The Wounded Protoplasm
It is a common enough phrase, war-torn, a compound term that is easy to understand but almost impossible to comprehend. Few writers more than Wolfgang Borchert (who was born in 1921 and died in a sanitarium in 1947) has tried to make sense of the reality behind the phrase and uses many compounds in his writing as a means by which to understand the war-torn at its centre. Some of these compounds are common enough: egg-yolk, twenty-seven, organ-grinder, half-circle, watering-can. But there is also: green-black, carp-mouthed, ever-young, death-yearning, wave-knowing, and reed-rustling all from the story 'The Elbe'. Yet we find such compounds everywhere in Borchert's work. In 'Do Stay, Giraffe', there is wind-howling, night-empty, moon-lonely, moon-get, sleep-heavy and never-known. While Heinrich Boll was the German post-war novelist who captured the realist immediacy of the war-torn and the post-war years, Borchert insists that the war passes through the prism of a collapsed language. Boll's figures in The Train Was on Time and The Silent Angel might be destroyed but sense isn't. Boll acknowledged Borchert's impact. Wulfe Kopek says in 'German Writers After 1945: Wolfgang Borchert', "Borchert's writings not only had appeal to the general audience, they have also influenced and encouraged writers, especially Heinrich Boll who has acknowledged his debt to Borchert." (German Studies Review) Yet they seem to us quite different writers. Boll is finally a moral novelist, someone who comprehends the disintegration of value systems but that events can be viewed from a position of narrative sanity within the nervous wreckage. There may be characters who go mad after what they have seen and witnessed, but that isn't Boll's narrative position. It often happens to be Borchert's and this is where the compounds often come in trying to put sense back together again after it has fallen apart.
One way of seeing this is that narrative strength gives way to poetic fragility, evident in 'The Elbe'. "These are the mist-grey, the fog-grey, the world-grey times, in which it can happen that small, white washed-up human wrecks are thrown on the dirty, yellow-grey sand at Blankenese or Teufelsbrucke." People aren't characterised; they are metaphorically encapsulated by language. The period is a world-grey time, the character washed-up human wrecks and the settings are German towns no more than names, atrociously anonymous. The characters are viewed abstractly as if no individuality can quite be summoned out of them. "Then again it happens that distended, fishy-smelling, inhuman dead bodies rustle and whisper against the reeds at Finkenwerder or Moorburg." When Borchert creates a character it is often absurdly. In 'Billbrook', a Canadian air force sergeant who finds himself in the town of that name, which also happens to be his own, Bill Brook. He looks up at the large enamel sign and sees his own name in compound form, finding it both amusing and disturbing. "My name, he thought. Quite clearly, quite obviously. And in enamel and lacquer. Crazy, he thought, crazy. In enamel and lacquer, Silly! Mad! Idiotic!" Later he gets talking to an old man who explains what happened to Hamburg." "Ach in two nights. In two nights everything kaputt. Everything. Two nights." Bill Brook thinks of his home town in Nova Scotia, "in two nights Chester would no longer be true. An illusion. Blotted out. He thought that perhaps there were ten thousand people left lying under the flattened city. He laughed: ten thousand dead. Squashed, flat, dead." He laughs but this isn't the laughter of a light heart but a heavy one recognising the enormity of death and destruction.
An outside perspective might insist that this was the cost of war, but such a claim is even easier than talking of the war-torn, with the destruction a necessary evil in removing the terrors of Naziism. It isn't that such claims are invalid; it is more that such pronouncements don't do justice to language. They simply accept justice has been done. Vital to so much post-war literature, from Beckett to Borchert, Borowski to (a lesser extent) Boll, is where we see language turned against itself, finding in language not the glories of victory and verbal assertiveness but the humility of its inevitable impoverishment and the need to push old words together in new, pressing and depressing formulations. "What is the nature of Borchert's bits and pieces of prose? K. J. Flickert asks in Books Abroad? "He [Borchert] explains that, should he be able to eke out two hundred pages of words, these would be but scant commentary on twenty thousand invisible pages, pages about the burden and torment which is life, for which there is neither vocabulary, nor grammar, nor symbol. ('Wolfgang Borchert's Billbrook as a Search for the Self') Here we have in Borchert's work suspicious prose indeed, writing that doesn't assert itself but resists itself. It finds the means to speak and deny speech simultaneously a version of the double negative as an aesthetic system, one that passes through an ethical imperative which has little to do with morality. When Henry James says in The Ambassador that someone "cannot possibly not know" about an assignation, this is the process of making language subtle. The double negative can still work positively of course: it means that the person does know, but the knowing passes through the not-knowing. To see a couple kissing is to know something. To infer from a number of pieces of evidence without actually having the kiss itself is to be in a position where one "cannot possibly not know."
Few writers more than James mastered the novel as inference. But Borchert, Beckett and other are not interested in making the language subtle but instead suspicious, a sceptical prose that insists the pages written are always inadequate next to the pages that haven't been written, that couldn't be written. Writing can accept that limitation and work with what it has, or it can try and find ways in which to start acknowledging that impossibility. Gabriel Jasopovici often returned to this question in his books on literature, as we find in The World and the Book, from 1971, and On Trust, from 1999. In the former, Josipovici says, utilising philosophy, "Wittgenstein draws the net of solipsism tight around us so that we may recognise the limits of our world. But recognising them, we are able to sense what lies beyond them, for, as he says, to draw a boundary around anything is to suggest something beyond that boundary. In a similar way Eliot and Kafka and Proust and Robbe-Grillet draw the line in tight around their protagonists, giving us a sense, from the inside, of the limits of their world, and thus revealing what cannot be spoken." Such an approach Stephen Spender alludes to in his introduction to Borchert's work, saying "to read him...is to study the sensibility of a man who is the victim of a machine which is itself destroyed, tearing his life down with it. His vision is entirely confined by this machine, and except once for the vague mention of 'Hindenburg' he does not seem to see the men who were the makers of the machine or the faces of those who destroyed it." Such absences can fall under structuring devices: that what is absent from the world is nevertheless alluded to by that absence. Hitler is all over Borchert's work, but he isn't mentioned as the catalytic force he so obviously happened to be. Yet such a structuring absence is only one aspect of Borchert's fiction and in itself would not have seemed so original, however impressive.
In On Trust, Josipovici says, "for those living and working within 'the substantial categories of state, family and destiny', both life and art are carefree, though that does not of course mean free of sorrow. But, trusting in those categories, the individual is freed of the burden of choice at every stage of his life and thus of an abiding sense of frustration and guilt..." Yet, writing like Borchert's insists on that frustration and guilt in the very prose, finding in sentences a style so broken that meaning, or the meaningful, cannot easily be extracted from it, even if nihilism isn't the 'message' either. It is however to acknowledge the broken in all its manifestations, and what better place to start for the writer than with the very language he or she uses? One doesn't trust the words on the page, but new images can be produced out of those words to give them a trace of the catastrophe. "His stories centre on the questions that the conscious living protoplasm asks itself," Fickert says. This protoplasm (described by the Oxford dictionary as the colourless material comprising the living part of a cell, including the cytoplasm, nucleus and other organelles) suggests the nebulousness of Borchert's figures. Rather than seeing Borchert's work in terms of characterisation and setting, imagine it from within a protoplasmic state that is trying to grow out of a devastated condition. We must be careful here not to get too lost in our metaphors but if we see Jane Austen as a novelist of character and situation positively (as she reveals her characters' motivations in settings that keep bringing them to light), and James as novelist of character and situation negatively (so that we must infer out of the character and setting what would seem to have happened), then Borchert writes out of an ontological negation: one that indicates to see the human as anything more than a nervous system trying to exist in the world is to make too declarative a claim. The compound nature of the language adds to this mangled sense of chaos.
So often Borchert wants to describe a character, a place or a situation not out of a succinct need to further narration but with the need to convey desperation. Here he is describing someone in 'Thithyphuth', a lisping play on Sisyphus. "Small, embittered, overworked, crushed, careless, colourless, timid, oppressed: the waiter. The little waiter. A proper waiter: peevish, professionally polite, with no smell, with no face, numbered, over-washed and yet slightly grubby. A little waiter. Nicotine-stained, servile, sterile, smooth, well-combed, blue-shaven, jaundiced with trousers empty at the back and fat pockets at the sides, crooked heels and chronically sweaty collar the little waiter." Borchert offers a caricatural hysterics, close to the sort of art that Hitler deemed so decadent and degenerate: work by Grosz, Dix and of course Max Beckmann. If degenerate art could see where Germany was going, Borchert shows us where it went. Dix and Grosz were predictive; Borchert is lamentive, but within that lament there is some of the anger of the art Hitler was so determined to quash.
One sees in the play (The Man Outside) that remains Borchert best-known work such caricatural hysteria, an anger that finds an outlet in exaggerating the details all the better to bring out the personality and society behind them. In one scene in the play, the central character Beckmann, a suicidal ex-soldier, goes to the house of his colonel, who is eating well in a comfortable home with his family. He tells the colonel "your windows look so warm from outside. I just wanted to feel again what it's like to look through such windows. But from the inside, from inside. Do you know what it's like to see such warm lighted windows in the evening, and be outside?" As he stands there the colonel's daughter asks what he wants: 'he keeps staring at my plate." The wife wishes he would take his glasses off: 'it makes me shiver to look at them." The family sees an intruder; the colonel sees a failure, someone who hasn't held himself together and has thus failed as a proper soldier. Beckmann insists he was never much of a soldier anyway as he says he may have worn the uniform for six years, but he could have worn a postman's uniform for ten and felt not much of a postman either. The colonel has lived the soldier's life but from the safety of a commissioned position; Beckmann had the uniform thrust upon him and in the most terrible of circumstances. He had fought on the Russian front "in Stalingrad, sir. But the job went wrong and they got us. Three years we got, the whole hundred thousand of us. And our big chief put on civvies and ate caviare." The colonel isn't interested in the horrors of Beckmann's experience but instead the stupidity of the man. The colonel reckons his mind has been confused "by a spot of warfare" and reckons he should have been commissioned: you'd have had entered into quite different circles. Had a decent wife and you'd have had a decent house now too." The colonel offers wise words from a position of brutal self-preservation and, within the context of a play that constantly points up post-war abjection, caricatural hysteria comes through once again.
One offers such a term without the judgemental assumption that might sit behind it; the idea that hysteria and caricature have little place in proper art. But the idea of offering a character a fair hearing, to understand their perspective and purpose contains within it a set of assumptions that can't be reduced to questions of good technique. If someone gives a rounded portrait of a troublesome character we may regard this as good craft, with the writer able to show many facets of an individual. But the technique won't lie especially in that of character creation but in the craft of how that character is presented. Few doubt that many a great Greek and Shakespearian play has complex characters but what about if their royal figures were viewed from the position of their servants and slaves, would the priority still be to create such complex figures or to find a position that shows how selfish, vain and exploitative they happen to be? The kings and queens wouldn't be in tragedies but perhaps in farces, and the caricatural approach wouldn't indicate any weaker a grasp of technique but instead no more than a different perspective. If that perspective is suddenly broken, if the viewpoint of the servant suddenly becomes that of the king, without any motivation or apparent purpose, then technique has failed. But to simplify the complexity of character in itself isn't a failed technique. Indeed, sometimes great writers can fail in technique all the better to focus on another aspect of the material that seems so much more important than the logic of it. John Gardner notes that Hamlet is an indecisive character who nevertheless manages to take out his enemies off-stage. This might leave for some a hole in the play but for Gardner shows Shakespeare's genius for focusing on what matters, "refusing to let himself be slowed for an instant by trivial questions of plot logic or psychological consistency." (The Art of Fiction)
Borchert scorns not only the relationship of causality and time, but he neglects all traditional perspective. The danger of teaching the specificity of technique is that it usually collapses in the face of sensibility that what might seem like an ostensible failure is a deeper type of success. The colonel in The Man Outside is far from a three-dimensional figure, but why should he be when Borchert is interested in men who fought in the war and others whose houses were bombed in it, the fragmented survivors who can hardly claim to be three-dimensional beings themselves? They have been wounded, crippled, deformed; they have become half-witted, half-crazed and cuckolded in their absence. Better focusing on those who've had their faculties frazzled and their physiques made fragile than offering space for the well-rounded, because are the well-rounded not responsible for those who have been deprived of that well-roundedness? Beckmann is a man outside; the colonel an insider who must now take responsibility. Beckmann explains to him that the colonel came one day and handed responsibility to him for the troops at Gorodok. It was minus-46 degrees and Beckmann had been put in charge of them. By the end of the night, after reconnoitring, after some shooting, only eleven were left. Beckmann wants the colonel to take the burden of that responsibility so that he can now sleep.
The colonel presents himself as the voice of reason but Borchert makes clear that reason, like rounded characters, is predicated on a set of assumptions he no longer feels obliged to abide by. When he says to the colonel, after the colonel reckons Beckmann is exciting himself and that it wasn't as Beckmann describes it, Beckmann replies, "It was. It was sir. It must have been meant like that. Responsibility is not just a word, a chemical formula for changing warm human flesh into cold, grey earth. One can't let men die for the sake of an empty word." When Spender says "Borchert's post-war Germany is a universal apocalypse seen in the language of symbolic horror of the ruin of German cities", the purpose is to find in that language a crisis in the words that match a crisis in the self. In 'The Dandelion', the narrator says, "and now I've been left alone with that Being, no, not just left alone. I've been locked in together with the Being I fear most of all: with my self." That being has a different language from the colonel's, one that of course not only post-war German authors sought out but numerous writers from elsewhere insisted on finding too. Though some commentators on Borchert see optimism in the narration, we are inclined to see pessimism in both the narration and the language. For Wulf Kopek, "Instead of the usual picture of gloom, despair, and struggle for mere physical survival, we find in Borchert's work a determination to carry on in spite of everything, a strong stand against war and nationalism, and a warning against a repetition of the same disaster. The message is not one of pessimism, but one of guarded hope." ('German Writers After 1945: Wolfgang Borchert')
Yet reading stories like 'Elbe' and 'Billbrook', we are more inclined to see fictions that convey the manifold catastrophe rather than the capacity for hope, evident in the closing lines of 'Billbrook', lines that hint at optimism but surely and finally indicate despair. Here, after walking through the outskirts of Hamburg, Bill Brook is back in his hotel room. "And suddenly the window clattered. Outside a column of fat heavy lorries drove past, their great yellow eyes twinkling through the night mist. Their motors snorted like a herd of raging elephants. The windows rattled in secret agitation. 'Lovely! Lovely!' whispered the Canadian and pressed his forehead against the cold glass. 'Lovely that everything's so alive here. Here. And in Chester.' And he went quietly back into the room. In secret agitation the window rattled." Those windows would have been rattling frequently in the years prior, and especially during the Hamburg firestorm of 1943 if the windows were to survive at all. Those windows also suggest an agitation that many in Hamburg and the surrounding suburbs would have felt in their nervous systems, a type of shock to the body and mind that might linger for some time even after the fallout of the bombing. In such an instance, in the rattling agitation, Borchert finds an image that captures the tension indirectly but frequently he makes it as direct as possible, seeing in metaphor and personification, a means by which to dissolve categories rather than assert them.
A typical and fine example of personification is Sylvia Plath's usage in 'The Moon and the Yew Tree' when she says, "twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky", as is Keats' "unravished bride of quietness" in 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'. Yet few writers go so far as to push the personification into mental disturbance (though Plath on occasion did), but that is often the place from which Borchert starts. When he says " muscle-tired on the little homecoming fishing cutter, sailing into the Elbe with asthmatic puttering in its body", here the space between the human and the boat all but disappears. When Borchert says "and when at evening we are standing on the swaying pontoons in the grey days then we say: Elbe! And we mean: Life! We mean: You and I. We say, roar, sight: Elbe and hear the chugging metallic hearts of the gallant abandoned poor faithful little cutters", they are both presented as metaphor and personification, but both terms collapse in the face of personal loss that makes language lose its coordinates.
In such disintegration, we can see that laughter too loses its stability, and Borchert can be viewed like Beckett, Ionesco, Arrabal and Pinter as a writer of the Absurd, where reason and categorisation often give way to insanity and chaos. In 'The Theatre of the Absurd', Martin Esslin looks at its original meaning: "'absurd' originally means 'out of harmony', in a musical context. Hence its dictionary definition: 'out of harmony with reason or propriety; incongruous, unreasonable, illogical" and goes on to quote Ionesco. "Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose...Cut off from his religious, metaphysical and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless." Though Borchert isn't mentioned in Esslin's book, Ionesco's description covers well many a Borchert character, figures who cannot find meaning in their lives that Borchert delineates by not quite giving language the meaning it usually possesses. Thus Donald F. Nelson in The German Quarterly sees the central character in 'The Man Outside' as an absurd figure and also a suicidal one, saying "on a conscious level, Beckmann wants to commit suicide, and sees this as a solution. Beckmann no longer masters life life masters him." ('To Live or not to Live...')
The inability to master one's life, the failure of the society to function in a manner that leaves the individual in control of their own destiny on a nervous level, as they feel the collapse of all that would appear to have meaning, indicates that optimism cannot be close and the absurdity of life evident. "Should I live?" Beckmann asks in The Man Outside. "How shall I live?" he wonders, after saying "why? For whom? For what?" Meanwhile, 'Generation Without Farewell' opens: we are the generation without ties and without depth. We are the generation without happiness, without home, without limit...our youth is without youth." Out of such despair laughter isn't so much the best medicine as a useful soporific, best exemplified in 'Billbrook'. After being told ten thousand died in two nights in Hamburg, Bill Brook laughs. "He laughed loud and frightened...could not stop laughing...He laughed in disbelief, in surprise, in amazement, in doubt. He laughed because he could not conceive it." The old man looking on, who tells him of the Hamburg horrors, thinks, "that the stranger could do nothing other than laugh. And he had felt that it was a laugh of horror. That it was full of horror, horrible. Horrible not only for the two of them but horrible for the laughter, too." Characters in Borchert's work laugh till they ache and laugh because they ache, but the two aches come together in an absurdly entangled world of meaninglessness that only language can attempt to disentangle, aware of the futility of such a task. How better to conclude this piece then than with a quote from Borchert's brief manifesto. "We have no further use for a poet's good grammar. We lack patience for good grammar. We need those with the hot-hoarse sobbed emotion...loud and clear and triply and without subjunctives. ('This is Our Manifesto')
© Tony McKibbin