Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Lord Chandos Letter

The Lord Chandos letter is a fictional letter written by Philipp, Lord Chandos to the English philosopher Francis Bacon. Written by Hugo Von Hofmannsthal, it is one of the few prose pieces that Hofmannsthal wrote before giving up writing. In its brevity, style and general concerns, this short piece of prose writing shines on its own, conveying in a few pages what ordinary writers might take volumes to do. I only read it last night in silent admiration.

Let us examine this letter. Lord chandos laments his laziness in writing to Bacon of late but says that he might not be the same person Bacon knew before, one capable of rhetoric but what use is rhetoric for "it is not equal to getting at the heart of things"; he remembers projects that he had envisaged, literary ones but now "they dance before me like miserable mosquitoes on a dim wall no longer illuminated by the bright sun of a happy time". He speaks about his efforts in understanding mythic and fairy tales, "his wanting to disappear into them and speak out of them with their tongues". Lord Chandos' plan was to assemble a book that would negate all books, a collection of wisdom and "aphorisms, reflections and intellectual baubles and call it Nosce te ipsum".

Lord Chandos has lived a life where "the mental world is not opposed to the physical", a life where solitude and barbarism balance each other. However this has only led to the present "faintheartedness", which he initially thought was a symbol, perhaps a prelude to a religious experience. And then Lord Chandos declares his "inability to think or speak coherently. In brief, this is my case".
Lord Chandos writes that he has "lost the ability to use words" and construct and convey abstract thoughts, which instead "disintegrated in my mouth like rotten mushrooms". Dreading conversation altogether, he stopped speaking, as "everything broke into pieces". To avoid all this, Lord Chandos sought the stoics, Seneca and Cicero, but he felt "terribly lonely in their company".

These experiences have however led Lord Chandos to see what was formerly not sought, the ordinary things of life, the ones taken for granted, "a watering can, a harrow left in a field, a dog in the sun, a shabby churchyard" and so on. These ordinary things "present a sublime and moving aura", and what he actually felt was "Carthage in flames". Insignificant creatures, small things, his own feelings, his harmony have allowed an insight into his relationship with all of existence, "a feeling that cannot be conveyed in rational language". This new joy will come from "a lonely shepherd's fire and not from contemplating a starry sky". Lord Chandos has discovered "a feverish thinking, but thinking in a medium more fluid and passionate than words, leading to myself in some way, into the most profound peace".

What does the letter actually say? The most obvious one, an everyday one for ordinary mortals too, is the impossibility of conveying through words, the inner states of our experiences, the shifting sands, the hourly tidal movements in our minds. The most acute writer or the most sensitive minds even are unable to convey that which is inexpressible through speech. Conrad wrote that it is "impossible to convey the given life sensation of a single epoch of our existence....we live and we die alone". Thus words which mean a lot to us are mostly dry, bare of the actual meat of our innermost hearts.
This letter is usually seen as a symptom of literature sickness though that is an extreme generalization. Hoffmannsthal's letter is more than that. It is more reflective of a moral, a metaphysical crisis, an agonised cry at the loss of a previously loved object( I am not suggesting any classic psychoanalytic loss-object-love-hate complex), the loss is that of a moral rather than a physical symbol, the fragmentation and dissolution of life, lives, and for the comforting memory of former times which always seem better.

Hoffmannsthal was one of the Viennese intellectuals- Jung Wien- perhaps its most distinguished. This letter must be seen in light of the events that were unfolding in Vienna, the coming to the end of an empire, political and social changes, other tempests, soon to come mass concentration camps and war. Karl Kraus described those days as "the last days of the end of the world". This letter thus raises concerns that the most uncompromising intellect, like that of Kraus had already raised, a refusal to acknowledge a crisis stemming from change and an inability through language to speak about it. The other aspect was Hoffmansthal's whole enquiry whether art could exist for arts sake, for the aesthetic quality alone or whether any art form should be an instrument of social change. Without actually participating, expressing and then becoming a symbol of its times, any art form existing just for its own sake, in a vacant limbo, speaks of hypocrisy. This was the original critique that Kraus had shown of his contemporaries, which included the brilliant Hoffmansthal too.

Along with this letter, this collection has a few other prose pieces and they all express in a language that is extremely poetic, the concerns of this letter. There is an impending sense of doom, destruction and dissolution. Nothing concrete is expressed, no fears are clearly shown and yet, the atmospheric quality of his writing grips the reader in a mood of forlorn misgivings for within a few sentences, we expect breakdown, not only of language but of the inner mind. This is wonderfully captured in the Tale of the 672nd night, Tale of the veiled woman, The village in the mountains amongst others. One can clearly understand the influence of Hoffmansthal on the coming generation of Austrian writers, in particular Bernhard but without the latter's masochistic nihilism.

The fact that this letter was written after a crisis of language suggests that it was not a crisis of language but more a crisis of its meaning for the letter is simply brilliantly written.Lord Chandos' letter forces us to examine the deeper meanings of life......not just day to day psychological games or crimes of passion or artistic or political concerns but the heart of the matter, which is the concern of most metaphysical prisoners. However, what I want to know is why was the letter addressed to Francis Bacon?


cain_devera said...

Thank you for writing about this letter. I had been debating for some time whether or not to bother trying to find a copy after reading about the letter, briefly, on Ellis Sharp's former blog. It also led to a discovery of the poet Stefan George; Hugo Von Hofmannsthal had been a close associate of the man they called the Master and treated like a prophet. In a strange way, Stefan George's activities, especially in the formation of the Circle, the leaders of what he called the Secret Germany, came to the opposite conclusions as Hofmannsthal. George seemed to genuinely believe that poetry had power to mobilize and shape opinion and action, preferably aiming toward a spiritual rebirth of Germany and a spiritual aristocratic elite as well, none of this socialism and masses 'nonsense' Kautsky was always spouting; in a way, too, George channeled the spirit of the time, but unlike Hofmansthal, who seemed to feel the dissolution and destruction, George, well, George welcomed it, and died only weeks before the coming of the Third Reich, whose energies he seemed content to channel and salute, even if with elision.

Xhuliana said...

In Elizabeth Costello, J.M. Coetzee writes a follow up to Lord Chandos' letter from the perspective of Lady Chandos, also addressed to Francis Bacon. Coetzee is brilliant, and so is the letter. I suspect--to answer your question--the letter was addressed to Francis Bacon because Bacon had great faith that science (not the humanities, as Costello thinks) could save us, that scientific knowledge could deliver us from our fears and uncertainties (see The Advancement of Learning, for instance).

I like your blog.

Atenea said...

The letter is addressed to Bacon most likely because it points to the emptiness of positivist ideals which have him as a basis. Hofmannsthal was wise enough to see that the Age of Reason, rooted in objectivity (the separation of object and subject) wasn't going anywhere good.
(There's a pretty good book by Northrop Frye, The Great Code, which is actually a literary reading of the Bible, but which begins with an excursus that contains a seductive theory about the different cultural-linguistic ways of reading and writing about reality from the myth to the scientific paper which would do as a critical tool to read Hofmannsthal's fictional letter)
I hadn't seen this post. I'd rather discuss this text with you, if not with a cup of coffee or a good mate amargo, at least through a more direct and less verbous way than blog comments.

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