Devotion Themes

Themes and Meanings (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Hannah’s departure forces Richard to realize more keenly that he lives in an empty present, a present devoid of memory, history, and personal biography. Although he ultimately—and comically—fails as a writer, his manuscript does leave a genuine trace of who he is and was. As such, it counteracts the “verbal free-for-all” and “nervous synchronism” that the narrator sees as characteristic of contemporary Germany. Strauss, through Richard, condemns those performing artists who create a false presence of a text by destroying its historical con-text, “its secret as a relic”: “In the presence of such people, memory fails us; they wipe out the written, the diachronic desire.” Writing, then, is the only means for combating the epoch’s ahistoricity, memory loss, and obsession with an all-consuming present.

Writing, however, does not have as its primary function enlightenment, either in the form of greater self-understanding or critical cultural analysis. Rather, it offers a compensation for the shallowness of experience, a momentary withdrawal from the thin and smug public sphere. Richard’s self-analysis similarly aims not to unmask the unconscious but to enrich it. He would want as his conversational partner not a disinterested psychoanalyst but a seductive tempter such as Mephisto, whose “moving concern” and “delighted interpretation” intensify Faust’s desire instead of curing him of it in Goethe’s Faust.

The seriousness of Richard’s failures is contrasted by the ironic, and often comic, undertones of the narration. The introduction to Richard’s manuscript and the epilogue, entitled “Berlin Without End,” are reported by a sympathetic, but coolly objective narrator, who, in addition, interrupts Richard’s monologue for four of the eleven chapters of the main body of the novel, “For H.” This disrupted narration prevents the story from sinking to Richard’s level of self-pity or to the meaningless gurglings of Dante’s melancholics. Indeed, the novel’s changing narrative perspectives, ironic tone, and feuilletonistic style give it a buoyancy that starkly contrasts with the grimness of the protagonist’s decline.