Sunday, June 24, 2012

Historical Unconsciousness

I have to review a collective volume titled Thinking the Unconscious: Nineteenth-Century German Thought (2010), edited by Angus Nicholls and Martin Liebscher, and the further I get, the more I'm surprised and, frankly, upset by what I'm reading. The history of the unconscious (or rather, of conceptualizing the unconscious) was put on the agenda by Henri F. Ellenberger in his classic The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970) and although it has been rightly criticized for its "realist" agenda (i.e. assumption that the unconscious has always "existed" and just needed to be "discovered", which finally happened in the 19th century), that monograph is still unique for its comprehensiveness and solid historical scholarship. Forty-two years later, one would hope for a volume such as Thinking the Unconscious to show some evidence of progress in our understanding of the history of psychological theorizing; but instead, the book reflects a shocking lack of historical consciousness, with one author after the other falling spectacularly and with eyes wide open into the trap of what used to be called "Whiggishness" and is nowadays often referred to as "Presentism". The strange thing is that the editors would seem to be at least nominally aware of the problem: they pay lip service to Elke Völmicke's warnings (in his Das Unbewusste im Deutschen Idealismus, 2005) about precisely that kind of anachronistic distortion. But they don't seem to have grasped the point: after the Introduction, the book immediately begins with a series of chapters that show a spectacular lack of historical sensitivity in simply projecting the whole machinery of Freudian psychoanalysis or contemporary philosophical concerns back onto 18th-19th century authors seen as "pioneers" of the unconscious. I will save the full argument for my book review, but just to give a example: how can there be any question of "Goethe's historical relation to psychoanalysis" (p. 91, and several repetitions)? There is no such relation, and there cannot possibly be one, for the simple reason that one cannot have a relationship with something that does not (yet) exist. At most, one could speak of "psychoanalysis' relation to Goethe", because Goethe and his work did exist in Freud's time. But the authors never seem to grasp that there is a difference, and seem blind to the consequences of missing the point. It may seem like a question of theoretical trivia at first sight, but it isn't: it's a fallacy that leads to strings of distortions and misinterpretations, as demonstrated page after page by the chapters under discussion.
Another reason for utter amazement is the strange obsession of so many contributors with Goethe: it's almost as if they think an article cannot be complete unless Goethe has made his appearance in it, relevant or not. What is worse, as a Goethe-admirer and lover of the Faust tragedy I could hardly believe my eyes about what one of the contributors makes out of the famous "Prologue in Heaven" between God and Mephistopheles. "Faust is driven by a 'dark impulse' (dunkler Drang), which will ultimately, so the Lord thinks, bear the fruit of humanity" (p. 171, idem on 162). The point being, of course, that this "dark impulse" means the unconscious. But that's not at all what Goethe wrote. The text says "Ein guter Mensch in seinem dunklen Drange / ist sich des rechten Weges wohl bewußt": this means simply that Faust - a good man, according to the Lord - may be deeply confused by his dark drives (his unconscious, if you wish) but nevertheless won't lose sight entirely of the difference between good and evil. That's something very different, as anyone can see who just reads the text. And what's worse, the second example given by this author is even more wrong. Faust gives Mephistopheles permission to take him to hell if, but only if, he (Faust) will experience just one moment of such happiness and bliss that he wishes it would never pass ("Werd' ich zum Augenblicke sagen: / Verweile doch! Du  bist so schön! / Dann magst du mich in Fesseln schlagen ..."). But what do we read in this book chapter? "As a symbol of the unconscious Faust has no sense of the present" (p. 171). What nonsense! Again, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Goethe's text: it's just about the author's own preoccupations.
Why do I get so angry and offended by stuff like this? Because it's not just incompetent but damaging as well. If scholars have no respect for simple truth and plain evidence, then they make a mockery out of the academic enterprise, adding fuel to the poor reputation that the humanities are already suffering among the wider public.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dreamtime is over

Later this week I'm giving a paper about Will-Erich Peuckert at a conference in Siegen about Trance and Folklore. Because of that topic I decided to prepare myself a bit by taking a closer look at a famous academic cultbook of the 1970s that I had bought second-hand last week, Hans Peter Duerr's Traumzeit: Über die Grenze zwischen Wildniss und Zivilisation. From what I've heard, it made big waves in Germany at the time of publication, selling a stunning number of 150.000 copies.
But it turned out to be a disappointment. Some books (academic or not) become bestsellers because they hit the Zeitgeist exactly at the right moment, and this is definitely a good example. But the flip side is that they tend to age badly: they start their career as a "secondary source" widely read by scholars and students and taken seriously for its supposed contribution to research, but end up as a "primary source" documenting a mentality that is no longer ours. They may escape that fate only if the sharpness and originality of their analysis transcends the contingencies of their original time and place.
What must have made Duerr's book super-cool at the end of the 1970s is the combination of two things: (1) a countercultural valuation of everything that ran counter to establishment society and its Christian and rationalist values (myth, magic, the non-rational, sexual expression, ecstasy, and most of all, psychoactive substances) and (2) a display of scholarly erudition so extreme as to make it impossible for critical academics to dismiss it out of hand. And if I write extreme, I mean just that: Duerr's actual text is ca. 200 pages long, followed by ca. 340 pages of footnotes and a bibliography of 90 pages. Let me hasten to point out that I have nothing against many footnotes and long bibliographies, on the contrary. But the problem of Duerr's book is that it is not actually a coherent argument backed up by references: it is a toppled-over file cabinet documenting the author's voracious reading - or at least, so one hopes! -, while the main text amounts to little more than some comments on those readings and a largely unsuccessful attempt at creating some semblance of order. For even most of those 200 pages of text are not really by Duerr himself: to a large extent, they consist of quotations from those sources mentioned in the footnotes. If one were to delete those quotations, one would be surprised by how little text there remains. And what does the text say? Not very much either. Duerr is adept in the art of suggesting profound thoughts without keeping his eye on the ball and finishing arguments up to their conclusions. Moreover, his later chapters degenerate into the kind of quasi-philosophizing that seems profound after many glasses of wine late at night, but not so much so in the hard light of morning. No, this is not the way to do it. Duerr's topics are fascinating and they deserve serious study. His footnotes and bibliographies are full of treasures. And I agree with him that we need to learn much more about the role of ecstasy and trance in religion and culture, whether induced by psychoactive substances or by other means. All of this deserves our attention as scholars. But not this way.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Memories of a Magician

Before there were books, there were manuscripts. Another sideline to my research here in Göttingen has to do with Will-Erich Peuckert (1895-1969), remembered mostly as a folklore specialist today, but also the most important German pioneer in the academic study of "Western esotericism". As an undergraduate I came across his classic Pansophie: Eine Geschichte der weissen und schwarzen Magie, and it decisively influenced my choice of specialization. I've had a weak spot for Peuckert ever since. His Nachlass is kept here in Göttingen, so of course I took the opportunity to take a look at it. Among other things, I came across an enigmatic type-written manuscript titled Erinnerungen eines Zauberers (Memories of a Magician). I've photographed in its entirety, and am playing with the idea of an annotated edition.
It's a very strange text. The catalogue lists it as "autobiographical", and that's exactly what it looks like at first: although the author refers to himself as a magician rather than a professor of Folklore studies, his childhood memories and the description of his personal development and scholarly interests look like a perfect match with what we know about Peuckert's life. Already on the first pages one understands that the text is in fact a kind of personal confession, and it still fits that pattern that the author continues by describing his sexual exploits as a young man, explaining in detail how he learned to use traditional recipes of love magic for seducing any woman he wanted. So far so good. Credulity is stretched beyond the breaking point, however, when we reach the chapter where he confesses actually murdering a rival by means of black magic! As the narrative unfolds, more and more details creep in that conflict with what we know of Peuckert's life, and one finally realizes that this must be a mixture of fiction and autobiography. Of course that makes it all the more intriguing. Because the resemblance with the real Peuckert is so strong, one cannot help wondering about the exact amount of historicity in what turns out, in the end, to be a classic example of the "gothic" genre full of Faustian overtones. It tells the story of a magical Casanova whose pursuit of lust and power causes him to fall into the clutches of evil, but who is finally saved from the Abyss by the pure and selfless love of a woman who sacrifices herself to save his soul... The narrative is interspersed, however, with long reflections about the true nature of magic, the true nature of good and evil, and the true nature of history and time. Those discussions have "Peuckert" written all over them, but go far beyond the boundaries of scholarly argument, and it is almost impossible to read them otherwise than as reflections of Peuckert's deepest personal convictions. Today I compared them with the other two "autobiographical" files in the Nachlass, and made some interesting discoveries. A magician of sorts is hidden behind the scholar of magic, and this throws new light on some core dimensions of his work as a historian.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pagans in Schwabing

I am presently working as a fellow at the Lichtenberg Kolleg in Göttingen, Germany. I arrived here on April 1 and will move back to Amsterdam on July 1, so my stay is nearing its end. It has been an interesting experience to be living in a quiet German university town, and being part of a small community of scholars from all over the world who are working in many different academic disciplines and are all in the same situation away from home. Most of my afternoons and evenings I've spent reading (mostly in Göttingen's best Konditorei, because of the pleasant atmosphere without background music: ideal reading conditions for me).
This autumn I have to give a conference lecture on the "pagan" and mythical dimensions of the German poet Stefan George, and therefore part of my reading has been connected with him. George is an unusual topic for me, but he has interested me ever since my days as a conservatory student, when I got to know him through the many songs that were composed to his poetry by Arnold Schönberg and Anton Webern. Last year I read the large English biography of George by Robert L. Norton, and last week I finished its more recent German counterpart: Thomas Karlauf's Stefan George: Die Entdeckung des Charisma. An ideal biography: very well documented, equally well written, and very convincing in its interpretation of this weirdest of all poets. I am now following it up with a book about how the devoted members of George's famous "circle" handled his legacy after his death in 1933: Ulrich Rauff, Kreis ohne Meister: Stefan Georges Nachleben. Excellent quality again, and yesterday I was particularly impressed by the chapter "Hildebrandt's Lied", about the self-stylization of George and his followers as a modern "Platonic Academy" (a homo-erotic hidden church of the spirit - "Secret Germany" - consisting of handsome young men who looked up to The Master as the one to whom they owed their "spiritual regeneration"). And finally some light reading as well, still connected to the same topic: Gunna Wendt's biography Franziska zu Reventlow: Die anmutige Rebellin. As a biography it's only so-so, but it gives an interesting sidelight on the famous bohemian milieu in Schwabing, Munich, in the years before and after 1900, circling around Stefan George and his Kreis, the notorious "Kosmiker" around Ludwig Klages and Alfred Schuler, and (last but not least) the indomitable spirit of Franziska zu Reventlow herself, the "pagan madonna" of Schwabing: a novelist, painter and satiricist, free spirit, pioneer of polyamorous love, model of female self-determination, and quite simply an adorable person. Quite a positive counterpart to George, whose only concept of "friendship" was one in which the other subjugated himself completely to his will (his pupils required the Master's permission to get married! And if they were too close to him, he was sure to say "no"). A more egotistic and narcissistic personality is hard to imagine, but admittedly he was a highly gifted poet as well, next to many other things, such as the direct model for Max Weber's concept of "charisma". How George managed to cast his spell so successfully and dominate everyone around him remains something of a mystery to the present day.