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Fathers and Sons

Throughout his life Einstein worried about the striking and, to him, suspicious manner in which observed reality conforms to the laws of mathematics. Why, he wondered, should the natural world be amenable to man-made rules? Could it be that we can grasp only that stratum of reality that is measurable by our limited methods? In a similar fashion, time, that most mysterious and intangible phenomenon, can appear to be man’s own invention. Although time does not fit itself with mathematical docility within the divisions we impose on mere duration, nevertheless it is remarkable how epochs that are bounded by arbitrary demarcations—a battle and a peace, a revolution and a restoration, the death of a monarch and the birth of a tyrant—in retrospect take on unique and specific characteristics. Even such categories as decades can seem to dictate abrupt switches of direction: in our own lifetime we look back and wonder how, for instance, the high Sixties could suddenly collapse into the low Seventies, or, peering further back, how so much beastliness could be packed so neatly into the decade of the 1930s.

The period from 1848 to 1914 marked a long turn in the march of history, certainly in Europe. Although the changes that occurred in that time were perhaps not as wide-ranging as those that came about as a result of the collapse of feudalism—in fact, a process that may be said to have reached a conclusion only in 1848, as J.W. Burrow observes—or the start of the Renaissance, still it is undeniable that in the space of those seventy-odd years the Western, Europe-dominated world went through an intellectual and spiritual upheaval that would leave nothing untouched, and virtually everything changed.

The “revaluation of all values” that Nietzsche had so passionately called for in the 1880s did indeed come about, though scarcely in the way its ecstatic proponent would have wished for; although in his wilder moments he glorified war as a creative force, Nietzsche would have been appalled by the catastrophe the world allowed itself to stumble into in 1914. If it was a “crisis of reason” that led to the killing fields of Flanders, it was Apollo, not Dionysus, who had triumphed, as Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp dimly perceived through the cannon smoke below the Magic Mountain: and the god of light, it turned out, was by far the greatest destroyer.

J.W. Burrow is Professor of European Thought at Oxford and a Fellow of Balliol College; his previous books include studies of Victorian social theory and Victorian historians, and a biography of Edward Gibbon. The Crisis of Reason is the second volume in the projected Yale Intellectual History of the West; the first was Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 400–1400, by Marcia L. Colish, and further volumes are promised on the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the “Revolutionary Age” of 1750–1860. According to the publisher, the series “seeks to provide a chronological account of intellectual life and the development of ideas in Western Europe from the early medieval period to the present day.” Although this may be a decidedly European conception of what is “the West,” and one at which American historians will likely balk, Professor Burrow’s book is so sweeping in conception, so persuasive in execution, and, simply, so well written that any quibbles with his (American) publishers’ seeming Eurocentrism quickly fall away.

Burrow’s superb study of a profoundly significant and formative period is a model of its kind. He makes “no attempt at the comprehensiveness of a textbook or a work of reference,” aiming instead for “a balanced impressionism.” He seems to have read practically everything that was written between 1848 and 1914, and much that was written outside those dates, not only the works of the great thinkers, historians, novelists, and poets, but of very many figures who, though forgotten now, were highly influential in their time; in the composition of his book, he observes, “intellectual dead-ends which made a stir in the world have counted for more with me than portentous moments which were then not recognized as such.” This follows closely his aim, stated at the opening of the preface,

to place the reader in the position of an informed eavesdropper on the intellectual conversations of the past. The book’s obligation, that is, is not so much to what we now think important in the period as to what was then found important, among educated but not narrowly specialized readerships with a taste or even craving for ideas [the same kind of readership, incidentally, at which Burrow’s book itself is aimed].

He issues a frank caveat against too ready an assumption of overall coherence, an expectation of which might be fostered by the use of the word “period,” a term that he recommends we think of, with Einsteinian suspicion, “as thematically overlapping circles in which are generated and invested contemporary intellectual excitement, aspirations, hopes, bitterness and dread.” He is candid too in mentioning the “neglected names which tug at my conscience,” including among others Strindberg, Karl Lamprecht, Lenin, Kropotkin, Benedetto Croce, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

The book has no grand argument to promote, no supposedly unifying theme, the pursuit of which can often lead even the finest historians to seek to tune events to a pitch far beyond their true range. Burrow maintains a laudable humility in the face of his material. Because his is an intellectual history of the period, there is not the usual panoply of dates, battles, treaties, significant births, and even more significant deaths. His narrative therefore achieves the impressionistic fluidity that is his declared aim, without ever rambling or absent-mindedly digressing. The prologue, “1848–49: The Disillusionment of the Intellectuals,” considers not so much the revolutions that swept Europe through 1848 to late spring of the following year as their universal failure and bitter aftermath, which had such a significant effect on figures as disparate as Flaubert and Marx, George Sand and Feuerbach, Wagner and Mikhail Bakunin.

Both Wagner and Bakunin took part in the short-lived Dresden revolution of May 1849, and it is they whom the prologue takes as exemplary figures in the Europe-wide “revolution of the intellectuals.” Wagner was still an obscure second Kapellmeister at the city’s opera house, while the anarchist Bakunin was there as a refugee, “and not,” Professor Burrow wryly observes, “as was already his custom, looking for a revolution to participate in.” One tries, somewhat bemusedly, to picture these “titanic, towering figures”—metaphorically in Wagner’s case, literally so in the bearish Bakunin’s—standing shoulder to shoulder on the barricades as the King of Saxony’s troops advanced toward them through the rubble-strewn streets. Should the reader’s imagination become overheated, however, Burrow offers a cooling observation: “One of the remarkable features of [Bakunin’s] admittedly brief acquaintance with Wagner is that neither seems to have borrowed money from the other.”

The times were such as to throw together in operatic circumstances the future musical visionary, anti-Semite, and German “great man” whom Nietzsche would later excoriate and the shambling, curiously childlike, wholly ferocious messiah of anarchism:

They were drawn into the Dresden revolution by the common intellectual enthusiasms, hopes and illusions of their generation (Wagner in 1849 was thirty-six, Bakunin thirty-five). It is impossible properly to understand the paths they and others subsequently took without some understanding of those hopes and enthusiasms and their transmutation under the pressure of disappointment and disillusion.

As Professor Burrow amply illustrates, the most powerful aftereffect of the fruitless upheavals of 1848 was the disillusionment that was fostered among intellectuals on the European mainland. The hopeless aping of 1789 by the revolutionists of 1849 was a recurring theme among the embittered thinkers whose hopes of real change had been so ignominiously dashed. Burrow quotes Alexander Herzen’s withering comments on the “revolutionary imitativeness” of the Germans: “I knew two or three Robespierres personally; they always wore clean shirts, washed their hands and cleaned their nails.” Tocqueville “had the feeling that we had staged a play about the French Revolution rather than that we were continuing it,” while the Goncourt brothers in their journal noted that “coups d’état would go off so much better if there were seats, boxes and stalls, so that one could see what was happening and not miss anything.”

In a scene that might have come straight out of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Burrow describes Charles Baudelaire and his friend the painter Gustave Courbet standing jadedly at the corner of the Place de la Concorde during a riot (what a wonderfully named spot for a riot) and reacting, according to a friend, with what Burrow calls “the almost obligatory theatrical metaphor”: “The opening act of the drama he had found most interesting, though he felt dissatisfied with the conclusion, reckoning that the curtain had fallen too soon.” (Still, they need not have been too harsh in comparing themselves with the great names of 1789. In The Ruin of Kasch, Roberto Calasso describes a moment of rich absurdist comedy at the vast secular Feast of the Federation on the Champ de Mars on July 14, 1790—“the shrill idyll that inaugurated the age of mass politics,” Calasso calls it—held to celebrate the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Talleyrand, cynic and supreme survivor, dressed in his bishop’s robes and limping behind three hundred priests and acolytes, passes by Lafayette dismounting from his horse and murmurs, Please don’t make me laugh…1)

After the debacle of 1848, how could a disappointed intelligentsia any longer hold to Hegel’s assertion that the real is rational and the rational real, which for a generation had been the battle cry on both the left and the right? Where, as the dynastic and other conservative regimes of Europe reestablished their control, was the inner, synthesizing logic of history? The grandiose drama of historical inevitability had been played over again, not as tragedy this time, Marx noted, but as farce. In the early pages of his book, Professor Burrow calls before us a gallery of often unfamiliar witnesses to the disenchantment of the age. Matthew Arnold we would have expected, even Froude—his novel The Nemesis of Faith was publicly burned in his college hall by the senior tutor. But who would have thought to find in the now unread poetry of Arthur Hugh Clough (1819–1861), ex-Oxonian and disaffected young-man-about-Europe, evidence of the mingled sense of emancipation and deep loss that resulted from the crisis of belief in Christianity fomented by excited readings of works such as Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity and David Strauss’s Life of Jesus? Clough was in Paris after les événements of February 1848, where he witnessed a grand revolutionary fête, “complete with girls in classical costumes with oak wreaths in their hair,” and, like Talleyrand, was tempted to laugh, although more gently: “It was funny,” he wrote, “in the afternoon to see the classical virgins walking about with their papas and mamas.”

  1. 1

    The Ruin of Kasch (Carcanet, 1994), p. 83.

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