Richard E. Schade, Dieter Sevin, eds. Practicing Progress: The Promise and Limitations of Enlightenment. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. 234 pp. $62.00 (paper), ISBN 978-90-420-2146-4.
Reviewed by Horst Lange (Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Nevada-Reno)
Published on H-German (March, 2008)
From Spalding to Beyse: Probing the Promise and Limitations of Enlightenment
The contributions of many a festschrift are held together by little more than the relation of the contributors to the person honored. It is therefore welcome that this volume, the festschrift for John McCarthy, a noted scholar of the German Enlightenment, is genuinely concerned with thematic coherence. Rather than submitting a work of their own choosing, the contributors were asked to investigate progress as a key concept that defines the Enlightenment as a period as well as enlightenment as a process. Where and how has progress been achieved? Where has it led, in a dialectics of enlightenment, to negative consequences? And where and how has it reached its limits? Since most of the contributions tackle the assignment straight on and deal not with marginalia, but with important texts and topics, the book is worth attention from scholars.
Only two essays do not contribute to the anthology's theme. Thomas P. Saine's "Von London und Hannover verlassen" takes its cue from the plight of eighteenth-century German settlers in North America who, barely literate and living in considerable isolation, saw their Protestant faith slipping away and petitioned the British king as well as church authorities in Germany to donate written materials and send ordained ministers. We learn about the attempts of various church authorities in Germany to remedy the situation, as well as the fate of different German pastors who road to the rescue. While this article constitutes a surprisingly good read and deepens our understanding of Protestant church history in the Age of Enlightenment, it is not a reflection on the Enlightenment itself: neither the poor farmers nor the church authorities can be considered to be Enlightenment players. Herbert Rowland reports on fifteen American reviews of Ellen Frothingham's translations of Lessing's Nathan (1868) and Laocoon (1874). With respect to Nathan, he finds that reviewers found the text "relevant in one way or another to their own experience" (p. 163) and their responses varied according to their religious predilections (Transcendentalist, Congregationalist, Unitarian, and so on). Interestingly, several reviewers saw Lessing in essence as a contemporary; in other words, they did not historicize him as a member of some past era called "The Enlightenment." Unfortunately, the positivism of Rowland's approach never gives way to a reflection on the promise or the limitations of Lessing's Enlightenment and/or its reception in the United States.
The other articles, however, are on message. It is certainly no exaggeration to say that one of the most influential texts of the German Enlightenment, Johann Joachim Spalding's Die Bestimmung des Menschen (1748), is rarely, if ever read in North American graduate programs. By applying the concept of progress and perfectibility to the individual's trajectory through life and employing a form of Christianity that is neither orthodox nor based on biblical authority, Spalding makes Enlightenment thought palatable to Christians and Christianity palatable to Enlightenment thinkers. In his "Bestimmung(en) des Menschen: Zu einem Zentralthema des Aufklärungsdiskurses und einigen seiner Facetten im Umkreis Lessings," Wolfgang Albrecht sketches both Spalding's accomplishment and the fate of his concept of "Bestimmung" after it was taken up by other thinkers. It is interesting to see how this term acquired both liberating and limiting potentials, the latter most noticeably in Campe's "Bestimmung des Weibes" (1789), which serves to reinvigorate traditional gender roles. This essay can be recommended to anyone looking for an introduction to this important aspect of the German Enlightenment.
The gender theme is picked up by Susanne Kord ("From Evil Eye to Poetic Eye: Witch Beliefs and Physiognomy in the Age of Enlightenment"), who focuses on the Enlightenment project's difficulties in putting its agenda put into practice by looking at the survival of witch beliefs in the eighteenth century. She distinguishes between two types of beliefs. Literal belief in witches even by powerful institutions survived almost to the end of the eighteenth century, as the continued occurrence of witch trials testifies. The second type of witch belief Kord claims to detect is a form of "sublimation" in which the appearance of an accomplished woman is used, particularly by physiognomic thought, to cast aspersions on her. As an example she uses the "peasant poetess" Anna Louisa Karsch, who, besides being what Jane Austen would have called "plain," seems to have had the tic of staring intently at people and thereby making them uncomfortable. When people like Johann Kaspar Lavater, her daughter, and her granddaughter zeroed in on this feature and, in the case of Lavater, connected it to her poetic talent, Kord takes this notice to be a disguised version of accusing a witch of using the evil eye. It should be noted, however, that not only did Lavater praise Karsch's poetic talents highly and think of her appearance as a small price to pay for her poetic gifts, but also that Karsch was highly esteemed by people like Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Georg Sulzer, Moses Mendelssohn, Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and that none of them seem to have located her talent in an evil aspect of her character.
Several essays focus directly on the ambivalence of the Enlightenment project. Laurie Johnson ("Enlightenment According to Don Alfonso: Perilous Progress in Mozart's Così fan tutte") sees in W. A. Mozart's possibly most interesting opera a statement that progress and freedom are not necessarily synonyms and as a commentary on how the Enlightenment, having reached a certain endpoint here, has to think itself further. I must confess that I did not always find the argument sufficiently transparent, not the least because the opera's plot largely revolves around a profound experience of sudden disillusionment, which is something very different from the ongoing and comprehensive process of criticizing institutions, attaining knowledge, overturning paradigms, and changing society that we associate with the term "enlightenment."
The book then turns to the reception of the Enlightenment in important thinkers of the German tradition. Robert C. Holub looks at Friedrich Nietzsche, who appropriated the Enlightenment's impulse of radical critique, but wound up undermining most of its beliefs. With the help of a shocking list of Nietzsche's statements in support of eugenics and other related interventions into the biological makeup of humanity, Holub shows that the Enlightenment concept of perfectibility could quickly acquire a very dark dimension. Liliane Weissberg ("Humanity and Its Limits: Hannah Arendt Reads Lessing") shows how the experience of the Third Reich fundamentally altered Arendt's attitude toward Lessing. In the 1930s she took her cue from Herder's insistence on the irreducibility of cultural difference and found Lessing's position toward the emancipation of the Jews unsatisfactory, since strictly speaking he could only emancipate them as human beings, but not as Jews. Upon being awarded the Lessing Prize in 1959, she began to see Lessing as living in a dark period of crisis, not unlike the one she had to live through, and she commends him for his full engagement in the issues and politics of the day. His courageous involvement with the world could, she hoped, serve as an antidote to the general amnesia that had gripped postwar West Germany.
Later essays consider the fate of the Enlightenment in German literature. Frank Trommler ("The Use Value of Brecht's Enlightenment: Revisiting the 1960s in Germany") offers an interesting reception history of Brecht before, during, and after the student revolution of 1968. He subtly distinguishes between different discourses about Brecht at that time, showing clearly that how what we might consider the enlightenment or humanist dimension of Brecht's work fared in the ideologically charged atmosphere of these heady days. Insofar as he locates Brecht's accomplishment in an attitude of criticism, he can point to his importance for the project of the generation of '68 to develop their its own critical attitude. Horst S. Daemmrich ("Advancing Enlightenment Toward Ultimate Victory: A Recent View of Friedrich Nicolai") discusses Jochen Beyse's novel, Der Aufklärungsmacher (1985), which presents a fictional account of Nicolai's 1781 journey through Germany in the company of his son Moritz. While Nicolai is portrayed as committed to the mainstream Enlightenment and opposed to the new aesthetics of genius, his son, a secret admirer of J.M.R. Lenz, suffers during his father's harangues. I confess to finding Daemmrich's reading somewhat confusing. In virtually all passages discussed, Nicolai is presented as a pompous fool championing the tyranny of reason (he even uses the term "Endsieg"!) and crushing his son in the process. But Daemmrich does not read the novel as a one-sided polemic against Enlightenment's orthodoxy, but rather describes, without elaborating, a fusion of "two irreconcilable spheres that enhance each other" (p. 226).
Three essays appear particularly noteworthy. Carl Niekerk ("Casanova's Radical Enlightenment") describes in several perceptive readings how the interplay between mainstream and radical Enlightenment "confronted Enlightenment with its own inconsistencies" (p. 80). Whereas Enlightenment's promise of an ever-increasing equality should better the position of women, the pornographic radical Enlightenment, Niekerk shows, started out with a concern for the sexual emancipation of women in novels such as Thérèse philosophe (1748), but resulted, in the work of the Marquis de Sade, with their complete objectification. An anecdote from Casanova's life, the attempted seduction of a very young woman in the Netherlands, is taken as an illustration of how a woman, by refusing Casanova's advances without being opposed to sexual relations in principle, could unmask Casanova's objectifying agenda and "keep the promise [of Enlightenment] alive" (p. 92). Richard T. Gray, in a suggestive, informative essay ("Economic Value-Theory and Literary Culture in Late-Eighteenth Century Germany: The Debate over Physiocracy"), uses the type of discourse analysis developed by Michel Foucault in his Order of Things (1966) to find interesting homologies in the development of economic and aesthetic thought from the first half of the eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century. Although physiocratic thought saw only agricultural products as adding real value to an economy, so that in the final analysis only the biological productivity of nature produces wealth, their critics pointed to products derived from human imagination, objects physiocrats considered frivolous luxuries, as capable of fueling an infinitely expanding economy. Similarly, the aesthetics of mimesis saw only the products of nature as worthy objects of art, while Romantic aesthetics championed the infinite products of imagination as alone offering true artistic value. And just as the economy of ever-proliferating products came under criticism in Karl Marx's concept of commodity fetishism, so an aesthetics of the overflowing imagination became the object of criticism in, for example, Eduard Mörike's Maler Nolten (1832). Finally, Simon Richter's ambitious and challenging argument ("The Errors of Our Ways: The Relation of Literature to Culture") takes the concerns of Goethe's Faust as a guidepost for understanding our recent theoretical turn from poststructuralism to cultural studies. Richter weaves three strands of thought together. First, Eve's acquiescence to the serpent is not only seen as a prototype of Faust's wager (accepting the devil's promise of knowledge while risking death), but, as in Goethe's play, her deed is seen as the error at the basis of every development of knowledge, just as figuration, the erring from literal meaning, is fundamental for every development of language and literature. Next, the two meanings of the German verb, "irren" ("to make a mistake" and "to wander aimlessly"), are used to investigate the structure of Faust; the generic peculiarity of the drama, which constantly strays from a single literary genre into genre experimentation, is taken to be a form of erring on the formal level of the play, paralleling, so to speak, Faust's own errors and erring. And in a third strand, Richter takes our desire for the investigation of the self-referential quality of literature (as exemplified by poststructuralism and represented in the drama by its literariness) and our competing desire to make contact with reality (as visible in cultural studies, particularly as seen by Stephen Greenblatt, and represented by Goethe's excessive digressions into his cultural environment) to be just another version of Faust's two struggling souls. His final exhortation to us is simple: since error is always at the basis of our critical endeavor, and since, like Faust, we err as long as we are striving, we should simply relax.
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Horst Lange. Review of Schade, Richard E.; Sevin, Dieter, eds., Practicing Progress: The Promise and Limitations of Enlightenment.
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