In the Age of Prose

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2003 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

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.