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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.

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