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Money Alone

19 Dec 2016Literature Essays

Monstrous Love, Wealth and Revenge in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit

“He who confronts the paradoxical exposes himself to reality” is a very speaking quote for Dürrenmatt’s imagery and vision. His auctorial universe is a disenchanted one, where human nature is haunted by folly and self-contradiction. Irreverent and in the same time sublime in his literary dissections, the author from Switzerland found paradox and hypocrisy to be the only constants of a world which confusedly emerged from two world wars. It is no surprise to find monstrosity so deeply embedded in Dürrenmatt’s plots, as during his time (and not only), history proved to be a collection of obscene horrors and senseless slaughter, which rendered the human spirit both perplexed and thwarted in contrast to the former Humanistic views that “affirmed the dignity and worth of all people, based on the ability to determine right and wrong by appeal to universal human qualities”.

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I found that what we normally read as a cliché: “Money alone makes no one happy” turns into a multi-faceted paradigm in the context of his play, and that it enforces exactly this underlying incongruity as both leitmotiv and unifying stylistic index for all the characters and dramatic situations of The Visit.  In the great dark comedy of morals that Friedrich Dürrenmatt forwards for meditation we find a surrealistic but subtle concoction of principles and concessions, of self-delusional acts and contradictory justifications; we find an infernal chain of unjust acts that excessively cause further unjust chains of events, we find betrayal turning against justice in a gratuitous effort to do right, while the good and the bad lose contours and borders between the human and the grotesque melt in a terrific game of subversion.

In The Visit, people and institutions affirm and then lose credibility, identity or conviction – one by one – but without exception and the hallmark phrase  “Money alone makes no one happy” –which hides a great cynical koan - is representative for the ambivalence of human nature and its treacherous essence. Dubious money, doubtful happiness. The purpose excuses the means and law excuses the purpose.  

First played in Zurich in 1956, The Visit is a subtle manifesto about a post-war society haunted by guilt and presumably ready to sell its soul again if given the right bait. This vision shares the dramatic and darkly witty stylistics of the German Expressionism which at the beginning of the 20th century “focused on the more sinister aspects of the human psyche. German Expressionism conveyed a feeling of darkness, eccentricity, madness, paranoia, and obsession. German Expressionists often focused on the criminal underworld, infusing their works with a surreal, eerie atmosphere, anti-heroic characters, and elements of evil and betrayal.”

Betrayal is a special notion in Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, as the key phrase put into the mouth of Mrs. Ill is brought in to symbolize the very contrary. There is symbolic and real treachery everywhere in the plot. During his youth, Mr. Ill had betrayed the now omnipotent Claire Zachanassian, committed perjury in the process of paternity and then married Mrs. Ill out of pecuniary interests. Mrs. Ill will also betray herself firstly by declaring that the foundation of her marriage was love and that money cannot betray this, while she will commit an unconsciously murderous act by buying a fur coat and thus contributing to the debt and fall of her husband. Claire, now a goddess of revenge and grotesque manipulation attempts to clear her consciousness of a ruined past by buying her future husbands like they were merchandise, buying the legal system, ruining the town and in the end, with a right of veto to the life of men (her entourage, her butler and eunuchs) and also to the death of her wrong-doer.

Similarly to the inpiduals, the institutions are equally corruptible and will gradually fall into the infernal web of Dürrenmatt’s version of the tragic Medea.  Thus, we have the Mayor, the Priest, the Schoolmaster, the Doctor, the Policeman, the Painter and Reporters on the one hand, representing the official institutions which should be impartial, and on the other the family (Mrs. Ill, Son & Daughter) and the 4 townsmen who represent the close community. All of these elements will become collectively homicidal after being granted enough time and motive to convict Mr. Ill. In fact, the community will hide behind a false system of unofficial justice to commit a biased act of punishment.

All plot smoothly goes into the sense of “Money can buy happiness”, and can especially buy the peace of mind and the justification for slaughter. Dürrenmatt’s subversive bet is for the Schoolmaster.  He goes through three stages: protest, lucid resignation and finally propaganda for the distorted justice. In a moment of drunken euphoria, he wants to expose the affair to the press, for the sake of a rhetorical humanism. In addition of his being reduced to silence by the Artist in a beautifully ironic fashion (degraded art matches degraded erudition), the Schoolmaster will finally give in and lucidly admit his acceptance regarding the future crime, declaring a general premeditation that nothing can stop, not even knowledge. In the third act, after all the abovementioned institutions’ representatives had played the comedy of hypocrisy, the Schoolmaster will admit to Ill:

“They will kill you. I've known it from the beginning, and you've known it too for a long time, even if no one else in Guellen wants to admit it. The temptation is too great and our poverty is too wretched. But I know something else. I shall take part in it. I can feel myself slowly becoming a murderer. My faith in humanity is powerless to stop it”  (pp. 89).

Derisively transparent, the next and final stage of the schoolmaster’s evolution is however a deep truth is Dürrenmatt’s writings: when knowledgeable men start proliferating half-truths and turn knowledge into ideology, the slaughter follows. And if we think of the atrocities committed during WWII and the “turning a blind-eye” politics, the fable grasps a sinister declaration of pessimism towards all the established values. Here is the last stage of the “Money can buy anything” implacable process, like an antic curse:  

"What is her aim? Is it her aim to make us happy with money?... Her aim is to have the spirit of this community transformed - transformed to the spirit of justice. We, staggered by this demand, ask: have we not always been a just community?" (pp. 93).

The paradox is more than obvious here, as in all the other ambivalent replies that Dürrenmatt masters so well to dose suspense and sarcasm. The power of wealth falsely refuted by Mrs. Ill will ultimately buy not only the participation, but also the ideas of the educated man. I believe this is the lowest perversion that Dürrenmatt could imagine, even lower than the corruption of the law, church, family.

Obviously, all the men in the town will let themselves drowsily slide into “a self-fulfilling prophesy” and a progressive but complete redefinition of justice that renders the murder acceptable in their conscience. Now the tragicomedy stands in the fact that a false attribution has been created in the fact that the townsmen prefer to believe that they executed Ill because it was a fair punishment, for the sake of justice – and not for their financial wellbeing. Consequently, what at the beginning states as “No one wants to kill you” (pp. 60) turns into “He died of joy” (pp. 97) and concludes like this: “Now let us pray to God/ Let us go and enjoy our good fortune” (pp.102).  

Actually, the voice of Guellen speaks out loud that “Money alone makes no one happy” – and seems to be convinced of it, but hypocritically hide behind a false notion of justice. They manage to dissimulate financial desires into the desire of living “under the rule of law”. Not accidentally, after Clare has proposed the homicidal deal, the town sinks in a luxury that they blatantly criticize. This story is like a cunning ars poetica of hypocrisy, with the exception of Ill and Clare who have all and respectively nothing to lose. All gets dissolved in the money-oriented frenzy and we understand that money empowers and dehumanizes people, and can buy a certain blind version of happiness.

Touched by the symbolic plague, the town becomes monstrous and fratricide. But as the plot progresses, it becomes obvious how infectious the proximity of money is, and how fortune releases the worst of demons: it was the phantasm of wealth that led Ill to destroy the love of Claire, as well as their daughter; it was by bribe that he bought the witnesses who were then later re-bought by Clare. It was by complacence that the court had closed its eyes before and it will be by greed that we witness an overhaul of the official law by unanimity again. History reproduces itself and atrocity gives birth to another chain of atrocity. This is the subtler assertion of Dürrenmatt’s play: a “perpetuum mobile” of anomalies and the total occultation of humanity, even though everybody dissimulates it.

To conclude in a dialectic point of view, there is equilibrium in this up-side-down world: the victims turn into executioners and vice versa. The ultimate paradox is that every action finds its reaction and then all over again: Ill will frankly repent for and assume his ill-doings, and will die almost like a martyr. Claire will continue paying off each excess by yet another self-mortification: she is physically and emotionally degenerative and she knows it. Her immoderation camouflages an insatiable void that shall slowly devour her too. In contrast to her aggressor, she does not attain either freedom or catharsis: she is dead inside.

“Money alone makes no one happy” turns out to be a lugubrious falsification in the play, but it turns to be the absolute conclusion of the author, his reality, I believe. “There is a moment when nothing can be wiped out and left behind any more, when there is only reality and reality is horrifying.”


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