When the 23-year-old Georg Büchner died of typhus in February 1837, his acquaintances knew him mainly as a brilliant medical scientist who had just been appointed to a lectureship in anatomy at the University of Zurich, and as a revolutionary whose attempts to stir up revolt among the peasants of his native province of Hesse had obliged him to flee Germany and pursue a career in exile. Of his three plays, only one – his tragedy of the French Revolution, Danton’s Death – had been published, and that only in mutilated form, with its obscenities toned down. His ironic comedy Leonce and Lena appeared only after his death, while Woyzeck, the first – and for some fifty years, the only – working-class tragedy in German, could not even be read until 1879, when it became technically possible for Büchner’s first editor to restore the faded ink of the manuscript. In addition there is an astounding short story, ‘Lenz’, that takes an actual 18th-century dramatist and follows his decline into insanity and atheism; there are scientific texts, including reflections on the order to be found in Nature; extensive notes on his philosophical reading and a body of letters to his family, friends and fiancée. Büchner, it seems, packed a lifetime of intense experience into very few years.
John Reddick’s view of Büchner is the polar opposite of that taken by Georg Lukács. In an essay written in Moscow in 1937, ‘The Real Georg Büchner and his Fascist Misrepresentation’, Lukács announced that Büchner’s ‘basic trait was a burning revolutionary hatred of all exploitation and suppression’. Reddick, by contrast, attributes Büchner’s mordant references to mass poverty not just to his hatred of suffering but also to his individualistic humanism. It is Büchner’s own philosophy, Reddick believes, that we hear in Danton’s Death when Danton’s associates preach an individualism according to which everyone should be able to enjoy himself in his own way. ‘We don’t want to stop the Romans squatting in their corner and boiling their turnips,’ says Camille Desmoulins, alluding to the cult of virtue professed by Robespierrre, ‘but we want no more of their gory gladiators. Divine Epicurus and sweet-arsed Venus must replace Saints Marat and Chalier as guardians of the Republic.’ (Here and elsewhere, I quote from Reddick’s largely excellent, vigorous Penguin translation, which includes all Büchner’s main works, selected letters, and some indispensable notes.)
Reddick’s reading of Büchner is eloquent, impassioned and frequently compelling, especially in the case of Woyzeck. The basic story could easily sound brutal and banal – a soldier suffering from hallucinations murders his mistress out of jealousy – and the real-life case that served Büchner as his source was a sordid episode involving promiscuity and repeated violence. Much has been said about the seemingly God-forsaken universe in which he sets his tragedy; critics have dwelt almost masochistically on the bleakness of his vision. This is one of the clichés that Reddick sweeps away. He not only stresses that Woyzeck unfolds within a religious frame of reference, but claims that reading or seeing the play ‘paradoxically inspires in us a warmer, deeper sense of involvement and sympathy than anything else that Büchner wrote’. He supports this with a close and sympathetic analysis of the central characters, in which much is made of Marie’s stricken conscience and the impact on her of reading the New Testament. In Büchner’s world, the only hateful characters are those who lack the power of sympathy and so reduce themselves to caricatures: the Doctor, who subjects Woyzeck to an experimental diet of peas and exults in his hallucinations as material to advance his own professional fame; and the Captain, Woyzeck’s superior officer, who moralises about his illegitimate child and takes a sadistic and cowardly pleasure in taunting him about Marie’s adultery.
Büchner is a bewilderingly varied writer, however, and while I don’t propose to offer a ‘real’ Büchner or charge Reddick with misrepresentation, there is much in his work that Reddick plays down or screens out. In dwelling on Büchner’s undoubted power to speak to us now, Reddick often disregards the fact that he speaks with the dissonant voices of the 1830s, especially on his favourite topics of science, politics and sexuality. For Büchner, the world disclosed by science is not necessarily a comfortable one. Like his contemporaries Heine and the young Marx, he recognises a conflict between humanism and the demands of political radicalism. And although he dissociated himself from the literary radicals of the Young German movement, among whom he included Heine, Büchner shares their obsession with what was called the ‘emancipation of the flesh’ – even if his writings, like theirs, may make present-day readers wonder how ‘emancipatory’ this concern really was.
Against the mechanistic science of the 18th century, and the arid rationalism he found in Descartes, Büchner, like Goethe, insists that nature is a living organism. He sympathises with the Naturphilosophie of the Romantics and of his professor at Zürich, Lorenz Oken. This gives him a standard of wholeness against which he finds real life agonisingly fragmented. Opposed to any kind of teleology, he asserts that ‘nature does not operate according to purposes; on the contrary, in all its manifestations it is directly, immediately sufficient to itself.’ Unfortunately, as Reddick makes very clear, this organicism was outdated by the 1830s, and Büchner was assisting in a doomed rearguard action. The immediate future lay with the mechanistic outlook of his brother Ludwig, the most famous member of the family in the 19th century, whose Force and Matter (1855) served several generations as a primer of materialism.
Reddick wants Büchner’s vision of natural wholeness to serve as the key to his thought, but he underplays the presence in the stage works of a materialism recalling D’Holbach or even Sade. In Woyzeck a lecture on humanity’s material nature is put incongruously into the mouth of a fairground barker; ‘Man, be natural. You’re made of dust, sand, dirt – d’you want to be more than dust, sand, dirt?’ Büchner doesn’t endorse this view, it is simply one contender in a dramatic contest of ideas; but by giving voice to it he acknowledges its terrible imaginative force.
Reddick is less interested in Büchner’s politics, assuming that we already know about his revolutionary activities. These are worth recalling, though, because Büchner was one of the few 19th-century German writers who came down from ‘the airy kingdom of dreams’, in Heine’s words, and tried to intervene forcibly in the world. The 1830 Revolution in France had repercussions in Germany and caused the various states, under the supervision of Metternich, to tighten their repressive apparatus. Büchner saw that mere protest achieved nothing. He also felt that liberals made an inordinate fuss about censorship when much of the German population was close to starvation. ‘In my eyes,’ he is reported to have said, ‘it is far less grievous that this or that liberal may not print his ideas than that many thousands of families are living on raw potatoes.’ And he wrote to his parents, themselves convinced liberals and admirers of the French Revolution: ‘If anything can help in our times, it must be violence.’ As a student, he helped to found a secret society called the Society for Human Rights, evidently modelled on pre-Marxian Communism in France. The Society prepared for an eventual armed uprising by training with weapons, but it laid the groundwork for violence by distributing a pamphlet intended to raise the consciousness of the peasants. This pamphlet, The Hessian Messenger, was written jointly by Büchner and a clergyman called Weidig, and is a plain-spoken document that begins with the French Revolutionary slogan ‘Peace to the cottages! War on the palaces!’ However, one of their associates was caught by the police with 139 copies of the pamphlet stuffed into his boots or concealed in the lining of his coat; Büchner’s room was searched by university officials and he showed considerable nerve in calling on the proctor (known to be a drunken sadist) and complaining that his rights had been violated. He managed to allay suspicion for a while, but in spring 1835 thought it best to leave Germany. Soon afterwards, an informer betrayed the Society to the police: Weidig was imprisoned and treated so harshly that after two years he committed suicide.
The problems of revolutionary violence are dramatised in Danton’s Death, which Büchner wrote in five weeks and in constant fear of arrest. It is one of the masterpieces of the period that begins with Lessing and the young Schiller exploring possibilities of civic resistance to 18th-century absolutism, and ends, ominously, in the 1850s with Hebbel celebrating the historical necessity that justifies strong rulers in annihilating inconvenient victims. Danton’s Death centres on the confrontation between Danton and Robespierre. Danton’s opposition to the self-perpetuating violence of the Terror links him with earlier opponents of absolutism, while Robespierre’s insistence that terror is needed in order to establish the reign of virtue seems to anticipate the claims of later tyrants to be mere instruments of world history. Positive interpretations of Büchner’s Danton must struggle to explain his hedonism, his cynicism and his lethargy, which Reddick attributes to despair at the decline of the Revolution into a cycle of bloodshed and to guilt at his responsibility for the prison massacres of September 1792. More originally, Reddick finds the key to his character in Danton’s actual words: ‘I would rather be guillotined than guillotine others.’ By going passively to his death, he steps off the murderous treadmill of history and escapes the kill-or-be-killed logic that drives most of the other characters.
This solution to the enigma of Danton may well seem more attractive than Lukács’s reading of the play as a conflict between the half-hearted and the thoroughgoing revolutionary: a reading suspiciously like a covert apologia for the Stalinist terror that was gathering pace as Lukács wrote. Lukács, however, does locate the tragic conflict within politics, whereas Reddick contrasts a political process that inevitably degenerates into tyranny with a humanism that finds its fullest realisation only in the private domain. By placing sacrifice and self-sacrifice at the centre of the play, Reddick perhaps unwittingly brings Büchner close to the Schiller whom he claimed to dislike. His Danton now resembles Schiller’s Maria Stuart, who escapes into political martyrdom from the historical necessity that seems to constrain her antagonist Elisabeth.
To support his reading, Reddick has to down-play the two parallel monologues in which first Robespierre and then Danton agonise about the political murders they have been compelled to commit. Robespierre’s claim to be taking sin upon himself, Danton’s description of himself as ‘the hand on whom the curse of “must” has fallen’, are dismissed as shoddy self-exculpations. So is the unhistorical episode in which Saint-Just persuades the National Convention to vote for Danton’s death by comparing it to the workings of physical nature. Insignificant natural causes may produce an epidemic, a volcanic eruption or a flood in which thousands of people die, but the universe as a whole is scarcely disturbed. ‘I ask you now,’ continues Saint-Just: ‘should moral nature be any more considerate in her cataclysmic revolutions than physical nature? Does an idea not have just as much right as a law of physics to destroy whatever stands in its way? What difference does it make whether people die of an epidemic or the revolution?’ This is a genuine question: it was posed in these very terms as early as the 1790s; and I doubt whether, as Reddick assumes, Büchner would have invented an entire monologue merely in order to display its speaker’s villainy. The speech shows, too, that Büchner’s science was not simply a backward-looking Romantic organicism; he also knew that the new geological discoveries were requiring people to accept a time-scale in which individual human suffering – indeed, individual human life – became insignificant.
Although he can widen his focus to include the universe, Büchner also, and often, narrows it down to the real victim of the French Revolution – the vulnerable human body, which can so easily be sliced in two. He is outspoken about the body’s raw sexuality. The obscenities excised by Büchner’s publisher are even coarser and more obsessive than the language of the actual revolutionaries. Both Danton and his adversaries frequent brothels and talk luridly of venereal disease. Unknown to the incorruptible Robespierre, one of his associates, suffering from tabes dorsalis, is told that his mistress will pull out his shrivelled spinal cord and dangle it down his back like a pigtail; another’s skin is adorned with ‘rosaries’, a string of red sores, given him by Madame Momoro (the actress who played the Goddess of Reason at the Festival of the Supreme Being). Yet we are also asked to believe that Danton and Desmoulins are happily married to wives who refuse to outlive them; Lucile Desmoulins goes operatically mad, Julie Danton (very unlike the real 15-year-old Louise Danton, who survived not only her husband but even Büchner) commits suicide in a scene of high lyricism.
Somewhere between these two extremes is the prostitute Marion, an embodiment, as Reddick says, of ‘pure and extreme sensation’, and described by recurrent images of water and fluidity – an ocean, a swirling current, a series of waves. Strangely, Marion anticipates Lena in Büchner’s comedy, a flower-like being who provides the depressive Leonce with a kind of spiritual rebirth. These female figures have a fascination which Reddick acknowledges (his chapters on Leonce and Lena make a powerful case for this underrated ironic comedy), but they hardly strengthen either the ‘emancipatory’ character or the relevance so often claimed for Büchner. Rather, his typology of women – the caring, motherly Julie; the brutalised prostitutes; the elemental, redemptive Marion and Lena – conforms to familiar male fantasies. All the more surprising, therefore, is the appearance in Woyzeck of Marie, a working-class woman torn between the insistent demands of her physical nature and the moral sense, nourished by a residual Christianity, that make her try (in vain) to repent her adultery. She comes across not as a supporting actor in a male fantasy, but as a three-dimensional character leading her own life.