Peter Weir

Like so many other fans, I could put off going to the theater again for three years if I knew when to expect a sequel to Master and Commander at the Far Side of the World, because this movie showed me what theaters were built for. So when, as a Colin Farrell fan, I didn’t fall in love with Peter Weir’s Colin Farrell movie, The Way Back, I decided to do some research and see if the story would grow on me. The book I read, Schiller in Russian Literature, chronicles a German idealist’s influence on the leading lights of Russian literature, from imitation on the stage in the late Tsarist era to iconography in the novels of Dostoyevsky. Schiller’s fame actually reached its zenith in Russia under Stalin, although Dostoyevsky’s later work was not part of the party’s literary canon. It’s sort of a history of the Russian imagination, through a very small window, the influence of a writer few knew even in translation. But don’t discount Schiller for his obscurity, because I suspect his ideas about protagonists have influenced Hollywood as well, if only in a very distant and indirect way.

A lot of Schiller’s plays, imitated by Russian writers, portray anti-heroes rejected by society and their own families (like Valka) and one of them is about a brutal gang of robbers. Schiller saw something romantic in the impulse to do evil, a rebelliousness that was somehow idealistic and humanistic. Russian writers were heavily influenced by his idealism, though they sometimes repudiated his love of abstract beauty (his “fair-souledness”) and the lack of realism in his plays.

Reading about how Doestoyevsky experienced the ideas of Schiller was heartbreaking at first. As a young man he saw the same great actor who inspired the other Russian writers to love Schiller’s plays, Mochalov, perform The Robbers. Late in life he wrote of this experience in a letter, “I can justly say that the strong impression of this performance has acted as an enormous stimulation for my entire spiritual development.” Doestoyevsky was a sad and lonely child, with books for friends, but he too experienced a magical friendship in his youth reminiscent of the friendship in Schiller’s play – only this relationship was very private, something he kept a secret for reasons unclear to me. He told his brother about this in another letter:

“You wrote to me, dear brother, that I have not read Schiller. You are wrong, my dear brother! I have learned Schiller by heart, I have talked in his language and have raved about him; and I think fate never did me a greater favor in all my life as when it allowed me to get to know the great poet at that period in my life; I could never have gotten to know him so well at any other time. Reading Schiller with [unnamed friend], I saw in him the noble ardent Dn Carlos, and Marquis Posa, and Mortimer. This friendship has caused me much sorrow and much joy! But my lips shall remain sealed about this forever. To be sure, the name of Schiller has become dear to me, a kind of magic formula that conjures a host of dreams; bitter dreams, dear brother; this is the reason why I have never spoken to you of Schiller and the impressions he produced on me: it hurts me when I hear his very name.”

Nine years later, Dostoyevsky and members of his socialist circle of friends were arrested and sentenced to death, a sentence “commuted by the tsar to hard labor in Siberia. While confined in the Peter and Paul fortress Dostoyevsky read Schiller’s History of the Thirty Years’ War which his brother Mikhail had managed to smuggle in to him.” The years he spent in Siberia hardened him to Schiller’s idealism. His early novels are full of Schillerean characters, but he scoffs at their ideals with “caustic irony.”

In the novel The Injured and the Oppressed, he has a prince confess like a reformed student of Schiller: “Do you know that I once was a metaphysician and philanthropist out of caprice and moved almost in the same circle of ideas as you? .. now one must make grimaces; now we all make grimaces – such are the times..”

Satirizing the life of Schiller, who was unhappily married and sometimes strayed to a whorehouse, only to redeem himself with his love of abstract ideals, he has the hero of Memoirs from the Underground say: “Oh, if I were doing nothing just because of laziness, heavens, in how high an esteem would I hold myself! I would esteem myself precisely for being able to have at least laziness to my credit; … And then I would make a career of it: I would become an idler and a glutton, yet not an ordinary one but, for instance, one sympathizing with everything beautiful and sublime. How do you like that? I have been dreaming of it for a long time. This ‘Beautiful and Sublime’ has awfully gotten stuck in my throat now that I am forty; but that’s now that I am forty…”

He claims that idealism overwhelms him “at the very moment when he had sunk to the lowest depths. Yet their appearance could not induce him to give up his debauchery: ‘On the contrary – they revivified it by contrast, as it were, and occurred exactly as often as was necessary to make a savory dressing.’”

Only later, in The Brothers Karamazov, did Dostoyevsky redeem Schiller’s “beautiful soul,” the hero and no longer the butt of a worldly joke. Schiller is named, quoted or alluded to 32 times in this novel. Dmitry Karamazov is much like the hero of Memoirs from the Underground, but his brother Alyosha is a beautiful soul. Dmitry says:

“Beauty is a dreadful and awe-inspiring thing! It is dreadful because it has not been unriddled and never can be unriddled, for God gives us nothing but mysteries… Beauty! I cannot bear the idea that a man of exalted mind and heart starts with the ideal of the Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. Yet even more shocking is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not give up the ideal of the Madonna and his heart may be afire with that ideal, truly afire, just as in his days of childhood and innocence.”

A German critic of Dostoyevsky wrote that for him, the beautiful is nothing but the realized, individuated existing form of these ideals – humans cannot live in constant conflict with reality, and rather than merely sketch an idea, man wants and needs feasibility and realization. Soviet critics found in The Brothers Karamazov a betrayal of the realism of Dostoyevsky’s other novels, for Alyosha Karamazov is like an abstract idea to them, too perfect, a character out of a romantic poem.

The turn-of-the-century poet-philosopher Ivanov saw Schiller as a Dionysian mystic and hero of popular culture, and saw his Ode to Joy (immortalized in Beethoven’s ninth symphony) as a universal hymn. He pointed out that Schiller, like the Greeks, used a chorus in his play The Bride of Messina. He thought Schiller’s legacy would be a populist theater of tragedy with mystical overtones. Commenting on another Schiller poem quoted by Dostoyevsky, he wrote: “Thus, in the silence of the mysteries, resounded once the obscure revelations instilling grief, and terror, and disenchantment into the hearts of the novices so that later the flame of unexpected, purest hope might flash up for them all the brighter.” The critic Kostka argues that this poem is only about a longing to see Italy again, but for Ivanov all of Schiller’s writing has spiritual meaning.

At times Ivanov likes to call Schiller a dithyrambic poet, but at length he says, “it would be, nevertheless, a mistake to regard Schiller as the perfect representative of a dithyrambic poet. A real dithyramb (as it as postulated by the ancients) presupposes a certain continuous fullness and abundance of the soul – in profound harmony with every joy and sorrow of the soul – at the bottom of which rests the great Yes to the world, in purple twilight, not accessible to the storms, like the golden ring of a mysterious betrothal. When, unable to contain the over-abundance, the golden brim of the fathomless bowl overflows with the foaming lymph of sentiment then the music of bacchic song is born out of excess and superfluity. The dithyramb is the least logical kind of poetry and the one most closely related to the element of music. In the dithyramb any what precipitates into the abyss of the soul’s inebriation which has engendered it,– into the ineffable how of the spirit. From this nature of the dithyrambic muse Nietzsche obviously deduced his distinction between creation ‘from abundance’ and creation ‘from hunger.’” Ivanov felt Schiller wrote from hunger, not only in the sense that he struggled to support himself with his writing, but in a spiritual sense. Kostka describes Schiller’s writing as “an upward flight of yearning, but not the mighty surge of plenty and abundance.”

Of Schiller’s influence in the Soviet era, a biographer wrote:
“Each upsurge of the revolutionary struggle of the Russian people was accompanied by a new enthusiasm for Schiller’s poetry. It is well known how warmly, in the years of the Civil War, the dramas of Schiller were received by the revolutionary workers, the members of the Young Communist League, and the soldiers of the heroic Red Army. The novels by A. Tolstoy and K. Fedin, dedicated to the theme of the Civil War, testify to this with sufficient eloquence. The Robbers, Intrigue and Love, and Don Carlos occupied a place of honor in the repertory of the Soviet theater during the first years of the great socialist October revolution. And they have preserved this popularity down to our own times.”

A Bolshevik poet who popularized Schiller, Alexander Blok, described his legacy as revolutionary: “The banner of humanism which Schiller had held intrepidly was convulsively seized by hundreds of anxious and nervous hands of the people of the nineteenth century – a century that was permeated with unceasing agitation.”

But this is not the Schiller I see in Hollywood today. I see Stalin’s Schiller instead. When the Stalinist regime was stymied with the challenge of raising worker productivity, having transformed a nation of peasants into an industrial power with a massive labor force, they turned to Schiller for an idealization of the work ethic:

“The motto of the great poet was his saying: ‘The main thing for man is love of work; for it gives him not only the means of subsistence but it, and it alone, gives value to his life.’ Schiller was always striving and always emphasized that work was the joy and fullness of life…”

For Schiller, the best a man can do in life is only his duty, nothing more. The hero does what he must, and is the last person to willingly exceed his orders. Great or terrible deeds are thrust upon him in spite of his moral modesty. Hence, the reluctant hero. But that’s not the Captain Jack Aubrey I love. So, enough of literary theory. Next time let it be a man of action, with a spirit of adventure, a ship and a crew, and an anarchist naturalist on board to show him his place in the order of things.

But for Schiller, I leave you with this.

The Ode to Joy, a hymn of abundance the West
raises like a holy flag, appeals to the blessed
ideals of life in the words of a fallen man
in love with Sodom and convinced salvation can
arise from sin, that lying there in the entrails
of the earth is the man who unthinkingly pales
with love at the image of the Madonna’s smile.
Seek ecstasy and frenzy, we are told, for while
we breathe the moistened air and drink the heady wine
we are the mystics of religious life, and fine
feelings for mankind will flow from us, and Christian
faith will soon deliver us, through that same passion.
There is a Dionysus in Christ, fierce and free
of hunger, teaching out of superfluity.
The soul’s inebriation is the source of good,
and in our wildness is confession understood.
Give us a leader of gorgeously-wreathed dancers,
deliver us from the crescendo of hunger
for a great accomplishment, take us far beyond
the creation of need to where the gods respond
to a fathomless golden bowl overflowing
with magical sentiment, giving and singing,
by making holidays of holy sacraments,
and sanctifying oaths on books of testament.
Lead us on to the West, corrupted and divine,
let us survive to see another lighted shrine.

1 Comment

Filed under Acting, Master and Commander, Poetry, Roll Credits

One response to “Peter Weir

  1. I’ve just stumbled upon your blog – what a lovely post & so informative! Thanks for sharing – Funnily enough, I’ve just watched a play about Stalinist Russia.

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