An English-language resource for people interested in Jakob Wassermann.

As a first point of reference, the excellent German website has a wealth of information. It is well worth a visit, even if your German is as poor as mine.

Details about Wassermann's life and work are hard to obtain in English: I hope this helps, in part, to correct that.

Comments, suggestions, and corrections are more than welcome. Contact.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Jakob Wassermann, The World's Illusion

Christian Wahnschaffe was first published in Germany in 1919. The title for the English translation was changed, with Wassermann’s approval, to The World’s Illusion. This translation, by Ludwig Lewisohn – again ‘authorized’ by Wassermann - appeared the following year.


Presumably owing to its length – nearly 800 pages – the novel was divided into two volumes: ‘Eva’ and ‘Ruth’. It tells the story of Christian Wahnschaffe, a young man from ‘one of those great and rich bourgeois families which had won in the race against the old aristocracy.’ The novel begins in the first years of the twentieth century (typically Wassermann gives no exact date). Christian is carefree, hedonistic, almost indifferent to the suffering of others. From an early age, death has been unable to touch him: various people around him die or are killed in accidents, yet Christian somehow seems to escape unmarked. He is both attractive and – strangely – repellent:

‘No one could deny that he had an admirable figure, an elegant air, a complexion like milk and blood. He had also, it was not to be denied, a charm so exquisite that no man or woman could withstand him. But he was cold as a hound’s nose and smooth as an eel, and as immeasurably spoiled and arrogant as though the whole world had been made for his sole benefit.’

This otherworldly quality soon attracts the admiration of Bernard Gervasius Crammon von Weissenfels, who, ‘from the days of his earliest manhood’ has been ‘a pilgrim upon the paths of pleasantness and delight... a constant wayfarer from capital to capital and from country-seat to country-seat.’ Crammon ‘the stainless knight’ – a womaniser, bon vivant, gourmand , sensualist, and all-round lovable rogue – is a sort of Falstaff figure, who clearly sees in Christian a future king (albeit one without a crown), and sees himself as kingmaker.

Like Falstaff, Crammon’s ambition is to keep Christian close, both physically and philosophically; to convince him that the path of pleasure and irresponsibility is the only one to take. For a time Crammon succeeds, and he and Christian are intimate companions. Crammon even goes so far as to introduce Christian to the beautiful dancer Eva Sorel, with whom he himself is captivated, knowing that by doing so he might protect Christian from the ‘snare’ of marriage: Eva, like Crammon, is essentially selfish and ambitious, and she clearly has little intention of settling down or devoting herself to one man; she wants only to be pursued and admired by as many men as possible. Between them, Crammon and Eva seem to have Christian exactly where they want him.

But Christian, secretly, is struggling with a profound and as-yet inexplicable discontent. He senses that something is fundamentally wrong with the world he inhabits, but cannot identify what it is. Wealth, desire, sensuality, and comfort gradually reveal themselves as illusions, masking the reality of life. Christian’s yearning to perceive this reality, and the struggles he has to undergo in order to free himself from illusion, form the central conflict of the novel. The process is not a sudden enlightenment, but a gradual, painful ordeal whose consequences are far from consoling.

Wassermann, in a sense, takes the story of the Buddha and places it within a modern, European context. He also attempts to illustrate what a religious transformation might look like without religion: this is, quite self-consciously, a secular drama.

Christian’s growing enlightenment leaves him increasingly frustrated with the trappings of wealth: his money and property appear more and more like burdens, like actual traps. In attempting to free himself he arouses the hostility and incomprehension of his friends and family. To them, his behaviour seems capricious, aberrant, the result of an inexcusable eccentricity. In time, as he renounces more and more of his birthright, they suspect a more serious breakdown. By the end of the novel, most of them think he has gone mad, or that he is acting out of spite merely to embarrass them. None of which has any influence on Christian’s behaviour. His path, it seems, is already set, dictated by something in his nature – that strange otherworldliness.

Christian distances himself from Crammon. He rejects Eva, from whom he has only recently and after considerable effort, received sexual ‘favours’. He befriends, instead, the socially-awkward malcontent Amadeus Voss, a poor childhood acquaintance, and has a brief affair with the plain-looking but intelligent Johanna Schontag (his choice of both Amadeus and Johanna symbolises his greater desire for what is truthful - however unpleasant it may be – rather than what is beautiful, pleasurable and ultimately empty). He sells all his property, takes pity on a pregnant prostitute called Karen Engelschall, and moves with her to one of the poorest parts of Berlin, where he does his best to provide for her. Living frugally, severing all ties with his family, attempting – vainly - to keep his whereabouts a secret, he enrols at the university, hoping to study medicine. Yet, naturally, he is out of place: his wealth is still obvious from his bearing and clothes; and soon he is besieged by people asking for money. His family, too, are kept informed of his exploits, thanks to a private investigator hired by Christian’s father. The latter tries to remind Christian of his familial duty, but this only strengthens Christian’s resolve to free himself from the prison of wealth:

‘“I possess fourteen millions, but that is not all. More money pours in on me daily and hourly, and I can do nothing to dam the torrent. Not only is the money a vain thing to me, but an actual hindrance. Wherever I turn, it is in my way. Everything I undertake appears in a false light on account of it. It is not like something that belongs to me, but like something that I owe; and every human being with whom I speak explains in some way how and why I owe it to him or to another or to all... If I distribute it I cause mischief... And it’s unpleasant to have people remind me wherever I go: ‘You’ve got your millions behind you; whenever you have enough of this, you can quit and go home.’ This is the reason why everything glides from my grasp and no ground is secure under my feet; this is the reason why I cannot live as I would live, nor find any pleasantness within myself.”’

To free himself as much as he can, ‘to drop the burden of the superfluous’, Christian decides to retain only enough money to survive, and to renounce the rest (in effect, to give it back to his father). Yet not knowing how much is enough – not knowing how to ‘fix the boundary between necessity and superfluity in terms of money’ – Christian again finds himself trapped. At the suggestion of Pastor Werner, a family friend, Christian agrees to donate a sum of three hundred thousand marks to the clergyman, the interest from which will be used to help released prisoners re-integrate into society. This interest will only be used, however, after Christian has taken what he needs to survive for the month or the quarter: thus, Christian is ‘bound’ to take only what he needs and no more:

‘“The purpose, as you see, is a double one. First, the plan will effect a great and needed good; secondly, it furnishes an inherent norm and aim for you. Every superfluous or thoughtless expenditure of yours jeopardizes a human soul; every frugality you practise is at once translated into concrete human weal. That gives you a point of orientation, a line of moral action. It is, if I may call it so, an automatic moral mechanism”’.

This passage is worth quoting because it demonstrates the realistic quality Wassermann was striving for. A novel about a rich man’s renunciation of materialism could easily become a romance, with day-to-day obstacles conveniently overcome or simply ignored. Instead, Wassermann focuses on those day-to-day problems, to reveal what this sort of renunciation would really entail. There is nothing glamorous or romantic about it: it is, as Christian discovers, a harrowing ordeal.

Likewise, when Christian does eventually free himself, the reality he discovers is far from pleasant. Wassermann had no illusions about the lot of the working class; he does not romanticise them in any way. Christian now finds himself among prostitutes, pimps, drunkards, thieves, wife-beaters, sickly children, cunning schemers, as well as honest souls who are doing their best to survive; a whole new world of malevolence is suddenly opened up to him, but so too is the sort of grounding he has been yearning for:

‘... he knew that he was fundamentally on the right track. It was a time of preparation for him, and every day was enriching him. He got a great deal closer to people now, and saw them without pretence and falseness. In a hospital dormitory, in the waiting-room of a clinic, in the operating room, in the presence of hundreds of sufferers – in such scenes all hypocrisy dies; there truth gripped one... Tubercular children, scrofulous children, large-eyed children beholding death – whoever had not seen that had not yet truly lived... he wanted to steep himself in humanity. There were always new horrors behind the old, other torment beyond any he had seen; and unless he could absorb all that into himself, he had no peace.’

This grounding is epitomised by Ruth Hofman, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a Jewish salesman. Ruth is poor, selfless, humble – both the antithesis of Eva Sorel and the embodiment of something pure and unworldly. It seems that Christian, finally, has found what he is looking for. Had this been a romance, the novel would have ended happily, with Christian and Ruth living together, impoverished but content, helping those around them. But this is not a romance. And the ending is an unexpected and far more ambivalent one.

Ruth, unwittingly, also attracts the attention of Niels Heinrich Engelschall, the brother of Karen Engelschall. Unable to possess her, Niels Heinrich lures her to a remote cellar, where he tells her he intends to rape and murder her. Ruth slits her wrists and collapses on the floor, where Niels Heinrich – so the text hints – rapes her anyway. Her decapitated body is later found concealed in a shed, ‘held by ropes in an unnatural position... so tightly wedged in among beams, boards, ladders, barrows, and refuse, that the police officers who were immediately summoned had the greatest difficulty in disentangling their gruesome find’.

From this point on, the novel becomes something else entirely. It is as if Wassermann is saying, in response to his protagonist, ‘you want reality? This is reality.’ When Christian learns of Ruth’s murder the last vestiges of the world’s illusion are stripped away. There is no more striving, just the confrontation with death. Johanna Schontag witnesses the change he undergoes:

‘“You had the feeling: This is the end for him, the end of all content, of smiles and laughter – the end. In fifteen minutes his face had aged by twenty years. I looked at it for just a moment; then my courage failed me. You may think it fantastic, but I tell you the whole room was one pain, the air was pain and so was the light. It’s the truth. Everything hurt; everything one thought or saw hurt. But he was absolutely silent, and his expression was like that of one who was straining his eyes to read some illegible script. And that was the most painful thing of all.”’

Soon after Ruth’s body is discovered the police arrest the wrong man – Joachim Heinzen, ‘twenty years old, of evil reputation and apparently of not altogether responsible mind’. Heinzen is the unsuspecting dupe of Niels Heinrich, intimidated into falsely confessing to the crime. Christian realises this, realises that Niels Heinrich is the murderer, and decides to confront him.

This confrontation forms the final part of the novel. Again, Wassermann eschews the obvious in favour of something far more subtle, and far more powerful. Rather than attempt to force a confession from the murderer, rather than resort to anger or violence, Christian tries imaginatively to understand him, to put himself in the murderer’s place. Not only does this allow him to see what other people cannot – namely, Niels Heinrich’s guilt – it also enables him to persuade Niels Heinrich that the only way to end his suffering is to admit to what he has done.

At first, unsurprisingly, Niels Heinrich resists this attempt. He refuses to admit that he has done anything wrong. Once you accept that nothing in life has any inherent meaning, he argues, then questions of right and wrong also become meaningless:

‘Crime... and such talk – there was no sense in that; he didn’t know what it meant. It had all been thought out by the people who pay the soldiers and the courts to do their bidding, but who, if it served their purposes, committed the same crimes in the name of the State or the Church or Progress or Liberty. If a man was strong enough and cunning enough, he didn’t give a damn for all their laws. Laws were for fools and cowards. If the individual has got to submit to force, he’s got the right to use force too. If he was willing to risk the vengeance and punishment of society, he had a right to satisfy his desires. The only question was whether he was willing to take up the burden of crime, and couldn’t be made to stop by the hocus-pocus invented by teachers and parsons.’

There are clear echoes of Raskolnikov here, and undoubtedly Wassermann was influenced by Dostoyevsky’s text. However, the significance of The World’s Illusion lies in its attempt to conduct this argument in a secular context. Following Dostoyevsky, Wassermann asks ‘what if God were removed from the equation? What, then, prevents us from committing murder? If the reality beneath the world’s illusion is that nothing we do is inherently good or evil, then why can we not act as we please?’ Whereas Dostoyevsky concludes that our inability to rid ourselves of guilt proves that we cannot wholly reject God, Wassermann argues that if we feel guilt at all it is only because we have a sense of the pain we have caused another human being.

This answer – such as it is (Wassermann was obviously wary of moralizing or attempting to impose solutions) – is articulated by Christian. Patiently, Christian sits and talks to Niels Heinrich; he listens, and because he is willing to understand rather than judge, because, paradoxically, he does not try to influence Niels Heinrich, he manages to persuade him to confess. The dialogue that truly matters, Wassermann intimates, is between men, not between man and God:

‘“One must try to grasp men and things imaginatively. Very few people do it; they cheat themselves... My opinion is that all human beings have equally deep perceptions. There is no difference in sensitiveness to pain; there is only a difference in the consciousness of that sensitiveness. There is, one may say, no difference in the method of bookkeeping, only in the accounting... Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t desire to exert the slightest influence on your decisions. What you do or fail to do is your own affair... I don’t regard myself as a representative of public authority; it is not for me to see to it that the laws are obeyed and people informed in regard to a crime that has troubled them. What would be the use of that? Would it avail to make things better? I neither want to ensnare you nor get the better of you. Your going to court, confessing your crime, expiating in the world’s sight, being punished – what have I to do with all that?... It does not even become me to say to you: You are guilty. I do not know whether you are guilty. I know that guilt exists; but whether you are guilty or in what relation to guilt you stand – that I cannot tell. The knowledge of that is yours alone; you and you alone possess the standard by which to judge what you have done, and not those who will be your judges. Neither do I possess it, and so I do not judge... You have no need to fear. What I want has nothing to do with it... You have removed a being from this earth... you have destroyed a being so precious, so irreplaceable, that centuries, perhaps many centuries, will pass till one can arise comparable to it or like it... you have inflicted a loss on me for which there are no words. Pain, grief, sadness – these words do not reach far or deep enough. You have robbed me of something utterly precious, forever irreplaceable, and you must give me something in return...”’

What this ‘something’ is, Christian cannot say. Niels Heinrich must see it for himself. And because there is now a connection between the two men, because they understand each other, Niels Heinrich finally realises what he has done: he feels the pain he has inflicted on Christian. He reaches out a ‘trembling hand’ which Christian takes:

‘ had no life... The hand had no warmth: it was the hand of the deed, the hand of crime, the hand of guilt. But when he touched it, for the first time, it began to live and grow warm; a glow streamed into it – glow of the mirror, of service, of insight, of renewal.

It was that touch, that touch alone.

Niels Heinrich, drawn forward, sank upon his knees. In this matter of Joachim Heinzen, he stammered in a barely audible voice, why, one might discuss it, you know. His eyes seemed broken and his features extinguished. And they kneeled – each before the other.

Saved and freed from himself by that touch, the murderer cast his guilt upon the man who judged and did not condemn him.

He was free. And Christian was likewise free. ’

Because Christian is willing to share, imaginatively, Niels Heinrich’s guilt, so Niels Heinrich is able to share Christian’s pain. This understanding of the pain felt by another person is ultimately what convinces Niels Heinrich that he has done wrong. He leaves Christian, and though neither of them says as much, both know that he will now confess.

The vision of justice Wassermann proposes here – I would argue – is a deeply radical one: one that bypasses the institutions of ‘the law’ in favour of interpersonal understanding and respect. There have been similar experiments in recent years, where the victims of crime sit down face-to-face with the perpetrators and describe to them the effects of their actions. Such experiments – dismissed by advocates of harsher punishment – seem to be one of the only ways of genuinely and seriously dealing with crime. As Wassermann suggests, it is the responsibility of every criminal to acknowledge what they have done; they cannot be forced to do this, but must see it for themselves. Self-knowledge is the reality; the machinery of the justice system and all the bellicose mutterings of those who set themselves up as judges are nothing but illusion.

The novel ends with a brief interview between Christian and his father. The latter makes one last attempt to remind his son of his duty, but Christian’s duty is now to himself. He plans to disappear, to immerse himself even deeper in life:

‘I wish to perform no works, to accomplish nothing good or useful or great. I want to sink, to steep, to hide, to bury myself in the life of man. I care nothing for myself, I would know nothing of myself. But I would know everything about human beings, for they, you see, they are the mystery and the terror, and all that torments and affrights and causes suffering... To go to one, always to a single one, then to the next, and to the third, and know and learn and reveal and take his suffering from him, as one takes out the vitals of a fowl... But it is impossible to talk about it; it is too terrible. The great thing is to guard against weariness of the heart. The heart must not grow weary – that is the supreme matter.’

Wassermann avoids the final hypocrisy of believing that individual enlightenment qualifies us to preach or to raise our actions above those of other people. What is true for one individual, one situation, is not necessarily true for others. One-to-one connection is all that is possible – something the defenders of laws and morals seek to deny. Freeing ourselves from judgement, from the urge to condemn, is a way of guarding against weariness of the heart. It keeps us in touch with reality and helps us recognise illusion.

From The World's Illusion (Harcourt, Brace & Howe, 1924, trans., Ludwig Lewisohn)

Volume One: Eva
383 pages

Crammon, the Stainless Knight
Christian's Rest
The Globe on the Fingertips of an Elf
An Owl on Every Post
Or Ever the Silver Cord Be Loosed
The Naked Feet
Karen Engelschall

Volume Two: Ruth
405 pages

Conversations in the Night
Ruth and Johanna