Deliverance

Daniel Johnson

  • The Dear Purchase: A Theme in German Modernism by J.P. Stern
    Cambridge, 445 pp, £40.00, February 1995, ISBN 0 521 43330 4

Cambridge only woke up to the great achievements of Peter Stern when he died there aged 70 in 1991. Stern’s adoptive university, to which he found himself evacuated from the LSE after arriving from Prague as a refugee from Nazi anti-Semitism, became his home for half a century; but although he taught there for many years and remained devoted to his college, St John’s, Cambridge failed adequately to recognise his stature during his lifetime.

Cambridge had earlier failed to prevent the departure to Chicago of another exiled native of Prague, Stern’s lifelong friend Erich Heller, whose postwar rehabilitation of German literature and thought, The Disinherited Mind, gave Stern ‘the pattern and the inspiration’ for his own work. Unlike the older Heller, however, Stern’s intellectual provenance was predominantly Anglo-American. He adopted the terminological fastidiousness by means of which British academics sought to distinguish themselves from the more discursive and speculative Continentals, and from German philosophy especially. But he also set himself the formidable task of interpreting one mode of thought in the language of the other: though he wrote excellently in German and Czech, Stern expressed himself most naturally on paper in English.

Like Heller, Stern came from Prague with a mission to persuade the British to take German literature seriously again, and in particular the preoccupation with metaphysics which had so fascinated Coleridge, Carlyle and George Eliot. Disdaining textual positivism in all its forms, Stern taught his pupils (myself among them) and younger colleagues to treat novelists, dramatists, poets and philosophers as a simple continuum using the same currency of ideas. What rival Germanists saw as his eclecticism – his highly successful collaboration with Tom Stoppard in adapting the plays of Schnitzler and Nestroy for the London stage, for instance – was in reality a deliberate policy of dragging the study of German culture out of the ghetto to which the Nazis had condemned it.

Stern’s first book, Ernst Jünger: A Writer of Our Time, appeared in 1952. It was a bold debut because the young critic was committing lese-majesty against one of Germany’s most celebrated living writers. He subjected Jünger to a linguistic analysis clearly influenced by Wittgenstein’s methods, and the result was far more persuasive than the contemporary Marxist criticism, typified by Georg Lukàcs in The Destruction of Reason, by virtue of the fact that Stern did not merely dismiss the purely literary appeal of Jünger’s works under the rubric of ‘irrationalism’. Instead, he sought to act as devil’s advocate, accepting Jünger’s inner emigration under the Nazis at face value and entering fully into the private world of this ‘adventurous heart’, in order to demonstrate how a profound impoverishment of literary sensibility might result, for all Jünger’s intelligence, from a conceptual currency debased by moral idiocy. According to Nicholas Boyle in his Foreword to The Dear Purchase, when this monograph appeared one of Stern’s older colleagues told him: ‘If you want to get on, do not write this sort of thing again.’ Stern, Boyle adds, ‘was incensed. He continued writing, and, in Cambridge at least, he did not get on.’ But Stern, who enjoyed riding to hounds, never lost the scent of this particular quarry: two of the most illuminating sections of The Dear Purchase deal with Jünger.

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