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The Literature of Nihilism

The Artist's Journey into the Interior and Other Essays

by Erich Heller
Random House, 240 pp., $4.95

The German Tradition in Literature 1871-1945

by Ronald Gray
Cambridge, 384 pp., $11.50

These two recent books on the German literary tradition serve to show that highly competent treatment of detail can be warped by a misleading general view. Both works deal with the same topic: the development in the history of German thought and literature that took place during the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth. Erich Heller, who now teaches in the U.S. after having spent several years in England, is particularly known for his collection of essays, The Disinherited Mind. The book under review has a similar subject: It contains studies of Faust and Schiller, of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, as well as the title essay, an interpretation of the “romantic mind.” It interprets the period from Goethe to Wittgenstein as the developing expression of a unified central experience vast enough to contain aspects of Weimar classicism, of romanticism, and of the post-symbolist poetry and philosophy of such writers as Nietzsche and Rilke. References to other national literatures widen the book’s scope still further, suggesting Heller’s comprehensive understanding of contemporary literature and its background in the nineteenth century. The book is not historical in the academic sense, but essayistic, as lively and polemical in thought as it is felicitous in expression. It seems to be Heller’s aim to cast light upon the present human predicament by means of a critical examination of its intellectual antecedents. The Artist’s Journey into the Interior is “committed” criticism in the best sense of the phrase.

Ronald Gray, Lecturer on German Literature at Cambridge, is no less “committed” than Heller, although his tone is more academic and his book more specialized. The German Tradition in Literature consists mainly of two substantial studies of Mann and Rilke, and there are two additional sections which attempt to relate the detailed analysis of both writers to politics and intellectual history generally. The period covered is a limited one: from the Wilhelminian era (1871) to the defeat of Hitler (1945), with only scant references to the earlier classical and romantic periods in German literature. At first sight, there seems to be some discordance between Gray’s detailed study of Mann and Rilke and his sweeping survey of political and intellectual history. But this discordance is only apparent. Gray considers Mann and Rilke to be typical of the German “mind” in general and it is the quality of this mind which he attempts to define. No less than Heller’s book, The German Tradition in Literature has as its theme a fundamental crisis in nineteenth-century thought. Nor does Gray refrain from taking sides. More thematic than Heller’s, his book is even more openly polemical; he has no qualms about passing from literature and philosophy to political questions.

BOTH BOOKS, Gray’s openly, Heller’s more obliquely, assume that German philosophy and literature, from the late eighteenth century on, have to be called to account for having provided the intellectual basis for Nazism. With the easy hindsight of the naive historian, Gray assumes that Goethe, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Marx, Wagner, Nietzche, Mann, and Rilke all had a share in a common aberration that finally produced Hitler. Protected by Christian ethics and the common sense of empiricism. Gray hopes to “divert the immense vitality of recent years away from new catastrophes.” He makes the assumption that this task can only be performed by someone who stands outside the German tradition and has not been hoodwinked by it. Early in the book, Gray states that “literary criticism in any proper sense scarcely exists in Germany,” thus depriving well-meaning Germans of any hope of rehabilitating themselves. I am not sure that Mr. Gray would consider Erich Heller’s essays as examples of “proper criticism.” His many years in England may not, in Gray’s eyes, have been sufficient to cleanse their author, who was educated in Prague, of all traces of mysticism and obscurantism.

Yet Heller too seems to take it for granted that a common doom hangs over the whole German tradition, that “an other and better answer must be found” to attitudes that “engender…many a doubt.” His list of culprits would not entirely coincide with Gray’s; I suppose that Goethe, for instance, would not be included in it, whereas Schiller (whom Gray lets off rather lightly) certainly is. He also makes it clear that the reaction to the tradition must begin in the wake of the tradition itself, not from the uncontaminated but insular standpoint that Gray occupies. But even for Heller there is little doubt about the unity of this tradition, nor about the fact that recent events (not only Nazism) have discredited it to such an extent that it should now be abandoned.

Only a curiously simplistic notion of the relationship between literary thought and political action could treat literature and politics as being entirely isolated within their own fixed spheres, and yet so closely interrelated that passage can be made from one to the other, as from cause to effect, without trace of mediation. The literary analyses in Gray’s book are often excellent; but although they are entirely lacking in sosociological and political concerns, they nevertheless lead to the rashest of generalizations about the political responsibilities of the writers. One would think that, after some of the experiences of this century, the complexity of the relationship between thought and action would be better understood. Nazi Germany is a case in point. The discrepancy between intellectual values and actual behavior has rarely been so baffling as in this case. No one could claim (nor does Gray) that the Nazi movement somehow rooted itself in a venerable and mature tradition. It was, if anything, notable for its profound anti-intellectualism and the crude but effective manner in which it played on the most primitive mass instincts, as well as on the short-sighted economic interests of social classes that considered themselves underprivileged. The Nazis received little support from German writers and intellectuals and were not very eager to enlist them in their ranks.

Later on, when the regime was established and in need of respectability, there was a deliberate attempt to interpret certain figures of the German past along hyper-nationalistic and even racist lines: Goethe, Hölderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche were most frequently distorted in this fashion. These attempts were often ludicrous, but sometimes effective enough to demand vigorous reaction. Some of these trends persist today, but are no longer left unchallenged. It should be clear to anyone who follows the German critical writing which Mr. Gray annihilates with one stroke, that the poets themselves, in their own works, provide a very adequate defense against such misrepresentations. Contemporary interpreters of Hölderlin, of Kleist, and even of Nietzsche, such as, among others, Karl Löwith, Beda Alleman, or Peter Szondi, have brought this out without much difficulty, although they may still run into surprisingly strong pockets of resistance. These very critics will find little solace in the peremptory manner in which Gray disposes of so complicated a case as Kleist, for instance, by labeling him without further qualification as an example of “insane and brutal nationalism.”

IF HITLER TRIUMPHED in Germany it was in spite of the intellectual tradition of the country, rather than because of it. There was trahison des clercs to the precise extent that literary thought and political action had lost contact with each other. The problem is not that a philosophical tradition could be so wrong but that it could have counted for so little when it was most needed. The responsibility does not rest with the tradition but with the manner in which it was used or neglected, and this is primarily a sociological problem. Nor was there in this tradition anything that advocated a separation between mind and action; in this respect, German thought of the nineteenth century is rather ahead of French and English thought. The pessimism and negativeness for which both Heller and Gray seem to indict it so severely may well have been due to a greater awareness of the historical forces that brought about such catastrophes as Nazism. It is not in the power of philosophy or literature to prevent the degradation of the human spirit, nor is it its main function to warn against this degradation; Nietzsche could rightly be criticized for having warned too much and perhaps for not having thought enough. A literature of nihilism is not necessarily nihilistic, and one should be careful about praising or blaming writers for events that took place after they had ceased to exist: It is just as absurd to praise Rousseau for the French Revolution as to blame Nietzsche for Hitler. This does not mean that philosophers and poets have no moral or political responsibility even when their work is apolitical. But it means this responsibility should be evaluated within the full philosophical or literary context of their work, not their lives, still less the effect that their work may or may not have had on other people. The real and difficult problems that the German tradition formulated during the last two hundred years cannot be dismissed because it is supposed to have led to a national catastrophe.

Because Gray’s book lacks historical perspective, the general sections remain superficial and inchoate. Erich Heller’s essays come much closer to being a real discussion of important issues, but they also suffer from a certain oversensitivity to national characteristics. He overstates the importance of German influence when he claims that “the ‘Modern mind’ speaks German”; and he directs his criticism at an illusory target when he sees the contents of this mind determined by national traits. National categories applied to literary and philosophical matters always tend to miss the mark; the interstices of the net are both too loose and too tight. They fail to sift out the individual qualities of the writer’s mind and neglect the tendency towards universality inherent in philosophy as well as poetry. This is true even of such “nationalistic” periods as the nineteenth century. The aberration that led such a figure as Wagner, or, in a less one-sided way, Stefan George, to adopt nationalistic attitudes can only be understood from a perspective that is no longer national. The confusion stems precisely from the fact that the nation, a perfectly legitimate concept in itself, acts as a substitute for something more fundamental and more encompassing. Figures of the recent German past—one thinks of such divergent writers as Brecht, Walter Benjamin, and Karl Kraus—had already reacted against this confusion of values. The reaction continues in some of the most influential spokesmen of contemporary Germany: Adorno, Ernst Bloch, Günter Grass, etc. Those critics, actively engaged in “demythologizing” national values, have found powerful antecedents among writers who are here, implicity or explicitly, being attacked: Hölderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche. But both Gray and Heller are confined within a national point of view to such a degree that they seem unable to participate in this enterprise. Critical nationalism, rare in the United States, is a frequent sin among European critics, just as common in France and England as it is in Germany.

IN THEIR ANALYSIS of the German tradition, both authors focus on some of the same targets and hint at shortcomings that are not unrelated. Gray reproaches German thought for being excessively fond of polar antitheses and for proceeding from there to sweeping syntheses that disregard the complexity of experience. From Schiller’s “naive” and “sentimental” poetry, to Nietzsche’s antithetical treatment of the Dionysian and the Apolline, two souls always seem to have been at war within the German, as within Faust’s, heart and mind. And German thought proceeds from this polarity to sweeping Hegelian syntheses that disregard the complexity of experience. In this view, Gray echoes a common reproach made in the name of empiricism against idealistic philosophy. Heller singles out “inwardness,” “the retreat of the Spirit into human subjectivity,” as the main characteristic of the tradition, and interprets it as a deliberate alienation of the consciousness from the outside world. In this he is in close accord with a long line of critics hostile to Romanticism and post-Romanticism. One could easily argue that these characteristics are not specifically German, that just as much system-making was going on in France, and that a comparable “inwardness” prevailed in England during the same period. But this argument would evade the central issue at stake in both books. Heller, whose approach is by no means as narrowly national as Gray’s, would readily admit that his reservations about the romantic personality are not confined to its German manifestations; his frequent allusions to French and English literature make this clear. Gray, on the other hand, devotes his concluding chapter to demonstrating British immunity to German contamination, treating instances of German influence during the nineteenth century—Coleridge, Carlyle, Pater, Arnold, and others—as if they were the vaccine that made this immunity possible. But when he talks about individual writers, especially those he likes (Kafka, Trakl, Hofmannsthal), he abandons some of his general notions and reveals values of human compassion and humility with which it is easy enough to sympathize. And when Heller, in his chapter on the romantic mind, suggests that a reconciliation between mind and nature can be achieved by moving beyond the extreme point reached in Hegel and Rilke, he offers a cogent alternative to romantic inwardness, thus pursuing and deepening a demonstration which had begun in his previous collection of essays (The Disinherited Mind) and which in this book gains in clarity and elegance.

It does not matter too much, then, if both authors somewhat too readily call “German” a general feature of the romantic and post-romantic intellect. If their description of the phenomenon were correct, the name would be of secondary importance. There can be no doubt about the authority with which both approach this complex period, their insight sharpened by a knowledge of the tradition against which they rebel. But one must challenge them on this broader question as well. For all the differences between the two books, both misrepresent the “artist’s journey into the interior” on very similar grounds. And their diagnosis arises from a consciousness that has not understood itself as thoroughly as the consciousness of the artists and philosophers it sets out to interpret.

LET US TAKE as an example Heller’s and Gray’s treatment of Rilke, a poet to whom both give considerable prominence. In many ways, Rilke is highly vulnerable to their strategy, being less resilient than Hegel or Nietzsche who have a much wider conceptual apparatus at their disposal. Rilke’s emotional use of the term “inwardness” provides Heller with an abundance of quotations that sound very convincing. And it seems appropriate that in his discussion of Rilke’s imagery Gray reproaches the poet for using words in a manner that does not conform to our experience of the behavior of physical objects. As one of his examples, he cites a famous passage from the Second Duino Elegy in which Rilke, striving to convey the full meaning of his central symbol, the Angel, leads up to it by a series of designations culminating in the italicized word “mirrors”:

mirrors, drawing up their own
outstreamed beauty into their
   faces again

(Spiegel: die die enströmte
   eigene Schönheit
wiederschöpfen zurück in das
   eigene Antlitz.)

In ordinary experience, our actual image (which others know more objectively than we do ourselves) is likely to be disappointingly different from our image of ourselves. In this respect, we are not like mirrors, inasmuch as our reality and the reflected consciousness of this reality do not coincide; the discovery of this discrepancy may be a highly unsettling experience, whether it be the experience of “bodily decrepitude” or of moral inadequacy. The creature strong enough not to experience this disappointment would indeed be like a mirror; for the images on both sides of the reflecting surface would be identical. And the beauty, physical or moral, of such a creature would be increased by this self-assurance, exactly in the manner in which some of Rilke’s poems describe the beauty of a woman enhanced by the approval she can, for a moment, receive from her own image glimpsed in a mirror:

Enhanced by your own image, how rich you are.
Affirming yourself, you affirm your hair and cheek…

(Gesteigert um dein Bild: wie bist du reich.
Dein Ja zu dir bejaht dir Haar und Wange…)

In this sense, it can be said that the source of beauty resides in the mirrored image and not in the object itself, that the mirror reflects the splendor of the image back upon itself. But Mr. Gray stays with the literal fact that “mirrors do not give and receive back, just the opposite.” Rilke has indeed reversed the perspective, because he does not treat the mirror as a mere physical object, but reflects on the manner in which, as a physical object, it differs from the experience we have of ourselves. The way in which he uses language forces us, first of all, to become conscious of the particular oddity of mirrors (objects that have the power to make an object and its reflection identical), then to become conscious by contrast of the discrepancy that exists in ourselves. Moreover, by evoking moments during which this discrepancy disappears, he reveals a hidden potential of our being.

Nothing mystical or weightily philosophical is involved here; it is an attempt to become aware, by means of language, of the relationship between the self and the world that surrounds it. As a result of this effort, the relationship turns out to be so intimate and involved that it can no longer be expressed by the misleading metaphor of an “inner” and an “outer” world. Rilke is trying to move beyond the polarities that are still taken for granted by his critics. This undoubtedly has some affinity with certain aspects of phenomenological thought that were developing around the same time. But Gray would no doubt consider this added proof that “Rilke is doing violence to the external world of things, compelling them to serve the purposes of his ‘great Idea”‘—all the more since the main proponents of phenomenology, Husserl and Heidegger, are both Germans and the latter politically suspect to boot. Yet phenomenology is precisely the method that holds, with Hegel, that philosophy does not begin with a “great Idea” but with a small reality—as Rilke’s poetry almost tiresomely does.

RILKE COMES AT THE END of a long withdrawal from the large speculative systems and set aesthetic norms that held sway till well into the eighteenth century. This movement towards greater particularization can indeed be described, in Erich Heller’s words, as a “journey into the interior,” since the point of departure of contemporary thought is no longer the given order of the natural world but the self in its relation to this world. Heller’s stress on inwardness shows considerable progress over many earlier definitions of Romanticism as a pantheistic, irrational unity with nature. It is much more difficult to follow him, however, in his account of the reasons that led to this withdrawal. In the work of Rilke, as in that of many of his romantic predecessors, these reasons are lengthily and often convincingly stated. They arise out of a growing awareness of the essential contingency of the human condition, coupled with the realization that many psychological, philosophical, and theological attitudes have no other purpose than to hide this contingency from our insight into ourselves. Rilke’s reassertion of the self does not occur as a proud, Promethean (or even Faustian) statement of the power of the mind over nature, but originates in a feeling of loss and bewilderment. The same is true of most of the major poets and thinkers of the period, although the form in which this bewilderment is experienced varies considerably of course from writer to writer. Even Nietzsche’s notorious Will to Power does not designate the power of the self, but the power of Being in which the self participates in an exceedingly fragmentary and indirect way. What would require extensive demonstration in the work of Nietzsche is quite obvious in Rilke, who identifies power with entities, such as the Angel, that are clearly superhuman. Even if the self can be misled later into another illusory reconciliation with the natural world (and this may well be the case with Rilke) it stands originally clear of such expectations. In all these writers, inwardness always begins as a negative moment, an experience of humility.

Heller makes the opposite claim. His argument suggests that we need only recover from the romantic sin of intellectual pride in order to return to a more harmonious state of being. Hence his strong insistence on Faust as the archetypal romantic hero—in itself a debatable assertion since so many of Goethe’s ironies at his hero’s expense express the reservations of a modern mind about the illusions of an earlier age. Hence also the entirely misleading confusion created, in the essay “The Realistic Fallacy,” between the desire for full “understanding” of the self and of “rational appropriation” of the world, a confusion which short-circuits the tension out of which the masterpieces of realism as well as post-romantic symbolism originated. Heller describes the motives that brought the romantic artist back to the self as an arbitrary assertion of freedom, an inability to leave the sovereign goodness of the world undisturbed. Moreover, he strongly suggests that this destructive meddling is actually Tooted in weakness, in an impotence which avenges itself by destroying what it cannot posses. In his vision of things, a fundamentally benign and harmonious world in which mind and body are in unison is confronted by a power-hungry Spirit that considers this world “only as a cue to its monologues.” The Spirit acting out of a “compulsion that…has about it nothing of the feel of necessity” can only come to rest when it has carried out the death sentence it has pronounced on the world of the senses and “amputated it as a limb suffering the disease of healthy, concrete reality.” Throughout the book, inwardness is associated with self-willed violence. The romantic artists are “arbitrary sovereigns who wield unpredictable power from their inner courtrooms.” Rilke falls prey to “spiritual violence that maintains the good manners and appearances of gentleness” and, in one vast unholy alliance, all of them join in preparing the apocalypse that is about to destroy us all.

In the course of his analysis, Heller cannot avoid coming upon the great negative themes of the Romantics—the forces beyond our power that threaten the self, and whose presence reveals so clearly that the Romantic movement did not begin in the blindness of pride but in the humility of reflection: the themes of mutability, of time, and of death. To Heller, death seems to be an expression of human will. When he encounters it in Keat’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” he gives to the famous lines “Now more than ever seems it rich to die…” a positive reading that the entire context of the poem denies, and makes Keats sound as if he were Novalis caught in an obvious display of bad faith.

BUT IT IS IN THE TREATMENT of romantic Neo-Hellenism that his distortion is most clearly visible. By painting a sharp contrast between the harmony of Greek art and the division of the Romantic mind, Heller suggests that the Romantic attitude towards Greece is one of nostalgic envy, like that of fallen man towards the lost Garden of Eden. This may indeed be the apparent theme in Winckelmann, in the first version of Schiller’s The Gods of Greece, or in some of George’s more programmatic poems; English readers are familiar with the theme from the uncharacteristic sonnet of the least Hellenic of English romantics, William Wordsworth: “The world is too much with us…” (“I’d rather be/A pagan suckled in a creed outworn…”). But most Romantics quickly moved beyond this mood of regret and, in the most deeply Hellenic of them all, Hölderlin, it never appeared in this form. Greece is for them the great elegiac theme, not because they were so naive as to believe that the Greeks were identical with the ideal image projected by their sculpture, but because even the creation of an art great enough to achieve semi-permanence did not shelter Greece from division and destruction. The Neo-Hellenic theme is for the Romantics a special version of the theme of mutability and contingency, not the description of an actual state of being that could be brought back if we only had the strength to do so. The passing of classical art does not demonstrate the perversity of a Spirit that “wants to be rid of all sensuous encumbrance,” but reveals the irrevocably negative power of time. Hegel always insisted so strongly on the concrete, incarnate aspect of the Idea and made high claims for art precisely because it necessarily includes a concrete, sensory dimension; he can hardly be defined as the ruthless destroyer of reality that Heller portrays him to be on the strength of a highly one-sided and undialectical reading of a section from the Lectures of Aesthetics.

In any interpretation of Romanticism, the question of motive is of determining importance: The presence of negative components in the romantic mind becomes indeed a sign of weakness if they are the compensatory fantasies of an overreaching spirit. If, on the other hand, they result from a genuine experience of reality, then we can only praise these writers and thinkers for having come closer to showing us our condition as it really is. The project of moving beyond Romanticism will then take on a very different meaning from the one suggested in these essays.

Next to Faust, Heller suggests Hamlet as the romantic prototype; Hamlet is “the man who has bequeathed to modern literature and thought the obsessive preoccupation with ‘authenticity’.” This concern, he goes on to say, leads to paralysis “because there is for Hamlet nothing that could possibly be in accord with his inner being…The action chosen would always, whatever he did, crudely diverge from the subtle and illegible text written within.” To put all the blame for what happens at Elsinore on Hamlet is like blaming the German poets of the nineteenth century for the subsequent murder of their civilization. The “authenticity” that sets Hamlet apart is caused not only by a fastidious desire to make the world accord with his ineffable feeling of selfhood, but by his knowledge of a distressing fact which others seek to conceal. The morbid manner in which he handles this knowledge may well be far from commendable; in the same manner, many romantic and post-romantic writers let their original insight become obscured by evasive or obsessive behaviour. Still the value of the insight remains: Whether we want it or not, we can not hide from the demands of its “authenticity.” The romantic text we confront is indeed subtle, but it will appear illegible only to those interpreters who prefer not to see what it says.