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Telos 176 (Fall 2016): The Poet and the University: Stefan George among the Scholars

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One often speaks of the importance of poetry for thought, even of poetry as a mode of thinking, and perhaps nowhere more than in Germany, the country of Dichter and Denker, of poets and thinkers. The German intellectual tradition is defined by a long, intimately interwoven relation between poetry and thought going back to the solidification of the Modern Age in the eighteenth century: Klopstock’s “Republic of Letters”; Goethe and Schiller’s Classicism, especially Schiller’s “aesthetic state”; Hölderlin’s “founding poets” and the centrality of poets in “the time of need”; Jena Romanticism’s inextricable relation between “Symphilosophie” and “Sympoesie”; Hegel’s definition of beauty as “the sensible shining forth of the idea”; and onward to this day.

There is perhaps no tradition in the West in which poetry in its relation to thinking has been a more consistent, pressing concern—on both the right and left politically. Adorno and Heidegger equally go back to the role of poetry and art for philosophy. In fact, part of their philosophical legacy (as well as that of Dieter Henrich, Michael Theunissen, Hans Blumenberg, and many others) is the battle over correct interpretations of poetry—often trying to undo Heidegger’s influence, not however by expunging poetry from thought, but by giving poetry its proper place in philosophy. In all these cases, however, the claim for the importance of poetry for thinking remains (1) confined to the scholar reading the works of the poet and, thus, (2) somewhat abstract, a general premise concerning the ways in which poetry reveals something about truth, language, rhetoric, exchange, and thus the possibilities of both thought and critique.

The case of Stefan George and his circle is strikingly different. Here, it is not about poetry as an object of study, but of the living poet giving concrete shape to scholarship, both its themes and how it is written. This direct influence of the poet on scholarship is rather unique in European letters—a moment in which students and disciples of a poet enter the halls of the university and leave an indelible impression on the traditional academic disciplines: scholarship not about but out of the spirit of poetry. This inversion of order is new and what Gottfried Benn, in his laudatio on George’s death, rightfully calls “one of the most enigmatic phenomena of European intellectual history,” namely, “this incursion of George into German scholarship.”[1]

This active intervention of the poet into the university forms the focus of this special issue of Telos: the living poet as the muse, the motivation, the guide, the instigator, as well as the instructor and teacher for academic research. From classics and philosophy to art history, economics, and political science, and including all the Western European national philologies (German, French, Spanish, Italian, English), members of George’s Circle left a deep impression on the scholarly fields defining the humanities and the social sciences. And due to the forced emigration of several members of the George Circle in 1933, the impact extended as far as the United States and New Zealand.

Nevertheless, one could still rejoinder: So what? The young and impressionable can always be led astray by the charismatic poet. Plato had his reasons for banning poetry from the ideal city in book 10 of the Republic, since poetry leads one to mistake mere appearance for the Forms, the things in themselves. Thus, a poet as midwife to hackneyed scholarship would be nothing notable. But here too there is a crucial difference: the academics who researched and wrote their scholarly works under the influence of Stefan George do not compose a group of second-class intellectuals but rather are leading, formative academic figures up to this day, as the following brief examples elucidate:

Ernst Robert Curtius. Along with Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer, Curtius was one of the worldwide pre-eminent Romanists of the immediate postwar period, culminating in his still canonical work European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948). On March 30, 1914, as a freshly habilitated twenty-eight-year-old teaching in Bonn, Curtius wrote to George’s closest disciple and right-hand man, Friedrich Gundolf: “Ever since George’s The Star of the Covenant [Stern des Bundes] appeared, there is no longer any other possibility than to want to serve anonymously in his Reich.”[2] Two years later, Curtius sent his first major manuscript to Gundolf for possible publication with George’s house press, Bondi, only to be roundly rejected by George, “the Master” (dem Meister) himself, as he was wont to be called. After taking Gundolf to task for even recommending the manuscript—”Did you even have it in your hands?”—the poet George is relentless in his critique of Curtius, a thirty-year-old professor whom George had, in fact, personally known for years: “There is nothing future-oriented in it—all the hopes are retrospective. . . . these are nothing but problems put on the table without taking a position on them! What does that help. . . . [It is] not a world of the future.”[3] In short, Bondi Press did not take the book, and Curtius thought twice about serving in George’s Reich.

Ernst Kantorowicz was a close follower of George since 1920 and one of the pallbearers at George’s funeral. Despite his absolute bona fides as a staunch conservative, Kantorowicz, as a Jew, was forced to leave Hitler’s Germany and was exiled in (and grew to love) the United States. His study on medieval political theology, The King’s Two Bodies, is as pressing today, especially in the wake of Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben, as it was upon its publication in 1957. Until his death a picture of George adorned Kantorowicz’s desk.[4]

Georg Simmel regularly met with George in Berlin, wanted his close attention to the degree that it irked him when Gundolf tagged along, wrote several essays on George, and not only dedicated the later editions of his Philosophy of History (Geschichtsphilosophie) to George, “the poet and friend,” but also was known to describe his own work as the philosophical-sociological parallel to George’s poetry.[5]

Max Kommerell, the heir to Gundolf as George’s personal secretary from 1922 to 1930, was “praised” by Walter Benjamin as producing the “Magna Carta” of German conservatism. In fact, Benjamin’s two reviews of Kommerell’s books, reviews marked by equal doses of admiration and rejection, have paradoxically played no small part in Kommerell’s resurgence in the past decades, to the point that Agamben calls him “certainly the greatest German critic of the twentieth century after Benjamin, and perhaps the last great personality between the wars who remains to be discovered.”[6]

And then there are also many others, some of whom will be the subject of the essays that follow: Friedrich Gundolf, Karl Wolfskehl, Friedrich Wolters, Edgar Salin, Ernst Bertram, and Ludwig Klages. Clearly, there was something about the proximity to the poet George that enchanted scholarship—in a double sense of animating it and casting a spell on it. The word “spell” is carefully chosen, since it is often (not always) the case that the best and lasting work of many “George scholars” comes after they have broken with or distanced themselves from the Master. The poet George motivates, compels, guides, and even instructs the intellectual, but what George himself aspires to is not scholarship, not in any strict sense, but conjuring—he does not want a sober, considerate exploration of history, of texts, much less critique and the footnotes to support it, but evocations of signs, prophetic statements of what is to come, and indications of the discontinuous “moment” (Augenblick) that cannot be proved, only experienced.[7] Thus, in part what this special issue of Telos explores are the coextensive questions: Not only what is left behind after distancing oneself from George (i.e., what in George’s influence hinders or stands opposed to scholarship), but more importantly what remains as a productive force for the scholarship produced by (former) members of the circle? That is, what does the poet George first make possible for the scholar?

Ernst Osterkamp’s essay focuses on Friedrich Gundolf’s Goethe study of 1916, one of the most successful scholarly works of the circle. He emphasizes its three-fold innovation, namely, its bold intervention in the history of German studies, its novel approach to the understanding of Goethe, and its defining moment in the concept of scholarship of the George Circle. Gundolf’s book is, as Osterkamp argues, one of the first examples of the new paradigm of Geistesgeschichte. Looking at Goethe from the perspective of traditional Goethe scholarship, Osterkamp shows how much Gundolf breaks with the older biographical and philological paradigm. Instead, Goethe becomes a norm-positing figure, both in terms of his intellectual impact on the history of German literature and his aesthetic and ethical relevance for the contemporary discussion. Finally, Osterkamp traces the intricate and often difficult relationship between George and Gundolf with respect to their individual appropriation of Goethe.

While Osterkamp examines a single work by Gundolf in terms of its paradigmatic significance, Peter Uwe Hohendahl explores the reception of Nietzsche in broader terms. He stresses the diversity of the responses as well as the intellectual conflicts among competing interpretations. Hohendahl highlights the importance of Ernst Bertram’s Nietzsche: Attempt at a Mythology (Nietzsche: Versuch einer Mythologie, 1918) as a work approved by George and published by Bondi, the official publisher of the George Circle. At the same time, Hohendahl shows that Bertram’s Nietzsche interpretation was challenged by other members. In 1923 Ernst Gundolf and Kurt Hildebrandt offered a noticeably different and much more critical reading of Nietzsche. Harking back to George’s own reservations, they wanted to limit the relevance of Nietzsche to the role of the critic of his own time. Hohendahl traces the Nietzsche reception of the circle through the 1920s and the 1930s when it comes in contact with and competes with fascist Nietzsche scholarship. In particular, Bertram and Hildebrandt, who supported the NS regime in 1933, had to rethink their assessment of Nietzsche. However, Hohendahl points out that even Hildebrandt’s new engagement with Nietzsche in 1936 kept its distance from the fascist conception of Nietzsche. The same is true for the remarks of Max Kommerell, which use the philosopher as an antidote to the cultural conservatism of George.

Approaching George and his circle from the perspective of biopoetics, Carsten Strathausen explores George’s poetics, its impact on his disciples, as well as their distinctive responses. However, more than any other contributor, he questions the notion of a single circle, replacing it with the idea of a number of different, overlapping groups. Consequently, he also problematizes the claim that there was a common political position. On the other hand, Strathausen argues that George’s biopoetics did actually bind these circles together. While in Strathausen’s essay the affinity of George and his circles to the fascist movement and the NS State remains uncertain, it can be argued that George’s understanding and political use of poetry created a common ground. In short, for Strathausen the impact of George’s aesthetic position also informs his conception of German history and the future of Germany. Using the poem “Secret Germany” (“Geheimes Deutschland,” 1928) as a staging ground, the author emphasizes the difference between the poetic realm and the outside world, thereby giving the “political” question a different and broader meaning. Drawing on contemporary biological theory, Strathausen argues that George’s poetics can best be understood in the context of a memetic theory of inheritance. Still, Strathausen ultimately criticizes George’s poetics as a form of spiritual transfer (through poetry) that underestimates the need for a material medial carrier.

Although Max Kommerell’s affinity to National Socialism is not at the center of Elke Siegel’s essay, she aptly raises the question and re-examines his record, since Kommerell initially greeted the new regime with enthusiasm. By probing the question of friendship in Kommerell’s path-breaking monograph The Poet as Leader in German Classicism (Der Dichter als Führer in der deutschen Klassik, 1928), the relationship between poetic and political leadership is brought into the foreground once more. It entails a set of problems that, as Siegel acknowledges, have haunted the scholarship on the George Circle. Keeping a critical distance from her object of study, including Kommerell’s famous and controversial study of German Classicism, Siegel, well aware of Walter Benjamin’s critical review of the book, explores its politics by tracing the theme of friendship throughout the work. Using Klopstock and Schiller as her primary examples, Siegel seeks to show how the question of friendship is closely related to the question of community and thereby to the concept of leadership. In his reading of Schiller, Kommerell focuses on Schiller’s role as Goethe’s friend and helper, a process in which Schiller gains his own autonomy precisely by putting himself at the service of the older friend. In this process, Siegel argues, Kommerell not only explicates the historical constellation of German Classicism but also unveils the master-disciple configuration between George and Kommerell. But in Siegel’s essay Kommerell does not have the last word. Instead, it is a reading of Benjamin’s German Men and Women (Deutsche Menschen, 1936) that sets the record straight. Siegel reads the collection of eighteenth-century letters, selected and annotated by Benjamin, as an ethical response to the problematic idea of poetic leadership.

Paul Fleming’s essay analyzes the perhaps most emblematic instance of a scholar entering the university under the banner of the poet George: Ernst H. Kantorowicz’s 1933, second inaugural lecture at Frankfurt University, entitled simply “Secret Germany.” After the Nazis banned Jewish professors from the university, the medieval historian Kantorowicz briefly returned (he was exempt as a World War I front soldier) to make an emphatic but esoteric defense of George’s “Secret Germany” against its conflation with Nazi Germany, a conflation propagated by friends and members of the circle, such as Bertram and Count Uxkull-Gyllenband. Kantorowicz’s audience, therefore, was two-fold: both the Nazis and the George Circle itself, including George (who died, however, before being able to read the speech). While most recent scholarship interprets the lecture as declaring “Secret Germany” to be a regulative ideal or utopia outside of historical time—and thus structurally opposed to any possible realization (e.g., in Nazi Germany)—Fleming’s article focuses on the last paragraph of Kantorowicz’s lecture, in which Secret Germany is prophetically conjured as still forthcoming and merely awaiting its proper historical moment (as was once the case with the Staufen Empire). While Kantorowicz here explicitly rejects Nazism’s racist politics and asserts the centrality of pedagogy over biology, Fleming argues that in 1933 he is not yet immune to the prophetic, myth-making, mystifying notion of history that George cultivated—with all of its political problems. The essay concludes with an initial reading of one of Kantorowicz’s letters from exile that is included in this issue of Telos, in which Kantorowicz in 1939 returns to the notion of Secret Germany and still envisions it as a possible antidote to crooked, Nazi Germany.

Russell A. Berman’s essay analyzes the social theory of Edgar Salin, reconnecting it to Stefan George and the circle. As Berman points out, George rejected Salin when the latter embarked on an academic career, but Salin remained loyal to the teaching of the Master for the rest of his life. It is this intellectual loyalty that raises the question of George’s lasting impact on Salin’s thought. Berman affirms this claim by tracing George’s influence on Salin’s writings from the 1920s to the 1960s. He views Salin’s strong interest in a united Europe based on the legacy of Greek and Roman culture as specifically Georgean. Moreover, Salin shares with the circle the claim that George was more than a poet and must be understood as a statesman in his own right. In keeping with this context, Berman reads Salin’s social theory, especially his critique of liberal economic theory, as rooted in George’s stance toward modernity. Like the Master, Salin rejected disciplinary autonomization as well as radical liberal capitalism without being attracted by state socialism or fascism. Following Theodor Heuss, Berman defines Salin’s centrist position as a combination of George and the economist Friedrich List. In short, Berman seeks to demonstrate in Salin’s work and political activities the possibility of a democratic position based on George’s thought.

The discussion of the George Circle concludes with the advance publication of three letters from a forthcoming Annotated Edition of the Letters of Ernst H. Kantorowicz (1895–1963) , prepared, commentated, and introduced by Janus C. Gudian.[8] Gudian’s succinct portrait of Kantorowicz through the prism of his letters offers a compelling image of this complex, multifaceted intellectual, who to this day most profoundly brings together the poet and the university.

Note from the Editor

This issue of Telos also includes an essay by Stéphane Symons that explores Walter Benjamin’s comments on Mickey Mouse, animated film, and broader implications for aesthetics and politics, as well as a special concluding section on some topical issues of current concern: Brexit, immigration, and populism.


1. Gottfried Benn, “Rede auf Stefan George,” in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4, Reden und Vorträge, ed. Dieter Wellershoff (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1975), p. 1033.

2. Friedrich Gundolf, Briefwechsel mit Herbert Steiner und Ernst Robert Curtius, intro. and ed. Lothar Helbing and Claus Victor Bock (Amsterdam: Castrum Peregrini Presse, 1963), p. 236.

3. Ibid., pp. 259–60. George’s critique is largely directed against the importance Curtius attributes to Henri Bergson, a figure the poet roundly rejected. See Ernst Osterkamp’s essay in this volume, where George criticizes the draft of Gundolf’s 1916 book Goethe on the same grounds.

4. See Ulrich Raulff, Kreis ohne Meister: Stefan Georges Nachleben (Munich: Beck Verlag, 2009), p. 324.

5. Wolf Lepenies, Die Drei Kulturen: Soziologie zwischen Literatur und Wissenschaft (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988), p. 336.

6. Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1999), p .77.

7. See Ernst Osterkamp, Poesie der leeren Mitte: Stefan Georges Neues Reich (Munich: Hanser, 2010), pp. 123–24.

8. We would like to especially thank Ernst Osterkamp for making the pre-publication of the letters possible, as well as Janus Gudian for his critical preparation of and commentary essay on them.

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