Crafting Flesh, Crafting the Self: Violence and Identity in Early Nineteenth-Century German Literature

By Stewart, Walter | Goethe Yearbook, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Crafting Flesh, Crafting the Self: Violence and Identity in Early Nineteenth-Century German Literature


Stewart, Walter, Goethe Yearbook


John B. Lyon, Crafting Flesh, Crafting the Self: Violence and Identity in Early Nineteenth-Century German Literature. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2006. 280 pp.

John Lyon presents an engaging and original analysis of works that deal with wounded human bodies in the German literature of the early nineteenth century. His focus is on four separate works: Holderlin's Hyperion, Brentano's Godwi, Kleist's The Broken Pitcher, and Biichner's Danton's Death. He applies a different philosophical foundation to each work.Thus,Hyperion is seen from Fichte's subject/object perspective; Godwi is scrutinized vis a vis Freud's ideas on trauma; The Broken Pitcher is analyzed with respect to Walter Benjamin's theories on power and violence; and Biichner's Danton's Death is examined employing the psycholinguistic theories of Jacques Lacan.

Lyon first explains the theory of wounding and violence on the body as it has developed as a theme over the last thirty years through sundry studies by Wolfgang Sofsky, Lindsay French, Elaine Scarry, David Morris, and others. Lyon uses the term "wounded" primarily in a physical sense since "Both wounding and the pain that it produces cause a radical division between subject and object" (15). Each analysis expands this concept of identity to include a number of allied preoccupations such as psychology, philosophy, politics, art, and linguistics. In fact, Lyon's analysis of wounding in these works not only provides a fresh take on each piece but also elucidates the concept of identity in its richest meaning in remarkable and new ways with respect to German Romanticism as such.

And so we view the elegiac hero Hyperion as a divided self who ends his story with dissolution of his identity. This occurs in the first instance as a result of physical wounds that he himself has suffered, even as he wounds others. For Lyon, Hyperion becomes a "self who views himself in terms of subject and object, asserting the Fichtean categories of Ich' and Nicht-Ich'" (33).That Hyperion concludes the work as divided reveals a psychosomatic state that disallows his wished for completeness, or as Lyon insists: "The image of the wound as a representative of consciousness thus puts wholeness of self at an unattainable remove" (77).

Meanwhile, the seldom analyzed Godwi focuses on the problem of trauma itself, and Lyon is careful to set the stage of his argument by employing ideas from Freud's Pleasure Principle where he voices "notions of consciousness resulting from trauma, of a repetitive compulsion, and of conflicting fundamental drives" (86). Accordingly, Lyon sees Brentano's focus on the wound as "a metaphor for the experience of traumatic loss, and the scar represents the psychological persistence of trauma" (87). Godwi is unable to rise above his psychological wounds and particularly the psychological scarring he has suffered from past relationships. Even the church-like museum created by his father colors his memories negatively because he always associates it and his father with violence. But the outcome also is Freudian in that Brentano portrays Godwi as being simultaneously possessed by the opposing drives of sex and death that Freud suggests "both stem from the Wiederholungszwang, a compulsion to repeat original traumatic experience" (94).

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