Monday, June 9, 2014

Book Review: "The Green Face" by Gustav Meyrink


Opa recommended The Green Face to his friend Gisela : “Do you know Gustav Meyrink’s the Green Face? That is a splendid mystic novel, which by the way, plays in Amsterdam.” (Find this quote in this letter he wrote to Gisela, which gives you some context for the mystical conversation.)


I don’t know that I would have said the same thing. Splendid might be stretching it for me. It is a deeply intricate tale of a mystical sort of revolution/revelation that occurs within a group of people on the eve of an apocalyptic event. And by apocalyptic, I mean end-of-the-world event. The very last scene in the book describes the demolition of Amsterdam (and it is assumed every other place is met with the same destruction) by strong winds (hurricane and tornado). The description is eerily similar to what I imagine an atomic explosion would look like. This is super creepy, considering that concept didn’t even exist yet at the time of this writing, as it was first printed in Germany in 1916, three years before the end of the first world war. There are many things that are compelling about this book (especially in the line of Meyrink's uncanny ability to foreshadow the future). The book felt sort of like a mix of The Matrix, The Left Behind series, and a genius tripping on acid.


Let me be honest about why I didn’t like it, and then I’ll talk about why it was intriguing. It took me forever to read this book because I could not get invested in a single character. I didn’t care if they lived or died, and ironically their mystic enlightenment allowed them to move beyond mortality. The book felt too much like an elaborate vehicle for a mystical, philosophical treatise. I understand that stories are often the vehicles for communicating philosophical and faith belief, but this book just felt like it was leaning too hard on the philosophy. I thought I was going to read a novel, and instead I read a book on the occult. The book has a fantasy feel, very dark, brooding and sci-fi, however, I got the feeling the whole time that I was supposed to take it seriously. That threw me off.


The edition of the book that I purchased had a short biographical piece about the author at the end of the book. I almost wish I had read it first. It explains that the author, Meyrink, was indeed known for his dabbling in the art of the occult. He was a participant in many mystical circles that favored the idea of “special knowledge” that allowed its participants to rise above to a new level of spirituality and understanding. This made the book make a lot more sense. Once I realized that the author took this stuff seriously, it made me understand why the novel read more like a philosophy book than a story.


The funny part is this: the characters in the novel talk about all the myriad ways someone can be led astray by silly thoughts and ideas, almost like false prophets of the mystical realm. The characters urged each other (and I’m guessing they were vehicles to tell Meyrink’s readers) to be cautious of the flimsy mystical teachings that do nothing but distract and confuse. There was a sense of “if you don’t know for sure, you don’t know. When you *know* - then you know you know.” You know? It was this circular stuff that had me putting the book down for a few days' break at a time.


I understand why a college-aged Opa would be fascinated by this book. It’s weird, it’s different, it deals with a lot of themes that are pervasive in his society (the fault in mechanically following our daily routine that is mapped out by our physical needs, things falling apart on the societal level, war). It’s something to think about, to chew on. Opa liked those sort of things.However, I think he held them at an arm’s length, which he demonstrates in the letter to Gisela where he talks about this book.


There are a few things that are compelling about this book. The setting in time was post war Europe. It was actually published during World War I, in 1916. In the novel, the author alludes to the idea that was generally held after World War I- that the Great War was the “war to end all wars”- but it's interesting that the author picks up on this sentiment before the actual war has even ended. Not only this, but he states that although this is what people think after the war (in the future setting of this book)- the characters in this novel have a different sense, an ominous foreboding. Meyrink sounds almost prophetic when he predicts that even worse things are to come. In his book, the end of the world is what is to come. The characters that make up the small enlightened group are almost like dual-citizens, humans from the past world and enlightened souls who can usher in and guide those in the new post-apocalyptic world. Meyrink writes of this ominous foreboding after the Great War before even a whisper of the Nazi government has been uttered, so it is compelling that he sort of names that this war isn’t the end of it. The novel is so dark and brooding, the scene so sinister, that you wonder if he didn’t have some psychic power to know that the worst was yet to come.


Meyrink writes about the main character’s foreboding feeling at the beginning of the third chapter:
He had found various ways of explaining it away: it was wanderlust, it was nervous exhaustion, it was the result of his unhealthy way of life; when war raised its bloody standard over the Continent he assumed it had been a premonition of the carnage. But why, now the War was over, was the sensation becoming daily more intense and driving him to despair? … almost everyone he talked to about it had a similar tale to tell. They had all confidently assumed that when peace descended on the nations of the world it would also return to the hearts of men. Precisely the opposite occurred…. the juggernaut they had driven for the last four years in the belief it would clear the world for a new generation of free men was a treadmill in which they were trapped for all time.
That last line. Woah. No wonder Meyrink had a cult-following. That’s downright prophetic.


I found a line- “seek spiritual enlightenment not from others but within yourself.”  That reminded me of what Opa said in the previous letter: “For everybody the way is important, if he found it in himself, and the development of that very own personality is the highest goal, a person can follow.” I do have a contention with this idea though. My argument sort of follows the idea of “no man is an island”- I agree that we contain within our spirit the tools for transformation- but we need interaction and other people to act as a catalyst for our change and enlightenment. We can’t do it all within ourselves- that seems to be … self-righteous? Self-idolatry? At the least it’s pretty cocky.


A side item that is worth mentioning, Meyrink’s characters are also a bit caricaturish, especially when it comes to race. There is an African man who is displayed as a bit of a brute beast, focused on sexual exploits and moving like a gorilla through the streets of Amsterdam, using voodoo powers of persuasion when necessary. The stereotype of the black man was so overwhelming I almost couldn’t pay attention to what the story was. All I could see was every single awful stereotype being played out, and not in an intentionally “ironic” way. I have to allow some grace as this was published in 1916, but oh my gosh it was bad. For a book focused on being enlightened beyond the physical realm, this was a quick reminder of how connected we are to our physical appearance, for better or for worse.


These caricatures also included gender, as the main female character in the book waxed poetically about sacrificing herself:
with the instinct of her sex, she knew that the most a woman could do was to sacrifice herself, but whatever course of action she thought of, it seemed fleeting, paltry, childish, compared with the intensity of her love. To subordinate herself to him in all things, to relieve him of care, to anticipate his every wish: how easy that must be, but would it make him happy? It was nothing more than what millions of women did, but she longed to be able to give him something beyond what was humanly possible.
I wrote a note on this page that I shall not write here. Let’s just say it is clear the author is a male.


Some gems from the novel: 
Thoughts are contagious, even if they are not expressed…
That is what I want to do, to tear a hole in the net in which mankind has caught itself; and not by preaching, but by escaping from the meshes myself.
And last, something I can hang my hat on, the main female character, Eva, is thinking about the common connection between all people and muses in the light of warring people: 
yet it would perhaps have only taken a tiny rent in the curtain that veiled their eyes to turn the bitterest of enemies into the most faithful of friends.
The Green Face is perhaps worth the read, but for me, not much worth a second read. As with many mystical novels of this time period, there are jewels to be gleaned in the philosophical musings. At this point, I’m grateful that the next book on my list is a book of Poetry.

Also- my apologies for not having page numbers with the quotes. I read the book as an e-book and have yet to figure out how to do correct notations. 

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