The Sleepwalkers: A Trilogy

By Miguel Fernandes Ceia

As Hannah Arendt pointed out in the introduction to The Sleepwalkers, the ‘modern novel’, the label under which Hermann Broch’s book fits, no longer serves the earlier novel’s purpose of entertainment and instruction or of relating unheard incidents: instead, it should confront the reader with the reality, or at least with a reality. In contrast to Franz Kafka’s novels, in which normal people were put in abnormal situations and still behaved like normal people, what is striking about The Sleepwalkers is the fact that normal people are put in normal situations and behave like normal people: they change jobs, they go into venture businesses, they drink, they discuss politics, they have family issues, amongst others. What is then the purpose of this novel? For sure, it is to hold a mirror to its time and age.

The Sleepwalkers is divided into three parts, ‘The Romantic’, set in 1888, ‘The Anarchist’, set in 1903, and ‘The Realist’, set in 1918, each one of them corresponding to a character, Pasenow, Esch, and Huguenau, respectively. There are also other characters who gravitate around these three. The title of the novel refers to how the characters relate to their world, sleepwalking, without questioning conventions, and remaining oblivious to what is changing. As the novel progresses, we also realise that each one of the parts, still acknowledging the sleep and sleepwalking metaphor, is a state of consciousness: ‘The Romantic’ corresponds to deep sleep, ‘The Anarchist’ to REM, and ‘The Realist’ to being awake. These correspondences relate to the ability or inability of action in a world that was fast changing and if, for example, Pasenow was unable to defy convention to be with his love, Huguenau was already capable of murder in order to get what he wanted, the attitudes of these two characters being seminally different.

* Since its publication, Goethe’s Faust has been extremely influential in German literature. Its presence is strong in The Sleepwalkers. In the first part, it is easy to understand who the tempter is and who the tempted is, for the social values and social barometer by which Pasenow guides himself are tangible, at least in his view. One can find, in the first part, many references to the figure of Mephistopheles, both in Hermann Broch’s narration and in Pasenow’s own train of thought. However, as the novel progresses, the references to Faust become dimmer and dimmer, because social values cannot be discerned as easily as in the first part.

‘The Anarchist’, Esch, when confronted with political disarray, finds his own choices have multiple meanings and outcomes, both when he visits a friend in prison or tries to murder his former employer. The best example, however, of Esch’s confusion of values is when he commits adultery, repeatedly, and though he knows that it was not correct, according to his own value taxonomy, he does it not without reflection.

And then we find Huguenau, a man concerned with his own survival. At this point in the novel, there is no need for a tempter, a Mephistopheles. In the final year of the First World War, Huguenau is an unscrupulous man who, in order to survive, is willing to perpetrate murder and to rape. But this confusion of values and turbulence are also portrayed through the hospital scenes, featuring wounded and mutilated soldiers and officers.

* It is no novelty to state that all times are times of cultural and value transformation, otherwise there would be no point of talking of social evolution at all. Nowadays, when science has become the new unquestionable tenet, it is even more difficult talk about values and morality, as there is no higher metaphysical instance to judge our actions in some afterworld. This has already been noted, ‘when the great intolerance of faith was lost, the secular robe of office had to supplant the sacred one, and society had to separate itself into secular hierarchies with secular uniforms and invest these with the absolute authority of a creed’ (Broch), but it seems to have taken a deeper meaning.

As we read through Hermann Broch’s novel, there are many small derogatory comments, not necessarily relevant to the main idea or development of the plot, towards the Jews—most of the times in the words of one of the characters. This, not showing an anti-Semitic disposition of the writer, is a clue to the axiomatic zeitgeist. When establishing a parallel between the contemporary world and the one portrayed in The Sleepwalkers, one cannot help but wonder where we are going.

The West—and do bear in mind this is not a geographic contingency but rather a cultural one—still retains a patronising attitude towards the rest of the world, bordering on colonialism. It comes, then, as no surprise that many European states are banning the burqa, invoking the way European settlers once converted Africans to their own religion. It seems, just like in the early 20th century, the West is losing the quality of tolerance, of which it still boasts loudly.

Reading The Sleepwalkers will confront the reader with the fact that, again, we have learned absolutely nothing. The mistakes that we made in the past are exactly the same we are making now—they just occur more frequently, with different subjects and more efficient killing methods.

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Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/

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