Saturday, May 25, 2013

Gustav Meyrink - "The Green Face" (1916)

I was not familiar with Gustav Meyrink when I added his novel The Green Face (Mike Mitchell, translator) to my late winter/early spring reading list (which as you can tell is stretching into late spring/early summer!). I added him for the same reason I added Joris-Karl Huysmans' Against Nature and Georges Rodenbach's Bruges-la-Morte. They are all works that I learned of while reading about artists of the time. They also seemed a bit obscure and were part of (or led up to) some of the artistic/literary movements of the early 20th Century.  In the case of The Green Face, the movement was German fantastic literature or occult fiction.

The plot and characters of The Green Face have an air of early 20th century spiritualists. You know, the people you sometimes see in movies set in the 20s: upper middle class intellectuals into seances and Egyptology. The characters in this book are drawn together by their various attempts to find spiritual knowledge or truth.

The main character, Fortunatus Hauberrisser, has come to Amsterdam amid a flood of people displaced by WWI, although he himself is quite well-off financially. While the war has ended, there is an aura of dread throughout the novel, a sense of an impending apocalypse. This dark foreshadowing for Europe is one of several recurring themes and it, as well the discussion the characters have about it, definitely speaks to the post-war angst that underpinned so much of the philosophy, literature, and art of the first third of the 20th Century.

In the first chapter of the novel, on a whim, Fortunatus enters a shop called Chidher Green's Hall of Riddles. During his visit - while in a semi-dream state - he encounters a man with a green face who launches him into a quest for spiritual understanding and knowledge. Meyrink's very clever first chapter uses the magic shop scene to lay out several other themes the author addresses in The Green Face: the way whim and chance play a role in spiritual searches and that the search for truth is a kind of 'hall of riddles' where nothing is as it seems. Another theme that emerges in the shop is laid out when a shopkeeper shows Fortunatus how to do a magic trick. Despite being shown, Fortunatus thinks "he would never be able to do the trick himself". Meyrink spends a great deal of time in the novel proposing that we must all come to truth ourselves.  It cannot be imparted or taught to us by others. That said, Meyrink recognizes that a word or idea from someone person can be useful - even illuminating - but only if it comes at the exact moment we need it and we are ready for it. Hence, preaching and proselytizing are a waste of time.

Meyrink's characters run the gamut of various forms of religious and spiritual belief, and Meyrink himself apparently dabbled in a wide variety of religious and occult thinking himself. One of his interests must have been Zen Buddhism, because there is a lot of Zen philosophy marbled throughout The Green Face. For example, his theme that each of us have to find truth for ourselves is a bit Zen philosophy.

There are many other examples. The character of Swammerdam describes his search as being about seeking and "inner voice" whose role is to provide "mental balance, the achieving of clarity, ...the way upwards, from insight through rational thought to knowledge through direct contemplation." Fortunatus (in chapter twelve) engages in sessions of what seems very close to zazen to achieve understanding that otherwise eludes him. Lastly, the notion of enlightenment is brought forward in chapter five, when the character Eva has a moment of illumination:
"It was as if a curtain had been rent in two, and Eva was blinded by the light of a new insight. Those last few words had told her more about the goal of human existence than all the religious systems in the world could have."
Another example, in chapter six, comes from an epiphany Fortunatus has when he sees a beekeeper:
"...he realized how the world would glow anew with a magical radiance if he should ever manage to see all the things that habit and routine had robbed him of speech in a fresh light."
What this last quote refers to is the Zen idea that when we are not in touch with the moment, when we overthink and become lost in analysis and interpretation, our thinking is not clear but deluded. It feeds on itself and carries us off into confusions and concerns that we create in our own mind.

At the end of the book, the searches have intertwined and come to a head during an apocalypticse disaster that befalls Amsterdam. The entire city seems to go crazy, while supernatural storms tear it apart. Fortunatus, although it's not really clear to me how it happens, reaches some sort of understanding with himself in the middle of this. At that moment, he begins to see two worlds at once. One is the 'real world' and the other seems to be ancient Egypt. The final achievement or enlightenment Fortunatus reaches appears to be the ability to exists in both worlds - the 'real' and the spiritual - at one time. In some way this may be Meyrink's ultimate message.

As such, The Green Face is about the search for spiritual truth, both as a story and as a guidebook. Unfortunately, things get a bit arcane in the last several chapters and I admit I lost some comprehension of where Meyrink was going.  Despite the sharp increase in mystical mumbo-jumbo though, the novel remains engaging due to his truly cinematic and Dantean descriptions of the unraveling of Amsterdam. So the novel kept my interest, but it definitely demands effort and thought in figuring out what it's all supposed to add up to.

I admit that The Green Face took some time for me to get through, and the characters often got a bit talky. On the other hand, part of what slowed me down was my interest in parsing out the thinking of the characters. I found it fairly interesting because this is one of the few novels I know of that mixes the supernatural with a fully modern philosophical vantage point. I found it an interesting read and worthwhile to dig into and ponder over, and I'll probably investigate other works by Meyrink in the future.

PS: There is a fantastic line in chapter two where Fortunatus' friend Baron Pfeill is on one of his many monologues. He characterizes spiritual scholars of the (then) present day as having "thrown away the kernel and kept the husk". Here are some other memorable lines:

  • "The feeble-minded think the flash is the important part of an explosion."
  • "The difference between one person and another is greater than that between a person and a stone."
  • "It is the ambiguity of language that separates us."
  • "What is right is always the opposite of what the herd does."
  • "I am not going to weedkill things in other people's gardens that won't die of their own accord, but in my own I can do as I like."
  • " is better to pick a bitter fruit of your own choice, than to take another's advice and find a sweet one that is too high on the tree."
  • "The valuable thing was not the completed painting, but the ability to paint."

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