Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History: Applied Hermeneutics

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Chapter 10
UNDER THE SHADOW OF NIHILISM

When I select two German poets, poets of the German language, for this subject matter, there is really no choice but Gottfried Benn and Paul Celan. If one wished to specify those writers in German literature since the Second World War who truly were able to express something of the basic emotional, mental and religious circumstances of that time, then one would have to search among the lyric poets. We Germans are not a people of great novelists. Even writers like Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, or Robert Musil are much too bound to the peculiar refinements of mannerist narrative style for them to possess the carrying voice of the natural narrative. Certainly we were deeply moved by Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, which reached us after the war, and even more by Thomas Mann's equally profound and yet rather contrived and esoteric reponse to the German tragedy -- and -- perhaps with the longest lasting effect -- the ingenious retrospective of The Man without Qualities. Certainly, Heinrich Böll's brevity and Giinter Grass's exuberance in narration also received recognition outside of Germany. But could any one of these compete with the great novelists of England, Russia, France, with Joyce, with Proust, with The Possessed or Karamazov or Anna Karenina, which do and which will continue to speak to us? On the other hand, one may well assert that German lyric poetry has for hundreds of years been an adequate expression of the German spirit, which was always bound to the great scientific and philosophic experiences and achievements of German culture. I only need mention Stefan George, who was surely the most significant artist in the German tongue in the last hundred years. I name Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Rainer Maria Rilke and Georg Trakl. Of course, politically speaking most of them were not German citizens, but the Respublica Litteraria does not recognize any borders which are not established by language. And we all endeavor to overcome even the borders of language, when we travel in foreign lands or when we listen to foreign guests speaking their own language.

Considering German lyric poetry of the postwar period there is really no choice. Gottfried Benn and Paul Celan are the two great poets who, in the time after the Second World War, adequately expressed in poetry something of the German sense of life, the German fate -- the

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Essay, published in Amsterdam, 1988.

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