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    Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Aesthetics: A Survey Based on the Prose Works Essay

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    Hofmannstal’s Ad Me Ipsum, which appeared posthumously in 1930, was an attempt on the part of the author to reduce his major work to a compact, often gnomic, schema of his creative intentions. Long before the appearance of this confession, which is a compendium of literary interpretation rather than aesthetic evaluation, it was obvious that the premature criticism of the 1890s had wrongly classified the poet in the art-for-art’s-sake school.

    Not only were his early plays and lyrics highly colored by an exacting ethos (though its clear formulation came slowly and subsequently), but the various prose pieces (Gespräche, Reden, Aufsätze, etc.) published at intervals from the early pseudo-authorship of Loris until the close of the poet’s life testify to an aesthetic theory in which ethical considerations play an important, if not dominant, role. Hofmannsthal gave voice to his ideas more than most of his contemporaries and, though a poet and not a logician, succeeded in opening numerous channels of speculation. These need to be examined further. The question of backgrounds is extremely important, the metaphysical, scientific more than the purely literary. The cross-currents of the fin de siècle, the paradoxical and not thoroughly assimilated intellectualistic as well as atomistic theories of the transition period, are all implicit in Hofmannsthal’s work.

    Presupposed is the whole scientific framework of the Spencer-Darwinian worldview, as constituting, indirectly, the basis for late-nineteenth-century philosophy and metaphysics. The most immediate among the latter influences in shaping Hofmannsthal’s thought—or at least the environment in which he created—were Ernst Mach and Bergson, particularly the relativistic, senseistic universe of the former with his theory of the reduction of all phenomena to mere sensation. In addition, there were Freudian influences, together with such totally different forces as Maeterlinckism, Pseudo-Platonism, Pre-Raphaelitism (“der herben spröden Schönheit des Burne Jones and Puvis de Chavannes,” as Hofmannsthal remarked to George in 1892), and their various mystical outgrowths.

    The problem may best be resolved by reconciling these contradictory tendencies which may be summed up under two forms: the relativistic, materialistic, senseistic, and the ethico-religious demand, both present in Hofmannsthal’s work from the very beginning. The basis for such an approach will be limited to the outstanding essays, speeches, and conversations where the author spoke openly in his capacity as critic. In the Gespräch über Gedichte (1904), a dialogue between Clemens and Gabriel, the theory of the symbol is discussed in the light of contemporary senseistic theories of Mach and Bergson.

    A symbol, as it develops, is not the substitution of one thing for another in the usual sense, but the identification of objects through the agency of a controlling magic: Diese Magie ist uns so furchtbar nahe: nur darum ist es so schwer, sie zu erkennen. Die Natur hat kein anderes Mittel, uns zu fassen, uns an sich zu reißen, als diese Bezauberung. Sie ist der Inbegriff der Symbole, die uns bezwingen. Sie ist, was unser Leib ist, und unser Leib ist, was sie ist. Darum ist das Symbol das Element der Poesie, und darum setzt die Poesie niemals eine Sache für eine andere: sie spricht Worte aus, um der Worte willen, das ist ihre Zauberei.

    Um der magischen Kraft willen, welche die Worte haben, unseren Leib zu rühren und uns unaufhörlich zu verwandeln…

    The atomistic-sensationalistic theories of Hofmannsthal and Mach meet in the above passage. Only, where the metaphysician draws on the materials of logic and science for his deductions, the poet uses his myth-making power to arrive at similar conclusions. The origin of the symbol is described in vivid detail in Gabriel’s graphic metaphor of primitive ritual sacrifice: Mich dünkt, ich sehe den ersten, der opferte. Er fühlte, dass die Götter ihn hassten: dass sie die Wellen des Gießbaches und das Geröll der Berge in seinen Acker schleuderten; dass sie mit der fürchterlichen Stille des Waldes sein Herz zuerquetschen wollten; oder er fühlte, dass die gierige Seele eines Toten nachts mit dem Wind hereinkam und sich auf seine Brust setzte, dürstend nach Blut. Da griff er… nach dem scharfen krummen Messer und war bereit, das Blut aus seiner Kehle rinnen zu lassen, dem furchtbaren Unsichtbaren zur Lust. Und da, trunken vor Angst und Wildheit und Nähe des Todes, wühlte seine Hand, halb unbewusst, noch einmal im wolligen warmen Vlies des Widders… Auf einmal zuckte dem Tier das Messer in die Kehle und das warme Blut rieselte zugleich an dem Vlies des Tieres und an der Brust, an den Armen des Menschen hinab: und einen Augenblick lang muss er geglaubt haben, es sei sein eigenes Blut…

    Er muss einen Augenblick lang in dem Tier gestorben sein, nur so konnte das Tier für ihn sterben. Dass das Tier für ihn sterben konnte, wurde ein großes Mysterium, eine große geheimnisvolle Wahrheit. Das Tier starb hinfort den symbolischen Opfertod. Aber alles ruhte darauf, dass auch er in dem Tier gestorben war, einen Augenblick lang. Dass sich sein Dasein, für die Dauer eines Atemzugs, in dem fremden Dasein aufgelöst hatte.

    . . That,” he goes on to say, “is the root of all poetry.”

    Poetry is a symbolic act. For the space of a second, one personality is wiped out in that of another, is taken up into it, so to speak. “How does it happen?” asks Clemens. “That the man was able to die in the animal?” To which the answer is “Because we and the world are identical.” Later, this idea bore fruit in Hofmannsthal’s famous lecture of 1907: Der Dichter und diese Zeit*. Another point involved in the conversation between Clemens and Gabriel, arising out of the definition of the symbol, ties up the epistemological and ethical extremities of what appears to be a paradoxical attitude.

    Clemens remarks that the point of attack has shifted from a discussion of the symbols of poetry to one of the symbols of faith, in the premise: “Dem Frommen ist Symbol das einzig Wirkliche, und der Dichter vermag nichts anderes zu überblicken.” Here is the bridge from the pure mechanistic identity-science which, in reality, is merely an adaptation of Mach and others of the pantheistic-deterministic Weltanschauung of Hamann-Herder to the ethico-religious bias, without which Hofmannsthal’s work is unthinkable. The process is not merely an identification of substance in a physico-physiological conception, though that is fundamental for the theory; it is primarily ‘ritual,’ ‘religious sacrifice’ which in this case (i.e. the sacrifice of the ram) assumes primitive Hebraic coloring (or in Schaeder’s terminology “Orphische Sinnlichkeit”). Thus, the intermingling and union of the facts of experience, basic in the interpretation of Hofmannsthal, is here enveloped with a religious, ethical efficacy generally overlooked by the hasty critics who professed to see in the poet at one time a champion of art-for-art, associating him with D’Annunzio, Pater, and, superficially, with Rimbaud whose “audition colorée” finds certain analogies with Hofmannsthal’s early poetry.

    Hofmannsthal utilizes his ethico-religious premise as a kind of personal surety, a Verschanzung against the extremely relativistic structure of a critical and creative approach to experience. For experience, in the light of late nineteenth-century materialist theories which have come over in Hofmannsthal’s work, is antireligious, non-ethical, tending toward chaotic nihilism. The religious element of his view saves the day. Without the ritual supposition, the poet who, after all, is the depository of religious values, would hardly have abided by its many implications. Der Dichter und diese Zeit, which appeared in print in the Neue Rundschau for March 1907, rightly caused a stir among those accustomed to hearing poetry spoken of as the prerogative of the few, a sixth sense, so to speak, bestowed supernaturally.

    In preparing the ground beforehand, Hofmannsthal was careful to adopt the viewpoint of the numerous different individuals in his audience and explicitly refrained from limiting or supplementing any of their preconceived notions. Thus he established immediate contact with his listeners, while at the same time laying the foundation for his approach on the broadest and most common plane of human experience. It enabled him to refuse to draw any distinctions in a democratic, scientific age between one capacity and another. But the viewpoint is likewise a rightful corollary of the relativistic thesis. The poet is very closely related to his age, the mouthpiece of its enormous phenomenal flux, of its “myriads” they are equally elements of that world which Balzac so masterfully described, “die konpletteste und vielgliedrigste Halluzination, die je da war. . . .” For Hofmannsthal, poetry is synonymous with literature in the widest sense, which, in turn, includes everything from the evening paper to the loftiest epic. The derivation of the former from the latter may entail distortion and crudities without number, but it is a derivation in a direct line.

    To begin with, then, it is impossible for Hofmannsthal to draw the line between ‘poet’ and ‘non-poet,’ and an illiberal outlook seems impossible. Here he was consistently logical on the lines of the materialist metaphysics. In place of the poet who is generally conceded to select his experience, one for whom the totality of experience, both animate and inanimate, trivial and grandiose, is fair game, is substituted. Later on, when the writer demands vision and leadership of his poet, a very refined selectiveness is naturally implied. But the selection is made only after reality in its widest and most varied forms have been endured and absorbed. The logical implications of his message are, for the most part, self-evident, and Hofmannsthal proceeds to draw them.

    In the first place, the reader of poetry is not set off in any manner from the poet himself: “Waren sonst Priester [writes Hofmannsthal] Berechtigte, Auserwählte, die Hüter dieser Sitte, jener Kenntnis, so ruht dies alles jetzt potentiell in allen: wir könnten manches ins Leben werfen, wofern wir ganz zu uns selbst kämen… wir könnten dies und jenes wissen… wir könnten dies und jenes tun. Keine eleusinischen Weihen und keine sieben Sakramente helfen uns empor: in uns selber müssen wir uns in höheren Stand erheben, wo uns dies und jenes zu wissen nicht mehr möglich ist: dafür aber dies und jenes sichtbar, verknüpfbar, möglich, ja greifbar, was allen anderen verborgen. Dies alles geht lautlos vor sich und so zwischen den Dingen. . . .” It is not quite clear, however, how this leveling process, this welter of phenomena, is to remedy a grave situation which finds forcible expression as follows: “Es fehlt in unserer Zeit den repräsentativen Dingen an Geist, und dem Geistigen an Relief.” The most miserable hack thus receives some rays of the sacred light, and the term Genie applied with vital meaning to the generation of 1771-90 loses all distinction in the present when every man, woman, and child may, according to the theory, exclaim with Eichendorff’s drunken painter: “Wir Genies—denn ich bin auch eins.

    Thus, the poetic function is merely a heightened utilization of normal powers, a matter of degree rather than kind. Hofmannsthal discovers proof of an active poetic interest present in the modern world in the feverish reading craze of today, the demand for books of all sorts, the rejection of one after the other in a frenzy to find newer and better stimulants: “Ich sehe beinahe als die Geste unserer Zeit den Menschen mit dem Buch in der Hand, wie der knieende Mensch mit gefalteten Händen die Geste einer ändern Zeit war.” Similarly, he refers to the age in another place as “dieser im höchsten Sinne poetischen Zeit.” The best that can be said for such a belief is that it is both gratifying and stimulating, but it is only a leap in the dark, a fanciful construction that ignores too many experiential factors.

    The modern reading craze is as much a negative as a positive value, a virtue occasioned by necessity due to the lack of proper interests and outlets in a shifting industrial order. The supposition makes no account of the wide retail distribution of books at lowered prices or of the forms of social snobbery involved for which mass education is indirectly responsible – all factors that play a decisive part in determining literary usage today. But chiefly, Hofmannsthal forgets that it is the rapid evolution in science that has made such a state possible. However, accepting the theory as true, we find the poet a sort of middle-man between undifferentiated experience and the casual reader. Indeed, it would seem as though the reader’s position is the more enviable of the two; he is elevated at the poet’s expense, is at least active where the other is merely passive. Not only is he given a share in the poet’s creative power, but he is spared the hard ordeal of creation.

    In short, the poet (“der Antwortende”) is a mere shadow without his reader (“der Fragende”), and his mission is, briefly, “die Unendlichkeit der Erscheinungen leidend zu geniessen und aus leidendem Geniessen heraus die Vision zu schaffen.” Out of this melting-pot theory of art, various other corollaries are drawn. Among them is the rejection of the concepts of time and space, the best expression of which appeared early in Hofmannsthal’s work, notably in the early poems and lyric dramas (Manche freilich, Reiselied, etc.).

    It is explicitly stated in Dichter und diese Zeit as follows: “Wie der innerste Sinn aller Menschen Zeit und Raum und die Welt der Dinge um sie her schafft, so schafft er [der Dichter] aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart, aus Tier und Mensch und Traum und Ding, aus Gross und Klein, aus Erhabenem und Nichtigem die Welt der Bezüge. . . .” It was this world of relations, “der Bezüge,” which the poet tried all his life to organize and which sets him off from his contemporaries, even from Rilke, for whom the relational link in the universe is between himself, the individual, and the outside, rather than a connection or relationship of the individual parts of that outside to each other and to the poetic individual. So much for the materials of poetry.

    It is not otherwise with Hofmannsthal’s epistemology. Here, too, the destruction of categorical distinctions calls for radical changes. Since there is no antithesis between literature and life, it is obvious that the theory of ‘literary types’ must go by the board. It is false to label a work as ‘naturalistic,’ ‘psychological,’ or ‘symbolistic’ (in the usual sense). In this respect, Hofmannsthal is in thorough agreement with Croce, though he arrives at his conclusions through a different process of thinking.

    The poet’s task is to reduce experience to a recognizable harmony, and harmony is what the reader expects of him. Hofmannsthal admits that out of this natural demand for harmony, a great many discordances develop in actual practice. Modern literature is ostensibly amorphous, diffuse, and its harmony an unrevealed promise. In a world of indiscriminate sense-values, there is little room for harmony, just as there is no limit to the expansion of phenomena.

    No one man can hope to embrace the empirical universe as we know it today. It was a bold step on Hofmannsthal’s part to deny the modern poet the claim often made of Shakespeare, Dante, and Goethe that they contained the sum of their epoch, “saw life steadily and saw it whole.” It is even a creditable step, for it is probably true. The expression of this idea is well worth considering: “Niemals wieder wird eine erwachte Zeit von den Dichtern, weder von einem einzelnen, noch von ihnen allen zusammen, ihren erschöpfenden rhetorischen Ausdruck, ihre in begrifflichen Formeln gezogene Summe verlangen. Dazu hat das Jahrhundert, dem wir uns entwinden, uns die Phänomene zu stark gemacht; zu gewaltig angefacht den Larventanz der stummen Erscheinungen; zu mächtig hat sich das wortlose Geheimnis der Natur und der stille Schatten der Vergangenheit gegen uns hereinbewegt. Eine erwachte Zeit wird von den Dichtern mehr und Geheimnisvolleres verlangen.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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    Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Aesthetics: A Survey Based on the Prose Works Essay. (2017, Aug 03). Retrieved from

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