Friday, October 17, 2008

The insular Theodor Storm

Theodor Storm wrote on a small scale - novellas and short tales, and lyric poems, mostly set in and around the country where he grew up. He was a regionalist, and a miniaturist. So were most of his German-language contemporaries, or at least the ones who are still read, or at least the ones I have heard of. Gottfried Keller and Jeremias Gotthelf in Switzerland, for example, or Adalbert Stifter in Austria, or Eduard Mörike in his corner of Germany, or Annette von Droste-Hülshoff in hers. I'm leaving out one or two key figures - give me a minute.

I don't think this is a coincidence. It's some sort of reaction to the earlier generation of German Romantics. The fairy tale weirdness of E. T. A. Hoffmann and many others is being domesticated; the visonary worlds of Novalis and Hölderlin are being cut down to a human scale; the incomprehensible achievements of Goethe are being sifted by more ordinary geniuses. Reduce the scale, make it small, look carefully at what is right around you - every one of these writers picked up that message somehow.

Thinking about Storm and his peers reminded me of the recent comments of Horace Engdahl, secretary of the Nobel Prize jury, to the effect that American readers, or writers, or literature, or all three, are "too isolated, too insular," and that they don't "participate in the big dialogue of literature." I can only guess what he might have meant. But Storm, Gotthelf, Mörike - these guys were insular. They did not write the big books (Keller's Green Henry may be a bit of an exception).

I'm not sure what the "big dialogue" of literature is, exactly, or why I should attach a special value to it. Immensee is not a big book, in scope, ideas, or ambition. It is merely perfect. Gotthelf's The Black Spider is imperfect and small, but it takes a wild leap into the unknown. It's a marvel. Insular has its good side. My position is strongly pro-insular.

The two mid-century German exceptions to the rule: The contemporary fame and current reputation of Heinrich Heine dwarfs that of every other writer I have mentioned here. Heine was the great cosmopolitan, the citizen of the world, politically engaged yet a lyric poet of the highest caliber, a master of multiple genres. He would have been a sure thing for the Nobel Prize if he had only lived another fifty years, to the age of 110 or so. My other position is strongly pro-non-insular.

The second exception: Theodor Storm's first published book was a poetry anthology that he shared with two brothers, friends at the University of Kiel, Theodor and Tycho Mommsen. Theodor Mommsen did live long enough to receive, at the age of 85, the second Nobel Prize in Literature, not for his youthful poetry but for his 1854 History of Rome. Mommsen is more or less the founder of the modern study of Roman history. I don't know if that counts as insular or not. I don't think it's what Engdahl meant.


  1. I wonder if the insular turn correlates to increased modesty in the German philosophy of the day. At the beginning of the 1800's the 'absolute idealists' held sway. The focus was on the grand, sweeping pronouncements about Mind and Being issuing from such cryptic oracles as Fichte, Schelling and Hegel.

    By the 1830's, though, a philosophical rebellion was underway. Its slogan was 'Back to Kant!' It's hard to think of Kant as modest, but their was modesty in his focus on epistemology (in place of metaphysics). In short, the Kantians thought it foolish to lay claim to comprehensive knowledge of reality without first inquiring into the cognitive powers of the knower; instead of trying to know everything about the world 'out there' (external reality), start by trying to know about the what's going on 'in here' (in the knowing mind). Many Kantians didn't get beyond this quest for local knowledge, knowledge of the structure of mind (as opposed to the structure of reality).

    At the same time, there was a greater tendency to historicism (with its roots in Herder). Roughly, the idea here seems to be that each culture develops its own 'mind', its own conceptual framework, and that this cultural mind conditions the thoughts, feelings and even perceptions of the people in that culture. As a result, people from different cultures will have a very hard time understanding each other, and are unlikely to be attuned to the resonances, powerful symbols, etc. in the foreign culture.

    Against this backdrop, some of these German authors might have taken it to be their mission to study and explore their local culture in order then to give it (their culture's 'mind') a fitting expression.

    Politically, there might also have been a reaction against the strong unifying efforts of Prussia.

  2. Even if you don't read German, you can find some illustrations & images related to Storm's work at the website of the Theodor Storm Society:

    As for his regionalism, I suppose that the competition between Denmark and Prussia for control of Schleswig and Holstein also inspired some local patriotism. That's not the sole reason (or even the main reason) for Storm's writing fairy tales, but it surely played a part.

  3. I'm neither confused nor surprised by the Engdahl statement on Americans' insularity. Let's think for a moment or two about the major American books of the last couple of decades. On the one hand, you have the "serious" literature by the "serious" American writers -- Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, et al. You can expand this out to Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace (RIP), Jonathan Franzen, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and such. These are all great authors who spin stories around quintessentially American tropes and experience. Of course a European with cultural-critic street this particular going to go after American belles lettres as being insular. It's a combination of the political climate and the tenor of the times. That being said, I would not be surprised to see McCarthy (probably) or Pynchon (maybe) pick up a prize in the next 20 years or so. I'm confident that Wally Lamb, Breena Clarke, Dorothy Allison and other authors like that are not going to be short-listed any time soon. And elsewhere in the American literature industry, the big thing seems to be memoir and short non-fiction, and that is not surprisingly kind of a non-starter -- it IS insular, and presupposes a kind of American deep grammar for understanding of the work.

  4. Paul, that makes a lot of sense to me - that Storm and his peers were reacting to the big philosophical system-builders, and perhaps even returning to a "purer" Romanticism. The protagonist of Immensee, for example, collects folk songs - just as you say, that goes right back to Herder and the beginnings of the movement.

    The defense against Prussia must be important, too. Storm basically lost his country, first to Denmark, then to Prussia. Maybe there is also a reaction to Napoleonic ideas of German unification.

    The temperaments of the individual writers are obviously the main thing, but when so many different writers behave in the same way, one begins to wonder what else is going on, historically or intellectually. These comments are very helpful to me.

    As for the Nobel Committee, they can give their money to whomever they like. That's not my fight, no no. Keep up the good work! But "insular," I'm not going to use that as a knock, not against an artist. I'm becoming more sympathetic to the idea that every great artist is essentially insular. I don't actually agree with that, but I can see the argument.