In the Age of Prose

by Erich Heller
Start Free Trial

In the Age of Prose

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2003

One of the more prominent features of the postwar intellectual landscape in Great Britain and the United States was the dominance in a variety of fields of émigré scholars and scientists who had fled the terrors of National Socialism for the comparative safety of the Western democracies. Some, such as Theodor Adorno and Bertolt Brecht, would return not long after the war’s end to their native lands, for they found the home of their exile, however inviting in the crisis, ultimately inhospitable. Adorno’s writings on American mass culture make this abundantly clear, as does that strangest of all autobiographies, his Minima Moralia (1978). Others stayed on, and as they were integrated into the institutional structures of British and American intellectual life, they came increasingly to deflect the native tendencies of these two cultures toward the heritage of Continental European learning and scholarship in which they themselves had been reared.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Erich Heller was born in Bohemia in what was then the Habsburg Empire, soon to become Czechoslovakia. Fleeing from the advance of Adolf Hitler’s imperialism in 1939, he went to London and eventually made his way to Cambridge University, where he received a doctorate in German literature and immersed himself in the local literary and philosophical milieu, dominated then (as even now after their deaths) by two entirely antithetical figures: F. R. Leavis in English and Ludwig Wittgenstein in philosophy. In 1960, after several shorter visits, he moved to the United States for good to teach German literature and philosophy at Northwestern University, from which venue he has introduced several generations of American students to the cultural and scholarly traditions of Central Europe.

This sketch of Professor Heller’s biography is intended to highlight some of the features that have characterized his writings from The Disinherited Mind (1952) and The Artist’s Journey into the Interior (1965) and which persist in this, his most recent collections of essays: to wit, their bridging the gap between the heritage of German philological and historicist scholarship and plain-speaking British literary criticism—between, as it were, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Samuel Johnson, or Martin Heidegger and T. S. Eliot, as well as their nurturance and maturation in lectures, seminars, and less formal encounters between a teacher and his students. As the preface avers, many of these essays originated as lectures, and this doubtless accounts in part for their immediacy, their genial style, their lightness of reference, and general accessibility. They have all the elegance blended with wit and verbal energy that have, over the years, made Heller one of the most pleasurable of critics to read—and, if one has enjoyed the privilege, to hear viva voce. His power and persuasiveness as a teacher derive in large part from the grace and clarity his prose exhibits, even when discussing the most obscure and abstruse matter—such as the linguistic philosophy of Heidegger or the aesthetic doctrines of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel alongside the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Rarely are such difficult texts presented with comparable lucidity and concern.

It is not only the manner of his writing and lecturing, however, that has made Heller a rarely equaled teacher. The elegance of the presentations cannot entirely dispel the urgency of the messages which they carry with such seeming lightness. Behind the aesthetic veil of these texts stands the figure of the moralist, not exactly a prophet but certainly a kind of lay preacher (he even compares himself to one, if only half seriously, in his essay on Heinrich von Kleist, “The Dismantling of a Marionette Theatre: Or, Psychology and the Misinterpretation of Literature,” a clever and telling demolition of some rather bad psychoanalytic criticism which will be returned to below), whose persistent theme is the degradation of the human spirit in the modern world. It would be an error to lay undue emphasis on the aspects of these essays that recall the jeremiad, although it would be equally mistaken to ignore this feature of their tone and substance altogether. Heller objects, not without justice, to the impertinence with which aesthetic texts such as Kleist’s “Über das Marionettentheater” are treated in vulgar psychoanalytic interpretation, but what he shares most with Sigmund Freud, an aspect of Freud’s work that did get obscured in the biologizing Freud himself authorized and promoted, is the traditional humanistic concerns of the moralist. He is convinced that the present condition of the species requires correction and instruction. Nor was Freud, despite the transmutations his writings and clinical practice underwent in subsequent analytic practice (notably in the so-called ego psychology that descended from Alfred Adler), any less skeptical about the future possibility of psychic health than Heller, as is evident in his commentary on a passage from Confucius about the relationship of language to the social world: “what confident faith in the very correspondence between language and reality, and therefore between literature and life! Shall we ever regain the confidence of both this definition and this faith? It is the very condition of literary responsibility, and on it depends the future of our liberal education.” In “the age of prose,” such confidence and faith seem further distant than ever before in the history of mankind.

The ground bass which weaves in and out of these essays, as it has throughout all of Heller’s work, is the historical judgment, here attributed to Hegel, that the age of poetry, that is, of art, has definitively passed in human history. This, it must be emphasized, does not result from any collective feebleness among its craftsmen, whose aesthetic talents and ingenuity during the past two centuries are probably unparalleled, but derives from a more fundamental condition of what Heller continues, in a willful anachronism, to call the human soul. “We are no longer at home in our interpreted world” was Rilke’s pronouncement on this condition, which confesses the spiritual homelessness that, in Heller’s view, all the most lucid modern writers from Friedrich von Schiller and Kleist down to Knut Hamsun and Jean-Paul Sartre have recognized and attempted, without ultimate success, to overcome. Still, the aesthetic defense against the experience of alienation remains, as these essays repeatedly testify, both in their own elegance and in their exposition of the beauties achieved in the writings of others, a plausible and noble, if increasingly threatened, mode of existence. This undoubtedly accounts for the obvious irritation with which Heller contemplates the progeny of Freud, for their equation of the beauties of art with the biological drives and pulsations of the species offers not merely to explain why, for example, Kleist wrote what he did but further to explain away the manner of its writing. Psychoanalysis can never be more than a symptom of the disease it purports to cure—a judgment that accords with the views expressed in “Observations on Psychoanalysis and Modern Literature” and the “The Dismantling of a Marionette Theatre” as well as with those that can be inferred from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and “Analysis Terminable and Interminable.”

On the evidence of the essay on Kleist, it would seem that Heller attributes to the aesthetic presentation of ideas some residual share in that psychic health which he otherwise would claim has been banished from the modern world: “Kleist in analysis? There would have been very little for him to learn.” Moreover, it is Kleist himself who has provided the perfect image for the passage from modern alienation of the spirit to psychic wholeness, which psychoanalysis strives for in vain:As one reads what Freud says of the relationship between “I” and “It,” of the wounds which the struggles between the two inflict upon the soul, and how the soul may regain its lost integrity through the enhanced consciousness of itself, it is impossible not to relate this great psychological utopia to the vision of a future paradise with which Kleist ends his meditations “On the Marionette Theater”—or rather, on the neurotic derangement, the false self-consciousness, of the inhibited psyche; and even though the Eden of the original innocence and unselfconscious grace is shut for ever, we must, Kleist writes, “embark on the journey around the world in order to find out whether we may not be received through a back door”: In the future perfection of consciousness we may recover what we have lost in the Fall; we shall have to “eat of the Tree of Knowledge again to fall back into the state of innocence.”

The condemnation of psychoanalysis is thus rendered paradoxical, since the passage through its self-conscious probings into the psyche is, on a Kleistian view, the necessary preliminary to the recovery of innocence.

The late Paul de Man noted, in a posthumously published essay on “Über das Marionettentheater,” the ease with which this conclusion has been cited and accepted as well as the difficulty that remains in assimilating it to the rhetorical and thematic structure of the essay itself: “It has been very easy to forget how little this pseudo-conclusion has to do with the rest of the text and how derisively ungermane it is to the implications of what comes before.” This doubt about the possibility of ever achieving the renewed innocence of knowledge, which Kleist’s essay itself performs, underlies Heller’s suspicions about psychoanalysis. Would not similar doubts extend, ex hypothesi, to the ideology of the aesthetic as well? In Heller’s view, the force of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “We have art in order not to perish of truth” is to hold out some hope, however tenuous, for the staying of the historical sentence of alienation; hence the tentative confidence that there may yet be some “future of our liberal education” cited earlier. Is such confidence warranted? De Man’s terse judgment gives grounds for suspicion: “Aesthetic education by no means fails; it succeeds all too well, to the point of hiding the violence that makes it possible.”

Nothing could be further from the spirit of Heller’s work than a note of facile hope, and yet the historicist account of the trajectory of modern art which his thought has traced during a career of more than thirty years is premised on the myth, which he locates, among other places, in Friedrich Hölderlin’s “Brot und Wein,” of a prior state of innocence in which the homelessness of modern man did not obtain. This prelapsarian state of consciousness is recoverable primarily in poetry, where, as the later Heidegger seemed to indicate, language could once more participate in Being: “If language is the house of Being, it is that of Non-Being too: it accommodates both that rich landscape and this waste land. The oneness of thing and word, which is the essence of great poetry, is the riddle of language. As the oneness of thing and expression, as ’form,’ it is also the riddle of art.” Art as the prefiguration of the end of history? Well, yes, even if the Marxist sound of that sentence would undoubtedly offend Heller’s most un-Marxist ear. The ideology of the aesthetic, after all, was not invented by Karl Marx, much less by Herbert Marcuse, but by Schiller, who understood perfectly the implications of his theory for politics. Once more, Paul de Man’s commentary is acute:The aesthetic is primarily a social and political model, ethically grounded in an assumedly Kantian notion of freedom; despite repeated attempts by commentators, alarmed by its possible implications, to relativise and soften the idea of the aesthetic state (Aesthetischer Staat) that figures so prominently at the end of the Letters on Aesthetic Education, it should be preserved as the radical assertion that it is. The ’state’ that is here being advocated is not just a state of mind or of soul, but a principle of political value and authority that has its own claims on the shape and the limits of our freedom.

That poetry can survive at all in the age of prose, as Erich Heller testifies often in these essays it does, is as much a condition of politics as of art.

Bibliography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 21

The London Review of Books. VI, July 5, 1984, p. 22.

The Observer. June 24, 1984, p. 21.

Spectator. CCLIII, November 3, 1984, p. 23.

Times Literary Supplement. October 5, 1984, p. 1120.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access