Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

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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 crisis, which reflects the state of man in the modern world.

Heller’s approach is basically conservative. He is an opponent of Hegel and Hegel’s concept of the coming of a prosaic age. With the exception of Kafka’s work, Heller pays little attention to the modern novel. He discusses modernism in literature mainly in terms of poetry; T. S. Eliot’s poetry and criticism are the modernist texts most often cited in his analysis. In Heller’s survey, there is no room for either Bertolt Brecht’s “epic theater” or the dialectics of neo-Marxism. Heller is opposed to modern science and to Socialism, even in its most democratic form. Democracy itself is perceived in a negative way when it is viewed as a habit of thought, determining truth “through a plebiscite of facts.” Heller believes that there was a time in history when the world in all of its sinfulness was indeed the center of divine attention, and he expresses great nostalgia for this time.

In spite of this conservative bias—which includes some of the prejudices which the exiles from Nazi Germany set out to combat in their opposition to German Fascism—Erich Heller deserves credit for discussing the Austro-German heritage at a time when the English-speaking world had become totally alienated from this tradition. The Disinherited Mind reintroduced American and British intellectuals to the study of Goethe. It was standard reading material for students in England and the United States during the 1950’s and 1960’s and introduced generations of undergraduates to the work of Franz Kafka.