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Georg Büchner 1813-1837

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(Full name Georg Karl Büchner) German playwright and novella writer.

The following entry presents criticism of Büchner from 1964 through 2001. For additional information on Büchner's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 26.

Büchner is known for the few works he composed during his brief life: the novella fragment Lenz (1839) and the plays Dantons Tod (1835; Danton's Death), Leonce und Lena (1838; Leonce and Lena), and Woyzeck (first published in 1879). In these works Büchner rejected the idealism of the Romantic movement, which dominated German letters in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; instead, he sought to realistically depict what he saw as the hopelessness of life in a world where isolation, monotony, and suffering prevail and are perpetuated by deterministic historical and biological forces. This pessimistic view of life, along with the innovative techniques he used to obtain a sense of realism, gives Büchner a greater affinity with authors of the modern era than with those of the nineteenth century. Additionally, his link to several later developments in drama, among them Naturalism, the Theater of the Absurd, and Expressionism, has frequently been observed by scholars.

Biographical Information

The eldest of six children, Büchner was born in Goddelau, Germany. His family moved in 1816 to nearby Darmstadt, the capital of the duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt. During Büchner's school years his father, a physician, encouraged him to study the sciences, while his mother nurtured in him a love of literature and art. He left for France in 1831 to study medicine at the university in Strasbourg. At that time Strasbourg was a refuge for German liberals seeking asylum from the widespread political repression in the German states following the Napoleonic Wars. Because of a law requiring all Hessian students to attend a native institution for at least two years in order to receive a degree, however, Büchner returned to Hesse in 1833. He continued his studies at the university in Geissing and there become involved in radical politics. Early in 1834 he and some fellow students founded an underground revolutionary group, the Gesellschaft der Menschenrechte (“Society for the Rights of Man”), whose aim was to reform the Hessian government and social structure. Shortly thereafter Büchner wrote a seditious pamphlet in collaboration with Friedrich Ludwig Weidig, an aging liberal devoted to revolutionary causes. The pamphlet, Der Hessische Landbote (1834; The Hessian Courier), was distributed secretly among Hessian peasants and workers by the society but had very little effect on them. (Indeed, many of the copies were handed over to the police.) After returning to his parents' home in Darmstadt while authorities conducted an investigation into the pamphlet's distributors, Büchner began to write his first play, Danton's Death, in the early months of 1835. Hoping the play's publication would help finance his escape from Germany before his impending arrest, Büchner sent the manuscript to Karl Gutzkow, a young German man of letters who succeeded in selling it to a publisher. Before he received payment for the play, however, Büchner was forced to flee the country. Subsequently, he renounced all revolutionary activity and resumed medical studies in Strasbourg, where, after writing a well-received dissertation, Sur le système nerveux du barbeau (“On the Nervous System of the Barbel”), he obtained his doctorate. During this time he also composed Leonce and Lena for a romantic comedy contest, wrote Lenz, and began work on Woyzeck and possibly on Pietro Aretino, a play that has since been lost. In late 1836 he moved to Switzerland, where he taught at the University of Zurich. Early the following year, Büchner became ill with typhus. He died in February 1837 at the age of twenty-four. Following Büchner's death, his family would not allow his manuscripts in their possession to be published. Moreover, Wilhelmine Jaegle, to whom Büchner was secretly engaged in Strasbourg and who initially cooperated with Gutzkow by sending him Leonce and Lena and Lenz for publication in his periodical Telegraf für Deutschland, eventually became unwilling to surrender the other writings by Büchner that she owned. She destroyed all of her copies of his writings before she died in 1880. The first significant and complete edition of Büchner's works did not appear until 1879, when Karl Emil Franzos issued Sämtliche Werke und handschriftlicher Nachlaß after years of interviewing Büchner's acquaintances and collecting his manuscripts, letters, and papers. In the 1880s the popular German playwright Gerhard Hauptmann enthusiastically praised Büchner, and in 1902 and 1913, respectively, Danton's Death and Woyzeck were given their first stage productions.

Major Works

In his early political pamphlet The Hessian Courier, Büchner and his co-author urged the lower classes to violently rise against the landed aristocracy, basing this exhortation on the grounds of radical socioeconomic reasoning for the period. The work had little tangible effect, although it has since been regarded as an original and innovative revolutionary manifesto. Büchner's first literary work, Danton's Death is frequently regarded as an expression of the author's subsequent disillusionment with radical politics. The play focuses on the last days of French Revolutionary leader Georges Jacques Danton, who, after the new regime had been established, became a proponent of peace and thus came into conflict with fellow insurrectionist Maximilien de Robespierre. Accusing Danton of trying to overthrow the government, Robespierre has him guillotined. Büchner depicts Danton as a passive hero who succumbs to the forces that oppose and torment him. These forces, ostensibly Robespierre and his adherents, are in the abstract a historical inevitability, what Büchner called in an often-quoted letter the “terrible fatalism of history.” While the dialogue of Danton's Death makes explicit Büchner's deterministic views, the themes of his later writings are more implicitly expressed. In the comedy Leonce and Lena, the title characters, the Prince of Popo and the Princess of Pepe, are unwilling victims of a mutually unsatisfying arranged marriage. They each attempt to escape their fate by running away, but they meet again, neither realizing the other's identity. Ultimately they fall in love and, when their identities are revealed, marry. Seemingly a derivative and light romantic comedy, Leonce and Lena features dark overtones of suicidal boredom, pessimism, and despair, themes that are also emphasized in Büchner's last, uncompleted play, Woyzeck. The title character of this later play is a poor young army private who, driven to madness by jealousy and his vision of a wretched and futile existence, murders his girlfriend and then commits suicide. Regarded as one of the first plays to portray a lower-class hero, Woyzeck is often perceived as a work of trenchant social criticism. The forces oppressing Woyzeck are represented by three grotesque figures from a higher social class, each deeply motivated by the repressed hopelessness and suffering that characterize the universe of Büchner's plays. These characters include the Captain, who continually berates Woyzeck; the Drum Major, who is having an affair with Woyzeck's girlfriend; and the Doctor, who uses the private as an experimental subject, feeding him nothing but peas in order to determine his minimal nutritional requirements. Büchner's only work of prose fiction, the novella fragment Lenz, is based upon an episode in the life of Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) playwright Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz. This work portrays the gradual deterioration of Lenz's mind, culminating in his total mental collapse. To achieve realism in the story, Büchner employs a complex technique of shifting viewpoints to render each subtle nuance of Lenz's situation. Within a given paragraph, Büchner will often begin by describing a scene from the viewpoint of an objective third-person narrator, then abruptly switch to Lenz's sensory and psychological perspective, a method deemed very effective by critics.

Critical Reception

Since the discovery of Büchner's works in the late nineteenth century, criticism has been for the most part positive, underscoring a shift in aesthetic sensibilities that has made his writings far more acceptable to modern literary tastes than those of Büchner's own time. While some commentators have pointed to the discursive, unrefined quality of his writings, arguing that they lack the polish achieved by more mature artists, most contend that Büchner attained a remarkable artistic and philosophical sophistication during his brief life. Woyzeck, despite its unfinished state, has generally been regarded as Büchner's masterpiece. Together with the somewhat more thematically transparent Danton's Death, this play is thought to evince Büchner's unique philosophical outlook, since recognized as a forerunner to twentieth-century Existentialism and the Theater of the Absurd. Equally noted by scholars are the aesthetic concerns and techniques displayed in these works. Büchner's forward-looking dramatic methods and theories, traced by a few commentators to the works of William Shakespeare and the Sturm und Drang playwrights, are more typically thought to anticipate techniques employed by twentieth-century playwrights, particularly Bertolt Brecht. Additionally, Büchner's novella Lenz has generally been considered a seminal piece of German prose fiction, and a work that demonstrates Büchner's break with the dominant literary aesthetics of his age. In an early part of the story, Lenz discusses his theories of art, attacking the idealism of the German Romantics. Lenz states, “I demand of art that it be life. … Let them try just once to immerse themselves in the life of humble people and then reproduce this again in all its movements, its implications, its subtle, scarcely discernible play of expression.” While some critics have argued that this statement merely summarizes Lenz's views on art, most critics accept it as also epitomizing Büchner's aesthetic precepts.

Principal Works

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Der Hessische Landbote [The Hessian Courier] [with Friedrich Ludwig Weidig] (pamphlet) 1834

Dantons Tod [Danton's Death] (play) 1835

Leonce und Lena [Leonce and Lena] (play) 1838

Lenz (unfinished novella) 1839

Nachgelassene Schriften (plays and unfinished novella) 1850

Sämtliche Werke und handschriftlicher Nachlaß (plays and unfinished novella) 1879

*Woyzeck (unfinished play) 1879

The Plays of Georg Büchner (plays) 1927

Sämtliche Werke und Briefe. 2 vols. (pamphlet, plays, unfinished novella, translations, and letters) 1967-71

Georg Büchner: The Complete Collected Works (pamphlet, plays, unfinished novella, translations, and letters) 1977

*This play was first published in Sämtliche Werke und handschriftlicher Nachlaß.

Herbert Lindenberger (essay date 1964)

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SOURCE: Lindenberger, Herbert. “Forebears, Descendants, and Contemporary Kin: Büchner and Literary Tradition.” In Georg Büchner, pp. 115-44. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964.

[In the following essay, Lindenberger seeks to establish Büchner's position between neoclassical and modern European literature.]

Büchner's revolt against a classicism gone stale was by no means the first such revolt in German drama. The Storm-and-Stress writers of the 1770's, in the name of spontaneity and truthfulness to nature, and with Lessing's criticism and Shakespeare's example to back them, had succeeded in clearing the German stage of its dreary, “correct” neoclassical drama—a development of the mid-eighteenth century which, as we now see it, never produced anything of lasting value anyway and whose best-known work, Gottsched's Dying Cato (1730), is nothing more than a pale, academic imitation of French and English plays on the same theme. One can, indeed, look at the history of German drama as a kind of alternation between relatively tight “classical” forms of one sort or another, and looser forms which derive much of their energy from their conscious revolt against an out-going theatrical tradition. Bertolt Brecht's demand for an “epic theater” can be interpreted as the latest of a number of war cries which have resounded in German dramatic criticism at various times in the last two hundred years.

Büchner's work bears only superficial resemblances to the major single achievement of the Storm-and-Stress drama, Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen (1773). Like Danton's Death, Götz presents a vast historical panorama composed of short, loosely connected scenes. Through their common attempt to render what they saw as Shakespeare's truthfulness to nature, both writers achieved a fullness and earthiness of detail and created a multitude of characters who seem to breathe with a life of their own. Yet two works could scarcely be more different in spirit than Götz and Danton's Death, for Goethe's play above all demonstrates the possibility of heroic action and meaningful human relationships—the very values toward which Büchner's work expresses the most uncompromising skepticism.

But there was one dramatist of the '70's for whom Büchner felt a fundamental affinity, and that was Lenz. Büchner was drawn to Lenz not only through the personal sympathy he obviously felt toward him, but also through his interest in his plays, especially The Private Tutor (1774) and The Soldiers (1776), which he mentions in his story on Lenz. These two plays are essentially like miniature paintings, if I may borrow a term which Brecht applied to The Private Tutor, a play he adapted for his Berlin Ensemble.1 In their fusion of comic and tragic moods, in their uncondescending representation of ordinary people, above all, in the concreteness and fullness with which they depict a contemporary environment, they look forward to Woyzeck more than any other works in earlier German drama. In his slightly ridiculous, pathetic heroes—the young cloth merchant Stolzius in The Soldiers, the private tutor Läuffer—Lenz presents a type of passive hero which Büchner could later develop in the character of Woyzeck. Like Büchner, Lenz allows his characters to reveal themselves through their peculiarities of language; within a single play, in fact, he presents a generous selection of human beings, each asserting his individuality by his manner of speech. Lenz' characters often seem sharply individualized in the way Büchner suggested through the words he put into Lenz' mouth: “If only artists would try to submerge themselves in the life of the very humblest person and to reproduce it with all its faint agitations, hints of experience, the subtle, hardly perceptible play of his features.”2

The discussion of aesthetics in Büchner's story, partly drawn as it is from Lenz' own critical pronouncements, provides some clues to the aims the two writers hold in common. Among other things, the discussion stresses the dignity and the poetry inherent in the lives of ordinary people. Speaking of the characters he had tried to create in The Private Tutor and The Soldiers, Büchner's Lenz calls them “the most prosaic people in the world, but the emotional vein is identical in almost every individual; all that varies is the thickness of the shell which this vein must penetrate.” For the artist to capture the individuality of every being, he cannot create his characters according to conventional “types” or preconceived molds of any sort, but must observe concretely, indeed, “submerge himself” as he puts it, in his individual characters. The doctrine of realism which Büchner propounds is something far removed from the much more “scientific” doctrines of many writers in the later nineteenth century. For instance, Büchner's Lenz finds an attitude of love prerequisite to all successful artistic creation: “One must love human nature in order to penetrate into the peculiar character of any individual; nobody, however insignificant, however ugly, should be despised; only then can one understand human kind as a whole.” By what seems a kind of paradox, a writer can create a world of autonomous human beings only through the love he feels for them; as soon as he begins to despise them, his characters lose their individuality and become mere puppets. The artist, in fact, plays a role analogous to God's, both in the plenitude and the variety with which he creates his world: “I take it that God has made the world as it should be and that we can hardly hope to scrawl or daub anything better; our only aspiration should be to recreate modestly in His manner.” And, like God, the artist has the ability to breathe life into inert matter; indeed, the artist's central function lies in his life-giving powers: “In all things I demand—life, the possibility of existence, and that's all; nor is it our business to ask whether it's beautiful, whether it's ugly. The feeling that there's life in the thing created is much more important than considerations of beauty and ugliness; it's the sole criterion in matters of art.” To illustrate his theories, Büchner's Lenz contrasts the two types of art—the one represented by the Apollo Belvedere and a Raphael Madonna, the other by two Dutch or Flemish genre paintings he had recently seen. He finds the former works too “idealized,” and as a result “they make me feel quite dead.” The genre paintings, which he goes on to describe in detail, “reproduce nature for me with the greatest degree of truthfulness, so that I can feel [the artist's] creation.”

Except for a few remarks here and there in his letters, the discussion of aesthetics in Lenz is Büchner's only commentary on his own artistic ideals. But this discussion by no means provides a full rationale for his work; what it tells us—and quite appropriately so—is the points of contact he must have felt with the real Lenz. The analogy which it sets up between their literary art and genre paintings itself suggests the limits within which one may profitably compare their work. Lenz' best plays have something of the charm and the unpretentiousness which we associate with genre art, but they do not attempt to reach beyond the social frame of reference in which they are so securely rooted. (At the end of The Private Tutor and The Soldiers Lenz, in fact, shamelessly draws a pedantic social moral from his tale—a moral which, in each play, is quite inadequate to account for the richness of life which the play had seemed above all to depict.) Still, Lenz knew better than to attempt to ask the existential questions which echo so naturally out of Büchner's world. The range of reference encompassed by Büchner's plays is immeasurably wider than that of Lenz'. The discussion of aesthetics in Büchner's story, though it provides a rationale for his dramatic objectivity and his richness of detail, takes no account of many elements fundamental to his work—for example, the grotesque characterizations in Woyzeck, the verbal complexity and virtuosity of all three plays, the images of an inverted world which emerge out of Danton's Death and Woyzeck. Though Büchner's critics often depend on the discussion of aesthetics in Lenz to provide a theoretical framework for his art, one wonders if the statement, “I take it that God has made the world as it should be” (a statement, incidentally, which Büchner drew from Lenz' Notes on the Theater—1774), is really applicable to a body of work which continually voices its despair at the results of God's creation.

“The idealistic movement was just beginning at that time”—with these words, so fateful for Lenz, Büchner begins the discussion of aesthetics in his story. In 1778, the time in which the story takes place, Goethe was already firmly entrenched in the courtly world of Weimar and was working on Iphigenia in Tauris, the first of his major plays in his so-called “classical” manner. The Storm-and-Stress revolt had by this time spent its force (except for Schiller's explosive early plays, which date from the early '80's). For Lenz the advent of the “idealistic” period meant the end of a world in which he could feel himself significantly creative; the very basis of his talent was an earthy realism which the new art-ideals which were to emanate from Weimar for the next generation could scarcely accommodate.

By the time Büchner began to write, the “idealistic movement” (which German literary historians have conventionally divided into two phases—Classicism and Romanticism, the latter itself subdivided into two phases) had also spent its force. It was only natural for Büchner to seek a model in a writer from an earlier era. But Büchner's obvious antipathy to the plays which the idealistic movement produced must not blind us to the real and enduring achievement which marks this drama at its best. The major dramatic works of German Classicism, Goethe's Iphigenia (completed in 1786) and Torquato Tasso (1789) and Schiller's Wallenstein trilogy (1799), though they are little known today outside Germany, can easily hold their own among the world's great dramas. But a contemporary audience can scarcely approach them without some conception of the artistic and cultural premises on which they are based. For one thing, these plays are part of Goethe and Schiller's attempt to found a national culture, of which they saw a national drama as an indispensable cornerstone. Unlike England, France and Spain during their major periods of dramatic writing, Germany lacked a vital popular theatrical tradition; as a result, the plays of Goethe and Schiller often seem a kind of hothouse growth, nurtured with a deliberateness and high-mindedness which can all too easily create a barrier to modern taste.

The dramaturgy on which these plays is based is far more closely related to that of French seventeenth-century drama than it is to Shakespeare, though it is by no means a slavish imitation of earlier models, as was the earlier type of German drama represented by The Dying Cato. Compared to the Storm-and-Stress plays and Büchner's work, the German Classical plays remain essentially within the Aristotelian dramatic tradition. Their characters are invariably of high station. Their chief dramatic effects emerge out of a carefully contrived, though often relatively simple plot. In striking contrast to the Storm-and-Stress drama, they cultivate an economy of means, with the result that they sacrifice richness of detail for a more austere, lofty effect. Whereas the Storm-and-Stress plays, like Büchner's, were generally in prose, most of the Classical dramas are in blank verse—a verse, indeed, of a rather formal sort, with a diction and syntax deliberately removed from those of ordinary conversation. A work such as Wallenstein (which, though publicized and translated into English verse by so powerful a voice as Coleridge's, is scarcely known today to English-speaking readers) succeeds in creating a type of effect quite foreign to that of the various German anti-Aristotelian dramas before and after it. For in Wallenstein Schiller, like the ancient Greek tragedians, is centrally concerned with the mysteries inherent in a man's relation to his destiny; his dramatic method, with its cunning contrivance of plot, its disdain for “extraneous” detail, and its careful balance of concrete situation and abstract idea, allows the larger metaphysical questions to emerge naturally out of his fable with an intensity and singularity of effect which dramatists such as Büchner and Brecht have chosen to do without.

A sympathetic reading of the major German plays in the “classical” manner suggests that the distinction which Büchner's Lenz draws between “idealized” and “real” characters is not altogether fair to the actual practice of Goethe and Schiller. The characters of Wallenstein, for instance, are “idealized” only to the extent that they speak a somewhat heightened language and are not depicted in the informal situations in which Büchner customarily presents his characters. But Schiller's characters at their best are also concretely differentiated from one another and, once one accepts the premises of his dramatic method, the reader or audience quite naturally comes to believe in them as living beings. Büchner, like any artist confronting a mode of art antithetical to his own, probably did not bother to distinguish between Schiller at his best and at his worst: his two recorded comments on Schiller, both of them negative, attack him for being too “rhetorical” and for creating characters who are essentially “puppets with sky-blue noses and affected pathos, but not flesh-and-blood human beings.”3 And with the notable exception of Wallenstein (and perhaps also his uncompleted play Demetrius—1805), one must admit that Büchner's view of Schiller's “classical” plays is more or less a just one. In a play such as The Bride of Messina (1802), a much more conscious attempt than Wallenstein to re-create the effect of Greek tragedy, Schiller's high-mindedness comes to seem virtually unbearable. And, quite in contrast to Wallenstein, such later historical plays as The Maid of Orleans (1801), Mary Stuart (1800) and William Tell (1804) fail to embody their lofty central “idea” in any concrete dramatic situation in which a modern audience can honestly believe.

By the time Büchner wrote his first play Schiller had been dead for thirty years and was firmly entrenched as the chief classic of the German theater. Indeed, the rhetoric and the “affected pathos” of which Büchner complains had become standard conventions of German drama—conventions so deeply rooted that the major German dramatists of our century have felt a continuing need to challenge them. It seems only natural that writers like Gerhart Hauptmann and Brecht would look back to Büchner—as the latter looked back to Lenz—as a forerunner in their revolt against the Classical tradition in German drama.

But Büchner was not the first writer in his own century to challenge this tradition. At least two writers, Heinrich von Kleist and Christian Dietrich Grabbe, experimented with significantly new ways of dramatic expression. On the surface, at least, Kleist's plays seem to continue the Classical framework, for they utilize the basic conventions which Goethe and Schiller had established in their Classical plays. Kleist's major plays, The Broken Jug (1806), Penthesilea (1808), and The Prince of Homburg (1810), all maintain the formality of blank verse, and all are marked by the most rigorous economy of structure. Like the Classical plays before them, they are built out of a closely connected chain of events which lead up to the climax (the first two of these plays, though they are full length, each consist of a single, sustained act); and quite unlike Büchner's dramas they allow their central conflicts to develop through the direct confrontation of characters with one another.

Yet, despite his apparently traditional form, Kleist was far less an imitator than an innovator. His language, though elevated in diction, has a taut and breathless quality which, more than any other dramatic blank verse in German, creates the illusion of being spoken by living beings. Moreover, despite his Classical dramaturgy, which is predicated on the assumption that characters can express their conflicts with one another in verbal terms, his plays, like Büchner's, ultimately suggest the inability of human beings to communicate meaningfully at all. In Penthesilea, for example, the two chief characters appear to communicate with one another in an idyllic love scene, but the heroine, discovering that their relationship is based on a fundamental misunderstanding, ends up tricking her lover into a brutal death-trap. Kleist, one might say, exploits a dramatic method based on character relationships only to lay bare the deceptiveness inherent in these relationships. Like Büchner, Kleist was little known or appreciated in his own time; there is, in fact, no reason to think that Büchner discerned his real significance, if he read him at all. Yet despite their basic differences in dramatic technique, Kleist and Büchner share a certain kinship through the skepticism and the despair which their works voice with a notable lack of pretentiousness; and it hardly seems accidental that Kleist's plays, like Büchner's, achieved no general acclaim until our own century.

Grabbe, too, was little understood in his age. Although the quality of his achievement is considerably below that of Kleist and Büchner, his experiments in dramatic form anticipate much that Büchner was to develop in his own way. Grabbe's early plays are still largely in the grand style, and their blank verse betrays the staleness into which the language of Classical drama had fallen in the generation after Schiller. His heroes, quite in contrast to Büchner's, are also conceived in the grand manner; all, in fact, are men of titanic proportions—Napoleon, Hannibal, the Hohenstaufen emperors—who go to their doom through no fault of their own, but through the pettiness of a world which cannot support such titans. But Grabbe's later plays, above all Napoleon or the Hundred Days (1831) and Hannibal (1835), seem just as boldly “experimental” as Danton's Death.

Napoleon, which Büchner doubtless knew when he wrote his first play, presents a vast panoramic view of the events immediately leading up to Waterloo. Grabbe makes no attempt, as would a dramatist in the Classical tradition, to present these events in any causal chain. The play, in fact, is essentially a vivid and bounteous chronicle which focuses on such diverse phenomena as the crowds on the streets of Paris, soldiers in barracks on the eve of battle, the newly restored Bourbon court, and Napoleon vainly attempting to re-establish his past glory without realizing he lacked the means to do so. Napoleon is written in a terse and racy prose, a style which, unlike the verse of his earlier tragedies, is able to accommodate a wide variety of tones and to portray the historical milieu with a lively intimacy. In its mixture of comic and tragic elements, its technique of short, contrasting scenes, and its treatment of the common people caught up by vast historical forces, it may well have served as a model for Danton's Death. Though Napoleon still reads with a certain vitality, Grabbe did not, like Büchner, succeed in fusing the quite diverse components of his play to create a single, closely organized whole; and as a result, the play remains far more interesting in its individual details than in its totality. Above all, Grabbe lacks that quality of dramatic objectivity which I have tried to describe in Büchner's work. Karl Gutzkow tried to define this difference between the two writers in a letter he wrote to Büchner to encourage him in his work: “If one observes [Grabbe's] stiff, forced, bony manner, one must make the most favorable predictions for your fresh, effervescent natural powers.”4 If Gutzkow's statement is perhaps a bit unfair to Grabbe, it is also notable as the most powerful critical praise Büchner was to receive either in his lifetime or until half a century after his death.


It is a tribute to the richness and variety of Büchner's achievement that each of the writers who have felt his impact have absorbed a different aspect of his work. Gerhart Hauptmann, the first major figure whom Büchner influenced, shares Büchner's sympathy for the sufferings of lowly people. Hauptmann's career, which spans almost six decades, includes a vast variety of forms and themes, from contemporary social realism to symbolic fantasy to grand-style tragedy based on Greek myth. But Hauptmann seems closest to Büchner in his early, largely realistic period. His short story, The Apostle (1890), a study of a modern religious fanatic, attempts to imitate the narrative method of Büchner's Lenz; yet Hauptmann's interior monologue today reads like a somewhat dated technical experiment, while Büchner's retains a freshness and naturalness which belie its great distance from us in time. Hauptmann perhaps came closest to the spirit of Büchner's work in his drama The Weavers (1892) which depicts an actual peasant uprising of the 1840's such as Büchner might have stirred up in his Giessen days. But Hauptmann's play is no socialist tract, as its early audiences often thought. Like Büchner in Danton's Death, Hauptmann questions the value of revolution while at the same time showing a high degree of sympathy for the grievances of the common people he is portraying.

In two later plays, Henschel the Carter (1898) and Rose Bernd (1903), Hauptmann, like Büchner in Woyzeck, succeeds in giving a traditional tragic dignity to inarticulate and passive characters of humble background. Hauptmann goes much further than Büchner in attempting to paint a detailed and authentic social milieu; indeed, the Silesian dialect of the original version of The Weavers would have proved so difficult for German readers that he had to “translate” the play into a more easily comprehensible form. Hauptmann's figures often have the brooding, explosive quality that he doubtless discerned in many of Büchner's figures, perhaps even in Büchner himself, whose genius Hauptmann once characterized as “glowing lava hurled out of Chthonic depths.”5 The characters and backgrounds of Hauptmann's best “realist” plays still seem impressive today, though his dramaturgy, with its well-wrought plots and his carefully planned motivations and foreshadowings, seems somewhat old-fashioned next to Büchner's, which shares the disdain for traditional theatrical effect of much contemporary drama.

If Hauptmann drew largely from the realistic side of Büchner's work, Frank Wedekind drew from the “unreal” side of Büchner, above all, the grotesque element which he discerned in the doctor, captain and carnival figures in Woyzeck. In his early play, The Awakening of Spring (1891), a violent and impassioned protest against the suppression of sexual knowledge in the education of the young, Wedekind depicts his middle-class characters as the kind of grotesque, perverted beings Büchner had presented before him. But Wedekind's entire poetic world is made up of grotesque types: the naturalness and dramatic objectivity with which characters such as Büchner's Marie, Marion and Danton are presented were totally foreign to Wedekind's talent. Ideologically, however, Wedekind's plays attempt to propagate a doctrine of naturalness; thus, in his character Lulu, the heroine of The Earth Spirit and its sequel, Pandora's Box (1895), Wedekind created a symbol of amoral and instinctual nature. As a literary type, Lulu is perhaps less akin to Büchner's Marie than to his drum major, whom she resembles in the exaggerated manner in which her “naturalness” is depicted.

Wedekind's success as a dramatic artist, one realizes today, falls short of his success as a liberating force in German culture at the turn of the century; though he was often capable of crudely powerful effects, he rarely succeeded in finding an adequate dramatic embodiment for the new ideas he was so intent on disseminating. Even if one admires his integrity, his Lulu, one must admit, is a rather dated creature who lives less surely in Wedekind's plays than in the opera which Alban Berg built around her. Through Wedekind, however, one side of Büchner—the rebel against bourgeois convention and the creator of the grotesquely extravagant language which Wedekind found in parts of Woyzeck—was transmitted to the Expressionist dramatists who followed him and, above all, to Bertolt Brecht.6

The fact that Berg's only two operas are based on Woyzeck and the Lulu plays is, I think, a testimony to the continuity which Berg's generation felt between Büchner's and Wedekind's work. Berg's setting (1921) of Büchner's play is itself an important instance of the impact of Büchner on our own century. Berg prepared his own libretto, and at first sight one feels amazed at how closely he followed Büchner's text. To be sure, he used only about two thirds of Büchner's scenes, and even these were sometimes pared down for economy's sake. But Berg stuck to the original dialogue to a relatively high degree and managed to retain much of the flavor of the play. His musical method, indeed, often succeeds in heightening Büchner's most original dramatic effects. For example, in Marie's repentance scene the music shifts back and forth in mood as Marie alternately reads from the Bible and expresses her own thoughts, and at the end of the scene it reaches a climax as piercing as any one might imagine from the text.

In its total effect, however, the opera seems a work of a very different kind from the play. Through the heavy orchestral commentary, which presents the composer's point of view on the events, the characters seem far less autonomous beings than they do in the original. The orchestra, in addition, serves to underline that sense of a malign fate which, because of the difference between the two media, hovers over the play in a far less distinct way. Indeed, the atonality of much of the music seems ideally suited to producing the eerie effects which Berg so obviously sought, especially in the final scenes. The character Wozzeck (whose name Berg spelled as it appeared in the Franzos edition of Büchner) seems even more passive and inarticulate than he does in the play. Among the passages which Berg cut out are those in which he asserts his dignity, for example the scene in which he gives Andres his belongings and reads his identification papers. Berg quite deliberately emphasized the abnormality and the suffering of his hero, who thus emerges as a helpless, crazed animal. Berg's version also stressed the economic degradation of the characters; in fact, the musical phrase which accompanies Wozzeck's words, “Wir arme Leut'”—“We poor folk”—is the chief leitmotif of the opera, achieving its fullest force in the long and powerful orchestral interlude which directly follows Wozzeck's suicide.

Berg's emphasis on the play's psychological and social aspects is accompanied by a lack of emphasis on the existential questions which Büchner poses so persistently throughout his work, for example in the complex mananimal imagery and in the grandmother's tale (of which Berg uses only a fragment). Büchner's existential questions depend, above all, on strictly literary means of expression for which Berg wisely did not seek a direct musical equivalent. Indeed, Büchner's basic dramatic method, with its loosely connected scenes which could seemingly be placed in several different combinations, in the opera becomes transformed into an entirely different mode of dramaturgy. Through the constant orchestral commentary, and, above all, through the interludes between scenes, each event seems to follow the last with the most frightening inevitability. Berg concentrates almost exclusively on the “main line” of plot and excludes everything that he must have thought subsidiary to it—for example, the carnival scenes, the conversation with the Jewish pawnbroker, in fact that whole crowded larger world which hovers around the edges of Büchner's play. Even the comic touches, grim as they are in the play, are almost missing from the opera; one is scarcely tempted to laugh during the scene between Wozzeck and the doctor, and largely, I think, because of the quite uncomic effect of the musical accompaniment (partly also because Berg, who was perhaps worried about getting his work performed, shifted the doctor's experiment from the excretory to the respiratory functions). The opera, as a result, has a kind of classical starkness and solemnity quite foreign to the spirit of the play. It seems to me symptomatic of Berg's classicism that every scene consists of a different musical form, each systematically different from the others. The following summary,7 based on Berg's stated intentions, suggests the form-consciousness which governs the opera (scene numbers in parentheses, music in italics):

Act I. Exposition, Wozzeck and his relation to his environment / five character sketches: (1) the captain / suite; (2) Andres / rhapsody; (3) Marie / military march and cradle song; (4) the physician / passacaglia; (5) the drum major / andante affettuoso (quasi rondo).

Act II. Dénouement, Wozzeck is gradually convinced of Marie's infidelity / symphony in five movements: (1) Wozzeck's first suspicion / sonata form; (2) Wozzeck is mocked / fantasie and fugue; (3) Wozzeck accuses Marie / largo; (4) Marie and drum major dance / scherzo; (5) the drum major trounces Wozzeck / rondo martiale.

Act III. Catastrophe, Wozzeck murders Marie and atones through suicide / six inventions: (1) Marie's remorse / invention on a theme; (2) death of Marie / invention on a tone; (3) Wozzeck tries to forget / invention on a rhythm; (4) Wozzeck drowns in the pond / invention on a six-tone chord; instrumental interlude with closed curtain; (5) Marie's son plays unconcerned / invention on a persistent rhythm (perpetuum mobile).

Berg himself tells us that he chose such diverse forms to embody each scene in order to avoid the effect of musical monotony.8 One must admit, surely, that even after repeated hearings the listener remains unaware of the nature of the various forms which Berg employs. Yet the form-consciousness which is manifest in the above chart is indicative, I think, of a kind of classicism peculiar to much of the art of the 1920's. It seems to me analogous, for instance, to the mythological framework and charts of correspondences around which James Joyce constructed Ulysses; T. S. Eliot's well-known description of the function of Joyce's mythological framework—“It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”9—is perhaps applicable to the function of the tight musical forms which Berg employs to contain the chaotic and characteristically modern materials that he found in Büchner's play. The resulting opera achieves a greatness that remains independent of that of the play; one recognizes it as a work of equal, though by no means kindred genius. Since Berg's work has made its way in recent years into the repertory of all the major opera houses, one hopes that the strong competition it offers will not exclude the play from theatrical performance, which, up to now, it has rarely achieved in the English-speaking countries.

Our sense of Büchner's modernity has been shaped to a large degree through his impact upon, and his affinities with the two most significant developments in European theater during the last few decades—the work of Bertolt Brecht, on the one hand, and the avant garde theater in Paris after World War II. It was only natural that Brecht should look back to Büchner as an example: not only did Brecht view Büchner as a fellow political revolutionary, but Büchner's work stood for many of the same values that Brecht throughout his life sought to articulate. Both writers, for instance, succeeded in creating a vital and glowing dramatic language by first refusing to be poetic in any traditional way. Like Büchner, Brecht created an idiom of his own, colloquial, earthy, ironical—an idiom, moreover, which appears to imitate the language of real men, yet which in its total effect has a richly poetic resonance. Brecht's, like Büchner's, is a realism which refuses to be pedantically realistic: the red moon which hovers menacingly over the murder scene in Woyzeck was conceived in something of the same spirit as the red moon which, at the end of Brecht's early play Drums in the Night (1919), turns out to be a Chinese lantern which the embittered hero angrily destroys.

Brecht's language is perhaps most directly imitative of Büchner's in his first play, Baal (1918), whose bohemian hero speaks a wildly extravagant language which Brecht, like Wedekind before him, developed from such examples as Woyzeck's descriptions of his visions and such caricatures as Büchner's doctor, captain and carnival figures. But Brecht's affinities with Büchner cannot be defined simply through such instances of imitation; one could argue, in fact, that the personal idiom he achieved in his more mature work, through its poise and control, has more in common with Büchner's language than anything in Baal. Both writers, moreover, attain much of their creative impulse through their conscious opposition to the conventions of the German Classical drama. For Brecht, as for Wedekind, Büchner served as a kind of liberating force, not only against the Classical drama, but against the middle-class values with which this drama was associated in their minds. The Schiller-like rhetoric which Büchner parodies in the speeches of the drunken stage-prompter Simon in Danton's Death is sustained through two full-length plays by Brecht, St. Joan of the Stockyards (1930) and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941), whose intentionally pompous blank verse succeeds in parodying not so much the Chicago capitalists who are made to speak it as the middle-class Germans whose slavish awe of their theatrical classics was for Brecht a sure symptom of their false cultural values.

Not only must Brecht have discerned in Büchner a fellow enemy of theatrical rhetoric, but the forms of organization which Büchner developed in his three plays provided the most successful German example before Brecht of a non-Aristotelian serious drama. In certain crucial respects—for instance, in their disdain for linear plots and their stress on the relative independence of individual scenes—Büchner's plays can surely be seen as ancestors of Brecht's “epic” theater. But Brecht's much-publicized theoretical pronouncements on the nature of epic theater cannot be applied literally to Büchner's plays, nor, it could be argued, to Brecht's own best works; the so-called “alienation effect,” whereby the audience is discouraged from believing in the literal reality of the events enacted onstage, is scarcely applicable to plays such as Danton's Death and Woyzeck, whose dramatic reality we are made to accept wholeheartedly and with whose heroes we sympathize to a high degree. Although Brecht attempted to create most of his heroes as didactic negative examples and to hold back the audience's sympathy with them, some of his greatest figures—for instance, the cowardly Galileo, the greedy vendor Mother Courage, the alternately hearty and sour Finnish businessman Mr. Puntila—despite their author's intentions, achieve something of the autonomous life and the sympathetic quality which we find in Büchner's Danton and Woyzeck.

Like Büchner, Brecht has a penchant for passive heroes who allow the world to shape them as it will; Brecht, indeed, has perhaps gone further than any major dramatist in exploring the psychology of passivity—for instance, in the well-meaning porter Galy Gay in Man Equals Man (1926), who is cajoled into assuming the identity of another man and becoming a brutal soldier; in the hero of The Life of Galileo (1939), who compromises his principles for the sake of bodily comfort and privacy to pursue his writings; in the good soldier Schweik, who, transferred by Brecht from Jaroslav Hašek's novel (itself an extension of the comic possibilities in the character of Woyzeck) to a more modern setting in Schweik in the Second World War (1944), manages to survive and sometimes even to confound the Nazis by pretending to comply with them.

The essential humanitarianism which underlies both Büchner's and Brecht's work finds expression partly through their common skepticism toward older forms of humanitarianism which they see as false or stale. The skepticism with which Büchner treats the doctor's traditionally idealistic definitions of the human being finds its modern equivalent in such Brechtian formulations as the title and theme of Man Equals Man, which attempts to demonstrate that one human being can be changed into another, or Macheath's cynical refrain in The Threepenny Opera (1928):

What does a man live by? By grinding, sweating,
Defeating, beating, cheating, eating some other man
For he can only live by sheer forgetting
Forgetting that he ever was a man.(10)

The title of the parable play The Good Person [Der gute Mensch] of Setzuan (1940) seems almost an echo of the phrase which Büchner ironically puts into the captain's mouth time and again—“Woyzeck, du bist ein guter Mensch, ein guter Mensch”; the captain's phrase is as empty of real meaning as is the title of Brecht's play, whose parable attempts to demonstrate the impossibility of being “good” in the world as it is. Just as the work of both writers achieved a poetic quality only after their deliberate rejection of older, staler forms of poetic language, so it succeeds in expounding a humanitarianism through their tough-minded distrust of smug, traditional ethical statements.

It seems no accident that Büchner achieved his first major acclaim outside Germany in the French theater of the last two decades, for his plays anticipate many of the themes and techniques of the so-called “theater of the absurd.” One might note, for instance, the following passage from the promenade scene in Danton's Death (Act II, Scene 2), in which Büchner records the conversation of two gentlemen walking along the street:

FIRST Gentleman
You know, it is the most extraordinary discovery! I mean, it makes all the branches of science look entirely different. Mankind really is striding towards its high destiny.
SECOND Gentleman
Have you seen that new play? There's a great Babylonian tower, a mass of arches and steps and passages, and then, do you know, they blow the whole thing up, right into the air, just like that! It makes you dizzy. Quite extraordinary. [He stops, perplexed.]
FIRST Gentleman
Why, whatever's the matter?
SECOND Gentleman
Oh, nothing, really! But—would you just give me a hand—over this puddle—there! Thank you very much. I only just got over it. That could be extremely dangerous!
FIRST Gentleman
You weren't afraid of it, were you?
SECOND Gentleman
Well, yes—the earth's only a very thin crust, you know. I always think I might fall through where there's a hole like that. You have to walk very gently or you may easily go through. But do go and see that play—I thoroughly recommend it!

This passage could easily be mistaken for one of the random street conversations which one finds, say, in The Killer (1957) by Eugène Ionesco, who himself once listed Büchner, in company with Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Kleist, as the only dramatist of the past whom he still found readable.11

Büchner, like Ionesco in similar passages, provides no context for this conversation: we are never told, for instance, what sort of scientific discovery the first gentleman is even talking about; much of the comic effect, indeed, comes from Büchner's deliberate failure to provide any context at all for the gentleman's pretentious remarks. Like the recent French dramatists, Büchner is concerned with exposing the emptiness inherent in the clichés with which people customarily express themselves (“Mankind … striding towards its high destiny”). By attempting to record conversation as it is really spoken—not, as in earlier drama, as it ought to be spoken—he exposes, as well, the absurdity of the transitions within ordinary human speech: the second gentleman, for example, moves unself-consciously from his enthusiasm for a new play to his fear of the hole in the street and then, at the end of the passage (which is also the end of the scene) directly back to the play in question. If one examines the transition (or lack of it) from the first to the second speech, one notes that the characters are shown talking past one another instead of with one another. Indeed, there is no real contact between them: the first is fully concerned with his statement about some scientific discovery, the second with his enthusiasm for a play he has seen. In thus demonstrating that human beings often fail to make contact even while they appear to be conversing, Büchner anticipates a technique that was not to be exploited to any great degree in drama until Chekhov and the recent French dramatists. The difficulty of human communication is not merely the theme of this small passage, but is, after all, one of the central themes of Danton's Death as a whole: one need only remember Danton's statement to his wife, on the first page of the play, of the impossibility of people really knowing one another. And it is a central theme, moreover, in such otherwise diverse contemporary plays as Arthur Adamov's The Parody (1947), Ionesco's The Bald Soprano (1948), and Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1952).

In fact, to catalogue the themes of the “theater of the absurd” is at once to catalogue many of Büchner's essential themes. The terror, absurd and frightening at once, which lurks behind Adamov's The Large and the Small Maneuver (1950) and Each against Each (1952) is similar in kind to the terror in the background of Danton's Death, which Adamov had himself translated into French a few years before completing these plays; moreover, the totalitarian political rhetoric which resounds in both plays is essentially a modern version of the brutally lifeless language of Robespierre's and St. Just's public pronouncements. The skepticism towards their self-identity which plagues the central characters of Waiting for Godot and Adamov's Professor Taranne (1951) has much in common with Leonce's skepticism in Büchner's comedy. The vaudeville routines which Beckett's clowns use to while away the time that hangs so oppressively on them corresponds quite precisely to the commedia dell'arte techniques employed by Leonce and Valerio to fulfill the same purpose.12 Indeed, the very words with which Didi in Waiting for Godot voices his boredom and despair might easily have come from one of Danton's, or Leonce's, or Lenz' speeches: “We wait. We are bored. No, don't protest, we are bored to death, there's no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste. Come, let's get to work! In an instant all will vanish and we'll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness!”13

In the face of such an insight, voiced with equal emphasis by Büchner and Beckett, all human endeavor comes to seem futile, meaningless, and absurd. As Lee Baxandall has suggested in his essay on Danton's Death, the agonized lyricism of Büchner's first play “finds its closest modern counterpart” in Waiting for Godot.14 And it is through this lyricism, one might add, that Beckett, more than any of his contemporaries, has captured that sense of mystery which ultimately stands behind the despair in Büchner's plays. Moreover, through its plotlessness, its vagueness of setting, and its lack of any real social framework, Waiting for Godot seems a kind of Büchner play with its narrative and its background removed. Or, rather, one could view it as a more radical step than the ones Büchner had taken in Danton's Death and Woyzeck to break down the canons of classical drama.

Yet a comparison of Büchner with the recent French dramatists also suggests some vital differences in purpose and form between his work and theirs. However strikingly Büchner's work may anticipate the significant experiments of our time, it also, for instance, employs certain traditional methods of characterization which the French dramatists have largely abandoned. Thus, Büchner attempted, as the French have chosen not to, to create the illusion of a full and varied world of real beings rooted in a real and recognizable environment. Marie in Woyzeck has a completeness and a reality that go well beyond her dramatic function in the play; when she sits before the mirror admiring her new earrings she gains our sympathy in a way that no character—except, perhaps, some of Beckett's—in any of the recent French plays can. Directly after the execution of the Dantonists, a woman passerby makes the sort of statement one often finds in Ionesco's plays: “I always say you ought to see a man in different surroundings; I'm all for these public executions, aren't you, love?” But the effect of these lines is shattering in a way that they could not be in Ionesco. Because of the interest and sympathy which Danton and his friends have aroused in us throughout the play, the passerby's statement causes us to feel at once the tragedy and the absurdity of their death. In contrast, the ironic statements made by the maid in Ionesco's The Lesson (1950) after the professor, in a fit of ire, has stabbed his pupil, suggest only the absurdity of the pupil's death. Ionesco, one might say, has dehumanized his characters in order to portray the precariousness and isolation in which they exist, while Büchner has demonstrated a similar precariousness and isolation by more traditional means—by first making us believe in the reality of his characters and their background. In the world of Büchner's plays we still feel the plenitude of creation, even if God's traditional beneficence is missing and his existence is, at most, a questionable thing.


The vitality and the fullness of vision which characterize Büchner's dramatic world have rarely been achieved by those whom he has influenced, perhaps only by Brecht, but these qualities are present in far greater abundance in the dramatist whose impact Büchner felt more strongly than that of any other, namely, Shakespeare. Shakespeare, indeed, is the one writer for whom Büchner expressed the highest and most unqualified admiration. “Poor Shakespeare was a clerk by day and had to write his poetry at night, and I, who am not worthy to untie his shoelaces, have a much easier time,” Büchner wrote to his fiancée a few weeks before his death.15 In his first letter to Gutzkow, when excusing himself for not being entirely true to history in Danton's Death, he consoled himself with the notion that “all poets, with the exception of Shakespeare, confront history and nature as though they were school-boys.”16 The “fullness of life” which Büchner's character Lenz upholds so passionately as the central goal of art can be found only—thus we are told in the story—in Shakespeare and in folk poetry, and sometimes in Goethe—“everything else should be thrown in the fire.” Like nearly all German writers for at least a generation before him, Büchner had been smitten by Shakespeare's plays since childhood; one of his Darmstadt schoolmates, in fact, testifies how Büchner and his friends would go to a nearby beech forest to read Shakespeare to one another on Sunday afternoons.17

The many verbal echoes from Shakespeare in Büchner's work have been scrupulously recorded by various scholars,18 and I shall not attempt to add to their findings here. It seems no surprise to find that Büchner echoed Hamlet more than any other Shakespearean play, indeed more than any other literary work. The influence of Hamlet went considerably beyond the verbal level. In their passivity, their introspectiveness and their verbal ingenuity, characters like Danton and Leonce obviously have something of Hamlet in them, though they derive as much from the various Hamlet-like heroes of German Romanticism as from the character actually created by Shakespeare. In her pathos and madness Lucille, in Danton's Death, has certain affinities with Ophelia. The deathly atmosphere, moreover, which permeates Büchner's first play has much in common with the atmosphere of Shakespeare's play.

It is worth noting, furthermore, that Büchner sometimes resorted to Shakespeare during the tensest dramatic moments of his plays. When Lucille laments the death of her husband, she speaks like Lear on the death of Cordelia: “Dying—dying—! But everything lives, everything's got to live, I mean, the little fly there, the bird. Why can't he?” Woyzeck's last words, in turn, echo Lady Macbeth's feelings of guilt: “Am I still bloody? I better wash up. There's a spot and there's another.” Only a dramatist in another language would dare echo such familiar lines at such crucial moments in his own work; for an English dramatist to do so would be to risk writing a parody.

More significant than such echoes is the fact that Büchner succeeded—better, perhaps, than any other German dramatist—in imitating Shakespeare's manner while at the same time integrating it fully into the contexts he himself was creating. His Shakespearean imitation is most fully evident in Danton's Death, and it becomes progressively less evident in each of his two other plays. The following passage, in which the carters standing outside the Conciergerie are waiting to take Danton and his friends to the guillotine, has a genuinely Shakespearean quality about it (more so, I might add, in the German than in translation):

Well, who would you say was the best carters?
FIRST Carter
Whoever goes farthest and quickest.
Well, you old fool, you can't cart a man much further than out of this world, can you, and I'd like to see anyone do it in less than a quarter of an hour. It's exactly a quarter of an hour from here to Guillotine Square.
Hurry up, you lazy slugs! Get in nearer the gate. Get back a bit, you girls.
FIRST Carter
No, don't you budge! Never go round a girl, always go through.
I'm with you there. You can take your horse and cart in with you, the roads are nice, but you'll be in quarantine when you come out again. [They move forward.] What are you gawping at?
Waiting to see our old customers, dearie.
My cart's not a brothel, you know. This is a decent cart, this is; the King went in this, and all the big nobs in Paris.

The bawdy and far-fetched jokes are obviously typical of the banter of Shakespeare's clowns and fools. But Büchner has not only captured the tone of this banter, he has also understood the dramatic function which this sort of banter has in a Shakespearean tragedy. Like the gravedigger scene in Hamlet, this passage creates a needed slackening of tension between the two anguished scenes in the Conciergerie immediately before and after it. Yet, also like the gravedigger scene, it functions as something more than “comic relief.” Although we laugh at the jokes, the dramatic context in which they are placed powerfully qualifies the effect they have on us. There is something rather grotesque, after all, in the carter's concern for his social status (“this is a decent cart, this is; the King went in this”) in the inverted world of the Reign of Terror: indeed, there is something even frightening about it, since he is about to cart the play's hero to his death. The fusion of comic and tragic which we see here and elsewhere in Büchner is a peculiarly Shakespearean one—a fusion, moreover, which is effected not only through the alternation of comic and tragic scenes, but through the multiplicity of levels (ironic, grotesque, pathetic, or whatever) with which a single speech, a single image even, may be interpreted. One could argue, in fact, that Büchner seems modern to us in many of the same respects in which he seems most Shakespearean. Through his use of comic techniques to express the most desperate human situations, his plays as surely look backward to Shakespeare—for instance, to Lear's scenes with his fool—as they look forward to the clowning in Waiting for Godot.

Büchner's Shakespearean quality is discernible not only through his echoes and his conscious attempts at imitation, but in certain fundamental affinities he shares with Shakespeare. Büchner is Shakespearean, for instance, in the dramatic objectivity with which most of his characters are conceived and in the consequent impersonality he achieves in relation to his work. His talent is akin to that which Keats, in a famous passage from one of his letters, was trying to define when he distinguished his own and Shakespeare's mode from that of Wordsworth: “A Poet [by which Keats here means one like Shakespeare or himself] is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually … filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none.”19 Like Shakespeare, Büchner expunges his own identity in favor of that of his characters, who seem to live with an autonomous and spontaneous life of their own. Of the major German dramatists before Büchner, only Goethe, I think, possessed this quality, though the severely classicist directions which Goethe's work, including his methods of characterization, took after his Storm-and-Stress years gave it an increasingly less Shakespearean character.

Büchner's most fundamental Shakespearean quality lies, perhaps, in his conception of a drama as a fully embodied poetic world of its own, relying as much on its richness of verbal texture as on its narrative to achieve its effects. The image of a crazy upside-down world which Büchner achieved in Woyzeck is comparable in kind, if not in degree, to the image out of which a play such as King Lear is built. The power that emanates from both these works is due as much to the atmosphere created by such indirect means as images and ironic thematic parallels as it is to the simple facts of “plot”; both plays, in fact, create their image of a distorted world partly, at least, through their constant insistence on the animallike nature of men—Lear, for instance, through its persistent imagery of wild animals, Woyzeck through such passages as the animal demonstrations in the carnival scenes. The non-Aristotelian conception of drama in which Büchner seems so conspicuously a pioneer is in certain respects, at least, a Shakespearean conception, as it was, indeed, for the German Storm-and-Stress writers, with whom Büchner felt such obvious affinities. Modern Shakespeare critics such as G. Wilson Knight and William Empson no longer read Shakespeare in terms of the expositions and dénouements with which their classicist-minded predecessors were all too often concerned, but attempt instead to describe and explore the larger poetic whole which they see in each play.20 Büchner, I think, discerned Shakespeare's dramatic method in something of the way we see it today, and to the extent that his plays achieve a Shakespearean thickness of texture and concentration of meaning, he seems to me the most Shakespearean of German dramatists.


Even though Büchner's most striking affinities are with dramatists who lived long before or after him, in certain limited respects he is peculiarly of his own time. His work seems little related, however, to the German drama of the period; except for Grabbe … the significant dramatic writing of the 1830's took directions quite different from Büchner's. The work of the Viennese comic writers Ferdinand Raimund and Johann Nestroy derives directly from the popular theater of Vienna, the only German-speaking city which had maintained a living commedia dell'arte tradition. Franz Grillparzer, also a Viennese, succeeded in giving new life to the forms of the German Classical drama, which he was able to fuse with elements derived from Spanish drama and the Viennese folk tradition. If there was any contemporary dramatist for whom Büchner could feel any real affinities, it was one who did not write in German at all, namely Musset, from whom … he borrowed what he found useful, and no more.

Nor can one discern many significant relationships between Büchner and the German nondramatic writers of his time. When Büchner was mentioned by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary historians his name was usually lumped together with those of the Young Germany group, men such as Gutzkow, Heinrich Laube, and Ludwig Wienbarg—and for no better reason than that he was politically on the left and had been sponsored by Gutzkow. Even without Büchner's firm denial of sympathy with the aims and ideas of the Young Germans,21 one need only set their works next to his to note a fundamental difference both in their essential thematic concerns and their artistic stature. Gutzkow's best-known work, his short novel Wally the Doubter, written in the same year (1835) in which Büchner began his correspondence with him, attempts, far more than any of Büchner's works, to deal with a characteristic contemporary problem, the “problem of the modern woman”; when we read it today, however, Wally seems less about any real woman than about a problem which Gutzkow lacked the means to embody in any artistically convincing way.

Of the most notable German poets writing in the 1830's—namely, Heinrich Heine, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, and Eduard Mörike—only Heine shares something of Büchner's world. Büchner himself probably never appreciated Heine's real distinction, for he listed his name with those of the Young Germans (to whom Heine can be linked only superficially) whom he rejected.22 The common spirit of the age which shapes the work of both manifests itself in their ironical perspectives and their ability to endow seemingly trivial and prosaic situations with poetic meaning; yet the sensibility that emerges from the writings of each—Heine's work is built around his personality, whereas Büchner's is notable for the deliberate absence of the author's personality—is as different as that of any two writers can be.23

The spirit of Büchner's age cannot be defined merely by the organized movements of the time—Young Germany, for instance, or Romanticism in France and Italy—but by the work of certain lonely figures who, in one way or another, were at war with their time. Büchner's closest contemporaries were perhaps less his fellow writers in German than such figures as Stendhal and Lermontov. Each of these, though rooted in the Romantic Movement within his particular country, is distinguished by the concretely real world he created in his fiction and by the steadfast ironic control he maintained over his material.

The major novels of Stendhal, who was thirty years older than Büchner, were written during the same decade which witnessed Büchner's brief career; Lermontov, who was a year younger than Büchner and died only four years after him, reached his artistic maturity in the last years of the decade. Both writers, like Büchner, have succeeded in making contact with our own century with an immediacy which few other nineteenth-century writers were able to achieve. Büchner was further removed from Romanticism (which had waned in Germany far earlier than in France or Russia) than were the authors of Racine and Shakespeare or the Byronic narratives that marked Lermontov's early period.24 Yet it could be argued that each of these writers seems most modern to us in precisely those areas in which he found the means to distance himself from the various Romantic themes and conventions which he inherited. Pechorin, the protagonist of Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time (1840), speaks more directly to us than any of Byron's heroes (including even Don Juan) because Lermontov has created a recognizable social environment for him and, above all, has been willing to view him ironically from a number of points of view. We are willing to accept Julien Sorel, in The Red and the Black (1830), as a hero only because Stendhal has placed his heroic gestures in an environment in which they come to seem useless and absurd. At one point in this novel (Book II, Chapter XII) Mathilde looks back longingly to the heroic days of the Revolution and imagines her lover Julien in the role of Danton. Büchner, one might say, went one step further than Stendhal: the banality which Stendhal attributed to the world of the Restoration is much the same as the banality which Büchner discerned in the Revolution as well. The imaginary commonwealth which Stendhal depicted in The Charterhouse of Parma (1838) is much akin—above all, in its attempt to hold on to long-outmoded institutions—to the grand duchy of Hesse in which Büchner grew up. If Büchner had lived on to write a drama or novel on Hesse, the image that might have emerged would, I think, have had more in common with Stendhal's ironic portrait of Parma than with the more simple-minded revolutionist's image of Hesse which Büchner presented in The Hessian Messenger.

In Stendhal, Lermontov, and Büchner the modern reader recognizes a complexity of intelligence and a dramatic objectivity relatively rare in the work of their Romantic contemporaries and predecessors, whose virtues are of a different, less characteristically modern kind. The realism of these three writers is less amply detailed than that of Balzac or such later writers as Flaubert and Zola; yet it is a realism as surely rooted in their contemporary worlds as that of any writer who came after them. The ironical perspectives which govern the work of all three are centrally directed to laying bare pretensions and uncovering the shades of meaning that lie beneath pat assertions and dramatic postures. Büchner's skepticism, more than that of Stendhal or Lermontov, is a skepticism without poses; the dramatic form he employed (as well as the type of fiction with which he experimented in Lenz) gave him little opportunity to put on masks of his own. His manner is perhaps less urbane than that of Stendhal or Lermontov; yet his irony is reinforced more powerfully than theirs by memorable images of terror and suffering. Whatever labels we ultimately attach to such writers—post-Romantic, say, or proto-Modern—their work leads us to question the conventional time divisions with which we have learned to look at literary history.


  1. “Über das Poetische und Artistische,” Stücke (Frankfort, 1959), XI, 216.

  2. Walter Höllerer's analysis of The Soldiers (in Von Wiese's Das deutsche Drama, I, 127-46) includes some penetrating remarks on those aspects of Lenz' work which anticipate Büchner's.

  3. Büchner, Werke und Briefe, ed. Fritz Bergemann [Wiesbaden, 1958], pp. 553, 400.

  4. Ibid., p. 523.

  5. Quoted in Ernst Johann, Georg Büchner in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Hamburg, 1958), p. 166.

  6. Wolfgang Kayser defines several parallels between Büchner and Wedekind in their use of the grotesque in Das Groteske, pp. 141-43.

  7. Adapted from Willi Reich's analysis of the opera, “A Guide to Wozzeck,Musical Quarterly, XXXVIII (1952), 1-20. For a very different critical approach to the opera, see the chapter on Wozzeck and The Rake's Progress in Joseph Kerman's Opera as Drama (New York, 1959), pp. 219-49.

  8. See Berg's note on the opera reprinted with Reich's analysis, pp. 20-21.

  9. “‘Ulysses,’ Order, and Myth,” in Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment, ed. Mark Schorer, Josephine Miles, and Gordon McKenzie (New York, 1948), p. 270.

  10. Translated by Eric Bentley and Desmond Vesey, The Modern Theatre (New York, 1955), I, 168.

  11. “Discovering the Theatre,” trans. Leonard C. Pronko, Tulane Drama Review, IV (1959), 6.

  12. Martin Esslin, in his study of the contemporary “absurd” drama, cites especially Leonce and Lena as an ancestor of this movement (The Theatre of the Absurd—New York, 1961—pp. 238-39).

  13. Waiting for Godot (New York, 1954), p. 52.

  14. “Georg Büchner's Danton's Death,” p. 148.

  15. “Some Letters,” trans. Maurer, p. 54.

  16. Bergemann, p. 390.

  17. Ibid., p. 556.

  18. See, for instance, the echoes and parallels cited by Heinrich Vogeley, Georg Büchner und Shakespeare (Marburg, 1934), pp. 30-51; Rudolf Majut, “Some Literary Affiliations of Georg Büchner with England,” Modern Language Review, L (1955), 30-32; and Bergemann, p. 672. There is no evidence that Büchner read Shakespeare in English. His echoes are based on the standard German translation by Ludwig Tieck and August Wilhelm Schlegel.

  19. Letters, ed. H. E. Rollins (Cambridge, Mass., 1958), I, 387.

  20. See, for example, Knight's study of the imagery of Lear, “The Lear Universe,” in Wheel of Fire, pp. 194-226, or Empson's study of the functions of a single word in the play, “Fool in Lear,” in The Structure of Complex Words (London, 1951), pp. 125-57.

  21. Bergemann, p. 408.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Walter Höllerer, in Zwischen Klassik und Moderne, has made the best attempt thus far to define a common ground between Büchner and his contemporary writers in German, above all, Grabbe, Heine, Raimund, Nestroy, and Büchner's fellow Hessian writer, Ernst Elias Niebergall. (See the chapter on Büchner, pp. 100-42, and also pp. 36, 37, 63, 65, 67, 68, 80, 85, 151, 168, 169, 176, 178-79, 184, 189, 198-99.) Among the features which Höllerer distinguishes as common to most of these figures are a persistent skepticism, a fusion of wit and pathos, and the development of peculiarly terse ways of expression. Höllerer's fine argument does not deny the fact that Büchner has spoken to our age with a greater degree of contemporaneity than any of these other writers.

  24. Despite his antipathies to German Romanticism, in a few respects his work represents a continuation of the aims and methods of this movement. Leonce and Lena, in its wordplay, its concern with boredom, and its attempt to reevoke the world of Shakespearean comedy, has something in common with Clemens Brentano's charming but impossibly diffuse comedy Ponce de Leon (1803), which, exactly thirty-five years before, had been submitted to the same competition for which Büchner prepared his play. Gutzkow, in fact, pointed out the parallel between the two plays in his memorial tribute to Büchner (in Bergemann, p. 595). Büchner's attempts, in Danton's Death and Woyzeck, to fuse comic and tragic elements and to break down the conventions of German Classical drama were among the central aims of the German Romantic school, which, however, was unable to produce a dramatist who could realize these aims. The apocalyptic grandeur with which the prisoners voice their despair in Danton's Death has something in common with the tone of Night Watches (1804) by Bonaventura (pseud.), one of a number of German Romantic works which anticipate the nihilistic attitudes of Büchner's characters. The grotesqueness of figures such as the captain and doctor in Woyzeck perhaps owes something to the grotesque characterizations of E. T. A. Hoffmann, with whose poetic world Büchner momentarily identified himself in one of his letters to his fiancée (in Bergemann, pp. 379-80). The sense of fullness with which Büchner characterizes the landscape in parts of Lenz (“he stretched himself out and lay on the earth, dug his way into the All”) is perhaps the only aspect of his story which would keep it from being mistaken for a work of our own century. For studies of the relationship of Leonce and Lena with German Romanticism, see Armin Renker, Georg Büchner und das Lustspiel der Romantik (Berlin, 1924) and Gustav Beckers' Georg BüchnersLeonce und Lena,” pp. 73-102.

Henry J. Schmidt (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: Schmidt, Henry J. “Georg Büchner's Satiric Tendencies.” Satire, Caricature and Perspectivism in the Works of Georg Büchner, pp. 104-14. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1970, 119 p.

[In the following essay, Schmidt assesses the satirical and ironic nature of Büchner's literary temperament.]

Ever since literary critics have been writing about Büchner, they have encountered unusual difficulty and frustration in defining his unique philosophy, aesthetics, and dramatic style. Definitions and labels proffered by one critic are quickly demolished by the next, who in re-examining the material, determines that designations such as “nihilist”, “atheist”, “revolutionary”, or “realist” are not the last word and are too limited in scope to aid in grasping the thought and writings of Georg Büchner. A case in point: the two articles on Büchner in Benno von Wiese's Das deutsche Drama1 are both specifically directed against a nihilistic interpretation of Dantons Tod and Woyzeck, of which von Wiese himself is a leading proponent. Each critical appraisal uncovers new complexities and finer shadings in Büchner's works, and there can be no better tribute to the genius of this man than the tendency to return constantly to the little that exists by him and assess its value anew. If there is to be a last word, it will necessarily be as cautious and ambivalent as Büchner himself was. Herbert Lindenberger writes: “Büchner poses far more questions than he attempts to answer; his very technique, to the extent that his dramatic situations are re-examined in one analogous situation after another, eschews any air-tight answers.”2 Critics need only turn to Büchner himself for an enlightened warning: we must not, like the Doctor, the Captain, or King Peter, escape complexity by retreating into the illusory security of formulas.

The coloration of Büchner's style is truly kaleidoscopic. The basic structural element of Büchner's dramaturgy, as Helmut Krapp points out, is the contrastive construction,3 through which Büchner brings about the artistic re-creation of the “Schöpfung, die glühend, brausend und leuchtend … sich jeden Augenblick neu gebiert.” (Dantons Tod, p. 40) Büchner's dramatic perspective is broad enough to accommodate a St. Just and a Marion, a King Peter and a Lena, a Doctor and a Marie, allowing these characters to exist on their own terms in their own environment. They are products of Büchner's intellect and intuition, which had to be extraordinary to produce such extraordinary figures.

In this respect critics face an even greater frustration. The sources for information on Büchner's personality are meager, and even the most important materials—Büchner's letters—are incomplete and inconclusive. Critics have attempted to construct a portrait of Büchner the writer, scientist, and politician from these sources, but such a portrait must necessarily remain a rough sketch. The sources are often unreliable: Büchner's letters to his parents were often designed to mislead them about his revolutionary activity; most of his letters have been extensively edited by Ludwig Büchner, and the originals are lost (see p. 753 of the 1922 Bergemann edition); many of the reminiscences about Büchner were written forty years after his death.

The purpose of this [essay] is to investigate the satiric tendencies in the personality of Georg Büchner as an extension of … textual analyses of his plays. Especially since the material on the playwright is so sparse, this [essay] cannot be much more than an appendix, for there is little in Büchnerian documentation … which would add to the interpretation of the plays. We aim at suppositions rather than at conclusions. This reappraisal of Büchner material is motivated by the conviction that there exist a number of misinterpretations and misapplications of these sources. …

Büchner's contrastive technique produces a constantly fluctuating attitude of affirmation and negation. Many interpreters have separated and analyzed the strands which constitute the fabric of his writings, and, while such investigations have greatly contributed to the understanding of the relationship between Büchner's studies in anatomy and medicine, his literary production, and his political activity, they occasionally create a false sense of proportion by giving too much weight to a chosen number of passages from his writings. This occurs most frequently in discussions of Büchner's aesthetic principles. By and large the discussions center on three sources: the “Kunstgespräch” between Camille and Danton in the scene, “Ein Zimmer” in Act II of Dantons Tod; Büchner's letter to his parents on Dantons Tod, written from Strassburg on July 28, 1835; and the “Kunstmonolog” in Lenz—all in all about five pages of text, not without repetition, having as a single theme the obligations of the artist to Nature. The three passages are of great relevance to the style and content of Lenz and the three plays, and they also shed light on Büchner's sympathies in the political sphere and on his anti-teleological position as set forth in his lecture, “Über Schädelnerven”. Yet there is, of course, much that is still unexplained,4 and other texts are used to fill some of the gaps: the fatalism which dominates Dantons Tod and Woyzeck is traced primarily to the letter to Minna Jaeglé, written presumably in November, 1833; the satiric elements of the plays are said to have evolved from the “Spott des Hasses” mentioned in the fiery letter to his parents in February, 1834. But these sources are still too limited to be valid bases for appraisal of important aspects of Büchner's dramas.

We have seen how complex and varied are the motivations of the satirist. Judging from this evidence, it is an oversimplification to say, as Viëtor5 and Mayer6 and many others have done, that Büchner is acting as a social critic and not as a true artist when he created King Peter's court, the Doctor, and the Captain. Such a formulation is not only restricting but actually a disparagement of Büchner, for it implies that there is relatively little artistic merit in a considerable part of his dramatic production. … Using the remarks on the purpose and technique of satire as a basis, the extant documentation on Büchner will now be examined for clues which will hopefully yield further insight into the temperament which created these caricatures.

Büchner's pre-university life is especially difficult to reconstruct. There exists some derivative poetry of no particular significance, a few unrelated remarks collected by Karl Emil Franzos, some idle marginal scribbling in notebooks, and a few compositions. The marginal notes—those that are not quotations from Shakespeare—are private little outcries of a spirited student trapped in a boring class. To pass the time he pokes fun at his teachers. Already there is a seed of antipathy against empty pathos in the words: “Scharfsinn, Verstand, gesunde Vernunft! lauter leere Namen.” (p. 458) The compositions dating from this period appear to be prescribed exercises, based on no particular convictions. This theory is strongly supported by Werner Lehmann's discovery that much of “Heldentod der vierhundert Pforzheimer” is copied from Fichte's “Rede an die deutsche Nation: Rede VIII”.7 It seems superfluous to elaborate upon the Fichtean influence upon this “Gymnasiast”, for Büchner at this point can hardly be called an independent thinker. Nevertheless, the fervent idealism expressed in these essays was not totally without influence later on; although Büchner soon turned to the more pragmatic French thinkers, his political views during the years at Strassburg and Giessen reflected an idealized belief in universal freedom and equality.

The most penetrating glimpse into Büchner's life in Darmstadt is afforded by the memoirs of Friedrich Zimmermann (pp. 552-554) and Ludwig Wilhelm Luck (pp. 555-559). Concerning Büchner's temperament, Zimmermann speaks of Büchner's “mächtig strebender Geist” which followed its own inclinations, and he calls him “ein kühner Skeptiker”.8 Luck's more detailed description bears this out, and the character traits he saw in Büchner are strikingly similar to the temperament of a satirist. “Es war jedoch nicht seine Art, sich andern ungeprüft und voreilig hinzugeben, er war vielmehr ein ruhiger, gründlicher, mehr zurückhaltender Beobachter”, reports Luck. However, he stresses that Büchner was by no means a cynic: “Wo er aber fand, dass jemand wirklich wahres Leben suchte, da konnte er auch warm, ja enthusiastisch werden.” Büchner and the Zimmermann brothers employed their quick intelligence “zu allerlei kritischem und humoristischem Wetteifer in Beurteilung der Zustände”, which Luck could appreciate but not take part in (“für den ich zu ernst und zu schwer war”, he adds modestly). Büchner had a pronounced taste for parody, spoofing clergymen with Shakespearian quotations (p. 558) and making fun of lectures in his notebooks.9 His sense of humor, which sustained him even in times of crisis, seems not to have been inherited from either parent. Büchner's father was a sober and dedicated physician, competent but unimaginative. His mother was of a far more sensitive, poetical nature, but she did not share her son's intellectual irony.10

Both Luck and Zimmermann mention Büchner's early interest in scientific, philosophical, and metaphysical questions. Luck notes an awakening of political consciousness, a growing awareness of the inequalities existing in the German states. The young Büchner seems to have been extremely active in the search for knowledge and mental stimulation, proceeding in many areas with the skeptical caution of the scientific observer. Whatever was assimilated was evaluated. Luck reports:

In seinem Denken und Tun durch das Streben nach Wesenhaftigkeit und Wahrhaftigkeit frühe durchaus selbständig, vermochte ihm keine äusserliche Autorität noch nichtiger Schein zu imponieren. Das Bewusstsein des erworbenen geistigen Fonds drängte ihn fortwährend zu einer unerbittlichen Kritik dessen, was in der menschlichen Gesellschaft oder Philosophie und Kunst Alleinberechtigung beanspruchte oder erlistete.—Daher sein vernichtender, manchmal übermütiger Hohn über Taschenspielerkünste Hegelischer Dialektik und Begriffsformulationen, z.B.: “Alles, was wirklich, ist auch vernünftig, und was vernünftig, auch wirklich.” Aufs tiefste verachtete er, die sich und andere mit wesenlosen Formeln abspeisten, anstatt für sich selbst das Lebensbrot der Wahrheit zu erwerben und es andern zu geben.

This passage provides a singularly appropriate commentary to the figures of King Peter, the Doctor, and the Captain. Luck continues: “Man sah ihm an, an Stirne, Augen und Lippen, dass er auch, wenn er schwieg, diese Kritik in seinem in sich verschlossnen Denken übte … Die zuckenden Lippen verrieten, wie oft er mit der Welt im Widerspruch und Streit lag.” Büchner's critical outlook was so much a part of his nature that his uncompromising personality often provoked dislike in those who could not gain his friendship or understand his views. Carl Vogt, a witness to Büchner's unhappy days in Giessen, describes Büchner as an intelligent but unapproachable revolutionary. (pp. 559-560)

Büchner's letters span a period of little more than five years. Fritz Bergemann's summary of the insights they offer is apt: “Hier spricht der Dichter unmittelbar aus, was ihn bewegt, verstimmt, beschäftigt, hier lernen wir ihn als Menschen kennen in seiner sprühenden Laune und seiner sensiblen Reizbarkeit, in seinem sozialen Mitgefühl und seinem revolutionären Zorn, in seiner Naturfreude, seiner teilnehmenden Freundschaft und seiner trauten Zwiesprache mit der Geliebten, auch in seinem beruflichen Streben, seiner künstlerischen und politischen Meinungsbildung und seiner weltanschaulichen Gesinnung.” (Nachwort, p. 602) The letters, like the plays, reflect a wide spectrum of interest and activity, as well as abrupt changes of moods. Already in the first extant letter there appears a perplexing Büchnerian twist. Almost as an afterthought, Büchner seems to deflate his own idealism. He describes the reception in Strassburg of the Polish General Ramorino, a leader in the recently suppressed Polish revolution. Ramorino was heralded as a symbol of the liberal freedom movement flourishing during the 1830's. Büchner was among the students who broke through police barriers to welcome Ramorino. His description of the event is coolly objective, and he concludes with the words: “Darauf erscheint Ramorino auf dem Balkon, dankt, man ruft Vivat—und die Komödie ist fertig.” (p. 366) It does not seem likely that these words were meant to mislead Büchner's parents regarding his political interests, for he had just arrived in Strassburg, and political involvement would have had dangerous consequences only if Büchner were still in Germany. “Und die Komödie ist fertig” is in retrospect not as surprising as at first, for the tone of the letter is singularly dry. The phrase most probably indicates Büchner's dislike of ceremonies and demonstrations which have no practical results.11 Büchner constantly strove toward the concrete goal; he demanded action which would effect lasting change—and herein lies his idealism. “Was nennt Ihr denn gesetzlichen Zustand?” he writes in 1833. “… dies Gesetz ist eine ewige, rohe Gewalt, angetan dem Recht und der gesunden Vernunft, und ich werde mit Mund und Hand dagegen kämpfen, wo ich kann. Wenn ich an dem, was geschehen, keinen Teil genommen und an dem, was vielleicht geschieht, keinen Teil nehmen werde, so geschieht es weder aus Missbilligung noch aus Furcht, sondern nur weil ich im gegenwärtigen Zeitpunkt jede revolutionäre Bewegung als eine vergebliche Unternehmung betrachte und nicht die Verblendung derer teile, welche in den Deutschen ein zum Kampf für sein Recht bereites Volk sehen.” (p. 369) The latter statement is belied by Büchner's later revolutionary activity, but his basic attitude—the critical examination of every factor of a problem, the flexible perspective—never changed. Even Der Hessische Landbote, a tract of firm conviction and urgency, was not a blind gamble. August Becker stated in court: “Mit der von ihm [Büchner] geschriebenen Flugschrift wollte er vorderhand nur die Stimmung des Volks und der deutschen Revolutionärs erforschen. Als er später hörte, dass die Bauern die meisten gefundenen Flugschriften auf die Polizei abgeliefert hätten, als er vernahm, dass sich auch die Patrioten gegen seine Flugschrift ausgesprochen, gab er alle seine politischen Hoffnungen in bezug auf ein Anderswerden auf.” (“Aus August Beckers gerichtlichen Angaben”, p. 562.) The definitive manner in which Becker announces the termination of Büchner's political activity was designed to protect Büchner from arrest. Büchner continued his secret political agitation after his return to Darmstadt in August, 1834. Becker significantly uses the word “erforschen”; Büchner wrote and distributed the Landbote as an experiment so that he might observe the impact of his viewpoint (which differed from that of Weidig and other more moderate co-revolutionaries) upon the masses. The experiment failed, but Büchner, proceeding in a scientific fashion, had gained valuable insight into his audience—a must for a political satirist who seeks to reform his public through his writings. Although the experience was a disappointment, Büchner remained level-headed enough to register a brazen complaint against the very authorities who were seeking to implicate him in revolutionary activity. (pp. 385-388) To this, too, Büchner might have added the epitaph, “und die Komödie ist fertig”.

Despite Büchner's tendency to disparage his own beliefs, his antipathy toward the oppressors of the masses was unwavering. We have [elsewhere] spoken of the “Spott des Hasses” which Büchner directs against those who scorn those socially beneath them. The political situation in France, Büchner writes, “ist doch nur eine Komödie. Der König und die Kammern regieren, und das Volk klatscht und bezahlt”. (Strassburg, December, 1832, p. 367) As for Germany: “Unsere Landstände sind eine Satire auf die gesunde Vernunft.” (Strassburg, April 5, 1833, p. 368) Or, in a letter dating from Büchner's second sojourn in Strassburg: “Der König von Bayern lässt unsittliche Bücher verbieten! da darf er seine Biographie nicht erscheinen lassen, denn die wäre das Schmutzigste, was je geschrieben worden! Der Grossherzog von Baden, erster Ritter vom doppelten Mopsorden, macht sich zum Ritter vom Heiligen Geist und lässt Gutzkow arretieren, und der liebe deutsche Michel glaubt, es geschähe alles aus Religion und Christentum und klatscht in die Hände.” (January 1, 1836, p. 407)

In these instances Büchner is writing with a satirist's pen. He demeans his victims with uncomplimentary appellations; he relies heavily upon irony and sarcasm, seeking out damaging contradiction, and he does not refrain from name-calling. In his words: “Es fällt mir nicht mehr ein, vor den Paradegäulen und Eckstehern der Geschichte mich zu bücken.” (Giessen, November, 1833, p. 374) In the Landbote, he intensifies and animates his style through satiric imagery. In the letter of 1836, he is not being polemical, but he savors the ironies of political decrees and actions. His desire for direct action is sublimated into verbal ridicule.

In this connection it is especially regrettable that Büchner's drama about Pietro Aretino has never been found. According to a letter written less than two months before his death, Büchner informed his fiancée Minna Jaeglé that he was planning to publish Leonce und Lena and two other dramas. (p. 422) Franzos discovered the Woyzeck manuscripts in 1879, but the drama mentioned by Ludwig Büchner in his edition of his brother's works (1850) never appeared. Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) was a writer of comedies and satiric poetry—not a literary satirist, but a satirist with a vengeance. He used his wit as a powerful weapon, wielding it daringly for his personal advantage, unscrupulously, cynically, often obscenely. His talents enabled him to rise from a lowly origin to become the friend of Giovanni de' Medici, Francis I of France, and the pope. He became rich by extorting money from nobles by threatening them with the power of his satire. In his own estimation he was “divine” and the “scourge of princes”.12

It is obvious why Büchner was attracted to Aretino: a poor man rises to challenge and dominate the aristocracy with the might of his pen; a satirist fearlessly exposes the weaknesses of an unjust society, disregarding conventional standards of order and morality. In personality and outlook the Italian and the German differed greatly, but both shared an esprit libre which could not be contained by their restrictive environments. There remains the fascinating question: how did Büchner mold Aretino into a Büchnerian hero?

Now that Büchner's satiric tendencies have been touched upon, it is necessary once again to point out that satire was not his primary goal, either artistically or otherwise, nor can he be called exclusively a satirist in temperament. Büchner was a great ironist, but the root of his irony was not based on an attacker-victim relationship. To repeat his words: “Man nennt mich einen Spötter. Es ist wahr, ich lache oft; aber ich lache nicht darüber, wie jemand ein Mensch, sondern nur darüber, dass er ein Mensch ist, wofür er ohnehin nichts kann, und lache dabei über mich selbst, der ich sein Schicksal teile.” (pp. 377-378) This is more than satiric laughter. The satirist laughs at people, at their weaknesses, either out of personal enjoyment or out of the desire to improve his fellow men. Büchner's is a laughter of general despair, based on the recognition of the smallness of his own self, impotent against fate. This self-irony was, as we have seen, deeply rooted in his personality, and time and again he makes light of projects in which he was deeply involved. He speaks slightingly of his plays, calling them “Ferkeldramen” (p. 535; Gutzkow is apparently quoting Büchner in this letter), he makes fun of his projected lectures on philosophy: “Ich habe mich jetzt ganz auf das Studium der Naturwissenschaften und der Philosophie gelegt und werde in kurzem nach Zürich gehen, um in meiner Eigenschaft als überflüssiges Mitglied der Gesellschaft meinen Mitmenschen Vorlesungen über etwas ebenfalls höchst Überflüssiges, nämlich über die philosophischen Systeme der Deutschen seit Cartesius und Spinoza, zu halten.” (p. 417) At one point he sees himself as a model for a grotesque caricature: “Ich hätte Herrn Callot-Hoffmann sitzen können”—a reference to E. T. A. Hoffmann, who had written Phantasiestücke in Callots Manier, based on the sketches of Jacques Callot (1592-1635). That this trait was more than just modesty is evident in that self-irony functions as a significant stylistic element in Dantons Tod and Leonce und Lena. Danton, his friends, Leonce, and Valerio are constantly holding up mirrors to themselves and laughing at their reflections. Their wit acts as a balm against the pain of existence; it lets them hold the world—and themselves—at a distance, whereby they preserve their conscious identities. For Büchner and his heroes, wit is activity—mental stimulation, a release from the chronic boredom which afflicts the perceptive individual. Danton and Leonce are for the most part dramatically inert—here they differ sharply from their spiritual cousin Hamlet—they are observers, as was Büchner himself. Yet neither of them is sure of his own vantage point. Self-doubt is made tolerable through self-irony. Self-deprecation is the only sure check against self-deception. A primary commandment of Büchnerian philosophy is that man must recognize his nature and live according to his potential; he cannot build existence upon an illusion. His fellow men are as he is, subject to the same painful mortality. Yet within this common fate there rests a powerful affirmation of existence: kinship and warmth among men. At one point in his correspondence Büchner elevates this attitude above the satiric with indisputable clarity: “Ich hoffe noch immer, dass ich leidenden, gedrückten Gestalten mehr mitleidige Blicke zugeworfen als kalten, vornehmen Herzen bittere Worte gesagt habe.” (Giessen, February, 1834, p. 378) The balance is in favor of sympathy, not sarcasm, and Büchner's works bear this out. Their most remarkable feature is their depth of compassion for the human condition—the abandoned Lenz and Woyzeck, the doubting philosophers Danton and Leonce, the spontaneous warmth of Marion, Julie, Lucile, Lena, and Marie. Deep sensitivity and love suffuse Büchner's letters to Minna Jaeglé, and this “selige Empfindung” sustained him through periods of illness and mental depression. His scientific works reflect an admiration for the limitless diversity of nature. Those who have isolated themselves from the wholeness of life Büchner demolishes with the weapons of satire. Satire is in his works a servant of his affirmation of existence.


  1. Walter Höllerer, “Dantons Tod”, Das deutsche Drama, Vol. II, Benno von Wiese, ed. (Düsseldorf, 1960), pp. 65-88; Kurt May, “Büchner: Woyzeck” (same volume), pp. 89-100.

  2. Georg Büchner, p. 94.

  3. Der Dialog bei Georg Büchner, p. 145.

  4. It is revealing that Helmut Krapp, who bases his analysis of Büchner's style largely on the principles outlined in the passages mentioned above, neglects entirely the characterizations which seem to come from another creative impulse (i.e., King Peter, the Doctor, the Captain, etc.).

  5. Georg Büchner, p. 192.

  6. Georg Büchner und seine Zeit, p. 438.

  7. “Prolegomena zu einer historisch-kritischen Büchner-Ausgabe”.

  8. See also Büchner's diploma, where C. Dilthey, the school director, writes: “Den Religionsstunden hat er mit Aufmerksamkeit beigewohnt und in denselben manche treffliche Beweise von selbständigem Nachdenken gegeben … von seinem klaren und durchdringenden Verstande hegen wir eine viel zu vorteilhafte Ansicht, als dass wir glauben könnten, er würde jemals durch Erschlaffung, Versäumnis oder voreilig absprechende Urtheile seinem eigenen Lebensglück im Wege stehen.” (p. 552)

  9. According to Franzos, Büchner once rewrote Schiller's “Graf Eberhard der Greiner” in the Swabian dialect, but nothing more is known about this. (Georg Büchner's Sämmtliche Werke, xxiii.)

  10. Hans Mayer, Georg Büchner und seine Zeit, pp. 32-39.

  11. Mayer, p. 67.

  12. “Pietro Aretino”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed. (1911), Vol. II, p. 456.

Maurice B. Benn (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6460

SOURCE: Benn, Maurice B. “Leonce und Luna” and “Lenz.” In The Drama of Revolt: A Critical Study of Georg Büchner, pp. 157-63; 186-93. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

[In the following excerpts, Benn considers the tragic aesthetic of two works by Büchner, Leonce and Lena and Lenz.]


Leonce und Lena is exceptional among Büchner's works. Firstly because it is a comedy. Secondly because, more clearly than any of his other productions, it was prompted by an external occasion. On 3 February 1836 the publisher Cotta announced a prize for the best German comedy, and it was this competition that supplied the immediate impulse for the writing of Leonce und Lena. The deadline for Cotta's competition was 1 July 1836.1 Büchner's manuscript arrived too late and was returned to him unopened, whereupon, it appears, he set himself to revise and improve the work. In a letter of September 1836, referring, presumably, to Leonce und Lena and Woyzeck, he wrote to his parents:

Ich habe meine zwei Dramen noch nicht aus den Händen gegeben, ich bin noch mit Manchem unzufrieden und will nicht, daß es mir geht, wie das erste Mal. Das sind Arbeiten, mit denen man nicht zu einer bestimmten Zeit fertig werden kann, wie der Schneider mit seinem Kleid.

(An die Familie, 2, 460)

In Zurich, in the last months before his death, Büchner was evidently still engaged in polishing and improving Leonce und Lena, for it was stated by Wilhelm Schulz in an obituary published in the Züricher Zeitung of 23 February 1837 that ‘in the same period [i.e., the last period in Strasbourg] and later in Zurich he completed a comedy which exists in MS, Leonce und Lena, a work full of cleverness, wit and saucy humour’.2 How near it was to being ready for publication is indicated by a sentence in what may have been Büchner's last letter to Minna Jaegle:

‹Ich werde› in längstens acht Tagen Leonce und Lena mit noch zwei anderen Dramen erscheinen lassen.

(2, 464)

After Büchner's death the MS mentioned by Schulz together with that of the fragment Lenz came into the possession of Minna Jaegle, who, as a reward for an article on Büchner in the Frankfurter Telegraf (June 1837), gave fair copies of these works, written by her own hand, to Karl Gutzkow.3Leonce und Lena was published by Gutzkow in the Telegraph für Deutschland in May 1838, the first Act being given in a fragmentary form together with Gutzkow's summaries of the omitted passages. The first nearly complete publication, based probably on an original MS, was in the Nachgelassene Schriften of 1850, edited by Büchner's brother Ludwig. Neither publication can be regarded as reliable. Gutzkow's … is incomplete and based on a copy which may well have been imperfect. Ludwig Büchner can be shown to have mutilated many passages out of ‘prudery or negligence’4 or out of ‘political caution, literary incomprehension and pedantic arrogance’.5 As for the manuscript, only a few scraps of an earlier version are still extant. When criticizing and evaluating Leonce und Lena we must remember, not only that it lacked the author's finishing touches, but that it has been handed down to us in a corrupt form.

In his comedy Büchner is not so obviously in revolt against the tendencies of his time as in his serious plays. Whether, and to what extent, the spirit of revolt is present in Leonce und Lena also, is a question which must be further considered. But in the field of comedy there was certainly no classicism which could provoke Büchner's direct opposition as it was provoked by the classicism of Schiller in the field of tragedy. In Germany there was the comedy of the romantics, of Tieck and Brentano; in France the comedy of Musset. Büchner did not feel bound to combat either of these forms of comedy but rather, with whatever modifications, to continue and develop them, adopting an attitude comparable with Heine's—a disposition to extend and intensify romanticism to the utmost while infusing into it an element of scepticism, of irony and of parody which offsets and relativizes the romantic elements without completely annulling them. But inasmuch as irony, in all its manifestations, was part of the tradition of German romanticism from the beginning, one must recognize that Büchner no more than Heine completely breaks with that tradition. Not, that is to say, so far as comedy is concerned; his serious works are a different matter.

On the whole, then, there is less of ‘aesthetic revolt’ in Leonce und Lena than in Dantons Tod; but, as we shall see, Büchner's modified romantic form still allows a good deal of scope for the expression of his political and metaphysical revolt.

Comparing his method here with that of Dantons Tod, Lenz and Woyzeck, we may note the significant difference that Leonce und Lena, unlike those tragic works, is not based on documentary records of real events. The course of the action does not reflect, and is not determined by, the actual experiences of a real historical figure. It is obviously suggested by the action, or by episodes of the action, of other literary works, particularly Brentano's Ponce de Leon (1801) and Musset's Fantasio (published in the Revue des deux mondes in May 1834). Brentano's hero has many traits in common with Leonce; he is described as ‘a curious, capricious fellow who amuses everybody and is always bored—witty and shy, cruel and kind, for ever mooning around like a lover, making all the women one after the other fall in love with him and tormenting them with his coldness’ (I. x).6 Like Leonce, Ponce forsakes one of his mistresses (Valeria) and finds a hope of salvation in the arms of another (Isidora). Musset's Fantasio is the story of a princess (Elsbeth), who, like Büchner's Lena, is required for reasons of state to marry a prince whom she has never seen and who comes incognito to woo her. The extreme freedom with which Büchner has borrowed from these and other works of Brentano and Musset, as well as from Shakespeare, Tieck, Jean Paul and Heine, has not unnaturally resulted in his comedy being criticized as derivative. Gundolf found that ‘the whole thing is a product of the literary imitation of Brentano, Tieck, Shakespeare’,7 and Hans Mayer similarly complained that the people in Büchner's comedy ‘have read very many books’, that they ‘lead a life at second hand’.8 This criticism has a plausibility which compels consideration and we shall have to return to it presently. Meanwhile it may be observed that, though the degree of Leonce und Lena's dependence on other literary models may suggest a different relation to reality from that which obtains in Dantons Tod, it would be a mistake to infer that Büchner's comedy is merely a tissue of literary reminiscences with no basis whatever in real life. The substance of Leonce und Lena is in fact basically the same as that of Dantons Tod, Lenz and Woyzeck. It is the fund of experience which Büchner had acquired in his short but very intense life. It is the doubt and despair of his metaphysical speculations and historical reflections; his bitter awareness of the despotism and pettiness of the German principalities and of the agony and brutalization of the people; his sense of frustration, of the pointlessness and absurdity of his own endeavours; his endless boredom. But it is also his love for Minna Jaegle, that love which meant so much to him because he seemed to find in it what his restless tormented spirit most intensely longed for—peace.

All this is expressed in Leonce und Lena no less than in Dantons Tod, but it has to be expressed now in the tone of comedy. That Büchner should have attempted such an experiment was probably not only due to the external stimulus of Cotta's competition, but also to the fact that the first half of 1836 was a relatively happy period in his life. He had made good his escape from Germany; he was enjoying freedom and the company of his fiancée in his dear city of Strasbourg; his Dantons Tod had been enthusiastically acclaimed by Gutzkow; and he was making good progress with his scientific work. Under such circumstances it is understandable that he should have been willing to attempt a work in lighter vein, and in Leonce und Lena he certainly achieves a milder tone than in his other plays; in a number of passages there is at least the appearance of cheerfulness and high spirits. Yet the basic experiences underlying the work are, as we have remarked, for the most part grim and gloomy, and from such a source no very joyful laughter can spring. The motto which Büchner chose for Act I—

                    O that I were a fool.
I am ambitious for a motley coat

(As You Like It II. vii)

is already ominous, for these are the words of the melancholy Jaques whose laughter springs from bitterness and for whom the freedom of folly is a means ‘to cleanse the foul body of th'infected world.’ Büchner himself was prepared to see in folly or madness a means of escape from intolerable suffering. Thus his Camille can say of Lucile:

Der Himmel verhelf' ihr zu einer behaglichen fixen Idee. Die allgemeinen fixen Ideen, welche man die gesunde Vernunft tauft, sind unerträglich langweilig. Der glücklichste Mensch war der, welcher sich einbilden konnte, daß er Gott Vater, Sohn und heiliger Geist sey.

(Dantons Tod IV v. 70)

And Valerio in Leonce und Lena is prepared at any time to barter his unprofitable reason for the flattering visions of megalomania (see I. i. 107).

In addition to the laughter of madness there are also other kinds of laughter which Büchner recognizes. There is the laughter that is prompted by an acute sense of the absurdity of the world, the futility of human endeavours including one's own endeavours, the ludicrousness of mankind including one's own ludicrousness. And there is the laughter that springs from hatred, the mockery with which Büchner relentlessly pursues those who, in their ‘aristocratic’ arrogance, feel entitled to make a mockery of others:

Man nennt mich einen Spötter. Es ist wahr, ich lache oft, aber ich lache nicht darüber, wie Jemand ein Mensch, sondern nur darüber, daβ er ein Mensch ist, wofür er ohnehin nichts kann, und lache dabei über mich selbst, der ich sein Schicksal theile … Ich habe freileich noch eine Art von Spott, es ist aber nicht der der Verachtung, sondern der des Hasses.

(An die Familie, Februar 1834, 2, 423)

All these varieties of laughter are to be found in Leonce und Lena—the laughter of folly escaping from grief, the laughter of those who are overwhelmed by the absurdity of the human condition, the laughter which is Büchner's deadliest weapon in the struggle against aristocratic superciliousness. But it is obvious that all three represent, basically, a negative reaction to the world; they arise from suffering, not from joy. And occasionally in Leonce und Lena, particularly when Lena speaks, the bright veil of mirth is withdrawn and the dark background frankly revealed. More often the effect is of a kaleidoscope of tones, ranging in a ‘chromatic phantasmagoria’ from a cheerfulness that is almost happiness to a melancholy that is not far removed from despair. No doubt this iridescent effect was deliberately intended by Büchner, and it adds to the charm of the work as much as it challenges and perplexes the interpreter. Small wonder that Leonce und Lena has been so diversely understood and evaluated.

Borrowing Hölderlin's terminology, one may say that the apparent tone or ‘artistic character’ (Kunstcharakter) of the play is cheerful and comic, but that its basic tone (Grundton) is melancholy and almost tragic.9 And one may suspect that it is precisely because the basic tone is so profoundly gloomy that the apparent tone has to be so fantastic, so bizarre, in many respects so unrealistic.

This may seem paradoxical in a writer so passionately committed to realism as Büchner professed to be, and at least one critic, Hans Mayer, finds that ‘no greater disharmony can be imagined than that between all his other doctrine—the general tendency of his work—and this ironically romantic fantasy of the two royal children’.10 But we must remember that the artistic principles which Büchner lays down in Dantons Tod, in Lenz and in his letters, are an incomplete statement of his aesthetic creed—there is no discussion of comedy in his extant writings; and the disharmony of which Mayer complains is after all not so difficult to understand. The truth is that for Büchner reality is essentially tragic. Consequently, in tragedy he can be fully realistic, in comedy not so. A fully realistic representation of life as he sees it would be incompatible with the tone of comedy. If he is to maintain that tone reality must somehow be modified, distorted, reduced, romanticized, burlesqued.11 Its most intolerable aspects have to be suppressed or subdued and the emphasis placed on those of which the absurdity is not so painful as to forbid laughter. It is this tendency to dwell on the ludicrous and absurd aspects of life, with reduced realism, that has led some critics to see in Leonce und Lena a forerunner of the modern ‘theatre of the absurd’.

Does this mean that in Leonce und Lena Büchner abandons the attitude of revolt? It would certainly mean this if Büchner had carried absurdity to its extreme, since absolute absurdity is incompatible with values, and without values there can be no revolt. When Büchner lets Danton say:

Muthe mir nur nichts Ernsthaftes zu. Ich begreife nicht warum die Leute nicht auf der Gasse stehen bleiben und einander in's Gesicht lachen

(Dantons Tod II. ii. 36)

we see the sense of absurdity carried to its extreme, and in such a state of mind, obviously, there is no value that can still command respect, no spring of action that is not broken. If Danton had always been of this mind he could never have been a revolutionary. And this is no doubt the reason why revolutionary and ‘engaged’ writers such as Brecht, Frisch, the later Adamov have been so critical of the absurd theatre or directly opposed to it. But Büchner does not carry absurdity to its extreme, not even in Leonce und Lena. Familiar as he was with that derisive mood which he ascribes to Danton, he never completely loses his sense of values. Even in Leonce und Lena there is still a feeling for political justice and political reason; there is still a feeling for the beauty of nature, and a suggestion, however hesitant, of the redemptive power of love. And so Leonce und Lena cannot be claimed for the absurd theatre. But in so far as its comic tone involves an evasion or distortion of reality it represents a movement in the direction of the absurd and consequently a weakening of the attitude of revolt. As we found the tone of the work wavering between the tragic and the comic, so we shall find the sense of it wavering between revolt and absurdity, the technique between realism and romanticism, the tendency between materialism and idealism. It is particularly the last of these antitheses that is suggested by the apocryphal utterances ascribed to Alfieri and Gozzi in the freakish ‘preface’ to the comedy:

Alfieri: ‘E la fama?’
Gozzi: ‘E la fame?’



The predominant influence on Dantons Tod and Leonce und Lena is clearly Shakespeare. In Lenz and Woyzeck the Shakespearian influence, though still latently present, is much less obvious and direct and Büchner's style becomes more individual and mature. This is one of the reasons and justifications for closely associating Lenz with Woyzeck, notwithstanding the fact that they are chronologically separated by Leonce und Lena. They are also alike in that they are primarily concerned with the life of poor and humble people, not, like Dantons Tod and Leonce und Lena, with that of kings and princes and famous historical figures. This development is consistent with Büchner's aesthetic principle that the artist must be prepared to immerse himself in the life of the lowliest of mankind, and with his political conviction that it was necessary to seek the formation of a new spiritual life among the people. If it had been given to him to live longer it is presumably in this direction—the direction initiated in Lenz and continued in Woyzeck—that his poetic and dramatic production would have proceeded.

It is not known with certainty when Büchner first conceived the idea of writing about Lenz. The collected works of this gifted and unfortunate poet appeared for the first time in 1828, edited by Tieck; and this edition may have come to the notice of Büchner even before his first visit to Strasbourg. In Strasbourg his circumstances were certainly calculated to nourish an interest in Lenz. Only a few years before, in 1826, J. J. Jaegle, the father of Büchner's fiancée, had delivered the funeral sermon on Jean-Frédéric Oberlin, the man who had once been Lenz's generous host and friend. In 1831 D. E. Stöber, the father of Büchner's friends August and Adolf Stöber, had published a biography of Oberlin in which Lenz's visit to Waldersbach was related. In the same year August Stöber had published in the Stuttgart Morgenblatt Lenz's letters to Salzmann and an account of his stay at Waldersbach based on a record by Oberlin which was to become the principal source of Büchner's Novelle. Evidence of continued interest in Lenz during Büchner's period in Giessen is to be found in the letter to Minna of March 1834 (2, 428), which contains a quotation from Lenz's poem about Friederike Brion, ‘Die Liebe auf dem Lande’:

War nicht umsonst so still und schwach,
Verlass'ne Liebe trug sie nach.
In ihrer kleinen Kammer hoch
Sie stets an der Erinnrung sog;
An ihrem Brodschrank an der Wand
Er immer, immer vor ihr stand,
Und wenn ein Schlaf sie übernahm,
Er immer, immer wieder kam …
Denn immer, immer, immer doch
Schwebt ihr das Bild an Wänden noch
Von einem Menschen, welcher kam
Und ihr als Kind das Herze nahm.
Fast ausgelöscht ist sein Gesicht,
Doch seiner Worte Kraft noch nicht,
Und jener Stunden Seligkeit,
Ach jener Träume Wirklichkeit,
Die, angeboren jedermann,
Kein Mensch sich wirklich machen kann.

The depth and persistence of Friederike's love for her faithless lover Goethe, so admirably expressed in these lines, explain the jealousy which Büchner ascribes to Lenz in the Novelle and which is such an important motif in it.

Although he had so long been interested in Lenz, it is not until May 1835 that we find the first indication of Büchner's intention to write a Novelle about him. On the 12th of that month Gutzkow writes to him:

I presume your Novelle Lenz will be about the shipwrecked poet, since Strasbourg suggests this subject.12

Then, on 28 September 1835, Gutzkow, eager for material for his projected journal Deutsche Revue, suggests that Büchner might be able to deal with Lenz more easily and quickly in the form of an essay:

Give us, if nothing more for the beginning, Recollections of Lenz: you seem to have facts there which it would be easy to write up.13

And Büchner appears at first to fall in with this proposal, for he writes to his family in October 1835:

Ich habe mir hier allerhand interessante Notizen über einen Freund Goethes, einen unglücklichen Poeten namens Lenz, verschafft, der sich gleichzeitig mit Goethe hier aufhielt und halb verrückt wurde. Ich denke darüber einen Aufsatz in der Deutschen Revue erscheinen zu lassen.

(2, 448)

The material on which Büchner proposed to base his work was obtained largely, if not wholly, from August Stöber, and it included the manuscript of Oberlin's record of Lenz's visit. This record was published by Stöber for the first time in 1839 in the journal Erwinia, and a second time in Stöber's monograph Der Dichter Lenz und Friederike von Sesenheim, Basel, 1842, which contains the following footnote on Oberlin's report:

On this essay is based the Novelle Lenz of my deceased friend Georg Büchner, which unfortunately remains a fragment. For a long time in Strasbourg he entertained the idea of making Lenz the hero of a Novelle, and I gave him as material all the manuscripts I possessed.14

To Gutzkow's inquiry of 6 February 1836: ‘You were proposing once to write a Novelle Lenz’ (Eine Novelle Lenz war einmal beabsichtigt) no reply has been preserved, and indeed Büchner makes no further mention of Lenz in any of the letters that have come down to us—unless we suppose that Lenz was one of the two ‘dramas’ referred to in Büchner's last letter to Minna which were to be published together with Leonce und Lena. It is impossible to say precisely when the Novelle, in the form in which we have it, was written. It was evidently later than October 1835, since at that time Büchner was still proposing to deal with the subject in the form of an essay. And it was probably earlier than 1 January 1836, since Lenz was presumably one of the ‘articles’ which, as he remarks in his letter of that date, he was thinking of publishing in the Phönix.

… Gutzkow's valedictory article of June 1837 brought him as a reward from the hand of Minna Jaegle a fair copy of the manuscript of Lenz together with the copy of Leonce und Lena. Gutzkow published the Novelle in the Telegraph für Deutschland in 1839 under the title Lenz. Eine Reliquie von Georg Büchner. The next publication was by Ludwig Büchner in the Nachgelassene Schriften of 1850 under the title “Lenz. Ein Novellenfragment.” The original manuscript and Minna Jaegle's copy have been lost, but some of the numerous errors and misprints in the first two publications can be corrected by reference to the record of Oberlin on which the Novelle is largely based.

It will have been observed that both August Stöber and Ludwig Büchner refer to the Novelle as a fragment; but it is now generally considered to be virtually complete. The conclusion, describing the condition of hopeless apathy and emptiness in which Lenz is sent away from Waldersbach and arrives in Strasbourg and in which he is doomed to go on living indefinitely (So lebte er hin), corresponds to the conclusion of Oberlin's record and is the logical end of Büchner's narrative. It is true that there is a lacuna in Büchner's text at the point where Oberlin describes his secret preparations for removing Lenz from Waldersbach, but Büchner has used the most interesting part of that description elsewhere and in the remainder there is little that could have seemed worthy to be incorporated in his Novelle. Yet it must be recognized that Lenz no less than Leonce und Lena lacks the author's final revision. There are some slight inconsistencies in the text and an occasional harshness in the grammatical constructions which Büchner might eventually have eliminated. Further difficulties are caused by the loss of the manuscript and the careless and incompetent editing already mentioned.15

The subject with which Büchner deals in Lenz could hardly be more serious. It is the story of the attempt of a young man of genius to escape the insanity that is overtaking him and of the failure of this attempt, the story of the gradual disintegration and destruction of his mind and soul. And Büchner deals with this subject in a tone as earnest as his theme. There is no ironical or whimsical diversion, as in Leonce und Lena. There are not even the touches of grim humour which occasionally relieve the tension in Dantons Tod and Woyzeck. The tragic reality is confronted simply and directly and rendered as it is, without distortion or mitigation. If in the remarks on literature and art which he puts into the mouth of Lenz we have the most perfect theoretical expression of Büchner's revolt against classicism and idealism, in the Novelle as a whole we have an admirable illustration of the consequences of that revolt for his literary and poetic practice. In this Novelle Büchner both preaches realism and practises it. He strives to render nature with the deepest truth, to seize and communicate that reality, that life, of which, as he lets his Lenz say, even the so-called realists had no conception and which was even more wretchedly travestied by the idealizers. He brings to the task the objectivity of a scientist as well as the imagination of a poet, and in his attitude of detached and uncompromising realism there is no doubt something of that implicit protest against Romantic illusions and chimeras, against Idealist dreams of perfection, which Hugo Friedrich has declared to be characteristic of nineteenth century realism in general.16 But, as has already been observed in our discussion of Büchner's aesthetic revolt, one must be careful that one knows what one means when applying the equivocal word ‘realism’ to Büchner. Höllerer is no doubt right in his contention that Büchner's vivid compressed images often seem to anticipate the surrealists rather than the realists. But when he infers that ‘Büchner, one of the fathers of realism, is at the same time one of the ancestors of so-called surrealism’; when he suggests that in some passages Büchner ‘is nearer to surrealism and supranaturalism than to realism’; he appears to be introducing a dichotomy into Büchner's work which Büchner himself would have disclaimed.17 It seems to be implied that Büchner is at one time a realist, at another time a surrealist or supranaturalist. But in truth Büchner is always a realist in the only sense that matters for him—in the sense that all his work is devoted to the one great aim of ‘giving us nature with the utmost reality’, of communicating his vision of reality with the utmost exactness, whether it be a vision of the external world or a vision of the human soul. He is not restricted in his choice of means; he can use exact descriptions or bold imaginative images:

Auf dem kleinen Kirchhof war der Schnee weg, dunkles Moos unter den schwarzen Kreuzen, ein verspäteter Rosenstrauch lehnte an der Kirchhofmauer, verspätete Blumen dazu unter dem Moos hervor, manchmal Sonne, dann wieder dunkel.


[wenn] die Wolken wie wilde wiehernde Rosse heransprengten, und der Sonnenschein dazwischen durchging und kam und sein blitzendes Schwert an den Schneeflächen zog, so daß ein helles, blendendes Licht über die Gipfel in die Thäler schnitt.


But one sees that the descriptions and the images serve the same purpose: the exact communication of the impression received, and the latter are no less necessary to this end than the former. This intentness on the precise impression seems to me to distinguish Büchner after all from the modern expressionists and surrealists, and to place him with Stendhal and Flaubert and Chekhov rather than with Barlach or Klee or Kafka. Camus's comparison of Melville and Kafka still holds good when Büchner's name is substituted for Melville's:

Like the greatest artists, Melville has constructed his symbols out of concrete experiences, not out of the stuff of dreams. The creator of myths has a claim to genius only in so far as he inscribes them in the density of reality and not in the fleeting clouds of the imagination. In Kafka it is the symbol that gives rise to the reality described, the incident springs from the image; in Melville the symbol emerges from the reality, the image is born of the perception. That is why Melville always remains in contact with the flesh and with nature, which are obscured in Kafka's work.18

It is not his dreams that Büchner is trying to convey, nor any abstraction; it is no ‘Wesensschau’ or ‘Tiefenschau’; it is the phenomena of life as he has experienced and observed them. And that is why, unlike the surrealists and expressionists, he is by no means averse to precise localization in space and time: the events of his Novelle occur to well known people at specific dates in a particular valley of the Vosges mountains. Present fashions should not tempt us to deny or minimize this strong realistic tendency which Büchner himself plainly and proudly recognized in his work.

It is this tendency which impels him once more, as in Dantons Tod and later in Woyzeck, to base his work on a careful study of historical documents. We have already noticed the relation of the Novelle to Oberlin's record of Lenz's visit. But that record is by no means the only source of Büchner's information. He has also taken many details from D. E. Stöber's biography of Oberlin, a work which he must have read attentively. In the Novelle as in the biography we are told how Oberlin was saved by an invisible hand from falling to his death from a bridge; how Oberlin counselled and comforted his parishioners and advised them on practical matters such as the construction of roads; how he heard mysterious voices and was interested in clairvoyance; how, in his childlike faith in God, he trustingly allowed his conduct to be determined by drawing lots.19 And one may compare Büchner's sentence:

Ein andermal zeigte ihm Oberlin Farbentäfelchen, er setzte ihm auseinander, in welcher Beziehung jede Farbe mit dem Menschen stände, er brachte zwölf Apostel heraus, deren jeder durch eine Farbe repräsentirt würde …


with the following from Stöber:

Le rouge signifie la foi; le jaune, l'amour; le bleu, la science … Chacun des douze apôtres de notre Seigneur et Sauveur Jésus-Christ a sa couleur, qui le distingue particulièrement.20

One may agree with Voss that by means of such details Büchner is able to give more plasticity to his portrait of Oberlin and at the same time communicate something of the religious, mystical and superstitious atmosphere of the Steintal.21

Goethe's Werther and Tieck's Der Aufruhr in den Cevennen (1826) are the fictional works which have most strongly influenced Lenz. Ludwig Büchner relates that when Minna Jaegle visited Büchner in Darmstadt in the autumn of 1834, he and she read Tieck's Novelle with great interest and pleasure;22 and there are some striking parallels between particular passages in Der Aufruhr in den Cevennen and in Lenz. Büchner's account of the religious enthusiasm of the people of the Steintal may also have been influenced generally by Tieck's description of the religious fanaticism of the Camisards.

But more important than all these external sources are the personal experience and observation which Büchner has embodied in his Novelle. According to Ludwig Büchner, his brother ‘found in Lenz's life and character spiritual conditions akin to his own, and the fragment is more or less a self-portrait of the writer’.23 Without wishing to press this last assertion, one must agree that Büchner really had much in common with Lenz and that the extraordinary power and authority of his Novelle is largely due to this natural affinity. He had himself experienced the pantheistic raptures and sudden despairs which he ascribes to his hero, and he shared Lenz's passion for drama, his aesthetic principles, his sympathy for poor and oppressed people. Moreover, during the sickness and acute distress which he had suffered in Giessen in the winter of 1833-4 Büchner had experienced and had described in his letters states of mind which, as Landau remarks,24 were not far removed from madness and not unlike those ascribed to the insane Lenz of the Novelle:

Der erste helle Augenblick seit acht Tagen. Unaufhörliches Kopfweh und Fieber, die Nacht kaum einige Stunden dürftiger Ruhe. Vor zwei Uhr komme ich in kein Bett, und dann ein beständiges Auffahren aus dem Schlaf und ein Meer von Gedanken, in denen mir die Sinne vergehen … Meine geistigen Kräfte sind gänzlich zerrüttet. Arbeiten ist mir unmöglich, ein dumpfes Brüten hat sich meiner bemeistert, in dem mir kaum ein Gedanke noch hell wird.

(An die Braut, März 1834, 2, 424 f.)

But Büchner's happier experiences also have found expression in Lenz. When, in the letter just referred to, he tells Minna that her image continually stands before him, that he sees her in every dream, we are reminded of Lenz's visions of Friederike Brion in the Novelle (Er rettete sich in eine Gestalt, die ihm immer vor Augen schwebte—89). And the Vosges mountains, which Büchner wandered over on foot in the summer of 1833 and described with so much enthusiasm in his letter of 8 July of that year—later he tells Gutzkow that he loves the Vosges like a mother and knows every peak and valley of them (2, 449)—provided him with the perfect and inevitable setting for the varying moods of his hero, the momentarily peaceful moods and the wildly tragic ones.


  1. Ludwig Büchner, p. 37: ‘Die Cotta'sche Buchhandlung hatte bis zum 1. Juli einen Preis auf das beste Lustspiel ausgesetzt.’

  2. ‘In derselben Zeit und später zu Zürich vollendete er ein im Manuskript vorliegendes Lustspiel, Leonce und Lena, voll Geist, Witz und kecker Laune.’

  3. This is according to Gutzkow's account of the matter (Werke, ed. by Reinhold Gensel, vol. 11, p. 90). Lehmann (Textkritische Noten, p. 29) suggests that Gutzkow may have received an original MS of Leonce und Lena and, having mislaid or lost it, may only have pretended to have received a copy in order to conceal his carelessness. It seems improbable that Gutzkow would have dared to publish a statement which, as he must have known, Minna Jaegle would immediately recognize to be false. There is no reason to suspect Gutzkow of dishonesty. Lehmann himself remarks (ibid., p. 29) that Gutzkow frankly confessed to Louise Büchner that he had lost some of her brother's papers.

  4. Bergemann, 1922, p. 687: ‘aus Prüderie oder Unachtsamkeit’.

  5. Lehmann, Textkritische Noten, p. 34: ‘die von politischer Vorsicht diktierte, von literarischem Unverständnis und schulmeisterlichem Hochmut zeugende Redaktion Ludwig Büchners’.

  6. ‘… ein wunderlicher, wetterwend'scher Kerl, der alle Leute unterhält und immer Langeweile hat, witzig und verlegen, hart und wohltätig, geht immer wie ein Verliebter herum, hat alle Weiber nach der Reihe in sich vernarrt und quält sie mit Kälte’.

  7. Gundolf, p. 390: ‘Doch das Ganze kommt aus der literarischen Nachahmung Brentanos, Tiecks, Shakespeares.’

  8. Mayer, p. 310: ‘Leonce aber, Lena, Valerio und alle die anderen Gestalten des Märchenspuks haben vor allem sehr viele Bücher gelesen. Prinz und Vielfraß, Prinzessin und empfindsame alte Jungfer führen ein Leben aus zweiter Hand.’

  9. Hölderlin, ‘Über den Unterschied der Dichtarten’, StA 4, p. 266.

  10. Mayer, p. 311: ‘Größerer Mißklang ist nicht denkbar als hier zwischen Büchners sonstiger Lehre, der Gesamtanlage seines Werks, und diesem ironisch-romantischen Spiel von den beiden Königskindern.’

  11. Cf. Fink, ‘Leonce und Lena’, Martens, 1965, pp. 500f.:‘Die nüchterne Wirklichkeit, wie er sie in seinem Dramen zeigte, war tieftraurig, ja tragisch, so daß sie keineswegs einer komischen Gattung hätte einverleibt werden können. Realismus und komödie sind in seinen Augen unvereinbar … Diese pessimistische Auffassung von der Wirklichkeit bringt als Gegensatz dazu die Unwirklichkeitder Komödie mit sich.’

  12. ‘Ihre Novelle Lenz soll jedenfalls, weil Straßburg dazu anregt, den gestrandeten Poeten zum Vorwurf haben?’ (2, 479)

  13. ‘Geben Sie uns, wenn weiter nichts im Anfang, Erinnerungen an Lenz: da scheinen Sie Thatsachen zu haben, die leicht aufgezeichnet sind.’ (2, 481)

  14. ‘Dieser … Aufsatz bildet die Grundlage der leider Fragment gebliebenen Novelle “Lenz” meines verstorbenen Freundes Georg Büchner. Er trug sich schon in Straßburg lange Zeit mit dem Gedanken, Lenz zum Helden einer Novelle zu machen, und ich gab ihm zu seinem Stoffe alles, was ich an Handschriften besaß.’

  15. There are inconsistencies in the indications of dates at the following places in the Novelle: p. 93, l. 11; 94, 12; 94, 17; 95, 34; 97, 27; 100, 11 (cf. Landau, vol. 1, p. 108, Martens, 1965, p. 35). The grammar is strange or the text corrupt at 84, 29 ff.; and in the expression leeres tiefes Bergwasser (85, 26) one should probably read reines instead of leeres.

  16. Cf. Höllerer, 1958, p. 423: ‘Nach den Thesen von H. Friedrich (“Das antiromantische Denken im modernen Frankreich”, München, 1935; “Die Klassiker des französischen Romans”, Leipzig, 1939) entsteht Wirklichkeitsdichtung aus dem Absturz und als Gegenbild gegen alle Vollkommenheitsvorstellungen.’

  17. Höllerer, ibid., pp. 134 f.: ‘So wird Büchner, ein Vater des Realismus, gleichzeitig auch ein Ahnherr des sogenannten Surrealismus, sich stützend auf romantische Sprachbewegung.’

  18. Camus, ‘Hermann Melville’, Théâtre, Récits, Nouvelles, 1962, p. 1901: ‘Comme les plus grands artistes, Melville a construit ses symboles sur le concret, non dans le matériau du rêve. Le créateur de mythes ne participe au génie que dans la mesure où il les inscrit dans l'épaisseur de la réalité et non dans les nuées fugitives de l'imagination. Chez Kafka la réalité qu'il décrit est suscitée par le symbole, le fait découle de l'image, chez Melville le symbole sort de la réalité, l'image naît de la perception. C'est pourquoi Melville ne s'est jamais séparé de la chair ni de la nature, obscurcies dans l'œuvre kafkéenne.’

  19. Stöber, Vie de J.-F. Oberlin, Strasbourg, 1831, pp. 116, 114, 182, 523, 547.

  20. Ibid., pp. 533 f.

  21. Voss, p. 6: ‘Die Lebensgeschichte Oberlins, von Daniel Ehrenfried Stöber 1828 verfaßt, hat Büchner genau gekannt und ziemlich viele Einzelheiten in seine Novelle übernommen, um der Gestalt Oberlins die nötige Plastik zu geben und die religiöse Atmosphäre des Steintals besser zu zeichnen.’

  22. Ludwig Büchner, p. 19.

  23. Ibid., p. 47: ‘In Lenzens Leben und Sein fühlte er verwandte Seelenzustände, und das Fragment ist halb und halb des Dichters eigenes Porträt.’

  24. Landau, vol. 1, p. 113, Martens, 1965, p. 41.

Works Cited

Bergemann, Fritz: Georg Büchner, Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, Leipzig, 1922 (with critical apparatus omitted in later editions of this work).

Büchner, Ludwig: Georg Büchner. Revolutionär und Pessimist, Nürnberg, 1948. Büchners Bild vom Menschen, Nürnberg, 1967.

Camus, Albert: L'Homme révolté (1949), Essais, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris, 1965.

Gundolf, Friedrich: ‘Georg Büchner’, Romantiker, Berlin, 1930 (reprinted Martens, 1965, pp. 82 ff.).

Höllerer, Walter: ‘Georg Büchner’, Zwischen Klassik und Moderne, Stuttgart, 1958.

Landau, Paul: Georg Büchners Gesammelte Schriften, 2 Bände, Berlin, 1909.

Lehmann, Werner R.: Textkritische Noten. Prolegomena zur Hamburger Büchner-Ausgabe, Hamburg, 1967.

Martens, Wolfgang: Georg Büchner, hrsg. von Wolfgang Martens, Wege der Forschung, Bd. liii, Darmstadt, 1965.

Mayer, Hans: Georg Büchner und seine Zeit, Wiesbaden, 1946. (Neue, erweiterte Auflage, Frankfurt a. M., 1972.)

Voss, Kurt: Georg Büchners ‘Lenz’. Eine Untersuchung nach Gehalt und Formgebung, Bonn, 1922 (dissertation).

Nancy Lukens (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9704

SOURCE: Lukens, Nancy. “Introduction” and “Conclusion.” In Büchner's Valerio and the Theatrical Fool Tradition, pp. 1-29; 192-95. Stuttgart, Germany: Akademischer Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz, 1977, 221 p.

[In the following excerpts, Lukens discusses the ironic function of Valerio in Büchner's Leonce and Lena, relating this character to the stage-fool tradition in European drama.]

The first act of Georg Büchner's comedy Leonce und Lena (1836) is introduced by a motto from Shakespeare's As You Like It (II.vii.43-44):

                              O wär ich doch ein Narr!
Mein Ehrgeiz geht auf eine bunte Jacke.(1)

Surely it is no coincidence that Büchner should choose the melancholy Jaques of Shakespeare's creation to evoke the whole complex of attitudes toward reality and self that we sense in Leonce. In fact, Jaques' light-hearted counterpart Touchstone is also unmistakably present in Büchner's conception of Valerio, court fool in the fictitious kingdom of Popo, companion to the melancholy prince Leonce, and focal point of the present study. Just as Jaques envies Touchstone's gay yet “material” (i.e., pithy) wit (III.3.25), so Leonce depends on Valerio's ironic comments, facetious mockery and nonsense games to divert him from his perpetual idleness and abject boredom. Jaques' melancholy is an ennui not unrelated to that of Leonce. Both are restless and able to “suck melancholy” (As You Like It II.v.11-12) out of any object or situation, and the ultimate wish of both is to be freed of their present identity and to become something else. Leonce's central speech in the first scene of Büchner's play culminates in the exclamation: “O wer einmal jemand anders sein könnte! Nur 'ne Minute lang.”2

This is a key passage for several reasons. First, it is reminiscent not only of the motto quoted above, but more generally of the spirit of Jaques' well-known set-speech in As You Like It on the “seven ages of man” (II.vii.140-165). For Leonce, life is a study in idleness, boredom and meaninglessness:

—Müssiggang ist aller Laster Anfang.

—Was die Leute nicht Alles aus Langeweile treiben! Sie studiren aus Langeweile, sie beten aus Langeweile, sie verlieben, verheirathen und vermehren sich aus Langeweile, und sterben endlich an der Langeweile, und—und das ist der Humor davon—alles mit den wichtigsten Gesichtern, ohne zu merken warum, und meinen Gott weiss was dabei.


So far, before Valerio's entrance, Leonce's activity has been limited to bitter observation and reflection in this vein. Similarly, the image we get of Jaques wandering and reflecting in the Forest of Arden on man's foibles is that of a gloomy gentleman whose sole pleasure consists in embittered bemoaning of the world about him:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. …


But both Leonce's and Jaques' outlooks change radically under the influence of their gayer partners Valerio and Touchstone—and this points to the more important aspect of the passage in which we see Leonce's wish to be transformed, for it is here that we have the first indication of the essential function the fool will fulfill.

Normally sullen and antisocial of disposition, Jaques is beside himself with excitement as he tells the Duke of his meeting with Touchstone:

A fool, a fool! I met a fool i' the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
.....… When I did hear
The motley fool thus moral on the time,
My lungs began to crow like chanticleer,
That fools should be so deep-contemplative;
And I did laugh sans intermission
An hour by his dial. O noble fool!
A worthy fool! Motley's the only wear.

(II.vii.12-24, 28-34)3

The ironic effect of the encounter depends in part on Shakespeare's device for conveying it dramatically through Jaques' second-hand account; in this way the fool's art works against Jaques even as he speaks positively of that fool. Not only has Touchstone enlivened Jaques, he has duped him in the process by playing up to his melancholy manner. With a note of parody Touchstone looks at the sundial “with lack-lustre eye” and makes dour observations about “how the world wags” (II.vii.21,23), thus playing his part by mirroring Jaques' own folly and himself remaining amusedly aloof, while Jaques is oblivious to anything but what he wants to see. Sensing in Touchstone something he himself would like to be, Jaques goes away from the encounter determined to acquire his own license to speak his mind and to “cleanse the foul body of the infected world” (II.vii.60).

Similarly, Valerio's first entrance in Leonce und Lena marks a sudden shift in tempo and mood from Leonce's ponderous reflections. In sharp contrast to the lack of dialogue or interaction between Leonce and the Hofmeister at the opening of the play, where Leonce simulates responses for his puppet-like tutor in order to continue his monologue, here Valerio initiates a rapid-fire exchange of absurdities which have the function simply of creating a relationship based on imaginative roleplay. Valerio appears, somewhat intoxicated, just as Leonce is expressing his desire to be transformed:

Wie der Mensch läuft! Wenn ich nur …
(stellt sich dicht vor den Prinzen, legt den Finger an die Nase und sieht ihn starr an): Ja!
(eben so): Richtig!
Haben Sie mich begriffen?
Nun, so wollen wir von etwas Anderem reden. (Er legt sich ins Gras.)


Without having any direct relationship with the life at court so far, the fool seems here to be a living mirror to its absurdity and pretentiousness. Leonce's “conversation” with the tutor evaporates into nothing for lack of opposition, and he falls into even deeper melancholy and self-pity for having to be aware of the rift between the serious, self-righteous mien of people around him and the spiritual vacuum it hides. Then suddenly Valerio's game snatches him out of this world and transports him to another—that of possibility—despite his resistance at first. After two responses addressing Valerio with condescending sympathy as one plagued with ideals like himself, Leonce then begins to identify with the fool, adopting the “du” form, and the game progresses with increasing familiarity and mutual intoxication until Leonce, too, is drunk on Valerio's fooldom:

Halt's Maul mit deinem Lied, man könnte darüber ein Narr werden.
So wäre man doch etwas. Ein Narr! Ein Narr! Wer will mir seine Narrheit gegen meine Vernunft verhandeln? Ha, ich bin Alexander der Grosse! Wie mir die Sonne eine goldne Krone in die Haare scheint, wie meine Uniform blitzt! Herr Generalissimus Heupferd, lassen Sie die Truppen anrücken! Herr Finanzminister Kreuzspinne, ich brauche Geld! Liebe Hofdame Libelle, was macht meine theure Gemahlin Bohnenstange? Ach bester Herr Leibmedicus Cantharide, ich bin um einen Erbprinzen verlegen. Und zu diesen köstlichen Phantasieen bekommt man gute Suppe, gutes Fleisch, gutes Brod, ein gutes Bett und das Haar umsonst geschoren—im Narrenhaus nämlich—, während ich mit meiner gesunden Vernunft mich höchstens zur Beförderung der Reife auf einen Kirschbaum verdingen könnte, um—nun?—um?
Um die Kirschen durch die Löcher in deinen Hosen schamroth zu machen! Aber Edelster, dein Handwerk, deine Profession, dein Gewerbe, dein Stand, deine Kunst?
(mit Würde): Herr, ich habe die grosse Beschäftigung, müssig zu gehen, ich habe eine ungemeine Fertigkeit in Nichtsthun, ich besitze eine ungeheure Ausdauer in der Faulheit. Keine Schwiele schändet meine Hände, der Boden hat noch keinen Tropfen von meiner Stirne getrunken, ich bin noch Jungfau in der Arbeit, und wenn es mir nicht der Mühe zu viel wäre, würde ich mir die Mühe nehmen, Ihnen diese Verdienste weitläufiger auseinandersetzen.
(mit komischem Enthusiasmus): Komm an meine Brust! Bist du einer von den Göttlichen, welche mühelos mit reiner Stirne durch den Schweiss und Staub über die Heerstrasse des Lebens wandeln, und mit glänzenden Sohlen und blühenden Leibern gleich seligen Göttern in den Olympus treten? Komm! Komm!
(singt im Abgehen): Hei! da sitzt e Fleiz an der Wand! Fleig an der Wand! Fleig an der Wand! (Beide Arm in Arm ab.)


By the third scene of this act, in fact, Leonce has progressed so far in his ability to play the fool to his own role of puppet prince, that Valerio is prompted to comment: “Eure Hoheit scheint mir wirklich auf dem besten Weg, ein wahrhaftiger Narr zu werden” (I.iii.112,38-39).

Is this a fool figure that we recognize, whose dramatic function in relationship to the court we can adequately compare to that of the traditional Renaissance fool? We have seen a certain resemblance between Touchstone's and Valerio's manipulation tactics. Each mirrors the particular folly of his melancholy companion, and in so doing, implicitly points out the follies of society at large. But a striking difference remains between Touchstone's role in the idyllic (or mock-idyllic) world of the Forest of Arden, and Valerio's in the equally fantastic setting of the Kingdom of Popo. While both do assume an ironic, detached stance with regard to the values and ways of life of their respective worlds, this manifests itself in vastly different ways. Touchstone remains an observer, relatively uninvolved and unaggressive in the unfolding of the essential plot which centers around Orlando and Rosalind, reinforcing its themes in a sort of comic counterpoint to the serious undertones. Valerio, on the other hand, is clearly the moving force behind the “plot” in Leonce und Lena, if the movement here can indeed be called a plot. This question will be pursued further in another context. In any case, Valerio is no longer a tolerated misfit whose natural wit amuses the powers that be, but who represents no particular threat to their power or well-being; on the contrary, while the king remains a ridiculous caricature, the fool's antics and at first apparently nonsensical verbal feats assume a dramatic function which clearly outweighs that of any other character, including the title “hero” and “heroine.”

What does this mean in terms of the original concept of the court fool's place in the king's household, and in terms of the subsidiary or at best complementary role he traditionally played in Shakespearean comedy and tragedy? In order to answer this and related questions, I shall … attempt to determine on the basis of the text of Leonce und Lena itself how Valerio's situation and character do compare to other well-known and lesser known plays in which a court fool figure plays a significant role.

Although we can use As You Like It as one point of reference, the configuration of king and fool figures and their power relationship in King Lear present an equally important side of the Shakespearean fool from which to observe traits essential to the understanding of Valerio's role. For here much more than in the comedy, we have the central theme of loss of identity in the ruler figure, one which also pervades Büchner's play, and which has direct bearing on our interpretation of the fool's part in the totality of the drama. Indeed, a major reason for having recourse to Shakespeare's models is the very direct correlation that seems to me to exist between his fool characters and the views of human power and human folly they help to convey, and on the other hand the views that Büchner puts forth through his own fool pair Leonce and Valerio.

My hypothesis is that Valerio, while resorting to many of the same devices of fooldom known to us through Renaissance figures such as Touchstone and Lear's Fool—word-play, impersonation and mockery, and varying extremes of nonsensical roleplay—at the same time presents a view of man, and fulfills a dramatic function radically opposed to that which we find implied in earlier plays. The very presence of the “all-licensed” fool in Shakespearean drama implies a political and social order which can tolerate the fool's arrows, a king who is human enough to need and appreciate the wit of a neutral subject such as his fool and yet whose role as representative of a higher order is not ultimately threatened. In the plays of Büchner as well as others to be considered in this study, the idea of any ultimate order is highly questionable. Thus the role of the fool is necessarily of different dimensions, and the relationship between king and fool by implication not one of give and take as before, but much more one-sided, with the greater degree of aggression on the fool's part. In fact, Valerio determines the course of “events” in Leonce und Lena to such a degree that King Peter's attempts to establish order appear utterly ridiculous and fooldom—whose nature we hope to determine in greater detail as we progress—proves the only way to preserve one's identity.4

At this point a perplexing question arises. If indeed we can talk about the problem of identity in the court fool of the modern stage—that is, in terms of his social relationships and his conscious role as a functioning member of the stage world—then the fool must have grown to new dimensions here from those of the types we encounter earlier. While the medieval and early Renaissance fool types were often recognizable as individuals, they did on the whole exist as representatives of chaos, evil, irrationality, or simple baseness rather than as complex beings involved in a real way in the dramatic action. The stage clowns of Shakespeare's day tended to improvise, even to the extent of becoming an attraction completely divorced from the tragedy at hand.5 In fact, by the time the English Comedians found their way to the Continent in the early seventeenth century, with plays derived largely from Shakespeare, the total effect was burlesque. It was to rid the theater of all such influences that Gottsched caused Harlequin to be banned from the stage altogether, since it was felt he had no serious function in the drama of order and reason.6 If the fool in Shakespeare had been intended to play an integral part in the dramatic universe, he had gradually become for the Germans of the Enlightenment a popular but distracting accessory.

From the time Harlequin was banished in 1724 until romantic playwrights such as Tieck and Brentano rediscovered his merits for their comedies, the fool remained unknown to the “high” theater of Germany. To be sure, there were isolated attempts by German enlightenment critics to rehabilitate the image of the stage fool, whether he be called Harlequin, Hanswurst, Skaramuz, or simply Narr. Lessing denounces Gottsched's action in both the Siebzehnter Literaturbrief (1759) and the Hamburgische Dramaturgie, 18. Stück (1767). In the former, he refers ironically to the banishment of Harlequin as “die grösste Harlequinade […], die jemals gespielt worden.”7 It is interesting to note that it is in this same letter that Lessing speaks so enthusiastically of Shakespeare's dramaturgy. Undoubtedly Shakespeare's fool figures were not without influence on Lessing's hopes for the German theater, unfruitful though they proved to be in his own time. In the other instance Lessing makes reference to the comedies of Marivaux and insists that, although most would-be distinguished theaters in Germany had seemed to conform to the Gottschedian injunction, “im Grunde hatten sie nur das bunte Jäckchen und den Namen abgeschafft, aber den Narren behalten.”8

Even earlier, in fact, the comic actor and playwright Johann Christian Krüger had defended Harlequin in the preface to his German translation of Marivaux (1747), and in 1761 Justus Möser had published a lengthy essay in his behalf, “Harlequin, oder Verteidigung des Grotesk-Komischen.”9 Here the true nature of the fool figure is recognized as one belonging neither to the crude burlesque comedies Gottsched abhorred, nor to the didactic bourgeois comedy of the Enlightenment, where his role is necessarily subordinated to complicated intrigues which point to an underlying moral code. Rather, Möser sees the opera as “das Reich der Chimären,” which alone can provide the comic figure with the kind of Spielraum he needs. Möser's main thesis, put into the mouth of Harlequin himself, is that as a member of the king's payroll at court, the fool represents a legitimate and necessary rung in the hierarchy of the social and political order; in the aesthetic sense, that the grotesque-comic element is an indispensable component of the beautiful.10 Möser appended to his treatise an original one-act comedy with many of the familiar commedia dell'arte types such as Harlequin, Scapin, Columbine, Isabelle and Valer, though even here the types are not given free rein to move outside the moral bounds of eighteenth-century taste.11 So even the most outspoken proponents of a reinstatement of the fool figure in eighteenth century Germany was unable to create one who could fulfill a traditional function.12

Until the German Romantics rediscovered the world of the commedia and the masks it provided, the stage in Germany remained the poorer for the absence of the motley fool with his upside-down logic, his biting wit and crude sense of humor. Even in Tieck's Verkehrte Welt and Prinz Zerbino, and Brentano's Ponce de Leon, all of which Büchner knew and drew upon for his Leonce and Lena, the fool remains a type familiar from the Italian commedia, simply transported for the purpose of satirizing contemporary German society. Büchner's Valerio, on the other hand, seems to have a far deeper and more abysmal consciousness of his role as fool to the court's folly.

Is it possible, then, that Büchner is one of the first German dramatists since the seventeenth century whose fool figure again attains the stature of Shakespeare's by setting the dominant tone of the dramatic reality with his gruesome wit, and by entering into aggressive, personal relationship with the central figures? Valerio is no longer a distraction from or an amusing compensation for the basically tragic fabric of the drama: instead, like Lear's Fool, he reinforces it, and even more noticeably than Lear's Fool, he takes an aggressive role on behalf of his master. Not only does he reflect and dote on his master's folly to the delight and instruction of the audience; more importantly, he cultivates folly as a weapon against a society that deems itself reasonable.

To understand more fully what comprises this distinction in Valerio's character and his dramatic function is the chief task of this study. It is by no means a simple question, for Büchner clearly chooses to adopt some features of the traditions from which we have just begun to separate him. It is also difficult to compare such vastly different worlds as the grotesque-comic fairy-tale kingdom of Popo and the grimly realistic setting of Lear's dominion, for example, although in the abstract they are not so dissimilar. In fact, this similarity in the abstract—i.e., the scheme in which fool calls ruler's power into question and by turning the world of ‘order’ and ‘reason’ inside out actually brings new life to the court—is precisely the basis for our asking the central question about the modern fool's role. It seems to me that this very question constitutes a thrust of Büchner's dramatic effort which cannot be ignored. By trying to understand Valerio against the background of the tradition he represents, one can perhaps come closer to what Büchner is trying to say about tradition in general and about the nature of social man as he saw him in the third decade of the nineteenth century.

And yet the questions Büchner raises with the help of his fool are interesting to the modern reader and playgoer not only in this limited framework. They are universal. Not only does Valerio's function in Leonce und Lena have recognizable roots in tradition and new meaning for his own time, but his fooldom speaks a language rich in overtones and timeless gestures which lead today's audience to draw certain parallels, and in turn to play the fool by asking the same ultimate questions of himself and the powers that control his own society. Every organism, whether individual, corporate, natural or political, needs to be challenged and renewed continually in order to survive, and artists, in their portrayals of this process or its failure, have frequently assigned the role of harbinger of the process to a court fool figure of some sort, for reasons which should become clear in the course of this study.

As time goes on and social and political structures change, it is interesting to notice just how the dramatic artist chooses to portray this process of criticism and renewal within his compact, often symbolic structure of human relationships. Although for purposes of clarity I have chosen exclusively plays which deal directly with the king-court fool relationship, it should be kept in mind that this setting in more recent plays often serves merely as a historical veil for the playwright's views on such power relationships and social structures in general. This is the primary reason for including several twentieth century plays with prominent court fool figures in this study despite its primary focus on Valerio. Each of the plays since Büchner illustrates one or more aspects of the development of the fool's social and dramatic function already present in Valerio. Furthermore, the more recent playwright seems to be saying something about the fool-ruler or fool-society relationship which it is essential not to ignore if one takes Büchner seriously.

In Frank Wedekind's König Nicolo—Oder so ist das Leben (1901) we find a single figure in whom traditional concepts of the unjust ruler, the buffoon, and the prophetic wise fool are combined in an unusual fashion. Both internal evidence in the play and the playwright's own remarks about its reception point to the fact that the dramatist identifies himself with the king-fool figure.13 In spite of dramatic weaknesses, which Wedekind himself recognized and attributed in part to this too close personal involvement with the central figure, König Nicolo does illustrate one direction the court fool figure of the modern theater can take, one which Büchner implies in Leonce and Valerio as well. This is that of the outcast, who discovers himself and his fool's mask only outside the bounds of his “normal” existence. Just as Valerio helps Leonce achieve ironic detachment from his designated social and political role as heir to a meaningless throne, so Nicolo moves through several states of detached self-examination until, with the help of his Hanswurst-companion Anna, he actually assumes the role of court fool to the king who had replaced him. While the exile of the fool and his companion in Leonce und Lena is voluntary and that of Nicolo and is daughter is forced, each pair's return to the court at the end of the play shows what their respective creators intended to say about the fool's role in the renewal of his society's values and structures. Not only this basic similarity between Wedekind's and Büchner's fool pairs, but other interesting interconnections as well will be pursued in the course of this investigation.

Another play of some interest to us in this same respect is Pär Lagerkvist's Konungen, “The King” (1932). The fool in this work is not such a central character as those in the other plays, yet his words and gestures are so expressive of the play's theme, so closely linked with the concerns of the main figure of the deposed and outcast king, and both in turn seem so clearly to have the playwright's sympathy, that again the parallels with Büchner are too striking to ignore. Both express revolutionary sympathies, and yet the dramatic solutions to similar questions are radically different in Lagerkvist. Both dramatists pose ultimate questions through their ruler and fool figures—i.e. What does the King really represent? What ultimate order and good does he bring to the people? How do the actions of king and fool as individuals define their identity with regard to the total order? Thus we are immediately alerted to watch for similarities and differences in the fool's position, as well as in the authors' unspoken assumptions about man's folly and ultimate order which are evident throughout each play.

Both Wedekind and Lagerkvist depict deposed rulers—as does Shakespeare in both As You Like It and King Lear. Each dramatist chooses his own technique of motivating the situation, but in each case the resulting relationship of king and fool is strikingly similar. In the comic setting of As You Like It, the deposition of the rightful duke is a temporary upset of the political order, which is restored with perfect symmetry and no dire consequences. On the other hand, the tragedy of King Lear shows dire consequences of the inner as well as outward upheaval in the king's domain, with ultimate healing nevertheless. Wedekind motivates the deposition within the framework of a just system. The deposed King Nicolo is seen as having violated the limits of his kingship by his arrogance, and the popular hero, the butcher Pietro who replaces him, is seen not as a usurper as in Shakespeare's comedy, but as a pragmatic and just ruler close enough to the political and economic needs of the people to maintain order better than the proud but blind Nicolo had done. Nicolo is in a situation not unlike Lear's, in that his own bad judgment has led to the undermining and overthrow of his kingdom. The fool in both cases is instrumental in reflecting the folly of the ruler which caused his inner chaos as well as actual upheaval in the kingdom. The interaction between King Lear and his fool shows the two figures to be intimately interconnected, even while appearing outwardly at opposite ends of the ladder of power. In Wedekind's play, king and fool are understood as two forces struggling for control within the one person of the king, and by implication in Everyman. In King Nicolo, true kingship is portrayed as being developed only by recognizing the foolishness of false royalty and by assuming the mask of the fool in order to convey truth to the court.

All of these variations on the deposed king motif have direct bearing on Leonce und Lena, and yet one cannot overlook the striking contrast. While the exposition of Shakespeare's and Wedekind's king-fool relationships relies heavily on substantial character development as well as on movement toward a recognizable dramatic climax, there prevails in Büchner's comedy an artificiality and a suspension that precludes any real interaction, or at least any dramatic development which the viewer could take seriously. Perhaps this suspension can be attributed solely to the absurdity of the image of Peter as king. Leonce's desire to flee the kingdom is based not on outrage at any visible injustice as seen in Lear, As You Like It and König Nicolo, but on a vague feeling of desperation. The king and the kingdom are mere puppet and backdrop for the actual substance of the dramatic action in Leonce und Lena, which consists in the relationship between Valerio and the prince. The prince's absence from the throne—whether by flight or deposition—is not so much a motivating factor in a development toward renewed wholeness in the kingdom, but rather a mere pretext for tragi-comic contrast between the imagined ideal and the existing reality.

Even more acute than in the full-length plays of Shakespeare, Lagerkvist and Wedekind is the dramatization of the deposed king motif in the one-act play Escurial (1927) of the Belgian Michel de Ghelderode. Here again, the power play between the enthroned ruler and his court fool is of utmost importance; in fact, Ghelderode, by limiting his cast of characters to King, Fool, Priest and Executioner, shifts the attention completely away from extraneous persons and sub-plots which usually complicate both the commedia dell'arte and court drama, notably Shakespeare's. The spotlight falls not on a cross section of the universe, but exclusively on the tottering king and his grotesquely powerful fool Folial. Their exchange of roles is psychologically motivated on the one hand, insofar as both King and Fool contain projections of the other which influence their respective self-concepts and their attitudes toward the power balance. On the other hand, the outward motivation for purposes of dramatic development is again furnished by reference to an ancient religious and theatrical tradition of pre-Lenten religious rites in which an innocent man was invested with the symbols of royal power, made to reign splendidly on an illusory throne, then stripped of the symbols of power as suddenly as he acquired them, that he might be reminded of the lowly stature of every man. It is on the basis of this tradition that Folial the court fool proposes a “profound farce” to be executed between the king and himself. The implications of this roleplay are far-reaching, and will have no little bearing on our understanding of the importance of masked sooth-saying and assumed roles in Leonce und Lena.

In Leonce und Lena, the symbols of power in the scenes with King Peter are more subtly suggested. Peter's impotence is revealed not in a dramatic struggle with a threatening underling, but foremost in his very appearance as we first see him in I.ii. To be sure, Valerio's words and gestures ridicule the king long before we meet him, as will be shown later, but it is in this first glimpse of the king that Büchner uses tradition to say something new. Half-naked, His Majesty runs in circles around his dressing room, muttering absurd reflections to himself about his responsibility for the unthinking populace; meanwhile there is established in his confused and vacuous exclamations a direct relationship between the physical and the moral or spiritual spheres of his existence—although this relationship undoubtedly escapes him:

Jetzt kommen meine Attribute, Modificationen, Affektionen und Accidenzien: wo ist mein Hemd, meine Hose?—Halt, pfui! der frei Wille steht davorn ganz offen. Wo ist die Moral, wo sind die Manschetten? Die Kategorien sind in der schändlichsten Verwirrung. …


This scene clearly has to do with the symbols of power; the sexual imagery is as blatantly and crassly comic with King Peter in Leonce und Lena as it is profound and drastic with Folial and the King in Escurial. King Peter, unknown to himself, enacts the farcical impotence of the role which he is; Folial and his king, on the other hand, are wholly conscious of their power struggle, which takes place on constantly shifting planes of reality and role-play. Surely it is no coincidence that in Leonce und Lena the viewer first sees the King of Popo in a mock-traditional setting, being enrobed by his valets and giving voice to his authority over his subjects. One need only look at the opening scene of Lagerkvist's highly symbolic drama for comparison. Here the high priest ceremoniously disrobes the king of his symbols of power—sword and tiara—for the duration of the religious festival. The king is visibly relieved to be freed of the very real responsibility these symbols represent. With King Peter, the enrobing scene serves only as a requisite of tradition to point up the desired contrast. There is no fool present as in Lagerkvist's King to remark that the disempowering and disenthronement of the king, and hence the turning upside down of the world, is indeed a welcome sight. But Valerio's function covers this territory as well, without his being present at every moment in which this process can be observed.

A sort of inversion of the thematic structure in the plays already mentioned is found in the more recent farce of Max Frisch, Die Chinesische Mauer (1947; revised version, 1955). Here, the fool, rather than constantly switching roles or hiding behind masks in order to mimic the emperor, to express unwelcome truths or to escape into holy madness, is in fact the only figure who speaks utterly straightforwardly as the so-called “Contemporary” (der Heutige). Emperor Hwang-Ti, like Büchner's King Peter in many respects, remains caught up in his own delusions of self-importance and his plans. He never perceives in the fool's behavior any threat to his integrity or any reflection of the kingdom's decrepit state. Instead, the drastic prophecies of der Heutige, like those of Wedekind's Nicolo returning to the new king in the capacity of official court fool, are regarded merely as amusing bits of madness and his “amusing” prophecies win him applause rather than serious attention. If the king does in fact detect a threatening note of reality about the fool, he tends either to wilfully misunderstand the fool as a misfit, or to punish and/or silence him completely. Whereas in Frisch's farce the situation is only postulated as an eternally recurring one in such situations of absolute power confronted by uncomfortable truth, in Ghelderode's Escurial this is carried out in a most morbid and drastic fashion. Here the tottering monarch succeeds in destroying his fool, only to be left to his laugh of despair and his fatal inner wound. The fate of Lear's Fool is called to mind as equally ambiguous; he is both cherished and chastised by the king, depending upon Lear's need for companionship or his willingness to hear the penetrating analysis of his moribund state. It is the Fool who remains closest to the demented ruler and most loyal to him in his utter dejection, and yet he disappears mysteriously early in the play.

Valerio, in a sense, fulfills the same function with Leonce; he is at once a merciless critic (“Ist denn Eure Hoheit noch nicht über die Leutnantsromantik hinaus?—II.iv.) and an indispensable, life-giving companion to Leonce. And yet, in contrast to Lear's Fool, Valerio is in no way subject to any real authority who could chastise or ban him; in fact, it is left to the fool himself to close the circle of farcical unreality in the final scene by appointing himself minister of state and dictating a new code of values which turns all conventional concepts inside out. It is he, in fact, who seems to determine the identity of the new king. It will be one of the aims of this investigation to explore the possibility that there might be a correlation between the king's identity crises and the acceptance or rejection of the fool; furthermore, that the identity of the two figures might at some times merge into one, and at other times be split.

The thematic connections of the Shakespearean motto “Motley's the only wear” and the intricate power relationship of wise fool and faltering king should thus become evident in the process of comparing these plays. In all of them are echoed the traditions of the court fool as both entertainer and prophet, companion and monster to the rulers and the society at court. Also incorporated into more than one of the plays is the carnival atmosphere with its sense of suspension of order and rationality and its inversion of conventional power relationships, such as prevailed in the medieval French carnival tradition of the Feast of Fools. This was a day designated by the church authorities as one on which clergy and simple townsfolk, priests and peasants, were free to exchange roles, subjecting rituals and sacred customs to grotesque ridicule as they joined in bawdy revelry under the elected Lord of Misrule. It is not insignificant that a contemporary American intellectual and theologian such as Harvey Cox should choose this tradition as a symbolic point of reference for his essay on festivity and fantasy as agents for inner and outward renewal of values in modern man.14

A thorough discussion of the transvaluation of values through the fool tradition is provided by Walter Kaiser in his book, Praisers of Folly. While his primary focus is on the Renaissance fool concepts of Erasmus, Rabelais and Shakespeare, he asserts that the fool figure of the theater actually originates in the medieval popular drama of the carnival. It is from the figures of la mère Sotte and le Prince des Sots in the French sottie that Erasmus and Rabelais derive prototypes for their figures of Stultitia and Panurge. In the anarchy of the religious festival humor, the prince of fools has unlimited license to play roguish tricks, to lead the crowd in the desecration of everything holy and authoritative, and the theme song of the fool's kingdom is “The World Turned Upside Down.”15

The modern playwright has had recourse to this whole complex of tradition and social history with striking frequency. Lagerkvist's Fool in Konungen notes mysteriously amid the confusion after the ritual desecration of the King in the first act:

Ha! Är det kanske inte bra att allt är upp- och nervänt! Är det inte välsignat att det ndangang är nan ordning pa världen! Va!

Allting upp- och nervänt! Och himlen full med eld!16

It is not far from this state of affairs to that which prevails under Valerio's direction in the third act of Leonce und Lena. Common to both is not only the sensual aspect of the carnival chaos, but the same social upheaval and the suspension of existing moral standards and social categories. As the fool's character and function in Leonce und Lena become clearer in the course of this study, we should be able to make more specific observations about his dependence upon and departure from such traditions, as well as to speculate on his validity as a channel of expression in the modern theater.

A note on the origin, scope and intent of the present study might be beneficial at this point. Lest the title be misleading, this is by no means an exhaustive study of Büchner, nor even of his comedy Leonce und Lena. While I shall on occasion try to evaluate some of the findings of Büchner scholarship, my intent is not so much to elaborate on its accomplishments as to throw light on a particular aspect of Büchner's work, i.e., his use of the court fool figure, by means of the comparative approach. In concentrating on the court fool, specifically on the dynamics of his power relationship to the king or the courtly society, I am more or less eliminating related figures such as the circus clown or independent Harlequin types. Moreover, in using the ‘theatrical fool tradition’ as a frame of reference, I have no intention of compiling a history of the court fool type in the theater, although those aspects of the tradition which are most fundamental to this study will be discussed in some detail in connection with the fool figures of the seven selected plays. Finally, I am not primarily interested in establishing or tracing influences among the various authors and national literatures represented by the plays I have chosen. Such relationships do no doubt exist, most obviously in Ghelderode's and Büchner's debt to Shakespeare. However, I am more interested in the similarities of theme, situation and character relationships inherent in these plays than in actual literary correspondences or biographical data not intrinsic to the works themselves.

… [A] brief summary of recent scholarship reveals a growing awareness among critics, theorists and dramatists alike that the theatrical fool figure is experiencing a renaissance in modern drama. The current interest is not limited to literary criticism; one finds theologians and psychiatrists as well probing with equal fascination the phenomenon of the fool and the clown in modern art and literature, asking what it is about recent generations which attracts them back to the figure who had been banished from “respectable” theater centuries ago.17 Period studies like Barbar Könneker's Wesen und Wandlung der Narrenidee im Zeitalter des Humanismus (Wiesbaden, 1966), Walter Kaiser's Praisers of Folly (Cambridge, 1963), [and] Wolfgang Promies' Die Bürger und der Narr (Munich, 1966), a study of the irrational element in the literature of German Rationalism, … complement each other well in their treatment of various historical and generic aspects of the fool, clown and Harlequin types and their domains in the theatrical world as well as in the circus and show business (Chaplin, Keaton, Valentin). The extremely comprehensive study by Robert Weimann of the sociological and dramaturgical aspects of the tradition of the folk theater, with special attention to its culmination in Shakespeare, also contains essential background material on the dramatic fool tradition. Weimann emphasizes the fool's relation to cult, myth, and mimesis from antiquity forward, as well as giving fascinating interpretations of Shakespeare from a critical standpoint which embraces the audience and its culture as a formative factor in the development of the fool tradition. Of major interest also in this vein is Wolfgang Kayser's Das Groteske (Hamburg, 1957), which in its discussion of the commedia dell'arte, the grotesque in German Romanticism (particularly Büchner), and the grotesque in modern drama (Wedekind), comes very near to the problems with which we will be concerned.

Works such as these provide informative as well as entertaining background to the topic at hand. But from this general acquaintance with the intriguing nature of the clown-fool type as a disruptive and yet regenerative force, several basic questions arise with specific reference to the theatrical fool in the narrower sense. For example, what becomes of the court fool figure in the theater when the reality of royal courts or professional fools no longer exists?18 Moreover, is the fool tradition strong enough in the public mind that a literary figure can retain the same function in settings radically altered to suit a new socio-political context? That is, can the traditional power relationship of king and fool be portrayed effectively where there is no longer conscious belief in the integrity of royal authority? Most importantly, can the fool actually function as a force of renewal within his theatrical role, and if so, can a playwright effectively express his hopes for renewal, whether out of naïveté or disillusionment, through this figure?

It appears that modern dramatists (using the term loosely to refer to the theater from the 1830s to the present) might have rediscovered and begun to reimplement a traditionally effective theatrical form through which to voice their views of modern man and their political protests by creating modern equivalents of the Renaissance fool who can speak the unpleasant truth unabashedly and with impunity. Moreover, the fool figure seems more and more to be one with whom the politically conscious dramatist, the artist and the intellectual identifies himself, as one powerless except in this masked form to speak out and be heard. In this case one should ask whether the mask is a suitable one, or whether either individuality loses something in the process, making the play tendentious and contrived rather than allowing the fool his invulnerable position and universal wisdom. In the case of Max Frisch's Die Chinesische Mauer, for example, and his essay “Über die Höflichkeit,” we get the impression that the writer feels the Hofnarr is definitely in a rather hopeless position, as one who is never taken seriously by those in power. In “Über die Höflichkeit” we read: “Ziel ist eine Gesellschaft, die den Geist nicht zum Aussenseiter macht, nicht zum Märtyrer und nichtzum Hofnarren, und nur darum müssen wir Aussenseiter unserer Gesellschaft sein, insofern es keine ist …”19—a statement which could be taken as the author's own comment on the role of the fool, der Heutige, in his tragic farce.

A view almost diametrically opposed to that of Frisch is expressed by Siegfried Melchinger in his article “Harlekins Wiederkehr.”20 Although Melchinger's concern is not so much with the figure of the court fool as with the traditional commedia dell'arte figures, he sees these as elementary forces of protest and social upheaval by virtue of their relationship to society and authority. Melchinger seems to feel, as does Priestley, that the modern Harlequin might have a similar function with regard to the rule of scientific technology to that of earlier fools in relation to their courtly rulers.

In a similar vein, but with more political emphasis, Günter Grass in the Princeton address previously cited wishes for the modern writer the power of the traditional court fool to change things in the world—“denn Narren haben ein Verhältnis zur Macht, Schriftsteller selten.”21 He concludes that the modern artist must consent to being a simple craftsman, not the conscience of the nation, and if necessary must overturn his worktable and strive for compromises. For, as he declares, “das Gedicht kennt keine Kompromisse; wir aber leben von Kompromissen. Wer diese Spannung tätig aushält, ist ein Narr und ändert die Welt.”22

A primary reason for focusing on Büchner … is that more than any other socially and politically conscious dramatist of modern times, he seems to me to be doing just this: grasping and acknowledging the paradoxical forces behind the illusory façades of social and political structures, and while assuming a cynical stance with regard to man's ability to change the course of history, nevertheless managing within the theatrical framework of his fool's mask to create a position of revolutionary truth amidst the paradoxes of the human situation. The irony and the cosmic humor fundamental to the fool's position make this stance both credible and attractive, and it remains … [to be seen] just how Büchner achieves this, and what, if any, far-reaching consequences his flair for fooldom has had with playwrights since his time or might have in today's theater.



Valerio is indeed the descendant of both Shakespeare's wise fools and the Italian harlequins; at the same time, though, he is the vehicle of a much greater force in the total conception of Büchner's comedy than were his predecessors in Shakespeare's dramas. This force is the all-encompassing irony of the fool Büchner, whose play is in itself a conscious masquerade of borrowed forms with which to fool the world, and at the same time to come to terms with his own questions about the masks of man by playing with them.

Büchner's irony is not of the same vintage as Shakespeare's, although it is certainly to a great extent informed by his wit. For while Lear's Fool and Touchstone use the ironic mask of folly out of loyalty to their respective masters and the kingdom—no matter how foolish—Valerio's irony is true only to itself and its own proliferation; it is a mask of confidence in conscious irony itself where even foolish loyalty would be a lie. Günter Grass' ironic title comes to mind once again: “Of the lack of confidence of writing court fools in view of non-existent courts.” It is from behind the mask of irony that one has the confidence to point to the nothingness of the center of power in which one has lost confidence.

What, then, of the fool's power in weakness to act as a catalyst for renewal from within the order of the world? Grass' concluding statement in the Princeton talk expresses the hope of the political activist in the possibility of enduring and transcending the tension that exists between the truth and the compromise of life: “Wer diese Spannung tätig aushält, ist ein Narr und ändert die Welt.” For Büchner, the hope of folly lay not in the belief that it could effectively change the world on the level of the political order; for him, the tension was not between the truth as seen by fools and poets, and the reality in which kings live. Instead, it was a matter of choosing the right mask at the right time to create possibility out of stagnation on the level of play, embracing the nothingness of both fool and king. In the very act of creating Valerio, a court fool whose office consists of play rather than politically effective writing or action, Büchner showed that his own attitude as a “schreibender Hofnarr” was of a different order.

Büchner's contemporary to the North, Kierkegaard, formulated a description of the ironic process as embodied in Büchner's comedy which suggests a relationship between the Christian notion of holy folly for the sake of renewal and the conscious irony of Büchner's fooldom as a principle of survival:

What the Christian talks about so much during agitated times,—to become a fool in the world—this the ironist realizes in his own fashion—except that he feels no martyrdom but the highest poetic enjoyment. But this infinite poetic freedom, already suggested by the fact that to become nothing at all is itself included, is expressed in a still more positive way, for the ironic individual has most often traversed a multitude of determinations in the form of possibility, poetically lived through them, before he ends in nothingness. For irony, as for the Pythagorean doctrine, the soul is constantly on a pilgrimage, except irony does not require such a long time to complete it.

What costs the ironist time, however, is the care he lavishes on selecting the proper costume … In this matter the ironist has great skill, not to mention a considerable assortment of masquerade costumes from which to make a judicious selection.23

In choosing the masks he did for Valerio in his comedy, Büchner was indeed marking another step on his pilgrimage in search of freedom, and at the same time perhaps gleaning the poetic enjoyment of which Kierkegaard speaks from his positive attitude toward the threat of nothingness. But his brand of fooldom is in fact far removed from the kind of folly celebrated by Christians as a real source of renewal, because it begins from the feeling of having been cheated out of real meaning by the spirit of boredom which motivated God to create his puppet theater. Becoming a fool in the world in the Pauline sense, on the other hand, implies embracing the paradox that it is only as nothing that the fool is free to be someone in affirmation of the purpose of creation. One kind of fool refuses to live in the present reality, with its calculated pretense of reason and order. He senses that it is all a cosmic joke, and feels he can do better by imitating the joker and at least enjoying the game of exchanging roles with the creator of the carousel. The other kind of fool also refuses to live in the present reality, but in a different sense. It is because he senses another level of reality, for which the present one exists, that the fool in Christ refuses to seek ultimate meaning in the present order, but can nevertheless help it dance its way to the future. This kind of fooldom, like Valerio's, is a dynamic process of calling into question the appearance of order on any level, using the freedom that one's fantasy provides to unmask pretense.

Valerio's fooldom suggests a desperate attempt on the part of his creator to give positive, humorous form to his doubts about man's ability to recognize and implement divine order in the world, and by giving form to these doubts to divert himself from them. The automaton speech and the resolution of the comedy take place in the spirit of affirmative irony which seeks pleasure in imaginative possibility, but one senses that it is a certain horror vacui which produces this creative energy to defy the present order by playing with it in miniature.

Büchner's genius in his use of traditional forms to turn tradition inside out has certainly anticipated the efforts of many more recent playwrights to come to terms with the same struggles. The fascination and the ambiguous appeal of the fool figure served his purpose, as it now seems to be serving that of contemporary writers who necessarily see the questions somewhat differently.


  1. Büchner uses the Tieck-Schlegel version of As You Like It. Where it seems important to consider the German text Büchner knew, citations will be from Wie es euch gefällt (Stuttgart: Reclam Verlag, 1957).

  2. Throughout the text I will be quoting from the historical-critical edition of Werner Lehmann, Georg Büchner: Sämtliche Werke und Briefe (Hamburg: Christian Wegner, 1967), Vol. I. Here, I.i., 106, 20-21 (arabic numbers refer to page and line numbers in Lehmann's edition).

  3. Note that the analogy is not perfect, since the gloomier comments of Jaques actually occur after his meeting with the fool.

  4. I am using the term “fooldom” as an equivalent of the German Narrentum, referring to the act and practice of playing the role of the fool. It is distinct from folly (Narrheit), in that folly is not always conscious and does not often reign. It has nothing to do with foolishness or foolery. The word is consciously chosen to reflect the close relationship between the king's and the fool's domains.

  5. Many critics read Hamlet's urgent warning to the players not to over-improvise (Hamlet III.ii.1-46) as an overt reference to a real problem encountered in contemporary actors of fools' roles. Cf. Friedrich Gundolf, Shakespeare und der deutsche Geist (Berlin: G. Bondi, 1923), p. 40.

  6. Cf. Eckehard Catholy, “Komische Figur und dramatische Wirklichkeit: Ein Versuch zur Typologie des Dramas,” Festschrift Helmut deBoor (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1966), pp. 193-208.

  7. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Sämmtliche Werke, ed. by Lachmann and Muncker (Stuttgart: Goschen, 1890, photog. reprod. 1968), VIII, 42.

  8. Ibid., IX, 256-57.

  9. Reprinted in Deutscher Geist, ed. by Oskar Loerke, I (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1966), 44-63. See also Henning Boetius, Harlekin—Texte und Materiatien mit einem Nachwort (Bad Homburg: Gehlen-Verlag, 1968).

  10. Justus Möser, cited by Loerke.

  11. For more detailed discussion of this development see Horst Steinmetz, “Der Harlequin—Seine Rolle in der deutschen Komodientheorie und -dichtung des 18. Jahrhunderts,” in Neophilologus, L (1966), 95-106. I am indebted to this source for much of the above discussion. See also Wolfgang Promies, Die Bürger und der Narr oder das Risiko der Phantasie (München: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1966).

  12. August Wilhelm Schlegel suspected that even in the post-Shakespearean era, it was not a sign of refinement that the wise fool figure was missed on the stage. In his Vorlesungen über dramatische Kunst und Litteratur, he denounces the “enlightened” attitude of pitying one's ancestors for taking delight in such coarse amusement, putting forth his own explanation for the fool's disappearance: “Ich glaube aber vielmehr es wird an gescheidten Narren gefehlt haben, um die Stelle gehörig auszufüllen.” Schlegel then continues, taking a more contemporary tack which is especially interesting in light of Büchner's caricature of reason in King Peter: “auf der anderen Seite ist die Vernunft, bei aller Einbildung von sich selbst, zu zaghaft geworden, um eine so verwegne Ironie zu dulden: Sie ist immer besorgt, der Mantel ihrer Gravität möchte aus seinen Falten kommen; und lieber als der Narrenkleidung einen anerkannten Platz neben sich zu gönnen, hat sie unbewu ter Weise die Rolle der Lächerlichkeit selbst übernommen, aber leider einer schwerfälligen und unerfreulichen Lächerlichkeit.” (Quoting from August Wilhelm Schlegel, Sämmtliche Werke, ed. Eduard Bocking, Vol. VI: Vorlesungen über dramatische Kunst und Litteratur, Part II, 27th Lecture, pp. 201f.)

    Schlegel's view is in full accord with several passages in Shakespeare: (1) In As You Like It I.ii., Celia responds to Touchstone's remark that “fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly”: “By my troth, thou sayest true: for since the little wit that fools have was silenced, the little foolery that wise men have makes a great show.” (2) In Twelfth Night, Viola remarks that Feste is wise enough to play the fool, which indeed requires considerable talent, III.i.

  13. For a well-documented discussion of the autobiographical elements in the play which at the same time points out that the personal scandal surrounding the work does not detract from its symbolic power, see Hector MacLean, “The King and the Fool in Wedekind's König Nicolo,Seminar, V (Spring, 1969), 21.

  14. Harvey Cox, The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fancy (New York, Evanston and London: Harper and Row, 1969), pp. 1-6.

  15. Walter Kaiser, Praisers of Folly: Erasmus, Rabelais, Shakespeare (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963), pp. 195-196.

  16. Pär Lagerkvist, Konungen (Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1932), p. 11. English citation will be from Thomas R. Buckman's translation in Modern Theatre, ed. Thomas R. Buckman (hereafter The King) (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), p. 96: “Ha!—Do you suppose all's not well because things are turned upside down! Isn't it a blessing that for once there is some order in the world! Well? Everything turned upside down! And the heavens filled with fire!”

  17. See Wolfgang M. Zucker, “The Clown as the Lord of Disorder,” and Samuel H. Miller, “The Clown in Contemporary Art,” both in Theology Today, XXIV (October, 1967), 306-317 and 318-328. Also, Joseph C. McClelland's The Clown and the Crocodile (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1970) uses the clown and fool figures as focal points for his theological essay on the comic vision in modern life and art. Harvey Cox' The Feast of Fools is a book-length essay with yet a stronger sociological dimension but with specific references to modern drama trends.

    More comprehensive and more directly relevant to the purposes of this study is the excellent monograph by the psychotherapist and literary critic William Willeford, of the University of Washington, The Fool and His Scepter (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969); see also Robert Weimann's Shakespeare und die Tradition des Volkstheaters (Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1967).

  18. Günter Grass broaches this question ironically in connection with that of the role of the writer in an address given in Princeton in 1966, with the title: “Vom mangelnden Selbstvertrauen der schreibenden Hofnarren unter Berücksichtigung nichtvorhander Höfe,” in Über meinen Lehrer Döblin und andere Vorträge (Berlin: Literarisches Kolloquium, 1968), pp. 67-72.

  19. Max Frisch: “Uber die Höflichkeit,” in Auswahl deutscher Essays (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1966), p. 199.

  20. In Merkur, XI (November, 1957), 1023-1037.

  21. From Grass, Über meinen Lehrer Döblin, p. 67.

  22. Ibid., p. 72.

  23. Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, trans. by Lee M. Capel (Bloomington: Indians University Press, 1965), pp. 298f.

Reinhold Grimm (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12094

SOURCE: Grimm, Reinhold. “‘Cœur’ and ‘Carreau’: Love in the Life and Works of Büchner.” In Love, Lust, and Rebellion: New Approaches to Georg Büchner, pp. 79-100. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Grimm comments on themes of love and eroticism in Büchner's dramas, particularly Danton's Death.]

What [Büchner's] texts contain is clear—and clearly the critics, virtually without exception, have chosen to avert their eyes. Let us begin by simply listing what the reader encounters.

Two women commit suicide out of love for their men: one while in the grip of madness, the other through a conscious decision (decades before Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, she dies a veritable “love-death”). And there are men no less extreme in their passions: one drowns himself after having nearly strangled his lover; another attempts to take his own life in a similar manner—in a state of erotic intoxication, already anticipating ultimate fulfillment. A third, seized by blind despair, compulsively and methodically murders his woman, stabbing her to death in an almost ritualistic process of judgment and execution. All this in only three dramas, one of which is a sketchy fragment; dramas, moreover, teeming with true love and trollops, lovers and libertines, the most delicate tenderness and the most drastic lasciviousness, dramas in which flies mate on people's hands, curs couple in the streets, and we are confronted by the question: “Don't you feel like … tearing off your pants and copulating over someone's ass like dogs … ?”1

I am speaking of Danton's Death, of Leonce and Lena, of Woyzeck. I am speaking of Georg Büchner. Of all the many dozens of studies, monographs, and dissertations that have been devoted to this writer, not a single one actually deals with love; and among the hundreds of essays and articles on Büchner, there is, according to the existing bibliographies as well as the most recent handbooks and commentaries,2 only one short article entirely devoted to this subject. It comes to us from Brazil, was authored by Erwin Theodor [Rosenthal], carries the title “Büchners Grundgedanke: Sehnsucht nach Liebe” (“Büchner's Fundamental Idea: The Longing for Love”), and was published in 1962 in the journal Revista de Letras.3 Today, almost 150 years after the young writer's death, this is all that “the literature” has to offer regarding a theme which an insightful critic (one of the few) has described—albeit only in passing and in a manner which both exaggerates and is overly cautious—as functioning for Büchner as the “core [Angelpunkt] and meaning of life.”4

The core and meaning of life for this writer? The scientist and revolutionary? The author of a seditious pamphlet? The fugitive conspirator who, at the age of twenty-three, died in exile in Switzerland, then the most proper and prudish of lands? His “fundamental idea,” his overpowering “longing” was for love? But I must ask: What do we really know about Georg Büchner's view of love? What have we dared to know? In point of fact, we have only Rosenthal and a few scattered attempts.5

And yet, the very first scene of Büchner's first play begins with lines which unambiguously define the way this theme will be presented. A card game is in progress; and the figure who initiates the dialogue as well as the “love interest” is none other than Georg[es] Danton. He turns to his wife Julie and remarks: “Look at Madame over there—how sweetly she fingers her cards. She knows how, all right—they say her husband always gets the cœur, the others the carreau. You women could even make us fall in love with a lie.”6 The symbolic implications of the card suits mentioned by Danton are unmistakable. This is true of the “cœur,” the heart, which traditionally has expressed a concept of love containing both Amor and Caritas. It is equally true of the “carreau” or diamond: here Büchner sets up a frivolous, obscene counterpart to the heart, using a sign the shape of which is decidedly suggestive. Contrary to one critic's ponderously naive thesis, it is surely not intended to serve as a metaphor for the “world theater.”7 Rather, what Büchner is referring to is something much more intimate, though no less universal. His friend Hérault develops and concretizes the reference when he takes the card names literally and declares that young ladies should not “play games like that. The kings and queens fall on top of each other so indecently and the jacks pop up right after.”8 (The reader will, I trust, forgive this Büchnerian smuttiness; the playwright could not have his “bandits”—to use his own hyperbolic term—talk like parsons' daughters, even though he himself was engaged to the daughter of a parson.)

What the duality of “cœur” and “carreau” conjures up from the very beginning is the entire range of the erotic: from the purest, indeed most chaste, affection as expressed by that ancient emblem the heart, all the way to the crassest carnality, which is denoted by the red diamond. And the two areas are not kept separate from one another but are closely bound together, in however daring, unbourgeois, and unstable a manner. Their common denominator is love—but not love as a mere concept or some anemic “fundamental idea,” but rather as an all-embracing fundamental experience, an experience which is at once joyous and overwhelming. For let us not forget that Julie and Danton, whose gentleness and kindness toward each other (“dear heart,” she calls him)9 culminate in Julie taking her own life for the sake of her beloved, exist alongside of Hérault and his promiscuous “queen of diamonds,” a woman who can make a man fall in love with a lie. What is more, these two radically dissimilar couples are joined by Camille Desmoulins, who exhibits what is perhaps the most faithful and selfless love to be found in Büchner's works—yet it is precisely this figure who calls for the elemental “limb-loosening, wicked love” of Sappho, with “naked gods and bacchantes” and, again completely uneuphemistically, “Venus with the beautiful backside”!10 Unvarnished sexuality, the most tender affection, and a classical Greek sensuality which the declaration that Venus, along with Epicurus, is to become the “doorkeeper of the Republic”11 clearly endows with emancipatory and even utopian traits: all this is present in Büchner's images and allusions, as well as in his invocations of Renaissance licentiousness. Attentive readers cannot fail to note that in the opening scene of his first drama the playwright sketches out a full panorama of the world of Eros; he develops, or at least alludes to, all its various manifestations, which not only recur in, and color the rest of, this drama of revolution, but also suffuse Büchner's comedy Leonce and Lena and, to an even greater extent, his proletarian tragedy, Woyzeck.

Yet there is more. This fundamental experience is not limited to Büchner's plays nor even to those of his writings which have been preserved. It can also be found in that “complete fragment,” the novella (or story) Lenz, and must have been present in his play, apparently lost forever, “Pietro Aretino”—present, once again, unless all indications are wrong, in the most multifarious manner. What, after all, do we learn about that unhappy writer, Lenz? Does his breakdown not result in part, indeed primarily, from the collapse of his love for Friederike? Does he not fall apart because her “happiness,” which always made him so “calm,” no longer washes over him, and instead her “fate,” as well as his own, lies on his heart “like a hundredweight”?12 These are all direct quotes which, it must be added, occur directly before the central passage in which Lenz is seized by the “obsession” of resurrecting a dead girl, something he attempts to carry out with “all the misery of despair” and all the force of will he still possesses. It is surely no coincidence that the child at whom he vainly hurls his demented “Arise and walk!” also bears—or bore—the name Friederike.13 And we find this blasphemous phrase repeated word-for-word in Leonce's frenzied ecstasy of love;14 moreover, the underlying concept also crops up in Büchner's letters to his fiancée, Minna Jaeglé. In February of 1834, while at the university of Gießen, he wrote: “I am alone as if in a grave; when will your hand awaken me?” To this he added the highly allusive line: “They say I am mad because I have said that in six weeks I will rise again, but first I will ascend into heaven, in the diligence [to Strasbourg] that is.”15 Clearly, Büchner was not reluctant to mingle erotic allusions with references to Christianity and the Bible. This connection between his letters to Minna, his comedy, and his narrative dealing with Lenz can also be developed out of another passage in the story, the section which describes the religious ecstasy that the tormented writer experiences with such intensity after he preaches: “Now, another existence, divine, twitching lips bent down over him and sucked on his lips; he went up to his lonely room. He was alone, alone! Then the spring rushed forth, torrents broke from his eyes, his body convulsed, his limbs twitched, he felt as if he must dissolve, he could find no end to this ecstasy.”16

Let us here carefully note Büchner's choice of words! Not only does he mention “ecstasy,” he also causes the '′Ερωs λυσιμελήs of Sappho, referred to by Camille as “limb-loosening love” (gliederlösende Liebe), to spring from overheated piousness. It is important to see the connection here to the love scene in Leonce and Lena17 and, above all, to Büchner's “fatalism letter” of 1834, in which he tells Minna: “I glowed, the fever covered me with kisses and enfolded me like the arm of a lover. Above me there were waves of darkness, my heart swelled in infinite longing, stars forced their way through the gloom, and hands and lips bent down.”18

The almost mystic undertones of this erotic fever-fantasy are as evident as is the startlingly erotic quality of Lenz's pietistic experience of transcendence. But even there, is not all “heavenly” love—if in fact such a thing is present in Büchner's writings—overshadowed by a love which is thoroughly worldly? When we seek to categorize the causes and effects of Lenz's madness, it is clear that those of a philosophical and social nature play an important role.19 Yet should we not also look elsewhere, not so much in the area of religion—which lately has been stressed to the point of excess20—as in that of sexuality? Both in regard to Büchner in general, and in this context in particular, the emphasis on religious elements reveals itself as a highly dubious approach. Granted, certain remnants of Christianity are present in Lenz; after all, the man had studied theology. But are these remnants not thoroughly secularized by Büchner, just as he secularized so many other references to Christianity and the Bible? Indeed, to pose a rather heretical question, should not Lenz's mad attempt at resurrecting the dead Friederike be viewed as an attempt at reviving the bliss he experienced with the living Friederike? The shattered man, in the utter demise of his joy and happiness, prays “that God should grant him a sign and revive the child”!21 And Büchner chose these words, too, advisedly.

Or consider “Pietro Aretino,” Büchner's supposed “obscenity” dealing with the renowned eroticist of the Renaissance, a man who, like the Marquis de Sade, won for himself the cynical and yet admiring epithet, “the divine one.” God knows, it is high time that the information which has been preserved or can be deduced22 regarding this work is taken seriously, rather than being brushed aside with an embarrassed blush. Let us dare to admit that Büchner wanted to write about this man precisely on account of, and not despite, Aretino's having written the “Sonetti lussuriosi” (“Voluptuous Sonnets”)—on “sixteen positions of a pair of lovers in coitu” after drawings by Giulio Romano—as well as the so-called Ragionamenti, his notorious “Conversations” among courtesans. Because, not in spite of, Aretino's “vigorous sensuality” in both life and art, the young German writer found him a fascinating figure. It is actually of little import whether the “legendary ‘Aretino’ drama” (thus Walter Hinderer)23 was almost complete or only a conception, whether it was intentionally destroyed or lost in some other way. What is important is the subject matter and the fact that Büchner concerned himself with it. Quite recently, this work—or conception—has been the object of further speculation by a scholar, on the one hand, and a writer, on the other. According to the literary historian Hermann Bräuning-Oktavio, the drama would have been a historical “painting on a colossal scale,” a gigantic fresco portraying the “power and greatness of human passions”;24 according to Gaston Salvatore, in whose play Büchners Tod (“Büchner's Death”) the fevered deliria of the dying poet are haunted by Aretino,25 Büchner would have linked the Italian not only to questions of revolution and class conflict but also to modern concepts regarding the problem of the intellectual's servile role in society—a favorite topic of Bertolt Brecht, by the way.26

It may well be that Bräuning-Oktavio's hypothesis possesses a certain validity; in any event, it is more convincing than Salvatore's notion of how Büchner would have portrayed this man who was known and feared by all Europe; who—for this reason—was showered with gifts, honors, and bribes; whom the great Ariosto apostrophized as the “scourge of the princes”;27 indeed, who liked to refer to himself proudly as “a free man by the grace of God” (per divina grazia uomo libero).28 There is something colossal, almost monstrous, about this condottiere of the pen, something of a “Great Dane with dove's wings,” to use the phrase which Büchner applies to Danton.29 And yet, if one takes a closer look, it appears that in the case of Aretino, too, it was love that was of primary importance. Even a cursory glance at the Italian's life leads one to believe that the play dealing with him—as far as we know, Büchner's last or next-to-last work30—would have repeated and intensified, nay, virtually doubled, the theme of love which the young writer had developed in his previous literary efforts. In 1829 his contemporary, Christian Dietrich Grabbe, published Don Juan und Faust, and I for one am convinced that in 1837 Büchner would have followed suit by providing us with a work which would have amounted to a Danton and Woyzeck.

Aretino lends himself to an undertaking of this sort not only through his insatiable “affirmation of pleasure in every form,” nor his endless “series of loves, love affairs, and love encounters” which, as was the case with Danton, caused him to be involved with women of all social strata, “the highborn and the low, those with intelligence and those with a price.”31 At the same time, he was also hopelessly in love with one woman who, having brought him great happiness, betrayed him—just as Marie betrays Woyzeck. For the rest of his life, Aretino was caught in the toils of an obsessive love from which he was unable to free himself even after this woman's death. His declarations of passion for the young Perina Riccia remind us, in their sensual intensity, of Danton's stammerings to Marion,32 just as his searing lamentations at her deathbed recall Woyzeck's desperate grief as well as that felt by Lenz. We even hear echoes of some of Büchner's own statements.33 (Salvatore, despite the many problematical aspects of his play, at least gives us some sense of all this when he has Minna appear before the feverish, sexually aroused Büchner as a courtesan.) In recent times, it has been regretfully noted that “we have not a single really good play about the Cinquecento.”34 It is my firm conviction that Büchner's “Pietro Aretino,” marked by both “cœur” and “carreau,” was, or would have become, the work that could have filled this gap.35

But let us concentrate on the texts we possess, let us return to Büchner's first and most important work, Danton's Death. For I wish to commit yet another heresy by declaring that in this play the theme of love is no less central than that of revolution. Indeed, the two are inseparably intertwined. Even if we limit ourselves to the main characters, we see that this is true not only of Julie and Camille's wife, Lucile, but also of the “grisette” or “hetaera,” Marion.36 All three of the leading female figures in Danton's Death contribute—each in her own way—to the exemplary unleashing of both the dialectic of revolution, with all its contradictions, and of love “in every form.”

As has been indicated, Julie and Lucile belong together, even more so at the end of the play than in the early scenes. Critics have noted that Woyzeck and Leonce and Lena exhibit elements of a circular structure in that their endings, to a certain extent, flow back into their beginnings.37 However, something that has hardly been noticed, let alone investigated, is the circular construction of Danton's Death38 and the concomitant function which is assigned to the two female figures as well as to love. This oversight is the more surprising since all these elements are particularly noticeable in Büchner's drama of revolution. One need only compare the first scene (“Danton on a footstool at Julie's feet”) with the last scene where Lucile sits “on the steps of the guillotine”:

No, Julie, I love you like the grave. … They say in the grave there is peace, and grave and peace are one. If that's so, then in your lap I'm already lying under the earth. You sweet grave—your lips are funeral bells, your voice my death knell, your breasts my burial mound, and your heart my coffin.
(enters …) I'm sitting in your lap, you silent angel of death. … You dear cradle, you lulled my Camille to sleep, you strangled him under your roses. You death knell, you sang him to the grave with your sweet tongue.(39)

The connection between these images, the cyclical way in which they anticipate and echo one another, can hardly be overlooked, especially since they are so boldly unusual. There can be no doubt that Büchner created this connection intentionally; the references to sweetness and love, peacefulness and silence, the correspondence established in both instances between a lap (Schoß, which can also mean “womb”) and a grave—all this is simply too exact to be regarded as accidental. Even the cradle, which at first is missing from the opening scene, soon puts in an appearance. Before the next scene begins, we encounter the line, “having coffins for cradles,”40 a phrase which clearly anticipates Lucile's speech at the end of the play; and, of course, the evocative rhyme of “womb” and “tomb,” of “cave” and “grave,” is something of which psychoanalysis has long been aware. In the programmatic writings of Norman O. Brown, to which I shall eventually return, one finds the laconic yet unambiguous words: “Birth, copulation, and death, equated.”41 This is precisely what Büchner accomplishes: “cradle,” “womb” (Schoß), and “grave” are—as Danton himself declares—“one and the same.” When Lucile utters the phrase “dear cradle,” she is addressing the dreaded guillotine, the killing machine she also refers to as an “angel of death” and a “death knell”; and when Julie reaches for the vial of poison from which she imbibes her love-death, she does so with the words: “Come, dearest priest, your amen makes us go to sleep.”42 Both of these death scenes are love scenes, just as both figures are, above all else, women in love. True, it seems at first that Julie regards Danton's words as frivolous and shocking, for she turns away from him with an almost Kleistian “Oh.” However, she quickly regains her composure, and with it her love for Danton, a love in which she henceforth abides with steadily increasing confidence and unreservedness until finally, with the words “sleep, sleep” on her lips, she follows Danton and the darkling world into the “slumber” of death.43

The same development can be discerned in Danton's much-cited loneliness: from his fatalistic and seemingly resigned declaration, “we are very lonely,”44 to the fervent intimacy he shares with Julie in the aftermath of his agonizing nightmare. In the latter scene, which occurs in the second act, Danton is able to say, “Now I'm calm”—and are we not forced to envision him in his wife's arms, not just in her presence? “Completely calm, dear heart?” she asks, full of concern, and he replies: “Yes, Julie, come to bed.”45 That all this is connected to various aspects of the play's concluding scenes—for example, to the revolutionary's fear of the loneliness of death, a fear which is so difficult to reconcile with the philosophy he manifests in other situations,46 and, above all, to Julie's actions and attitude, to the extraordinary love-sacrifice she offers—cannot be ignored. The correspondences extend even to specific words and phrases, something which is particularly evident in Danton's cry: “Oh Julie! If I had to go alone! If she would abandon me! And if I decomposed entirely, dissolved completely—I'd be a handful of tormented dust. Each of my atoms could find peace only with her. I can't die, no, I cannot die.”47 As a comforting answer, Julie has a messenger carry a lock of her hair to the imprisoned Danton: “There, bring him that and tell him he won't go alone. He'll understand. Then come back quickly. I want to read his looks in your eyes.”48 And, once again, Danton is freed from his agony. “I won't go alone,” he says to himself as if he has been saved, “thank you, Julie.”49 Now he is able to face the guillotine, composed and calm.

Julie's love-sacrifice is indeed extraordinary. What renders it even more extraordinary and even more indicative of the importance Büchner attached to love is the fact that it has absolutely no basis in historical reality. It did not at all occur to the real Julie (who was actually named Louise) to accompany her Georges in death. Not only did she survive him by decades, but she had also no compunctions about remarrying—although, admittedly, this did not happen until she had mourned Danton for a few chaste (or, at least, relatively chaste) years.50 The banality of these facts is sobering; yet it also serves to establish irrefutably that the heroic transfiguration effected by Büchner evinces his own concerns and conceptions. And then there is Lucile, who is presented as deriving a limpid, self-effacing happiness from the love she shares with Camille. Even with this character, Büchner departs from what he read in his history books. Instead of having her arrested, condemned, and executed on the basis of Laflotte's denunciation, which is what actually happened,51 he causes her to provide a second example of transfiguration achieved by means of a luminous love-sacrifice. Like Julie, Lucile is cloaked in radiance. Or, as Maurice B. Benn puts it: “Against the dark background [of the play, these] two pure figures … appear in an almost radiant light.”52 Of course, Julie chooses death without hesitation and in the full freedom of her spirit, while Lucile, like Ophelia, falls victim to madness and is able to return to herself only at the very end of the play. Yet this ending, one of the most moving and magnificent in all of world drama, not only presents, in the words of Benn, “a sudden return of lucidity”53 for Lucile; it also crowns and confirms the triumph, the limitless glorification of love in Büchner's drama of revolution. The passage in question is deceptively brief; it begins with the entrance of a militia patrol and then breaks off with Lucile being led away to her death:

Hey—who's there?
Long live the King!
In the name of the Republic! (She is surrounded by the watch and led off.)(54)

These lines must be read with the utmost attentiveness and exactitude. On the one hand, they serve to close the circle of the play's “love interest” which begins at the gaming table with the bantering about “cœur” and “carreau”; on the other hand, in testifying to the power of love, they also provide a final manifestation, indeed a proclamation, of the republic, and with it, the revolution. The part of the play's action which is connected to the revolution is encompassed by the theme of love. Even the scene in which Danton and his followers are executed, a scene in which their severed heads kiss “at the bottom of the basket,”55 is framed by—and one might say, sublated into—this theme as it is developed in the two scenes devoted to Julie's and Lucile's acts of self-sacrifice and transfiguration. Yet, at the same time, the part of the play which deals with love is also subjected to a sublation. In that final scene, in which love shines forth one last time and reaches what could be termed its apotheosis, Lucile is, in a very literal manner, “surrounded” by the power of the revolution in its most concrete form.

The vividness of this action, which is truly theatrical in the best sense of the word, is no less striking than the imagery Büchner utilizes at the beginning and end of Danton's Death, or, for that matter, the basic circular structure of the play as a whole. Here, both themes are fused together in a relationship as inseparable as that of form and content. Comfort and hope, refuge from the present and assurances regarding the future, all are intertwined in Büchner's play. Truly, for individual human beings, love is all that remains. For humanity, however, there is the revolution. Although conservative critics would have us believe that the notion of progress and the linear movement of history is flatly rejected, and in its place a Spenglerian “circular movement of all history” is glorified,56 this conclusion cannot be substantiated, regardless of whether one concentrates exclusively on Danton's Death or examines the young writer's entire oeuvre and biography.57 Büchner was a man who despaired and yet continued to fight, a militant who founded the Society of Human Rights, wrote The Hessian Messenger, and yet admitted that he “felt as if [he] were crushed under the terrible fatalism of history.”58 If ever anyone had a right to lay claim to that dictum of Gramsci, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,”59 then it was surely Büchner, a revolutionary in that most reactionary of times, the German Vormärz period. However, what sets him apart from Gramsci, and even raises him above the Italian's paradox, is the fact that he was a great writer and, both as a writer and a revolutionary, a man who loved. Büchner wanted “life and love” among human beings to be “one and the same”; he wanted love to be life and “life [to be] love.”60

I believe that one can legitimately take these words, which come from a fragmentary scene not included in the final version of Leonce and Lena, and apply them in a general sense to Büchner's entire concept of love.61 For are they not equally true of Marion, the third major female figure in Danton's Death? Does not this “grisette,” in an exemplary manner, live a life of love? In her existence, are not life and love in fact identical? Admittedly, this is yet another heresy, and one especially offensive to those who, while not necessarily conservative in their political views, are nonetheless rigorously moralistic.62 But have the numerous attempts to explain Marion with concepts such as “tragedy” and “guilt” really helped us to understand this figure? Should we deprive her of what she terms “the only thing,”63 and instead burden her with “a dark, animalistic sadness,” in effect, a bad conscience?64 Ought we not instead approach both Marion and Danton as well as their relationship with one another—and, by extension, Georg Büchner's treatment of love in its entirety—with very different concepts and values? That it is not enough simply to rattle off a few of the fashionable phrases of the playwright's era, such as the well-known “emancipation of the flesh,” is, I would hope, obvious. It was no accident that Büchner repeatedly distanced himself from the Saint-Simonians and the Young Germans.65 As for the latter group, their supposedly daring heroines66 resemble, when compared with Marion, nothing more than “marionettes with sky-blue noses and affected pathos,” the fleshless and bloodless constructs for which Büchner mocked the “so-called idealist poets.”67 But should we descend to the opposite extreme and—utilizing a word which carries with it the most repulsive of associations—see in Marion “something subhuman” (Untermenschliches)?68 Neither this dubious concept nor the “uncontrollable animalistic lustfulness” which has been linked with it nor, by any stretch of the imagination, the insipid sensuality of the Young Germans can touch the essence of Marion's being; and the yammering and howling, the erotic spasms and convulsions which fill Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade also have very little to do with the serenity and delicacy, indeed the poetry of Marion and her scene.

Unfortunately, there is not enough space here to quote the love scene between her and Danton in its entirety. I can only point to the naturalness, the lyrical-idyllic simplicity and yet eloquence with which Marion—sitting “at the feet” of Danton, according to a telling stage direction—narrates the story of her life, which is to say the story of her love. “My mother was a smart woman. She always said chastity was a nice virtue.” Thus Büchner, taking a sly jab at bourgeois morality, has Marion begin her account: “When people came to the house and started talking about certain things, she told me to leave the room. When I asked what they wanted, she said I ought to be ashamed of myself. When she gave me a book to read, I almost always had to skip over a couple of pages.”69 Marion goes on to recall how once, in springtime, while still a girl, she found herself “in a peculiar atmosphere,” an atmosphere which “almost choked me.” Luckily, a young man appeared who, though he often said “crazy things,” was “good-looking.” In time, Marion says, “we couldn't see why we might not just as well lie together between two sheets as sit next to each other in two chairs.” Then, soon thereafter, she declares with calm frankness: “But I became like an ocean, swallowing everything and swirling deeper and deeper. For me there was only one opposite: all men melted into one body. That was my nature—who can escape it?”70

When the young man, who believed Marion was his alone, learned of her activities, he kissed her as if he wanted—again that word—to “choke” her: his arms wrapped tight around her neck; she was “terribly afraid.” But he released her and then went off and drowned himself (an event which is conveyed to us only by Marion's indirect and highly evocative remarks; see chapter 5 below). “I had to cry,” she admits, “that was the only break in my being.”71 Since then she has lived in complete unity and harmony with herself:

Other people have Sundays and working days, they work for six days and pray on the seventh; once a year, on their birthdays, they get sentimental, and every year on New Year's Day they reflect. I don't understand all that. For me there is no stopping, no changing. I'm always the same, an endless longing and seizing, a fire, a torrent. … It's all the same, whatever we enjoy: bodies, icons, flowers, or toys, it's all the same feeling. Whoever enjoys the most prays the most.72

Marion's autobiographical account closes with this avowal, which clearly provides the philosophical, or ideological, highlight of the entire scene. Büchner was not, however, content to stop here. The ensuing dialogue between Marion and Danton provides yet another highlight—in this case, one which is lyrical-idyllic, even lyrical-utopian, in nature:

Why can't I contain your beauty in me completely, surround it entirely?
Danton, your lips have eyes.
I wish I were a part of the atmosphere so that I could bathe you in my flood and break on every wave of your beautiful body.(73)

It is at this point that Lacroix, loud-mouthed and vulgar, enters the scene. Accompanied by a pair of common whores, he fills the air with crude remarks; and thus the scene ends on a jarringly discordant note that tears apart the idyl briefly shared by the two lovers.74

I would like to ask: Could a playwright possibly express more in a single scene? Could a scene be any more unambiguous? How can it be that Büchner has been so completely misunderstood here by so many experts, by virtually the entire corps of critics? Or, phrased more maliciously: How is it possible to react to such a text—particularly when it is part of Büchner's drama of revolution—in a way which is so blind to history and so indifferent to art, so joyless and so dismally sanctimonious? It is perhaps not entirely accidental that the only voice which has been raised in favor of Marion comes to us from Sweden!75 Everything else one encounters reeks of puritanism and philistine narrow-mindedness. The eternal bourgeois (who, by the way, lurks not just in “bourgeois” critics) is not only repelled by a “soulless whore” or, at best, a “hetaera”; he finds her positively frightening. Indeed, Marion “is obviously a very dangerous person,” we are informed in all seriousness.76 Critics' sensibilities—not to mention their senses—have failed to grasp this woman and her message even though, beginning with the very first scene and Camille's proclamation of Venus and Epicurus as the patron saints of the republic, it pervades the entire drama and stands inscribed as a secret motto over the events of the revolution. Of course, we also notice a marked heightening of the current of eroticism: Camille merely demands primal love and Greek sensuality, while Marion actually manifests these ideals, actually lives and proclaims them with her own flesh.

After Marion's scene, there can be no doubt that the erotic-utopian qualities which the play first presents in a purely theoretical manner or in broad outline, have now become elements of concrete praxis and thus must be recognized as a crucial dimension of the entire theme of revolution. And how could it be otherwise? Are not love and sensuality of every sort, as well as the achievement of full happiness in this life, integral and inalienable aspects of the complete and liberated human being, the total human being, and hence essential components of any full concept of revolution? If one draws on Camus, as does Benn, and speaks of Büchner's “threefold concept of revolution,” which combines sociopolitical rebellion with metaphysical revolt and an overturning of established aesthetic norms77—then why not also acknowledge Büchner's liberation of Eros, that is to say, his sexual revolt? Are we not forced to do so by what we encounter in his works? I can no longer ignore the testimony of these texts. “Cœur” and “carreau” speak with a clarity that leaves little to be desired; what they say to us is far clearer and more convincing than any painstakingly assembled collection of quotations from Arthur Schopenhauer, whom some critics want to drag into the discussion of Büchner at all costs.78 But so be it! If, in 1813, the year of Büchner's birth, this notorious reactionary and misogynist among German thinkers examined the “fourfold root of the principle of sufficient reason,” then Büchner, the loving rebel among German writers, in Danton's Death dealt with the fourfold root of the principle of revolution. Indeed, it seems to me that even if one were to ignore the play, it still would be possible to establish the necessity of Büchner's support for a fourth revolt, the revolt of Eros:

For what would it be this revolution
Without universal copulation?(79)

Here we clearly have an area of intersection between Büchner and the author of Marat/Sade, regardless of how crude the latter's intentionally primitive slogans may seem when compared with Marion's scene. When Bo Ullmann, who is responsible for the aforementioned contribution from Sweden, refers to her message as a “utopia of unmutilated, total humanness,” a “utopia of the erotic negation of both self and possession,”80 he merely provides more restrained but, by the same token, considerably more apt formulations of what Weiss, his German-born countryman, has in mind.

But though it is an admirable virtue, the open-mindedness in eroticis displayed by Ullmann and Weiss is not in itself sufficient for a full understanding of Marion. The same is true of some “sisterly” insights; however knowing they may be, they remain incomplete or even lead to new varieties of misperception. Margaret Jacobs, for example, starts out on the right track when she writes of Marion: “In a special sense she is natural, but one must beware of assessing her as naive.”81 Precisely in its contradictoriness, this statement is directly on target. Unfortunately, Jacobs fails to perceive the full implications of her own aperçu, for she immediately lapses into a moralizing approach and decides that there is “something undeniably gruesome” about Marion. Even the moment of illumination provided by our Swedish critic flickers, dims, and finally disappears. In spite of all his accurate perceptions, Ullmann not only pushes Marion in the direction of “childishness” and “foolishness”82 but feels compelled—even while acknowledging her “innocence” and “purity”—to describe her as “dirty”! Finally, he judges Marion to be “truly unfit for a utopia” because, as he goes on to inform us, she is “scarcely a person of this world”! (Wouldn't “although” make more sense?) Thus a utopian presence is registered, but only in order to be denounced as a failure. What seems to exert a certain fascination is not so much utopia itself as its supposed collapse. That this perspective involves a distortion, indeed almost an inversion of the concept of utopia is quite obvious. In actuality, Büchner is concerned neither with the “abandonment” nor with the “defense” of an erotic utopia, but rather with imagining and manifesting it. The fact that the present, even when it is revolutionary, fails to live up to the utopian goal does not refute the latter any more than the temporary collapse of the ongoing sociopolitical revolution refutes or even “compromises” its particular utopian vision.

However tempting it may be, one cannot connect Marion with Marie of the Woyzeck fragment;83 nor can one view the proletarian tragedy as a necessary continuation of Danton's Death, much less its recantation.84 This would presume, within Büchner's oeuvre, an evolution which has never been convincingly demonstrated. And if indeed one is willing to make the interpretive leap of associating the suicide of Marion's lover with the murder of Marie by the pond, why not link the young man's death with Leonce's loudly announced decision to plunge into the river and drown, a decision motivated not by despair, but rather by the ecstasy of love? In other words, one could just as easily concentrate on the laughable consequences of Marion's “terrible dangerousness” as on those which are somberly serious. Of course, it cannot be denied that she admits: “My mother died of grief, people point at me.” But she adds: “That's silly”85—a comment that Büchner meant to be taken seriously. Marion's mother, who is so ironically characterized as wise and moral, can hardly be regarded as tragic; if anything, she is to be pitied. And Marion's first lover is not only pitiable, he is comical. To say this obviously involves a degree of exaggeration—but is not the death brought on by grief a standard element of cheap melodrama? And does not the young man's impetuous suicide smack of a certain callow foolishness? The playwright, in any case, speaking through that incorrigible materialist, Valerio, describes such deeds as “lieutenants' romanticism.”86 Even the phrase “a foolish thing” is supplied by Büchner himself.87 He refrains from condemning Marion morally—or, for that matter, in any way. She exists outside of the traditional value system which bases itself on Christian ethics and hence she cannot be defined in terms of its conception of morality. Marion does not have a faulty or corrupted conscience, she has no conscience at all. She is not an evildoer, not a sinner, not laden with guilt. In the final analysis, she is not even immoral. She can only be termed amoral. As both elemental nature and its utopian projection, she exists before as well as after and above all traditional, which is to say bourgeois, moral strictures and sexual mores. Marion is entirely natural and yet at the same time she presages a perfect utopia. The first of these aspects serves as an anticipatory manifestation, a poetic image, of the second aspect. Or, to draw on yet another notorious thinker, though he certainly was not always a misogynist: Marion, as a living revaluation of all the values of love, stands both before and beyond good and evil (and, by the way, completely removed from the world of work). She is the “restoration of nature, free from false moralism [moralinfrei],” to use Nietzsche's lapidary description of this condition.88

It is only through an appreciation of such paradoxes that we are able to understand Marion, her relationship to Danton, and the function of her scene. On the one hand, she is nature in its purest form and yet, on the other, she is not at all natural. Actually, she is caught between two sets of constraints: she is acutely susceptible to those of nature and she finds herself a prey of those of society. Only gradually is she able to overcome the double disharmony caused by these forces and mechanisms. This is revealed to us twice—here Büchner is quite exact—in the oppressive feeling of suffocation or choking which is so vividly visited upon Marion before she finally is able to become herself. In the midst of spring's luxuriance, it symbolizes the powerful drives of nature; in the enraged embrace of her disappointed lover, it represents society's insistence upon possession. For Marion, both issues now belong to the past; life and love have long since become one and the same. When this feeling of suffocation recurs at the end of the scene, it is no longer associated with her but instead with Danton. Coming on the heels of his strained debate with Lacroix and Paris, it is symptomatic, both specifically and in a broad sense, of an external compulsion to “exertion” and “work,” to purposeful “action” in general;89 symptomatic, moreover, of the individual's renunciation of pleasure and obsession with productive accomplishment, as well as of that sad state of affairs in which people mutually oppress one another. Referring to his friends, Danton might well have repeated his line from the opening scene: “Their politics [i.e., their plans, their appeals, their demands] are getting on my nerves.”90 Marion, however, uses a different image in conveying this thought to Danton: “Your lips are cold, your words have stifled your kisses.”91

Even in her lament, Büchner's grisette manifests, as a utopian projection, precisely that which Büchner's revolutionary, who is trying to blaze a trail to utopia, would like to achieve in historical reality: the realm of untrammeled pleasure. Marion is actually able to live the existence Danton demands, impatient and audacious—and hence burdened with guilt. She is able to be what he can only long for. The playwright has allowed her to rise above all constraints and enter that much sought-after realm. As Ullmann points out, Marion has attained complete and unmutilated “humanness” (Menschennatur); she has managed to transcend all notions of private property, an achievement which allows her to possess the entire world. Moreover, she has dissolved her sense of self; thus her existence, while totally unfragmented, is marked by infinite multiplicity. However, such fulfillment can only exist as the projection of a possibility; this perfect unity of being can only reside on the periphery of history, where origin and goal flow into one another. For the revolutionary who lives in the midst of a bloody reality, all this is unattainable. Danton, entangled in history, thoroughly caught up in the developments of each new day, must remain in a state of inner disharmony from which he can escape only for a few moments at a time. His agonizingly acute consciousness, which constantly disturbs his peace of mind, and Marion's seamless, almost unconscious, happiness are discordantly juxtaposed, their compatibility and loving encounter notwithstanding. Büchner's grisette manifests a tangible utopia, a concrete praxis of erotic liberation; in Büchner's revolutionary, we see a concretization of utopia's dependence on history and its concomitant contradiction of reality.

Yet the difference between Danton and Marion is not presented simply as a painful disharmony, but instead primarily in terms of a reconciliation. For this is the central meaning of the brief, lyrical exchange that consummates the idyl shared by the two lovers. Does it not almost resemble a duet? While it seems to begin so abruptly, the dialogue actually is a logical continuation of what has already been said, a final, poetically terse evocation both of the undistorted nature that preceded man's descent into history and of the erotic utopia that lies somewhere in the future. These lines are not intended to provide contrast; instead, they represent a culmination.92 What does it mean when Danton voices his ardent desire to enfold Marion “completely” inside himself and feels a need to become “part of the atmosphere” so that he might “bathe” his lover in his “flood” and “break on every wave” of her “beautiful body”? And what are we to make of that seemingly cryptic line in which Marion reproachfully tells Danton that his lips have eyes? Should we follow the lead of formalist criticism and conclude that this is nothing more than a bold image that anticipates Rimbaud and the Dadaist Hans Arp? Should we accept the judgment of the critic and poet Walter Höllerer and view it as “surreal estrangement”?93 But does not Hinderer offer a more convincing explanation when he speaks of a “metaphor for Danton's inability to turn off his consciousness”?94

Yet even this interpretation, while establishing a persuasive connection between form and content, provides only half the answer. The other half can be found in a book which makes no reference to Büchner, a book which carries the trendy—and yet appropriate—title, Love's Body. Experiences of the sort described by Marion are, the author emphatically informs us, “polymorphous perversity, the translation of all our senses into one another, the interplay between the senses,” which is to say “the metaphor, the free translation.”95 And in truth, however suspicious we may be of faddish prophets and lecture-circuit revolutionaries, could we find a better description of Büchner's “new, previously unarticulated sensibility”96 than this passage by Norman O. Brown? Does not the concept of “polymorphous perversity,” the interplay of all the senses, provide, if not the, at least a key to Danton's lips that have eyes? Or, to phrase the question differently, is not the “metaphor” also a sensual reality? This notion, among others, is elucidated as Brown, proceeding in his inimitably eclectic manner,97 issues a prophecy regarding an erotic utopia: “The human body would become polymorphously perverse, delighting in that full life of all the body which it now fears. The consciousness strong enough to endure full life would be no longer Apollonian but Dionysian—consciousness which does not observe the limit, but overflows, consciousness which does not negate any more.

Does this not constitute a summation, and a rather detailed one at that, of both the dialogue and the relationship between Danton and Marion? Are they not, like the fervent disciple of Freud, though in a much more direct way, involved in the “complete abolition of repression” and the “resurrection of the body”? As if he were not only allowing Marion to reflect, but also seeking to outdo Danton's “laziness,”98 Brown announces: “The riddle of history is not in Reason but in Desire; not in labor but in love.” To be sure, Brown is indulging in extreme understatement when, in his earlier and better known book, Life Against Death, he refers to all this as “a little more Eros.”99 There is no denying that his writings run the risk of making an absolute of erotic liberation. Yet it is by no means mere eclecticism that leads him to draw not only on Nietzsche and, especially, Freud, but also on Marx, whose concept of the “total person” he blends with ideas taken from the other two thinkers.100 (The concept, it will be remembered, first appeared in the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, that is to say, seven years after Büchner's death.) The necessity of connecting Marx and Freud, perhaps Nietzsche as well, and, in any event, Marxism and psychoanalysis, social and sexual revolution, was perceived long before Brown came on the scene. One need only think of Wilhelm Reich and, above all, Herbert Marcuse and his book, Eros and Civilization.101 Actually, it is of secondary importance which of these thinkers one relies on for supporting testimony. What is crucial—as well as astounding—is the fact that in Büchner's works we encounter a thoroughly modern view of revolution, one which is not just twofold but actually fourfold; indeed, I would go so far as to say that in his oeuvre every conceivable variety of revolt is not only present but is developed to its fullest extent. Both love and revolution are here in all their various forms; both possess central importance and, at the same time, are inseparable from each other. Nowhere is this more evident than in the female figures of Danton's Death, and most of all in Marion.

Thus it is no exaggeration to say that Marion, the embodiment of sexual liberation, can be viewed as the pleasure principle incarnate: a notion which—let me make this point one last time—involves absolutely no value judgment. Nothing could be further off the mark than to dismiss Marion as an inferior variant of her partner by declaring, “[Her] insatiability … is a distortion, a vulgarization of Danton's.”102 For if one were carefully to compare the two figures, would it not emerge that the very opposite is much closer to the truth? Certainly, the playwright did not hesitate to underscore Danton's own naturalness and sensuality; in fact, he even relates these qualities to Marion's versions of them by having his protagonist anticipate, almost word-for-word, one of her key statements. Prior to the grisette's declaration, “that was my nature,” her visitor has candidly announced, “That's my nature.”103


  1. Georg Büchner, The Complete Collected Works, translations and commentary by Henry J. Schmidt (New York: Avon Books, 1977). Hereafter CCW 48; cf. Georg Büchner, Sämtliche Werke und Briefe. Historisch-Kristische Ausgabe mit Kommentar, edited by Werner R. Lehmann (Hamburg: Christian Wegner Verlag, 1967-). Hereafter HA 35.

  2. See Werner Schlick, Das Georg-Büchner-Schrifttum bis 1965: Eine internationale Bibliographie (Hildesheim, 1968) and Klaus-Dietrich Petersen, “Georg-Büchner-Bibliographie,” Philobiblon 17 (1973): 89-115. Compare also Hinderer's Büchner-Kommentar zum dichterischen Werk (München, 1977), as well as Gerhard P. Knapp, Georg Büchner (Stuttgart, 1977).

  3. Erwin Theodor [Rosenthal], “Büchners Grundgedanke: Sehnsucht nach Liebe,” Revista de Letras 3 (1962): 201-13.

  4. See Gonthier Louis-Fink, “Volkslied und Verseinlage in den Dramen Büchners,” in Martens, pp. 442-87.

  5. A few of them are quite useful. Particularly noteworthy, although by no means equal to each other in quality, are Bo Ullmann's chapter, “Marie und die Preisgabe der erotischen Utopie,” in his Die sozialkritische Problematik im Werke Georg Büchners und ihre Entfaltung im “Woyzeck”: Mit einigen Bemerkungen zu der Oper Alban Bergs (Stockholm, 1972), pp. 62ff. and 160ff., and Wolfgang Martens, “Zum Menschenbild Georg Büchners: ‘Woyzeck’ und die Marionszene in ‘Dantons Tod,’” in Martens, pp. 373-85, as well as the studies of Swales and Reddick mentioned in the introduction, n. 86. I was unable to consult Ursula Segebrecht-Paulus, “Genuß und Leid im Werk Georg Büchners” (diss., München, 1969).

  6. CCW 17; cf. HA 1, 9: “Sieh die hübsche Dame, wie artig sie die Karten dreht! ja wahrhaftig sie versteht's, man sagt sie halte ihrem Manne immer das cœur und andern Leuten das carreau hin. Ihr könntet einen noch in die Lüge verliebt machen.”

  7. Herbert Anton, Büchners Dramen: Topographien der Freiheit (Paderborn, 1975), p. 17—which means, as has been caustically noted, that the female lap (Schoß) is presented as a stage the masks of which conceal the “indestructible muttonhead” (unverwüstlicher Schaafskopf) of the masked god Dionysus (cf. Hinderer, p. 90).

  8. CCW 18; cf. HA 1, 10: “Ich würde meine Tochter dergleichen nicht spielen lassen, die Herren und Damen fallen so unanständig übereinander und die Buben kommen gleich hinten nach.”

  9. Cf. HA 1, 41: “lieb Herz.”

  10. CCW 20; cf. HA 1, 11: “die gliederlösende, böse Liebe”; “nackte Götter, Bachantinnen [sic]”; “die Venus mit dem schönen Hintern.” For the latter passage, see Hinderer, p. 93.

  11. Ibid.: “Thürsteher der Republik.”

  12. Cf. CCW 124 and HA 1, 92-93: “Glückseligkeit”; “ruhig”; “Schicksal”; “centnerschwer auf dem Herzen.”

  13. CCW 125-26; cf. HA 1, 93: “fixe Idee”; “mit allem Jammer der Verzweiflung”; “Stehe auf und wandle!”

  14. In one of the scattered fragments of Leonce and Lena, one finds the line: “Arise in your white dress and glide through the night and say to the corpse arise and walk!” (Steh auf in deinem weißen Kleid u. schwebe durch die Nacht u. sprich zur Leiche steh auf und wandle!) HA 1, 141.

  15. HA 2, 423-24: “Ich bin allein, wie im Grabe; wann erweckt mich deine Hand? … Sie sagen, ich sei verrückt, weil ich gesagt habe, in sechs Wochen würde ich auferstehen, zuerst aber Himmelfahrt halten, in der Diligence nämlich.”

  16. CCW 117; cf. HA 1, 84-85: “Jetzt, ein anderes Seyn, göttliche, zuckende Lippen bückten sich über ihm nieder, und sogen sich an seine Lippen; er ging auf sein einsames Zimmer. Er war allein, allein! Da rauschte die Quelle, Ströme brachen aus seinen Augen, er krümmte sich in sich, es zuckten seine Glieder, es war ihm als müsse er sich auflösen, er konnte kein Ende finden der Wollust.”

  17. See CCW 160-61; cf. HA 1, 125.

  18. HA 2, 426: “Ich glühte, das Fieber bedeckte mich mit Küssen und umschlang mich wie der Arm der Geliebten. Die Finsterniß wogte über mir, mein Herz schwoll in unendlicher Sehnsucht, es drangen Sterne durch das Dunkel, und Hände und Lippen bückten sich nieder.”

  19. See Knapp, Georg Büchner, pp. 75ff., who provides further bibliographical references.

  20. In this regard, a particularly prominent role is being played by Wolfgang Wittkowski, who has launched a full-scale campaign to “Christianize” Büchner; see his contributions listed in chapter 5, n. 26. The weakness of Wittkowski's approach is revealed specifically with regard to Lenz in an article by Heinrich Anz (see chapter 3, n. 37).

  21. CCW 126; cf. HA 1, 93: “daß Gott ein Zeichen an ihm thue, und das Kind beleben möge.” Once again, Leonce and Lena provides a corresponding text; CCW 160 and HA 1, 124:

    … The moon is like a sleeping child, its golden locks have fallen over its dear face.—Oh, its sleep is death. Look how the dead angel rests its dark pillow and the stars burn around it like candles. Poor child, are the bogeymen coming to get you soon? Where is your mother? Doesn't she want to kiss you once more? Ah, it's sad, dead, and so alone.
    Arise in your white dress and follow the corpse through the night and sing its requiem.
    Der Mond ist wie ein schlafendes Kind, die goldnen Locken sind ihm im Schlaf über das liebe Gesicht heruntergefallen.—O sein Schlaf ist Tod. Wie der todte Engel auf seinem dunkeln Kissen ruht und die Sterne gleich Kerzen um ihn brennen. Armes Kind, kommen die schwarzen Männer bald dich holen? Wo ist deine Mutter? Will sie dich nicht noch einmal küssen? Ach es ist traurig, todt und so allein.
    Steh auf in deinem weißen Kleide und wandle hinter der Leiche durch die Nacht und singe ihr das Todtenlied.)

    Thus the final version. But originally Leonce continued in a manner reminiscent of Lenz (cf. HA 1, 141).

  22. See the summary provided by Hermann Bräuning-Oktavio, Georg Büchner: Gedanken über Leben, Werk und Tod (Bonn, 1976), pp. 41ff.; the following two quotes are also taken from this book.

  23. See Hinderer, p. 172.

  24. See Bräuning-Oktavio, p. 42.

  25. Gaston Salvatore, Büchners Tod (Frankfurt, 1972), pp. 75ff.; for a “generic” background of sorts, see my survey essay, “Dichter-Helden: ‘Tasso,’ ‘Empedokles’ und die Folgen,” Basis 7 (1977): 7-25.

  26. See, for instance, Brechts Tui-Kritik, ed. Wolfgang Fritz Haug (Karlsruhe, 1976). “Tui” is a playful chinoiserie of Brecht's, derived from “tellect-uel-in” = “intellectuel.”

  27. The famous epithet, “the divine one,” which has already been mentioned, also stems from Ariosto; see Peter Stafford's introduction to Pietro Aretino, The Ragionamenti (London, 1970), p. v.

  28. See ibid., p. ix.

  29. CCW 64; cf. HA 1, 49: “Dogge mit Taubenflügeln.”

  30. It appears that Büchner worked on his Aretino play in the summer or fall of 1836; see Knapp, Georg Büchner, p. 26 (who mistakenly writes “1837”).

  31. Bräuning-Oktavio, pp. 42, 46.

  32. See CCW 31-32 and HA 1, 21-22; compare Aretino's declaration in Antonino Foschini, L'Aretino (Milano, 1951), p. 137: “E tu mi fai lagrimar di piacere solo a pensarti.”

  33. See ibid., p. 139: “O Iddio, salva Perina, ché io l'ho amata, l'amo e l'amerò sempre, finché la sentenza del dí novissimo giudicherà le vanità nostre.” Although those quotes are taken from a biographical essay which is strongly novelistic, their content and, to some extent, their wording are based on Aretino's letters.

  34. Stafford, p. viii. It appears that the Englishman knows nothing of Büchner and has never heard of the interesting as well as shocking if, admittedly, less significant “cinquecento drama” by Oskar Panizza, Das Liebeskonzil (The Council of Love), which first appeared in 1895.

  35. There is a certain irony in the fact that, instead of Büchner's own work, we have his translation of a play which the same English critic judges to be “probably the worst drama” dealing with this period: Victor Hugo's Lucrèce Borgia; cf. ibid. and compare HA 1, 193ff.

  36. See CCW 16; cf. HA 1, 8 and Maurice B. Benn, The Drama of Revolt: A Critical Study of Georg Büchner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976). Hereafter Benn, p. 135.

  37. As to Woyzeck, compare in particular Klotz, Geschlossene und offene Form im Drama, p. 110 and Wilhelm Emrich, “Von Georg Büchner zu Samuel Beckett: Zum Problem einer literarischen Formidee,” in Aspekte des Expressionismus: Periodisierung · Stil · Gedankenwelt, ed. Wolfgang Paulsen (Heidelberg, 1968), pp. 11-32. Both emphasize the circularity, the carrousel, the “world-wheel” (Weltrad) in the structure of Danton's Death. There are others, however, who reject this view or at least wish to modify it; see especially Benn, p. 254: “It has occasionally been suggested that the action of the play is circular, that the end is implicit in the beginning. This is evidently not so. The action has rather the form of a spiral ascending to an acme of tragic suffering.” But he also states with regard to Leonce and Lena: “At the end of the play the situation—politically, psychologically, metaphysically—is still essentially the same as at the beginning” (ibid., p. 169). The same thesis is advanced by Richards, Georg Büchner and the Birth of Modern Drama, p. 114.

  38. As for Danton's Death, there is a rather general reference to a “circular structure” (struttura circolare) in Giorgio Dolfini, Il teatro di Georg Büchner (Milano, 1961), p. 52. It is interesting to note that a similar structure can be detected in Heiner Müller's play Germania Tod in Berlin; see Schulz, p. 137.

  39. See CCW 18, 95-96; cf. HA 1, 9, 75:

    Nein Julie, ich liebe dich wie das Grab. … Die Leute sagen im Grab sey Ruhe und Grab und Ruhe seyen eins. Wenn das ist, lieg' ich in deinem Schooß schon unter der Erde. Du süßes Grab, deine Lippen sind Todtenglocken, deine Stimme ist mein Grabgeläute, deine Brust mein Grabhügel und dein Herz mein Sarg.
    (tritt auf und setzt sich auf die Stufen der Guillotine) Ich setze mich auf deinen Schooß, du stiller Todesengel. … Du liebe Wiege, die du meinen Camille in Schlaf gelullt, ihn unter deinen Rosen erstickt hast. / Du Todtenglocke, die du ihn mit deiner süßen Zunge zu Grabe sangst.
  40. CCW 19; cf. HA 1, 11: “Särge zur Wiege haben.”

  41. Norman O. Brown, Love's Body (New York, 1966), p. 47; see also p. 42.

  42. CCW 92; cf. HA 1, 72.

  43. CCW 73; cf. HA 1, 73: “Schlafe, schlafe”; “Schlummer.”

  44. CCW 17; HA 1, 9: “wir sind sehr einsam.”

  45. CCW 55-56; cf. HA 1, 41.

  46. It has been correctly pointed out that Danton's fears are “entirely inconsistent with his rational assumptions about death and what follows it” (cf. Richards, p. 55). When the same critic—in the same sentence, moreover—perceives in this an “essentially religious feeling,” he errs grievously.

  47. CCW 78-79; cf. HA 1, 61: “O Julie! Wenn ich allein ginge! Wenn sie mich einsam ließe! … Und wenn ich ganz zerfiele, mich ganz auflöste—ich wäre eine Handvoll gemarterten Staubes, jedes meiner Atome könnte nur Ruhe finden bey ihr. … Ich kann nicht sterben, nein, ich kann nicht sterben.”

  48. CCW 82; cf. HA 1, 64: “Da, bring ihm das und sag' ihm er würde nicht allein gehn. Er versteht mich schon und dann schnell zurück, ich will seine Blicke aus deinen Augen lesen.”

  49. CCW 85; HA 1, 67: “Ich werde nicht allein gehn, ich danke dir Julie.”

  50. See Hinderer, p. 90.

  51. Ibid., p. 106; also, compare Josef Jansen, ed., Erläuterungen und Dokumente [zu] Georg Büchner[s] ‘Dantons Tod’ (Stuttgart, 1969), p. 10.

  52. Benn, p. 138.

  53. Ibid., p. 139.

  54. CCW 96; cf. HA 1, 75:

    EIN Bürger.
    He werda?
    Es lebe der König!
    Im Namen der Republik! (Sie wird von der Wache umringt und weggeführt.)
  55. CCW 94; cf. HA 1, 74: “auf dem Boden des Korbes küssen.”

  56. See especially Helmut Koopmann, “Dantons Tod und die antike Welt: Zur Geschichtsphilosophie Georg Büchners,” Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 84 (special issue, 1965): 22-41.

  57. Clearly, the notions of a circular movement of history and a cyclical recurrence of that which has already been were not entirely foreign to the playwright. Not only the death of God and the rise of European nihilism, but also other elements of Nietzsche's thought were indisputably anticipated by Büchner. Yet can one proceed to read the “eternal recurrence of the same” (ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen) into his works—especially since even Nietzsche's own use of the concept is far more complex than is commonly realized? It seems to me that one must be much more careful here and, in any event, differentiate with greater care, not only in regard to Büchner but also in regard to Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Börne, who are likewise forced into Koopmann's scheme.

  58. CCW 306; cf. HA 2, 425-26.

  59. Gramsci's pessimismo dell'intelligenza, ottimismo della volontà is also invoked—the text in question was first published in 1970—by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Palaver: Politische Überlegungen (1967-1973) (“Palaver: Political Considerations”) (Frankfurt, 1974), p. 129. It would seem to be no accident that, five years earlier, this same critic had edited the radical pamphlet, The Hessian Messenger.

  60. See HA 1, 141: “… Leben u. Liebe eins seyn lassen, daß die Liebe das Leben ist, und das Leben die Liebe.”

  61. They constitute a response by Leonce to Valerio's ironic question, “Marry?” (Heirathen?) Büchner apparently realized that this was too serious, too weighty for a comedy for he later struck the words. However, the fact that they express one of his basic concerns is established by the ensuing line, which was not struck, but only slightly altered: “Do you know, Valerio, that even the most insignificant human being is so great that life is far too short to love him?” (Weißt du auch, Valerio, daß selbst der Geringste unter den Menschen so groß ist, daß das Leben noch viel zu kurz ist, um ihn lieben zu können?) In the initial draft, this passage read: “Do you know, Valerio, that even he who is most insignificant is so great that human life is far too short to love him?” (Weißt du auch Valerio, daß auch der Geringste so groß ist, daß das menschliche Leben viel zu kurz ist um ihn lieben zu können?) See CCW 162 and HA 1, 126, 142.

  62. See especially Martens, “Zum Menschenbild Georg Büchners”; however, Benn has also adopted this view to a large extent. Its inversion, a nonmoralistic judgment which simultaneously stresses the notion of eternal recurrence à la Koopmann, was provided early on by Walter Höllerer, “Büchner: Dantons Tod,” in Das deutsche Drama: Vom Barock bis zur Gegenwart. Interpretationen, ed. Benno von Wiese (Düsseldorf, 1958), 2, pp. 65-88; here, p. 73.

  63. CCW 32; cf. HA 1, 22: “das Einzige.”

  64. See Georg Büchner, edited by Wolfgang Martens (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1965). Hereafter Martens, p. 375.

  65. See, for example, HA 2, 451-52.

  66. See especially Karl Gutzkow, Wally, die Zweiflerin; Theodor Mundt, Madonna, oder: Unterhaltungen mit einer Heiligen (both published in 1835).

  67. See HA 2, 444: “Marionetten mit himmelblauen Nasen und affectirtem Pathos”; “sogenannte Idealdichter” (from a letter to his family of July 28, 1835).

  68. See Martens, p. 376; this is also the source of the ensuing quotation. At the same time, Martens fully realizes that it is mistaken to speak of a “Young German sensualism” (Jungdeutscher Sensualismus) in regard to Büchner and his works (ibid., p. 380).

  69. CCW 31; cf. HA 1, 21: “Meine Mutter war eine kluge Frau, sie sagte mir immer die Keuschheit sey eine schöne Tugend, wenn Leute in's Haus kamen und von manchen Dingen zu sprechen anfingen, hieß sie mich aus dem Zimmer gehn; frug ich was die Leute gewollt hätten so sagte sie mir ich solle mich schämen; gab sie mir ein Buch zu lesen so mußt ich fast immer einige Seiten überschlagen.”

  70. CCW 31-32; cf. HA 1, 21-22: “Ich gerieth in eine eigne Atmosphäre, sie erstickte mich fast. … Ein junger Mensch kam zu der Zeit in's Haus, er war hübsch und sprach oft tolles Zeug. … Endlich sahen wir nicht ein, warum wir nicht eben so gut zwischen zwei Bettüchern bei einander liegen, als auf zwei Stühlen neben einander sitzen durften. … Aber ich wurde wie ein Meer, was Alles verschlang und sich tiefer und tiefer wühlte. Es war für mich nur ein Gegensatz da, alle Männer verschmolzen in einen Leib. Meine Natur war einmal so, war kann da drüber hinaus?”

  71. CCW 32; cf. HA 1, 22: “Er kam eines Morgens und küßte mich, als wollte er mich ersticken, seine Arme schnürten sich um meinen Hals, ich war in unsäglicher Angst. … Das war der einzige Bruch in meinem Wesen.”

  72. Ibid.: “Die andern Leute haben Sonn- und Werktage, sie arbeiten sechs Tage und beten am siebenten, sie sind jedes Jahr auf ihren Geburtstag einmal gerührt und denken jedes Jahr auf Neujahr einmal nach. Ich begreife nichts davon. Ich kenne keinen Absatz, keine Veränderung. Ich bin immer nur Eins. Ein ununterbrochnes Sehnen und Fassen, eine Gluth, ein Strom. … Es läuft auf eins hinaus, an was man seine Freude hat, an Leibern, Christusbildern, Blumen oder Kinderspielsachen, es ist das nemliche Gefühl, wer am Meisten genießt, betet am Meisten.”

  73. CCW 32-33; cf. HA 1, 22:

    Warum kann ich deine Schönheit nicht ganz in mich fassen, sie nicht ganz umschließen?
    Danton, deine Lippen haben Augen.
    Ich möchte ein Theil des Aethers seyn, um dich in meiner Fluth zu baden, um mich auf jeder Welle deines schönen Leibes zu brechen.
  74. Ibid., pp. 21ff.

  75. See Ullmann's study cited in n. 5 above.

  76. Benn, p. 137. Even the charge of soullessness, which in this context is thoroughly odd, is flung at Marion by the otherwise perceptive critic (cf. ibid.): “But [Marion] has no soul.” Many additional examples of this view could be adduced.

  77. This is perhaps the place to state emphatically that my exacting and provocative criticism of the existing secondary literature on Büchner is not intended to obscure or denigrate its many significant accomplishments. I readily admit that I am indebted to other critics in various respects. However, a theme as complex and important as the one at hand must be pursued with complete freedom, indeed audacity, “wherever it may lead” (Benn, p. 3).

  78. See Wolfgang Wittkowski, “Georg Büchner, die Philosophen und der Pietismus,” Jahrbuch des Freien Deutschen Hochstifts 1976 (Tübingen, 1976), p. 371: “Die Triebkraft des Unbewußten und die Begrenztheit des Erkennens fanden wir … bei Büchner. … Darüber hinaus praktizierte er letztere gegenüber Schopenhauer selbst (falls er ihn las).” Or ibid., p. 399: “In seiner Dissertation—leider [!] erst in der 2. Auflage nach Büchners Tod—kritisierte Schopenhauer …”—whereupon, as in the first instance, our critic blithely concludes that “perhaps here, too” (vielleicht auch hier) Büchner is speaking ironically from Schopenhauer's position. What speaks volumes is the use of “unfortunately” in regard to a text which was not even available “until … after Büchner's death” (assuming the latter ‘failed’ to find some way of reading it in spite of this).

  79. Peter Weiss, Dramen I (Frankfurt, 1968), p. 244: “Denn was wäre schon diese Revolution / ohne eine allgemeine Kopulation.” For the English version, see Peter Weiss, Marat/Sade, trans. Geoffrey Skelton, verse adaptation by Adrian Mitchell (New York, 1966), p. 92.

  80. See Ullmann, pp. 64-65.

  81. See Georg Büchner, Dantons Tod and Woyzeck, ed. with introduction and notes by Margaret Jacobs (Manchester, 1968), p. 119; the ensuing quotation is taken from the same source.

  82. Regarding this and what follows, see Ullmann, pp. 64ff.

  83. See especially the essay by Martens, “Zum Menschenbild Georg Büchners.”

  84. I should like to remind the reader that the relevant chapter in Ullmann's book is entitled, “Marie and the Abandonment of the Erotic Utopia”—as if the impossibility of realizing a utopia in the proletarian milieu of Woyzeck and Marie, that is to say, in the midst of the most extreme poverty and exploitation, could in any way refute this utopia!

  85. CCW 32; cf. HA 1, 22: “Meine Mutter ist vor Gram gestorben, die Leute weisen mit Fingern auf mich. Das ist dumm.”

  86. CCW 161; cf. HA 1, 125: “Lieutenantsromantik.”

  87. CCW 32; cf. HA 1, 22: “ein dummer Streich.” Büchner, however, does not apply the term to the young man's suicide, but rather to his impulse, fed by passion and jealousy, to murder Marion, an impulse which he very nearly satisfies. Here again the “comic” parallel to Woyzeck is unmistakable.

  88. See Friedrich Nietzsche, Werke in drei Bänden, ed. Karl Schlechta (München, 1954-56), 3, p. 739 (to which I have to resort in this case). Obviously, mine is a rather free, perhaps even daring, application of Nietzsche, who so conspicuously ignored Büchner. Nevertheless, I do not feel that this is unjustified. The two writers have far more in common than is generally supposed.

  89. See CCW 21, 37, 45; cf. HA 1, 12, 25-26, 33: “Mühe”; “Arbeit”; “Handeln.”

  90. CCW 20; cf. HA 1, 12: “sie reiben mich mit ihrer Politik noch auf.”

  91. CCW 37; cf. HA 1, 26: “Deine Lippen sind kalt geworden, deine Worte haben deine Küsse erstickt.” The image of suffocation is also employed by Lucile (cf. CCW 96 and HA 1, 75). It would be very useful to have detailed investigations of such clusters of words and images; see, for example, William Bruce Armstrong, “‘Arbeit’ und ‘Muße’ in den Werken Georg Büchners,” in GB III, pp. 63-98.

  92. For an opposing view, see Helmut Krapp, Der Dialog bei Georg Büchner (München, 1968), p. 141.

  93. See Höllerer, p. 83 and, in a similar vein, Krapp, p. 141.

  94. Hinderer, p. 98.

  95. See Brown, p. 249.

  96. Thus Krapp, Georg Büchner, p. 141; he is to be commended for having accurately recognized this aspect.

  97. For the ensuing quotes, see Brown, pp. 307, 308.

  98. CCW 51; cf. HA 1, 38: “Trägheit.”

  99. See Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (Middletown, Conn., 1970), p. 322. The book was first published in 1959.

  100. See Brown, Love's Body, p. 318.

  101. First published in 1955. A brief report on Brown, Reich, and Marcuse as well as a massive condensation of their thought is contained in Jost Hermand, Pop International: Eine kritische Analyse (Frankfurt, 1971), pp. 72ff. Yet there are Marxist critics who take these trends very seriously; see, for example, the important study by the Czech theoretician Robert Kalidova, “Marx und Freud,” in Weiterentwicklungen des Marxismus, ed. Willy Oelmüller (Darmstadt, 1977), pp. 130-89.

  102. Simon, in his introduction to Georg Büchner, Danton's Death, p. 17.

  103. CCW 20, 32; cf. HA 1, 12, 22: “Meine Natur war einmal so”; “Mein Naturellist einmal so.”

James Martin Harding (essay date March 1992)

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SOURCE: Harding, James Martin. “Integrating Atomization: Adorno Reading Berg Reading Büchner.” Theatre Journal 44, no. 1 (March 1992): 1-13.

[In the following essay, Harding presents a complex analysis of the aesthetic and social categories associated with materialist criticism of Büchner's Woyzeck, arguing that the drama resists a teleological interpretation of class conflict and is instead concerned with atomization and social fractionalization.]

Roughly a year before his death in 1969, Theodor W. Adorno published a short work entitled Alban Berg: Der Meister des Kleinsten Übergangs.1 The text could be considered marginal were it not for the substantial personal influence that Berg had on the young Adorno, and for the prominent position Berg occupies in Adorno's later writings on music and aesthetics. The text is also of interest because it contains the last link in a chain of readings that leads back to Georg Büchner's dramatic account of Johann Christian Woyzeck, an actual soldier who was executed after having murdered his lover (1821). Woyzeck's trial had attracted considerable attention because of a protracted medical inquiry into his mental stability. The results of this inquiry were published in a medical journal and subsequently adapted by Büchner for the stage.2 Although Büchner died (1837) before completing the play, it was close enough to completion that it was later performed, and when Alban Berg saw the Vienna production, his response was so strong that he built his first opera around the script.

In the comments which follow, I examine how Theodor W. Adorno's interpretation of Alban Berg's operatic rendition of Woyzeck provides the basis for an as-yet-unexplored reading of Georg Büchner's unfinished drama. I contend that the critical strategies of Adorno's Alban Berg lay the foundation for a materialist analysis of Woyzeck in which the relation between particular and universal is reversed, the later being subordinated to the evolution of the former. I also contend that this reversal is consistent with Adorno's classic critique of Georg Lukács3 and thus offers an implicit challenge to Lukács's own interpretation of Büchner's work, an interpretation that Lukács bases upon an analysis of class conflict. Lukács's reading of Büchner in “Der faschistische verfälschte und der wirkliche Georg Büchner4 relies upon an hierarchical structure of mediation, a determination of the particular by a posited social whole, which, when considered in light of Adorno's arguments, is inadequate as an explanation of the complexities at play in Büchner's Woyzeck.

Adorno's analysis of Berg's Wozzeck provides the context for a three-fold analysis of Büchner's play. First of all, Adorno's reversal of the relation between particular and universal illuminates how conceptions of the social totality are reductive when it comes to understanding the complexity of the particular. For Adorno, such reductiveness and the discursive categories which sustain it inevitably lead to repression. He praises Alban Berg because Berg's compositions embody a particularity whose complexity is built upon resistance (and is thus a challenge) to accepted categories for understanding music. I argue that the complexity of Berg's operatic composition compliments a corresponding complexity in Büchner's Woyzeck—both in form and in the resistance that Büchner's play offers to the categories which ostensibly define the social totality mediating Woyzeck's experience. In Adorno's analysis of Wozzeck, conceptions of the whole constitute influential but not comprehensive dimensions within the constellations that make up the diversity of socio-historical situations. Correspondingly, conceptions of the social totality have an influential role in Woyzeck, but as a cornerstone, that is supposedly the determining factor of the particular, they cannot account for the complexity of the particular.

Second, after having explored how Woyzeck coincides with Adorno's attempts to reaffirm the complexity of the particular, I then examine how the emergence of this complexity in Woyzeck challenges attempts to define the “inevitable” path of history. The implied reference in these arguments is Lukács's belief that class conflict will eventually supersede itself. I argue that the lack of logical continuity from one scene to the next in Woyzeck gives each scene of Büchner's play a history of its own and that a unified or comprehensive “history” occurs only as a product of the reader's constructions.

Last but not least, my considerations of Büchner's play will show how the complexity of the particular is also questionable as a viable alternative to the limitations of analysis based upon a conception of the social totality. Thus, while Woyzeck coincides with the critique of Lukács which Adorno formulated in his classic article “Erpreßte Versöhnung,” the play also disrupts the presumptions upon which Adorno's critique is based.


Susan Buck-Morss has noted that the critical strategies which Adorno employs for social analysis often depart from the more traditional Marxist approach of analyses based upon class conflict.5 Adorno's departure from traditional Marxist readings, however, does not altogether eliminate the issue of class conflict from his writings. Rather he subordinates the conflict to historical trends that—with unmistakably negative consequences—have circumvented the foundations upon which analysis of class conflict could serve as the basis for positive change. The departure is based upon a perception of rising social uniformity, which, according to Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School, is slowly eroding the possibility for oppositional stance. According to these arguments, class conflict has succumbed to what Marcuse describes as “One-dimensional Society.” Paradoxically, the one-dimensionality of society is sustained by an exacerbated fractionalization of it, a fractionalization foreshadowed in Woyzeck himself. The one-dimensionality can be seen when Woyzeck, too overwhelmed by divergent social demands to develop opposition to them, has not only to submit to the rigors of military discipline, but has simultaneously to submit to the constraints of being a specimen for scientific inquiry as well. In Woyzeck's case, the constraints of the doctor's experiment deny him the sustenance he needs to perform his other work. The two occupations are mutually exclusive, the one making him unfit for the other and vice-versa.6 Fractionalization obstructs particularity because the avenues of Woyzeck's experience are predetermined. He has no time to develop distinctness because his time is consumed in a pathetic attempt to keep abreast of the requirements of his two jobs.

As society becomes more fractionalized, a stagnant uniformity becomes imminent. For Adorno, where society has become too fractionalized to oppose, particularity disappears. Yet, while society may be much too splintered to fit within the basic oppositions of class conflict, Adorno maintains that opposition, and thus particularity, has found an embattled respite in Art. This is because, according to Adorno, Art alone possesses the technical wherewithal to structure a mimetic opposition to increasingly divergent social trends. In the subtle ambiguities of Art, Adorno finds the last vestiges of opposition to the reified conscious structures that reinforce a one-dimensional society.7

When one peruses Adorno's writings on music, it becomes obvious that Adorno's high esteem for his previous music instructor, Alban Berg, stems from the complex technical sophistication in Berg's compositions, and especially in his two operas, Lulu and Wozzeck. These pieces, Adorno argues, demand such attention from the listener that they tax an individual's ability to comprehend. They resist “being understood by everyday consciousness.”8 But far from merely being obscurant, the achievement of Berg's work, according to Adorno, lies precisely in its having attained a level of composition which exhausts the tools of comprehension and perception. Adorno's praise rests upon what I would describe as his regard for an observed ability in Berg to “integrate atomization,” i.e. an ability to orchestrate recognizable elements in such a manner that the limitations of these elements surface. Since the sophistication of Berg's work exhausts the structures of habitual perception, Adorno argues that the technique of atomization reaches back into nothingness:

Furthermore, the level of composition proves itself—so superior that today it is hardly still perceived—precisely in the extremely conscious syntactical structure, which reaches from the whole movement to the status of each single note and leaves nothing out. This music is beautiful according to the Latin term formosus, that of the richness of forms. Its wealth in form shapes the music into eloquence, into a likeness with language. But the wealth has a special technique of calling, through their own development, the formed thematic structures back into nothingness.9

For Adorno, Berg's atomization, his calling themes back into nothingness, has a liberating effect, simultaneously exposing and resisting reification. On the one hand, the music incorporates general terms or themes, which, with development, begin to unravel and falter; in particular, the development of these incorporated themes exposes the contradictions which they otherwise obscure. The themes resemble language in that their development exposes how the forms that they assume in perception echo the structure or even ideological mediations a word imposes on its referent. On the other hand, Berg's compositions possess a uniqueness, a particularity, which—Adorno is delighted to admit—borders on defying description with general terms and which consequently affirms Adorno's own arguments that the particular is compromised when subordinated to a system or paradigm of the whole.

Adorno's appreciation of Berg is relevant to the study of Büchner because in terms of literary technique and effect, Woyzeck has a natural affinity with the style employed by Berg for composing. Indeed, this affinity can be seen in Adorno's own explanation of Berg's understanding of Büchner's play:

He understood Büchner's drama of the tormented, paranoid soldier Wozzeck [sic], who lets out the injustice done to him on untamed Nature and kills his lover … in the same spirit that Karl Kraus, citing the expired word of humanity turned against the prevailing inhumanity, to which language fell victim.10

The allusion to Kraus in Adorno's explanation may result from the influence that Kraus's writing exercised not only on Berg but also on Berg's teacher, Arnold Schönberg, who claimed to have learned more from Karl Kraus than one man ought to if he still wanted to remain independent.11 Both composers admired Kraus, and Berg arguably transposed into his music Kraus's ability to separate humanism from its tropes. The spirit in which Berg understood Woyzeck corresponds to Kraus's ability to formulate a critical discourse which undercuts language that was once liberating and affirming of humanity but that now is expired and has become victimized by appropriation for inhuman ends. It is interesting that Adorno associates Berg's “understanding” of Büchner with Kraus's “use” of the spoken word because the association emphasizes the active, constructive role any reader has in understanding a text. Yet what I would like to suggest is that the spirit in which Berg understood Woyzeck was as much the result of the play itself as it was of Berg's critical powers.

Berg's spontaneous comments after having seen the first Viennese production of Woyzeck (May 5, 1914) are reported by Paul Elbogen to have expressed the need to set the play to music.12 If this is in fact true, then Berg immediately recognized the play's compatibility with his own style of composing, a compatibility that Adorno attributes to the “language-like” technique in Berg's compositions. Not only are Berg's compositions marked by an “integration of atomization,” so too is Büchner's play. Indeed, the thematic elements in Woyzeck follow a path similar to the musical themes in Berg's compositions whose development, Adorno claims, calls them back into nothingness. Like Kraus's use of the language of humanism in order to illuminate its appropriation for inhuman ends, Woyzeck employs a discourse of humanism, whose terms it dismantles by developing their implications, i.e. by pursuing them to their logical conclusions and by exposing their susceptibility to tyrannical, repressive agendas. The aesthetic technique of atomization, as it functions in Büchner's play, structures a critical stance against the regression of humanistic language into abstract ideals. Specifically, the atomization in Woyzeck undermines the causal relation between universal and particular.

Two examples illustrate the scope of the atomization active in Woyzeck. First of all, while Lukács would cite the character of Woyzeck as exemplary of a social whole in which the sufferings of the poor are the price with which others obtain the possibility to lead fulfilled lives, Woyzeck's suffering is not a point of camaraderie with his peers, not a point of common or shared misery which could lead to a revolutionary consciousness of the socio-economic whole. One need only consider that the scenes of Woyzeck's most extreme torment are either when he is alone, or more significantly, when these sufferings are foiled by the character of Andres, who passes the time whistling and singing folk songs and is apparently undisturbed by the social situation that he and Woyzeck share. The point is that while the two soldiers share the same abysmal circumstance, they are opposites in their experience of it. Not only does Andres appear to have found the means with which to deal with his situation, but he also maintains a compassionate relationship with Woyzeck: listening to Woyzeck, attempting to assist him when he is drunk and even spying for him on the Drum Major, the rival for Marie's affections.

While the social structure contributes to Woyzeck's misery, class structure alone is not sufficient as a concept to account for the whole of Woyzeck's suffering. In this respect, the atomization characteristic of the compositions of Berg and of the textual structures of Woyzeck reflect the social currents which preclude the foundations of class conflict, the link pin of Lukács's argument for revolutionary change. Andres constantly undermines Woyzeck's position as exemplary of the poor, and the consequent atomization questions whether categories founded in reductiveness can actually serve as the basis of critical change. Nonetheless, there is a disturbing correspondence between atomization as an aesthetic critical technique and the fractionalization of society as a repressive socio-historical phenomenon. Not only is atomization the means with which Woyzeck challenges the ideals and structures of social reform, but it is also a reflection of the social currents that are at the source of Woyzeck's repressive situation.

Insofar as atomization mirrors the fractionalization of society, it is not altogether a positive accomplishment, and this is the second example of atomization as a critical literary technique. While atomization may formulate an effective critical opposition to the repressive reductiveness that results from attempts to subordinate the particular beneath a rubric of the whole or of the universal, the calling of formed thematic structures back into nothingness is as often pernicious as it is positive. At the very least, it is indicative of equally repressive countercurrents within the oppositional stance assumed by atomization. For example, the “ungebändigte Natur” (“against Nature”)—against which, according to Adorno, Woyzeck vents the consequences of the injustices done to him—by no means possesses the un-mediated status that Adorno grants it. The same process of atomization that Adorno identifies applies to the concept of Nature as well. The play compares “Nature” to the “reason” of the trick-horse at the county fair. More importantly, the play incorporates “Nature” into the sadistic rationalizations of the doctor. Thus the striking out to which Adorno refers becomes a striking out at nothingness, at an absent space or a dearth—the fact of nothingness being the injustice itself.

If Berg's compositions were merely exercises in atomization, it is doubtful whether Adorno would have been as taken by them as he evidently was. There is, in fact, reason to believe that he was aware of the insufficiency of atomization as a panacea for social ills. In “Erpreβte Versöhnung,” Adorno exhorted against succumbing to the naive over-simplification of arguments whose strategies are to dismiss an object on the grounds that it “disintegrates into a series of incompatible parts.”13 The exhortation can be seen as a recognition of the need for the process of atomization to be part of a larger critical dynamic. A response to this need distinguishes Berg's compositions, and Büchner's drama as well, from a mere reflection of an increasingly fractionalized society. Both employ atomization while not succumbing to the naiveté against which Adorno warns. While atomization uncovers the reductiveness and/or contradictions which sustain a fractionalized society, Berg's compositions are not solely marked by a technique of atomization. Integration is as important to the artistic achievement of Berg's work as is the technique of developing themes in order to expose their limits. Neither can stand alone.

Integration functions as both a counter to repressive social fractionalizations and to naive rejections of socio-historical determination. While the processes of atomization disentangle themes from forms that development exposes as reductive and stultifying, the integration of these processes into an unique and autonomous musical composition testifies to the particularity that atomization reinstates. Not only does the work expose reified structures, but its own complexity, i.e. its ability to integrate atomization, also affirms the particularity which is lost when reduced or confined to patterns of general and recognizable forms. The sophistication which Adorno observes in Berg's compositions is synonymous with its particularity, a particularity which becomes reified when not allowed to come to full fruition because it is trapped within dominant social patterns, however fractionalized these patterns might be. On the one hand, integration simulates a utopian function, achieving what the fractionalization obstructs. But on the other, the sophistication of Berg and Büchner, their ability to achieve particular integration amidst general fractionalization is what sustains their unique, un-reified status in the face of reified socio-historical currents toward an increasingly splintered society.

What distinguishes the technique of “integrating atomization” from its initial apparent utopian yearnings is that it abandons the attempt to alter the whole as a means of establishing the particular. The emergence of an utopian element in the aesthetic strategies of Berg and Büchner can be seen in much the same light as the parallels between atomization and the splintering of society. Inasmuch as atomization is a critical reflection of increasingly divergent socio-historical currents, so too does integration critically reflect the influence that conceptions of the whole have within these currents; and, just as integration keeps atomization from succumbing to the naiveté which Adorno denounces in “Erpreβte Versöhnung,” so too does atomization keep integration from progressing into the status of an absolute or universal. The tension between atomization and integration establishes what seems to me to be the central shared characteristic between Wozzeck and Woyzeck, a critical particularity which is based on a “levelling technique” that subordinates the universal (the whole) to the particular.

An ambivalent sense for the radical implications of this technique can be found in the more recent critical assessments of Berg's compositions. George Perle, for example, has argued that the integration found in Berg's Wozzeck maintains particularity in the unique dynamic it creates with the elements or themes that emerge in his work. But while Perle is correct about the strategies Berg employs, he is by no means comfortable with their implications. Perle writes:

In Berg as in Mozart, a constant and inevitable order subsumes the dramatic details, but Berg's order [in Wozzeck], unlike Mozart's, is irrational, meaningless, non-human, indifferent, for it embraces the casual and the essential, the momentous and the trivial, with equal impartiality.14

In that Perle interprets Berg's impartial embrace of elements as irrational, meaningless and non-human, it seems to me that he demeans the critical significance of the technique which he so astutely observes. The particularity that emerges from Berg's impartial embrace pivots on the challenge that his work poses to the seemingly “universal” criteria for determining not only the momentous and the trivial, but rationality, meaning and humanity as well. The impartiality with which Wozzeck and Woyzeck embrace the momentous and the trivial emphasizes the distance these works place between themselves and the discursive categories which, supposedly, are “impartial” in their reinforcement of a perceived image of the social totality. One can see this distance in the juxtaposition of scenes: in Woyzeck, the impartial embrace places “acceptable” behavior and the effect it has on Woyzeck on a par with the brutality of his later attack on Marie. One can also see the distance in the individual scenes themselves: witness the contrast between the universal concepts of “morality” and “virtue” accepted by the captain and the particularization of these same concepts by Woyzeck as he shaves the captain. The captain's universal concepts do not encompass the particularity of Woyzeck's circumstance.

Rather than merely reflecting the progressive fractionalization of society, Woyzeck counteracts this fractionalization by incorporating it into itself, negating the repressive splintering of society through integration. Yet, Adorno argues that, in Wozzeck, atomization has the specific function of resisting, indeed of not permitting a lasting resolution. The individual elements or impulses of the work, he argues, rebel against lasting resolution, against subordination to a greater whole.15 The utopian element present in integration is challenged not only by Woyzeck's own claim to particularity but also by the individual elements of the drama which in their developed uniqueness (their development into nothingness) resist incorporation into a stable, generalized “meaning” of the text. As Adorno argues in The Philosophy of Modern Music: “Wozzeck negates its own point of departure precisely in those moments in which it is developed.”16 The complexity of the particular is preserved only in resistance to that which attempts to account for or define the whole. What this means, then, is that Woyzeck and Wozzeck achieve particularity because the presence of both atomization and integration create a dynamic tension without resolution.


The irreconcilable clash between atomization and integration establishes what might be described as a particularity in dissonance. But the dissonance of Woyzeck is not only a description of the divergent literary tensions within the play. These tensions reflect a critical discord which Woyzeck develops in relation to the belief that past values can evolve with the times, still maintain their integrity and thus serve as the foundation upon which to base present and future ideals. The dissonance with this faith in continuity is perhaps most immediately evident in—though certainly not limited to—the random assortment of the different scenes within the play; it can be seen in the absence of clear logical continuity from one scene to the next. In its implications, the form of Woyzeck highlights a basic point of contention in the competing aesthetic views of Lukács and Adorno: while Lukács adheres to a belief that history leads toward a specific social telos, Adorno cautions against the pursuit of ideals whose relevance becomes increasingly suspect as time alters the situation to which they first responded.17 This admonishment is implicit in Adorno's departure from analysis based upon class conflict. The admonishment echoes throughout Adorno's writings on art in general, and it seems to me, is at the source of his fascination with Berg's use of retrogrades and palindromes in Wozzeck.

In Ästhetische Theorie, Adorno writes: “The view that artistic technique advances in linear fashion, irrespective of substance, is beset by a false idea of continuity.”18 Adorno de-emphasizes innovation because the discussion of it implies a qualitative continuity in art that he argues is misguided. It defines art according to novelty rather than defining it as a critical response that is socio-historically determined. In this and similar passages of Ästhetische Theorie, Adorno challenges the historical integrity of concepts in general by challenging the continuity of Art in particular. It is a challenge which, as we presently will see, Adorno argued was central to Berg's opera. For Adorno, each socio-historical context demands a new (and thus nontranscendent) set of aesthetic values—values which discussions of progressive innovation overlook. The significance of aesthetic form or technique, Adorno argues, is solely contingent upon the relation it has to the society in which the work is produced. The point is that by contextualizing aesthetic values, Adorno implicitly questions values in general, and more importantly, he argues that art pivots on its ability to expose the social contradictions that accepted values obscure.

The techniques of composition which Berg used in Wozzeck demonstrate an acute sensitivity to Büchner's subversion of ossified social ideals. Adorno observes Berg's “Neigung [in Wozzeck] für spiegel- und krebsartige Gebilde19 [proneness to mirror-like and retrogressive patterns] and notes that “musikalische Krebse sind antizeitlich20 [musical retrogrades are anti-time]. As Douglas Jarman has pointed out, Adorno describes Berg's use of retrogrades and palindromes as “anti-time” because “they deny time by returning to the point at which they began and thus symbolically erasing [sic] what has taken place.”21 While the “symbolic erasure” is open to some debate, an arguable consistency exists between Adorno's “non-transcendent” aesthetics and his attraction to Berg's use of retrogrades and palindromes. First of all, the occurrence of palindromes in Wozzeck forces a contextualization of specific musical themes by “de-composing” them once the opera progresses beyond the context in which the themes initially emerge. More significant still is Berg's placement of these musical retrogrades: he places them in direct correspondence with the values that Woyzeck calls into question.

Jarman's reference to Adorno and to Berg's use of palindromes occurs in the midst of a discussion of the opening scene of the opera. While Woyzeck shaves the captain, the captain lectures to Woyzeck. He recommends that Woyzeck develop a sense of time, that Woyzeck proceed “langsam22 [“slowly”] and that he organize his life sequentially, taking things “ein's nach dem andern” [“one thing at a time”].23 The captain supplements these recommendations with claims which imply that morality and virtue will only result from such a temporal ordering of one's life. Jarman notes that this first scene is one of the few in which Berg actually rewrites the original text. The revision is minimal: Berg frames the musical score of the captain's comments on time by having the captain end his advice with the same word with which he began, “langsam.” This framing orchestrates an abruptness which is reflected in the music's dissonance, i.e. in its not “leading” to the next scene. The abruptness clashes with the value that the captain places on letting one thing lead to another. The opera generates a critical non-identity to the captain's advice by following a path which is the exact opposite of that which he recommends.

The stakes in this opening scene of the play are frequently subordinated to a more immediate and understandable concern with the abjectness of Woyzeck's predicament. Yet the problem with such concerns—and in this respect, one can take Lukács's reading of Woyzeck as an example—is that the concern with Woyzeck's abjectness consistently leads to arguments that, as “the most impressive representation of the ‘poor’ in Germany at that time” [die großtartigste Gestalt des damaligen »Armen« in Deutschland”],24 the function of Woyzeck is to cultivate a sense of historical (and thus revolutionary) consciousness; in other words, the function of Woyzeck is to cultivate a sense of time. That the captain recommends to Woyzeck an attitude similar to that which, according to Lukács, the character of Woyzeck encourages aligns the revolutionary consciousness, which Lukács advocates, with perhaps the most repressive figure in the play—the figure who is not only the most vocal about morality and virtue, but who is also the most authoritarian.

There is, of course, the argument that the captain's frequent references to eternity suggest him to be the voice of the contradictions of bourgeois morality and not the voice of some more general conception of historical optimism. Yet, what most suggests a correspondence between the position of the captain and the arguments of Lukács is that the opening scene establishes an opposition between Woyzeck and an ethics whose foundation is chronology and sequentiality. The opposition contrasts the captain's faith that one thing will lead to another with the disjointed and non-sequential ordering of the play itself. This non-sequentiality is at the crux of the critical particularity of the play: a particularity based upon a form, the individual elements of which resist resolution within a greater whole. At the very least, the disjointed juxtaposition of scenes in Woyzeck demands the recognition that their resolution into a “unified” whole comes as an external imposition on the play and that such an imposition compromises the complexity of the particular scenes themselves. This last point is underscored in the exacerbation of Woyzeck's suffering by interaction with characters who attempt to dictate their behavior, and the behavior of others, according to a preconceived universals.

Based on the opening scene, Adorno's claim that “musikalische Krebse sind antizeitlich” can be seen not only to express the implications of the techniques which Berg employs in the opera, but also to indicate the dissonant currents within the play. By structuring an opposition between Woyzeck and the captain, Büchner places Woyzeck in opposition to a universalizing conception of time whose ramifications the play exposes as viciously detrimental. As the play progresses, the captain's maxim on virtue retrogresses into perversity, the negative image of the captain's claim. By the time the captain's opening lines find an echo in Woyzeck's own statements, the phrase “ein's nach dem andern” has become the signification of the social currents that wreck his existence. Inasmuch as the captain becomes the voice for a developed sense of time, so too does this sense have an increasingly repressive role in the play: the more comprehensive this sense becomes, the more it becomes systemically malignant.


Even an aesthetic technique like Berg's, which achieves particularity in an abreaction of one-dimensional social trends, has a conception of the whole. Indeed, Adorno argues that art is the negative knowledge of society.25 The conception of the social whole that underlies Adorno's contentions about art presumes a comparability between the reified avenues of society and the ruts which develop in a frequently traversed path: while the ruts are constraining and increasingly difficult to avoid, they do not altogether preclude alternatives. But just as “atomization” is a critical reflection of the fractionalization of society and “integration,” a critical reflection of utopian yearnings, so too is the emergence of dissonance as an aesthetic phenomenon reflective of the embattled position which art faces in modernity. Adorno argues: “Dissonance has had a momentous and far-reaching impact on modern art because the immanent dynamic of autonomous works of art and the growing power of external reality over the subject converge in dissonance.”26 Thus the social significance of aesthetic dissonance, this negative knowledge of society, lies in its ability to illuminate reified social furrows or patterns where they previously existed unperceived. More importantly, dissonance illuminates where previous paths of opposition have retrogressed into predictable ossified patterns.

The aesthetic dimensions of Woyzeck are not an exception to this argument, neither in the drama's ability to articulate a negative knowledge of society—which opposes the repressive presumptions of totality in both the captain's ‘morality’ and Lukács's historical materialism—nor in the drama's own potential to become a path too often traversed. As with Berg's style of composing, the aesthetic achievements of Woyzeck lie in its having circumvented social trends which generally obstruct particularity as a possibility, through having developed a form of dissonance to the reification within dominant social avenues. But the crux of this dissonance lies in circumvention. It defies the reified structures of society, yet is not actively engaged in, attempts to transform them. Indeed, the dissonance of the play is in marked contrast to the presumption which underlies Lukács's conceptions of art. To argue that what qualifies Woyzeck as art is its dissonance, rather than an engagement, is, according to the criteria which Lukács employs in “Der faschistisch verfälschte und der wirkliche Georg Büchner,” to disqualify the drama as art. An aesthetic of dissonance places the drama within the categories which Lukács denounces as indulgent and decadent.

Interestingly enough, Adorno's description of aesthetic dissonance occurs in the context of an affirmation of “ästhetischen Hedonismus,27 which arguably serves as an indirect rebuttal to Lukács's rejection of decadence. Whereas accusations of decadence connote a certain prudishness, Adorno's affirmations of hedonism at first give the impression of being a defense of tolerance. But the differences between Adorno and Lukács with regard to hedonism are perhaps not as far apart as they initially would appear. The hedonism in Adorno's argument is offset by a rigid conception of the forms in which it manifests itself. This rigidity is perhaps most evident in the threat which, according to Adorno, looms ominously above the continued possibility of aesthetic expression:

True modern art is polarized into two extreme forms: on the one side, there is a kind of unmitigated and sad expressivity that staunchly rejects any conciliatoriness whatever and becomes autonomous constructions; on the other side, there is pure construction without expression, signalling the impending eclipse of expressivity as such.28

It seems to me that, if Adorno's historicist analyses are so rigorous that even class conflict loses its stature as the basis for social criticism, then the social currents which he argues are approaching the disarmament of expressivity must be of such magnitude and momentum that they defy his implied personification of them. They defy goal-oriented attributes. In other words, these trends are as subject to retrogression as programs for social change and could not stop at precluding expressivity but would continue in their course until it too became a “Krebsgang,” generating enough chaos that expressivity once again becomes a possibility. So long as Adorno maintains that art is the negative knowledge of society and that form is a reflection of a society which precludes expressivity, then a nineteenth-century play like Woyzeck is more problematic than helpful to Adorno's arguments. A play which reflects these tendencies suggests not only the need for a new art altogether but also that Adorno is formulating arguments on the basis of anachronistic crises in form.

Despite other differences Adorno and Lukács have, the two critics share the view that the social environment mediates and thus determines the subject. This is ostensibly the basis of Adorno's warning about the pending loss of expressivity. Yet it is difficult to imagine exactly what Adorno means by expressivity if not that the individual subject emerges in (critical) response to socio-historical mediations—a response decipherable in both words and deeds. Rather than citing portents of the coming impotence of expressivity as such, a focus on the coming impotence of expressivity as it was conceived in the nineteenth century would remain truer to the implied tolerance of “ästhetischen Hedonismus.” Furthermore, this shift would radically alter the stakes in Adorno's claim and, it seems to me, would move toward dislodging the mind set which obstructs the emergence of an art that offers a negative knowledge of contemporary society. In short, “die heraufziehende Ohnmacht des Ausdrucks” reflected in the structure of Woyzeck is not only historically different from that which is addressed by Adorno, but the drama's retreat into form also undermines the stagnant conception of expressivity which Adorno defends. When juxtaposed to Büchner's Woyzeck, the basis of Adorno's criticism betrays its dependence on a nostalgic conception of the subject which, ironically, collapses in the negative knowledge of society that is structured into Büchner's drama. The continued relevance of the play lies in its ability to raise questions about the agenda of arguments that pivot on the pending annihilation of expressivity altogether and about the hysteria these arguments are intended to cultivate.

At this point in the argument, it is, however, important to note that when Adorno speaks of the loss of expressivity, the implicit reference of his claim is to a pending loss of culture, the definition of which is what forces Lukács and Adorno into irreconcilable camps. For Lukács, culture can only emerge once a reconciliation of the contradictions of society has occurred—hence his reading of Woyzeck as a revolutionary text which pushes toward the possibility of culture. For Adorno, culture resides in the continued possibility to express disunity and opposition, i.e. in the continued possibility to express a negative knowledge of society—hence his reading of Woyzeck via Berg as one of the last vestiges of culture. Thus the brunt of Adorno's critique of Lukács is directed against what Adorno perceived as attempts to force a reconciliation that would eliminate the possibility of opposition and ultimately lead to a one-dimensional society, regardless of whose ideology justified its structure.29

This then is the consequence of eliminating class conflict as the motivating force behind history: that culture thrives in opposition to insurmountable social ills, so long as opposition to those ills is possible. When Adorno speaks of the impotence of expressivity, what he means is the absence of culture, a muted disunity, or an irreconcilability with society without a voice of opposition, either in form or content. Interestingly enough, by employing a technique of “integrating atomization,” Woyzeck expresses a discomfort with both positions: the drama challenges Lukács's faith that egalitarian agendas, vigorously pursued, will not regress into repressive programs; at the same time, the drama emphasizes that the particularity which Adorno treasures is only procured in the continued one-dimensionality of Woyzeck himself.


  1. Theodor W. Adorno, Alban Berg: Der Meister des Kleinsten Übergangs (Wien: Verlag Elisabeth Lafite, 1968). All translations are mine.

  2. For a concise account of the case of Johann Christian Woyzeck, see “Anhang zum Woyzeck,Georg Büchner: Werke und Briefe, ed. Werner R. Lehmann (München: DTV, 1980), 373-429. All citations from Woyzeck are taken from this same addition. It is also worth mentioning that Büchner's drama is extremely critical of the conclusions which Dr. Clarus draws in the original transcripts of his analysis of Johann Christian Woyzeck. Indeed, one would argue that the doctor in the play is a parody of the doctor who examined Woyzeck.

  3. For further study of this critique see: Theodor W. Adorno, “Erpreßte Versöhnung,” Noten zur Literatur II (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1961), 152-87 [“Reconciliation under Duress,” Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Ronald Taylor (New York: Verso, 1977), 151-76].

  4. Lukács wrote this article in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of Büchner's death. It is included in Deutsche Literatur in zwei Jahrhunderten (Berlin: Luchterhand, 1964), 249-72. The primary focus of Lukács's article is on the drama Dantons Tod, but he uses his discussion of this play as the context for numerous comments about Woyzeck.

  5. For a more detailed account of this departure, see The Origin of Negative Dialectics (New York: Free Press, 1977), 24-42.

  6. I realize that this last point is a matter of some dispute, particularly in light of Alfons Gluck's arguments that the doctor is in collaboration with the military. Gluck argues that the doctor places Woyzeck on a diet of peas in order to establish the minimal nutrition requirements for sustaining an army. Gluck's hypothesis is an intriguing instance of speculation, but I would suggest that, even if correct, Woyzeck is still overwhelmed and the doctor's calculations are far from perfect. For the whole of Gluck's argument, see “Die Rolle der Wissenschaft in Georg Büchners Woyzeck,Georg Büchner Jahrbuch 5 (1985): 139-82.

  7. These arguments have not gone unchallenged and have been the source of controversy since the latter years of Adorno's life. For a brief but concise account of the early challenges to Adorno's claims, see Peter Hohendahl's “Looking Back at Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie,German Quarterly 54.2 (1981): 133-48. For a more recent challenge to the absolutes in Adorno's argument, see Bruce Baugh, “Left-Wing Elitism: Adorno on Popular Culture,” Philosophy and Literature 14.1 (1990): 65-77.

  8. Baugh, 69.

  9. Adorno, Berg, 8-9. “Vielmehr bewährt sich das Komponierniveau Bergs—so hoch daß es heute kaum auch nur wahrgenommen wird—gerade in der äußerst bewußten syntaktischen Gliederung, die vom ganzen Satz bis in den Stellenwert jedes einzelnen Tons reicht und nichts ausläßt. Schön ist diese Musik nach dem lateinischen Begriff formosus, dem des Formenreichen. Ihr Formenreichtum prägt sie zur Beredtheit, zur Sprachähnlichkeit. Aber er verfügt über eine besondere Technik, die geprägten Thematischen Gestalten, durch ihre eigene Entwicklung ins Nichts zurückzurufen.”

  10. Adorno, Berg, 11. “Er hat Büchners Drama von dem gequälten paranoiden Soldaten Wozzeck [sic], der das Unrecht, das ihm angetan wird, an der ungebändigten Natur ausläßt und die Geliebte umbringt … im selben Geiste ergriffen wie Karl Kraus das vergangne Wort der Menschlichkeit zitierend gegen die herrschende Unmenschlichkeit wandte, der die Sprache zum Opfer fiel.”

  11. Buck-Morss, 13. For a more detailed analysis of the influence Kraus had specifically on Berg and his contemporaries, see Martin Esslin, “Berg's Vienna,” The Berg Companion, ed. Douglas Jarman (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989), 1-12.

  12. Paul Elbogen, “Firsthand reminiscence of a historic night,” San Francisco Chronicle 27 October 1981, 40; cited in Douglas Jarman, Alban Berg: Wozzeck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 1.

  13. Adorno, “Erpreßte Versöhnung,” 159 [“Reconciliation under Duress,” 156].

  14. George Perle, The Operas of Alban Berg, vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 36.

  15. Theodor Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), 31-32.

  16. Adorno, Modern Music, 31.

  17. Adorno's stance here seems to me to correspond to Christopher Norris's argument that, for Adorno, “the only kind of truth now available is that which unmasks the delusive truth-claim of all aesthetic ideologies and other such falsely positive systems of thought.” See, “Utopian Deconstruction: Ernst Bloch, Paul de Man and the Politics of Music,” Paragraph 11.1 (1988): 45.

  18. Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), 306-7. Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970), 320. “Mit einem falschen Begriff von Kontinuität operierte noch die Ansicht eines geraden Fortschritts der künstlerischen Technik, unabhängig vom Gehalt.”

  19. Adorno, Berg, 21.

  20. Adorno, Berg, 21.

  21. Jarman, Alban Berg: Woyzeck, 63.

  22. Büchner, 164.

  23. Büchner, 164.

  24. Lukács, 265.

  25. Adorno, “Erpreßte Versöhnung,” 164 [“Reconciliation under Duress,” 160].

  26. Aesthetic Theory, 21. “Die unabsehbare Tragweite alles Dissonanten für die neue Kunst … rührt daher, daß darin das immanente Kräftespiel des Kunstwerks mit der parallel zu seiner Autonomie an Macht über das Subjekt ansteigenden auswendigen Realität konvergiert.” Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, 29-30.

  27. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, 29 [Aesthetic Theory, 21].

  28. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 63-64. Ästhetische Theorie, 70. “Stichhaltige Kunst polarisiert sich nach einer noch der letzten Versöhnlichkeit absagenden, ungemilderten und ungetrösteten Expressivität auf der einen Seite, die autonome Konstruktion wird; auf der anderen nach dem Ausdruckslosen der Konstruktion, welche die heraufziehende Ohnmacht des Ausdrucks ausdrückt.”

  29. Gilian Rose has noted in her discussion of the Marxist dispute over modernism that for “Lukács the destruction of the possibility of culture is Adorno's criterion of the possibility of its existence.” Whereas for Lukács culture is an autonomous unity which is lost in capitalistic society, the question for Adorno, Rose writes “is not whether culture has lost unity, but whether the possibility of expressing disunity may have been lost.” See The Melancholy Science (London: Macmillan, 1978), 116.

Helga Stipa Madland (essay date winter 1993)

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SOURCE: Madland, Helga Stipa. “Madness and Lenz: Two Hundred Years Later.” German Quarterly 66, no. 1 (winter 1993): 34-42.

[In the following excerpt, Madland approaches Büchner's novella Lenz as a generalized literary depiction of madness, rather than as a quasi-medical account of the insanity of the historical Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz.]

Lenz(1) lenzelt noch bei mir.(2)

The authoritative document on which literary history has based its perception of Lenz's madness is neither a report by a contemporary observer of the sick Lenz, nor Lenz's own description of his experience with mental illness, nor an assessment of it by medical authorities, but a 19th-century fictional text—Georg Büchner's novella Lenz. This famous piece of fiction, justifiably one of the most admired and respected works of German literature, is considered to be a model representation of schizophrenia in general, and a true description of Lenz's mental illness in particular.3 Its authority resides in the perceived authenticity of Büchner's portrayal of mental illness, in a narration which is delivered from the perspective of a sympathetic observer whose voice is intermingled with that of the doomed sufferer. The persuasive power of Büchner's language is unmistakable. From an innocuous opening sentence—“Den 20. [Januar] ging Lenz durch's Gebirg”4—the narrative moves rapidly and spectacularly toward its intention: the linguistic representation of a deteriorating mind. Büchner has succeeded in transforming the structure of his protagonist's psychological state into language: short sentences are compressed, linked by commas and not separated by periods, without an attempt at using subordinate clauses. The resulting paratactic structure, the piling up of short sentences without relief from subordinating elements, gives the effect of breathlessness and confusion; it illustrates an inability to place hierarchy or order upon events and put them in their proper perspective. The effect is dazzling, as the following sample from the long opening paragraph demonstrates:

Gegen Abend kam er auf die Höhe des Gebirgs, auf das Schneefeld, von wo man wieder hinabstieg in die Ebene nach Westen, er setzte sich oben nieder. Es war gegen Abend ruhiger geworden; das Gewölk lag fest und unbeweglich am Himmel, so weit der Blick reichte, nichts als Gipfel, von denen sich breite Flächen hinabzogen, und alles so still, grau, dämmernd; es wurde ihm entsetzlich einsam, er war allein, ganz allein, er wollte mit sich sprechen, aber er konnte nicht, er wagte kaum zu athmen, das Biegen seines Fußes tönte wie Donner unter ihm, er mußte sich niedersetzen; es faßte ihn eine namenlose Angst in diesem Nichts, er war im Leeren, er riß sich auf und flog den Abhang hinunter. Es war finster geworden, Himmel und Erde verschmolzen in Eins. Es war als ginge ihm was nach, und als müsse ihn was Entsetzliches erreichen, etwas das Menschen nicht ertragen können, als jage der Wahnsinn auf Rossen hinter ihm. Endlich hörte er Stimmen, er sah Lichter, es wurde ihm leichter, man sagte ihm, er hätte noch eine halbe Stunde nach Waldbach. Er ging durch das Dorf, die Lichter schienen durch die Fenster, er sah hinein im Vorbeigehen, Kinder am Tische, alte Weiber, Mädchen, Alles ruhige, stille Gesichter, es war ihm als müsse das Licht von ihnen ausstrahlen, es ward ihm leicht, er war bald in Waldbach im Pfarrhause. Man saß am Tische, er hinein; die blonden Locken hingen ihm um das bleiche Gesicht, es zuckte ihm in den Augen und um den Mund, seine Kleider waren zerissen. Oberlin hieß ihn willkommen, er hielt ihn für einen Handwerker.

I have quoted this rather extensive passage from the opening paragraph of the novella to demonstrate the force of Büchner's prose: it does not, for example, inform the reader that on the 22nd of January, two days after the disoriented walk through the mountains Büchner describes, the historical Lenz wrote a letter to Johann Kaspar Lavater in which there is no indication of mental confusion.5 The novella overwhelms the reader through the power of Büchner's language, and the conclusion that insanity must be like this or, more specifically, the insanity of Lenz was like this is the result of Büchner's artistry, not necessarily of his knowledge or observation of mental illness. The illusion that the realist Büchner has created is so complete that readers find it difficult to distance themselves from the text and respond to it as a work of art, rather than as the authentic representation of the mental illness of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz.

I do not intend to argue that Lenz was not mentally ill, nor do I want to claim that the novella Lenz does not contain a convincing representation of insanity. Instead, I want to review the evidence on which the conclusion that Lenz was a schizophrenic is based, and make two related points: first, Büchner's novella Lenz is above all a work of fiction, and a reading of it for biographical purposes must be approached with extreme caution;6 second, the sources on which assessments of Lenz's mental illness have been based are limited and need to be reexamined and reevaluated within a context of 18th-century discourse on insanity. The psychoanalytic Lenz biography called for by Rüdiger Scholz would be a useful beginning for such a project.7


Since Lenz's image, and particularly our understanding of his madness, has been profoundly determined by representations of his madness, it is pertinent that recent studies on late 18th- and early 19th-century literary representations and social perceptions of insanity enter into Lenz scholarship. The most distinguished work in this area is Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization. Foucault theorizes that our perception of madness underwent significant changes during the 17th and 18th centuries. A brief summary of the history of insanity follows: During the Middle Ages, some madmen in Germany were confined in the so-called Narrentürme, but the majority were expelled, and many found a peripatetic home in the Narrenschiffe which roamed villages and seas. The Narrenschiff is, of course, a motif which figures prominently in literature, and the character of the fool as the speaker of truth has been known from antiquity to Shakespeare and beyond. The image of the madman, or fool, was used for didactic purposes, or even for amusement, but madness did not seem to be a particular embarrassment to the community, only an inconvenience inasmuch as the insane, like the indigent, required care. But as early as the 16th century, and increasingly in the 17th and, particularly, 18th centuries, madmen acquired a different role. Foucault argues that the insane ultimately assumed the place lepers had previously held in society, that is, the moral values attached to lepers, which made them function as outcasts and scapegoats, were transferred to the insane. The natural outcome of this development was the extensive confinement of the insane during the 18th century. For the age of reason, madness and other social deviances, in their utterly uninhibited display of the existence of unreason, were particularly uncomfortable and embarrassing, and hiding the evidence was a convenient solution.8 Foucault stresses the fact that during the age of reason madness became linked to morality. A new work ethic, which arose out of changing economic conditions, severely condemned idleness, regarding it as the root of all evil, and created the so-called workhouses, in which “young men who disturbed their families' peace or squandered their goods, people without profession, and the insane”9 were locked up together. In the classical age, “for the first time, madness was perceived through a condemnation of idleness.”10 Since an idle life was regarded as the ultimate rebellion against God, and madmen were included in the proscription of idleness, madness was no longer considered both a medical and moral problem, as had been the case in the Middle Ages and in antiquity, but only an ethical problem.

We must give serious consideration to the connection between madness and idleness if we are to understand Oberlin's evaluation of Lenz's behavior. There is, of course, no criticism of Lenz's life-style in Büchner's novella; quite to the contrary, it is an extremely sympathetic portrayal of him. But Oberlin's journal was the basis for Büchner's understanding of Lenz's insanity, and Büchner depended on its description and judgment of Lenz's conduct. In an essay with the thought-provoking title “Lenz Viewed Sane,” published in 1974, Janet K. King argues that Büchner wanted to portray society, not Lenz, as insane. King notes that while “Oberlin's diary depicts a man deeply disturbed and emotionally unstable, the pastor's report does not use terms such as wahnsinnig or toll.11 In the concluding sentence of his report, Oberlin refers to Lenz as “bedauernswürdiger Patient,”12 but it is noteworthy that he uses the word “vergnügt” many times throughout the report, when describing either Lenz's condition or the manner in which time was spent. These many lighter moments seem to occur even more frequently than the serious episodes so well known from the novella, during which Lenz behaves irrationally and frightens everyone around him. They seem to indicate that Oberlin hesitated to associate Lenz with the insane who were confined to institutions and often chained and treated like animals. King points out that mystical experiences, not unlike those undergone by Lenz and related by Oberlin, were not unusual occurrences in the Steintal, where Oberlin was pastor. Oberlin himself wrote a treatise entitled ‘Berichte eines Visionärs über den Zustand der Seelen nach dem Tod,’ and his comment about Lenz's efforts to raise a young girl from the dead was simply: “[es war] ihm aber fehlgeschlagen.”13 This, King argues, is an indication that he was not particularly dismayed by Lenz's behavior. Oberlin was, however, critical of Lenz's way of life and admonished him to honor his mother and father if he wanted to find peace of mind.14 King notes that the tendency to disapprove of Lenz's way of life reappeared in his “obituary in the Allgemeine Literaturzeitung of May 1792 [which] simply judges him a misfit in a manner reminiscent of Kaufmann's reproaches which Büchner introduced into the novella.”15 The newspaper expresses the following opinion: “Er [Lenz] starb, von wenigen betrauert, und von keinem vermißt. Dieser unglückliche Gelehrte … verlebte den besten Teil seines Lebens in nutzloser Geschäftigkeit, ohne eigentliche Bestimmung.”16

This link among the admonitions by Kaufmann, Oberlin, and the newspaper must be noted, for they are critiques of Lenz which resemble those by his own father. The 18th century's fear of idleness, the mortal sin of bourgeois society described by Foucault, is reflected in these attitudes. In an age which perceived madness “on the social horizon of poverty, of incapacity for work, of inability to integrate with the group,”17 it must have been difficult to separate one condition from the other in a man as complex as Lenz. His existence in the economic margin was certainly one of the factors leading to the aberrant behavior first noted by Kaufmann in November 1777,18 and then by Oberlin in January 1778. Possibly because of his inability to find permanent employment—a condition which certainly was not his alone, as the crowded workhouses attest—Lenz had “alienate[d] himself outside the sacred limits of its [the bourgeoisie's] ethics.”19 His friends and associates could very well have considered him to be mad.

When Georg Büchner chose the theme of madness as one of his central concerns, the perception of madness and, particularly, its treatment in literature had changed considerably. Madness had been celebrated by Cervantes and Shakespeare, but after the middle of the 17th century, it was expelled from most literary forms and confined to satire; Gottsched's banishment of Hanswurst from the German stage is symptomatic of this development.20 During Romanticism, a preoccupation with the pathological returned with greater force, and madness in literature acquired a new function: it was no longer perceived as entirely negative, but came to be associated with artistry and even was, to a certain degree, idealized and glorified (Reuchlein 228, 230). By the time Büchner wrote Lenz, the Romantics' glorification of madness had been transformed by the sober positivistic appraisal of insanity as illness, a perception of madness which was reflected in literature by a demand for clinical descriptions. Responding to both romantic and realistic perceptions of insanity, Büchner combined the tradition of the Künstler- und Wahnsinnsroman while treating madness as an illness. His protagonist, like Tasso or the artist figures in romantic narratives, exists outside the bourgeois world, but his madness is not idealized, nor is it associated with his antibourgeois life-style. As Reuchlein perceptively observes, Büchner's major innovation, a move which differentiates his text from those of Romanticism and the 18th century, is his focus on madness itself, rather than on its effects or causes:

Weitaus stärker als bis dahin üblich, steht im Lenz der Krankheitsprozeß als solcher und gleichsam für sich … im Zentrum des Erzählens. Demgegenüber verlieren über das Pathologische hinausweisende Momente transzendenter, genieästhetischer, erkenntnistheoretischer, zeitkritischer oder moralischer Natur etc., die die literarische Beschäftigung mit dem Wahnsinn im späten 18. wie im frühen 19. Jahrhundert eigentlich erst motiviert hatten, an Bedeutung und rücken in den Hintergrund. Insgesamt erreicht damit die, seit dem Beginn des 19. Jahrhunderts in der Psychopathologie wie in der Dichtung beobachtbare, Tendenz zur Konzentration auf die Symptomatik der Seelenkrankheit und auf deren Dynamik bei Büchner literarisch einen Kulminationspunkt.

(Reuchlein 389)

Reuchlein identifies Büchner's innovation in the literary representation of madness as responsible for psychologists' and literary scholars' interest in this work as a case study. These interpretations, which have become a commonplace in Büchner scholarship (Reuchlein 389-96),21 have had their echo in Lenz scholarship. One Lenz scholar writes: “… the temptation often arises to dismiss all his thoughts as the product of an unbalanced mind—which of course they were.”22 Yet it is understandable that critics would react to Lenz in this way, for Büchner's complicated narrative perspective, which blends the narrator's and the protagonist's voices and invites the reader's complete identification with the experience of the protagonist, gives the strong impression that his novella is just that—a case study. Lenz is, however, not an authentic medical report of mental illness in general, as many scholars have assumed, nor is it a true depiction of the mental illness of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz.


  1. A shorter version of this paper was read at the meeting of the American Association for Eighteenth-Century Studies in Seattle, Washington, March 1992.

  2. Letter from Lavater to Sarasin, August 1777. Lenz in Briefen, ed. Franz Waldmann (Zurich: Stern, 1894) 73.

  3. See Walter Hinderer, “Georg Büchner: ‘Lenz’ (1839),” Romane und Erzählungen zwischen Romantik und Realismus, ed. Paul Michael Lützeler (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1983) 274.

  4. Georg Büchner, Werke und Briefe, ed. Werner R. Lehmann, 5th ed. (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1984) 68.

  5. Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, Werke und Schriften in drei Bänden, ed. Sigrid Damm (Munich: Hanser, 1987) 3: 566-67.

  6. Indeed, Timm Menke has recently argued that the novella belongs in Büchner scholarship and not in Lenz scholarship. See “‘Durchs Fernglas der Vernunft die Nationen beschauen.’ Lenz-Rezeption in den letzten Jahren der DDR: Christoph Heins Bearbeitung des Neuen Menoza.” Paper delivered at the International J. M. R. Lenz Symposium of 17-20 October 1992, held at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma.

  7. See Rüdiger Scholz, “Eine längst fällige historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe: Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz,” Jahrbuch der deutschen Schillergesellschaft 34 (1990): 212.

  8. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (New York: Vintage, 1988) 3-37, 199-220.

  9. Ibid. 45.

  10. Ibid. 58.

  11. Janet K. King, “Lenz Viewed Sane,” The Germanic Review 49 (1974): 148.

  12. Büchner, commentary 366.

  13. Ibid. 363.

  14. The author of a medical dissertation on Lenz's schizophrenia also notes: “Für Oberlin besteht ein deutlicher Zusammenhang zwischen den Sünden, die Lenz begangen hat, und seinem Wahnsinn, der ihm als Strafe auferlegt worden ist.” See Herwig Böcker, “Zerstörung der Persönlichkeit des Dichters J. M. R. Lenz durch die beginnende Schizophrenie” (Diss. U of Bonn, 1969) 217. Another medical study, which unfortunately has not been available to me, is by R. Weichbrodt, “Der Dichter Lenz, eine Pathographie,” Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheit 62 (1920): 153-87. Böcker summarizes Weichbrodt's study as follows: “Die ersten Anzeichen des Wahnsinns treten in Weimar auf, vorher besteht kein Hinweis auf Krankheitssymptome. Weichbrodts Diagnose: Katatonie, Remission mit Restzustand, 1786 neuer Schub, rasche Verblödung. In seinen letzten Jahren habe Lenz nur noch vegetiert und 1792 sei er an seiner Katatonie gestorben.” See 12. In a brief chapter on Lenz, K. R. Eissler says little to further an understanding of Lenz. See Goethe, eine psychoanalytische Studie, trans. Peter Fischer (Basel and Frankfurt: Stroemfeld/Roter Stern, 1983) 57-73.

  15. King 147-48.

  16. Quoted by King 148.

  17. Foucault 64.

  18. M. N. Rosanow, Jakob M. R. Lenz, der Dichter der Sturm- und Drangperiode: Sein Leben und seine Werke, trans. C. von Gütschow (Leipzig: Schulze, 1909) 389.

  19. Foucault 58.

  20. Georg Reuchlein, Bürgerliche Gesellschaft, Psychiatrie und Literatur: Zur Entwicklung der Wahnsinnsthematik in der deutschen Literatur des späten 18. und frühen 19. Jahrhunderts (Munich: Fink, 1986) 50. Subsequent references appear in parentheses in the text. Other studies on this topic are by Jutta Osinski, Über Vernunft und Wahnsinn: Studien zur literarischen Aufklärung in der Gegenwart und im 18. Jhdt. (Bonn: Bouvier, 1983) and by Anke Bennholdt-Thomsen and Alfredo Guzzoni, Der “Asoziale” in der Literatur um 1800 (Königstein: Athenäum, 1979).

  21. Hinderer 270-78.

  22. See Bruce Duncan, “A ‘Cool Medium’ as Social Corrective: Lenz's Concept of Comedy,” Colloquia Germanica 8 (1975): 232.

John Reddick (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Reddick, John. “The Desperate Mosaic.” In Georg Büchner: The Shattered Whole, pp. 3-28. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Reddick studies the fundamental tension between Büchner's scientific and literary perceptions of the world.]

[Büchner] died at 23 (an age at which Goethe had not even produced Werther); he left the barest handful of texts; and he impinged little on the consciousness of the century in which he so briefly lived. Not for him the succession of definitive editions, the Eckermanns eager to immortalize each crumb of wisdom from his mouth. His œuvre, already slender enough, was further decimated by the disappearance, perhaps even the physical destruction, of the great majority of his letters,1 his putative diaries, and possibly an entire play—the mysterious “Pietro Aretino.”2 Not one of his writings was published in his lifetime in authentic and definitive form; even his doctoral dissertation—a mémoire, in French, on the cranial anatomy of an obscure fish—though printed just before his death, was not published until just after it.3 For the rest, his work survives only in a more or less conjectural, fragmentary, or reconstituted form. Even today, more than a century and a half after his death, we wait in exasperation for a full historical-critical edition.

In sheer stature, then, Büchner is dwarfed by the monumental figure of Goethe. But monumental stature can exact a heavy price. Goethe looms on his plinth like Nelson on his column, but he is equally remote. For all his true merits, for all the magnificent vitality trapped in the cold stone, he has acquired the status of a curiosity, a monument at once deeply revered and largely ignored. With Büchner it is quite the reverse. This slender, provocative, sharp-edged figure lives more vitally amongst us than ever before. No other German writer before Kafka and Brecht so vividly catches the modern imagination. It is an extraordinary phenomenon that, whereas the nineteenth century was largely deaf to this man's voice, he seems to speak to us now with ‘incendiary’ force (Günter Grass)4 and ‘remarkable relevance’ (Heinrich Böll)5 as if he were alive and well in Munich or Berlin. Political protesters in the Federal Republic have daubed the war-cry of Der Hessische Landbote across a thousand banners and squatted houses: ‘Friede den Hütten! Krieg den Pallästen!’ (Peace to the peasants! War on the palaces!) His plays are a mainstay of the contemporary German theatre, and are regularly staged abroad. Werner Herzog, one of the most imaginative directors in the modern German cinema, made a powerful (if capricious) film of Woyzeck (and chose a quotation from Lenz as the epigraph for Kaspar Hauser). Erich Kästner described himself as Büchner's ‘pupil and debtor’.6 For Wolfgang Koeppen ‘Büchner was always the closest star in the German firmament’.7 In the eyes of Christa Wolf, ‘German prose begins with Büchner's Lenz’; it is her ‘absolute ideal’, her ‘primal experience’ (‘Ur-Erlebnis’) in German literature.8 For Wolf Biermann, Büchner is quite simply the greatest writer Germany has known (‘unser größter Dichter’).9 And we should not forget the revolutionary and revelatory impact that the newly discovered Büchner had on earlier writers: on Gerhart Hauptmann and his fellow Naturalists, on the German Expressionists, on Wedekind and Brecht above all.

Undisputed though the strength and immediacy of Büchner's voice may be, however, there are wild and bitter disputes about what that voice is saying. This is not surprising, for several factors conspire to make him a natural focus of controversy. Most obviously, there is the sheer smallness of scale and the uncertain state of his output. Imagine the jousting ground that would have been afforded to critics if Goethe had left only Götz, Urfaust, and Werther, let us say, and if these had survived only in scrawled, incomplete, often illegible manuscripts, or in printed versions that were variously mutilated, truncated, bowdlerized, or garbled, as well as being largely posthumous and wholly unauthorized. Then there is the richly provocative nature of his concerns. Sex, religion, politics, these taboo topics for all decent folk, are amongst his most urgent preoccupations. From the first lines of Dantons Tod with their image of the pretty lady who gives her heart to her husband and her cunt to her lovers, Büchner's ‘obscenities’ have ensured him the status of enfant terrible, and in the process have served to betray the blinkered perspective of countless critics. Gods, God, and spirits are insistently invoked by his characters, to be denied, defied, condemned, entreated—and thus to serve as a constant challenge to believer, agnostic, and atheist alike. Büchner's politics are of course an especially fulminant issue. Here is a man who was one of the most radical left-wing thinkers of his age within the German lands, a proto-Marxian revolutionary who, although he entered the fray as a political publicist and activist for only the briefest of periods, remained committed throughout his life to the overthrow of what he saw as an illegitimate, parasitical, and effete ruling class, and the resurgence and emancipation of the cruelly exploited popular mass. Given the paucity both of direct evidence, such as Büchner's correspondence, and of indirect evidence, such as reminiscences of friends and acquaintances, there is much scope for argument even about his precise activities and stance within the political micro- and macro-realities of the time. The fiercest controversy, however, is inevitably provoked by his writing. At one extreme is the view exemplified by Georg Lukács: Büchner as an unswerving Jacobin essentially unaffected by the grim fiasco of Der Hessische Landbote: ‘Büchner was at all times a rigorous revolutionary’.10 At the opposite extreme, the view exemplified by Robert Mühlher: Büchner as a man whose abrupt and bitter insights propelled him into ‘extreme or absolute nihilism’, and in the process depoliticized him and ‘thrust him for ever from the liberal and democratic camp’.11

The scant and uncertain status of the texts, the inflammatory nature of the issues they contain: these features of Büchner's work are themselves conducive to controversy. But their effect is greatly compounded by a third decisive element: the manner of Büchner's art, the language, modes, and structures that he uses to express his concerns. For the flickering image of the world that he evokes is profoundly un- and anti-classical, and consciously remote from the prevailing conventions and expectations of his age. Whether in language, mood, plot, or personae, he offers no steady development, no sense of anything rounded, resolved, or unified. Instead of unfolding in clearly measured rhythm, his works progress through a succession of kaleidoscopic convulsions, enacting what Walter Jens has called a ‘law of discontinuity’.12 Wholeness, when it appears, is always false—a pretence, an illusion, at best a transitory state. It is particles that loom large; discrete elements that he highlights in startling isolation, or in disparate clusters and combinations that create a constant sense of paradox, multivalence, and mystery. This is a chief mark of his spectacular modernity: already in the 1830s he is doing the kind of thing that will seem outrageously new when practised by the most avant-garde painters, composers, and writers of the early twentieth century. But it also makes him especially difficult to interpret. In particular, it entails the problem of perspective: being so disparate and discrete, the elements in his work change their aspect and apparent importance quite radically when viewed from different vantage points.

How are we to deal with this systematic discontinuity? As a first step, perhaps, we need to take it seriously. This might seem an easy and obvious measure, but it has eluded many critics.

The most unsubtle way of not taking it seriously is that favoured by certain critics in the English tradition, who have patronizingly applied the yardstick of good old English common sense, and declared Büchner to be insufficiently mature. Thus A. H. J. Knight could assert that ‘The perpetual changes of scene in Dantons Tod … reveal a not unnatural absence of practical dramatic sense in the young author’.13 Ronald Peacock, likewise referring to Dantons Tod, descries a ‘disunity … that is a symptom both of Büchner's philosophical and of his poetic-dramatic immaturity’.14 This plain man's approach is severely reductive: the more challenging a complexity, the more likely it is to be branded a defect or mistake—a tendency hair-raisingly exemplified when Knight touches on the Marion episode, one of the most powerful and extraordinary moments in the mosaic of Büchner's work, and baldly dismisses it as ‘contributing nothing to the theme of the play’.15

A more subtle and more common way of failing to do justice to Büchner's disjunctive and paradoxical mode is to behave as though it did not exist. It is all too easy to don spectacles of this hue or that, and to believe that the particular pattern that they reveal is the only one, or the only one that matters. The basic trouble perhaps is that critics have traditionally been the products of academe who were schooled chiefly or wholly in the traditions of classicism. We are accustomed to seeing works of literature as programmatic and exemplary, as vehicles purpose-built to embody and demonstrate an already fully developed view or ethos. We recognize in the late plays of Schiller, for example, a magnificent complexity, but a complexity like that of a baroque fugue with its rich and balanced elaboration of lucidly stated themes. Such an approach, or such a set of expectations, can only be reductive to the point of distortion when applied to Georg Büchner. He never writes to communicate solutions. Instead, his writing is a kind of happening, a constant search, a dynamic enactment of the very process of argument and conflict, of the collision and interaction of contrary possibilities. His works begin, but never at a beginning, and they come to an end, but not to a conclusion.16 This means that we should never be tempted to seize on a particular discrete element and single it out as a summation of the whole, or as the definitive fixing of a position—though many critics have done so, hence the persistent misrepresentation of Büchner as being variously a programmatic pessimist and nihilist, a programmatic fatalist, a programmatic Christian, a programmatic Jacobin revolutionary. There is indeed an underlying consistency and unity in Büchner; but it will be found only within and through the paradoxes and multiplicities of his work—not despite them.

It helps for us to recognize what is perhaps the paradox of paradoxes in Georg Büchner: his disjunctive mode with its relentless insistence on fragments and particles is always the product of a radiant vision of wholeness. Again and again, in every area of his existence—his politics, his science, his aesthetics, his art—we find an ardent sense of wholeness, but a wholeness that is almost always poignantly elusive: it was but is no longer; or will be but isn't yet; or—most poignant of all—it is in the present, but can be perceived or possessed only partially or transiently. Büchner is thus forced to be a maker of mosaics. But the more jagged the fragments in these mosaics, the more strident they are in their invocation of the whole; a pattern that is perfectly epitomized in the earliest pages of his work when he has Lacroix define the quest of Danton amongst the whores in just such terms: ‘Er sucht eben die mediceische Venus stückweise … zusammen, er macht Mosaik, wie er sagt’; ‘Es ist ein Jammer, daß die Natur die Schönheit … zerstückelt und sie so in Fragmenten in die Körper gesenkt hat’ (20-1;17He's just trying to get the Medici Venus together again piece by piece, he's making a mosaic, as he puts it; It's a crying shame that nature has broken beauty into pieces and stuck it in fragments like that into different bodies.) Minutes later the theme is echoed and intensified in Danton's yearning response to Marion with its double stress on ‘totality’: ‘Warum kann ich deine Schönheit nicht ganz in mich fassen, sie nicht ganz umschließen?’ (22; Why can't I take your beauty wholly into myself, wholly enfold it within my arms?) At the beginning of Lenz we find the same essential image, even to the extent of a verbal echo: ‘er meinte, er müsse den Sturm in sich ziehen, Alles in sich fassen’; ‘er wühlte sich in das All hinein’ (79; he believed he should draw the storm right into himself; he burrowed his way into the all). In Leonce und Lena it is the wholeness of love that is fragmented: split asunder into the separate notes of a musical scale, split asunder into the separate colours of a rainbow. But, as always, the emphasis on fragments implies the conviction of wholeness—which indeed is made explicit here in the image of love beyond the differentiated spectrum of the rainbow: as ‘der weiße Gluthstrahl der Liebe’—a single shaft of white-hot radiance (112). And it is precisely Leonce's experience of a love-inspired totality of being that is celebrated in the fleeting climax of the play: ‘Mein ganzes Sein ist in dem einen Augenblick.’ (125; All my being is in this single moment.)

The force and central importance of Büchner's vision of wholeness become clearer still when we realize that it also lies at the heart of his work as a scientist-philosopher. Büchner spells this out in his Trial Lecture ‘Über Schädelnerven’ (‘On Cranial Nerves’),18 which he delivered on 5 November 1836 (less than four months before his death from typhus), and which—astonishingly—he must have written at the very same time as he was working on Woyzeck. Trial Lectures were a ritualistic affair, not unlike the modern Inaugural except that they constituted a final hurdle before the victim's confirmation in a teaching post, in Büchner's case as a Privatdozent in Comparative Anatomy at the brand new University of Zurich. They encouraged a contender to demonstrate his stance as well as his standing; and with an audience of dignitaries that included Lorenz Oken, the University's founding Rektor, and one of the most influential and most controversial scientist-philosophers of the age within the German lands, Büchner goes to considerable lengths to define his general standpoint and frame of reference, before launching into his particular argument concerning the skull. And Büchner puts a quite remarkable emphasis in these prefatory pages on his sense of the natural world as an organic whole characterized by order, proportion, unity, and essential simplicity. The study of the natural world, he says, has taken on a new shape. Previously, botanists and zoologists, physiologists and comparative anatomists had been confronted by a monstrous chaos of irreconcilable, undifferentiated data—‘ein ungeheures, durch den Fleiß von Jahrhunderten zusammengeschlepptes Material, das kaum unter die Ordnung eines Kataloges gebracht war’; ‘ein Gewirr seltsamer Formen unter den abentheuerlichsten Namen’; ‘eine Masse Dinge, die sonst nur als getrennte, weit auseinander liegende facta das Gedächtniß beschwerten’ (ii. 293; a huge mass of material, laboriously heaped up over the centuries, that had scarcely even been systematically catalogued; a confusion of weird forms under the wildest names; a mass of things that previously weighed heavily on one's memory as so many separate, unconnected facts). But enormous progress has at last been made (‘bedeutender Fortschritt’), and the chaos and confusion have resolved in consequence into simple, natural, exquisitely proportioned patterns: ‘einfache, natürliche Gruppen’, ‘schönsten Ebenmaaß’. The essential thrust of this new understanding, in comparative anatomy as in the various kindred subjects, was towards a kind of unity, with all forms being traced back to the supremely simple primordial type, or archetype, from which they were developed: ‘In der vergleichenden Anatomie strebte Alles nach einer gewissen Einheit, nach dem Zurückführen aller Formen auf den einfachsten primitiven Typus.’

As we might expect, Büchner tells us that the whole picture in all its richness is not yet fully understood, but that coherent parts of it have taken shape: ‘Hat man auch nichts Ganzes erreicht, so kamen doch zusammenhängende Strecken zum Vorschein’. In the similar but more vivid image conveyed earlier in the same paragraph: ‘Hatte man auch die Quelle nicht gefunden, so hörte man doch an vielen Stellen den Strom in der Tiefe rauschen’ (Even though one had not found the well-spring, there were nevertheless many places where one could hear the river roaring down below.) This has a familiar ring, for it echoes the kind of pattern generated in the poetic writing: there, too, the river is never reached, but its roaring can be heard. We have only the fragments of a mosaic, the separate notes of the scale, the scattered colours of the spectrum; but they imply and betoken a vibrant if elusive whole.

The supreme importance to Büchner of this sense of wholeness is evinced even more remarkably a little earlier in the Trial Lecture (ii. 292). What is it that paved the way for this new understanding of the physical world? It is the fundamental postulate that all things in nature are part of a single organic complex, a ‘gesammte Organisation’, and that this rich complex is governed and patterned according to a single natural law, a ‘Grundgesetz’. Büchner had already begun to define his scientific-philosophical credo in the brief last paragraph of his doctoral dissertation earlier in 1836: his conviction that the grand richness of nature is not due to any kind of arbitrary functionalism, but is the elaboration of a design or ‘blueprint’ of supreme simplicity: ‘La nature est grande et riche, non parce qu'à chaque instant elle crée arbitrairement des organes nouveaux pour de nouvelles fonctions; mais parce qu'elle produit, d'après le plan le plus simple, les formes les plus élevées et les plus pures.’ (ii. 125). This is directly echoed, and intensified, in the Trial Lecture: the ‘Grundgesetz’, the all-informing law of nature, is an ‘Urgesetz’—a kind of law-of-laws—‘das nach den einfachsten Rissen und Linien die höchsten und reinsten Formen hervorbringt’ (that produces the highest and purest forms according to the simplest patterns and designs). On this view, everything—form, matter, function—is governed by the one law: ‘Alles, Form und Stoff, ist … an dies Gesetz gebunden’; ‘Alle Funktionen sind Wirkungen desselben [Gesetzes]’. The astonishingly positive nature of Büchner's stance is radiantly clear in these lines. The primal law, the ‘Urgesetz’ that he sees as the matrix of all things, is to him nothing less than a law of beauty, ‘ein Gesetz der Schönheit’. And since this law is so benign, and since all things in nature—functions as well as form and matter—are generated by it, the myriad workings of nature not only never conflict with each other: they interact positively together to yield a necessary harmony: ‘ihr … Aufeinander- und Zusammenwirken ist nichts weiter, als die nothwendige Harmonie in den Aeußerungen eines und desselben Gesetzes, dessen Wirkungen sich natürlich nicht gegenseitig zerstören.’

This paean of faith in a universal order of rich simplicity, engendered by beauty and resonant with harmony, can seem bewildering indeed, coming as it does from the pen of a man whom critics of different eras and very different persuasions have variously categorized as ‘a most decided nihilist’ (Viëtor),19 ‘perhaps the most uncompromising German Nihilist of the nineteenth century’ (Closs),20 an exponent of ‘profound pessimism’ (Hans Mayer),21 of ‘extreme or absolute nihilism’ (Mühlher),22 of ‘an extreme form of pessimism’ that is ‘deeper and darker than any to be found in the previous history of German thought, with the possible exception of Schopenhauer’ (M. B. Benn).23 This long tradition of depicting Büchner as a nihilist or pessimist has rightly fallen into considerable disfavour.24 But even if we doubt the many critics of this complexion, we are still faced with the strident paradox within the texts themselves: the beauteous harmony and order postulated with such faith and confidence in the Trial Lecture—and the bleak visions so frequently and so eloquently evoked in the poetic work: the terrifying cold isolation of Lenz at the end of the story, and of the child in the un-fairytale in Woyzeck (100-1; 151); the famous, or infamous, cry of Danton that the world is chaos, and nothingness its due messiah (72); the fear of Leonce that all we see may be mere imaginings masking a reality of blank, bare vacuity (118). Such examples could be multiplied.

Again we face the problem of how to cope with the unremittingly paradoxical nature of Büchner's writing; and again I would insist that we can only begin by taking it seriously. It evades the issue to suppose, as Knight did, that Büchner was simply changing his ground in the last phase of his life, and moderating from his alleged ‘total pessimism’.25 Hans Mayer does not get us much further when he sorrowfully maintains that there is a regrettable discrepancy, a ‘dissonance’, between Büchner's (radical) view of society and his (conservative) view of nature.26 And it is quite mistaken, I believe, to allege that the radiant faith expressed in the Trial Lecture is some kind of bogus remedy, a ‘nostrum’, as J. P. Stern has asserted, hastily contrived ‘to repair the shattered fabric of existence’.27 Büchner's faith in abundant, vibrant wholeness was not a sudden new stance, nor a strange aberration, nor a convenient refuge in adversity: it was fundamental to his existence and to all his doings; and even the most raucous anguish in his writings—especially the most raucous anguish—is always born of it.

One of the most extraordinary paradoxes in Büchner is that, whereas the manner of his poetic writing is inexorably un- and anti-classical, the faith and vision that underlies it is classical almost to the point of anachronism: if he was spectacularly ahead of his time in the one respect, he was unspectacularly but distinctly behind it in the other. We get an inkling of this once we register the gross discrepancy between Büchner's reception as a writer, and his reception as a speculative scientist. As a writer, he notoriously remained largely unrecognized throughout the nineteenth century: there was no framework of reference or of expectations that could begin to accommodate the radical unconventionality of his work. Dantons Tod, the only one of his poetic works to appear during his lifetime, could do so only after it had been morally and politically sanitized—even so, it is a mystery how it slipped through the net of an oppressive and efficient censorship—and it met with almost no response at all, except for instance to be savagely castigated by a pseudonymous reviewer as ‘filth’, ‘pestilential impudence’, ‘excrescences of immorality’, ‘blasphemy against all that is most sacred’, ‘degeneracy’.28 As a comparative anatomist, on the other hand, Büchner was instantly admitted into the fold of international orthodoxy. His doctoral dissertation, ‘Mémoire sur le système nerveux du barbeau,’ published in Strasbourg in April 1837, was immediately welcomed in authoritative circles in France, Germany, and Switzerland: its ‘Partie descriptive’ was hailed as ‘very thorough’ and ‘entirely correct’, and as ‘extending knowledge with all desirable precision’, while its ‘Partie philosophique’, containing Büchner's specific argument, was endorsed by Johannes Müller, a like-minded comparative anatomist, but also a physiologist who was to make advances fundamental to nineteenth-century science.29 Büchner's Trial Lecture, in its turn, met with ‘the widest approval’ among its local but distinguished audience of established academics, and Oken himself not only made a point of recommending his new young colleague's classes, but sent along his own son.30

The problem with the particular scientific-philosophical position that Büchner embraced as wholeheartedly as he rejected its literary counterpart is that it was rapidly losing its predominance and credibility even as he entered upon it. There is an eloquent irony in the fact that, during the period that Büchner was immersing himself in his dissections and concretizing his received wholist vision of the natural world, Charles Darwin was busily collecting his data on the Beagle. By the time his ship returned to England in October 1836, just a few weeks before Büchner's lecture, Darwin had the makings of a theory that would help to make the world-view of which Büchner was such an ardent exponent seem antiquated and irrelevant, an apparent by-water remote from the mainstream of scientific progress—and a deeply suspect one at that. This suspect status was both demonstrated and sharply reinforced in Thomas Henry Huxley's famous Croonian Lecture of 1858, when he set out to discredit precisely that central tenet that lies at the heart of both Büchner's doctoral dissertation and his Trial Lecture, namely Goethe's and Oken's vertebral theory of the skull. The triumphant, sabre-rattling tone is unmistakable when Huxley ridicules ‘the speculator’ for his conjuror's ability to ‘devise half a dozen very pretty vertebral theories, all equally true, in the course of a summer's day’, and calls for support from ‘Those who, like myself, are unable to see the propriety and advantage of introducing into science any ideal conception, which is other than the simplest possible generalized expression of observed facts’.31

We need to appreciate the real enormity of the problems faced by life-scientists in the century or so before Darwin did for biology what Newton had done for physics almost two centuries earlier; even the very word ‘scientist’—not coined (by Whewell) until 1840—is an anachronism that tends to beg essential questions. Büchner is not exaggerating when he speaks in his Trial Lecture of a monstrous chaos of disorderly, undifferentiated data. Referring to the great systematizer John Stuart Mill and his attendance at zoology lectures at Montpellier University in 1820, Sir Peter Medawar has remarked that ‘there seems no doubt that his thought on methodology was strongly influenced by the study of a subject overwhelmed by a multitude of “facts” that had not yet been disciplined by a unifying theory’; and he continues: ‘Coleridge described it [in 1818] as “notorious” that zoology had been “fully abroad, weighed down and crushed as it were by the inordinate number and multiplicity of facts and phenomena apparently separate, without evincing the least promise of systematizing itself by any inward combination of its parts”.’32 Biologists of this period found themselves battling through a teeming jungle of new knowledge. Behind them lay Aristotle-Land, with its clear but no longer adequate model of a fixed and static ‘Ladder of Nature’; ahead of them somewhere was that magnificent vantage point that Darwin was ultimately to construct, with its momentous spectacle of an evolutionary pattern in nature both dynamic and explicable. Many crucial stations were established along the way by great speculative and/or systematizing minds like Linnaeus, Bonnet, Buffon, Lamarck, Cuvier; but being on the whole too closely modelled on the Aristotelian ‘fixed-and-final’ scheme, none of them could sufficiently order or accommodate the riotous growth of new facts and discoveries.

That there was a real fear in this period of being overwhelmed by the welter of ‘facts and phenomena’ is clear from the comments of Coleridge, and implicit in Büchner's use of language in the Trial Lecture (‘ein ungeheures … Material, das kaum unter die Ordnung eines Kataloges gebracht war’, ‘ein Gewirr seltsamer Formen unter den abentheuerlichsten Namen’, ‘eine Masse Dinge, die … als getrennte, weit auseinander liegende facta das Gedächtniß beschwerten’). The fear was a complex one. At its most banal there was no doubt the professional fear of all scholars in all eras that their minds might not be equal to their material. At a much deeper level, the gathering confusion was bound to generate anxious perplexity in an age conditioned by the Enlightenment to believe that all things in existence are systematically patterned, and that man's mind can discern that pattern. At its deepest, however, the fear was existential: what was threatened was man's whole sense of the world in which he lived, and of his place within that world. The ultimate upshot is a matter of history: On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection resolved one kind of fear, but confirmed the other: it did discern a pattern, and it thereby revolutionized biology, and the sciences in general; but in the process it also profoundly affected man's conception of the world in all its dimensions—philosophical, religious, ethical, social, political. In the meantime, though, the earlier systematizers struggled to order the increasing chaos—seeking consciously or unconsciously to put upon it the most comfortable construction that they could.33

Both Büchner and Coleridge point to the gravest particular cause of fear: the real threat lay not so much in the sheer extent or bulk of the new ‘facts and phenomena’, but rather in their disorderliness and, above all, their discreteness: they were ‘getrennte, weit auseinander liegende facta’, they were ‘apparently separate’ and showing no promise of an ‘inward combination of [their] parts’. This ‘inordinate multiplicity’ not only resisted Enlightened assumptions about an orderly progression towards the discernment of order in the natural world; it also very readily seemed to echo, to symbolize and even to compound the atomistic forces that were tending to disrupt progress towards a better order in the human world (as seen from a progressivist point of view), or alternatively to disrupt the human order already prevailing (as seen from a conservative point of view). For approximately a century, cataclysm after cataclysm ensured that no thinking person could easily sustain a clear and stable picture of the world: the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755 that so profoundly affected Voltaire; the incessant revolution in scientific data; the Industrial Revolution with its colossal social and economic repercussions; the French Revolution with its magnificent aspirations and horrific reality—precisely the setting of Büchner's first play; the international turmoil of the Napoleonic wars; the bloody spasms of social revolution in 1830 and 1848. This was by far the greatest and the most obsessive age of taxonomy and system-building in human history: like Büchner's Danton, they were ‘making mosaics’, feverishly trying to assemble the exploded pieces into sensible, significant order. And today we still live to some extent in the long shadow of the twin texts that were the towering culmination of these endeavours, texts that were equally dedicated to the ordering of classes, and to the modes of change to which those classes are subject: On the Origin of Species—and The Communist Manifesto.

Nowhere was the atomistic threat felt more acutely than in Germany. Not least because there was no Germany: in sharp contrast to France or England, there was no kind of political, economic, social, or cultural entity characterized by an ‘inward combination of its parts’ (to borrow Coleridge's words once again), but instead an ‘inordinate number and multiplicity’ of states and statelets—the atomization and attendant backwardness of particularism. The hundred years from about 1750 to 1850 saw an astonishing outpouring of genius in German thought and literature (not to mention music) that is without parallel in Europe since the Renaissance. But this great torrent welled up in a fragmented landscape that had lain barren in many respects since time immemorial, and which enjoyed nothing of the clear, well-established, centralized system of channels and reservoirs that offered an instant sense of direction, context, and common endeavour to the gifted Frenchman or Englishman. Referring particularly to literature, W. H. Bruford has observed that ‘It is remarkable, as has often been pointed out, that Germany succeeded, in the absence of … a national tradition and of political institutions to support it, in producing a literature that came to be looked upon as classical, though it was, in Freytag's phrase, “the almost miraculous creation of a soul without a body”.’34 It was indeed remarkable. But it would have been even more remarkable if the mighty talents of the age had not energetically built themselves elaborate constructs to compensate for what was missing.

But what kind of constructs? A fundamental disparity at once begins to appear between the German pattern, and the pattern elsewhere. At its simplest, it is the contrast between empiricism and idealism; between the inductive and deductive modes; between progression from matter to mind, and progression from mind to matter. Given the increasingly evident backwardness and atomization of the German reality, and the almost non-existent role of the emergent intelligentsia, and its ideas, in the prevailing political structures and processes, it is scarcely surprising that the constructs of thinkers and writers came more and more to be built as it were on stilts, at a deliberate remove from narrow, intractable reality.

The decisive figure here was Immanuel Kant (a man who himself moved from ‘matter’ to ‘mind’ in the sense that he taught physics and mathematics before he changed to philosophy). What could the mind know, and how could it know it securely? Kant posited on the one hand a realm of essential reality, of ‘things in themselves’, of which we can know nothing whatever. But the position is profoundly different with regard to the world of phenomena, of things as they appear. Kant's ‘Copernican revolution’, as he himself described it, was truly revolutionary. Just as Copernicus had shown that the apparent motion of the heavenly bodies was due to the motion of the beholder on his mobile planet, so Kant argued that the world as we know it, the world of appearances, is a function of our vantage point, and is constituted solely by the interaction of our senses and our intelligence: every feature of it, even its thereness in space and time, is ascribed to it by the mind.

The radical epistemology of this ‘Transcendental Idealism’ took the giant first step towards establishing the mind as the giver of meaning, as the creator in a certain sense of the knowable world—and it thereby prepared the ground for a whole plethora of systems, philosophies, and ideologies that set the human mind or spirit (Geist) ever more intensely at the centre of the universe. In terms of philosophy itself, there are the ‘Absolute Idealist’ systems of Fichte, Schelling, and, above all, Hegel. In the domain of art, there is the High Romanticism of Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis. And in the realm of the natural world, there is Naturphilosophie—which is what particularly concerns us in the context of Georg Büchner.

We can enter the fray at a conspicuously benign moment. It is 1794. Goethe and Schiller, these twin giants of Weimar Classicism, are gravely estranged, thanks largely to Goethe's conviction that they are at ‘diametrically opposite poles’, and separated by such an ‘enormous gulf’ that there can be ‘no question’ of their ever being reconciled (x. 54035). But they happen to find themselves emerging together from a meeting of J. G. K. Batsch's ‘naturforschende Gesellschaft’ in Jena, and it is Schiller's criticism of the analytical, atomistic tone of this meeting that suddenly sparks their famous friendship. What Schiller objects to is the treatment of nature as so many separate fragments (‘eine so zerstückelte Art die Natur zu behandeln’, ibid.). Goethe agrees in deeply characteristic terms: instead of nature being regarded as an assemblage of separate bits and pieces, it can readily be shown to be vibrant and alive, carrying its wholeness through into all its parts (‘nicht gesondert und vereinzelt … sondern … wirkend und lebendig, aus dem Ganzen in die Teile strebend’, ibid.). What serves to unite these two diametrically different men, therefore, is a shared hostility to what they regard as an excessive and barren empiricism: a concentration on the part, on the particularity of discrete data, that forfeits all sense of the whole. Again there is the Coleridgean spectre of man's ordering mind being swamped by ‘facts and phenomena’. This is why Goethe rejects Baconian science: it purports to collate the particular only in order to discern the universal (‘Partikularien’/‘Universalien’); but it loses itself so completely in individual data that life goes by and all energies are exhausted before any simple essence or any conclusion can be arrived at (‘ehe man durch Induktion … zur Vereinfachung und zum Abschluß gelangen kann, geht das Leben weg und die Kräfte verzehren sich’, xiv. 91). Goethe's crucial point, indeed one of his central articles of faith, is that the whole is always present within the part, and a single fact can therefore serve for thousands in that it contains their essence within itself, all being equally manifestations of the primordial type, the particular ‘Urphänomen’, that wholly informs them; to fail to grasp this, says Goethe, is to forgo all chance of a joyous or beneficial outcome (‘Wer nicht gewahr werden kann, daß ein Fall oft tausende wert ist, und sie alle in sich schließt, wer nicht das zu fassen und zu ehren imstande ist, was wir Urphänomene genannt haben, der wird weder sich noch andern jemals etwas zur Freude und zum Nutzen fördern können.’, xiv. 91-2).

In rejecting the Baconian absorption in empirical data, Goethe is by no means turning his back on reality. On the contrary, it is precisely his conviction that true reality is closed to Baconian (or Newtonian) empiricism, which forfeits any chance of seeing the wood through its exclusive concentration on the trees. It is only through a wholist approach, he believes, that one can apprehend reality. He insists on his ‘obstinate realism’ (‘hartnäckigen Realismus’, x. 541); and when he conjures up for Schiller his vision of nature as ‘wirkend und lebendig, aus dem Ganzen in die Teile strebend’, this is to him no abstraction, but something he sees and experiences with his own eye, as he might a table or a chair. Having meanwhile been carried by their conversation into Schiller's house, he not only exposits his notion of the metamorphosis of plants, but makes it palpable by actually drawing a ‘symbolic plant’ (‘symbolische Pflanze’, x. 540) for the other to physically see with his eyes. But this very nearly ends their friendship before it has begun, for it touches on that ‘enormous gulf’ that had always separated them: Schiller as a fully fledged Kantian (‘ein gebildeter Kantianer’, x. 541) cannot accept this assertion of experiential reality: ‘“Das ist keine Erfahrung, das ist eine Idee.”’ (x. 540; ‘That is not an experience, it is an idea.’) This was Goethe's self-confessed and blessed ‘naïvety’: that his thoughts and ideas were literally, palpably visible to his eye (xiii. 26-7). We do not have to be learned Kantians to recognize that Schiller is of course quite right: what Goethe envisions is to his own eye a lived reality, but it nevertheless remains a product of his mind, an ideal—not an inherent and necessary quality of objective reality itself.

This begins to define the central thrust of that contentious but widespread and persistent mode of scientific enquiry that was German Naturphilosophie. In essence, and at its best, it was an attempt to syncretize the epoch's two antithetical attitudes of Empiricism and Idealism in order to establish a middle ground in which mind and matter, instead of dominating and diminishing each other, came fully into their own in a kind of rich interplay. In its fundamental wholist tenets it is unquestionably idealist, even metaphysical. As T. J. Reed remarks in his ‘Past Masters’ book on Goethe: ‘The—in some sense—divine ground and wholeness of the world are presupposed, and to that extent Goethe is a metaphysician.’36 And Strohl has declared that mysticism is plainly the departure point of Lorenz Oken's wholist aspirations in his textbooks of Naturphilosophie (Übersicht des Grundrisses des Systems der Naturphilosophie, 1802; Grundriß des Systems der Naturphilosophie, 1804).37 But far from rejecting reality and resorting to the pure abstractions and fantasies of the Idealist philosophers and the High Romantics, the Naturphilosophen used their idealist-metaphysical-mystical postulates as a vantage point from which to comprehend the real workings of the real natural world, to descry imaginatively but also precisely and specifically the order within the otherwise unmanageable chaos of data. Throughout all his scientific-philosophical speculations, Goethe never strayed from detailed and painstaking experimentation and analysis of specimens; Oken published no fewer than thirteen volumes of ‘straight’ experimental, descriptive ‘Naturgeschichte’ (‘natural history’). But their approach in their laborious experimentation was always deductive and integrative, never inductive and atomistic: whereas the Baconian starts with the part (and in the view of the Naturphilosophen can never get beyond it), they begin with the whole—which indeed they believe to be always immanent in every least particle.38

By the time it came to Georg Büchner's brief spell in the realm of the sciences in the mid-30s, Naturphilosophie, though still predominant, was under severe threat, for the parallel and alternative mode of empiricism was rapidly moving towards that position of supremacy that it still holds to this day (the great dispute between Cuvier and Saint-Hilaire referred to in note 38 is one milestone in this momentous struggle for ascendancy). In the process of the gradual discrediting of Naturphilosophie, it attracted much disparagement and even ridicule. This is partly because of the hyperbolization in both expression and conviction that the battle of attitudes forced on its participants. It was engagingly symbolized on the occasion of Oken's Inaugural Lecture at Jena in 1807, a sensational and polemical affair in which Oken felt driven to the climactic and preposterous assertion: ‘Der ganze Mensch ist nur ein Wirbelbein.’ (The entire human being is but a vertebra.)39—a dictum that instantly spawned a derisive greeting among the local wags: ‘Guten Tag, Herr Wirbelbein!’40 The polemical intensity of the battle can be readily gauged from the scathing—and no less hyperbolic—tone of Justus von Liebig, the great chemist, who in 1840 attacked the Naturphilosophen and their doings as ‘the pestilence, the Black Death, of the nineteenth century’.41 Much later Liebig pronounced on Naturphilosophie in more moderate, but more devastating terms: ‘We look back on German Naturphilosophie as though on a dead tree that bore the most beautiful foliage and the most magnificent flowers—but no fruit.’42 It is no doubt true that some of the extravagances of Naturphilosophie were ‘fantastic to the verge of insanity’.43 And one of its most radical exponents was J. B. Wilbrand, professor of Comparative Anatomy, Physiology, and Natural History at Giessen from 1809—and the young Liebig's particular bête noire from the moment in 1824 that he took up his own chair in Giessen, where both men were still very active in their antagonistic camps when Büchner arrived to continue his studies in 1833.44

It is easy to mock at the excesses of Naturphilosophie: at Wilbrand's dogged and absolute denial of the circulation of the blood, and likewise of the interchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in respiration; at his treatise succinctly entitled ‘On the Connection between Nature and the Supernatural, and How a Thorough Study of Nature and its Phenomena Points Ineluctably to the Continuance of Spiritual Life after Death’; at the belief of Oken and others that light is the consciousness of God, ether his self-positing activity, and objects his concretized thoughts; at Goethe's repudiation of Newton's theory of light. For one thing, however, we might bear in mind that Liebig himself, the great empiricist, was trained by Naturphilosophen, remained a Vitalist throughout his life, and underpinned the physical with the metaphysical in the motto inscribed over his laboratory: ‘God has ordained all things by measure, number, and weight’. It is as easy and convenient for us as it was for the protagonists in the polemic to distinguish categorically between sheep and goats, to see deductivists and speculative idealists on the one hand, and inductivists and rigorous empiricists on the other. In reality, as Popper and Medawar have persuasively argued, there are not two distinct camps in science, but a continuous spectrum linking the opposite and equally unfruitful extremes of ‘an inventory of factual information’ and ‘a totalitarian world picture of natural laws’45—with all significant advances in science being made in that mid-range of the spectrum that involves the most fruitful interaction between speculative, imaginative intuition, and careful empirical testing. At its zaniest, Naturphilosophie did veer towards a ludicrously absolute and unproductive extreme. Even in its normal, median condition as a classical mode of scientific enquiry enshrined in all the universities of the land, its subordination of experiment to a priori ideology ensured that it could not survive against the professional scepticism, the questioning subjection of hypotheses to experimental testing, that increasingly became the hallmark of nineteenth-century science.46 Nevertheless, Naturphilosophie did make a very real contribution to the development of science, both in the general and in the particular: it considerably extended the realm of the thinkable; and it either made, or provided the stimulus for, a whole range of specific discoveries. As to the general: its dare-to-speculate mentality greatly furthered science in its quantum leap from the physics-derived fixed-mechanism model of the world in the eighteenth century, to the transformational, evolutionary model so characteristic of the nineteenth. The out-and-out empiricists found this imaginative leap very difficult to make. Cuvier, for instance, clung tenaciously to his view of the biological realm as fixed and unalterable; faced with the fossil data produced by the revolutionary new science of palaeontology, his now comical explanation was that the world must have experienced a succession of great catastrophes, the last being the Flood, and the devastated areas had then been repopulated each time from parts of the globe as yet unknown to science. At the level of specifics: Oken with his doctrine of primordial ‘sacs’ (‘Bläschen’) paved the way for cell biology; Johannes Müller made great advances in physiology and embryology; Carus helped significantly to open up the new discipline of gynaecology; Schelling's principle of polarity led Schönbein to discover ozone, and considerably influenced Berzelius and Volta; Goethe's stress on comparative anatomy and ‘morphology’ (a word that he himself coined), as distinct from straight anatomy on the one hand, and Linnaean comparing of external characteristics on the other hand, was an important stimulus in the development of evolutionary theory.47

This, then, is the kind of context within which Büchner and his science-cum-philosophy belong, and within which we need to try to locate and understand him. Its most crucial characteristic is its ‘continuous spectrum’ quality: Büchner criticism has been—and continues to be—bedevilled and distorted by that inveterate tendency to polarization that sees only separate, mutually exclusive camps of empiricists-materialists-realists, and speculative idealists. Such a tidy dichotomy may conceivably be relevant to the realms of abstract philosophy and literary fantasizing, both of which offered an alluring refuge from reality during this period; but it is mischievously irrelevant to the realm of scientific enquiry—and hence also to the writing of Georg Büchner. For the beliefs and practices that inform his science equally inform his art. Not only in the commonplace sense that the laboratory dissector is also the literary dissector, but in the much more important sense that there is in both a profound and essential interaction of the Real and the Ideal. For the devotees of polarization, it has to be either/or, and what they inevitably do is to hustle Büchner into the empiricist-materialist camp, which is of course by definition anti-idealist. This is a tendentious travesty, whether in the crass form exemplified by Walter Müller-Seidel with his depiction of Büchner as wholly anti-idealist and wholly ‘scientific’,48 or in the subtle form proffered by Raimar Zons with his claim that Büchner held to the notions of Naturphilosophie—but only as an expedient heuristic category, not a set of beliefs; only as a ‘methodological postulate’, a kind of handy toolkit to help him deal with the world.49

This surely is the crux, the teasing but critical question that every serious student of Büchner has to confront. Do we credit the radiantly positive vision—Goethean and naturphilosophisch in its essence—that he voices in the preamble to the Trial Lecture? Do we believe that he believed in a primal law of beauty, in simplicity as the fount of rich complexity, in pure harmony as the necessary outcome of the primal law throughout the natural world? Or do we decide that the vision is uncharacteristic and illusory—a strategem perhaps, a piece of ritual rhetoric, a contrived nostrum, an act of calculated ingratiation, an inexplicable and dismissible aberration? Both alternatives are problematic. To take the latter is generally to find oneself in a familiar logical bind: Büchner is a fearless speaker of unidealized truth, therefore it cannot be the truth when he speaks of ideals. To prefer the other alternative is to collide at once with the fact that harmonious beauty and rich simplicity are scarcely the most resonant message of his poetic work. Nevertheless I believe this alternative to be incontrovertibly the right one: Büchner did mean every warm and positive word of his preamble; and so completely was he blessed and cursed by an inherited sense of natural harmony that even the slightest discord, the slightest departure from received pitch, was for him an agony. His misfortune—and in consequence our delight—is that he happened, like Hoffmann's Ritter Gluck, to be a man of richest harmonies in a world increasingly dominated by scratchers and scrapers and mechanical contraptions grinding out the same old cracked, broken, excruciating tunes.

Fanciful language, perhaps? But it echoes Büchner's own, in a memorable letter to his beloved Minna Jaeglé in March 1834 (ii. 424). Even the reference to Hoffmann is there (though not specifically to Ritter Gluck): ‘Ich hätte Herrn Callot-Hoffmann sitzen können, nicht wahr’ (I could have sat [as a model] for Herr Callot-Hoffmann, couldn't I).50 So, too, is the strident duality of natural harmony and desperate mechanical grinding. He has just been outside in the open, he writes: ‘Ein einziger, forthallender Ton aus tausend Lerchenkehlen schlägt durch die brütende Sommerluft, ein schweres Gewölk wandelt über die Erde, der tiefbrausende Wind klingt wie sein melodischer Schritt.’ (A single resonant tone from the throats of a thousand larks bursts through the brooding summer air, a heavy bank of cloud wanders over the earth, the booming wind rings out like its melodious tread.) This is his vibrant, melodious present. But until the outside air served to free him and give him life again, he had been long transfixed by a kind of rigor (‘Starrkrampf’), by a sense of being already dead (‘Gefühl des Gestorbenseins’), so that he and all around him seemed like deathly puppets with glassy eyes and waxen cheeks. And at this point Büchner suddenly launches into a characteristically thrilling cadenza of despair (one wonders what poor Minna made of it all):

und wenn dann die ganze Maschinerie zu leiern anfing, die Gelenke zuckten, die Stimme herausknarrte und ich das ewige Orgellied herumtrillern hörte und die Wälzchen und Stiftchen im Orgelkasten hüpfen und drehen sah,—ich verfluchte das Concert, den Kasten, die Melodie und—ach, wir armen schreienden Musikanten, das Stöhnen auf unsrer Folter, wäre es nur da, damit es durch die Wolkenritzen dringend und weiter, weiter klingend, wie ein melodischer Hauch in himmlischen Ohren stirbt? Wären wir das Opfer im glühenden Bauch des Peryllusstiers, dessen Todesschrei wie das Aufjauchzen des in den Flammen sich aufzehrenden Gottstiers klingt?

and then, when the whole machinery began to grind away, with jerking limbs and grating voice, and I heard the same old barrel-organ tune go tralala and saw the tiny prongs and cylinders bob and whirr in the organ box—I cursed the concert, the box, the melody—oh, poor, screaming musicians that we are—could it be that our cries of agony on the rack only exist to ring out through cracks between the clouds and, echoing on and on, die like a melodious breath in heavenly ears? Could it be that we are the victims roasted in the belly of Perillus' bull, whose screams as they die ring out like the jubilant roars of the bull-god as it is devoured by the flames?

An unnerving antiphon: in nature—the wind and the larks and their liberating melody; among men—a deathly mechanical rasping, and tortured screams extracted perhaps by some distant deity for his melodious titillation. And it is precisely this drastic antiphon that Büchner uses nine months later to ring in the crescendo marking the grand-opera climax of Dantons Tod:

Meine Freunde man braucht gerade nicht hoch über der Erde zu stehen um von all dem wirren Schwanken und Flimmern nichts mehr zu sehen und die Augen von einigen großen, göttlichen Linien erfüllt zu haben. Es giebt ein Ohr für welches das Ineinanderschreien und der Zeter, die uns betäuben, ein Strom von Harmonien sind.
Aber wir sind die armen Musicanten und unsere Körper die Instrumente. Sind die häßlichen Töne, welche auf ihnen herausgepfuscht werden nur da um höher und höher dringend und endlich leise verhallend wie ein wollüstiger Hauch in himmlischen Ohren zu sterben?

(etc.; 71)

My friends, one doesn't have to stand very far above the earth to see no trace any more of all this shifting, shimmering chaos, and to behold instead a simple, great and godly outline. There is an ear for which the cacophony and clamour, so deafening to us, are a stream of harmonies.
But we are the poor musicians and our bodies the instruments. Are the ugly, vamping sounds bashed out on them just there to rise up higher and higher and gently fade and die like some voluptuous puff of breath in heavenly ears?

It would be easy to conclude—as innumerable critics have done—that Philippeau is simply a stooge, a foil of fatuous optimism serving to silhouette the ‘true’ negativity in the ensuing chorus of grandiloquent despair. But this would be quite wrong. For one thing … the chorus of despair is itself a desperate illusion. More to the point here: Philippeau's ‘stream of harmonies’ is profoundly real to Büchner. When he heard its melody among the wind and the larks in Giessen, it brought him back from figurative death (thus inaugurating a central topos of death and resurrection that runs throughout his work). And it is, above all, the measure that makes the sounds given out by the human ‘instrument’ seem by contrast so ugly, so raspingly mechanical.

The essential question is why, for Büchner, men have become so drastically, so agonizingly out of tune, so remote from the ‘stream of harmonies’, from that ‘necessary harmony’ that the primal law of beauty bestows so readily upon the rest of nature.


  1. To date, only 11 autograph letters have come to light; the remainder are either lost, or else survive only in second-hand and excerpted form (i.e. as printed in Ludwig Büchner's 1850 part-edition of his brother's writings; the originals from which these letter-excerpts were taken were destroyed in a fire at the Büchners' home in 1851). Cf. Jan-Christoph Hauschild, Georg Büchner. Studien und neue Quellen zu Leben, Werk und Wirkung (Königstein, 1985), 101 ff.; Susanne Lehmann, ‘Der Brand im Haus der Büchners 1851’, in T. M. Mayer (ed.), Georg Büchner Jahrbuch, 6/1986-7, 303-13.—Since this note was written, two further autograph letters have been tracked down; see Der Spiegel, 36 (1993), 198-204, and E. Gillmann, T. M. Mayer, R. Pabst, and D. Wolf (eds.), Georg Büchner an ‘Hund’ und ‘Kater’. Unbekannte Briefe des Exils (Marburg, 1993).

  2. It was long supposed that Büchner must have left behind a complete or near-complete play manuscript on the subject of Pietro Aretino, and that his fiancée Minna Jaeglé must have destroyed it; it now seems much more likely that the project was planned rather than executed (the negative picture of Minna Jaeglé's attitudes and behaviour in the decades after Büchner's death has also been convincingly discredited). Cf. Hauschild, Georg Büchner, 57 ff.; Jan-Christoph Hauschild, ‘Büchners Aretino. Eine Fiktion?’, in Anon. (ed.), Georg Büchner 1813-1837. Revolutionär, Dichter, Wissenschaftler (Basel and Frankfurt, 1987), 353-5. Büchner's interest in Aretino is itself interesting: Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) was a self-styled ‘scourge of princes’ (flagello dei principi) who, besides many other activities including painting, and writing successful comedies and a tragedy, became notorious for his vitriolic satires and his salacious exposés of corruption and carnality in high places, and also for his highly erotic poetry, notably the Sonetti lussuriosi (Lewd Sonnets).

  3. See Hauschild, Georg Büchner, 372-3.

  4. Anon. (ed.), Büchner-Preis-Reden 1951-1971 (Stuttgart, 1972), 162.

  5. Ibid. 183.

  6. Ibid. 56.

  7. Ibid. 116.

  8. Christa Wolf, Fortgesetzter Versuch. Aufsätze. Gespräche. Essays (Leipzig, 1979), 64.

  9. Wolf Biermann, ‘Der Lichtblick im gräßlichen Fatalismus der Geschichte’, Die Zeit, 25 Oct. 1991, 73. More recently, Biermann has compared Büchner to Shakespeare, and referred to him as a ‘Weltgenie’ (genius of world stature); see ‘Geschichte kennt keine Moral. Wolf Biermann über die wiederentdeckten Briefe Georg Büchners und ihre Bedeutung für die Gegenwart’, Der Spiegel, 36 (1993), 207.

  10. Georg Lukács, ‘Der faschistisch verfälschte und der wirkliche Georg Büchner’, repr. in W. Martens (ed.), Georg Büchner (Darmstadt, 1965), 201. Lukács's polemic was originally written in Moscow in 1937.

  11. Robert Mühlher, ‘Georg Büchner und die Mythologie des Nihilismus’, in Martens (ed.), Georg Büchner, 260.

  12. Walter Jens, Euripides. Büchner (Pfullingen, 1964), 46.

  13. A. H. J. Knight, Georg Büchner (Oxford, 1951), 80.

  14. Ronald Peacock, ‘A Note on Georg Büchner's Plays’, German Life and Letters, ns 10 (1956-7), 191. Peacock's article proved influential, not least in serving as the explicit departure point for Dorothy James's monograph Georg Büchner's ‘Dantons Tod’: A Reappraisal (London, 1982)—a work that is repeatedly weakened by its premiss that Dantons Tod demonstrates Büchner's ‘immaturity as a dramatist’ (25).

  15. Knight, 74.

  16. Cf. Helmut Krapp in his seminal study of 1958, Der Dialog bei Georg Büchner (Darmstadt, 1958), 145: ‘Büchners Position … ist kein “Entwurf” und keine “Lösung” im überlieferten Sinne, denn das Kontrastschema hat eigentlich keinen Anfang und kein Ende. Kontraste lassen sich unendlich aneinanderreihen’ (Büchner's position … represents neither a ‘blueprint’ nor a ‘solution’ in the traditional sense, for his contrastive scheme of things knows no real beginning or ending. Contrasts can be concatenated ad infinitum).

  17. Parenthetic page references relate throughout to the so-called Hamburg Edition (plain numbers refer to vol. i, numbers with the prefix ‘ii’ refer to vol. ii): Georg Büchner, Sämtliche Werke und Briefe. Historisch-kritische Ausgabe mit Kommentar, ed. Werner R. Lehmann: i. Dichtungen und Übersetzungen mit Dokumentationen zur Stoffgeschichte (Hamburg, 1967); ii. Vermischte Schriften und Briefe (Hamburg, 1971). Lehmann's edition has had a sorry and exasperating history. Four vols. were originally planned: the two vols. as published, and two vols. containing the critical apparatus and the promised ‘Kommentar’. Not only did the project change publishers (transferring from Christian Wegner, Hamburg, to Carl Hanser, Munich), but the third and fourth vols. never appeared. Although it still constitutes the most authoritative and most widely available complete edition—and is accordingly used as the base-text throughout the present study—most of the main works have since been variously and separately published in editions considerably superior to Lehmann's. A truly historical-critical edition of the entire corpus is in preparation under the editorship of Thomas Michael Mayer; in the meantime we have to wait and make do.

  18. The title is not Büchner's own. It was coined by Karl Emil Franzos for his 1879 edition of Büchner's works.

  19. Karl Viëtor, Georg Büchner. Politik, Dichtung, Wissenschaft (Berne, 1949), 296.

  20. August Closs, ‘Nihilism in Modern German Drama. Grabbe and Büchner’, in Closs, Medusa's Mirror: Studies in German Literature (London, 1957), 157.

  21. Hans Mayer, Georg Büchner und seine Zeit (Wiesbaden, [1960]), 104.

  22. Mühlher, 261.

  23. Maurice B. Benn, The Drama of Revolt: A Critical Study of Georg Büchner (Cambridge, 1976), 61, 62.

  24. Cf. Gerhard Knapp: ‘Es hat sich im Grundsätzlichen erwiesen, daß die Kategorie des Nihilismus … für eine Annäherung an das Werk Büchners nicht in Frage kommen kann und sollte. Die Büchner-Forschung sollte diesen Interpretationsgang, der sich als Aporie erwiesen hat, endgültig ad acta legen.’ (It has become clear in all essential respects that the category of nihilism cannot and should not be called upon in any approach to Büchner. Büchner research should once and for all abandon this line of interpretation, which has shown itself to be a complete cul-de-sac; see also Knapp's endnote).—Gerhard Knapp, Georg Büchner. Eine kritische Einführung in die Forschung (Frankfurt, 1975), 120.

  25. Knight, 69, 174-5.

  26. Hans Mayer, Georg Büchner und seine Zeit, 372.

  27. J. P. Stern, ‘Georg Büchner: Potsherds of Experience’, in Stern, Idylls and Realities: Studies in Nineteenth-Century German Literature (London, 1971), 35.

  28. Felix Frei [pseudonym], in Literarisches Notizenblatt der Dresdner Abendzeitung, 28 Oct. 1835. Cf. Hauschild, Georg Büchner, 185 ff. Cf. also Thomas Michael Mayer, ‘Büchner-Chronik’, in H. L. Arnold (ed.), Büchner I/II, special number of Text + Kritik (Munich, 1979), 404. Mayer eloquently documents the virulent campaign of the period against ‘subversive’ writers, orchestrated by the Metternichian hatchet man Wolfgang Menzel—a campaign that culminated in the imprisonment of Büchner's new friend and patron, Karl Gutzkow (ibid. 397 ff.).

  29. Cf. Jean Strohl, Lorenz Oken und Georg Büchner. Zwei Gestalten aus der Übergangszeit von Naturphilosophie zu Naturwissenschaft (Zurich, 1936), 59.

  30. T. M. Mayer, ‘Büchner-Chronik’, 419.

  31. T. H. Huxley, ‘On the Theory of the Vertebrate Skull’, in M. Foster and E. R. Lankester (eds.), The Scientific Memoirs of Thomas Henry Huxley, i. (London, 1898), 584-5. Sir Peter Medawar has described Huxley's 1858 lecture as one of the ‘very few’ cases in the history of science where a theory has been ‘utterly discredited’ (P. B. Medawar, Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought (London, 1969), 30). But the position is not quite so clear-cut. It can be argued that Huxley's own hypothesis was not all that far removed from the one he so vigorously ridiculed. And even to this day, the theory of the vertebrate skull is still not entirely dead.

  32. Medawar, 9.

  33. One curious monument to this obsession with taxonomy is, of all things, Roget's Thesaurus. P. M. Roget, born 1779, was a doctor and natural scientist of considerable repute, a Fellow of the Royal Society and its Secretary for more than twenty years, who not only invented a ‘system of verbal classification’, but based it—as he explained in the Introduction to the first edition of 1852—on ‘the same principle as that which is employed in the various departments of Natural History. Thus the sectional divisions I have formed, correspond to the Natural Families in Botany and Zoology, and the filiation of words presents a network analogous to the natural filiation of plants or animals.’ (R. A. Dutch (ed.), Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (London, 1981), pp. xxi, xxxv.)

  34. W. H. Bruford, Germany in the Eighteenth Century: The Social Background to the Literary Revival (Cambridge, 1965), 292.

  35. Volume and page numbers concerning Goethe refer to the ‘Hamburg Edition’, 14 vols., ed. Erich Trunz et al. (Hamburg, 1948-66).

  36. T. J. Reed, Goethe (Oxford, 1984), 47.

  37. Strohl, 12.

  38. These contrary scientific positions are precisely epitomized by Goethe when he summarizes the attitudes of Cuvier and Saint-Hilaire, the two disputants in the great debate of 1830 in the Paris Academy of Sciences: xiii. 220.

  39. Strohl, 11.

  40. Cf. H. Bräuning-Oktavio, Oken und Goethe im Lichte neuer Quellen (Weimar, 1959), 49.

  41. Cited by Walter Müller-Seidel, ‘Natur und Naturwissenschaft im Werk Georg Büchners’, in E. Catholy and W. Hellmann (eds.), Festschrift für Klaus Ziegler (Tübingen, 1968), 207.

  42. Cited by Raimar St. Zons, Georg Büchner. Dialektik der Grenze (Bonn, 1976), 61.

  43. Charles Singer, A Short History of Scientific Ideas to 1900 (Oxford, 1960), 385.

  44. It has long been customary in Büchner criticism to speak disparagingly—if at all—of Wilbrand. For a long-overdue reappraisal, see Christian Maass, ‘Georg Büchner und Johann Bernhard Wilbrand. Medizin in Gießen um 1833/44’, in Anon. (ed.), Georg Büchner 1813-1837, 148-54.

  45. Medawar, 59.

  46. The corrective or normative effect of internationalism is highly important here: German political, social and economic structures, and German philosophy and literature, developed in their own relatively isolated and idiosyncratic way in the 19th c.; but science increasingly transcended national frontiers, and the history of German science in the period is in a sense a history of accelerating internationalism.

  47. Cf. Strohl, 28 ff.; Singer, 384 ff.

  48. Müller-Seidel, 210 and passim. Müller-Seidel has his wires crossed throughout his confused and question-begging essay, not least in his claim that Büchner is a cynical and fatalistic Schopenhauerian, but above all in his assertion that the approach that this entails reflects the general mood and practice of modern science as it was then evolving. The screams of anguish in Georg Büchner's works are those of a passionate, wounded idealist, not a cool, enquiring empiricist.

  49. Zons, 69 ff. Cf. also T. M. Mayer, ‘Büchner-Chronik’, 419.

  50. The ‘Callot’ is an allusion to Hoffmann's Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier (of which ‘Ritter Gluck’ happens to be the first).

Margaret T. Peischl (essay date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Peischl, Margaret T. “Büchner's Lenz: A Study of Madness.” Germanic Notes and Reviews 27, no. 1 (spring 1996): 13-19.

[In the following essay, Peischl summarizes the subject, action, style, and central conflicts of Lenz.]

The reader who doesn't know in advance that Georg Büchner's novella Lenz deals with the mental decline of the Sturm und Drang writer, J. M. R. Lenz, is at least introduced immediately on the first page to a very tense and uncanny scene precluding healthy normality. The protagonist is portrayed from the start as an individual plagued by rapidly changing moods and with a strange manner of thinking: »Nur war es ihm manchmal unangenehm, daß er nicht auf dem Kopf gehen konnte.«1 In the first five paragraphs of the novella Lenz demonstrates four different moods: he is successively indifferent, plagued, passionate, and greatly alarmed. Soon the reader notices that the landscape also appears sinister and awaits evidence of some kind of relationship between the man and nature, particularly when it is said of Lenz: »Es war ihm alles so klein, so nahe, so naß; er hätte die Erde hinter den Ofen setzen mögen.« (p. 65) This relationship is revealed as being intimate and complex: »Er meinte, er müsse den Sturm in sich ziehen, alles in sich fassen, er dehnte sich aus und lag über der Erde, er wühlte sich in das All hinein, es war eine Lust, die ihm wehe tat.« (p.65)

The steps of the wanderer Lenz are propelled by his anxiety; »Es faßte ihn eine namenlose Angst in diesem Nichts: er war im Leeren!« (p.66) to the degree that there can be no doubt of his pathological state. He is walking in the dark and feels as though madness were pursuing him on horses. When he sees the lights of the village, he feels better; when he reaches the home of his friend Oberlin, he becomes noticeably calmer. The protagonist's vacillating state of mind, his peace, and his fear are expressed in terms of poles such as light and darkness, human company and loneliness.

After his conversation with Oberlin, Lenz is given a room in the school house where he is again overcome by a nameless fear. He occurs to himself as a dream; it is stated that: »Er konnte sich nicht mehr finden; ein dunkler Instinkt trieb ihn, sich zu retten.« (p.67) It becomes increasingly apparent that the protagonist is schizophrenic and suffers from a struggle between his illness and his instinct for self-preservation. Büchner's use of reflexive constructions demonstrates how split the personality of his protagonist is. The subject and object are separated, as though they were two different individuals. Lenz stands outside of himself; he views his illness and makes attempts at rescuing himself. His flight-like hike through the mountains and his search for something »wie nach verlornen Träumen« (p.65) underlines this. His first night in the village is so unbearable for him that he throws himself into the well; he seems to find his conscious self through physical pain. Water means for him perhaps the possibility for a new, healthy life. Lenz later tells Oberlin that he had felt something of his own being when he was transported into a kind of somnambulistic state in the mountain water. Büchner explains that Lenz's half-hearted attempts to kill himself are less a wish for death than the attempt to bring himself back to himself through physical pain. The effect of the water is, in fact, beneficial. Despite the fact that Lenz appears in an improved state on the following day, one reads: »Mit Oberlin zu Pferde durch das Tal.« (p.67), and the missing subject and verb give the impression of the force of an unnamed power. It is not Lenz who voluntarily performs an action, but an unidentified »somebody« is driven to it. Here there is at work a powerful will to live which brings about the action; it is the healthy part of Lenz, who understands the value of activity and human companionship. This will to live gives him a strong impulse toward the external world. Oberlin has a calming effect on Lenz, but toward evening Lenz is seized by a strange fear so that he would have liked to chase after the sun. In the nighttime he seeks lights, which mean something healing to him, and he throws himself into the well again, for only in this way can he overcome the fear of being alone.

One day he experiences a special feeling of Christmas and he believes that his mother, who gave him that feeling, must be standing behind a tree. Later he preaches in the village church and feels a sweet pain as he participates in the suffering of the villagers. When he is later alone in his room, he cries and feels compassion for himself. Since his being at this time is better integrated, he can also tolerate himself better. He peacefully goes to sleep. On the following morning he calmly tells Oberlin that he had dreamed of his mother and her death, and he then moves on to a conversation about nature. He wishes for a direct relationship with various forms of nature. At this point he makes the impression of an appeased individual, if not one who is recovering. He again shows interest in his surroundings.

When his acquaintance Kaufmann visits the village, Lenz is reminded of earlier unpleasant circumstances and he fears he will lose his peace of mind. Kaufmann, the counterpart of Lenz, is an advocate of literary liberalism. Their conversation about art is the climax of the novella: Lenz's long monologue shows likewise the climax of his health. He speaks rationally and draws logical conclusions. His anthropocentric thoughts are evident, and he simultaneously demonstrates his love for his fellowmen. He expresses an affirmation of life which could not be expected from him at an earlier stage. He is able to build on satisfying experiences with the people in the village, with Oberlin and his family, in nature, and with religion. He has become somewhat more balanced. Büchner says of him at this point: »Er hatte sich ganz vergessen.« (p. 73)

Kaufmann's visit, however, actually leads to the catastrophe that Lenz had anticipated. A paranoiac inevitably believes in a hostile environment; thus Lenz becomes agitated when Kaufmann suggests to him that he should go home. To return to his earlier way of life would mean a defeat for him, and he is convinced that this is Kaufmann's desire. The accelerated tempo of his words and his many questions for which there are no answers express his mental disturbance more dramatically than at any earlier time. On the next day Lenz learns that Oberlin plans to take a trip and the former's schizophrenic condition again comes to the fore: » … er rettete sich in eine Gestalt, die ihn immer vor Augen schwebte.« (p.74) That Oberlin will leave him drives him to a renewed and stronger state of anxiety. Erna Kritsch Neuse maintains that this is the precise midpoint of the erzählte Zeit as well as of the Erzählzeit.2

From this point on Lenz's condition becomes increasingly worse and continues to deteriorate until the end of the narrative. Neuse points to a parallel between the two halves of the novella and demonstrates that every occurrence in the protagonist's life up to this time has a counterpart in the second part of the story.3 The essential difference has to do with the deterioration of his condition after Oberlin leaves.

Lenz continues to hike on after he has accompanied Oberlin and Kaufmann for a part of their way. In the evening he comes to a hut in which he encounters people and a situation that are in striking contrast to Oberlin's family and circumstances. The cosy and peaceful atmosphere he had found in Oberlin's home are lacking. The family of the hermit living here communicates something disturbing and even frightening. The sick girl, the snoring woman, and the mystic with his »unruhigem verwirrtem Gesicht« (p.75) are contrasting figures to those in Oberlin's family. They have such a disquieting effect on Lenz that he spends a very disoriented night. The antitheses in the following passage attest to his excited and vacillating frame of mind: »Durch das leise Singen des Mädchens und die Stimme der Alten zugleich tönte das Sausen des Windes, bald näher, bald ferner, und der helle, bald verhüllte Mond warf sein wechselndes Licht traumartig in die Stube.« (p.75) Even when he is at home again, the impressions of the night remain with Lenz; he can neither eat nor sleep. He laughs and cries and »Ahnungen von seinem alten Zustande durchzuckten ihn und warfen Streiflichter in das wüste Chaos seines Geistes.« (p.76) He spends much time with Madame Oberlin so that he need not be alone.

When he is reminded of his foresaken sweetheart Frederike through the girl's singing, he breaks down and begins to experience guilt feelings that he considers as the root of his illness and his hallucinations. »Jetzt ist es mir so eng, so eng! Sehn Sie, es ist mir manchmal, als stieß' ich mit den Händen an den Himmel; o, ich ersticke!« (p.77) He senses pain in his left arm with which he had touched Frederike. His mental state becomes increasingly precarious: »Je leerer, je kälter, je sterbender er sich innerlich fühlte, desto mehr drängte es ihn, eine Glut in sich zu wecken.« (p.77) He is again like two people: one attempts to rescue the other. When he hears of a deceased child with the name of Frederike, he covers his face with ashes and dresses like a penitent, and he believes that if God gave him a sign, he could awaken the child from the dead. He is so plagued by guilt that he believes he must get rid of it through a great deed. As is frequently the case with mentally ill individuals, he thinks that he is the only person alive, that he alone participates in all human experiences and therefore also possesses superhuman power. Neuse compares this event with his earlier sermon, which is likewise a manifestation of Christian faith, but one that is much healthier.4 Since his wish to revive the dead child remains unfulfilled, a strong deterioration of his condition follows. His religious enthusiasm is suddenly transformed into an annulment of it: »ein Triumphgesang der Hölle« (p.78) His disappointment and his rage at God are so powerful that they actually become atheistic assertions. On the following day, however, he is overcome by enormous anxiety over his sin. His hallucinations increase to such an extent that even Oberlin's mention of Lenz's parents affects Lenz as a rejection. He is reminded again of his imagined guilt in regard to Frederike; his fragmentary and irrational utterances reveal him more and more frequently as a completely disturbed and irrational individual. His feelings become so exaggerated that he even requests that Oberlin beat him. In the middle of the night he again throws himself into the well and calls Frederike's name in accelerated confusion and desperation.

Lenz remains in bed on the following day and for a long time does not react to Oberlin's presence. Then he complains about boredom and it is obvious that his illness has become so extreme that even his anxiety has become paralyzed. His increasing fears have separated him from the external world to the degree that he ultimately feels himself incarcerated alone with his anxiety. At those moments when his anxiety is greatest, he complains that he is being narrowed in. (Abutille maintains that the word »Angst« is etymologically related to the word »eng«.5 As Lenz's illness grows worse, he becomes less and less able to deal with life; his activities decrease and his world becomes smaller. Instead of possessing a full and varied emotional life, his mental experiences become concentrated solely on his anxiety. Not even the strongest feelings can endure indeterminately, and without a connection to the outside world even Lenz's anxiety becomes numbed and turns into a void. As his inner life becomes flat and undifferentiated, so does his outer life: » … die Langeweile, die Langeweile! O, so langweilig! Ich weiß gar nicht mehr, was ich sagen soll, … ich mag mich nicht einmal umbringen: es ist zu langweilig!« (p.80) His capacity for differentiating and making distinctions, that was already weakened at the time of Oberlin's departure, (»es verschmolz ihm alles in eine Linie, wie eine steigende und sinkende Welle, zwischen Himmel und Erde; es war ihm, als läge er an einem unendlichen Meer, das leise auf und ab wogte.«) (p.74) diminishes more and more:» … wenn ich nur unterscheiden könnte, ob ich träume oder wache; … « (p.80)

Thus it appears at this point that it is no longer a matter of a conflict between health and illness, but rather of two different forms of pathology. Lenz has already stepped beyond the bounds of health; his hopeless condition is an undeniable fact. One can, however, still speak of a certain activity and passivity; insofar as he still experiences anxiety, a kind of resistance against a completely dark and mindless existence is at work. Inasmuch as he sees around and in himself a void and emptiness, however, his illness has already reached an advanced stage. Although he struggles against the catastrophe, his behavior must be viewed as manifesting insanity. By jumping out of the window, visiting the grave of the dead child, running away from his attendants, and ultimately declaring himself a murderer, he is again making attempts to rescue himself from himself. He wants to cling to the outer world, however unpleasant and painful it may be. When he suffers physical pain and when he does penance for his sins, his spiritual pains and his existential anxiety are somehow assuaged. The situation is thus the opposite of what it appears to be on the surface; when Lenz is active, he participates, if irrationally, in life; when he withdraws from the external world, however, all his experiences become empty and meaningless. There exists therefore a tension between two different aspects of his mental illness; »die Welt, die er hatte nutzen wollen, hatte einen ungeheuern Riß; er hatte keinen Haß, keine Liebe, keine Hoffnung—eine schreckliche Leere, und doch eine folternde Unruhe, sie auszufüllen. Er hatte nichts.« (p.81)

It is clear how hopeless Lenz's condition has become when he tells Oberlin of Frederike's death. He believes he knows about it through hieroglyphics. Neuse indicates this assertion as a parallel to Lenz's earlier dream of his mother's death.6 This second delusion is by no means within the confines of reality and is a far more exaggerated expression of his deteriorating state of mind than was the earlier dream.

The split in Lenz's personality is also illustrated through his behavior when he is alone. He becomes so desperately lonely that he talks to himself, cries out, and then is terrified again; it seems to him as if a strange voice had spoken with him. As is the case in schizophrenia, he recognizes no boundaries between himself and others. If he thinks of another person, it seems to him as if he were that person. His instinct for self-preservation drives him to want: »die Häuser auf die Dächer zu stellen, die Menschen an- und auszukleiden, die wahnwitzigsten Possen auszusinnen.« (p.82) The psychopathological urge to ignore all mental demarcations and differentiations is so threatening to Lenz that he must struggle against it in the most desperate, radical way. Any kind of mental activity, even if entirely absurd, is preferable to the void. The narrator makes an unequivocal explanation of Lenz's situation: »Er mußte dann mit den einfachsten Dingen anfangen, um wieder zu sich zu kommen. Eigentlich nicht er selbst tat es, sondern ein mächtiger Erhaltungstrieb: es war, als sei er doppelt, und der eine Teil suche den andern zu retten und rufe sich selbst zu … « (p.82)

Lenz now has attacks even in the light of day; the demarcations of daylight no longer help him. His pathology is now battling so energetically and successfully that he must utilize an equal amount of strength to preserve by any means any kind of mental health. He throws himself into Oberlin's arms, for the latter is the only being who is alive for Lenz. There is no further external world for him; everything seems cold and dream-like to him. Occasionally Oberlin succeeds in calming Lenz for a brief period of time, and the latter then yearns more and more for peace. He continues to make half-hearted suicide attempts and causes himself severe physical pain, all in an attempt to be able to return to himself. He complains about the weight of the air and the crying stillness. His perceptive faculties have been damaged to the extent that he no longer has any relationship with the outer world. Everything that he hears and feels is a projection of his inner being. The air is heavy for him because his inner spiritual struggle is so oppressive, and the cries which he allegedly hears are calls for help from his own psychological prison.

When commitment to a hospital finally becomes a necessity, Lenz is taken to Straßburg, and the contrast with the opening scene, i.e., Lenz's hike through the mountains is immediately obvious. This applies particularly in regard to Lenz's frame of mind: it is stated at the opening of the narrative that he was completely indifferent, even though there was not yet at that point unequivocal reasons to question seriously his sanity. Now it is perhaps easier to understand the beginning of the novella: the protagonist's condition was at that time already so endangered that nature, i.e., the external world is viewed solely as a projection of his inner state. The descriptions of nature disappear as Lenz's mental health is exacerbated in the second half of the narrative and as he becomes deeper confined in his own inner life. As he is being driven away to the hospital, a dull anxiety grows in him; he makes continued attempts at suicide, but gradually there is a terrible emptiness in him. He feels neither anxiety nor desire and his existence is an unendurable burden. That does not mean, however, that his inner conflicts are resolved, rather that the temporary peace is a deception and, as Baumann asserts, there remains in Lenz »eine bedrohliche, heillose Spannung.«7He states further: »Jetzt bietet sich eine verklärte Landschaft dar, dionysisch trunken, ein Strömen und Werben der Natur; allein sie mag den sich selbst Entfremdeten nicht in sich hineinziehen; keine Regung des Gefühls erwacht, stumm und starr in sich verschlossen verharrt der Wahnumfangenen seiner unheimlichen Spannung.«8 This is a striking contrast to the opening scene where Lenz wants to wallow in nature and become one with it.

The conflict at the center of the novella manifests itself at first between an individual and his environment and then, in a markedly pathological fashion, within the individual himself. The first page of the novella already gives indications and a foreshadowing of a predominant dichotomy: words like »hinunter«, »herab«, and »auf- abwärts« occur frequently; nature is at one time impenetrable, at another accessible; Lenz's mood is very erratic, and the reader is given the impression of great discrepancies. At the beginning stages of Lenz's illness, it is a matter of a rift between a mentally imperiled individual and the wholesome external world. Lenz hopes that he will be able to recover at Oberlin's home, with the practice of his Christian faith, and in the company of simple, unpretentious villagers. It appears temporarily as though this might be possible. When Kaufmann reminds him, however, of a »hostile« outer world, Lenz's feelings of guilt surface again and an even stronger process of alienation begins for him. Now Lenz's instinct for self-preservation has a weaker relationship with his surroundings; instead he must struggle with his rapidly diminishing mental powers against an intangible internalization, a mental numbness, a non-being. Lenz is thus forced to give his world of madness some kind of validity so that he does not completely lose himself. The only possibility for being consists for him in his insanity and feelings of persecution. In an analysis of the style of the novella Peter Hasubeck illustrates the relationship between Lenz's mental state and the language Büchner uses. The missing verbs, the frequent repetitions, the fragmentary sentences, and the predominant use of parataxis are viewed as indications of a deterioration of the protagonist's mental powers.9 It is also evident how frequently reflexive constructions and doubling occur in the second half of the novella. The tension with which the novella is introduced is thus internalized and becomes more evasive; it continues, however, in an externally less perceptible fashion and thus it is said of Lenz at the conclusion of the novella: »So lebte er hin … «


  1. Georg Büchner, Werke und Briefe (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1968), p. 65. All quotations are taken from this edition.

  2. Erna Kritsch Neuse, »Büchners Lenz: Zur Struktur der Novelle,« German Quarterly, XLIII (1970), 201.

  3. Ibid., p.202.

  4. Ibid., p.205.

  5. Mario Carlo Abutille, Angst und Zynismus bei Georg Büchner (Bern: Francke Verlag, 1969), p. 119.

  6. Neuse, p.206.

  7. Gerhart Baumann, »Georg Büchner: Lenz; Seine Struktur und der Reflex des Dramatischen,« Euphorion, 52 (1958), 169.

  8. Ibid., p. 167.

  9. Peter Hasubeck, »›Ruhe‹ und ›Bewegung‹ Versuch einer Stilanalyse von Georg Büchners Lenz,« Germanisch-Romanische Monatsschrift, XIX (1969), 36ff.

Kathryn R. Edmunds (essay date summer 1996)

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SOURCE: Edmunds, Kathryn R. “Lenz and Werther: Büchner's Strategic Response to Goethe.” Monatshefte für deutschen Unterricht, deutsche Sprache und Literatur 88, no. 2 (summer 1996): 176-96.

[In the following essay, Edmunds contrasts the narrative structure and effects of Lenz with those of Goethe's novel Werther, asserting Büchner's tacit rejection of Goethe's literary worldview in his novella.]

In Dichtung und Wahrheit (Book XIV, published 1814) Goethe explicitly diagnoses Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz's anti-social self-absorption as a result of his Werther-like suffering: “[er] litt … im allgemeinen von der Zeitgesinnung, welche durch die Schilderung Werthers abgeschlossen sein sollte,”1 but Goethe is careful to distinguish Lenz from the truly Werther-like “redliche Seelen” to the extent that Lenz's behavior seemed exaggerated and voluntary. Roughly twenty years later Georg Büchner also associates the Storm and Stress poet with Werther, although not so explicitly; and, whereas Goethe is openly critical of Lenz, Büchner is subtly critical of Werther. It is reasonable to assume, as others have, that Büchner wrote his Lenz against or at least in dialogue with Goethe's portrait of his former friend.2 It is furthermore possible that Büchner exploits the familiarity of Werther to develop a foil (within his narrative) against which he can develop a subtle and sophisticated contrast between his conceptions of the individual self, fate and autonomy and those propounded in the “goethische Kunstperiode,”3 particularly by Goethe himself. A comparison of Lenz with the intertexts Die Leiden des jungen Werthers and passages from Dichtung und Wahrheit contributes not only to our understanding of Büchner's world view but also to our appreciation of his literary craft.

Discussions of the similarities and differences between Lenz and Werther are not infrequent. Most often scholars note Büchner's use of “Storm and Stress” diction and syntax, resounding of Werther, as a means to situate Lenz in his own time period.4 Very few authors are interested in comparing the structure of the two texts, probably because they are so obviously dissimilar.5 Also frequently acknowledged are the particular passages in Lenz which seem to be deliberate allusions to Werther, such as when it is said that Lenz “ging mit sich um wie mit einem kranken Kinde” (17).6 The protagonists have been contrasted in terms of secular martyrdom,7 self-awareness,8 ability to articulate,9 in terms of their relationships to nature as an aesthetic landscape,10 and in terms of the relative security each derives from a theistic world view on the one hand (pantheism and monotheism in Werther) or a weltanschauung based on human empathy, on the other hand.11 Whereas these earlier studies argue for the similarity and dissimilarity of the two texts by pointing to the divergent use of common themes (e.g. nature, art, madness) and to the disparity between similar “protagonists,” I compare and contrast the two narratives as wholes and argue that Büchner's strong evocation of Werther allows a critical reception of “Goethezeit” values and assumptions to emerge. Büchner's method of using familiar language evocative of certain ideologies in a slightly iconoclastic and somewhat provocatively paradoxical way has been noted before;12 here I add his manipulations of voice, plot and structure to his repertoire of subversive narrative tactics.

Such textual echoing is thus not viewed as merely an aesthetic or literary exercise but is rather seen as Büchner's deliberate attempt to highlight the disparity between his understanding of the socially and physiologically determined individual and the concept of the autonomous individual held by the Storm and Stress, pre-French-revolutionary writers and maintained by many, including the reactionary older Goethe, well into the nineteenth century. The aim of this article is not to seek out socio-historical or biographical influences on the two authors' thinking; instead, it aims to show how Büchner's political and philosophical agenda concerning the essential equality and ultimate insignificance (with respect to the fatalism of world history) of all people is carried out in his Lenz-fragment largely on the basis of intertextual allusions to an earlier popular text.

Before turning to Werther it is worth noting how Büchner works with the portrayal of Lenz from Dichtung und Wahrheit, where Goethe's confidence in the individual's ability to determine him- or herself is particularly pronounced. Goethe portrays Lenz as wilful but whimsical, talented but undisciplined; he is supposed to have been an irritating, scheming scoundrel: “er [pflegte] sich immer etwas Fratzenhaftes vorzusetzen, und eben deswegen diente es ihm zur beständigen Unterhaltung. … [M]it seinen Vorstellungen und Gefühlen verfuhr er willkürlich, damit er immerfort etwas zu tun haben möchte” (HA 10: 8; my emphases). What is remarkable is the degree to which Goethe attributes purpose to Lenz's antics; both “vorzusetzen” and “damit” indicate that Lenz decided to behave as he does, even if he—as Goethe surmised—had no other “Zweck” than his own perverse entertainment.

Where Goethe emphasizes Lenz's deliberate machinations, Büchner presents a man who usually does not know why he does what he is doing and who apologizes remorsefully for having done something he did not intend to do.

[Er] verwirrte sich ganz und dabei hatte er einen unendlichen Trieb, mit allem um ihn im Geist willkürlich umzugehen. … Er amüsierte sich, die Häuser auf die Dächer zu stellen, die Menschen an- und auszukleiden, die wahnwitzigsten Possen auszusinnen. Manchmal fühlte er einen unwiderstehlichen Drang, das Ding auszuführen, und dann schnitt er entsetzliche Fratzen. … Dann war er wieder tief beschämt.

(27-28; my emphases)

The “willkürlich” and “Fratzenhaftes” from Goethe's description of Lenz are echoed here, but the impish intentionality is absent; instead, Lenz is subject to a “Trieb” and a “Drang” stronger than he is. Unlike the portrait of Lenz presented by Goethe, Büchner's Lenz does not choose to entertain himself and others with deliberate tomfoolery and does not purposefully seek “durch die verkehrtesten Mittel … seinen Neigungen und Abneigungen Realität zu geben” (HA 10: 8). The following comparison of Lenz and Werther explores the ways in which Büchner's text plays off of Goethe's work so as to undermine Goethe's view not only of Lenz in particular but also of individual autonomy in general.

In Werther a fictional editor presents a collection of letters in a book which he hopes will provide comfort to his readers. As is well-known, each of the letters presents a coherent episode or emotion, such as an experience of union with nature (10 May 1771), Lotte at the well (6 July 1771), Werther's visit to the town in which he was born (9 May 1772), or Werther's encounter with the insane flower-seeking man (30 November 1772). Toward the end of the novel, the editor interrupts the sequence of letters in order to offer a third-person account of the last days before the letter-writer ends his own life. The plot of the Werther-story is a clear causal sequence of love, frustration, attempts at consolation, followed by despair and suicide. This is framed by the editor's comments which present his own loss of a friend as potential consolation for his Werther-like readers.

Werther's despair of possessing Lotte in this world is neutralized by his confidence that he will have her in heaven; similarly, the editor's sadness at the loss of his friend is tempered by his anticipation that his “Büchlein” will serve as a friend to others, that the death will not have been meaningless. The editor intends for Werther's “Leiden” and death, like Christ's, to benefit somebody. Similarly, the protagonist died with the tentative belief that Albert and Lotte's “Frieden” could be restored through his departure: “O daß ihr glücklich wäret durch meinen Tod!” (HA 6: 121). Although he admits with what may be feigned humility, “das ward nur wenigen Edeln gegeben, ihr Blut für die Ihrigen zu vergießen und durch ihren Tod ein neues, hundertfältiges Leben ihren Freunden anzufachen” (HA 6: 123), he seems in fact to count himself among these few. His last meal of bread and wine and his confidence that he goes “zu [s]einem Vater” and that he and Lotte “werden sein … werden [sich] wiedersehen” (HA 6: 117) indicate that he—in the context of Christianity—situates his suicide as martyrdom rather than as an unforgivable sin. In his letter of November 15, 1772, Werther manages (in an idiosyncratic, indeed blasphemous manner) to deny Christ's intervention for himself without denying his existence or his sacrifice for the rest of humanity: “Wenn ich nun ihm [Christ] nicht gegeben bin? Wenn mich nun der Vater für sich behalten will?” (HA 6: 86) and in his letter of November 30, 1772, he compares his suicide to the prodigal son's return to the father and argues that “[ihm] ist nur wohl” in the presence of God (HA 6: 91). These references to Christianity establish a positive teleological trajectory against the text's negative trajectory toward suicide.13 The trajectories give the novel direction and a goal. From the outset the reader knows that Werther will die, but she does not know the cause and course of his suffering; she reads in order to find out. Thus, the reader, the editor and the letter-writer all act according to purposes, and presumably they all succeed in achieving their respective goals.

In contrast with Werther, Lenz seems to lack a plot and a protagonist14 as these are commonly understood. The narrative doesn't have a particular goal or direction (other than to return to the point of departure); there is no particular story to tell, and therefore there is no suspense or anticipation.15 Lenz's condition improves and then worsens, so we are told, but the descriptions of his activities remain similar throughout. As in Werther there are several episodic “scenes” presented chronologically; these include scenes such as Lenz's walk through the mountains; his vision of his mother; his sermon; the “Kunstmonolog”; his attempt to resurrect the child; the episode with the cat; his profane rejection of God as a non-saviour; his complaints about the heaviness of the air and the loudness of the silence; and finally, his passive departure. Common motifs, such as the frequent use of the words “Ruhe”16 and “Gewalt” or the recurring attacks of “Angst” or “Wahnsinn,” run throughout the narrative, giving it unity, but not a unified plot. The beginning and end are determined by Lenz's arrival in and departure from the valley; thus time and space—not a specific “Handlung”—delimit the narrative.

Although it is argued that Lenz becomes progressively worse (after an initial period of apparent improvement), one can also assert that his condition does not substantially change. His sense of well-being rises and falls, alternating with phases of fear, ennui, madness, and desperation. Nothing is permanent: after his “Triumph-Gesang der Hölle” (22) he is still able to pray; after the complaint of “Langeweile” and his lack of “behaglichen Zeitvertreib” (25), he immediately asserts that it would be worthwhile (and therefore not “langweilig”) to investigate “ob [er] träume oder wache” (25); after the narrator describes him as “gleichgültig” and resigned, he is said to have tried to harm himself. Thematically, the emphasis is on regular cycles and irregular fluctuation, not on beginnings or ends: the waxing and waning of the moon, the shifting light and dark, the wave-like line of the mountain silhouettes, the ticking of a clock, the rise and fall of voices, the rhythm of imagined dressing and undressing. These rhythms are reinforced grammatically with pairs such as “auf- und ab-,” “an- und aus-,” “hin- und her-,” and “bald … bald.” Events themselves recur: Lenz bathes himself in the fountain at night on several occasions (8, 9, 24); he jumps from the window more than once (25, 30); he speaks of his beloved first with Frau Oberlin and later with Pastor Oberlin; his attempt to raise the dead child can be paired with the strange man's attempt to heal the sick girl; twice Lenz stays in bed for a long time and is visited there by Oberlin (24, 29); twice he is told to return home to his father—once by Kaufmann and once by Oberlin; twice Oberlin is irritated by Lenz's blasphemy (25, 29). These recurring events never lead us to believe that Lenz may recover and never allude to some sort of impending disaster, unlike the fairly frequent references to departure and suicide in Werther. In Lenz we don't anticipate anything; we observe. What we observe is not the story or “Schicksal” of one particularly extraordinary “Unglücklichen” but rather the pulses of nature as they are manifested in mountain landscapes, quiet valleys, small communities, and in the acts and thoughts of people.

The differences in the plots of the two works are emphasized by the differences in structure and narrative voices. The pronounced trajectories of the plot in Werther are supported by the linearity of the letter sequence and the neat, apparently arbitrary division of the book into two parts, “erstes Buch” and “zweites Buch.” The series of distinct dated letters (month and day) makes the passage of time into a heavily-highlighted structural feature, while the division into two parts means that there are two end points toward which the reader reads, thus enhancing the focus on goals or resolutions. The two parts of the novel echo one another and emphasize the themes of expectation and disappointment and of departure and loss. The fact that each part ends with Werther's decision to leave Lotte subordinates all other alternations of hope and loss to this dominant drama; similarly, the timeless, tableau-like nature of many of the letters is absorbed by the movement of the story viewed over time. The editor's foreword and his final report place the whole Lotte-complex, the story told through letters, in a context emphasizing both the editor's relationship to the reader and the protagonist's quasi-martyrdom for the sake of similarly passionate and introspective individuals.

In contrast with this highly structured and purposeful epistolary novel, Lenz appears loosely impressionistic. Where Werther is structured linearly, like the Old and New Testaments with the anticipation and fulfillment of certain events, Lenz is structured circularly: various, perhaps unrelated episodes and vignettes form points along the circumference of a circle beginning and ending in more or less the same place. The opening description of Lenz wandering through the mountains is echoed in the closing description of him being driven away from the mountains; the earlier images of red climbing up on top of blue, of the earth becoming “klein wie ein wandelnder Stern” (6) are picked up again at the end by the images of mountains rising up “wie eine tiefblaue Kristallwelle” (30) into the evening's red horizon and of the earth “wie ein goldner Pokal” (31).17 This subtle circularity is reinforced by Lenz's descriptions of the paintings mentioned in his conversation with Kaufmann.

Just as Werther's story of the young girl's suicide (August 12, 1771), or his stories of the “Bauerbursch” (May 30, 1771; September 4, 1772), and of the demented former-scribe (November 30, 1772) provide encapsulated versions of his own tragic drama, so too do the narrative-versions of Lenz's favorite paintings offer a small-scale pattern which the entire narrative follows. The description of the first painting begins “Es ist ein trüber, dämmernder Abend” (15) and ends, summarily, “so ist das Bild, mit dem einförmigen bräunlichen Ton darüber, dem trüben stillen Abend” (16). Before the description returns to this point of departure, Lenz presents a sequence of events, as if the painting had a temporal dimension: the stranger comes, speaks, breaks bread, the others recognize him, it becomes dark, “es tritt sie etwas Unbegreifliches an” (16), but this is not frightening. Lenz's description uses the same short paratactic clauses so characteristic of Lenz as a whole. The grammatical subject shifts from “er” (the stranger), to “sie” (the disciples), to the impersonal “es” in the same way that agency in the main narrative moves around among Lenz, other people, and impersonal forces.

The presentation of the second painting is quite similar. It begins, “Eine Frau sitzt in ihrer Kammer, das Gebetbuch in der Hand …” (16), and closes with this same image: “die Frau liest den Text nach” (16). Again the description consists of brief clauses; again Lenz “reads” more than could possibly be depicted visually—the woman couldn't go to church, but she could hear the bells and choir resounding over the landscape; again the presentation of the painting flows in a way similar to the flow of Lenz as a whole. The circularity of the narrative descriptions of the paintings undermines the strength of the temporal dimension (linearity) Lenz was able to project onto the atemporal scenes. This tension between linear chronology and a circularity resisting progression also characterizes Lenz as a whole, but because the first and final scenes of the essay are so similar, the tendency toward circularity dominates over the suggestions of progression.

Whereas in Werther the “wiederholte Spiegelungen” (HA 12: 322) pertain to the plot and themes, in Lenz they pertain to visual images, verbal motifs and narrative form. Of course, both paintings have a Christian theme, and Lenz's struggles with faith and blasphemy are a much-discussed aspect of Büchner's essay,18 but in Lenz's descriptions, as in the text as a whole, the specific content is significantly less important than “eine unendliche Schönheit, die aus einer Form in die andre tritt, ewig aufgeblättert, verändert” (15). Thus, although Werther and Lenz could be compared with regard to the role of religion for each of the protagonists, I am only concerned with the Christian aspects of Werther to the extent that they enhance the linear, goal-oriented effect of the text. The Christian aspects of Lenz, such as Oberlin's unchallenged faith in a transcendental care-taker, do not lend linearity to the text as a whole, since the narrator does not indicate any particular bias toward the idea that life and death are endowed with some sort of divine purpose.

Goethe's text emphasizes progression and the possibility for positively influencing society and its values: a given sequence of events is recognized as a story which culminates with a suicide and with the question as to whether the Christian God, if not the Church, can accept the misunderstood iconoclast; also questioned are the social factors leading to this death. Büchner's text emphasizes non-development but not stasis, change but not progression: the text has no particular story, it asks no questions and it provides no answers. For Büchner, form, “das Gesetz der Schönheit” (2: 292), is all we can hold onto. This “Urgesetz,” presented in “Ueber Schädelnerven” as a philosophical natural law, refutes the “Zweckmäßigkeit” of the teleological interpretation of phenomena. The “notwendige Harmonie” of Lenz results not from a uniform progression toward a known goal, but rather from the “einfachsten Rissen und Linien” (2: 292) of the narrated events and attitudes.19 Whereas the structure and intratextual resonances of Werther rely on the fact that an individual chooses to act in certain ways and anticipates the consequences of these choices, Büchner's text relies on nature's rhythms and cycles and on the fact that people—even if they perceive themselves as autonomous and distinct—are as subject to the impersonal laws of nature (including “das Gesetz der Schönheit”) as are all other phenomena.

Consistent with these disparate functions and effects of plot and structure are the differences in the narrative perspectives of Werther and Lenz. This stylistic variance has a profound effect on the way we view the content of the narratives, on the way we perceive the speakers, and, ultimately, on the way we understand the author's concept of self. Both Werther and the editor have fairly stable first-person points of view. The narrator of Lenz does not offer such stability of perspective, although he does offer some distance from Lenz.20 Just as the editor comes in to “replace” Werther's voice once he is close to death, so too does the narrator of Lenz maintain a greater distance from the figure's perspective toward the end of the piece. However, the narrator of Lenz cannot be located and defined, which means that even though we move away from the dizzying perspective of Lenz, we are still not granted alternatively secure footing.

The extensive hypotactic sentence from the first paragraph of Büchner's generally paratactic text is frequently associated with Werther and encourages comparison and contrast of the two texts. Because the sentence is so long (twenty-five lines in Reclam) and because most readers are familiar with it, I do not cite it in full. Lenz, the person through whom the landscape is focalized, does not appear until quite late in the sentence (in the seventeenth of the twenty-five lines), in the impersonal clause, “riß es ihm in der Brust” (6). Lenz's passivity is emphasized not only by the frequent use of impersonal “es” constructions but also, as David Horton has observed, by the sentences where abstractions (e.g. “Angst” and “Schmerz”) act as subjects of transitive verbs.21 The less often Lenz appears as the grammatical subject, the less we are inclined to think of him as a philosophical subject. Moreover, the narrator anthropomorphizes inanimate phenomena so much that Lenz—even when he is the grammatical subject—does not appear distinct from the scene he observes: the voices on the cliffs “awaken” and seem to want to “sing” to the earth; the clouds “jump” like horses; the sun, armed with a sword, comes and goes; red climbs onto blue. Lenz's “dehnen” and “wühlen,” his “still stehen” and “Augen schließen” seem as premeditated or unpremeditated as the wind's lullaby or the storm's goading of the clouds. Because Lenz is described by a consciousness other than his own, he appears as elemental, as involuntary as other natural phenomena. While Raimar Stefan Zons, among others, argues that Lenz “versucht … am Anfang noch, einen Zugang zur Natur zu gewinnen,”22 I argue that Lenz is not presented as distinct from “nature” (wind, sunlight, mountains as non-sentient nature); rather, he is part of the landscape, part of the natural sublimity. The creative and destructive forces Werther observes so fondly and so despairingly in the landscapes may not necessarily be visible to Lenz, but they are visible in him.23

In the clause “er meinte, er müsse den Sturm in sich ziehen” the verb “meinen” suggests consciousness and intention, but the “müssen” counters this by implying that Lenz felt compelled without choice and without reflection. We recall Büchner's passionate questioning after the “muß” of human nature: “Das muß ist eins von den Verdammungsworten, womit der Mensch getauft worden. … Was ist das, was in uns lügt, mordet, stiehlt” (2: 426). Something acts through Lenz; Lenz does not act.

The sobering sentence following the passionately accumulative one is this: “Aber es waren nur Augenblicke, und dann erhob er sich nüchtern, fest, ruhig, als wäre ein Schattenspiel vor ihm vorübergezogen, er wußte von nichts mehr” (6). The narrator's suggestion that Lenz arose as if a “Schattenspiel” had passed offers a parallel, as we shall see, to the “Schauspiel” Werther describes, but in Lenz the analogy to a performance is produced by the narrator, and it is unclear if the narrator is here “conceptualizing phenomena through the perspective of the protagonist”24 or if he is organizing the phenomena in a way Lenz would be incapable of doing: as a coherent and meaningful performance. Here and throughout the text, the line between authorial and figural perspective is often blurred or obliterated, thus also blurring the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity, and even between subject and object. If, as Büchner's Lenz recommends, “man … senke sich in das Leben des Geringsten und gebe es wieder” (14), then what happens to one's own perspective and identity? Is selfhood something that comes and goes like light and shadow, or is it something fixed? In Lenz, such questions are solicited not only explicitly by statements referring to Lenz's loss of a single stable identity (e.g. “es war als sei er doppelt” [28]) but also—more subtly and more pervasively—by the narrator's tendency to slip in and out of Lenz's consciousness, as if there were no firm boundaries between the observer and the observed.

In Werther, on the other hand, readers are confident that Werther's identity is defined, even if he sometimes fears he has lost himself: “Wenn wir uns selbst fehlen, fehlt uns doch alles” (August 22; HA 6: 53).The stability of his identity results not from what he says and does, but from the narrative perspective of his letters and from the editor's comments. For contrast with the long “wenn”-sentence of Lenz just discussed, we can look at one of Werther's three extensive nature descriptions (May 10, 1771; August 18, 1771 and December 12, 1772):25 the third offers, as Zons has noted,26 the most similarities to Büchner's introductory description in Lenz:

Nachts nach eilfe rannte ich hinaus. Ein fürchterliches Schauspiel, vom Fels herunter die wühlenden Fluten in dem Mondlichte wirbeln zu sehen, über Äcker und Wiesen und Hecken und alles, und das weite Tal hinauf und hinab eine stürmende See im Sausen des Windes! Und wenn dann der Mond wieder hervortrat und über der schwarzen Wolke ruhte, und vor mir hinaus die Flut in fürchterlich herrlichem Widerschein rollte und klang: da überfiel mich ein Schauer und wieder ein Sehnen! Ach, mit offenen Armen stand ich gegen den Abgrund und atmete hinab! hinab! und verlor mich in der Wonne, meine Qualen, meine Leiden da hinabzustürmen, dahinzubrausen wie die Wellen … O Wilhelm! wie gern hätte ich mein Menschsein drum gegeben, mit jenem Sturmwinde die Wolken zu zerreißen, die Fluten zu fassen! …

Und wie ich wehmütig hinabsah auf ein Plätzchen, wo ich mit Lotten unter einer Weide geruht …—das war auch überschwemmt, und kaum daß ich die Weide erkannte! Wilhelm! Und ihre Wiesen, dachte ich, die Gegend um ihr Jagdhaus! wie verstört jetzt vom reißenden Strome unsere Laube, dacht' ich. Und der Vergangenheit Sonnenstrahl blickte herein, wie einem Gefangenen ein Traum von Herden, Wiesen und Ehrenämtern. Ich stand!—

(HA 6: 98-99)

Werther intentionally goes out into the storm during the “menschenfeindliche[] Jahrszeit”; his “ich” stands prominently as a voluntary witness to the performance. The first-person narration of Werther's letter suggests that he is aware of himself as actor in a staged scene. The environment is itself identified as “nächtliche[] Szenen”; Werther enters the stage. The details of how he stood, how he breathed, how he “wehmütig hinabsah,” all contribute to the impression that he is describing his own performance. The fact that he reports of a past event, in the past tense, undermines any suggestion of spontaneous expression appropriate to the actual moment of intense feeling; the exclamation “Wilhelm!” combined with this use of the past tense directs our attention as much to the reflective narrating letter-writer as to the pained wretch desperate on the cliff's brink. The most remarkable details of Werther's self-description are the direct quotation of his own past thoughts: “Und ihre Wiesen, dachte ich, … wie verstört jetzt vom reißenden Strome unsere Laube! dacht' ich.” If his intention were not self-dramatization, he would have at most reported his thoughts in indirect narration, or summary, if at all. The exclamatory expression of the thoughts (which is archetypical for Storm and Stress speech patterns) appears comical when set off with the sober inquit phrases “dachte ich.” The fact that he quotes his thoughts directly and describes himself in such detail reveals that he finds himself and his thoughts worthy of an audience.

The details of Werther's self-descriptions are always (here and throughout the novel) pregnant with meaning; his behavior and gestures are intended to communicate to Wilhelm and us his inner state, but because he is always aware of his behavior as an act of communication, we begin to question its genuineness; he could perform as if he felt and thought a certain way, without actually feeling this way. Whereas the gestures and facial expressions in Büchner's text are included for their own sake, as if the narrator were following the advice of the fictional Lenz by including the “Zuckungen … Andeutungen, [das] ganz[] feine[], kaum bemerkte[] Mienenspiel” (14), those in Werther's letters are “zweckmäßig” (like the teleological explanations of natural phenomena discussed in the Probevorlesung) and carry a message the addressee is invited to decode. When he picks flowers, arranges them in a bouquet and tosses it in the river (August 10, 1771), we are not to overlook this mime as a chance detail included in his self-description; rather, we are to read it as a meaningful communication, suggesting perhaps his despair at not being able to keep Lotte (his picked flowers) or foreshadowing his suicide (perhaps an allusion to Ophelia's suicide). Similarly, gnashing teeth indicate fury and anger or impatience; walking “auf und ab” communicates restless nervousness. A tear in his or Lotte's eye means strong and admirable emotion. Such gestures very well could appear as unreflected and spontaneous communication if they were to be reported by someone other than Werther. However, because Werther includes such details in his letters, we suspect that he is a script-writer aware of how such gestures will be interpreted; he performs accordingly.

Werther is observed by Schiller to be a sentimental character, but Büchner's Lenz (insofar as he might be considered as having a definite, describable personality at all) would have to be regarded as naive.27 Werther's incessant self-awareness and habitual writing undermine his attempts to be the natural unaffected and spontaneous hero of his own narrative. When he says he is losing his mind (“ich soll nicht zu mir selbst kommen” [November 30; HA 6: 88]); “ich [habe] keine Besinnungskraft mehr” [December 14; HA 6: 100]) we are perplexed by the paradoxical nature of the claim: how can he display such ability to analyze himself and write of himself if he has lost control over or contact with himself? He would like to lose control, but cannot. This is the determining characteristic of Werther's “sentimental” personality; his outpourings imitate spontaneous bursts of emotion, but they are rhetorically designed with a view toward their effect on the audience. He is never without control.

Werther's “I” is lost neither in nature (landscapes) nor in the overpowering love for Lotte; he is always conscious of his condition. His self-awareness and reflexivity help establish him as a stable subject. Obviously, this stability does not result from a consistency in attitude and outlook—which are all too labile—but rather arises from or becomes evident in the permanence of the letter-writing “ich.” Because this “ich” is able to write effectively and well, the letters reflect the confidence from day to day and season to season that the “ich” is a definable self, with one consistent identity over time: “wie ich so wissentlich in das alles, Schritt vor Schritt, hineingegangen bin! Wie ich über meinen Zustand immer so klar gesehen … jetzt noch so klar sehe” (August 8; HA 6: 44). The fact that Werther reflects on his present behavior and relates it to his past behavior indicates a sense of continuous identity: “Bin ich nicht noch eben derselbe, der ehemals in aller Fülle der Empfindung herumschwebte [?] … und dies Herz ist jetzt tot” (November 3; HA 6: 84). As Peter Brenner observes in his study on the emergence, maintenance and disappearance of the subject in eighteenth century novels, “die Möglichkeit, sich zu sich selbst als einem immer Identischen zu verhalten, ist … eine Voraussetzung für das Erreichen nichtrestringierter Subjektivität.”28 For Werther, the non-restricted subjectivity—this incessant consciousness of himself—resists the possible dissolution of the self through total union with nature or with another aspect of the object-world. This self-awareness paradoxically reflects a unified self even when the self claims to be fragmented. Although Büchner's Lenz is treated as a single person with a continuous history, he is not depicted as aware of himself as “ein[] immer Identische[r]” (Brenner), and his “history” is less a story of his loss of sanity than it is an account of the particular course of nature his life displays. Phases of lucidity and coherence alternate with phases of confusion, and each phase may be contaminated by traces of the other, just as for Werther perception of destruction and loss can be accompanied with a recollection of the previously perceived creativity and plenty. Werther, as letter writer, shows himself to be aware not only of his current reflection on the loss of previous joy but also of himself as the unifying constant linking the opposite perceptions in one consciousness: “Selbst diese Anstrengung, jene unsägliche Gelüste zurückzurufen, wieder auszusprechen, hebt meine Seele über sich selbst und läßt mich dann das Bange des Zustandes doppelt empfinden, der mich jetzt umgibt” (August 18; HA 6: 52). Büchner's Lenz, on the other hand, is presented as someone as victimized by his memories and intuitions as he is by the ephemeral circumstances determining his experience: “Ahnungen von seinem alten Zustande durchzuckten ihn, und warfen Streiflichter in das wüste Chaos seines Geistes” (20). Although one might argue that the mental chaos is responsible for Lenz's loss of a sense of identity, Büchner's text does not support the concept of an autonomous self-identified individual even apart from madness.

Werther's control and agency as a subject are primarily exercised and displayed linguistically. He is concerned with his ability to express himself and is impressed by the “Bauerbursch” because he has so much feeling in his “Erzählung” about his unattainable beloved (May 30, 1771). As if in order to acquire this force and fire of passion, Werther soon falls in love with Lotte and then writes about it to Wilhelm (June 16, 1771).29 For Werther, Lotte's absence even more than her presence provides what he is looking for: an occasion to express his heartfelt joy and longing with language of his soul, with “den ganz wahren Ausdrücken der Natur” (May 4; HA 6: 7).

Lenz, in contrast, cannot be said to do anything so purposefully. The thought of his beloved does not haunt him until the maid's song of her distant “Schatz” unexpectedly recalls Friederike (not named in the text) to his mind: “Das fiel auf ihn, er verging fast unter den Tönen. … Er faßte sich ein Herz, er konnte nicht mehr schweigen, er mußte davon sprechen” (20).30 Although the love-triangle mentioned very briefly in Lenz (“sie liebte noch einen anderen”) might offer a point of comparison to Werther with regard to the protagonists' relative skill in coping with desire and guilt,31 of more significance is, in my opinion, the fact that Werther chooses to fall in love, chooses to develop and sustain an obsession with Lotte, while Lenz responds apparently (in Büchner's text) without much reflection and without an awareness of optional responses to whatever stimulus presents itself: a vision of his mother incites the desire to preach; learning of the child's death compels him to try to resurrect her; hearing about a maid's distant beloved reminds him of his own.

When compared to Werther's control over his heart and his language, Lenz's difficulties with verbal expression are especially striking. Again, the fact that Werther writes and Lenz is written about plays a significant role in our perception of the characters and, in Lenz, of the narrator. Another hypotactic sentence from Lenz seems to echo one of Werther's highly controlled sentences, and serves, in its context, to highlight the contrast between Werther and Lenz with respect both to language and to the sense of lack. In the letter to Lotte of January 20th Werther writes: “Der Sauerteig, der mein Leben in Bewegung setzte, fehlt; der Reiz, der mich in tiefen Nächten munter erhielt, ist hin, der mich des Morgens aus dem Schlafe weckte, ist weg” (HA 6: 65).

Werther is capable of describing lack in language and syntax which reveal a fair amount of pleasure and finesse. The three parallel hypotactic clauses are measured and controlled: the subjects of the first two main verbs are metaphors for Lotte (“Sauerteig” and “Reiz”) and the fact that the third main verb lacks its own distinct subject rhetorically recreates the situation described: “der Reiz” “ist weg.” Werther's manifest pleasure in language belies the supposed apathy and emptiness.

A sentence from Lenz echoes this one of Werther's and resounds with the now familiar oscillating cadence:

… alles was er an Ruhe aus der Nähe Oberlins und aus der Stille des Thals geschöpft hatte, war weg; die Welt, die er hatte nutzen wollen, hatte einen ungeheuren Riß, er hatte keinen Haß, keine Liebe, keine Hoffnung, eine schreckliche Leere und doch eine folternde Unruhe, sie auszufüllen. Er hatte nichts.


The hypotaxis of the first clause imitates the first two clauses of Werther's statement cited above. The second clause exchanges the predicate expressing absence (“fehlt”) in Werther's sentence for a predicate paradoxically expressing possession and deprivation simultaneously (“hatte” + “Riß,” insofar as “Riß” is defined as a hole or rip). The Lenz-narrator then deserts the hypotactic syntax but continues with this model of “haben” plus negative (the three adjectives “kein,” the paradoxical substantive “Leere,” and the prefix “un-”), culminating with the “nichts” of the following sentence. Lenz's situation is fundamentally different from that of Werther both because that which is missing is much more comprehensive than an absent beloved, and, more significantly, because he can't talk about it. The narrator is responsible for the careful organization of the sentence; the narrator is capable, as is Werther, of achieving a stable perspective on the current mental climate and of communicating this perspective in an orderly, controlled manner. As if in deliberate contrast with Werther's linguistic expertise, the Lenz-narrator describes Lenz's disturbed relationship to speech: “Im Gespräch stockte er oft, eine unbeschreibliche Angst befiel ihn, er hatte das Ende seines Satzes verloren; dann meinte er, er müsse das zuletzt gesprochene Wort behalten und immer sprechen …” (27). Moreover, Lenz is said to mistake his own voice for that of another person and to mistake himself for the chance people he thinks about. With the disturbed, uncontrolled relationship to language comes an inability to hold onto oneself as a definable, stable self.

While these close readings from each text point out differences between passages in Werther's voice and passages in the voice of the Lenz-narrator, they do not address the passages written in the voice of the fictional editor in Werther. The editor's section at the end of the Die Leiden des jungen Werther is, from a narratological standpoint, much closer to Lenz than are Werther's letters. The editor, like the narrator of Büchner's text, not only uses direct and indirect speech, but also occasionally uses a “dual voice” which merges his and his protagonist's voices. The following excerpts provide examples of this dual voice; the sentences which could express either Werther or the editor's thoughts are in italics:

Da er durch die Linden mußte, um nach der Schenke zu kommen, wo sie den Körper hingelegt hatten, entsetzt' er sich vor dem sonst so geliebten Platze. Jene Schwelle, worauf die Nachbarskinder so oft gespielt hatten war mit Blut besudelt. Liebe und Treue, die schönsten menschlichen Empfindungen, hatten sich in Gewalt und Mord verwandelt.

(HA 6: 95; my emphasis)

Because our perspective was determined for so long by what Werther reports in his letters, we are now inclined to view such evaluative assertions (e.g. “die schönsten menschlichen Empfindungen”) as Werther's own. Once Werther arrives at the scene of the crime, we see through his eyes. Similarly, when Werther encounters the captured murderer we enter his thoughts: “Werther sah hin und blieb nicht lange zweifelhaft. Ja! es war der Knecht, der jene Witwe so sehr liebte …” (HA 6: 95; my emphasis).

Despite the fact that the editor of Werther uses some of the same techniques as the narrator of Lenz will use, we are not inclined to consider him or Werther as dreamy and borderless as Lenz and the narrator seem to be. This results primarily from the fact that the editor refers to himself and to his project, and he gives us direct access to his thinking and to his process of gathering information. Thus the editor of Werther's letters does not hide, while the narrator of Lenz refers to himself only once and in the first person plural (“uns” 9,9) as if he didn't mean himself specifically but rather all of humankind. If the Lenz-narrator unobtrusively “sinks” into the essence of those people and places he presents, the fictional editor of Werther, like Werther himself, projects ideas onto those he tries to understand. In the case of Lotte, for instance, he decides that he can project his own version of a female soul onto her in order to figure out what her thoughts would have been: “eine schöne weibliche Seele sich in die ihrige denken” (HA 6: 101). Büchner's Lenz, on the other hand, would become completely confused, were he to attempt to imagine or project a “soul” for another person: “dachte er an eine fremde Person, oder stellte er sie sich lebhaft vor, so war es ihm, als würde er sie selbst” (27). The fact that both Werther and the editor have well-defined identities and each speaks, at times, in the first-person means that in the few instances in which the editor allows his perspective to coalesce with Werther's we do not feel we have lost either person as a definable and defined self.

Werther, even in his most extreme conditions of self-alienation, even when the editor presents him as the victim of abstractions (“unüberwindlich bemächtigte sich die Teilnehmung seiner und es ergriff ihn eine unsägliche Begierde, den Menschen zu retten” [HA 6: 96]), even then Werther is in control and acts logically, with forethought. Sometimes this forethought is presented explicitly by the editor: “er hatte sich gesagt, es [suicide] solle keine übereilte, keine rasche Tat sein, er wolle mit der besten Überzeugung, mit der möglichst ruhigen Entschlossenheit diesen Schritt tun” (HA 6: 100). But sometimes the logic of Werther's thinking and actions is communicated through the simple conjunction “daß”: “Er fühlte ihn so unglücklich, er fand ihn als Verbrecher selbst so schuldlos, er setzte sich so tief in seine Lage, daß er gewiß glaubte, auch andere davon zu überzeugen” (HA 6: 96; my emphasis). The “daß” presents Werther's confidence in persuading others as a result of his own strong feelings of empathy. In Lenz a remarkably parallel passage does not include the “daß,” suggesting that Lenz's feelings and actions are not linked by deliberation and by awareness of cause and effect, but rather only temporally as consecutive experiences and grammatically as paratactic clauses of the same sentence: “Das Kind kam ihm so verlassen vor, und er sich so allein und einsam; er warf sich über die Leiche nieder; der Tod erschreckte ihn, ein heftiger Schmerz faßte ihn an, diese Züge, dieses stille Gesicht sollte verwesen, er warf sich nieder …” (22). While we are inclined to see Lenz's actions, like Werther's, as a result of his feelings, the causality is not explicitly stated.32 Surprisingly, this lack of explicit causality (“daß”) creates the effect of an even stronger causal relationship: throwing himself down on the small corpse is an automatic, instinctive response to the sense of aloneness, the child's and his. A “daß” would imply a moment of reflection, a pause during which he could decide what to do.

Werther is not the only character the editor presents as an autonomous, purposeful individual, just as Lenz is not the only person presented in Büchner's text as lacking autonomy. In his discussion of Lotte's dilemma the editor presents her as someone aware of her freedom and able to make a choice: “Wie sollte sie ihrem Mann entgegengehen?” (HA 6: 118). The fact that the editor is able to speculate on a different outcome for the story reinforces the fact that he, at least, believes that people's free choices can affect the course of events: “Hätte eine glückliche Vertraulichkeit sie [Albert and Lotte] früher wieder einander nähergebracht … vielleicht wäre unser Freund noch zu retten gewesen” (HA 6: 119). In Lenz we are not invited to speculate in such a way about how events could be altered by the actions of the individuals affected by them: we have no convincing etiology for Lenz's illness, no clear motivation for his actions, and no suggestion as to how his situation could be improved. In fact, in Lenz, we are rarely shown alternatives or decisions at all. The result is that people as well as circumstance appear to be guided by “de[r] gräßliche[] Fatalismus der Geschichte”—the force Büchner felt operated behind the ineffectual revolutionary efforts of reformers during the French Revolution and which he felt destined all individuals to “eine entsetzliche Gleichheit.”33

Because Lenz is going mad, it is perhaps invalid to combine observations concerning how the narrator presents him with those concerning how the narrator presents other people.34 Nevertheless, it is important to consider the others in order to assess what might be considered “healthy” or mentally stable in this (con)text. If madness is solely responsible for the elusiveness of a defined self, then we could not argue that Büchner questions the autonomy and individual essence of all people. Oberlin is the most significant person in the text other than Lenz. In analyzing the presentation of Oberlin it should be recalled that Büchner's primary source was a first-person account written by Oberlin and that several passages from Büchner's text follow Oberlin's wording almost exactly, switching only the first-person focalization to the third-person. The effect of this switch is, above all, to suggest at least superficially that the narrator has no more or less access to Oberlin's consciousness then he does to Lenz's, since now both men are presented in the third-person. In Oberlin's text, we are given his thoughts and impressions directly, and we are not given Lenz's other than in what he is reported as having said. In Büchner's text this is almost reversed, such that we are allowed much more access to Lenz's mind than we are to Oberlin's. However, Oberlin's thoughts and actions are reported carefully, although without as much detail as are Lenz's and without as much coalescing of authorial and figural perspective.

Oberlin responds to whatever comes his way and he interprets the events according to his own world view, as if he were not even aware that there may be other ways of looking at things. He is said to have seen Lenz's arrival in Steintal as a “Schickung Gottes” (13); he accepts him and responds to him. Oberlin, like Lenz, is not depicted as having much autonomy: he draws lots to determine what he should do (10). In his own record Oberlin presents decisions in detail, explaining or suggesting why he chose as he did. His record is essentially an apology: he wants to explain why he took in Lenz and why he had him sent away. He explains that he knew Lenz (a theologian) was coming before Lenz actually arrived, and he explains how he makes sense initially of Lenz's bizarre behavior: “Herr K … liebt das kalte Bad auch, und Herr L … ist ein Freund von Hn. K …” (36);35 he explains his need for a break from weekly preaching, before he says that Lenz held the sermon; he presents several instances of how Lenz was not in control of himself, thus justifying his decision to have Lenz guarded and then eventually transported to Strassbourg. In Büchner's text Oberlin is presented as responding but not as deciding to respond in a specific manner.

The only instance in Büchner's text in which Oberlin is aware of a choice is when he may choose whether or not to go with Kaufmann to Switzerland; even here the narrator says that Oberlin's desire to meet Lavater “bestimmte ihn,” thus making Oberlin the grammatical object and minimizing the suggestion of actual volition (17). Otherwise Oberlin is presented as responding invariably, as if automatically, in accordance with what he regards as God's plan. In other words, I argue that he does not choose to reprimand Lenz for his aimless, godless life-style and does not choose to regard it as sinful. Rather, he simply does regard it as sinful, and he perceives it as his obligation to admonish Lenz: this is what the conditions of his upbringing and experience have made into necessity for Oberlin. Thus, I do not think that Büchner intends to criticize Oberlin any more than he intends to criticize Lenz.36 Büchner's text does not pass judgment: it presents people as the involuntary and “necessary” products of nature and society.

Such refraining from judgment is not possible in Werther; here individuals are considered responsible not only for their actions and inactions (e.g. if only Lotte and Albert had talked with each other), but also, to a large extent, for their moods (cf. the discussion about “üble Laune,” July 1; HA 6: 32). Werther presents the individual as unique and autonomous, capable of decisions whether they be influenced by strong emotion or by reason. The well-delineated voices and perspectives of the editor and the letter-writer reinforce the underlying confidence in distinct, largely self-determining selves. These selves are not viewed entirely as products of external, or even internal circumstance, but as beings with souls—some aspect of which is inexplicably independent of natural and social influences—contributing voluntarily to their surroundings. Lenz, narrated by a perplexingly anonymous voice and from an instable perspective sometimes within and sometimes distanced from Lenz's consciousness, reinforces the elusiveness of what a previous generation might have called a self.

In “Aus Goethes Brieftasche” the young author of Werther mentions “de[r] geheime[] Punkt” where the necessary “Gang des Ganzen” and “das Eigentümliche unsres Ichs, die prätendierte Freiheit unsres Wollens” confront each other (HA 12: 226). Büchner's Lenz, in keeping with the thoughts of the historical model he represents, also mentions the realist's desire to find and depict this individual core of his subject: “in das eigenthümliche Wesen jedes einzudringen” (15). The Storm and Stress authors in general were unusually focused on the significance of the individual self and particularly horrified by the thought of its dissolution or annihilation through death or oblivion: “Für nichts gerechnet! Ich! Der ich mir alles bin, da ich alles nur durch mich kenne!” (HA 12: 224). However, Büchner himself, convinced that “wir durch gleiche Umstände wohl Alle gleich würden” (2: 422), not only rejects the notion of “Freiheit unsres Wollens” but also challenges the idea that there is an essential, innate quality specific to each being. Whereas Werther's letters and “Leiden” reflect “sein[en] Geist und sein[en] Charakter” (HA 6: 7), Lenz's wanderings and sufferings, as depicted by Büchner, are not to be read as specific to Lenz's character, but rather as indicative of the fact that the “Gang des Ganzen”—in this case the aberrant, but natural course of madness—does not encounter any meaningful or effective resistance from what might be called “das eigenthümliche Wesen” of Lenz's self. Where Goethe (in Dichtung und Wahrheit) had intended to present Lenz's “Charakter” in terms of his accomplishments (“Resultaten”), Büchner presents Lenz less as a particular man than as a sample human being, less as an odd case study of mental illness, than as a sample of nature's patterns and permutations. The frequent allusions to Werther and the less frequent evocations of Goethe's descriptions of Lenz establish a strong presence in Lenz of the very tradition Büchner's text rejects. The text does not present “the sufferings of young Lenz”37; in fact, it does not present Lenz as an individual at all: it presents “das Gesetz der Schönheit,” the rhythms of which subject us, at times, to “Angst” too measureless for words and to voids, nadirs so “entsetzlich” when considered in isolation, but so paradoxically beautiful when viewed as the involuntary signature of animate and inanimate, conscious and oblivious nature.


  1. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Werke, ed. Erich Trunz et al. (Hamburg: Wegener, 1958) 10: 8. All subsequent references to Goethe's works will be cited in the text and will refer to this edition (HA); in the case of Werther's letters both the dates of the letters and the page numbers will be given. The 1787 version is used here; it seems much more likely that Büchner would have read this later edition. References to Georg Büchner's works other than Lenz are to Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, ed. Werner R. Lehmann (Hamburg, Wegener, 1967). The quotations from Lenz are based on the “Studienausgabe,” ed. Hubert Gersch (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1984).

  2. For example, Hubert Gersch also sees Büchner's Lenz as a response to Goethe's description in Dichtung und Wahrheit; in “Georg Büchners Lenz-Entwurf: Textkritik, Edition und Erkenntnis-perspektiven. Ein Zwischenbericht,” Georg Büchner Jahrbuch 3 (1983): 15-24; for this reference p. 24.

  3. The term is Heinrich Heine's (9). It refers to an “aristokratische Zeit der Literatur” (9) in which Goethe, “ein Indifferentist” (46), had reigned and which had ended with Goethe's death, only three years prior to when Büchner may have begun work on Lenz. Cf. Die Romantische Schule, ed. Helga Weidmann (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1976). In Büchner's Lenz even the literary period spanning the early part of Goethe's productive life is labeled as the “idealistische Periode” and is presented as aristocratic, although Goethe is himself acknowledged as having some tendencies toward real compassion and as being able to depict “Möglichkeit des Daseins” (14).

  4. The similarities in style, diction (e.g. Storm and Stress and pietistic vocabulary) and syntax (e.g. “wenn-Periode”) are discussed by many, including Gerhart Baumann, Georg Büchner, Die Dramatische Ausdruckswelt (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1961) 32-49; Peter Hasubek, “‘Ruhe’ und ‘Bewegung’: Versuch einer Stilanalyse von Georg Büchners ‘Lenz,’” Germanisch-Romanische Monatsschrift 50 (1969): 33-59; Roy Pascal, “Büchner's Lenz-Style and Message,” Oxford German Studies 9 (1978): 68-83; and Dennis F. Mahoney “The Sufferings of Young Lenz: The function of Parody in Büchner's Lenz,” Monatshefte 76 (1984): 396-408.

  5. Baumann is an exception to this generalization. He notes that the “Rückbezüge” and “Durchblicke” of Werther's letters create a highly structured text with thematic links allowing the organizing “Geist des Dichters” (124) to be visible, while Lenz, according to Baumann, lacks “Spannung” (135) and emphasizes the present moment rather than connections between similar moments (124). This is discussed further below.

  6. This representative allusion to Werther is noted by Benno von Wiese, “Lenz” in Die deutsche Novelle II (Düsseldorf: Bagel, 1962) 117. Walter Hinderer further notes that both protagonists express interest in “die geringen Leute” (166) that both combat feelings of indifference (168), and that the health of each progressively worsens (170) (Büchner-Kommentar zum Dichterischen Werk [München: Winkler, 1977]). The common theme of “Wahnsinn” is noted by Paul Landau, among others (Paul Landau, “Lenz” [1909], rpt. in Georg Büchner, ed. Wolfgang Martens [Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1965] 32-49). Other points of comparison are the facts that both protagonists are involved in an unhappy love triangle; both emphasize the importance of “Mitleid”; both may be described as a homeless “Wanderer”; both express a desire for “Ruhe” and fear the threat and experience of nothingness; both display paranoid and masochistic behaviors; both may be identified as “artists”; and both fear separation from the stabilizing person (Lotte; Oberlin) to whom they cling. These similarities in personality assume that the characters and authors share a common existential confidence in “identity” and “individual”; as soon as we see that Büchner's text assumes no such thing, the points of similarity become points of contrast.

  7. Walter Hinderer, “Pathos oder Passion: Leiddarstellung in Büchners ‘Lenz,’” Wissen aus Erfahrung, ed. Alexander Bormann (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1976) 484.

  8. Baumann 121.

  9. Ilse Stephan and Hans Gerd Winter, “Ein vorübergehendes Meteor”? J. M. R. Lenz und seine Rezeption in Deutschland (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1984) 82 ff.

  10. Raimar Stefan Zons, “Ein Riß durch die Ewigkeit/ Landschaften in ‘Werther’ and ‘Lenz,’” literatur für leser 4 (1981): 65-78.

  11. Mahoney 404. While Mahoney's argument may be compelling on some levels, it appears severely flawed by the apparent hypothesis that the historical Lenz modeled his behavior on Werther's. In this paper it is assumed that the Werther-Lenz parallels are invented by the author and that the similarities of Lenz's activities in Waldbach as recorded by Oberlin to those presented in Werther's letters are only coincidental.

  12. Rosemarie Zeller discusses Büchner's perception of the ambivalence, equivocalness, and “Widerspruch” of language and his method of using (in Dantons Tod and Leonce und Lena) this inherent ambiguity to contrast words with the disparate reality they are supposed to signify; cf. “Das Prinzip der Äquivalenz bei Büchner,” Sprachkunst 5 (1974): 211-30. Heinrich Anz speaks of “ein poetisches Verfahren der Umdeutung” (164) with which Büchner uses pietistic terminology to criticize the theology usually expressed with these very terms; cf. “‘Leiden sey all mein Gewinnst’ Zur Aufnahme und Kritik christlicher Leidenstheologie bei Georg Büchner,” Georg Büchner Jahrbuch 1 (1981): 160-68. Büchner's criticism of the freedom-championing “Formeln der Aufklärung” (146) is observed to be carried out by using these very phrases in contexts revealing how little they have to do with political and social reality; cf. Silvio Vietta, “Sprachkritik bei Büchner,” Georg Büchner Jahrbuch 2 (1982): 144-56. Peter Horn speaks of how the “Volk” depicted in Büchner's Dantons Tod must resort to blasphemous “Umfunktionier[ung]” of the “vorgegebenen Diskurs” (216) in order to achieve any insight into its desperate situation; cf. Peter Horn, “‘Ich meine für menschliche Dinge müsse man auch menschliche Ausdrücke finden’: Die Sprache der Philosophie und die Sprache der Dichtung bei Georg Büchner,” Georg Büchner Jahrbuch 2 (1982): 209-26.

  13. Herbert Schöffler disputes the Christian interpretation of this text and argues instead that it is the first piece of pantheistic literature in the German language. Herbert Schöffler, Deutscher Geist im 18. Jahrhundert (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1956) 155-81. I argue, however, that while the last line, “Kein Geistlicher hat ihn begleitet,” may be a criticism of the Church, it is not necessarily a criticism of the faith. It seems more likely, in fact, whatever Goethe's own beliefs may have been, that this last sentence—consistent with the editor's desires to apotheosize Werther—would serve to point out how the Church (like most social institutions) fails to recognize the extraordinary value of this unorthodox individual, while God, who is beyond mundane rules and who might serve as an imagined role model for the “gute Seele” reading the novel, would not reject Werther.

  14. Maurice Benn regards Lenz as an “unconventional protagonist” in a text which seems as much like a scientific study as a work of literature (Maurice Benn, The Drama of Revolt [London: Cambridge UP, 1976] 200 ff.). However, for lack of a better term, I refer to Lenz as the protagonist, despite the fact that this term implies (as a result of its usual connotations in today's usage) both that the person is a particular “character” and that the text in which he appears has a delineable plot.

  15. This argument is disputed by those who regard the essay as a novella or a “Halbnovelle” and who seek the “Wendepunkt” in the sermon, in the “Kunstgespräch” or in Oberlin's departure (cf. Pongs, Neuse, Jansen) or the “sich ereignete unerhörte Begebenheit,” which some (cf. Himmel) locate prior to the beginning of the “Halbnovelle” with the onset of Lenz' madness. Cf. Hermann Pongs, “Büchners ‘Lenz,’” in: Georg Büchner, ed. Wolfgang Martens (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1967) 138-50; Erna Kritsch Neuse, “Büchners Lenz, Zur Struktur der Novelle,” The German Quarterly 43 (1970): 199-209; Peter K. Jansen, “The Structural Function of the Kunstgespräch in Büchner's Lenz,Monatshefte 67 (1975): 145-56; and Hellmuth Himmel, Geschichte der deutschen Novelle (Bern, 1963) 152 ff. For a thorough survey of approaches to the structure and plot as well as themes of Lenz, see Walter Hinderer “Lenz. ‘Sein Dasein war ihm eine notwendige Last,’” in: Interpretationen. Georg Büchner (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1990) 70-82.

  16. For discussions of the central motif of “Ruhe” see Hasubek and Mark Roche, “Die Selbstaufhebung des Antiidealismus in Büchners Lenz,Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 107 “Sonderheft” (1988): 136-47.

  17. Both Heinz Fischer (Georg Büchner, Untersuchungen und Marginalien [Bouvier: Bonn, 1972] 37) and Zons compare the first and last nature descriptions. They argue that Lenz is unable to appreciate the landscape during his departure and that this loss marks the most advanced stage of his illness presented in the text. Although it is true that Lenz is described as apathetic and that the narrative perspective here is not through Lenz as it was in the beginning, it seems presumptuous to assume that this final episode is meant to depict a terminally extreme condition. Rather, I contend that the oscillations which have been presented throughout the narrative will continue, and that the “so lebte er hin” refers not to Lenz's indifference, but to the pronounced oscillations between states of indifference and engagement, unrest and tranquility.

  18. Cf. Walter Hinderer (1976) and Dieter Sevin, “Die existentielle Krise in Büchners Lenz,Seminar, 15 (1979): 15-26. Obviously not only the question of Lenz's faith (as presented by Büchner) is discussed; Büchner's own attitudes toward organized religion, particularly Christianity, are a favorite topic for Büchner-scholars, and thus Lenz is often regarded as the showcase in which Büchner displays his own criticism of religion.

  19. Zons applies these concepts from the Probevorlesung to his discussion of the landscapes in Werther and Lenz. Lenz does not view nature as aesthetically pleasing for him (which would correspond to the teleological purpose of nature's beauty); rather nature is beautiful “an sich,” while Lenz is “unendlich abgesondert” from nature, because of his “Geist” and his “ästhetischen Blick” (73ff.). Zons reads Lenz as “Exposition des Naturverlusts” (77). However, I argue that Lenz is presented as part of nature, not distinct from it, and that the “Gesetz der Schönheit” is shown to work through him as well as through the other natural phenomena presented in the text.

  20. For analyses of the narrator in Lenz see Martin Swales's “Lenz” in The German Novelle (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977) 105 ff.; Pascal; and, particularly, David Horton “Modes of Consciousness Representation in Büchner's Lenz,German Life and Letters 43 (1989): 34-48.

  21. David Horton, “Transitivity and Agency in Georg Büchner's Lenz: A contribution to a stylistic analysis,” Orbis Litterarum 45 (1990): 236-47.

  22. Zons 74.

  23. The episode in which Lenz and the cat lock each other's gazes until Madame Oberlin physically interferes provides a particularly clear example of how Lenz is nature, and of how scholarly discussions of his maintaining or losing his contact with or appreciation of the landscapes and nature are essentially irrelevant. In this context it is worth noting Wackenroder's description of one of the artists in Herzensergießungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders. (That Lenz reflects influence by Novalis, Tieck and Wackenroder is discussed [among others] by Raleigh Whitinger, “Echoes of Novalis and Tieck in Büchner's Lenz,Seminar 25 [1989]: 324-38.) In the section about the peculiar artist Piero di Cosimo one reads: “Der Künstlergeist soll, wie ich meyne, nur ein brauchbares Werkzeug seyn, die ganze Natur in sich zu empfangen, und, mit dem Geiste des Menschen beseelt, in schöner Verwandlung wiederzugebähren. Ist er aber aus innerem Instinkte, und aus überflüssiger, wilder und üppiger Kraft, ewig für sich in unruhiger Arbeit; so ist er nicht immer ein geschicktes Werkzeug,—vielmehr möchte man dann ihn selber eine Art von Kunstwerk der Schöpfung nennen” (Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, ed. Silvio Vietta and Richard Littlejohns. [Carl Winter: Heidelberg, 1991] 1: 105; my emphases). Like Cosimo, Büchner's Lenz is presented not so much as a mimetic artist turning nature into art, but as himself an aesthetically pleasing, if powerfully disturbed and disturbing, natural phenomenon.

  24. Horton (1989) 43.

  25. This letter is December 12 in the 1787 edition. In the 1774 edition (the edition Zons uses for his study) it is dated December 8 and precedes the interruption by the editor. The displacement of this letter in Goethe's revision is significant, but is beyond the scope of this paper.

  26. Zons 69: “Diesen letzten Naturbezug Werthers … zitiert Büchner herbei, aber nicht als End-, sondern als Ausgangspunkt einer Entwicklung. …”

  27. Friedrich Schiller, Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung, in: F. S. Werke und Briefe VIII: Theoretische Schriften, Rolf-Peter Janz. (Frankfurt a.M.: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1992) 772 and passim.

  28. Peter Brenner, Die Krise der Selbstbehauptung (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1981) 114.

  29. Peter Pütz also observes that the relationship of Werther to the “Bauerbursch” is like his relationships to literature; he forms himself consciously according to an external model; “Werthers Leiden an der Literatur,” Goethe's Narrative Fiction, ed. W. J. Lillyman (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1983): 55-68 (here p. 67).

  30. This scene in which Lenz sits with Madame Oberlin and plays with her child evokes the letter of December 4, 1772, in which Werther, with one of Lotte's siblings on his knee, listens to Lotte play on the piano the melody which apparently throws Werther into a fit.

  31. Cf. Baumann 134.

  32. Baumann refers to the fact that in Lenz “kausale Verbindungen [werden] ausgespart” (144), by which he means that there are often no logical connections between the distinct episodes of the essay.

  33. Büchner, letter to Minna Jaeglé (March 10, 1834; II, 425).

  34. Not everyone agrees that Lenz is depicted as mad or as going mad. For alternative perspectives see Janet K. King, “Lenz viewed sane,” The Germanic Review 49 (1974): 146-53, and Pascal 76, note 2.

  35. Oberlin's report is reprinted in the “Studienausgabe” of Lenz (cf. note 1). The page reference refers to this edition.

  36. Sabine Kubik, however, argues that Büchner criticizes Oberlin for not being sensitive to Lenz's individual needs; Krankheit und Medizin im literarischen Werk Georg Büchners (Stuttgart: M & P Verlag für Wissenschaft und Forschung, 1991) 60-61; passim.

  37. Mahoney.

Curt Wendell Nickisch (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Nickisch, Curt Wendell. “Georg Büchner's Philosophy of Science: Totality in Lenz and Woyzeck.Selecta 18 (1997): 37-45.

[In the following essay, Nickisch outlines Büchner's thematic conceptualization of totality—the integration of all elements of human existence and all aspects of the natural world—as exemplified in Lenz and Woyzeck.]

Karl Georg Büchner, a seminal and anachronistic dramatist, wrote only three plays, one of which remains unfinished, and a prose piece. A brilliant scientist, Büchner completed a dissertation on ichthian neurology and joined the University of Zurich faculty as a Reader in Comparative Anatomy. He died in February 1837, at the age of 23.

Georg was born to a family of physicians. Besides his public education, he was also instructed at home in reading, writing and contemporary literature by his mother, Caroline.1 At the age of eighteen he left for the University of Strasbourg to study medicine, and the new location proved to be a rich experience for Büchner. Strasbourg, even within the school of medicine, was a hotbed of philosophical discussions and political activity. There Büchner's already strong political interests and awareness only intensified.

After two years Büchner was required to continue his studies in Gießen, which after Strasbourg seemed a political backwater. But Büchner became involved in local political circles and helped found a political society. He co-authored a subversive pamphlet, Der hessische Landbote, which encouraged peasants and laborers to revolution. Most of the pamphlets were seized by authorities, and Büchner hastened to Darmstadt to escape prosecution.

There Büchner wrote his first play, Danton's Death, set during the French Revolution. Upon its completion he returned to Strasbourg, where he wrote the prose piece Lenz and the comedy Leonce and Lena and completed his dissertation. The University of Zurich granted him a doctorate in 1836, and Büchner joined the university's faculty in November after delivering his much-discussed Probevorlesung, entitled “On Cranial Nerves,” which drew unsettling philosophical conclusions from scientific observations. There he began Woyzeck, which survives as an unfinished play.

Büchner's medical and scientific studies exerted a profound impact on his Weltanschauung, and those studies appear as critical components in his literary works. Büchner understood that science cannot alone explain the external (much less one's internal!) world, and he valued science instead in its relation to other interconnected elements—socioeconomic, spiritual, philosophical and physiological. Büchner developed what may be termed a philosophy of totality, which classifies science as an integral, but not exclusive, component of human thought; it must be combined with other equally important elements to arrive at valid conclusions or successful results. That, for its time, was fresh thinking indeed.

Büchner's theory formed the background for his singular approach to writing, to which German literature's realism and naturalism owe much. Still, Büchner's work should not be mistaken for unvarnished realism; for him, human existence and the natural world are made up of various and often contradictory interrelated components. The end result is a complex, but intrinsically whole entity. In both Lenz and Woyzeck Büchner enriches the documented, factual histories of mentally disturbed individuals with artistically conjectured emotions, thoughts and even events. This rare fusion, which would be significantly less effective without Büchner's experience in the natural sciences, arrives at an aesthetic foundation of writing which was wholly different from the romanticism and idealism popular in his day. It is not surprising, then, that Büchner's works were not fully appreciated until a half century or more after his death.


Although Lenz is Büchner's only prose piece, its events, characteristically, are based on documented material, and its protagonist is an actual person. In the piece, which has been labeled both a novella and a short story, Büchner provides us with insight into a brief but paramount period in the life of the poet Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz.2 Büchner begins and halts his presentation abruptly and seemingly arbitrarily; this is no Bildungsroman. But by no means can Lenz be classified as either a fragment or a “slice of life.” While it does leave the reader, in the words of one critic, with the “open wound of despair,” it portrays a decidedly rich and telling string of events.3

Jakob Lenz is of course the poet of the Storm-and-Stress, and while relatively short-lived, the period profoundly influenced German literature. The young Schiller became an instant success with his play Die Räuber, and Goethe's Werther is a hallmark of the vibrant period, which valued emotional and subjective responses to one's environment, as well as rebellion against the given hierarchies of the time.4 Büchner himself, a lone figure within the literary context of his time, owes more of his literary models (if any may reasonably be ascribed) to this period than to any other.

While other Storm-and-Stress poets matured, Jakob Lenz remained a holdout. Notoriously passionate and emotional, he fell in love with Goethe's sister, and later even with Friederike Brion. While Goethe did his best to guide the rambunctious poet, Lenz remained turbulent and unpredictable, which eventually earned him the nickname “Goethes Affe.”5 After a suicide attempt, Lenz lived in January and February of 1778 in the Alsatian mountain home of Pastor Johann Friedrich Oberlin (after whom the Ohio institution is named).6 Büchner's Lenz encompasses this brief period of the poet's life. Lenz then returned to his home in Lithuania; he regressed into insanity and was found dead on a Moscow street in 1792.

A major portion of Lenz is based on Pastor Oberlin's diaries. Büchner fuses the more objective documentation (straightlaced Oberlin never achieved significant insight into Lenz the person) with his own projections of Lenz's turbulent thoughts and emotional experiences. Far from conventional historical fiction, Büchner's text possesses a rare grasp of the mind of a mentally disturbed individual. Thus the narrative achieves a haunting, landmark portrayal by incorporating both reality and fiction into the total work.

Note that Büchner's protagonist is no traditional tragic figure. Lenz is a poet, to be sure, but one who has outlived his literary fame, and his value to others is so depreciated that he is personally ridiculed. Büchner peers into the secret world of this other human. Just as he examined basic anatomical building blocks of fish, systematically establishing philosophical ramifications as a scientist, here Büchner peers into the nature and structure of the human mind in relation to the outside world—drawing a philosophical extension.

At the outset of the piece, Lenz is traveling in the mountains, an image reminiscent of philosophers or truthseekers. Absent from the opening of the work is all exposition typically required: “On the twentieth of January Lenz went across the mountains. The summits and the high slopes covered with snow, gray stones all the way down to the valleys, green plains, rocks, and pine trees” (37). On first reading the uncomplicated descriptions might hint of later literary movements, but Büchner soon strays from convention. The second sentence contains no verb at all, and subsequent images utilize strikingly abstract language: “mist rose … so lazy, so awkward,” and “All seemed so small to him, so near, so wet” (37).

Then comes a jolt: “He felt no tiredness, only sometimes it struck him as unpleasant that he could not walk on his head” (37). The third-person narration seems based on familiar ground, yet it incorporates an intimate perspective, wherein we can “hear” Lenz's thoughts as the narrator moves deftly between reality and perception. Thus a certain empathy for Lenz germinates, one much stronger than that experienced in reading Oberlin's diaries.

Büchner achieves this dual awareness stylistically as well. While concepts like head-walking may derail one's orientation, statements such as “he could not understand why so much time was needed … to reach a distant point; he thought that a few paces should be enough to cover any distance” somehow become more accessible distortions of reality (37).

If Büchner challenges his audience to draw a strict line between sanity and insanity, i.e., between the reader and Lenz, alas, a well-defined line is impossible to establish. Consequently, Lenz's condition is not viewed as an isolated and impenetrable outbreak of irrationality, but rather as a fluctuation, an imbalance within Lenz of already-extant facets of human psychology. Büchner examines them within the parameters of the scientific method: he studies documentary materials, and from his data he projects a hypothesis, an explanation for the observed events.

Lenz's confusion subsides when he approaches Oberlin's village, Waldbach. From this point forth, much of the material is lifted from Oberlin's diaries. Yet Büchner retains his established narrative style and maintains the creative tension between fiction and history. At the start of Lenz's stay with Oberlin, he is stabilized by human contact, much as a boat remains righted by its keel. Although shy, Lenz interacts with others reasonably comfortably and enjoys human conversation: “To Oberlin his conversation gave much pleasure, and Lenz's graceful and childish face delighted him” (41). Indeed, the author's reference to childhood is particularly adept, for Lenz grows fearful, “like children left to sleep in the dark,” after the daylight dwindles (41). Oberlin, the well-meaning pastor, is convinced that religion is the most appropriate avenue for Lenz's recuperation. Lenz however attempts to arrive at answers in a more arbitrary manner; “like a child he would cast dice whenever he did not know what to do” (42).

Christoph Kaufmann, a visitor to Waldbach, converses with Lenz, who acts as Büchner's mouthpiece, amiably scorning the idealist movement: “Even the poets of whom we say that they reproduce reality have no conception of what reality is, but they're a good deal more bearable than those who wish to transform reality” (43). Another of Lenz's comments is significant: “I take it that God has made the world as it should be … our only aspiration should be to re-create modestly in His manner” (45). This notion, which Büchner may have encountered in Lenz's Remarks about Theater, is certainly in consonance with Büchner's idea of totality.7 The world does not exist as a teleological, sequential entity, but rather as one which changes, its pieces continually articulating and converging, while it remains externally a constant whole.

Kaufmann suggests to Lenz that he return to Lithuania, and with this reminder of the world outside of Waldbach begins Lenz's adolescent stage. When Kaufmann departs, Oberlin decides to accompany him for a visit to Lavater, the Swiss theologian.8 Lenz, who calls himself a “sick child,” fears the departure of the paternal figure. Lenz does tag along for a distance, and on his return he encounters a cottage with eccentric inhabitants. Frightened and lonely, Lenz senses that his home at Waldbach no longer constitutes a sanctuary. The appearance of elements from outside the village home—the mention of Lithuania and even the mystical people in the cottage—impress on Lenz that the world, and thus his well-being, is in dynamic flux.

Lenz tries to cope with this adolescent awareness, which sparks memories of his love for Friederike Brion. His reflections are subsequently regressive: he muses, “she was wholly a child,” and he remembers feeling like one, too (52). In his deteriorating sanity, he yearns for the stability of an earlier, innocent time.

Büchner introduces here a subtle parallel drawn directly from medicine. Lenz, heartsick for Friederike, feels pain diagnostic of a heart attack: “… physical pain, there, in the left side, in my arm with which I used to hold her” (52). Büchner demonstrates again that human existence is manifest in many different interrelated and specialized structures.

Lenz learns of the death of a child, whose name is Friederike, and fixates on the fact. After fasting, he goes to see the child's body, and after a time commands the corpse: “Arise and walk!” (53). As soon as he recognizes failure, he loses his remaining stability and flees into the mountains, his mental equilibrium fluctuating wildly.

Pastor Oberlin returns, and a fascinating incident occurs which metaphorizes Büchner's totality concept. Lenz gives Oberlin a bundle of birch switches and begs to be whipped. After taking them from Lenz, Oberlin kisses him, and says, “These are the only strokes I can give you” (55). Lenz, longing to be purged of his condition, perceives no discrimination between physical or mental health. Stolid Oberlin, who has begun feeding Lenz stock advice like “Honor thy father and thy mother,” entertains no such creative solution (54). To him, a mental problem must be solved in the mind—a simple teleological extension. Lenz's thoughts and actions, however, illustrate that an equilibrium is at stake, not a faulty component.

One morning the pastor finds Lenz naked in bed and tries to cover him, but Lenz cries out that “all was so heavy, so very heavy! that he did not think he could walk at all, that never before had he felt the immense weight of the air” (60). Later he asks Oberlin: “Can't you hear the terrible voice that is crying out the whole length of the horizon and that is usually known as silence?” (61).

Lenz makes some reluctant attempts at suicide, not to die, it seems, but to remind himself of his physical presence. He feels a “blank calm that bordered on nonexistence” (60). After a break in Büchner's narrative (the original manuscript is lost) the final scene depicts Lenz in a coach on his way to Strasbourg. Unlike his behavior in the opening scene, where he felt emotions ranging from ecstasy to torment, now Lenz acts remarkably detached and lifeless.

Lenz achieves singular insight into the psychological currents of the human mind by establishing coexisting conventional and unconventional perspectives. Instead of discarding all of the aesthetics of romanticism or idealism, Büchner couples some of them, for instance a developmental theme, with thoroughly unorthodox qualities such as the “straddling” narrator and the absence of customary coherence. Although the story may seem to open with vague circumstances and close with unresolved issues (Lenz still suffers from his disorder), close analysis reveals a familiar progression. Such plot as exists is thus restricted to the top of the dramatic arch, leaving the reader to extrapolate the background and project the conclusion.

So, in its totality, is a human life. This story begins with birth, as the sound of human voices and community calm the bewildered, lonely Lenz. Limited to the small circle he joins, he lives contentedly and without torment. References to childhood pepper the narration. Pastor Oberlin's departure, however, introduces Lenz to elements of the world outside of Waldbach. Lenz's “adolescence” affords him a deeper view into his own condition, and he struggles violently with it. He yearns for the stability of childhood and searches for answers. Oberlin's return does not replenish the calming effect that once existed. Instead, he appears more patronizing than ever, like an affectionless father. Lenz eventually fails at his attempts to regain sanity, and he submits to “cold resignation,” a virtual death (61). The top of the dramatic arch encompasses life itself.

Much of Büchner's genius lies in establishing an effective duality. A less gifted writer might disregard all elements of conventional prose, and effect a simple polarization which would likely achieve little. Instead, Lenz thrives on its apparent paradox.


Although Woyzeck is a dramatic fragment, it counts as Büchner's most influential work. Boldly attacking the class system and simplistic cause-and-effect explanations, Woyzeck searches for “uncolored reality” in portraying the tragic Franz Woyzeck and reaches a conclusion supporting Büchner's notion of totality.9

As in Lenz, this unfinished play features a mentally disturbed individual as a blatantly anticlassical protagonist. This protagonist is not even a fallen poet; he is a member of the proletariat and a murderer. The character Woyzeck is in fact based on the cases of three soldiers who murdered their mistresses.10 Büchner's Woyzeck carries the temper of Johann Diess, the perplexity of Daniel Schmolling and the victimization of the historical Johann Christian Woyzeck.

Büchner's strong scientific bent allowed for a successful incorporation of these actual figures into the character Woyzeck. Just as he developed a philosophical concept from his observations of fish nerves, Büchner drew a conclusion from the nature of murder cases. Where a less complex scientist might have concluded that the three very similar murderers were each afflicted with a specific disease or disorder, Büchner, the total scientist, discerns that the murders were sparked by a number of factors, including socioeconomic and psychological ones. He achieves a scientific perspective with an unmistakably human voice.

The first soldier from which Franz Woyzeck was created is one Daniel Schmolling. Well liked and absent of any indication of mental disturbance, he stabbed his girlfriend a single time during a walk in the woods. He planned to stab himself as well, but was frightened by approaching people. He confessed and then asked his dying girlfriend's forgiveness. The second killer was one Johann Diess, who had a history of aggressive behavior and suicide attempts. He stabbed his lover repeatedly on a street after an argument.

The third actual murderer, a certain Johann Christian Woyzeck, occupies the middle ground. Infatuated with a widow who only halfheartedly answered his devotion, Woyzeck grew insanely jealous. After she rejected him for another soldier, Woyzeck stabbed her to death in her doorway, although later it appeared that the murder may have been premeditated. Woyzeck had previously displayed emotional outbursts, but whether he was mentally ill remains a question.

Dr. J. C. A. Clarus, a physician, was summoned by the court to examine the defendant for any mental illnesses but could discover nothing extraordinary. He repeated his investigation at the behest of the court when witnesses testified that Woyzeck was psychologically unsound. Clarus' views failed to change and in his second report he judged Woyzeck as a “man, who in the course of an uncertain, desolate, thoughtless, and indolent life sank from one level of moral degeneration down to the next, who finally in the dark tumult of primitive emotion destroyed a human life, shall now, rejected by society, lose his own on the scaffold by human hand.”11 Johann Christian Woyzeck was beheaded in a Leipzig square on 27 August 1824.

The execution generated a whirlwind of controversy, and Büchner's father was in possession of all three case histories. Not only were they accessible to Georg, but one critic speculates that they were likely discussed in the Büchner home.12 The timely occurrence of the timeless debate offered the writer a rich opportunity to voice a striking statement about the nature of the murderers and the society which, in Büchner's view, drove them to commit the crimes. Büchner's vision penetrates so deeply because he does not content himself with passing moral judgments or recycling formulaic explanations.

The unfinished text remains problematic (Büchner died in the midst of revisions). While considerable debate has arisen concerning even the proper order of the scenes, one can reasonably surmise that Büchner would have concluded the play with Woyzeck's trial and execution. Dr. Clarus had indicated that Woyzeck's death was to be an example, and one might imagine that Büchner's depiction of the execution would have been an example indeed.

The play opens with Franz Woyzeck, a soldier, in a field with his aloof confidant friend and fellow soldier, Andres. Woyzeck hallucinates, and he remarks how hollow the earth feels (an observation Lenz could have made just as easily). The second scene shows Woyzeck's lover Marie, with whom he has a child, in the town. These two starkly different settings immediately establish a tension between nature and society. Marie sings nursery rhymes and folk songs, and in looking from her window, is physically attracted to the Drum Major. When Marie is criticized by her neighbor Margret, the reader is granted a glimpse of Marie's materialistic inclinations. The reader also learns that Marie knows of Woyzeck's hallucinations.

Marie's desire for money becomes increasingly apparent. When a sergeant pulls out a watch for a demonstration at a fair, she is mesmerized: “This I've got to see” (184). Someone, presumably the Drum Major, gives her a pair of earrings. Her monologue as she peers into the fragment of a mirror demonstrates that she is aware of the association between wealth and class: “The likes of us only have a little corner in the world and a little piece of mirror, but my mouth is just as red as the great ladies with their mirrors from top to toe and their handsome lords who kiss their hands” (184). She feels guilt for her longings, however, when Woyzeck gives her some of his meager pay. But she quickly rationalizes that: “Everything goes to hell anyhow, man and woman alike” (185). Infidelity is inevitable.

Consecutive scenes of the play introduce a physician and the captain of Woyzeck's company; here contrasts and tensions are created between the middle and working classes. Woyzeck appears in a subservient role, shaving his captain. The officer's speech is pocked with pedestrian humor and lackluster rationale. Woyzeck seems detached until the Captain accuses him of lacking morality. Woyzeck replies, “Us poor people. You see Cap'n—money, money. If you don't have money. … Just try to raise your own kind on morality in this world” (186). The Captain is also unable to bridge the socioeconomic gap between himself, a member of a more privileged class and Woyzeck, a representative of the oppressed, exploited, military proletariat of the time.

The subsequent scene depicts Marie with the Drum Major in her room. She finds him attractive, and while her accessibility to, say, the Captain would be difficult, the Drum Major offers Marie a reasonable improvement in status and income. Woyzeck senses her emotionless resignation (reminiscent of Lenz's “cold resignation”) in the next scene, and he foreshadows the murder by saying: “You are as beautiful as sin. Can mortal sin be so beautiful?” (188).

As a despicable character, the physician is critical to the thrust of Büchner's attack on societal conventions. Büchner does not criticize medicine or science in themselves, he criticizes specific practices of medicine and scientific experimentation. He feels that strictly scientific pursuit without human consideration neglects other fundamental aspects of collective human nature. Büchner spares no scorn in criticizing this type of scientist.

The Doctor has put Woyzeck on a diet of peas in a study which will, he says, revolutionize science. This physician is utterly unfeeling and one-dimensional. “Who would get excited about a human being, a human being?” he asks (190). Woyzeck reports that he has heard voices and follows with this very Lenzian thought: “The toadstools, Doctor. … Have you seen how they grow in patterns? If only someone could read that” (190). The Doctor immediately (and shallowly) makes a diagnosis: “a marvelous aberratio mentalis partialis, second species, beautifully developed” (190). When the physician calls Woyzeck “Subject Woyzeck,” he is calling him a scientific subject just as much as he is a class subject.

Woyzeck feels lost because Marie is the only aspect of his existence which he values, and Marie seems lost to him. Their conversations, though oblique, can at least be categorized as communication. The extra money he makes from the Doctor's experiment and from shaving the Captain are invested in Marie. She is the only “good” he possesses; if he loses her, he loses everything.

Psychosomatic effects become apparent in Woyzeck. He complains of how hot he feels, the same adjective he uses to describe Marie when he is jealous. He is restless; things twirl in front of his eyes. After he sees the Drum Major and Marie dancing and hears her gaily shout “on and on!” Woyzeck's rage and frustration surface in an angry speech. In a mechanism we have since come to associate with Brecht, an apprentice outside preaches “all that is earthly is passing, even money must eventually decay.”13 Back in an open field, as at the beginning of the play, and lying on the ground, Woyzeck hears voices which tell him to stab her.

The next day, a grandmother, an unmarried couple and several children are together on the street. The children play games and sing songs and nursery rhymes, symbolic and stylistic reflections of the Doctor's and Captain's attitude toward humans as puppets or toys. The Grandmother tells a story:

Once upon a time there was a poor little child with no father and no mother, everything was dead, and no one was left in the whole world. Everything was dead and it went and searched day and night. And since nobody was left on the earth, it wanted to go up to the heavens, and the moon was looking at it so friendly, and when it finally got to the moon, the moon was a piece of rotten wood and then it went to the sun and when it got there, the sun was a wilted sunflower and when it got to the stars, they were little golden flies stuck up there like the shrike sticks 'em on the blackthorn and when it wanted to go back down to earth, the earth was an upset pot and was all alone and it sat down and cried and there it sits to this day, all alone.


It is, of course, a tale of false expectations and utter betrayal. The child discovers that goals it strove for were nothing but perversely disappointing illusions. We suspect that Woyzeck will find Marie so, and eventually she would come to find the parading Drum Major equally disappointing.

After the Grandmother's story Woyzeck takes a walk with Marie—outside the town—and stabs her to death. His psychosomatic symptoms continue, notably as body temperature, the hot and cold symbolic of life and death. The end of the (unfinished) play is the Court Clerk's chilling statement: “A good murder, a real murder, a beautiful murder. As good a murder as you'd ever want to see. We haven't had one like this for a long time” (204).

Woyzeck is a logical extension of Büchner's earlier works, inasmuch as it combines the psychological study of Lenz with the political passion of Der hessische Landbote. The drama's disjointed style and economical, powerful language come across as thoroughly contemporary, even for a late 20th century audience. Woyzeck remains consistent with Büchner's literary and scientific writings, because it further explains, in dramatic form, his concept of totality. Büchner would, we may suspect, finally exculpate Woyzeck; he saw in the barber and soldier a victim of society and ill fortune. Forced to sell his health in order to earn a little money, Woyzeck still could not avoid losing the one being he valued and who lent him value, Marie.

But more problematic is the pivotal story of the Grandmother. Does the absence of solace and hope signify only the danger of idealizations and simplified projections, or is it truly representative of the world, implying more of what we have since encountered in naturalism? The latter answer would seem to signify a departure for Büchner from his totality theory.

The answer is housed in Woyzeck's action. Though he would himself die, he killed Marie, thus choosing active suicide over passive disintegration. Significantly, he takes to the woods, away from the city and society, to kill her. Unlike the materialistic Marie, he does not resign to notions of fatalism. Although he felt deeply threatened and was mentally ill, he still discovered a way to express himself; tragically, society offered only one avenue. In final analysis, Woyzeck could not neglect cogent components of his total person.

Georg Büchner is a singular figure, well in advance of his time, and we may be pleased to find that this student of history, philosophy, politics and medicine found the concept of totality integral to his literary productivity. Science plays an important role in offering reason, analysis and the art of observation, with which certain facts and truths can be defined. Science alone, however, is of little value, as evidenced by the physician in Woyzeck. It must be accompanied by other human aspects such as compassion, socio-economic awareness and physical and mental health, in order to claim validity and manage beneficial effects. Despite the fact that Büchner did not live to finish the play, the theme of totality is clearly evident in the dramatic fragment.


Georg Büchner, the political activist, scientist and writer, possessed a piercing insight and astute ability in each field. His understanding of science, combined with his interests in philosophy and politics, provided for a unique approach to the writing of literature. His concept of totality is a vastly intuitive vision: each component of human existence and the natural world is an integral, yet independent piece in a self-contained whole. Faithful to the concept, Büchner arrives at the depiction of ultimately human protagonists in Lenz and Woyzeck, for each element of their existences is inexorably and complexly interdependent with the rest. Büchner's characters are in themselves whole: complex arrangements of mutually dependent components.


  1. Hilton, p. 6.

  2. Schmidt, p. 319, and Hamburger, p. 95.

  3. Schmidt, p. 328.

  4. Baumann and Oberle, pp. 114-115.

  5. Hamburger, p. xi.

  6. Schmidt, p. 319.

  7. Hilton, p. 41.

  8. Lavater is the Swiss theologian to whom Büchner referred in Die Probevorlesung. See Knapp, p. 227, and Schmidt, p. 319.

  9. Büttner, p. 94.

  10. Schmidt, p. 362.

  11. Schmidt, p. 368.

  12. Hilton, p. 114.

  13. The play, as those of Brecht, is intended to make a political statement. See Schmidt, p. 194.

Works Cited

Abutille, Mario Carlo. Angst und Zynismus bei Georg Büchner. Basler Studien zur deutschen Sprache und Literatur. No. 40. Ed. Heinz Rupp and Walter Muschg. Bern: Franke, 1969.

Baumann, Barbara, and Birgitta Oberle. Deutsche Literatur in Epochen. München: Max Hueber, 1985.

Büttner, Ludwig. Büchners Bild vom Menschen. Nürnberg: Hans Carl, 1967.

Hamburger, Michael, ed. and trans. Georg Büchner—Leonce and Lena, Lenz, and Woyzeck. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1972.

Hilton, Julian. Georg Büchner. NY: Grove Press, 1982.

Knapp, Gerhard P., ed. Georg Büchner, Gesammelte Werke. 7. Aufl. München: Goldmann, 1990.

Schmidt, Henry J., ed. and trans. Georg Büchner: The Complete Collected Works. New York: Avon Books, 1977.

David G. Richards (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11636

SOURCE: Richards, David G. “Recent Criticism: 1980-1999.” In Georg Büchner's ‘Woyzeck’: A History of Its Criticism, pp. 111-42. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Richards surveys criticism of Woyzeck published in English and German during the last two decades of the twentieth century.]

Two events mark the beginning of a new period in Büchner scholarship: the founding of the Georg Büchner Gesellschaft in May 1979 and Gerhard Schmid's publication of a facsimile edition of Woyzeck in 1981. Also in 1981, in a second special volume of Text und Kritik devoted to Georg Büchner, Thomas Michael Mayer, a founder of the Georg Büchner Society, announced in a review entitled “Some New Tendencies of Büchner-Scholarship” that the society's annual publication, the Georg Büchner Jahrbuch, would “serve as an organ for taking stock of the current state of scholarship and for new contributions, for reflection and debate, for the documentation of sources, the rapid mediation of controversy and communication of new findings,” and would be comprehensive in its inclusion of debate and the results of research (265).

In a study published in 1980, Albert Meier summarizes and continues the trend of the politically oriented seventies to emphasize the socially critical content of Woyzeck. Meier sees the play not as a fragment but as an analytical model of a historically determined situation as it relates to an individual. In his view, it is a politically and dramaturgically radical attempt to “represent the historical totality” of Büchner's time (16).

In a brief discussion of the manuscripts Meier concludes that Büchner changed his conception of the play after writing the first sequence of scenes, nearly all of which relate to jealousy and murder. Only the carnival scene and some lines spoken by a barber go beyond this basic plot. With the exception of the figures appearing in the last scene (H1,21), all the figures in this version are from the same social class. The second group of scenes introduces representatives from other social levels, and the various relationships of the figures to each other make possible the “very exact placement of each one into a social system of coordinates.” In this context Woyzeck's abnormal behavior no longer appears to be the result of his “sickly exaggerated jealousy” but rather of his social situation, the forces of which do not allow him any autonomy and compel him to work constantly to support his family (24-27).

Whether H2 represents a change in conception or a filling of the gaps does not seem particularly relevant for Meier's interpretation, since he considers H4 to be a synthesis of H1 and H2. In this final version Büchner presents Marie's infidelity, intensifies Woyzeck's jealousy, and at the same time develops their social conditions. Appearing for the first time in this version, Meier claims, is a psychologically accurate connection between unhealthy jealousy and the social situation. Meier finds support for this interpretation in scene H4,4, in which Marie admires her new earrings for the effect they have on her appearance and for their intrinsic value. Woyzeck loses her for two reasons: he cannot acquire social recognition for her, and his work prevents him from being able to spend time with her. He can meet neither her material nor her physical demands. According to Meier, Woyzeck's thought of killing Marie derives not merely from jealousy but also from the social causes of his jealousy and from his ever-increasing isolation. Marie's infidelity undermines his social position and subjects him even more to the ridicule and abuse of his social superiors (30-31).

Also contained in scene H4,4 is Marie's use of “psycho-terror” on her son, by which Meier means her reference to the sandman, which is meant to force the child to self-discipline by creating fear of supernatural punishment. To escape this danger, the child must continually control himself, thus internalizing the supernatural force and becoming accustomed to being controlled by it. This supposedly hinders his ability to resist real danger. Marie thus contributes to the continuation of oppression of her own class; to get her own pleasure she must deprive others of theirs (36).


Ingrid Oesterle claims in a 1984 article that Woyzeck is related to, but not a pure example of, “Schauerliteratur” (thriller or Gothic literature) and the tragedy of fate. Büchner found inspiration and sources in the works of Ludwig Tieck, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and other romantic writers. Characteristic of this genre is the shift from dominance of vision and the eye to involvement of all the senses: hearing, smelling, touching, and the awareness of temperature and physical pain. Since the source of suffering and anxiety is obscure, mysterious, and incomprehensible, dialogue and communication decrease in importance and language is simplified and loses its literary quality (1984, 169-74, 186-87). From her analysis of the play's first scene, Oesterle demonstrates that Woyzeck shares the following structural elements and motifs with Gothic literature: disagreeable and fateful places, bewitched nature (ghostly light phenomena and optical illusions with deadly consequences), the terror of seemingly unnatural appearances and forces such as the Freemasons, terrible stillness, and the sudden change from deathly silence to deafening noise and from darkness to visionary brightness (189-96).

In another article published in 1984, Heinz-Dieter Kittsteiner and Helmut Lethen object to interpretations that seek a “hidden center” and that fill the “empty spaces” beneath the “semblance of a plot,” as do Wolfgang Wittkowski (by supplying a Christian content) and Albert Meier (by applying Ingarden's aesthetics). Kittsteiner and Lethen intend, on the other hand, to heed Mercier's advice from Dantons Tod and “to follow the phrases to the point they become embodied,” that is, to look at what actually is, rather than at what supposedly lies hidden. In their view, Büchner's accomplishment was to “destroy linguistically the meaning-centers around which the thinking of his time circled,” an accomplishment that is itself a product of his time, in which thought patterns that were common in the eighteenth century were losing their validity. Büchner rejects the thinking and theories of the Enlightenment and idealism in favor of an “anthropological materialism” (240-42).

In comparison with the historical Woyzeck, who belonged to and wanted to be a part of bourgeois society but was incapable of internalizing bourgeois morality, Büchner has deprived his figure of many of Woyzeck's bourgeois attributes, write Kittsteiner and Lethen. Thus, in disagreement with those interpreters who identify a conflict of conscience in Woyzeck, Kittsteiner and Lethen argue that Woyzeck does not reflect upon his situation and on what is right or wrong; rather, he responds to inner voices and their projection onto the outside world. Büchner agrees with the Romantics in their devaluation of the moral influence of conscience on action and in their recognition of angst as internalized conscience. In depriving Woyzeck of his bourgeois attributes, Büchner does not portray Woyzeck's supposed madness as medical pathology but as a mode of perceiving and understanding the world. The revolutionary implications disappear from this “magical-apocalyptic world view”: Woyzeck does not experience a call to rebellion but simply the command to kill (249-52).

According to Kittsteiner and Lethen, the bourgeois ego, which Woyzeck does not possess, views its actions from a moral-philosophical perspective, according to which the world must be thought of as a system of goals in the pursuit of which there is no insurmountable gap between nature and freedom. The world as history is a place for the future realization of morality. History is linear, goal-oriented, and progressive. Büchner appears to adapt an earlier view of history as cyclical. Or perhaps more accurately, his thinking about history is paradoxical, in that, as Maurice Benn and Reinhold Grimm have claimed, he considers it to be both linear and cyclical. The Doctor and the Captain in Woyzeck represent these opposing views (255-57).

The Captain suffers from the cyclical nature of time, the eternal and hopeless repetition of the same or similar actions as represented for him by the turning of the mill wheel. He has a “feudal” relationship to time but, seen existentially, he is also modern in his melancholic reaction to the passing of time and in his awareness of the absurdity of life. As indicated by his attempts to slow down Woyzeck and the Doctor, he wants to reduce or escape from the consequences of passing time (258-64). The Doctor, in contrast, is always in a hurry. He wants to move with time and to contribute to the progress of time and history. In the Doctor's view, the Captain and Woyzeck are anachronisms (265-66). According to Kittsteiner and Lethen, the representation of the restive motion of Woyzeck's body shows the conflict in him of the cyclical and linear orientations to time and his lack of an inner regulator that could reconcile the opposing tendencies (266-67).

In a study of accountability in works by E. T. A. Hoffmann and Büchner published in 1985, Georg Reuchlein views Woyzeck as a reaction against the fundamental assumptions of restoration psychology and justice upon which Dr. Clarus's evaluations are based, especially the belief that, except in certain extreme cases, people are able through reason and free will to determine their fate and control their actions. Whereas the judicial system in the eighteenth century had tried to separate morality and religion from the administration of justice, lawyers and psychiatrists in the 1920s criticized the separation of moral and juridical judgments. Woyzeck's case provided grist for the mills on both sides of the question. A year after their publication in 1824, Clarus's conclusions were attacked by the Bamberg court physician Dr. Carl Moritz Marc and defended against Marc's attack by Dr. Johann Christian August Heinroth, who, like Clarus, considers the loss of reason to be the consequence of sin and therefore punishable. By caricaturing and criticizing morality, religion, and indeterminism, Büchner discredits and disqualifies the philosophical, ideological foundation of Clarus's and Heinroth's juridical and medical assumptions (55-57).

It can be determined from Büchner's play that Woyzeck is not sane and accountable for his violent action, Reuchlein writes, but the actual state of his mind cannot be determined. In the first stage of composition, the signs of Woyzeck's madness follow his discovery of Marie's infidelity and could be considered products of his passion. In H2 and H4, which Reuchlein sees as belonging together in the second stage of composition, these signs precede the discovery and are therefore pathological, a fact that is of such importance that it becomes the focus of the beginning scene of the second version (H2) and, in revised form, of the final one as well. Like the Doctor, Marie and Andres, too, note Woyzeck's disturbed mental state. If Woyzeck is not actually mad, he is at least, as Kanzog writes, psychically stigmatized. In either case, he is not as Clarus sees him. On the other hand, Büchner's depiction of him also departs from the historical facts. Unlike the historical Woyzeck, Büchner's obtains a knife only after he hears voices commanding him to kill Marie, and Büchner's Woyzeck hears the command repeatedly, whereas the historical Woyzeck heard voices only once. Büchner thus emphasizes the compulsive element of the murder (61-63). Because he makes his Woyzeck more moral than the historical murderer, Büchner's text could not have changed the official judgment of Woyzeck, Reuchlein concludes, but it could have had an impact on the public, which was unfamiliar with the factual details. Furthermore, Büchner raises questions about causes, which he finds not only in the individual but also in social relationships. While definite causal relationships cannot be determined—we don't know, for example, what the effect of Woyzeck's diet of peas is—it is clear that blame lies, or also lies, with the social order (69-71, 74-75).

The primary goal of John Guthrie's 1984 study of the dramatic form of plays by Lenz and Büchner is to demonstrate that these playwrights do not have as much in common as has generally been assumed and that Büchner's plays do not fulfill the theoretical demands of the open form of drama as defined by Krapp, Klotz, and others. Guthrie considers it ironic that the theories of the open form of drama, which have influenced subsequent editors and interpreters of the text, were based on Bergemann's edition, whose editorial principles, according to his critics, were based on the closed form of drama. While it is true that Bergemann's edition has been criticized for the contaminations undertaken to strengthen causal connections, this in itself does not result in a text representative of the closed form of drama. Nor should it be assumed, as Guthrie does, that all editors and critics who “assign the play as a whole to the category of the open form” place theory ahead of analysis (121).

At issue here is not the assignment of the play “as a whole” to a particular category, but the identification and analysis of the characteristics peculiar to different and in some ways opposing traditions and forms of drama, namely, the classical and the Shakespearean, the closed and open form, the linear and episodic, or whatever designations one might choose to give them. Klotz does not presume to prescribe what characteristics the forms must have: rather, on the basis of his analysis of a number of plays of each type, he identifies characteristics he considers peculiar to each form. Klotz's procedure certainly has greater methodological validity than the one proposed by Guthrie, which is based on his “conviction that theories such as that of the open form do not substantially contribute to an understanding of the play's real, that is to say, dramatic structure” (121).

In opposition to presumed implications of the theory of the open form of drama, Guthrie argues that Woyzeck does not consist of a sequence of static images or independent and autonomous scenes that can be rearranged at will without affecting the meaning of the whole (121). But Klotz does not claim that scenes can be rearranged at will. As noted above, those who advocate the arbitrary rearrangement of scenes tend to represent the standpoint of theatrical production and directorial creativity. Likewise, the argument for the play's open ending does not mean, as Guthrie implies, “that a number of endings are possible and can be supported by internal evidence” (121). It means, rather, that no ending is given and none unequivocally foreshadowed by internal evidence. The play ends as it begins: in medias res. There are a number of possibilities for what could follow the break in the action, but none of these is specified by the author.

In a scene-by-scene analysis, Guthrie attempts to demonstrate that the plot follows a clear line of development, with each scene having its proper and foreordained place, and that the play therefore belongs to the closed form of drama. “It is argued,” he writes, “that because the open form of drama knows no exposition,” because scenes are supposedly interchangeable, and because each scene anticipates the conclusion in the same way, it is possible to begin the play “with any, or at least a large number of scenes,” an argument that supposedly has been used to justify beginning the play with H4,5, in which Woyzeck shaves the Captain. But Guthrie's assumptions about the implications of the open form are not accurate and the explanation he offers apodictically for the placement of H4,1 is based on subjective criteria: “if one looks carefully at the justification for using H4,1, apart from its authorization in the manuscripts, one finds that it is justified not at all from the point of view of a theory but because it is the best scene to commence with in every conceivable way.” And: “In view of the scenes Büchner has left us, however incomplete, this one cannot be bettered as exposition” (122).

In his discussion of the fair scene, Guthrie identifies the middle section between the Barker's speech outside the booth and the Showman's performance inside, that is, the moment in which contact is made between Marie and the Drum Major, as the “most important part of the scene” and “its real body,” because it is significant for the development of the plot. “The actual content of the ‘Marktschreier's’ ranting does not matter as much as this does.” Compared to the “serious foreground action,” Guthrie claims, the meaning of the Barker's words comparing Woyzeck to a monkey (words actually spoken by the “Ausrufer” rather than the “Marktschreier”) “cannot conceivably be evident to an audience at this stage, for the simple reason that we have not seen enough of the main character.” The impact of the speeches in this “quasi-episodic element in the plot” differs in nature from that of the rest of the scene, Guthrie claims. “One may suggest that it is a less intense impact, analogous to comic relief in Shakespeare, preparing us for the main point of the scene” (128-29).

Here and elsewhere, Guthrie appears to contradict his own argument by acknowledging the existence of episodic elements in the play, that is, elements peculiar to the open form as defined by Klotz. He identifies H4,9 (Captain. Doctor), for example, as a “pendant-like scene” that “does not forward the plot in the most direct way possible” (134). Likewise, some of scene H1,14 (Margret [= Marie] with Girls in Front of the House) is “not, strictly speaking, part of the development of the plot” (146). Furthermore, some of Guthrie's assumptions regarding the forms of drama are not accurate: he argues, for example, that the scenes are not independent and autonomous because there are manifold connections between them (126), but such interconnection is described by Klotz and others as not only typical of, but essential for the open form of drama, since such connections—Klotz's “metaphorische Verklammerung,” and the recurrence of various types of motifs—help create dramatic unity where some of the unifying devices of the closed form of drama are lacking.

More convincing is Guthrie's opposition to the claim that the play's end is implied in every scene or that the structure of the play is circular. As he, and more recently Burghard Dedner have demonstrated, the plot is characterized by a tight linear and chronological development.

Burghard Dedner joins Guthrie in arguing against the commonly accepted view that Woyzeck is an example of the open form of drama and in deploring what he considers to be attempts by editors to make their editions comply with this form. Dedner acknowledges that Büchner follows Shakespeare rather than the classical drama, but with the retention of linear plot development and the strict and condensed sequence of scenes that is characteristic of the latter. Taking exception to the comparison of the structure of Woyzeck to the form of a ballad, which he attributes especially to Viëtor, but which, in fact, was quite common in criticism before Viëtor, Dedner claims that the play is not non-linear and does not progress through stations or separate episodes, and that the scenes were not written “helter skelter” (bunt durcheinander), as Viëtor maintains, but in sequence. “If the open drama has no continual, uninterrupted plot development,” he argues, then the form of Woyzeck is closed (1988/89, 163-165). However, by admitting to the inclusion of remnants of folk life such as folk songs and some of the events involving children, and of a number of “interior scenes” such as H4,2, in which Marie observes the Drum Major, H4,3, in which she observes the Barker, and H4,17, in which Woyzeck surveys his life and possessions, Dedner, like Guthrie, undermines his own argument (169). And to his examples could be added others such as the Grandmother's tale and the banter of the journeymen.

Dedner bases his argument on conclusions drawn from what he considers to be a complete manuscript: in his view, the plot as contained in H4 and H1,14-21—with the possible inclusion of H3,2—is complete as it stands and does not require further supplementation from earlier drafts (147). In H1 he sees a causally connected sequence of scenes with some passages left open, whether intentionally or not. This manuscript consists of a closed sequence of scenes focusing on the murder and its aftermath and connected by two principles he identifies as “haste” (Hetze) and a “tendency to simultaneity” (Tendenz zur Simultaneität). The scenes are connected by Woyzeck's scurrying from one activity to the next and by an increase in the tempo toward the end. Simultaneity or near simultaneity can be found in several instances where scenes overlap or appear to be taking place at the same time: for example, after Marie has been stabbed in H1,15, her dying sounds are heard by the people coming in H1,16; and scene H1,18 with the children may be taking place at the same time as the inn scene, H1,17. In Dedner's view, both of these “connecting principles” are more developed in H2 and H4, though he admits that some are actually eliminated in the revision of earlier scenes for inclusion in H4 (147-51).

According to Dedner's calculations, the action of the play takes place in as little as forty-eight hours and in no more than three days, which is in keeping with the unity of time of the classical drama. He argues against the transposition of H1,18, which was introduced by Franzos, retained by Lehmann and Poschmann, and defended by Kanzog. In his response to Lehmann's argument that the children would not be up at such a late hour, Dedner echoes an observation made by Patterson in a 1978 study of the play's duration, which Patterson estimates to be four days, namely, that it “depends on a rather middle-class view of bringing up children” (Patterson 1978, 120). Not all children are so disciplined as to be in bed two hours after dark, Dedner argues, and that would be especially true on an evening in which the news of a murder would spread quickly through crowded quarters, creating a special situation in which the children would likely share the excitement and desire to witness the murder scene. As indicated above, H1,18 could be taking place at the same time as H1,17, and it establishes a connection between H1,16 (the arrival of people at the pond and discovery of the murder) and H1,19, in which people responding to the news of the murder arrive at the pond and scare off Woyzeck, who has returned to the scene of the crime. Furthermore, Dedner continues, H1,18 reflects the immediate, sensational reaction to the murder, which would have diminished somewhat by the following morning, and it gives Woyzeck time to get from the inn to the pond (Dedner 155-57).

As for other problematic passages, Dedner notes that even though the Captain's reference to Marie's infidelity in H2,7 is represented in H4,6, he still thinks it probable that Büchner would have added Woyzeck's appearance in H4,9, but he would have had to change it to agree with the new situation in which Woyzeck has already seen the Drum Major with Marie or leaving her house (154-60). Dedner seems to agree with Poschmann that H3, or at least H3,2 (The Idiot. The Child. Woyzeck) was written after H4, that H3,2 authorizes the murder sequence H1,14-21, and that it corresponds to an increasing tendency on Büchner's part to “individualize figures from the folk.” In Dedner's view, H3,2 should follow H1,20, Woyzeck's entry into the pond, to which the Idiot supposedly refers with his finger-counting game. With respect to H3,1, The Doctor's Courtyard, Dedner agrees with Müller-Seidel, Paulus, and Richards that this scene cannot be placed before the end of H4, where it no longer has any purpose. Since the comic content of H3,1 is on a lower level than that of H4, it appears that H3,1 precedes H4 and was superseded by it (161-63).

In a paper presented at a 1987 colloquium at the University of Aalborg, Denmark, and published in 1988, Swend Erik Larsen identifies three components in the phenomenon of power and powerlessness in Woyzeck and Lenz:

—the concrete event in which power and powerlessness meet and where the strength of power is tested,

—the structures that determine the forms of confrontation,

—consciousness which the parties or persons involved possess of the connection between structure and event.

(1988, 176; author's emphasis)

Larsen claims that reflection about oppression and the abuse of power emanates from every sentence in the play. The event he chooses to analyze in detail is the scene in which Woyzeck shaves the Captain (H4,5). In this scene Woyzeck is clearly inferior and subordinate to the Captain, who demonstrates his superiority in various ways: he gives orders, comments on Woyzeck's private life, makes fun of him, and instructs him. During the course of the scene, however, Woyzeck gains the upper hand, which distresses and confuses the Captain. His replies to the Captain, which are at first short and automatic, become longer, and his participation in the dialog becomes more active. He gives an unexpected twist to the Captain's religious allusions, for example, and raises the issue of money in relation to morality (176-77).

The Captain's loss of ground is manifest also in the use of personal pronouns. He begins addressing Woyzeck in the third person singular “Er” rather than with the “Du” or “Sie” that would be used with a person of similar status. Accepting his inferior role, Woyzeck avoids the use of pronouns in addressing the Captain: to refer to the Captain as “Sie” would presuppose considering himself as an “ich,” Larsen claims, as a person with a right to speak. Only when Woyzeck begins to seize the initiative in the conversation does he address the Captain as “Sie” and begin, tentatively at first, to assert his own individuality: after first speaking about poor people in general and using the plural pronoun “wir” and the impersonal “man,” he finally speaks in the first person singular. The scene ends with the Captain apparently accepting the “partial identity” between himself and Woyzeck, both of whom are “good men.” Thus the hierarchy breaks down on the verbal level, according to Larsen, and, because his power stands on shaky feet, the Captain identifies with Woyzeck. Woyzeck does not take advantage of the Captain's weakness in order to undermine his power, however, but to define his own difference and in a subjective way to confirm the hierarchy of power. Woyzeck is conscious of and accepts his position in the power-structure (177-78).

Because of their cynical arbitrariness, writes Larsen, the representatives of power are dangerous, and because of their neurotic narrow-mindedness, they are also ridiculous. They possess real power, but it is power they have not earned and do not deserve. It is a “perverse-routinized extension” of a power that may once have served a useful purpose but has now lost its meaning and function in a new and different social context, where it continues to function for its own sake. When power is no longer part of a total structure and no longer contains any vision, Larsen writes, those who exercise that power live in a “partial universe” that only includes themselves and not the totality. Hence we experience them in the “here and now” where they are threatened by that which they would dominate, the Captain by Woyzeck and his craftiness, the Doctor by nature and arbitrariness. For his part, Woyzeck also identifies with the Captain, Larsen maintains, and behaves like him as the master in his own partial world. And just as the Doctor views Woyzeck as his property, so Woyzeck views Marie as his. When Marie asserts her independence, Woyzeck's identification with the other persons of power moves him to kill her (179-81).

Conclusions similar to Larsen's are reached by Richard T. Gray, who, borrowing a phrase from Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, analyzes the “dialectic of enlightenment” in Woyzeck. While the Enlightenment purports “to provide the means for the emancipation of humanity from the obscurity of myth,” according to Horkheimer and Adorno, it “ultimately reveals itself to be a more insidious manifestation of myth itself” (1988, 79). Büchner had similar insight, Gray maintains, and this manifests itself in his skepticism toward the transition from a holistic science to the purposive-rational approach that was coming into prominence in his time. He finds confirmation for his “worst suspicions about the potential inimicality of reason to life” in Clarus's report on Woyzeck, which was not only the source of Büchner's play but the “true impetus behind the entire conception of the work.” Büchner is less interested in Woyzeck himself than in the way Clarus portrays him. The aim of Büchner's fragments, Gray writes, “is to reflect critically on the ‘dogmatism of reason’ as manifest in the Clarus report with the goal of bringing enlightenment to reflect on itself” (80-81).

In his diagnosis of Woyzeck's motivation to commit murder, Clarus asserts the dominance of reason over emotion in the same absolute manner as Büchner's Doctor, a caricature of Clarus. Like the Doctor in Woyzeck, Clarus valorizes “freedom of will” and “the free use of reason” without ever questioning the appropriateness of these values for the uneducated and underprivileged Woyzeck; he condemns Woyzeck based on Enlightenment conceptions about human beings. Clarus assumes that Woyzeck is capable of reasonable thinking and that his will is free, but that he misuses his reason in a perverse manner. Whereas pure insanity, the complete absence of reason, may be accepted, the hybrid between reason and unreason, the “confusion of subjective feelings with objective conceptions,” in the words of Clarus, undermines the integrity of reason itself and threatens to overturn the relationship between subject and object on which scientistic reason is based (81-82).

Clarus's position, Gray argues, “can be read as an unwitting condemnation of the socioeconomic order responsible for Woyzeck's ‘limited means.’” Clarus objects to Woyzeck's “inherently underprivileged status in society, his lack of formal education, his poverty, his ‘moralische Verwilderung’ [moral degeneration].” According to Gray, Clarus reveals in his report that he is possessed of the very qualities he condemns in Woyzeck, namely, a specific set of prejudices, false judgments, and errors. Consequently, when he passes judgment on Woyzeck as a curious hybrid of reason and unreason, he is also passing judgment on himself. He exemplifies the “merging of myth and enlightenment, or the reversion of enlightenment to myth” that is the central thesis of Horkheimer's and Adorno's critique of enlightenment (82-83).

Gray suggests that Büchner's reading of Clarus's report was similar to his own reading based on theories of Horkheimer and Adorno. In Woyzeck Clarus's pedagogical and scrutinizing gaze is itself subjected to a scrutinizing gaze, “the gaze of dramatic spectatorship.” Büchner's drama “assumes the spectatorial gaze of enlightened reason only in order to turn it against this reason itself.” In this regard the carnival scenes are of central importance. Carnival inherently involves inversion and destabilization of authoritative values, and it possesses revolutionary potential. In his carnival scenes Büchner introduces dominant societal values in a context that mocks and overturns them. Clarus's idealized vision of rational human beings is mocked by the grotesque hybridization of reason and unreason as represented by a variety of trained animals. The Barker's ironic praise of reason in this scene is simultaneously its denunciation. This figure therefore embodies the “dialectic of enlightenment” in the same way Clarus does and provides skeptical comment on the attitudes he represents. The “self-ironization and self-condemnation of reason is put on display” in this scene, and the audience is “invited to witness this event in all its grotesqueness.” The Captain and the Doctor are noncarnivalesque counterparts of the Barker and represent in stylized exaggeration the enlightened bourgeois values of Clarus (84-85).

When we critically overturn Clarus's metaphysical privileging of reason in the classical duality of reason and unreason, free will and necessity, “then Woyzeck's hybridization ceases to signify the failure of enlightenment and instead indicates its incipient and insidious victory.” Woyzeck's murder of Marie does not indicate the failure of reason to control passion, Gray argues, but becomes an expression of the enlightened will to mastery. Woyzeck thus represents the “attempted coming to enlightenment of myth.” Following a different line of argument, Gray reaches a conclusion similar to Larsen's: in reaction to his exploitation and oppression Woyzeck appropriates the “same structures of mastery and control under which he suffers as a strategy for his own liberation.” Marie's behavior toward her child constitutes a similar attempt at mastery and control. It is behavior characteristic of most of the figures in the play: the oppressed become the oppressors (88-90, 94).

An increasing tendency among critics who emphasize the play's socially critical content has been to identify Dr. Clarus as a callous, inhumane, and morally rigid practitioner of medicine and as a servant of the state and the people with power who stand to benefit from keeping the common people poor and powerless. In the extreme, this criticism has considered the Doctor in Woyzeck, and by implication the historical figures he caricatures—the anatomist Johann Bernhard Wilbrand and the chemist Justus Liebig, both of whom were professors at the University of Giessen when Büchner was a student there, as well as Clarus himself, who was also a university professor—as precursors of the doctors who carried out grotesquely inhumane experiments on people in Nazi concentration camps. Dorothy James places this matter in the proper perspective in a 1990 essay by considering Clarus's judgment and the positions represented by him and by Büchner's Doctor in the context of the time in which Büchner was writing. While the play's form belongs more to the twentieth century than to Büchner's time, she writes, it contains “real and documentable threads” that connect it to both time periods (119), a claim she supports with ample documentation.

Woyzeck was indeed an “interesting case” in his own time, James argues, a time in which the nature of man and his behavior was the topic of considerable disagreement and debate. On one side of the issue was Dr. J. C. A. Heinroth, a supporter of Dr. Clarus's conclusions, who was convinced that man stands above the animals because he has reason and can choose to be free. Consciousness and reason can lead him to God; if he does not take this path, it is his own fault and a sin. Heinroth considers illness to be the result of sin, which agrees with Clarus's conclusion that Woyzeck's dissolute life led to his downfall. When he committed the murder, Woyzeck was not controlled by a “necessary blind and instinctual drive,” that upset his “free use of reason,” Clarus concluded. He therefore exercised free will and was responsible for his action (113-14).

Clarus and Heinroth represented a minority position even in their own time, according to James, who cites Professor Johann Christian August Grohmann as a leading proponent of the opposing side of a heated debate. Grohmann maintained that the human being is not “essentially free” or “essentially rational.” He may have raised himself above the animals by virtue of his intellect and reason, but he has not eliminated the animal forces in himself. His animal nature is particularly evident in the various drives aimed at the survival of the species. The will is influenced by physical as well as intellectual needs: circumstances can brutalize men and incline them to the bestial side of human nature. In such circumstances, the human being no longer exercises free will but is rather the victim of sickness that attacks not only the body but also the spirit and the will, upon which it has a brutalizing effect. “Is the death penalty possible in such circumstances as punishment,” he asks, “or is the animal simply to be sacrificed?” Grohmann disagreed with Clarus's verdict on Woyzeck, and he certainly opposed the punishment, which was described by J. B. Friedrich, a contemporary authority on criminal justice, as “a terrible judicial murder” (115-16).

James notes that the diagnosis of Woyzeck provided by Büchner's Doctor is not unreasonable in the context of contemporary systems of classifying mental disease, though his “outspoken relish in pronouncing his diagnosis to the disturbed man himself” is unreasonable, even grotesque. “Fixed ideas” were considered at the time to be partial mental disturbances or madness. Particularly in the early part of the nineteenth century they were associated with melancholy, which was defined by the French authority Dr. Philippe Pinel as a “delirium attached to an object.” As James writes, fixed ideas “involved a confusion of the subjective and the objective, the subject being convinced that a given fantasy attached to an object was literally true. It was much debated whether a person's derangement could really be limited to one area or object.” If so, could a person be considered sane in all other aspects of his life? If a person suffered from partial or periodic insanity associated with fixed ideas, he presumably could not be held accountable for acts committed when in that state, but what about behavior during the periods in which the person's behavior appeared to be normal and responsible? Clarus addressed this point in his report and concluded that Woyzeck's reason was never overpowered by “an incorrect or over-wrought concept of the objects of the physical or transcendental world or by the conditions of his own physical and moral personality” such that the “free perspective for other conditions was distorted and the proper assessment of them obscured.” In other words, he did not suffer from fixed ideas and was therefore accountable for his actions. Had Clarus's diagnosis agreed with that of Büchner‘s Doctor, Woyzeck's life would have been spared, which is not to say that Büchner is not mocking the Doctor and his disregard for the well-being and humanity of his fellow men (105-107).

James proposes an additional model for Büchner's Doctor, the one he was closest to and knew best: his own father, who also functioned as a court doctor and wrote expert opinions for the court, some of which were published (109-110).

Finally, James discusses the debate taking place in Büchner's time concerning the nature of animals, in particular the seemingly human attributes of animals that perform tricks, as do the animals in Büchner's carnival scene. Do animals have souls, imagination, feeling, free will, a form of language, or are they simply machines? This debate connects to the emerging evolutionary theory that appalled defenders of free will such as Heinroth and Clarus (117). “It is not a coincidence,” James writes,

that Grohmann, who viewed Woyzeck as a victim of social and environmental circumstances and of physiological determination, was “evolutionary” in his thinking, rejecting as early as 1820 teleological explanations of evolution which Büchner later mocked in his Woyzeck, and which he seriously combatted in his lecture “Über die Schädelnerven.”


As a number of critics have pointed out, the focus on Woyzeck given by the play's title is an editorial construct, since there is no mention of a title in the manuscripts or any of Büchner's letters. It is conceivable that Büchner's title for the play would have included Marie's name along with Woyzeck's, as is the case with Leonce und Lena. And while Woyzeck has certainly been at the center of most criticism, a number of critics have recognized the tragic dimension of Marie's fate and have exonerated her and placed the blame on Woyzeck and society, which has instilled in him the notion of erotic possessiveness. Those efforts have not been enough for feminist critics, however, who consider criticism of the play to be unbalanced in favor of Woyzeck and a patriarchal view of the world, and who turn their attention to Marie.

Taking her cue from a performance of the play in Sydney, Australia in which the actor playing Woyzeck rammed his knife up between Marie's legs and later commented in an interview that “it felt good to kill Marie in this manner because he, Woyzeck, had been dependent on Marie's sexuality for too long” (294), Kerry Dunne sets out in an article published in 1990 to demonstrate that Marie is as much a victim as Woyzeck. In her sexuality Marie is subject to the demands of her nature just as Woyzeck is when he pisses on the wall or when he creates a child without the blessings of the church. In addition, she is also a victim of her sexual attractiveness and desirability. In Dunne's view, Büchner's aim is to rehabilitate sexuality as a meaningful and natural part of human existence, but to do so would have required that Woyzeck be brought to trial and sentenced, which would have repudiated the societal values upon which the murder was based, namely, the assumption that women are men's possessions (294, 304-7).

Noting the recent attention given to love and sex in Büchner's works and to the female figures as those most clearly linked with love and the depiction of sexuality, Dunne intends to fill what she considers to be the need for a more detailed study of the play's sexual imagery. She considers Marie to be a parallel figure to the Drum Major and the Sergeant: each uses animal imagery and refers to parts of the body in responding to the physical appeal and animal vitality of the other. Marie's reference to the Drum Major's beard, for example, has symbolic associations with male virility and public hair, Dunne maintains, which betray the erotic nature of her interest. The Sergeant's comment about her heavy dark hair shows he is “responding to her sensual appearance and his statement that its weight could pull her down, indicates not only the abundance of hair, but is also perhaps an indirect expression of his desire to see her lying beneath him.” The Sergeant's stress on the blackness of Marie's eyes suggests “the physiological response of enlarged pupils during sexual arousal,” Dunne interprets rather fancifully. The reference to her hair dragging her down also implies that her sexuality could be her downfall, and the reference to her black eyes introduces the notion of death (296-97).

The Drum Major amplifies on his colleague's implied innuendoes when he compares looking into her eyes with looking into a chimney or a well, “images which suggest an underlying image of the vagina.” Also having vaginal connotations, according to Dunne, are references to Marie's mouth and lips. As he is about to kill her, Woyzeck refers to her hot lips and the attraction they still have for him. Earlier, when he begins to suspect her, he refers to her red mouth and looks at her lips for a blister that would be evidence of her infidelity. “Blisters are traditionally a symbol of deceit,” Dunne writes, but could also be an allusion to a lesion from a sexually transmitted disease. In killing Marie, Woyzeck is not inflicting punishment for sin—he says he would forgo heaven in exchange for kissing her—he is acting out of sexual jealousy, as is indicated by his repeated stabbing of her body with the knife, which also suggests to Dunne “the phallic revenge on female sexuality that has castrated the owner (by preferring another lover)” (296-99, 304).

Most of these images point to a positive view of sexuality, Dunne writes. Since the imagery used in connection with Marie is similar to that used for the Drum Major, one cannot say that Marie or women are denigrated in Büchner's portrayal. His view of Marie and her fate is also indicated by his choice of her name, which refers both to Mary Magdalene and to the Virgin Mary. The choice of this name “suggests an authorial caution to the reader/viewer against the division of women into the pure and the carnal.” It has been suggested that Marie exploits her attractiveness and sexuality, the only bargaining power a poor woman has in a class-ridden, patriarchal society, to gain financial support from Woyzeck and to better her social standing through the Drum Major. But while Marie has indeed exploited her sexuality to obtain financial support from Woyzeck, Dunne argues, the images she uses to describe the Drum Major indicate that her involvement with him is not motivated merely by a desire to better herself but also by her sexual needs (298-99).

Dunne identifies two different types of cultural knowledge that determine the moral views of the play's characters: one derived from folk-songs, in which the existence of female sexuality is acknowledged and in part celebrated, and which reflect “the existence and power of sexuality in a relatively playful, non-judgmental manner,” and one derived from Christianity, which regards female sexuality as threatening and evil. It is the latter that prevents Büchner from rehabilitating the physical and sexual. Woyzeck and the Drum Major share the Christian view: the Drum Major asks whether the devil is in her, and Woyzeck views her as a sinner. Licentiousness, evil, and destruction are linked in Woyzeck's vision of Sodom and Gomorrah in the beginning scene, in his reaction to seeing Marie and the Drum Major dancing, and in his linkage of female sexuality with the devil in the final inn scene. The reason Woyzeck kills Marie rather than the Drum Major, Dunne writes, is that he acts not merely out of jealousy but as the instrument of punishment in a patriarchal society that considers female sexuality to be especially sinful and threatening and in which women are regarded as possessions. Even Marie herself is unable to embrace her sexuality in an unfettered way, as Marion does in Dantons Tod. Following her conflict with Margret, her neighbor, she accepts society's attitude toward her in referring to her child as a “whore's child,” and following Woyzeck's discovery of her with the earrings she calls herself a whore (ein schlecht Mensch). And when she cannot resist the Drum Major's advances, she longs in vain to be able to follow the example of the repentant Mary Magdalene (295, 300, 302-6).

Countering the devaluation of the physical and sexual within society is the admonition by the Barker to accept our animal nature. Woyzeck is torn between the two views: in defending himself against the Captain and the Doctor, he considers his poverty and the demands of his nature to be excuses for his “immoral” behavior, but he accepts the views of society as represented by his oppressors when he punishes and takes revenge on Marie for her sin. Without explaining how or why, Dunne claims that if Woyzeck were to have been “brought to trial and sentenced, then not only would the overall importance of societal values be different but Woyzeck would be punished,” an outcome resulting in a view of sexuality more in accordance with that represented by Marion (302-306).

Writing in the same year as Dunne, Elisabeth Boa, too, notes the incongruity between Woyzeck's appeal to nature in defense of his performance of bodily functions and his inability to see Marie's transgression in the same light, namely, as nature “in revolt against a life denuded of pleasure,” but Boa places greater blame on class structure and social conditions. In her view, both Marie and Woyzeck are subject to brutal assertions of power by those who treat them as instruments to be exploited: the power of knowledge and science represented by the Doctor and the power of a repressive morality represented by the Captain. Another contributing factor is the “antithetical structuring of masculinity and femininity,” which includes the sexual division of labor in which Woyzeck and Marie are caught up—he to provide for his family, she to mother their child—and the sexual antagonism that is created by this division. In a patriarchal society, men have exclusive right of ownership of the female body, and mothers are not supposed to feel sexual desire. The allocation of power to men provokes Marie's reaction and her willingness to use her sexuality as a vehicle of power, though internalized religious teachings make her feel guilty. Furthermore, Boa writes, the sexually active woman in a patriarchal society provokes a violent reassertion of male dominance and the barbaric reassertion of his masculinity, as is the case when Woyzeck murders Marie. As long as the sexes remain divided, social justice is impossible (1990, 174-77).

Contrary to Dunne's reading of the folk songs as an affirmation of sexuality, Laura Martin sees them in an article published in 1997 as representing an ideology according to which loose women represent a social problem. Martin claims that Marie's sexual promiscuity “indicates her belief in herself as a free agent,” which goes against patriarchy's ownership of women. Woyzeck is not destabilized by his diet of peas or the other abuse he suffers as a poor man but by Marie's refusal to be controlled by him, or by “her ignorance that she is to be considered his property, his chattel” (436). The contribution of Christianity is not different from that of the folk songs, according to Martin, though it is less light-hearted, and it introduces the concept of sin and retribution. In applying the Biblical concepts, Woyzeck becomes “the prophet of the apocalypse” (436-37).

With reference to René Girard's book Violence and the Sacred, Martin considers Marie to be an example of the scapegoat whose sacrifice Girard considers to be the foundation of every religion. The scapegoat must be similar to the real or potential perpetrators of violence in order to substitute for them, but it must also be different enough not to threaten the commonality. “What better victim, then, than a woman?” Martin asks. “A woman is the same, but different, other.” The scapegoat must be sufficiently other for its sacrifice not to require revenge, a demand fulfilled, Martin claims, by the loose woman. The “sacrificial crisis” preceding the act of sacrifice is a communal situation in which distinctions have been erased, according to Girard. Martin finds such a loss of distinctions in the play's repeated equation of animal and human, and in the supposed loss, or at least confusion, of class distinctions that occurs here in the false application of bourgeois morality to a member of the proletariat. The Doctor's and Captain's “nagging” of Woyzeck is inappropriate and misplaced, Martin maintains, “for it assumes a sameness of outlook and lifestyle between these two classes which simply does not exist.” In fact, Marie and Woyzeck have no need to be as “moral” as the Doctor and the Captain, since “Kantian moral free will is … contingent on class and upbringing.” Finally, distinction between the sexes also begins to blur: Marie is “uncharacteristically active for a woman character.” She is closer to Faust than to Gretchen in her masculine will to experience pleasure. Woyzeck, on the other hand, is passive, lacking in will power, and effeminate. He is easily victimized by the real men in what Martin calls their “thirst for violence” (437-38, 441).

Martin weakens her argument by pointing out that the act of sacrifice in Girard's sense is a communal activity, whereas Woyzeck acts alone. “The Girardian sacrificial crisis cannot ever be resolved in the play, for there is no unanimity in the choice of the victim: at times it appears to be Woyzeck himself, yet he chooses his own victim in the form of Marie.” Thus the choice of Marie as scapegoat, which Martin has considered so obvious, is

not unproblematic, and it is in fact on this paradox that the play turns. Only if all those involved were to agree on the necessity of her death could the play be a tragedy in the ancient sense of that word. All the evils threatening the social order would be heaped upon Marie's shoulders and Woyzeck would be the hero for ridding society of the unclean thing.


But of course Woyzeck himself is an outcast whose deed is not celebrated by society but condemned and punished. In our time of “objective justice,” the sacrifice of an ignorant and unstable fool like Woyzeck can no longer be accepted as a legitimate means of eliminating violence from society. Thus, neither Woyzeck nor Marie can serve as a proper scapegoat. The conclusion, then, with respect to Girard's theory is that it is impossible to find the perfect victim in a society that lacks “consensus and a community of faith” (439).

Martin nevertheless tries to defend her hypothesis by claiming that Marie succeeds in her role as victim. She is the only one of Woyzeck's tormentors to accept any guilt for the effect her actions have on him, and in saying that she could stab herself, she reveals a readiness for self-sacrifice. Readers and audiences seem willing to recognize her suitability as a sacrificial victim: “violence against a woman is disapproved of, yet understood, and therefore actually effectively condoned.” The community that condemns Woyzeck is the same one that spurred him on to the deed. Marie's spilt blood becomes a purifying libation to the gods. She becomes “the scapegoat for crimes not committed by her, but by her supposed social superiors, if anyone. Woyzeck then is not so much about the victimization of the hero as it is the portrait of the development of the violent criminal—or of the accession to manhood in our rotten society” (439-40, 442).

In a study of Woyzeck published in 1991, Edward McInnes comes closer to Boa than to Dunne in the emphasis he places on the social dimension of Marie's attraction to the Drum Major. With his fine clothing and ability to give her a valuable gift—she thinks the earrings could be gold—he represents for her a higher social standing and affirms her view of herself as equal to the grand ladies. According to McInnes, the Drum Major senses from the beginning a strong impulse of revolt in Marie's responses to him, and he is able to exploit it for his own ends. In strutting before her and referring to the Prince's admiration of his manliness, he impresses on her that he is socially sophisticated and successful and that he is at ease in all strata of society. The gift of the earrings confirms his status as a man of some means. In seducing her, he is able to take advantage of her dissatisfaction with her social status and her frustration with her narrow and demeaned existence. In yielding to his seduction, McInnes argues, Marie not only expresses her strong sensuality, she also reveals a strong impulse of social rebellion and revolt (1991, 21-23).

As opposed to his emphasis on the social dimension of Marie's situation, McInnes considers the murder to be an entirely personal matter concerning Woyzeck and Marie alone, and he downplays the importance of the Captain and the Doctor as vehicles of social protest. They may be seen to “embody a strong socially enforced authority,” he writes, but “both are in reality anguished men, each in his own way ravaged by a deep sense of existential horror and apprehension.” They are “torn by feelings of inner emptiness and of their estrangement from a world in which they can see no ultimate sustaining meaning.” Büchner seeks through them “to lay bare a disabling sense of metaphysical desolation which neither can fully articulate much less confront” (31, 47).

In his 1994 Georg Büchner: The Shattered Whole, the first book-length study of Büchner published in English since the 1970s, John Reddick follows a trend of recent scholarship to establish more fully and accurately the intellectual, cultural, social, and political contexts that provide a background for evaluating and interpreting Büchner's works. Reddick discusses in four introductory chapters some of the primary elements of Büchner's thought and art. Although Büchner's artistic vision is disjunctive with its insistence on fragments and particles, he believed in the fundamental unity and wholeness of nature, and this, Reddick claims, locates him in the German tradition of Naturphilosophie, which was already outdated at the time (9). Consequently, Reddick considers Büchner to be “hopelessly remote from the prevailing spirit of his time” in his “reliance on idealist, poetical, mystical notions” and his rejection of rationalist philosophy and mechanistic science (39-40). The manner of his writing is “inexorably un- and anti-classical,” but “the faith and vision that underlies it is classical almost to the point of anachronism” (13). Reddick considers Büchner to be involved in a “Rearguard Action,” as his second chapter is entitled, and dismisses Büchner's often-quoted pronouncement on fatalism as “the sonorous trumpeting of a transient mood” (29), a reading that is based not on evidence from the text but on the fact that Büchner did not cease his political activity after supposedly gaining this shattering insight. He identifies a similar contradiction or paradox in the discrepancy between Büchner's scornful dismissal of intellect and learning and his relentless pursuit of knowledge. Reddick finds similar inconsistencies in the main figures of Büchner's works; they appear to be part of the fullness and quickness of life Büchner wants to capture in his art and that he opposes to the marionettes of idealist art, whose mechanistic obsessions and behavior he caricatures in such figures as King Peter in Leonce und Lena and the Doctor and the Captain in Woyzeck (50).

Fundamental to Büchner's thought, Reddick writes, is his affirmation of life and his emphasis on the individual, each of which is a valuable manifestation of a primal law and exists in and of itself. (“Everything that exists, exists for its own sake” [II.292].) He is antagonistic to every kind of anti-life force or process. King Peter in Leonce und Lena is satirized for his anti-life philosophizing, the Doctor, Büchner's “most savagely satirical stooge,” for his “anti-life scientizing” (43, 46). The Doctor sacrifices his patients to an excess of science. He is not interested in helping suffering individuals but rather in promoting his own self-interest. At the same time, he is also a laughable victim, who is demented by his own version of the fixed idea he diagnoses in Woyzeck. In speaking of freedom of will to the man he has enslaved, he contradicts and refutes his own theories, as he does also in praising individuality while denying the existence of individuals, who for him are reduced to the status of specimens or cases (46-49).

The Captain represents a variant on the comic model of power, according to Reddick. He plays a role similar to King Peter's: both figures occupy the supreme power position within their respective plays, Reddick writes, “but in comic contrast to the might and mantle of their positions, both of them are puny and petrified, and utterly dwarfed by their ostensible victims.” Both are easily thrown into confusion, and they share a sense of fear, which is at once existential and the product of thinking. As has been frequently pointed out, the Captain is more complex and interesting than the Doctor, since he is “stricken by glimpses of an abyss that in varying forms critically affects the destinies of all Büchner's central characters.” Because he fears infinitude and eternity, time appears monstrous to him. As opposed to Woyzeck, he behaves as an abject coward in his avoidance of the abyss and in his attempts to seek refuge in artificial constructs such as specious morality and a measured routine of unhurried activity (50-52).

Reddick cautions against taking any particular speech or argument as the play's ultimate truth. The statements by Woyzeck and Marie relating to poverty, for example, are not sufficient, in his view, to characterize the play as a social drama. In fact, Büchner's Woyzeck is much better off than his historical counterpart: he has some income, a place to stay, and a familial relationship with Marie and their child, none of which was true for the historical Woyzeck. The first draft of the play contains no sign of poverty, the second, not much more. In H4 Büchner thematizes poverty and projects it in class terms, but it is not a central issue. Furthermore, Reddick continues, Woyzeck contradicts himself no less than does the Doctor: in defending himself against the Captain for his illegitimate child and against the Doctor for his inability to control his bladder, he cites the demands of nature, but, as the feminist critics point out, he condemns and punishes Marie for yielding to the demands of her nature. Likewise, the words of the Barker relating to the animal nature of man and the words of the Journeyman concerning the teleological view of life are not meant to be swallowed whole. At issue in the play, according to Reddick, are “questions of civilization as against nature; moral choice as against animal compulsion; responsibility and accountability; crime and punishment; sin and retribution.” Büchner conjures up a context that “challenges the very idea of humanity, society, civilization” (304-308).

Büchner's concern is with the nature of man; the whole play can be seen as a kind of “Ecce homo.” According to Reddick's count, the word “Mensch” (man, mankind), which, apart from proper nouns and titles, is the most frequently used noun in all Büchner's poetic writings, appears 78 times in Woyzeck, which is considerably more than in Dantons Tod (29 times) and Leonce und Lena (34 times). The personae are not presented as “quirky individuals caught up in the specificity of their particular personality and history, but emblematically, as archetypes” (336). (Reddick sees the interspersion of song fragments as a device that encourages us to see the story in archetypal terms [337-44].) Woyzeck's story can be understood in the terms of the child's questions in the Grandmother's tale as to the what and the why of man. He is more profoundly tormented than any other of Büchner's protagonists by the gulf “between thinking and knowing, between subject and object, between the lonely, errant, solipsistic mind and the objective reality of the world outside” (350).

It is not surprising, given Büchner's background and the direction of his study, that illness, especially psychological illness, appears in all his works and is of primary importance in Lenz and Woyzeck. Analysis of the illnesses he portrays and their treatment, or lack of it, and the relationship of Büchner's position to the medical knowledge and practice of his time has been the object of two published dissertations in the nineties: Sabine Kubik's Krankheit und Medizin im literarischen Werk Georg Büchners (Sickness and Medicine in the Literary Works of Georg Büchner) was written as a dissertation at the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich in 1990 and published in 1991; and Büchner and Madness: Schizophrenia in Georg Büchner's Lenz and Woyzeck by James Crighton, a retired medical doctor, was presented as a dissertation at the University of Leicester in 1994 and published in 1998.

Kubik agrees with Dorothy James that Büchner's play was not written merely as a counterargument to Clarus but also and even more as a critique of the scientific view of medicine and the scientific method of investigation that were becoming predominant at the time. According to Kubik, Woyzeck is not presented unequivocally as organically sick or as a psychopathic murderer. The play contains no explicit diagnosis of Woyzeck's condition, and the question of his accountability remains open. In his awareness of the complexity of human behavior, determined as it is by hereditary and social factors, Büchner does not consider a clear judgment to be possible, and he is therefore critical of the unequivocalness that is a central postulate of forensic and juridical discourse. Emphasizing the inadequacy of the means of evaluation in those fields, he begins his investigation or presentation where medicine and justice reach their limits (167-70).

Kubik finds support for her argument in her study of the sequence of manuscripts, from which she concludes that Büchner gives greater emphasis in the second stage of the play's composition (H2) to Woyzeck's pathology and the origins of his illness. Through the introduction of the Captain and especially the Doctor, Büchner establishes a causal connection between Woyzeck's illness, the severity of which is increased in H2, and the socially superior figures who exploit and abuse him. The Doctor's interest in Woyzeck is limited to his diagnosis of Woyzeck's illness and to the contribution he may be able to make to the progress of science. He makes no attempt to treat or heal him. On the contrary, his experiments contribute significantly to Woyzeck's destabilization, Kubik assumes. Unfortunately, Kubik relies for most of her evidence on two scenes whose inclusion in the final version is questionable, namely, H2,7, in which the Doctor makes Woyzeck the victim of his scientific observations, and H3,1, in which Woyzeck is treated no better than an animal, and in which his symptoms can “undoubtedly” be attributed to the diet of peas the Doctor has subjected him to (64-71).

In his lack of humanity and medical ethics, the Doctor represents a type of scientist that was not uncommon in an era when positivistic, empirical scientific investigation was replacing the romantic, speculative Naturphilosophie as the dominant mode of discovery and in which science was becoming less human. Kubik refers to the similarity between Justus Liebig's nutritional experiments on soldiers and the Doctor's experiment on Woyzeck, and she also cites the example of doctors who dissected their own relations, including one Philip Meckel who dissected three of his own deceased children and used his eight-year-old nephew as his assistant (181-83, 189).

Though Büchner is seen by many critics as a precursor of modern literature, and though his influence on writers in the twentieth century has indeed been widespread and profound, Büchner belonged very much to his own time in dealing with actual problems of the new positivistic science, according to Kubik. His doctor is the first in German literature to be oriented to the natural sciences, and he is the only one in the century to be treated critically, Kubik claims: the other doctor figures in this period are heroized and idealized in keeping with the new faith in the progress of science. Not until the expressionists in the twentieth century were doctors again seen with a similarly critical eye (250-58).

James Crighton's study is similar to Kubik's in its historical review of philosophical and medical theories of madness and of the occurrence of madness in works of literature. In keeping with his medical background and his diagnosis of Woyzeck, however, he gives greater emphasis to the symptoms and medical descriptions of what later became known as schizophrenia. Unlike Kubik, he does not consider the Doctor, who is but one part of Woyzeck's threatening and unfathomable world, to be responsible for Woyzeck's breakdown. According to Crighton, the roots of Woyzeck's madness lie in his “resistance (defiance would be too strong a word) to the relentless forces which have shaped the world he lives in and which have condemned him to subjection.” Andres and Marie inhabit the same world, but they are protected by their passivity. Woyzeck attempts to understand the world and to cling to the woman who gives his life meaning and stability. In his attempt to find meaning in life and in nature, he is driven ever deeper into unreason. Finally he sees only chaos in the world and he sees himself devoid of all freedom. In what he calls “double nature” Woyzeck perceives an unbridgeable gap between appearances and reality, most painfully in the person of Marie. His suffering is “caught in this gulf between the essence of things and their appearance,” a gulf also evident in his relationship to Marie, his mate and the mother of his child, in whom he discovers a whore (284, 275-76).

Works Cited

Boa, Elizabeth. “Whores and Hetairas. Sexual Politics in the Works of Büchner and Wedekind.” In Tradition and Innovation: 14 Essays, ed. Ken Mills and Brian Keith-Smith, 161-81. Bristol: U of Bristol P, 1990.

Crighton, James. Büchner and Madness: Schizophrenia in Georg Büchner's Lenz and Woyzeck. Bristol German Publications, Vol. 9. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1998.

Dedner, Burghard. “Die Handlung des Woyzeck: wechselnde Orte—geschlossene Form.” Georg Büchner Jahrbuch 7 (1988/89): 144-70.

Dunne, Kerry. “Woyzeck's Marie ‘Ein schlecht Mensch’?: The Construction of Feminine Sexuality in Büchner's WoyzeckSeminar 26 (1990): 294-308.

Gray, Richard T. “The Dialectic of Enlightenment in Büchner's Woyzeck.The German Quarterly 61 (1988): 78-96.

Guthrie, John. Lenz and Büchner: Studies in Dramatic Form. Frankfurt: Lang, 1984.

James, Dorothy. “The ‘Interesting Case’ of Büchner's Woyzeck.” In Patterns of Change: German Drama and the European Tradition: Essays in Honour of Ronald Peacock. Ed. Dorothy James and Sylvia Ranawake, 103-19. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.

Kittsteiner, Heinz-Dieter and Helmut Lethen. “Ich-Losigkeit, Entbürgerlichung und Zeiterfahrung. Über die Gleichgültigkeit zur ‘Geschichte’ in Büchner's Woyzeck.Georg Büchner Jahrbuch 3 (1983): 240-269.

Kubik, S. Krankheit und Medizin im literarischen Werk Georg Büchners. Stuttgart: M. & P. Verlag für Wissenschaft und Forschung, 1991.

Larsen, Svend Erik. “Die Macht der Machtlosen. Über Lenz und Woyzeck.” In Georg Büchner im interkulturellen Dialog. Eds. Klaus Bohnen and Ernst-Ulrich Pinkert, 176-94. Copenhagen: Verlag Text und Kontext; Munich: Fink, 1988.

Martin, Laura. “‘Schlechtes Mensch/gutes Opfer’: The Role of Marie in Georg Büchner's Woyzeck.German Life and Letters 50 (1997): 427-44.

Mayer, Thomas Michael. “Zu einigen neueren Tendenzen der Büchner Forschung. Ein kritischer Literaturbericht (Teil II: Editionen).” In Georg Büchner III. Special issue in the series Text und Kritik, ed. Heinz Ludwig, 265-311. Munich: edition text + kritik, 1981.

McInnes, Edward. Büchner, Woyzeck. Glasgow: U. of Glasgow French and German Publications, 1991.

Meier, Albert. Georg Büchner: “Woyzeck”. Munich: Fink, 1980.

Oesterle, Ingrid. “Verbale Präsenz und poetische Rücknahme des literarischen Schauers. Nachweise zur ästhetischen Vermitteltheit des Fatalismusproblems in Georg Büchners Woyzeck.Georg Büchner Jahrbuch 3 (1983): 168-99.

Patterson, Michael. “Contradictions Concerning Time in Büchner's ‘Woyzeck.’” German Life and Letters 32 (1978-79): 115-21.

Poschmann, Henri. Georg Büchner: Dichtung der Revolution und Revolution der Dichtung. Berlin, Weimar: Aufbau Verlag, 1983.

———. “Büchner ein Klassiker?” In Büchner. Zeit, Geist, Zeit-Genossen, 73-88. Darmstadt: Technische Hochschule Darmstadt, 1989.

Reddick, John. Georg Büchner: The Shattered Whole. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Reuchlein, Georg. Das Problem der Zurechnungsfähigkeit bei E. T. A. Hoffmann und Georg Büchner: Zum Verhältnis von Literatur, Psychiatrie und Justiz im frühen 19. Jahrhundert. Frankfurt: Lang, 1985.

Wetzel, Heinz. “Die Entwicklung Woyzecks in Büchners Entwurfen.” Euphorion 74 (1980): 375-96.

Further Reading

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Bamforth, Iain. “Writing with a Scalpel: Georg Büchner.” PN Review 26, no. 16 (July-August 2000): 17-26.

Includes a partial English translation of Büchner's Lenz preceded by a brief biographical introduction to the novella.

Bohm, Arnd. “Büchner's Lucile and the Situation of Celan's ‘Der Meridian.’” Michigan Germanic Studies 17, no. 2 (fall 1991): 119-27.

Traces similarities of theme in Paul Celan's “Der Meridian” and Danton's Death.

Constabile, Carol Anne. “Christa Wolf's Büchner Prize Acceptance Speech: An Exercise in Sprach- and Kulturkritik.Germanic Notes 22, no. 1-2 (1991): 58-61.

Mentions Lenz as part of a discussion of the modern contradiction between scientific and literary language.

Del Caro, Adrian. “Paul Celan's Uncanny Speech.” Philosophy and Literature 18, no. 2 (October 1994): 211-24.

Explores the concept of “the uncanny” (das Unheimliche) in literature, applying this idea to works by Büchner, Paul Celan, and others.

Hermand, Jost. “Deepest Misery—Highest Art: Alban Berg's Wozzeck.Houston German Studies 8 (1992): 173-92.

Calls Alban Berg's Wozzeck “the greatest opera of the twentieth century” and explores the work's relationship to its literary source, Büchner's drama Woyzeck.

Horton, David. “Georg Büchner's Lenz in English.” Babel 41, no. 2 (1995): 65-85.

Examines four English translations of Lenz, probing stylistic affinities between these texts and the German original.

Martin, Laura. “‘Schlechtes Mensch/Gutes Opfer’: The Role of Marie in Georg Büchner's Woyzeck.” In Gendering German Studies: New Perspectives on German Literature and Culture, edited by Margaret Littler, pp. 51-66. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Feminist analysis of Woyzeck that discusses what Martin considers the hypocritical male scapegoating and sacrifice of Maria in the drama.

Müller-Sievers, Helmut. “Büchner-Cult.” MLN 112, no. 3 (April 1997): 470-85.

Offers discussion and favorable reviews of Jan-Christoph Hauschild's biography Georg Büchner and John Reddick's critical study Georg Büchner: The Shattered Whole.

Perraudin, Michael. “Towards a New Cultural Life: Büchner and the ‘Volk.’” Modern Language Review 86, no. 3 (July 1991): 627-44.

Assesses Büchner's representation of common people (das Volk) in his dramas.

Richards, David G. Georg Büchner and the Birth of the Modern Drama. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977, 289 p.

Study of Büchner's seminal influence on modern theater.

Stern, Sheila. “Truth So Difficult: George Eliot and Georg Büchner: A Shared Theme.” Modern Language Review 96, no. 1 (January 2001): 1-13.

Suggests the possible thematic influence of Lenz on George Eliot's novel Adam Bede.

Walker, John. “‘Ach die Kunst! … Ach, die erbärmliche Wirklichkeit!’ Suffering, Empathy, and the Relevance of Realism in Büchner's Lenz.Forum for Modern Language Studies 33, no. 2 (April 1997): 157-70.

Describes the tension between human empathy and philosophical idealism illustrated in Büchner's Lenz.

Additional coverage of Büchner's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 133; European Writers, Vol. 6; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 26; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; and Twayne's World Authors.

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