“Lenz” is a fictionalized account of an episode in the life of the troubled dramatist Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792) which was recorded by Johann Friedrich Oberlin, a pastor in whose care Lenz was placed when he began showing increasing signs of mental disturbance in 1778.
The beginning of Georg Büchner’s account finds Lenz traveling on foot across the hills and valleys of the Vosges Mountains toward the village of Waldbach. As he walks, he passes in and out of a state of anxiety. He sees fantastic images in the wet, snowy landscape, in the cloud formations, and in the shifting sunlight. Like one hallucinating, he imagines that he must absorb the whole of creation, and he throws himself to the ground; “It was an ecstasy that hurt him.” At other times, he feels very much alone and pursued by some unbearable thing, “seized with a nameless terror in this nothingness: he was in the void!” Then, each time, the terrifying attack passes, and he regains his calm and continues on his way. When he finally arrives at the vicarage in Waldbach—where he is quite unexpected but is hospitably received by Oberlin and his family—the domestic serenity of the place calms Lenz and recalls to him familiar images of contentment from earlier times at home.
He is given lodging in an upstairs room of the village schoolhouse, but before he can sleep, the anxiety of being alone and in darkness returns. Lenz rushes downstairs and into the street, bruising and cutting himself on the stone walls. He leaps into the water of the fountain and soon comes to his senses. Oberlin and other villagers come to his aid, and Lenz is ashamed of his bizarre behavior. Exhausted, he is finally able to sleep.
In the days following, he accompanies Oberlin on his pastoral rounds through the valley and is comforted by the man’s acts of charity and sensible practicality, as well as by the affection that the rural people feel toward their benefactor. With nightfall Lenz’s anxiety returns, however, and he continues his nocturnal baths in the village fountain, though more quietly, so as not to alarm his hosts and the other residents.
One day, after a solitary walk in new-fallen snow, he tells Oberlin that perhaps he might deliver a sermon in the church. Oberlin asks him if he is a theologian, and Lenz answers that he is. His request is granted for the next Sunday. Lenz preaches the sermon, and its effect on him is euphoric. With a sense of cosmic communion and self-pity, a “voluptuous crisis” suggestive of the late-medieval mystics, he passes the night in profound sleep. The following morning, he tells Oberlin of having dreamed of his mother’s death, and their conversation turns to reports and experiences of clairvoyance and premonitions.
A man, Christoph Kaufmann, with whom Lenz is already acquainted, comes with his fiancé to visit Oberlin and his family. Lenz is troubled by this intrusion into his relatively anonymous life in Waldbach. At a dinner conversation about literature, Lenz argues for the honest, simple representation of life, and against the artificial idealism currently becoming fashionable. Kaufmann tells him that he has received letters from Lenz’s father and tries to persuade him to return home, but Lenz is angered by the suggestion that he should leave the place where he has found peace.
When Kaufmann departs, Oberlin goes with him to visit a colleague in nearby Switzerland. Lenz is apprehensive about the separation and accompanies the pastor for a part of the way. On his way back to Waldbach he comes to the cottage...
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of an old woman and a girl who is subject to mysterious convulsions and appears to possess visionary powers. He passes a strangely restless night there. During the days that he spends with Oberlin’s family in the pastor’s absence, Lenz’s religious and emotional torments become more intense again. He hears of a young girl who has died in another village, and he decides to go to the place in sackcloth and ashes. He prays over the corpse and implores God to revive the child by a miracle. When no miracle occurs he flees in terror. He is seized with a fit of blasphemous anger.
Oberlin returns from his trip and tries to restore Lenz’s faith in Christ’s redeeming love, but Lenz is convinced of his irreparable sinfulness and falls once again into the pattern of violent nighttime seizures and garbled discourses during the day. He attempts suicide. He wanders off, insisting that he be arrested as a murderer, and is brought back by two shopkeepers. His behavior, even in Oberlin’s presence, becomes more and more irrational, and his speech becomes more and more fitful and incoherent. The attacks that he formerly suffered only at night now occur during the day as well. Lenz struggles with himself, complains that the silence of the valley is unbearably loud, seeks physical pain to deny the emptiness that he feels, and again throws himself into the street from an upstairs window. Finally even Oberlin’s patient faith in a recovery is exhausted, and he has Lenz taken under close surveillance to Strasbourg for his eventual return to the care of friends in Germany. The account breaks off with a terse description of the momentarily subdued but empty man.