Taboos in German Literature

Taboos in German Literature

Taboos in German Literature

Taboos in German Literature

Excerpt

Those of us who have spent most of our academic lives studying German literature will, I suspect, have asked ourselves at one stage or another why certain topics have received saturation treatment over the last two centuries while others have been either ignored entirely or at best grossly neglected. Part of the story is, of course, that our vision of literature has been mediated by literary historians who have been highly selective both in compiling the literary canon and in interpreting it. For example, hardy critical perennials in the 1950s and 1960s such as fate and necessity, the artist, Innerlichkeit, the uncanny, and the demonic, when linked to the textimmanent approach, blocked off questions about literature's relation to state and society and isolated nineteenth-century German literature from its French and British counterparts. Elevated notions both of what literature is about and how one must discuss it have combined with sexual and political taboos to marginalise or even banish certain topics. Conditioned in this way, even as readers who pride ourselves on our critical vigilance, we can easily read over or unconsciously edit out anything which does not fit into such frameworks.

However, the filtered literary stock and the restricted perspectives are not the whole problem. One can try to get beyond that barrier, and perhaps as commentators standing outside the German national-cultural tradition UK critics are well placed to do so. For us German literary forms and registers of language are systems whose workings we are trained to study from a distance. It is true, of course, that our own unrecognised Anglo-Saxon prejudices can queer the pitch. Further, in many areas and over long historical periods, our perspectives will be close to German ones in as much as we are all heirs to the same Christian-Enlightenment tradition and have been moulded by similar experiences as our states and societies have moved via different democratic and constitutional . . .

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