Sunday, 8 November 2009

Writing German History

Paper given at the Modern European History Seminar, University of Cambridge, 25 October 2009. Three generations of German historians - Professor Richard Evans, Professor Christopher Clark, and myself - were asked to speak for fifteen to twenty minutes on the subject of 'Writing German History,' in part as a response to Richard Evans's inaugural lecture as Regius Professor of History (now published in expanded form by Cambridge University Press as Cosmopolitan Islanders).

Please forgive me for starting with a brief quotation in German. I hesitate to do so, given that so many of my audience will speak German incomparably better than I do and some will not do so at all. But that is beside the point, for I wish to employ these words as a starting point, from which one might travel in various directions, including translation and its complexities, thus granting a brief impression of the process of studying and writing German history.

Ich bin friedlos.
Ich bin durstig nach fernen Dingen.
Meine Seele schweift im Sehnsucht,
den Saum der dunklen Weite
zu berühren.

Following a significant orchestral introduction, which I wish I had had time to play, it is with a setting of those words that Alexander von Zemlinsky opens – or should that be opened? Much hangs on the tense, in terms of how we historically consider works of art – his Lyric Symphony of 1922-3. They might be translated as follows, though there would doubtless be more potential English versions from around this table than there are seats:

I am restless.
I am thirsty for things that are far away.
My soul wanders out in longing,
to touch the hem
of the dim distance.

In a romantic, indeed mystical, way, such thoughts approach why one might wish to study, to explore another culture or other cultures, or at least decline to cordon off one’s own culture. Like many of the respondents in Richard’s book, it never occurred to me to confine myself to English or British history. At school, my soul would always wander out in longing, grateful for the occasional glimpse of life across the Channel, on what is sometimes still called ‘the Continent’. It ws a bit like regional news: if important enough, it should make the national or international news; otherwise, another cat stuck up a tree was unlikely to set my pulse racing. Whilst I am very happy to write German history, I have no wish to be nationalistic about that; European history, world history, or best, history in that ‘dim distance’ is the common endeavour.

But let us look a little more closely at the words set by Zemlinsky and the context for the Lyric Symphony, or Lyrische Symphonie. First, Zemlinsky only set the words. They were already in translation, by one Hans Effenberger, from the original writer’s own somewhat loose – I am told – English translation from Bengali. That original writer was Rabindranath Tagore. How many instances of the soul wandering out in longing, of the dim distance, might one tot up there? It might be a useful conceit, an immanent one if you will, to help consider the work itself. Its words – but what, of course, of its music? – offer a way to consider its genesis and to its performance and reception. The first performance was conducted by the composer himself, and who was he? Zemlinsky was born in 1871, the son of a Viennese of Slovakian-Catholic descent, who had the year before converted to Judaism and of a mother who was the daughter of a mixed Muslim and Sephardic marriage. There is plenty, indeed almost suspiciously too much, to go on here then – and it is not difficult from these facts alone to imagine why the composer might have felt some degree of alienation.

That first performance took place in Prague’s German Theatre, not the better known National Theatre. The German Theatre had opened in 1888 with a performance of Die Meistersinger and would during the 1930s provide something of a refuge for artists who had fled the Third Reich. Our initial starting point of the opening of the Lyric Symphony could thus lead us in all sorts of interesting, suggestive directions, which might inform the work and be informed by it. This, for me, is the very essence of historical engagement and which tells us something not only about the source itself, in the historical sense and the sense of source as origin, but also about what it is we might be doing when we write history. The sheer volume of artistic production and the great claims made on behalf of art by so many Germans suggest that an artistically-derived or at least artistically-inspired method might be fruitful.

Let us return to those words Zemlinsky set. One might think them nonsense. How can a soul touch a hem, let alone a hem of the distance, dim or otherwise? One might think them interesting in artistic, cultural terms but think that they hardly enlighten the nature of historical study, certainly as construed in so-called scientific terms. Yet mysticism cautions us against literalism; it invites us to make connections, suggesting that we consider a culture as a whole and in relation to other cultures, and also to consider how cultures might not be wholes. We are invited to employ that most precious of the historian’s tools, the imagination. By this, I do not mean that we should make things up. But even with modern history, however that might be defined, we are faced not only with far too much that we do, or can, know, but also far too much that we do not know. Considering non- or only partly-verbal sources can encourage one to make other sorts of connections even when returning to words; they might be good connections or bad, but I think them no less valid on account of their provenance. Since a good part of my research has involved musical history, I have perhaps become especially aware of the limitations of words – and both the problems and opportunities of notes, of images, and so forth. One cannot always make logical deductions and even if one can, allusion and other forms of connection might have at least as much to tell us.

I shall now turn to the second of my two examples, Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, which I have just been re-reading. A passage struck me when, on the train a few days ago, I was beginning to think about this paper. In chapter twenty-six, Adrian Leverkühn, Mann’s fictional composer, is visited by the Devil. Leverkühn protests that the Devil has sought him out ‘here in alien Italy’. The composer would have suffered such a visitation in his home town of Kaisersachsern, in Wittenberg, on the Wartburg; ‘even in Leipzig I would have thought you credible. But surely not here, under a heathen Catholic sky!’ The Devil replies that Leverkühn values him too low, in so limiting his sphere. ‘German I am, German to the core,’ he says, ‘but then surely in an older, better sense, to wit: cosmopolitan at heart. You would disallow me here and make no account of the old German yearning and romantic itch to travel to Italy’s fair shore!’

How many resonances does that immediately conjure, the Italy of the German imagination? One might pursue that with Goethe’s Italian Journey, for instance. In Rome, Goethe claimed truly to have found himself, but it was in southern Italy, including Greece, where, equally importantly, he first encountered Greek architecture. He would take Winckelmann to task for having failed to understand, the difference. If we took that route, we might come to consider The Tyranny of Greece over Germany, as the title of one venerable book has it. Whom one might think about then? Perhaps it would be easier to ask at whom one might not look. But it might be worth spending some time with Nietzsche and his opposition between Apollo and Dionysus, that discussion, incidentally, owing far more than most Nietzsche scholars realise to Wagner, before returning, refreshed and informed, to Mann and Doktor Faustus. One could, in other words, use the intellectual journey – here caricatured to excess – either to inform work on the text with which one started or as a route to quite other aspects of German or other history.

Leverkühn was in many respects modelled upon Schoenberg, greatly to the annoyance of the composer, a fellow exile in Los Angeles. The musical material relied upon advice from Theodor Adorno, yet another of Mann’s Los Angeles neighbours. Schoenberg had little time even for Adorno’s advocacy – when conducting research in the Schoenberg archive in Vienna, I have read his furious marginal scribbling in Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music – let alone anything Schoenberg might consider less than due regard. He wrote to Mann in 1948, quoting an entry from an encyclopædia of the future, in which the author stated that Thomas Mann was clearly the inventor of the twelve-note method of musical composition and had had to endure the ‘unscrupulous’ exploitation of his idea by a now-forgotten composer called Arnold Schoenberg. As a result, editions and translations of Doktor Faustus still carry an ‘Author’s Note’ acknowledging Schoenberg’s intellectual property.

But intellectual property here, as in historical writing, is a problematical notion at best. Schoenberg elsewhere spoke more truly, more historically, when he insisted that his method of composition had developed from tradition, that his contribution had not represented a rupture, but rather a step in musical history neither smaller nor greater than any other. He stood on the shoulders of others, and not just other composers, just as we stand on the shoulders of others, and not just other historians. Mann’s meditation on and dramatisation of the course of German art and history, and their interaction has in some respects less in common with the constructivism of Schoenberg than with, say, the summative tendencies of musicians such as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Richard Strauss, struggling to deal with what might seem like the end of a line, or indeed with the ill tidings of Oswald Spengler, whom Mann had lapped up, comparing him to Schopenhauer. However, this connection between Mann and Schoenberg, a connection both biographical and intellectual – and exile counts as both – has much to tell us and much to suggest about the experience of war and its aftermath, shattered dreams of humanism, and so forth, in addition to consideration of the artists and their works themselves. I spoke of Mann as being engaged in dramatisation, and this is not a bad way to think of what we as historians are engaged in too, for dramatisation incites rather than settles, opens doors rather than closes them. We no more think of the end of history than the end of art. Dramatisation, composition, or writing and research inspired by artistic forms of production, can suggest something that might not necessarily be vouchsafed by the archives – and vice versa. This seems to me a thoroughly German notion: writing German history in perhaps a different, though I should argue complementary, sense from that our convenor intended.

We might of course have progressed or regressed in entirely different directions. Even if we had not taken perhaps the most obvious path of considering Mann, his novel, the ‘German catastrophe’ and the question of the special German path, the Sonderweg, even if we had still moved from the Devil appearing in Italy to Goethe and to a German opposition between Greece and Rome, we might perhaps have travelled a little further back, to consider this in terms of Enlightenment attitudes: the revival of paganism, as some would have it. We might have questioned that, asserting the fundamentally Christian nature of so much of the Enlightenment, especially the Aufklärung, whether Protestant or Catholic. (Recall Leverkühn’s assignation of his antagonist, rejected by the latter, to the world of Protestantism, to what Hegel considered the Teutonic world.) We might then have asked why Rome was perhaps more valued by the writers of the French Enlightenment, which could potentially have involved a consideration of how Greek thinkers, Aristotle in particular, had been co-opted by the mediæval Church into its ontology and thereby rendered partially suspect to those who would attack its successor. Better, surely, for a Voltaire to cite Marcus Aurelius, likewise that great historian, Edward Gibbon, much cited by Richard Evans in his Cosmopolitan Islanders? Contradiction exists and contradiction drives our endeavours.

Would this then have been German history, even if it started off as such? Not really, though it might well have been in the old, cosmopolitan sense of Germanness posited by Mann’s diabolical visitor. Would it even have qualified as modern history? It does not really matter. However, an awareness of oneself as a writer, as, in the terms of a number of German writers and artists, a mediator between Apollo and Dionysus, bringing some sense of order to the violent eruptions of history and the imagination, that self-awareness is perhaps the positive side of post-modernist conceptions of what it is to write history.

So once again, through a train of historical thought and research, albeit vastly simplified for the purposes of this paper, we have not only managed to impart a little historical understanding to a work, but perhaps, through a particular work – and it need not of course be a work: it could be some other historical source – have gained a little insight into the nature of historical research. The two are intimately, necessarily connected, unless one believes, which I certainly do not, that there is some thing-in-itself called ‘history’, which one can then apply to sources, problems, and so forth. Source criticism, or Quellenkritik, ought not only to be criticism of sources but by them. It is a chicken-and-egg situation – or, since we are dealing with German history and I myself have been so marked by this intellectual tradition, it is a dialectical reality.

In some ways, then, I am not at all sure that I have been writing, or trying to write, German history, though I have at least been trying to write history: something of which I am often reminded when discussing material with colleagues from other disciplines. For instance, a little while ago, I met someone who said that he was writing on Anselm and Derrida. My immediate thought and thus my immediate question was: what is or was – again that problem of tense with regard to texts – the connection? What does, or did, Derrida have to say about Anselm? How did he approach him? What sparked his interest? Was the relationship first-hand or more often mediated by other writers? Though I know precious little about either writer, such were for me the obvious questions. The non-historian – a theologian, I think – seemed bemused; he had simply thought it would be interesting to set up what he called a ‘conversation’ between Anselm and Derrida. By contrast, my imaginary connection of the two writers would surely have led me into the world of German history, not only because I know a little more about it, but also because immersion in that history has formed the very way I think.

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