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The simple life

The simple life

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The simple life

The philosopher Peter Natter takes a book to study in the Bregenzerwald and reads it in the light of his immediate surroundings. This time: "Phèdre" by Jean Racine.

This time I have brought a 350-year-old French tragedy into the Siebaner Hüsle with me. Reading a story from ancient times in the Bregenzerwald? Do those two things go together? Of course they do! Let’s take one thing at a time: my Bregenzerwald, for a start, is rather a mystical, archaic sort of place. It has nothing to do with  Michelin Star chefs or wellness or growth strategies. My Bregenzerwald is about people and the landscape; a Bregenzerwald in which facts and figures do not feature at all. Of course, I understand that there can be other kinds of Bregenzerwald as well as my own; there are allowed to be and perhaps there need to be. But it’s so big that there is room for all of them, isn’t there? And if we take seriously the truism that there are two sides to everything, then it isn’t a big leap to make a connection between the Bregenzerwald as a cultural region in the oldest, completely apolitical sense, and one of the greatest tragedies in world literature, with its gods, kings and overpowering passions. The drama “Phèdre” by Jean Racine (1639–1699), which was first performed in Paris on New Year’s Day 1677, was translated into German by the writer Friedrich Schiller. The plot can be summarised in a few sentences: it is about the illicit and unreciprocated love of King Theseus’ wife Phaedra for her stepson Hippolytus, which she confesses to him when news comes of Theseus’ death. However, the husband who is believed dead reappears and the situation becomes yet more complex. Phaedra tries to deny responsibility for her love and accuses Hippolytus of attempting to take her by force. In the last act comes the inevitable showdown. So far, so bad. What is so fascinating about the work, in both the original and in the translation, is the way in which Racine and Schiller express the most fundamental, pure and naked emotions in language; and, what’s more, in language governed by the strictest rules, in the case of Racine in exactly 1,654 Alexandrine rhyming couplets, i.e. lines that are rhythmically like this one by the German poet Andreas Gryphius: “You see where’er you look, but vanity on earth.” Anyone who has ever tried to express even an entirely banal idea in rhyme that is not too rollicking will have some idea of the problem.

The aim of great literature is to portray the human destiny, indeed, the very essence of humanity, stripped bare. All the writer requires, in order to show people at their most alive, their most directly involved, is a simple, almost everyday style. Racine’s tragedy and Schiller’s translation are as exciting to read as a thriller and more dramatic than a Hollywood blockbuster ever could be. With a cast of just eight characters and a single setting – the palace of King Theseus – Racine shows us what people are capable of, how to interact with them and what is really important to them. In short, everything that counts when facts and figures don’t enter into it. The archaic aspect that I referred to in connection with the Bregenzerwald, my Bregenzerwald, is revealed in the synergy between the landscape and the people living and working in it, and in their humility before Nature, which is anything but a playground for them, and indeed leaves little scope for play. The tragedy reduces human actions and existence to the same kind of bleakness. Naturally, this kind of radical reduction of human life to a depiction of inevitable, inextricable and apparently unbearable fate leads one irresistibly into the realm of philosophy. But is it not the same for anyone who, anywhere in the Bregenzerwald – be that on the banks of the Bregenzerach river or on a mountain summit, in an ancient or refurbished traditional Bregenzerwald house or a mountain hut – spends time immersed in their own thoughts and feelings, their instincts, emotions, perceptions and dreams? As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “Let it not be your honour henceforth whence ye come, but whither ye go.” However fine the traditional costumes, however mighty the pines: not even the Bregenzerwald is a bed of roses in which you can lie with impunity. It can, if considered carefully, provide a wonderful starting point for a long run-up to the question: up and away and into the hugeness of what it means to be human, as depicted in Racine’s tragedy. What do I mean by that? I mean, for example, that there are no lazy compromises and no cowardly decisions; that, once something has been said out loud – which is not done lightly – it holds true. “When you have understood what greatness is, you have to act accordingly,” as the Hungarian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, Imre Kertész, put it succinctly. That makes up an important part of my Bregenzerwald: actions and knowledge, behaviour and conscience, emotion and reason balance each other out. “My hand is pure. Would that my heart were as pure,” says Phaedra, summing up her fatal dilemma. The unavoidable flip side of reducing things to what is great, essential and authentic, the other side of the archaic, the good and the genuine, the side that can never be completely eliminated, is the primitive, the banal, the mindless, what we might call kitsch. The counterpart to nature, including the nature in which we live, is an uncultured state of savagery, civilisation gone out of control. There, you can’t be too careful about what you do. Reading the classics calls for caution, because, at heart, they are all about how we feel about life, about the question of what it means to be human. And that, as we know, is “not so easy”, as the philosopher Ferdinand Fellmann puts it, but for us humans it is unavoidable. Therein lies culture, or what Fellmann’s colleague Andreas Steffens calls the “human shaping of the unavoidable”. And Phaedra is not the only one who knows about that.

Author: Peter Natter
Edition: Reisemagazin Summer 2019