Culture and Identity: Historicity in German Literature and Thought 1770-1815

By Nicholls, Angus | Goethe Yearbook, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Culture and Identity: Historicity in German Literature and Thought 1770-1815


Nicholls, Angus, Goethe Yearbook


Maike Oergel, Culture and Identity: Historicity in German Literature and Thought 1770-1815. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 2006. viii + 297 pp.

The concept of historicity (Geschichtlichkeif) has played a central role in German philosophy and historiography of the post-war period, extending its influence into literary scholarship via the work of Hans Robert Jauss, among others. Yet despite the prevalence of this concept in both primary and secondary literature dealing with phenomenology, literary theory and historiography there exist (outside Germany at least) very few works that apply the concept of Geschichtlichkeit directly to canonical literary texts. Here one should not conflate the eminently philosophical and (if one follows Heidegger's use of the term) ontological sense of Geschichtlichkeit with the various and diffuse discourses on New Historicism in Anglophone literary scholarship, since the former concern themselves not primarily or exclusively with the relationship between literary texts and their specific socio-political contexts, but rather with how an awareness of the historically mediated character of normative values determines ideas about human progress in the late or post-Enlightenment era (1750-1850), otherwise known (thanks to Reinhart Koselleck) as the Sattelzeit.

Maike Oergel's interesting and ambitious book deals with a slightly shorter period (1770-1815) than that highlighted by Koselleck and other practitioners of Begriffsgeschichte, yet its central theoretical premise is similar to that found in the introduction to the Lexikon on Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: namely, around 1800 and especially in the wake of the French Revolution and Kant's critical philosophy, German thinkers began to be aware of the "historicity of values, including moral and philosophical categories" (4). The realization that normative values are historically conditioned rather than universal leads, in turn, to an "attempt to integrate change into any new value system," and this notion of change is more often than not dialectical (4). The central dialectic here is the relationship between the ancient and the modern, a relationship which, following the querelle des anciens et des modernes of the early eighteenth century, was reconfigured in Germany no longer as a thoroughgoing opposition, but rather as an attempt to relate perceived elements of classical aesthetics to the modern crisis of values (18).

Oergel proposes that when considered in this way, the period 1770-1815-which spans the traditional periodizations of Sturm und Drang, Klassik and (Früh-) Romantik-becomes an "intellectually coherent phase in terms of the intellectual problems addressed and intellectual and cultural objectives to be achieved" (3). Herder, Goethe, Schiller and Friedrich Schlegel all concern themselves, according to Oergel, with the relationship between the so-called "naïve" or "natural" poetics of ancient Greece on the one hand, and the tendency toward reflexivity, relativity and (in Schiller's sense of the term) sentimentality that characterizes modernity on the other. The result of this dialectical process is an attempt to conceive a modern German identity through the assistance of classical notions of form: German poetry uses purportedly classical notions like the "naive" or the "mythic" not as objects of pure mimesis, but rather as structural ideals that provide a heuristic guide for how to be modern. For this reason, the attempts of Herder, A. W. Schlegel and Fichte (among others) to establish a modern German identity should not be seen, according to Oergel, in a narrowly nationalist light; rather they express a central issue within the crisis of modernity per se: how to ground a national culture upon values and norms which are historically conditioned and subject to change.

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