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I've been reading the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner in an Italian translation by Giorgio Dolfini. It's a really disquieting story.

A specific character, the Doctor, seems to play an enigmatic obscure role to me.

Büchner had himself a degree in medicine. He was a member of the "Société d’histoire naturelle" of Strasbourg. He's been a lecturer in comparative anatomy at the University of Zürich. His father and one of his brothers were also physicians. He drew the inspiration for this tragedy from a chronicle published on the Zeitschrift für Staatsarzneikunde, a German journal of medicine to which Büchner's father was subscribed.

According to Gerardo Guerrieri, the author of the introduction to the book I've read, Büchner was a materialist scientist. However, the characterization he makes of the Doctor in this play does not seem to me at all that of a scientist. He seems that of an extravagant man whose ambition for fame has made him inhuman and to adopt a rather pseudoscientific behaviour.

Here are some of the words spoken by the Doctor (in Italian):

Avete già mangiato i vostri piselli, Woyzeck? Nient’altro che piselli, cruciferae, tenetelo a mente! Ci sarà una rivoluzione nella scienza, la farò saltar per aria! Urea, 0,10; cloruro d’ammonio, perossidulo...

At Project Gutenberg website you can find the original text in German:

Hat Er schon seine Erbsen gegessen, Woyzeck? Nichts als Erbsen, cruciferae, merk Er sich's! Es gibt eine Revolution in der Wissenschaft, ich sprenge sie in die Luft. Harnstoff 0,10, salzsaures Ammonium, Hyperoxydul

In the 1963 English translation by Carl Richard Mueller:

Have you eaten your peas today, Woyzeck? Nothing but peas! Cruciferae! Remember that! There's going to be a revolution in science! I'm going to blow it sky-high! Urea Oxygen. Ammonium hydrochloratem hyperoxidic. (p. 117)

It seems to me that these words are nonsense from the scientific point of view. So, my question is: which is the role of science in this Büchner play? Was he trying to describe some kind of bad practices in the field of medicine?

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Büchner's last play was inspired by one or more similar murder cases: the murder of Christiane Woost by the (former) wigmaker and soldier Johann Christian Woyzeck in Leipzig in 1821, Daniel Schmolling's murder of his lover in Berlin in 1817 and Johann Dieß' murder of his lover in Darmstadt in 1830. (Darmstadt was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Hesse, where Büchner grew up.) Büchner's knowledge of the first case is certain; his knowledge of the two other cases can only be inferred indirectly. [Knapp 187–182; Poschmann 89–121] (The judge of Schmolling's case was E. T. A. Hoffmann, now known as a Romantic author.)

Two aspects of these cases are particularly interesting. The first is the existence of medical reports about J. C. Woyzeck and Daniel Schmolling. The second is the public debate about the legal accountability of the murderer, especially after J. C. Woyzeck's case. Not everybody agreed with doctor Clarus's reports with regard to accountability. [Johann 122, Seidel 131]

Clarus's report represent the Kantian point of view, common at the time, that a lack of adaptation to social rules and one's own faults lead to such crimes [Knapp 179]. Clarus writes at the start of his report [excerpted in Poschmann 97–121] that J. C. Woyzeck was one who,

durch ein unstätes, wüstes, gedankenloses und unthätiges Leben von einer Stufe der moralischen Verwilderung zur anderen herabgesunken (...)

(Translation: "sunk from one level of moral degradation to another through an iniquitous, desolate, thoughtless and inactive life".)

Büchner represented a different view and saw the role of destructive social forces and poverty. In fact, his criticism of moralistic medical views had already been implicit in his unfinished novella Lenz [Knapp 150]; this contrary view was ahead of its time.

The Doctor in Büchner's play, who remains nameless, just like the Captain (Hauptmann) and the Drum Major (Tambourmajor), is inspired by Clarus, the chemist Justus von Liebig, the anatomist Johann Bernhard Wilbrand, who was one of Büchner's professors in Gießen, and other contemporary representatives of science and medicine [Knapp 191].

The Doctor and the Captain represent institutions supportive of the state, i.e. science and the military, respectively. In Büchner's days, the German states, and especially the Grand Duchy of Hesse, were examples of late absolutism, politically backward when compared to England and France. The Doctor represents free will, reason and self-control, or at least he seems to think so.

His experiment is based on a historical precedent: at the University of Gießen, where Büchner studied during the winter semester of 1833/34, Justus von Liebig had conducted an experiment in 1833, in whch soldiers ate nothing but pease pudding or lentils for three months. The goal was to find a cheaper alternative to meat, so the military and the proletariat could be fed more cheaply. Unfortunately, some leguminous plants, such as the grass pea or Lathyrus sativus, contain an amino acid that has neurotoxic effects when peas are consumed instead of all other food and not as a side dish. One of the consequences is issues with the bladder (see Woyzeck). Peas also contain DOPA, which can lead to hallucinations (as in Woyzeck's case). [Pollmer]

Liebig and his contemporaries didn't know about these amino acids, but whereas Liebig performed his experiments with a specific goal in mind, we are clueless about the goal of the Doctor's experiments. He talks of a new theory (H 2,6: "meine Theorie, meine neue Theorie") and about causing a revolution in science (H 2,6: "eine Revolution in der Wissenschaft, ich sprenge sie in die Luft"), but it is not clear what area of science he has in mind, nor who would benefit from it except himself.

There are other clues that the doctor seems to represent experimentation for experimentation's sake. He observes Woyzeck, analysis his urine, checks his pulse and makes note of his finding, but never seems to draw any sort of conclusions from them. In a later conversation with the Captain, he tells the officer he might become partially paralysed, in which case he would conduct "immortal experiments" (h 4,9: "die unsterblichsten Experimente") with him. To what purpose he would conduct those experiments remains again unclear. In an earlier scene with the Captain, he had briefly mentioned a pregnant woman who would die within four weeks and then make an "interesting specimen" (H 2,7: "ein interessantes Präparat"). What that specimen would be studied for remains unsaid. In addition, there doesn't seem to be a theory or scientific goal that connnects the running and anticipated experiments.

This tendency to experiment on whoever seems to present himself, or at least those who are not the Doctor's social or intellectual equals, also dehumanises other people. He calls Woyzeck an animal (H 3,1: "Bestie") and a (test) subject (H 4,8: "Subject Woyzeck"). He also wants to control Woyzeck: he wants Woyzeck to wiggle his ears on his command (H 3,1), urinate on his command (so he can analyse his urine; H 4,8) and seems to be amused rather than concerned when Woyzeck talks of symptoms that seem to be related to the diet of peas (H 3,1: "Herr Doctor ich hab’s Zittern.", "Herr Doctor es wird mir dunkel.") His control over Woyzeck's body contrasts starkly with his own words in H 2,6:

der Mensch ist frei, im Menschen verklärt sich die Individualität zur Freiheit

Translation:

Man is free Woyzeck. Man is the ultimate expression of the individual urge to freedom.

These words sound especially hollow and tone deaf when one realises that Woyzeck is a soldier and obeying orders is what he has been drilled to do. (On the stage, where anyone can see Woyzeck's uniform, the hollowness of the Doctor's words must be even more conspicuous than on the page.)

The Doctor's words on freedom constitute an allusion on Clarus and philosophical idealism, which Büchner had already attacked in Lenz and Leonce and Lena. Scholars have also seen a reference to Schelling [Knapp 192].


References:

  • Büchner, Georg: Woyzeck. Mit einem Kommentar von Henri Poschmann. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2008.
  • Johann, Ernst: Georg Büchner in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1958.
  • Knapp, Gerhard: Georg Büchner. Third, revised edition. Stuttgart: Metzler, 2000.
  • Pollmer, Udo: "Im Erbsenwahn", Deutschlandfunk Kultur, 26.10.2013.
  • Seidel, Jürgen: Georg Büchner. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1998.

Wikipedia articles referenced in the text were not used as sources.

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First off: Büchner died quite young in 1837 and left Woyzeck as a fragment. Several versions exist and it is up for debate what a final one would have looked like.

Gerhard Schmidt published a telecopy issue (Georg Büchner: Woyzeck. Faksimileausgabe der Handschriften. Bearbeitet von Gerhard Schmidt. Leipzig, 1981a) where 4 different stages of development ("H1-4") can be found. The "vorläufige Reinschrift" (provisional fair copy, H4) is the latest and most developed version and basis of most of todays editions. When Büchners brother Ludwig issued the first "complete works" (Nachgelassene Schriften) in 1850 he didn't include the "Woyzeck", because the ink was faded and the text hardly decipherable. The austrian writer Karl Emil Franzos used chemical agents to make the text readable again and issued 1879 a heavily edited version (see Karl Emil Franzos: Georg Büchner: Sämmtliche Werke und handschriftlicher Nachlaß, 1879 and Karl Emil Franzos: Zur Textkritik von 'Wozzeck', 1879). According to Franzos the main act is called "Wozzeck".


Having said this: Büchner uses language (speaking patterns) and its use to characterize various social classes and I wonder how adequately this is reproduced. Unlike in classic drama the roles use (different but according to their social standing adequate) colloqial speech and Büchner intentionally breaks up sentence structure to have the text resemble natural talk.

The original text makes sense from a scientific point of view:

cruciferae

is a class of plants (cruciferous vegetables, "Brassicaceae") to which peas do not belong. If this is intentional or just due to some misinformation of the author I can't say. Cruciferae are arguably the most common edible plants worldwide (cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, ...).

Harnstoff 0,10, salzsaures Ammonium, Hyperoxydul

These are (antiquated) names of actually existing chemical agents and they indeed can be used to create explosive mixtures.

Harnstoff = urea, carbamide, CO(NH2)2

Used in fertilizers and can be used (as urea nitrate) to create improvised explosives. The possibility to produce it from anorganic compounds was found in 1828 by Friedrich Wöhler and was a milestone for the chemical industry.

salzsaures Ammonium = Ammonium chloride, NH4Cl

Used in fertilizers and forms the mineral "salmiac". In the 18th century it was used in pyrotechnics.

Hyperoxydul

"Oxydul" is a - today - very antiquated name for oxides of lesser oxidation levels. For instance "Stick(stoff)oxydul": "Stickstoff" = nitrogen => nitrous oxide, laughing gas (N2O). Using oxides as oygen donors in explosives is common.


The doctor is not so much "pseudoscientific" but inhumane and ruthless. For him Woyzeck is not a person but only the object of his experiments. The thought that science always comes/should come with social responsibility is a common theme in German literature of that time (see i.e. Goethes "Faust") and also in other works of Büchner (i.e., "Lenz").

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  • Anyway, this seems to me a quite incoherent speech from the scientific point of view.
    – Charo
    Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 21:59
  • @Charo: As i said, Büchner breaks up sentence structure to more resemble natural speeach. In natural speech you have a lot of "ehh", "..., i mean, ..." and similar interjections. We do not speak in the way theatre dialogue is written. The Doctor is talking about "blowing up" science and then names substances which can indeed be used in explosives.
    – bakunin
    Commented Jun 29, 2022 at 7:06

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