"The 2nd of March 1903 was a bad day for August Esch, who was thirty years old and a clerk; he had had a row with his chief and found himself dismissed before he had time to think of giving notice. He was irritated, therefore, but less by the fact of his dismissal than by his own lack of resourcefulness."
15 years have passed since the narrative ended and we have entered an even more mercurial system of values as the prewar foundations of a society on the brink of moral decay shudder; a slight crumbling precipitates the coming collapse. How fitting then, that our protagonist is a book-keeper, obsessed with settling accounts, whether corporeal or imaginary; he is overly preoccupied with order and balance in a world that refuses to be ordered or to be held accountable.
Esch, unlike Joachim von Pasenow, is not without purpose, he is focused and diligent in his pursuit of redemption, but redemption from what? As he is walking away from his position as book-keeper, his friend, the crippled anarchist Martin, hobbles up on his crutches and informs him that he may know of a position available. It is a book-keeping position at the Central Rhine Shipping Company, chaired by none other than the shadowy, sinister Bertrand. With less effort than one would expect, Esch is given the new position:
"Nevertheless, Esch could not feel elated over his new post. It was as though he had purchased it at the cost of his soul's welfare, or at least of his decency."
His debt to Martin is filed, and it is not long before he has grown accustomed to his new duties and lifestyle, and yet are they new? Or is his life just a re-organization of matter? This thought too is filed for another day and he finds himself at the theater with his new friends Balthasar Korn and his sister Erna, whom Esch is encouraged to woo with little success. Esch's relationship with Korn is one of transactions, Korn pays for the drinks of his "Herr Brother In Law" while Esch struggles to remain free of obligations and morally solvent. But here, at the theater, the meaning and purpose of Esch's life is revealed. The theater becomes quite dark and silent. Then a pinpoint of light and a girl is revealed stretched against a black board, as if crucified, smiling and gracious, unaware of the peril that awaits her. The juggler has exchanged his balls for javelins and slowly he begins throwing his knives. His daggers whistling through the air, his murderous hand grabbing one knife after another, after another. And then finally, the girls face and body is completely framed, the throwing stops and this waif of a girl, Ilona, steps lightly and gracefully down from her cross.
Esch is so troubled by this vision, that he intends to free Ilona at all and any costs. He will redeem her. He will be her salvation. But when she lazily accepts the repulsive Korn as a suitor, his plans as her means of redemption become more complicated.
As he contemplates the incomprehensible he comes across a band of Salvation Army proselytizers, standing on a bench and pointing out the way of salvation. He watches them, drowning in isolation, weighed down by the responsibility of redemption and certain that he will die in utter and complete loneliness.
"A vague and yet unforeseen hope had risen in him that things would go better, far better, with him if he could but stand up there on the bench; and he saw Ilona, Ilona in the Salvation Army uniform, gazing up at him and waiting for his redeeming signal to strike the tambourine and cry "Hallelujah!"...yes, whether a girl like that beat a tambourine or threw plates, one only had to order her to do it, it was just the same, only the clothes were different."
His plan: The way he will redeem Ilona is to concoct an elaborate theatrical display of female wrestling, perhaps his success will free her from the knives. But not this alone, he must sacrifice himself in some grotesque and extreme way, he must suffer on her behalf and for this he decides to woo the unattractive and somewhat hostile widow, Frau Hentjen.
Frau Hentjen has spent her life as the proprietor of a small restaurant. A passive feminist, she despises the men she must serve day after day, chained to them and their needs as they in turn satisfy their perfunctory cravings. She is fiercely independent and resents all attempts at even the remotest intimacy. Nevertheless, she has become the unlikely object of Esch's desire. He must conquer and possess her as a form of kharmatic penance. And he begins his task with dutiful precision. Frau Hentjen rises to the challenge, with every token of intimacy she responds with increased independence and hostility, slowly winning, even for a brief moment, Esch's respect.
"It did him good to know that here was a human being whose character was decided and unequivocal, a human being who knew her right hand from left, who knew virtue from vice. For a moment he had the feeling that here was the longed-for rock, rising clear and steadfast out of the universal confusion, to which one might cling in security..."
Once again, Esch has confused his metaphors in a world where symbolism has lost its meaning and is laced with the unfamiliar. This one, lone woman is no more a rock than he, but there is something about her pride, her strength that he must break, that he must swallow and ingest. He must possess her if he is to save Ilona and so after bringing her on a long and arduous hike, he takes advantage of her low blood sugar and kisses her.
"He kissed her on the cheek as it slid past his mouth and finally he took her round, heavy head in his hands and drew it to him. She responded to his kiss with dry, thick lips, somewhat like an animal which presses its muzzle against a window-pane."
And as they walk down the hill and back to their still separate and insular lives Esch has the almost proud sensation of being Frau Hentjen's lover. A sensation destined to last merely a few paragraphs. Frau Hentjen is no match for Esch, he will overpower her, he will possess her. And as he does so, he is reassured by the thought that his sacrifice is the same as Ilona's, and not just that but his sacrifice is good and right and done for Ilona, for her and for redemption into righteousness. But despite being conquered, Frau Hentjen will not relinquish her soul, leaving Esch enraged because "she kept her soul tightly enclosed behind her teeth so that he should not possess it."
Frau Hentjen is no longer a woman, but a heritage to be wrested from the unknown, a birthright to be attained amidst the matrix of life, a means of deliverance and redemption. And the gift of herself, once consummated is despised. She is owned and once the delicate curtain of mystique has been rent there is no going back. Her passive acceptance of him enrages him, there is still a piece of her soul somewhere that he cannot see that he must possess, and when words fail him he beats her, her recalcitrance being simply a problem he must master and resolve.
What Esch cannot communicate to Frau Hentjen is his existential loneliness, a loneliness that is not alleviated by love or relationship because it is sewn into the fibers of his personhood; this personhood that was destined for greatness and instead is met with futility, destined to redeem and instead so overwhelmingly in need of redemption, willing to sacrifice everything only to realize that even his sacrifice is ineffectual.
"He felt strong, steadfast and well endowed, a man whom it would be worth while to kill. "Either him or me," he said, and felt that the world was at his feet."
"The only thing left to do, to sacrifice oneself for the future and atone for all that is past; a decent man must sacrifice himself or else there's no order in the world."
How Esch is able to come to the conclusion that he, a degenerate-wife-beating-drunken-womanizer is such a "decent" man is a sign of his exponential narcissism. And as Esch tries one sacrifice after another, one spiritual murder followed by a corporeal one, the creeping realization that all might be for naught begins to entwine its tendrils into his soul. It is not Ilona that was nailed to a cross, but another:
"Yes Esch, nailed to the cross. And in the hour of final loneliness pierced by the spear and anointed with vinegar. And only then can that darkness break in under the cover of which the world must fall into dissolution so that it may become again clear and innocent, that darkness in which no man's path can meet another's - and where, even if we walk side by side, we will not hear each other, but will forget each other. as you too, my last dear friend, will forget what I say to you now, forget it like a dream."
While this soliloquy is given by none other than Bertrand, now in the guise of reluctant sage, who has become a sounding board for Esch to philosophize with and ultimately another scapegoat to sacrifice, the philosophy debate seems to do the trick. Esch is exhausted by the constant quest to absolve himself and balance all debts. The past, which he has tirelessly tried to annul, still and forever exists - "there is no end to the human contrivances, and all of them engender barrenness." Despite his attempt to free himself from the coil of the past, his attempts as usual, end in futility. The knives that have been thrown can never be recalled.
"For fulfillment always failed one in the actual world, but the way of longing and of freedom was endless and could never be fully trod, was narrow and remote like that of the sleepwalker, though it was also the way which led into the open arms and the living breast of home."
Esch hangs his angst on a peg and picks up the work-a-day coat of the banal. He has made it through the stations of the cross and emerged in awe of the divine while recognizing his agonies have given birth to humility. His quest for the immortal and transcendent has led to the buttressing conviction that here on earth we must all go our way on crutches.
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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