Hermann Sudermann

The Reader

May 1903, Vol. 1, No. 6, pp. 507–510

THE young Emerson asked of an eviscerated generation, “Shall we conquer our nature or obey it?” His thought matured with the years. Setting the slughorn to his lips, he sounded a call to arms that shall reverberate unto the furthest day. Transcendental egoism was the rod that touched the human corpse, and it sprang upon its feet. Its message was imperative: Let us have done with conformity; the individual shall no longer skulk and shamble through life; there is a light within, and where its rays fall you may follow.

Norway heard the call and breathed the breath of life into Ibsen, the Odin of individualism. Germany was roused from her metaphysical torpor and once more touched terra firma when Nietzsche, Sudermann and Haputmann swept into the arena. They were to deal with the problems of human destiny. Hegel’s Absolute, with its basic postulate that Something was Nothing, and Fichte’s theory, that the human soul was an incubator that had hatched a universe, were swept aside; they were important—if true. The age had become concrete. Mighty problems were calling for solution. The Sphinx had planted herself in the middle of the century, and whoso did not answer her questions she threatened with annihilation. The romantic debauch in art, philosophy, literature and politics was about at an end. In 1848 Europe emerged into broad daylight. Thenceforward the proper study of mankind was to be man—and monkey.

In literary Germany Schopenhauer and Nietzsche rule as opposing philosophic schools, and their influence is apparent throughout all of Sudermann’s work. Schopenhauer, going back to the philosophy of the Indian mystics, enunciated the doctrine that the greatest evil that could befall any one was a desire to live. Desire, endless, formless, purposeless desire, is the metaphysical substratum of each act. The individual, tossed into the world without his consent, is doomed from the cradle to the grave to go the Ixion-like round of wants and cares that constitute man’s daily task. At the end of each day there lies an endless series of to-morrows in ambuscade. Each day we empty the spiritual chalice of its holy fires, and from the embers there rises the mirage of hope. Like Tantalus, in the Greek fable, the waters of life are daily rolled to our lips, and then withdrawn. Life is progress from want to want, and when it is not it is an oscillation between boredom and boredom. The peaked and drawn face of Care is ever by our side, and Fear dogs our steps like our shadows.

In Schopenhauer’s view, self-exploitation was the one great sin. To abolish self—the little I, the microcosmic distillation of the cosmic winepress—by a constant negation of all earthly desires; a gradual abolition of the individual ego, and final reabsorption of the [508] denuded soul in the All, where even the possibility of rebirth was at an end, was the final goal at which the philosophy of this great dreamer aimed. Repression, self-sacrifice, acceptance, non-resistance, led to the summum bonum, and life is best when life is least.

Nietzsche’s philosophy is diametrically opposed to Schopenhauer’s. Agreeing with the German Buddhist, that the motive for every act is a need, that each movement of sentiency, however humble or sublime, from the aimless gyrations of infusoria to the molecular combinations that gave the world Hamlet and the theory of gravitation, is the aim of the World-Spirit to realize itself in Space and Time, he held it imperative to follow, and a crime to renounce, the urge—the “procreant urge” in a larger sense than Whitman used it. No matter to what abysses they lead, follow your instincts—and intellect in its widest orbitings is but subtilized instinct, a phœnix that springs from the cinders of dead passions. The grand passion that you stand in fear of—that is your deeper, nobler self calling for birth. The dream of power that visits your pillow, and you put aside as evil, that is the grandest dream you will ever know.

Society, morality, religion have mutilated you. Go forth and do battle with whatever impedes your development. Else remain the tailings of primeval, elemental force. The gods of life ride the whirlwind; the weaklings stay at home and simmer in the teapot. All pity is evil because it helps to perpetuate the weak, and there is nothing a strong soul should fear so much as a weaker opponent. Strong men make room for strong men. There is naught holy but the law of your own nature. Strife is the natural state of man and self-exploitation the only righteousness. Renunciation, self-repression, asceticism, Nietzsche teaches, are the fruits, of Christianity. Ecrasez l’infame! he exclaims with Voltaire.

Sudermann’s sceptical mind wavers between these two architectonic theories of conduct. Like Hamlet, he stands at pause. The culture of a wonderful century has seethed turbulently in his mind, and his art cannot be said to be bondservant to any one cult. As between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, he perceives the elements of truth which both philosophies contain. The critical instinct in his nature senses the danger of pursuing to the end any one dominant spiritual tendency to the exclusion of another. His mind seems at times to be a battleground of contrarieties, where opposing beliefs struggle for mastery. He cannot reconcile the rights of the individual with the rights of organized society.

Man is ever the Laocoon who does battle with the serpents of Social Expediency. Instinct and Intellect are at war. The will is everywhere thwarted. I would must forever confront the menacing Thou shalt not. The promethean fire runs from the fennel-rod and is dispersed in vapors. The babe comes into the world an arsenal of instincts. Myriads of past lives are locked in that tabernacle of clay. As a child he pursues his ends and never dreams of conforming except to his own instincts. King of the instinctive world, he can do no wrong. But the shades of the prison house close gradually around him, and the glory and the dream melt into the light of common day. At manhood’s threshold he relinquishes himself bit by bit. Custom, society, beleaguer his soul, and levy their tributes. He slips into society’s ready-made, often second-hand, clothing, and is sent to the right-about. A resistant nature will at first show fight, but sooner or later he slinks into abeyance, and in silent agony lives out his days a mere social automaton.

In “Dame Care,” Sudermann’s great [509] novel, the slow decomposition of such a nature is traced with unerring touch. The German novelist accentuates the horrors that attend self-stultification. Paul lives for others, and others live on him. He takes upon himself the burden and sins of his family, and the years snow their cares upon him. The very springs of life dry up. A mere pack-mule, saddled with the trappings of those bound to him by an accident of birth, he reaches manhood lamed and crippled in soul and body. A victim of self-exclusion, a mere ghost of a man, he emerges from prison, in the last chapter, and falls into the arms of the woman who had waited for him through the years.

This concession of Sudermann’s to German sentimentality is the one thing that mars this otherwise great book. Romanticism has never lost its hold on Sudermann. It is his ability to fuse the dream with the reality, to be artist and at the same time analyst, that puts him in the very first rank of contemporaneous dramatists.

Over against the dream of an emancipated individual stands the world of fact; the practical world, with its iron laws and drastic discipline. If the individual revolt against the emasculation of himself and pursue his ends, grasping the good within his reach, daring all penalties and defying the social manes to the end; if, standing upon the validity of his unalterable instincts—like Magda—he proclaim in the face of all opposition, I am I, and I cannot do otherwise, he flies into the face of an enemy whose rights are as firm-rooted in the past as his own.

Society is an organized instinct. It is, paradoxically, a mode of perpetuating the individual by sacrificing him to the needs of the race. Social Law is the potter that stands at the cradle and moulds the wet and plastic clay of individuality in its own image; and not from an idle or a shallow thought is the soul shaped to the potter’s end. Society is the treasure-house of the race and the repository of all its wisdom. Untrammelled, aggressing individuality would destroy the temple in which it lived, and, like Samson, Self would lie deepest under the ruins. On the other hand, the continual and unresisted aggression of Society on the individual would destroy the race by destroying the units that compose it.

Self-sacrifice is only to be commended when it is a mode of self-development, when the altruistic is dominated by the egoistic instinct; self-exploitation and self-development, when they involve something of self-sacrifice; when self-love, sowing itself on every wind, blossoms in a thousand souls wherein we see our higher selves reduplicated.

Even the brutal philosophy of Nietzsche has its altruistic side. He, too, had his nauseous Ideal. From the death of the spiritually weak and the physically underfed, on the ruins of social systems and moral codes, done to death by elemental instincts, there is to come forth the Overman, a transcendental, superhuman creature whose godlike nature shall repay the world for the labored agonies of his birth.

This eternal conflict of the individual with the forces that would blast him is outlined in “Honor,” Sudermann’s first drama. Robert, the workman’s son, and Lenore, the capitalist’s daughter, are in love. But there is Caste, antique, cobwebbed Caste. The Past, with its absurd notions of honor; the lichened Past, atrophied in body and soul, stretches forth its finger in an admonitory Nay. The playwright is in deadly earnest in this drama. There is no honor that comes not from within. Honor, int he last analysis, is self-respect. Accept your nature and rise to the level of your instincts. Fling wide the door that leads to freedom. Let Society look to her rights. Robert and Lenore love. That is sufficient. The [510] gilded, galvanized mummies that croak “honor” and “pride” at them are but the stale cadavers of an outworn social system. There is an honor that is not gold-glossed, that is in no way dependent on time and place; the lovers go forth into the world to seek it.

“Magda” we know well. In this play two antagonistic laws apparelled in flesh stand for combat. The dead, ice-locked past; the restless, seething present; a grinding impact of force against force; the final equilibration of deat: such is the story of Magda.

In “The Joy of Living” the woman pays. The retribution that overtook Beata von Kellinghausen was greater than that which struck down Magda in a mighty grief, because the former had long before the opening of the play renounced the right to be herself. Beata’s thirsty nature sought out the good but socially forbidden, drank deep of the fountain of love, and with a woman’s intuition of the wrath to come cut loose from her lover, and buried herself thenceforth in the commonplace love of a commonplace husband. With the ebb of her emotions her nature wilted. Her soul, denied its proper outlets, belted and buckled in by the taskmaster Conformity, turns upon itself, and life, day by day, escapes through unseen apertures. When the crucial moment has come and outraged Society—Society, the divinized malign—in the person of her husband confronts her, she kills herself. Renunciation triumphs over self-assertion, and a proud vessel filled to the brim with an old Greek vintage rejects itself and runs to waste in coffined silences. There are few modern plays wherein the universal conspiracy to preserve the statu quo is so clearly defined as in this play of Sudermann’s.

It is in “The Cat’s Bridge” that the influence of Nietzsche is most clearly felt. Here there is no wavering between opposing philosophies. The German dramatist takes his place on the side of outraged human nature, and deals heavy blows at the conventions. What a daring creation is Regine, the heroine of this book! Untutored, loyal, self-sacrificing, capable of savage joys and profound sorrows, she stands in sharp contrast to the other female character, the pastor’s daughter—fashionable, prudish, anæmic in soul and body, a very pattern of model marionette. She is the last refinement of a decadent civilization, as Regime is its first, underlying principle.

The balked will—this is the one theme of Sudermann. And he has but one method of treating it. Herein lies his limitation as a dramatist. The situations in all his plays are essentially the same. “Honor,” “Sodom’s End,” “Magda,” “Johannes”—who raises his voice to rage against Herod and is struck dumb in his fulminations by a vision of the Man of Galilee—“Johannisfeuer,” “The Joy of Living”—all are climaxed alike and balanced on one pivot. The younger generation of German dramatists who follow in the footsteps of Sudermann, Hauptmann and Ibsen are superficial when compared to the masters. They shine with a borrowed light. The Germans have drunk deep of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche; but it is Sudermann and Hauptmann alone who know they have been drinking naphtha. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche!—world-shatterer and world-regenerator—the two most tremendous figures of modern times. They who are initiated into their mysteries never smile again.

Sudrmann has solved no problems. He sets down life as he sees it. There is a Nemesis who wields the sword and scourge. For the rest he is a sceptic.

“What do I know?” asked Montaigne; and his essays are the immortal record of his ignorance. “What do I see?” asked Sudermann; and “Magda” is the immortal record of his vision.