Caspar Hauser, by Jakob Wassermann
New York: Harold Liveright, 1928
from Chapter II. Caspar Hauser’s Story Recorded by Daumer
So far as Caspar could remember he had always been in the same dark space, never anywhere else, always in the same space. Never had he seen a man, never had he heard his step, never had he heard his voice, never the song of a bird, never the cry of an animal; he had never seen the rays of the sun, nor the gleam of moonlight. He had never been aware of anything except himself, never becoming conscious of loneliness.
The room must have been very narrow, for he thought that he had once touched the opposite walls with his outstretched arms. Before this, it had seemed immeasurably large; chained to his bed of straw without seeing his chain, Caspar had never left the spot of ground on which he slept and waked dreamlessly. Twilight and darkness were differentiated, therefore he must have known day and night. He did not know their names, but he did see darkness, for when he woke up in the night the walls had disappeared.
He had no measure of time. He could not say when this unfathomable loneliness had begun, and there was no time at which he thought it might ever end. He did not feel any change in his body, he did not wish that anything might be different from what it was, nothing casual frightened him, no hope of anything to come drew him on, and the past had no words. The regulated hours of this scarcely conscious life passed silently, and his inner being was as silent as the air which surrounded him.
When he awoke in the morning he found fresh bread near his bed and the water pitcher filled. At times the water did not taste the same; when he had drunk it, he lost his livelineness and fell asleep. Then, when he woke up, he had to take the pitcher to his hand very often, he held it for a long time to his mouth, but no water came out any more. He constantly put it down and waited to see whether the water would not come soon, because he did not know that some one had to fetch it, for he had no conception that any one existed beside himself. On these days he found clean straw on his bed, a fresh shirt on his body, his nails cut, his hair shorter and his skin clean. All this had happened while he was asleep, without his having noticed it, and it left no after thoughts to disturb his mind.
Caspar Hauser was not entirely alone; he had a comrade. He possessed a little white wooden horse, a nameless, motionless thing which at the same time was something in which his own being was darkly mirrored. Since he dimly conceived that it was a living form, he regarded it as his equal, and all the light of the outer world was centered in the dull glance of its artificial pearl eyes. He did not play with it, he did not even converse silently with it, and although it stood on a little board with wheels he never thought of pushing it about. But before he ate his bread he passed every bite to the horse before putting it to his own mouth, and before he fell asleep he stroked it with a caressing hand.
This was his sole occupation, for many days and for many years.
Wassermann’s novel retells the Kaspar Hauser, which Werner Herzog depicted in his film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Hauser was found wandering the streets of NÃ¼rnberg in 1828, virtually unable to communicate. Eventually, people came to believe that he was an illegitimate member of the Baden royal family who had been locked away in a solitary, windowless cell since infancy.
Although a frail and wholly naive youth, Hauser managed to unsettle NÃ¼rnberg and German society in a number of ways. The speculation about his royal connections stirred up currents of intrigue among various court factions. At the same time, his emergence from years of isolation led to fascination about the nature of human development or horror at the unknown nature of one who had grown up without any of the normal framework of customs and morals.
Wassermann is quite effective at weaving all these threads together. On one hand, he shows how players large and small tried to manoeuvre Kaspar to gain the best advantage from his situation, almost none of them concerned for the effects on Kaspar himself. On the other, he shows us the world through Kaspar’s eyes–a world in which almost none of the labels that enable us to make sense of the sounds, sensations, shapes, and concepts we encounter exist.
The story is so interesting and so well told that it’s hard to believe this novel has been out of print in English for decades. But Wassermann was one of a generation of German-Jewish novelists–including Lion Feuchtwanger and Arnold and Stefan Zweig–who sat uncomfortably between two traditions. Although heavily influenced by Freud and the psychological approach to the novel, they wrote novels of a style and structure rooted in the 19th century, full of details and detours, where the pace is measured and deliberate and perhaps a bit too pedestrian for current readers. For the patient reader, however, the reward is a rich reading experience, sensitive in its depiction of both the emotional and social worlds of the novel’s characters. Caspar Hauser was one of the most satisfying books I’ve read in the last year.
- Marcus Bullock, “Jakob Wassermann 1873-1934,” in Encyclopedia of German Literature, 2000
- With Caspar Hauser, Wasssermann achieved a major success in 1908. This novel was based on extensive research into the famous case of a foundling reputed to have been the dispossessed heir to the throne of Baden; according to the author, the theme had been maturing in his mind for many years before he felt sufficient confidence in his judgment to execute it. He conceived the novel as a study of a great injustice perpetrated by a harsh world against a completely innocent party, and he regarded the historial events it retold as an injustice from which the conscience of an entire society would remain poisoned until it acknowledged and then atoned for this wrong. All the brutalities perpetrated against Caspar Hauser are ascribed, ultimately, t the human failing to which Wassermann refers in the title as Tragheit des Herzens (inertia of the heart). This idea returns in different aspects throughout his oeuvre. On the one hand, it provides a foundation for his thought, which he is able to vary with some subtlety, but on the other hand, it always reasserts a simple concept of human failings that seems to enthrall his judgment with its narrow certainty.