Somnambulistic Lucidity

The Sleepwalker in the Works of Gustav Meyrink

by Eric J. Klaus (Author)
©2018 Monographs XVI, 180 Pages


Gustav Meyrink (1868–1932), best known as the author of The Golem (1915), experimented with the occult in a time rife with occult experimentation. As a seeker of esoteric truth, he practiced and wrote about elements of Western Esotericism—alternative religious movements that pursued methods of tapping into secret spiritual wisdom that helped define the age. In doing so, Meyrink developed his own theories of salvation, which featured yoga as a means to open the door to supernatural and paranormal experience. In this way, his life, as well as his fiction, exemplifies liminality, existence on the margins. The core symbol of this liminal experience is the somnambulist: a figure existing between material and spiritual states of consciousness, having access to both yet belonging to neither. His oeuvre features characters entering trances, wandering the borders between "waking" and "metaphysical" worlds, gaining access to secret truths, and realizing salvation via a unio mystica. Meyrink, therefore, has much to say about the cultural climate of the fin de siècle: by viewing the turn of the twentieth century as a time defined by searches for certitude, by locating Western Esotericism as a meaningful movement of the age, by situating Meyrink on the periphery of social and spiritual spheres, and by identifying the sleepwalker as a seminal figure of the period as well as in Meyrink’s work, this study echoes Meyrink’s own attempts to find lucidity in the ambiguity of somnambulism.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgments
  • Prelude: Of Sleepwalkers and Semiospheres
  • 1. Gustav Meyrink—Living, Writing, and Searching on the Periphery
  • 2. The Modern Condition and the Semiosphere of Religiosity
  • Interlude: The Somnambulist in the Semiosphere of Modern Religiosity
  • 3. The Early Works: Meister Leonard and Liminality
  • 4. The Early Novels (1915–1917)
  • 5. The Late Novels (1921–1927)
  • Coda: Consonance in Dissonance
  • Index
  • Series index

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Figure 1.1:Gustav Meyrink
Figure 1.2:Friedrich Karl Gottlob Freiherr von Varnbüler from 1882
Figure 1.3:Marie Meyer
Figure 1.4:Young Gustav Meyrink as successful rower
Figure 3.1:Gustav Meyrink ← ix | x →

← x | xi →



Earlier versions of the analyses of Der Golem in Chapter 4 and Der Engel vom westlichen Fenster in Chapter 5 were printed in the journals Seminar (Vol 41, No. 2, 2010) and Modern Austrian Literature (Vol. 40, No. 2, 2007), respectively. Both journals have generously granted permission to publish these texts, for which I am grateful. The majority of the scholarly literature and primary sources on Meyrink’s life and work in this book is from German-language sources. Any translations of these works, as well as the translations of Meyrink’s writings, are mine. ← xi | xii →

← xii | xiii →



While writing may seem to be a solitary endeavor, in truth it is a study in teamwork. The successful completion of this kind of project can only be achieved with the assistance, patience, and wisdom of others. Indeed, I have been the beneficiary of these and other kinds of support, for which I am extremely grateful. The list of people and organizations to whom I am indebted is indeed extensive, and I am eager to extend my heart-felt thanks to everyone who aided me during this journey.

This book would not have been possible without the generous institutional support that Hobart and William Smith Colleges have afforded me, and therefore I am grateful to the Board of Trustees and to the administration, which approved my sabbatical leave for 2015 and 2016, during which the composition of the text was completed. In addition, the library staff at HWS was also most eager and willing to provide assistance, and therefore I would like to thank each of them, but in particular Michael Hunter, who has been a most solicitous and generous colleague, as well as a kind friend. Much of Meyrink’s Nachlass is housed in archives in Europe, particularly the Bayrische Staatsbibliothek, the Monacensia in Munich, and the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica ← xiii | xiv → in Amsterdam. The staffs of these archives were most helpful to me in finding my way around Meyrink’s texts and thought, and the colleagues in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica were extremely gracious in granting permission to reproduce images from their collection during a busy time of relocating the library’s sizeable holdings to the House with the Heads. I would also like to acknowledge in particular Mr. Joost R. Ritman, the founder of this impressive archive, who was kind enough to take the time to chat with me about my project while I was conducting research in his extensive collection of Meyrinkiana. Also generously granting permission to reproduce images from a text was Dr. Harald Salfellner of the Vitalis Verlag in Prague, for which I am very thankful. Permission to use the stunning cover art was granted by Roberta Weir, which was very generous indeed. The publication team at Peter Lang has been most helpful as well, patiently fielding my questions and shepherding me through this process, and to them I would like to express my thanks.

The list of my individual “shepherds” is indeed quite extensive, as I turned to experienced colleagues for advice at various junctures, and each of whom took the time out of their busy schedules to help me in several different ways. I am thankful to Dennis Mahoney and Wolfgang Mieder, Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim, Paola Meyer, Rachel Halverson, Claire Baldwin, Thomas Kniesche, and Eugen Baer for their help navigating the publishing process.

Crafting a manuscript, from conception to checking punctuation, is an arduous process that requires input and feedback to be successful. In this respect, I am grateful to Alexsei Semenenko and the faculty of the Department of Semiotics at the University of Tartu for generously sharing their wide-ranging expertise of Yuri Lotman and cultural semiotics. Wolfgang Pusch was extremely warm and welcoming during the tour he gave me of Starnberg, and I am very grateful to him for sharing his time and considerable knowledge of Meyrink’s life and work. Pia Liptak was instrumental in helping me to understand sympathetic resonance, an important concept in my arguments. Colleagues at HWS and elsewhere were indispensable in the development of the ideas that animate this book, and therefore I am eager to express my gratitude to Ashwin Manthripragada, Amanda Boyd, and Len Cagle, each of whom helped me to work through the conceptual framework of the text. I would like to extend a special thanks to Dr. Theodor Harmsen, whose knowledge on the subjects of Meyrink and the occult is only matched by his friendliness and kindness.

The heavy lifting of manuscript production is proofreading and feedback, which sometimes is difficult to hear but necessary to strengthen the piece. Here the thoughts and assistance of Matt Kadane were essential; his piercing insight and good humor buoyed me through the writing process, from the initial phases to its completion; I am indeed fortunate to have such a talented colleague and ← xiv | xv → gracious friend. Susan Hess went above and beyond the call of duty to help finalize the manuscript, and I am indeed grateful for her patience and expertise. Last but in no way least, Ginny Lewis showed remarkable skill, patience, and support in reading through the manuscript with mindboggling speed and precision, preparing it for publication. I am in Professor Lewis’s debt.

Finally, I am indeed fortunate to have had the support of my family, for which I am eternally grateful and without which this book would not be possible.

EK, Rochester, NY
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Prelude: Of Sleepwalkers and Semiospheres

Despondent and disillusioned, a 23-year-old Gustav Meyer—he would become Meyrink many years later—sat in his Prague apartment holding a gun. After having devoted his life to rowing, brief love affairs, and chess,1 a failed relationship sent him into a tailspin, leading him to the decision to take his own life. Putting the gun to his head, poised to pull the trigger, he heard someone in the hallway outside his apartment. He turned to notice something slide under his door. Curious, he got up and found a brochure from a bookstore specializing in occult literature advertising a text titled Life after Death. To Meyrink, this was no coincidence. Someone had stayed his hand and saved his life, someone he christened “the pilot,” or “the masked one,” who was Meyrink’s spiritual self, his spectral doppelganger, and whom he credits with guiding him through his life.2 After this epiphany, he did two things: he put the revolver in the drawer of his desk, where it remained, the rusted drum never to turn again; then he set out on a lifelong journey to follow his pilot.

This undoubtedly apocryphal tale is telling. While brief, it says a great deal about the man at the center of this analysis: the occultist, satirist, and leading voice of the literary Fantastic, Gustav Meyrink (1868–1932). It depicts a lost young man who spent his youth on youthful pursuits, ultimately leaving him unfulfilled. Meyrink made a name for himself as a dandy, garnering the attention, ← 1 | 2 → yet seldom the approval, of polite society. His reference to sports was not empty boasting; he was a champion athlete. A talented rower, he won numerous awards and remained active on the water his entire life. He was an equally gifted fencer, which is perhaps why so few noblemen accepted his challenges to duels, parrying the potentially dangerous confrontation by saying Meyrink was unfit to duel because he was illegitimate.3 The story of the pilot also shows an impulsive person, whose intense feelings drove him to rash decisions and extreme actions. As we will see, this is borne out in his dealings with the social elite, against whom Meyrink seemed to be in a constant struggle. This antagonism was an underlying factor in his three-month incarceration early in his adulthood on unfounded charges of embezzlement, as well as a heated public Hetze, or “anti-Meyrink campaign,”4 during the First World War, launched by German nationalists who found Meyrink’s writing decidedly “un-German” and therefore a threat to the German Volk. Finally, and most germane to this book, we also learn of his belief in the supernatural. In his words and deeds, Meyrink was a seeker of esoteric knowledge of the world beyond.

At first blush, this sketch seems to present an isolated case, peculiar in its particularity. If we expand our perspective, however, we recognize Meyrink’s life and work as one of many individual pieces that contributed to the mosaic of the age, providing a broad and colorful image of a time the historian Carl E. Schorske described as a “ruthless centrifuge of change.”5 In his book, Fin de siécle Vienna, Schorske writes that the post-Nietzschean age witnessed a disintegration of cohesive worldviews, which was registered in political, social, scientific, and artistic upheaval across Europe. He tells us that this situation presents a challenge to the historian because the plurality of voices and fragmentation of society render conventional heuristic categories such as the “Enlightenment” and “Romanticism” obsolete in the climate of the turn of the twentieth century. He takes a different tack: to investigate different fields on their own terms to reveal underlying common themes, saying: “The hope is that, as in a song cycle, the central idea will act to establish a coherent field in which the several parts can cast their light upon each other and illuminate the larger whole.”6 While my project is different from Schorske’s, as I investigate one author while he tackles an epoch, his musical metaphor is instructive: Meyrink’s work is one of the “several parts” that illuminate the larger whole; the syncopation of Meyrink’s life and work, setting him apart in many ways, strikes common chords resonating through the dynamism of the age.

A musical metaphor in a text exploring the occult is indeed appropriate. Thinkers from Pythagoras and Plato, from Kepler to Newton “show that music, besides being entertainment, self-expression, and communication, can become ← 2 | 3 → an instrument of knowledge. They find in it a key, or a lever, that gives access to regions of knowledge denied to (and hence denied by) the reductionist mentality.”7 In Western Esoteric thought, music elevates the profane to the sacred, aligns the worldly with the supernatural, and unifies the preternatural energy with the natural material of this world.8 This power stems from the fact that music operates according to the same mathematical ratios and proportions that govern the structure of the cosmos and the world—the musical note is the sensory manifestation of the number, and because planetary orbits, life cycles of trees, and the production of musical notes all obeyed these mathematical laws, music is a bridge between the sensible and the divine.9 While Meyrink himself did not integrate music into his esotericism, a musical metaphor, sympathetic resonance, is a powerful tool to reveal intellectual syncretism that marks the time. Sympathetic resonance occurs when strings at rest vibrate when harmonically related notes are played, for example, when an A is played on the D-string of a violin, the open A string vibrates. The notes activated in sympathetic resonance not only show hidden, yet very real, connections, but these related notes enhance each other’s force and presence, expanding the range of their power and saturating a broader space with their sound. The same can be said with respect to Meyrink’s work and correspondences with his intellectual and cultural environment: the notes struck by him and his texts resonate with a broad range of contemporary thinkers and artists, a fact that enhances his own significance and makes manifest the wide-ranging work done in the occult arts during that time.

A central argument here, then, is that Meyrink was an iconoclastic yet representative voice of his time. His satire, his mockery of all that proper society revered, earned the admiration of friends and the ire of his enemies; his novels helped define the Fantastic and cemented his place in German literary history. He was well known by Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, Max Brod, and Alfred Kubin. Hermann Hesse came to his defense in the face of scathing attacks, and Thomas Mann included a thinly veiled reference to Meryink in Tonio Kröger (1903). Celebrity, of course, is fickle. Meyrink’s renown, widespread during the 1910s, waned shortly thereafter and disappeared, or rather was wiped away, in the 1930s when the Nazis declared him “degenerate.” Over the following decades, he garnered scarce attention in critical literature, with the exception of Eduard Frank, a sympathetic and uncritical critic, and the occasional dissertation. This would change in the 1970s as, slowly, interest in Meyrink’s work was resurrected by scholars in France and Germany, and this moderate interest was sustained over the ensuing decades, including articles in popular magazines and websites. A large part of his appeal, both 100 years ago as well as today, has been Fantastic ← 3 | 4 → tales featuring ghoulish encounters, mystical journeys, and supernatural beings bridging material and celestial planes of existence. These works not only reflect powerful intellectual currents of the beginning of the twentieth century, but also speak to a broad audience in the twenty-first.

Meyrink documented occult journeys in autobiographical essays and in fiction, all of which feature moments of traversing the boundaries between the material and spiritual worlds, or what he termed the “waking” or “daily” consciousness and metaphysical consciousness. The division of waking sight, which is blind to the supernatural, from true sight, which occurs when one departs waking consciousness, is embodied in the somnambulist. His texts, whether biographical essays, early short stories, or later novels, feature somnambulistic fugues during which people “wander” beyond the boundaries of waking consciousness, encounter their spiritual doubles, converse with spiritual entities, and gain knowledge about the true nature of life, the soul, and the cosmos. These somnambulistic journeys correspond to his own theories of immortality and salvation via a unio mystica, a mystical union of the divided self. However much the symbol of the sleepwalker tells us about Meyrink’s esoteric theories, which I call gnostic soteriology, it also has much to say about the cultural context in which he lived and worked.

The turn of the twentieth century witnessed drastic movement across “boundaries”; society, politics, economics, and art found themselves in states of flux as new approaches, ideas, and practices filled the voids left by once-reliable belief systems that were under assault. Metaphorically speaking, if institutions like the monarchy and the church were the centers of power, liberal democratic movements and esoteric religious groups occupied the “periphery” of society, away from the conservative center, ushering in, often to the chagrin of more traditional points of view, new perspectives and broader changes in society and culture. In this environment of “transcendental homelessness,”10 when century-old traditions were viewed askance, people were left to their own devices to find answers and to make sense of their world and their role in it. This is particularly clear with respect to religion, specifically concerning the currents of Western Esotericism.

Western Esotericism, an umbrella term for approaches and practices for discovering secret, ancient knowledge of the spirit world, was on the rise at this time. A dizzying number of pamphlets, books, and lectures on the occult overran Europe, while secret societies and hermetic lodges seemed to materialize out of thin air. This was a direct result of the paradigm shifts ushered in by the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century materialist and positivist attacks against all things spiritual, attacks that spawned movements grounded in the belief in and ← 4 | 5 → desire for esoteric wisdom. As Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke points out: “Many spiritually inclined individuals were distressed by science, but could no longer find comfort in orthodox religion.”11 These movements claimed to unlock the secrets of humanity, including our double nature—the coeval yet divided existence of material and spiritual selves, a division made manifest in somnambulistic trances. One practice in particular, Mesmerism, or animal magnetism, ironically rooted in the rational Enlightenment,12 induced somnambulistic states to tap into hidden states of consciousness. A mesmerist sent his—for they were almost exclusively men—subject into a fugue using magnets or making “passes” over her body, for most often somnambulists were women. Once the subject had entered the appropriate state, she crossed the threshold between this world and the next to uncover secrets of existence hidden from “waking eyes,” unleashing mystical powers of clairvoyance and spiritual wandering, all of which was promptly forgotten after returning to “the real world.” The fact that this occult knowledge eluded waking consciousness was, to some, evidence of a wall separating the material and spiritual selves, a barrier, which could be overcome by escaping consciousness via somnambulistic trances that brought to light the doubled and divided nature of humanity. By symbolizing transitory states of awareness, as well as the search for certitude in a time of uncertainty, the somnambulist is a seminal figure in the cultural climate of the fin de siècle.


XVI, 180
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (February)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Brussels, Vienna, Oxford, Warsaw, 2018. XVI, 180 pp., 5 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Eric J. Klaus (Author)

Eric J. Klaus earned his Ph.D. in German studies from Brown University. He is currently Associate Professor of German at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He has published in Seminar, Modern Austrian Literature, and Garmano-Slavica.


Title: Somnambulistic Lucidity
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198 pages