The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings
by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (NYRB 2005)


I just finished reading a slim volume of short stories by the Austrian author Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Hofmannsthal (1874–1929) wrote these stories in the last decade of the nineteenth century, so his language and style is at times in the vein of European Decadence. The stories have a dreamlike quality; the atmosphere seems vague and impressionistic. Also of note, many characters have no names; they are known as, for instance, “the miner’s young wife” in “Tale of the Veiled Woman,” or “a merchant’s son” in “Tale of the 672nd Night”.


But I want to talk about the title story, widely regarded as Hofmannsthal’s masterpiece in the genre. Informally known as “The Lord Chandos Letter,” its actual title is simply “A Letter.” Hofmannsthal’s vagueness is integral to his vision as a writer, and is explored in this story. Purported to be a letter written by Philipp, Lord Chandos, the younger son of the Earl of Bath, to Francis Bacon in 1603, the story explains to Bacon (and the reader) why Lord Chandos has not written to him in two years. In brief, the reason is because Philipp has experienced a rapturous experience, which has resulted in his perceiving a deep split between the mental and physical worlds, realizing that language does not actually unite the two. In seeing the vast gulf between the physical world and the world of his mind he realizes the failure of language to convey the true nature, the immediacy, the “thingness” of all the people, places, and things in the physical world. And this is what has paralyzed him and caused him to stop writing. He tells Bacon:

Everything came to pieces, the pieces broke into more pieces,
and nothing could be encompassed by one idea. Isolated words swam
about me; they turned into eyes that stared at me and into which I
had to stare back, dizzying whirlpools which spun around and around
and led into the void (122).
Although this seems terrifying, Philipp’s paralysis comes not from the terror of words being inadequate to their purpose but from the mystical feeling of fully comprehending the ineffable nature of all things, and of the origin of these things by extension. Philipp has discovered the Transcendent, the Eastern experience of the Self that is itself a Void, a form that is emptiness, and an emptiness that is form, which cannot be put into words, but which is found permeating all Creation, and has also been testified to by Christian mystics. Philipp writes that

. . . it is as if my body consisted entirely of coded
messages revealing everything to me. . . . But when this
strange bewitchment stops, I am unable to say anything about
it; I can no more express in rational language what made up
this harmony permeating me and the entire world, or how it
made itself perceptible to me, . . . (125).
Philipp’s, and by extension Hofmannsthal’s, relationship to language is deeply embedded in the Aesthetic and Decadent movement which concerned itself with “art for art’s sake” and whose writers created fictions in which the ornamental, excessively descriptive language exposed the nature of language for what it is—mere artifice, and severed it from its function of trying to communicate the substance or meaning of an object, a person, a situation, or a place. In the middle of the nineteenth century the Symbolists planted the seeds for this development in their poetry, which invested objects with abstract thoughts, emotions, and sensations that could not be represented in other ways. The abyss between object, thought, or emotion and the language used to represent them began here, by focusing on the distance between them in the physical world and the mind, where language tries to conceal the inability of man to fully know the object or experience he is focused on.


For writers, this moment was the beginning of the end—for how can we continue to trust what we have blindly trusted throughout the history of writing to truly express the “thingness,” the “suchness,” of the people, places, things, and experiences we write about, if language can only hint at what is whirling about in the mind but not at the actual nature of what the mind desires to represent?


This brings me to a final point of interest that came up when reading this story: the subtle relation not just of the primarily Eastern philosophical experience of reality in general but of the Zen Buddhist understanding of language which relates to how Hofmannsthal represents it in his story. For Zen Buddhists, language cannot point at all to the real nature of any object in the physical world. The reality, as Watts’s The Way of Zen has definitively made it clear for me, is that we live in our minds; we can never truly “touch” the nature of the objects we describe so ambiguously and poorly because language is simply sounds and letters that have no relation to, and so cannot actually, factually represent, the “suchness” of the objects we see or interact with in the world. Hence, the Zen manner of pointing with the finger at something when asked what it is or to describe it. Without words, Zen Buddhism cogently makes it heard: the silence is deafening . . . and enlightening.

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