Ludwig Lewisohn.

The spirit of modern German literature; online

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Frenssen's world is an intensely real one. You
hear the crunch of the plow in that hard soil, the
wind in the wheat of summer, the lash of rain:
you smell the keen tang of the surrounding sea.
The land is very ancient: every foot of it is
drenched with the blood and tears of a stubborn
and heroic race. They seem to grow out of the
very earth of their homeland, these tall, blond
men and women with shining eyes. The worst
of them are wastrels and hard drinkers; the best
no pallid abstainers from the fray of life, but
seekers for serener values in the "holy land" of
the soul. Frenssen has been charged with too
frank an acceptance of the life of the senses.
Unjustly, I think. If the holy land be not
sought by men as they are, none will seek it. Or
is it to be peopled by Prohibitionists and prigs'?
The strong and vital soul has no time for nega-


tive commands. It seeks, it strives. Being hu-
man, it errs and falters by the wayside, but
wastes no time in bewailing its humanity which
is harmful but in the failure of self-mastery.
Such an one is Jorn Uhl {Jorn Ukl, 1901), such
an one Kai Jans, the protagonist of Holy Land
{Hilligenlei^ 1905)-

Frenssen is a prose stylist of a high order. He
tells his stories with a patriarchal deliberateness
that reminds one of the idyllic books of the Old
Testament. But beneath that breadth and sim-
plicity a very subtle artistic intelligence is at
work. The adjectives are plain but they are used
with a new freshness and pithiness and are full of
color and savor and strength. Frenssen has not
only read the Old Testament, but also Homer
and Nietzsche, and this combination will not seem
meaningless to any one who has followed the de-
velopment of modem German prose. Thus his
style has a primitive simplicity of effect and a
remarkable concreteness. His words are things
and visions, never concepts or symbols. And his
characters relate to each other the anecdotes and


folk-tales of their countr>'-side, rude but as po-
etical as ballads. Thus he tells the tale of bis
peasant folk under the pressure of modern prob-
lems of the state and of the soul — hiding nothing,
palliating nothing, yet leaving one with an im-
pression of the nobility and spiritual sturdiness
of man.

Remarkable as these books by Clara Viebig and
Gustav Frenssen are, they do not represent the
culmination of the novel of pure naturalism in
German literature. That point of culmination
is represented by the most important book of a
much younger man — Buddenbrooks (1901) by
Thomas Mann. How is one to convey an ade-
quate notion of this extraordinary book? I
might liken it to Clayhanger. But Mr. Arnold
Bennett's strong and homely narrative has little
intellectual or artistic distinction. Nor is it
finished, and the sequels but increase one's sense
of its fragmentary nature. Or shall I compare
it to another fragment, the exquisite Evelyn
Innes of George Moore? No. For though, in
the totality of his achievement George Moore is


a greater writer than Thomas Mann, no single
book of his has the breadth and variety, the in-
tellectual energy and structural completeness of

It is a very long book, like the great novels of
the older English school. But neither Fielding
nor Thackeray, timeless masters though they arc,
had any conception of structural harmony, of ar-
chitectonic perfection such as Mann achieves. In
its own medium and technique the book is as fault-
lessly built as the (Edipus. The function in the
narrative organism of each of the eleven parts, of
each section of each part, of each paragraph of
each section was foreseen from the beginning.
The style is very rich and flexible, full of color
and constantly just in expression. But there is
no note of excess, even in beauty, for that would
have been cloying in so long a book. But in its
plasticity it is always at the height of the given
situation, whether of calm or of energy.

The story that Thomas Mann undertook to tell
Is that of the decay and extinction of a patrician
family of Liibeck merchants. The idea of fol-


lowing the several generations of race, is, of
course, not new. What is new is that Thomas
Mann does not seek to illustrate the interactions
between men and historical and social changes.
These things are problematical. He accepts, as
Richard Moritz Meyer well points out, the human
beings who founded and continued the race as ulti-
mate phenomena. He tells us what they became ;
he does not tell us why. We hear of the great
events of the world only as they would be mir-
rored in the minds of this small group of men, not
as the historian or the economist would see them.
Romanticism touches the Buddenbrooks, and the
revolution of 1848, the wars that preceded the
empire, social unrest, Richard Wagner's music.
And each generation absorbs more of the things
that fill the world and vibrates more sensitively
under cultural influences that refine but divide
the soul. The sturdy single-mindedness of the
old merchant prince yields in his son to a dimin-
ished practical energy blended with religious
fervor, in his grandson — the chief figure of the
book — to a shattering division between the prose


of life and the subtle distractions of the soul.
His great-grandson, in whom the race is extin-
guished, is a fragile and neurotic child of genius
who dies at fifteen. In a word, Thomas Mann
tells us the history of the souls and nerves of men
from the July revolution to our own insistent and
complex civilization. Yet when I schematize the
book thus and interpret it in the light of one idea,
I am conscious of doing it a grave injustice. For
it is so abundantly full of life and of the color
and stir of the world. And it is so full of men
and women, duly subordinated to Antonie and
Thomas and the older Buddenbrooks, but carry-
ing on so true and full-bodied a life in these vital
pages. Yet Mann never skips, as Dickens did,
from group to group of characters. The rhythm
of the narrative is unbroken, the point of view
unwavering, but all these many voices blend into
the continuous rumor of hope and grief which is
human life. If modern German literature had
produced but this one book, it would not stand
ignobly or ashamed among the modern litera-
tures of the world.


I must speak of one more phase of the search
for reality in modern German literature — the at-
tempt to know, by intensive analysis, the real na-
ture of the life of the emotions. For it is with
the emotional rather than with the reflective life
that this psychological naturalism chiefly deals.
Quite rightly so. In the realm of thought we all
have a measure of veracity. But our emotional
life, as Shaw has so plainly proven — if, indeed,
it needed proof — is often a mere tangle of pos-
turing and self-deceit. We persuade ourselves
that we feel appropriately on various occasions
and scarcely permit our real feelings to rise into
the field of consciousness. To illustrate these
real feelings, to tell of the inexorable instincts of
the inner man, veiled indeed but unimpaired by
the conventions of the emotional life — this is the
chief aim of the prose-writings of Arthur Schnitz-
ler (b. 1862).

Few people in America are aware of the ex-
istence of the Austrian dramatist's stories and
novels. Yet these are notable even in an age of


admirable fiction. No one, in fact, has yet quite
done justice to Schnitzler's narrative technique.
He has been influenced by the French masters, no
doubt. But his style has an inner warmth which
the Latin genius rarely attains. His limpid
sweetness and quiet felicity of expression, his in-
terpretation of his subject matter by the delicate
modeling of his rhythms remind one again of
George Moore. From another point of view I
am tempted to compare him to Henry James —
the great James of the middle period, of Broken
Wings and The Lesson of the Master — but I am
reminded at once of James' vast exclusions and
of his refusal to exhaust his subjects. Schnitz-
ler, of course, excludes nothing that is pertinent.
He has, very literally, the physician's union of
ruthlcssness and tenderness. He writes of a man :
"He longed for freedom, for travel, for the dis-
tance, for loneliness, but he could not get away
from her, for he adored her." And the truth of
such contrasts, of such disharmonies in the inner
life is unfolded with such insight and with so wise


and lirm a touch as to make these narratives a
source not only of artistic delight but of a broader
knowledge of the human heart.

It is hard to select from among his stories.
They diifer somewhat, of course, in interest and
power. They are equal in execution because that
is always flawless. Perhaps the most arresting
of them, the last word, too, in psychological
naturalism, is Leutnant Gustl (1901). In this
story Schnitzler presents quite simply and yet
very originally the contents of the consciousness
of a young man during certain, perhaps trivial,
but none the less fateful hours of his life. This
is not done according to the commoner method of
both James and Schnitzler, through narrative and
analysis. The thoughts, as they actually formu-
lated themselves in the man's inimitably genuine
Viennese German, are set down. The result is
a bit of human nature of astonishing veracity.
A soul under the scientist's microscope. But
Schnitzler's naturalism is neither polemic nor mor-
bid. We are left in no doubt as to the funda-
mental fineness of that tenacity with which the


little lieutenant clings to the best ideal which it
has been his to know.

It is difficult to formulate any final description
of the rich, sad and yet so incisive art of Mrs.
Bertha Garlan^ A Farewell^ The Dead are Silent,
The Stranger, The New Song, The Sage's Wife.
The style has an undertone of detachment, as
though the stories were really written under the
aspect of eternity. But its surface has a gentle
glow, or, rather, a lovely and warm patina as on
old statuary. The incidents are told and the
characters drawn with the rarest insight, the keen-
est and most flexible intelligence, yet without a
shadow of the merely clever. For Schnitzler is
absorbed by the poignant beauty of life as it really
is, as our true instincts bid us lead it, however we
may strive and cry.



Perhaps I can best close, as well as bring home
to you the point of my interpretation of modern
German literature in its dealing with reality, by
referring to an error often tacitly but none the
less firmly held among us in America. That error
is the belief in the static nature of the moral life.
In the physical sciences, in biology, even in the-
ology, intelligent people adopt the developmental
view as a matter of course. But in morals —
using the word in its widest sense of mores or *S'//-
ten — the opinion prevails that, whatever develop-
ment may have taken place in the past, the laws
of human conduct have now settled into a perma-
nent rigidness. If one picks up the average
American play or novel or essay, it is clear that
the author has observed life not in order to dis-
cover its real nature, but in order to illustrate an



antecedent theory of conduct, and the necessary
and foreknown consequences of conformity to it
or the reverse. And when an artist among us tells
us not what we think the truth ought to be, but
what it is; when he gives us an honest report of
human life, uncolored by the delusions of a hol-
low perfectionism, his reception is apt to be one
of irritable condemnation.

The modern German spirit knows no such
despair in the real qualities of our common na-
ture, and has addressed itself in art, as in science,
on one whole side of its activity to understanding
that which is. It has felt a deep reverence for
the erring and aspiring life of the race, and has
loved that life and the facts about it for their
own sake. It has seen old values disintegrate
and change in every other thing that concerns
man, and has known that from this change his
ideas of conduct can no more be exempt now
than they have been during other periods in his-
tory. Hence while attempting to form new
values or develop them from the old, that spirit
has striven to know, in all its intimacy, the reality


from which alone such values can arise. For the
ideal, if it is to be more than an empty figment
must express the true needs, the genuine long-
ings of the souls whom it is to strengthen and
to guide.



I HAVE already indicated the character of the sec-
ond effort which the modern German spirit has
made in literature — the effort to find new moral
and spiritual values, to interpret the reality which
it has so faithfully sought and so excellently re-
corded. To think of this second effort at all is
to be brought face to face at once with one
of the most commanding personalities of mod-
ern Europe — the great poet-philosopher Friedrich
Nietzsche (1844-1900). I would at once stress
the term poet-philosopher. For Nietzsche is not,
in the narrower sense, a systematic thinker at all :
his metaphysics are secondary both in importance
and in influence. He is a seer, a proclaimcr and
a prophet. And the burden of his message which
he has embodied in Thus Spake Zarathustra

(1883-1891) in a form more enduring than



brass, is that we recover a sense of the qualitative
and save the noblest and most personal elements
in human life from obliteration through the tribal
instincts of an industrial democracy.

Do you recall Haeckel's saying that all modes
of being are equivalent^ Have you writhed
under the cool observation of some contemporary
schoolmaster that shopwork and Sophocles are
equivalent instruments of education*? Have
you seen the machine-made houses, furnishings,
churches, creeds, political opinions, ethical preju-
dices — the vast and awful spiritual levels of our
own civilization'? When such scenes dishearten
one do not the words of Nietzsche seem like a
prophecy and a judgment*? "No shepherd and a
herd I Each desires the same, each is equal to
the other I But because life needs a height, it
needs stairs and a conflict among the steps and
among those ascending them." Germany has
been reduced to no such extremity. Yet even
there it has been plainly understood, as Windel-
band puts it, that "the whole struggle of the in-
dividual against the uniform mass-life is em-


bodied in the poet Friedrich Nietzsche." We
Americans should feel closest to him, for we need
him most.

He begins with the fundamental truth that
man's best and most characteristic attribute is the
spiritual energy by virtue of which he creates
values and thus gives a meaning to actions and
to things. So each age and race hung over its
head a tablet of laws prescribing its good and its
evil. But a time comes when this good and this
evil — obviously relative and transitory by nature
— becomes devitalized, stale, a matter of soul-
less and cowardly social assent. Then what men
call virtue becomes merely "a convulsion under
the lash ... or the withering of vices," then all
self-direction in human conduct is lost. "Ah,
that ye understood my word: do, by all means,
as ye will, but be first such men as can will."
And such a time has come. Hence he proclaims
the function of the modern spirit: "To create
freedom and a sacred 'no' even in the face of duty
... to take the right unto new values." "How
weary am I of my good and my evil I" he ex-


claims. And he warns men against judging out
of the Pharisaism of their transitory and outworn
values: "Enemy ye shall say, but not evil-doer;
sick man but not scoundrel ; fool but not sinner."
Nietzsche is the sworn enemy of all that is
negative — mere shirking, mere conformity, mere
worldly prudence in the face of valorous instincts.
"Men desire at bottom one thing most: that no
one does them hurt. So they anticipate the
actions of others and do good to them." He is
the enemy of all over softness, of that mad hu-
manitarianism that sees in pitiableness a positive
good and a menace in strength and virtue. Yet
he avoids, upon the whole, the other extreme and,
compared with Tolstoi, remains a moderate and
temperate thinker. "That I saw the sufferer in
his suffering, thereof was I ashamed for the sake
of his shame; and when I helped him I sinned
against his pride." These pure, proud words
seem harsh to a civilization that teaches the aver-
age to be smug and self-sufficing and looks upon
excellence with envy and distrust. So power-
less to gain a keen sense of such qualitative dis-


tinctions as give meaning to life did Nietzsche
regard the generations which he saw that he ut-
tered his profound commandment: "My brothers,
I council you not to love the nearest; I council
you to love the farthest," and that he bade all
true men be "arrows of yearning unto another

It is at this point that he has been most mis-
understood. He councils hardness as an antidote
against an exercise of compassion which retards
development by subordinating higher to lower
values — strength to weakness, wisdom to folly,
health to disease. By an extreme which naturally
grows out of this position Nietzsche is hostile to
the modern state which, especially in Germany,
guards and nurtures the "far too many." "This
is what my great love of the farthest demands:
spare not the nearest." It must be kept in mind,
however, that his hardness was all in the service
of a higher, of an ultimate love, even when he
says: "And whom ye cannot teach to fly, teach
him to fall more swiftly." This is, of course,
dangerous sociology. But who that watches our


civilization, at its normal levels, with an unim-
paired sense of true values will grudge him the
apocalyptic fervor of his speech *? For in our
softness and slackness and in our strange mixture
of arrogance and timidity we have, as he explains,
abandoned the basic ideal of social man. "There
is no harsher misfortune in all the fate of man than
when the mighty ones of earth are not also the
most excellent. Then all is false and awry and

From his despair not so much over the ways and
institutions of men, as over their very minds and
souls, Nietzsche proceeds, quite naturally, to his
conception of the superman. He simply trans-
fers the developmental view of modern biology
from the physical to the psychical life and reaches
the vision of a race that shall be strong, har-
monious and capable of a constant largeness and
intensity of experience. It is a popular error to
suppose the superman a splendid barbarian astride
the neck of his slaves. For, according to Nietz-
sche, all men, in that age, will be supermen. The
unfit, the far too many will have disappeared,


even as whole species and genera disappeared ac-
cording to the Darwinian theory. Not some men
but "man is something that must be overcome —
the superman is the meaning of the earth"; not
some men but "man is a rope suspended between
animal and superman." Man "is a bridge and
no end: deeming himself blessed for his noon and
evening as a path to new dawns." He pro-
claimed his vision in ever deepening accents of
faith and beauty : "Thus I love only now my chil-
dren's land, the undiscovered, in farthest oceans;
after it I bid my sails seek and seek."

The question obviously arises: From whom
among us shall the superman be born? And
Nietzsche's answer is: From those "whose foot-
steps have now so lonely a sound in the streets
of men." "Ye solitaries of to-day," he cried,
"ye exiles, ye shall some day be a people: from
you who have chosen yourself a chosen people
shall spring — and from it the superman." Con-
trary to the popular conception, again, Nietzsche
was thoroughly aware of the practical dangers of
these admonitions. Callow youths, the arrogant


and the slothful may consider themselves among
those chosen and take the liberties not destined
for them. But what master has not been be-
trayed by those who called themselves his dis-
ciples? No other, at all events, has issued to
them so stern a warning. "And though Zara-
thustra's word were an hundred times right;
thou wouldst with his word ever — do wrong I"
And again: "But this is not said for those who
are long of ear. Nor is every word fitting for
every mouth. These are far and subtle things."
Few and solitary, then, are those chosen ones, the
self-directing souls who have the right to say:
"This is my good and evil . . . this now is my
way I" And even those few must exercise that
freedom only in the service of a transcendent ideal
— in the service of that conscious will toward a
new and better race. "Where all your love is,
with your child, there also is all your virtue.
Your work, your will is your neighbor." In the
most personal relation of life the chosen are to
be guided by their ultimate purpose: "Marriage:
thus I call that will of two to create one who shall


be more than those who created him." Free per-
sonalities are to give birth to others freer and
nobler still and thus, some day, the superman will
be on earth.

But suppose we do not or cannot share Nietz-
sche's vision of the superman? We must remem-
ber, in the first place, that it is a vision, a poetical
method, after all, of urging upon us certain ideals
and values. It is neither a sociological plan nor
an attempt at practical eugenics. The wealth
and splendor of his teaching, however, lies in just
this fact — that we may substitute another will
and another ideal with its service for his own.
And yet, must not every ideal include that hope
for harmony and power and health and beauty
which Nietzsche called — superman? What is
most universal, in his teaching, at all events —
after the transvaluation of values — is his descrip-
tion of that creative spirit — des Schaffenden —
who has a right to shape new values which may,
as I have pointed out, not be identical with his
own, but who may live in their service, free of the
restraints of the old. He will be, as ever, re-


jected of men. It is one of the notes of his crea-
tive character. "Folk and herd shall be angered
at me. . . . Behold the good and righteous I
Whom do they hate most? Him who breaks the
table of their values, the breaker, the lawbreaker.
He, however, is the creative one." And again
comes his austere voice of warning: "Show me
thy right and thy power. . . . Ah, there is so
much mere lustfulness for the heights ! . . . Free
callest thou thyself? Thy ruling thought I
would hear and not that thou hast escaped from
imder a yoke. Art thou such an one who should
have dared to escape from under a yoke? Many
a one threw away his last human worth when he
cast off his serviceableness." But he who can en-
dure this searching test is the noble man — der
Edle — of Nietzsche's phraseology. "He who is
noble creates the new and a new virtue. He who
is good wills the old and that the old be pre-
served. . . . (The noble man) is a seer, a wilier,
a creator, a future himself and a bridge to the
future — and, alas, also like unto a cripple beside
that bridge." None quite attains the ideal, you


sec, not even the tested solitary and creative soul,
not Zarathustra himself I So Nietzsche warns the
free spirit to be impelled in his great freedom
which is also a great responsibility only by a love
of the object of his striving. "From love alone
shall my contempt and my warning bird arise;
not from the slime. . . . Where thou canst love
no longer, thou shalt — pass by." And finally
comes his hardest and noblest saying: "What mat-
ters happiness? ... I have long striven after it
no more; I have striven after my work." To
him, then, and to him only who can stand these
manifold tests Nietzsche gives the command to
break the table of the laws, to create new laws
for himself and for mankind, to become that
which, in the innermost core of his being, he was
destined to become. "Werde der du bistT It is
clear, then, that even if we strip Nietzsche's work

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Online LibraryLudwig LewisohnThe spirit of modern German literature; → online text (page 3 of 6)