In view of the iconoclastic literary principles that Alfred Döblin championed and the considerable modifications to which he subjected his style and method over the span of his creative life, it may be surprising to note that his abiding concern was with the simple telling of stories. That, at least, is what he asserted in the retrospective epilogue sketched in 1948. It is known that he considered himself—or aspired to be—an epic writer in the original sense of that word, a teller of tales. This is not to suggest that he aimed at the telling of simple, linear plots, for he avowed a preference for depicting complex totalities in his novels. The stress should rather be on the epic’s immediacy, that quality for which Döblin, in 1917, paid respect to Homer, Dante, Miguel de Cervantes, and Fyodor Dostoevski, and that he had demanded perhaps most succinctly, in 1913, with the statement, “The whole must not appear as if spoken, but as if present.” This view of the novel’s purpose and execution was directly opposed to the idea of the polyhistorical, intellectual novel—rooted in the nineteenth century bourgeois cultural tradition, larded with ostentatious knowledge, and diluted with narrative digression and commentary—as practiced by Hermann Broch, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, and others.
Nor did Döblin have any patience with the psychological novel, another of the early twentieth century’s favorites. He did not accept the isolated individual, created in a vacuum by authors of studio exercises, as a means of depicting the world. Instead, Döblin desired the dismantling of the individual, who otherwise constituted, like the intrusive narrator, an obstacle to the epic’s direct presentation of the infinitely varied world. Confrontation with that world, with the whole of nature, was for Döblin the modern human condition and the object of art: the reader standing before the “stone facade” of the novel. Later in his career, he rejected as inhuman this radical call for depersonalization in the novel and modified it. One clear beneficiary of the modification was the once-banished narrator, whose presence is increasingly evident in the progression of his works from The Three Leaps of Wang Lun to Berlin Alexanderplatz.
Much of the thematic import of Döblin’s literary output until about 1930 can be traced through his development of a philosophy of the human individual’s place and function in the natural world. Having abandoned the Nietzschean concept of individual development and the cult of the “great personality” in the first years of the century, Döblin expressed, notably in “Der schwarze Vorhang” (the black curtain), the despair of the confined, powerless self confronting the superior force of a meaningless environment. He accordingly searched for some encompassing meaning to which humans could willingly submit themselves—whether as submission to “fate” (in The Three Leaps of Wang Lun) or to the cosmic wholeness of all living matter (in Berge, Meere, und Giganten; mountains, seas, and giants).
Döblin finally synthesized his view of individual passivity and individual self-assertion in the essay Das Ich über der Natur (1927; the ego above nature), which postulated a “naturalism” of balance between self and creation, the ego as part and counterpart of nature, simultaneously creature and creator. The result for Döblin was a new image of the individual and a new view of art, clearest perhaps in Berlin Alexanderplatz, both as Franz Biberkopf swims in the stream of life and as the story’s creator responds to the primordial rhythms of the narrative stream he has set flowing.
Döblin saw the naturalism of Das Ich über der Natur distorted and perverted by Nazism in Germany after 1933, however, and his novels, beginning with Babylonische Wandrung (Babylonian migration), betray the confusion that resulted for him. “I was examining in my mind how it had all come to pass,” he recalled in 1948. Finally he turned to religion and the search for a personal God as a means to rebuilding his philosophical position, but he could not recover the former union of his philosophy and his art. Tales of a Long Night and the works that came after it do not resonate with their author’s idea as Berlin Alexanderplatz does.
Since the deep rupture in Döblin’s philosophical reflections makes it difficult to analyze the post-1933 novels with reference to his “naturalistic” postulates, one might better ask what his exile and the related external circumstances meant for his literary activity. He had only begun the writing of Babylonische Wandrung in Berlin; most of the work on it was done in Zurich and Paris. As his first literary reaction to the catastrophic situation in Germany, the novel makes its serious point with its theme of guilt and penance, but the liberties Döblin took in its composition expose characters, the author, reality, and the epic form itself to ridicule. Men Without Mercy is, by contrast, spare in its composition, partially autobiographical, and formally a throwback to the realistic narrative tradition. When Döblin spoke of this as one of the novels through which he “examined how it had all come to pass,” he undoubtedly had in mind its theme of the German bourgeoisie’s betrayal of the ideals of freedom whose guardian that class had once been. In Das Land ohne Tod (land without death), he removed the novel’s setting to another age and another continent. Still, it relates the unhappy condition of the “modern” (post-Renaissance) European, the conqueror whose spiritual poverty and faith in technological progress bar him from mystical union with nature as it is known by the South American Indians.
Döblin had set out initially to fashion epic works of immediate directness—what he had defined as his “stone style” or “facade” of the novel—that would represent a world in complex totality and depict the relationship of the individual to cosmic nature and its forces. At the culmination of this effort, with Berlin Alexanderplatz, he found that individual in equilibrium, part and counterpart of the natural world, and there had been a reemergence of the personal narrator and the individual hero. With the dislocation of Döblin’s theoretical base in the events of 1933, however, his novels ceased to be controlled experiments in the epic form and tended instead to mark his coming to terms with past and present—his country’s and his own.
The Three Leaps of Wang Lun
To write an epic of the complex and diverse totality of the world, Döblin chose as his subject in The Three Leaps of Wang Lun life in eighteenth century China and made it a reflection of the world in his own age and place. Like many of his German contemporaries early in the second decade of the twentieth century, he was fascinated by Chinese culture and philosophy. His persistent habit of researching the subject matter and background of his novels began with the preparation of this book, and the result is impressive. Historical episodes, parables and anecdotes, social and political systems, culture, climate, and geography—all attest the exhaustive scholarly groundwork and contribute to the presence of “world” in The Three Leaps of Wang Lun. Daoist philosophy in particular was fashionable in early twentieth century Germany, and Döblin incorporated various literal extracts from Daoist writings in this novel—the fable of the man who tries to escape his own shadow and to leave no footprints, for example.
The novel’s characters, while distinguished by names and fixed roles, are defined exclusively by their visible behavior and evident moods; their psychic interiors are not explored. There is, moreover, the prominent part that Döblin gives to human masses, but not ones brought to the level of some “collective hero,” as they might have appeared in other contemporary works, the expressionist dramas particularly. Rather it is in their anonymity, into which certain of the individual characters themselves return, that the masses of people are important here. They serve more to remind us of individual insignificance than to assert identities of their own. Similarly, Döblin avoids what he considered the inappropriateness of unusual or exotic, “artful” imagery. The unfamiliar Asian world might easily have furnished exotic motifs for the Western writer, but Döblin had expressly rejected facile “artifice” and built instead with abundant but objective, careful detail.
In the fable of the man who fears his shadow and hates his footprints, he runs to the point of exhaustion in the attempt to escape them and dies from the effort: “He did not know that he had only to sit in the shade somewhere to be rid of his shadow, that he had only to remain still in order to leave no footprints.” This little story exemplifies the thematic point of the whole novel. The problem, and the dilemma of modern Europeans as well, is the choice between action and inaction, rebellion and submission in the world.
Wang-lun is the son of a fisherman and leader of a passive sect, the Truly Weak Ones, the Wu-wei, who at the story’s beginning await their annihilation by the imperial troops. The novel traces how this destruction of the Wu-wei came about, but the important chain of events is that involving Wang-lun, their leader. His career takes him first from his village to refuge in the mountains, where he formulates his doctrine of...
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