W G Sebald wrote of Robert Walser (1878-1956), “The traces Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint as to have been almost effaced altogether. . . he was only ever connected with the world in the most fleeting of ways”. It can be seen that Institute Benjamenta springs naturally from such a life, being the story of a man who undergoes a lengthy course of training in becoming little more than a nothing.
The book is written in the first person by Jakob von Gunten, a 17 year old boy who enrols in a private academy for servants, the Institute Benjamenta. The Institute is like a boys’ boarding school, run by an eccentric couple, Frau and Fraulein Benjamenta who teach the basics of a servant’s behaviour and duties such as entering a room, behaviour towards women and waiting on table etc. But more importantly, they also attempt to train their pupils in the inner attitude of a servant which seems to consist of a daily personal humiliation in which the servant’s character is moulded by an almost Christian principle of denying oneself.
The writing of Institute Benjamenta is characterised, like so much of Walser’s work, by its description of an inner world of feelings and impressions. Events happen around the main character Jakob, but they are subordinated to the processes of inner development which is far more important to him than any material progress. Walser is interested in Jakcob’s state of mind, and on more than one occasion he allows Jakob to describe significant dreams, even on occasion admitting that he finds it hard to distinguish between dreaming and waking.
The inner development in the case of Institute Benjamenta is about abasement. The job of a servant is to put himself to one side, to live a life so unobtrusively that he merges into the background. The whole Institute is designed to achieve that state of mind where servant-hood is not a professional facade but a permanent revolution in which the servant is constantly annihilating his own wishes and desires in order to serve his master or mistress better. Even the practical side of the classes is unutterably boring. The students perform the same small tasks over and over, and when they are finished, they have literally nothing to do.
From three o’clock in the afternoon we pupils are left almost completely to our own devices. Nobody bothers with us any more. The Benjamentas are secluded in their inner chambers and in the classroom there is an emptiness, and emptiness that almost sickens one. All noise is forbidden. One is only allowed to scurry and creep about and talk in whispers. . . I usually practice standing on one leg. Often for a change, I see how long I can hold by breath . . . one suddenly feels how painful existence can be.
It is not hard to see passages like these as fore-runners of existentialism, the last phrase almost being like something from Jean Paul Sartre when he writes of the meaningless of life and the nausea of existence.
The students at Institute Benjamenta are taught modesty. They are taught not to look around them, and to act with a humility which borders on the self-abnegation taught by the saints of old. I was reminded at one point of Jakob’s namesake, the Jacob of the Book of Genesis who after depriving his brother Esau of his birthright, fled to his Uncle who made him serve many years of servitude, repeatedly deceiving him of his prospects until with his character moulded, he returned, bent over his stick, to his brother Esau and apologised to him. Walser’s Jacob reflects on his training in similar vein,
We are educated by being compelled to learn exactly the character of our own soul and body. We are given clearly to understand that mere discipline and sacrifice are educative, and that more blessings and more genuine knowledge are to be found in a very simple, as it were stupid, exercise than in the learning of a variety of ideas and meanings. Perhaps we’re being stupified, certainly we’re being made small. The law which commands, the discipline which compels, and the many unmerciful rules which give us a direction and give us good taste: that is the big thing, not us pupils.
As with other books by Walser, the mistress of the house (in this case Frau Benjamenta) attracts an almost masochistic worship from her charges:
How beautiful she is! What a luxuriance of raven hair! These eyes with their shining darkness seem to say nothing and yet to say everything unspeakable, they are so familiar and yet so unknown. When one looks at Fraulein Benjamenta’s cheeks one has mo more joy in living, for one has the feeling that life must be a turbulent hell full of vile crudities. Recently we heard her, right there in the schoolroom. We were all trembling like aspens. Yes, all of us, we love her. She is our instructress, our higher being.
Despite the apparent wish to obey his superiors and to be the perfect servant, Jacob is fundamentally a decadent character, the Institute a sham. A young man of 17 should not be annihilating himself but rather finding opportunities to develop himself. Jacob’s lack of ambition is a turning away from what he is meant to do, a sort of inner laziness in which a state of nothingness is preferable to the effort of having to forge his way in the world. I suspect that Waler was well aware of this of course, and Institute Benjamenta can be seen as a satire on the pretensions of the people around him who sought position and prosperity in the fast-developing world of the early 20th century.
As a novel, the book works well despite its peculiar theme, but probably today it would only be of interest to Robert Walser fans (of which I am one). To my mind it is not as satisfying as The Assistant which portrays a much more developed world and a more realistic set of relationships, but I was pleased to read this book as a way of learning more about this unusual writer.
As a final note, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between Institute Benjamenta and Wilhelm Genazino’s much2001 novel, The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt. The Shoe Tester also wants little out of life other than to live simply with the most undemanding of jobs so that he can devote himself to his real quest – to find “inner authorisation” for his life. Genazino’s book is also one in which the inner thoughts of the narrator are more important than the events that happen around him, and like Walser, Genazino writes of a state of mind rather than a set of circumstances.
Note added 2/6/2010 – A very interesting article on Walser can be found on Balloon Journey