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Tragedy and the Tragic in German Literature, Art, and Thought

Tragedy and the Tragic in German Literature, Art, and Thought

Stephen D. Dowden
Thomas P. Quinn
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 410
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  • Book Info
    Tragedy and the Tragic in German Literature, Art, and Thought
    Book Description:

    The many catastrophes of German history have often been described as tragic. Consequently, German literature, music, philosophy, painting, and even architecture are rich in tragic connotations. Yet exactly what "tragedy" and "the tragic" may mean requires clarification. The poet creates a certain artful shape and trajectory for raw experience by "putting it into words"; but does putting such experience into words (or paintings or music or any other form) betray suffering by turning it into mere art? Or is it art that first turns mere suffering into tragic experience by revealing and clarifying its deepest dimension? What are we talking about, exactly, when we talk about tragic experience and tragic art, especially in an age in which, according to Hannah Arendt, evil has become banal? Does banality muffle or even annul the tragic? Does tragedy take suffering and transform it into beauty, as Schiller thought? Is it in the interest of truth for suffering to be "beautiful"? Is it possible that poetry, music, and art are important because they in fact create the meaning of suffering? Or is suffering only suffering and not accessible to meaning, tragic or otherwise? This book comprises essays that seek to clarify the meaning of tragedy and the tragic in its many German contexts, art forms, and disciplines, from literature and philosophy to music, painting, and history. Contributors: Jeffrey A. Bernstein, Steve Dowden, Wolfram Ette, Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei, Karsten Harries, Joseph P. Lawrence, James McFarland, Karen Painter, Bruno Pieger, Robert Pirro, Thomas Quinn, Mark Roche, Helmut Walser Smith. Stephen D. Dowden is Professor of German at Brandeis University. Thomas Quinn is an independent scholar.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-412-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: The Pursuit of Unhappiness
    (pp. 1-20)
    Stephen D. Dowden

    Suffering and death are universal. They are the basal experience that tragic art addresses. But is tragic art in one form or another also universal? Are there times and places on which tragic thinking can have no purchase? If so, is our anti-mythic age of science and reason, of democracy and rapid technological progress an era unsuited to tragic art? The modern world is largely optimistic despite the massively destructive violence of the last century. Terrible things still happen to individuals, to families, to whole peoples. Yet when no wrong seems fully beyond prevention—an unforeseen possibility that with due...

  5. 1: The Confinement of Tragedy: Between Urfaust and Woyzeck
    (pp. 21-39)
    Helmut Walser Smith

    In The Death of Tragedy we read that George Steiner considered Goethe’s composition ofUrfaustto be the moment when German literature nearly embraced the full force of the tragic but then stepped back from its implications. This essay will follow Steiner’s insight and ask why the tragic was not, circa 1772, fully embraced. Steiner had already argued that the coming together of creative genius and a historical setting propitious for tragedy is an altogether rare occurrence.¹ Others, like Erich Heller, have seen the problem in a complete lack of any tradition that would have allowed Goethe to look more...

  6. 2: Goethe’s Faust as the Tragedy of Modernity
    (pp. 40-64)
    Joseph P. Lawrence

    The tragedy of modernity is that, turning its back on tragedy, it moves along with reckless abandon and in the process forgets the wisdom of the ages. Even its attempts to proceed with caution, entrusting history to the guidance of reason, all too often misfire, for what does reason have to say about where we should be headed? Are we to do what makes rational sense for each of us as isolated individuals? Should we act for this historical moment in which collectively we find ourselves? Or is the proper goal the ultimate good of humanity, as might be realized...

  7. 3: Before or Beyond the Pleasure Principle: Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften and the Tragedy of Entsagung
    (pp. 65-92)
    Thomas P. Quinn

    Goethe was a flirt. He flirted continually, not just with people, mostly younger women, but also with ideas, some very old—like tragedy. He used the younger women sometimes to create tragedy—and sometimes to overcome it.Faust, Goethe’s “sehr ernster Scherz,”¹ the non-tragedy tragedy, becomes in the end a divine comedy, not just because there is a god who saves Faust, but also because Faust’s former flirt, Gretchen, appears at the end, or after the end, and continues to exercise that force that kept Faust striving and Goethe writing. It may or may not be becoming for a god...

  8. 4: Hölderlin und das Tragische
    (pp. 93-123)
    Bruno Pieger

    Schon mit demHyperion-Roman, der 1797 und 1799 in zwei Bänden erschien und der so enthusiastisch und idealistisch formuliert war, betreten wir den tragischen Kosmos von Hölderlins Dichtung. Das Motto des ersten Bandes, das einem Epitaph für Ignatius von Loyola, den Gründer des Jesuitenordens, entnommen ist, lautet: “Non coerceri maximo, contineri minimo, divinum est,”¹ und kann von uns übersetzt werden mit: “Vom Größten nicht verkümmert und noch vom Kleinsten liebend umfangen werden, heißt wahrhaft göttlich ereignet zu sein.” Im schroffen Gegensatz dazu steht das Motto zum zweiten Band,² das Sophokles’ TragödieÖdipus auf Kolonos(Vers 1224–27) entnommen ist:


  9. 5: Nietzsche, Büchner, and the Blues
    (pp. 124-147)
    Stephen D. Dowden

    In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche links tragic art to folk songs. Following Schopenhauer, he takes music—and not literary genre, historical ideas, philosophical concepts, actual suffering, or even pure storytelling—to be what originates, shapes, and carries tragedy’s expressive force. According to Nietzsche, the spontaneous appeal of rhythm and melody evoke a primal sense of unity with life and with the greater whole in which life is imbedded. First the music and then the words, insofar as words too are musical, well up out of these depths as specific, merely individual instances of a deeper, never-quite-articulated knowledge and, generally,...

  10. 6: Freud und die Tragödie
    (pp. 148-170)
    Wolfram Ette

    Die Behauptung, in der Moderne könne es keine authentischen Tragödien mehr geben, verdankt sich zum einem Teil der Blindheit gegenüber dem Medium des Films. Hier floriert das Genre, und nicht bloß in depravierter Form. Zu einem anderen Teil jedoch liegt ihr eine zutreffende Intuition zugrunde. “Die Mehrzahl der Stücke, die wir als tragische Meisterwerke betrachten, sind nur Familiendebatten und -streitereien,” schreibt Jean Giraudoux.¹ Wie aber könnte die kleine Welt der Familie noch beanspruchen, die tragenden gesellschaftlichen Konflikte einer globalen, hochkomplexen Welt mit offenen und sich permanent verschiebenen Rändern darzustellen? Es spricht einiges dafür, dass diese Welt “tragisch” verfasst ist, dass...

  11. 7: The Death of Tragedy: Walter Benjamin’s Interruption of Nietzsche’s Theory of Tragedy
    (pp. 171-194)
    James McFarland

    In 1915 young Walter Benjamin, at the time a prominent student activist with the German Youth Movement, broke publicly with his mentor and leader Gustav Wyneken over the latter’s support of the First World War. “Dear Herr Doctor Wyneken,” Benjamin’s open letter begins, “I ask you to accept the following lines with which I entirely and without reserve disassociate myself from you as a final demonstration of loyalty, and only as that.” The paradox is almost too cute, were its indignation not so passionately felt. “Loyalty,” Benjamin continues, “because I could not utter a word to the man who wrote...

  12. 8: Rosenzweig’s Tragedy and the Spectacles of Strauss: The Question of German-Jewish History
    (pp. 195-215)
    Jeffrey A. Bernstein

    Is there not something oppressive about raising, once again, the question of how to understand German-Jewish history (if, in fact, one assumes that non-Jewish and Jewish Germans actually participated in thesamehistory)? According to Gershom Scholem, the answer would have to be yes. In the context of speaking about German-Jewish dialogue, he states the following:

    I deny that there has ever been such a German-Jewish dialogue in any genuine sense whatsoever, i.e., as ahistorical phenomenon. It takes two to have a dialogue, who listen to each other, who are prepared to perceive the other as what he is...

  13. 9: Requiem for the Reich: Tragic Programming after the Fall of Stalingrad
    (pp. 216-228)
    Karen Painter

    In one of the classic texts on German collective memory after the Second World War,The Inability to Mourn, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich examine the emotional blockage they saw as afflicting Germans after the losses they had suffered and felt, and the losses they had inflicted and found difficult to acknowledge.¹ The inability to mourn after the war, however, had been preceded by an official unwillingness to mourn during the war, as the Nazi regime did not want to recognize any public ceremonies that might suggest final victory was in doubt. The accumulating losses on the battlefield, including deaths and...

  14. 10: The Strange Absence of Tragedy in Heidegger’s Thought
    (pp. 229-254)
    Karsten Harries

    In Either/Or Kierkegaard has his aesthete A say this about the modern age: “It is conceited enough to disdain the tears of tragedy, but it is also conceited enough to want to do without mercy. And what, after all, is human life, the human race, when these two things are taken away?”¹ A’s rhetorical question presents us with an either/or quite different from that referred to by that work’s title: if the two volumes ofEither/Orappear to present the reader with a choice between two modern life-styles, the self-centered, aesthetic life, shadowed by despair, represented by the aesthete A,...

  15. 11: The Tragic Dimension in Postwar German Painting
    (pp. 255-286)
    Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei

    There is an undeniably tragic dimension to central motives of postwar German painting, particularly in the works of Anselm Kiefer. The imagery of devastated landscapes, charred fields and forests, empty attics and bunkers, flames, and ashen skies in Kiefer’s paintings evoke the devastation wreaked by Germany during the Second World War and by National Socialism. References to the poetry of Paul Celan and a lost Judaic heritage render such scenes extraordinarily haunting. The use of such materials as ash, lead, burnt canvas, human hair, and straw contribute to both the material innovation and the provocative nature of these works. Invoking...

  16. 12: Vestiges of the Tragic
    (pp. 287-295)
    Mark W. Roche

    A common refrain today is that tragedy is either not possible or hopelessly unable to do justice to our age. Arguments for this view are diverse. They include, among others, the transition from what the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico called the age of heroes, where one single individual could still direct the course of history, to the age of men, when the due procedure of civic institutions, and no longer the great individual, became the guarantor of order, justice, and historical change.

    I, too, believe that tragedy is not as vibrant a genre as it once was, but that claim...

  17. 13: Atrocity and Agency: W. G. Sebald’s Traumatic Memory in the Light of Hannah Arendt’s Politics of Tragedy
    (pp. 296-310)
    Robert Pirro

    Relatively late in his career W. G. Sebald began attracting wide attention for his semi-autobiographical books written in a dense and digressive style and incorporating black-and-white photographs and postcard images. These images intimate some of the more profound costs of nineteenth-and twentieth-century European civilization. Evoking the aftermath of wars, genocides, and environmental devastation in such books asVertigo,The Rings of Saturn, andThe Emigrants, Sebald has attracted a growing body of scholarly criticism that tends increasingly to examine his literary engagement with traces of past suffering under the rubric of trauma. In discussing Sebald’sLuftkrieg und Literatur, his polemic...

  18. 14: “Stark and Sometimes Sublime”: Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on Tragedy
    (pp. 311-324)
    Barbara Hahn

    Tragedies usually do not “warm and lighten the heart.” Tragedies may move; they may encourage us to reconsider and to rethink what we thought we knew. In Hannah Arendt’s letter to Karl Jaspers, written on May 29, 1963, we encounter this strange notion of tragedy: “Ich kann nicht sagen, wie mich Deine Zustimmung zum Revolutionsbuch gefreut hat! . . . Jedes Wort, das Du schreibst, trifft in den Kern des von mir Gemeinten. Eine Tragödie, bei der es einem froh und warm ums Herz wird, weil so Einfaches und Großes auf dem Spiel steht.”¹ Arendt was responding to two enthusiastic...

  19. 15: The German Tragic: Pied Pipers, Heroes, and Saints
    (pp. 325-336)
    Felicitas Hoppe

    Let me begin with a biographical detail that also marks a historical event: in the year 1284, the chronicle reports that a man now known worldwide as the Pied Piper—in German derRattenfänger, the rat-catcher—was cheated out of his pay when he rid the town of its rats. So he abducted all the children of Hamelin, city of my birth. To this day research has failed to determine what became of them. Only two children, one blind and the other lame, remained behind. They weren’t fast enough to keep up with the piper. They were the only witnesses...

  20. Afterword: Searching for a Standpoint of Redemption
    (pp. 337-356)
    Thomas P. Quinn

    Imagine. Imagine the unimaginable. Negatively, not positively. And then realize, not just with your mind, but with your whole body and soul, that you did not imagine it. It really happened. Auschwitz. If utopia, oύ (“not”) and τόπoς (“place”), is a “no place,” a place that does not exist except as a vision of a better world, Auschwitz was a “no place” where a world ended, a place where existence was negated. More exactly: existences. Not exclusively, but overwhelmingly Jewish existences. One life after another. Again and again. We could name names, and add them all together only to arrive...

  21. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 357-360)
  22. Index
    (pp. 361-370)
  23. Back Matter
    (pp. 371-371)