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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Something Old


Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.   

 “GASPARD HAUSER – THE ORPHAN OF EUROPE” by Octave Aubry (first published 1928; English translation from the French 1930); and “CASPAR HAUSER – THE ENIGMA OF A CENTURY” by Jakob Wassermann (first published 1908; English translation from the German 1928)

I will be quite honest with you from the beginning. Although it has inspired much interesting German-language literature, I am very sceptical about the story of Kaspar Hauser.
The received story goes thus – one day in 1828, a bumbling youth walked into the town of Nuremberg in Bavaria. He appeared to be in his teens – perhaps about 16 years old – but he could barely speak and moved in an inept way. He carried a letter, supposedly written by somebody else, identifying him as Kaspar Hauser and asking that he be trained as a soldier. Gradually, under care of a schoolmaster and others, he began to speak and was taught to write. He claimed that from his earliest childhood he had been kept in a dark place, that he had never been schooled, and that a mysterious person whom he could never see had somehow fed and cared for him without ever allowing him to learn anything.
            Later, Kaspar Hauser claimed that evil people were trying to kill him. He became a celebrity of sorts, with many ideas advanced about his origins. The English aristocrat Lord Stanhope took an interest in him, as did other notables. Kaspar’s tales of death threats led to the theory that he was somehow associated with a powerful, perhaps aristocratic, family who wished to get rid of him. In turn, this led to suspicions that he was the inconvenient and unwanted heir of such a family. Twice Kaspar was wounded by somebody who was never seen by anybody else. The second time, he died of the wound. His origins were never discovered, so he remained a tantalising mystery.
This in barest outline (I’ve left out many details) is the story of Kaspar Hauser.
While I wish the story of “the orphan of Europe” really were mysterious, I’m afraid I do not believe there is any real mystery. Romanticised accounts of the historical facts fail to point out that the two people who cared for Kaspar longest came to the conclusion that he was in fact a “rogue” and impostor – in other words a young con-man. Medical evidence suggests that the wound which killed him was self-inflicted – the inept faking of an assassination attempt (to substantiate the stories he had been making up) which accidentally went too far. Kaspar Hauser was caught out in lies a number of times. One’s confidence in his veracity is not strengthened by knowing that supposedly anonymous letters, which he said were threatening him, were in his own handwriting. If I were to reconstruct his life as a work of fiction, I would depict Kaspar Hauser as a shrewd young man, probably from the peasant or lower-middle-class background, who attempted to live the easy life off more affluent and gullible people who were intrigued by his supposed “mystery”. As to why nobody came forward to expose his fraud – given mortality rates then, it is quite possible that his parents and siblings were all dead. And remember, this was long before there were newspapers with photographs in them, allowing people outside an immediate area to identify who some unknown stranger was.
Yet the (romanticised) version of Kaspar’s story has inspired many capable writers. Stories of wild – perhaps feral – children hold a fascination for those who want to speculate on how the human mind would develop without conventional forms of socialisation. My first encounter with the Kaspar Hauser story was when I saw, nearly 40 years ago, Werner Herzog’s excellent film released in English as The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Its original German title was Jeder fur sich und Gott gegen alle [Every man for himself and God against everybody]. It was made in 1974. It did not attempt to “solve” the “mystery” of Kaspar’s background, but used Kaspar as a case study in a radically innocent mind, never socialised, and encountering the strangeness of the world for the first time. Herzog cast in the leading role an actor billed as “Bruno S.” (real name – Bruno Schleinstein) who had a history of mental illness and who played Kaspar as a sort of overgrown autistic child. Even if it was (probably) a complete fiction, it was a very interesting reflection on what an unsocialised mind in an adult body could be like.  It bore many comparisons with one of Francois Truffaut’s best films, L’Enfant Sauvage (The Wild Child), made in 1970 and dramatising the historical case of a doctor trying to educate a feral child.
As a legend, then, rather than as an historical fact, Kaspar Hauser has become an interesting figure in European culture and literature, with many poems, novels and plays written about him.

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All of which brings me, at long last, to two fictional works about Kaspar Hauser. One I regard as pure moonshine (a polite and old-fashioned word for bullshit). The other is an intriguing and worthwhile work of literature.
The bullshit first.
Octave Aubry (1881-1946) was essentially a French hack with some intellectual credentials. In the last year of his life, he made it into the Academie Francaise. He wrote a string of popular historical studies and quite a number of historical novels, most of which are now forgotten. His L’Orphelin d’Europe, Gaspard Hauser (note the French spelling of the name) was first published in 1928. This was the centenary of Kaspar Hauser’s first appearance in Nuremberg.  In 1934, Octave Aubry wrote another novel about Hauser called Une Tragedie de Palais (A Palace Tragedy), which shows how much the subject intrigued him. Given that Aubry was French, you will soon see why this was so.
I read L’Orphelin d’Europe, Gaspard Hauser in an English translation of 1930, wherein the title was transposed to Gaspard Hauser, the Orphan of Europe.
Plot – an intrepid young Frenchman Andre Furstel, son of the old steward to Her Imperial Highness Stephanie de Beauharnais (Napoleon’s adoptive daughter), goes to a small German state and discovers that Gaspard Hauser is the legitimate heir to the throne of Baden. Stephanie de Beauharnais, former countess of Baden, had given birth to a son; but before she died, her infant was snatched from her, by a member of the family that usurped the throne of Baden, and was hidden away to be used as a bargaining chip in later intrigues within the usurping family. However, Gaspard Hauser is murdered when Andre Furstel gets close to revealing this truth; and then Andre Furstel himself is murdered. The historical Lord Stanhope is part of the story, but given that this novel was written by a patriotic Frenchman, the aristocratic Englishman is naturally depicted as a conniving villain who is part of the plot to cover up Gaspard’s true identity. Trust the English to help snuff out a flicker of Napoleonic glory!
Let it be noted that Octave Aubry did not originate this theory about Kaspar Hauser’s “true” identity. Simply because Stephanie de Beauharnais and her infant son both died about the time that Kaspar would have been born, the idea that Kaspar Hauser was the “true” heir to Baden was one of the theories circulated in the nineteenth century. Needless to add, no historian gives it the least credence, as there is absolutely no evidence to support it. This hasn’t stopped sensationalist variations on the same theme appearing from time to time, including Peter Sehr’s 1993 German film Kaspar Hauser.
When I first read Octave Aubry’s novel, I thought it a pleasant and sprightly time-waster as conspiracy yarns go, but I also couldn’t help reflecting on how many French tales there are of noble French children done out of their royal inheritance – check out Alexandre Dumas’ (fictitious) version of who the Man in the Iron Mask was; the pitiful story of how Louis XVI’s young son (“Louis XVII”) died in a revolutionary jail; the youthful death of Napoleon’s designated heir (“Napoleon II”); and the death of Napoleon III’s son (“the Prince Imperial”) while serving the British (of course!) in the Zulu wars. Even as a confessed Francophile, I think Aubry’s novel is merely another example of the self-pitying conspiracy-theorist strain in conservative French historical fiction. And complete fiction it is.
Now for the second novel, which is a very fine piece of work and is apparently often regarded as the best fictitious rendering of Kaspar Hauser.
Jakob Wassermann (1873-1934) was a German Jew, highly regarded in literary circles and having the good fortune to die just before the Hitler era really kicked in. His Caspar Hauser oder Der Tragheit des Herzens (Caspar Hauser or the Sloth [or Inertia] of the Heart) was first published in 1908. I note that the English translation (by Caroline Newton) which I read was retitled Casper Hauser, the Enigma of a Century and was first published in 1928 – this again being the centenary of Kaspar Hauser’s first appearance in Nuremberg.
In the background of Wassermann’s fine novel there is a similar sort of conspiracy story to the one Aubry was to narrate. Caspar Hauser is apparently the heir to nobility who has been cheated out of his inheritance by being deprived of all education and being kept in a dark place by somebody he calls only “the Thee” (i.e. the person who called him only “du” – the familiar German form of “you”). There are real assassins out to kill him and to whom he eventually succumbs. The historical Lord Stanhope comes into the story, but in this novel he is not so much villainous as negligent, promising to make the boy his ward and building up the boy’s hope only to desert him when his interests change. In other words, Wassermann seems to have accepted as historical fact many of the fictitious trimmings to the story of the historical Kaspar Hauser.
Yet all this conspiracy stuff is merely the background to Wassermann’s novel, which, elaborating on the idea that Hauser was a genuine intellectual innocent, sets out to give a tale of psychological development. The real subject of Caspar Hauser oder Der Tragheit des Herzens is the development of a mind, with didactic asides on what is the most effective form of teaching the innocent.
The first part of the novel has Caspar being taught by a sympathetic teacher, Friedrich Daumier, who is fascinated by the simplicity and purity of Caspar’s soul and introduces him gently and lovingly into the ways of the world.  But the world can be a harsh place. Innocent Caspar is first mystified, then shocked and horrified, when the wife of a magistrate tries to seduce him. As Caspar himself grows in worldliness, and even in the power to deceive, the gentle Friedrich Daumier reluctantly relinquishes his care of him.
The second part of the novel has Caspar being cared for by a very different sort of teacher, the authoritarian Quandt, who is small-minded, disciplinarian, suspicious and dismissive of all Caspar’s claims to noble origins. Quandt allows Caspar no privacy, repeatedly denounces him as a swindler, and finally tries to confiscate Caspar’s private diary – Caspar destroys it rather than giving it up.
Wassermann’s implication is that Caspar is being spiritually “murdered” by Quandt before real murderers turn up and murder him literally. A minor character, Frau von Kannewurf, closes the novel by denouncing as “murderers” even those who believed they were doing Caspar good. The German subtitle “the Sloth [Inertia]of the Heart” seems to refer to the intellectual laziness of human beings in interpreting the world only in conventional ways, and not in the fresh ways of an untutored mind like Caspar’s. I should add that this novel was much admired by the disciples of Rudolf Steiner, who saw it as illustrating their favourite theories of pedagogy, and who much appreciated the scenes where Caspar dreams of a nurturing Mother Figure. (The 1973 reprint I read was produced by “Rudolf Steiner Publications”.) In the opening chapter, the sympathetic teacher Daumier says of Caspar:
I shall show the jaded world a mirror of untainted humanity; then people will see that there are valid proofs for the existence of the soul which all the idolators of today deny with base vehemence.”
This sort of statement is highly congenial to Steiner’s disciples who seek what is spiritual in the right upbringing of children.
One doesn’t have to be a devotee of the suspect creed of “anthroposophy”, however, to appreciate much of the novel’s psychological insight. Like Baudelaire, Wassermann sees the sensual connection between sounds and concepts as Caspar gets used to language:
Out of hollow sounds, the word arose. A form came to have a meaning because of the unforgettable word. Caspar rolls a word on this tongue, it tastes bitter or sweet, it contents him or it leaves him dissatisfied. Then, too, many words had faces, or they sounded like the chimes of a bell out of the night, or they stood out like flames in a mist.” (Chapter 4).
Like many writers on childhood, Wassermann understands the talismanic significance the moon can acquire in a young mind:
When the moon was full, he was frequently unwell, his whole body shivered, and only the sight of the moon itself relieved the pressure in his breast. He knew from which roof, or between what gables the clear orb would rise; he conjured it forth as if with his own hands from the depth of the sky, and when there were clouds he trembled lest they touch the moon, because he thought that the radiant disk would be sullied.” (Chapter 10)
And there is a strong scene in Chapter 18 where Caspar sees Frau Quandt give birth and has to face the traumatic fact that human life is born out of suffering.
Here, then, is one of those paradoxes of literature. Out of an historical falsehood (the received, largely fictional, story of a young man who was probably a fraud) there can be made a story telling many psychological truths. To hold a good novelist to strict historical truth, however, would be a bit like rebuking Shakespeare for not making King Lear reflect the real, non-legendary, history of ancient England.
One final comment on Wassermann’s absorbing novel. It throws up one phrase that I have not been able to forget since I first read it. As Caspar gets used to a modern (1820s) house at night, he reflects: “During the night the dark sits on the lamp and howls.” (Chapter 5).
Brilliant.

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