[Here’s a tricky one: should I spell his last name “Buchner,” “Buechner,” or “Büchner” so as best to assist English-speaking people in finding the page?]

Hard to read this without thinking of the other masterpiece that followed it a century later, Hofmannsthal’s “The Lord Chandos Letter”. Just as Hofmannsthal sets the goals of modernism even as he posits their impossibilities, by portraying the greatness of the mind as he details the inability of the title character to articulate any of it, Buchner so sets the goals of romanticism, then shows the madness they lead to.

This isn’t the self-pity of Goethe’s unfortunate Sorrows of Young Werther. The main character, Lenz (a real playwright), is genuinely insane and suffering, and moves over the course of the story from revelation to agony and shutdown. It’s not clear that they are any different for him; his revelations have the same visceral force as the pain. He comes to be disgusted by all abstractions and ideas. It is only through the force of the emotionally apprehended that he can perceive the world. Lenz says:

“What I demand in all things is life, the potentiality of existence, and that’s that; we need not then ask whether it be beautiful or ugly, the feeling that whatever’s been created possesses life outweighs these two and should be the sole criterion in matters of art. As it is, we encounter it rarely, we find it in Shakespeare and it rings forth fully in folk songs, now and then in Goethe. Everything else can be tossed into the fire. These people can’t even draw a doghouse. They claim they want idealistic figures, but from what I’ve seen, they’re all just a bunch of wooden puppets. This idealism represents the most disgraceful contempt for human nature.”

Coming as it does in the middle of a mixture of fugue states, exhaustion, and eventually a total flip-out (before a return to functioning), Lenz seems quite touched, but this is his most coherent moment. Lenz wants an art of total mimesis, but why? There are two rationales that run through the story. First, Lenz has gone mad to the point where sensory impressions are overwhelming him, and ideas and abstractions lack “life.” Second, Lenz is struggling to get away from his own mind: he desires that he exist purely in the world of the noumenal, where his mind is no longer acting as an interpreter but as a passive observer. This abandonment of the self as rational adjudicator stands in the romantic tradition, but Lenz articulates it in an almost synaesthetic manner. The abstractions have become pinpricks on his mind because they throw him back to an interpretive state; the more he sees the world recreated by a person, the more he sees himself harmoniously integrated with the world.

By Hofmannsthal’s time, the abstractions have moved to the forefront of the real and Lord Chandos is trying to figure out how to get the thoughts into his mind out into the world through speech. This then mutates into the madness of Clarisse in The Man Without Qualities, where she is wholly romanced by ideas and removed from the physical world. Lenz’s madness seems more fundamental, less controllable, more native.

Yet Lenz’s cogency doesn’t last, and by the end of the story he has collapsed into fits. But he recovers. He doesn’t die or go completely insane, but simply soldiers on out of sight, representing an eternal and eternally tormented spirit, set upon by primordial sensitivities that set upon his brain, rather than emanate from it.