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Goethe's Concept of the Daemonic: After the Ancients.

Goethe's Concept of the Daemonic: After the Ancients. By ANGUS NICHOLLS. (Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture) Rochester, NY. Camden House. 2006. xii + 312 pp. $75; 45 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 978-1-57113-307-6.

The originality of this study consists in taking a theme that, despite the attentions of Benno von Wiese, Hans Joachim Schrimpf, and H. B. Nisbet among others, has remained a byway of Goethe studies, and showing, over the course of eight densely argued but never plodding chapters, that it is central and philosophically serious. This is a considerable achievement, which would not have been possible without Angus Nicholls's sound knowledge of Goethe's writings, wide reading in the secondary literature, and remarkable range of reference to European intellectual history. The first stage of the argument involves a lucid discussion of the idea of the daemonic in antiquity, focusing primarily on Plato and Aristotle: Nicholls's study is the first attempt to take seriously Goethe's assertion that his concept of the daemonic was modelled' after the ancients'. This proves helpful both in shedding the biographical approach to Goethe and in establishing the philosophical content of the daemonic and its role in debates concerning subjectivity, reason, and nature. On this basis Nicholls can show how Goethe's concept of the daemonic was informed by his debates with major thinkers of his time: Hamann, Herder, Kant, and Schelling.

The study thus presents a broad if necessarily fragmentary picture of Goethe's poetic and intellectual development. For the Goethe of the Sturm and Drang, following early modern readings of Stoicism and Neoplatonism, the daemonic represents the notion that in exceptional cases human capacities (and specifically the creative and imaginative powers) mediate between the realms of the human and the divine. During Goethe's classical period, however, the daemonic becomes an external force that sets limits to the pretensions of subjectivity. Here Goethe again reconnects with the ancient tradition, and specifically with Plato, for whom the daemonic is connected with the task of the philosopher. The Platonic philosopher is like a daemon who mediates between the material world and the forms, and that mediation contains an element of eros. This, then, is a Goethe who is both classical and Romantic: Nicholls breaks with the Germanic tradition of opposing classicism to Romanticism, pointing out, quite rightly, that the Romantic Hellenism of Goethe and others establishes the ideal of an art that takes its forms from the perfection found in nature. Following M. H. Abrams, Nicholls argues that Romanticism engages in the secularization of religious and Platonic thought, although one might ask whether secularization is the right term in the latter case.

None the less, classicism is more prominent. Excess subjectivity is (Romantic) illness: (classical) health, then, involves our recognizing the necessary gaps between our ideas about the world and the world an sich, and our adjusting our ideas in the light of and with continual reference to external conditions. Within this classical framework, the daemonic acts as a means of representing what Hans Blumenberg termed the 'ungelster Rest' that remains when reason is exhausted. In this sense the daemonic is connected to Goethe's notion of the 'Urphanomen' as a limit beyond which human reason cannot venture. The sonnet 'Machtiges Uberrraschen' presents a symbolic version of this ideal of subjectivity productively confined. Indeed, a series of analyses of poetic representations of water (in Werther, Faust, and 'Mahometsgesang') helpfully points up the nuanced evolution of Goethe's conceptions of the daemonic. Of particular importance in this story is the emphasis that Nicholls places on Goethe's Kant-influenced thoughts on scientific method. The story of Goethe's turn from the Geniezeit to classicism has been told many times before, but seldom in such philosophical detail or with such a range of reference to European intellectual history.


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Author:Bell, Matthew
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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