Medusa's Mirror: Studies in German Literature

By August Closs | Go to book overview

II
Minnesang and its Spiritual Background

Every utterance or word lives and has its home in a particular environment. The word in the family is different from the word in business or in public. The word which has come to live in the warmth of a personal relationship is frozen to death in the cold air of public existence.

D. BONHOEFFER, Ethics


LOVE AND LOGOS

IN MOMENTS OF great decisions, freewill gives man worth and dignity -- even when his physical existence is tragically doomed. Man's strongest instincts: the aggressive, selfassertive will to live and the destructive, self-effacing will to die or (in Freud's terminology) the 'Lebensinstinkt' and the 'Todesinstinkt', have profoundly shaped the face of our civilization. These instinctive impulses are perpetuated in poetic symbols, most intensely perhaps in the images of Prometheus and Tristan. The latter may certainly only in part be considered an illustration of the ideas of courtly love. Prometheus is a symbol of man's passionate, predatory self-realization. Tristan is a symbol of man's urge towards self-extinction; it is a death-yearning, drowned in the Wagnerian music of the 'Liebestod' and the twilight of the Gods. Similar destructive and self-assertive impulses are also revealed in animal existence, for instance in the life of the worker bees, who, when autumn approaches, ruthlessly slaughter their own drone bees in order to be able to avert famine in the winter months; or there are the lemmings -- rodents of the north, who, facing starvation through over-production, commit suicide in enormous masses in the water.

Mass hysteria seems at least one reasonable explanation of the apocalyptic catastrophe which befell Europe in the struggle of 1939-45. The holy right to exist is the one and last human

-43-

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