From the earliest stirrings of cultural history two central themes emerge in humanity’s quest for self-determination, and they are linked through art, folklore and the written word with desire on one hand and the petition of gods and spirits on the other.
While many cultures evidence a corpus of literature that has served to immortalise the lore, heroes and heritage of its people, it would not be unreasonable to argue that Germanic culture is unique in its breadth and wealth of sources that enable us to observe its evolution from the earliest written attestations. A brief study of early runic inscriptions found across Europe in Schleswig (Germany), Fyn (Denmark) and Skåne (Sweden) reveals that a dialogue with the divine and the anthropomorphised forces of nature was a pivotal expression of Iron Age Germanic culture.
One of the mainstays of runic interpretation has been the view that the very word rune had the original meaning of ‘mystery’ or ‘secret’ and that it is related to the German raunen, to whisper. And indeed, the magical properties ascribed to runes, which were used not only as a language but also as a divinatory system, are evidenced in the heroic myths and epic poems of the early Middle Ages. Many of these stories, some readapted by the Grimms and others evidenced in the creative output of German literature and philosophy, illustrate a clear preoccupation with desire, spirit and supernatural phenomena, which were more often than not inextricably linked.
The concept of self-sacrifice and immersion in a magical, transformative reality where fates and fortunes are forever changed are key themes in Germanic lore. From Odin’s self-sacrifice on Yggdrasil, the world tree, to obtain the oracular properties of the runes, to the heroine in Frau Holle who throws herself into a well and emerges in the underworld, through to the classic legend of Faust who sells his soul to the Devil in a bid to obtain the wisdom of ages; the message of a sacrificial act preceding metamorphosis is hard to miss. Representations of desire, too, are fundamentally linked to these notions through wish-fulfilment (wunscherfüllung), the satisfaction of a desire through dreams and involuntary thought processes.
Another theme delicately interwoven with both the journeying of magical realms and the satisfaction of repressed desires is the question of whether the reality represented in the story is, in fact, an objective one or merely a personal shamanic exploration tempered by supernatural agency or dreams. According to Freud, the magical ‘otherworldly quality’ in dreams is an authentic representation of our reality. So what can these otherworldly realms replete with dreams of the taboo, sex and magic tell us about German fiction? Can a direct link be established between the stories of early Germanic mythology and folk tales to Germany’s literary and philosophical movements in the 19th century?
The stirrings of German Romanticism began with the search for national identity. A confederation of small German-speaking states, with Prussia its largest and most influential, Germans saw no evidence of unity or a shared cultural experience—save for a common tongue, and this would become a driving force in the German Romantic movement. Germans had no contemporary artistic tradition which they could all share and no cultural centre to which they could all look for inspiration. Fragmentation was key to the German experience. The philosopher Herder, a former student of Kant, championed a new school of thought whereby a culture’s volksgeist (spirit of the people) is mirrored in its organic processes of birth, growth and decay, and language is the primary expression of that. According to Herder, the volksgeist is manifested in a common tongue, which carries not only the message of communication but also the legacy of a people. Herder’s thoughts on language were pivotal in the development of German Romanticism.
One of the early proponents of German Romanticism was the poet, writer and philosopher Novalis. He experienced a deep connection to Germany, which he called ‘the fatherland’. In his body of work, and particularly his surviving letters to fellow German philosophers, Novalis (right) equates his affinity with the landscape to a deeply amorous and transcendent experience. In a letter to the philosopher Schiller, Novalis speaks of the correlation between nature, the landscape and magic, and the way they are intimately interlaced for him: “I move in the fresh autumn air, and new streams of vivacity flow into me with every breath; the beautiful scenery into which I feel dissolved, charm me into the blossoming realms of fantasy surrounded by the same magic and thin mist as the landscape beneath my feet”.
The idealisation of natural forces, the mythic underpinnings of the volksgeist and a rediscovery of ‘the fatherland’ had a clear nationalist direction, although still far removed from the ethnocentric political ideology it engendered a century later. German Romantics experienced a newfound affinity with the mythology and early cultural traditions of the German people (in much the same way that English Romantics felt the same pull towards early English lore), which laid the perfect foundation for the Grimms’ adaptation of German folk tales.
One of my favourite pieces of German fiction is Wedekind’s Spring Awakening; the story weaves desire and magic with the clashing of stifling societal mores on one hand and a precautionary tale on the other. Set in 1891 in a rural German town, the story presents the dilemmas and misadventures of a group of adolescents and the farcical inability of parents and school staff to contend with their sexual maturation. Wedekind presents an impossible conflict between society and sexuality where ultimately all parties are damned. Classical elements of the forest and its otherworldly portents are represented in both the environment where some of the scenes are set, and also in the language used by the characters. Is this blatant incorporation of supernatural agency and metaphor to describe what could be explained as natural phenomena (tricks of light, etc) a result of wish-fulfillment?
The systematic repression of sexual curiosity and natural urges is carried out by the adults in a bid to shelter the delicate sensibilities of their children and shield them from ‘the evils of promiscuity’. It becomes clear, however, that this repression elicits only turmoil and confusion in the teens, who are torn between the will to do good by their parents and the momentary lapses of reason that transpire when their natural urges and impulses are brought to a conclusion. The sexual explicitness is in tune with a grotesquely surreal theatricality which oscillates between comedy, tragedy and farce, and indeed the sexual repression expresses itself in the veiled imagery of magic.
On to Kafka, with whom I share an awful lot in common from a biographical and philosophical viewpoint. He is not my favourite writer, but I resonate with his personal struggles on a visceral levels. The Metamorphosis is a tale of transformation of man into his metaphor. The notion of dissociation, and the projection of primal, animalistic instincts onto a dream that serves as a coping mechanism, are key elements in this macabre tale. The thin veil between the transmutation of reality and what could not, rationally, be true underpins the entire story, where we are left wondering until the very end whether the events described are real, or mere figments of Gregor’s imagination. Here, too, we bear witness to a magical incorporation of supernatural forces that are neither explained nor elucidated; instead the reader is left with disturbing imagery that is perhaps made all the more disturbing by Gregor’s humanity and simple rationalisation of his condition.
Another favourite novel is Schnitzler’s Dream Story. An absinthe-soaked tale of dreamwalking and decadence set in 1926 Vienna, where a couple give liberty to wanderlust and fantasy and discover new things about their hidden desires. Their experiences in masked balls and strange, orgiastic revels allow Fridolin and Albertina, the main characters, to examine their dilemmas in a safe and healthy environment, that of the imagination. But is it really healthy, and can their marriage survive the shocking revelations? In Dream Story, fantasy overtakes reality to create a new echelon of existence – one that touches upon themes of magic and the uncanny, and the inevitability of sacrifice. In their opulent explorations, desire is a force that is discovered to be both powerful and misunderstood; a drive so powerful that it ignites great turmoil and greater magics.
Goethe famously once said that “few people have the imagination for reality,” and this quip would appear to encapsulate the very essence of the themes I have described, where man battles unforeseen forces in a battle over the indomitable: reality. Representations of desire and spirit in German literature enflame my mind not only because they are seductive and entertaining, but also because they address our innermost struggles by contending with existential concerns; some in a straightforward manner, such as folk tales by the Grimms, while others appeal to a darker exploration of our instinctive drives and impulses such as in the stories of Wedekind, Kafka and Schnitzler. The concept of sacrifice, so endemic to German fiction, is highlighted in the trials undertaken by the heroes, after which they emerge transformed. Underpinning these motifs is the mystery of dreams, or rather the mystery of a dream within a dream, and whether they are born of supernatural agency or designed by us to cope with the evils of this world.
I see much of myself in these stories. Don’t we all?
In my dream within a dream, I walk through woods with swirling scented foliage redolent of old books, powdered resins and ancient rooms. I am desire and spirit. I am the she-wolf of the steppes.