Extracts from the Sep 2015 Journal

Literature and disease

As an inescapable element in the human condition, sickness and injury have played a part throughout world literature, from Philoctetes in Homer’s Iliad, abandoned on the island of Lemnos with a festering wound in his foot, to Shakespeare’s demonically deformed Richard III and to modern classics like Albert Camus’s La Peste, in which an epidemic of bubonic plague afflicts the city of Oran (Algeria).
In the early nineteenth century, the theme of disease took on a new dimension with the Romantics, as a concomitant to that generation of writers’ drastic sense of alienation from the commercial, materialistic values that increasingly dominated society in the era of the dawning Industrial Revolution. The artist’s awareness of his displacement to the periphery in a modern, market-driven society was first expressed in Goethe’s drama Torquato Tasso (published 1790), where the artist-hero is presented as having access to a realm of higher truth but, at the same time, as radically unsuited to life in the everyday world: ‘Sein Auge weilt auf dieser Erde kaum;/ Sein Ohr vernimmt den Einklang der Natur’ (His eye barely rests on this earth;/ His ear hears the harmonies of nature).
Disease as a metaphor for the artist’s alienation from the modern world played a central role in the writings of the Romantics, reflecting their sense of the divide that had opened up between art and life. Indeed, disease and early death were a feature of the Romantic generation: they often died young, of disease (Keats, aged 25, of tuberculosis; Novalis, pseudonym of Friedrich von Hardenberg, aged 28, of the same condition; or Byron, aged 36, of a fever contracted in Greece); in accidents (Shelley, drowned aged 29 off the coast of Italy); lapsed into drug use (Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey), or into madness (Friedrich Hölderlin). Often they existed on the fringes of society, only achieving due recognition posthumously.
An archetypal Romantic artist figure in this respect was the poet-forger Thomas Chatterton, a precocious prodigy who, by the time of his suicide in 1770 at the age of 17, had built up a considerable body of work. Chatterton’s premature death in his attic room in Brook Street, Holborn, became emblematic of the unsuitedness of the Romantic poet to life in modern bourgeois society. His life and early death were commemorated by a number of Romantic poets, including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats, while Alfred de Vigny’s play Chatterton (1835) is one of the key texts of the Romantic movement in France. Other Romantics were also, in Keats’s phrase, ‘half in love with easeful Death’: following the death of his fiancée Sophie von Kühn two days after her fifteenth birthday, Novalis developed something approaching a cult of death and the grave.
By the late nineteenth century, the Romantic theme of the dissonance between art and life had in Germany been developed into a system of ideas that posited a polar opposition between body and mind, health and disease, between the forces of life and strength and those of thought and intellect. Influential here were such philosophers as Schopenhauer, with his bleak vision of the blind instinctual forces, ‘the will’, that underlay the surface phenomena of human existence, and Nietzsche, with his ideas of the will to power and his affirmation of ‘life’ and strength, as well as Darwinian concepts of life as the survival of the fittest. Like everything associated with the realm of the mind, art came to be seen as opposed to life, as part of those elements in the human psyche that threatened to paralyse action and decisiveness, leaving them, in Hamlet’s words, ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’.
In the works of Thomas Mann (1875, Lübeck - 1955, Zurich) the theme of the art/life dichotomy reached a highpoint. Mann’s early stories frequently revolve around disease and disablement, as in Der kleine Herr Friedemann (Little Herr Friedemann, 1897), where the main character’s existence is defined by his deformity, and Tristan (1903), set in a sanatorium, where an artist figure, Detlev Spinell, and a businessman, Anton Klöterjahn, seem to compete for the affections of Klöterjahn’s ailing wife. Whereas Klöterjahn is the image of virility and energy – ‘Klöten’ means ‘testicles’ in North German dialect – Spinell is an effeminate aesthete who shrinks from life. By persuading Gabriele Klöterjahn to play the ‘Liebestod’ (Love-Death) from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, Spinell precipitates the haemorrhage that kills her. The two men embody the contrast between the healthy, ‘normal’ bourgeois and the artist, who is linked both to creativity and the world of the mind and also to disease and death.
Buddenbrooks (1901), the novel that established Mann’s reputation, chronicles the decline of a successful Lübeck merchant family, as its ‘healthy’ commercial instincts are progressively undermined, from generation to generation, by the spirit of art. In this novel, the connection between artistic creativity and disease is made unmistakably plain. When Thomas Buddenbrook, the third generation to head the family, weds the exotic Gerda Arnoldsen from Amsterdam, the family’s fate is sealed: Gerda, who lives primarily for her music, has the red hair and prominent veins in her temples that are the mark of the artist, and she duly passes her love of music on to her sickly son Hanno, who falls under the thrall of Wagner’s music and dies of typhus in adolescence. As the vitality of the Buddenbrooks, expressed both in physical energy and in commercial ruthlessness and decisiveness, gives way to eccentricity, reflectiveness and artistic inclination, the contrast deepens between the healthy normality of the ‘Bürger’ and those who deviate from the path of normality to indulge in the heady but perilous delights of art and the mind.
It is in Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice, 1912) that Mann works out most brilliantly and profoundly the relationship between art and disease. The novella recounts the respected writer Gustav von Aschenbach’s visit to Venice, where he becomes obsessed with a beautiful Polish boy, Tadzio, to the extent of ignoring the outbreak of cholera, and where he dies. But Aschenbach does not die of homosexual infatuation, though that is certainly an indicator of the collapse of his moral and spiritual defences, nor does he die of cholera. He dies, one might say, of art. Aschenbach has sought to evade the ‘unhealthy’ and potentially immoral, decadent and life-threatening forces inherent in art, by cultivating a form of writing that is highly refined in its classical purity of style and its strict formal discipline, which seemingly reflect a moral aesthetic. But art can never be moral; relying as it does on formal beauty, it appeals to the senses, is thus at best amoral and, as Aschenbach’s fate demonstrates, all too often immoral. For in Tadzio, who is described as ‘perfectly beautiful’, like a Greek statue, Aschenbach encounters the formal beauty after which he had been striving in his literary works – and it kills him, after first destroying his self-discipline and moral resolve.
Pure beauty of form, the ideal of classical art, has two faces. On the one hand, as in Aschenbach’s mature works, it appears as harmonious, serene and rational, qualities linked by Mann to the Greek deity Apollo, god of clarity, lucidity and reason. On the other hand, art derives from the irrational forces of creative inspiration, stemming from darker wellsprings associated in the novella with Dionysus/Bacchus, god of wine and fertile invention; in the nightmare of a Bacchic orgy that torments Aschenbach towards the end of the novella, the true nature of art and the artist is made brutally clear. As the cholera that afflicts Venice has come from the East, from the tropical swamps of the Ganges delta, so too in Greek myth did Dionysus come to classical Greece from India, in a chariot drawn by tigers. As Hölderlin put it in the impassioned opening lines of his poem ‘Dichterberuf’ (‘The Poet’s Vocation’): ‘Des Ganges Ufer hörten des Freudengotts/ Triumph, als allerobernd vom Indus her/ Der junge Bacchus kam mit heilgem/ Weine vom Schlafe die Völker weckend’ (‘The banks of the Ganges heard the triumph of the God of Joy, as, all-conquering, young Bacchus came from the Indus, waking the peoples from their slumber with holy wine’).
Aschenbach had ventured as far as Venice, famous for its trading links with the East, but not, as he hoped, ‘as far as the tigers’. Instead, the tigers came, along with the cholera, to destroy him. In his later novels, Mann was to broaden out the theme of disease to encompass the political and cultural health of Europe. In Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain, 1924), a Swiss sanatorium provides the vantage point from which to explore the competing forces at play in a continent on the brink of world war. Finally, in Doktor Faustus (1947), Mann’s Faustian hero, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, makes his pact with the devil, by which he will be granted supreme artistic gifts, but at the price of being infected with syphilis; Leverkühn’s story unfolds in parallel with Germany’s pact with its own devil, Adolf Hitler.
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‘We will never forget you’

A young man sees the imminent danger of a country being swallowed up by Hitler’s hordes. He knows what this means to thousands of families who have already fled from Germany and Austria – Jews and non-Jews alike – some of them having experienced the horrors of Dachau and Buchenwald thinking they are safe in Czechoslovakia.
Nicholas Winton, aged 29, arrives in Prague in December 1938 and is taken to see the plight of hundreds of families huddled in the open in makeshift shelters – they are fleeing from Sudetenland, which is overrun by German troops and in danger once more.
These people are on their way to Prague, where they will besiege foreign embassies to find asylum anywhere in the world. A British delegation headed by Eleanor Rathbone has arrived in Prague to try and get these men, enemies of the Hitler regime, to Britain – but what of their wives, what of their children?
Shocked by the images of these frightened people, Nicholas Winton has an idea. What can he do to help? He is Prague for just three weeks so he phones his mother Barbara in London and asks her to enquire at the Home Office whether there is a chance of bringing children to Britain temporarily until their future becomes clearer and they can be reunited with their parents. This is the reply: ‘Yes, but on one condition – each and every child must go to a foster home or an institution at no cost to the state.’ What a task and how many of us would simply have given up on hearing this condition! This is December 1938. Czechoslovakia is invaded in March 1939 …
Nicholas returns to London in January 1939. By this time, his list of children has swollen to nearly 2,000 – they must be found homes before entry visas can be issued. Can this 29-year-old humanitarian, with the help of his mother and a friend who acts as secretary, do it in time?
We know that nearly 700 children did make it and that another 250 children did not because war had been declared and the borders closed. Nicholas Winton wept whenever he remembered it. But what of the amazing achievement of finding all these families in such a short time? That seems like a miracle to me!
The full story of this, and many other remarkable facts, in this man’s life, can be read in his daughter’s book If It’s Not Impossible - her father’s motto. I can recommend it!
Thank you, Nicky, for saving our lives and thank you, foster parents, refugee committees and many others, for making it possible. We will never forget you.
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Memoir: Marianne

I tugged at my mother’s sleeve. ‘Oh please, Mama, please!’ I begged.
‘Not now, darling,’ she said, obviously undecided. I pulled her face down towards mine so I could whisper in her ear: ‘She’s so pretty, I like her best. I’ll be ever so good if she can come!’
Mama looked at the papers she was holding and then up at the girl in front of her.
‘Fräulein Bachman, it’s obvious that my little one likes you. But I must read your references. Would you mind just waiting in the kitchen. Bertha will give you a glass of tea.’
It was December 1937 and my mother was interviewing young women for the post of Kinderfräulein. My brother Harry, 14, no longer required such a person. He and the other boys, his older cousins, were nearly always together, able to entertain themselves and go out without a grown-up. But we four girls were still a handful and needed someone to take us to the park and find ways of keeping us out of mischief. We lived in a three-room apartment and there wasn’t much scope there for letting off steam. We could easily become bored and quarrelsome.
Up to now it had been Bertha, our maid, who had helped look after us as well as the household. She had been with us ever since my mother’s first confinement. During this last week, while my mother had been interviewing, she had walked around tight-lipped, looking as if she were under threat of losing her job. Bertha had been a simple, almost uneducated country girl when she had first come into the family, always fiercely loyal. Her position was certainly never in jeopardy but she was no longer able to cope with the increasingly challenging demands we made on her.
I was very taken with Marianne. The previous day Mama had seen two other applicants, one rather plain and sour-looking, the other overly friendly in an unconvincing sort of way. I had stuck my tongue out at her behind Mama’s back and the mask had dropped a little.
Marianne was fresh-faced and would be fun to be with. And to my relief my mother hired her. She was to come every weekday at noon, fetch my sisters from school for lunch, and stay until supper time. While my sisters did their homework I would have her all to myself, to read to me, take me for walks, or play my favourite card game of Schwarzer Peter or Snap.
I must have been a very spoilt little girl. I remember playing a sort of power game with the poor girl, devising ‘punishments’ for when she lost at cards, which she invariably did - as I almost always insisted on winning!
‘If you lose this game you must read me two extra stories!’
‘If you don’t win this one you must let me comb your hair and part it in the middle instead of on the side.’
And once, most chillingly, ‘If you lose this time I won’t let you be my Kinderfräulein any more!’ I was so shocked at my daring on that occasion that I frightened myself into deliberately letting her win ....
Marianne was a great comfort when my father went on his twice-yearly trip to London on business. He wrote long letters to her, sending a message to every one of us saying how much he missed us. I cherished the one for me: ‘My dear little Putzi, you must look after your Mama for me and make sure she’s happy. I know I can rely on you ....’
No five-year-old ever felt so grown up and important as I did that day, immediately climbing into my mother’s lap and saying ‘I will look after you, Mama.’ As soon as we had all finished lunch I helped her off with her shoes and made her lie on her bed while I curled up next to her to make sure she wasn’t lonely.
But I was certainly also a very unobservant child not to know what had been going on all around me, immersed in games and my own fantasy world. It was mid-March 1938 and Papa had been away for over six weeks - an eternity for me. He would bring us presents back from England and I thought no further than that.
One day, coming back from the Stadtpark, holding Marianne’s hand, I heard my mother’s raised voice from the apartment. Bertha let us in, her finger on her lips. My sisters were gathered in a frightened knot in the hall and even Harry had appeared. It wasn’t like my mother to shout but this is what she was doing.
I opened my mouth to ask what was happening but Ruth shushed me.
‘It’s Papa on the phone’ ...
This in itself was very unusual: we knew that overseas calls were expensive. That was why people wrote letters.
‘What – all the way from England?’ I whispered back.
‘I can’t hear you!’ Mama shouted. Then: ‘No, no, don’t come back, you mustn’t come back – just get us all out of here!’
I started to go to her but my brother yanked me back. He made a sign to Marianne and she herded us, now unprotesting, into the Kinderzimmer, which served as our sitting room as well as the three older girls’ bedroom. He and Mama disappeared into the dining room, which housed the sideboard as well as the grand piano, behind which stood Harry’s bed. This was the room in which all the Jewish festivals were celebrated and where serious family conferences took place. Harry was suddenly very much the head of the family.
I stopped asking questions after a couple of days and life carried on almost unchanged for me. Except that Marianne started teaching us some English songs.
We sang: ‘My pony is over the ocean, my pony is over the sea!’ It was only after many years in England that I found out that this wasn’t a lament for a lost horse ....
My Viennese nursemaid also taught us how to how to behave at mealtimes in England. We must turn to everyone at the table and say ‘Good appetite!’ before we started eating and cross our knives over our forks to indicate we had finished. Both of these instructions of Marianne were met by looks of surprise when we tried them out at meals in London. But of course we never imagined that we would ever really visit England.
We learnt some nursery rhymes and a few strange sayings that sent us unto paroxysms of mirth, like ‘It’s raining cats and dogs.’ This I tried out on Mama and Bertha in German: ‘Was regnet es?’ I would ask and, when they shrugged, perplexed, I would yell out ‘Katzen und Hunde!’
Apart from these lessons, Marianne found all manner of things for us to do and made even a rainy walk in the Hauptallee fun. She opened my eyes to many everyday sights, explained and concocted stories about them, and was unendingly patient with us. She treated Ruth as a grown-up and distracted Hedy and Renee from quarrelling about borrowed books or hairclips.
And then came the day when Marianne didn’t turn up at our apartment in the Glockengasse. ‘She must have been run over!’ I exclaimed dramatically. ‘She’s always here on time.’
But Mama, a note in her hand and a handkerchief to her eyes, said sadly: ‘No, my darling, she’s had to go away. She phoned to say how sorry she was she couldn’t come and say goodbye.’
I didn’t find out until years later that Marianne had been forbidden under the new race laws to work for Jews. Amazingly, Bertha stayed with us until the day we left for England.
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A story which must be told

EHRENFRIED & COHN
by Uwe Westphal
Berlin: Lichtig Verlag, 2015, 190 pp., 18 euros, ISBN 978-3-929905-33-5 [more...]

Letters to the Editor

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