How Doeblin wrote Wallenstein


Around the time his epic of the Thirty Years War was published, Doeblin wrote an account of its conception and gestation. In his essay ‘The Epic, its Material, and Criticism’ he first takes a swipe at the critics, declaring that –


… the worst thing… is the mass of critics…. Just as a hedonist demeans the mysteries of love, these demean the book with their eyes and hands. …this thing called a critic is a mere mischief-maker. The only justified ‘criticism’, in my view, comes from a loving or a combative heart: thrust, annihilate; or comfort, revere: that’s all. Art appreciation is frivolity, is a mockery of what the toiler has achieved or striven to achieve. But the mass of critics knows neither love nor hate, only metier, and the indecent concept: ‘Art’.


In the following excerpt, Doeblin introspects on the workings of his imagination as he followed his initial impulse to shape his epic reconstruction of what, until 1914-18, had been Europe’s worst war.


From ‘The Epic, its Material, and Criticism’

Die neue Merkur 5 (April 1921, pp.56-64)
Translation © C D Godwin 2018


You ask: who cares about the Thirty Years War?

My opinion exactly. Once I too cared about it not at all. I have vague memories of it being mentioned at school, it was some time after Luther, I retained no more details; apparently this bleak cheerless affair with many battles, many contending parties, ended with the Peace of Westphalia. I never even knew which contenders were fighting in any particular battle.

But in 1916, when I was in Kissingen, in an item in the newspaper – I believe it was a notice for a Gustavus-Adolphus Festival – I suddenly came across a picture: Gustavus Adolphus setting out across the Baltic from Sweden with an endless fleet of ships. It surged around me, ships sailing across the grass-green sea; I saw them approaching through the trees as if through glass, the air was water. This compelling and utterly incoherent picture stayed with me. It forced me, despite my distaste for the confusions of that time, to read some histories of the period. No, once again not read, and this is the crux of the matter: rather to ascertain what I actually wanted from them, and why this apparition, this dazzling vision of cogs and corvettes sailing across the sea would not leave me. I wanted to give tongue to this surging around me, this relentless motion; shapes thrust themselves forward.

I read these books, and countless more later, as a flame reads the wood.

I never caught sight of any fact; like a magnet my feeling swept over the pages and sucked up whatever belonged to it. Inclination to breathe life into an inert dead mass? Not a bit. My eyes never saw a dead mass, the Thirty Years War is as much a sealed book to me now as it was twenty years ago. Empathy? I know nothing about that, but my feeling even now is the direct opposite: ecpathy. Empathy requires loving obeisance, an effort, and the urge to want to be fair (hence something that today’s critics ought to have). But since I acquired no knowledge of the Thirty Years War, being hindered by my inward dazzlement and preoccupation with my part in this definitely very interesting event, how could I arrive at empathy.

Gloomily uncommunicative as I was then, I had not the slightest capacity for reading. I sought stimulation, to lose myself in stimulation. From the midwife who was trying to deliver me I tried to wrest the forceps that would assist the birth. I mean the documents, the books. They were not my topic.

Now, I must make one thing clear: much of what met my gaze in these books and documents seemed, without further ado, proper to my purpose – to be my property. You ask: so, you decided to start writing? No, it was configured for me, I was lucky to find it, come upon it. Sometimes I sat there quite amazed and said to myself: it’s all there, that’s how it was, these events, this ‘historical’ context. Until I said quite simply: how lovely that Nature has moved in the ways of my thoughts; so I don’t have to go to any trouble. The centre was in me, here was the rim, all I had to do was draw the spokes: the wheel was ready to roll.

There is not much to be said about the centre because, as everyone knows, you cannot look into the sun. And if you look through a piece of green glass it is no longer the sun but a supposition about the sun. The wheel rolled, driven by the loudly pulsating motor that was housed within me. The motor pushed on from turn to turn, ate up the road. In a work as expansive as an epic usually is, the author seems to himself to be a swimmer who jumps in telling himself: sink or swim.

One who makes great plans, sets goals, or too many goals piled together, is more likely to sink than one who takes the plunge calmly, confident in the strength of his arms and legs and his regular heartbeat.

This – swimming and seeing how far you come – is first and foremost what is demanded by living production, not merely literary or more generally artistic production. You can see this with orators: they stand up holding two or three little notes and now everything develops from there; from this phrase another follows; an aside leads to a penetrating observation, the oratory is before us, with us, addressed to us. You must always pull yourself towards things and see what then jumps out from us; that’s all you need, nothing more. A product arises from production: the phrase seems comical, but it is certain that, before the production, the product is at most only intuited. It is only during the process of producing that the powers of material, word, tone, concepts, associations, the human spirit first appear; absent these everything is vague, the battle cannot be fought, there is no result.

Only during the production does the bull whose horns you intend to seize step forth; only then do you see whether you can in fact seize them.

You live in the moment, die at some point from some banality: but it is in the to-and-fro of the moment that everything develops and is. Past productions and the past itself leave traces, and with these you travel, enriched, constrained, ossified, measurable, to new regions. If you know the traces you leave, you can even make plans, dispose of and almost manage yourself as a person. But no disposition as a rule is ever very accurate, only putative, and most of all –

Most of all, whoever makes a planful disposition of himself is at once impoverished and exhausted. Or intimidated. Whoever does not preserve wilfulness and freedom overestimates his planful intellect, binds himself to what is dead. It is the last refuge, this confidence in the source – when the plank onto which you step breaks. When a snail is still young, you can break its shell; the contents do not necessarily die, they can produce a new shell.

When all is said and done, what is it that endures – in life and in aesthetic production – other than the struggle against the clear rigidified course of the dead and the past – in favour of what is obscure, delicate, only just revealing itself, forever inhibited in its revealing – in favour of moments. You fight for the rights of minutes. The moment: that is me. I can set up a target, will always be caught out by things I had never dreamed of. But in the end I do not say: I have been diverted. In the end I plead guilty to the diversion. A hard task, and this is not an aesthetics for everyone, and no folk religion.

But the core of my inward work on the book Wallenstein… was, at the moment I gave this inward work enough room to play: Ferdinand. It is all about his soul.

On this I could leave nothing unclear, felt him and the whole world that extended out from him with the utmost clarity, and only for his sake did I persevere with the book for all that long long time. If I did not succeed in making this core clear, if this sun sheds no light, then my book is just an objet d’art, and I can go and paint teacups. A sun only becomes a sun by having something to illuminate, by helping flowers grow, by making holes in the darkness, by enabling people to find joy and ruin beneath its rays.

This is the fundamental conception of the book: an emperor, a latent emperor, is held back by another earthly power, Maximilian of Bavaria; he suffers in this earthly plane, and is filled by another tellurian fellow – this one the most potent of all potentates, Wallenstein – with the ultra-maximum of power, and projected beyond the earthly.

Thus far the first volume: Ferdinand cannot ascend any higher through earthly means, the kingdom of the earth and its glory are not only in his possession, but he is bloated with possessing…

In him, then, follow all the consequences of the situation. He never loses the sense that all riches are in him and hence under him. This so takes hold that at the end he is paralysed – things happen of themselves. This is what must be felt through. The dismissal of the Duke of Friedland (i.e. Wallenstein) at the Council of Regensburg only makes sense in this light: anyone who fails to see the Ferdinand of those days need read no farther; it’s all just painted teacups. Ferdinand admits: wherever he may turn, he is in the right. From that moment on there is no more development in him, merely a percolation, a becoming-clearer, a differentiation of himself. Affairs assail him from this point on through a barely penetrable mist; he suffers a final blow in the circumstances surrounding Wallenstein’s dismissal; thereafter he comes to absolute certainty in his feelings, and the long drawn out dissolution of the empire, the kingdom of the earth and its glory, now becomes visible.

No, that is poorly expressed: dissolution of the kingdom of the earth and its glory. This smacks of saints, renunciation, flight to subterranean realms. It is not an ascetic flight to some god and the feet of some idol. In the end, and long before the end, Ferdinand is a man who no longer knows what good and evil are, who can no longer feel ‘sin’. Ferdinand’s way is this: come cleanly to the goal – ever and again frustrated, but in the end boundlessly certain: never to suffer constraining influences from this subjugated ‘world’.

How badly, how superficially German critics read can be seen in the fact that one of them stated that the emperor was, at the end, despairing. Tolstoy once said of critics: “They are mostly schooled, trained and educated writers whose capacity to be moved by art is quite crippled or lost.” The only role I see for criticism is to grasp what is fertile and beautiful and convey it to others. But what if those through whom criticism works are themselves devoid of grasping organs? In the book I have been discussing, the man Ferdinand does not despair in the least. His beatitude shines through. He has not renounced the throne, but has surrendered it to himself. The throne was no longer of concern to him. The Emperor ends where he must end, in awe and joy.

The world around him, inexhaustible, goes on. I had no right to set the emperor up against the world, like a Dante setting himself up against Hell. The emperor is of the same flesh as anyone; we are dealing with human beings. I could present them otherwise, hang different names and masks on them: but I never wanted to forget what was imperial, Ferdinandish, in them. Even if only a distant gleam. So Ferdinand is not an isolated figure among a thousand other characters: he is no hero, he is in among them, as they are with him. I said: he is the sun; but plants and stones and chemical elements are also of the sun. No one can accuse me of failing to decide firmly for the ‘hero’. I decided for him so firmly that the book is from first to last nothing but the song of a ‘hero’.