Social Criticism in the Early Works of Erich Kastner

Social Criticism in the Early Works of Erich Kastner

Social Criticism in the Early Works of Erich Kastner

Social Criticism in the Early Works of Erich Kastner

Excerpt

The subject of this study, Erich Kästner, is known almost entirely by a group of works which he produced in the five-year period from 1928to 1932. Outside Germany, he is known chiefly as the author of such children's classics as Emal und die Detektive, a book which has been translated into no less than twenty-five languages and is equally popular with children and with educators. On the basis of such works there would, of course, be no reason to take him seriously, save perhaps as a pedagogue. Although the careful reader will realize that the author is communicating, behind a playful front, a respectable ethical message, there is nothing novel about this message; and although the manner of its communication is distinctive, we could hardly call this manner style. It is the remaining works, in poetry and prose, works by no means for children, that merit our serious attention. In these works the author, while appearing merely to reveal in an especially harsh light the facts of twentieth-century society, tacitly holds these facts against his ideal ethical standard. Now, therefore, we can justly speak of style, and justly consider the author as a literary figure, for the tension between this ethical demand and this reality results in an artistic form which is quite necessary to the content, not merely advantageous to its communication, and is in itself of symbolic value.

It is not the intention here to analyze this artistic form, to trace it back to its antecedents literary or otherwise, to place Kästner in the history of German letters, to vivisect him in terms of psychology or psychoanalysis, or to attempt anything of a like nature. While in all these respects -- especially in the purely aesthetic realm -- a great deal of doubtless rewarding research is yet to be done, we are here primarily concerned with the sociological aspect of Kästner's work in the sense of testing it as to the veracity of its reporting, as to the authenticity of Kästner's personal reaction to his observations, and, underlying all this, as to the objective historical significance of the cultural diorama created by him. It may be found that rarely has a society in a plain state of dissolution produced a chronicler so inexorable in his analysis, a warner so profoundly and intimately stirred by what he saw, and a healer so genuinely kind of heart -- and so frustrated -- as was Erich Kästner in the dying days of the German republic. Mutatis mutandis, the names of Juvenal and Tacitus come to mind, with all their tragic connotations.

That Kästner has not become an international literary figure is not at all surprising, for, unlike such authors as Kafka, Rilke, and Thomas Mann, he restricts himself, on the surface, to the specifically German scene, hardly venturing outside the city of Berlin for his material. He does not, like Kafka, utilize as a symbol a castle that is more in dreamland than in any particular country; he does not, like Thomas Mann, represent a diseased continent through the symbol of a tuberculosis sanitarium frequented by patients from all lands; he does not, like Rilke, strive for religious symbols indepen-

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