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MLN 121.3 (2006) 774-777

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Georg Büchner, Lenz. Translated by Richard Sieburth. New York: Archipelago Books, 2004. 199 pages.

This is a wonderful new translation, and a very handsome book. Cut-flush binding with a richly textured carton, it indeed fits into one hand, and thus affords the sensation of reading one's palms, the left one for the German text, the right one for the English translation. This gesture of self-reading is certainly not alien to readers of Lenz from Canetti to Deleuze—everybody confronting the text, and in this case the translation, experiences almost bodily the disorientation issuing from it, a sensation that threatens to overwhelm any attempt at comprehending this short marvel in prose. The philological establishment has sought to neutralize this threat by naming it madness, more specifically: schizophrenia. Archipelago publishers (we hear in the name the title of a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, another mad poet translated by Richard Sieburth) seem to support this attempt by calling the piece "a case study of three weeks in the life of a schizophrenic" (cover text); but the translation undoes the claim to illustrative purposiveness, and releases the text again into its restlessness and wandering.

The disorientation radiating from Lenz is not the result of a tropological affectation, of compassion, say, for the sorry poet, or of indignation over the heartlessness of a society that first creates misfits and then drives them into madness. Trapped in the paradigms of scriptural exegesis, Büchner's champions have often sought to found their claim for his canonical importance on the moral sense of his writings, and have understood morality exclusively as partisanship for the oppressed. The belief in a social genealogy of mental illness in general, and of schizophrenia in particular, was an inevitable consequence of this conviction. In the squalid Germany of the 1970s and 80s, bereft of any legitimate political perspective beyond the relentless defensiveness of the state, the schizophrenic became a messianic figure, spiritualized in equal measure by Hölderlin interpreters and editors, anti-psychiatry activists, and avant-garde artists. Werner Herzog's Woyzeck film, but even more so Jean-Marie Straub's mesmerizing Lenz visualized this searing tendency towards the truth of madness, as did many a rousing production of Büchner's plays, and—inversely—Peter Schneider's novella Lenz from 1973. Behind this politico-psychiatric genealogy of madness and civilization lurked a biographical genealogy, namely Büchner's own development from revolutionary pamphleteer to political playwright, and [End Page 774] finally to the prose portrait of Lenz, in which all these stations seem to be implicated. There were canonical allegories as well to be deciphered in this constellation: just as the historical Lenz went mad because Weimar society, represented by Goethe, had excluded him, so was the novella Lenz, and its author Büchner, excluded from the German canon which was dominated by the works of Goethe and Weimar classicism.

It is difficult to argue against these powerful forces shaping the reading of Lenz, but in the end, content-fixated absorptions of Büchner's novella lose much more in aesthetic power than they can ever hope to gain in moral conviction. The aesthetic audacity of Büchner's text is best measured by holding it against the generic limitations against which his work constantly chafes. Bianca Theisen, in discussing Thomas Bernhard's ambivalence between comedy and tragedy, has shown that comedy can be understood as the second-order observation of a tragic plot, whereas tragedy, however violently it seeks to extricate itself from the immanence of its action, remains condemned to repeat its own limitations (leaving the observer position, one assumes, to the spectator who is partly immersed (through fear and compassion), and partly distanced (in catharsis)). The genre to observe comedy and indeed all other genres is the narrative text, in particular the novel as it is conceived in Romantic literary theory.1 Büchner's slim œuvre is intensely preoccupied with finding ways to circumvent these limitations. Dantons Tod eludes the dialectics of tragedy by having the heroes re-cite 'improper' text at diegetically...


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