s Orwell, Dostoevsky, Flaubert: Obsession as the Sensuous Outburst of Cruelty

Orwell, Dostoevsky, Flaubert:
Obsession as the Sensuous Outburst of Cruelty


You speak in your letter of a change in dramatic style from expressionist morality to a new realism represented by Dürrenmatt and Frisch.

As I am not accustomed to think in these categories, and am not quite sure with regard to their exact meaning, I should like to hear more about the matter. The reason is that just now I am dabbling again in your field of literature, and I feel that I am after the same problem. Let me present it briefly—but I must warn you that I can only hope I have not completely misunderstood you.

I hit on what seems to me the same problem through dealing with language and some other symbolisms in connection with my eternal problem of Gnosis. [George] Orwell develops in 1984, as you know, the symbolism of "Newspeak." His elaboration of the issue is in my opinion weak, but he is after a real issue.

The restriction of vocabulary and meanings: an ideological language has the purpose of interrupting the contact with reality, and on the other hand to admit as "reality" in quotation marks only the phantasy of the ideology. This restriction now pertains not only to words and meanings, but to whole bodies of propositions in philosophy or to facts of history that could interfere with the ideological "truth" by showing it to be a falsehood.

An essential in our American ideological environment is, therefore, the destruction of philosophy, history, and even the knowledge of languages in order to prevent access to recalcitrant sources. . . .

If one translates the Orwellian issue into more adequate terminology, one would have to speak of the "obsessive language" of ideologues—which has the double purpose of repetitious, mechanical iteration of the phantasy and of killing off, at the same time, any conflicting reality.

The term "obsessive language" seems to suggest itself because the great analyst of speakers of obsessive language in the 19th century was Dostoevsky in his Demons, a work that in the English edition has the title The Obsessed. That seems to be good authority. The result of the obsession, and of the use of obsessive language, is the distortion and deformation of reality.

I had to struggle with this problem all last summer when I gave the course on "Hitler and the Germans." The adequate means of representation for the distortion seemed to be what I called at the time "the burlesque." The term suggested itself through the study of novels and dramas by Doderer, Frisch and Dürrenmatt.

Recently, however, I reread [Gustav] Flaubert's Tentation de Saint Antoine and read some new literature on Flaubert, especially the excellent study by Jean Seznec. The whole complex seems to have been worked through already on occasion of Flaubert. In Flaubert's emerging as the ascetic from the lush romanticism of the [Eighteen]forties, the drama of overcoming ideologies seems to have been [enacted already before our time].

In the Tentation, especially in the parts on heresies and on the libido scientiae, the whole manifold of ideological aberration seems to have been worked through, on occasion of its first occurrence in the early Christian centuries. The nightmare of Flaubert's time (and of ours) was cathartically overcome by going through its original gnostic form. . . .

The Gnostic symbolism[s], and the indulgence in them, was called the "grotesque"—the early Christian centuries were to Christianity what the grotesque is to literature, runs one of the formulations in the literature. So, "grotesque" seems to be preferable to "burlesque" as a term. Moreover, these 19th-century men of letters were still wise to the essential connections between heresy and cruelty, profanation and sadism, etc.

It was perfectly clear to everybody that the autonomy of man in revolt against God was at the core of the issue; that the attempt to replace a world of God's making by a manmade world could be perpetrated, as it could not be achieved, only through a sensuous outburst of cruelty in overcoming resistance—a [permanently maintained cruelty] as the goal could never be reached.

The connection of heresy and cruelty is the connection that we formulate today as ideology and terror, or on the less activist level as the mixture of refined sophistic and spiritual vulgarity that is excellently represented today by the vanitas of Sartre. . . . The expressionist morality of a Brecht is still "obsessive" language (through symbolism of characters in the drama). What we find in Frisch and Dürrenmatt, and what you diagnose as the higher validity of their characterization, is a new influx of reality.

Against the extreme destruction of reality committed by expressionists, there stands a considerable spiritual substance in the Swiss authors. Even if they construe puppets in order to make a point, the puppets have a reality superior to any figures of Brecht, because the point they make is that they are puppets and not reality.

Robert B. Heilman and Eric Voegelin
A Friendship in Letters, 1944-1984,
Hurried over the Face of the Earth ,
Letter 107, Notre Dame, Indiana, February 22, 1965 ,

pp 232-234.

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