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On the Cranial Nerves of Barbarians

Framing Text: 

Written to accompany the opera in 2008:

General Notes on Georg Büchner and Historic Context (circa 2008)

This project, On the Cranial Nerves of Barbarians, is most interested in a state of frustrated suspension and epistemic liminality, both as experienced by an individual and as experienced by a the people of time period. To create this project, we ground ourselves in our own time and use our judgment and worldviews in time to empathize with the 26-year-old father of expressionism.

Georg Büchner lived in a time of germination, when long-held ideas, technological advances, and secularization caused intellectual and creative fusion; syntheses that we now consider “discoveries.” Across fields, ideas that we now consider MODERN KNOWLEDGE in capital letters were beginning to congeal. In many ways, Büchner provides a snapshot of evolving epistemologies across fields, as the themes in his plays, and the style of his medical thesis (On the Cranial Nerves of the barbus catfish) epitomize the popular theoretical trends of his time. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Büchner did not live to see and understand what we may consider the “resolution” of many such trends: the idea of the subconscious, Darwinian evolution, social psychology, and Marxism, for example.

The intense power of Büchner’s work resides in its emotional fervor, which causes it to float uncomfortably out of historical context and separate from common vocabulary, familiar sentiment, and clear narrative (cognitive, storyline, and otherwise). We could claim that all “great art” is “transcendent,” or that nothing is historically “transcendant.” Either way, Büchner is a problem, on one hand, it is the very time period (context) and atmosphere of his time that so effects us, and on the other, Büchner’s bizarrely “meta” frustration with the limitations of conceptual vocabulary and common knowledge makes him seem conscious of his own context. In short, Büchner rather links historic liminality with subjective liminality, tying an individual’s emotional and psychological state to his time period in a very literal and jarring way that illustrates debate about the nature of being in time.

How can we speak of the historic context of worldview, either as held by an individual or as a group? It is infinitely easier to speak of the former; autobiographical information that supports and explains an individual’s actions, beliefs, and products (artwork, invention) is familiar and is considered even more relevant when clicked like a lego block into a historic structural base. Views that are held “in a time” by more than one individual are more fragile and foreign, and views held in a time about that time (and even further, in that time, about time itself) which are additionally fluttering and strange, can be useful as we seek to understand the way worldview effects political, social, aesthetic, or any kind of change or shift. Is it a historic social psychological moment that we can access through Georg Büchner and his medical/philosophical research.
Reinhardt Kosseleck, heavily influenced by Heidegger and other phenomenologists, calls this mode of historical and histiographical inquiry (a focus on the evolution of fundamental concepts and ideas that form historically specific ways of being in the world) Begriffsgeschichte. Kosseleck’s Begriffsgeschichte has encouraged historians across academic disciplines to use individuals as windows into a time period, in congruence with or even rather than, vice versa. This use of an individual is now a common device in history scholarship, and it is instinctual now to apply it to the making of a multi-disciplinary operetta.

What we can seek to do however, as this is an artwork and not a history text, is to use Georg Büchner to try to feel his time, a time that we feel is (additionally) pertinent and even similar to our own in ways in terms of social psychological evolution. With this work, we can raise questions about being in time through feeling, the pattern of idea through historical being, and the interplay between thought and feeling (Aristotle’s claim that emotion is created by an intersect between thought and sensation is particularly influential here) in historical being and more specifically to express a state of just beginning to be, the early developmental stages of concepts and ideas that grow in their influence. We ask, is it possible for a society or culture to feel liminal? To experience anomie, in Emile Durkheim’s sense of social unrest or catalyst for suicide or as experienced by Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot?
Both of these states (anomie, or liminality) require narrative overview, or a sense of expectation at the very least. It’s easy to say that it’s too problematic to view any time period as epistemologically liminal, just as there are no “in-between” periods in evolution when fish have legs and flop around gasping, there are no “in-betweens” or “almosts” in the trajectory of human worldview. We can back this up conceptually, but frustration surrounding “almost-thought” remains, and knowledge that this almost thought precedes a fully formed thought that is just about to appear is absolutely a real sensation (that can be combined with thought to create emotion, but if we combine it with emotion, will it create thought? Is that the key to the process?) that can be analyzed, or at least communicated/expressed.

Just as children struggle to form opinions separate from those held by their parents, assimilating and accommodating (to use Jean Piaget’s terms) new ideas in subjective patterns, so do individuals and perhaps groups of people collectively struggle with hermeneutic frustration that they consciously feel precedes or is the shadow of/doppelganger of something more satisfying. “Existential crisis” is simply another way of describing this struggle, as is “cognitive dissonance” and “anomie.” (although it may prove a different point to consider how a person might think about this struggle without Gadamer, Sartre, Durkheim, Camus, Dostoevsky, or Samuel Beckett at the very least to stand by you in your struggle and make it seem noble or at least fictional).
We may propose that Büchner consciously struggled with the liminality of thought during his time in addition to his own (less interesting) subjective crises, growing increasingly frustrated with complications to his manifestic beliefs about human nature, science, and society, all of which sketched liminal, inchaote versions of evolutionary and social psychology theory to come.

Büchner’s particular brand of naturalism combined generously with expressionism seems to flow from this place of emotional and intellectual dis-ease, a kind of lucid, conscious confusion that points directly to idealogical, conceptual, and social paradoxes of his time.  Let it also be said, just because a certain influential book, or scholarship that we now consider landmark (Origin of Species for example) has not yet been published, it does not mean that individuals don’t hold the beliefs they contain. Atmospheric dialectic almost always precedes canonical statement, and much of Büchner’s contextual “frustration” (for lack of a better word) must also have stemmed from his lack of authority, his inability to prove his ideas, and a lack of forum in which to state them. Vocabulary of a time period also effects communication of ideas, sometimes ideas are felt rather than thought, concepts are imagined rather than seen, and legitimate citation, adequate phrasing, and clear articulation of rational thought was just as important in Büchner’s time (if not more so than it is in ours). Perhaps, as feminist scholars have recently suggested, concepts and ideas become part of being in time when they directly affect power paradigms, i.e they can no longer be ignored. Thus, we can simply consider a so-called liminality a pre-recognition state, during which frustration is certainly felt by individuals and groups alike.

Pyschology in Büchner’s time is especially interesting to note and its role in Woyzeck, Lenz, and Danton’s Death is intrinsic. In Büchner’s time, although mental philosophy has always been a large part of human query in all parts of the world and the term pops up in Croatian humanist thought in the early 16th century, Sigmund Freud of course has not yet appeared. Following the writings of Descartes, Hume, Spinoza, and Diderot, psychology as a branch of philosophy (which in turn is unseperable from medicine) has been primarily focused on dissecting animals, feeling lumps on skulls (Phrenology), Mesmerism (a kind of gravitational hypnosis) and Humoric Hysteria. When Büchner is in secondary school, the thought following Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798) has prompted much dissection of hearts, spinal columns, brains, and the like and a time of intensive and important neurological experimentation is underway. Büchner points out the absurdity, violence, and social implications of some of these earlier experiments in Woyzeck, (the title character is being subjected to medical research for money, a diet solely consisting of peas that contributes to his confusion and madness) yet Büchner historically misses most of what we consider now to be “important” discoveries, dying just slightly before the physical locations of sensory and motor centers of the brain are confirmed, the idea of “subconscious” or “social psychology” comes around, and before madness is linked to chemical or hormonal imbalances.
Without the “light” of some of these only slightly later opinions, Büchner views madness as something riding the edges between a physical (medical), political, and moral affliction, but strains for something more “scientific” and concrete. Much like those who opposed American psychology’s rejection of sociology, Richard Sennett for example, Büchner often emphasizes the political and social causes of insanity, and much of his medical/philosophical writings argue that man’s environment and treatment is the most influential actor on his mental state.
Fittingly, Büchner himself proves his own theories significantly better than his rants on catfish: combining Hegellian ideas and concepts of phenomenology with his medical work, Büchner claims that even a man’s “trancendent” place in history effects his mental state and his actions. If this is true, Büchner’s madness, fever, and death from typhus (which incidentally is caused by poor hygiene and infections from insect bites, and includes delirium and rage) would have been seen by he himself as a result of his liminal epistemic historic context.

The concept of evolution in Büchner’s time also effects much of his political thought as well as his medical philosophy. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) developed a concept of descent that is relatively close to modern thinking; he did in a way anticipate Darwinian thinking. Kant wrote: "an orang-outang or a chimpanzee may develop the organs which serve for walking, grasping objects, and speaking-in short, that lie may evolve the structure of man, with an organ for the use of reason, which shall gradually develop itself by social culture." Carl Linné, Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and Thomas Malthus provided the context in which Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, but this synthesizing book would not be published until 1859, twenty-two years after Büchner’s death. In terms of evolution, Büchner was torn between the ideas of the pre-Darwinian thinkers listed above, most of whom mixed Creation, social hierarchy, kinship, and euro-centric notions of civilization into absurdly confusing concoctions, and the nothingness of the future, that ungraspable, inevitable truth.

Napoleon and the French Revolution also underpins much of European and trans-Atlantic history of Büchner’s time and flows into early socialism, communism, and fascism. The Age of Revolutions is the setting for his story, and the period of Büchner’s short adult life (shall we say 1819-1837, age 16 to death at 23) marks the beginning of a large body of political thought that forms our contemporary worldview. In historic context, the ideological pillars of Büchner’s works are complex and fascinating: Büchner was born in Goddelau, a small town in Bavaria, the Southern part of what is now the Federal Republic of Germany. He was born in 1813, the year Bavaria joined the Alliance against Napoleon. Much of Baviaria, including its emporer, had received Napoleon’s invasion with open arms, and it was with reluctance that they were compelled to join the alliance against Napoleon (joining with former adversaries in Austria) that year. Büchner’s father, Ernst Büchner (a physician and chemist who invented the Büchner funnel, god only knows what that is) was a staunch supporter of Napoleon and enlightment attitudes towards the freeing of serfs, security of person and property, and liberty of conscience and of the press. After the family moved to Darmstadt in 1816, Büchner’s mother educated him and his four siblings (including the materialist philosopher/doctor Ludwig Büchner, the feminist writer Luise Büchner, and the politician Ludwig Wilhelm Büchner) and taught them French and Italian.

When Napoleon was defeated by The Alliance, Bavaria’s territories were divided, re-mapped, and tensions remained high between Bavaria and Austria. The emporers of Bavaria, as part of the new German confederation between Austria and Prussia, pushed for a liberal constitution, and Büchner was born under Maximilian's son Ludwig I.
Ludwig I was a patron of the arts and sciences and did much to promote industrialization. He was criticized for massive architectural and cultural expenditures, as his early years of rule were economically liberal yet increasingly socially conservative. Ludwig I raised taxes and decreased civil liberties even more after the Revolutions of 1830, tightening up control of press, tightening up national security, and occasionally brutally suppressing protests (sound familiar?). Ludwig I also sent the Bavarian military to Greece during the Greek Revolution, again increasing antagonism with Austria who had turned over many Greek intellectuals, artists, and revolutionaries over to Ottoman officials. This era is called, in German history, “Restoration” and yet is referred to as “repressive” and “totalitarian” by textbooks.

What we know is that Büchner was keenly dissatisfied with Ludwig I’s actions and the government of his state, and when he moved to Strasbourg, he joined the populist movement against the Paris government, “falling in” with your cigarette-smoking young republicans (different meaning in this time, these are the same French abolitionists who sent the Statue of Liberty to the U.S. to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation around thirty years later). Büchner read French political thought, Italian thought, especially what is considered the “early” or “pre” communist writings of the Jacobin journalist François-Noël Babeuf, his contemporary, another important journalist (and astronomer) that influenced communism, Louis Auguste Blanqui, (whose motto “Who has iron, has bread” appeared on the masthead of Benito Mousellini’s newspaper) and the Italian fascist and journalist Philippe Buonarotti, formed a political and ideological stew, out of which the Buchner, in his late teens, seemed to pull radical statements that were only loosely held together by notions of “freedom” and “justice.”

When Buchner moved back to his homeland, Gießen in the Grand Duchy of Hesse, he worked with Friedrich Ludwig Weidig, a Pastor, and founded the "Gesellschaft für Menschenrechte" (Society for Human Rights). Aiming to test the Bavarian peoples’ taste for revolution, Buchner wrote an anti-capitalist treatise (which Weidig heavily revised, especially softening the edges of tirades against the wealthy) and distributed it in the rural communities of Upper Hesse. The Hessian Courier (Der Hessische Landbote) begins:
“In this year of 1834 it seems as though the Bible is telling lies. It seems as though God had made peasants and artisans on the fifth day and the princes and     nobles on the sixth; and as though the Lord had said to the latter: Have dominion     over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, as though the peasants     and common people were to be counted as creeping things...The peasant goes behind the plow, but the nobleman goes behind the peasant and drives him on     as he does the oxen, he takes his corn and leaves him with the stubble...[the peasants'] sweat is the salt on the nobleman's table…”

Unfortunately, the peasants immediately turned the pamphlet into the authorities, naming Büchner and friends. Charged with treason, the Courior crew scattered, Weidig was captured and imprisoned, dying due to torture and illness in prison (some say that Buchner refused to take Weidig with him back to Strasbourg and that this was responsible for his capture). Safe in Strasbourg, and living once again with the Jaegles (Minna Jaegle was Büchner’s fiancee) Büchner dedicated himself to his comparative anatomy and dissected the cranial nerves of over 100 catfish.

It is the catfish research that expresses the flavor of Büchner’s dis-ease in the most excruciating way: the question is, what exactly was he looking for as he sliced through each fish, revealing identical cranial structures, miniscule brains connected to the spinal column with threads of red nerves?

The answer is simple, he was looking for the systemics concepts that would be impossible to ignore after his death: what we now call Darwinian evolution, Marxism, and psychoanalysis. Büchner, as a philosopher, comparative anatomist (fish to humans), political and social scientist, medical student, translator, and playwright, made little distinction between the body politic, the corporeal body, and the animal body. Indeed, in his medical thesis, Mémoire sur le Système Nerveux du Barbeaux (Cyprinus barbus L.)," it is often difficult to tell which he is referring to. He is interested in patterns, systems, and is in search of something metaphysical that could tie to an understanding of the world in general. Büchner presented and published his thesis in Strasbourg and Paris, essentially following a Hegellian argument about form and function.

Büchner could be written off as any other cyclically tortured young adult, if he hadn’t made the time to write Danton’s Death, the novella Lenz, Woyzeck, and Leonce and Lena, and hundreds of insightful letters equivocal to the greatest of blogs. Georg Büchner’s work marks the beginning of several literary and artistic traditions, paving the way for expressionism, naturalism, and existentialism. His influence extends beyond those that followed closely after his death, into surrealism, dada, and postmodernism. He also translated two of Victor Hugo’s novels (into German), earned his doctorate in Zurich, all before perishing of fever and insanity in 1937.

Essentially, this piece will explore three ideas through Büchner’s frame: Psychology (existentialism, madness, biological psychology, and social pyschology), Communism (political science), and Evolution (Darwinian and other theories). Kosseleck writes of early modernity, Büchner’s time: It was the philosophy of historical process which first detached early modernity from its past and, with a new future, inaugurated our modernity.“ (Kosseleck p. 21 Futures Past) and so will it be a performed philosophy of historical process which detaches the early phase of the next being from our current past being.