Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Man Who Sees Ghosts, by Friedrich Schiller

Pushkin, 2003
156 pp


Despite its title, The Man Who Sees Ghosts isn't actually a novel of the supernatural.  There are a number of supernatural elements in this unfinished story, but they're all there for a specific purpose having to do with the main character, the Prince von **.  These asterisks, by the way, are not a signal to read something at the end of this post -- Schiller just doesn't hand out full names to his characters.  There are many reasons why any serious fan of dark fiction should read this little gem, but one of the biggest is that according to several sources, it is the book that gave rise to a particular subset of popular gothic literature, at least in Germany,  "works intended to expose the machinations of secret societies," * (okay, that asterisk means look at the end of this post) called lodge novels. In fact, since The Man Who Sees Ghosts was left unfinished, a number of people used it as a basis to write their own completed versions, starting as early as 1796.**

Schiller sets his novel in Venice, which at the time was a political powerhouse.  The book revolves around the unnamed, asterisked Prince, who hails from a German state but currently in Venice, waiting for money from home so he can return. There he lives a very unambitious and quiet life, going around incognito, avoiding all forms of extravagance.  His life takes a major turn when one day, he notices he is being followed by a man in the mask of an Armenian, who eventually sits down with him in the Piazza San Marco and delivers a cryptic and ultimately prophetic message.  The Prince shakes it off, but when the situation in the Prince's family come to a crisis, he is forced to take stock of this strange, masked character.  One night while in a gaming establishment, the Prince gets into it with an unknown-to-him very powerful man, which sparks a visit to the State Inquisition, where he watches the same man quite literally lose his head.  The Prince is still sort of stuck in Venice and can't leave, so he and his retinue take a trip where they become involved in a bizarre seance with an odd man known as "The Sicilian", who, according to several accounts I've read, was modeled after the furtive true-life alchemist and occultist Caliogostro, (aka Joseph Balsamo).  When fate steps in and the Prince is allowed to question this strange man, what he discovers  will turn his world on its head, and the consequences will ultimately have tremendous implications for the Prince, his closest advisors, and had the story continued, most likely for the balance of power in Europe.

Just a word about the secret society mentioned above.  In  this book it is the Bucentauro, which Schiller describes as appearing to be for the "high-minded" and those of "rational freedom of spirit," but which in reality is a haven for a number of highly-placed libertines, including high-ranking members of the Catholic church.  This just might bring to mind that very well-known group "The Illuminati," which has found its way into several works of conspiracy fiction, and here as Bucentauro, represents the power of the Catholics behind social and political upheaval in Europe at the time.   On the other hand, Schiller makes it very clear just exactly how Protestant the Prince's German kingdom was, so it makes for great conflict.  And as far as politics goes, the Catholics weren't the only big names in the secret society biz -- nerdy me has just been reading about Frederick William II of Prussia, who fell in with two powerful Rosicrucians who became his advisors and pretty much ruled Frederick (and thus Prussia)  between them. So I guess my point is that if anyone thinks that it's no big deal that Schiller spends a lot of time on religious conspiracies, I say think again.

The Man Who Sees Ghosts is a delightful read, and should not be missed by anyone who is into Gothic literature,  secret societies,  and political intrigue.  Up to where it comes to a rather abrupt end, I was having such a wonderful time with this little tale, and then I heard myself quite loudly saying "no, no, no!" because of the loose ends that hadn't quite been tied up.  Although the mix of religion and politics, as well as the combination of  religion and conspiracy are topics that surround our modern lives so much so that we just accept them as a given any more, this was quite a big deal back then.  There is also much in this short book about religion and mysticism during the Enlightenment, and if I'm reading this correctly, it seems that Schiller may have also borrowed a bit from Cazotte's The Devil in Love --what's real vs. what's not real are huge issues in The Man Who Sees Ghosts, and will definitely keep any reader glued.   

*from Lure of the Arcane, The Literature of Cult and Conspiracy, by Theodore Ziolkowski
** from The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, (ed.) Jerrold E. Hogle

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