The subjects of community: aspiration, memory,
Russell A. Berman
The cultural transformations associated with the collapse of the Wilhelmine empire in 1918 affected German literature and philosophy in quite distinct ways. Formal philosophy, lodged in the universities, was among the most conservative institutions in German society and one that underwent little change, despite the social upheaval, while creative literature grappled with profoundly transformative and avant-garde dynamics. Consequently it is not surprising to find literary discourse in the Weimar Republic more supple and imaginative than philosophical writing, and it is above all in literature, in the critical statements by authors (rather than by professional philosophers), and in the judgements of literary critics that one finds an ongoing working-through of the fundamental problems of the day.
Nineteenth-century poetic realism had measured the shapes of the objective world, both society and nature, and thereby rethought the category of totality inherited from classical philosophy. Turn-of-the-century modernism directed its attention to the innerworld of the subject, its anxieties and aspirations, and the limits of its capacity to perceive the world around it. Yet notwithstanding a sense of a growing estrangement between subject and object, Wilhelmine culture was able to maintain a superficially cohesive landscape of meaning, no matter how fraught with neo-Kantian dualities: the simultaneity and co-existence of an isolated individuality and its reified, natural-scientific environment. The assault on this conventional organisation of meaning, inherent in the reception of the literary works of Ibsen and Dostoevsky, as well as in the writings of Nietzsche and Freud, remained marginal until the enormous catastrophe that separates two epochs: the First World War; and it is in the literature of the war, rather than in contemporary philosophy, that the gravity of the cultural consequences became apparent.
Thus the young Bertolt Brecht, still a 'Gymnasium' (grammar school) student but already a published journalist, provoked a scandal with an