Wednesday, October 28, 2015

ALRAUNE, by Hanns Heinz Ewers

Every so often, I'll read something that's thoroughly fascinating, but yet leaves me somewhat squicked out. This is one of those works.

Alraune, by Hanns Heinz Ewers and published in 1911, is the tale of scientist Jakob ten Brinken and his friend Frank Braun, who are fascinated by heredity, and to see it in action, they set about experimenting with artificial insemination, impregnating a slatternly prostitute with the semen of a depraved murderer. A daughter is born, Alraune, a beautiful child who is taken in by an upper-middle-class family.

Alraune, however, lacks scruple. Beautiful and perfectly mannered, she brings destruction to everyone around her. Every chapter is an episode in which some foolish soul is drawn to her as a month unto a flame, and ends up self-destructing in one way or another. And it's not just men; women also fall head-over-heels for the cruel Alraune, and are destroyed by her.

Finally, close to the end, Alraune genuinely falls in love and has a romantic idyll with her one of her creators, Frank Braun. Alraune belatedly develops a guilty conscience, begins sleepwalking....and ultimately meets her end.

It's hard to approach this book objectively. A plot revolving around heredity and eugenics, from a Germany that was only a couple of decades from being taken over by the Nazi party, can make even the most hardened reader cringe. It's important to remember that this was a time when the topics of heredity and eugenics were big in the public consciousness even here in the U.S. and in other countries. In 1912, a year after this book was published in Germany, American psychologist Henry H. Goddard published his infamous study, The Kallikak Family, which made claims that "feeblemindedness", mental disabilities, and criminal tendencies were hereditary. Of course, even Goddard's contemporaries pointed out that he overlooked the role of malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies in the developments of the "feebleminded" Kallikaks. In our present days of being over-nourished, we forget that vitamin deficiencies were a real problem. Everyone consumes iodized salt these days, and we've forgotten that iodine deficiency doesn't just cause goiter, but can also lead to intellectual disabilities. The Kallikaks of Goddard's study were also a poor backwoods family; naturally issues such as isolation, inbreeding, and poverty should have been in play. Modern critics have also pointed out the possibility of widespread alcoholism in the family and chronic fetal alcohol syndrome from one generation to the next. Stephen Jay Gould, in his book The Mismeasure of Man, makes a case for Goddard's data being fudged and photos of the backwoods Kallikaks being doctored.

This was also not far from the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision in the U.S. Supreme Court, that ruled that state laws requiring compulsory sterilization of the "unfit" and intellectually disabled did not violate the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment. Forced sterilization continued in the U.S. but declined after WWII; even so, some states still have eugenics-related compulsory sterilization laws on the books, but they are not enforces, and as late as 1981 forcible sterilizations occurred in Oregon.

Even some of Edgar Rice Burroughs' works seemed to endorse eugenics; his posthumously-published novella "Pirate Blood" has a modern descendant of Jean Laffite suddenly drawn into piracy because of heredity.

So you can see that it wasn't unique to Germany. Still, it's disquieting today to read. Even now we're struggling with the idea that maybe some things ARE hereditary, such as a tendency to alcoholism, while at the same time decrying any sort of forced eugenics as immoral.

There's also the woman-as-destroyer trope. Again, this was nothing new, in Germany or anywhere else. German dramatist Frank Wedekind gave us the play "Earth Spirit" in 1894, and its sequel "Pandora's Box" in 1904, that tracked the trail of destruction left by Lulu, a seductress who loves and ruins everyone she meets until meeting her destruction. These were adapted as the 1929 silent film Pandora's Box, starring Louise Brooks, and Alban Berg's 1935 opera Lulu.

Of course, we see this in American media; just look at the 1933 film Baby Face, in which Barbara Stanwyck fucks her way to the top and wreaks havoc on the way. And reading this, I was also reminded of the notorious 1969 trash novel Naked Came the Stranger, in which a woman retaliates against a cheating husband by catting around with every man in her neighborhood, and leaving wrecked relationships, ruined marriages, and even a corpse or two in her wake. (Yes, I read it a few years ago, mainly for a laugh.)

The question of misogyny raises its head when these works are discussed, and I'd say that depending on where you're coming from, Alraune and Lulu and other works can be seen as misogynist. Women are destructive, they bring ruin to all around them. Conversely, some have claimed works like these (especially Lulu) to be proto-feminist, in showing a woman with agency who owns her own sexuality and doesn't need to subsume herself to a man in order to make her way in the world...and I would say that these views are also legitimate.

It can be hard to say what is really misogynistic or feminist sometimes. You may know of (or remember) the series of trash films about a lady Nazi named Ilsa, flicks like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, and Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheikhs. They were made to be exploitation, and for years they were, but then they were embraced by a younger generation of women who saw them as empowering. Star Dyanne Thorne has expressed her amazement at the women who would come to her at conventions to praise those films. I personally have seen similar at burlesque shows; once "girlie shows" were for drooling old men who wanted to ogle scantily clad women, but now I've found that burlesque is empowering for women who see it as a way of owning their sexuality and declaring the beauty of their bodies just as they are. As I've said before, we shouldn't be too quick to judge; the exploitation of one generation can be the empowerment of the next.

So...back to Alraune....

Some have also voiced revulsion at how Ewers became involved in the Nazi party (most notably Jess Nevins) but it's worth pointing out that Ewers got involved mostly because of his own nationalism and Neitzschean philosophies. Ewers doesn't seem to have been an anti-Semite (his books feature positive Jewish characters who are patriotic Germans) and he was, to use a modern term, "heteroflexible" which eventually put him at odds with the Nazis. In 1934, most of his works were banned by the Third Reich and his assets seized; he died of TB that year.

Is Alraune a Nazi work? Not really, I'd say. The use of eugenics as a story element can be uncomfortable and problematic to modern readers, but it's no worse than other works of the period. It was a time when even the "good guys" of the world took eugenics seriously. There was still a lot we didn't understand. It's also got a lot of decadence and depravity simmering under the surface, the sort of thing the Nazis would have disapproved of.

It is a misogynist work? That can be up to interpretation. It can be a male fevered fantasy of destructive female sexuality....or can be an exploration of how a woman can own her sexuality and defy the repressive and hypocritical society around her. And as destructive as she is to men, ultimately men are powerless against her, and it takes another woman's actions to bring about her end.

Interestingly, Alraune is the second book in a trilogy about Frank Braun; I think the first is now available in a new translation, and the third may be in the works. Alraune is available in a new translation as an e-book; the introductory essay by the translator is most entertaining.

Am I sorry I read it? No, not at all. And while I'm not its biggest fan, at the same time there was something about it that I found compelling, even if it was just as a window into another time and another mindset that may not be as far away from ours as we think. And I'd say there's a strong possibility I'll look into any other works that are currently available. Yes, there were times I squirmed mentally, but life is shallow if we never take a good hard look at the things that disquiet us.

Alraune has been filmed several times, including a famous 1928 version with Brigitte Helm of Metropolis, and Paul Wegener, director of The Golem.  The latest was in 1952, with Hildegarde Knef and Erich von Stroheim. Its influence can be seen in other works....Species, anyone?

Maybe not required reading, but good if you want to confront some uncomfortable questions.

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