Rudolf Borchardt once referred to his life’s work as the cultivation of three adjacent fields: those of poetry, philology, and public speaking—a contiguous domain within which he allowed no confining boundaries or frivolous experimentation. He was a prodigiously talented scholar-poet, a poeta doctus in the classicist mold, and a polemical historian who had acquired the full compass of a traditional humanistic education. Yet his output as a writer, primarily of essays, monographs, and carefully crafted speeches, was neither prolific nor multifaceted. This is due at least in part to the fact that his work represents the eccentric position of an outsider. It purposely goes against the grain of contemporary debates or ideological controversies, and it is often freighted with the connoisseur’s exquisite erudition, with the learned arcana and suggestive allusions of the expert. Stylistically, this work is animated by an unwavering sense of self-assurance, often enough by an imperious rhetorical will that, for all its politeness, does not seek to persuade so much as to grip and overpower. While it may be easy to list the many experiences and issues of his time which Borchardt haughtily refused to admit even to the periphery of his interests, it is difficult to delineate his work through a survey of its central themes.
There is recognizable, however, a pervasive tendency, sustained over many years, if not decades, to return to a small number of all-important concerns. These are then discussed from shifting vantage points and with added perspectives. This intellectual process brings forth a series of ever-expanding (and occasionally contradictory) refractions and variations. In the end it leads to the conviction that a profound and elusive problem has at last yielded its innermost truth.
Borchardt’s concentration, over a lifetime, on a few fundamental verities and their inevitable consequences is rooted in the one premise and overriding experience that defined the impulse behind his entire oeuvre. He was sure to have recognized even as a student that the recently triumphant Germany (both the imperial state Bismarck had created and the ideas of its most vociferous critic, Nietzsche) was about to inaugurate an era of enormous barbarities. To this insight he reacted with the hauteur of the insulted aristocrat and with the sensibilities of an aesthete. The feeling that he and his nation had suffered a profound loss, his sense of chaotic ruptures with their destruction of traditions and of historically vindicated values, elicited a response of inexorable condemnation as well as an alternative program of cultural restitution. Borchardt disdained, maligned, overlooked, or misunderstood nearly every separate aspect of modern life as well as the complex interplay of its constituent forces.
But he did search for causes, and came to hold the country’s rapidly expansive transformation from a richly diverse Volk into an industrial mass society responsible for most of its ills. He attributed the triviality of its artistic pursuits to a materialistic faith in instrumental reason—to a simplistic trust in scientific progress, in laissez-faire capitalism, in military recklessness. He despised socialism for the fervor with which it tried to destroy conventions and hierarchies; and he saw nothing but propagandistic mendacity lurking behind every emancipatory effort. This deep disorientation in the face of technological modernity traumatized many cultured individualists of the generation that had grown to adulthood around 1900. Their escape was usually the affectation of an amoral dandyism and of a dignified conservatism.
Borchardt, however, offered a more radical and thus even less pragmatic solution. He was unable to find anything worth preserving from the past hundred years, and he therefore scorned all of the proliferating programs of reform or revival as nostalgic. He considered their purposes ineffectual and a harmful illusion in an age that has replaced the guiding relevance of ideas with the dictates of doctrines. Instead of a gradual assimilation of the new to the old (and vice versa), he advocated a “creative restoration” (1927). He took his cue for this project from the work of classical philologists and archaeologists, who reassemble the surviving fragments of ancient cultures with an insightful logic that, he thought, is akin to the imaginative order of poetry. Yet he was less interested in ascertaining “what actually was” than in reclaiming “what under more propitious circumstances could have been.” Thus he searched for possibilities of historical development that had been suppressed or not fully realized and then lost to posterity. And he looked to discover their continued presence in history as future potential, as a palimpsest beneath the surface of victorious reality.
It was the era of Romanticism, with its universalist and also with its specifically German university culture, from which—as from the last unified European epoch— Borchardt drew his strongest inspiration, and from which the “restitution in integrum of the ideal German people as a whole” would have to originate. This process he saw as a revitalization (“Rückbelebung”), if not a re-experiencing (“Rückerlebnis”) that may have to retrace its historical studies and stages all the way back to “the day of creation and the life-giving spirit from God’s mouth.” The complementary alternative—with its “determined will to renounce our time instead of flattering it with iniquitous optimism”— demands that “we reverse ourselves and go into the underworld like Hercules in order to bring back the dead, or, like Theseus, the friend,” as Borchardt wrote in 1917 in “Die geistesgeschichtliche Bedeutung des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts” (The significance of the 19th century in terms of the history of ideas). Such a reawakening of cultural vitality through a return to its sacred sources or as a descent into the realm of heroic death reveals the extremist logic of a religious fundamentalism that has erased all societal compromises in favor of metahistorical absolutes.
Even before 1900, Borchardt’s poetic defiance of his age had found exemplary support in the verse and personality of Stefan George, who was unwilling, however, to admit so ambitious a rival into his inner circle. His admiring suitor then attached himself to the more tractable Hugo von Hofmannsthal and began to castigate George’s aesthetic politics, ultimately equating it with the work of the Antichrist, who had prepared Germany for submission to Hitler. But when the Viennese poet began to develop his own ideas about a conservative revolution (1927 and earlier), Borchardt drew back again, this time from what he considered an anachronistic concept. Yet the 15 essays he wrote about Hofmannsthal reflect his most consistent critical preoccupation with one author, more specifically with his corpus of “classicist” works. For these he could treat as if they were emanations of his own personality, and therefore he discussed them as their creator’s narcissistic Doppelgänger.
Borchardt’s readers (and audience) were mostly members of the prosperous, educated, conservative bourgeoisie, including both notables and the young academic elite. The preferred venue for his public addresses were the auditoriums of traditional (“prestigious”) universities or similar halls in old merchant cities. When he published his articles in cultural journals and in a few select newspapers he made few concessions to the modus operandi of the medium. He neither popularized his ideas nor softened his often abstract diction, which still makes it difficult to pin him down on specific points.
Consequently, the captivating momentum of his political rhetoric, for example, did not derive from a stringent analysis of empirical data or from a critical engagement with provocative opinions. It is rather the elusive openness of his key terms (and in general of the vocabulary of cultural pessimism), and the suggestive tone of his forceful pleadings, that may explain his appeal, which was strongest during the 1920s.
As early as 1902 Borchardt had inherited a substantial private fortune, which allowed him to live with his family where he felt most at home, in the villas of Tuscany. After 1933, when he was prohibited from publishing in Germany because his mother had Jewish ancestors, he returned to historical and philological studies. He wrote, for example, an excellent monograph on Pisa (1938) and unfinished interpretations of Homer (1944), the latter largely from memory because he had no access to library resources.
Some 50 years later, little of his copious output—five volumes of collected nonfictional prose, a total of some 2500 pages—arouses more than historical interest. These days, respect for his stylish erudition is invariably coupled with an apologetic discomfiture, to put it mildly, over his Ideenpolitik, his vexatious politics of ideas.
Born 9 June 1877 in Königsberg. Grew up in Moscow, and Berlin, from 1882. Studied archaeology and classical languages at the Universities of Berlin, from 1895, Bonn, and Göttingen. Became friends with Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Traveled to Italy and England, and took special interest in the Pre-Raphaelite painters; lived in Lucca, from 1903.
Married Karoline Ehrmann (divorced, 1919). Served in the German army, 1914–18.
Married Marie Luise Voigt, 1919: four children. Lived in Lucca, 1921–44; arrested by the Gestapo, 1944, then released; took refuge at Trins am Brenner.
Died in Trins am Brenner, 10 January 1945.
Essays and Related Prose
Rede über Hofmannsthal, 1905
Der Krieg und die deutsche Selbsteinkehr, 1915
Rede am Grabe Eberhard von Bodenhausens, 1918
Prosa 1, 1920
Über den Dichter und das Dichterische, 1924
Handlungen und Abhandlungen, 1928
Die Aufgaben der Zeit gegenüber der Literatur, 1929
Villa, und andere Prosa: Essays, 1952
Other writings: poetry, plays, a novel, and correspondence, especially with Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Also translated works by various English poets, and Dante; edited anthologies of German authors.
Collected works edition: Gesammelte Werke in Einzelbänden, edited by Marie Luise Borchardt, 14 vols., 1955–85.
Beerbohm, A.W., Rudolf Borchardt: A Biographical and Bibliographical Guide, New
York: New York University, 1952
Rizzi, Silvio, Rudolf Borchardt als Theoretiker des Dichterischen, Dornbirn: Mayer, 1958:109–15
Barstad, Noel Kraig, Rudolf Borchardt’s Critical Assessment of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (dissertation), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1973
Beerbohm, A.W., Rudolf Borchardt: A Biographical and Bibliographical Guide, New York: New York University, 1952
Caffrey, George, “Rudolf Borchardt,” New Criterion 5, no. 1 (1927):81–87
Glaser, Horst Albert, editor, Rudolf Borchardt 1877–1945: Referate des Pisaner Colloquiums, Frankfurt-on-Main and New York: Lang, 1987
Sommer, Inge, “Das ‘klassische Land’ in Rudolf Borchardts Essay Villa,” Arcadia 1 (1966):83–96
Tgahrt, Reinhard, and others, editors, Rudolf Borchardt, Alfred Walter Heymel, Rudolf Alexander Schröder: Eine Ausstellung des Deutschen Literaturarchivs im Schiller- Nationalmuseum, Marbach am Neckar, Munich: Kösel, 1978
Vordtriede, Werner, “Rudolf Borchardt und die europäische Tradition,” Jahrbuch der Deutschen Schillergesellschaft 22 (1978): 728–41
Wagner, Fred, “Restitutio in integrum: Rudolf Borchardt and the Middie Ages,” Mosaic 10 (1976):165–82
Wagner, Fred, Rudolf Borchardt and the Middle Ages: Translation, Anthology and Nationalism, Frankfurt-on-Main: Lang, 1981
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