The Disinherited Mind: Essays in Modern German Literature and Thought

The Disinherited Mind: Essays in Modern German Literature and Thought

The Disinherited Mind: Essays in Modern German Literature and Thought

The Disinherited Mind: Essays in Modern German Literature and Thought

Excerpt

Anyone engaged in the study, teaching and criticism of literature as a University discipline is likely to become at some time or other aware of one fundamental problem raised by his own pursuits, of a difficulty that is all his own and is not, or at least not to the same extent, shared by his colleagues in other subjects. For however sincerely he may struggle against bias and prejudice in his own approach and appreciation, his work will still be very intimately related to his experiences in wider fields. It is true that his devotion to literature is capable of purging his affections of too narrowly subjective and emotional elements; yet his comprehension will remain largely determined by his own character, his spontaneous sympathies or antipathies, the happiness he has enjoyed or the disasters that have befallen him. And this, he will see, is no shortcoming of his own discipline, to be conquered in scientific campaigns or disguised by scientific masquerades, but is in fact its distinctive virtue. For the ultimate concern of his subject is neither facts nor classifications, neither patterns of cause and effect nor technical complexities. Of course, strict honesty in the face of facts and a certain mastery in dealing with their manifold interconnections are the indispensable qualifications of the literary scholar. In the end, however, he is concerned with the communication of a sense of quality rather than measurable quantity, and of meaning rather than explanation.

Thus he would be ill-advised to concentrate exclusively on those aspects of his discipline which allow the calm neutrality of what is indisputably factual and 'objective'. His business is, I think, not the avoidance of subjectivity, but its purification; not the shunning of what is disputable, but the cleansing and deepening of the dispute. As a teacher he is involved in a task which would appear impossible by the standards of the scientific laboratory: to teach what, strictly speaking, cannot be taught, but only 'caught', like a passion, a vice or a virtue. This 'impossibility' is the inspiration of his work. There are no methods that comprehend his subject; only methods, perhaps, that produce the intellectual pressure and temperature in which perception crystallizes into conviction and learning into a sense value. Goethe tells of a Greek nobleman who was asked . . .

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