Hugo Hofmannsthal published The Letter (which is almost always translated into English as The Letter from Lord Chandos) in 1903. In turn of the century Vienna, Hofmannsthal, as a young lyric poet, had become the object of a more numerous and public cult than the one (more famous now) surrounding Stefan Georg. And, unlike Georg or Rilke, he was politically and religiously orthodox – a good Catholic, a supporter of the Habsburg order. Herman Broch, in his essay on Hofmannsthal, says that “on the triad of life, dream and death rests the symphonic structure of Hofmannsthal’s complete opus” – which should remind us of Klimt, and the whole Jugendstyl aesthetic of fin de siecle Vienna. It is a mistake to assume that these aesthetes, with their intense interest in hedonism, were somehow opposed to the sexual ‘repression’ of bourgeois Habsburg society, since, in fact, the latter never operated as a machine for repression. And so it was with Hofmannsthal – as his enemy Kraus liked to observe, he was certainly a man of the status quo.
However, he was also certainly a language man. Hofmannsthal seemed preternaturally gifted with phrases in his early poetry.
This is why the Letter created quite a shock.
The Letter is presented as a reply to a letter written by Francis Bacon to Philip Lord Chandos. Bacon is concerned that Philip Lord Chandos, a promising young maker of poems and masques, had fallen silent. Lord Chandos writes that such have been the changes he has undergone that “he hardly knows if I am the same person to whom you have directed your precious letter”. He goes on to ask if he was the same person as the twenty three year old who, in Venice, under the stony boughs of the grand piazza, lived half in a dream of the books to come – for instance, sketches of the realm of Henry the Eighth, or a mythography of the ancient myths, or a collection of apothegmata as Julius Caesar would have written them, a sort of jumble of dialogues, curious knowledge and sayings not unlike Bacon’s own Natural History or New Organon.
“To be brief: all of being appeared as one great unity to me, who existed in a sort of continuous intoxication: the mental and physical world seemed to image no opposites to me, just as little as the world of court and the world of animals, art and un-art, loneliness and society; in all I felt Nature, in the confusions of madness as much as in the extremest refinements of a Spanish ceremonial, in the boorishness of a young peasant not less than in the sweetest allegory; and in all nature I felt myself; when I in my hunting cap absorbed the foaming, warm milk that an unkept person milked out of a beautiful, soft eyed cow’s udder into a wooden bucket, it was the same to me as I was sitting in the built in window cove of my studio, sucking out of folios the sweet and foaming nurture of the mind. The one was as the other; one did not yield to the other, neither in terms of dreamy, super-earthly nature nor in physical force, and so it continued through the whole breadth of life, right hand, left hand. Everywhere I was in the middle, never was I conscious of a mere semblance. Or it seemed to me that everything was an allegory and every creature a key to another, and I felt myself to be the man who was able to seize their heads one after the other and unlock with them as much of the other as could be unlocked.”
Well, now, - if you have been a philosophy student or a lyric poet and not had this feeling, than you are highly in need of an ego. Having a full sense of what you possess when you are young gives you these buttery, milky moments of feeling, as though the crosspatch world has been waiting those dark dark eons just to encounter the revelatory moment of the tearing of the seals which has happened in your head. You are the angel of the Lord. Or you are Krishna, a god man who was pretty conversant, himself, with the ways of milkmaids. At least, so it was with me at twenty one, a fuckin’ mooncalf if there ever was one, but a common enough exhibit of the syndromes of the hyperborean consciousness. Lord Chandos is a recognizable type, the child of the century – his avatars are in Balzac, in Lermontov, in Tolstoy. The modernist moment is marked by the struggle to be impersonal – to deliver oneself from the milky moment – and that struggle requires some terrible sacrifices of ego for an uncertain outcome. One outcome is the Flaubertian artist. Another outcome is… well, as it is described in the Letter.
Perhaps it is a mistake, even, to confine this to the modernist moment, or at least to pretend that the modernist moment isn’t structured according to the precepts of a broader mythology. Wasn’t Prajapati found lying in a golden egg, the first man, Purusa? The egg is both his bearer and his product – for it was born, itself, of Prajapati’s union with Vac, or speech. Laurie Paton, in Authority, Anxiety and Canon, took the story of the Golden Egg and writes this:
“In my reconstruction of the two-phase process of creation, based on several accounts in the Brahmanas, Prajapati and Vac both participate in each stage. The division between the first and second stages of the cosmogonic process is demarcated in certain accounts by the measure of time, generally the period of a year. In the first stage the creator Prajapai has a desire to reproduce and unites with his consort Vac. The Vac with which Prajapati unites at this stage is the unexpressed, transcendent level of speech that is generally identified with the primordial waters. Prajapati implants his seed in the waters of Vac and the seed becomes an egg, which represents the totality of the universe in yet undifferentiated form. In the second stage of creation a child, representing the ‘second self’ of Prajapati, is born and speaks. This speech, which represents the second phase of Vac, is the expressed, covalized speech by means of which the creator introduces distinctions in the originally distinctionless totality of creation represented by the egg, dividing it into the three worlds and manifesting various types of beings.” (43)
What the Letter records is an egg inward collapse. For on the brink of becoming an Elizabethan sage, Chandos found himself becoming something else entirely.