Georg Büchner, Complete Works and Letters (Continuum, 2003): “Danton’s Death,” pgs. 59 – 123

Does every country, at this point, have its own library of nationally-significant literature? I recently started collecting these German Library editions. And I’ve been collecting Library of America editions for years. Does France have something similar? Spain? Italy?

Georg Büchner is totally new to me. I heard a lecture by Arnold Weinstein on his unfinished play, Woyzeck, a work loosely based on the real murder of Christiane Woost and the beheading of her killer, Woyzeck himself. It’s a play that anticipates dramatists like Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett who, almost a hundred years after Büchner, lost faith in the moral certainties of their forebears. A modernist play well before the modernist moment.

The German Library edition of Büchner’s Complete Works and Letters includes “The Hessian Messenger,” “Danton’s Death,” “Lenz,” “Leonce and Lena,” and the unfinished “Woyzeck.” I did read “Woyzeck” as soon as the book arrived in the mail. It’s brilliant. But I’m going to read it again, now that I’ve started a read-through from the beginning.

I just read “Danton’s Death,” a play that looks to the French Revolution for parallels with the revolutionary impulses Büchner felt for the working classes of Hesse in the early nineteenth century. (For more background to the student uprisings, see the Carlsbad Decrees.) “Danton’s Death” is a kind of Platonic dialog: the moderate vs. the revolutionary. Danton is the former, Robespierre the latter.

The political arena does nothing for me. Just not my thing. And if “Danton’s Death” merely doubled as a political debate platform, I think I’d have skipped it. But there’s something much more human going on the play, something more revelatory than revolutionary. Büchner (who died when he was only twenty-three!) taps into the moral impasse of moderate self-interrogation: if I do this to avoid conflict vs doing that to avoid conflict, can I help everyone avoid conflict? No? Then why do anything? Why try? That’s Danton. But Robespierre, resolutely convinced of his rightness and moral superiority, doesn’t just fail to avoid conflict, he actively incites it. It’s all conflict in the end. In the end, it’s all bloodshed.

Danton says things like this:

We’ve tried everything, he seems to think. But there’s just no real knowing one another. No real connection to be made. We’re all just too different when it comes to the inner workings of the mind. Which means distance, which means division. Therefore, connection means nothing.

Then there’s Robespierre who reaches a similar conclusion by different means, though he doesn’t interpret the conclusion nihilistically. He sees Danton’s nothing as uninhabited real estate, vacancy for liberty’s return, a Genesis of sorts, whose despotic enforcement is worth whatever sacrifice:

It’s the old “might makes right” position. “Despotism of liberty against tyranny”—a chilling phrase, but goodness knows it sets the stage for so much history. I just can’t get over the fact that Büchner understood this at such a young age!

Robespierre puts his position even better here:

“I ask you now: should moral nature in it is revolutions be more considerate than physical nature? Should not an idea be permitted to destroy its opposition just as well as a law of physics? Should any event whatsoever that transforms the shape of moral nature—that is, humanity—not be permitted to shed blood? The world spirit makes use of our arms in the sphere of the intellect just as in the physical sphere it generates volcanic [see above!] eruptions or floods. What does it matter if men die from a plague or a revolution?” (93).

Interesting, this “plague or a revolution” scenario (isn’t it?), given current tensions in the U.S. The play ends in the title. No surprises there. But passages like the ones above—worth a lot of pondering.