First up today, we’ll be looking into one of the final “books of decadence” Dedalus has to offer to the interested reader – one that looks a bit further East than Paris or Rome. Today, we’re taking a look at The Dedalus Book of German Decadence: Voices of the Abyss.
As readers of the Journal are likely aware, I’ve taken any number of detours and side roads in my delve into fin de siecle Decadence and its generally Parisian environs, some of which were quite rewarding (Gautier, Leppin, Seutonius) and others which were not (the nominal English strain, Georgina Harding’s transliteration of D’Annunzio, and the detestable Gustav Meyrink, whose The Green Face I probably won’t even bother committing to review – it was THAT bad). But after many circuitously serpentine perambulations, I’ve made my way back home to the authors that started it all: Huysmans, Mirbeau, Rachilde and their fellows.
But one final leg of the journey proved particularly promising, and in many ways may have equalled if not concievably surpassed such luminaries of the style, had my exploration thereof not been stymied by a stone wall dead end in terms of English translation. And that is Germany and Austria, home of the often excellent Paul Leppin, whose works I’ve reviewed in three separate Journal entries.
And so I offer my honest reaction on first diving into Dedalus’ Voices of the Abyss:
Wow. Now this is more like it.
There are only two disappointments about this effort: the first, its tapping into some fairly obvious sources, resulting in a fair amount of redundancy to those who’ve progressed beyond newbie status in the study of Decadence. All told, at least a hundred pages of a three hundred page effort are taken up by excerpts from Sacher Masoch’s Venus in Furs and Paul Leppin’s Blaugast, both readily and long available in English translation from various publishers and translations.
But perhaps more maddeningly, we have the opposite problem. To wit, that a fair majority of the authors and works represented herein in Readers Digest abridged format were of nigh-uniform levels of excellence, and thus deserving of perusal in their full and unedited glory.
Unfortunately, nearly all of the authors and works in question remain wholly untranslated in the English language.
After reading this book (and loving it desperately), there can be no greater indictment of the misguided priorities of publishing houses and misuse of the time and effort of translators than this: that authors like Hanns Heinz Ewers, Kurt Martens and Arthur Holitscher remain unexposed to the non-German speaking public at large, while authors of far lesser note and worth appear in relative abundance.
Ewers, a longtime friend of none other than Aleister Crowley and today best known for his influence on expressionist film, was once most famous as a novelist, and primarily for the very work presented in abstract here. Alraune was made the subject (and in fact title) of no less than 3 films of both the silent and postwar era, featuring such luminaries of the field as Brigitte Holm, Hildegarde Knef and Erich Von Stroheim. The extremely effective and somewhat atmospheric tale of a homonculus made flesh, Ewers conflates the legends behind the eerie appearance of the mandrake root with an alchemical experiment, to bring forth this devil in human flesh. In the course of the narrative, our titular vamp treads without emotion and with malicious design, seducing one man after another and bringing them to ruin.
Today, beyond his influence on and authorship of German Expressionist classics of the medium such as both versions of The Student of Prague and the three versions of Alraune, Ewers is all but forgotten, if not vilified as a fascist sympathizer and satanist (each of which he certainly was, though the Nazis, despite inspiring or eliciting from him an effective hagiography of Horst Wessel, who further appears in the 1926 Student of Prague which Ewers both wrote the script for and directed, quickly distanced themselves from Ewers on account of his noted decadence).
In fact, despite penning a work of this level of influence and force, the only place one tends to encounter Ewers’ name these days outside of the dusty vaults of early cinema aficionados is in such transgressive tomes as Nikolas Shrek’s The Satanic Screen, which traces the history of the devil in film (and focuses primarily on the more decadent era of the silents, surprisingly glossing over cinema’s equally dark return to form of the 1970s).
While Ewers certainly provides something of a centerpiece to the collection (at least for those already acquainted with Sacher Masoch), he is only part of the story here. In fact, beyond the two redundancies noted and a brief and typically worthless poetic offering (this time by Georg Trakl – see my comments on the original Books of Decadence for my sentiments toward Decadent poetry) and an abominably brief (and therefore more or less pointless) 3 1/2 page excerpt from Peter Hille’s Herodias, the book features author after author of nigh-uniform excellence. The tales are all more or less of a piece, despite variations in focus and specifics: suffused with the effusive Romantic passions and shadowy self-destructive Decadence that play so freely in the makeup of the Germanic soul.
One thing that immediately becomes apparent from Voices of the Abyss is the Teutonic literati’s apparent fascination, if not obsession, with the great opera composer Richard Wagner. While I’ve often found the man to be (and further heard him described by others as) something of a blowhard, it’s undeniable that he was tapping into something a bit different than his fellow maestros of the field, almost all of merit beyond himself hailing from the hearty southern climes of sunny Italy.
Where the Italian fathers of the field tended to keep to historical, literary, or naturalist, neo-realist depictions of relationships, Wagner (and his fellow German/Austrian compatriots Strauss and Mozart) lent their efforts more in the direction of myth and symbolism, with Wagner in particular obsessed with the likes of the pursuit of the Graal and the intrigues of ancient Germanic deities, and all the mysticism and thematic undertones they carry intrinsically.
Further, Wagner tended to be what my operatically inclined mother used to refer to as “a dirty old man”, with some clear ebb and flow suggestive of the sexual act, a slow build to the peak of explosive orgasm and then a peaceful afterglow that repeats over and over again throughout the course of each of his works – not exactly your prudish maiden aunt’s idea of what to perform at Sunday service.
While unrepresented in the book itself, the introductory essay references a few further literary and philosophic personages obsessed with Wagner and his cultural impact: Max Nordeau, who recognized the clear lineage between Romanticism and Decadence in describing Wagner as “the last fungoid growth on the dunghill of Romanticism” before noting that Wagner’s “grandiose visions” and “histrionic gestures…sprang from a pathological over excitement of the genitals.”, and none other than Friedrich Nietzche himself, who editor Ray Furness notes was acute enough to pick out the “peculiar affinity which existed between the German musician and the new literary tendency in France.”
This focus on Wagner permeates a number of the works in question, including Thomas Mann’s “Walsungenblut (The Blood of the Walsungs)”, which like his Death in Venice is positively suffused with Wagner’s spirit, music and deeper thematic checkpoints. A fascinating if sordid little tale of snobbishness and smug, sarcastic self-superiority culminating in incestuous transgression, the tale’s major events appear to be set in motion by the brother-sister/couple’s attendance at a performance of Die Walkure, whose libretto and stage direction are addressed at length therein.
Arthur Holitscher’s “the Poisoned Well”, a tale quite reminiscent of Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel without the bathetic ending, similarly utilizes Wagner, as the Salome-like dancer Desiree offers a private dance of seduction to our hapless Romantic hero to the accompaniment of Tannhauser.
Much akin to Ewers is Stanislaus Przybyszewski, whose “Androgyne” shares with both Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Phocas and his short story “the Glass of Blood” an obsession with green eyed seducer/destroyer of men Astarte (here more pointedly in the male guise as ‘Astaroth’) and with Ewers some severely and particularly satanic overtones. Unlike the other two authors, however, it is never made apparent that the unnamed narrator is actually speaking of a real life woman as metaphorical analogue for the demon/ess he devotes himself to, making this more of a magickal text of sorts, a hymn to spiritual samadhi.
Kurt Martens offers an exceedingly brief excerpt from A Novel from the Age of Decadence which directly references Huysmans and ends in the Grande Bouffe-style final blowout and suicide of one Erich Luttwitz. Georg Heym offers a better than standard homage to Baudelaire in his description of “the Autopsy”, and then we come to the end of this all too brief, all too abridged look at a number of authors who deserve to be equally celebrated as their French comperes, if only some enterprising publishing house would set their translators on the task already. Because to be tantalized by glimpses this promising, only to be denied any further delectation of the charms thereof, is beyond cruel…it’s positively devilish.
As long as we’re discussing German Decadence, we’d might as well tackle one of the novellas Voices of the Abyss excerpted from, namely the infamous Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher Masoch.
I’m quite aware that there are veritable legions of folks out there who like to experiment somewhere in the general spectrum of sadoplay, with the more emotionally secure among them alternating which side of the equation they fall under during the course of a relationship. But good lord, there’s a reason they named the entire field of submission for this guy.
My copy of the novella comes complete with a series of excerpted correspondence between Sacher Masoch and a young admirer and aspiring authoress, Emile Mataja. While she describes herself as not particularly attractive and in all objectivity appears far more interested in his editorial commentary on her own work and utilizing his connections to get herself published, he pushes things right into sexting territory.
What is most revealing about these letters is how precisely autobiographical Venus in Furs turns out to be – not only did he have a mistress who he signed a slave contract with (Baroness Fanny Pistor) with the clause that she wear furs “especially when in a cruel mood”, but he did in fact travel with her to Italy, going under the pseudonym of Gregor, with Sacher-Masoch in third class and Pistor in first class. Can the book get any more autobiographical?
But further than this, the very reactions, obsessions and demeanor of his writing prove identical to those expressed in the private correspondence presented herein, to a young authoress with whom he had little or no physical interaction. At points, Sacher Masoch practically demands Mataja come to him in furs with a whip and make him her plaything, in the same language and fervor as Severin expresses throughout the course of the novella!
We do get some of the intended discussion about the trials and travails of authorship, editing and getting published, and a few off-topic truisms emerge along the way.
At one point, Mattaja makes an apt observation about having to work for a living that:
“are not a poor wretched creature’s few earthly hours of animal pleasure too expensively bought with the endurance of a lifetime of toil and disgust?”,
to which Sacher Masoch responds in kind, with this gem:
“true artistry cannot flourish within the narrow confines of bourgeois life.”
But in the end, what we are given of the correspondence between the obsessed veteran author and his long distance protege falls more within the twin poles of derisive amusement (can this man really be that obsessive and self-degrading?) and stunned disbelief (just picture what would happen if such a correspondence were to happen in today’s overprotective, lawsuit and scandal-happy sociocultural milieu).
Beyond the autobiographical and fetishistically obsessive nature of the novel, it comes with an interesting, psychologically accurate assessment of male/female relationship dynamics that in the end, may surprise readers acquainted with the man’s preferences.
At one point, Wanda delivers this speech, deriding the Romantic “madonna/whore” axis to which men of the era (and in particular, of the region and culture) were prone, tossing in a welcome attack on Puritanism along the way:
“You demand faithfulness of a woman without love, and the giving of herself without enjoyment…you of the North…take love too soberly and seriously. You talk of duties where there should only be a question of pleasure…stay among your northern fogs and Christian incense; let us pagans remain under the debris, beneath the lava; do not disinter us. Pompeii was not built for you, nor our villas, our baths, our temples…we are chilled in your world.”
Later, and with equal honesty, she continues on the same theme, while speaking simultaneously to the oft inherent duplicity and mercuriality of the feminine nature:
“…Take note of what I am about to say to you. Never feel secure with the woman you love, for there are more dangers in woman’s nature than you imagine. Women are neither as good as their admirers and defenders maintain nor as bad as their enemies make them out to be…she has the nature of a savage, who is faithful or faithless, magnanimous or cruel, according to the impulse that dominates her at the moment. Throughout all of history it has always been a serious, deep culture that has produced moral character. Man, even when he is selfish or evil, always follows principles, woman never follows anything but impulses. Don’t forget that.”
Later, the Greek lover she flaunts in front of Severin further speaks to the natural capriciousness of the feminine:
“When the lion whom she has chosen and with whom she lives is attacked by another, the lioness quietly lies down and watches the battle. Even if her mate is worsted, she does not go to his aid. She looks on indifferently as he bleeds to death under his opponents claws, and follows the victor, the stronger – that is the female’s nature.”
Wanda herself admits to her deep inner feminine need to be dominated, despite her cruel domme role:
“I see my dear lady, too, has found a master.”
“Yes, thank God!” she exclaimed, “not a new slave, I have had enough of them. A master! Woman needs a master, and she adores him…as I have never loved any one else.”
After revealing herself thusly to Severin once more (as she did at the beginning of the novella), she finally moves him to take a more gender appropriate role, which pleases her…but he quickly relents and returns to his domination fixation, which moves her to contempt and the cruel denouement of the story:
“You have no right to accuse me…haven’t I warned you more than once…that it was dangerous to give yourself into my power…or that I want to be dominated? But you wished to be my plaything, my slave!…you have made of me what I now am, and now you are…unmanly, weak and miserable enough to accuse me.
Had you been the man I once thought you were…I would have loved you faithfully and become your wife. Woman demands that she can look up to a man, but one like you, who voluntarily places his neck under her foot, she uses as a welcome plaything, only to toss it aside when she is tired of it.”
In the end, when it is far too late, Severin finally awakens to his folly:
“All of a sudden, I saw with horrible clarity whither blind passion and lust have led man…into a blind alley, into the net of a woman’s treachery, into misery, slavery and death. It was as though I was awaking from a dream.”
Finally he delivers a sort of modern, almost feminist moral to end the tale:
“But the moral?”
“That woman, as nature has created her, and as man at present is educating her, is man’s enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he and is his equal in education and work.
At present, we have only the choice of being hammer or anvil, and I was the kind of donkey who let a woman make a slave of him…the moral of the tale is this: whoever allows himself to be whipped, deserves to be whipped.”
What is most interesting about all this is that while the excerpted and abridged version Dedalus presents in The Book of German Decadence is fascinating, almost erotic in tone, the book as a whole, particularly when presented after a perusal of his personal correspondence noted above, is more distasteful – his very desperation, and the foolishness and self-destructiveness of his obsessions becomes paramount, and you wind up rooting for him to wake up and recognize he’s scripting his own tragedy.
As with Sade, the biggest surprise to the new initiate will certainly be the fact that these missives are in fact often far from titillating, erotic, or what have you. Emanuelle Arsan, Pauline Reage, even Erica Jong and Nancy Friday fall far more under the general header of “erotica” than either of these gentlemen, who are more philosopher than pornographer (particularly Sade, one of whose more infamous works was in fact titled “Philosophy in the Bedroom“, which title prompted a pronounced doubletake from the bookseller I procured it from, half a lifetime ago).
In practical terms, both men have lent their name and work more to a particular spectrum of behavior and fetishism than any literary style or personalized body of authorship – in psychoanalytic terms, it is not the men or their scribings, but their neuroses for which they are famed and remembered.
And in the end, while relationships and the activities lovers share can and do encompass both ends of the equation to which these two more or less fin de siecle literati have lent their names, when it comes down to brass tacks on the authors and works themselves, both are in fact neurotic: Sade’s obsessions too degrading, pointed, omnivorously ambisexual, and Sacher Masoch’s too idealistic, mother fixated and self destructive.
The difference between the two is telling, however. While Sade can be read somewhat tongue in cheek, with his philosophic musings taken with some measure of a grain of salt and accepted or rejected on the same level as those of Nietzche, Schopenauer, Hobbes, or Kant, Sacher-Masoch is ultimately more personal, direct, and filled with palpable desperation and Teutonic passion – the fervor of the intellectual cum dreamer, fervently seeking to bring into reality his ideal of woman – distant while present, cruel while loving: sehnsucht brought into immediacy and reality.
What makes this so maddening is that in the very act thereof, he is knowingly and with full realization plotting the seeds of his own downfall, in the very garden in which he cultivates the fruition of his dream.