Prof Rempel lecture: weimar culture

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Weimar Culture

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.

 

A society which, even in its best years, was politically so insecure provided only the shallowest ground for the roots of any creative cultural life. There is, indeed, little evidence that the Weimar Republic constituted a distinctive cultural period. Attempts have been made, to be sure, to supply the scaffolding for a separate cultural history of Weimar, often with Thomas Mann as focus. But it seems hazardous, to say the least, to read portents of general significance into the differences between his prewar Buddenbrooks and his 1924 Magic Mountain. Mann was much too self-conscious, controlled, and deliberate a writer to be used as a mere cultural reflecting surface.

On the contrary: what is really suggestive about the frequency with which Mann's name is bandied about is that it indicates the extent to which the great names and achievements in literature and the arts were in the Weimar period but not of it. Of course it is true, as it was true of the preceding period, that Germany participated prominently in many of the general tendencies of western culture: in virtuoso orchestral conducting, for instance (Wilhelm Furtwängler, Otto Klemperer), in theatrical production (Max Reinhardt, Erwin Piscator), above all, perhaps, in the new art of the motion picture (every reader will have his own favorite names). But in those areas where the German attainments were distinctive they dated, for the most part, from the later years of the Empire and merely achieved more widespread recognition after 1918.


Perhaps one should not say ''merely,'' because from the point of view of intellectual history (as opposed to the history of art, or of literature, or of philosophy) it is precisely the recognition or popularity of cultural products, not their creation, that is of special interest. In this respect, the gates were wide open after 1918.

The sheer intellectual productivity of the Weimar period was enormous. It was not a question of a lifting of censorship, for the imperial government had been very liberal in cultural matters; but the chaos of defeat, revolution, and demobilization loosened cultural habits and liberated the curiosity of the new ''mass society.'' In this way, some of the works of the artistic and intellectual revolution that had preceded the political one suddenly found new audiences. The plural is important: there were all kinds of new audiences for all kinds of ideasideas that often contradicted each other and sometimes even themselves. There was a general consciousness of the end of an era; but the response could be idealistic, or nostalgic, or cynical, or all of them by turns.

 

The Bauhaus

The cultural diversity or eclecticism of the Weimar period was nowhere better symbolized than in the Bauhaus. This was a combination of artistic vision and artistic reality, the work, above all, of Walter Gropius. Buildings designed by him had been erected even before the war, and during the war he had already pressed his demands for close links between art and industry, for artistic assimilation of mass production and standardization. By 1919 his manifesto calling for amalgamation of the arts and crafts and obliteration of the class distinction between their practitioners, as well as his technical ideas, fell on more fertile soil, and Gropius opened an academy of fine arts in Weimar with financial support from the provincial government. In 1923 he propounded the additional thesis of necessary unity between art and technology.


But the obverse of these rationalistic ideas, calculated to take advantage of the facts and needs of mass society, was a visionary romanticism in which building (Bau) was to be the supreme unifying principle governing all the arts; and in Gropius' academy (Bauhaus) students learned not only architecture but the use of all kinds of materials for decorative or functional purposes in a building. As a matter of fact, there was no course in ''architecture'' for some years. The most brilliant instruction was given in the general preliminary course, which Gropius entrusted to Johannes Itten. But Itten was something of a mystic who did not hold the elements of subjectivity and functionalism in the balance that Gropius desired, and after a few years he was replaced by a more technologically oriented teacher. The students, however, tended to prefer the esoteric approach and clustered around such men as the painters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, representatives of the school of Expressionism that bad formed in the decade before the war. In 1928 Gropius himself resigned under attack and was replaced as director by an extreme functionalist whose ideas outraged Klee and Kandinsky.


Thus the Bauhaus contained within itself contradictory ideas; and if Gropius, now living in America, is to the general public the grand old man of a movement that has long since become international, in the art schools it was Itten's ideas that were the more influential. But Itten, for all kn subjectivism, breathing exercises, and oriental philosophy, had been affected as much as Gropius by social realities. ''l became conscious,'' he wrote, ''that our scientific-technical civilization had come to a critical point,'' and a major contribution to his consciousness was the first volume of The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler.


Spengler and his work exhibited some of the same characteristics as the Bauhaus. Conceived before the war, published just before the end of the war, the book became a best-seller in the immediate postwar period (despite the almost unanimous strictures of historians and other professional critics). Spengler's discernment and diagnosis of cultural crisis had the good fortune to be offered to a public to whom political and social events had suddenly made the existence of crisis self evident. His prescribed remedy, also, resembles the Bauhaus in its internal tensions and ambiguity.


He preached a cult of toughness and the necessity of facing the ''cold, hard facts'' of a culture nearing its end: ''lt is the hard reality of living that is essential, not the concept of life.'' The latter he attributed to the ''ostrich-philosophy of idealism.'' But at the same time he repudiated the charge of pessimism, and in fact he stood as much as almost any social thinker for an idealism of his own-or, rather, for an idealism derived from Nietzsche, whom Spengler acknowledged as one of his masters. This idealism called for a new moral cohesion and an aristocratic leadership which would (in a refurbished version of the ideas of Stoecker and Friedrich Naumann) assimilate the validi.e., non-Marxist, non-materialist aspects of the socialist tradition. It was an idealism maintained in the teeth of near despair, a belief in the necessity of maintaining cultural values despite political catastrophe and in the possibility, therefore, of somehow holding one's own. Just as the thought of Schopenhauer attained prominence a generation late, through Nietzsche, so Nietzsche, in turn, achieved his maximum influence only in the Weimar period, through Spengler. These are the sources of the desperately, perversely idealistic national revolutionaries, with their tough airs, who belong more appropriately in a discussion of the decline of Weimar.

 

Existentialist Philosophy

The paradoxical combination of alienation and commitment is also characteristic of the dominant formal philosophy of the Weimar period, which again had as godfather a figure oft he nineteenth century and was in all essentials prepared before 1914. The existentialist thinkers Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers drew upon the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (leaving aside his Christian orthodoxy) and, secondarily, on the "phenomenology" of Edmund Husserl, who published his main work in 1900, to propose a new systematic view of the nature of man and of his relations with the external world. Heidegger and Jaspers were very far from being popularizerstheir forbidding style would have been enough to prevent thatand they were concerned with fundamental and perennial philosophical problems (in particular, with rectifying Kant), not, except incidentally, with issues of the day. Yet, while never becoming household words, their writings were acknowledged during the Weimar Republic as being in the vanguard of thought and were regarded, not only among academics who understood them, but also among the educated or semi-educated public who merely caught their drift, as meeting a current need.

The central idea was the necessity and the possibility for the individual, immured though he was within the confines of his subjective self, to know, to enter into, and to affect the world around him. Kierkegaard had started with the unique concreteness of subjective existence and the necessity, by an effort of will, of transcending it into the world of impersonal, objective values. Husserl, seeking to bridge the gap by way of epistemology, had sought to counter and to deny Kant's separation between the individual and the objects of his perception. He declared it possible to investigate the date of consciousness (phenomena") directly, dispassionately, and without benefit of generalizing or constructive theories. One development from this basis, corresponding roughly to the objective, technological aspect of the Bauhaus, was the work of Max Scheler in trying to produce, in contrast to Kant's formal ethics, an entirely new set of moral laws derived from anthropological and historical study. This enterprise raised the question of the nature and origins of moral falsification or deception, and Scheler laid the foundations for the ''sociology of knowledge'' which Karl Mannheim subsequently popularized in the English-speaking world. Rational analysis would enable men to avoid or escape the deceptions to which their subjectivity exposed them.


Jaspers, however, asserted that men live in a ''universal state of deception.'' Existentialism, corresponding more to the mystical side of the Bauhaus, sought to resolve the dichotomy between individual existence and trans-personal reality by abolishing it, by somehow absorbing the latter into the former rather after the manner in which Dilthey, earlier, had equated meaning in history with the total meaning of life. Heidegger, in particular, tried to make sense of the world by analysis of ''existence,'' of the primordial fact of the living human being; but he never published more than the first volume of his results. Existentialism as a whole is redolent of the German tendency, throughout the nineteenth century, to try to square the circle, to reconcile irreconcilables. In the circumstances of the Weimar Republic, existentialism offered assurance to the individual that he mattered by virtue of simply existing, and that, moreover, he could and should alter his environment simply by virtue of determining to do so. In this way the doctrine might be taken to suggest that defeat could be converted into victory. It is surely no accident that existentialism became the rage of the Left Bank only after France,s moral defeat in World War ll, Sartre's fundamental exposition of the French version having appeared in 1943. Jaspers himself published, in 1931, a little book, The Present Spiritual Condition, which was clairvoyant in its diagnosis at the same time that it was itself a symptom of the condition it described. Like Spengler, Jaspers believed that he could discern a turning point in world history: ''Now that history has driven man from one form of existence to another, from one consciousness of existence to another, he can no doubt remember this, but he cannot go on in this way any longer. As in the very beginning, something has happened to man which is expressed in the fact that he confronts a void, not only objectively but also consciously, and that now, with his memory of the past, he must make his way anew ex nihilo."






This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.





  

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