Georg Büchner “The desire to change the world”

Georg Büchner (1813–1837) died young, but he left behind a powerful oeuvre that fascinates people to this very day. The literary scholar Hermann Kurzke has written a biography that reinterprets the traditional image of Büchner while also marking the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Hermann Kurzke wrote a new biography for the Büchner anniversary; © C. H. Beck Hermann Kurzke wrote a new biography for the Büchner anniversary | © C. H. Beck Professor Kurzke, Büchner’s oeuvre includes plays such as “Danton’s Death” and “Woyzeck”, which are still included on the curricula of secondary schools and universities today. This revolutionary and writer continues to inspire contemporary authors to engage with him in their own works. How do you explain Büchner’s continual relevance?

Büchner is one of the forefathers of modernism, not just in Europe but worldwide as well. He addresses the fundamental issues of existence, rebelliousness, the desire to change the world, and the necessity of accepting its fatality. This still fascinates us today.

One example of a literary updating is Eduard Habsburg’s “Lena in Waldersbach”, 2013, a novella based on Büchner’s “Lenz”.

Habsburg’s novella is a playfully quirky and cheerfully tragic book that lets the figure of Lena tread the same path as Büchner’s Lenz. Unlike Lenz, however, she does not go mad. Instead she avoids the temptation to succumb to the attractions of madness.

Why did you decide to write a new biography of Büchner?

In 1999 I published a successful biography of Thomas Mann. For this I engaged as of 1990 with biography writing and developed new procedures for it. When the publisher, C. H. Beck, inquired if I would write a biography to mark the 200th anniversary of Büchner’s birth, I readily agreed. Büchner presents particular challenges for a biographer.

Does that have to do with the source material?

Yes. In Thomas Mann’s case there are hundreds of thousands of written pages to select from. In Büchner’s case, the complete oeuvre, including the few preserved letters, amounts to 150 to 200 pages. Almost nothing. Some things have been burnt or destroyed, others that have been preserved are difficult to decipher.

Making the sources speak

How did you deal with this problem?

If you have only one third of the pieces in a five-hundred-piece jigsaw puzzle, you simply cannot force these to make up a false whole. The pieces have to be placed in such a way that the outlines of the gaps are clearly recognizable. Then you fill those gaps in such a way that the other pieces remain in their right place. It’s all about the coherence of the whole. The main source for my book is Büchner’s literary oeuvre. The letters were filtered by Büchner’s brother Ludwig, who edited the first edition in 1850. The originals were burnt in 1851. There were once 600 letters, of which only 60 to 70 are known, and of these often only excerpts. Ludwig Büchner omitted everything that was private, preferring to foreground the political.

In your biography you question established images of Büchner, like that of the revolutionary struggling against the old order. What was your objective?

I wanted to make the sources speak. Initially, I left the secondary literature aside, as far as was feasible. I also wanted to bring out Büchner the Romantic, to get away from the image of the eternal revolutionary.

Büchner and women

You analyse a number of aspects very thoroughly: Büchner’s family, his relationships with friends and with women, his political ideas. Which discovery surprised you most?

The issue of women. The only one I knew about was his fiancée, Wilhelmine Jaeglé. From an early stage, I had wondered where all the wonderful female figures in his work come from. I believe they express Büchner’s longing to have a number of women; one can speak in his case of a polyamorous disposition. As regards his engagement to Wilhelmine Jaeglé, Büchner saw himself as being a bit like a prisoner, and his works are teeming with images of claustrophobia. The reference by Büchner’s friend Alexis Muston, in his diary of 1833, to a “fille perdue”, a fallen girl, indicates a Büchner enamoured of a girl whom he dreamt of raising to the level of an angel. We can assume it was a prostitute Büchner knew personally, though not necessarily as a client. Which is how he knew so much about the world of prostitutes, as evidenced in Danton’s Death, and in Leonce and Lena.

Büchner’s plays are still performed frequently today. To what extent might your biography encourage directors to re-interpret them?

Büchner’s works have always been read from a political and rarely from an autobiographical viewpoint. Given that I have more or less psychoanalysed the work, it would now be possible to let the person of Büchner shine through more, for example, in Danton’s Death, where Büchner belatedly gave the title character his own first name. In Woyzeck the issues involved in the repression of drives and sexuality could be highlighted, rather than the social drama. The characters Doctor and Captain are usually interpreted as being representatives of the social order. If you look closer, however, you realize that behind Doctor is more a father-figure, and that Captain, with his anxiety about his sexual potency, is an oblique self-portrait of Büchner.

What work would you recommend to a reader coming into contact with Georg Büchner for the first time?

Lenz is perhaps the simplest to start with. A knowledge of the French Revolution is an advantage when reading Danton’s Death, so if the reader has this, then he or she could start with that play. Leone and Lena is also relatively easy to read.

Which of Büchner’s texts means the most to you personally?

For a long time it was Danton’s Death, a play that has accompanied me throughout my life. During my work on the biography, however, I rediscovered Woyzeck. It has a powerful theme that is developed in great depth in a highly confined space.

Hermann Kurzke was born in Berlin in 1943. He studied German and Catholic Theology at the universities of Munich and Würzburg, and was Professor of Modern German Literary History at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. Hermann Kurzke is co-editor of the major annotated Frankfurt Edition of the works of Thomas Mann. He gained a wider readership in particular through his biographies of Thomas Mann and Novalis.