Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss (Joel Rotenberg, trans.). Archipelago Books. 560pp, $17.00.
In the highly politicized culture we’ve been experiencing lately, I am constantly amazed at how our media gurus’ rabid discourse rarely involves such seemingly old-fashioned notions as facts. Facts seem an archaic holdover from a bygone era, today’s weapon of choice being emotion, the more boiling over, the more impassioned and emboldened, the better. I guess this is a natural extension of the way in which statistics—with the appearance of objectivity—can be absorbed and shaped into any political discourse to prove just about anything. Though facts are the core of science, we, in some ways, have science to thank for their devaluing. That, coupled with the media’s tendency to prefer easy, black-and-white answers and distortions, means that facts are no longer necessarily a weapon in the fight for truth (or life’s questions, or however one wants to frame it).
This is a problem that a recently translated book by a long-dead, German-speaking Jew has quite a lot to say about. As said German-speaking Jew Ernst Weiss himself states in the foreword to his novel Georg Letham:
The profound, truly disastrous disorder and futility of nature and the world—what in the scientific realm we call the pathological, in the moral realm the criminal—these are constant, they will always be with us no matter what the future brings. . . . But it is only the thinking man who must watch all this with awareness and understanding, and that is why he is to be pitied. . . . Nations are as mindless as individuals. . . . If only one could at least believe in a transcendent order, find a big idea to hang on to, call it Jesus Christ or love of country or—science!
Contemporary readers can absorb this with a bit of sceptical irony, given our complex relationship with science and reason, passion and emotion, and how the two seem diametrically opposed and yet inextricably linked in today’s hyper-politicized world. No, the political debates today don’t really center around left vs right, liberal vs conservative, as pundits and politicians would like us to believe. The real debate centers around those who want facts (i.e., science) to influence the choices we make and those who choose some alternative system (i.e., Jesus or capitalism, or ideological fervor generally) to answer our questions. It’s a debate that would have puzzled writers 50 years ago, Weiss no less.
Ernst Weiss, born in 1882 in Brno (now the Czech Republic), was a contemporary (and close friend) of Kafka. A medical doctor by training, Weiss published his novel Georg Letham in 1931, exploring the space in the vast chasm between scientific reason and human emotion. Letham is a man of science, a detached, intelligent, and controlled man of his time. Or so he’d like us to think. We are told early on of his crimes and his attempt at understanding his rationale so that he might justify his actions. Yet he is cruel and cold. He is disconnected from human life in any emotional way.
In the first sentence we are told that he has murdered his wife for money—instantly, there is a disconnect between reason and passion. He proceeds to detail the crime, trying to convince himself of his moral detachment from it, believing in his intellectual justifications even when they fly in the face of the facts he himself details: that he killed his wife in a moment of passion, that her murder was unplanned (though he had been fantasizing about it), that this lack of planning leads to his arrest and conviction. It’s quite clear that rage—not intellect—was the driving force behind the murder, despite what Letham tells us. The tension in this novel centers around Letham’s attempt to get at a scientific explanation of his crime, even though he is not in control of his emotional life. It’s a complex situation for the author: describing the crime factually, using a first-person narrator who is a scientist and wants to lend the veneer of scientific objectivity to a crime that is a result of passion.
After being found guilty of murder Letham is sentenced to a life of hard labor in a penal colony, C., and a large section of the novel details the journey by ship to the yellow fever–infested jungle in (most likely) South America. In a particularly galling aside early on we get a brief snapshot of the extent to which Letham is willing to delude himself:
Wretched as we are, a good many here within the guard cordon are proud not to be like all the rest out there. We broke through the cordon once. That happy accident must have been quite uncommon. Otherwise would we be made to pay for it so dearly?
This could be a common enough sentiment for a convicted criminal—that he has chosen a path that most would not—but Letham adds another layer to this delusion: somehow his is a scientific choice:
Satisfaction of the scientific impulse can also afford exceptional happiness, of which the good citizens and officers can have no notion. But, of course, that happiness is not to be had for nothing, either.
In C., the battle raging inside Letham begins to take shape. Yellow fever is strangling the colony, and everywhere people are either dying of it or terrified of contracting the disease. As in many books of the day where disease takes on social significance (like Mann’s The Magic Mountain, with its tuberculosis-ridden sanatorium), yellow fever seems to represent all that is sick in human society itself. Despite his attempt at remaining scientifically detached, Letham’s descriptions of patients dying of the disease are macabre, terrifying, and riddled with emotional involvement and subjectivity. Indeed, these are some of the most vivid and horrifying descriptions of disease I have ever read, and they betray that Letham’s veneer of objectivity cannot stand in the face of true suffering and anguish.
During the passage to C., Letham is quartered with a young homosexual man whom Letham is fascinated with. The young man falls in love with Letham, though the protagonist doesn’t return his affection, and one senses that Letham’s ability to connect in any normal way to a human relationship is severely damaged. This sense is both underscored and challenged later when Letham falls in love with a 14-year-old creole girl , who is ill with yellow fever on C. In the face of her impending death, it is this relationship that causes Letham to make a breakthrough:
My innermost feelings are now responding for the first time since the death of my wife, I am speaking of the only being toward whom I have felt what I have heard described as “love.” Ill-fated love? I don’t know. So positive a feeling as love can never be ill-fated, if it is genuine. Such an enormous test of the human heart can never be all for naught. What a load of sentimentality and slippery ideas. I have pledged, I have promised myself, that I will speak only of facts.
It’s an important moment where Letham lifts the veil of scientific reason from his eyes. But instead of grappling with the emotional life that is part of being human (maybe even a more fundamental part), he turns a blind eye, refuses to even see it, brushes it aside. He can’t connect to his wife, he can’t connect to a beautiful young man who clearly fascinates him, yet he convinces himself of a tenuous connection to a dying young girl with whom he can never possibly consummate any sort of relationship. One admires Weiss’s skill at creating such a complex relationship between a subjective narrator who thinks he’s objective and the reader who bears witness to it.
Weiss himself trained as a medical doctor and traveled extensively as a ship’s doctor, even spending months on a ship while recuperating from tuberculosis; his involved view of disease, suffering, and the limitations of science clearly reflect experience. A notoriously difficult man, his writings were admired by Stefan Zweig and Thomas Mann, though both apparently fell afoul of his bad humor at some point. Georg Letham represents one of his strongest works, though few of his books have been translated into English. When the Nazis invaded France in 1941, Weiss, who had been living in Paris, committed suicide and died the next day.
This leads me back to my original point: if we live in a culture that seemingly abandons facts for emotion, we seem to be living in a universe that would have been nightmarish for Weiss. As much as any single narrator’s inner life can be deemed, dystopic, Weiss very much wants us to fear men like Letham, men who speak as though they are objective observers, when, actually, they are impassioned buffoons with an agenda to force on the unsuspecting.
Gregory McCormick is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. Raised in Idaho, he now lives in Montreal.
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