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When The Disinherited Mind was published in 1952, the German-speaking countries in Central Europe had just witnessed the total collapse of their culture. This collapse was all the more crucial because, for the most part, it had been initiated by these countries themselves. It was a crisis created by the counterrevolutionary intellectuals and politicians of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) and of the first Austrian republic (1919-1934) in their defense against Socialism and democracy. The rise and rule of Fascism in Central Europe has to a large degree been ascribed to the German mind. The total collapse of culture, as demonstrated by the German extermination camps, has been considered a catastrophe of civilization, designed and executed by a particularly German mentality.

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While intellectual historians after 1945 were eager to identify the figures whose lifework anticipated the German catastrophe (Martin Luther and Frederick II of Prussia were often cited), Erich Heller turned to German literature and philosophy. Heller identified a countertradition that clearly warned of the impending catastrophe. He helped establish a consciousness of the intellectual and moral crisis of the twentieth century that was not limited to the German mind but was a distinctive symptom of modern literature and thought in general.

The Disinherited Mind consists of nine loosely connected essays of literary criticism, organized chronologically. There are two essays on Goethe, three on Nietzsche, and one each on Oswald Spengler, Franz Kafka, and Karl Kraus. The last essay is titled “The Hazard of Modern Poetry.”

Born in Bohemia in 1911, Heller studied in Prague and at the University of Cambridge, where he obtained a doctorate. He emigrated to England in 1939 and has held university positions at the London School of Economics, the University of Cambridge, the University of Wales, and Northwestern University, where he was appointed Emeritus Professor of German. In addition to The Disinherited Mind, Heller is the author of Thomas Mann: The Ironic German (1958) and The Artist’s Journey into the Interior and Other Essays (1968).

The mind that is described as disinherited in this book is specifically the German (and Austrian) mind. Yet this disinherited mind is representative of the modern mind in general. While Heller saw the poets and philosophers of the Middle Ages linked in their preoccupation with the marvelous, he perceived their modern successors to be united in the reverse: They tried either to strengthen or to deflect the prosaic, as opposed to the marvelous. The book addresses this problem in its most direct form in the essay “Rilke and Nietzsche,” particularly in the discourse on the relationship between thought, belief, and poetry, and in the second section of the essay “The World of Franz Kafka.”

The methodology of this book is relatively subjective and conservative. Heller is primarily concerned with the communication of a sense of quality rather than measurable quantity; he is concerned with meaning rather than explanation. He considers his task, as he states, “not the avoidance of subjectivity, but its purification; not the shunning of what is disputable, but the cleansing and deepening of the dispute.” Thus, the methods employed are not methods per se but attitudes that produce “the intellectual pressure and temperature in which perception crystallizes into conviction and learning into a sense of value.”

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 47

Barrett, William. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LVIII (October 11, 1953), p. 16.

Hermanson, Rudolf. Review in Library Journal. LXXXII (September 15, 1957), p. 2128.

Hill, Claude. Review in Saturday Review. XL (December 14, 1957), p. 15.

Rose, Ernst. A History of German Literature, 1960.

Simons, J. W. Review in Commonweal. LVIII (May 1, 1953), p. 106.

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