Mayer, Petra. Zwischen unsicherem Wissen und sicherem Unwissen: Erzahlte Wissenschaftsformationen im realistischen Roman: Stifters "Der Nachsommer" und Vischers "Auch Einer.".
After a polite and fair nod to recent (but essentially not helpful) cultural theorists, Petra Mayer quite extensively and far more usefully invokes relevant nineteenth-century commentary in German on the dramatic rise of science and industrialization and its earlier perceived impact on post-Goethean literature and culture. This background in the history of ideas provides the solid frame for her intelligent examination of the structurally different first-person novels by Stifter (1857) and Vischer (1878). Their imaginative texts reflect two phases and two general mentalities of adjustment to the stresses of actual history. Mayer skillfully invokes the precise details in each work through which several major themes are developed in a generational sequence that exhibits an intensifying spiritual crisis. Readers may well want to compare and contrast her excellent presentation of this "inner" drama of the age, as expressed by Stifter and Vischer, by looking at an outstanding British appreciation of this period in the German territories, Walter H. Bruford's The German Tradition of Self-Cultivation: "Bildung from Humboldt to Thomas Mann (London: Cambridge UP, 1975), and at Virgil Nemoianu's The Taming of Romanticism: European Literature and the Age of Biedermeier (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984), which situates German culture in the wider European context.
Mayers approach is more sober than that of scholars like Mario Praz in The Romantic Agony (London: Oxford UP, 1933; Italian: La came, la morte e ildiavolo nella letteratura romantic [Milan: Soc. editrice "La Cultura", 1930]) who focus, at moments flamboyantly, on the dark side of life as exposed by writers and artists of the longer Revolutionary age from the Enlightenment to Modernism. Around 1800, German literature already boasted bursts of anguish beyond young Werther's famous nightmare of nature as a meaningless monstrosity in Goethes sensational Sturm und Drang classic, for example, the dead Christ's vision of a godless universe in Jean Paul's novel, Siebekas, and the yet more frightening deconstruction of humanity's nothingness in Die Nachtwachen von Bonaventura. And by the 1840s, to the chagrin of Marx, Max Stirner's virtual Bible of modem nihilistic anarchism, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum, espoused an existential heroism that eschewed the illusions even of humanism. By 1872, the youthful Victorian explorer and philosopher Winwood Reade envisioned natural and cultural evolution as The Martyrdom of Man, and simultaneously, in Die Geburt der Tragodie aus dem Geiste der Musik, Nietzsche formulated a call to creative nobility in a disenchanted, inwardly decadent Europe.
Mayer widens our picture of Der Nachsommer, a book praised by Nietzsche, by offering more than a rehearsal of the standard critical view of Stifters mid-century novel as defensive, as an attempt at containment of the traumatic eruption that had threatened European civilization. Stifters goal was to restore the precious Goethean example in spirit, according to contemporary means and benevolent memory. Within the elder Risach's fictional domain in Der Nachsommer, an oasis where a self-selecting elite assiduously cultivates the positive heritage from antiquity to the present alongside wise management of natural resources, Mayer highlights the author Stifters very considerable efforts to tie orderly procedures to ideas in modem science. This emphasis by Mayer is a welcome contribution to scholarship that has previously concentrated on pedagogical idealism and on the unusual nature of Der Nachsommer as a first-person Bildungsroman in which the hero is almost magically protected from any of the dangers that have surged explosively in the Romantic moment, while learning deep lessons from survivors. In my view, Mayer succeeds admirably in showing how poignant is Stifters desire to rescue a torn world by harnessing rational knowledge and by allying scientific capacity with enduring philosophic insights and religious faith.
Mayer adds special depth and zest to her study by turning to Vischer after Stifter. The stately cadences of Der Nachsommer threaten to give way late in Stifters novel to the postponed story of the suffering of the predecessor generation, but the author succeeds in maintaining his holistic vision. In contrast, in Auch Einer the consequences of far-reaching economic, social, and intellectual change are reflected-as Mayer illustrates-in the extent and manner to which the profoundly disturbed figure A.E. (as if a more nervous replacement of Risach) dominates discursively. He does so even when deceased, by means of transmitted documents and literary creations, like a more complicated Werther and with many of Werther's predilections (e.g., for Ossianic phantasies), while the first-person narrator of the novel's opening recedes into being mainly the framing observer and sympathetic testamentary editor. Likewise, the problematization of nineteenth-century development flares up in a wilder array of structural elements as if Romantic irony has popped back out of the Biedermeier closet. Yet the prosaic character of desacralized modern knowledge, as well as banal admissions of all-too-human disabilities and insufficiencies, begin to take on a pathetic coloration. The inimical universal principle "Objekt" (versus "Subjekt") against which A.E. rails translates into multiple laws. It is not just the workings of the Will at various levels, the unconscious in the human species, that Schopenhauer tagged, but also entropy in physics, and more.
Mayer renders a service to readers today who are not yet acquainted with Vischer's novel, because they will be in for many stimulating surprises. In a segment of Auch Einer consisting of fragments of A.E.'s diary, for instance, they would discover such sentiments as: "Dieser Nihilismus und Pessimismus ist eigentlich Spatprodukt der Romantik, Erscheinung ihres Zersetzungsprozesses" (Friedrich Theodor Vischer, Auch Einer: Eine Reisebekanntschaft, vol. 2 [Stuttgart: Eduard Hallberger, 1879], 113). Mayers identification of references to literature, art, and philosophy in fictional A.E.'s account of his experiences is an important retrieval, all the more valuable in the light of Vischer's own larger involvement in key cultural and social debates going into modernism, which she illuminates. Because of Vischer's suspicion of materialist views, Mayer's analysis of his struggle to reconcile "higher" values with obdurate "lower," even treacherous, aspects of nature and reality in the new age of science is especially valuable.
Not only Germanists, but also students of Comparative Literature will be grateful for being cautioned by Mayer, on the basis of pertinent examples, about the large extent to which, collectively, we are "thinking" in an echo chamber. Criticism of the later twentieth century onward is heavily indebted to writers like Vischer, who treated the symptoms of modern alienation well before the package more recently reached our mailboxes.
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|Publication:||The German Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
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