Consider the Moralist (II)
'Going to the Dogs' by Erich Kästner
The nobility of the writer's occupation lies in resisting oppression, thus in accepting isolation.
“But where to serve and when and how?”
W.H. Auden, New Year Letter
Going to the Dogs is not just the story of any specific moralist—whether Kästner or his semi-autobiographical protagonist Fabian—but the story of the moralist, sui generis. And it is especially the story of any moralist and any writer, in any time or place, who is suddenly confronted by social crisis, who stands at the intersection of art and social duty, and is then laden by the subsequent impulsion to consolidate their passive ideals with actual capabilities and their abstract ideas with concrete action, in short, to choose a road to follow. Or, as Auden augurs, to decide where, when, and how to serve.
In all, the novel is as much about itself and the varied events it depicts as much as the particular character of the individual depicting these events, by way of the complex, unsettled role that the moralist occupies in a world going rogue; the one that senses it going rogue in the first place and wonders not only what to do while doubting if any action would make any difference. This being the case, in solely taking place in its own time, and, in primarily relating the downfall of the Weimar Republic and the subsequent pernicious onset of Nazism in Germany, Going to the Dogs is neither truly about its own time at all, nor really about the political and social struggles it specifically relates, as much as what it means to be the sort of moralist Kästner has in mind.
One reading of the novel, then, is as a fable of moralism. In my view, therefore, the stories of both Kästner and Fabian—partly distinct and partly intertwined—are revelatory stories of moralists; meant to be represent of the recurrent challenges, the continued obstacles, the habitual concerns; in all, the unified experience of those who assume such an identity at the moments they have come to struggle with Auden’s infamous, recurring questions.
Indeed, ‘where, when, how’ are the indispensable, ever-present objects of the moralist’s constant reflection. The moralist, like a compass, is not what it is without pointing to some direction. But pointing in a direction is not equivalent to pursuing one. Fabian himself is no stranger to such moralist existentialism. For example, Fabian is often exhibiting a sort of nihilistic outlook that seems to be borne out of the the tussle between his power on the one hand in his capability to make change, and his powerlessness on the other by his incapability to make any difference.
Labude: “It’s time you began to make some progress.”
Fabian: “But I can’t do anything.”
Labude: “You can do a great deal.”
Fabian: “The same thing. I can do a great deal and don’t wish to do anything. Why should I get on? What for and what against. Let us assume for a moment that I really have some function. Where is the system in which I can exercise it? There isn’t one; nothing has any meaning.”
But it isn’t simply nihilism that immobilizes Fabian—it is not that no action matters in itself—it is more so that he is consumed by an underlying sense of futility which confuses his sense of duty and absolves his instinct of responsibility. Kästner, in turn, seems to believe there are right and wrong actions per se (he is a moralist after all) though not necessarily productive ones. Case in point is the tragedy of Fabian's ultimate action in the novel, which is to jump in to the river to save a drowning boy who had already begun to climb over the edge of the riverbanks as soon as Fabian, unable to swim, began to drown. Such a cautionary conclusion to Fabian’s fable may be interpreted as an exception that means to prove the rule or at the very least represents the seeing to the end of one potential road; the road of moral action has led to the bottom of the river.
Such an ill-advised venture down this road serves as at least partial inspiration to the particular variety of moralism that Kästner comes to believe in. Kästner argues for the sort of moralist who neither engages in nor flees from the turmoil unfolding before them. Indeed, Kästner’s moralist sits ever suspended between that forever dilemma of to be, or not to be, and the ensuing choices of either 'suffer[ing] the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and ‘tak[ing] arms against a sea of troubles.’
Kästner envisions a third option. The particular way Kästner conceives an ideal moralist to swim in this sea of troubles is to not swim in them at all. But it is not flee, hide, nor escape; it is to be a lifeguard and observe instead: to watch and warn of the sea of troubles, rather than to trying to single-handedly see them off and more than likely drown in the process. Kästner believes that by watching and warning, rather than acting single-handedly—rather than pursue the individual action that may succeed (and just as well fail) in any singular case—he might enlighten and inspire the collective, which he sees as the only power he sees most consistently capable of warding off the troubled seas of the future.
In general, it might be said that Kästner sees the ocean the sea leads into, and in some ways is more concerned with the overall weather system that causes such troubled seas in the first place than any one particular instance of adversity. Kästner knows there will always be storms, that any one storm is one among many, and that, in any case, the sea will be troubled once again. Simply, Kästner is more concerned with society's overall mechanisms of defence to any adversary rather than any one threat.
For, Käster recognizes, there are always seas of troubles, just as there are always those who can sense the onset of such seas before they occur who thereupon struggle with what to do in light of, or, rather, in the darkness of, this advanced forecast. Kästner, partly through the failings of Fabian, suggests a separate approach.
Many saw the attitude Kästner’s displayed through his unique approach, however, as representative of the usual problematic brand of moralism, that is, the sanctimonious concern with the behaviour of others, a lack of skin in the game, an unwillingness to get off of one’s so-called high-horse, in short, the fantasist escapism that Wilde alludes to when he says that “to become the spectator of one’s own life is to escape the suffering of life.” It was Kästner’s binding ambivalence of action, after all, that attracted so controversy and made him a man criticised by all sides, both what he said and what he didn’t say, for both what he did and what he didn’t do. Indeed, the term moralism is usually used pejoratively, to deride moralists for both their attempted escape and their ensuing hypocrisy; it is the antithesis to the mantra of worrying about your own actions rather than the actions of others. At worst, moralism transforms seamlessly into Calvinism, Puritanism, Quakerism, the Inquisition, Wokism. And still, at best, and perhaps most generously, even though moralism is concerned with overall welfare, the defending of virtue, the Right, the truth, it is nevertheless still a self-appointed, self-righteous pursuit.
But what if moralism, as Kästner sees it, is more complex; what if moralism was an honourable choice and a defensible ideology rather than a hypocritical method of avoiding responsibility or a holier-than-thou approach to morality? And what that sort of moralism, more specifically? Kästner’s preface to the 1951 edition of the novel, reproduced in full below, is an illuminating entry-point into Kästner’s moralism, which is as much an artistic outlook as ethical belief.
In being written 19 years after the first publication of (what was then) Fabian, the preface is also somewhat of a postscript as well, and it is striking that even with the two decades of historical hindsight that had proved Kästner correct on a variety of scores, that Kästner’s focus, in the face of the judgments and widespread critique levied at both him and his work, is not to defend himself so much as defend the role of his particular kind of moralist; it turns out the defence is one in the same.
Preface to the 1950 Edition
This book, which is approaching its twenty-fifth anniversary, has been subjected to a variety of judgments, and even those who have praised it have often misunderstood it. Will people understand it any better today? Of course not! How should they! The fact that the judgements of taste were nationalised during the Third Reich, packaged in slogans and consumed by the million, has ruined the taste and judgement of broad sections of the public down to our own times. And even today, before they have had time to regenerate themselves, new, or rather, very ancient powers are frantically engaged in inoculating the masses with new standardised opinions which are not so very different from the old ones. Even now many people do not know, and many others have forgotten, that we all both can and should form judgements for ourselves. Even those who make the attempt do not know how to set about it. And we already find laws in preparation against modern art and literature, ostensibly for the protection of the young. The word ‘subversive’ is one again to be found at the top of the list of reactionary vocabularies. Such verbal abuse is just one of the means which not only justify the end, but all too often bring about it as well.
Hence people nowadays understand even less well than twenty-five years ago that Fabian is a highly moral book, and by no means an ‘immoral’ one (i). Its original title was Going to the Dogs. Together with a number of crass chapters, that title was rejected by the original publisher. It was meant to make it clear, already on the front cover, that the author had a particular aim in view. He wished to utter a warning. He wanted to warn people about the abyss into which Germany was in danger of falling and threatening to take all Europe with it. He wanted people to listen and reflect before it was too late. To do this he used every appropriate means, which in this case meant every available means.
The great wave of unemployment, the spiritual depression which followed in the wake of the economic one, the craving to anaesthetize the mind, the activities of unscrupulous parties—those were the storm signals which heralded the approaching crisis. Nor was the uncanny silence before the storm lacking—that spiritual lethargy which spread paralysis like an epidemic. It drove many to oppose both the storm and the silence preceding it. (ii) They found themselves pushed to one side. People preferred to listen to the fairground criers and drummers who sang the praises of their mustard plasters and poisonous patent medicines. People ran to follow the Pied Pipers, following them right into the abyss in which we now find ourselves, more dead than alive, and in which we try to make ourselves comfortable, as if nothing had happened.
(iii) The present book which depicts life as it was in the big city, is no poetic photograph album, but a satire. It does not describe what things were like; it exaggerates them. The moralist holds up not a mirror; but a distorted mirror to his age. Caricature, a legitimate artistic mode, is the furthest he can go. If that doesn’t help nothing will. It is not unusual if the moralist were to be discouraged by this fact. His traditional task is the defence of lost causes. He fulfils it as best he can. His motto today is as it always has been: to fight on notwithstanding!
Erich Kästner | Munich, May 1950
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
“Response to an enquiry.
Ever since there have been writers, the only duty asked of them has been to create their works. As long as there are writers, they will have no other mission.
But your question on the moral obligation of the writer in our time brings about a further enquiry: should a writer take a stand against the cruelty, the baseness, the sheer inhumanity of the world today?
To that one must respond: that the writer has no more right than anyone else not to take a stand against the inhumanity of the world today.
The writer has never—and no more so than now—had the right to take refuge behind his ‘vocation’ and his so-called calling to devote himself to ‘eternal’ subjects. Talent and genius cannot provide any of that moral engagement which issues from the self: to combat evil.
For example, a writer today who doesn’t cross swords with Hiter and the Third Reich will surely be a minor pathetic figure and clearly an author of the second rank.
A writer cannot possess genuine worth if he is not in possession of the following traits:
1 - Compassion for oppressed peoples.
2 - Love of good.
3 - Hatred of evil.
4 - Courage to proclaim in a loud and clear voice, unequivocally, his compassion for the oppressed, his love of good, his hatred of evil.
Whoever does not possess these characteristics and cannot show visible proof of them, is clearly a mediocre talent or a dilettante.
The task of the writer in our time is—to respond precisely to your question—to engage in pitiless combat against Germany, for she is the true crucible of evil in our time, the agency of evil, the residence of the Antichrist.”
Joseph Roth, Pitiless Combat (Pariser Tageblatt, 12th December 1934)
Kästner’s chosen last words on the course of history, by the fullness of hindsight allowed by all that took place between the book's publication in 1931 and the composing of the preface in 1950—out of anything that he could have said—are to defend the strict doctrine both the process by which the book came about: that is, his doctrine of moralism. Both Kästner and Fabian define themselves as moralists and consequently subscribe to the moralist code of conduct above all else; in short, they do—or think that they do—what being a moralist demands that they do. And it is Kästner’s steadfast, coveted identification as a moralist in particular that forms the crux of his defence of his principles, conduct, and actions (or lack thereof) in response to critics, detractors, and general disparagement.
Indeed, Kästner’s resounding last word in Fabian—literally the final sentence of the pressing epilogue that accompanied the novel’s original publication—comprises this supreme justification of his character and attitude as a defiant explanation rather than a searching excuse; his paramount message—the message he wishes to communicate the most—being as follows: “He maintains that he is a moralist.” Kästner’s preface sheds light on three crucial qualities of the moralist: first, the moralist’s aim, second, the moralist’s attitude in seeking this aim, and third, the moralist’s tools he employs in such the overall pursuit.
(i) The Moralist’s Aim
“…that the author had a particular aim in view. He wished to utter a warning.”
To start on the bottom floor and take a moralist primarily to be one concerned with morals, that is, with right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and vice, and secondly, to be devoted to the recording of and promoting of such morals, then the true moralist does so with an air of passivity and an element of acquiescence that is perhaps initially counterintuitive towards the serving of such primary concern, but is nonetheless essential to the cause in totality. As Kästner explains in the preface, the ‘raison d’etre’ of the moralist is to “utter a warning.” But the practical character of a moralist is to utter such warnings almost reservedly, and to be even more reserved about what those warnings mean to accomplish and who lies behind them. Kästner—and the moralist—do not mean to say what is right and wrong, to determine what is moral or immoral despite any personal views on such matters that are held. Livingstone explains such a dissonance the following way, “Kästner’s concern is not with the moral law, but with the health of society.”
Which is not at all to say the two, moral law and the health of society, are unrelated. While the oscillation of the good and the bad—like hot and cold might indicate favourable or unfavourable weather—is certainly a good reading for the health of a society, it is more the case that the modus operandi of the moralist is to describe symptoms rather than diagnose diseases; in other words, to warn rather than to advise. If your hair starts falling off, and the moralist holds the fallen strands of hair in front of you, the moralist may harbour some inclinations or even strong pretence as to its meaning, but never ventures to definitively form any determination of the fallen hair, which may be good if you have just shaved it off, bad insofar as you hadn’t, though surely beneficial to have been pointed out to you in any case. Oftentimes the moralist can be quite suggestive—for example, there seems to be no good reason why a tongue would turn green—though the warnings are never definite, and especially never accompanied by solutions or proposals. The moralist utters warnings, and to the extent that these warnings may function as diagnoses, the moralist especially does not offer cures.
No, the moralist does not shout from the rooftops. Instead, the moralist speaks by the sharpness and profundity of his words and the sanctity and quality of his art. The moralist does not tell the girl he thinks her beautiful, he writes it down. We can often call the writer a moralist and the moralist a writer. When the moralist senses something to be said—just Auden says of Eliot, a writer who wished to speak the unspoken word—he sooner writes it down than says it aloud. And if he is to see a bus rushing 120 MpH into a barrier, the moralist does not write that it will crash—he writes that it may be about to. The sound the moralist makes, then, is the scratching of pen on paper or the clicking of keys. The moralist writes essays and stories, not manifestos and political speeches. In sum, observer more than doer—watcher more than actor—the moralist observes and records. The moralist, like a prosecutor, judges, certainly, but the moralist does not pass judgments, only suggests them.
“He wanted people to listen and reflect before it was too late.”
Kästner’s moralist writes but does not say. A moralist leads the horse to water, and not only cannot make the horse drink, but does not not try to make the horse drink in the first place. He never even suggests to the horse that it drink, believing that the only long-term hope for the horse is that if it were to know to drink water by its own volition. The moralist does not wish to stronghold others; he does not necessarily want to convince people as much as he wants them to listen and make their own determinations. A moralist, observing the sacred sovereignty of the individual, despite, like both Kästner and Fabian, being sceptical towards the individual's effective utilisation of such sovereignty—though not for a moment doubting their desert of it—wants people to listen and decide the best course of action for themselves. For, to force people into action does not improve the taste and judgement of the population. “Even now many people do not know, and many others have forgotten, that we all both can and should form judgements for ourselves,” Kästner groans.
Even now, even now, even now after Kästner’s warnings were misheard, not heard, misattributed, misunderstood, he still wishes for reflection rather than the blind backing of readers. For, the moralist abhors such a state of affairs that makes it possible for the public to follow the first pied piper that comes along into whatever abyss they are inevitably led into. And Kästner does not want to simply be another pied piper, even if they would follow him. Though, is not so much that he does not want to, it is that he is unable to, for, if he wants to instruct specific action, dominate wills, he is not a moralist, but instead operating the same playbook as the political domineers he means to counter—even if it is to a different end, and perhaps especially if it is to the ‘right’ end. The moralist knows that the ‘right’ is anything but a definitively settled direction.
In all, the moralist warns because he cannot act. For, to act is to no longer be a ‘moralist,’ in the objective sense. The moment the moralist acts subjectively he loses his objectivity, no matter if his subjectivity is warranted. It is then the case that the moralist must employ, yet also deny, the agency of his own subjectivism; he must be within and also apart.
This strict condition of 'objective observance which evokes images—images that will be further explored—of a passer-by in front of a shop window or even more spatially accurate, as visitor to an aquarium, who stands necessarily on the other side of the glass from that which he observes, also provide a clear-cut defence to the critics of the moralist who disapprove of exactly this distant stationing, who believe the moralist does not do enough, who, even if they agree (for this is not always the case) with the condemnation, do not understand why this condemnation does not correspond to action. The deductive answers to this critique are as follows; in the first case, when you decide to go inside the store, you can no longer observe the complete view of the store you are privy to from outside, and in the second case, let us imagine if the glass of the aquarium was removed, then there would no longer be an aquarium.
These images are referred to throughout the novel, being conceptions that Fabian is constantly wrestling with. As he watches his girlfriend get away from him, pass into the shop he himself cannot enter, another character observes this spatial limitation, this apparent cowardice. “‘Why don’t you jump in after her?” says Frau Moll. Frau Moll then explains exactly why Fabian does not jump in after her, “You are afraid the sheet of glass might break. You are always afraid of breaking the glass between you and other people. You take the world for a shop-window.” Frau Moll is accusing, or rather, simply identifying Fabian as being a moralist—exactly as he wishes to be. What for Frau Moll is a critique is only a compliment to Fabian; it doesn’t mean any one of them is right, however. The shop-window and aquarium are important analogies to understanding how Fabian conceptualises the world, and that which remains in between, insurmountable, between him in the world as a result of being a moralist. The glass between him and the world must remain if he is to suitably observe, if he is to be a moralist.
It is also the case that the overall condemnation is more important than the potential action, for the action stands to threaten the potential for future condemnation and make the exercise short-lived. Consider Thoreau speaking about the restraint the naturalist must demonstrate: “The naturalist accomplishes a great deal by patience, more perhaps than by activity. He must take his position, and then wait and watch.” Waiting and watching, contemplating from a distance, restraining oneself; this is what those concerned with observing must actually do to observe effectively. Still, why wouldn’t the naturalist just kill the animal he is observing, in order to most closely see it? The answer is because the naturalist then loses the ability to observe over time, and constant observation will yield more insight than gleaned from one-off action; one inevitably sees more over time than in any given instant—an instant that may be useful but is nevertheless limiting. Along these lines, I posit that Kästner’s moralist is first and foremost an observer; that the moralist is necessarily an objective observer, whose position is best described as trying to maintain his point of observation in order to best serve as a witness.
(ii) The Moralist’s Attitude
They found themselves pushed to one side.
Kästner’s moralist is not an activist; the moralist is one who observes but does not act. A moralist points, but does not move. The stationing of the moralist can be imagined another way, too. Not only is the moralist necessarily apart (no matter how close his nose is to the glass) from that which he observes in order to maintain observation, but he is in some ways always between what he observes also. Accordingly, the moralist ‘sits on the fence,’ though this is not in the derogatory manner usually induced by this idiom, for, in fact, the moralist’s fence is a sacred and necessary object, in that if there was no fence then there would be no moralist.
Kästner speaks specifically to the virtue of the moralist’s fence, and sees sitting on such a fence as a worthwhile alternative to being caught on any one side. Note that Kästner does not specify one side in particular that he doesn’t want to be on, but simply communicates an aversion to taking any side at all. When you are on one side of the fence, presumably, not only are you trapped on the side you currently occupy, but you are also unable to see to the other side of it. Kästner abhors the notion of sides as a whole, which stand against his wish for people to be independent and free-thinking. Kästner takes exception to the quality of individuals succumbing to the sides and parties of which they are part, of their black-and-white nature that disallows critical thought, and most of all our habit of taking them in the first place, of running as fast and as far into them as we can, which only serves to foster the polarised societies constructed of absolute friends and absolute enemies. For his part, Kästner never shied away from what he admitted to be ‘fence-sitting’, as evident in his poem ‘Short CV,’ reproduced in part below, which was exactly the sort of writing and sentiment that became magnets of criticism from figures such as Walter Benjamin.
Now I am 31 or so they say,
With a small poetry business of my own.
Alas, my hair is starting to go grey.
And all my friends are getting overblown.
I like to be caught sitting on the fence,
Cut down the branch on which I choose to sit.
I walk through gardens filled with sentiments
Long dead, and scatter there a little wit.
Erich Kästner, ‘Short CV’
Yes, the moralist is always criticised for merely observing, for his apparent neutrality, for his unwillingness to get off the fence one way or the other. But should he rather not observe? In order to remain, in order to remain on top of the fence, to be able to observe, he must not act. More significantly, the second he falls to one side of the fence is the moment he loses his ability to observe the other side of it. Do we fault him for this?
How can you see both sides of the fence if you are not on top of it? To be on one side of the fence is to limit experience, limit knowledge, limit perspective. More importantly, how can you show others both sides of the fence if you can’t see both sides yourself? And yes, the moralist goes back. In order to observe, the moralist must actually be in a place to observe. The moralist goes back, and stays back, and passes at the train station all those acting under the banner of self-preservation. Kästner was a moralist. He went back, and holds course as all others push themselves—or rather are pulled—to one side of the other.
(iii) The Moralist’s Tool
The moralist holds up not a mirror; but a distorted mirror to his age.
And what exactly does the moralist show from his partitioned point of observation? Kästner imagines that the moralist holds up a ‘distorted mirror’ to his age. Is the mirror of the moralist distorted because he stands in the way of the reflection? No, the distortion is just a magnifying glass, a hundred magnifying glasses, a thousand. Those that see such a distorted mirror—those that read Going to the Dogs, for the novel is the distorted mirror Kästner speaks of—get a picture that is zoomed out, zoomed in, in all, distorted. The seeming insignificance of small events combine to form a kaleidoscope of chaos. The reality the moralist reflects is exaggerated, but not made up.
Fabian, through Kästner, is a moralist in the sense that he is showing us things that may be interpreted as right and wrong. The aim of Fabian's wanderings and observations are not to provide a list of good and bad, but to only represent the course of society as a whole, in order to assist the reader to make their own determinations. Fabian is Sherlock holding up a magnifying glass to a weapon that shows a fingerprint as clear as day in one hand and holding a picture of who that fingerprint belongs with the other, but never explicitly accuses that person as the murderer. The moralist leaves someone else to pass the sentence.
The moralist is selecting what to watch, watching, deciding what to say, thus selecting what we see, and hopefully facilitating further thought, but not forcing it. This is the essence of the distortion that the moralist’s mirror allows for; he is a filter, taking a magnifying glass to some things and not to others. The mirror is the moralist’s greatest tool, for it allows us to learn, rather than merely be taught. The moralist points to one thing you should look at, whereas the mirror looks at them all. So is not so much distortion as a refocusing, which in all is more insightful than the enormous, unedited picture. Such is the method of Kästner’s moralist; his aim, attitude, and tools. But such is to say nothing about whether such an approach is ultimately defensible.