WHATEVER its literary merit or social value, Mars is a book to keep you awake at night.
One doesn't often run into a young man who fancies killing his mother and blowing up banks, who feels "a real kinship with Satan" and believes he is "one of those people who constantly crucify God because they hate Him." We also don't often encounter a young man writing with the knowledge that he is condemned to death with malignant lymphoma.
But this pseudonymous autobiography isn't chiefly a metaphysical protest against the anguish and oblivion of death. The strangeness and shock of Mars is because it's primarily a protest against life. For Fritz Zorn (the name means "anger" or "wrath") believed the values and attitudes his parents and Swiss society taught him led to his cancer.
He died in Zurich in 1976 at the age of 32. Apparently an only child, he was reared in the upper-class Gold Coast area along Lake Zurich. His father was a millionaire, his mother a quiet matron. After attending the Gymnasium, Zorn entered the university in Zurich and stayed for a doctorate in Romance languages. As he writes Mars, Zorn is a teacher of Spanish in a preparatory school. The book was published in 1977 after his death and became a best seller in Germany, where it contacted a conscience we in the United States may have difficulty uncovering. It rages relentlessly against everything Zorn has experienced, exploding into a mindless nihilism.
For almost half the book Zorn rails at his childhood. He calls it a catastrophe because he was isolated from all signs of pain, passion, conflict, danger, stress of any kind. "The world in which I grew up >had>> to be perfect. . . . Its harmony and perfection were forced on me. I was not allowed to see that the world was not perfect."
He can recall only one disagreement between his parents and doesn't remember its source. There was only a single point of view on any subject, his father's. The family played solitaire and lived together as strangers. Christian occasions were observed, but religion was not discussed. It was among countless subjects considered "too difficult." Parties were conducted in order to be concluded. Money was not a subject for conversation, and sex did not exist. It was a childhood, says Zorn, that made him an emotional invalid before he reached adolescence.
By the time Zorn entered the university he says he was in a chronic state of depression. He made no friends because he felt an "unbridgeable gap" in the presence of others, fleeing to "escape my feelings of being an outsider among them." He had no lovers because he had no sexual drive, only sexual dreams. He spent "the greatest part of my energy in shoring up the collapsing facade of my pretended self." He says, "I was a liar and a hyprocrite through and through."
Zorn pronounces his university career a disaster, calls himself a hopeless "neurotic" and says he was "incapable of doing anything." Twenty-four pages later, however, he reports, "It was surely not a bad thing that I wrote good papers, that I produced a successful dissertation, and that I passed my doctoral exams calmly, confidently, and with high standing . . . that I produced plays that found applause in all quarters and that were a lot of fun for the actors who performed them and for the spectators who saw them."
Neurotic? No, Zorn is seriously mentally ill during most of the writing ofMars and his book is clinical evidence.
Zorn had been teaching a while, living alone and wearing black all the time, sitting at his desk and scribbling the words "tristeza" and "soledad" on pieces of paper when his downward spiral led his parents to persuade him to enter psychotherapy. Perhaps it would have been too late to save his mind under any circumstances. But at about the same time a tumor began to form on his neck. He ignored it. It grew. When it was diagnosed as a form of cancer, Zorn found his own explanation: "an accumulation of 'swallowed tears.'" "The doctors know a great deal about cancer, but they don't know what it really is. I think cancer is a psychic illness. If a person swallows down all his suffering, he will eventually be eaten up in turn by the suffering buried inside him."
If Mars is a diatribe at the start, it turns into an unconscionable screaming curse as it moves to conclusion. Zorn invokes Wilhelm Reich as he seeks support for his deranged theory of cancer. Were he correct, every celibate in history would have died of malignancy. He draws Sigmund Freud into the argument with slight understanding of what Freud was about.
"My parents are my cancer," he says, and joins Ulrike Meinhof in declaring war on society while telling us his own war against society has already been lost. He resolves to destroy his old self--"I am a cancerous cell in my society"--so he will have a character worthy of life if his cancer is arrested. Then he changes his mind. He will settle for "clarity" since he knows he cannot ever be happy and "my life cannot have meaning." Near the end, he concludes, "I am the decline of the West. . . . I am a molecule in the mass from which that decline will proceed." Because it denies love (sex, in Zorn's equation) and suppresses feeling, Western society literally plants cancer.
Everything is wrong with Mars except the grains of truth that Zorn, sick to the point of psychosis and nearing death, imagines as cosmic insights. Mars is literary terrorism. It tries to achieve with verbal violence what cannot be gained through imagination or reason. Behind Mars there is one big idea--the world cannot be made safe and livable through hypocrisy. There are other little ideas, ideas about communication, the risk of intimacy, and the value of permitting vulnerability in human relationships. But responsibility for self never enters Zorn's mind. He could choose but didn't.
One wonders continually what Zorn was like, how his plays read, and what his physicians saw in him. The afterword by the unidentified Adolf Muschg, who arranged for the publication of Mars, tells little except that Muschg endorses Zorn's positions.
Briefly I thought the similarity of Zorn's and Muschg's attitudes raised a question of the book's authenticity. But no. The proper question is, what does this book and its acclaim abroad suggest about the inner life of German- speaking Europe?