The publisher of Mela Hartwig’s novel Am I a Redundant Human Being seems to sell short its own book when it describes it (on its back cover) as “one guilt-ridden, masturbatory, self-obsessed confession.” Taking the form of a young woman’s confession spanning several years after the beginning of WWI, this novel is, in fact, a self-analysis done in a cold, “objective” way. It is as if the narrator takes her own self, puts it under a microscope and probes it without flinching. The confession does appear to be “self-loathing,” but here we are at the heart of a paradox: how can one loathe one’s own self while at the same time taking such pleasure in examining it?
Although little happens in this 151-page novel, it makes for an extremely pleasurable read—at least if, like me, you take pleasure in obsessive, neurotic minds. And what juicy, turn-of-the century Austrian neurosis this is; the author, born in Vienna in 1893, was a friend of Stefan Zweig, and very clearly familiar with Freud’s writings. The novel’s dramatic tension develops out of the contradiction between, on one hand, what the narrator Aloisia calls her “empty heart”—palpable in the novel’s flat tone and the Beckettian narrative distance—and on the other, her constant torment, culminating in her unrequited love for Egon. It is this paradox, and the author’s mastery in sustaining it, that give the novel its force.
Young Aloisia may seem entirely self-absorbed and devoid of any political consciousness, but her older self—the narrator—is a keen observer and interpreter of Austrian society at the onset of the war. Describing a political demonstration of “fanatical patriotism,” the narrator characterizes the adolescent she once was as melting “into the giant body called the Mob,” her feelings “heightened to a sense of prodigious arousal,” as though her “entire body was united in the hoarse, wild cries.” Her words offer a clinical and lucid description of twentieth-century proto-fascism: the loss of one’s sense of self while dissolving into an anonymous crowd and cheering without even knowing for what (“I had no idea why I’d just shouted myself hoarse”).
After this artificial excitement and Aloisia’s return to her “empty heart,” the loss of the passion she’d experienced moments earlier in the midst of the crowd causes her another disappointment at not being able to feel, without realizing, as the narrator points out, that this passion had been only “borrowed” from the “fanatical mob.” This opposition between feeling passionately and not being able to feel anything is a thread running throughout the novel. “Feeling” is the result of suspending one’s critical reasoning and of becoming one with another entity. This should be reason enough to make such intense feeling suspect, yet Aloisia’s greatest ambition is “to feel more intensively than I was capable of feeling”—an unusual ambition, to be sure.
While the novel seems to tell the story of failure— of a young woman who, whatever she did, could only excel at failing—it may also describe the story of a success: in the end this woman manages to feel so intensely by falling in love with a man who barely notices her existence—Egon—that she transcends what we normally call “love” and steps into the realm of total abjection. Not only does she humiliate herself in a way that brings to mind Adèle H. in Truffaut’s The Story of Adèle H. or certain women from Zweig’s love stories, but she cannot even succeed in killing herself. “I wasn’t even capable of well-earned despair,” she says after trying to commit suicide and, lacking the courage, she turns off the gas at the last moment. Meanwhile, the letters announcing her impending death are on their way to their recipients—her parents and Egon. Thus, after humiliating herself before this man (who also happens to be her boss), and after failing to kill herself, she has to appear before him and explain the letter.
The above “love” scenario is a pattern in many of Aloisia’s relationships (including with female friends), which all suggest something slavish in her devotion to others. There is clearly a perverse pleasure the narrator takes in contemplating her own fall into the depths of abjection and humiliation, which brings to mind Dostoevsky’s Double. There is, in fact, a double in Hartwig’s novel too—Elizabeth, the young actress with whom Aloisia has a rather twisted relationship, and who has also committed suicide because of the same man. It is after Aloisia finds out who the man is that she starts to pursue him, as if she wanted to turn herself into Elizabeth (who, in turn, had spent her whole life trying to be other people). The character with whom Aloisia identifies the most—to the point that she wants to become her by experiencing the same passion—is herself someone who can only be by impersonating others—that is, by faking another existence and someone else’s feelings.
Both Aloisia and Elizabeth are redundant human beings. In the same way that Elizabeth can only experience feeling by playing the lives of others, Aloisia thinks of herself as not being capable of experiencing “true feeling,” of being only a “shadow,” rather than “the real thing.” But isn’t the “shadow” the very condition of the artist? Isn’t the artist condemned to impersonating and copying other existences and others’ feelings? Could it be that Aloisia’s problem is that, in her own way, she is herself an artist, albeit a failed one?
Published for the first time in German in 2001, it is not clear when this novel was originally written. Its voice and tone (for whose rendering into English we should thank the translator, Kerri A. Pierce) are amazingly modern, reminiscent of some of the greatest twentieth century writers. If, at some level, Aloisia is “the girl next-door,” at a different level her self-loathing is a “negative” quality that may be seen in the tradition of Musil’s “man without qualities” or Melville’s Bartleby (with his “I prefer not”). Her own story is “so laughably mundane, so incontestably banal, that it’s really no story at all.” It is a tragic story, only, bizarrely, without the tragedy. For it is her fate “to have no fate at all.”