03.05.09, Classen, Verzweiflung und Hoffnung

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Will Hasty

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.009


Classen, Albrecht. Verzweiflung und Hoffnung: die Suche nach der kommunikativen Gemeinschaft in der deutschen Literatur des Mittelalters. Series: Beihefte zur Mediaevistik, vol. 1. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2002. Pp. xxviii, 502. ISBN: 3-631-38209-x.

Reviewed by:
Will Hasty
University of Florida

The concerns of Albrecht Classen's expansive and thought-provoking new book, a study of mostly German works composed in the early and High Middle Ages, range from the importance of medieval cultural history for us today to the critical understanding of some of the most significant (and difficult to interpret) works of German literary history. In individual chapters, Classen analyzes the Hildebrandslied, Andreas Capellanus's De amore, the narrative works of Hartmann von Aue, the lyric poetry of Walther von der Vogelweide, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan, Wernher der Gaertner's Helmbrecht, and Heinrich Wittenwiler's Ring. The basic concern of these analyses is with communication. In its broadest sense, this communication has to do with ways in which the Middle Ages continue to address us today, on the basis of correspondences between the pre-modern situation in which the narratives analyzed were composed and our current postmodern situation. Classen's discussion turns to this theme frequently, and one of the first examples is in the introduction:

Besides the fact that the poet works of the Middle Ages belong to our cultural heritage-- there are surprising essential parallels between medieval society and that of the late twentieth century, whether this be the fulfillment of love or the coexistence of people. Despite the many centuries that separate us from the early or High Middle Ages, the poetic works composed then continue to have a compelling meaning for us today, for already at that time people were concerned with people, with essential problems of human ethics, and with the search for one's function in life (xxiii-xxiv; also see 57; my translation).

In a much more specific and methodologically precise sense, Classen is interested in communication as developed by Juergen Habermas. Other significant modern sociologists and philosophers are mentioned (especially Niklas Luhmann and Richard Rorty), but it is Habermas that most frequently provides the conceptual apparatus that Classen employs in the analysis of the medieval texts. Whether or not Habermas's idea of kommunikatives Handeln (communicative action) which is based on post-enlightenment developments in technology and philosophical thought, is suitable for the analysis of medieval texts is a question that many readers will ask themselves (and the same is no doubt true for Luhmann as well), but it is also a question that Classen anticipates and specifically addresses (see, for example, 95). With regard to the theoretical framework, Classen makes the important point in his introduction that, because each of the eight chapters arose as individual studies, the theoretical framework is unterschiedlich stark aufgebaut (xviii; developed to different degrees). A consequence of this is that the reader may sometimes find the application of the theoretical apparatus to be somewhat unsystematic. On the other hand, it becomes clear that Classen's interest is not in a perfect congruence between modern sociological frameworks and the medieval texts, but rather in garnering usable ideas from the former in order to illuminate the latter in different ways. The result is a very interesting basic argument: medieval authors of texts as varied as the Hildebrandslied and Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan were interested in and quite consciously thematizing communication, problems associated with communication, and the necessity of the right kind of communication. Classen's book demonstrates an impressive knowledge of the medieval texts and a truly impressive familiarity with the vast critical literature on them.

The most difficult case that Classen makes is in the initial chapter on the Hildebrandslied, perhaps because this Old High German heroic lay written down in a religious manuscript in the ninth century is the most unusual of the texts studied (most of the others belong more or less loosely to the courtly culture of the High Middle Ages). The discussion of the Hildebrandslied ranges widely -- as it also does in the other chapters -- over questions pertaining to the text and significant issues in the critical literature, before arriving at a reading of the lay that grows out of thoughts expressed by Habermas and Luhmann: "A communicative community does not arise in the exchange of words between the old warrior and the young man, and so nothing is left to them but to reach for their weapons, for they are not able to reach each other with their words -- language fails, therefore also communication, and the human community collapses, as father and son attack each other with the intention of killing his opponent" (51).

Consistent with this understanding of the heroic lay, Classen argues that the monks who wrote the Hildebrandslied down (and even the people involved in the original formation of the lay in preceding centuries) were interested in showing the tragic results of failed communication, and thus in bringing audiences, by means of a negative example, to understand that communication is a necessary foundation of society: "society comes into being only where communication develops" (49). Of all the chapters in the book, this one seems the most controversial. The early medieval monastic situation, not even to mention the obscure (pre-Christian and Christian) cultural circumstances under which the lay took shape in preceding centuries, are so radically different from the cultural situation of the present that the interpretive approach here seems stretched to the breaking point.

The book seems on firmer ground with the works of the High Middle Ages. As a rule, these works are more complex, in ways that arguably draw attention to communication and its pitfalls. This is certainly the case, for example, with Andreas Capellanus's De amore, the third book of which manifests a suddenly critical monastic attitude toward the courtly love that had been praised and exemplified in diverse ways in the first two. It is a most interesting thesis indeed that such an about-face might have been executed "in order not only to begin a new discussion on the nature of love, but also to reflect on the communication underlying it and to expound on the essence of human language" (104). With the episode of joie de la curt in mind, it also seems quite plausible when Classen -- on the basis of a passage from Habermas on the characteristics of verstaendigungsorientiertes Handeln (action oriented towards understanding) -- argues that Hartmann von Aue's Erec "stands representatively for the ideal of an imagined communicative community, which may always be in danger and must continually be reconstituted, in order to provide for the completeness of human existence" (153).

In the analysis of Wolfram's Parzival, Classen returns to Habermas, and specifically to Habermas's understanding of rationality, in order to take up again the discussion of the appropriateness of this theoretical model for the assessment of medieval texts: "Granted, Habermas unequivocally emphasizes the decisive role of rationality, but the sociological and moral consequences of his analysis apply just as well to Wolfram's Parzival-romance as to the society of the late twentieth century, which might force us to scrutinize the term "rationality" anew, and at least to question its automatic association with "modernity," which has by no means proved that it learned to operate rationally, as the many wars of the last decades throughout the world demonstrate" (276).

Passages such as this show that Classen's analysis moves in both directions. It is not only interested in what modern conceptions of communication can tell us about cultural products of the Middle Ages, but also in the ways in which reflection on these products and our own endeavor to understand them can lead us to view our own time differently. With regard to the assessment of Wolfram's work, Classen concludes that "the hero must learn, just as we must learn today, to speak in society and thereby to develop communication as conceived by Habermas" (278). Gottfried's Tristan, long famous for the great variety of often-conflicting interpretations it has called forth, presents itself from Classen's perspective as "an extraordinarily complex network of relations determined by language" (357). Tristan and Isolde are seen as exemplary not only on the basis of their love, but also their understanding and practice of language in all of its complexity. Classen understands this as an appeal to the audience, "to perceive the essence of humanity in language and to take full advantage of its communicative function" (357). The focus on communication and its importance also leads to interesting observations on the poetry of Walther von der Vogelweide ("If one considers how often the singer addresses his listeners, a member of the audience, or his beloved lady directly, one begins to understand the extraordinary fascination that Walther had for communicative exchanges, into which he endeavored to place everyone around him," 185-86) and on the later works, Werner's Helmbrecht and Wittenwiler's Ring, both of which show, though in different ways, the breakdown of a Kommunikationsgemeinschaft.

Classen's highly original approach to the problem of communication in the literary works discussed breaks new ground. As is the case with any original approach, it is likely to experience some objections -- particularly regarding the suitability of Habermas and Luhmann for the interpretation of medieval texts. Nevertheless, Classen's book provides us with abundant perceptive thoughts and reflections about medieval culture and our own that invite us to think in the direction he is pointing. Today many of our most basic social and political institutions are being transformed. In its own way, the High Middle Ages was also a time of great cultural transformations. Inevitably, some of the basic paradigms traditionally seen to separate (post)modernity from what went before will no longer seem so compelling, and medieval culture will present itself to us again in unexpected ways. It seems appropriate and productive to frame the relationship of modern to medieval culture in terms of communication (or the lack thereof), and by so doing Classen's book makes a unique scholarly contribution.

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Will Hasty

University of Florida