Thun leaves us with a picture of shared, harmonious activity in a shared, harmonious world, indicated by the fact that all of us- travellers, children, Jews, Christians, Turks and swallows too, the sharing extends to all living creatures- can read Kleist’s plaque. The result of all this sharing is a vision of the world as “considerably more beautiful than I have been able to describe here”, where everybody gets to go to the fair.

[1] Isaiah Berlin ‘The Counter-Enlightenment’ in ‘Against The Current: Essays in the History of Ideas’ ed. Henry Hardy (London: Pimlico 1997) p. 14.

dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents mike bygrave 2014