Out of Germany

E.S. Shaffer

  • The German Idea: Four English Writers and the Reception of German Thought 1800-1860 by Rosemary Ashton
    Cambridge, 245 pp, £14.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 521 22560 4
  • Criticism in the Wilderness. The Study of Literature Today by Geoffrey Hartman
    Yale, 314 pp, £11.40, October 1980, ISBN 0 300 02085 6

Rosemary Ashton traces the impact of some German writers, especially Goethe, on the British periodicals and on four writers, Coleridge, Carlyle, Eliot and Lewes; Geoffrey Hartman ranges widely through 19th and 20th-century criticism in pursuit of the idea of philosophic criticism, as it derived from Friedrich Schlegel and his German contemporaries. For both authors to a remarkable degree the central figure is Carlyle. For Mrs Ashton, Carlyle is the supreme publicist, not of ‘the German idea’, but of the British image of German literature as put about by the periodicals: for this book is largely about the art of the publicist, and not about ideas, German or otherwise. For Hartman, Carlyle is a vivid and living presence in modern criticism, through his influence on Emerson, who from a standpoint current in the United States is recognised as the seminal voice in American philosophic criticism. It is with such living ideas that Hartman, like Arnold, is concerned, and he succeeds in tracing its pulse down to our own time, and in suggesting stimulating solutions to contemporary critical dilemmas.

The lively, fresh account of ‘the reception’ presented by Mrs Ashton should serve to introduce generations of students to the engaged prose of the great periodicals of the 19th century, and may help to enable the concern with German letters to re-enter the mainstream of English literary history where it so richly belongs. Those who have read Mrs Ashton’s thesis (from which this book derives) may regret that much detail has been sacrificed, particularly the account of Carlyle’s predecessors writing about German drama in the Scottish periodicals. Too often the genuine ‘finds’ of researchers never leave the excavation site. The earlier period of Mackenzie and Scott needs more attention, and William Taylor of Norwich and the increasing company of provincial Dissenting students of German are too quickly dismissed; the large band of translators of Schiller (apart from Coleridge) is unaccountably ignored. The scholars of the Classics, philosophy and theology, history and the law who in fact absorbed the important German ideas of the period have no place here. But Mrs Ashton has doubtless judged her audience rightly in introducing her tale of the ensuing change of taste with the Anti-Jacobin’s satiric parodies of German drama. It is entirely characteristic of Mrs Ashton that no rumour of the German school of reception theory as practised so audibly in recent years by Iser, Jauss and a host of others has reached her.

Even if conducted without reference to Jauss’s work on Goethe’s Iphigenie and on Faust from Goethe to Valéry (now available in English), it is useful to have the story of the reception of Goethe in England, that strange and dramatic story of early doubt and distress at immorality giving way to awe for ‘the sage’. The development in attitudes towards Goethe is the thread on which the several parts of the book hang, and acts as an effective index to the growing acceptance of things German. Yet the story is overly simplified, in that the earlier popular reception of The Sorrows of Young Werther is given short shrift, and the moral objections are merely brushed aside as if clearly wrong-headed. It is, in fact, an important aspect of Goethe’s greatness that he does indeed raise moral questions of a deep-rooted kind. That Faust’s salvation is, by traditional religious standards and by most secular ethical standards, extremely offensive is demonstrated by the fact that the work lent itself to Nietzschean reinterpretation in the Thirties of our own century. As this study is not comparative, it will be difficult for the reader to assess what is peculiar to the English response. In Germany, there was no production of Faust until 1829, after both England and France had seen popularised stage versions. In France, Gérard de Nerval’s translation – better than any we have in English, and the only romantic translation – came only in 1828, and influenced several generations of composers. Of the many continuators and imitators of Faust I in Germany, the best, Grill-parzer (highly praised by Byron), returned to a tragic interpretation of the traditional matter. There is a question of method here: a history of critical reception must not simply adopt a contemptuous view of early critics from its supposed vantage-point in the unexamined present, but use the various phases to illuminate one another’s darkness. It is a sad fact that today’s reading public is less familiar with German literature than the Victorians.

The tendency to assume an ‘accepted’ judgment is all the more unfortunate because while Mrs Ashton’s quotations from the Victorians are vivid and arresting, her paraphrases of great works of German literature are too often flat-footed and insipid. Thus she writes: ‘Goethe frequently suspends the narrative [of Wilhelm Meister] to make room for long discussions – the most famous example being the players’ and Wilhelm’s analysis of Hamlet. He includes a circumstantial memoir, ‘Bekenntnisse einer schönen Seele’ ... which has limited relevance to Wilhelm’s education. Above all, the reader needs to be patient ...’ Who would gather from this that the discussion of Hamlet is a brilliant piece of Shakespeare criticism, reflecting Goethe’s lifelong preoccupation with Shakespeare, and the reinterpretation of Shakespeare that was one of Germany’s major contributions during this period (of which nothing at all in this book), or that the Confessions are the most subtle and affecting as well as ironic portrayal of the pietist mind ever written; or that both have a great deal to do with Wilhelm’s Bildung. Indeed, one of the most surprising omissions in this book is any discussion of the idea of culture, surely the primary and perhaps most lasting contribution of German thought to the 19th century (of the many contenders, including philosophical idealism and transcendentalism, hermeneutics and historicism). Surely Matthew Arnold belongs dans cette galère, not least as an instance of the profound working of Goethe’s influence.

If Carlyle is at the centre of the book, it is because he was the most successful peddler of German literature. Mrs Ashton explicitly denies that he had any real understanding of it. Here she is in agreement with Hartman, who cites Nietzsche’s judgment: ‘What is lacking in England, and has always been lacking, that half-actor and rhetorician knew well enough, the absurd muddle-head Carlyle, who sought to conceal under passionate grimaces what he knew about himself: namely what was lacking in Carlyle – real power of intellect, real depth of intellectual perception, in short, philosophy.’ But Hartman is able to use Carlyle as a springboard to American ‘revisionist’ romantic critics of the last twenty years, notably the ‘Teufelsdröckhian’ Harold Bloom – admittedly a leap that may strain the credulity of his English readers. But it is part of an analysis of the situation in criticism since the demise of the New Criticism that shows in a most illuminating way how the romantic inheritance has been reanimated in the American context. Hartman himself – though a leading revisionist since his Wordsworth’s Poetry (1964) – is sceptical of the Carlylean grimaces, and advocates a philosophic criticism as described by Friedrich Schlegel, who since the publication of the critical edition of his works in the post-war period has increasingly been seen as the major theorist of German romanticism and (as René Wellek has argued) of European romanticism. ‘The work of criticism is superfluous,’ wrote Schlegel, ‘unless it is itself a work of art as independent of the work it criticises as that is independent of the materials that went into it.’

To find a worthy representative of this tradition, Hartman is obliged to abandon both English and American criticism altogether, and to return to Schlegel’s homeland and to Walter Benjamin. The heart of the book lies not in the chapter about Benjamin, however, but in the programmatic chapter called ‘Literary Commentary as Literature’, in which in a handful of brilliant pages Hartman links Lukacs’s early essay on the essay form with Walter Pater’s Plato and Platonism, and both with the ‘romantic irony’ of Schlegel. Although Hartman would not admit himself to the select company of those who have written the essay as ‘intellectual poem’ – apart from Schlegel, and sometimes Benjamin, it includes only Valéry, and certain essays of Freud and Heidegger, and Ortega’s ‘In Search of Goethe from Within’, as well as, finally (yes) Derrida’s Glas – he makes a creative exhibition of ‘sources and analogues’. Nowhere, though, does he analyse the philosophical conditions in which such a criticism can be enacted, so that his passionate and serious advocacy is in danger of sounding like just another voice hawking another panacea at today’s critical carnival.

The only candidate in English criticism for admission to Hartman’s select company of philosophic critics is of course Coleridge. Mrs Ashton, however, gives us instead a piquant account of him as a publicist manqué. If the account of his transactions with Kant is stilted and with Schelling brief and inaccurate, she springs to life when it comes to a matter of publishing history, the absorbing story of how Coleridge almost wrote the introduction to Retzsch’s etchings of Faust, almost was persuaded to translate Faust, and suffered over the reception of his translation of Wallen-slein. Certainly there is much in this record of his sensitivity to the prejudices of the reading public and his attempt at once to overcome them and to cater for them that helps us to understand (better than any sensational speculations about his relations with his mother or his clinical history as an addict) his traffic in borrowings, his half-suppressions and his trimming. He suffered the pains of an acute awareness of the limitations of his audience, even the most advanced of them, and his style, though rising to aerial moments of expansive and unimpeded perception, has also its choked and half-strangulated tones, as he imagined in his mind’s ear the acerb, parodic, malicious and blunted judgments of the literary community. But what we need is not such psychological insights as publishing history may suggest, but an account of the German sources of Coleridge’s style, of which so much has been said in relation to Carlyle. Finally, there is a terrible irony about treating Coleridge as one who might have made good, if only he had blown the horn loud and clear for German literature, as Carlyle did. Is poor Coleridge to be damned at once as a mere transmittor of German ideas, and for not having transmitted them? Inexplicably, there is almost nothing here about how effectively Coleridge permeated the thought of the next generation, especially through the Aids to Reflection, with a body of aesthetic and religious thinking that had been genuinely immersed in and moulded by the leading German ideas of his time.

Here again Hartman, although he nowhere treats Coleridge at length, is full of illuminating and perceptive asides about him. Second only to Valéry, Coleridge acts throughout the book like a kind of touchstone of the literary intellect. One of Hartman’s major contentions is that the notion of ‘practical criticism’ has had a narrowing effect on Arnold’s own admirably wide-ranging grasp of culture (though he also stands for, in Hartman’s conception, a sobriety in criticism that in its own way served the purposes of those who like Eliot and the New Critics brought about the narrowing). The very term ‘practical criticism’ has come to suggest that theory is something impractical, esoteric or apart. European efforts, at least since Goethe, to grasp theory as ‘a living and presentational mode’ have foundered in these shallow waters. Hartman calls for concern with the writings of great speculative thinkers, for ‘reading and steeping oneself in a corpus of critical, philosophical and literary texts that they incorporate and revise. Coleridge can be our example in this.’ ‘If he failed,’ Hartman concludes, ‘then we too should have his courage to fail.’

George Eliot provides a nice climax to Mrs Ashton’s story of the reception of Goethe, in that she was prepared to defend vigorously the true morality of his ‘large tolerance’ to an audience by then familiar with Wilhelm Meister. But despite useful material on George Eliot’s translations from the German, Mrs Ashton evades discussion of the affinities of Eliot’s novels with Goethe’s (a matter not infrequently alluded to by contemporaries) on the grounds that her novels are ‘too dense and characteristic to convince us of particular debts’. Would this be a sufficient reason to avoid discussion of, say, Henry James’s many debts to Miss Evans? Her feeble conclusion – ‘What we can say is that Goethe was for George Eliot an artist who subscribed to many of the same philosophic and cultural beliefs as she did, whose aesthetic example was stimulating, and with whom she became thoroughly acquainted as the subject of Lewes’ biography’ – is especially disappointing as the whole book seems to have been constructed in order to culminate in showing how Goethe’s example was absorbed and transformed by a first-rate English artist. Instead, we learn that George Eliot wrote the best periodical appreciation of Wilhelm Meister: Mrs Ashton comes to rest in her thesis again. In the end, it is Lewes who benefits most from her approach, although to do him full justice his work would have to be placed in the context of German scientific ideas.

If Rosemary Ashton unconsciously demonstrates, despite her abundant and entertaining grasp of detail, that the history of the failure to receive German ideas continues into the present, Geoffrey Hartman, for all his full and easy conversance with European thought, self-consciously indicts the Anglo-American failure to receive and practise them, and calls for a form of philosophic criticism even he is unable to provide.