1. Status of Research
Scholars are not in agreement on when the art of the essay in German actually began.
Most argue that the genre—which generally runs in length anywhere from one page to about 50, although ideally it is easily read at one sitting—is relatively new and has a spotty tradition. Literary scholarship neglected the essay as a genre until the mid-20th century. The first edition of the Reallexikon der deutschen Literaturgeschichte (1925; Lexicon of German literary history) devoted a scant 40 lines to the essay. Despite efforts by Emil Dovifat in Berlin, who encouraged work on the genre and penned a brief entry on it for the Handbuch der Zeitungswissenschaft (1940; Handbook for the study of newspapers), and Max Bense’s seminal essay, “Über den Essay und seine Prosa” (1947; On the essay and its prose), scholarly interest in the essay did not intensify until after 1950.
When the second edition of the Reallexikon appeared in 1958, Fritz Martini replaced the original entry on the essay with a more substantial, first attempt at sketching its history. Important studies by Peter M.Schon, Klaus Günter Just, Bruno Berger, Dieter Bachmann, Ludwig Rohner, Gerhard Haas, and Heinrich Küntzel all appeared between 1954 and 1969. Furthermore, under the direction of Richard Samuel, the Jahrbuch für internationale Germanistik (Yearbook for international Germanics) sponsored a critical series on the German essay in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Nevertheless, in scholarly circles the essay continues to exist in the shadows of the canonical genres. This critical disinterest in the history and practice of essay writing in Germany seems to be singular within the national literatures. Even leading practitioners of the art during its classical era from Gotthold Ephraim Lessing to Wilhelm Dilthey did not use the designation “essay” for their essayistic writings or see themselves as essayists.
Most historical treatments of the genre date its origins from c. 1750 as the result of importations from France and England. However, some trace its beginnings to sermons, broadsides, and treatises dating from the time of Martin Luther (1483–1546). Regardless of where one stands on the issue, all agree that essayistic writing in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland is part and parcel of a European tradition with roots in Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) and Francis Bacon (1561–1626), but also in Nicholas Breton’s Characters upon Essays, Moral and Divine (1615), Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1653), Blaise Pascal’s Pensées (1670), Jean de La Bruyère’s Caractères (1688; Characters), and Pierre Bayle’s Pensées diverses (1683; Miscellaneous Reflections) and Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; An Historical and Critical Dictionary). Most also agree that the devastating effects of the Thirty Years’ War (1618– 48) and the religious dogmatism of the era greatly inhibited the development of the inquisitive literary form for most of the 17th century in the German territories. Religious conservatism in Catholic Austria delayed its practice and flowering there until the second half of the 18th century in the wake of the Enlightenment. After approximately 1750 there were so many border crossings regarding essay writing in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland that it is not very feasible to differentiate strictly among three traditions of the German essay. (The German Democratic Republic [1949–89] could be seen as a fourth.) Thus they will be considered as one tradition concerning the essay.
In general, the essay has experienced intermittent periods of flowering in the Germanspeaking countries. These periods coincide with significant paradigmatic shifts such as the onset of humanism and the Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries, the rise of Enlightenment ideals beginning around 1700, the radical rethinking of social intercourse in the wake of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, and the philosophic and scientific convulsions around 1900 prompted by Friedrich Nietzsche’s radical break with systemic philosophy, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical method, Max Planck’s theory of quantum physics, and Albert Einstein’s relativity theory. Sweeping reassessments after 1945 pursuant to the shattering of long-held traditions and values and the advent of the atomic age continued the sense of displacement. Particularly conducive to essay writing are thus those periods marked by shifts in epistemic attitudes, scientific breakthroughs, and a general sense of decline, captured in such works as Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1911; The Decline of the West)—which Thomas Mann, in reference to its essayistic nature, characterized as an “intellectual novel,” “a border crossing between science and art.”
The specific function of the essay mode is to insure continuing, independent debate on the value of cultural and intellectual heritage. It forces us to come to terms with a given, contemporary situation by placing it in a broader context. It seeks to articulate conceptual transformations by marking out essential tensions as well as past influences on current forces of change, and to project possible trajectories into the future. The essay is a refined means of coming to terms intellectually with the conflict inherent in the alternation between expansion and contraction. That is why the essay flourishes in times of crisis and change.
The most striking leitmotif in the history of the essay is Montaigne’s famous inscription “Que sçais-je?,” which has been variously interpreted by emphasizing each word independently: “What [can] I know?,” “What do I know?,” and “What do I know?”
The playful ambiguity is entirely appropriate for the literary form whose Spielcharakter is often cited as a distinguishing trait. It might explain why a telltale sign of the essay is its sparkle and magic at the intersection of science and poetry, and clarify why essayism is frequently identified with the dialectics of the Enlightenment. That dialectic is further marked by what one critic has called the “principle of holistic rhythm” (Klaus Weissenberger, 1985): it is a constituent part of the essay’s tendency to involve the reader in an interactive process of reading in the search for shared truth. The designation “essayism” in the German tradition refers to this dialectic and does not necessarily connote flaccid journalism as some have argued (Gerhard Haas, 1969).
The following survey traces the main contours of the genre within the productive tensions between scientific precision and free-spirited association. Of course, the term essay was not always applied consistently, so that other designations for the mode of writing gathered under the rubric of the “essay” must be borne in mind, especially prior to the second half of the 19th century. The actual term, “essay,” did not enter common usage until Herman Grimm introduced it in 1859. To be sure, the term was cited in titles and texts from 1750, but remained indistinct as a concept and genre until Friedrich Schlegel began to muse upon it around 1800. Before Grimm succeeded in promulgating the loan word in the 19th century, essay writing appeared most commonly under the guise of the Abhandlung (treatise), Bemühung (endeavor), Brief (letter), Denkwürdigkeiten (memoirs), Einfälle (inspirations), Fragment, Gespräch (conversation), Gedanken (thoughts), Meinungen (opinions), Predigt (sermon), Probe (sample), Rede (oration), Versuch (attempt), Vorrede (preface), Vortrag (lecture), and Wäldchen (literally copse of trees=fragment). In contrast to the early English and French traditions which emanated from the coffeehouse, the salon, and the art of private conversation, the early German tradition of the essay emanated from the halls of academe, the pulpit, and the scholar’s study.
2. The 16th and 17th Centuries: From Humanism to Baroque
Humanists, Reformists, and Counter-Reformists alike from Johannes von Saaz (i.e. Tepl, c. 1350–c. 1411), Johannes Reuchlin (1455–1522), Martin Luther (1483–1546), Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), Ulrich von Hutten (1488–1523), Hans Sachs (1494–1576), and Thomas Murner (c. 1475–1537) created distant cousins of later essays with their epistles, dialogues, broadsides, and political pamphlets. Examples of these writings are the dialogic Ackermann aus Böhmen (c. 1400; The plowman of Bohemia), Reuchlin’s satiric and witty Epistolae obscurorum virorum (1515; Letters of Obscure Men; penned together with Crotus Rubeanus and von Hutten), von Hutten’s politically charged dialogues, Gesprächbüchlein (1521; Little book of conversations), and Sachs’ propagandistic set of disputations, Dialoge (1524; Dialogues). While not essays in the narrower sense, they deserve mention here because of their success in spreading the art of ancient and medieval rhetoric to increasingly nonacademic audiences, encouraging them to weigh new possibilities in times of change.
Luther’s popular Tischreden (table talks), sermons, letters, and pamphlets come closer to the essayistic mode with their personal appeals to the reader, engaging tone, and middle style (i.e. neither overly erudite nor crassly popular). Taken together they constitute “fragments of a major confession”(as Goethe described his own literary oeuvre) but are simultaneously commentaries on his age. The goal of his German writings (and translation of the Bible into contemporary German) was to establish his mother tongue as an equal alongside Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Of special note are his call to the German nobility to break with Rome, “An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation” (1520; An epistle to the Christian nobility of the German nation), his discourse on the nature of free will, “Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen” (1520; On the freedom of Christians), and his thoughts on the art of translation, “Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen” (1530; Epistle on translation). While polemicizing is foreign to the essay mode, Luther’s masterful use of the vernacular had a lasting impact on all subsequent writers. For that reason alone he deserves a place in the history of the essay.
Topics such as fashion, friendship, marriage, the education of children, the relationship between faith and reason, practical philosophy, and social responsibilities, so favored by humanists and church reformers alike, were also often treated by later clerics and academics in pamphlets and sermons. Here one thinks of Georg Philipp Harsdörffer’s (1607–58) conversation lexicon for women, Frauenzimmer-Gesprächspiele (1641–49;
Garrulous games for women), the immensely popular albeit repetitive satires of Abraham a Sancta Clara (1644–1709) such as Judas, der Ertz-Schelm (1686–95; Judas, chief rogue), the cultural critiques of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and the university lectures of Christian Thomasius.
While it must be borne in mind that the particular aesthetic of the essay cannot be derived merely from the criteria of earlier prose forms, we should be careful not to underestimate the influence of the practiced orator from Luther to Gellert on the making of the genre. Nor need we denigrate the genre because it is not pure-bred, as is the wont in German scholarship. To be sure, it can be descriptive like the narrative, intense like the drama, and magical like the lyric poem, but the essay nonetheless has its own special aesthetic derived from the “narrative” stance of the author. The key traits are conciseness of form, personal tone, active reader involvement, a dramatic inner movement, and richly nuanced perspectives. Above all, the literary essay exists on the frontier between poetry and prose (Bense, 1947) and occupies a small, significant space between pure literature and strict science (K.G. Just, 1954). It is the marketplace of intellectual exchange, cloaked in pathos and rhetoric, but also embellished with playful irony. Georg Lukács revives Friedrich Schlegel’s term “intellektuelles Gedicht” (intellectual poem) to describe its ambivalent nature. Yet the varying types of bond between author and reader result in different kinds of essays which can be more or less conceptual, more or less culturally critical, biographical, literary, graphic, or ironic (John A.McCarthy, 1989).
These characteristics are evident, at least in part, in essay writing in the late 17th century. Examples are Christian Thomasius’ (1655–1728) book reviews on the art of the novel in his journal, Monats-Gespräche (1687–88; Monthly conversations), his inaugural lecture at the University of Leipzig on the proper imitation of the French, “Discours Welcher Gestalt man denen Frantzosen in gemeinem Leben und Wandel nachahmen solle?” (1687; Discourse on the manner for imitating the French in everyday life), and his lectures on practical philosophy, “Kurtzer Entwurff der politischen Klugheit” (1710; A brief sketch of political wisdom). Each represents a step toward involving ever broader segments of the educated public in matters of practical philosophy. They have earned Thomasius acclaim as the inaugurator of the Enlightenment and of a new, enlightened reading public in the first half of the 18th century. Those efforts came to full fruition with his successors at the University of Leipzig, Christian Wolff (1679–1754), Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700–66), and Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (1715–69), but are also readily evident in the journalistic writing of Christian Garve (1742–98) and Johann Jakob Engel (1741–1802).
The length, moderate tone, and gallant style of Thomasius’ 1687 lecture on the proper cultural imitation of the French clearly mark it as being in the camp of the chatty Montaigne rather than that of the sober and pithy Bacon. Its topic—the art of living—is a distinctive feature of the essay regardless of the tone adopted. With a surprisingly light, lively, and ironic touch, Thomasius addresses important cultural questions of the day by detailing the areas of life affected by the mania of imitating anything French: fashion, cuisine, household goods, language, customs, even sodomy and syphilis. The shift in focus from the usual cultural phenomena to questions of morality and personal health is brilliant in its surprise effect on the audience. The importance of rhetorical strategies is everywhere manifest. Thomasius makes liberal use of rhetorical questions, personal appeals, graphic language, allusions to historical events, evocation of authority figures, metaphors, similes, tropes, prolepses, and litotes, thus establishing a pattern for all later essayists.
In arguing for equal opportunities for women in higher education, he uses the metaphor of the writing tablet to illustrate the resilience of the human mind. The more a writing tablet has been used, the less distinct are the new letters because the old ones leave residual traces. New tablets absorb the chalk more readily because their pores are not cluttered with the dust of past scribblings. In other words, Thomasius argues persuasively that women can learn more easily because they have not been corrupted by the old academic ways he wishes to replace with a stress on critical reflection, clarity of organization, sound judgment, and lively presentation. Style and content are a harbinger of essayistic production in the 18th century (e.g. Gellert, Pitschel, Lessing, Wieland, Garve, Forster). Perhaps not coincidentally, Isaac Newton published his momentous Principia, which shaped our view of the cosmos until the late 19th century, in the same year Thomasius proposed his new way of thinking.
Even though Thomasius draws upon the humanistic traditions of the 16th and 17th centuries, it would nonetheless be inaccurate to claim solely endemic roots for the essay.
Thomasius openly admits his indebtedness to the Spanish gallant and skeptic Baltasar Gracián, the French moralists (Bouhours, Malebranche, Scudéry, Bayle), and ancient thinkers (Lucian, Epictetus). The rhetorical and gallant traditions were obviously influential for both him and the subsequent development of the essay right into the late 20th century.
Leibniz’s (1646–1716) importance for the European Enlightenment is well documented. Less well known is his contribution to the early art of the essay, as with his epistle “Ermahnung an die Teutschen, ihren Verstand und Sprache besser zu üben” (wr. 1683, pub. 1846; A call to the Germans to make better use of their reason and mother tongue) and its companion piece, “Unvorgreifliche Gedanken” (wr. c. 1709, pub. 1727;
Provisional conjectures). They have been identified as representing a clear break with the stylistic concepts of the ornate baroque era. The first is a culturally critical essay in which Leibniz calls upon his countrymen to make refined use of German in order to compete better with the French, English, and Italians. Leibniz appeals to the patriotism of his readers by painting a positive picture of the Holy Roman Empire with its wealth distributed throughout the social classes. Nowhere are natural resources more abundant, the nobility more competent, the city republics more prosperous, or personal freedom more prevalent. Everything points to a rosy future and the realization of a perfect utopian state. All that is lacking is the individual will to be happy and content.
In the second part of the article, Leibniz shifts perspective to reveal the negative side of those same conditions and accomplishments. In the forefront of his examination is the German language, which provides the basis for cultural and national identity. Like Thomasius, Leibniz criticizes the cultural backwardness of his countrymen, the stilted and obtuse quality of German writing, the lack of decent translations, the thoughtless imitation of foreign models, and the lack of genuine understanding. The world of German writing is depicted as uninspired and lifeless, having been neglected by scholars who slavishly follow the Latin model and government officials who prefer French for diplomacy. The German vernacular must be cultivated, he argues, in order for Germany to realize its full potential.
Leibniz’s progressive piece can perhaps be aligned with the more formal tone of the Baconian essay. His place among early essayists is, however, not surprising given his general role in promulgating a dramatic shift from mere geometry to a dynamic philosophy of nature, from mere mechanism to vitalistic organism. Such an intellectual stance clearly favors an essayistic mode of writing. In any event, Leibniz’s treatise partakes of the provocative, avant-garde tendencies of the essay and clearly reveals the characteristic hybrid nature of scientific tract and artistic tour de force. His writing is gauged to lead the reader on a dynamic journey of encirclements of an appealingly elusive solution.
The views expressed by Leibniz (and Thomasius) around 1700 resonate throughout the history of the essay. Christoph Martin Wieland’s critique of the German scholar in the essay collection Sympathien (1756; Sympathies), which is heavily indebted to the Earl of Shaftesbury, picks up the theme, as do Kant’s lectures of the 1760s, Schiller’s inaugural lecture at Jena on “Was heist und zu welchem Ende studiert man Universalgeschichte?” (1789; “What Is Universal History and to What End Does One Study It?”), a veritable rhetorical masterpiece worthy of Cicero, Adam Müller’s masterful “Vom Gespräch” (1816; On conversation), and Arthur Schopenhauer’s wittily incisive caricature “Über die Universitätsphilosophie” (1851; On the practice of philosophy at the university). The new mode of writing introduced by Leibniz and Thomasius bore much fruit even beyond Schopenhauer. The topic of their essays is echoed in such 20th-century classics as Josef Hofmiller’s “Was ist deutsch?” (1927; What is German?), Werner Weber’s musings on what it means to be Swiss in “Mut zum Erziehen” (1965; Courage to educate), Theodor W.Adorno’s radio essay on intellectual maturity, “Erziehung zur Mündigkeit” (1969; Education for maturity), Walter Jens’ reflections on the personal and cultural locus of identity in “Nachdenken über Heimat” (1984; Reflections on the meanings of homeland), and Hans Mayer’s “Rede über das eigene Land: Deutschland” (1985; Speech on our nation: Germany) or “Der Rede wert: Bemerkungen über die Beredsamkeit und die Deutschen” (1987; Worthy of mention: comments on rhetoric and the Germans). Obviously, Thomasius and Leibniz cast long shadows in the annals of the essay.
3. The 18th Century: Enlightenment; Storm and Stress; Classicism (1730– 1805)
Noteworthy from the early development of the essay onward is the confluence of the essayistic mode with the desire to secularize knowledge and broaden the reading public through appeals to rhetoric and the gallant mode. The 18th century saw such a sharp rise in the number of periodicals and published titles that contemporary observers spoke of a “print revolution,” “reader revolution,” an “age of critique,” an “age of journalism,” and the “age of pedagogy.” All this activity had a marked impact on essayistic writing, whether this took the form of individual essays, parts of a collection, or interludes in novels. While there are important differences in the various schools of literary thought which came to the fore in the course of the 18th century, those differences were later downplayed; the emphasis in essay writing centered on epistemological issues and sought to transcend schools of thought.
Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700–66), Johann Jakob Bodmer (1698–1783), and Johann Jakob Breitinger (1701–76) were very influential in communicating the ideas of Leibniz and Thomasius, as filtered through the writings of Leipzig philosopher Christian Wolff, to a large, nonacademic audience in the first decades of the century. They did this through their moral weeklies modeled on Addison’s and Steele’s Tatler (1709–11), Spectator (1711–12; 1714), and Guardian (1713). Other important models for the critical stance of these writings were Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; An Historical and Critical Dictionary) and Bernard de Fontenelle’s popular Dialogues des Morts (1683; Dialogues from the Dead). Gottsched translated and edited the latter, while his wife and collaborator, Luise Adelgunde Victoria Kulmus (1713–62), contributed influential translations from the moral weeklies and of French plays.
Bodmer and Breitinger published their progressive Die Discourse der Mahlern (1721– 23; Discourses of painters) in Zurich, while Gottsched produced Die vernünftigen Tadlerinnen (1725–27; The reasonable critics, a misunderstanding of “tatler”) and Der Biedermann (1727–29; The man of honor) in Leipzig. The patrician Barthold Hinrich Brockes also published a moral weekly in Hamburg under the title Der Patriot (1724– 26). These weeklies, aimed at improving human nature, were frequently reprinted and contained many articles important to the genesis of the essay as well as for disseminating practical philosophy and aesthetics. Representative is, for example, the “19th Discourse” (1721) penned by Bodmer on the role of the imagination in poetic works. The influential topic was later treated in greater detail by both Bodmer and Breitinger in “Von dem Einfluss und Gebrauche der Einbildungs-Krafft” (1727; On the influence and use of the imagination). Gottsched also contributed essay-like articles to his weeklies such as “Furcht und Hoffnung” (1728; Fear and hope), a characteristically enlightened examination of virtue as the art of countering the paralysis of anxiety with liberating hope.
The longevity of the moral weekly format in Germany is attested by such later endeavors as Der Gesellige (1748–50; Sociable man), Der Mensch (1751–56; Humankind), Der Redliche (1751; The sincere person), and Der nordische Aufseher (1757; The Nordic guardian). They give witness to the extraordinary increase in publishing activity in the Age of Enlightenment. These moral weeklies were instrumental in spreading practical philosophy, moral values, and a fondness for instructive yet entertaining reading. Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803) published pieces on literary practice and theory in Der nordische Aufseher such as “Von der Sprache der Poesie” (1757; On the language of poetry) and “Gedanken über die Natur der Poesie” (1757; Thoughts on the nature of poetry).
Shortly before mid-century, the moral weeklies began to give way to a new breed of journal, one more centrally interested in literary, cultural, and aesthetic matters.
Gottsched led the way with his Beyträge zur critischen Historie der deutschen Sprache, Poesie und Beredsamkeit (1732–44; Contributions to a critical history of the German language, literature, and rhetoric) and Der Büchersaal der schönen Wissenschaften und freyen Künste (1742–50; Library of the humanities and fine arts). While the former emphasized questions of literary history and taste, the latter covered all areas of scholarly interest with an emphasis on philosophy and the natural sciences. Gottsched’s student, Johann Joachim Schwabe (1714–84), edited Die Belustigungen des Verstandes und Witzes (1741–45; Entertainments of mind and wit) and other former disciples published the Neue Beiträge zum Vergnügen des Verstandes und Witzes (1744–57; New contributions…). The central significance of Die Belustigungen for the development of belletristic prose in the early century is still not fully appreciated. The list of contributors to the periodical reads like a Who’s Who of the literary world in Northern Germany in the 1740s. Johann Elias Schlegel’s (1719–49) seminal critique of dramatic technique in Shakespeare and Andreas Gryphius (“Vergleichung Shakespeares und Andreas Gryphs,” 1741) appeared here, as did the accomplished essays of Theodor Lebrecht Pitschel (1716–43).
It was the 18th century that discovered Montaigne directly again. Johann Daniel Titius (i.e. Tietz) published the first German translation of the Essais as Michaels Herrn von Montaigne Versuche in 1753, and Lessing’s friend Johann Joachim Christoph Bode provided a second translation of the complete opus in seven volumes (1793–97).
Although Bode’s translation appeared at century’s end, he was already hard at work on it during the years of close contact with Lessing in Hamburg (1767–70). Moreover, Gottsched had cited Montaigne as a model for his journalistic writings around 1720 and Christian Ludwig Liscow acknowledges the impact of Montaigne’s style and attitude on his satirical Vortrefflichkeit und Notwendigkeit der elenden Scribenten (1734; The excellence and necessity of miserable scribblers).
To be sure, Montaigne’s broad, direct influence was not really felt until late in the 19th century. By contrast, the work of the Scottish Enlighteners Adam Ferguson and Francis Hutcheson and the Third Earl of Shaftesbury (especially his Characteristics, 1711) did have a broad and lasting impact throughout the 18th century. In any event, the period from the third quarter of the 18th century to the early 20th century (i.e. 1770–1930; from Lessing, Herder, and Wieland to Wilhelm Dilthey, Georg Simmel, and Josef Hofmiller) is customarily referred to as the classical period of the German essay.
A hallmark of Enlightenment anthropology, already evident in the moral weeklies, is the focus on the individual as either man reflecting or man acting. Reflective man was prone to examine his relationship to society and the universe in a new light. When the emphasis is cosmological or cultural, the tone of essayism is more detached and philosophical. When the social or personal context is foregrounded, the tone becomes more immediate and vibrant. This attitude is reflected in new literary journals which sprang up everywhere from Berlin to Vienna in the second half of the century. The most important for chronicling the history of the journalistic essay are the Briefe die neueste Literatur betreffend (1758–61; Letters on contemporary literature); Friedrich Nicolai’s Bibliothek der schönen Wissenschaften und schönen Künste (1757–65; Library of the humanities and fine arts) and the Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek (1765–1806; Universal German library); the Austrian statesman Josef von Sonnenfels’ Der Mann ohne Vorurteil (1765–75; Man without prejudice); Herder’s Über die neuere deutsche Literatur (1767; on contemporary German literature) and Kritische Wälder (1769; Critical forests); Johann Heinrich Merck and Johann Georg Schlosser’s Frankfurter Gelehrte Anzeigen (1772–90; Frankfurt scholarly announcements); Wieland’s Der (neue) Teutsche Merkur (1773–1810; The [new] German Mercury); Heinrich Christian Boie and Christian Conrad Wilhelm von Dohm’s (Neues) Deutsches Museum (1776–91; The [new] German museum); Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart’s Teutsche Chronik (1774–77; German chronicle); Schiller’s Thalia (1785–87, 1792–95) and Die Horen (1795–97; The muses); Johann Jakob Engel’s Philosoph für die Welt (1775–77; A philosopher for the world);
Sophie La Roche’s Pomona (1783–84); Marianne Ehrmann’s progressive monthly Amaliens Erholungsstunden (1790–92; Amalien’s leisure hours); Goethe’s Die Propyläen (1798–1800); Leopold Friedrich Günter von Goeckingk’s Journal von und für Deutschland (1795–1805; Journal of and for Germany); and Friedrich Justin Bertuch’s Journal des Luxus und der Moden (1786–1827; Journal of luxury and fashion).
Additionally, “Musenalmanache” (poetic almanacs) of all sorts sprang up in the 1770s and remained popular into the 19th century. They were edited by quality writers like Goeckingk, Schiller, Wieland, and Johann Heinrich Voss. The list of periodicals is merely representative of the great diversity.
The editors were themselves frequent contributors of letters, memoirs, travel descriptions, critiques, and reviews to their own journals. Most, as Schiller said of himself, wrote as “Weltbürger” (citizens of the world) and not as citizens of a particular state. Their preferred topics were historical, philosophical, and aesthetic. The publicistic work of Sophie La Roche (1731–1807) and Marianne Ehrmann (1735–95), two of the first women writers to make money from their writing careers, has yet to be examined from the point of view of the essay.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–81), a chief representative of the Enlightenment, began his journalistic career by writing for Die Berlinische privilegierte Zeitung (1749– 55; The privileged Berliner newspaper), coedited the Briefe die neueste Literatur betreffend with Friedrich Nicolai and Moses Mendelssohn, and published his own Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767–69; Hamburg dramaturgy) as well as a series of essays and treatises on primarily theological topics, Wolfenbütteler Beiträge zur Geschichte und Literatur (1773–77; Wolfenbüttel contributions to literature and history).
The essays contributed to these journals are the more formal kind like his philological study, Wie die Alten den Tod gebildet (1769; How the Ancients Represented Death) or “Von der Duldung der Deisten” (1774; On tolerance of deists), although the distinction is not always strict, as we know from his famous invective against Gottsched in the “17th Literary Letter.” While Lessing cannot be said to have penned consciously self-contained essays in the manner of Wieland, Sturz, Goethe, or Georg Forster, nevertheless his prose is praised as exemplary for its combination of intellectual substance and stylistically light touch.
His series of five dialogues on political liberalism, Ernst und Falk (1778–79; Ernst and Falk), is a case in point. Because of its pristine clarity and deft engagement of the reader, this work can be considered a literary jewel. While emphasizing what is essential, each of the dialogues seeks to expose the falseness of a commercialized and politicized Freemasonry movement. The true aim of the Freemasons according to Lessing is the refinement of humanity itself, not personal or public gain. The presentation of the argument is a prime example of the essay as the act of thinking aloud. A later classic example of this attitude is Heinrich von Kleist’s (1771–1811) seminal essay, “Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden” (1807–08; “On the Gradual Fabrication of Thoughts While Speaking”). This movement is brought out by the topos of the leisurely walk, which has been identified as a major mark of the essayistic attitude.
Lessing guides the reader through the maze of his meandering thoughts by posting metaphoric signs. At the crucial point of Falk’s argument regarding the genuine deeds of the Freemasons, he interrupts his thought to chase after a butterfly. This gives Ernst time to ponder the paradox of good deeds whose purpose is to make good deeds superfluous.
He goes off to a nearby tree to observe an ant colony busily pursuing its individual and collective tasks. With these two images the first discourse comes to an end. The attentive reader suspects that the butterfly is a symbol of truth which flutters about, now distant, now near, but always just out of reach. The anthill, on the other hand, symbolizes organized activity for the collective good. In the second dialogue the beehive is used further to elucidate this thought: when each member of society is capable of selfregulation, then government will not be superfluous; each individual will do what is necessary for the whole to function, for each will recognize the personal good in the commonweal. This truly democratic revolution of the spirit is dependent, however, upon genuine communication among individuals. It must be grounded on trust and attentiveness to others. Ethnic, religious, and social distances between individuals must be minimized. While humankind has not yet reached the goal, Ernst and Falk conclude, the path is clear. These dialogues are exemplary of literature’s role as intellectual stimulus.
The mastery of the rhetorical arsenal and the genuine openness to truth-seeking evident in Ernst and Falk and Lessing’s numerous other essays explain the lavish praise heaped on him by Friedrich Schlegel, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Moses Mendelssohn, who admired his combinatory wit and intellectual gymnastics. While the distinction of being the father of the German essay, as Karl Hillebrand has contended, is not necessarily true, Lessing’s articles and fragments are unmistakably sparkling “fermenta cognitionis” (fermentations of his thinking), the term Lessing himself used to characterize his manner of writing and a mode which has become synonymous with essayistic writing in German because of its ability to prompt reflection and counteract rigor mortis of the spirit.
Johann Gottfried Herder, an essayist in his own right, remarked of Lessing’s style that it is that “of a writer who does not simply present a finished product but rather displays the writing and thought processes themselves as they occur. Each twist and turn provides a stimulus for further reflection; each thought is presented, analyzed, dissected and then reconstructed.” Herder’s summary judgment describes Lessing’s style in classical pithiness as “a progressive poem with interludes and episodes, always on the move, always chipping away, caught in forward progress, wrapped up in the process of becoming.” What Herder espies here is recognized by Lessing himself in his own commentaries on the nexus of writing style and epistemological underpinnings.
Commonly cited passages are drawn from Lessing’s masterpiece, Eine Duplik (1778; A response) and from his Sogenannte Briefe an verschiedene Gottesgelehrte (So-called letters to various theologians) published posthumously. They make clear the significance of his philosophical probing for the tentativeness of the essayistic attitude. His statement that his letters are really “one-sided dialogues” is striking because it claims they are aimed at an absent interlocutor, that is, the reader, who is enjoined to participate in the exploration of ideas. Moreover, Lessing points out the absence of a logical order which allows for the lightness of touch in the treatment of issues. That open, searching manner is manifest in the late piece, Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (1780; The Education of the Human Race).
The essayistic writing of Christoph Martin Wieland (1733–1810) during the course of the second half of the century is a mirror of the evolution and varied textures of the genre itself. Most of his essays first appeared in the pages of his journal, Der Teutsche Merkur. One of the chief features of his early prose is the carefully orchestrated pattern of argumentation which is clearly indebted to rhetorical technique. The “principle of holistic rhythm” is readily evident even in the early work, such as Sympathien (1756; Sympathies), a collection of loosely joined and frequently rhapsodic letters on the necessity of self-knowledge for proper education. With surprising adroitness the novice writer alternates long retarding cadences with abrupt, almost staccato-like phrasing, regulating the rhythm by means of questions, curt factual statements, and effective repetition of words and formulations.
Beginning in the 1760s Wieland’s essays already reveal a mature style. They range from interpolations in his novels such as “Der Anti-Platonismus in Nuce” in Agathon (1766; Anti-Platonism in a nutshell) to journalistic pieces in the Teutscher Merkur such as “Was ist Wahrheit?” (1776; “What Is Truth?”), “Über die ältesten Zeitkürzungsspiele” (1781; On the oldest pastimes), “Für und Wider” (1793; Pro and contra), and “Euthanasia” (1805). They cover the full range of essayistic topics: the nature of truth, the dangers of self-deception, leisure activities, human conflict, and death.
Wieland is fittingly celebrated as an early classic essayist.
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) contributed essays as well, especially in his precritical years. Here one thinks of Versuch über den Optimismus (1759; Essay on optimism) and Träume eines Geistersehers (1766; Dreams of a Spirit-Seer), which have been described as lively, fresh, and witty in their use of language. The impetus for this style might well lie in the English model, for Kant was an avid reader of English literature during the 1750s and 1760s. In Der Essay: Form und Geschichte (1964) Bruno Berger clearly accords Kant the status of essayist. Still, the essay with the greatest impact is his famous examination of the nature of Enlightenment in “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung” (1784; “What Is Enlightenment?”), which, as well as his “Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Sicht” (1784; “Idea for a Universal History with Cosmopolitan Intent”), reverberated well into the 20th century, inviting reactions from writers such as Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Jean Amery, Michel Foucault, and Jürgen Habermas. Via an arsenal of rhetorical techniques Kant leads us deep into the labyrinth of his thinking without our having suspected how demanding the reasoning really is. The impression of ease in moving from one idea to the next is conveyed largely by the judicious use of images, all related to the need to walk and to move about freely. But we are not dealing here with the topos of the leisurely walk which is the mark of the Montaignean essay; on the contrary, this is a guided tour exploring the possible routes to self-direction in all things. Kant expresses his complicated ideas in an admixture of philosophical rigor and poetic imagination.
Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), a friend of Lessing and the Berlin publisher Friedrich Nicolai, collaborated with them in writing the important critique of contemporary 18thcentury literature and aesthetics, Briefe die neueste Literatur betreffend. In his Briefe über die Empfindungen (1755; Letters on sentiment) and the dialogues Phädon, oder über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (1767; Phoedon; or, The Death of Socrates), the influence of Shaftesbury and the neo-Platonists is obvious. The preferred epistolary form frequently reveals the essentially essayistic quality of these contributions. His response to the burning question of his day on the nature of Enlightenment, “Über die Frage: Was heisst aufklären?” (1784; “On the Question: What Is Enlightenment?”), is, like most of his essayistic endeavors, a good example of the conceptual essay.
Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) was a central figure in the literary life of the second half of the 18th century. He wore many hats well, as preacher, innovative cultural historian, and early semiotician. His Über die neuere deutsche Literatur (1767; On contemporary German literature) immediately established him as an innovative and critical thinker with the spark and sparkle of an accomplished orator. In fact, he saw himself in those years as an interpreter and rhapsodist whose sole intent was to instigate a revolution of the national spirit by adopting an anti-intellectual stance.
Perhaps the single most important collection of essays, not just as a manifesto of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement (1767–84), but for German literature in general and the essay in particular, is Von deutscher Art und Kunst: Einige fliegende Blätter (1773; On German art: some hastily scribbled notes), edited by Herder. In addition to seminal essays by Goethe and Paolo Frisi on Gothic architecture and Justus Möser on German history, it also contains two energetic essays by Herder, one on Ossian and another on Shakespeare. Not just Herder’s but all five essays are significant documents on the German search for national and cultural identity. The volume exemplifies the culturally critical essay. After his move to Weimar in 1776, Herder contributed essays on von Hutten, Reuchlin, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, and Lessing to the Teutscher Merkur. Later writings such as the influential Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1784–91; Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Humankind) and Briefe zu Beförderung der Menschheit (1793–97; Letters for the advancement of humankind) contain any number of essayistic subsections of high quality.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) was a prolific essay writer from his youth through his last years. Drawing upon the advances through the evolution of German as a literary language in the wake of Thomasius and Gellert, Goethe’s essays mirror the full spectrum from conceptual essay to biographical treatise, graphic description, and cultural critique. In addition to the piece on the Strasbourg cathedral (1773) mentioned earlier, there are the tributes to Shakespeare (“Zum Shakespeares-Tag” [1771; “Shakespeare’s Day”]; “Shakespeare und kein Ende” [1813–16; “Shakespeare Without End”]), the geological study, “Über den Granit” (1784; “On Granite”), his critiques of contemporary German literature, “Literarischer Sanculottismus” (1795; The literary left), and the introduction to his journal Die Propyläen (1798), his assessment of Winckelmann’s significance for the 18th century (1805). A key feature of Goethe’s essayistic style is his tendency to draw close to his central idea and then pull back again. By using telling metaphors and changing perspectives, he succeeds in drawing the reader into a process of gradual discovery. Just as drama comes to life only when performed on stage, the written text lives only through the active participation of the reader’s power of imagination.
Goethe’s stylistic modus operandi corresponds to the highest goal to which human beings can aspire according to the anthropological views of the 18th century: the enhanced awareness of our own sentiments and thoughts. Goethe discerns this consciousnessraising in “natural” phenomena from Shakespeare’s art to rock formations and classical aesthetic theory. The title of his later essay, “Shakespeare Without End,” alludes to this neverending process of consciousness-raising through the encounter with the texts of man and nature.
Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805) contributed numerous compositions to the essay genre, starting with his school oration of 1779 on the nature of virtue and continuing through his discussion of the use of the Greek chorus in tragedy which prefaces his drama Die Braut von Messina (1803; The Bride of Messina). Interspersed are seminal essays with farreaching influence such as his Mannheim lecture on the value of a national theater, “Was kann eine gute stehende Bühne eigentlich wirken?” (1785; “What Can a Good Standing Theater Actually Accomplish?”), the rhapsodic philosophical letters “Philosophische Briefe” (1786), the critical review of Gottfried August Bürger’s poetry (“Bürgers Gedichte,” 1791) in which Schiller begins to sketch his classical aesthetics, the programmatic and exemplary “Über Anmut und Würde” (1793; “On Grace and Dignity”), and the pace-setting Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung (1795–96; On Simple and Sentimental Poetry). In these works we find to varying degrees the influence of Klopstock (rhapsodic tone), Goethe (intellectual energy), Leibniz (theodicy, monads), Ferguson (moral sentiment), Lessing (tolerance, perfectibility), and Kant (philosophical rigor). Although Schiller sees himself as a preceptor, he operates like the classical essayist on the belief that no single individual has sole claim to truth. Truth lies neither here nor there, but rather both here and there. The reader is led both to understand the point and to feel it. Schiller never theorized about the essay like Friedrich Schlegel, but he did share a common understanding with Schlegel about the need to galvanize author and reader.
Other important essays from this period include “Vom Tode fürs Vaterland” (1761; On dying for one’s country) and “Vom Verdienste” (1765; On merit) by Thomas Abbt (1738–66) and “Anmerkungen über das Theater” (1774; Notes on the theater) by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751–92), for they were frequently cited by contemporaries and others to reflect upon the meaning of patriotism and the role of theater in national life.
Helferich Peter Sturz’s (1736–79) epistles, fragments, dialogues, and anecdotes were penned between 1768 and 1779 on topics ranging from Klopstock to hypochondria, umbrellas, lawyers, and Duke von Bernstorf, and give evidence of Sturz’s stature as a classical essayist. Other essays include Adolf von Knigge’s (1752–96) “Meine eigene Apologie” (1784; My own apology), Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s (1742–99) publications in the Göttinger Musenalmanach (Göttinger poetic almanac) and in his Sudelbücher, Emilie von Berlepsch’s (1749–1818) essay on marriage and the rights of women published in the Teutscher Merkur in 1791, “Über einige zum Glück der Ehe nothwendige Eigenschaften und Grundsätze” (On some character traits and principles indispensable to a happy marriage) and Christian Garve’s (1742–98) timely compositions on style, “Über die Popularität des Stils” (1793; On popular discourse) and “Über die prosaische Schreibart” (1798; On prose style). Sophie La Roche’s Swiss diary (1787) and Schreibetisch (1799; Writing desk) contain essay-like commentaries which round out the picture. They give ample evidence of the popularity of essay writing by century’s end.
4. The 19th Century: From Romanticism to Fin de siècle and a New Awakening (1798–1905)
Endings and beginnings in literary and cultural history are rarely tidy. The opening of a “modern” world view often clashes with a sense of closure at the end of a century. Thusthe history of the essay around 1800—as it was around 1700 and was again to be around 1900—is marked by feelings of both fin de siècle and “Aufbruch” (new awakening). It is the oft-cited phenomenon of the “Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen” (synchronism of the nonsimultaneous). The current chronological cutoffs are set by two eventful occurrences: the appearance of the Athenäum (1798) and Einstein’s theory of relativity (1905). The classical age of the essay (from Herder to Wilhelm Dilthey, i.e. 1770–1930) coincides at the front end with the emergence of “modern” Romantic criticism with its emphasis on discovery, exploration, and rediscovery of the origins of language and of the relationship between nature and mind, and at the back end with the rise of Modernism (1880–1930). The final decade of the 19th century with its own explorations and rediscovery was clearly marked by a Modernist thrust. The essay form thrives in such a climate.
4.1. Romanticism (1798–1835)
The arch-Romanticist Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829) is considered the first genuine theoretician of essayism and the true founder of hermeneutics. Drawing upon the hybrid and dialogic quality of essayistic writing evident since Lessing and Garve, he theorizes the central relationship between author and reader as a “mutual galvanism.” Moreover, he argues that the essay is “a kind of experimental philosophy” which must be “rhetorical,” “ironic,” and “tactical” in method; “the essay is to be written the way we think, write.”
The mode of writing, Schlegel concludes, “should bring about movement, it should combat intellectual arthritis and promote nimbleness.” In general, Schlegel sees the dominant intellectual tendency of the new era to be one of deconstructing rigid systems, what he calls the “essayification” of all disciplines. This stands in contrast to the critical age of Kant and his successors Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), who came to dominate the 19th century. Yet, by radicalizing Kant’s questioning attitude, Schlegel acts as a bridge from the Enlightenment to Romanticism and from Romanticism to the turn of the century.
This “new” modus operandi is everywhere evident in the ground-breaking journal Athenäum (1798–1800) published by Friedrich and his brother, August Wilhelm (1767– 1845). Kleist’s Die Berliner Abendblätter (1810–11; The Berlin evening news) and the early years of Johann Friedrich Cotta’s Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände (1807–65; Morning news for the educated classes) were the most important periodicals for the Romantic movement. Important for the continuing conflation of political life (as prefigured in Berliner Abendblätter) and literary quality (as emphasized in the Athenäum) were such periodicals as Isis (1817–48), Zeitung für die elegante Welt (1801–59; Newspaper for the elegant world), Theodor Mundt’s Wissenschaft und Kunst (1835; Science and art), and Karl Gutkow’s Telegraph für Deutschland (1835–42; Telegraph for Germany). Wolfgang Menzel edited Das literarische Blatt (1825–49; Literary news) as a supplement to Cotta’s Morgenblatt. Also noteworthy is Europa edited by August Lewald from 1835 to 1846.
The Schlegel brothers, Dorothea Veit (1763–1839), Karoline Michaelis, and Friedrich von Hardenberg (i.e. Novalis, 1772–1801) published numerous pieces in the Romantic journals. Notable among them are Novalis’ aphoristic “Blütenstaub” (1798; “Pollen”) and the essay “Die Christenheit oder Europa” (wr. 1799, partially pub. 1826; “Christianity or Europe”). Friedrich Schlegel’s essays “Über die Philosophie” (1800; “On Philosophy”), “Das Gespräch über die Poesie” (1800; “Dialogue on Poetry”), and the genial lectures Geschichte der alten und neuen Literatur (1812; Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern) elucidate ideas on the role of myth, irony, and philosophy in prose, establishing him as a world-class essayist and theorist. His brother August Wilhelm gave form and substance to the lightning-quick ideas of his younger brother, popularizing them in his lectures such as Über dramatische Kunst und Literatur (1808; Dramatic Art and Literature).
Essayism as an ironic attitude is exemplified especially well in Friedrich Schlegel’s “Über die Unverständlichkeit” (1800; “On Unintelligibility”), which appeared in response to criticism of an unintelligible style in the Athenäum. Schlegel makes a virtue out of a vice by arguing that irony is at the heart of the journal, for it points to the neverending conflict between the infinite and the finite and underscores the impossibility of complete understanding. The essay, then, operates on the principle of hermeneutic indeterminacy. Essayistic compositions are written as if they were casual letters or private conversations on a moral topic in neither a strict philosophical nor a purely refined poetic style.
In this context we can also recall Schlegel’s praise of Georg Forster’s (1754–94) style in his famous essay on the nature scientist, writer, and revolutionary. That style throbs with life because of the simultaneous appeal to the mind, the imagination, and the emotions. The effect of this broad appeal to the lower as well as higher human faculties is what has become known as genuine popularity. Schlegel’s characterization of Forster’s prose is valid about his own writing as well: it stimulates reflection by refining our sensitivity and broadening our perspectives.
Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811) and Adam Müller (1779–1829) are two other superb essayists associated with the Romantic school. The former experienced an epistemological crisis which left deep marks on his literary production; the latter is especially noted for his political role. Kleist created enduring essays with his theoretically important Über das Marionettentheater (1810; On Puppet Shows) and the epistemologically seminal “Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden” (wr. c. 1805–06; “On the Gradual Fabrication of Thoughts While Speaking”). In the first he argues for “a more natural coordination of the center of gravity” of each being or thing, for he values “balance, agility, and ease” above all else. In the second essay Kleist speaks of the need to think one’s way through a problem and find the solution via the process. Reflection occurs only after the act; thus the act must be foregrounded in any theoretical consideration. The call for “agitation of the mind” in order to reactivate the ideas that we have already had clearly marks the essayistic mode as “intellectual midwifery” and echoes Schlegel’s views on the essay.
Müller’s “Vom Gespräch” (1816; On conversation) is actually a commentary on the theory and practice of essayistic writing as its own mode of writing. His topic is the trust between interlocutors prerequisite to understanding. Without mutual respect genuine communication cannot occur. The “galvanism of author and reader” cited by Schlegel is here presented as the synergy of discussants. Moreover, Müller echoes the call for bon goût sounded around 1700 by praising the natural light touch and sense of good taste evident in French discourse as being the “pulse beat of the nation.” He exhorts his compatriots to emulate the model.
Others who must be included in the history of the essay are the women writers Karoline von Günderrode (1780–1806), Bettina von Arnim (1785–1859), Elisa von der Recke (1756–1831), and Karoline Pichler (1769–1843), as well as such canonical writers as Jean Paul Friedrich Richter (1763–1825), Ludwig Tieck (1773–1853), Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), and Joseph Görres (1776–1848). Finally, we should recall Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), the Prussian Minister of Culture and Education and founder of the University of Berlin, his brother and natural scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), and the philosophers Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814); Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling (1775–1854), and Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert (1780–1860), who all deserve mention as well in the history of the essay during the Romantic period.
4.2. From Realism to Fin de siècle and a New Awakening
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) shares with the Romantics a rebellious spirit. He too is widely acclaimed as a consummate practitioner of the essay, earning the title of the “German Montaigne” (endowed by Karl Hillebrand) and serving as the expressed inspiration of Thomas Mann’s own essay style. In fact, Schopenhauer appears to be a writer’s writer, for in addition to the comments by Hillebrand and Mann, Franz Kafka judged Schopenhauer to be a veritable “Sprachkünstler” (language artist) who should be read for that talent alone. Jorge Luis Borges claimed he learned German just so that he could read Schopenhauer in the original, even apologizing for putting the philosopher ahead of Goethe and Heine. The main portion of Schopenhauer’s Parerga und Paralipomena (1851; Parerga and Paralipomena) is comprised of aphorisms on the art of living. They have proved to be the most popular of his publications, for his manner of
philosophizing was coincident with his ironic and lively style of writing. Philosophy is presented here in an accessible fashion and in stark contrast to the German idealism so widespread at the universities in the 19th century (Schelling, Fichte, Hegel). Above all Schopenhauer sought to stimulate with his thoughts on diverse subjects further reflection on the part of his readers so that they might draw their own conclusions based on their own critical faculties. That is the main reason why he referred to professors of philosophy in the wake of Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel as “corrupters of the mind” (“Kopfverderber”). No wonder that Nietzsche found in him a kindred spirit.
Herman Grimm (1828–1901) published his first set of II essays in Hannover in 1859; the book bore the simple title Essays, was dedicated to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and was an immediate success. In 1865 a second set of ten essays followed under the title Neue Essays über Kunst und Literatur (New essays on art and literature). It opened with a homage to Emerson, and the entire collection pays tribute to the impact the American had on Grimm. Indeed the 1830s and 1840s proved to be a fertile period of incubation for the genre: Lamb, Hunt, Hazlitt, Landor, De Quincey, Carlyle, Macaulay, Thackeray, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller as well as Emerson penned many of their classical essays then. Grimm refers to that impact in such pieces as “Emerson” (1865), “Friedrich der Grosse und Macaulay” (1874; Frederick the Great and Macaulay), and “Goethe und Carlyle” (1865). The 1850s and 1860s subsequently saw the birth of the genuine, selfconsciously conceived and practiced essay mode.
In another essay collection from the year 1890, Grimm included a lengthy preface in which he detailed the history and distinguishing characteristics of the literary genre of the essay. In his introductory comments to his Fragmente (1900–02) he concedes that he perhaps has created a legacy of some import for subsequent generations of writers by cultivating the essay form. To be sure, his latter essays include reviews and articles with a more polemical tone such as “Deutscher Unterricht auf deutschen Gymnasien” (1890;
German instruction in the German schools), “Wert und Wirkung der Kunstkritik” (1890; Value and impact of art criticism), and “Goethe im Dienste unserer Zeit” (1890; Goethe for our times) (Ludwig Rohner, 1966). But Emerson is given due credit for having introduced into the mainstream the loan word “essay,” using it interchangeably with the native German Aufsatz. Nevertheless, the Preussische Jahrbücher found it necessary in 1857 to encourage the use of the term “essay” to designate what was already common practice.
If Herman Grimm captures the spirit of the positivistic 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) points to a thorough revamping of conceptions. His influence on generations of writers has been profound. As the first radically (post)modern thinker in Germany, Nietzsche found aphoristic and essayistic writing to be the most appropriate vehicle of expression for his philosophy of the future. Many of the entries in the
aphoristically styled works of the 1870s and 1880s, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (1878–80; Human, All Too Human), Also sprach Zarathustra (1883–85; Thus Spoke Zarathustra), Jenseits von Gut und Böse (1886; Beyond Good and Evil), and Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (1882; The Gay Science), contain fine examples of the essay.
Earlier pieces on the birth of tragedy, the advantages and disadvantages of the use of history, David Strauss as writer, Schopenhauer as educator, and Wagner in Bayreuth, which appeared in his culturally critical Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen (1873–76; Untimely Meditations), are veritable masterpieces of the genre whose trademark is experimental playfulness. His thought experiments are most aptly expressed in aphoristic form, which Just considered to contain the essence of the essayist’s attitude and thus labeled them “essay extracts.”
Many other 19th-century essayists are worthy of note, but only a small selection can be mentioned here. At the beginning of Book III of his Die romantische Schule (1836; The Romantic School), Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) remarked that “The history of literature is as difficult to describe as natural history. In both cases one sticks to particularly dominant phenomena. Yet just as a small glass of water can contain an entire world of wondrous creatures which demonstrate the greatness of God just no less than the largest beasts, so too can the smallest poetic almanac contain innumerable miniature poets who appear just as interesting to the researcher as the largest elephants of literature.” Any number of the many collections and journals mentioned here are like the Musenalmanach cited by Heine. The following partial list is designed to communicate a sense of that richness: Heine’s Die Harzreise (1826; The Harz Journey) and Die romantische Schule; Ästhetische Feldzüge (1834; Aesthetic campaigns) by Ludolf Wienbarg (1802–72); “Das politische Gespräch” (1836; “A Dialogue on Politics”) and Über die Epochen der neueren Geschichte (wr. 1854, pub. 1888; On the epochs of modern history) by Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886); Wanderungen durch den Mark Brandenburg (1862–82; Excursions through Mark Brandenburg) by Theodor Fontane (1819–98); Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (1905; Reflections on History) by Jacob Christoph Burckhardt (1818–97); “Die deutsche Ideologie” (wr. 1845–46; The German Ideology) by Karl Marx (1818–83) and Friedrich Engels (1820–95); and Zeiten, Völker und Menschen (1874–85; Time, people, and men) by Karl Hillebrand (1829–84).
Then there are the Austrians Ferdinand Kürnberger (1821–79), Otto Gildemeister (1823–1902), Ludwig Bamberger (1823–99), Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), and Franz Xavier Kraus (1840–1901). These writers published their works in journals as well as in individual collections. Few of them, however, are known first and foremost as essayists.
5. The 20th Century (1900–94): From Modernism to Postwall
Given the essay’s function as a means of exploring conflict in times of change, it is no surprise that the 20th century, with its repeated psychological, scientific, and political crises, has experienced a burgeoning of the essayistic style. The Austrian critic Hans Hahnle noted in 1956 that literary production is no longer centered on the epic, the lyric, or the drama as it was earlier, not even on the novel as in the 19th century; today, he averred, it is centered on the essay (Rohner). Writers of diverse backgrounds mirror these essential tensions, which reemerged around 1900 with the Modernist movement and have continued throughout the entire century. After having long stood in the shadow of the essay as practiced in America, England, France, and Spain, the German essay moved to the forefront with a flurry of activity in the early decades of the 20th century and again immediately after World War II. Its strength has continued since then. The constellation of events and talent evident in the axis Lessing-HerderWieland-Goethe-Schlegel repeats itself in the constellation of Hofmannsthal-Borchardt-Kassner-Heinrich Mann-Benn
and again in the configuration Jens-Mayer-Werner WeberWeizsäcker-Wolf.
5.1. Fin de Siècle and Modernism (1890–1930)
Together with his friend Rudolf Borchardt, Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929) represents the beginning of another high point in the unity of the lyric, dramatic, epic, and the essayistic. Hofmannsthal led the way with his sensitive treatments of Swinburne (1893), D’Annunzio (1894), and the poems of Stefan George (1896) as cosmopolitan phenomena. The aestheticizing thrust of these essays underscores the dallying pleasure of nuance while simultaneously prompting sublimation of the momentary pleasure. The result is a conflation of poetry and life, as Hofmannsthal entitles one of his essays (“Poesie und Leben,” 1896). Nevertheless, the most influential of his essays was surely his fictive epistle, “Brief des Lord Chandos” (1901; Letter to Lord Chandos), directed to the father of the English essay, Francis Bacon, in which Hofmannsthal expresses his crisis of creative inspiration. The introductions to collected works frequently assume the shape and feel of the essay, as for example the prefaces to 1001 Nacht (1908) and Balzac (1908). Die Briefe des Zurückgekehrten (1908; Letters of those who have returned), “Maria Theresia” (1917), “Rede auf Grillparzer” (1922; Speech on Grillparzer), and finally “Das Schrifttum als geistiger Raum der Nation” (1927; The written word as the spiritual space of nationhood) document respectively his eye for sharp cultural criticism, an appreciation of Austrian heritage, and his personal commitment to a “conservativerevolution” (as he called it). Taken as a whole, Hofmannsthal’s opus is a fine example of the reworking of a cosmopolitan cultural legacy to respond to the personal and intellectual crises of the day.
Rudolf Borchardt’s (1877–1945) style is the counterpart to that of his friend: it is loud, sometimes irritating, even militant. An opportunity to compare and contrast offers itself readily since Borchardt also penned essays on Swinburne (1909) and George (1909). His own attitude toward and deep sense of affinity with Hofmannsthal can be gleaned from his “Rede über Hofmannsthal” (1902), “Die neue Poesie und die alte Menschheit” (1912; New poetry and traditional humanity), and “Schöpferische Restauration” (1927; Creative restoration). In his posthumously published essay on Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Die Entdeckung Amerikas” (c. 1925; The discovery of America), Borchardt was one of the first great German essayists to point out the importance of American lyrical poetry.
Rudolf Kassner (1873–1959), a great essayist of the day, is little remembered today.
That is due perhaps to the fact that he wrote exclusively essays, and, as noted, the essay form has stirred little interest among German scholars. Nevertheless, Kassner’s essayistic production can be considered the counterpart to the early lyrics of George and Rilke.
What fascinated Kassner was the relationship between the Platonic idea and the physical body. Favorite topics, therefore, are compelling beauty and transparency of the inner essence. In his first publication, “Die Mystik, die Künstler und das Leben” (1900; The mystic, the artist, and life), Kassner renders the master prose writer as the necessary counterpart to the creative poet. Shelley, Keats, Blake, Rossetti, and Swinburne are his models. This nuance-rich aestheticism of the turn of the century ultimately gives way to a growing concentration on the external form. The tension between antique and Christian views of man is rendered in “Von den Elementen menschlicher Grösse” (1911; On the lements of human grandeur), while physiognomy begins to dominate in the 1920s as in “Grundlagen der Physiognomik” (1921; Fundamentals of physiognomy) and “Das physiognomische Weltbild” (1930; Physiognomical world view). During the fascist years Kassner turned his attention to travel, reminiscences, and the role of the imagination.
Following the war, he returned to politically sensitive issues in his interpretation of the age of the atom bomb in “Transfiguration” (1946) and the role of Christ in mediating the tensions between the age of Plato and the age of the Iron Curtain in “Die Geburt Jesu” (1951; The birth of Christ). Kassner was active to the end, and his intellectual agility is manifest in his “Das inwendige Reich” (1953; The inner empire), “Der Zauberer” (1955; The magician), and “Der goldene Drachen” (1957; The golden dragon).
In all of these works the intellectual anxiety and aesthetic sensibilities of the first half of the 20th century from fin de siècle to the atom bomb are captured, mirrored, and transfigured.
The many influential essays of Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), penned between 1925 and 1935, capture this sense of diversity as well: “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers” (1923; The translator’s task), “Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften” (1924–25; Goethe’s Elective Affinities), “Karl Kraus” (1931), “Der Autor als Produzent” (wr. 1934; The author as producer), and “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit” (1936; “The Work of Art in the Age of Reproduction”). While each has a different thematic focus and there is a clear shift from his early idealism to his later Marxist stance, the growing emphasis on the political and ethical responsibilities of the writer goes hand in hand with the calling of the classical essayist to be responsive to the human condition. To be sure, “Karl Kraus” is considered to be the closest in form and style to the classical form of the essay, but then thematic and excursive qualities of the genre always resonate with one another as if in pre-established harmony. Benjamin summed up this tendency of the age in his Einbahnstrasse (1928; One-way street), where he remarks that refined prose has three dimensions: a musical one which structures the piece rhythmically, an architectonic one which provides the external structure, and a“textile” one which provides the verbal fabric and particular texture of the text (Dieter Bachmann, 1969). His “artwork essay” is one of the most important contributions to the sociology of art in the 20th century and is worthy of detailed analysis.
5.2. From Exile to Postwall (1945–94)
The essayistic style was not favored by the National Socialists, who came to power in 1933. They rejected the essay precisely because of its open, critical stance, something German exile writers of course valued all the more. The editorial reactions of Die neue Rundschau (1890–; The new review) and Die Deutsche Rundschau (1874–45, 1950–; The German review) reveal the two major forms of resistance during the Fascist regime.
While the former employed cloaking devices in order to conceal its criticism of the Nazis, the latter under the direction of Rudolf Pechel was unmistakenly critical of the regime. Two collections of essays from the pages of these journals underscore the point.
In his collection, Der goldene Schnitt: Grosse Essayisten der Neuen Rundschau 1890– 1960 (1960; The golden harvest), Christoph Schwerin includes not a single essay from the period 1933–44, explaining that the journal became a secret center of anti-National Socialist thought, but that National Socialist terminology had to be adopted in order to conceal its real purpose. By contrast, Pechel penned an introduction, “Schicksale und politische Aufgabe einer deutschen Zeitschrift” (Fate and political mission of a German journal) to his collection, Deutsche Rundschau: Acht Jahrzehnte deutschen Geisteslebens (1961; German review: eight decades of German intellectual life) in which he explains how he used the journal as a weapon against the Ministry of Propaganda and the Gestapo.
He consciously sought to unmask the Nazi regime by employing the techniques of Montesquieu, Swift, and Confucius (Rohner). But following World War II the essay again came into its own, rising to prominence in such publications as Merkur (1947–; Mercury), Sinn und Form (1949–; Meaning and form), Frankfurter Hefte (Frankfurt journal), Der Monat (The month), and Kursbuch (Timetable), as well as again in the Deutsche Rundschau and Neue Rundschau. Newspapers such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Frankfurt general newspaper) and the Süddeutsche Zeitung (South German newspaper) are frequent sites of essayistic rather than merely feuilletonistic writing.
The positivism and specialization already evident in the Baconian branch of the European essay and in the 19th-century German one have come to mark the scientific attitudes of the 20th. In order to communicate the particular knowledge of a narrow specialty to the public at large, recourse was taken to essay writing. Examples of this move are provided by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung (1875–1961), Werner Heisenberg (1901–76), Hans Blumenberg (1920–96), Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, and Max Planck (1858–1947). A by-product of this movement has been the importation of the mentality of precise measurements essential to science into the quintessentially ambiguous realm of art. Consequently, some critics fear the progressive disintegration of the essay (Karl August Horst, 1962.) and note a significant shift from the classical essay of the 18th and 19th centuries with its goal of instigating a critical dialogue to a desire simply to win the reader over to the author’s point of view. The positing of a specific ideological or dogmatic truth threatens to displace the characteristic encirclements of possible, probable truths. Thus it is imperative that the reader pay close attention to the modus operandi. More important than a particular style is the essential attitude reflected in the use of language.
Other critics sense a decline in the appropriateness of the classical essay of the 18th and 19th centuries as a model for writing in the 20th century because it seemed little more than a form of masquerade and prevarication (Hermann Kähler, 1982). Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Chandos letter and Hermann Hesse’s “Die Brüder Karamasoff oder der Untergang Europas” (1919; The brothers Karamasov and the decline of Europe) or “Zarathustras Wiederkehr” (1919; Zarathustra’s return), and Ricarda Huch’s “Entpersönlichung” (1921; Depersonalization) capture this feeling—paradoxically—in essay form. While the sense of decenteredness recurs after 1945, it does not stem the flow of essays. Weizsäcker, Walter Jens (1923–), and Christa Wolf demonstrate that such fears of dissolution are exaggerated.
Gerhard Haas identifies three general categories of essayists in the 20th century which, however, are not free of overlap. The first group includes those whose point of departure is belles-lettres itself: Alfred Andersch (1914–80), Ingeborg Bachmann (1926–73), Hermann Bahr, Gottfried Benn, Ernst Bertram, Heinrich Böll (1917–85), Rudolf Borchardt, Bertholt Brecht (1898–1956), Hermann Broch, Elias Canetti, Alfred Döblin (1878–1937), Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921–90), Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Max Frisch, Günter Grass (1927–), Hermann Hesse (1877–1962), Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Ernst Jünger (1895–), Oskar Loerke (1884–1941), Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Rudolf Alexander Schröder (1878–1962), Peter Turrini (1944–), Robert Walser, Christa Wolf, and Stefan Zweig (1881–1942), among many others. The second group comprises essayists who come from the other disciplines, for example: Theodor W.Adorno, Max Bense (1910–90), Ernst Bloch (1885–1977), Jacob Christoph Burckhardt, Ernst Robert Curtius (1886–1956), Sigmund Freud, Romano Guardini (1885–1968), Friedrich Heer (1916–83), Eric Heller (1911–), Ricarda Huch, Walter Jens, Rudolf Kassner, Max Kommerrell (1902–44), Georg Lukács (1885–1971), Hans Mayer, Alexander Mitscherlich (1908–82), Rudolf Pannwitz (1881–1969), Georg Simmel, Karl Vossler, and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. Finally, a third group draws its members largely from the press and media: Peter Bamm (1897–1975), Walter Benjamin, Hans Hennecke (1897–1977), Theodor Heuss (1884–1963), Josef Hofmiller, Curt Hohoff (1913–), Hans Egon Holthusen, Siegfried Kracauer, Karl Kraus (1874–1936), Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920), Max Rychner, Arno Schmidt (1914–79), Dolf Sternberger (1907–), Günter Wallraff (1942–), and Werner Weber. As extensive as this list is, it is still woefully incomplete.
The 20th century has seen a veritable flood of essayistic writing which makes it prohibitive to go into any detail here. Yet it is useful to cite certain influential editions and even individual essays worthy of closer consideration. Among the telling collections are Bildung (1900; Education) and Inventur (1912; Inventory) by Hermann Bahr (1863– 1934), whose titles represent essential attitudes toward stock-taking at the turn of the century. Robert Walser (1878–1956) followed with Aufsätze (1913; Essays), Georg Simmel (1858–1918) with Fragmente und Aufsätze (1923; Fragments and essays), Rudolf Kassner with Essays (1923), and Josef Hofmiller (1872–1933) with his Über den Umgang mit Büchern (1927; On intimacy with books). Heinrich Mann (1871–1950), even more noteworthy than his brother Thomas as an essayist, produced a whole series of essay collections over a 20-year span: e.g. Macht und Mensch (1919; Power and people), Geist und Tat (1931; Spirit and deed), and Mut (1939; Courage). Thomas Mann (1875– 1955) had a broad impact with his literary critiques, “Goethe und Tolstoi” (1925; “Goethe and Tolstoy”), “Goethe als Repräsentant des bürgerlichen Zeitalters” (1932; “Goethe as Representative of the Bourgeois Age”), and “Leiden und Grösse Richard Wagners” (1933; “Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner”) as well as numerous other essays. Siegfried Kracauer’s (1889–1966) Weimar essays Das Ornament der Masse (1936; The Mass Ornatnent) captures the mood of those years, while the autobiographical “Doppelleben” (1950; Double life) of Gottfried Benn (1886–1956) reflects the tension between the individual as self-directive and the self as an insignificant test case in a large laboratory experiment.
Blätter aus dem Brotsack (1940; Pages from the food pouch) by Max Frisch (1911– 91) and Welt im Wort (1949; World in the word) by Max Rychner (1897–1965) are commentaries on the war years. “Der unbehauste Mensch” (1951; Homeless man), Ja and Nein (1954; Yes and no), and Das Schöne und das Wahre (1958; The beautiful and the true) by Hans Egon Holthusen (1913–) capture the sense of marginalization and ambivalence toward the past and one’s own disenfranchisement caused by the war.
Rychner picked up on these themes in Zwischen Mitte und Rand (1964; Between center and margin). The socially and culturally critical essays in Theodor W.Adorno’s (1903– 69) Prismen (1955; Prisms) proved to be highly influential, as was his edition of Benjamin’s critical writings, Schriften I und II (1955). The same is true of Holztvege (1950; Woodpaths) by Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), although Bruno Berger (1964) is reluctant to label them essays. Elias Canetti’s (1905–94) Masse und Macht (1960; Crowds and Power) and Die Welt im Kopf (1962; The world in your head), Werner Weber’s well-received Tagebuch eines Lesers (1965; Diary of a reader), and Christa Wolf’s Lesen und Schreiben (1972; Reading and writing) evince the continuing appeal of the essay in the in the second half of the century.
Individual essays of note are Das hilflose Europa (1922; Helpless Europe) by Robert Musil (1880–1942), “Der Zerfall der Werte” (1932; “The Disintegration of Values”) and “Das System der Welt-Bewältigung” (System of world control) by Hermann Broch (1886–1951), “Bildung als Konsumgut” (1962; Culture as consumer ware) by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1929–), Adorno’s “Zeitlose Mode” (Timeless fashion), Kracauer’s “Über Erfolgsbücher und ihr Publikum” (On bestsellers and their public), Max Weber’s (1864 1920) “Wissenschaft als Beruf” (1919; Science as profession),“Stein” (Stone) by Ricarda Huch (1864–1947), and Holthusen’s “Der unbehauste Mensch.” Each is exemplary in style and form. Many of those written before the war were rediscovered as a way of dealing indirectly with the dark era of fascism. Huch’s piece is a rare example of political essay in German. Kracauer’s topology of filmic motifs and his sociological critique in “Die kleinen Ladenmädchen gehen ins Kino” (1927; The little shop girls go to the movies) are still fresh and incisive today because of their emphasis on the impact of the entertainment industry. Films reinforce bourgeois values through their choice of characterization. Film imitates life, but life also imitates film, for the young women model their own actions on the film characters.
The above-named essays also reveal a tendency in the 20th-century essay toward the more formal treatise with clear external signposts of the internal structure. This is also true of Walter Benjamin, whose influence on postwar writing has been considerable in the wake of the posthumous publication of his works in the 1950s. His “Der Autor als Produzent” (1934; The author as producer) and artwork-essay have been frequently consulted by writers and scholars alike. Completely different but equally significant for the history of the essay are his treatments of Baudelaire (1939) with its emphasis on the urban life of the flâneur and the celebration of Franz Kafka (1934) as the quintessential “homeless” intellectual adrift in the flow of time.
“Brecht und die Humanität” (1964; Brecht and humanity) by Hans Mayer (1907–) is a rhetorical tour de force with a strong essayistic slant toward the favored method of the combinatory principle. Mayer begins his oration significantly with the statement: “Brecht and humanitas: a questionable combination.” Yet it can serve to underscore the continuous fascination with politics (Brecht) and humanistic values (humanitas) which lies at the center of the essay. Mayer is known for his mesmerizing ability to speak freely on writers and their literature, their forms and traditions, and their realized or unrealized political responsibilities. In a secular age of reason, he plays the kind of role that Luther, Zwingli, and Abraham a Sancta Clara played in the age of faith when the preacher was teacher, entertainer, and pastor all rolled into one. The rhetorical tradition continues despite obvious transformations in world view.
K.G.Just pointed out in “Der Essay” (1954), his pioneering article on the essay, that future inquiries into the history and practice of the essay would need to look explicitly at the influence on the genre emanating from scientific circles and not focus merely on the literary practice. While it is evident from the essayistic output of the Göttinger physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–99), the geological studies of Goethe, and the objective essays of Alexander von Humboldt that the natural sciences have always been part and parcel of the essayistic tradition, developments since 1945 have dissolved the distinction between scientific prose and the literary essay even further. Aesthetic production in all the genres has displayed a strong tendency to experiment, thus drawing closer to the stance of science and technology. Two essayists—Wolf and Weizsäcker— exemplify these border crossings between science and poetry which are at the core of
Few natural scientists have shown themselves to be more accomplished essayists than the physicist, philosopher, and statesman, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (1912–). A veritable uomo universale like Francis Bacon, Weizsäcker has contributed frequently and substantially to the genre. Of special interest in this context is the work pursuant to the transformation of his world view during the 1950s, when he began to formulate his philosophy of nature in search of a unity of nature, science, religion, and human existence. His studies of Kant, Descartes, the scholastics, Aristotle and Plato, and frequent talks with Heidegger convinced him of the dominant role that a skeptical attitude plays in gaining knowledge. Philosophy is, in fact, learning how to ask ever more questions. Of course the methodology was not unknown to him as an atomic physicist interested in spin theory and the splitting of the atom. He has held a chair in physics (Berlin) and in philosophy (Hamburg). These experiences found expression on the lecture circuit. The chief thematic foci of his essays and speeches are human consciousness, social structures, economic conditions, ecology, the concept of nation, political responsibility, and personal morality.
Christa Wolf (1929–) is an essayist in the manner of Montaigne as well as a noted novelist. Her light touch is deceiving in that her prose sentences consistently pierce the external shell of convention to stir inner movement. Her essays fly easily, breathe naturally, and animate relentlessly. This is especially true of such pieces as “Tabula Rasa” (1968) in which she invokes a universe of self-knowledge and experience resultant of her reading since childhood and concludes that without books, she could not be what she has become. “One of the greatest adventures we can have in life,” she contends, is “to compare, examine, define our limits and gradually learn to see ourselves, to measure ourselves against the most well-defined figures of all time.” Without books all that is impossible.
Extraordinary as an essay crossing disciplinary boundaries is the speech Wolf delivered in Bremen in 1977 entitled “Ein Satz” (1978; “A Sentence”). An intent look at the simple relationships subject-verb-object quickly reveals cracks and fissures running throughout the apparently monolithic façade. Sentences rarely match the human behavior, the internal conditions of the reader or listener. We hear and understand what we already know and accept. Prejudgment interferes, therefore, with the ability to judge what another is saying. This stance harks back to Thomasius and to Lessing and Wieland’s exhortations to hear clearly, read closely, and think critically for oneself in order to escape the controlling mechanisms of tradition and customs.
In “Gedächtnis und Gedenken: Über Fred Wander” (1972; “Commemorative Medallions”) Wolf deals with memory, identifying the essential tension between systole and diastole which defines human existence. Here the principle of expansion is translated into the language of imagination with its freedom to play with the open possibilities while the principle of contraction is rendered in the language of trite tradition and hardening habit. Her comment on the function of epic prose in the battle against intellectual arthritis applies equally to essayistic writing with its insistence on resistance: “Epic prose should be a genre which aims to penetrate [the] individual, the prose reader, along trails which have not yet been blazed. It must get through to his innermost core, the nucleus where the personality is formed and made solid… This region is accessible to the voice of another human being; prose can reach it; language can touch it and open it up—not to take control of it, but to free psychic energies whose power is comparable to those locked in the atom.” As is true for essayists of any era, we must have the courage to investigate, to explore, to experiment. This Wolf does in “Abschied von Phantomen—Zur Sache: Deutschland” (1994; “Parting from Phantoms: The Business of Germany”) in which she reviews—not all too kindly—the first five years after the fall of the wall and the reunification of East and West Germany. It is a far-ranging and incisive expose which draws upon history, literature, travels to America, ethnic and cultural diversity in easy and tantalizing ways. As is the wont with classical essayists, she keeps the reader guessing where she is headed as she moves toward her goal in a seemingly associative manner. Her real topic is forgetfulness, oblivion, “the loss of reality.” That aligns her with writers of the 1950s troubled by memories of the recent past. Wolf’s refrain-like question “Where am I headed?” keeps the reader focused until she concludes with an image of a commonly prepared and shared meal by all Germans whether from the West or from the East.
The kind of prose Weizsäcker and Wolf offer in these pieces is truly essayistic; it is hazardous to writer and reader alike, for it is capable of altering and moving. It is supposed to alter and move. Wolf strikes a chord resonant with one sounded by the American essayist, Harold Brodkey, who deemed reading (not just consuming) to be a most dangerous game. Unfortunately, Wolf suspected that prose writers in the 1970s and 1980s had not yet arrived at the stage of science which, of course, is wholly dependent on curiosity and experimentation and without which there could be no further movement.
6. Conclusion: Maps
The German essay is like a map of middle Europe: it reveals geographical diversity and fecundity. The essays are like so many signposts; the essayists are the guides. Individual essays, essay collections, essayistic interludes in novels, even the personalities of the essayists themselves are like the hills and valleys, pastures and meadows, lakes, rivers, and streams, the towns and urban centers. All contribute a particular flavor to the terrain and give it its special character. A traveler therein can become acquainted with many different towns and landscapes. The essayist functions as a collector and transmitter of the spirit of an age—not in the sense of an objective mirror which merely reflects images but in the sense of an amplifier and filter of human thoughts and emotions.
Distinguishing fine nuances, rearranging them in creative and productive ways, the essayist captures the invigorating essence of the all-toomundane in the cultural, sociological, and philosophical matrix of the human community and sends it back out into the relational system to energize the whole with new life. Such is the function of the essay as mediator between spirit and deed, between science and poetry, from Thomasius to Christa Wolf. It dazzles with its sparkle and animates with its delicate balancing act.
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