Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1177
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 of nature itself,” because of the absence of any valid tradition outside himself in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Germany. Heller concludes thatwith such a predominance of nature within him and such a lack of civilized tradition around him, he had to fail when faced with the tragic or religious aspect of the moral problem as it is inherent in the very plots of both Iphigenie and Faust.
The tragedy of Goethe’s Faust is for Heller “that he is incapable of tragedy.”
In his essay “Burckhardt and Nietzsche,” Heller perceives the Swiss historian to be one of “Goethe’s family,” an opponent of G. W. F. Hegel who placed man as a fallen creature and not a Hegelian Weltgeist (world spirit) at the center of history. Although he may have lost his faith in Christianity, Burckhardt accepted the Christian world order. By showing how Burckhardt shared his despair about the intellectual and spiritual situation of his age with Nietzsche, Heller also rescues Nietzsche from being identified with the rise of European Fascism. Without denying Nietzsche’s final break with Burckhardt, Heller gives Nietzsche’s philosophy a respectability by linking his tragic pessimism with the beliefs of the distinguished Swiss historian.
Nietzsche is recruited by Heller as one of the first and most important witnesses of the disinherited mind. The essays “Nietzsche and Goethe” and “Rilke and Nietzsche” serve the same purpose of rescuing Nietzsche from his implication with Fascism by associating him with highly revered poets in the German tradition. Nietzsche is seen as an “upholder of Goethe’s values,” Rilke as “the poet of a world of which the philosopher is Nietzsche.” Both Rilke and Nietzsche are supposed to have tried to wrest significance from a world “that, in traditional terms, has ceased to be spiritually significant.”
Oswald Spengler is rejected by Heller, not because his concept of the decline of the West is incorrect but because he joined the “enemies of the spirit.” According to Spengler, the only values left are those of empiricism. Technology and engineering have become historical destiny.
Franz Kafka is introduced by Heller as most representative of the modern mind, the disinherited mind, and his world is presented as being filled with absolute darkness: “Never has absolute darkness been represented with so much clarity, and the very madness of desperation with so much composure and sobriety.” As a representative of the modern mind, Kafka is thought to be possessed by the awareness “that there is no God, and that there must be God.” For Heller, Kafka represents the reversal of German Idealism. The world of his novel Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930), which is discussed in detail, is perceived as “completely sealed off against any transcendental intrusion.”
The essay on Karl Kraus uncovers for the English-speaking readership of the 1950’s one of the most unique contributions to German literature of the twentieth century. In his journal Die Fackel (the torch), Karl Kraus first attacked Austrian corruption and decadence but then broadened his polemics when the Austrian crisis developed into a European crisis. Kraus is celebrated as one of the intellectuals who have retained a conservative sense of degree and order and have denounced their general loss. The discussion is centered on Kraus’s gigantic drama Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (1922; The Last Days of Mankind, 1974), a piece of documentary and visionary theater about World War I. Heller’s point is that Kraus discovered the catastrophic potential of mediocrity in history and politics. Kraus discovered the “banality of evil” decades before Hannah Arendt used this expression. In Heller’s words, Kraus “anticipated Hitler long before anyone knew his name.”
The main thesis of Heller’s The Disinherited Mind is that the crisis of the modern mind was a specifically German or Austrian crisis when the writers of German and Austrian modernism began to write, but it was perceived by them and artistically reflected as the crisis of the modern world when they completed their works. For this reason, Heller considers Austro-German modernism an essential contribution to the European debate on modernism.
It is fitting that The Disinherited Mind has as its epigraph some lines from a poem by Friedrich Holderlin, ending in the question “Why to be a poet at all in such spiritless times?” Heller considered Holderlin and his question to be the “silent center” of his book.
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