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Hermann Broch. Triumphant voice of the invisible

`...I forsook intellectual understanding in favor of a knowledge that would be stronger than perception, strong enough to fill the time allotted to man ... to fill his short term on earth with an almost blissful waiting, a knowledge redeemed from oblivion. ... Year after year has gone by since I abandoned the ... findings of painstaking scientific research, restored now to my own life, joyless yet happy .... And now that I wish to write it down, the unforgettable in the forgotten ... I start out with all the hopefulness of the young and all the hopelessness of the old, wishing to gather in before it is too late the meaning of all that has happened and of all that is yet to happen.' -From the foreword of

`The Spell' by Hermann Broch The Spell, by Hermann Broch. Translated by H.F. Broch de Rotherman. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 520 pp. $22.50. ACKNOWLEDGED as one of the four greatest German novelists of the first half of this century, Hermann Broch (1886-1951), like Kafka, was of Jewish parentage; like Musil, was born in Austria; and, like Mann, emigrated to America in 1938. With the help of influential friends like Joyce (yet another modern master to whom he is often compared), Broch was able to leave Austria, where he'd been arrested shortly after the Nazi takeover. He settled in the United States, at Princeton and Yale, and passed on in New Haven, Conn., before his last book, ``The Spell,'' was published.

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Broch left three drafts of this novel, which he referred to as his Bergroman (mountain novel). The first published version, entitled ``Der Versucher'' (``The Tempter''), appeared in 1953 amid textual controversy. A 1967 version, ``Demeter,'' was based on the third draft. ``Die Verzauberung'' (``The Enchantment'') in 1976 was based on the first and only complete draft. In translating the work for the first time into English, H.F. Broch de Rotherman, the author's son, follows the 1976 version, adding to it an expanded section from the second draft dealing with the ill-starred love affair that led the narrator to retire to the mountain village where the main action of the story unfolds.

As a young man, Broch studied engineering and for many years worked in his father's textile business. When he was already in his 40s, he left the family firm to study mathematics, philosophy, and psychology at Vienna University. Broch's literary career began late, but began with a masterpiece, ``Die Schlafwandler'' (``The Sleepwalkers''), a trilogy that appeared in 1930-32. Its subject was nothing less than the decay of moral and cultural values from the late 19th century to the new low (as was then thought) reached in the wake of World War I. This was followed in 1933 by ``Die Unbekannte Gr"osse'' (``The Unknown Quantity''; as yet untranslated into English), and in 1945 by what some consider his finest work, ``Der Tod des Vergil'' (``The Death of Virgil''), in which the dying poet questions the value of his life's achievement.

``Die Schuldlosen'' (``The Guiltless''), published in 1950, is a group of linked stories involving characters whose very ``guiltlessness'' - or political indifference - renders them morally culpable in the climate of Nazism, which Broch sees as the ideology of people without real ideas: the ``philistines,'' as he calls them.

In a brief essay at the close of ``The Guiltless,'' Broch expresses doubt that it is possible to change the philistine by holding up the mirror of art to his face. But he believes that art can embody a process of ``purification.'' In representing that process, he suggests, art can awaken the ``spark of the absolute'' embedded in each of us, fanning that spark into flame.

Broch's noble, if somewhat confusing, concept of art relies on two models - or metaphors: a ``mirror'' and a ``breath.'' As Hamlet observed, art holds a mirror to nature, enabling us to see ourselves and hence to reflect upon our conduct. This is the classical view of art as mimesis. Art, particularly verbal art, as a breath or wind is an association dating back at least as far as the biblical prophets, revived again most memorably by the Romantic poets. This is expressive art, which speaks and inspires.

What Broch's essay seems to suggest is that a work of art, by mirroring a process of inspiration, may itself inspire. Perhaps this explanation is not as heavy-handed as it sounds, for it reminds us that art's mimetic and expressive aspects are not, in fact, opposed, but are interlinked.

Reading ``The Spell,'' we can feel it at work both as ``mirror'' and ``breath.'' The story is a parable - transparent yet mysterious - in which a seemingly idyllic mountain village comes under the spell of Marius Ratti, a wanderer, who preaches a curious assortment of beliefs. He believes in going back to nature, he opposes the use of modern farm implements, yet he also urges the villagers to reopen an unused mine, violating the mountain to get at its store of hidden gold. Ratti's henchman Wenzel organizes the local youth into paramilitary bands, who march around singing songs against city-dwellers, agents, and tradesmen, and learning to despise women and ``female'' values. While many succumb, some - most particularly a wise old woman called ``Mother Gisson'' - are opposed to Ratti and all he stands for. Yet before the spell subsides, there is no one who has not been affected by it, not even the narrator, a doctor who retired to the village to escape the falsities of modern civilization.

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The spell climaxes in two shocking events: an archaic rite of human sacrifice and the expulsion of a pathetic insurance agent, Wetchy, and his family, whom Ratti deems parasitical urban types. The parallels to Nazism are clear enough as far as they go, which is far enough to elucidate crucial elements of `mob psychology' (a topic also explored by Elias Canetti, whom Broch had met), but not quite far enough to account for the entire phenomenon of Nazism or for Nazism as a specific historical occurrence. Like Nazi ``ideology,'' however, Ratti's preachings are potent because they're irrational and self-contradictory, appealing to nostalgia for a simpler, ``natural'' life, while playing to the villagers' greed for the material benefits of mining gold.

Broch's mimetic triumph is to make this parable entirely convincing, as seen through the skeptical, observant eyes of the doctor-narrator. But the greater triumph of this novel has to do with showing - or telling - us of things unseen. The voice of the ``invisible,'' as Broch calls it, speaks up in unexpected places: The village priest, a dull man chiefly interested in growing roses, responds to the doctor's remarks about mankind's need for periodic bouts of irrationality, ``But Doctor ... the divine commandment to love one's neighbor would have prevented all those calamities.''

Perhaps most significantly, the distinctive, surprisingly beautiful tone of this book is sounded at the outset by the narrator, who tells us he is writing, not to make a specific point, but to record the passing events, emotions, and impressions that have filled his consciousness, and so constituted his life - to record his mere being and sentience before the passing moments are lost in oblivion. In these words, we hear something like the breathing of the ``absolute,'' a steady cadence that resists and ultimately envelops the nightmare of Ratti's spell.


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