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 …

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