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Home | 2017 | April | Johann Senn

The wilderness years

Posted by Richard on UTC 2017-04-24 16:48.

Army life

For a glimpse into Senn's life in the army during his last year we have an account by the artist Moritz von Schwind (1804-1871). Schwind was introduced into the Schubert Circles in 1821 through Joseph Spaun, not long after Senn's deportation, so never knew Senn directly.

Schwind was a devoted admirer of Franz von Schober, although there would come a gradual falling out that started in the 1840s. Schober in turn had kept in touch with Senn during his exile. So when Schwind, at that time living in Munich, returned to Austria on holiday in 1830, he took a detour to meet the legendary Johann Senn. In this letter to Schober dated 27 November 1830 Schwind describes the encounter.

I asked the soldier standing guard [where I could find Lieutenant Senn] and he said he was on the lawn. I saw an officer with a pipe, but from a distance he looked too fat and appeared to be around forty. There was also someone else with him. I kept my distance, my heart thumping. Finally, his companion left and I introduced myself.

He didn't know my name, but kept saying: 'that's fine, I'm pleased to meet you'. He had nothing to say about Vienna. Spaun had travelled through Innsbruck two days before me. We went to a nearby monastery, spoke about you [Schober], Kenner and Max Spaun, but mostly about Schubert.

Politics seems to be his hobbyhorse: he gave a long speech about the Accis [a purchase tax on goods]. By then it was lunchtime and we went our own ways. He promised to visit me that evening after drill. I watched him marching and giving commands than waited on the bridge, but he didn't turn up.

On the following day I found him in bed, with coffee, papers and pipe handy. We took a short walk, during which we spoke a lot about Munich. He is delighted with the King [Ludwig I (1786-1868)]. He spoke to Ocken [Lorenz Oken (1779-1851)] in Innsbruck. For the development of art he had no great hopes. He thought that art could not flourish in the present bad condition of the German people, which got him going until I finally assured him that I couldn't do anything to help the people and couldn't wait until they had been helped, at which point he laughed and agreed with me.

We went for another walk the following day. I have to admit I was astonished at his fiery and emphatic manner of speaking, but ten times more enraptured, I might say, with the heavenly performance when a deep, inner emotion forced its way powerfully to the surface. His face, expression and a certain shy embarassment are quite spellbinding. We parted without any further formality. He claimed that Schubert had appeared to him.

[Holland 52f]

Shortly after Moritz von Schwind's meeting with Senn, the 1st and 2nd battalions of the Kaiser-Jäger marched off to Italy. An uprising of the Italian nationalistic, anti-papal movement the Carbonari broke out on 9 February 1831 in Modena, then spread to Parma and finally Bologna, the capital of the Romagna. The Austrian troops occupied the region in March 1831 and crushed the rebellion in a decisive battle at Rimini. The remainder of the revolution was suppressed in central Italy, in some places with great brutality. The Kaiser-Jäger stayed in the region, moving around for some time until February 1835 [Gschließer 141f].

Second-Lieutenant Senn (retd.)

Whether this sudden burst of real military activity as opposed to lying around in bed drinking coffee and smoking a pipe was the trigger or not we do not know, but by the middle of the year following Schwind's visit Senn had decided that he was fed up with being a soldier. He wrote a letter dated 15 September 1831 to Professor Khüeny announcing his decision:

I got your original letter of 12 May [1831] on Corpus Christi [02.06.1831] in Mantua whilst I was on the return march from the Romagna to the fortress with my battalion.

[…]

I am here only on leave, in order to take the spa for a kidney complaint; this leave will have to be extended and will probably turn into a permanent residence. I am really sick of playing at soldiers and I am going to get myself pensioned off – my notorious short-sightedness will be sufficient for that.

My sole thinking and purpose is aimed at getting into a literary element – although I have no idea of how and where. I am not going to let myself be distracted in this, for example by my recent appointment as 'Professor of Military Communication in the Neustadt Academy' – that would be running directly into the jaws of literary death.

[…]

I am still up for anything, I feel like a 16 year old; time has run over me like a wagon over a tortoise. If only something appetising would turn up, after all the indigestible stuff I have had to swallow!

[Enzinger Senn 179f]

Decline

'My sole thinking and purpose is aimed at getting into a literary element – although I have no idea of how and where'. With that thought Senn set the doom that would hang over his head for the next 25 years. The working out of that doom had all the remorseless inevitablity of a tragedy quite worthy of Euripides.

Senn's friend and fellow Tyrolean Adolf Pichler left us an account of those years. It is an account that, when read closely, throws up more puzzles than it resolves. Subsequent biographers, with only some hundreds of words available for a newspaper article, understandably avoid the tedium they face leafing through Senn's papers in the Ferdinandeum in Innsbruck and just rewrite Pichler's account with a few twists of their own. The following is a summary of the last segment of Senn's life as we have it from [Pichler 108-], with a few added comments.

Pichler thinks that it is a scandal that the army did not make use of his talents and that in ten years he only managed to rise to the rank of corporal. We have to respond that the army did recognise his talents: they set him to teaching young men, which had been Senn's preferred way of making money as a civilian. Furthermore, they did that in the full knowledge that they were violating explicit police recommendations.

Senn had also reached his ceiling: it was almost unknown in those feudal times for officers to come from non-aristocratic families. The impossibility of promotion for those who felt themselves talented was also a factor in turning the Jacobin Franz Hebenstreit, also a lieutenant with no prospects, to bitter hatred at the officer class from which he would be forever excluded.

After leaving the army how could he earn some money? He went to work for his old friend Aloys Fischer in his legal practice in Salzburg as an administrator. That lasted for three years, until 1836, when there was a falling out. Pichler gives us no reason for this, but teases us with a hint at something insalubrious: 'In Salzburg Senn wasted his magnificent powers in sensual escapades'.

[Klein 198:4] adds that Fischer refused to give Senn money for such dissolution, after which Senn peremptorily departed, leaving Fischer an angry letter. Nevertheless, Fischer gave him a good testimonial and told Pichler later that Senn had helped his practice acquire 'radiance and respect'.

Isolation

We step aside from Pichler's narrative to note at this point that Senn's friendship with Fischer was not the only casualty of this time. Senn also broke off his friendship with Franz von Bruchmann in a letter in 1835 (now lost) [Enzinger Bruchmann 358], but possibly earlier in 1828. We recall that Bruchmann had been involved in the police raid that led to Senn's arrest. In the latter years of their friendship, however, Bruchmann had abandoned their early pantheism and had become a Redemptorist priest. His religious obsessions and his pulpit style became more and more irritating for Senn. After an interval of seven years Senn wrote to him on 23 June 1842 (also lost), giving no reply address, but after this brief spark silence descends between the two.

Senn was now estranged from both the friends of his youth, both of whom had been victims of police persecution in 1820, both of whom had supported him financially in his many moments of need. Both had married well and attained extreme respectability: Dr Fischer had a successful legal practice and attained high positions in the civil service, Dr Bruchmann was a counsellor of kings and a leader of the Redemptorists. Johann Senn, in contrast, was a pauper with a teaching diploma.

Senn returned to Innsbruck in 1836. We hear from Pichler that the military threatened to take action against him for working for private employers for money – as a pensioned officer this was apparently below his station. [Klein 199:5] quotes unidentified sources which clarify the position a little: if he was going to get a job, it had to be a respectable one in a public bureaucracy.

In response, Senn considered applying for an 'official' job in the Military Archives, but abandoned this when he found out that he would be expected first to serve one to three years without payment. [Klein 199:5] adds that during this time his behaviour would have to be impeccable and he could not do any work on the side.

Senn then took a job as a temporary copyist in the regional administration. He was treated badly by a superior, who forecast his early dismissal, so Senn left before it could come to that. He applied for two administrative jobs in Feldkirch without success.

He worked as a Winkelschreiber, a cheap freelance copyist, writer and paralegal for the common people – naturally to the great annoyance of the established lawyers who did their best to shut him down. There were also continual arguments with the military authorities, who considered this form of work demeaning for an officer.

Senn published his poems in 1838, not without great difficulty. Not only did the censor wield his knife pitilessly but Senn also had trouble scratching together the subscriptions to cover the costs. A few hundred copies were produced. In 1841 Senn tried to put together a second edition but had to give up because of the lack of interest. The first edition went almost unnoticed.

A review in the Augsburger Postzeitung called Senn 'an obscure pensioner, whom no one knew and about whom no one talked' – which seems like a fair, if harsh, summary. The editor of the Tyroler Boten chose not to advertise the appearance of the book; he received a review but chose not to print that, either.

The endgame

Understandably, Senn became very despondent at this lack of success. In the following years he wrote some miscellaneous pieces, among them a geographical study, a rather half-baked study of the etymologies of some German words, various short essays, a piece on Hegel and a collection of commentaries on Goethe's Faust. Senn has little time for Goethe and finds his learnèd Faust to be an idiot. At this point our reader(s) may recall Franz Seraph von Spaun, that other hothead undergoing a long, angry decline in exile, ranting about Goethe to anyone who might listen.

Pichler tells us of Senn's growing anguish at the failure of his own life, the destruction of every hope of ever making an impact 'appropriate to his talent and ambition'. Senn became rude and unbearable with other people. He sought comfort in the rum bottle, although no one ever saw him drunk. Gradually 'a complete, truly demonic mockery took over his mind, hatred of his fellows dominated his thoughts, hatred which could be seen etched in the lines of his face'.

Soon everyone avoided him, people would roll their eyes behind his back. The decline continued until in summer 1857 he fell ill and was admitted to the military hospital. He died on 30 September, 62 years old.

His death went almost unreported. Pichler got a subscription for a headstone for his grave in the military cemetery Pradl. There was a Tyrolean eagle on the stone and the incorrect birthdate. Pichler considers that the lack of a cross or religious symbol on the headstone is what led to its repeated defacement.

Pichler tells us that he wrote the account of Senn's life in an attempt to rescue Senn's honour:

I attempted to group the material in such a way that one could gain a clear picture of the individualism of the deceased, so that one could decide to what extent Senn himself was responsible for his misery and to what extent it arose from the conditions of the time. May that of his which is light, good and noble remain; for his errors and his weaknesses he has atoned enough through his suffering.

Senn's appearance

[Klein 199:5f] collected together some eyewitness accounts from those who knew the later Senn. They need no further comment.

[Maurer] He often sat in the evenings in the Café Oberrauch, a small, tubby man with the large head of a thinker. Sometimes I saw students with him who knew him from the library and who discussed philosophical themes with him. If he was in a good mood, he could be persuaded to read one of his poems. He read in a monotone, droning voice and when he had finished he would often break into a loud, mocking laugh that shocked his listeners and cry: 'Believe me, it is all nothing, nothing, nothing!

[Obrist] I saw the poor Prometheus with the thinker's forehead. […in the Hotel Oberrauch…] My companion pointed out a man with a saturnine, deeply pensive face and a corpulent body and said: 'Take note, that is a poet!' I saw Senn a few times walking through the Neustadt with his arms folded behind his back, his grim, lined face turned downwards, the battered top-hat wobbling on the back of his head […] The poor, highly talented man had been pushed into the swamp, so that he would become bogged down there, which – Heaven knows – was exactly what happened.

[Prem] His appearance had gone to seed. He was short but broad-shouldered, with a big head and a high, thinker's forehead surrounded by black wavy hair. He had dark, strange eyebrows. When he walked erect through the streets in his threadbare clothes, down-at-heel shoes, the scruffy top-hat on the back of his head, some people looked round after him and shook their heads. He was called a wreck or a crazy fool, his entire being was grim and bitter. He was poor and in winter did not even have a warm room, whilst the 'Der Rote Tyroler Adler' was posted at all shooting ranges and even appeared on pipe-bowls.

[Kranewetter] [He had] a difficult, intractable, refractory nature. He was a genuine, iron-skulled mountain man […] full of personality, who reacted to every stimulus and was always ready to strike back […] a tragic character, whom destiny would grind down.

The political activist

Senn fell between the millstones of Austrian politics, was ground down and then ejected. Opponents of the Franz/Metternich/Sedlnitzky system in Austria – and that means most 'liberal' historians since then – have seen in Senn's fate just one more piece of evidence in the case against the monstrous system they so detest. From this viewpoint Senn becomes a useful victim of a political tyranny.

Despite his association with Burschenschaften and his spirited fight during the period of his arrest, it doesn't seem appropriate to call Senn a political activist. He was a dreamer, in that observation Sedlnitzky was correct, but his behaviour after his release gives us no trace of political activism.

He joined the army and played his part in putting down the Italian malcontents in 1831. He was proud to be a Tyrolean and proud to bear arms in a largely Tyrolean regiment. As far as we can know, all the political turmoil during the period of his exile, apart from a few Tyrolean-only events, passed him by without his participation or even comment. At moments when most of Europe was in revolutionary turmoil, he was writing commentaries on Hegel and Goethe's Faust, as well as extolling in his poems Napoleon's genius.

Just look what was happening in Europe whilst Senn was in exile, collecting his poems and thinking about Hegel. He was simply out of date, behind his times. Whatever genius his admirers saw in the young Senn had completely evaporated by the time he left the army. The following is not intended as a comprehensive chronology, it is just a list of events that would have interested a 'freedom fighter'.

Year Senn Events
1830 11: Schwind's visit 07: Revolution in France, revolutionary fervour spreads to Germany.
The spread of pre-industrial 'pauperism' continues throughout the following period.
1831 01-06: Takes part in the Carbonari campaign to quell the Italian revolutionaries. 11: Hegel dies
Heine moves to Paris in exile.
1832 Retires from the army. Artisan associations start to form; seeds of the workers' movement.
1833 Works for Fischer in Salzburg. 04: The attempt to free imprisoned journalists in Frankfurt put down.
1834 ditto. 01: German customs union founded.
1835 ditto. 03: Franz I dies, succeeded by the mentally defective Ferdinand I.
Georg Büchner flees to Strasburg, then Zurich.
07: Attempted assassination of the French king.
09: Reintroduction of censorship and repression of journalists in France.
1836 Leaves Fischer, returns to Innsbruck. Communist precursor Bund der Gerechten founded.
1837 02: Georg Büchner dies in exile in Zurich.
12: The Göttinger Sieben dismissed and accused of treason.
1838 Publishes Poems. The People's Charter initiates the Chartist movement in the UK.
1839 Georg Herwegh, socialist poet, flees to Switzerland.
1840 Hoffmann von Fallersleben publishes part 1 of his poem collection Unpolitische Lieder.
1841 Second edition of Poems abandoned. Hoffmann von Fallersleben publishes part 2 of Unpolitische Lieder and writes Das Lied der Deutschen.
1842 01: Rheinische Zeitung appears, ed. Karl Marx.
Heine publishes his satire Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen.
Hoffmann von Fallersleben stripped of his professorship and pension.
1843 04: Rheinische Zeitung closed down by censorship.
Marx and Heine meet in Paris.
Georg Herwegh flees to Paris.
Hoffmann von Fallersleben stripped of his citizenship and deported by Prussia. Seven years of wandering exile begin.
1844 06: The Silesian Weavers' Revolt is brutally put down.
1845
1846 Crop failures and starvation in Europe.
03: Marx and Engels form the Communist Committee in Brussels.
Ferdinand Freiligrath's revolutionary poems Ça ira! published.
1847 04: The 'Potato Revolution' and widespread starvation unrest.
1848 02: Heine becomes bed-bound.
02: The Communist Manifesto published in London.
02: Revolution in France.
03: Revolution in Germany, collapse of censorship and repression. Resignation of Metternich and his retirement to Britain. Sedlnitzky sacked.
06: The Neue Rheinische Zeitung (Marx, Engels, Freiligrath) appears.
12: Emperor Ferdinand I abdicates, Emperor Franz Joseph I ascends the throne.
1849 05: The Neue Rheinische Zeitung closed down.
07: Final collapse of the revolution in Germany; restoration of censorship and political repression.
Marx flees to exile in London.
1850 01: Prussian constitution.
1851 12: Louis Napoleon topples the constitutional government in France.
Freiligrath flees to London.
1852 12: Louis Napoleon elected to become Emperor Napoleon III.
1853 Crimean War begins.
1854 07: Ban on workers' associations in Germany.
1855 06: Sedlnitzky dies.
1856 02: Heine dies in Paris.
1857 30.09: Senn dies

We must conclude that through 27 of the most turbulent years in European history Senn did nothing. He stood aside, silent, from all the events of those years. Many others suffered censorship, imprisonment, harassment and banishment, had no money and were living in hovels.

The poet

And finally, Senn the poet and literary chap. Having slogged through the 150 or so pages of Senn's Gedichte, I am not a fan: they are pretentious, mannered affectations. They excite no interest in the reader. There is a reason that hardly anyone at the time wanted to read them and that only a few bothered to reviewed them.

Of the three reviews we know about, one, however, is of particular interest. It was written by Hoffmann von Fallersleben no less, before he wrote his famous Lied der Deutschen and whilst he was still a professor in Breslau. If you don't believe my opinion of Senn's work, read what he thought – after all, he knew what he was talking about:

It is easy to see that Senn's poems arise from an important man, who not only desires to give us a complete picture of his being but also prefers even more to hide himself away. It is as though he is wrapped in a greatcoat, only sometimes letting us glimpse his eyes, thus making it impossible for us to come to a thorough judgment of him.

The sensations he expresses and the ideas he communicates are usually deep, sometimes grandiose, always interesting and meaningful – but seldom do they take on a living form. Everywhere an experience shows through – but it seldom has enough generality to allow anyone other than the poet and his friends to engage with it. If the author can say truthfully about his verses: 'I have lived them and not invented them' [ich habe sie erlebt und nicht gedichtet] it still is desirable that they are also poetically composed [gedichtet]. The one-sidedness and incompleteness in these poems be must be ascribed to a mental isolation in which the author perhaps lives. In any case they are his property and we see him, free from the influence of earlier or even contemporary poetic fashion, pure and independent, go their own way.

[Pichler 116]

Senn sent an argumentative rebuttal to Hoffmann, curiously written in the third person, which only serves to display Senn's combative nature. Hoffmann must have been left thinking: why did I bother? Another review, which remained unpublished, received both barrels from Senn. He was not a man who would ever have a literary career.

Finale

Senn's sole talent was for fiery, impassioned speech. Friends reported on the brilliance of those verbal fireworks, but never seemed able to remember – or at least to be able to recount afterwards – anything he had said. Schwind's description of his meeting with Senn is a good example of this.

Unfortunately, the only ones who did take notice of what he said and who wrote the interesting parts of it down were the Viennese police, in whose presence Senn talked himself into his arrest. The others involved got a mild slap on the wrist, whereas Senn's show-off oratory got him a cane across the back, a year in prison and exile. That is the behaviour of an idiot.

In the army Senn had an audience of cadets at whom he could talk. Once he left he had no audience anymore, apart from the occasional group of students who would amuse themselves with the grumpy old drunk for an hour or two. Friends and admirers like to highlight his remarkable intellect, even ascribing a description of him as a 'genius' and an 'intellectual' to a police report.

Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: Senn's soufflé never rose. When extracted from his circle of listeners all the fireworks were extinguished and he had no further talents that could carry him through the long years of age and decline. When all you have is ego, then ultimately that is all you are left with.