Interbellum Literature

Sisyphus by Herbert Fahrnholz (1996)

The Algerian

Albert Camus grew up in Algeria fatherless, after world history had intervened and caused his father to be killed in France during the Battle of the Marne (October 1914). When this happened, little Albert was only eleven months old. He never had a chance to get to know the “first man” of his life. His father would remain a complete stranger to him. Still, as a French-speaking boy living in Arab surroundings, he experienced intense happiness.

Little Albert Camus

His widowed mother was poor, but Albert felt he had limitless riches at his disposal, being surrounded by nature’s treasures of which Algeria had to offer so much: the glorious sun, the mountains, the seaside and its beaches, the scent of the flowering orange trees that filled the hot and narrow streets. Although he belonged to the French colonizing minority, and cherished the French language, Camus would always, even after he had moved to Paris in 1940, be convinced that Algeria was his “true country”. The outbreak of war in 1954 between France and Algeria (trying to liberate itself) was mental torture to him.

To André Gide, who travelled to Tunisia and Algeria in 1893, these were in the first place strange exotic places (the very opposite of home), offering him opportunities for sexual encounters with Arab boys whose ‘wild’ naturalness he adored. When around 1930 Gide was preparing to publish his very confidential diaries he knew that, in doing so, he would reveal to the public the details of his homosexuality. He was convinced, though, that this indiscretion was needed in order to be able to express and set free his personal uniqueness and authenticity. To every reader of the now famous Gide diaries, it suddenly became clear how autobiographical many of his novels were. The earliest example is L’immoraliste (1902), in which the hero, Michel, falls victim to tuberculosis while travelling Tunisia. When he miraculously recovers, he is in fact reborn with a much strengthened ‘will to live’; he has turned into a very physical man and a hedonist who no longer resembles the studious and inhibited intellectual he used to be. He decides to shave off his beard, feeling as if he were “putting down a mask”. It is the mask of social convention that had covered his face as a “secondary being” (or faux personnage), just untill his rebirth into an authentic and natural ‘primary man’.

Gide in Biskra (1893)

However, he gradually realises that such an ‘immoralist’ – autonomous – superhuman will always remain an isolated figure, since people are generally afraid to become an outsider by leaving secure mediocrity behind. History and human culture hardly offer any room for anything else than being an untrue person.

When Camus began preparing a novel on the basis of his Algerian reminiscences (The First Man, which he could not complete because of his untimely death in a car accident in 1960) he developed a view on authenticity quite different from Gide’s Nietzschean ‘primary man’. To Camus the attachment to nature in a certain place on earth defines our authenticity. But not in a nationalist way: we all are settlers or newcomers (‘first men’) to a certain area. We are all nomads with a moral right to settle in the land that pleases us. Why, he asks, should an aesthetic attachment to a country not be just as legitimate as any kind of nationalist attachment based on heritage? The nomad as an autonomous settler is the authentic one, while the nationalist on the other hand is dominated by the faux personnage of being a nation’s subject. From 1930 onward Camus developed an admiration for Gide’s work and in 1945 history would bring them together: in Paris, during the weeks the final victory over the Germans was achieved, they even became neighbours, jointly listening to De Gaulle on the radio announcing that France’s enemies had been defeated.

A Salesman Called Schoenzeit

Arthur Miller and F. Scott Fitzgerald both were children of the Jazz Age, with its sudden wealth, its modernism in art and satire, and its preference for a carefree, swinging, adventurous and endlessly optimistic way of life. Still, the fear of war and poverty was always there, in the background. Fitzgerald in his novels demonstrated that the attitude of the Jazz Age and its ‘lost generation’ of the twenties emanated from an aversion to the ‘great causes’ of politics. Instead, success in earning money and in socializing, as well as achieving fame and respect, came to dominate the new philosophy of life of the metropolitan beau monde with its pseudo-aristocratic values. Fitzgerald tried to show that this was a false identity, leading to the loss of one’s true identity. The characters from his novels (like Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise) are desperately searching for a new and stable identity. They strive for worldly success, but at the same time are conscious of their own superficiality. There is much self-hate among the members of the middle class, despite their often formidable successes in business, which cut them loose from their old background and even made them feel alienated, as if they were nomads in their own life. Success didn’t, of itself, provide one with a new identity. This is what makes Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby such a mysterious and masked person.

Arthur Miller

The 1929 Crash and the ensuing Depression-years ended the postwar hedonism of the Jazz Age. The textile company of Arthur Miller’s father, based in New York, suffered heavily and the family had to move twice to a much cheaper apartment. The social degradation ruined his father’s self−esteem and made him feel guilty for failing his family. He also lost the esteem of his wife and relatives. When Arthur Miller started writing plays, he chose the social downfall of the American entrepreneur and the family tensions resulting from it as his theme. This is what connects his first play (No Villain, 1936) with his mature success Death of a Salesman (1949). However, in 1995 a short story was discovered, written by Miller in 1933 when he was just seventeen (In Memoriam). It is about an older salesman from his father’s company called Alfred Schoenzeit. Arthur once had to assist him, carrying six sample coats on a trip to the Bronx. That day Schoenzeit did not sell anything and his humiliation was complete when, without any money left, he had to ask young Arthur for a nickel to pay for the subway. Miller made it clear that the emptiness of this salesman’s pockets corresponded to the emptiness he felt in his soul. The real Alfred Schoenzeit, Miller later added in a note, threw himself before a train the next day.

In Death of a Salesman Willy Loman suffers a similar spiritual atrophy, so typical (Miller underlines) of those who, for their personal identity, depend on their being successful at buying and selling. As a young man Miller at first tried his hand at a Marxist explanation, blaming the capitalist system. However, while his own father was an employer (and therefore a ‘class enemy’), Arthur had himself witnessed how much his father was a victim as well, being helpless and disillusioned. Often the salesman, like Willy Loman, is too late in recognising that he has wrongly put all his trust in Fortuna (the luck that is needed for being successful in business), making his life unbearably empty, absurd and senseless, especially when success crumbles. As his writing developed, Miller’s interpretation evolved to become more Freudian. The son who rebels against the father rejects the hollowness of his existence, but also despises the father for losing his parental authority that was based on his former success. Symbolic parricide was a hallmark, Miller later stated, of the true American writer. Fitzgerald too had, much like Miller, blamed his father for being unsuccessful in business. The writer chose a different way to achieve success: the more gradual way of intellectual and artistic self-development, working at a more solid identity based on inalienable personal abilities that often will bring enough immunity to a person to survive a deep existential crisis.

Becoming Böll

In the 1930s the boy Heinrich Böll is growing up in the ancient Catholic city of Cologne. Even for a dreamy schoolboy these are exceptional times: unpredictable, dangerous, incomprehensible. In 1933 the mayor, Konrad Adenauer, is deposed and the city is taken over by the Nazis. Groups of Storm Troopers dominate the streets where Heinrich loved to ride his bicycle. At his school (a very Catholic gymnasium) some of the boys join the Hitler Youth, while two of the teachers transform into “roughneck” Nazis. All the boys have to participate, every Saturday, in paramilitary sports. Only three of the 200 boys refuse to do so, among them the young rebel Heinrich Böll. They are not punished and it is arranged for them to perform some light chores at school on Saturdays instead. Although Nazism was everywhere, and evil was constantly at arm’s length, it was possible to live in the margin of the ‘new order’. Still, in the streets a war is fought between Nazis and Communists. Göring, as a bloodthirsty soldier-emperor, came to Cologne one day to witness the execution of six young Communists: they were beheaded with an axe. That day fear descended on the city.

The anti-hero Heinrich Böll and his Annemarie

His Catholicism, with its internationalist values, helped to make the adolescent Heinrich Böll immune to the fierce nationalism of the Nazi party. He knew well that a whole generation of schoolboys (his generation) was being prepared for the next war. He felt estranged, an alien in his own beloved Cologne. He passionately wanted to become a writer, and he knew this meant he would have to assert his autonomy. But there was no escaping the certainty of war. Böll would have to serve as a soldier in the German army for six long years. Still, he would keep to his personal life plan, against the times, and from 1945 onwards he began to realise his dream of being a writer.

Hermann Hesse had become established as a writer well before 1914. When the First World War broke out, he was, as many of his generation, most excited at the idea that this clash of nations and cultures was a turning point in history. Hesse tended to idealise the supposed revolutionary and purifying effects of battle on the human mind and civilisation. His novel Demian, composed in 1917, is a clear example of this optimistic view on war that so strongly contrasts with Böll’s attitude.

Hermann Hesse

Hesse’s novel mirrors the enthusiasm of the people who felt uplifted by ‘the stream of the world’, a warring world striving for renewal, and wanting to die in order to be reborn. Participating in this ‘great war’ meant having the unique opportunity of looking the destiny of world history in the face, of helping history to reach a new cycle.

In Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers (1931) there is the same cheerfulness in the battalions marching to the front. Broch, however, calls this attitude unnatural and ‘boyish’ and contrasts it most sharply with the world of the trenches and their overpowering senselessness: this is a dead and un-answering world, not a world that is being rejuvenated. One of Broch’s characters, Huguenau, deserts the front and, like a sleepwalker in a no man’s land, is roaming the countryside of Flanders. Huguenau is an entrepreneur who has no business for heroism, and is glad to act in an opportunistic and selfish way whenever that’s what it takes to make a profit. The Prussian officer Joachim von Pasenow, on the other hand, near the end of the war looks back on it in bewilderment: he deplores the fact that the fighting has been so “unknightly”. Longing to live in the nobler past, he is a sleepwalker too.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline some time before 1914 had joined the French cavalry and as a consequence, when the war broke out, it was as a proud cavalryman that he was engaged in the fighting on the Marne and in Flanders.


The terror of war both shaped and damaged his personality. The mechanisation of warfare had brutally shown him that the cavalryman, that ‘vertical hero’, had become an anachronism. As a result Céline came to believe that everything was a sham, the result of manipulating forces. The world after 1918 remained a sinister place to him. In this sense, to Céline the Great War would never end. Its fire had not purified, it had only destroyed.

Unlike Hesse and Céline, Heinrich Böll from the start had a decidedly un-heroic view on war. It was a blessing in disguise. In his first novel, The Train Was on Time (1949) Böll focuses attention on the daily banality of war. The only heroism was in enduring, and in not losing one’s humanity and hope.

Beckett Climbs the Mount of Joy

Having moved from Ireland to Paris in 1928, Samuel Beckett began to construct a solid frame of philosophical views. It will support many, if not all, of his novels, plays and stories. He connected Schopenhauer’s view of life as a burden, a pensum, to Proust’s themes of involuntary memory and life-as-habit. But most strong was the influence of Dante’s Divina Commedia. In his first and markedly modernist novel Dream of Fair to middling Women (1932), Beckett deliberately disintegrates and deconstructs his characters, giving an incoherent representation of an incoherent modern world. But he also is yearning for a new synthesis, and this is where Dante comes in. Belacqua, the main character in his novel derives from Dante. Like Beckett himself, Belacqua is a juvenile man “cursed with an insubordinate mind”, an intellectual tramp leading a bohemian life. In the Divina Commedia, Belacqua is the slowest of sinners to repent. Beckett makes him the symbol of man as an indolent creature, burdened with the guilt and remorse that life’s bewildering experiences leave behind; a creature trying to find a way to purge himself, inaptly moving on the arduous road from Purgatory to Paradiso. In Belacqua’s case it is his complicated relationship with three women (three “capital divas”) which causes him to repent. Beckett turns them into allegories of the fancies of the Will. As compared to Musil’s Drei Frauen from 1924 (rather naïve country girls in an untainted and uncomplicated world of rural tradition), Beckett’s divas epitomise the ambiguous complexity of the modern metropolitan woman.

Samuel Beckett

As a young modernist Beckett is not interested in the horizontal philosophy of positivism and the linear earthly progress it promises. Poetry is vertical, just like Dante’s universe and its symbol (the Mount of Joy and the heavenly spheres) is vertical, as well as cyclical. Belacqua’s brooding represents the ‘vertical’ journey of a young man in search of personal identity and of a meaningful synthesis in a universe which, stripped of its traditional religious sense, seems nothing more than an “incoherent continuum”. His existential position strongly resembles the life of the bohemian artist, roaming the streets in search of a new identity and of new ways of expression as well. In some of his later novellas, Beckett returns to this theme of bohemian marginality and its bitter freedom. It is on a Dublin bridge, flagellated by the heavy cleansing rain on his chest, that Belacqua at last is purged, while looking at his hands: they can handle things, they can create and write, they are instruments of his autonomy, however tiny under the dome of universe they are. They will have to do. He will move on.

Beckett, after finishing his novel, would turn to a clinic in London’s Tavistock to undergo psychotherapy, the modern version of Purgatory, to clear away the “garbage” of experience that cluttered his soul.

A Farewell to Vienna

The extended Austrian-Hungarian monarchy of Kaiser Franz Joseph began to disintegrate from 1918 onwards. In 1938, with the Anschluss, Austria was even reduced to a satellite of the Nazi Reich. The Viennese culture, unique for is modernist diversity, was deeply influenced by this political and military decay of the Habsburg Empire. Austrian intellectuals were foremost in analyzing the condition and tendencies of European culture. Freud, in his Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), attempted to explain the ‘culture-hostility’ of the times, applying his theories of psychoanalysis to modern culture. His main idea was that the psyche of primitive man, still residing in our subconscious, hates the restrictions of social and cultural interference and never stops longing for that sensation of infinity and boundlessness of pre-social life in nature’s open wilderness. This unfulfilled desire for an “oceanic” (unlimited and unrestrained) life turns modern mass man into a cultural neurotic. Besides, our growing dependency on technology is, subconsciously, perceived as weakness: modern man knows himself to be a Prothesengott who depends on a growing arsenal of artificial ‘limbs’. The recent war had shown that the use of modern technology could easily lead to self-destruction on a massive scale, reducing the individual to insignificance.

In his novel The Sleepwalkers (1931) Hermann Broch directly addressed the ‘disintegration of values’ as a characteristic of modernity, exposed by the First World War: the unimaginable atrocities of warfare shattered the confident idea of reality, opening up the abyss of meaninglessness. Broch denounced the absence of an authentic unifying style in present-day culture; this is a symptom of the Ungeist of the epoch, which reduces being, thought and action to the rationality of pure function. Vienna, combining kitsch and convention, had become the “center of the European value vacuum”.

Hermann Broch

From Broch’s cultural criticism can be deduced what, in his view, a new culture and a revitalized synthesis of values should amount to. He was hoping for literature to invent and establish a new myth, a tale that would work as a unifying force to bring together, once more, the many unconnected fragments of modern life.

Joseph Roth’s Radetzkymarsch is, first of all, a portrait of decaying Habsburg army life and the demise of its value system. The decay of culture and the socio-political system is here illustrated in the decay of a family: the grandfather was a true military hero, the father a clerk with some merit and influence, while the (grand)son was a misfit who felt hopelessly alienated in the army, which by now itself showed signs of disorganization and decline.

Zweig and Roth in Ostende

Roth’s friend Stefan Zweig, exiled in Brazil, knew he no longer had the personal strength to await (or work for) the new culture Broch envisioned. In 1942 Zweig, one of the most successful writers between the wars, ended his life taking pills. Shortly before this tragic finale he had completed his affectionate and somewhat nostalgic portrait of the lost Viennese world (Die Welt von Gestern). Zweig was the most Freudian of novelists. Cultural discontent with him takes on the form of impatience and of the guilt we feel when confronted with the pain of someone who well deserves our pity. But doesn’t the act of pitying, and our desire to help such a person, spring from the egotistical motive of alleviating our own pain and remorse? (Beware of Pity, 1939). The theme of deep pity and of trying not to be hurt by the suffering of someone else is appropriate in the barbaric times of war. Zweig treated it with great subtlety and refinement. He simply could not live in the brutal world of Nazi terror.

A Thin Slice of Bois de Boulogne

Two of the most important postwar playwrights, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, were deeply impressed by Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Beckett wrote an important essay on Proust (1930), while Pinter reworked Proust’s masterpiece into a screenplay (1972) for a film that was never made. In this chapter the views of Beckett and Pinter are called in to highlight Proust’s significance for literary modernism. He moved away from naturalism towards symbolism and surrealism, and took a decisive step away from ethical idealism in the direction of moral ambiguity. Pinter was fascinated by the accumulation of dreamy perspectives in Proust, and in the screenplay he deliberately speeded them up in order to transform the elaborate novel into a time machine, producing disorientation and estrangement. In the process he turned Proust’s characters into lifeless stage props; his menagerie of Parisian gentry becomes a museum of wax figures. Devastating time itself has become the leading actor. The artist and the writer are the ones who try to conquer time by discovering and expressing what lies beneath matter, habitual experience, or the words of everyday vanity.

Beckett, while living in Paris as a young and unknown poet, connected Proust to the pessimism of Schopenhauer and Leopardi. Proust presented his characters, Beckett felt, as the victims of time: time was the prison from which they couldn’t escape. Life-in-time is “the perpetuum mobile of our disillusions”. Time makes our personality fluid (without solidity) and even hypothetical. We live between an irretrievable past and a future which is beyond our control and non-existent. The thin slice of “now” in between is a pseudo-reality. Our self-definitions vary in time, and the many different perspectives of reality that have manifested themselves in the past are, as a rule, inaccessible to us. Only rarely, when our habitual way of living and thinking is shattered because of a completely novel reality (like war), or because we inadvertently (by “extreme inattention”) gain access to our subconscious collection of past impressions, do we experience a breakthrough to a different perspective. This is what Proust called “involuntary memory”, using the example of a madeleine cake being dipped in a cup of lime tea: the combination of this very particular taste and smell brought back, suddenly and in extreme directness, a boyhood memory.


Proust defined an unknown state of consciousness that could serve as an alternative atmosphere in which one could choose to live; a new habitat which he needed because the social world had lost its meaning for him. He even claimed that “reality takes shape in the memory alone.” The worlds we live in (and the lost worlds we long for) only become meaningful wholes when we see them through the eyes of our memory. More and more he preferred to dwell in the “realm of sleep”, or rather in the no man’s land between waking and sleeping. In this state of softened rationality memory’s treasury could be opened and a surreal world could be entered. Proust therefore may be called a surrealist; he liked to evoke the ambiguity and suggestiveness of a double track reality. Another example of this surrealism is offered by his spiritualism, or his “Celtic belief” as he liked to call it: he felt that his own past was hidden somewhere, outside the reach of the intellect, in some material object, or, more precise, in the sensation this material object would give him. He was convinced that all the smells, all the tastes, and all the visual impressions of his personal past were still present in so many objects from which he could recollect them.

Beckett here used the expression “the Proustian solution”: in seizing on the brief moments of involuntary memory, Proust had established a credible negation of Death through the negation of Time. He had turned, with literary means, involuntary memory into a niche in which the mystical experience of “an extratemporal essence” could occur. Every fragment of our existence had once, for a few seconds or less before our rational mind performed its filtering and ordering task, been embedded into a beautifully rich whole of side-impressions. All these disregarded ‘things’ that originally formed the context and colouring of our words and actions, have been stored somewhere. Involuntary memory can suddenly open such a treasure-chest of past impressions. We then are reconnected to our authentic pre-rational being, and during an instant the infinity of ‘now’ is regained in the past.

Caligula and the Moon

Florence and the surrounding Tuscan landscape made Albert Camus feel happy because he believed he had discovered truth there. By now, in 1937, he knew that he wanted to be a philosopher, and therefore had to write novels, in the name of truth: “What counts is not poetry. What counts is truth.” So often art and literature concentrated on the expression of human emotions, but that is not where truth is to be found. The expressions of humans are ephemeral and deceptive, it is in the continuity of life alone that truth can be found. Tuscan painters like Giotto and Piero della Francesca had demonstrated this, depicting the permanent reality, the lasting truth, of the body as an enduring structure of bones and flesh. Freed from its fleeting mind, its futile hopes of a life after death, and its illusions of individuality, the body is an “eternal present”, as true as stones lying in the sun. Like these, modern humans should accept that they live in a natural world, which is a desert, a beautiful desert like Tuscany, but still a desert because it is empty, free from both human schemes and divine providence. Only in accepting this bare truth can we live a happy life, Camus felt. This meant accepting the fundamental estrangement between humans and the natural world and, at the same time, knowing that, through this acceptance, it was possible to live in harmony with nature and celebrate our ‘marriage’ with nature. This was the main message in Nuptials and the essay ‘The Desert’ it contained. Camus elaborated on the theme of nature’s glory as a regime indifferent to man in his essays on the ancient Algerian ruins of Tipasa and Djémila. Here man’s stone constructions were slowly reconquered by nature.

Camus in Tuscany, September 1937

There is not a single clue in ‘The Desert’ that this was Fascist Italy Camus was travelling. He was interested in the eternal questions considering the human condition, but not in politics. Some eight months before, he had for the first time expressed his intention to write a play on Caligula. In the finished version (May 1940) Camus places the Roman emperor within the philosophical coordinates of his ‘Tuscan desert’: absurdity and revolt versus lucidity and achieving harmony with disinterested nature. The death of his beloved sister Drusilla maddens Caligula: even to the mighty Roman emperor the world is unsatisfactory, hostile and absurd. He is getting his revenge by becoming just as cruel as nature’s gods are (who took his sister’s life). He develops a dictatorship that makes his people depend on the fatality of his absurd logic, just as he himself depends on divine fatality. And he nourishes an impossible love for the moon (his version of ‘nuptials’).

With his Caligula Camus again tried to shed light on some fundamental existentialist questions; he didn’t intend to comment on modern dictatorship, although the play does offer some powerful insights into the psychology of the leaders of Nazism, Fascism and Communism. Didn’t they all try to override life’s absurdity with terror?

When in 1953 Camus decided to adapt Dostoyevsky’s novel The Possessed into a play, he was guided by his firm admiration for Dostoyevsky as the first writer who, following the proclaimed death of god, really understood the consequences of modern nihilism that led  to totalitarianism and absolutist revolutionism (creating a generation of “grand inquisitors” in politics who relentlessly persecuted the ones who opposed them or simply disagreed). Their ideological constructs were, according to Dostoyevsky, the result of seeking salvation through non-religious means. Often their despotic radicalism was a complicated way to commit suicide, provoking their enemies to murder them (as happened in the case of Caligula). The ‘possessed’ are the ones who completely live under the spell of their (presumed) historic mission as revolutionaries.

In his Notes from Underground (1864) Dostoyevsky had presented yet another side of nihilism: that of the solitary and isolated man who has lost the important religious component of his idea of what constitutes a man, and who as a result becomes a non-person, caught in the web of his own endless questions, doubts and contradictory thoughts. Already in 1948, in his essay ‘Helen’s Exile’, Camus had formulated his answer to the different forms of nihilism (from Caligula, The Possessed, and Notes from Underground). He was convinced that an “authentic” “metaphysical revolt” (not: revolution) was possible on the basis of a revival of three classical Greek principles. First, that human nature – including the recognition of its inherent frailties – should be the basis of our thoughts and actions, not the (historical) situation. Second, that values exist a priori and should be respected as the exact limits of our every action. And, third, that we should constantly make an effort to attain and preserve harmony (balancing the contradictory tendencies in our own nature and attaining a harmonious relationship with external nature in her own right). The inquisitors of the 20th century, however, had refused to accept any limitations, striving for the impossible, possessed with the absoluteness of their impulses. Maybe, Camus mused, it had better be left to the artist to remake the world, since the artist simply has to work in accordance with the limits of human weakness. History, then, might be seen as “the struggle between creation and the inquisition.”

On Meeting Joyce

Even after the publication of Ulysses had brought him international fame, James Joyce remained an enigma, both as a writer and as a person. The testimonies of many contemporaries who met him prove that conversations with Joyce usually focussed on trivialities or suffered from the master’s tendency to remain taciturn whenever it pleased him.

James Joyce

As a result very few people at the time had a clear idea what the Irishman, living in Paris, was aiming at with his literary projects. Being a linguistic virtuoso, playfulness was a main characteristic of Joyce, but above all he had an “insurrectionary” mind. His tendency to deconstruct and reinvent the English language was an act of rebellion. This insight, however, only helps to understand the style of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, but not the content, let alone the philosophy, of both books. On this level of the intentions of his work, the ‘enigma Joyce’ remains to be solved.

In this chapter several routes are followed to come closer to a real ‘meeting’ with Joyce. To sum up:

  • his preference for the trivial, the prosaic and the vulgar coincides with the use Joyce made of the interior monologue, as well as with his strong dislike of high flown metaphysics in literature, since poetry could only be found in the concrete, made unconventional, ambiguous, perplexing;
  • to attain this poetry he felt he had to remove all residues of linear and serial (conventional) thinking from his language, such as the narrative, the plot, novelistic moralizing, and the illusions of static personalities and an authoritative narrator;
  • the idea of the chaotic simultaneity of numberless different actions and thoughts;
  • his decision to give full reign to the plain realities of the body, thus destroying the idealistic version of the mind-body relation;
  • his central idea that history and reality in general are circular and cyclical (combining Homer, Vico and Bruno);

Joyce and Sylvia Beach

  • Hermann Broch’s view on Joyce as the writer who countered the Zeitgeist (the prevalent scepticism, cynicism and relativism, together spelling cultural decay) by his multiplicity of styles which enabled him to unleash “the simple pathos of experience” contained in the multi-layered quotidian of both the individual personage and the epoch;
  • Joyce’s belief in the necessity of a ‘new medievalism’ (seen as a new ‘age of extremes’, based on the conviction that contradictions and opposing forces do not dissolve into harmony but, instead, for ever remain irresolvable – the sacred and the obscene will always coexist – and leading in art to a revival of the belief in signs and symbols and the love for magic and bawdiness.

All this may lead us to the conclusion that Joyce was a modernist and an antimodernist at the same time.

Musil Traverses “Park Nietzsche”

As a student Robert Musil read most of Nietzsche’s works. He even carried a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra with him, quoting from it frequently. In the spring of 1899 he complained in his diary: “Nietzsche is like a park, for the public to use – but nobody is entering it!” Musil firmly believed that on the basis of the fundamental shift in views Nietzsche had brought about it would be possible to make culture advance a thousand years. In this chapter Musil’s The Man Without Qualities will be interpreted as a sustained effort to find, in the crumbling realm of the decadent Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy (called ‘Kakania’ by Musil), the signs and possibilities of a practical transcription and application of Nietzsche’s ideas. Might this multinational empire, on the brink of the First World War, rise as a phoenix from its ashes by following Nietzsche?

Robert Musil (1930)

The very special literary form Musil deployed in his novel, his fictional ‘essayism’, seemed almost ideally fitted to tackle this question. The focus is on five themes in The Man Without Qualities: the critique of decadent culture (following Nietzsche’s attack on the decadence of Wagner as the opposite of the new philosophy of life); the search for a new dimension of reality in perspectives and unrecognized possibilities as an alternative to Kakanian ‘pseudo-reality’ (using Nietzsche’s theory of perspectivism); the confrontation between science and mysticism (using Nietzsche’s idea of ‘the gay science’ and his distinction of the apolline and the dionysian); the authentic person as the one without qualities (following in the footsteps of Nietzsche’s preference for the categories of ‘the possible’ and ‘becoming’); and the concept of the Millennium (a permanent state of mystical contemplation as a non-Christian mental utopia that can be reached after Nietzsche announced the ‘death of god’).

Sartre in Berlin and Bouville

The first part of this chapter focusses on Sartre’s lengthy stay in Berlin from November 1933 onwards, on a scholarship to study Husserl’s phenomenology. His friend Raymond Aron had, returning from Germany in the summer of 1933, enthused Sartre for Husserl.

Sartre and Aron

While in Berlin, Sartre strongly concentrated on his intellectual struggle to come to grips with Husserl and, secondary, with Heidegger. The political turmoil in Germany (much of which was concentrated in the streets of Berlin) didn’t interest him very much. Contrary to his own post war prescriptions, he refrained from any engagement in the socio-political activities or debates following Hitler’s coup at the beginning of 1933. I try to explain what fascinated Sartre in phenomenology and how this non-psychological view on consciousness (as a new type of philosophy based on the thing) entered his first novel, Nausea. Here Sartre erected an imaginary provincial town called Bouville, based on Le Havre where he had been living as a philosophy teacher prior to his Berlin sabbatical. In Bouville, or rather in the consciousness of Nausea’s hero Roquentin, the things (the drinking fountain, the gas lamp, a pebble, the chestnut trees, the sea) become frightening because they show themselves as pure, naked, existence. This places Roquentin in an estranged environment, where he is encircled with the ‘being-in-itself’ of things, which hides beneath the varnish of normality. A detailed analysis of Nausea constitutes the second part of the chapter.

Norwegian Light

In the last decade of the nineteenth century a sharp controversy was raging over Henrik Ibsen between those who felt that his plays (like Ghosts) were a deliberate attack on family values and respected social ideals, and those – like Bernard Shaw and William Archer – who believed that Ibsen’s ‘new realism’ amounted to a more than welcome breaking away from the false ideals that upheld a social order long overdue. According to Shaw the world of modern ‘suburban’ man should no longer be governed by values belonging to the aristocratic and religious worlds of the past. Ibsen’s opposition, however, was also directed against aesthetic idealism (which culminated in the view that art should uplift the audience in a moral sense).

Influential Ibsen

Ibsen’s negation of moral and aesthetic idealism was a major contribution to the breakthrough of modernism. In this chapter three 20th century plays are analysed, the authors owing much to the enlightenment Ibsen brought: Exiles (1918) by James Joyce (his only play); Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) by Eugene O’Neill; and Arthur Miller’s adaption from 1950 of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Each of these plays explores the possibilities of bringing classical Greek tragedy and heroism to the common world of modern, ‘suburban’, families. Thus they are connected to the inspiration Ibsen had once gained from the classical forms in art while living in Rome.

Bohemian and Bauer

In this chapter two attitudes to life, or world views, are contrasted: first the attitude of the bohemian is explored, then the distinctly different view for which the German term Bauer is introduced. While the writer and artist as bohemian prefers a life on the fringe of official society and the national community, the writer and artist as Bauer cherishes in his work the deep-felt connection to the soil and to national culture and tradition. Both attitudes have their own code of values. While for the bohemian authenticity is defined by the pure and unbound individuality of choice and by the adventure of transgression, for the Bauer authenticity lies in the purity of the indigenous and in safeguarding the continuity of traditions, respecting the roots of the own local culture and community. While the first one hopes to find freedom in the cutting of ties, the second feels that only the strengthening of traditional ties can make a person’s life really free.

Virginia Woolf

The creative tension between the bohemian and the Bauer attitude is a major constitutive power in interbellum literature. The bohemian moral code will be explored, discussing the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Tristan Tzara (his Dada Cabaret Voltaire), the novelists Ernest Hemingway (Fiesta), Virginia Woolf (and the Bloomsbury Group), as well as George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London) as examples. Illustrations will also be found in the roaming lives of some painters (Edgar Degas, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Mueller, as well as Hesse’s painter persona Klingsor, modelled after Van Gogh). The Bauer perspective is exemplified by influential Martin Heidegger; especially his association of Dasein with Heimat in his anti-cosmopolitan text Der Feldweg is relevant. However, as shown in Heidegger, Kirchner and Louis Aragon (Le Paysan de Paris), the bohemian and the Bauer positions were more closely linked than one might assume. Both developed their own kind of anti-bourgeois radicalism, aiming for a ‘new beginning’ or Neubeginn, to use Heidegger’s concept.

Louis Aragon

For Aragon the new beginning lay in the non-rational love of surrealist man for the concrete, with its many irreducible ambiguities and contradictions (so well understood by both the peasant and the pagan).

The Grimace of Céline

To gain at least some understanding of the ultra-complex phenomenon Céline, the focus in this chapter is on his attitude towards the process of living, including his existential posture (both as view and pose). The nausea of being alive, of having to stumble through existence disoriented, is more important in Céline than any purely literary ambition. There is no literary style in Céline; what the reader perceives as his style of writing, is in fact a style of living − of living in the darkness of night where he prefers the bleak honesty of gloom to the treacherous ray of false hope. It is the style of disorientation.

Hence his posture transcends the domain of literature, and encloses the raw experience of the harsh reality of being disoriented, as well as the cynicism that comments on it by slashing at every ideal, in the mean time keeping alive the futile wish to maintain personal pride nonetheless. Only by taking into account his severe anti-Semitism and his involvement with French intellectual fascism – next to his obsession with medical and racial hygiene, his flagellating hatred of his own bourgeois origins, and his arcane love of dance and fairy tale (féerie) –, Céline’s writing may attain a consistency of its own.

In his Journey to the End of the Night doctor and patient confrontations play an important role: after Bardamu, Céline’s alter ego, has been wounded in the First World War he somehow comes to appreciate the role of the patient. Bardamu later becomes a doctor himself. The doctor-patient relationship is a metaphor for a culture and a human psychology sickened by war. The extreme violence of the war has broken man’s psychic defences, laying bare his deepest emotional and spiritual sources, Céline believes. No sophism, no rationalising concept, could survive the harsh truth of combat. The fighting has disclosed the pathologies of the human mind. Above all, it has shown that human beings are not driven by their intelligence, but by their instincts and base emotions. Modern humans degrade, they live self-destructive lives, and they are only apt at the low in life.

Freud’s psychoanalysis, a major influence on Céline, confirmed that the war had been the démasqué of humanism’s high-pitched ideals. Céline’s writings time and again testify of the primacy of instincts, emotions and irrational impulse. Man is a ‘night-covered animal’, pulled towards self-destruction by the nihilistic death drive. The doctor is, time and again, faced by every painful and grotesque aspect of disease, and often is completely helpless. In this sense the doctor is himself a patient.

As a medical student Céline became fascinated with hygienic measures and for his thesis he chose Semmelweis as his subject. His conviction that medical and social hygienism were essential certainly played an important role in his virulent anti-Semitism. He suspended his work as a novelist for six years to produce his three anti-Semitic ‘pamphlets’ (in reality full-blown books): Bagatelles pour un massacre, L’École des cadavres and Les Beaux draps. Because his anti-Semitism defines Céline, it will be analysed in detail.

In the remainder of the chapter Céline’s flight in 1944 to Nazi Germany, where he ended up in the Hohenzollern castle in Sigmaringen (the exile of the former Vichy regime) and his imprisonment in Copenhagen for collaborating with the Germans (1946) are described. The two most important novels that resulted from these rather dramatic experiences are Castle to Castle and Fable for Another Time: both are essential to understand the prewar Céline. After Copenhagen Céline somehow seems to have carried his prison with him, wherever he went. Still, his life ended in fulfilment. On his very last living day (June 30, 1961) he completed another novel, Rigadoon. It is true that, in his postwar writings, he had been caught in his own style of short fragmented sentences bordered by dots, which made his language exclamatory. Since his writing was mainly powered by hatred and délire, by taking sides, exclamation became his style, and even somewhat of a prison in its own right.

Simone Weil and Franz Kafka: A Forceful Parallel

The French philosopher Simone Weil and Franz Kafka – although they didn’t know each other – had much in common, mainly in the way they lived and contemplated their own lives as an emblem of humanity’s problematic existence, full of suffering and alienation. In hindsight the main fact of Simone Weil’s life seems to be that it ended prematurely. She died in Ashford, England, in 1943 when she was only 34 years old.

Simone Weil, ready to fight in the Spanish Civil War

It was a tragic death, first because tuberculosis had made her incurably ill at such a youthful age, but even more so because she had stopped eating, starving herself to death. There is no doubt that she herself saw her dying as an act of solidarity and protest for all the injustice and suffering in the world in the midst of war. The nature of her ending has made it hard not to write her biography backwards: her hypnotic fascination with hunger and self-immolation, her need to appropriate the pain of others and her strange longing for death – always disregarding the prudential instincts attaching us to life – became the constituent threads connecting her first years to the last, while predicting her early ending ten years or more before it came, inevitably. That last breath in Ashton was destined to be seen as an apotheosis.

Several of her writings were published posthumously, retarded by the war and its aftermath of shortages: Gravity and Grace in 1947, The Need for Roots and Waiting for God both in 1949; Oppression and Liberty in 1955. Two of her main essays (the hasty L’inspiration occitane and the brilliant The Iliad, or the Poem of Force) had appeared in 1940 and 1941 in Les Cahiers du Sud. While her reputation as a vibrant and enigmatic personality, as an unconventional teacher, as a social radical and a newly inspired Christian dates from before the war, her name as a philosopher was only established in the late forties and early fifties. It was then that she became an important inspiration to several writers and philosophers, among them T.S. Eliot, Camus, Mauriac, Levinas, Ricoeur, and Cioran (who saw her as a modern Antigone, a counterforce to the dominant trend of modern scepticism). Albert Camus called her a very lonely spirit in the France of the Interbellum years.

Franz Kafka

The focus in this chapter is on connecting Simone Weil’s loneliness to Kafka’s. A loneliness in a human universe where people fall victim, time and again, to the anonymous force of regimes (military, political or bureaucratic), in war and work. A loneliness which is, in its origins, not psychological but situational. Weil and Kafka both lived short and sickly lives, against the times, anticipating a future of freedom which has not yet come. They both felt uneasy about their Jewish background, and they preferred an ascetic lifestyle that embraced suffering as well as the certainty of death. It was, to them, the only road to the light of revelation. The chapter analyses Kafka’s stories ‘The Hunger Artist’, ‘In the Penal Colony’, ‘The Hunter Gracchus’, and his novel The Castle.

Ernst Jünger’s World of Fire

His Storm of Steel from 1920 immediately made Jünger famous as a young die-hard and daredevil from the First World War, who, on top of it all, turned out to be a very cool and shrewd observer. Whereas Storm of Steel was a surprisingly detailed chronicle of trench warfare, in the next years Jünger manifested himself as a writer with philosophical ambitions in his Lieutenant Sturm (1923), The Worker (1932) and the essay On Pain (1934). The young warrior and dare devil developed into a writer and philosopher, who corresponded with Heidegger and Carl Schmitt. Although it is rather easy to ‘frame’ Jünger as the quintessential Prussian conservative, his basic attitude as a man with an adventurous heart who desperately wants to be taken adrift by reality’s extremes, in the end makes him remarkably open minded. While his attitude to Hitler’s ideas in the beginning is ambiguous, to say the least, he later courageously distanced himself from the Nazis, who much would have liked to draft him as a former war hero. Instead, in his novel On the Marble Cliffs (1939) Jünger produced a parable to denounce tyranny. Although the novel was widely seen as an attack on the Nazi regime, Jünger as a military man served that regime as one of the occupants of Paris. Against all odds, however, that role made his reputation as a true friend of France and French culture.

Ernst Jünger

In his essay ‘Über die Linie’ (1950) Jünger developed his own theory that humankind had, at that time, already clambered out of the deepest cleft of nihilism. Jünger himself then was no longer the prisoner of his earlier historical fatalism. He stated that nihilism should not be seen as a (necessary) result of history’s development but as a phase, a temporary situation that could be overcome. A long discussion developed with Heidegger (an admirer of Jünger) who denied that humanity had overcome nihilism. Nihilism could only be surmounted, Heidegger believed, after Western philosophy as it had developed from the Greeks onwards, had been completely rebuilt, making Dasein the pivot of all thinking.

Thomas Mann and Some Afterthoughts

This is the epilogue. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain is used as the backdrop for a recapitulation of the main findings. In this novel Mann presents his ideas on the special position of the artist and the writer, as well as his views on death and disease. The sanatorium represents the pre-1914 world of the Belle Époque, a world – as the reader very well knows from the start – that is bound to disappear. The novel’s hero, Hans Castorp, will stay for seven years in this “phantasmagorical world” of the Berghof sanatiorium high in de Davos mountains, far from the ‘lowland’ of normal society. Near the end, though, Hans will have to descend, to take part in World War I. The meticulous sanatorium treatment to cure his tuberculosis suddenly has to stop to allow him to step into the bottomless dangers of the battlefield and the trenches.

In August 1914 Mann knew that, because of the war, he could not continue work on his novel. The Magic Mountain had to be a true work of art, which to Mann then meant he had to write it in a style of detached irony and allegory. He simply could not do that as long as his mind was preoccupied with “wartime thoughts”. Instead he began to compose his Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man.

Thomas Mann

Not until 1919 did he resume work on The Magic Mountain, continuing his depiction of Hans Castorp’s Bildung by two rival pedagogues who try to influence him: the Italian Settembrini (defending humanism and its hopes), and the Jesuit Leo Naphta (the voice of inevitable human sinfulness and the necessity of totalitarian depersonalisation). However, more important to Castorp’s personal development than their endless quarrels are the moments when he is alone, on his balcony with his science books, or on a pair of oaken skis in the endless and serene world of snow and mountain peaks. Mann let his skiing protégé experience an almost sacred oneness with desolate nature.

This is an example of a special ‘point of convergence’, similar to Musil’s Millennium or Camus’ concept op ‘being wedded to the world’. Modern writers in the Interbellum often construct such special ‘points of convergence’ in their novels and plays, as an antidote to nihilism. It is just one of the  strategies they invented to retrieve the sense of being in their writings. In this chapter these literary strategies will be identifed and compared.