Friday, 20 May 2016
Grimmelshausen's wise fool
Don Quixote, The Pilgrim's Progress, The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus: spot the odd one out among these 17th century masterpieces. Well, maybe that wouldn't be the case with German readers, who know Johann Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's 1668 picaresque novel much better than we do. I was lucky to find a second-hand copy of Mike Mitchell's lively translation for Dedalus, and I was hooked. Can't help wondering if Wagner knew this classic, too: like Siegfried and Tristan, Simplicius - real name Melchior Sternfels von Fuchsheim - loses his mother in infancy and is brought up by others. His noble birth is supposedly indicated by his being far from a fool, brought up by a mysterious hermit in a wood to be a learned child but too often forced to play the court jester.
Unlike Bunyan's Christian, he moves through a real, not an allegorical, landscape - that of Germany, Switzerland and France during the Thirty Years War. We'll probably never know how much of his experience is the author's, whose biography is somewhat sketchy - but we do know that in 1634 Grimmelshausen fled from his ravaged home town to Hanau, under the protection of the same Colonel Ramsay who takes Simplicius under his wing. This part of the book is, to my mind, the most real and the best, with Simplicius 'transformed' into a bullcalf and speaking truth to power. He lectures Ramsay on the tribulations of being a governor; he dissects human nature and concludes his various sermons with this on the wisdom of animals, quite other than that disturbing line in Genesis, a bad start, about man having dominion over his fellow creatures:
What would you do if you lived among the animals and observed all the things they did? Then you would really have to acknowledge that it is clear that all animals have something to teach you in the special natural powers they possess in all their feelings and responses, be it caution, strength, gentleness, wildness. Each knows the others, they are different from each other, they look for what is good for them, keep away from what is harmful and avoid danger, gather what they need to feed themselves and sometimes even deceive you humans. This was why many ancient philosophers paid serious attention to these matters and were not ashamed to discuss whether unreasoning animals did not also have understanding. Go and watch the bees making wax and honey and then tell me what you think.
Grimmelshausen (pictured above)/Simplicius does not always wear his classical learning lightly - both are right to be proud of it - but there's plenty of low humour, fart jokes, no-holds-barred stuff about bodily functions. Simplicius isn't only a scholar in disguise; he's also a perfect warrior, though seemingly scrupulous if rather adept at changing sides (another truthfulness about the topsy-turvy nature of those horrible times). The picaresque leads the author and protagonist into self-contradiction, superstition as well as wisdom, brushes with the supernatural which are sometimes silly. But Simplicius is always capable of meditating on how his deeds haven't always matched up to his thoughts, how what seemed like good fortune has led him to ruin.
There are a few idylls in amidst the turbulence and horror (above and below, from Callot's engravings of the Thirty Years War's sufferings and miseries), like Simplicius's 'pilgrimage' into Switzerland:
Compared with other parts of Germany [sic], the country seemed as strange as if I had been in Brazil or China. I saw people living and working in peace, the byres were full of cattle, the farmyards swarming with chickens, geese and ducks, the roads safe for travellers and the inns crowded with people enjoying themselves. No one went in fear of enemy attack, of being plundered, of losing goods or chattels, life or limb; everyone lived secure under his own vine or fig tree. In comparison with other German states they lived lives of such pleasure and delight that, even though it seemed fairly rough, the country struck me as an earthly paradise, so that I was forever staring around me.
War, and the absence of war: the contrasts are as simple as that. Think the European Union today (and remember how, why it came into being - Boris Trump knew it, in his book on Churchill, and seems to have conveniently forgotten). Preaching over. Anyway, Simplicius finally turns his back on the vanity of the world and returns to the kind of retreat in which he grew up, only this time he's the hermit. A classic text, then, way beyond its value as social and historical document.