Speech for His Fiftieth Birthday

Vienna, November 1936 

There is something fine and meaningful about using a man's fiftieth birthday to address him in public, to tear him almost violently from the dense network of his life and present him-heightened and visible on all sides and to all onlookers--as though he were all alone, condemned to a stony and unchangeable solitude, even though the actual, the secret solitude of his life, mellow and humble as it is, has certainly caused him sufficient pain. It is as though this address were saying to him: Don't be afraid, you have been afraid enough for us . . We all have to die; but it is still not certain whether you too have to die. Perhaps your very words are what must represent us to posterity. You have served us with loyalty and honesty. The age will not release you.
To give these words their full effect, like a spell, the seal of fifty years is pressed upon them. For, in our thinking, the past is divided into centuries; there is room for nothing next to the centuries. To the extent that men may care about the vast context of their memory, they stuff everything they consider important and peculiar into the sack of the centuries. The very word designating those periods has gained a venerable overtone. As though using a mysterious sacerdotal language, people speak of the secular. The magical power that earlier, primitive nations gave to more modest numbers, three, four, five, seven, has now been transfered to the saeculum. Why, even the many people who romp and frolic in the past to rediscover their dissatisfaction with the present, these people who are filled with the bitterness of all known centuries-they like to demarcate the dreamt-of future in better centuries.
There can be no doubt: a century is exactly big enough for human desire. For if a man is very lucky, he will grow that old. It does happen now and then, but it is unlikely. The few who have really managed to achieve it are surrounded with amazement and many stories. Old chronicles will quite studiously list them by name and station. They receive even more attention than the rich. The fierce desire to conquer that much life may have raised the century to a high rank after the introduction of the decimal system.
Time, however, which celebrates its fifty-year-old, meets him half way. It hands him over to later people, as worth preserving. It makes him, perhaps against his will, distinctly visible in the scattered host of the few who existed more for them than for themselves. It enjoys the round height to which it has raised him, and links this to a quiet hope: perhaps he, who cannot lie, has seen a Promised Land, and perhaps he will speak about it, time would believe him.
Today, Hermann Broch is standing 'on that height, and so, to speak frankly, let us dare to maintain that we can honor him as one of the very few representative writers of our time. This statement would carry its full weight only if I could list the many who are not great writers even though they are regarded as such. But more important than this job of executioner is, I think, finding the characteristics that must lie close together in a great writer for us to consider him representative of his time. If we embark conscientiously on this enterprise, we will not come upon any convenient, much less harmonious picture.
The utter and dreadful tension in which we live, and from which none of the yearned-for thunderstorms can redeem us, has seized hold of all spheres, even the freer and purer sphere of astonishment. Indeed, if we had to sum up our time very briefly, we would have to describe it as one in which we can be amazed at the most contrasting things: For instance at a book that has been affecting us for thousands of years, and also at the fact that not all books can affect us any longer. At the faith in gods and also at the fact that we do not kneel down to new gods every hour. At the sexuality we are afflicted with and also at the fact that this split does not reach any deeper. At death, which we do not wish, and also at the fact that we do not already die in the womb, out of grief over coming things. Astonishment used to be the mirror people would talk about, the mirror that brought phenomena to a smoother and calmer surface. Today, this mirror is shattered, and the splinters of astonishment have become small. But no phenomenon is reflected by itself in even the tiniest splinter. Ruthlessly, each phenomenon pulls its opposite along. Whatever you see and how little you see, it cancels itself out when you see it.
Thus we will not expect the poet to be any different from the tortured gravel of everyday life when we try to capture him in that mirror. From the very start, we oppose the widespread erroneous idea that a great writer is above his time. No one is, in himself, above his time. Those who are above it all simply do not exist. They may live in ancient Greece or among some barbarians. Let them; many blind-nesses are part of being so far away, and no one can be denied the right to close off all his senses. But such a man is not above us, merely above the sum of memory-the memory of ancient Greece, for example--that we carry inside us. He is, so to speak, an experimental cultural historian, ingeniously testing on himself what must be correct according to his reliable report. The man above it all is even more powerless than the experimental physicist, who merely busies himself in one part of his discipline but always retains the possibility of verification. The man above it all makes more than a scientific claim, he makes a downright cultic claim. Usually, he is not even the founder of a sect, he is a priest for himself alone; he celebrates himself for himself alone, he is the only believer.
However, the true writer, as we see him, is the thrall of his time, its serf and bondsman, its lowest slave. He is fettered to it on a short, unbreakable chain, shackled to it as tight as can be. His lack of freedom must be so great that he could not be transplanted anywhere else. In fact, if it did not sound a bit ludicrous, I would simply say: he is the dog of his time. He runs across its grounds, stops here and there; seemingly at random, yet tireless, receptive to whistles from above, but not always, easily roused to a fury, harder to call back, driven by some inexplicable viciousness. Indeed, he sticks his damp nose into everything, nothing is left out, he also returns, he starts all over again, he is insatiable. Otherwise, he sleeps and eats, bur that does not distinguish him from other creatures. What distinguishes him is the uncanny persistence in his vice, that heartfelt and thorough enjoyment, interrupted by running. He never gets enough, and likewise, he never gets it fast enough; why, it is as though he had learned to run especially for the vice of his nose.
I ask you to excuse me for an image that must seem highly unworthy of the topic at hand. But there are three attributes suitable for the representative writer of this age, and my aim is to top them with the one attribute that is never talked about, the one from which the others take their start, the very concrete and peculiar vice, which I demand for him, without which he would be like a dismal premature baby, very arduously nursed for something that he never really becomes.
This vice connects the writer as immediately to his environment as the nose connects the dog to his preserve. The vice is different in each writer, unique and new in the new situation of the age. It should not be confused with the normal cooperation of the senses, which all people have anyway. On the contrary, a disbalance in this cooperation, for instance the failure of anyone sense or the overdevelopment of another can trigger the formation of the necessary vice. It is always recognizable, vehement, and primitive. It expresses itself clearly in the shape and the physiognomy. The writer who allows himself to be obsessed by it owes it the essentials of his experience.
Even the problem of originality, which has been more fought about than talked about, has a different light shed upon it. Originality, as we all know, must not be demanded. The man who wants to have it will never have it. And the conceited and well-contrived clowneries that some people have served up in order to count as original are certainly still in our embarrassed memories. However, there is a huge step from the rejection of straining for originality to the awkward claim that a writer does not have to be original. A writer is original, or he is not a writer. He is original in a very deep and simple way, through that which we have called his vice. He is so original that he does not even realize it. His vice drives him to exhaust the world, something that no one else could de for him. Immediacy and inexhaustibility, the two characteristics that people have always demanded of the genius and that he always has, are the offspring of this vice. We will have an opportunity to test a case and to see what kind of vice there is in Broch.
The second characteristic that one must demand of the representative writer today is an earnest desire to sum up his age, an urge for universality, un-intimidated by any single task, ignoring nothing, forgetting nothing, omitting nothing, making nothing easy for himself.
Broch himself has dealt thoroughly and repeatedly with this universalness. Even more: one may say that his creative will was actually kindled by the demand for universality. At first, and for long years, a man of rigorous philosophy, he did not permit himself to truly take seriously what a writer accomplishes. Too many concrete and isolated things seemed to be there, piecework and subterfuge, the whole was never present. Philosophy, at the moment he began philosophizing, sometimes still indulged in its old demand for universality, timidly to be sure, for this demand was long out of date. But having a magnanimous mind, oriented towards all infinite things, Broch was willingly taken in by this demand. It was joined by the deep impression made on him by the universal intellectual and spiritual closure of the Middle Ages, an impression that he has never fully shaken off. He feels that a closed intellectual value-system existed in that period. And he has devoted much of his life to investigating the "decay of values," which, for him, began in the Renaissance, reaching its catastrophic end with the World War.
During this work, the creative writer gradually got the upper hand in him. On close inspection, his first comprehensive opus, the trilogy of novels entitled The Sleepwalkers is the literary realization of his philosophy of history, though limited to his own period, 1888-1918. The "decay of values" materializes in distinct and highly literary figures. One cannot help feeling that their full validity, even occasional ambivalence arose against the author's will or at least with his embarrassed reluctance. It will always be strange to see that here a man tried to conceal what was his very own under a mountain of acquired thought.
With The Sleepwalkers, Broch found a possibility for universalness where he least expected it, in the piecework and subterfuge of the novel, and he talks about this in various places: "The novel has to be the mirror of all other images of the world," he once said. "The literary work must, in its unity, embrace the entire world." Or: "The modern novel has become poly-historical." Or: "Creative writing is always an impatience of knowledge." His new insight is probably formulated most clearly in his speech "James Joyce and the Present":
Philosophy itself terminated its age of universality, the age of the great compendiums; it had to remove its most urgent questions from its logical space or, as Wittgenstein says, expel them into mysticism. And this is the point at which the mission of literature begins, the mission of a knowledge that embraces totality, that remains beyond any empirical or social contingency, and that is indifferent to whether man lives in a feudal, a bourgeois, or a proletarian age--the duty of literature to the absoluteness of knowledge per se. The third demand one has to make on a writer would be that he stand against his time. Against his entire time, not merely against this or that; against the comprehensive and unified image that he alone has of his time, against its specific smell, against its face, against its law. His opposition should be loud and take shape; he cannot simply freeze or silently resign himself. He has to kick and scream like an infant; but no milk of the world, not even from the kindest breast, may quench his opposition and lull him to sleep. He may wish for sleep, but he must never attain it. If he forgets his opposition, he has become an apostate, the way an entire nation abandoned its god in earlier, religious times. This is a cruel and radical demand, cruel in its so powerful contrast to all that came earlier. For the writer is in no wise a hero who ought to overcome and subjugate his time. On the contrary, we saw that he is its thrall, its lowest slave, its dog. And this selfsame dog, running after his nose all his life, an epicure and meek victim, a sensualist and consumed prey at once, this same creature should, in the same breath, be against all that, oppose himself and his vice, never being freed of it, keeping on and waxing indignant and knowing about his own dichotomy to boot! It is a cruel demand, truly, and it is as cruel and radical as death itself. For this demand evolves from the fact of death. Death is the first and oldest, one would even be tempted to say: the only fact. It is of a monstrous age and yet new every hour. Its degree of hardness is ten, and it also cuts like a diamond. It has the absolute cold of outer space, minus 273°. It has the wind speed of a hurricane, the highest. It is the very real superlative, of everything; but it is not infinite, for it is reached by every path. So long as death exists, any utterance is an utterance against it. So long as death exists, any light is a will-of-the-wisp, for it leads to it. So long as death exists, no beauty is beautiful, no goodness is good. The attempts at coming to terms with death (and what else are the religions?) have all failed. The realization that there is nothing after death--a dreadful and fully inexhaustible realization-has shed a new and desperate holiness on life. The writer who, by virtue of what we, a bit summarily, have called his vice, is able to take part in many lives must also take part in all the deaths that threaten those lives. His own fear (and who is not afraid of death?) must become everybody's fear of death. His own hatred (and who does not hate death?) must become everybody's hatred of death. This and nothing else is his opposition to the time, which is filled with myriad deaths. Thus, a legacy of religion has fallen to the writer's lot, and certainly the best part of the legacy. He has no small number of legacies to carry-Philosophy, as we have seen, has willed him its demand for a universalness of knowledge; religion has willed him the settled problems of death. Life itself, life as it was prior to all religion and philosophy, animal life unaware of itself or its end, gave him, in the concentrated and happily channeled form of passion, his insatiable greed. It will now be our task to investigate the makeup of these legacies in a single man, in Hermann Broch. Only their togetherness gives them meaning, after all. Their harmony is what makes him representative. The very concrete passion with which he is possessed must offer him the material that he composes into a universal and binding picture of his time. His very concrete passion must, however, in each one of its vibrations, also reveal death, naturally and unambiguously. For that is how it nourishes the incessant and relentless opposition to the time, which mollycoddles death. Permit me now to change the topic to something that will hence-forth occupy us almost exclusively: air. It may astonish you to hear about something so very ordinary. You expect something about the peculiarity of our writer, about the vice he addicted to, his terrible passion. You expect something embarrassing behind it, or, insofar as you are more trusting, at least something very mysterious. I have to disappoint you. Broch's vice is quite an ordinary thing, more ordinary than smoking, drinking, or cards, for it is older. Broch's vice is: breathing. He passionately loves to breathe, and he never breathes enough. He has an unmistakable way of sitting about, no matter where; seemingly absent, because he seldom and unwillingly responds with the normal means of language; actually present like no other man, for he is always concentrated on the wholeness of the space he finds himself in, on a kind of atmospheric unity. Thus, it is not enough to know that there is a stove here and a closet there; to hear what one man says and what the other sensibly answers, as though the two of them had harmoniously discussed it beforehand. Nor is it enough to register the passage and the extent of time, when one man comes, when another stands up, whe9 the third leaves; the clocks can t~e care of that for us. There is far more to sense wherever people are together in a room and are breathing. After all, the room can be full of good air and the windows open. It may have rained. The stove may be spreading warm air, and this warmth may reach the people unequally. The closet may have been shut for a good while; the different air, suddenly pouring from it now that it's opened, may change the people's behavior towards one another. They speak, certainly; and they have things to say; but they form their words out of air and, by speaking them, they suddenly fill the room with new and strange vibrations, catastrophic changes in the earlier status. And time, true mental time, is the last thing in the world to go by the clock; it is actually and to a very great extent a function of the atmosphere in which it passes. Hence, it is awfully difficult to even approximate when someone really entered, when someone else stood up, and when the third really left. Of course, all this sounds very simple-minded, and an experienced master like Broch can smile at such examples. But I only mean to indicate how essential these things have become for him, all the things belonging to his breath metabolism. I mean to indicate how he made the atmospheric conditions all his own, so that, for him, they often stand directly for the relations between people. How he hears by breathing, how he touches by breathing, how he subordinates all his senses to his sense of breathing. And thus he occasionally seems like a big, beautiful bird whose wings have been clipped but whose freedom is otherwise intact. Instead of cruelly locking him in a single cage, his tormentors have opened all the cages in the world to him. He is still driven by the insatiable air-hunger of that fast, exalted time; to sate it, he dashes from cage to cage. From each he takes a sample of air, which fills him and he carries it away. Previously, he was a dangerous predator; in his hunger, he pounced upon any living thing; now, air is the only prey he lusts for. He stays nowhere long; as swiftly as he comes, he leaves. He eludes the actual masters and inmates of the cages. He knows that even after all the cages in the world, he will never gather all the air he had before. He always keeps his yearning for that great coherence, the freedom over all cages. Thus he remains the big, beautiful bird he once was, recognizable to others by the air fragments he gets from them, recognizable to himself by his restlessness.
But the matter isn't settled for Broch with the hunger for air and the frequent change of breathing-space. His abilities go further; he carefully retains what he has acquired by breathing; he retains it in the unique, precisely experienced form. And no matter how many new and perhaps more powerful things may come along, the danger of mixing atmospheric impressions---something quite natural for the rest of us-never exists with him. Nothing is blurred for him, nothing loses its clarity. His is a rich and well-ordered experience in breathing-spaces. It is his wish to make use of this experience. One must therefore assume that Broch is gifted with something that I can only call a memory for breath. Next comes the question of what this breath-memory really is, how it works, and where it has its seat. I will be asked this question and I will have nothing precise to answer. And, at the risk of being scorned as a bungler by the appropriate science, I must point to certain otherwise inexplicable effects as demonstrating the existence of such a breath-memory. To make its scorn not so easy for that science, one would have to remind it how far Western civilization has drifted from all the more subtle problems of breathing and its experience. The oldest exact, nay, almost experimental psychology that we know of-which rightfully ought to be called a psychology of self-observation and inner experience-an achievement of India, had this very area as its subject. Science, that parvenu of mankind, has enriched itself shamelessly and at everyone's expense during the past few centuries. And one cannot be amazed enough that in the area of breathing, science has forgotten what was once, as we all know, the daily practice of countless adepts in India. Of course, in Broch too, an unconscious technique is involved, facilitating his grasp, retention, and ultimate processing of atmospheric impressions. The naive observer can probably notice certain things in him that are connected to that technique. For instance, conversations with him have a very peculiar and unforgettable punctuation. He tends not to answer yes or no, that might be too violent a caesura. He arbitrarily divides the other person's speech into apparently meaningless sections. They are designated by a characteristic sound, which one would have to faithfully render with a phonograph, and which is taken as agreement by the other person, but actually only indicates the registration of what is said. One scarcely ever hears a negative. The other speaker is grasped not so much in the way he thinks and speaks; Brach is far more interested in finding out in what specific way the man makes the air shake. He himself yields little breath and, when reticent with words, he seems obstinate and absent. But let us leave these personal matters, which would require a more thorough treatment to be of any real value. Let us, instead, ask ourselves what Broch undertakes in his art with his rich store of breathing experience. Does it give him the possibility of expressing something that could not otherwise be expressed? Does an art drawing upon it offer a new and different picture of the world? Indeed, can we actually conceive of a literature that stems from the experience of breathing? And what means does it employ in the medium of the word? We would have to reply, above all, that the multiplicity in our world consists to a large extent in the multiplicity of our breathing-spaces. The room you are sitting in here, in a very definite arrangement, almost totally cut off from the world around us, the way each person's breath mixes into an air common to all of you and then collides with my words, the noises disturbing you, and the silence into which these noises relapse, your suppressed movements, rebuff or agreement--all those things, from the breather's standpoint, are a totally unique, unrepeatable, self-contained, and precisely delimited situation. But then, go a few steps further and you will find the completely different situation of another breathing-space, in a kitchen perhaps or a bedroom, in a pub, in a tram, whereby we always have to think of a concrete and unrepeatable constellation of breathing beings in a kitchen, bedroom, pub, or tram. The big city is as full of such breathing-spaces as of individual people. Now none of these people is like the next, each is a kind of cul-de-sac; and just as their splintering makes up the chief attraction and chief distress of life, so too one could also lament the splintering of the atmosphere. The diversity in the world, its individual splintering, the true material of artistic creation, is thus also a given for the breathing man. To what extent was earlier art aware of this?
One cannot say that the atmospheric was neglected in the older contemplation of human beings. The winds are among the most ancient figures in myth. Every nation paid heed to them; few spirits or gods are as popular as they. The oracles of the Chinese were very much oriented by the winds. Storms, tempests, tornadoes are basic plot elements in. the earliest heroic epics. They are a recurrent prop later as well and even today; they of all things are popularly brought out from the lumber rooms of kitsch. A science coming on today with a very serious claim, for it makes forecasts, i.e. meteorology, deals to a great extent with the currents of the air. But all this is basically very rough, for the crux in all these things is always the dynamic quality of the atmosphere, the changes that nearly kill us, murder and manslaughter in the air, great cold, great heat, furious velocities, raging records.
Imagine if modern painting consisted merely in a gross and simple depiction of the sun or a rainbow! The feeling of an unparallelled barbarism would seize us in front of such pictures. We would want to punch holes in them. They would be altogether worthless. One would absolutely deny them the attribute "painting." For a long practice has taught people to draw on the diversity and changeability of colors as they experience them in order to abstract static, closed surface-works, endlessly refined in their repose--surface-works that they call pictures.
The literature of the atmospheric as a static thing is only just beginning its development. The static breathing-space has scarcely been treated. Let us call that which ought to be created here a "breath-picture" in contrast to the painter's color-picture. And let us presume, given the deep relationship between breath and speech, that language is an appropriate medium for achieving the breath-picture. We also have to realize that Hermann Broch is the founder of this new art, its first conscious representative, who has likewise succeeded in making the classic model of his genre. One has to use the adjectives "classical" and "grand" for "The Homecoming," a tale of some thirty pages about a man arriving in a city, coming out to its railroad station square, and renting a room in the home of an old woman and her daughter. That is the content in terms of the old narrative art, the plot. But what is actually depicted are the square and the old lady's home. Broch's technique here is as new as it is perfect. Its study would require a whole treatise, and since it would have to be very detailed, it would certainly be out of place here.
His characters are not prisons for him. He floats away from them often. He has to float away from them; but he remains near them much of the time. They are bedded in air, he has breathed for them. His caution is timidity towards his own breathing, which affects the repose of others.
Yet his sensitivity also separates him from the people of his time, who, all in all, dwell in an illusion of security. Now, they too are not exactly insensitive. The sum total of sensitivity in culture has become very great. Yet this sensitivity too, odd as it may seem, has its orderly and unshakable tradition. It is determined by the things one already knows well. Tortures that have come down to us, which have been told about frequently, and told about in the same way as those of the martyrs for instance, arouse our deepest loathing. The effect of the stories and pictures is so powerful that whole ages have gotten the stamp of cruelty impressed on them. Thus, for the huge majority of readers and writers, the Middle Ages was the time of tortures, of witch burnings. Even the authentic information that the witch-hunts were actually the invention and practice of a later period can do little to change that notion. The average man thinks back to the Middle Ages with horror, he pictures the carefully preserved execution tower in a medieval town, which he has visited-perhaps on his honeymoon. The average man feels all in all, more horror for the remote Middle Ages than for the World War, which he has experienced personally. One can sum up this insight in a single shattering sentence:
Today it would be harder to condemn one man publicly to be burnt at the stake than to unleash a world war.
Thus, people are defenseless only when they have no experience or memory. New dangers may loom as vast as they like, but people will be only poorly and at most outwardly prepared. However, the greatest of all dangers ever to emerge in the history of mankind has chosen our generation as its victim.
It is the defenselessness of breathing, which I would like to talk about in conclusion. One can hardly form too great a notion of it. To nothing is man so open as to air. He moves in it as Adam did in Paradise, pure and innocent and unaware of any evil beasts. Air is the last common property. It belongs to all people collectively. It is not doled out in advance, even the poorest may partake of it. And if a man should starve to death, then at least he has breathed until the end-small as that comfort may be.
And this last thing, which has belonged to all of us collectively, shall poison all of us collectively. We know it, but we do not yet sense it, for breathing is not our art.
Hermann Broch's work stands between war and war, gas war and gas war. It could be that he still somewhere feels the poisonous particles of the last war. But that is unlikely. What is certain, however, is that he, who knows how to breathe better than we do, is already choking on the gas that shall claim our breath-who knows when!