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Chapter One— The Emancipation of Dissonance
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Poetic Duplicity

It is impossible to imagine a writer more sensitive to the spiritual indefiniteness resulting from two millennia of opposition between the sacred and the secular than Trakl. This poet charges his understanding with the elementary power of almost every antithesis with which European thinking has struggled from the start: life and death, innocence and guilt, sanity and madness, fertility and sterility, nature and law, divinity and evil, relevation and benightedness. In Trakl the conflicting pull of these forces has finally become unbearable. Whatever one would like to keep separate here commingles incestuously, contaminating the nature of its other. Was it Trakl's own psyche, so frequently investigated by scholars and psychologists, that made him so prone to paradox?

Born of Austrian parents in 1887, two years after Campana—in the same year as Michelstaedter and Giovanni Boine (Kokoschka, Schiele, Lukács, Slataper and Wittgenstein were similarly born between 1885 and 1890)—Trakl had an even more tormented life than the Italian poet. As a child he was pathologically shy, subject, like Michelstaedter, to fits of rage. To avoid having to face passengers in trains, he would travel standing in the aisles outside compartments. He was given to sui-


cidal acts from a very young age—throwing himself in front of a moving train, leaping in front of a skittish horse, walking into a pond until he disappeared underneath the water, leaving only his hat to mark the place for his rescuers. Ridiculed by his family for writing poetry, Trakl grew increasingly introverted. His father was at best indifferent, at worst insensitive, to him and his five siblings. His mother (whom he hated and once said that he would have liked to murder) was cold, uncaring, and drug-addicted. By age fifteen, Trakl, too, was regularly equipped with chloroform. The drugs that he used to "keep himself in life," as he put it, for the next twelve years, included opium, morphine, Veronal, and cocaine.[13]

Not surprisingly, Trakl became a chemist. Unable to keep a job, he volunteered for the war in 1914. Left to tend for ninety wounded men, with scarce medications, on the treacherous eastern front of the Austrian campaign, Trakl had as gruesome an experience as any in the war, witnessing men not only in incurable pain but hanging themselves from trees. The poet cracked, and attempted to take his own life. Apprehended before succeeding, he tried to desert, was apprehended again, and committed to medical supervision. The diagnosis was dementia praecox. Three weeks later, toward the end of 1914, he died from an overdose of cocaine.

Among his few close friends, and amid long periods of silence, Trakl would speak erratically of spiritual degeneracy. No doubt he shared more of these reflections with his younger sister, Grete, to whom it seems he was incestuously attached. And the closeness was reciprocal: in 1917, less than three years after his death, she repeated Georg's gesture, shooting herself at a party with Herwarth Walden.


So many themes of Trakl's poetry replicate those of his life—especially incest, derangement, and persecution—that scholars may be right to approach his poetry as a series of carefully crafted disguises for feelings, experiences, and phobias from which he actually suffered. And yet such transformations of personal experience are common to every poet. What else is at work in Trakl's cryptic language, distorted to the point where it all but erases its historical referents? What is actually wrought by his linguistic transcriptions? From the very start, contentions so rack his perception and grammar that nothing seems to remain but questions:

Des Unbewegten Odem. Ein Tiergesicht
Erstarrt vor Bläue, ihrer Heiligkeit.
Gewaltig ist das Schweigen im Stein;

Die Maske eines nächtlichen Vogels. Sanfter Dreiklang
Verklingt in einem. Elai! dein Antlitz
Beugt sich sprachlos über bläuliche Wasser.

O! ihr stillen Spiegel der Wahrheit.
An des Einsamen elfenbeinerner Schläfe
Erscheint der Abglanz gefallener Engel.

[Night Song
The breath of the Unmoved. An animal face
Grows stiff with blue, with its holiness.
Mighty is the stillness in the stone,

The mask of a nightbird. A gentle triad
Ebbs into unity. Elai! your countenance
Bows speechlessly above the bluish water.

O you silent mirrors of truth!
On the ivory temples of the lonely one
Appears the reflection of fallen angels.]
(Trakl 1969: 68, 1988: 29)

If elemental forces speak louder here than visible, semantic intentions, it is because of their internal alignment and reinforcement in analogical chains ("something unmoved," "the stillness of stone," "a speechless countenance," "the silent mirrors of truth," and so on). So opaque are these figures of speech that whatever significance they promise retreats to the penumbras of unintelligibility. All faces stiffen into a mask, every presence into an absence. Here all one can recognize—as Ludwig Wittgenstein did, when making the anonymous gift of a large family


inheritance to Trakl—is an unmistakable Trakl "tone," a tone of still, bright darkness, in which all things are veils of incomprehension.[14]

The tone is sounded by a recurring situation. In a lunar or sylvan setting, a subject suddenly witnesses an unnatural encounter or signal. It is sometimes a sight, sometimes a communicating animal, sometimes the voice of one deceased. But never is the protagonist, the action, or context endowed with a precise or stable identity. Everything oversteps its own nature. Within one and the same poem, words such as "blue," "animal," and "brother" take on mutually exclusive connotations; Trakl replaces them from draft to draft with words that mean their opposite. To make matters worse, he twists and breaks syntax—the regulating structures of comprehension—into all so many shards of sense. Frequently it is impossible to decide whether to read a word as an adjective modifying a noun or an adverb describing the action. As subjects are estranged from their surroundings, characteristics are attributed to phenomena ill-equipped to carry them ("stillness" as "mighty," for example). Recognizable elements of the historical world turn polymorphous, bereaved of a proper name, their internal and external relations uncertain. Descriptions break off into invocations. Speaking becomes a form of listening. Indeed, there comes a point (as noted by Sokel, Saas, and Firmage) where phenomenal reality is subjected to such a process of abstraction that movements, colors, and motifs assume the free-floating independence that they have in Kandinsky. A "new dimension of spiritual space" is opened up by Trakl's poems, notes Rainer Maria Rilke (1950: 527). And it undermines everything definite and well-defined, everything systematically structured by the moral and intellectual understanding.

The structural dissonances entail thematic ones:

Schlaf und Tod, die düstern Adler
Umrauschen nachtlang dieses Haupt:
Des Menschen goldnes Bildnis
Verschlänge die eisige Woge
Der Ewigkeit. An schaurigen Riffen
Zerschellt der purpurne Leib
Und es klagt die dunkle Stimme
Über dem Meer.


Schwester stürmischer Schwermut
Sieh ein ängstlicher Kahn versinkt
Unter Sternen,
Dem schweigenden Antlitz der Nacht.

Sleep and death, the somber eagles,
Rush all night about this head:
May the icy surge of eternity
Engulf the golden image
Of man. The crimson body
Shatters on the horrid reefs,
And a dark voice weeps
Above the sea.
Sister of stormy melancholy,
Look, an anxious vessel sinks
Beneath the stars,
The silent countenance of night.]

Über den weißen Weiher
Sind die wilden Vögel fortgezogen.
Am Abend weht von unsern Sternen ein eisiger

Über unsere Gräber
Beugt sich die zerbrochene Stirne der Nacht.
Unter Eichen schaukeln wir auf einem silbernen

Immer klingen die weib en Mauern der Stadt.
Unter Dornenbogen
O mein Bruder klimmen wir blinde Zeiger gen

Above the white pond
The wild birds have flown away.
An icy wind blows from our stars at evening.

Above our graves
The shattered brow of night is bowed.
We rock beneath the oaktrees in a silver skiff.

The white walls of the city ring forever.
Beneath thorn arches,
O my brother we blind hands climb toward midnight.]
(Trakl 1969: 166 and 116, 1988: 121 and 69)

Each of these poems is articulated around groups of antithetical phenomena. On one side stand blindness, midnight, thorn arches, a shat-


tered brow, and a grave. On the other, a white pond, stars, white walls, a silver skiff, and an icy wind. In "Lament" we find not only sleep, death, a dark voice, and a body shattering on reefs, but also alternative images for what may be the same things: stars, the sea, a surge of eternity, and the golden image of man. Both poems insert a subjective "we" into a lifelessly impersonal setting, a dialogue of "brothers" and "sisters" into disembodied communicative acts. All interpretation is directed to the semantic tensions embodying the voice of this "stormy melancholy," even on the level of preposition (tensions between "above" and "under," "toward" and "from," not to mention the verbs generated from them: umrauschen, fortgezogen, and so on). "It is," writes the poet, "a nameless unhappiness when one's world breaks in two" (Trakl 1969: 530). Here the "two" are the disparate realms in which the Western vocabulary has traditionally cast its experience. In every object of vision Trakl perceives both: the luminous and the shadowy, the inner and the outer, the spiritual and the material. His images fluctuate between a Christian theology of all-unifying love (the "gentle triad" of "Night Song") and pagan violence. Everything that rises sinks, everything that sinks rises up again. His murderers are his victims, his saints his sinners, and those who are "deranged" clairvoyant. Subjective and objective experience is caught in a perpetual transit; the "from where" and "to where," however, remain unclear.

If there is a "unity" in Trakl's poetic experience it consists in intellectual agony: in the breaking apart of one's world at the moment one struggles to bring it into order. It is the tragic and sacred pain of philosophers both ancient and modern, of Heraclitus and Nietzsche, rooted in the soil of paradox. Trakl knows none of the intuitive serenity of symbolist and late nineteenth-century poets. Or if he does, it is simultaneously accompanied by upheaval, bearing witness to the aporetic nature of all articulated truths and feelings. The unity is also present in the coherence of tone and imagery, in the tragic quality of the situations depicted, in the state of mind they evoke with their threats and their risks and their confusion. An inexplicable "project" is in process in Trakl's poetry, the investigation of a dark autumnal fate. What is even more astonishing in all this is the musical order into which Trakl succeeds in organizing his delirium. His poems tend to fall into three or four parts, each composed of four evenly lengthed lines of three to five feet. The rhythms are iambic and dactylic. Alliteration and vowel consonance present the rarest of phonetic combinations ("Schwester stürmischer Schwermut," "weißen Weiher . . . wilden Vögel . . . ein


eisiger Wind"). From 1909 to 1911 he frequently even rhymes his verse. Only after 1912 does he complicate this musical coherence with uneven meters and stanzas, bringing forth the formal forests of his late prose poems.

Music tames the wildest of passions. Versified disorder is disorder controlled. For Trakl this control proves necessary: His semantic and syntactic dissonance would overwhelm his readers were it not for the unity of sound in which it is bound, where each poem is a voice or a variation in a type of larger, choral composition, unfolded in repetitive patterns over the course of his collections. Able to speak only in dissonant ways, Trakl found harmony in song. He entrusted his meanings to music.

It is much more difficult to identify "content" in music than poetry. Without lyrics coupled to tones, we "make sense" of musical compositions, not by seeking a meaning, but by relating them to some prior world of sound, experience, and feeling with which we are already familiar. The result is imponderable enough as it goes—with indescribable impressions, muscular and nervous energies, vague waves of association solicited anew each time a piece of music is heard. Something like this made the philosopher Schopenhauer describe music as a pure voice of the will—or of that kernel of subjectivity which desires and suffers even before it knows how or why. It could be that this is as close as we can get to describing the content of music: a set of feelings coherently presented in form. And the coherence is pleasing, even when saddening, making one think that music is by definition sound arranged in melodious and harmonic patterns. Or so it would seem until Schoenberg's compositions of 1908–1913. For these expressionist pieces reject even that sonorous consonance on which such dissonant poets as Trakl relied. Here even that aesthetic coherence of sound which mitigated the loss of semantic clarity is broken. Schoenberg dares do, in the most instinctively appeasing of aesthetic media, what Trakl does on the verbal and conceptual plane. Indeed, he goes further, bringing more elements of his art into opposition.

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Chapter One— The Emancipation of Dissonance
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