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Telos 140: Peter Szondi and Critical Hermeneutics

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Literature has been a long-standing, if sometimes hidden, topic for Telos. While the journal has ostensibly focused on social and political theory, in various traditions and stretching from philosophy to culture, matters of literature have frequently percolated between the lines. This interlinear presence has certainly been the case for our engagements with those thinkers who made major contributions to literary and aesthetic theory, such as Adorno, as well as Baudrillard, Benjamin, Goldmann, Gramsci, and Lukács, but more broadly to the wide-ranging efforts to interpret and reinterpret works of the past: Telos has been about rereading, recovering, and reinterpreting parts of the intellectual legacy with reference to questions of current urgency. While the journal did succeed in keeping a healthy distance of common sense from the vanity fair of “literary theory” that gripped the universities during the 1980s and 1990s, our interest in mapping alternatives to the mentalities of bureaucracy—traditions, communities, the life-world, and religion—also indicated an underlying interest in literature, as well as in the arts in general. This testifies, of course, to the legacy of Critical Theory and the effort to correct the dominance of instrumental reason with an aesthetic dimension; but there is a much bigger picture, beyond the specific confines of Critical Theory per se, the pursuit of a richer life and a resistance to all the cultural and social forces that degrade human creativity and freedom, whether one attributes them to modernity or to conditions of longer duration. As a vehicle that can enhance imagination and expressivity, literature turns out to be indispensable.

The previous issue of the journal concerned intellectuals and political power, especially problems of collaboration in Germany, France, and Italy. In this issue, we turn to intellectuals and literature through an intensive examination of one intellectual—or one exceptionally intellectual scholar—in particular. Born in Budapest in 1929 as the son of a Hungarian-Jewish psychoanalyst (who survived Bergen-Belsen), Peter Szondi became a professor at the Free University of Berlin in 1965, where he taught comparative literature until his suicide in 1971. His intellectually productive years, between his early Theory of Modern Drama (1956) and the posthumously published Celan Studies (1972) overlap with the rise and fall of the student movement, the attendant shifts in German (and not only German) intellectual life, the recovery of early twentieth-century intellectual traditions, and an expanded interest in the overlap between cultural matters on the one hand and history and politics on the other. To understand the particular German context, one must recall the public assumption of the importance of art works, traditional as well as modernist, and the humanities. (The culture of the educated middle class, the Bildungsbürger, had yet to retreat fully before the instrumentalism of pre-professional education that has driven the crisis of the humanities in higher education on both sides of the Atlantic: why read, if you only have to count?) In addition, Szondi’s work emerged against the background of a tepid conservatism informed in part by a narrow formalism that preferred to avoid historical questions and a Heideggerean existentialism that, tugging in a different philosophical direction, ended up with similar, if more effectively obscured, results. (The designation “tepid” refers to the specific passivity of that conservatism: no ambitious cultural conservative agenda, no significant critique of modernity, merely an interest to define a “culture” as at best a compensatory embellishment to the tedium of a routinized everyday life. In the end, this could never compete with the excitement of modernist anti-traditionalism, until it too fell victim to the recuperative powers of postmodernism.)

Szondi pursued a philosophical examination of works of art with the goal of uncovering the dialectic interplay of aesthetic form and historical substance. Because of an explicit Hegelianism in his understanding of history, this interpretive project had a critical character—hence a “critical hermeneutics”—although his understanding of the art work does not depend on the same avant-garde radicality attributed to it by Adorno. Nonetheless, Szondi’s engagement with literature faced opponents on two fronts: the variously regressive accounts that, de facto, rendered art solely ornamental by insisting on a reified separation from the wider social condition; and the emerging instrumentalism of the student movement, which, in retrospect, appears less as an expression of a neo-radicalism and more as the great leap forward of a new class of managerial professionals, with little use for works of art.

Each of the essays collected in this co-edited issue addresses a particular aspect of Szondi’s criticism as part of a more comprehensive account of his hermeneutics. The first group stakes out several approaches to the underlying assumptions and tensions inherent in any project of a study of literature: if this is a discipline, how is it possible, and what are the consequences of trying to submit the auratic specificity of literature (as art) to the conceptual constraints of scholarship? The terrains are slippery indeed: not only is the nature of the literary object elusive (may we even call it an “object”?), but so is the stance of the reader engaged in: criticism or interpretation, conceptual grasping or tentative understanding. The seemingly sedate query into the possibility of literary scholarship, in other words, opens up the wounds of the ancient quarrel that Plato had identified between philosophy and poetry. Bringing conceptual thinking (not to mention academic practices) to poetic expression runs the risk of crushing the distinctiveness of the aesthetic under the boot of philosophical abstraction, while the long-standing counter-objections remain that aesthetic experience can distract (as escapism, for example) from more urgent matters of political life. The implicit binary inherent, therefore, in the notion of literary scholarship—conceptualizing the non-conceptual—takes the specific shape of Szondi’s project of critical hermeneutics: an understanding that, as interpretation, accepts but somehow nonetheless also criticizes.

Rainer Nägele’s essay reflects upon Szondi’s sustained attempt to establish the particularity of literary criticism as a discipline in its own right—a question that remains germane today, given the crisis in self-understanding of academic literary studies (and the humanities more broadly). According to Nägele, what guides Szondi’s undertaking is the commitment to understand “the specific nature of philological knowledge.” Toward this end, Szondi’s criticism accords priority to the specificity of the literary work of art—the subject of philological knowledge—and the ways that it distinguishes itself from other forms of writing. While Nägele interrogates the disciplinary project, Thomas Schestag queries the designation itself and its etymological burdens. Taking as the focus of his essay the “Treatise on Philological Knowledge,” Szondi’s definitive statement on literary hermeneutics, he places the term “philology” under careful examination. Reading this term according to its constituent parts—philo– (love) and –logy (science)—he asks what this compound reveals about Szondi’s notion of literary hermeneutics, particularly the ways in which such a hermeneutics can position itself vis-à-vis institutionally sanctioned models of literary studies. Especially important for Schestag is the relationship of Szondi’s criticism to the implicit meaning of philology as a critical inquiry into the organization of knowledge and its orientation to language. Claudia Brodsky provides the intellectual-historical and philosophical grounding of the constitutive ambiguity of literary scholarship through an exploration of Szondi’s reading of Hegel, especially his essay on “Hegel’s Theory of Literature.” Brodsky focuses on what Szondi called the “troubled relationship” that pertains between the study of literature and philosophy. However rather than treating this as an indication of some merely contingent methodological shortcoming unique to the Germany of the 1960s, she invokes the distance between Plato and Aristotle as a reference point before an intensive tracing of key arguments in Hegel’s aesthetics, as well as Szondi’s characteristic readings of them. While Szondi can surely lay claim to a legitimate place in the tradition of twentieth-century neo-Hegelain aesthetics, Brodsky also gestures to the distance between Adorno’s critical aesthetics of progressive or avant-garde innovation and Szondi’s hermeneutic exploration of a very different dialectic of form and history.

Yet art is hardly a deductive undertaking; it is not as if there are general principles that the artist, obeying closely, merely applies to material to produce an end result. While a normative poetics, especially the reception of Aristotle in classical theater, may have suggested an illusion of overriding rules, it is doubtful that even then the rules themselves were the origins of aesthetic creativity, which, on the contrary, proceeds through encounters with specific materials and experience. This inductive materialism of art presents a constant challenge to the conceptual thinking of philosophy (or scholarship) whenever it addresses art; and this rebuttal of the word by the world becomes particularly pointed in that one realm of art where the material itself is the word: literature. In no other realm of art does the work confront a criticism while sharing the same medium: music criticism does not compose in response to music, art criticism does not paint in response to painting, but literary criticism writes in response to writing. Therefore the philosophical (or disciplinary, or scholarly) undertaking of literary criticism necessarily oscillates between the deductive universalism of a presumed logic of science (validity of argument, falsifiablity, non-contradiction, and so forth) and an inductive extrapolation from an engagement—interpretive or critical—with the particularity of certain texts. The collection of essays here therefore turns from the general program of Szondi’s hermeneutics to more specific topics in his writings, rereadings, and interpretations.

James McFarland examines Szondi’s complicated relationship to Walter Benjamin’s intellectual and critical legacy. Though his name is not normally associated with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School—despite his self-evident neo-Hegelianism—Szondi invoked Benjamin, along with Adorno and Lukács, as influences upon his work, although the differences among these figures, which have figured significantly in the reception of western Marxism since Szondi’s death, do not loom large in his work. Through a close reading of two texts by Szondi—An Essay on the Tragic and the essay “Hope in the Past: On Walter Benjamin”—McFarland considers the discrepancies as well as the affinities between Szondi’s criticism and Benjamin’s, bringing into his analysis the discussion of history and tragedy in the Origin of German Tragic Drama. Continuing the discussion of An Essay on the Tragic, Sebastian Wogenstein concentrates on Szondi’s relationship to Hegel with regard to the standing of Judaism within German idealism. Wogenstein begins with Hermann Cohen’s attempt to refute the notion that Judaic law contradicts the ethical foundations of Christian German culture. In doing so, Cohen found himself arguing against an intellectual tradition that asserted the supposed irrationality and slavishness of Judaism, in contrast to a presumed advantage in terms of philosophy and autonomy associated with Protestant Christianity, read from the vantage point of idealism. Among the best-known examples of this tradition are the theological writings of the young Hegel; however, as Wogenstein shows, An Essay on the Tragic claims to trace a “hidden turn” in the Hegel’s thinking, through which the philosopher may have corrected his earlier position on Judaism.

Yet it is tempting, and perhaps not wrong, to state that the validation of a literary scholarship, especially a philosophical approach to literature—and, in particular, a “critical hermeneutics”—depends upon the success with specific texts. To make this assertion, however, represents an explicit tilt toward the particular and therefore the aggressive decision to challenge the priority of the programmatic enterprise (including the auxiliary support it may borrow from intellectual history). At the same time, one might hesitate: does not the appeal for specific readings convey a fetishized fascination with “results,” a narrow-minded thinking of efficiency, which then characteristically dismisses the grand theoretical aspiration? That is surely a danger, especially at our current historical moment with its decided (and hardly illegitimate) turn away from “theory,” but in the case of Szondi (as with Adorno, for that matter), the scrutiny of the text is shot through with philosophical and theoretical thinking, which, in the best examples, also remains susceptible to an infusion of poetic substance.

Joshua Robert Gold’s essay addresses Szondi’s study of the writer Friedrich Hölderlin, another major figure of German Idealism. (New English translations of three Hölderlin poems by Nick Hoff appeared in Telos 134.) Hölderlin is to Hegel as poetry is to philosophy, which is to say, the conflict between logical-conceptual discourse and poetic aesthetic form plays out as a division of labor within the very personalities of idealism. Gold reads Szondi’s Hölderlin Studies through the prism of its epigraph: Unterschiedenes ist / gut (“What is different is / good”). Cited from one of Hölderlin’s unfinished poems, these words provide a point of condensation for the various concerns that run throughout this book. These concerns touch upon general questions regarding the character and object of literary criticism; they also address certain assumptions that still dominated scholarship at the time when Hölderlin Studies was published. Russell Berman also explores Szondi on Hölderlin, but with reference to questions of poetry and politics: reading Hölderlin in the increasingly radicalized Germany of the student movement of the 1960s, Szondi grappled with the thesis (previously current in East Germany and promulgated in France by the literary historian Pierre Bertaux) that Hölderlin had not only harbored Jacobin sympathies but had taken part in a (failed) conspiracy against the monarch. (Bertaux himself had played an important role in the French resistance in World War II.) Meanwhile Szondi simultaneously confronted a conservative, anti-political reading of Hölderlin in Heidegger, for whom “history” had less to do with a narrative of emancipation (within which Jacobinism could have some validity) than with a deconcealment of Being. Szondi therefore tried to carve out a space between a dogmatic activism and a regressive existentialism: his success was at best tenuous, indicating the challenge of any effort to make hermeneutics critical.

As much as Szondi developed his theoretical enterprise in dialogue with classical idealism, his literary criticism also involved engagement with the poetry (and drama) of modernism. Focusing on Szondi’s reading of the Austrian poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Rochelle Tobias considers the relationship of this interpretation to Szondi’s early essay on Friedrich Schlegel, one of the central figures of early romanticism. On first glance, there seems to be no connection between these figures: one of the primary names associated with fin-de-siècle Vienna, Hofmannsthal appears to have little in common with Schlegel, a contemporary of Hegel and Hölderlin. However, through a series of close readings Tobias argues how Hofmannsthal’s poetics resembles the concept of romantic irony while crucially modifying it. The collection concludes with Christoph König’s essay on Szondi’s relationship to the poet Paul Celan. Celan’s poetry was the topic of Szondi’s last book, the posthumously published (and incomplete) Celan Studies. Nonetheless, this work represents but one moment in a story that cannot be recounted without reference to other proper names, both people and places. Carefully constellating historical and literary material, König’s essay is not a tale of friendship, but an effort to understand the account of lyric poetry and subjectivity that Szondi attempted to articulate in the writings before his death.

The issue concludes with two reviews, which round out this issue devoted to problems of literary studies. For readers of Szondi, the central drama involves the confrontation of literature and philosophy, which in Hegelian terms becomes the dialectic of history. James Schall reads G. Ronald Murphy’s Gemstone of Paradise: The Holy Grail in Wolfram’s Parzival, while arguing (in line with Catherine Pickstock) that the culmination of philosophy is liturgy. The account resonates with Telos‘s interest in the standing of religion in modernity. Murphy’s study however investigates the high Middle Ages, where he traces the discourse on the Holy Grail in simultaneously theological and political directions. It involves a theological revision, insofar as he shifts focus away from the Grail as chalice to a reconceptualization as the altar-stone, and therefore the movable venue of Eucharistic celebration and community. The political account, which Schall, who otherwise deeply appreciates the work, singles out for criticism, involves a critique of Murphy’s description of the Crusades as senseless violence: since the altar-stone could be anywhere, a fetishized focus on the specific territory of the Holy Land verges on materialism. Instead Murphy valorizes the porous borders between Christianity and Islam in Parzival—precisely the point at which Schall introduces a more somber note, a concern with the historical expansionism of Islam and the degraded conditions of non-Muslims under Islamic rule. Celebrations of universalism, whether in Parzival or Nathan the Wise or elsewhere, may have value as normative ideals, but they are not convincing as descriptions of a reality disfigured by real warfare and a genuine enemy. Finally, Christian Sieg discusses Patrizia McBride’s The Void of Ethics, a study of Robert Musil and his approach to the challenges of modernism—different from the crisis model shared by so many of his contemporaries, and particularly attractive to neo-Hegelian readings of cultural history—which depended, so McBride, on Musil’s adoption of key Kantian elements. In lieu of a pursuit of an ultimate closure, an overcoming of alienation, this Kantian model explicitly involves incompatible states of mind, a living with contradiction as the basis for ethics. While this disruption contributes to possibilities for an open society, an indisputable advantage, it also leads Musil down a path toward psychological rather than social or political analyses of the major questions of his day. Sieg points out the consequent limitations in Musil’s understanding of the Nazi rise to power as an effect of “stupidity” (Musil’s term). Any criticism that dwells primarily on the stupidity of one’s opponents necessarily remains external to the matter at hand—a lesson still apt for political debate today.

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