Modernity: Never Shutting Up

Image Source: 1950sUnlimited – CC BY 2.0

“I am not Hamlet. I don’t play a role anymore. My words have nothing more to tell me. “

― Heiner Müller, Hamletmachine

The great European project of never shutting up, an express train of constant babble that has been running full speed since the Renaissance, reached an apogee at the end of the 19th century. Our contemporary smart cities, cell sites, fiber optic cables and informational revolutions are merely the final echoes of this moment in time, when the gates of communication burst wide and everything suddenly seemed worth talking about. Marconi and Edison, phrenology textbooks and tourist guides, and nascent forms of mass surveillance such as fingerprinting addled the weary Victorian mind, producing new psychoses and popular obsessions with speed, dope, danger, and the production of knowledge. After decades of this total assault on the senses, Freud wrote: “We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our body, which is doomed to decay…, from the external world which may rage against us with an overwhelming and merciless force of destruction, and finally from our relations with other men… This last source is perhaps more painful to us than any other.[1]” His final point constitutes a long goodbye of the Romantic strain.

Fear and giddiness, disorientation, ghosts of the future… No wonder everyone wanted to go back to a sylvan past that never really existed. Sentimental burgomasters, proto-fascists, fitness cults and lousy painters invented paradises and tried to return there; a new stratum of nervous clerks, perused by the snickering men of the crowd, emerged from below and pressed into the concrete city nightscape. Voices and more voices, more and more voices. Modernism as logorrhea, an unhealth of speech. We became uncertain of who was speaking and from whence they spoke. Clouds heavy with words. Air buzzing with recording ice. Elevator doors like human mouths in constant jabber. Newspapers as teeming hives of detail, sardines of useless certitudes meant to stun the public via sheer factoid attrition. Was the multitude having its revenge on courtly silence, cowed deference, and late Victorian martial fatigue? Schizophrenia is a natural response to surroundings that have grown more and more averse to silence, an inward multiplicity called into being to meet multiple outsides. This is how the mind attempts to heal itself, and fails. Which was another proposition of Freud’s, maybe his most profound.

Noise made new kinds of books, plays, and plastic. In 1889, Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf published Papa Hamlet, which became the babbling sensation of the day. In a nod to the Nordic dramatists, the genuine avant garde back then—also perhaps in recognition of the slippery quality of modern identity—the pair wrote it under the pseudonym “Bjarnbe P Holmsen”. Ostensibly the tale of a failed actor, the preposterously named Niels Thienwiebel, the novella reads like Zola’s gin palace given over to Tourette’s and set in an earthquake. Thienwiebel’s family hover around destitution: his wife gives birth to a sickly doomed kid (called Fortinbras, of course), while the landlady demands her rent and various weird neighbors enter with obscure and probably larcenous motives. Crisis upon crisis accumulates, while Thienwiebel shrieks out snippets from the Danish Play and warns of dark powers lurking beneath the city sidewalks[2]. It is hard to tell exactly what is going on in Papa Hamlet, and even harder to tell who is speaking, despite the total absence of anything remotely fantastic or uncanny. Most contemporary reviewers thought it was a bad joke on the reader, but like Tristram Shandy, the book was a great success with both the public and the intellectuals. It has now been part of German school curricula for well over a century. Rixdorf Editions offers the Anglophone world this influential classic for the first time, collected with the authors’ other fugitive pieces, and rendered as painlessly as possible (but with the right agony) by the brilliant translator, James J. Conway.

Hamlet is the patron saint of the verbose, and the prince still seems a kindred soul. Holz-Schlaff-Holmsen’s thespian Thienwiebel is possessed by Hamlet, a manitou incarnated in the fin de siècle to play out his eternal role in city hovels rather than stormy Elsinore. Or perhaps the luckless Thienwiebel never did perform Hamlet, and so he stages the Bard’s great play in real life, anticipating Pirandello and Pa Ubu by years. The Hamlet fixation is the mark of every self-appointed superman, every unemployed grouse of the tenement whose birthright is respected only by the fleas. As Max Stirner said: To hell with the revolution, up with me!

This brings us to ‘Naturalism.’ Grimy reality had moved to the forefront of the stage after decades of phantoms and frilly chamber dramas. But so-called Naturalism also heightened the kitchen sink universe of everyday life in a consciously unnatural way. It cynically declared that the past is a parody of our woeful and disoriented present. Old heroes returned as drunkards, whores, and daydreaming porters in a second run of those malicious comedies of common life such as Punch & Judy and criminal broadsides. Kaiser Wilhelm decried the pernicious influence of German Naturalism in his speeches, because these works depicted the world of order as a brutal senility sustained only by its own parthenogenic myths. And this base attack from below—no matter how bourgeois the authors and artists were—embraced a guttersnipe style which trampled over the inflated cant of Reichs, Czardoms and decadent republics. Naturalism was never natural and no one really declared themselves a part of the movement. But ‘naturalism’ was soon found in earlier works, like Georg Büchner’s fragmentary 1836 play, Woyzeck, which seemed to lead right to Strindberg’s crampy sex wars of the 1880s. Shakespeare’s Hamlet can also be seen as Naturalist, even as a play about realpolitik, whose clairvoyant plot mechanisms are strictly psychological and whose tragic scenes are really spoofs of the rites of power.

Hamlet the ‘rightful’ heir is the potentate of all wanna-be’s. His curse oozes into those who idolize him and by this muddled idolatry, the prince’s papier-mache ponciness returns beneath the cold light of new inhospitable machines. Actors, streetcorner or professional, get lost in Hamlet’s time-bomb soliloquies. They do not perceive his tragic sneer, his joy in being an irritation, or his wily psychobabble. Hamlet will not pipe down. If he shuts his mouth, he ceases to be—or he becomes his own father. Uncle Claudius may be a usurper, but so are all kings: fratricide is the traditional way of ascending to thrones. Yet Claudius is also trying to keep order, even to integrate Hamlet into this order, at least in order to get the prince to stop talking about himself. Claudius is as generous as any leader of state can afford to be, but Hamlet still won’t put a sock in it. Hamlet drives Ophelia to suicide and is indirectly responsible for his own mother’s poisonous cup, and he finally dies in the stupidest of all noble customs—the duel. Horatio concludes the play by talking incessantly about Hamlet. Hamlet is now Yorick, a fetish which exists because it is still talked about. In Papa Hamlet’s universe, the Junkers and industrial planners are all Hamlets—but everyone else is also Hamlet, too. The driveling modern world is a series of Hamlets, fleshly or prosthetic, ceaselessly jawing the world into existence. How can I be an insignificant galactic spat if my voice is the glue which makes this brave new world knowable? So keep talking. As for listening—we leave that to angels, mediums, and spies.

Papa Hamlet is no dour exercise, but it is haunted by the crotchetiness of its main protagonist. Such a level of despise can only go one of three ways. It can bottom out into nihilism, or it can seek redemption, faith, hope. The former might be dangerous to oneself, the latter, mainly to others. When caught between concussion and constipated conservatism, you must keep your head at all costs. Your hatred must be refined, but also youthfully anarchic at heart, lest you settle for Hope or devolve into a venomous paralytic. As a cautionary example of this problem—i.e., to shut up or not to shut up—take the later careers of Papa Hamlet’s authors. In his fine afterward, James Coway chronicles the final feud between the two writers which soon went noisily public. Schlaf was often noted for his kindly and diffident manner. No one except Holz ever said a word against him. Herr Schlaf later penned a defense of Kristallnacht after embracing the Hitlerite regime; he outlived his old friend and died in 1941. The taciturn, bitter Holz, whom everyone found impossible to deal with, lost the Nobel to Thomas Mann (another admirer of Papa Hamlet), which only made him more resentful and misanthropic. Yet Holz was never sullied by any connection to nationalists, blood mystics, or Teutonic revivalists. Perhaps all that cruel idealism reminded him too much of Theilweibel’s gibberish, and he knew, deep down in his mean personality, the onerous debt which silence pays to a wittering world. As for his estranged twin: beware the free choices of an affable man.


[1] Civilization and its Discontents, 1930.

[2] Alfred Döblin was a great fan of the book, and admitted that it had influenced his subterranean modernist classic, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). He was one of the few attendees at Arno Holz’s funeral in 1926.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.