Thomas Karlauf. Stefan George: Die Entdeckung des Charisma. Munich: Karl Blessing Verlag, 2007. 816 pp. EUR 22.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-89667-151-6.
Reviewed by Eliah Bures (Department of History, University of California at Berkeley)
Published on H-German (May, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
The Unmasking of Charisma
Shortly after the First World War, Karl Löwith, a philosophically inclined ex-soldier who would soon become one of Martin Heidegger's most promising pupils, encountered another veteran, Percy Gothein, whose star was similarly on the rise within the "circle" assembled around poet and translator Stefan George. In this "first friendship after the war," Löwith recounted two decades later, "I experienced for the first time ... the formative power that radiated from Stefan George ... and left its imprint so decisively on many young people of my generation." While Löwith cautioned against underestimating "the role that the circle around George played as an intellectual precursor of National Socialist ideology," he had also clearly felt its intoxicating effects: "[W]e talked all night long until daybreak, awash with the music of friendship. We were never able to abandon ourselves totally to this feeling of friendship, though, as dark forces of resistance forbade an accord. My critical rationality also fought against his [Gothein's] psalm-like recitation of George's poems." Löwith's assessment captures much of what is so fascinating and problematic about George and his circle, the values they embodied, and the community they embraced. It also reflects well the spirit behind Thomas Karlauf's biography of the poet. Karlauf, like Löwith, once moved in the outer orbit of George's world.
Introduced at the age of fifteen into that "Amsterdamer Freundeskreis ... der sich über Percy Gothein direkt auf Stefan George zurückführte," and for a decade a member of the editorial staff of the George-inspired journal, Castrum Peregrini, the author, as he candidly notes, once partook of the "leidenschaftlichem Ernst" with which George's legacy was administered (p. 769). Yet Karlauf has produced no hagiography. Like Löwith, whose "critical rationality" precluded a full absorption into George's world, Karlauf approaches Stefan George with the sobriety inimical to myth-making. The result of this dual perspective--that of the outsider and the erstwhile initiate at once--is the kind of sympathetic understanding which is the historian's stock-in-trade. Karlauf struggles to get inside the skulls of George and his circle, to understand their motivation without at the same time falling exclusively into the terms of his subjects' own self-understanding. His biography operates neither as a polemic nor a vindication, but as a critical unmasking of the George myth and the historical conditions of its birth and appeal. Karlauf's principal framework for this undertaking is the concept of charisma, the analytical contours of which are drawn, not surprisingly, from Max Weber's understanding of "charismatic authority." Indeed, as Karlauf notes, it was "kein Zufall" that Weber first used the term, in 1910, the year of his first meeting with George, in connection with the circle (p. 412). "Das Webersche Modell," he argues, "ist das einzige, das sämtliche Aspekte des Georgeschen Lebens abdeckt, und zwar sowohl nach innen, was die Selbstwahrnehmung des Dichters, die Strukturen der von ihm geschaffenen Gemeinschaft und deren Verhaltenskodex betrifft, als auch hinsichtlich der nicht unproblematischen Außenwirkung" (p. 769). This stress on the need to pay equal attention to the "Innen- und Außensicht, den historischen Abstand wahren und dennoch die Faszination von einst, das dämonische Wechselspiel von Verführung und Gewalt, nachvollziehbar zu machen" is key to Karlauf's presentation of the poet (p. 770). It is also central to what he sees as the shortcomings of much of the existing literature on George, which has too often fallen into the trap of taking at face value George's rhetorical self-presentation: "Es gibt im Leben Stefan Georges so gut wie nichts, was nicht von vornherein Inszenierung gewesen wäre oder nachträglich für die Inszenierung verwertet wurde" (p. 772). The terms of this relentless Selbstinszenierung are well-known: Stefan George as icon, the embodiment of aristocratic values of timeless significance in an age of mass tastes and democratic leveling; Stefan George as prophet, the herald of a spiritual and cultural rebirth, a "Neues Reich," animated by the spirit of ancient Greece; and Stefan George as savior, the "master" around whom gathered an elite coterie of disciples representing the true but "secret Germany."
Karlauf, by his own estimation, has produced a "life and times" on the Anglo-Saxon model, one that neither naively celebrates the truth of George's own self-image nor simply castigates its ideological content and political influence. Rather, he aims to follow "Georges eigener Wahrnehmung," mapping its development in the context of his age and reconstructing much of the private sphere which George labored to hide from view (p. 772). The effect is that of a behind-the-scenes tour of the rehearsals, set design, and promotional work that created the stage on which George's life played out. Noting this is not to accuse George of cynicism: "Bei aller Eitelkeit, die George zweifellos in hohem Masse zu eigen war, findet sich erstaunlich wenig Schauspielerei. Die konsequente Inszenierung des Dichters als Führer legt vielmehr den Schluss nahe, dass George sich tatsächlich so gesehen hat, wie er gesehen werden wollte" (p. 256). Those interested in the anti-rationalist intellectual currents and avant-garde subcultures of the period (roughly 1890-1930) should find much of value here. Karlauf traces the arc of George's early development, from the Rhineland of his birth to the Paris of Stéphane Mallarmé and the Vienna of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, through the Berlin salons of the fin de siècle and his brief association with the "Munich cosmologists" around Alfred Schuler and Ludwig Klages, all with an eye to questions of originality and influence. The process of discovery involved in the metamorphosis of George's early aesthetic rebellion against realism into a far more ambitious cultural project with distinct political overtones is clear from the second (and to my mind most illuminating) of the three divisions that comprise Karlauf's account. It is here ("Die Sendung, 1899-1914") that the final ingredients of George's worldview were added, including the poet's crucial interpretation of Plato's "pädagogische Eros" (the glue cementing the master-disciple relationship and a quasi-spiritual rendering of homoeroticism as "übergeschlechtliche Liebe"), as well as George's brief relationship with the young Maximilian Kronberger, an aspiring poet whose death shortly after his sixteenth birthday freed him to be transformed into a semi-divinity and symbol of the miracles possible in discipleship. The deification of the young Maximilian through the subsequent "Maximin-Mythos" sheds considerable light on the nature of George's relationships and the deficits of the sociability peculiar to the Freundeskreis.
Indeed, this biography is littered with broken and discarded friendships. To be initiated into the circle presupposed a shared vision, just as remaining within it required subordination to George's unquestioned role as Führer: "Von Menschen, die ihm jahrelang nahestanden, konnte er sich über Nacht trennen, als hätten sie ihm nie etwas bedeutet" (p. 143). Withdrawing from the circle was not uncommon. As the talented literary historian and one-time favorite Max Kommerell noted in 1928, membership "beruhte auf einer so vollständigen Aufgabe des persönlichen Selbstgefühles, wie ich sie höchstens für einen Jüngling, niemals für einen Mann angemessen und erträglich finden kann" (p. 588). Friendship with George also often meant a focus on one's ability to represent or embody das Dichterische, at the cost of a lasting interest in the unique personality. As Karlauf notes in relation to Maximilian Kronberger: "Die Faktizität der Beziehung rückte dabei umso mehr in den Hintergrund--auch in George's eigener Wahrnehmung--je stärker der Tod des frühvollendeten gemeinschaftsbildende Wirkung entfaltete. Die Welt sollte Maximin so sehen, wie er, der Dichter, ihn sah, eine andere Wirklichkeit als die der Dichtung konnte es nicht geben" (p. 350). And then there were those who refused entirely to be annexed to the poet's designs. Karlauf's opening scene, which recounts George's brief, intense, and ultimately failed courtship of Hugo von Hofmannstahl, a poet of sufficient originality to resist playing second fiddle, is well chosen as an illustration of both the allure and repulsion of charisma.
Such evidence suggests that George's use of charisma can easily be read as a one-way relationship of command and obedience, an interpretation that Karlauf takes pains to complicate. To do so, he puts Weber's understanding of charismatic authority to work. For Weber, authority rests in some measure on the willingness, even desire, of those who are commanded to obey. Charismatic authority designates "eine soziale Beziehung, das heißt eine Beziehung auf Gegenseitigkeit, in der dem Anspruch des einen auf unbedingte Führerschaft der erklärte Wille des anderen zu bedingungsloser Gefolgschaft entspricht" (p. 468). What is more, it was not George who was served, it was his position, the ideal he embodied, a relationship that, Karlauf notes, cut both ways: "Daß er die Last der Verantwortung für andere mittrage und seinen Freunden Vorbild und Stütze sei, war schon früh wesentlicher Bestandteil der Georgeschen Selbstinszenierung" (p. 350). In all of this, Karlauf at least approaches the answer to questions that are often left unasked. How was it, after all, that George could draw such talented minds to his banner? (A short list would include writer Karl Wolfskehl, literary scholar Friedrich Gundolf, and historian Ernst Kantorowicz). And why did people so often describe meeting George as a life-changing event? Karlauf succeeds--in part through the sheer volume of his accounts of encounters with George--in conveying a sense of the poet's magnetism, the air of authenticity that surrounded him, his seeming possession of something original and uncorrupted. Those who concerned themselves with George, and the educated bourgeoisie most especially, "entdeckten bei ihm, was sie selber verloren zu haben glaubten" (p. 225). The contents of that discovery, however, were not always the same.
One of the pleasures of Karlauf's biography is his feel for the complexities of the relationships that bound the circle. Peter Gay's portrayal of it as "a tight, humorless, self-congratulatory coterie of young men" reflects more the image they cultivated than the actual inner workings of the group. Indeed, Karlauf is clear that the Kreis of popular lore never existed as it was imagined. His account is of a circle that was far from homogenous and never stable, with figures, both marginal and central, who drifted in and out as well as deep divides over the meaning of George's project and the proper preservation of his legacy. Tensions were exacerbated by the camarilla structure of the group: influence and status flowed from one's proximity to the "master," and horizontal relationships (such as contacts and correspondence between members themselves) were discouraged. Whether such background discord, punctuated by occasional painful ruptures, suggests limits to the "charismatic authority" at George's command is a question Karlauf largely neglects to pursue.
The problem of the role that the poet and his circle played in the rise of National Socialism has long haunted the George literature. While the realities of Nazi rule had little in common with George's rarified visions, the same cannot be said for all of his adherents. George died in Switzerland in 1933, but, as Peter Gay put it with characteristic flair, "most of the others survived him, some as Nazis, some as the victims of the Nazis, some in sullen silence, some in exile. Sorcerer's apprentices, they could not exorcise the spirits they had helped call up." The very separate fates that befell the circle's members suggest the ambiguity of the founder's legacy, though it is telling that none of those who perished did so in the name of parliamentary democracy. That it took more than ten years before a member of the circle dared an act of resistance--Claus Graf von Stauffenberg in the failed assassination attempt of July 20, 1944--is also telling, suggesting, for Karlauf, "wie schwer es für die meisten Freunde ... gewesen sein muss, Traum und Wirklichkeit, Wort und Tat auseinander zu halten" (p. 637).
Overall, Karlauf deals with the problem of George's place in the story of Nazism's rise with the nuance it deserves. As an earlier biography devoted to the question of George as Wegbereiter argued, the poet and his circle "contributed to the creation of a psychological, cultural, and even political climate that made the events in Germany leading up to and following 1933 not just imaginable, but also feasible." This is a judgment Karlauf seems prepared to join, though he is less willing to take George's own claims as evidence of influence. Karlauf argues that George's appeal in the 1920s was strongest among older-style conservatives and that he was viewed by many as a dated, prewar representative of modernism, not as the éminence grise of a dawning revolution. Yet Karlauf clearly recognizes that terms like Reich and Führer were labile enough to further many causes. Nor can George's lifelong disdain for Tagespolitik exonerate him: "Die polemische Distanzierung von allem Politischen gehörte ins Repertoire des rechten Irrationalismus und trug dazu bei, den Boden für die braune Saat zu bereiten" (p. 579). One could, of course, go further. Not merely George's ideas could be seen as proto-fascist, but his style of leadership too. As Ernst Niekisch, a political radical in his own right, remarked about Friedrich Hielscher, a national-revolutionary publicist unaffiliated with the George circle: "Er hatte einen Kreis von Menschen um sich gesammelt, in deren Mitte er wie ein Prophet thronte. Er achtete auf Distanz und trug dazu bei, dass ihn der Dunst des Geheimnisses einhüllte.... Das Vorbild Stefan Georges war unverkennbar." But this is a biography, not a reception history. I doubt charitable readers will find much to object to in this respect.
Somewhat more serious is the question of whether a work that takes its subject's charisma as its organizing theme should devote more attention to an elaboration of that concept. And: is it really true that all aspects of George's life are properly dealt with in these terms? Max Weber warned against confusing such "ideal types" (of which "charismatic authority" is an example) with reality. Karlauf himself notes the inspiration George drew from the rich world of Catholic ritual and iconography, to say nothing of the poet's invocation of a cultural canon stretching from the Greeks to Dante Alighieri and William Shakespeare, a hallowed lineage of poetic achievement into which his own contribution was conspicuously inserted. Such facts suggest at least some admixture of "traditional authority" in the empirical phenomenon that was Stefan George. One might also expect a more sustained treatment of George's works, beyond their capacity to illuminate his life. Yet even here, I suspect Karlauf is on the right track, drawing attention from the literary and political trajectories into which his work might be plugged and back to the life itself. That the poet was more than his production was a central creed, and George is reported to have remarked that "wenn man von mir das Werk abzieht, bleibt Stefan George unbeschädigt." Thomas Karlauf has produced a biography of an often elusive figure, one that while perhaps not quite leaving all recent literary biographies in the dust (as its cover proclaims), is nonetheless engagingly written, convincingly argued, and thoroughly researched. It is a book that helps us understand the often bewildering fascination with the poet as prophet.
. Karl Löwith, My Life in Germany before and after 1933, trans. Elizabeth King (London: Athalone Press, 1994), 19-20.
. Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider and Insider (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), 47.
. Robert E. Norton, Secret Germany: Stefan George and his Circle (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), xvi. Karlauf cites approvingly a review critical of Norton for having fallen "in die Falle einer Inszenierung" (772).
. Ernst Niekisch, Erinnerungen eines deutschen Revolutionärs, Band I: Gewagtes Leben, 1889-1945 (Köln: Verlag Wissenschaft und Politik, 1974), 126-127.
. Paul Bishop, review of "Secret Germany: Stefan George and his Circle," Modern Language Review 99 (2004): 537.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Eliah Bures. Review of Karlauf, Thomas, Stefan George: Die Entdeckung des Charisma.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|