H.F. Broch de Rothermann (1910-94)

[ H.F. Broch de Rothermann's signature ]
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A so-called community, devoid of force but filled with evil will...." (p. 646)

In 1972, I read Hermann Broch's novel, The Sleepwalkers (Die Schlafwandler). I had been rather badly "burnt out" by my schooling, just barely graduating from Yale '68 summa cum laude summa cum avoidance (avoiding every class where the teacher had a reputation for being "tough"...), my attention span reduced to being unable to read anything more demanding than the New York Times. It took me several months to read Broch's novel: it took me perhaps half an hour to read one or two pages each day, not because the book was so difficult, but because I was "shell shocked". Entirely unexpectedly (although the George Grosz picture on the cover had made me hopeful...), Broch's words powerfully affected me, starting, perhaps, with a vignette, near the beginning, where one character (Pasenow) goes out into the street, hoping there, by happy chance, to run into a friend (Bertrand): but, of course, he does not meet him (ref. lost; See also: Peter Schickele quote about: Frank Sinatra).

How could such a seemingly small detail in a book change a life? Because (to use a presently [1998] fashionable word:) it deconstructed for me the whole social "world" into which I had been born and in which I was still immersed -- a social milieu which pervasively failed to meet my needs, and which had proven itself so incapable of raising me that it didn't even acknowledge its incompetence, nor, a fortiori, seek help to remedy it, or at least to find a more suitable place constructively to relocate me so that others more able could have a chance better to bring me up -- i.e., it did not even let persons better able to raise me adopt me.... [I have recently come to describe my social milieu of origin as: less-than-world, or: Abwelt.]

That social milieu's self-image included being to be a place where happy encounters did happen (or at least Bing Crosby crooned about them...). Its reality, however, at least as it demonstrated itself to me, was an unending monotonous process of low-grade waste, punctuated, not infrequently, by acute threats (see: The Sorrow and the Pity). At last, at age 26, in Broch's novel, I heard things described as they were. The ending of this first section of The Sleepwalkers ("The Romantic") definitively confirmed my initial impression:

....[A]fter the material for character construction already provided, the reader can imagine [the rest of this story] for himself." (p. 158)

Romantic! One conceit of my social milieu of origin was: the surprise ending. One way stories (movies, etc.) were supposed to give pleasure was for them to have: surprise endings. Because the "surprise" was written into the story, it was, of course, no real surprise at all (a fake of surprise, like the fake of scare on a roller-coaster ride, etc.). The people wanted to be surprised by the "surprises" the publisher had previously printed into the text, so that one spoiled "everything" if one looked at the last page first. [To read more about some pitfalls of "romantic", please click here.] [It should be obvious to the reader that such pleasure is the "flip-side" of the pain of tests in school, where the teacher has the answer but hides it from the student so the student has to "discover" it....]

From earliest childhood, I had never "got into" [enthusiasm for] such things. But I lacked concepts to clarify vague feelings of bored discomfort, or to explain why I always wanted to leave where I was -- as if, unconsciously, I "knew" there was somewhere really else, i.e., an entirely different [esp.: better...] world, and that I would enter it if only I could get to the end of the succession of places in my present existence, of which this one would turn out to be the last. "Let's go!" was for me a kind of blind prayer, which annoyed my parents, who usually wanted to stay....

Nothing really surprising (i.e., unable to be comprehended in terms of the existing [un-]imaginative horizon) could ever happen in that (to repeat myself:) less-than-world, because everything there was always more of the same. The surprise, as with a roll of a die, was always which one of the expectable alternatives would in fact occur. (--It is perhaps cause for wonder that anything could be so stolidly lacking in wonder and causes for it....)

Here, The Sleepwalkers, belatedly but not too late to affect the situation, exposed an important -- and once seen: obvious -- truth which I had been deprived of learning from others, and of which, consequently, I had been deprived of the means to elaborate for myself: There was no need go to the trouble to even have an ending, since the ending could be extrapolated in advance from what one already knew about the thing. For me, this was, at last, a real surprise (and a clue to figuring out a big secret).

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"The voice of comfort and hope...."

The Sleepwalkers "stayed with me". In my daily life, its images and words helped me make sense of and to bear what was happening to me.

Images, such as: the engineer Lt. Jaretzki who believes that World War I will never end because then the social order would lose its reason for being and collapse; the bricklayer become infantryman, Gödicke, who is blown to bits on the battlefield but brought back to the hospital by two medics who bet two packs of cigarettes whether he'll live or not, and, there, slowly, Gödicke -- a secularized latter-day Lazarus -- comes back to life as the bits, one by one, reknit (later, at a prayer meeting where the sermon is about resurrection, Gödicke rises on his crutches and declares that only those who have died and risen have the right to speak, pp.531-2); the bookkeeper Esch, whose determination that all evil be accounted for causes the most positive character in the book to commit suicide; the opportunist entrepreneur deserter Hugeneau, who becomes patriotic business leader in a town, thus occasioning the town's straight-laced military commander, when he reads a dispatch listing AWOLs and sees this man's name on it, to go insane, due to discovering that virtue is really vice, thereby providing Hugeneau his ticket to freedom, because the [thus still unexposed] deserter turns out to be the only person the commander will tolerate to perform the patriotic service of escorting him on his railway journey to the lunatic asylum....

Words, such as the end:

"....[F]rom our bitterest and profoundest darkness the cry of succour comes to the helpless, there sounds the voice that binds all that has been to all that is to come, that binds our loneliness to all other lonelinesses, and it is not the voice of dread and doom; it falters in the silence of the Logos and yet is borne on by it, raised high over the clamour of the non-existent; it is the voice of man and of the tribes of men, the voice of comfort and hope and immediate love: 'Do thyself no harm! For we are all here!'" (p. 648)
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I act on a crazy idea which, in fact, succeeds beyond all expectation

[ Hermann Broch's bookplate; Go to Broch Archive, Yale University! ]At a certain point, several years after first reading the book, I decided to see if I could find out anything more about this "person": Hermann Broch (1886-1951), whose words I felt I would have written if I was who I wished I was. (I found it hard to imagine he was of the same species I had been born into, but, for once, I overcame timidity, shame and fear of embarrassment, and took a chance on trying to breach the adamantine barrier separating ordinary people like myself from the other region, of persons who belong to the foreground of history....) I wrote a "blind" ("Dear Sir:") letter to the publisher, Pantheon Books, asking if there was anyone left there who had known Broch. We know that such inquiries generally end up in someone's waste basket, or, at best, receive a form letter reply which media always have ready for fans who fancy they want to touch the "stars", etc.

[ Go to Pantheon Books! ]In an incredible stroke of wholly unexpected good fortune, a Pantheon editor wrote back to me that, while no one was left who had known Broch, they could tell me to whom they paid royalties on his books. They gave me two names and addresses. I wrote to both. One did not reply. The other, Broch's son, H.F. Broch de Rothermann, very kindly wrote back that he was delighted with my inquiry about his father, and that he would be pleased to meet me. Thus began (ca. 1980) a friendship which ended only with "Broch's" (i.e., the son's) death, ca. fifteen years later.

Every time I visited "Broch's son", I would ask him to tell me about his father, and he would tell me things, such as how, once when he was a child, he and his father were walking down a street in Vienna, and Sigmund Freud approached them, walking the other way, and Broch [the father] greeted Freud, whom he knew. Always, however, what I most wanted to hear about was anything "Broch's son" could tell me about his father's thought processes: about what I imaged [still imagine...] was the father's ability to see ("eidetic perception") -- what the son once called: "ekstasis"[fn.59[ Go to footnote! ]] --, and, beyond that, what the experience must have been like of the coming of the words that would bring this insight into the world (i.e., bring [raise] the world to this insight).

Another time, "Broch's son" spoke to me at some length about how his father could never say "No" to a request for help, either from individuals or from the broader world. Regarding the former, he told me it was a good thing his father never met me: "because he would have wasted a lot of time on you". Regarding the latter, he alluded to his father's efforts vis-à-vis the United Nations, and concluded with the equally trenchant observation that there were many others who could have done for the UN what his father did, but no one else who could write the novels that consequently went unwritten.

Note: As a teenager, I attended a "prep school" where I was required to address the teachers, who, a century after the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, called themselves: masters, as: "Sir!", even though they rarely deserved any honorific. As a result, I have always had difficulty addressing persons older than myself. Therefore, in speaking to "Broch's son", I almost always used grammatical constructs which avoided having to employ any name. "Mr. de Rothermann" didn't seem right, nor did "Broch", and I never got up to the courage to ask him how he would like to be addressed. (I have since learned that his nickname was: "Pitz", but I did not know that while he was alive, and I wouldn't have addressed him that way if I had known.)

Probably the most gratifying moment for me in our relationship was when, after having sent "Broch's son" a letter with some architecture designs I'd done in the Harvard summer "Career Discovery Program" (1981), I received a letter back from him in which he included an architecture design of his own which, evidently, my letter had motivated him to do. I was extremely pleased that my letter had acted as a stimulus to give him (a very serious, responsible adult) an opportunity to play. (I would like to do that more often for more persons.) [Broch's son's quasi-"treehouse design" can be found in the Yale University Beinecke Library H.F. Broch de Rothermann archive, to which I have given it along with other things he wrote to me.]

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"Noch nicht, und doch schon"

The five words immediately above are a key sentence in Hermann Broch's novel The Death of Virgil (Der Tod des Vergil, p. 60 in the Suhrkamp taschenbuch 296 edition). Jean Starr Untermeyer translated them as:

"Not quite here, but yet at hand" (p. 61)

I felt this had to be wrong -- that it was not worthy of Broch. I thought: "Not yet and yet already" would have been better, because it captures the structural pre-science of all human experience: the vision of The Good implicit in every perception of [however banal/baleful...] fact. (I hardly know any German, and I made this hypothesis before checking the original text.) I asked "Broch's son", and he assured me that I was right and Jean Untermeyer was wrong. He went on to comment that her translation of "The Virgil" was in many ways less than satisfactory (on the other hand, he said the Muirs' translation of The Sleepwalkers was well done). His corroboration of my intuition on this point helped reassure me in my sense of "empathic attunement" with his father's thought. [Note: The English translation of "Dear Mrs. Strigl" (John Hargraves, trans., The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 2001) translates this yet a third way: "still to come, yet already past" (p. 57).]

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The rest of the story

The last episode of my relation with "Broch's son" (except for my continuing remembrance of him, of course) took place in Spring, 1997, a couple years after his death. I had always been angry with myself for missing his obituary in The New York Times (after inquiring repeatedly to The Times, and never getting any reply, I eventually learned from another source that there had been no obituary there). I knew that Hermann Broch had spent his last years at Yale, and that the Broch archive was in the Beinecke Rare Book Library. At a certain point, I decided to write to Yale, to ask if they might be interested in my correspondence with my now deceased friend. They replied that they were interested, and I sent them the letters (including that architecture design "Broch's son" had once sent to me), and also an audiotape I had recorded of one of our conversations [I say at least one ignorant&stupid thing on the tape]. I found this little interaction with "Yale" more suitable to myself than my four years there as an undergraduate (1964-68 -- "undergoer" seems a more apposite word to describe this experience of being subjected to one assignment/test after another...), and, a fortiori, the interaction I had ca. 1980 with the Director of Admissions for Yale's Master of Architecture program.


The present web page has been, obviously and probably to the reader's annoyance, as much about me as about "the Brochs père et fils". I will close with another paradoxical statement which came to my mind in writing about "not yet and yet already": For much of my life I have endeavored to try to avoid being mistaken for "who I am" (see above). H.F. Broch de Rothermann -- whose business was simultaneous translation -- was one of the first persons I encountered who interpreted more constructively and hopefully than hurtfully and disappointingly the living "text" I was (as of this writing, still am...). His father's words had showed me, almost a decade previously (at age 26): why words could deserve to exist and life could be worth living. When I first read The Sleepwalkers, I had thought: If I was who I wished I was, I would have written these words.

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I have heard that an obituary in The New York Times was hoped for, and that Susan Sontag -- a long-time friend -- had been hoped to write it. For reasons I do not know, the obituary never appeared: For many years, including his last, a New York City resident, H.F. Broch de Rothermann never had an obituary in The New York Times.
 
[I work more on this page, as time permits. If you are interested in Hermann Broch or his son, or know anything you might wish to share with me about these things, please email me[ Email me! ].]
 

Read brief biography of Hermann Broch.
Go  to Broch Archive, Beinecke Library, Yale University.
Go  to H.F. Broch de Rothermann Archive, Beinecke Library, Yale University.
 
Return to essays page.
Return  to my dissertation bibliography page.
Return /Go to picture of envelope for letter I mailed to H.F.B de R. (interpretation of the ending of "The Death of Virgil").
 
Go  to my webpage interpreting opening of "The Death of Virgil".
See  envelope I made for Broch's son, about Japanese swords that reminded me of opening paragraph of "The Death of Virgil".
Read  Claude Levi-Strauss quote similar to ending of "The Sleepwalkers".
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Dear Broch (21Oct01): We once talked about whether there was a reference to The Sleepwalkers in Fellini's film: La Dolce Vita. I watched the movie again and did not see any.
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But there is a reference to The Sleepwalkers in Antonioni's film: La Notte. Marcello Mastroianni plays an intellectual writer. At a party in a rich industrialist's home, to which he has gone with his wife ("Millionaires collect intellectuals, and he has selected you."), Mastroianni wonders aloud, upon seeing the book lying next to a stairs, "Who here would read The Sleepwalkers?" It turns out the industrialist's world-weary daughter [Monica Vitti] is reading it. Mastroianni tries but fails to seduce her. At one point, she proposes to read a few pages of the book aloud with him.
When I was in Japan (1984,85), I visited the Tokyo National Museum (Ueno). Several pre-1500 (pre-European influence...) swords were on exhibit (Click to see[ See national treasure Japanese sword made in 1322! ] Tachi sword, 1322). The modulations of color in the steel of the blades was achingly beautiful. I thought of the opening paragraph of The Death of Virgil; the words came to me:
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"The waves in the steel...
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See also envelope I made for Broch's son on this theme[ See 'Japanese sword' envelope design! ]
 
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06 April 2006 (2006-04-06 ISO 8601)
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