Oberlin’s Three Stages, the second volume in Wassermann’s ‘Wendekreis’ series, was first published in Germany in 1922. The original volume comprised four stories: ‘The First Stage’, ‘The Second Stage’, ‘The Third Stage’, and ‘Sturreganz’. In the English translation, which appeared in 1926, another story – ‘The Unknown Guest’ – was also included, at the start of the volume, presumably to flesh it out and make it more saleable.
‘The Unknown Guest’ rightfully belongs to the first of the ‘Wendekreis’ books, where there is a clear connection between the stories. Its inclusion in the second volume adds nothing to the overall aesthetic, and if anything detracts from it. Whereas the stories which make up the first volume are all, broadly speaking, about positive transformations, the stories in the second volume deal with disillusionment and have a more negative feel. ‘The Unknown Guest’ seems oddly out of place in this company: an irony the publishers probably did not appreciate. Similarly, the inclusion – in the second volume - of Wassermann’s foreword to the first volume seems not only careless but misleading. Wassermann’s comments were intended to shed light on other themes; in relation to the three ‘Stages’ and ‘Sturreganz’ they make little sense.
‘The author regards it as his privilege, and considers it his duty, to place at the very beginning of this work – a work he has undertaken with a full sense of personal responsibility and a measure of hesitation – a story that projects itself far into those that are to follow. It is a story which is less independent, less complete within itself, than is usually the case with spiritual creations of this type. But though it does not, as it were, rest upon itself, it is neither a breviary nor a proclamation. It is merely a bridge, a guide; and so it is a picture and a weaving rather than an incident or an event.’
‘The Unknown Guest’, when read as an introduction to the stories in the first volume, does indeed seem like a guide to interpretation. It tells of a ‘certain writer slightly beyond middle age – let us call him Morner’ who has recently undergone ‘an inexplicable change in the equilibrium of his soul’. Morner, clearly, could also be called Wassermann. The story, such as it is, is really a fictionalised account of Wassermann’s own struggle with his craft following a crisis of confidence. For Morner/ Wassermann this crisis manifests itself as creative paralysis and a deep pessimism about the value or purpose of writing.
Reluctant as he is to make ‘inner anguish and unrest a theme for general discussion’, Morner nevertheless cannot conceal this unrest from his friends. One night, after hearing a young professor of philosophy explain ‘the decay of art’ as the result of an ‘excess of material’, Morner feels obliged to respond. Writers and artists are not paralysed because they have too much material to choose from, he contends, but rather –
‘“It is due to the overthrow of minds, the destruction of souls... Has there ever been a time when humanity was so trodden into the earth?... The womb has become sterile; the fruit no longer ripens... There is no will-to-grow in the elements; longing is at rest, unproductive... Experience is of the past; tickle, titillate, and you are one of the moderns. The soul has become adamant to a genuine impression; only its distortion, its caricature, makes itself felt... There is no connection between things, no sequence of events, no harmony... There is a panic flight in all directions. Men are afraid: afraid to accept obligations, afraid of the hand that is stretched out to them, afraid of pain, of decision, of alternatives, of the memory of a lost God.”’
As Morner is talking he has the impression ‘that the door had been opened, and that some one had entered’ but he does not see this unknown guest. He looks, but is distracted by the ‘melodious voice of a young girl’:
‘“Is not he who creates unmindful of time... Is he not beyond time?”’ the girl asks, and immediately we get the sense that the unknown guest is talking through her. Morner, furthermore, responds as if ‘talking to the concealed person in the corner of the room’:
‘“The powers of opposition can grow,”’ he admits, and ‘“there comes finally a day when the obstacles are insurmountable... Activity depends upon mutual effects. Life is my food; I grant it. But when the food becomes spoiled, decayed, what then?”’
Shortly afterwards Morner withdraws in silence and heads home; yet we suspect that the conversation has not finished there. After a while he hears footsteps behind him:
‘“It is he,” Morner felt, and his first impulse was to flee. But he defied his own fear... At the next corner he stopped under a street lamp and waited. The other came up, lifted his hat, and said in a gentle voice, “Good evening.”’
The two men then carry on side by side. They walk to Morner’s lodgings, where the unknown guest – who claims to have no name – tells Morner why he sought him out:
‘ “What has driven me to you, apart from the curiosity that is inherent in my nature, is the singular passionateness in you that somehow transmits itself to all with whom you come into contact... I said to myself: If a man with such a flame in his soul stands before the world of men, what or who can prevent that flame from shining forth...? What power on earth can prevent the man in whose soul the light shines from complaining of the darkness, and for that very reason running the risk of sinking into darkness himself?” ’
In order to save Morner from the darkness, the unknown guest relates a series of incidents from his own past – details and episodes designed to restore Morner’s faith in life. This account – dream-like, phantasmagoric – forms the main part of the story. As Morner listens he is slowly transformed.
The unknown guest
‘...had been an eyewitness of plundering, butchering, hunger, hate, insanity, falsehood, bestiality, and despair. But he could also bear testimony to silent and unheralded deeds of valour, to the small fortunes of those who are content with their lives, and to the sacrifice and miracles of perfection.’
The key, he suggests, is to have no goal:
‘ “It is in the goal, the purpose, that evil lurks. It is purpose that has brought the world into a state of high fever.” ’
Instead, we should find inspiration and strength from what is to hand:
‘ “You have to go down to the smallest things; down to where the wrinkle on the brow and the fold of the outer ear is eloquent in itself, and eloquent enough... I never fail to see an illustration... What surpasses in interest the opportunity to hear, to exhaust every hour, to draw out every heart? ... What do you say to all this? Don’t you feel that your belief that the times are against you is unqualifiedly false? Are not the times rather wholly for you, for men of your type? Is not the present like a parched field that cries for rain and sunshine?” ’
Finally, he explains the true purpose of the artist: to observe rather than judge; to master oneself rather than others:
‘ “What is the good of passing judgement? Why damn? We should not even indulge in the judgements that pass as comment... Open your eyes! Conceive of things after the fashion of an unembarrassed child! Look about you! Grasp the monstrous, the sweet, the painful, the blooming, the growing, the tremendous and overwhelming riches of this earth... The more completely you liberate and remove yourself from all earthly consolation, the nearer you will be to God... you must be frank and open, and yet shielded by armour of steel... you must be light and yet heavily laden... It is nevertheless, and despite all things, pleasing to make the pilgrimage over earth, and to breathe in the air of the earth is a delight to the soul, provided you understand the message that has become yours.”’
Morner, at last, understands this message and is once again able to go on. He tries to seize the hand of the unknown guest in gratitude, but the latter has disappeared.
The uncanny nature of this visitation permits various interpretations. Is the unknown guest some sort of benign spirit? A figment of Morner’s imagination? Perhaps the interlocutor in an inner dialogue? Really, it does not matter, Wassermann seems to be saying. Inspiration can come from anywhere, as long as we are willing to listen.
The three ‘Stages’, in contrast, are far more ambiguous, and far less optimistic. The progression is towards greater disillusionment: disillusionment viewed as a painful yet necessary path to self-knowledge.
In ‘The First Stage’ the protagonist, Dietrich Oberlin - an only child who has been raised in ‘an atmosphere of strict discipline’ - suddenly loses his authoritarian father. Sent away to a school ‘in the southern part of the Black Forest’, Dietrich now finds himself under the care of Dr. Lucian Von der Leyen, a ‘dangerous liberal in pedagogical matters.’ Whereas previously Dietrich had been content to obey – ‘obedience was easy, for it removed hindrances’ - now he is encouraged to question authority and to think for himself.
Something of an outsider, Dietrich quickly becomes the favourite of Lucian. As their friendship develops so does the jealousy and animosity of their enemies. Each has his own nemesis: Lucian, his colleague and rival Alfred Rottmann; Dietrich, his classmate Kurt Fink. When Lucian kisses Dietrich on the mouth, the act is seized upon as proof of spiritual corruption (ironically, by the corrupt Rottman and Fink). Lucian is effectively dismissed and Dietrich is summoned home by his mother.
Still an innocent in many ways, Dietrich only gradually realises why his intimacy with Lucian might be construed as immoral. Lucian, likewise, has no sexual motives - the kiss is a result of nothing more than affection and high spirits – yet for both it means a period of virtual imprisonment: Lucian at the home of a sympathetic friend; Dietrich under the watchful eye of his mother.
(Wassermann, it should be noted, demonstrated a remarkably non-judgemental attitude towards homosexuality throughout his career; it frequently recurs in his books, and is always treated sensitively.)
‘The Second Stage’ carries on directly from the first. Dietrich, now living at home, finds himself under another sort of influence. This time, rather than the benign attentions of Lucian, it is the malign desires of Fink - and more disturbingly Fink’s girlfriend Hedwig – with which he must contend. Dietrich’s prudishness and sense of decency act as a goad to the depraved Fink, who wants only to see him succumb to temptation. To that end, he uses Hedwig (a willing accomplice) to seduce Dietrich. After considerable struggle, Dietrich finally gives in:
‘She laid her left arm about his shoulder, and pressed her cheek against his hair. Dietrich was seized with a mixture of horror, fear, paralysing agitation, and unconsciousness. Everything swam before him. From this moment on, the prevailing feeling in him was half as if something were happening, and half as if something had already happened. He did not really know how it was. “I must strangle her,” he thought to himself. “There is no other escape, I must strangle her.” The thought ran through his head like a piece of cold steel. At the same time he trembled with a dizzy, stifling, hated, and hateful feeling of passion.’
Dietrich, now effectively debased, agrees to a night-time rendezvous with Hedwig. He arrives at the appointed time, only to realise he has been deceived: her task completed, Hedwig has no intention of going further. Once again, Dietrich is left isolated and confused; drawn into a situation he does not understand, or only understands too late. The second ‘stage’ is a deeper disillusionment than the first. Again, sex is an almost threatening presence: a challenge to morality; a power the worldly can wield over the innocent. Dietrich is caught between the sort of asceticism advocated by Lucian and the physical temptations embodied by Hedwig.
Rather than resolve this dilemma, ‘The Third Stage’ only contributes to it. While walking with some friends one day, Dietrich passes two sisters:
‘Both girls were of precisely the same bearing, manners, and physical type. They were also dressed exactly alike: white skirt and blouse with a white leather girdle, white shoes and stockings, and a broad-brimmed straw hat trimmed with violet ribbons which hung down over their shoulders.
The one, however... was of such radiant and unusual beauty that Mathys, Richter, and Oberlin stepped to one side to allow them to pass, remained then as if rooted to the ground, and stared at her with fixed eyes, revealing at the same time a ridiculous embarrassment...
... In five seconds Oberlin was made irresponsible.
... Then he saw her great, peaceful eyes; the delicately tinted white of her skin, which seemed coloured with an organic fluorescence of its own; her brow arched like an antique bowl and made, so to speak, of nobler stuff than the rest of her face: in line and curvature it was fraught with meaning that was more concealed than displayed. The mouth harmonized: it was like a vessel, and seemed to contain her soul, into which his own soul had emptied as if its walls had burst. He saw her chestnut-brown hair, cut short and yet flowing in luxuriant folds to the base of her neck. It was like a painting of Luini or Parmeggianino: it furnished a dark background for the changing colours of her cheeks, eyebrows, lips, and eyes. This ensemble of beauty, grace, and loveliness flowed into his heart and burned there. It enveloped him; he drank it in as if he had suddenly become conscious that he had missed this charm all his life, and had it now before his thirsty senses. There it was, in those five seconds, form, rhythm, white and dark, the atmosphere that all this created, the stamp and seal of perfection in human form...
... Every step he took away from her seemed to him a crime. ’
It seems that in the perfect figure of Caecilia Landgraf, Dietrich has finally found the synthesis he craves: a physical union that nevertheless remains pure. But it is not to be: while Dietrich stands spellbound by Caecilia’s beauty, her sister Hanna has been studying him, ‘as if she had immediately divined Oberlin’s status and the cause of it’. An hour later Caecilia is dead. Her apparent suicide leaves Dietrich devastated.
In the days that follow Dietrich and Hanna are increasingly drawn to one another – bound, it seems, by the now absent presence of Caecilia. Death and desire gradually combine into a morbid passion.
Dietrich, in one remarkable scene, feels an overwhelming urge to lie down on the spot where Caecilia died:
‘At first he felt it was a wanton misdeed he was committing; but suddenly the agitation of his soul fled from him, and he experienced a sense of relief that was new to him... Here was the witness to her existence, the evidence of her being... Her last look and last sigh had enveloped, perchance, the red trees whose branches hung so low that one could reach them with his hands; perhaps even the roots that protruded, brown and gnarled, from the earth had come under the influence of her departing life... He had a feeling that he might somehow be able to snatch a part of her life from the spiritual remnants with which he fancied the place was even then filled...’
The image has something vaguely erotic about it, a suggestion that for Dietrich sex and death are linked. Surrendering himself sexually is tantamount to an act of suicide. No longer able to consummate this act with Caecilia, he turns to Hanna. But again – for the third time – he is deceived. As he lies in bed with Hanna she tells him the truth about her sister’s suicide:
‘ “I no longer wished to be shadow; I wanted to be body. I realized that the one who came would after all, and despite all, long for her; pine for her. And that even if I were body and not shadow, I would be nothing more than a mere pretext, a remnant once she was gone. But I was nevertheless alone with him, at least for a moment; I was heard and seen; I was living; I was real and present. And so I killed her; I pressed the revolver to her temple; I killed my sister. Now you know all that is to be known.” ’
Denied the pure sexual relationship he sought with Caecilia, Dietrich is now also denied its substitute. In desperation, he goes to Lucian, to seek the older man’s advice. It seems that life has forced Dietrich into the sort of asceticism propounded by his former teacher. But Wassermann has one more disappointment in store: rather than welcome Dietrich, Lucian chastises him for following the wrong path:
‘ “Oh, how I held you, Oberlin, how I bore you along! You were to me the diamond in the market place... And now? Wasted, gone, unimproved! All my labour thrown out on a love affair.” ’
Lucian is finally revealed to be as self-centred and unreliable as everyone else. Dietrich is left alone to find his own way. And now, at last, he feels a degree of freedom. Utterly disillusioned , he feels ‘the burden slowly falling from his heart – and also from his shoulders.’
What sort of life he will now have remains unanswered. Wassermann, as usual, refrains from imposing solutions. The identification of mistaken ways of thinking is sufficient in itself. Neither asceticism nor carnality are ruled out altogether; both are viewed ambivalently. Elements of both are perhaps necessary, yet to rely on one or the other – or, likewise, to rely on other people – to supply us with the happiness and consolation we crave, is misguided.
‘Sturreganz’, the final story, has little obvious connection with the three ‘Stages’, other than a similar sense of disillusionment and ambiguity. Set in Ansbach ‘between the time of the Seven Years’ War and the Bavarian Succession’ it tells the story of Ludwig Taube, an out-of-work actor who, along with countless other men, is press-ganged and sold to the English army as a foot-soldier in their war against the Americans. Taube’s daughter, Becky – only three years old at the time - is placed in the Pescanelli Institute, ostensibly a dancing school, but really a grooming parlour for future prostitutes. Five years later Taube returns, disguised as Sturreganz, an actor whose extraordinary ability to make audiences laugh soon attracts the notice of the Margrave Alexander. Taube uses his ‘royal’ performance to expose the true purpose of the Pescanelli Institute. Pescanelli is arrested. Taube is reunited with his daughter. The scene is set for a happy ending. But then Wassermann completely confounds our expectations. Rather than imbue Taube with a sense of justice or possibility, his success in rescuing his daughter only confirms his pessimism. One person can perhaps be saved – through extreme effort – but to see in this a glimmer of hope for the rest of mankind is erroneous:
‘ “... so far as this humanity of which you are pleased to speak is concerned, I can only say that I do not believe in it. It is nothing whatever to me; it gives me nothing. I become more and more convinced every day I live that it would be easier for me to load the Caucasus Mountains on my shoulders and carry them over to the banks of the Rhine than to absolve, through my art, one single scoundrel of one single bit of scoundrelism that is in him. Consequently, why affect to see something great in this art of mine? Why all this laudation? Can I flatter the dagger out of the clutches of the murderer? Can I remove the poison from the poison of the slanderer? Can I make the eyes of the avaricious shine with the grace of liberality? Can I make the minds of the bloodthirsty pure and pious? Can I endow the dolts of the land with reason? Can I fill the traitors with a sense of loyalty and fidelity? Can I procure bread for the starving? Can I bring justice to the wronged? And if the world is rolling along to sure and imminent destruction, can I grasp it by the axis? What is there to this art of mine then? Great? What do you see in your famous art? One more Fata Morgana in the desert of our despair; one more will-o’-the-wisp in the slough of our lost condition.” ’
Clearly, this could be Wassermann talking. It is a remarkable way to end what is otherwise a comedy – with an admission that behind the scenes, despite the seemingly happy outcome and the laughter of the audience, there is really only despair. Yes, one person is saved, Wassermann seems to be saying, but it simply is not enough. Art ultimately fails. Injustice wins.
Whereas the stories in the first ‘Wendekreis’ volume are all, broadly, successes, the stories in the second volume are all failures. On an aesthetic level, too, none of them quite work – certainly not as well as the stories which comprise Worlds’ Ends. Wassermann’s frustration is obvious. The sense of hope inspired by ‘The Unknown Guest’ has again deserted him, replaced by doubt and ambivalence. The saving grace is that this ambiguity – the struggle between hope and despair - also entails an avoidance of complacency. The stories are difficult and problematic, but it is precisely in this that their strength lies.
From Oberlin's Three Stages, (Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc., 1926, trans., Allen W. Porterfield)