Modernism and Babel



One of the most important articulations of the German-Austrian ‘Sprachkrise’ at the turn of the century, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s ‘Ein Brief’, presents the modernist linguistic crisis as a Babelian fall. The story takes the form of a letter from a fictional Lord Chandos to Francis Bacon, explaining his cessation of literary activity. Chandos’s previous state of linguistic and literary transcendence contrasts acutely with his current condition whereby his relationship with language — and, in consequence, the world — is completely ruptured. Everything is viewed with a microscopic closeness which prevents a unified vision of the whole:

Es zerfiel mir alles in Teile, die Teile wieder in Teile, und nichts mehr ließ sich mit einem Begriff umspannen. Die einzelnen Worte schwammen um mich; sie gerannen zu Augen, die mich anstarrten und in die ich wieder hineinstarren muß: Wirbel sind sie, in die hinabzusehen mich schwindelt, die sich unaufhaltsam drehen und durch die hindurch man ins Leere kommt.1

[For me, everything disintegrated into parts, those parts again into parts; no longer would anything let itself be encompassed by one idea. Single words floated round me; they congealed into eyes which stared at me and into which I was forced to stare back — whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void.2]


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© Juliette Taylor-Batty 2013

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