Robertson, Ritchie. Zur Theorie und Praxis des Erhabenen bei Schiller.
Ritchie Robertson's elegant, lucid essay on Friedrich Schiller's theory and praxis of the sublime inaugurates the University of Jena's 450-year-anniversary series Lichtblicke. Based on lectures held in Schiller's Gartenhaus, and playing on the poet's coinage "Lichtgedanken," the series in part aims to illuminate the institution's "own identity" by exploring those modern "Problemlagen, Debatten und Ideen" generated by the universities around 1800, and asking "was ... ihre verschiedenen Fakultaten miteinander zu verbinden vermag."
What kind of comscating glance or steady illuminating gaze is this first "Lichtblick"? Robertson touches on the series's concerns indirectly: his tight focus is on the relationship between Schiller's Maria Stuart (1800) and his theoretical writings on tragedy and the sublime, especially Uber das Erhabene, which Robertson plausibly argues was composed not long before 1801. The essay begins with the double genealogy of Schiller's sublime--inheriting on one side a classical Greek and eighteenth-century British discourse of sublimity refashioned by Kant to stress its reasonable, subjective, and moral dimensions, and on the other a rather worn-out neo-Stoic dramaturgy that Schiller set himself to revivify through increased naturalism. For Schiller, the impassive neo-Stoic heroes of Corneille "gleichen den Konigen und Kaisern in den alten Bilderbuchern, die sich mit samt der Krone zu Bette legen": genuine tragic heroines must suffer to become genuinely tragic (awakening sympathy) and genuinely heroic (rising above suffering). Kant's dynamical sublime, Robertson elegantly demonstrates, offered a schema for such genuine tragedy. Struck down by an irresistible force (in Schiller, "nature" as external fate or mechanistic causality, and as internal human drives) the sublime heroine realises that her physical-sensuous powerlessness is not the final word. Supersensible reason remains free, and the heroine can align her will with external nature, willing fate instead of suffering under it, and her internal nature with will, subduing destructive passions to obey duties ordained by reason.
Maria Stuart, as is often recognised, can be read productively as a working through of Schiller's theories of the sublime. Not least, Robertson shows, this clarifies the importance throughout Schiller's sublime of aesthetics as aisthesis. Rising above nature through idealism is difficult, Schiller acknowledges in Uber das Erhabene, but luckily sensuous human nature possesses in itself "an aesthetic tendency" that cultivates idealism through "sensuous objects" and "feelings". Tragedy is one such emotive-sensuous object. Maria Stuart's audience must experience Maria's sublime composure in the face of death as if it were in some sense real--hence she must be plausibly, fallibly human, Robertson insists. Nonetheless, audiences' responses to the play as sensuous object should lead them to contemplate the supersensuous duties and strengths Maria invokes; tragedy with its sympathetic identifications becomes a moral gymnasium for the tests of life. Within the play world, too, Maria dramatizes the anti-ascetic strand in Schiller's theory, retaining attachments to sensuous objects even after the "sudden" sublime "moment" very late in the play where she resigns herself to fate and supposedly leaves everything worldly behind.
Robertson inclines to read these sensuous attachments as genuine moral blemishes that, somehow without detracting from Maria's sublimity, increase the drama's naturalness. Maria remains "menschlich-allzumenschlich." She seemingly lacks humility in receiving communion in both kinds, a privilege reserved for priests and royalty. She almost faints at the sight of Leicester, Elizabeth's favourite and Maria's betrayer, and admits she loved him and hoped to enjoy freedom by his side; worse still, she recalls that Leicester rejected her "tender" heart to kneel before Elizabeth's "proud" one. Robertson sees in this scene Maria's erotic attraction, Schadenfreude, and sarcasm. Leicester's flight from England after Maria's death indicates that she leaves him unforgiven and a "broken man."
For my money, such vindictiveness really would compromise Maria's sublimity, showing her neither resigned to fate, nor subduing sensuality through reason. Uber das Erhabene might suggest an alternative reading. Tragedy gives the sublime diachronic form; but the sublime is also crucially synchronic for Schiller, a mixed feeling of "Wehsein and "Frohsein." These coexisting feelings incontrovertibly prove the independence of our moral nature from our sensual nature, showing "dass wir selbst in zwei verschiedenen Verhaltnissen zu dem Gegenstand [say, a Leicester] stehen, dass folglich zwei entgegengesetze Naturen in uns vereiniget sein mussen." Schillers sublime does not allow our sensual nature to give reign to Schadenfreude while our moral nature remains transcendendy pure. Rather, sublimity lives in the disjuncture between pain inflicted to our sensual nature (say, in acknowledging hopeless love or subduing vengefulness) and delight in the moral nature that "vanquishes]" (Maria's word) the drive to fulfil destructive passions or to experience necessity as violence against our wills. In this light, Maria's worldly attachments are crucial to the sublime, but not because they necessarily betray base passions. Communion becomes a symbol of two natures combined in one. Pushing away the chalice before accepting it at her priest's (and former steward's) insistence, Maria appears more humble than Robertson suggests: to refuse the wine after the pope himself had offered dispensation would be haughty indeed; and Maria rejoices that she can "lie in the dust" before the priest who once kneeled to her. Similarly, forgiving Leicester without forgetting his history in some false reconciliation, Maria would have good reason to wish without sarcasm that his "reward" (Elizabeth's favour) might "not become [his] punishment!" This is indeed what has happened: in Act 2, Leicester curses his position in the "hell" of court, enslaved to a despot, forced to act a part against his will, and now slighted for another suitor. Surrounded by his enemies' "nets" in apparent freedom, he resembles the subject trapped in the world of beautiful appearances, in the nets that refined sensuousness spins, and "binds all the faster the more transparently it's spun." In renouncing the shreds of ambition and fleeing to France, Leicester is far freer than Elizabeth at the play's end.
But what has all this to do with the identity and coherence of the university, one of Lichtblicke's avowed concerns? Certainly, the essay's symbolic relationship with the series is intriguing. Schiller's adaptation of British material in Maria Stuart falls in a period of Anglophilia and Shakespearianism to which Schiller's "naturalistic" tragedies contribute. Is this special relationship nodded to in the choice of Robertson, Oxford's Taylor Professor of German? Does the choice also symbolically distance Jena- and Schiller-ophilia from any imputation of nationalism (the university was, after all, renamed after Schiller in 1934)? More directly, there are deep parallels between German classical aesthetics and current discussions of the university, whether invoking autonomy, integration, judgement, or non-purposive purposiveness. Attempts to reconcile theory and practice, mechanistic nature and morality, or the particular (faculties) and universal (university) are Kantian aesthetic ideals absorbed by Schiller and common in defences of higher education. The regulative ideals of literary studies in particular continue to resonate with Schiller's sense that the transformative experience of the sublime completes our "aesthetic education" and that art trains critical moral awareness--and with Robertson's insistence on Schiller's anti-didactic approach to aesthetic education.
Still, I was left wondering about another lesson Maria Stuart might offer, not about sublime renunciation--some university leaders seem to have learnt all too well to align their wills with the "necessity" of free market competition and privatisation--but about resistance and timing, about avoiding the sublime. Maria turns to "idealistic" sublimity only when all else fails. Until then, this independent queen engages in what Schiller called the "realistic" exertion of will. The play opens with Maria's jailor cursing her cunning: despite her apparent humiliation, she has "[n]och Kostbarkeiten, noch geheime Schatze!" stowed away, these she uses to plot her escape. Her prison is just a stage: "Weiss ich, ob ... Nicht dieses Zimmers Boden, diese Wande, | Von aussen fest, nicht hohl von innen sind, | Und den Verrath einlassen, wenn ich schlafe?" It perhaps seems unrealistic for educators to search out the hollowness of apparently solid constraints, or use our treasures--like those Robertson so deftly exhibits--to plot our release. Yet this may be a kind of idealism we need.
Christ's College, Cambridge
Miranda Stanyon is a Junior Research Fellow at Christ's College, Cambridge. She was educated at the University of Melbourne and Queen Mary, University of London. Her doctoral thesis focused on the musical sublime in Anglo-German literature and aesthetics.
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|Publication:||The German Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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