Thursday, 13 February 2014

Fictions Kill

Let’s talk about death.  At least for a couple of paragraphs.  I hope you don’t mind.  I guarantee it won’t disturb you.  You might even be entertained.  Although I’d be surprised if you’ll find it funny.  Yet we never know. The strange characters who wander around my sentences; I once found an especially odd one slumped up against a semi-colon; reading my Liberal Stalinist he went on and on about Lionel Asbo, convinced that I must know himAfter much desultorily conversation he tore out a phrase from my footnotes, and stuffed it into a Lidl’s shopping bag.  Said he was going to sell it to some charity shop off the Kings Road.  Extraordinary posh.  And completely loopy.  Slumming it of course.

In Norman’s Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and A.S Byatt’s Still Life there are two classic death scenes that both use the same tactic: the shock of the completely unexpected.  In both books characters with whom we have become intimately acquainted, and who we expect to live beyond the last full stop, die suddenly.  In Mailer’s book the demise is perfunctorily – it takes little more than a sentence -; and is the exact opposite to a previous death, described in long and agonising detail.  The contrast is stark.  The effect stunning.

Theodor Fontane carries off a similar trick twice in the same novel.

Innstetten and Wüllersdorf walked up the gully to the sand, Buddenbrook came towards them.  They exchanged greetings and the two seconds stepped aside for a brief discussion of the remaining practicalities.  The agreement was that they were to advance simultaneously and fire at ten paces.  Then Buddenbrook went back to his place; it was all quickly performed; and the shots rang out.  Crampas fell.

Innstetten, stepping back a few paces, turned away from the scene.  Wüllersdorf had gone over to Buddenbrook and both awaited word from the doctor, who shrugged his shoulders.  At that moment Crampas indicated with a gesture that he wanted to say something.  Wüllersdorf bent down to him, nodded at the few words that came scarcely audibly from the dying man’s lips and then went up to Innstetten.

‘Crampas would like to say something to you Innstetten.  You must grant him this wish.  He has barely three minutes to live.’

Innstetten walked over to Crampas.

‘Would you…’  These were his last words.

One more agonized but almost friendly flicker in his features and it was all over.

The killing is so off-hand that if we read too fast we miss it.  The quick mechanics of death in significant contrast to the agony of thought and feeling that surrounds it; Innstetten unable to decide if he should fight this duel when the hot lust of revenge has long evaporated - he discovered his wife’s affair six years after its end.  Is it right to kill a man, even to protect one’s honour, if you can only do so in cold blood?  Deep down in his moral bones Innstetten knows he should leave the past alone; it is the only way he can remain truly human.  But he is a man of principle.  Hard and inflexible.

Crampas dies with a tinge of irony - that “almost friendly flicker” is surely a comment on Innstetten’s misjudgement, his willingness to sacrifice a life for his own excessively self-important and abstract concerns.  It is not for Effi that Innstetten has fought this duel.  It is not really for himself.  It is for an idea about himself that he cannot let go.  Here is a man in the grip of an obsession.  It is a ghost that hugs him tight and whispers so very knowingly into his ear…

Though deeply upset by his discovery, Innstetten’s principal reason for offering Crampas the challenge is to protect his own self-consciousness when he is out in society.  For he has made a mistake.  He has told his friend Wüllersdorf of his wife’s affair.  In consequence Innstetten believes that he cannot be free unless he takes steps to publicly uphold his honour; otherwise he will always be self-conscious when Wüllersdorf and himself are together in company and there is talk about immoral behaviour.  The discussion between these friends is a complicated scene, and yet the resolution - to fight a duel - feels right and convincing; it also feels inevitable, for Wüllersdorf, though replete with understanding, his knowledge sealed silently within him, would always induce a modicum of restraint on Innstetten when he is conversing about moral issues to others.  A comment on adultery, a few general remarks on immorality, made in the earshot of his friend would produce just enough of an impression to inhibit Innstetten when he is talking.  His own awareness would defeat him.  He fears being hypocrite, even though he knows that such fears are absurd; for we do not always have to act out our principles in order to prove them; if the reasons are sound, as they are in this case - too much time has passed to fight a duel -, they are sufficient unto themselves, no other proof is needed.   But Innstetten doesn't have a mind subtle enough to live with such (free-floating) ideas; his own personal judgement unable to compete against his social sensitivities, which are grounded in action. 

Innstetten must act to clear his conscience.  It is the only way he can adhere to his rigid principles, which are as much behavioural as mental - he has to act out his moral ideas, not just speak about them; for it is only via his actions that he can establish the truth of his morality.   And so… he makes his decision, fights the duel, and lives with the baneful consequences; such as the unwelcome publicity and a short jail sentence.  These are the costs he must pay to remain mentally autonomous in the world of his peers.  His own incarceration less important than the free play of his thoughts, which must freely correspond with the principles of the society to which he has dedicated himself.  For Innstetten cannot allow any tension to arise between this society’s cultural codes, codes which he has absorbed and accepted as true, and the workings of his own mind.  Everything else, including scandal and gossip, is unimportant; it is irrelevant; it is also dangerous, for to take such things seriously would threaten his freedom; creating a barrier between his own interior life and the community which he serves.  Innstetten is that curious creature: the free public man.  A person who has sacrificed a large part of himself, he has repressed his feelings and spontaneity, to become a valued member of the state bureaucracy and court; institutions he regards as worthy of respect and service; and the source of his success and freedom.  To continue to live comfortably in this society Innstetten must believe himself free to follow its strict rules.  To hide the affair and to refuse to act (especially when someone knows he has not acted) would be to bring his own petty concerns into the public realm, creating a tension that could only be resolved through silence or hypocrisy; the one destroying his ability to participate in the society, the other cheapening it.  Either way he would become self-conscious in an environment that requires his thoughts be directed solely outward, towards social duty and the national interest.  Such uninhibited behaviour a sign both of good mental health and independence.

His motivations are subtle.  They are misunderstood by Effi, who thinks her husband is sacrificing his family to his ambition.  She hasn't grasped the rich complexity of his character; Innstetten having willingly accepted the forms of a highly ritualistic culture until he has absorbed them into his very being; its codes of honour and social restraint thereby transformed into personal power and self-respect.  His public role enables Innstetten to transcend is own individual existence; and so become far greater than if he lived for himself alone.  However, after the duel the sap of his career dries up.  He has committed a moral wrong, and so loses his humanity.  This is his tragedy.  The wellspring of human spirit is no longer available to enliven the formalities of his work; his once esteemed career reduced to a mechanical routine without meaning.

A pastor once told Effi that the best life is one where the person can think freely, unrestrained by bad or guilty thoughts.  Young and innocent she agreed absolutely.  And she was right!  A free conscience a prerequisite for freedom.  Effi Briest a study of what happens when first thoughts, then actions, and then guilt, overwhelms a once pure conscience, and produces the inevitable consequence; the eponymous heroine’s slow breakdown into two separate and conflicting parts - her inner being and her outer behaviour.  Effi has never been entirely happy in her marriage: it is not a love match.  She feels guilty about this, and so constructs a pretty cage for herself, made out of small fictions and little lies - she cuts herself off from Innstetten by her self-consciousness.  Very soon the gossamer bars of this decoratively spun cage prevent her most personal thoughts from flying out at all.  No longer can she both live and think freely, as she used to do at home with her parents.  Instead she must hide herself behind the role of a loving, happy and dutiful wife.  It is a role Effi is too young and too innocent to perform well - her thoughts trapped behind the domestic mask fly about like mad things. 

At the end of the novel her parents discuss their daughter’s fate.  The mother suggests that they are to blame for either bringing her up too liberally or marrying her to too old a man.  The father dismisses this as “too vast a subject”, and he is partly right; it is too big a topic for a man with his limited analytical talent.  Nevertheless, there is much truth in Frau von Briest’s remarks, although the problem is partly misconceived: it is the combination of Innstetten’s age and character that has caused this tragedy.  If married when in his twenties his youthful freshness would have softened his too rigid character; it would have allowed him to be more tender and “silly” with Effi, so giving her the kind of love that she needs.  By now it is too late.  By the time of his marriage Innstetten has become hardwired into respectable society, and feels compelled to behave in the manner expected of its high officials.1  The consciousness of his own position will not allow him to unbend, and so he cannot give his wife the “animal feeling” that she, being so young, needs so much; hugs, kisses, hand holding, light fondling, and play and games and general silliness are beyond him.  However, if they’d married when both were young they might have survived unscathed.  As the marriage matured they would have grown together into society; both coming to accept its strictures as  a natural development of their own personalities.  But Effi is not yet twenty.  Something that comes naturally to Innstetten feels unnatural to her; she experiences an enormous constraint and loneliness; emotions she cannot quite comprehend.  Her unconscious physical needs are not being met.  Neither can she express her conscious thoughts freely.  Effi can live truly only inside her own mind, but then feels guilty at her artifice.  There is also an emptiness inside her, which generates an almost perennial lassitude.  No wonder she falls for a local Lothario.

The affair is also treated in a perfunctory way.  This is how we discover it.

I am leaving tomorrow by boat and this note is to say good-bye.  Innstetten expects me back in a few days, but I’m not coming back, ever…  And you are aware of the reason…  It would have been best if I had never set eyes on this corner of the earth.  I entreat you not to construe this as a reproach; the guilt is all mine.  When I look at your domestic situation… your behaviour may be excusable, not mine.  My guilt weighs very heavy on me.  But I may yet escape from it.  That we have been transferred from here I take as a sign that I may yet be accorded mercy.  Forget what has happened. Forget me.


Apart from a few outward signs, that are easily misread – for a long time I thought Effi was suffering from post-natal depression not love sickness and guilt –, we do not see any details of this affair.  I was waiting for it to begin, as it seemed it must, once Crampas had decided to seduce her, and was surprised to discover that it had already taken place.  It is an extraordinary narrative device; leaving, as it does, the main action hidden; and forcing us to interpret the signs, which we do badly.

These signs are also visible to the husband.  Like us he misreads them; Innstetten believing their mutual attraction is merely a flirtation; which is exactly what it appears to be, until he finds this letter, and the truth is revealed.  Before this revelation Effi’s behaviour can be attributed to other causes.  We think she is depressed; and there is so much evidence to suggest this - her isolation in a small port; her incompatibility with her husband; the ghost in the attic, which disturbs her.  The latter is odd, and is never properly explained; a supernatural phenomenon that is yet treated realistically: everyone in the house, including Innstetten, believes in it; and Effi is convinced that she sees him quite often.  Having lived too long and too closely with Freud we are bound to conceive of it as a sign of neurosis.  But let us think of it in another way… Let us think of this phantom as real.  It is a virus that enters Effi’s mind until she takes on all its symptoms - thus her mental emptiness and physical lassitude - so that by the time she leaves Kessin it is Effi who is the ghost.  The spirit of the place has invaded her soul, and has emptied it out.  The letter to Crampas clearly suggests this; Kessin the site of a serious (mental) infection, which Effi is not strong enough to resist.

Innstetten’s views about the ghost are strange.  He seems both to believe in its actuality and to dismiss it as an apparition of the mind, and he does this more or less concurrently.  According to Crampas Innstetten needs to believe in the ghost so as to add aristocratic distinction to his house.  Although he adds that it is also a means of controlling Effi, by scaring her into good behaviour (it is a sort of ghostly chaperone when he is away on state business).  If Crampas is right - he also says there is a mystical strain to Innstetten’s mind, which may see visions - it produces a terrible irony, for Effi uses her (real) fears about the Chinaman to camouflage her shame about the affair.  And Innstetten, although suspicious and intuitively sensing the truth, is able to accept her superstitious explanations, as they do seem plausible.  

This is an odd world, that once would have seemed quite normal.  A society set up on strict social lines, with the corollary of a strong underlying religious strain, will create a deeply layered metaphysical reality that will determine both the thoughts and the actions of its subjects.  In effect, they are surrounded by spectres (we call them myths and ideas) which they do and must believe in.  In such a world it can be difficult decide between those ghosts that are true and those that are false, for so much is invisible to the five senses.   It is the reason why such a clever man as Innstetten can be so mistaken about his wife’s behaviour, attributing it to phenomena that for us simply do not exist.  

The ghost, a Chinaman who may have had an affair with the daughter of the house’s previous owner, forms what at first seems a reasonably benign story, although Effi has never liked it.  Over time Effi slowly absorbs this story until she's act it out; though long before it had become a real phantom that haunts her mind, and destroys her spontaneity and vitality.  There are times she views the ghost as her guilty conscience; a metaphor for her lack of love (for her husband).  It is much more than this.  This fairy tale has its own reality, which Effi transforms to create a real horror story, which scares her into hiding her thoughts from a man she should trust; and so talk to without restraint.  Effi falls for Crampas because she has already mentally separated herself from Innstetten; her own stories have cut her adrift.

Court society is another kind of fiction, one where Innstetten, by accepting its strict formal lines, can thrive.  He is like a storyteller who effortlessly improvises on the verses of an old epic.  Effi must reject such a narrative.  It is too restricting and too dry to absorb her youthful exuberance; her feelings too strong to be contained within its restricted social codes.  Effi is like a powerful fountain whose jet streams overflow their basin.  The only way to keep the plaza dry is to turn off the fountain…  To survive she tells herself another kind of story: that of romantic abandonment, which feeds off the fantasy and the mental freedom of her adolescence.  Suffused with sensual passion, and recited far from the critical (and therefore restraining) ears of high society, such a gothic tale is of a far crueller kind than Innstetten’s; wild and dangerous it creates in Effi a terrible loneliness; and it is this that destroys her.

These are two characters who are trapped within two separate and qualitatively different worlds.  Comfortable within his own environment Innstetten can play with the idea of the ghostly Chinaman; for him such stories do not have enough reality to threaten his existence.  Only if he were to really believe in them would they scare him, but he has put too much faith in life’s material reality to fall for such a spectre.  It is the reason he fights a duel - to kill a story before it can take on its own form and power; the ghost of his moral weakness.  Effi is not so lucky.  She is haunted by a ghost that she has invented.  Her fictions have created their own reality, and she traps herself inside them.  Effi Briest is like an actress who speaks no other lines but those she has written.  Of course the time will come when she will be an actress no longer…  Effi is too alone.  She is too isolated.  She has joined a world with which she cannot communicate; for although she has a few adepts, they are not strong enough to save her; the demands of Innstetten’s society far greater than their poor resources.  

Living wholly in the world can kill the soul.  Living completely in the soul can eviscerate the social animal.  We need both to survive and prosper; though each one of us must find their own unique balance.  The Germans have a word for it: Bildung.  In this novel we see what happens when this training has been incomplete.

(Review: Effi Briest)

1. Compare with a different moral universe:  working class life in Nottingham in the 1950s.  For Arthur Seaton there are "those that looked after their wives, and those that were slow”.  (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, by Alan Sillitoe).
According to this formula Innstetten is "slow" and should therefore expect another man to sleep with his wife.  Once the husband finds out, the rules of this game state that the affair should end; the wife is beaten up, and the marriage resumes its previous course.  The relationships are far more physical than what we see here.  Indeed, the emotional connection between a husband and wife - between a Winnie and a Bill - is more important than the fact of the adultery; the outbreak of violence the mechanism by which the latter is both accepted and overcome.  
        Note the contrast with Innstetten and Effi.  With them ideas are far more important than their marriage, which itself is turned into some abstract thing.  Their reality is very different from that of woman like Brenda, who, although she worries constantly about being found out, couldn’t care less about lying (or other people's opinions). Language is simply a tool for her. Not so for Effi and Innstetten. For them language is a living organism, which defines their identity. It is the reason it causes them so many problems.

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