Sweet Sin

J.P. Stern

Wolfgang Hildesheimer has certainly been around a lot. Born in Hamburg in 1916, he belongs to that generation of Germans whom fortune first inexorably divided into victims and perpetrators and then united as bewildered survivors. In 1934 he emigrated with his parents to England and thence to Palestine, where he was apprenticed to a master carpenter. He spent a couple of years at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, taught English for the British Council in Tel Aviv, and ended the war as an officer of the British Information Service in Jerusalem. Between 1946 and 1949 he worked with the Allied War Crimes Commission at Nuremberg. He has lived in Southern Germany, Bavaria, Cornwall, and in Urbino (where presumably he first came upon traces of Andrew Marbot’s life); now he seems to have settled in Poschiavo in the Swiss Grisons. Rumour has it that he is a generous host with a fair Knowledge of the local vineyards.

Travel, especially of the involuntary sort, does not always broaden the mind, and it seems to have taken Hildesheimer some time before he shed those traces of solipsism which are endemic to a good deal of post-war German prose. Although he has written about places as different as the North African desert, Norwegian villages, Mozart’s Vienna and (repeatedly) the Cornish coast, some of his early work has the dreamlike quality of introspective monologue – a genre which is hardly ever free from self-absorption and self-indulgence. But he has always been on the move, and in the literary sense too. At the beginning of his career as a writer he was associated with the famous ‘Gruppe 47’ to which German literature owes its rebirth from the physical and ideological ruins of the war. Even at that time, however, he seems to have been very much his own master, ‘ein freier Schriftsteller’ – the epithet connoting, in his case, not only independence from institutionalised literature, but also a singular freedom from the restraints of conventional genre. And so he remains: a man still and for ever in search of a style, uncomfortable in the forms he chooses (a suspicion of critics and a distrust of readers is woven into his stories), yet apt to derive great literary benefits from his discomforts. He paints; he has given much thought to linguistic and musical issues, and to problems of translation from one language into another, from one mode of experience into another. Almost inevitably, he, too, has felt obliged to express his views about the ‘end of the novel’ crisis, yet his vigorous experiments in literary form have left him better-equipped to deal with that ‘crisis’ than are most of his contemporaries. The search for a style is not, in his case, a hidden or half-disclosed self-indulgence. On the contrary, it is a search for the truth about other people and their past – if not for the whole truth, then for the least subvertible truth about them. That this search is compatible with a penchant for complex and ambitious literary jokes is one of the graces of a literature which has come to be burdened in the last decade with a spirit of joy-lessness and gloom (the recent emergence of women novelists who range all the way from the deeply melancholy to the positively suicidal has not done much to lighten the German literary scene).

Hildesheimer has lived a good deal of his life among English-speaking people. He is one of those German authors who are a little in love with the English, more particularly a certain kind of young Englishman of the upper classes, with his good temper and considerateness, his easy good manners and what Thomas Mann called his ‘boyhaft’ good looks. This affection, rarely reciprocated by English authors, goes back at least to the time of Herder and Goethe. Here is the Göttingen physicist and aphorist, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, writing in 1776, a quarter of a century before Andrew Marbot was born:

To amuse myself I sometimes imagine one of our learned fifteen-year-olds in company with a fifteen-year-old boy from Eton. The first in his bag-wig, powdered, demure, and ready to shoot off a load of learning at the slightest provocation, in all his opinions nothing but a bad copy in miniature of his Papa or Tutor, a mere echo, to be marvelled at till his sixteenth year, regarded with silent expectation in his seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth, while in the meantime the building begins to subside on its hollow foundations. In his twenty-second, twenty-third, etc, he is just a mediocre fellow, and continues so till his end. The English boy with his unpowdered curly hair clustering round his ears and forehead, the picture of health, his hands all scratches and with a cut or bruise on every knuckle, Horace, Homer and Virgil ever present to his mind, forthright and independent in his opinions, makes a thousand mistakes but corrects them himself ...

It so happens that this thumbnail portrait fits Andrew’s younger brother, John Matthew, who was educated at Stonyhurst, better than it does Andrew himself, who was brought up by a private tutor at Marbot Hall. But what it describes is one half of the English experience Hildesheimer presents, the foil against which the other half – Andrew’s life – must be seen.

More recent German Anglophiles have found that there is a price to pay for these attractive virtues Lichtenberg mentions. The trouble with the English, from the point of view of someone like Hildesheimer, is that they have no Geist. And what, pray, is Geist? It is, of course, many things. In the present context, it may be defined as speculative intellect in excess of material facts. In its awareness of this chronic excess (for it is self-conscious through and through), Geist turns either aggressive and destructive, or habitually melancholy, in its attitude to the world of facts – that is, the world. And this is where the other, more important half of the English experience depicted in this remarkable biography becomes relevant. It must have been a moment of delighted surprise when Hildesheimer first came upon Andrew Marbot’s literary remains and realised that here was an observer and author who, while undeniably committed to a life of Geist, was yet equally undeniably English, and therefore (this is where the considerateness and good manners come in) melancholy rather than aggressive in his attitude to the world – in brief, an Englishman of the cast of Hamlet. Conversely, it is entirely appropriate, when we think how Marbot has been neglected by English art-historians, that a German author should be writing his first full biography.

But who was Sir Andrew Marbot? Hildesheimer’s narrative method has many advantages (it proved its value in his Mozart of 1977), but it obliges him to proceed by way of association of ideas rather than chronologically; moreover, the editors of the DNB have found it necessary (presumably on grounds of prudishness) to suppress any mention of Marbot in their compilation (even though it contains names of lesser distinction). For these reasons, the reader may find a brief life helpful.

Andrew Gregory Thomas was born on 4 April 1801 at Marbot Hall (now the property of the National Trust), which lies a few miles south of the Scottish border, between Otter-burn and Falstone, as the elder son of Sir Francis Marbot Bt, the only Roman Catholic among the titled gentry of Northumberland. Andrew’s mother, Lady Catherine, born in 1781 in Dresden, was the daughter of Lord Claverton, who had retired to Redmond Manor (now the property of an Arab magnate), some seventy miles from Marbot Hall, after a lifetime spent in the diplomatic service in Germany, the Low Countries and Italy.

The main influence on the boy came from the maternal side. Disdainful of his father, a simple country gentleman whose sole interests were hunting, shooting and fishing and the conversation that goes with these pursuits, the boy received the first impulses toward the study of art during his visits to Redmond Manor. Here his grandfather had assembled an excellent library as well as a small but outstanding collection of paintings of the Dutch and German schools and a few masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance. Moreover it was Lord Claverton, himself a convert, who had brought a young Jesuit priest, Gerardus van Rossum, with him from Rome and had installed him at Marbot Hall as chaplain of the estate (which had a number of recusant tenants) and as the boy’s tutor. Father van Rossum was Andrew’s confessor while the boy lived at home; he remained his friend and faithful correspondent throughout the ten years of his travels abroad; and he was the first to go through the Nachlass after Andrew’s early and mysterious death in 1830.

The two country houses, Edinburgh, and the Lake District, encompass the region where he spent the first 19 years of his life: a life whose adventures are mainly, though by no means solely, intellectual and geistig. Among his grandfather’s guests at Redmond Manor he met Henry Raeburn, who painted Sir Francis Marbot (1803, now at the Tate) and Lady Catherine (1804, Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland); William Turner and Sir David Brewster (inventor of the kaleidoscope) were frequent guests; on his solitary rides in the Lakes he often called on De Quincey (then editor of the Westmorland Gazette), and visited William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, whom Andrew describes in a letter to his mother as ‘a second-hand Wordsworth, a second-rate mind, a second-choice beauty’; and he may also have met Coleridge.

Among the paintings at Redmond Manor was Tintoretto’s Origin of the Milky Way (now in the National Gallery). It is the scene depicted there – Jupiter putting his and Alcmene’s illegitimate son, Hercules, to Juno’s breast, whose two jets spray one on the meadow below, the other into the night sky above, becoming the Milky Way – which forms Andrew’s earliest memory, and is the occasion of one of the key entries in his journal (undated, probably 1820 – I quote from Allan Blunden’s retranslation of Hildesheimer’s German version):

The life’s work of the imaginative young child first begins to assume form and reality under the influence of paintings. In them he sees adults naked or strangely clad ... engaged in events, or initiating events, which he cannot comprehend, and which he forthwith looks to discover in his own experience. Great is his disappointment when he learns that these events – and consequently the subjects treated by art – do not correspond to the realities of life; that they are the products, rather, of wishful thinking on the part of artists, those privileged individuals who, by giving expression to the objects of their thought, are able to rid themselves of wishfulness.

If this is, in all probability, the earliest occasion when Marbot’s lifelong intellectual interest was aroused, it is also the moment when, asking his mother to explain the painting to him, the boy finds himself clasped to his mother’s breast and conceives that incestuous passion which was to dominate his entire emotional life, and against which all other sensual bonds were to be measured and found wanting. The entry of 1820 ends: ‘This is his first conscious memory, and the most wonderful. Here he was, in beauty softly embedded, feeling with all his senses a previously unknown territory which he was to explore and conquer later.’

At the bottom of the page, in minute letters, as though intended to remain invisible, Andrew has set down Jocasta’s lines from King Oedipus: ‘Fear not thy mother’s marriage bed/For many a man has in his dream/Slept with his mother.’ The incestuous union was consummated some fourteen years later, at the Clavertons’ town house in Curzon Street, during the young man’s first visit to London, at the start of his Grand Tour.

This is not the place to expatiate on Hildesheimer’s sources (even though it must be said that he is far from generous in his comments on earlier Marbot Forscher, chief among them Father van Rossum, who edited a volume from Marbot’s Nachlass entitled Art and Life for John Murray in 1834, which De Quincey reviewed at length in the May number of Blackwood’s of that year; not to mention the hapless Frederic Hadley-Chase, an American whose Sir Andrew Marbot of 1888 Hildesheimer almost certainly used to greater efeffect than he is willing to admit). Suffice it to say that, thanks to the devoted care of Anna Maria Baiardi, Andrew’s hostess and mistress at Urbino, the bulk of his observations and notes – all that he hoped one day to work up into a systematic aesthetic treatise – as well as some of his correspondence have been preserved intact; and that Lady Catherine Marbot’s attempts to expunge all references to ‘the sweet sin’ and ‘sinful bliss’ from their letters – allusions couched in the vocabulary of a religion her son no longer shared – have not withstood the penetrating power of a modern quartz lamp. Moreover, numerous references to the young nobleman’s striking personality in English sources, chief among them the diaries of Marbot’s London friend, Henry Crabb Robinson, and in the memoirs of several Weimar worthies, Giacomo Leopardi’s letters from Venice and the correspondence of Lord Byron’s circle in Pisa, including Teresa Guiccioli (with whom Andrew had a brief affair), have enabled Hildesheimer to make the book before us a definitive life, leaving relatively few factual gaps in the record.

Motivation and the tremor within, on the other hand, the movement of heart and Geist, Marbot believed discursive prose was least capable of disclosing. One suspects that his biographer shares that view: here, he argues (alas, ‘argues’ is right), lies Andrew Marbot’s tragedy. Incapable of the artistic achievement which he believed was the sole path to the mysteries of the world and the being of man, Marbot had to content himself with mere analysis, mere criticism – activities designed to subvert their own validity and worth. Only as an aesthetic phenomenon, Marbot believed, could the world of sin – which he sees as a world of taboo – be justified.

A restless traveller, in search of art, in search of himself, in flight from himself – that is how Marbot appears to us in the last phase of his life, even though his travels were interrupted by inactive yet restless sojourns. He spent all of two years on his grand tour, travelling without servants or companion, hoping no doubt that his long absence abroad might put an end to the monstrous liaison. A somewhat imperfect lithograph half-portrait by Delacroix (done at about this time) shows an oval face of handsome regular features, enlivened by large dark eyes, at once wideawake and melancholy, and an ironical curve in the corners of his full lips; his slim and obviously tall build completes the image of the courteous ‘typical young Englishman’ of the Continental imagination. In the course of that first journey abroad he compiled the earliest extant catalogue raisonné of the recently opened Louvre, and visited a large number of galleries and private collections: yet in between he whiled away long weeks in complete idleness in some obscure little North Italian town or out-of-the-way Tuscan valley, silent for days on end (he tells us in his Notebooks), in perfect good health yet like one recovering from a grave illness. He was much admired and his company sought wherever he went, yet he made few friends, probably none of them intimate, and on leaving for his next destination seems not to have been greatly missed. Early in 1822, in Florence, he met Arthur Schopenhauer, whom he calls ‘the inventor of the absolute truth about man’: even so, he challenged the philosopher’s repudiation of suicide by arguing for a distinction between ‘Selbstmord, which is “self-murder” against Freitod, “Free Death”, which would mean: having the freedom to do with your life as you wish’.

In November of that year, on receiving news of his father’s death after a hunting accident, he instantly returned home to Marbot Hall and ‘his mother’s bosom ...’ His only comment in the Notebooks is a quotation (the second and last) from King Oedipus, line 987: ‘And thus your father’s grave becomes your greatest boon.’

Fraught with constant danger of detection, the liaison at Marbot Hall lasted less than two years. Throughout, his mother suffered the agonies of a Christian conscience that would not be silenced, though it was eventually assuaged by confessing to Father Rossum. Andrew for his part rejected the claims of morality and religion, yet although the affair remained undetected, his consciousness of its socially scandalous nature must have left him in a state of mind no less disturbed than hers: at all events, he decided to cede Marbot Hall and all the rights that went with it, though not the title, to his younger brother, John Matthew. For Andrew there was to be no confessional and no contrition. There was only the traumatic realisation that the psychological mechanism of compensation, which he was the first to perceive at work in the painters he most admired, did not work in his case. We know that he filled numerous notebooks with landscape sketches and tried his hand at watercolours, only to destroy every one of them, made restless and melancholy by the imbalance of insight and talent he recognised in himself. The more accurate his powers of verbal expression, the more he turns them on himself: ‘Great painting tells no story but makes visible a deeper truth – a truth attainable by no other media. It issues from an act of cognition that cannot be replaced by words. Wherever it can be so replaced, there no great painting issues.’ (If the OED is to be believed, this is the first use of ‘media’ in the language.)

When, in May 1825, the lovers parted, they both knew that it was for ever: never again was he to see Northumberland, the gentle landscape he loved above all others, never again was he to have discourse with his beloved tutor. In July he was in Weimar, having a brief affair with Goethe’s daughter-in-law, Ottilie, who seems to have made a habit of lavishing her unhappiness on visiting young Englishmen. The atmosphere which the old Goethe had created around himself – and incidentally Andrew’s manner – are well illustrated in a conversation (4 July 1825) reported by State Councillor C. L. F. Schultz. To Goethe’s inevitable question about his family background, Andrew replied (the original is in the flawless German he had learned from Father Gerhardus van Rossum):

  ‘If I am to believe the myth, Your Excellency, our family came over from the Périgord to England in the course of the Norman conquest.’

  ‘Well,’ said Goethe, ‘of course myth cannot be believed literally, for it is true in a higher sense only. It is not myth that forms tradition –’

the old Goethe – and the not-so-old – never allowed an occasion for sententiousness to pass –

‘but tradition which gives myth ever new forms. But what, my young friend, makes you believe it is a myth? I find the explanation wholly credible!’

  ‘I distrust all tradition, Your Excellency,’ Marbot replied, ‘including that which is credible. For me, only the true is true, whereas the probable I take to be mere appearance [das Wahrscheinliche dagegen Schein].’

  ‘Not bad, my young friend,’ said Goethe obviously amused; and then, turning to [Councillor Schultz]: ‘It seems to me that we have here not only a doubter but something of a rebel!’

  Then, in answer to Goethe’s question as to which member of the family had been ennobled, Sir Andrew replied that an ancestor had been given a baronetcy as a reward for having pressganged a hundred men into service in the Irish War under James the First.

  ‘Is that too myth?’ Goethe asked.

  ‘No, Your Excellency, that is history.’

  ‘Honourable history!’ said Goethe.

  ‘Well, Your Excellency,’ the Englishman replied, ‘he put greater value on the title of nobility than he did on his co-religionists in Ireland.’

  ‘You are a mocker,’ said Goethe, now a little irritated, as it seemed to me, and I noted that he regarded the subject as exhausted.

Some of Marbot’s most perceptive remarks, about the ‘metaphysical’ dimension of Rembrandt’s portraiture, derive from a visit to Schloss Wilhelmshöhe near Cassell; a series of observations on ‘the supremacy of inward mission over outward commission’ was occasioned by his discovery of the Tiepolo frescos in Würzburg; and he seems to have been the only notable traveller of his time to visit and describe the Mantegna frescos at Castell San Giorgio in Mantua. In April 1826 Marbot was in Rome, where the Prussian Ambassador, Baron Bunsen, introduced him to Leopardi, whose Canzoni had appeared the year before. Again, as with Schopenhauer, the conversation turned on suicide, and again Marbot had to defend the act against one from whose arguments he had inferred agreement with his own conviction. To his disappointment he found that Leopardi (‘the great pessimist’, as Schopenhauer had called him), in spite of ill health, pressing poverty and solitude, was not ready to contemplate what to Marbot seemed the inevitable final step. His reflection is both a criticism of Leopardi and a personal repudiation of the eternal recurrence of the same:

If one is willing to regard life, not as an experience to be exploited, but as an end in itself, one may call it worth living, at least by those who are privileged not to have to labour to sustain body and soul each day anew, and who are responsible to no one. But whoever expects from life more than a collection of experiences which increase in number yet in quality remain the same lives in delusion. For no man can transcend his own capacity for experience – just as the view from a window is cut off at the top, gets a little bigger as we come closer, yet we plunge down if we lean out too far. To live in hopes that greater and more essential things will be revealed than those already experienced is to be deceived.

If there is an explanation of Marbot’s suicide (if suicide was indeed his end), it is that he refused to live so deceived: insight, to him, appeared incompatible with survival.

In the late summer of 1826, visiting the Casa Raffaello in Urbino, he made the acquaintance of Anna Maria Baiardi, then 32 years old, the widow of a local patrician. He rented an apartment in her large house, which he was to regard as his last home. Here he returned from extended visits to Paris and Rome, and here he met again William Turner, in whom he recognised the greatest painter of his time. Years before he had defended Turner against William Etty’s criticism – ‘If Turner gives up Nature, I shall have to give him up!’ – by saying that ‘Turner will indeed survive being given up by Mr Etty,’ and: ‘It is not Nature that the true artist portrays, but his own image of her essence – that is, his Nature.’ From his understanding of Turner’s art, too, derives Marbot’s fine distinction (which unfortunately he does not elaborate) between ‘descriptive’ and ‘reflective painting’.

Urbino, then, became a home to him in his last years, the Montefeltro hills nearby (‘a weird and heavenly playfield of all the winds there are’) replaced the Northumberland landscape in his affection: he had always detested the Romantic love of Alpine grandeur. Anna Maria kept house for him and in due course became his mistress. She was a competent pianist, familiar with the contemporary musica tedesca, yet she seems to have shared none of his interests. In spite of Hildesheimer’s effort to give her a substantial character and role in Marbot’s life, she remains shadowy, little more than a provider of amenities and comforts – a female appendage to the tired hero of a Bildungsroman.

His end is enigmatic. On a mild February morning in 1830 he rode out, into the Montefeltro, and did not return. A search party went out on the following day and found no trace of him, but after midnight his horse was discovered, standing quietly in front of the stable. He left no last message and no letters of farewell: however, one of his brace of French pistols was missing from its case. (Ironically, he thought Werther overrated.) His last entry in the Notebooks which are now the only memorial of his restless, disappointed Geist reads as follows: ‘ “... and I shall go to bed at noon.” Admittedly, it is not noon yet, but why wait until the sun stands at its summit? It is not my sun.’

‘Many a man has dreamed as much.’ In his central experience – ‘this star performance in apparent immorality, which Byron would have envied him’, Hildesheimer calls it – all the emotional, intellectual and geistig threads of Sir Andrew Marbot’s life come together. It accounts for his inability to form attachments as profound – perhaps that is why the taboo on this form of incest is especially severe. But the experience also helps us to understand the analytical method he evolved and recorded in his Notebooks. His aim is to go behind and beyond the pictorial artifact and its technique in order to discover the psychological causes involved in its genesis. The procedure is familiar enough. It was perfected by the historicists and psychologists of the 19th century, and in our own time many critics write as though there were no other. Marbot was forgotten, Father Rossum’s edition remained almost entirely unknown, and yet, however incomplete and unsystematic his observations, the discoveries they yielded are fundamental. He is is Romanticism’s first psychoanalytical historian and critic of art, a Freudian avant la lettre.

The melancholy (Hildesheimer speaks of the tragedy) of Andrew Marbot’s life lies in his recognition that he had to content himself with being a savant and critic while the role of creative artist was for ever denied to him – in an age whose Zeitgeist had taught him that an unbridgeable gulf separates the two. His philosophical and aesthetic discoveries are purchased at the cost of an achievement he values the more highly for knowing it to be beyond his reach. His originality lies in the claim (based, like his whole life, on an imperfect separation of fact from fiction) that the source of art lies in repressed libido – that is, in the Oedipal complex: but this very insight places the source of art outside his experience. The sinful union consummated, his libido was exhausted: there was nothing left to repress.

Hildesheimer’s Mozart (1977, at last to be published in an English translation) provides an illuminating perspective in which to view the present book. Both are based on an intelligent rather than exhaustive use of available sources, and both are informed by a thoroughgoing historical scepticism. The Mozart book is written wholly in the service of a supreme creative achievement, the ‘life’ disappears behind and in the work, it solves into nought, as in a perfect equation: its purpose is not to demonstrate the translation of living experience into music, but to intimate the truth that music is experience. Accordingly, it is a book that no longer believes in explanation through genesis, which is almost to say that it no longer believes in explanation. Marbot, written atleast two years later, is in some ways a regresion to the old belief in genesis: inevitably so seeing that its subject-matter is all promise and potential, intimations of how an overwhelming experience might have been but wasn’t translated into achievement.

Hildesheimer is our contemporary. He does not possess the art of telling a story without adding that, and why, he is telling it. It is an art which seems to have been lost. That this loss does not entail the death of the novel is the substantial raison d’être of a biography of the geistig, indeed ghostly, Sir Andrew Marbot.