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  • Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Der Auftrag:An Exception within an Oeuvre of Cultural Pessimism and Worst Possible Outcomes
  • Bruce Plouffe

In an interview conducted shortly before his death, Dürrenmatt observed: "Ich markiere den Weg, der zur Menschenverachtung, unter Umständen zur Menschheitsvernichtung führt – nicht, um ihn zu gehen, sondern um vor ihm zu warnen. Ich will nicht Zyniker sein, sondern Aufklärer" (Gespräche IV, 163). The novella Der Auftrag bears an epigraph, excerpted from Søren Kierkegaard's Either/Or, that illustrates the sense of foreboding Dürrenmatt describes in the interview. It reads, in part: "Wenn eine Spinne von einem festen Punkt sich in ihre Konsequenzen hinabstürzt, so sieht sie stets einen leeren Raum vor sich, in dem sie nirgends Fuß fassen kann, wie sehr sie auch zappelt. [...] Dieses Leben ist verkehrt und grauenhaft, nicht auszuhalten" (7). Kierkegaard's words could serve as an epigraph for Dürrenmatt's entire oeuvre, implying an artistic vision that likens human experience to that of an arachnid's in its precarious suspension over empty space. Elsewhere, Dürrenmatt describes life as a struggle for choice seats "auf einem Floß, das dem Katarakt entgegentreibt" (Gespräche IV, 181), and he characterizes literary discourse – to the extent that it is ideologically grounded – as a helpless "Ratte [...] im Labyrinth der Sprache" (Versuche 66).

The novella Der Auftrag, however, would seem to figure as an exception within an oeuvre whose portrayal of human behaviour is otherwise arguably skeptical and pessimistic: the text's main character survives pursuit by two psy-chotic criminals through a testing ground in the desert, and the plot is conveyed through a motif complex, one of whose major themes is that dynamic personal agency rests not on rational, reasoned deliberation, but rather on subjective, noumenal impulse. This major theme derives from the Kierkegaardian concept of the "leap" – that is, the choice of a timeless self at critical junctures. And Dürrenmatt is unequivocal in characterizing the Danish philosopher's impact on his work and its exegesis: "Ohne Kierkegaard bin ich als Schriftsteller nicht zu verstehen" (Turmbau 123). [End Page 19]

This article will argue that the complex of themes and motifs in Dürrenmatt's novella Der Auftrag has both an historical philosophical and a contemporary psychological underpinning. That is to say, based on textual evidence and on Dürrenmatt's own explicit references to Kierkegaard and Jung, it will undertake an analysis that rests on the concept of Kierkegaard's stages of existence and Carl Jung's theories of archetypes. An explanation of terminology is also in order in this preamble to the discussion. Since one of the main themes of Der Auftrag is the contrast between male-inscribed and female-inscribed artistry and identity, the Kristevan terms "symbolic code" and "semiotic code," concepts employed in recent feminist psychoanalytic-literary theory to elucidate the male/female polarity of language and of the psyche, will be used to distinguish between pragmatic and artistic texts respectively. As will be shown, Dürrenmatt himself differentiates between the labyrinth of established, conventional discourse on the one hand and the subjective, imaginative, and sometimes irrational stamp of artistic language on the other. The terms "symbolic code" and "semiotic code" render the distinction adequately in terms of drawing on a more recent theory model to underpin Dürrenmatt's statement that "das ganze künstlerische Begreifen, [...] ist bei der Frau viel starker [...] Künstler sind im tiefsten weiblich" (Kerr 150), as well his comment that in artistic texts "[d]er Zusammenhang zum rational-bewußten Denken ist wie abgerissen; es ist wie die Explosion einer Grundvision" (Gespräche II, 312). Kristeva indeed defines artistic discourse as a process of interposing elements of a female/semiotic code within a male/symbolic code; she describes it as "the inclusion of the semiotic within the symbolic" (Avant Garde Practice 212). The first mention of this line of inquiry as a potentially promising one in the interpretation of Der Auftrag was made in 1986 when the novella was first published. In his review in Die Zeit, Jürgen Manthey asks whether the name of the text's central character, "F," is not meant to convey that art...


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