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Say it loud – it's Schiller and it's proud

The classical ideals have forfeited their credibility. Why should we celebrate Schiller, now or in fifty years? By George Steiner

2005 is Schiller Year. A major exhibition celebrates the poet's life and work. We reprint the inaugural speech given by George Steiner at the National Schiller Museum.

Courtesy Schiller-NationalmuseumSchiller bust by Johann Heinrich Dannecker. Photo: DLA Marbach
Who reads Schiller today? Not at school, or in a seminar on German literature, but out of passion, out of an inner drive? Which contemporary aesthetic or philosophical currents engage with Schiller’s extensive writings on art and ethics, on history and education, writings through which he played a part in his own time and through to the late 19th century comparable with that of Kant or Hegel? The official recognition remains, the biographical and critical tributes will fill many pages in this memorial year. But does Schiller’s oeuvre exert an influence in Europe’s often darkly confused cultural scene? Do people think of him as they think of Hölderlin, or Kafka?

A biography recently appeared with the title "Unser armer Schiller" (Our Poor Schiller). Our task today is to find out whether we are honestly capable of approaching Schiller, whether we can say anything about his work that does not more or less conform to the cultural "chatter" (as Heidegger scornfully called it) in the media. A great poet or thinker reads us. He tests, he enquires into our receptive abilities. Are we prepared to take a step towards the thinking poet or the lyrical thinker, with the kind of concentration and pleasure in complexity that he deserves? There are, as Walter Benjamin knew, masterpieces that lie dormant, so to speak, secretly awaiting their readers. We are the ones in a hurry, not these works. If we do not meet up, it would not be Schiller’s fault. Or would it?

It would be presumptuous to want to tell you something new about Schiller. Maybe it would be best to offer an anthology of praise and criticism from the past, a small circle of major voices. In May 1839, Schiller Festivals were already taking on a nationalistic and quasi-religious character. In 1859, three days of festivities were declared for his 100th birthday. Canons fired, church bells rang. Germany was not yet unified, but Wilhelm Raabe referred to Schiller as the "leader and saviour" of the nation to come. On 21 June 1934, thousands of Hitler Youth marched through Marbach. For his birthday on 10 November, the radio broadcast numerous lectures and concerts. In his 1932 work "Schiller als Kampfgenosse Hitlers" (Schiller Fighting At Hitler’s Side), Hans Fabricius had already turned the author of the "Wallenstein" trilogy, the "Cuirassier’s Song" (Reiterlied), "The Count of Hapsburg" (Der Graf von Habsburg) and "The German Art" (Die Deutsche Muse) into a standard-bearer of National Socialism. Between 1933 and 1945, the German Reich saw 10,600 productions of Schiller’s plays (with the exception of "Don Carlos" and "William Tell" of course).

But this ubiquity pales in comparison with Schiller’s role in the GDR. By 1960, there were already three million copies of works by Schiller on the East German book market. Almost all of his plays were adapted more than once for television. In 1955, there were nearly a thousand Schiller productions at East German theatres, and in the centenary year of 1984, this figure was exceeded. "Love and Intrigue" (Kabale und Liebe) went through 40 editions. Was this not the work praised by Engels as the "first German political drama" in his famous letter to Minna Kautsky in 1885? And had Engels not referred to Schiller’s interpretation of the French Revolution as early as 1839? In the schools of East Germany, Schiller was considered the finest of the classics, not only as the embodiment of poetic genius, but also as a fighter in the name of progress in the Marxist sense: "Germany’s majesty and honour / rests not on the heads of its princes. / If in the flames of war / Germany’s empire were to fall, / Germany’s greatness would remain." ("Deutschlands Majestät und Ehre / Ruhet nicht auf dem Haupt seiner Fürsten. / Stürzte auch in Kriegesflammen / Deutschlands Kaiserreich zusammen, / Deutsche Größe bleibt bestehn." More) Johannes R. Becher, East Germany’s high priest of culture, coined the slogan, "Schiller belongs to us!" Millions of schoolchildren and hundreds of party functionaries followed his call.

For Schiller, art is religion. Art offers transcendence. Only through art can humankind come closer to the divine. In art, human mortals discover and experience the only true freedom. In the ninth of his letters "On the Aesthetic Education of Man" (Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen), Schiller states his credo: If humanity has lost its dignity, then it has been saved by art. In ontological terms, art may be deception and illusion, a "realm of dream", but the truth lives on precisely in this deception, and out of mimesis, the aesthetic after-image, the original image is restored: "Before truth causes her triumphant light to penetrate into the depths of the heart, poetry intercepts her rays, and the summits of humanity shine in a bright light, while a dark and humid night still hangs over the valleys."

Art is instructive in absolute terms. The aesthetic is the ideal praxis of pedagogy. Through art, the human individual becomes an ethical being. Schiller’s bold, almost anti-Kantian paradox reads: In its freedom, art is a game, but the human individual is "only wholly human when he plays" (Homo ludens). For us today, however, the proud innocence of these views is no longer convincing. We know how far-sighted Walter Benjamin was when he said that the works of high culture stand proud on a foundation of barbarity and injustice. We know that they can even serve as ornaments to inhumanity. The second obstacle to reception is Schiller’s language: these goddesses with their rosy cheeks, these chalices, the never-ending apotheoses that so resemble Tiepolo’s mythological murals. These "raised wings" and the "rapture" amidst the "rose-coloured veil". For almost 2000 years, the rhetoric of Antiquity dominated the literature of the West. And Schiller’s mastery of every rhetorical trick is superb: "See you the rainbow yonder in the air? / Its golden portals heaven doth wide unfold, / Amid the angel choir she radiant stands, / The eternal Son she claspeth to her breast, / Her arms she stretcheth forth to me in love. / How is it with me? Light clouds bear me up-- / My ponderous mail becomes a winged robe."
("Seht ihr den Regenbogen in der Luft? / Der Himmel öffnet seine goldnen Tore, / Im Chor der Engel steht sie glänzend da, / Sie hält den ewgen Sohn an ihrer Brust, / Die Arme streckt sie lächelnd mir entgegen. / Wie wird mir – Leichte Wolken heben mich – / Der schwere Panzer wird zum Flügelkleide.")

Courtesy Schiller-NationalmuseumSchiller's death mask. Photo: DLA Marbach
In this effusive celebration of language, Homer and Virgil shine through, as well as Luther's version of the psalms. The only problem is that we now live in a radically anti-rhetorical climate, and the "winged robes" of language arouse our suspicion. It is the stutterer Woyzeck who we believe. We trust those voices that speak in short, naked sentences as in Kafka or Beckett, or who, like Wittgenstein, advise us to keep quiet. In my opinion, there are only two ways to keep Schiller’s emphatic rhetoric alive. In contrast to Goethe, Schiller wrote poetry for the ear. The meaning is often carried by the rhythm. Schiller needs to be declaimed aloud, just as the rhapsodists of Ancient Greece did. And after reading, he should be learned by heart. What one loves, one should learn by heart. My father looked up from the page as he read me "The Cranes of Ibycus" (Die Kraniche des Ibykus) or "The Hostage" (Die Bürgschaft) – a gift for life. I can still hear his voice.

And now? Only in exceptional cases do children hear the classics read to them by their parents. And in the education system, amnesia and forgetting has become systematic. Anticipating this, Schiller proclaimed: "The Muse her gentle harp now lays down here." But it is the oral element in our culture, the public readings by poets and lyricists, that should give Schiller his chance. Because for him too, in the profoundest sense, a poem was a happening.

In spite of comprehensive commentary, Schiller’s view of the condition humaine remains a mystery. "He was a strange and great human being", found Goethe: "Every week he was a new person, more perfect than the last." Schiller’s temperament, like his concept of ethical and historical destiny, is governed by the principle of hope. On 7 January 1788, he wrote to Körner: "If I do not weave hope into my existence… then I am done for." In Schiller’s vocabulary, the words "hope" and "joy" are crucial. His campaign against ignorance is a vision of psychological and social progress. Born to be something better. Having a contract with the future. This Schiller was appropriated by Marxism and, in a twisted way, also by fascism (one recalls Adorno’s alarming marginal note on the "embracing millions" jubilantly singing "Ode to Joy" (An die Freude) – a single word: "Hitler"!).

But at the same time, and often in stark contrast to Goethe, Schiller displayed an inextinguishable sense of the tragic. In "Wallenstein" and "The Bride of Messina" (Die Braut von Messina), fatality and tragic determinism are inescapable. The "magic of the political" is also the magic of damnation. With Aeschylus, Schiller appeals to humankind: "Observe in this the furies' might!" (Gebet acht! / Das ist der Eumeniden Macht!) This conflict between hope and fatalism explains Schiller’s inability to conceive of the French Revolution. Although "The Robbers" (Die Räuber) was like a signal of the coming crisis and soon staged in Paris, it is followed by a puzzling silence from 1789 until the famous letter to Augustenburg in July 1793. When Schiller received news of his honorary French citizenship, on 3 March 1798, he called it a message "from the empire of the dead". Like many of his contemporaries, he experienced the terror and the invasion of Germany by French troops as a bitter disappointment.

A decisive role was played by the ever-closer relationship with Goethe. This "almost mythical event of the German intellect" transformed Schiller’s uncertain radicalism into an aversion against the revolution. This is the source of his involved melancholia and, one may say, the spiritual brutality of the shot in "William Tell": "My blood runs cold even while I talk with thee. / Away! Pursue thine awful course! Nor longer / Pollute the cot where innocence abides!" Political violence is only allowed where it exacts revenge for "holy nature". At the premiere, the audience in Weimar was already disgruntled.

In spite of this, Schiller remained a great source of inspiration, beyond his death. In 1841, Dostoyevsky was already working on a version of "Maria Stuart". And "Don Carlos" lay on his desk while he was creating the most overwhelming of his parables, the poem of the Grand Inquisitor in "The Brothers Karamazov". Freud stated that his early but paradigmatic theory of drives was derived from Schiller’s poem "The Philosophers" (Die Weltweisen) with its closing lines about the power of hunger and love. Would Brecht’s epic drama exist without Schiller’s notion of the stage as a moral institution, or "Mother Courage" without "Wallenstein"? These are just random examples. The lists could be extended hundreds of times. Thanks to "William Tell", Schiller became the Swiss poet laureate for an extended period. In his "Remembrance", Proust remarks ironically that in 1914, Schiller "le grand allemand" became Schiller, "le grand boche". But he stayed "grand".

But what about us? Will there be a Schiller Festival in Marbach in 2055 or, at best, a colloquium of university specialists? The notion of the "classical" is rooted in the history of western culture. With Europe’s descent into the barbarism of the 20th century, this concept forfeited its credibility to a large extent. In the face of inhumanity, humanist classicism proved powerless. Weimar became a suburb of Buchenwald. Cultural heritage fights almost desperately against the utilitarian and ephemeral spirit of the present. Where is reading and remembering still seriously learned in the full etymological sense of the words? What is at stake now is the future of the German language, a return to its better self. Is it capable, to quote Karl Kraus, of finding its way to the "indestructible level of the language of Schiller", or will media jargon and pseudo-American also triumph in the land of Goethe and Hölderlin? Classicism, education, language – these are three pillars on which the dynamic of Schiller’s ongoing presence rests. The prospects are not encouraging.

Please forgive me, ladies and gentlemen, for finishing in an uncertain half-light. In 1938, when the Nazis took over Vienna, the 72-year-old collector Max Berger reported to the Office for Jewish Emigration. As a ransom, he brought with him one of Schiller’s letters, a valuable manuscript. The letter was taken from him, and then the old man was beaten to death. I am not capable of thinking through the ontological and formal involvements of this event. I only know that greatness is always dangerous, that it always tests us. But what would the continued existence of human intellect be without such danger?

The exhibition "Götterpläne und Mäusegeschäfte. Schiller 1759 - 1805" will be on display at the Schiller-Nationalmuseum in Marbach until October 9. For more information, see the official Schiller Year website.


The above is a shortened version of an address delivered on 23 April at the opening of the exhibition on Schiller’s life and work in Marbach.
It was originally published in German in Die Zeit on 28 April, 2005.

George Steiner, born in Paris in 1929, emigrated to New York in 1940. He
has been a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, since 1961 and was Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Geneva between 1974 and 1994. His most recent publication is "Lessons of the Masters" (Harvard University Press, 2003).

Translation: Nicholas Grindell.

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