Internal Abyss: Lack of Identity in Büchner’s Leonce and Lena (Revised)

In William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Jacques stated the famous line, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” This notion of people going through their lives as nothing more than dramatic actors has been present for a long time. Even in current times, people are often accused of acting “fake” or “artificial,” but is it even truly an act? According to Valerio in Büchner’s Leonce and Lena, the answer to this question is no; rather, people are merely conglomerates of constructed personalities, with no underlying “true self.”

Near the end of the play, Valerio, Leonce’s friend, enters the stateroom wearing several masks. When Leonce’s father, King Peter, asks him who he is, he responds, “I’m not sure I know. Am I this? Or this? Or this? What a frightening thought: if I keep on removing layer after layer, I might peel myself entirely away” (Büchner 104). These words introduce the idea that people are made up of many “masks,” each representing a self-constructed personality used to handle a certain aspect of life. Such masks can be seen in other parts of the play as well as in life. As a textual example, when Leonce asks Valerio what his profession is, he responds, “Sir, my consuming occupation is to be thoroughly idle, I am uncommonly skilled at doing nothing, I have colossal endurance in the realm of laziness.” This response, as well as his apparent obsession with all delicious foods, reveals Valerio’s philosophical standing as a hedonist (Büchner 81). However, Valerio later forsakes his “identity” entirely for a while, donning the mask of an adventurer by agreeing to walk all the way to Italy with Leonce when he decides to run away from home, a strenuous feat that leaves him sweat-drenched and begging for rest (Büchner 93). Likewise, Leonce begins the play with a set personality, revealed to be existentialist by his rambling: “My life gapes at me like a great white sheet of paper that I’m supposed to fill with writing, but I can’t manage even a single letter. My head is an empty dance hall…” (Büchner 86). However, he instantly and completely transforms himself into a romantic whenever he is around women or thinking about a wife. This romantic “mask” is evidenced by Leonce’s use of flowery language, symbols and metaphors (“See the two white roses on her cheeks, the red ones on her breast?”), and popular romantic topics such as death (“The ticking death watch in our breast is slow…our entire life’s a creeping fever.”) (Büchner 85, 96). Both of these characters used a mask to change their personalities in order to match their situations in life. The same is true in real life; people utilize masks to fit into certain roles. A person may mask him/herself to be energetic and respectful during a cashier job, yet be curt and lazy at home. A man may be passionate and kind around his wife and family yet be cold and unreceptive in a work setting. People dynamically change their behavior and personalities in whatever way is needed to get through life in the best possible way.

Some may say that these masks are in fact just reflections of our true selves and that we simply use whichever parts of ourselves work best for every situation. At first, this seems as though it could be true; however, the latter part of Valerio’s aforementioned words of “…if I keep on removing layer after layer, I might peel myself away entirely,” implies that we have no “true self,” but rather only these artificial self-constructions (Büchner 104). Of course, anyone could easily dispute this as false simply because it is the spoken thought of one character.

However, Valerio’s idea produces a strong sense of the uncanny in Peter, who disconcertingly replies, “But surely you must be something?” (Büchner 104). According to Freud’s essay, The Uncanny, the uncanny can be present in three distinct cases: when one sees his/her double, when a seemingly inanimate object comes to life, or (most significantly) when “repressed childhood complexes are revived by some impression” (Freud 155). In this case, Peter’s reaction suggests that he subconsciously already knew or suspected that nobody must be something, that everybody may be nothing. Therefore, though it does not explicitly prove Valerio’s notion, Peter’s reaction seems to heavily imply that there is indeed no “true self.” Further confirmation may come from what Jacques Lacan called the “mirror stage,” which states that we first develop our self-identity by looking at a reflection of ourselves (Lacan 4). For the rest of our lives, we then develop ourselves around this external image of how we see ourselves, thereby by disregarding or even destroying any possible innate self-identity we have. Valerio mentions even this in the stateroom as he states, “Gentlemen, turn the mirrors to the wall, cover your shiny buttons, and don’t look at me like that lest I see my reflection mirrored in your eyes – or I truly won’t know any more who I am” (Büchner 104). Adding the possibility of multiple identities to Lacan’s work, Valerio implies here that, if presented with any of these reflective surfaces, he would be forced to face a new reflection that is incompatible with his current self-identity and would therefore be forced to create a new one.

Without a true identity, though, where do we stand as humans? Assuming we actually create artificial identities for ourselves, are we all merely automatons, as Valerio presented himself, Leonce, and Lena (Büchner 105)? Amazingly, Büchner’s play holds answers to even this question, as everybody in the play is portrayed as automaton-like. The general populace, for instance, is metaphorically compared to a batch of puppets by Leonce in the end (Büchner 108), while the tutor and privy council are only capable of agreeing with whatever they are told, much like robots built to give positive feedback (Büchner 79, 83). These portrayals, though satirical in nature, provide a cohesive image of the nature of humans. Humans are in essence artificial entities, being self-composed of a myriad of artificially constructed personalities and identities.

This outcome of humans as artificial beings has a significant impact on what it means to be human or almost human. If humans do not have a “true self,” then we must consider any trace of personality artificial. However, such a claim has not been made universally for the almost human. While some also have artificial personalities (such as an automaton or robot which is programmed to behave in certain ways), other almost humans, such as Homunculus from Goethe’s Faust or the monster from Frankenstein, may have true, defined personalities. In other words, all humans can fit within the parameters of almost humans, but not all almost humans can fit within the parameters of the humans. While “almost humans have consistent, cohesive identities and personalities, humans are lost in an internal abyss, making themselves up externally while they search in vain for a whole sense of self. Therefore, almost humans may actually be considered beyond the scope of humans, meaning we may call them “more than human,” or (more potently) “superhuman.”



Works Cited

Büchner, Georg, and John Reddick. Leonce and Lena. Complete Plays, Lenz and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 1993. 78-111. Print.

Freud, Sigmund, David McLintock, and Hugh Haughton. The Uncanny. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1977. Print.


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