Thursday, July 25, 2013

Theodor Fontane: Effi Briest

"Come again this afternoon to the dunes behind the mill. At old Mrs. Adermann's we can see each other without fear, as the house is far enough off the road. You must not worry so much about everything. We have our rights, too. If you will say that to yourself emphatically, I think all fear will depart from you. Life would not be worth the living if everything that applies in certain specific cases should be made to apply in all. All the best things lie beyond that. Learn to enjoy them."
"'Away from here,' you write, 'flight.' Impossible. I cannot leave my wife in the lurch, in poverty, along with everything else. It is out of the question, and we must take life lightly, otherwise we are poor and lost. Light-heartedness is our best possession. All is fate; it was not so to be. And would you have it otherwise—that we had never seen each other?"
Then came the third letter:
"Be at the old place again today. How are my days to be spent without you here in this dreary hole? I am beside myself, and yet thus much of what you say is right; it is salvation, and we must in the end bless the hand that inflicts this separation on us."
Innstetten had hardly shoved the letters aside when the doorbell rang.
In a moment Johanna announced Privy Councillor Wüllersdorf.
Wüllersdorf entered and saw at a glance that something must have
"Pardon me, Wüllersdorf," said Innstetten, receiving him, "for having asked you to come at once to see me. I dislike to disturb anybody in his evening's repose, most of all a hard-worked department chief. But it could not be helped. I beg you, make yourself comfortable, and here is a cigar."
Wüllersdorf sat down. Innstetten again walked to and fro and would gladly have gone on walking, because of his consuming restlessness, but he saw it would not do. So he took a cigar himself, sat down face to face with Wüllersdorf, and tried to be calm.
"It is for two reasons," he began, "that I have sent for you. Firstly, to deliver a challenge, and, secondly, to be my second in the encounter itself. The first is not agreeable and the second still less. And now your answer?"
"You know, Innstetten, I am at your disposal. But before I know about the case, pardon me the naïve question, must it be? We are beyond the age, you know—you to take a pistol in your hand, and I to have a share in it. However, do not misunderstand me; this is not meant to be a refusal. How could I refuse you anything? But tell me now what it is."
"It is a question of a gallant of my wife, who at the same time was my friend, or almost a friend."
Wüllersdorf looked at Innstetten. "Instetten, that is not possible."
"It is more than possible, it is certain. Read."
Wüllersdorf ran over the letters hastily. "These are addressed to your wife?"
"Yes. I found them today in her sewing table."
"And who wrote them?"
"Major von Crampas."
"So, things that occurred when you were still in Kessin?"
Innstetten nodded.
"So, it was six years ago, or half a year longer?"
Wüllersdorf kept silent. After a while Innstetten said: "It almost looks, Wüllersdorf, as though the six or seven years made an impression on you. There is a theory of limitation, of course, but I don't know whether we have here a case to which the theory can be applied."
"I don't know, either," said Wüllersdorf. "And I confess frankly, the whole case seems to turn upon that question."
Innstetten looked at him amazed. "You say that in all seriousness?"
"In all seriousness. It is no time for trying one's skill at pleasantry or dialectic hair-splitting."
"I am curious to know what you mean. Tell me frankly what you think about it."
"Innstetten, your situation is awful and your happiness in life is destroyed. But if you kill the lover your happiness in life is, so to speak, doubly destroyed, and to your sorrow over a wrong suffered will be added the sorrow over a wrong done. Everything hinges on the question, do you feel absolutely compelled to do it? Do you feel so injured, insulted, so indignant that one of you must go, either he or you? Is that the way the matter stands?"
"I don't know."
"You must know."
Innstetten sprang up, walked to the window, and tapped on the panes, full of nervous excitement. Then he turned quickly, stepped toward Wüllersdorf and said: "No, that is not the way the matter stands."
"How does it stand then?"
"It amounts to this—that I am unspeakably unhappy. I am mortified, infamously deceived, and yet I have no feeling of hatred or even of thirst for revenge. If I ask myself 'why not?' on the spur of the moment, I am unable to assign any other reason than the intervening years. People are always talking about inexpiable guilt. That is undeniably wrong in the sight of God, but I say it is also in the sight of man. I never should have believed that time, purely as time, could so affect one. Then, in the second place, I love my wife, yes, strange to say, I love her still, and dreadful as I consider all that has happened, I am so completely under the spell of her loveliness, the bright charm peculiarly her own, that in spite of myself I feel in the innermost recesses of my heart inclined to forgive."
Wüllersdorf nodded. "I fully understand your attitude, Innstetten, I should probably feel the same way about it. But if that is your feeling and you say to me: 'I love this woman so much that I can forgive her everything,' and if we consider, further, that it all happened so long, long ago that it seems like an event in some other world, why, if that is the situation, Innstetten, I feel like asking, wherefore all this fuss?"
"Because it must be, nevertheless. I have thought it over from every point of view. We are not merely individuals, we belong to a whole, and have always to take the whole into consideration. We are absolutely dependent. If it were possible to live in solitude I could let it pass. I should then bear the burden heaped upon me, though real happiness would be gone. But so many people are forced to live without real happiness, and I should have to do it too, and I could. We don't need to be happy, least of all have we any claim on happiness, and it is not absolutely necessary to put out of existence the one who has taken our happiness away. We can let him go, if we desire to live on apart from the world. But in the social life of the world a certain something has been worked out that is now in force, and in accordance with the principles of which we have been accustomed to judge everybody, ourselves as well as others. It would never do to run counter to it. Society would despise us and in the end we should despise ourselves and, not being able to bear the strain, we should fire a bullet into our brains. Pardon me for delivering such a discourse, which after all is only a repetition of what every man has said to himself a hundred times. But who can say anything now? Once more then, no hatred or anything of the kind, and I do not care to have blood on my hands for the sake of the happiness taken away from me. But that social something, let us say, which tyrannizes us, takes no account of charm, or love, or limitation. I have no choice. I must."
"I don't know, Innstetten."
Innstetten smiled. "You shall decide yourself, Wüllersdorf. It is now ten o 'clock. Six hours ago, I will concede, I still had control of the situation, I could do the one thing or the other, there was still a way out. Not so now; now I am in a blind alley. You may say, I have nobody to blame but myself; I ought to have guarded and controlled myself better, ought to have hid it all in my own heart and fought it out there. But it came upon me too suddenly, with too much force, and so I can hardly reproach myself for not having held my nerves in check more successfully. I went to your room and wrote you a note and thereby lost the control of events. From that very moment the secret of my unhappiness and, what is of greater moment, the smirch on my honor was half revealed to another, and after the first words we exchanged here it was wholly revealed. Now, inasmuch as there is another who knows my secret, I can no longer turn back."
"I don't know," repeated Wüllersdorf. "I don't like to resort to the old worn-out phrase, but still I can do no better than to say: Innstetten, it will all rest in my bosom as in a grave."
"Yes, Wüllersdorf, that is what they all say. But there is no such thing as secrecy. Even if you remain true to your word and are secrecy personified toward others, still you know it and I shall not be saved from your judgment by the fact that you have just expressed to me your approval and have even said you fully understood my attitude. It is unalterably settled that from this moment on I should be an object of your sympathy, which in itself is not very agreeable, and every word you might hear me exchange with my wife would be subject to your check, whether you would or no, and if my wife should speak of fidelity or should pronounce judgment upon another woman, as women have a way of doing, I should not know which way to look. Moreover, if it came to pass that I counseled charitable consideration in some wholly commonplace affair of honor, 'because of the apparent lack of deception,' or something of the sort, a smile would pass over your countenance, or at least a twitch would be noticeable, and in your heart you would say: 'poor Innstetten, he has a real passion for analyzing all insults chemically, in order to determine their insulting contents, and he never finds the proper quantity of the suffocating element. He has never yet been suffocated by an affair.' Am I right, Wüllersdorf, or not?"
Wüllersdorf had risen to his feet. "I think it is awful that you should be right, but you are right. I shall no longer trouble you with my 'must it be.' The world is simply as it is, and things do not take the course we desire, but the one others desire. This talk about the 'ordeal,' with which many pompous orators seek to assure us, is sheer nonsense, there is nothing in it. On the contrary, our cult of honor is idolatry, but we must submit to it so long as the idol is honored."


In the evening of the same day Innstetten was back again in Berlin. He had taken the carriage, which he had left by the crossroad behind the dunes, directly for the railway station, without returning to Kessin, and had left to the seconds the duty of reporting to the authorities. On the train he had a compartment to himself, which enabled him to commune with his own mind and live the event all over again. He had the same thoughts as two days before, except that they ran in the opposite direction, beginning with conviction as to his rights and his duty and ending in doubt. "Guilt, if it is anything at all, is not limited by time and place and cannot pass away in a night. Guilt requires expiation; there is some sense in that. Limitation, on the other hand, only half satisfies; it is weak, or at least it is prosaic." He found comfort in this thought and said to himself over and over that what had happened was inevitable. But the moment he reached this conclusion he rejected it. "There must be a limitation; limitation is the only sensible solution. Whether or not it is prosaic is immaterial. What is sensible is usually prosaic. I am now forty-five. If I had found the letters twenty-five years later I should have been seventy. Then Wüllersdorf would have said: 'Innstetten, don't be a fool.' And if Wüllersdorf didn't say it, Buddenbrook would, and if he didn't, either, I myself should. That is clear. When we carry a thing to extremes we carry it too far and make ourselves ridiculous. No doubt about it. But where does it begin? Where is the limit? Within ten years a duel is required and we call it an affair of honor. After eleven years, or perhaps ten and a half, we call it nonsense. The limit, the limit. Where is it? Was it reached? Was it passed? When I recall his last look, resigned and yet smiling in his misery, that look said: 'Innstetten, this is stickling for principle. You might have spared me this, and yourself, too.' Perhaps he was right. I hear some such voice in my soul. Now if I had been full of deadly hatred, if a deep feeling of revenge had found a place in my heart—Revenge is not a thing of beauty, but a human trait and has naturally a human right to exist. But this affair was all for the sake of an idea, a conception, was artificial, half comedy. And now I must continue this comedy, must send Effi away and ruin her, and myself, too—I ought to have burned the letters, and the world should never have been permitted to hear about them. And then when she came, free from suspicion, I ought to have said to her: 'Here is your place,' and ought to have parted from her inwardly, not before the eyes of the world. There are so many marriages that are not marriages. Then happiness would have been gone, but I should not have had the eye staring at me with its searching look and its mild, though mute, accusation."

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