The Disinherited Mind Critical Context - Essay

Erich Heller

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 508 words.)