Feb/Mar 2007

Comedy of Terrors

Friedrich Dürrenmatt satirized our grim century

Ross Benjamin


In his essay "Das Hirn" (The Brain), Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, an icon of postwar European literature, depicts the evolution of the universe as the thought process of a cosmic brain. At first, the brain contains nothing, its only sensation a feeling of utter emptiness. To fend off the dread of nothingness, it gradually begins to think. Little by little, it conceives of a reality external to itself. It envisions the origin of matter, the development of living organisms, the birth of humankind, and, ultimately, the whole unfolding of human history, up to the wrought-iron sign ARBEIT MACHT FREI over the entrance gate to Auschwitz. At this point, the conceit unravels. Such a place, Dürrenmatt maintains, could not have been "contrived or dreamed up by my assumed brain." Having imagined everything from the dawn of time to the twentieth century, thought has finally foundered on the unthinkable: "It's as if the place had conceived of itself. It just is. Meaningless, bottomless, incomprehensible."

Originally published in 1990, the year of Dürrenmatt's death, "The Brain" is included in Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Selected Writings, a new, three-volume compilation of the author's work. The story reveals a perspective that lies at the heart of his literary enterprise: In Dürrenmatt's view, the shocks and traumas of the twentieth century cannot be grasped by rational thought. Horrors like the Nazi death camps cast doubt on whether reason can govern human affairs. Though Dürrenmatt was far from the only postwar European writer whose confidence in human rationality was profoundly shaken by Auschwitz, he approached the problem differently from many of his German and French contemporaries, whose somber works were full of the anguish of catastrophe. Dürrenmatt sought to portray the implications of twentieth-century tragedies in a comic, satiric style. As he explains in his essay "Theaterprobleme" (Theater Problems, 1954), he considered comedy the mode of expression proper to "an unformed world, a world in embryo or in collapse, a world that is packing its bags, as ours is."

Born on January 5, 1921, in Konolfingen, a small town near the Swiss capital of Bern, Dürrenmatt was the son of a Protestant pastor. In 1941, he began his study of philosophy at the University of Zurich, only to break it off abruptly in 1943 when he decided to become a writer. From the mid-'50s onward, he attained worldwide fame for his plays—notably Der Besuch der alten Dame (The Visit, 1955) and Die Physiker (The Physicists, 1961), macabre comedies that reflected the bleakness and absurdity of the age. Though his short stories, detective novellas, and essays were highly regarded in Europe, he remained known in English-speaking countries primarily as a dramatist. When he died in 1990, just as the cold-war era that shaped his sensibility was coming to an end, much of his nondramatic work was still unavailable in English.

Selected Writings seeks to redress this deficit. Its three volumes, Plays, Fictions, and Essays, survey Dürrenmatt's oeuvre across genres, and each contains a substantive introduction. The translator, Joel Agee, deftly renders Dürrenmatt's meticulous prose, preserves his stylistic vibrancy and brilliance, and reproduces his feats of formal experimentation—most impressively in Der Auftrag (The Assignment, 1986), a fifty-page novella written in just twenty-four sentences stretched to the grammatical limit.

Spanning Dürrenmatt's career, the collection delivers the distinctive character of his work and his personality: deeply pessimistic, fiendishly comic, keenly astute, unreservedly experimental. The first volume opens with his best-known play, The Visit, which premiered in Zurich in 1956, was produced in England and America over the next two years, and continues to be regularly staged around the world today. The play exemplifies Dürrenmatt's tragicomic technique. It takes place in a fictitious Swiss town named Güllen, which means "liquid manure" in Swiss dialect. Once a thriving cultural center, the town is now mired in economic decline. As the play begins, the people of Güllen eagerly await the visit of Claire Zachanassian, who grew up in the town and has since become a billionaire. Her munificence could save the town from its ruin. Claire offers to donate a billion dollars, half to the town and half to its citizens, on one condition: Her former lover, Ill, must be executed for a youthful transgression—nearly fifty years ago, he betrayed and disgraced her by denying paternity of their child, driving her into poverty and a life of prostitution in Hamburg. Having escaped her abjection through a series of wealthy husbands, she now announces her intention to "buy justice."

At first, the townspeople, professing their commitment to Güllen's "humanist tradition," refuse her gruesome terms. "We are still in Europe," the mayor insists, "we're not savages yet." But soon Ill becomes disquieted by all the customers in his general store buying high-priced items on credit. Each day, more of the town's denizens are wearing shiny new yellow shoes, emblems of their ominously rising consumerism. As Güllen plunges into ever-deeper debt, Ill grasps that a horrible economic calculus spells his doom: "With every sign of prosperity," he states, he can feel "death creeping closer."

After the 1958 Broadway opening of the play, directed by Peter Brook, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson lauded it as a "bold, grisly drama of negativism," and it went on to win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Foreign Play. This disturbing portrait of a destitute town speculating on the murder of one of its inhabitants no doubt struck a chord with international audiences attempting to come to grips with the Nazi era. The German citizenry's embrace of Hitler's promises of prosperity for "Greater Germany" in the wake of economic collapse was the likely source of the play's pessimistic view of human nature. Those who had profited from the Nazi assault on the Jews had entered into a pact with inhumanity that resembled Claire's ghoulish bargain with the town: "Güllen for a murder, boom times for a corpse." Switzerland, which welcomed the spoils of Nazi plunder, was also implicated. The Visit was instantly recognized as an incisive allegory of collective guilt, for which Dürrenmatt was deservedly hailed as a major new presence in European letters.

The Physicists achieved comparable success. In 1964, Brook again directed the Broadway version, which also received an admiring review in the Times. A cold-war parable set in a madhouse, the play features three nuclear physicists who feign psychosis by adopting the personae of historical figures: Einstein, Newton, and a fellow who talks to King Solomon. This character is actually a scientist named Möbius who has discovered a "Unified Theory of Elementary Particles" and retreated to the insane asylum to safeguard his knowledge from a world where it would almost certainly unleash disaster. Einstein and Newton are, in fact, CIA and KGB adversaries vying for Möbius's papers, which he has already destroyed. Though the three physicists ultimately agree to save humanity by "faithfully keep[ing] the secrets of our science in our guise as fools," it turns out that the asylum director, Dr. von Zahnd, has copied Möbius's papers and plans to exploit his breakthrough to dominate the world. By the postapocalyptic end of the play, "the world has fallen into the hands of an insane psychiatrist" and her international cartel. Among the most chilling and unnervingly funny of Dürrenmatt's diagnoses of cold-war lunacies, The Physicists presciently invokes a peril lurking beyond the rivalry of the superpowers: the threat, so widely feared today, of stateless networks obtaining catastrophic weapons.

Less well known than The Visit and The Physicists, the other plays in Selected Writings similarly explore the possibilities of satire to express the guilt and anxiety of the time. Herkules und der Stall des Augias (Hercules and the Augean Stables, 1962), for example, is a hilarious farce about a town literally bogged down in bureaucracy: Its rising dung heaps threaten to submerge it completely, and the legendary Hercules, appointed chief dung remover, finds himself incapacitated by an endless process of applying for permits from labyrinthine departments and contending with warring commissions that oversee the "mucking-out." The town's downfall—how it ends up literally in deep shit—is its bureaucratic politics, in which "it is never too late, but always too soon." Undoubtedly, Dürrenmatt aimed this parody at Switzerland, but his pointed critique of administrative culture makes Hercules and the Augean Stables a modern fable of broader significance, akin—as is so much else that he wrote—to Kafka's parables.

A motif in the plays, most prominently displayed in The Visit, is the perversion of justice, a preoccupation of Dürrenmatt's career. In his short fiction, too, he wrestles with this theme. The second volume of Selected Writings presents an exhilarating range of imaginative variations on how the ideals of justice get turned on their heads and how humanity's willful efforts to improve its lot backfire. Wielded by human hands, justice all too often turns into its opposite. Dürrenmatt's characteristic technique is to augment this paradox to grotesque proportions for comic effect, thereby rendering it all the more tragic.

One of Dürrenmatt's earliest and shortest stories, "Die Wurst" (The Sausage, 1943), provides the template for his later fictional investigations into the ambiguities of justice. In less than two pages, composed entirely of terse, declarative sentences, "The Sausage" describes a courtroom scene in which a man who murdered his wife and turned her into sausages faces the "supreme judge of the land." One of the sausages lies on a plate before the judge. After the man is condemned, his last request is to consume the final remains of his wife. But when the judge produces the plate, the sausage is gone. The sharp line between the judge and the accused has been effaced, thus transforming the world into "an enormous question mark."

Dürrenmatt's most stunningly realized allegory of justice gone awry is his novella Traps, titled Die Panne (The Breakdown) in German, published in 1956. Stranded when his car breaks down, Alfredo Traps, a traveling salesman, finds lodging for the night in a private house, where he meets four old men. They are retirees from the courts: a former defense attorney, prosecutor, judge, and executioner. Over a lavish dinner, the old men draw him into a curious game, putting him on trial for an unspecified crime. Voraciously eating and drinking, they pursue his case with an eerie, gleeful intensity. As their revelry mounts, the trial takes on an inexorable momentum. Traps marvels as the prosecutor adroitly makes a chain of seemingly random events in his life, which culminated in the fatal heart attack of his boss, appear to be the diabolical unfolding of his own sinister intent—an intent so subtle it was unknown even to the perpetrator. Ultimately, he is found guilty of murdering his boss and sentenced to death, provoking an outburst of festive mirth that Dürrenmatt describes with humorously amplified, dramatic strokes.

Far from troubled by the prosecutor's tortuous argumentation or his dinner companions' archaic sense of justice, Traps is struck by an epiphany that illuminates his world with "the pure ray of justice." He perceives the verdict as a revelation of divine justice, which possesses "the beautiful logic of art." Enraptured by his vision of absolute order—otherwise absent in the modern world of senseless accidents, technical failures, automotive breakdowns—Traps blissfully carries out his death sentence by hanging himself, whereupon the old men are perplexed and dismayed that he has taken their game too seriously and thereby ruined their lovely gathering.

At the outset of the story, Dürrenmatt evokes what lies behind the elation that impels Traps to suicide. In the modern era, he writes, "it is no longer a God who threatens us with divine justice, no fate knocks on the door as in the Fifth Symphony," but instead the future of the world hangs on "a screw coming loose, a spring getting caught, a keyboard malfunctioning, apocalypse by a short circuit, a technical snafu." Thus, a form of salvation can arise when "an ordinary mishap unintentionally widens into universality, and judgment and justice come into view, maybe grace as well, accidentally caught and reflected in the monocle of a drunken man." Undoubtedly, however, this reflection is distorted.

In light of Dürrenmatt's obsession with the breakdown of justice, it might seem incongruous that he wrote detective fiction, in which the triumph of justice, the catching of the culprit, traditionally belongs to the logic of the plot. But Dürrenmatt delighted in subverting the conventional artifice of detective stories, a strategy most effectively implemented in his decidedly unconventional novella Das Versprechen (The Pledge, 1958), aptly subtitled Requiem auf den Kriminalroman (Requiem for the Detective Novel). To catch a murderer who preys on young girls, the detective sets a trap, using a child as bait. But on his way to falling into the detective's clutches, the murderer is killed in a traffic accident. Dürrenmatt sets up this turn of events with a framing device in which the whole story is told to the detective by the chief of police so as to expose the deceptions perpetrated by mystery writers: "You set up your stories logically, like a chess game: here's the criminal, there's the victim, here's an accomplice, there's a beneficiary; and all the detective needs to know is the rules, he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed. . . . You don't try to grapple with a reality that keeps eluding us, you just set up a world that can be managed. That world may be perfect, but it's a lie." In The Pledge, incalculable chance disrupts the rules of the detective narrative, throwing the plot's steady advancement toward justice off course.

Dürrenmatt's essays in the third volume of Selected Writings exhibit his deep engagement with the problem of justice in the social and political world. Several are based on his spoken addresses or were originally published in German newspapers such as Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, testifying to his role as a public intellectual. By the time he launched his literary career, the historic events that were to leave the most lasting imprint on his work had already occurred: World War II, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the rise of the Soviet and American superpowers, and the start of the nuclear standoff. Rather than adopting a pretense of isolation from these sweeping developments as some of his fellow Swiss were inclined to do, he placed them at the forefront of his literary, philosophical, and political thinking. In his political essays—most stridently in "Die Schweiz—ein Gefängnis" (Switzerland—A Prison), a speech that he delivered in 1990 for Václav Havel—he assumed an adversarial stance toward the Swiss myth of neutrality, blasting it as a form of hypocrisy, a provincial mentality, and a veil for capitalist opportunism. Switzerland's role in World War II provoked his disenchantment: It had sold arms to the Nazis, opened its banks to assets looted from the Jews, turned away countless Jewish refugees, and provided unlimited rail transport for supplies flowing between Germany and Italy.

Dürrenmatt's grasp of the irony inherent in Switzerland's neutrality—namely that, in order to maintain its existence as an island of freedom in fascist Europe, it had to cooperate with the Axis countries, to "work for Hitler"—was formative in his use of irony as a literary device. It reverberated in his parables of how ideals often come at a price that threatens to upend them, of how abstract moral edifices, when transplanted into reality, warp and buckle. This perspective informed his condemnations of the Soviet Union as much as it made him skeptical toward the United States. In essays like "Monstervortrag" (Monster Lecture on Justice and Law, 1969), "Sätze aus Amerika" (Sentences from America, 1970), and "Auto- und Eisenbahnstaaten" (Automobile and Railroad Nations, 1987), he spins elaborate metaphors for the cold-war dichotomy—involving wolves and shepherds, cancer and arteriosclerosis, traffic police and train fares—to show how both poles can lead to dogmatism, oppression, and disaster. For all his alienation from his native land, Dürrenmatt also believed that his position as a Swiss writer provided a useful critical vantage on the dual superpowers.

Dürrenmatt's dramas, stories, and essays have much in common, revealing his signature techniques and ongoing concerns. Above all a captivating storyteller, he instilled everything he wrote with rebellious spirit and gallows humor. He adhered almost invariably to his principle that "a story has been thought to its conclusion when it has taken the worst possible turn." En route to catastrophe, his works abound in craftily sprung surprises, painstaking depictions of the collapse of order, and madcap displays of logic pursued to its illogical extremes.

The most fitting term for Dürrenmatt's art is probably the "tragic grotesque," a category he invented. He defined it in "Switzerland—A Prison" as "an expression of the paradoxical, indeed nonsensical, state of affairs" that arises from the human tendency to make "everything into a paradox; meaning turns into absurdity, justice into injustice, freedom into bondage, because man himself is a paradox, an irrational rationality." If this language echoes Orwell's, so too does Dürrenmatt's suggestion that his understanding of humanity's paradoxical nature emerges from the self-betrayal of twentieth-century utopias. How else could "an essentially rational idea like communism," which he considered the most equitable social order imaginable, bring about such glaring injustice? In "Theater Problems," he explains that he deploys paradox and grotesquerie not just as stylistic devices but also as responses to the world. Dürrenmatt's allegories of the twentieth century also convey a more timeless experience that the century made devastatingly palpable: the experience of human ideals shipwrecked on the shoals of human reality.

Ross Benjamin is a translator of German literature and a writer living in Brooklyn. Currently, he is working on a translation of Hyperion by Friedrich Hölderlin, to be published in fall 2007 by Archipelago Books.

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