03.05.10, Thonnissen, Ethos und Methode

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Walter F. Veit

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.010


Thonnissen, Karl. Ethos und Methode: zur Bestimmung der Metaliteratur nach Ernst Robert Curtius. Aachen, Germany: Aquamarine, 2001. Pp. 264. ISBN: 3-8311-1596-6.

Reviewed by:
Walter F. Veit
Monash University

There are not many literary critics and philologists who can boast to share Ernst Robert Curtius' claim to greatness because they have to endure a similar fate, namely that Curtius' literary criticism and philology has been turned into Curtius philology and criticism. Still in 1991 -- forty-five years after Curtius' death, fifteen years after the inclusion of Curtius in Leo Pollmann's 1971 canonical [Romance] Literaturwissenschaft und Methode; twenty-seven years after Earl Jeffrey Richard's 1983 Modernism, Medievalism and Humanism. A Research Bibliography on the Reception of the Works of Ernst Robert Curtius (at 327 works by and 436 about Curtius nearly complete up to 1982); and after the publication of the 1986 Heidelberg Colloquium Ernst Robert Curtius (1885-1956): Werk, Wirkung Zukunftsperspektive (published in 1989) -- still in 1991 Tilman Krause found it necessary to defend Curtius in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Nr. 61, 13.03.1991, p.N3) against his critics on the contemporary political Left. His chagrin was aroused in particular by Hans Manfred Bock's article in Lendemains (59, 1990) entitled "Die Politik des Unpolitischen. Zu E.R.Curtius' Ort im politisch-intellektuellen Leben der Weimarer Republik" which, Krause claimed, is too close for comfort to Michael Nerlich's Marxist critique of 1972 which sees Curtius' studies of French civilisation as "ideological preparation of the Third Reich." His reply gave Krause a chance to pinpoint the still existing grievances on the political Left as well as on the Right: "There are two things for which Bock and his ilk cannot pardon Curtius: that which the Bonn Romance scholar and child of his time called with some pathos the "faith in Germany" as well as that "disregard of methodological questions" which confers elegance and readability to his works but which already his colleagues suspected as not being serious and which today appears to all of those as unscientific who lose themselves in theoretical glass bead games and forget that literature is not written for academics." Thus Krause, who recognizes in Curtius a genuine humanist, patriot and conservative in the best sense of the words, identifies the three-pronged critique which seems to haunt Curtius' life and work: the Nazis denounced him for being a cosmopolitan and "ingratiating himself to the deracinate West"; the generation of 1968 accused him of being an "offensive representative of the ideology of a "German Sonderweg" who did not join the brown-shirts because he was a "habitual political fence-sitter" (Bock), and his work on medieval literature as "a Romanist's blessing of Konrad Adenauer's big-industry European politics" (Nerlich). In the great methodological debates of the seventies he was ostracized as someone who promoted an "irrationalistic, quasi religious cognitive procedure."

All that does not do much for Medieval Latin literary studies but a lot for the clarification of the intellectual and political positions of his admirers as well as of his detractors. I keep wondering whether I should be gratified or puzzled or both by the fact that a scholar in whose shadow my generation started academic work in the fifties, who has stimulated, chastised and angered us even after death, should still be a stumbling bloc for the post-1968 generation. In the continued melee among scholars it has been forgotten that Curtius' generation has many more great scholars on offer in the field of European Geistesgeschichte -- we need to think only of Wilhelm Dilthey, Aby Warburg, Karl Vossler, Carl Schneider, Martin Grabmann, Leo Spitzer, Rudolf Pfeiffer, Erich Auerbach, Bruno Snell, Werner Krauss, Wolfgang Schadewaldt, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Emil Staiger, Horst Ruediger, and Fritz Schalk, just to name a few Germans, some of whom had been forced into exile. When dealing with Curtius' immensely complex personality and work we still seem to touch another raw nerve of the German nation.

In such a situation Karl Thoennissen's book on Curtius' intellectual make-up -- originally a Paderborn University doctoral dissertation -- is of great merit and service. His sense of irony in lieu of a know-all critique is effective and much appreciated. Stating early on that "in the case of Curtius one can speak only with reservation of a theory of literary criticism" and agreeing with Harald Weinrich's observation that "with regard to any theory Curtius could be put easily to shame" (46), he sets out the lay open in minute detail the intellectual foundations and to unravel the intricate web of Curtius' professionalism as a writer, literary critic and public intellectual with a mission as well as a philologist with a considered and effective methodology.

For his purpose, Thoennissen proceeds in four major steps. His first chapter "Method and Morality" elaborates in general terms Curtius' intellectual profile based on an ethics of duties (deontology) inculcated by his teachers, foremost Gustav Groeber, and an ideal bringing antagonistic forces (like instinct and reason) to a productive synthesis. He recognizes the driving forces behind Curtius' ethics in his frequent use of Energie (energy) and energisch which may mean energetic and/or decisive. The second chapter is devoted to a thorough analysis of the concept of synthesis as a "onto-deonto-logical principle," looking particularly at the fault-lines in Curtius' philosophy of humanism, the function of his "synthetic concepts" and the juxtaposition of intuition and intelligence drawing mainly on Curtius' writings on Ortega, Eliot, Vergil and Balzac. The third chapter demonstrates how these elements, especially the critic's intuition of the worth and value of a writer to whom he is almost magically related by affinity, ontological and heuristic at the same time, are applied to and reinforced by Curtius' literary criticism, leading to a general consideration of the "task of the literary critic." The obvious question, how effectively these critical tools are when used by Curtius in his philological research is raised and answered convincingly in the fourth chapter entitled "Romance and European Philology" which looks at such important issues as the persistence and change of the heuristic system, how the whole work must be considered a "biography of constant topoi," and the difficulty in which Curtius finds himself when insisting on intuition as the principal element in his heuristic system. Throughout the book we find enough remarks on the importance of these principles for Curtius political stance, his late turning toward Rome, its legacy to Europe, and his intellectual participation in the renewed politics toward a European Union.

Clearly, these chapters are fitted neatly to three clearly recognizable periods in Curtius' biography which are important for the development of the intellectual frame of his work: first, his Lehrjahre with Groeber up to his doctoral dissertation in 1911, perhaps to the end of the First World War; then, second, up to 1932, the writer, patriot (some call him a nationalist) and literary critic who is in close contact with the French, Spanish and English intellectual elite of the time, who writes about and translates Proust, Valéry, Gide, Cocteau, T.S.Eliot, James Joyce, Ortega y Gasset, French and Spanish civilisation and their interaction with and indebtedness to German spirituality, and who has decided on a canon of important modern writers, above all others Honoré de Balzac. It is the time of the public intellectual who attacks Max Weber and Karl Mannheim over questions of values in life and science and finds support in Goethe, Gottfried Benn and Carl Schmitt.

This is followed, third, from 1932 to the end of the war a turn to and, culminating in 1938, an increasing and almost exclusive preoccupation with medieval Latin and French literature. This period of intense philological work which was mostly published in Romanische Forschungen and the Zeitschrift fuer Romanische Philologie seems to have kept him away from Nazi attention. It was called later Curtius' period of "Innere Emigration" (internal emigration), a criticism he shared with a number of German writers who did not emigrate during that period.

The fourth period started in 1948 with the publication of Curtius' most famous and influential book Europaeische Literatur und Lateinisches Mittelalter (ELLMA, second German edition in 1954; translations: 1953 English, 1955 Spanish, 1956 French, 1957 Portuguese) in which he reworked and integrated most of the earlier work on medieval French and Latin literature guided by a new intellectual and political mission: the enduring better European tradition of humanism.

Thoennissen may be right in using the term "deontology" instead of the German Pflichtethik when analyzing the all-pervading motivating force in Curtius' life, but he applies it in a number of occasionally puzzling combinations, culminating in an almost Derridaen "onto-deonto-logic". He seems to assume that the reader will make himself familiar with the term with the help of a philosophical dictionary which offers a definition. Fortunately, the Web's Dictionary of Philosophical Terms and Names provides help from some generally available dictionaries and their short entries which refer mainly to Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant. Here we find: "Deontology. Study of moral necessity, duty, or obligation. A deontological normative theory holds that moral worth is an intrinsic feature of human actions, determined by formal rules of conduct. Thus deontologists like Kant suppose that moral obligations rest solely upon duty, without requiring any reference to the practical consequences that dutiful action may happen to have." I am sure that Curtius was familiar with Cicero's De officiis and knew the old legal topos Iustitia non novit patrem nec matrem; solum veritatem spectat, but I wonder whether he took any notice of the problem inherent in such a notion of duty. After all, the Corpus Iuris Civilis has it that Est iniquum damnosum esse cuiquam officium suum (Digestae 29.3,7).

Thoennissen's approach is different. He elucidates the energetic, proactive notion of Pflicht (duty) and its ontological, epistemological as well as methodological content - such as discipline, rigour, propriety (Zucht), competency, precision, objectivity and exactness as demanded by the natural sciences, exhaustive thoroughness (Gruendlichkeit), universal education, silence imposing reading ("schweigengebietende Belesenheit")(11) and distaste for mediocrity in any field -- which is fundamental to Curtius' thinking, his Berufsethik (professional ethics), by searching it out at the various stages in Curtius' life when it becomes more and more conscious and obligatory, first to Curtius himself and, after that, mandatory to everybody else. These intellectual and moral strategies expressed in Curtius' deotological key-concepts of Energie (energy) in pursuit of the truth; Strenge (rigour in strictest self-criticism and examination of all subjective opinion); and Methodik (methodology), are the safeguards of science and scholarship. Thoennissen shows Curtius turning into a scholar "who became known as a man who imposed the highest demands regarding the scientific niveau and work ethos on himself and others and who went public with severity when the need arose. Curtius had and still has the reputation as a scholar to whom science was a duty, not just a profession but a calling, but also as a man who for these reasons evoked not only admiration and veneration but with some also terror, fear and antipathy" (12). We might add here that such characteristics, the good and the bad, made the reputation of German scientist and scholars during the nineteenth century and beyond. But they are also in conflict with each other when considering that the Prussian notion of duty, which was essentially Kant's, was inseparable from humanness (Menschlichkeit) and service to humanity (Menschheit). When duty was followed without regard to the consequences (as presented in the dictionary definition) to humanness and humanity, it was justly discredited. This is the reason why Curtius' rigorous separation of Humanismus (humanism) from Humanitaet (humanness) is in need of reconsideration to which Thoennissen offers some leads.

Of similar importance for Curtius' literary criticism is the polarity of intuition and intelligence. Thoennissen discusses their ontology and epistemological function as they evolved in Curtius' writings on Max Weber, Bergson, Valéry and, above all, Balzac. In this process the underlying principle of apprehending truth through intuition becomes conscious, refined and justified. Not surprisingly, through intuition Curtius finds himself in consonance with the genius of literature as manifest in his approval of Balzac's "deviner le vrai." Thoennissen quotes Curtius' own description to demonstrate the complexity of the notion: "Intuition is also the most adequate form and the highest level of knowing. Knowing is perceiving. In principal, there is only one knowledge. All imperfect forms of knowing are nothing but turbid and mediated modes of perception" (111). And a few lines further on we become aware of the Bergsonian ontological basis of intuition: "Every genuine philosopher is born with a primordial intuition which reveals itself to him later as a mission. It is this germinating thought which unfolds in concepts and gains strength when opposed" (112). Such necessary opposition comes from the intellect which -- in Katian terminology -- gives rules to sense perception. Cautioned by Curtius' persistent anti-theoretical stance, Thoennissen prefers to present the evidence for Curtius' "metaliterary phenomenological ontology" (107) from his writings on Balzac, Valéry and Proust whom Curtius credited with achieving the "most comprehensive and most differentiated intelligence which is intuition at the same time" (114).

But it stands to reason that Curtius drew more on Leibniz for his understanding of energy and that he adapted Kant's epistemology (we need to remember that in 1914 he wrote on "schematism" in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason) and Goethe's ontological and heuristic Urphaenomene (primary phenomena) Polaritaet und Steigerung (polarity and gradational synthesis) and Hegel's dialectics for his purposes. Such rational opposition to non-rational intuition is, as Thoennissen shows, also deeply imbedded in Curtius' notion of duty. It is the duty of the scholar to bring them to a synthesis in his philological and literary criticism in order to get to the truth of the matter in hand. Both the scholar's legitimacy and his arrogance rest on the fulfillment of his duty.

It is of great significance that Thoennissen is able to show that the complete system of Curtius' "postulate of deontological-epistemological convergence" (86) -- as constructed on the basis of Curtius' literary criticism -- holds just as much sway in his work on medieval Latin and Romance literature which he published first in periodicals and, ultimately, in ELLMA and his Collected Essays on Romance Philology (1960). Literary criticism and philology have identical foundations, there is a "congruence" between the two. And in consonance with critical intuition, " philological intuition is also incommensurable" (221). Although it seems difficult for us to connect Curtius' studies on classical medieval rhetoric and topoi to his principle of intuition, the ten Leitsaetze (Guiding Principles) on the first pages of ELLMA are evidence in themselves. It would be a study in itself to analyze how Curtius' intuition chose them and ripped them out of their old context; and how his disciplined philology made them meaningful in the new.

Thoennissen notes with some irony that in Curtius' scholarly practice the different although consonant areas of literary criticism and philology impose their characteristics on each other to such a degree "that his later philological works are intermingled to a very high degree, not to say determined, by not quite rational ideas, intelligent history of mentality, mannerisms and topical polemics, and that his much praised criticism feeds rather frequently off academic-philological school wisdom and categories. This aspect is in remarkable fashion in harmony [with the fact] that the intuitive deviner le vrai of the ingenious artist is transformed into the conception that in the hands of the ingenious-rigorous energetic [scholar] critique and philology could likewise become infallible instruments of finding and expressing the truth (even beyond the literary)" (114).

However, Thoennissen does not specifically speculate -- but we might -- whether or not Curtius' understanding of classical Rhetoric and Topics in ELLMA, the work that is famed to have started a new and productive approach in literary scholarship, is so dominated by his idiosyncratic methodology and its foundation in a static theory of duties to such a degree that a misunderstanding of the Rhetoric and Topics of Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian was inevitable. He took them to mean prescriptions and signatures of an eternal and static aesthetic while the sources define them as processes and sources of argumentation about the contingent and unexplored.

In the final parts of his book, when it comes to an evaluation of moral, epistemological and methodological principles guiding Curtius' work, Thoennissen arrives at a conclusion which is anticipated and carefully prepared in his analyses: "...his impressionistic epistemology and methodological exposes result only again in the presentation of a basically inimitable and inspired subjectivity whose the primordial foundation [of evaluation and intuition] will remain inconceivable for everybody else" (220). Clearly, such a position not only has the advantage of creating an aura of genius about an author, critic and scholar, but also of immunizing his interpretation against falsification. Further questions will be taken as insults. This is the aura of Curtius in which most of us have grown up. Thoennissen's book will change that by giving the reader the tools for scrutiny.

On the other hand, by combining and unifying the evidence for Curtius' "totalizing ethical [epistemological and methodological] postulates of his deontology" from all periods of his life, Thoennissen himself creates a totalizing image which shows Curtius as an unchanging character from the beginning to the end, forbidding and hieratic. He makes Curtius a lonely man at the top who -- citing Goethe -- makes Einsamkeit (loneliness) a sign of greatness. As mentioned earlier, it leaves Curtius without contemporaries in Germany whom we might think of as comparable and competitors in scholarship and academic standing. There are many admirers already in Curtius' time, mainly outside Germany, a number of disciples inside Germany, but few critics. I am certain that Thoennissen knows of many more, and I grant him that a critique of Curtius is not his topic. But I should quote a few lines of a critical position taken early in his book which may help the readers to judge for themselves. Having analyzed Curtius' principals of intuition, energy, rigour and the rule of the intellect, he concludes (in the style of an excursus by Thomas Mann which I find difficult to maintain in the translation):

"Here I find the manifestation of a thinking which I regard basically as being of an ideological nature and which I would describe as follows: For Curtius, who was obligated throughout his life to the authoritarian spirit of Wilhelminian Germany and the principles of class order -- I remind [the reader] of my earlier remarks regarding rigour and those of Lausberg with regarding to the early formation of Curtius' personality -- there had to be in all and always a regimenting and unconditionally binding [court of last] instance; under no circumstances can he tolerate an orderless, unimpeded, masterless freedom; on principle nothing should ever happen without the curtailing, enforcing, dominating operation of rigour. Therefore rules are values per se, which nothing can replace, much less still free agreement; its absence denotes the smallest, in fact no expenditure of energy; alone for this fact, irregularity is therefore to be placed on an extremely low rank of an ethical hierarchy and imaginable only as evil" (106).

From the point of view of an old-fashioned user, it is a pity that this complete guide to the formation of Curtius' personality and thought should have been published without a complete index. Curtius would certainly have preferred the printed version to using a search function on the web edition (http://ubdata.uni-paderborn.de/ediss/03/2001/ thoennis/).

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Walter F. Veit

Monash University