Austrian decadents, Daniel Jesus, Decadence by Dedalus, fin de siecle, German decadents, Ghost of a Jewish Ghetto, Gustav Meyrink, Journal of Decadence, Octave Mirbeau, Paul Leppin, Road to Decadence, Severin's journey into darkness, third eye cinema podcast
Wow, is this a corker.
Almost from the very start, having read the vignette and the first two chapters of the first novella, the sheer force and power of the narrative and Leppin’s vivid and directly descriptive style made itself quite apparent.
This is no dry, hesitant English attempt at Decadence, nor is it an emasculated translation (ala DiAnnunzio’s Child of Pleasure). While the strong overtures towards philosophy and sentiment directed against the politics and mores of the zeitgeist that runs through all the best French Decadence are clearly missing (and much missed by their absence), the raw intensity and vibrant, lifelike portrait of a city and the people who inhabit it are practically incomparable. There are few parallels I’ve encountered in literature where you can feel to this degree the sleaze, the passion, the sheer sweat-drenched atmosphere of the time, place and people involved.
Both in chronological order and in order of importance, first we tackle the 1905 novella Daniel Jesus. The loosely knit story, somewhat in the vein of an opera or Shakespearean play in breadth, revolves around a character who remains something of a catalyst and cipher more than its direct object or focus. Described as a hunchbacked, huge headed actor and depicted as leading townsfolk into debauch with his riches, we are given little further insight to the inner workings of this man, how he maintained a career as anything more than a bit player, given his apparent deformities, or how he came into his fortune. In fact, only in the earliest chapters does he even play into the narrative in any direct manner – as we progress, he becomes something more of an unseen influence, stirring events and passions into motion by his actions at the start of the tale. Think of him as ascribing to the somewhat misguided “prime mover” theory of those of semi-secular eschatological bent.
We first encounter him as he passes through town, past the gypsy Hagar in the village square, peering through the open doorway at the informal religious gathering run by the cobbler Anton and his wife Marietta, who is facing a crisis of faith and an awakening of sensuality, which is encouraged and inflamed by Daniel’s recognition of same.
Daniel arrives at his final destination at the home of the Countess Regina. She encourages him to tell the tale of Valeska, a young girl whom he had deflowered and brought to live with him, resulting in ostracision from her family and her eventual suicide therefore, as a sort of sick entertainment for herself and her guest Baron Sterben, who has eyes for her similarly young daughter Martha Bianca. The tale inflames the girl’s curiosity and arouses the Baron’s passion, resulting in their own ill fated recapitulation (at least in part) of the affair.
The gypsy girl Hagar, who had been Baron Sterben’s lover before Daniel chased her away (under the excuse of not wishing the girl to “corrupt” his friend), now becomes enamored of the cobbler Anton, turning a cold religious shoulder towards Sterben under his influence. But when she expresses her desire for the cobbler, he chases her from him publicly as “the essence of evil”, who is turning the town towards baser instincts.
She returns to Sterben’s bed, resulting in his death (which comes like a lot of guys might wish to go out – heart attack during the act, or as Leppin would have it, “death by passion”). Realizing simultaneously the loss of the one who brought her joy and first flush of womanhood and his betrayal of her throughout, Martha Bianca spends her days in mourning and despair, before finally discovering her mother, who had meanwhile entered a violent affair with a certain Valentin, and her lover at one of Daniel’s orgies.
In regards to Daniel and the cobbler’s wife Marietta, it soon arises that the hunchback pays Joseph, a criminal and outcast who is the son of Anton and Marietta, to bring his estranged mother before him in the night, stripped bare and exposed to shame. She becomes Daniel’s consort, and is next seen presiding over the large scale orgies that eventually ensue under his auspices.
We are introduced to one Marietta, labeled a “prophetess”, whose hysterical religious visions lead Anton to take her in as part of his household. Joseph takes an interest in her, and their mutual desire leads to their departure from town and the hypocritical sublimations of piety.
Hagar, meanwhile, returns to Anton the cobbler in triumph, having her way with him when she informs the man of his wife’s betrayal of her husband in favor of the “depraved” hunchback and the ways of lust. When she rubs the event in his face, bringing him to see her at one of Daniel’s orgies, the cobbler hangs himself, and Hagar is driven mad. The novella ends with the group attempting to bring Martha Bianca in to the fold at Daniel’s orgy, which she rejects, running naked into the night, headed for parts unknown – all characters having been debauched, killed or “ruined” by the indirect yet pernicious influence of Daniel Jesus.
A brief vignette from 1915, “The Ghost of the Jewish Ghetto”, is so evocative of the old Viennese surroundings and those that people it, the impression of what is being described is so vivid as to be absolutely palpable. More of a mood piece than character study in the traditional sense, this short offering paints such a picture of the sleaze and seediness of the district, you can almost feel the sensations physically. In what amounts to a turn of the century parallel to Times Square in the 70’s and 80’s, we follow one Johanna of the Salon Aaron, an enthusiastic prostitute who actually enjoys her work – the nigh-mythical nymphomaniacal whore of male imagination. Sadly, her proclivities come at a price, and she is stricken with pustulent disease. Her loins burning with desire, she escapes her convalescent hospital bed to return to the Salon, only to find the entire area demolished, a casualty of the plague of syphilis like herself, if not the Great War that was contemporaneously laying devastation across the face of old Europe.
Finally, we get the two part novella Severin: His Journey into Darkness, from the same year. While far less interesting than either of its companions herein, it concerns a disaffected youth who goes through life somewhere between a Camus hero ala Meursault and Daniel Jesus, loving and abandoning women along the way. One he impregnates, smiling when he hears of the eventual stillbirth. He poisons an old friend’s treasured companion raven for no apparent reason. Callous, selfish and altogether detestable, one can barely summon enough interest in his fate to care when he falls into the clutches of a woman just like himself, the passionate yet whorish and fickle Mayarla, who gives him exactly what he’s been looking for all his life, then leaves him flat.
While ostensibly similar in style and flourish to both Daniel Jesus and the Ghost of the Jewish Ghetto, it carries the appeal of neither, and while one of the few published works Leppin managed to deliver during his long postal career in Prague, it remains somewhat baffling as to its enduring appeal and status of staying in print through a few publishers simultaneously. Where Daniel Jesus presents us with a twisted masterwork, wholly worth extolling for its hedonistic and decadent virtues (or cursed and hated contrarily for the same), Severin comes off as too unappealing and drab to take any real note of by comparison.
Ultimately, to judge by the three works presented herein (which amazingly amounts to half of his entire published output), Leppin comes across as a bit of a mixed bag artistically. While his writing style is intensely vivid and atmospheric, both in terms of the surroundings and in the near-absence of coy euphemism, and appropriately quite Sadean in overall feel and intent, in his tales of wild sexual abandon and licentiousness Leppin leaves us with little else to delve into. After all the sin and enslavement to passion which “ruins lives” as it were, there is nothing incredibly profound to speak of in terms of subtext.
In fact, Leppin appears to be incapable of delivering a standard, linear narrative, but he sure can build an atmosphere. Even beyond his crystal clear evocation of setting and mise en scene, his tales are peopled with characters who, while somewhat thinly drawn and prone to cipherism, are enslaved to passion, a very vital, hot blooded end in and of itself.
In a welcome nod to Freudian psychoanalysis, every bout of religious mania is soon revealed in its true colors as a sublimation of erotic need; the spiritual coming not as a heartfelt and earnest striving towards something higher than ourselves and a deeper meaning than all our industry and workaday lives can provide, but rather a corruption of natural instinct, hot passion being sidetracked and rerouted by inane social mores into a “more acceptable” form of madness. Any number of characters in Daniel Jesus slide back and forth between the pleasures of the flesh and (apparently) earnest devotion towards God and the Catholic church. Hagar the gypsy, Margaret the cobbler/preacher’s wife, Marietta the mad prophetess, and Margaret’s criminal son Joseph all vacillate from one extreme to the other, showing the psychological reality of the situation in all its hidden mystery for all the world to see.
The hothouse atmospherics of his tales have no real parallel in the colder if more intellectual, philosophically and politically charged writings of the French Decadents, nor the dry half heartedness of the English Decadent, nor even the supposed hot bloodedness of the Italian Decadent (Boito cannot approach Leppin in this respect; the bowlderized translation of D’Annunzio which has remained the only one the English speaking world has to refer to is positively prim in this regard). Both men and women lust hard, and are swept away by their passions, unashamed to degrade themselves to slake the hot pulsating need that drives their loins, and in fact, entire being.
Like encountering the lusty cinema of Italy after years of chilly Nordic films ala Bergman or the shallow plastic “sexuality” of domestic American product, Leppin’s prose comes as a slap in the face, a breath of fresh air much akin to (but far more prolifigate than) Mirbeau’s sadistic Clara of Torture Garden infamy – the erotomania, the burning and naturalistically feline passion without her more vile excesses and tastes. If you prefer, think Brigitte Bardot, as compared to just about anyone else of the period – even the sultrier likes of Loren pale by comparison to her earthy, unselfconscious freedom and lustiness, never mind the psychologically damaged plasticity of a Marilyn Monroe. Make no mistake, this is the real deal, and like all the best French Decadents, it amazes and boggles the mind that it was produced in the notedly repressed Victorian 1880s…
In sum, despite some slight reservations already noted, Leppin and Dedalus offer readers a real body slam of a pair of novellae (and excellent vignette) here in Road to Darkness that are well worth the time of looking into. It’s really too bad this guy didn’t have more material in him…I’ll certainly be looking into German and Austrian Decadence as well, after this…