Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Dinner in Husum with Rudolf Eucken

I had a second literary encounter in Husum, a surprise, one that reinforces a common Wuthering Expectations theme.

An attractive brick high school from the 19th century has been turned into a luxury hotel, the Altes Gymnasium Hotel.  One night we went to the hotel restaurant, the Gourmetrestaurant Eucken.  The restaurant is so fancy that its menu is just two pages.  One page is the Menu “Theodor Storm,” of course, what else, and the other is the Menu “Rudolf Eucken.”  The menu is, for now, here as a PDF – perhaps you can guess what I ordered.

Who is Rudolf Eucken?  The menu had a biography.  He was a philosopher who had taught in this very high school in Husum for several years, before receiving prestigious university appointments in Basel and later Jena.  He eventually won the 1908 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Really?  No kidding?  Who?  (I am pretending I am in the restaurant, struggling with the biography, asking meine Frau if I had made some mistake with the German).  I have at least glanced at the list of Literature Prize winners several times, but Eucken’s name meant nothing to me.

He was recognized for “his earnest search for truth, his penetrating power of thought, his wide range of vision, and the warmth and strength in presentation with which in his numerous works he has vindicated and developed an idealistic philosophy of life,” which could hardly be more generic except for the last clause, which matches Alfred Nobel’s original “idealistic” conception of the prize.

His Nobel Lecture, the only work of his I have read, is titled “Naturalism or Idealism?”  I know better than to judge a writer by his dreary Nobel Lecture, and since Eucken is a philosopher I am in more trouble than usual.  Eucken is a Christian Kantian, so idealism is good, naturalism, meaning something more like utilitarianism or materialism or scientism, is not bad but insufficient for a good life.  Literature has a special role in the struggle – note that “naturalism” now seems to refer to Zola’s writing:

Naturalism cannot give to literature an inner independence or allow it an initiative of its own; for if literature is only a hand of life on the dial of time, it can only imitate and register events as they happen. By means of impressive descriptions [Zola, right?] it may help the time to understand its own desires better; but since creative power is denied to it, it cannot contribute to the inner liberation and elevation of man.  At the same time it necessarily lacks dramatic power, which cannot exist without the possibility of an inner change and elevation.   

Literature should instead “help to shape life and to lead the time, by representing and simultaneously guiding what is rising in man's soul” and thereby “raise our life to greatness above the hubbub of everyday life by the representation of eternal truths.”  No wonder, given this guff, so many contemporary writers were trying to  burn literature down and start over.  All hail King Ubu!

I do not really know why Eucken’s name meant nothing to me.  Despite his Prize, he got left behind somehow.  Checking library catalogs, his books have not appeared in English since 1924 (The problem of human life as viewed by the great thinkers from Plato to the present time).  The Harvard University library catalog shows a few recent hits, books tagged with his name, three in the last ten years, including a twelve volume set of his collected works.

So he is not a forgotten writer, not quite.  There are some limits on how much a Nobel Prize can do for a writer.  The lobster soup made in his name was good.

I guess I am going to run off for a couple more days.  Back Monday with some Trollope, maybe.


  1. That looks... expensive (and they really could have used a different font!). Obviously, they have a captive audience with all those Storm pilgrims ;)

  2. You had schnitzel? I didn't read the PDF, so that's an extreme guess based on my limited knowledge of German cuisine. Although you should probably be glad that, wrong country of origin aside, there was no Menu Alfred Jarry to select from!

  3. Expensive, yes, but commensurate with the food and service. No monopoly power needed to explain those prices.

    I had an outstanding schnitzel at a nouveau diner sort of restaurant in Hanover called 11a. Husum was all fresh seafood.

  4. This got me thinking and I looked back at the list of Nobel Prize winners in literature. Going way back there are a few names that seem to be fairly obscure, at least for me.

    I need to do something in this life in order to get a dish named after me.

  5. You need to be a specialist in Scandinavian literature to know anything about some of those writers - I mean anything, like did they write fiction or poetry or farm reports, the title of a single work, anything at all.

    That would be a great blog project, sorting through some of those obscure Nobelists.

  6. Toril Moi's excellent book, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism tells the following story. The favorite for the prize that year was Selma Lagerloef. However, an important faction of the Nobel Committee hated her. (I think it was because of her being a woman, and for a book called "AntiChrist's Miracles" which was insufficiently Christian.)

    Toril Moi says that, to head off Lagerloef, the Englishman Algernon Swinburne was put forward. A big point in his favour was the fact that, "formerly an intransigant republican", he had come around to monarchism. But the Lagerloef group would have none of it, and Eucher got the nod. Lagerloef won the very next year.

  7. First, that is a good story - Swinburne! Were they out of their minds! I wonder how many Nobel winners were third-ballot compromise candidates.

    Second, thanks for pointing me towards that book. How interesting.

  8. You are welcome! Apparently, the book which really dishes out the stories about the early Nobel decisions is one by Kjell Epsmark, called The Nobel Committee and the Criteria Behind the Prize.

    Moi says that Nobel's will required that the prize winners be "idealists", so realistic writers like Zola, Tolstoy, or Thomas Hardy, were rejected in favour of Messrs. Sully-Prudhomme, Mommsen, and Carducci.

    According to Moi, this idealist requirement became a non-factor during and just after World War I, when optimism was no longer sustainable.

  9. I read a little history somewhere, at a website I cannot now find, about the "stages" of the literature prize - idealism, then a turn inward (resulting in a stream of Scandinavian prizes), down to the World Tour of the 1980s and 1990s to whatever it is they are doing today.

    The proper tools to understand the Nobel committee come from political science and perhaps sociology, not literary study.

    I am all for the Nobel expanding away from fiction/poetry/plays and awarding more prizes to the equivalent of Mommsen and Eucken. If there are equivalents today. As if I know. Peter Brown, for example.