Saturday, July 17, 2010

And all the peaks shone

The Present Order is the Disorder of the Future - Saint-Just
Sculpture at Ian Hamilton Finlay's Little Sparta
Source: Wikimedia Commons

On Thursday I went to the National Theatre to see a new version of Danton's Death, Georg Büchner's extraordinary first play - written when he was twenty-one, only two years before his early death from typhus in 1837. The writing is so vivid that you're swept along - I almost found myself cheering a terrifying speech by Saint-Just, and I thought of Ian Hamilton Finlay's interest in this Apollonian figure, whose life was cut short by the guillotine at the age of twenty-six. Anyone who admires the modernity and power of this play should also read Lenz, Büchner's account of the descent into madness of a young Sturm und Drang playwright.  Lenz begins in the Vosges: 'snow on the peaks and upper slopes, down into the valleys grey stone, green patches, rocks and pine trees.'  Here is an extract from the description of Lenz's journey over the mountains (found on the blog Dispatches from Zembla):

Only once or twice, when the storm forced the clouds down into the valleys and the mist rose from below, and voices echoed from the rocks, sometimes like distant thunder, sometimes in a mighty rush like wild songs in celebration of the earth; or when the clouds reared up like wildly whinnying horses and the sun's rays shone through, drawing their glittering sword across the snowy slopes, so that a blinding light sliced downwards from peak to valley; or when the stormwind blew the clouds down and away, tearing into them a pale blue lake of sky, until the wind abated and a humming sound like a lullaby or the ringing of the bells floated upwards from the gorges far below and from the tops of the fir trees, and a gentle red crept across the deep blue , and tiny clouds drifted past on silver wings, and all the peaks shone and glistened sharp and clear far across the landscape; at such moments he felt a tugging in his breast and he stood panting, his body leaned forward, eyes and mouth torn open; he felt as though he would have to suck up the storm and receive it within him. 

Lenz walks on, increasingly lonely and fearful as darkness descends, until he eventually finds himself in the village of Waldbach where he is helped by the pastor Obelin. The rest of the narrative describes his struggles to find mental peace in this place: "you know I can't bear it anywhere but here, in this countryside; if I couldn't get out on to a mountain occasionally and see the landscape all around, then come home and walk through the garden and look inside through the window - I'd go mad!"  Sadly the landscape cannot cure the mental disturbances that come with increasing frequency or the ultimate collapse where all Lenz can hear is the constant scream of silence.  He is taken back to Strasbourg by carriage, from which he sees another heightened landscape, with no end to his mental torment in sight.  This translation is from the really excellent John Reddick edition of Büchner's writings, published by Penguin:
Towards evening they reached the Rhine Valley.  They drew further and further away from the mountains that now rose into the red of evening like a deep-blue crystal wave upon whose floods of warmth the russet glow of evening played; across the plain at the foot of the mountains lay a gossamer of shimmering blue.  It grew dark as they came closer to Strasbourg; a full moon high in the sky, distant objects all dark and vague, only the hill close by in sharp relief; the earth was like a goblet of gold over which the golden waves of moonlight foamed and tumbled.  Lenz stared out, impassive, without a flicker of recognition or response, except for a turbid fear that grew as more and more things disappeared in the darkness.

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