The Man Who Sees Ghosts – Friedrich von Schiller

 “THE EVENTS that I here set down and to which I myself was for the most part a witness will for many seem beyond belief.”

No, I’m not about to divulge more “tales of orchestration,” of “accidental” Tom encounters or secretive jaunts that “the others can’t know about!” Instead, these are the opening lines of Schiller’s one and only novel, The Man Who Sees Ghosts. Despite its title, the book is not a ghostly, supernatural tale, but more a tale of intrigue and political games. There are some supernatural elements to the story, but they do have a reason and an explanation. Whether serendipity led me to this book following recent eye-opening events, or it’s just the simple fact that it is a novel by Schiller and has a Venetian style drawing on the front which I was rather taken with, I will leave to you to decide!

“At nine o’clock he died!” In the opening chapter of Schiller’s book, a mysterious figure known as The Armenian delivers a prophetic message to an unnamed Prince. The opening sequence of Schiller’s novel is heavily reminiscent of the doom-laden witches of Macbeth, but both prophesies related to the present, and not the future. The Prince, the hero of the book, will discover that his cousin did die at nine o’clock and consequently he now stands to inherit the throne. As the pages unfold a plot of dramatic proportions, the reader is left remaining unsure of what is real, and what is a clever game of political gain.

From Cult to Conspiracy…

In a lot of Schiller’s work, nothing is what it first seems, many character’s appearances bring a show treachery with them. Venice becomes the perfect backdrop for a tale of games and duplicity; it is a city famed for its masked inhabitants walking the streets and squares, people who impersonate the characters they adopt so flawlessly; like diamonds they sparkle and entice those who witness them. Venice was also of course a political powerhouse at the time the book was published, and The Man Who Sees Ghosts, gave rise to the creation of “lodge novels” exemplifying the fascination with secret societies during this period. Of course, it is easy to see the central theme in these books relating to these secret societies is to “guide” and seek control of the hero and enlist him, in this case The Prince, for the societies purposes; whether those purposes be good or evil.
Schiller’s novel sticks to the Gothic tradition of questioning the moral behaviour of The Church. The book came out in Germany during a period when the sect of the Illuminated was beginning to rapidly expand. The ignorant or superstitious were targeted and seduced by stories of incredible supernatural powers. In 1789 when the book was published, the theme of the occult was becoming highly fashionable, and Schiller’s haunting narrative is a darkly dramatic questioning of the freedom and will of people, as the net is cast in this tale of political intrigue and religious conspiracy which will head towards its climatic violent ending.

There is a beautifully haunting cinematic quality to Schiller’s writing, and this novel screams out for some talented writer to bring it to stage or screen.

The book is split into two parts, in the first part The Prince finds himself stuck in Venice, waiting for money to be sent to him so that he can return home. He has been living a quiet, unobtrusive life until he crosses the path of a masked man, The Armenian. After The Armenian delvers his cryptic message regarding the death of someone The Prince’s life starts to unravel. He attends a séance, a theatrical event designed to show the power of The Armenian, the show however, is quickly dispelled as a fake. At the stroke of midnight, The Armenian disappears – is it a cheap conjuror’s trick or is he part of something much darker and dangerous? Only “The Sicilian” (apparently modelled on a well-known occultist of the era) a conjuror with ties to The Armenian knows the truth, but The Prince is impressed with the spectacle he has witnessed, despite his conflicting emotions of incredulity.

A second séance, lacking the theatricality of the first, describes a flashback to another time when a young man mysteriously disappeared before his wedding day. But this was no ordinary wedding, it was a wedding of status and great importance, so his family engage the Sicilian conjuror to connect with the ghost to confirm he his death…and what befell him. “…my neighbour pointed out a Franciscan monk standing as motionless as a stone pillar…you realise now that all three, the Russian, this monk and your Armenian are now one and the same person.” A dead body of the groom is discovered at the bottom of a well, his brother the murderer, but then fate plays its part and takes revenge, the brother has a fit and dies.

Torn between superstition and scepticism – both The Prince’s need to believe in what he has witnessed but still retaining that reality of doubt – The Prince becomes an innocent abroad. He is not the type of person to tell a tale one week and deny all knowledge of it a week later. But by the time he hears the tale of the second séance, The Prince is not so easily fooled as he was at the first séance, he rejects the actions of a charlatan, and he slowly descends from disbelieving in the supernatural, to losing his faith – both his religion and of those around him. As he becomes more sceptical of all he sees, his moral behaviour takes a downward descent towards indifference, to gambling and women. By the second part of the book, we hardly recognise The Prince. But then he falls in love. It is the love of a woman which seeks to turn him back, to convert him back into being a believer, a man with a soul. Love is a dangerous thing, and once again The Prince is The Armenian’s victim, and by now it is apparent he is an agent of the Inquisition.

The Devil Walks Amongst Us

Sadly, Schiller never finished his one and only novel. It seems unusual for someone of his calibre to give up, so we do not know for sure whether The Prince would have been converted back permanently, or whether he would once again turn into a degenerate. The Armenian set out to destroy The Prince’s faith in the supernatural in the same manner that we are led to believe that the Devil does not exist, making it easier for him to walk amongst us, destroying all that ventures in his path. In his various works, whether plays or short stories, Schiller has always examined people, he has tried to explain us to ourselves. He looks at gender, identity, love, exile, the things that matter to people. His words are still relevant in todays society, the books are not to be thrown in a corner gathering dust, we can learn a lot from what he writes. Lies, deceit, the manipulation of people exists today in the world of politics – and political agendas are not just found in the halls of Westminster…they are found in day to day life where people feel they have a need to have power over someone else, for whatever their shallow reasoning might be.

Maybe Schiller had difficulty in finishing the novel because he had his own doubts. For someone who had spoken out for humanity (despite its cruelness, violence and egotistical flaws) maybe he hoped by writing The Man Who Sees Ghosts he would find the right path to follow…but maybe he also realised there is no correct path, that humanity does what it desires. The audience has therefore been granted the power to decide what the outcome is in this mysterious tale of adventure and deception…did The Armenian win his game over The Prince, or was The Prince just a victim of his lack of principals?

The Man Who Sees Ghosts is published by Pushkin Press