Maike Oergel. Culture and Identity: Historicity in German Literature and Thought, 1770-1815. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006. viii + 300 pp. $105.30 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-11-018933-9.
Reviewed by Robert S. Bledsoe (Department of English and Foreign Languages, Augusta State University)
Published on H-German (November, 2007)
History, Modernity, and German Identity, 1770-1815
Maike Oergel's study of historicity in German thought from 1770 to 1815 has three goals: first, to explore "the destabilising as well as productive force of the growing awareness of historicity" (p. 1). Oergel argues that growing awareness of historicity had a critical impact on the German understanding of modernity, that these two concepts "shaped modern German identity and underpinned cultural and intellectual activity. They are in fact responsible for the link between modern German identity and the conception of culture which a century later enabled Friedrich Meinecke to define the Kulturnation" (p. 1). Second, the book seeks to show that the period at the end of the eighteenth century is coherent in terms of its "central intellectual problem ... the historicity of values, including moral and philosophical categories ... [and its] central objective ... the accommodation of once universal values within a framework of temporality" (p. 3). The solution, Oergel asserts, "is invariably a process of growth and decline within time that is driven by a self-prompting dynamic. This self-prompting dynamic tends to be based on an assumed internal dialectic.... The problem of historicity produced the dialectical process as a key intellectual methodology" (p. 4). The third goal is to demonstrate that the resulting national identity is "inherently post-national in that it conceives of itself as succeeding the other, already sharply defined national identities with an awareness of their (dialectical) individualities and contributions" (p. 5). These ambitious goals are met with varying degrees of success. Along the way, the reader encounters interesting readings of familiar texts from the period.
Oergel begins by reviewing the Querelle des anciens et modernes in Germany and considering the impact that the resultant awareness of historicity had on the definitions of modern culture and the literary theories formulated by Johann Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Schiller, and Friedrich Schlegel. For Oergel, the Querelle is the "origin of modern historicism" (p. 16), but this historicism is incomplete, because it still relies on universally valid ideals. The Enlightenment acknowledges only a quantitative increase in knowledge from antiquity to the modern era. The idea of a qualitative difference between the ancients and the moderns enters the debate with Herder, who introduces three key concepts that will frame future discussions: "difference, yet analogy between the two, as well as relational historical progression from one to the other" (p. 26). The comparison between ancient and modern that served as a structural analogy in Herder becomes part of a historical dialectic in Schiller's Naive und sentimentalische Dichtung (1795-96). His conception of the "internal dialectic of modernity, which ... produces its own dynamic, which is realised as constant striving" (p. 39) is an essential link between the problem of historicity and the construction of modernity. Schlegel concurs fundamentally with Schiller's diagnosis of modernity's problems. Furthermore, both propose a solution grounded in a historical dialectics, and both conceive of modernity as different from and yet building on antiquity.
Oergel argues that Herder, Schiller, and Schlegel work with similarly dialectical models of history that set them apart from Enlightenment thinkers. The differences between the three models are primarily ones of focus and emphasis. Herder focuses on the origins to articulate a process in which all stages have intrinsic, equal value, while Schiller and Schlegel extend Herder's thought when they make the dialectic internal to modernity. Schiller focuses on the immutable ideal at the end of the process. Schlegel prioritizes the self-dynamism of the process (p. 91). Oergel also recognizes that each author wanted to overcome the perceived inadequacy of modern literature with a revitalized literature valuable to contemporary culture. Herder's concept of Volkspoesie finds the (missing) essence of humanity in the national or local; Schiller focuses on the beautiful; Schlegel posits a Universalpoesie that revives the all-inclusiveness of true poetry (as mythology). Oergel does not focus on the differences between these thinkers but rather stresses that each responded to the relativity of values seemingly inherent in the notion of reason's historical boundedness by reconnecting dialectically with an obscured original and producing "an historicised ideal, of literature in this case, which can accommodate rather than negate the historical conditions of impermanence" (p. 89).
Oergel finds a similar pattern in her exploration of German Idealism, which she interprets as an attempt to confront the problem of historicity and develop a theory of modernity that places existence and knowledge in a dialectical process to be resolved in the fullness of time. Idealism is then not so much a response to a crisis in the autonomy and authority of reason as a "historically grounded framework" that attempts to "integrate empiricism and rationalism" (p. 97). Oergel's reading of Johann Gottlieb Fichte relies on viewing the Wissenschaftslehre as a "philosophy of striving" (Strebungslehre; the term is Fichte's) that is "a most thorough account of the historicity of the human self, human thought, knowledge and experience" (p. 99) because of its dialectical process of knowing. Oergel does not belabor the point and moves to the more fertile ground of F. W. J. Schelling's System des transzendentalen Idealismus (1800) and G. W. F. Hegel's Phänomenologie des Geistes (1809). Schelling, who treats history more directly than Fichte, considers history to be the sum of all individual self-consciousness, so history is generated by a productive dialectic, and identity is traceable in the emergence of consciousness within history.
Finally, Hegel heals the breech between consciousness and the world by rejecting its existence and considering Fichte's process of self-positing as real; the world and the absolute are in a process of unfolding, not in a split (p. 112). The Idealists share with Schiller and Schlegel the insight that modernity is "based on the principle of striving and its historical phenomena, the products of striving, form the basis for the consummation of striving.... The dialectical process makes difference dynamic.... Conceptual theory, pure thought, is thus inextricably connected to the passage of time, which unfolds in history" (p. 119).
In the third chapter, Oergel considers the relationship between historicity, modernity, and German identity. Here, Oergel focuses on August Schlegel's Berliner (1801-04) and Wiener Vorlesungen (1808), as well as Fichte's Reden an die deutsche Nation (1808). Oergel draws out the conviction in these thinkers (as well as Herder, Schiller and Friedrich Schlegel) that while the problem of historicity is common to modern (European) man, Germans seem especially poised to create the literature and art that will overcome it. These thinkers argue that the Germans "are the lynchpin in the dialectical process of modern identity, because they possess, through their original language, a link with their (lost) original and natural state, which will give them the opportunity to achieve a perfect communal organization and philosophical understanding. This equals the synthetic solution of the modern dialectic" (p. 146). Oergel pushes the argument further and asserts that "[t]he German particularity is universality, which ... puts them in a position to survey the other nation's contributions and go beyond them (but ultimately with them) into a universal future of humanity" (p. 150). The German identity constructed by these thinkers "considers the national as a (soon to be superseded) stage on the road" (p.152); therefore, the thinking of these early Romantics is post-national.
In the fourth and fifth chapters, Oergel analyzes two of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's major works to demonstrate how thoroughly he engaged with the issues of historicity, modernity, and identity, and that he employed formal techniques in line with the literary concepts premised on the historicity of culture (p. 153). The fourth chapter is an analysis of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-96). Oergel argues that the novel presents three dialectical processes: "the philosophical dialectic concerned with the nature of (modern) humanity and the aim of human (intellectual) development," which sets the mythic mindset of Mignon and Harper against the rationality of the Tower Society (pp. 156-157); the dialectic of education, which sets Wilhelm's experiential learning against the Tower Society's structured system; and the social dialectic, which is explored in the novel between aristocracy and bourgeoisie. To investigate these issues the novel places characters into "oppositional yet mirroring relations" (p. 156) that evolve into a dialectical process. Each dynamic response takes elements from both sides of the dialectic and works toward a synthesis that will, in turn, become part of another dialectical process inherent in the development of modernity. Wilhelm and his contemporaries need both elements in each pair to create an educational process that responds to the social and political conditions and allows for "full, but guided individuation" (p. 201). Oergel concludes that that novel presents "a dialectical dynamic rather than a solid programme or the failure of such a programme" (p. 153).
In the fifth chapter, Oergel considers Faust I (1808) as presenting "a myth of modern identity as a historically dialectic process" (p. 275). Goethe creates this myth in part by adapting materials from early modernity and connecting them to contemporary issues: the Faust legend is reworked to explore the aridity of Enlightenment rationality; Gretchen's story examines infanticide, class conflict, and Sturm und Drang individuation; witch culture is explored as one of the archaic substrata of modern culture. In this analysis, the pairs of Faust and Mephistopheles, Gretchen and Faust, and Mephistopheles and Gretchen all appear as stable dichotomies initially, but are revealed during the course of the play as part of a dynamic dialectical process. Oergel recognizes that Faust I is the result of specifically German intellectual and social conditions, but stresses that the play can be understood as "the process of modernity becoming consciously defined as conditioned by historicity" (p. 275).
For Oergel, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and Faust I not only deal with the issues of modernity, they also fulfill the formal requirements proposed by Herder and Friedrich Schlegel for the new literature. Each fulfills Herder's concept of Volkspoesie by using relevant literary and cultural traditions to explore the contemporary situation. Schlegel's enthusiasm for Goethe's novel is based on his recognition of the similarities between the novel's structure and his theory of a progressive universal poetry. Similarly, Faust I fulfills the formal demands for a thoroughly modern poetry called for by Friedrich Schlegel. It "aims at transcending the national within a modern context, which is in line with contemporary post-national definitions of Germanness" (p. 279).
Oergel concludes that the preoccupation with historicity in German thought around 1800 caused the concepts of German identity, modernity, and historicity to become inseparably linked (p. 281). The crisis of the Enlightenment is a recognition not only that reason cannot be grounded adequately in metaphysics but also that the relation between theory and history--or ideal and time--needed to be reconfigured in order to accommodate ideals to historical change. The figures explored in this book defined historical change as a transformative dialectical process that unfolds in stages over time. These thinkers viewed the process of self-conscious reflexivity not only as the source of alienation but also as the means to overcoming it. The literature that is part of this process will be particularly German and yet universal at the same time. It strives to establish a Kulturnation that will precede politics as well as supersede the political conception of the nation-state to create a human community that acknowledges and absorbs the particularities of each group within it. Modern German identity included a universality represented by German culture's openness to and its ability to absorb other national traditions. This attitude resulted in a national identity that is post-national.
Oergel has a good grasp of the issues and her notes reveal an extensive knowledge of the relevant secondary literature. However, the work is not without its weaknesses. The readings of Herder, Schiller, and Schlegel, while well done, reveal little new information. Oergel recognizes this problem and argues that "[f]ocusing on historicity when going over their ideas and concepts, however, illuminates the fundamental spring-board-like importance of Herder's work for the later two" (p. 90) and makes it possible to see differences between them as "tendencies within the context of a wider, yet dominant intellectual framework" (p. 90). Establishing new connections on well-trodden territory can be difficult, but for me delineating the arguments in each text and drawing out the similarities and differences of these well-known texts does not--in the context of her argument--require the more than seventy pages devoted to it. The same can be said about her presentation of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. On the other hand, I found Oergel's reading of Lehrejahre quite convincing, and her interpretation of Faust I is interesting and works well within the context of the argument.
As for the larger goals, Oergel presents convincingly the idea that the awareness of historicity significantly influenced the German definition of modernity and German identity, as long as one adds the qualification that she is referring to the definitions of modernity and identity articulated by this set of significant thinkers. The reemergence of dialectical thought is a significant trait of this period and the application of this insight and its application to the concepts of modernity and German identity to Goethe's novel and play is illuminating. However, Oergel does not present an adequate case for the idea that the period from 1770 to 1815 forms a coherent phase intellectually whose "central objective is the accommodation of once universal values within a framework of temporality" (p. 3). To establish the divergence from the previous era more definitively Oergel could, for instance, have analyzed Lessing's evaluation of Shakespeare in the Hamburgische Dramaturgie(1767-69). I would like also to have seen a broader text base and suggestions as to how other traits or tendencies of this period can be understood through the lens of historical awareness. The book also offers no specific reason why the period ended in 1815. Finally, that the German identity posited by these thinkers is not nationalistic (in its common pejorative usage) is clear to me in some cases, and plausible in others, but I am not ready to accept Oergel's definition of it as post-national. Within this set of thinkers, one finds a range of thought. Despite these reservations, one should not overlook the strengths of this volume. The presentations in the early chapters are solid, articulate readings of the texts, and the interpretations of Faust I and especially Lehrjahre deserve attention.
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Robert S. Bledsoe. Review of Oergel, Maike, Culture and Identity: Historicity in German Literature and Thought, 1770-1815.
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