“Most People are either stupid or evil, or both”

“Most people are either stupid or evil, or both.”

                                       -Hugh Mann


Using Hugh’s statement as my guideline, I would like to explore the question: to what extent do the characters behave like “normal” people?

In Kleist’s story, Earthquake in Chile, we can see there is no shortage of either of these qualities. Jeronimo and Josefa are extremely stupid and naive. They abandon all of their sensible plans in exchange for ill-conceived, emotionally driven antics. The ravenous religious zealots are probably more evil than stupid but they are certainly both, as they can barely even be bothered to lynch the right people. Witch-hunting is one of the world’s oldest pastimes (in Christian communities, mostly) and mobs like this are far more “normal” than a sane person can be comfortable with. Sadly, the only abnormal character is also the most honourable. Standing between a mob and their would-be victims is truly nothing short of “Godlike [heroics]” (Kleist 31). I guess it is also pretty commendable how Jeronimo and Josefa sacrifice themselves as well.

Moving to Lieutenant Gustl, I am immediately reminded of Jonathan Swift, when he said that “satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” I think this is important to keep in mind given our discussion today. It is too easy to say that Schnitzler was simply making fun of European militarymen of his time. He is making fun of you and me too. Much of his initial instincts strike me as very normal, then his reactions are taken way out of proportion for the purpose of satire. I would assert that no normal human being has never taken an embarrassing incident way out of proportion, lashed out at someone for something that they really had no business in, or secretly rejoiced when someone who has wronged them suffers. It is only the ridiculous extremes that he takes these thoughts that is abnormal.

Right, now onto the next question: how are the settings important and what do they tell us about the author’s thoughts?

In Earthquake in Chile the setting is a more rural, developing area. Kleist basically portrays this as a hive of superstition and religious violence. Perhaps he thought of modern European cities to be beyond that sort of thing. He does also write as though this is a place of love and generosity, most notably when his characters are in the actual forest. I suspect he likely  shared many of Rousseau’s thoughts on civilization. Schnitzler’s story gives a similar impression, but his criticism is pointed directly at urban Europe. His world is filled with arrogant, obnoxious, chest-puffing lunatics. Gustl is completely self-entitled and self-absorbed and even the baker is appallingly rude and confrontational. We also see a critique of a “culture of shame,” as we see that Gustl derives his entire sense of worth from the perceptions of others and societal expectations of him. There is certainly no room for the simple joys present in Earthquake in Chile in this story.

One thought on ““Most People are either stupid or evil, or both”

  1. I like your point here that even though we may criticize Gustl and read him as a satire of a particular type of person in that time and place, so distant from ourselves that we need not worry too much about it, there are certainly elements of Gustl that can be found in most of us. Which then can raise some interesting questions: if Schnitzler isn’t just criticizing military officers at that time, but providing a mirror for many of us, what might be the function of doing so? We talked about this a little bit in class on Friday: is he pointing to a kind of underbelly of human life, the stuff no one wants to talk about but we all know is happening? Maybe if we bring it out more into the open then we can better critique things like anti-semitism (Schnitzler was Jewish, and criticized anti-semitism in a number of his works), or military officers who are spending their time sleeping around and gambling rather than being the “honourable” gentlemen they might pretend to be?

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