The unifying theme of The Disinherited Mind is the sense of values, or the value of life, as shown and embodied in the works of some modern German and Austrian poets, writers, and thinkers from Goethe to Kafka. That Erich Heller wrote this way about German literature and thought, at a time when the Germans (and Austrians) had demonstrated their total contempt for humanity, was particularly remarkable. Heller made the English-speaking world of the 1950’s and 1960’s aware of the literary and philosophical heritage of the “other” Germany.
In 1949, the two hundredth anniversary of Goethe’s birth was celebrated not only in Germany but also in Great Britain and the United States. Goethe was a poet who could be claimed as the representative of German humanism at home and abroad. Yet, according to Heller, Goethe distinguished himself by anticipating the central crisis of twentieth century science. In his introductory essay, Heller maintains that Goethe as scientist exposed the “potential hubris” inherent in the pursuits of modern science. In addition, he considers Goethe one of the first to be fully conscious of the morphological problem in biological studies. Goethe is placed in the company of Plato and Aristotle, on the one hand, and Charles Darwin, on the other. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) would have probably attracted and repelled Goethe, the poet who discovered the intermaxillary bone in the human skull (which showed the structural identity of all vertebrates, including human beings). What would have repelled Goethe was Darwin’s mechanistic philosophy of nature, which produced, according to Heller, “the spiritual death suffered by man in the incessant struggle between arrogance and humiliation, in his exposure to the mighty lovelessness of a chance constellation of energy.” This idea is seen as the topic of modern literature—from Nietzsche to Kafka, from Marcel Proust to Jean-Paul Sartre, from William Butler Yeats to T. S. Eliot.
Darwin’s theory symbolizes for Heller the type of knowledge that, “though it be perfectly correct, may yet be blatantly untrue.” Goethe’s concept of truth in radical opposition to scientific truth makes Goethe the last great poet “to save the life of poetry and the poetry of life.”
The second essay centers on a discussion of Goethe’s drama Iphigenie auf Tauris (1779, 1787; Iphigenia in Tauris, 1793), which is considered “lyrically, but not dramatically true” when it comes to the question of evil. Heller’s objection is that there is no real evil in that drama, as there is, for example, in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606). The absence of evil is explained in terms of Goethe’s genius being “the spirit of Nature itself.” According to Heller, Goethe identified “the inner order, inherent in his genius, with the spirit...
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In the last essay (“The Hazard of Modern Poetry”) and the postscript, which summarize the main themes of the book, Heller explains the theoretical assumptions of his criticism, which takes as its point of departure the crisis of the symbol in poetry. This crisis, which introduced the age of the disinherited mind, is traced to the sixteenth century controversy between Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli about the meaning of the Eucharist, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The question raised was whether the bread and the wine are actually the body and blood of Christ, as Luther believed, or whether they merely represent the body and blood of Christ, as Zwingli maintained. According to Heller, this controversy deprived the language of religion (as well as the language of art) of an essential degree of reality.
Goethe was the last to force the union of symbol and reality. Therefore, he plays a central role in The Disinherited Mind. After the time of Goethe, however, “the symbol was made homeless in the real world, and the real world made itself a stranger to the symbol.” This estrangement between symbol and reality is perceived by Heller as a war between rationalism and Romanticism. This war has caused a loss of order, of meaning, and of value, with Nietzsche as Heller’s major spokesman for the problem of values. This triple loss is for Heller the hazardous legacy left to modern poetry. The mandate of modern poetry is to overcome this...
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