Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) in Acts of the Servant
Wenn eine andere Generation den Menschen aus unsern empfindsamen Schriften restituieren sollte, so werden sie glauben es si ein Herz mit Testikeln gewesen. Ein herz mit einem hodensack.
Thus Johann Georg Hamann described Sturm und Drang in Aesthetica in nuce. Eine Rhapsodie in kabbalistischer Prose (1762).
Hamann is critical, even dismissive of Sturm und Drang, but as he unwittingly provides us with a near perfect description of Bheathain Somhairle’s character I think it deserves quoting. In translation it reads:
If another and later species comes to reconstruct the human being from the evidence of our sentimental writings, they will conclude it to have been a heart with testicles.
Sturm und Drang – the meaning is storm and stress, or storm and urge – was primarily a literary movement originating in 1770s Germany and lasting little more than a dozen years until the early death of some proponents and its abandonment by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller saw it eclipsed by Weimar Classicism. Though short-lived, Sturm und Drang had lasting effect; shattering the strict rationalism imposed by enlightenment thinking and introducing an era of literature promoting human emotion, individual perception, anti-aristocratism, and the natural world. Weimar Classicism sought to merge the best of enlightenment rationalism with the emotionalism of Sturm und Drang, but in its initial form Sturm und Drang provoked the reader’s emotions rather than their intellect using shock, terror, and sensuality to create a visceral connection between reader and text. In essence, it was an early attempt to achieve in literature what nearly two centuries later came naturally to cinema.In the wider social context Sturm und Drang was part of a growing recognition of the primacy of the individual following the decline of medieval feudalism and rise, albeit in limited form, of the democratic principle and it transcended literature to influence a number of pre-Romantic artists including Caspar Wolf and Henry Fuseli and even had a limited effect on a number of notable composers, including Haydn, Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, and even Mozart whose Symphony No 25 in G minor of 1773 is one of only two symphonies he wrote in a minor key.
As we have seen, Acts of the Servant has much in common with the Sturm und Drang movement: the focus on individual perception is almost unwavering; characters are ruled at least as much by their emotions as by rationality; and nature, in the guise of the fog, Bheathain’s rain-swept hillside, and the sunset on St Catherine’s Hill are not mere backcloths but accentuate or influence the action. It is obvious to your editor that influenced by Goethe and Schiller’s early works MacGregor believed Sturm und Drang was a means of being truthful to the human condition while not offending public taste. Alas, he was only half-correct.For our purposes, any story where the principal motivation is revenge or hatred can be categorised as Sturm und Drang because such responses are particular to the individual; whereas, stories where the principal motivation is power or wealth cannot because they are motivations shared by many, even if not all act on them. Thus, the Second Prologue is a clear expression of Sturm und Drang: the unnamed central character is motivated by revenge and acts in the heat of the moment while her rational mind is suspended. The text is clear that she will regret her actions but by then it will be too late, for her act was irredeemable as murder. Time and again in Acts of the Servant characters act in haste, though not all repent at leisure even though we see that they are suffering for their haste. Previously we observed that Captain Wolfe is irrational by his very nature and then witnessed Bheathain Somhairle’s impulsiveness. Later in the narrative other characters will reveal their irrationality and impulsiveness but I shall leave them to their time and place rather than spoil the tale with premature revelations.
This brings me to another aspect of Sturm und Drang expressed in Acts of the Servant: the focus on individual perception. We experience the novel through the eyes and other senses of the characters and see their unique perspective on the world. For example: in Chapter One we only see the vista of Staffin Bay and its environs at the moment Bheathain does. It was there all the time, as was the sea beyond and the mountain above, but until Bheathain glanced homeward he had been pre-occupied and took no notice of his wider surroundings.There are various literary terms to describe this focus on a character’s perceptions but in effect, with rare exceptions we only see, hear, taste, touch and feel (both physically and emotionally) what the characters experience when they experience it with little in the way of mediation or comment from the author. The character stands, and often falls, without the author passing judgement upon them. Rather later in the narrative we will find MacGregor stating “I have tired of heroes and villains, I shall write only of players making the best of their luck, whether their cards are good or bad. I will describe reality… not dreams.”
In reality there is no omniscience passing judgement on us, save perhaps God and our conscience.
The third aspect of Sturm und Drang is its exaltation of nature and this chapter shows it exceptionally well in the description of the sunset over the city. We also saw it in the previous chapter when Bheathain stood upon the sweep of hillside and again when he gathered seaweed.
Both Bheathain and the unnamed character of the Second Prologue are isolated in a landscape over which they have no sway. Indeed, Bheathain cannot even stay warm and dry such are the conditions he faces. Enlightenment art and literature portrays man in command of a benign nature. Nature that was not biddable or benign, exemplified by The Alps crossed by northern Europeans embarking on the Grand Tour of Italy, excited terror and disgust and many travellers threw down the blinds on their carriage windows to avoid the fearsome sights.It took a paradigm shift before the traveller could appreciate that, while the mountains were indeed hostile, they had a form of beauty inextricably linked to the terror they instilled: a beauty that we would now call exhilarating. In short, provided any real danger was controlled we had discovered that we liked being afraid and Sturm und Drang exploited that pleasurable fear.
Understanding the connection between Sturm und Drang and Acts of the Servant shows that MacGregor’s desire to give free expression to human emotion was not sui generis but part of a wider movement breaking free from the straitjacket of rationalism imposed by the enlightenment. Alas for MacGregor those in the vanguard of an artistic or literary movement rarely prosper in their lifetimes.