Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Sleepwalkers, Part Three: The Realist - Hermann Broch

It is now 1918 and our protagonist, Willhelm Huguenau, in this final book of the Sleepwalker trilogy, is a thick-set Frenchman determined to make it through this mess of a war with his best interest his sole preoccupation. A smuggler, a deserter, a rat, a rapist, a murderer, a man of business, a salesman; in short, a man completely without honor or code.

When his shortsightedness is overlooked he dutifully follows the requisite call to arms and joins his compatriots in the dug-out where unparalleled filth reigned; streaks of urine covered the walls and it was impossible to ascertain if the effluvia was the derivation of feces or that of corpses.

A man without a code is unable to ever truly have a compatriot of any kind, he lives an almost solipsistic reality, and a fox hole only serves to expose his isolation rather than convince him of solidarity.

"...there was not one among them who did not know that he was posted there as a solitary creature to live alone and to die alone in an overwhelmingly senseless world, so senseless that he could not comprehend it or rise beyond describing it as "this bloody war.""

Eventually Huguenau has had enough. This war seems inconvenient to a man of enterprise, and he is unabashedly a coward, so he strolls away through the dense forest, littered with the bodies of those fighting for even an ambiguous sense of freedom; their bodies crucified on his behalf, in a world without order where morals are drowned in the maelstrom of bloody chaos, and there is only silence.

"...the world lay as if under a vacuum glass- Huguenau could not help thinking of a glass cover over cheese - grey, worm-eaten and completely dead in a silence that was inviolable."

Without running, with no sense of haste or urgency, but rather a somnambulistic sureness, he picks his way through the forest, leaving the dangerous zone behind him seeking out a greener pasture to make his fortune.

For the Romantic, Joachim von Pasenow, sleepwalking precipitated fate. Joachim was led upstairs to the brothel like a Sleepwalker, unable to resist or perhaps unwilling to acknowledge reality and instead purposely closing his eyes. For the Anarchist, August Esch, the past strangled him and he fought to nullify its demands, but like a sleepwalker he was unable to escape the past and instead followed its trajectory, unable to overthrow fate and destiny. But for Huguenau, he uses sleepwalking as a tool that frees him from the harsh reality of life, and in doing so he lives his life with the confidence of a dreamer.

It is not long before he finds himself in a small town with a newspaper run by none other than August Esch. Since we have last seen him, Esch has grown calmer.  No longer manically obsessed with balancing accounts, he has instead fixed his eyes on the coming Messiah who will bring forth the awaited panacea - Socialism. Huguenau thinks the newspaper business would be the perfect cover for a deserter and an easy way to squeeze a bit of income for himself so he visits Esch, beginning his vulture like circling to ascertain what sort of man he must deal with.

"He had something of the actor about him, something of the clergyman, and something of the horse."

Huguenau has decided to purchase the newspaper with a brilliant scheme that results in all the wealthy members of the town fronting the purchase price with the generous sponsorship from the acting Major, Joachim von Pasenow. Since this is a sleepy, trusting little town, his plan goes forward without a hitch and he has seamlessly ingratiated himself with the Major and become a spy on his behalf to seek out the evil and sinister nature he guarantees exists in the pacifist Herr Esch. But his plan is slow going and he has little to report to the Major and instead to his frustration and chagrin the Major takes a liking to Esch.  They have formed a spiritual bond of sorts over discussions of religion. Although the Major believes that religion is really more of a prescriptive right of landowners and at first to hear the words tumble off Esch's tongue make him uncomfortable, it is not long before he too is enraptured by the passion and zeal of an order and hope outside the bondage of the temporal.

The Major is alone; his brother has died; his confidant Bertrand has abandoned (and betrayed) him; he is separated from his family and his land and surrounded by an overture of distrust in a war he didn't ask to be a part of. If only there was a respite from his agonizing isolation, if only one could ford the gulf between the precipices of autonomy and for once have true communion with another.

"...and through the resonant laughter he saw the glimmer of a soul leaning out of a neighboring window with a smile, the soul of another brother, yet not an individual soul, nor yet in actual proximity, but a soul that was like an infinitely remote homeland.

 Their relationship provides the foil for Broch's endless dissertation on religion. The Major is a protestant and Esch a catholic, but I feel like it should be the other way around. According to Broch Protestantism is the incipient hole in the dike of moral values. Because the stringent, sacred, ordered and regimented faith of Catholicism has been exchanged for the abstract Protestantism, stripped of its ornamentation and instead distilled down to its most simplistic form, it has only increased man's isolation and made moral axioms relative and devoid of meaning.

"...it is as if the radicality of Protestant thought has inflamed to virulence all the dread ruthlessness of abstraction which for two thousand years has been sheltered by insignificance and reduced to its minimum, as if it had released that absolute power of indefinite extension which inheres potentially in the pure Abstract alone, released it explosively to shatter our age and transform the hitherto unregarded warden of abstract thought into the paradigmatic incarnation of our disintegrating epoch."

Protestantism represents a dumbing down in a sense of Catholicism. It has removed the necessity for priests, its acolytes instead having direct contact with the High Priest himself. It has removed all ornamentation and with it the beauty and mystique of something incomprehensible. By making faith accessible, Protestantism has tossed the first stone in what will become a crisis of faith and a disintegration of values.

But I think the Major then represents the better Catholic. He is at peace in the systemic order of a faith that can not be cast asunder. He sleepwalks because he acknowledges a God that is supreme and divine and ultimately the architect of his fate, unlike the endlessly angsty Esch who perseverates about redemption, salvation and sacrifice with the nervous twitch of the unredeemed. While they battle out the polemics of their faith, quietly there grows an even more subversive enemy than Protestantism: Humanism, where God has been denounced in place of man and the last bastion of concrete rationalism has been destroyed by the deity of Self; more specifically, Huguenau, the agent provocateur par excellence. When he ultimately realizes that it is hopeless to get the Major to think ill of Esch, Huguenau lazily makes it his personal vendetta to destroy him.

Huguenau has worked into his contract with Esch not only the controlling share in the newspaper company, but also his room and board; every evening while Frau Esch ladles them their soup and cuts them their bread, Huguenau goads Esch, but Esch is unseeing. Esch is fixated on salvation, on the necessity of this war to wipe the slate clean and make way for the Messiah, the Son that will conquer death and end the encroaching chaos.

Finally, the quite town can take no more, it is November 1918 and there are riots all over the country as men and soldiers tire of fighting for an elusive cause. Huguenau has night watch duty and while he daydreams about deserting yet again, another possibility presents itself: that of rioter. As the torch flames creep closer and men's shouts become audible, Huguenau joins with the rabble he is supposed to be defending against. When he is tired of watching the rioters antics, he wanders back to the Esch house to look for something to eat. The last few pages are more of a tour de force for the reader than for our protagonist as we are forced to sit back and watch Huguenau destroy everything that comes into his path, his methodical depravity heralding in an age of degeneracy - only to then escape with the Major, who now suffering from a concussion, clutches onto Huguenau's finger as if clutching the consecrated hand of a priest in this new vapid and amorphous religion of Self.

Of course I am leaving out about 80% of this 300+ page book. I am leaving out all the many character studies of existential loneliness like Godicke, the bricklayer/architect that has suffered severe brain trauma and must now wait "as his soul collects itself with agony around the core of his ego." Or Hanna, the wife that must wait for her husband's return from war, her world now a chrysalis of dread and anticipation, caught in the stasis of a moment preserved, tethered by a hope of what is to come and ultimately jaded by the disintegrating world around her.

This third book seems the most obvious counterpart to Goethe's Faust.  The narrative like Faust is interwoven with allegorical poetry and is concerned with the true essence of life and the limits of knowledge and power. But Huguenau is the anti-hero/anti-Faust; while Joachim Pasenow agonized about his true purpose and the essence of self and was tempted by Bertrand/ Mephistopheles he emerges victorious to his life of banal simplicity; while Esch is led through one lustful relationship after another until he finds his Gretchen in the form of the virginal widowed Frau Esch, rather than being destroyed by his lust or deceptions, he just slowly grows out of them and learns to love and respect his wife. But for Huguenau, there is no need for Mephistopheles, he is depraved and without moral values of any kind, he despises philosophy and the endless babble on the meaning of life.  There are no limits to his power and no justice for his actions. He is the fate the world must contend with if it chooses to turn its back on God.

As difficult as this book was to read, there were actually moments where I really enjoyed it. It is breathtakingly expansive and Broch has definitely earned his place next to Joyce, as an author one is forced to reluctantly admire despite their often inaccessibility. I think ultimately this is a hopeful book, Broch ends with the conclusion that the divine sparks in each one of our souls will forge a brotherhood of humble human creatures and that will be great enough to push us away from the precipice of moral decay.

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