Two German Books of Criticism

THE war of sex that began in English letters three generations ago, with the crusade which Godwin and his fellows instituted against the conservative majority of poets, has advanced, with the progress of time, into the heart of Scandinavian drama and up to the periphery of German letters, so that, at the close of our century, it is discernible as a distinctively new trait in literature. The spectacle of such as Ovid and Rabelais imparting their insouciant counsel and anecdotes de mulieribus from man to man, so frequent in the classic age and the renascence of the Church and of letters, has vanished, apparently, not soon to return.

Libidinousness and misogyny sigh in vain for a receptive audience. Their whole-hearted sympathizers are discreetly but half-hearted applauders. The gayest quips, of Pantagruel-like flavor, and most delicious cynical perorations are welcomed, as it were, surreptitiously, like darling dark brothers, through postern gates, the public portals of honor being closed against them. Besides, are they not exposed, as was never the fate of their ancient kind, to the cudgels of severe Marcellas and Heavenly Twins?

The books, it is true, that disapprove distinctly of the Old-time double-sided moral are isolated as yet. But they are obstreperous, and in America and Great Britain they win the popular acquiescence more and more. The warfare in Scandinavia, meanwhile, between the adherents of the common and those of the new ideas on matters of sex, though less heard of among us, is most general and vehement. Native writers of those countries, at least, somehow manage to infect us with a notion that pretty nearly all men of the pen there have confessed themselves partisans of one or the other of two parties ; are members of the ponderous column of loud and virile fighters at whose head marches Björnson, or are in the throng behind August Strindberg, who faces Björnson, metaphorically speaking, with hating defiance in his mien, and The Confessions of a Fool and the dramas Fathers and Miss Julia in either fist. A supporter of Strindberg, as we learn from the same quarter, is Ola Hanson ; and Ola Hanson enjoys the distinction of being the husband of Laura Marholm ; while Laura Marholm, as will presently appear, enjoys the distinction, if it is one, of being the German-Scandinavian Mrs. Lynn Linton, and the author of a book the nature of which inspires this brief historical survey.

The strife of sex in German literature, as has been said already, is insignificant. There are signs, however, that it is growing, and there is more than a likelihood that it will become obnoxiously coarse and noisy. For the nonce, it is restricted to the comparatively small field of philosophy and criticism ; it has barely encroached upon the circumference of the broad expanse of fiction. In philosophy the hubbub is greatest. There the vociferous element consists exclusively of misogynists. In this aspect the spectacle is a little amusing, in fact, for, although not so much as an apparition of petticoatism is discernible on the horizon of practical life, the domineering warning and command, “ Down with it! ” is kept up unbrokenly by the cordon of philosophers, the outpost of which Schopenhauer established, and which Edward Hartmann and Friedrich Nietzsche, two artillerists by training, have reinforced and held.

Woman’s contributions towards the revelation of herself are rare and scanty ; that is to say, of course, the openly professed contributions. For this reason a small volume of essays on European authors, by Laura Marholm,1 awakens a singular interest. The writer is known in more senses than one by a Buch der Frauen, published a twelvemonth ago, containing a review of celebrated women, which fairly established her reputation as a vigorous, autodidactic student of modern biography and fiction, or, as Max Nordau would write, of contemporary hysteria.”

In Wir Frauen und Unsere Dichter, Mrs. Marholm means by “ we women ” sometimes the women of Germanic origin, sometimes womankind in general ; by our poets,” as I take it, she is to be understood as meaning the authors who have portrayed women with particular fullness or with especial persistence or insight. Her list includes: the Swiss novelist, Gottfried Keller; the German shortstory writer, Paul Heyse : the Scandinavian dramatists, Ibsen, Björnson, and Strindberg : the Russian author, Tolstoy ; and the Parisians, Maupassant, Hervieux, and Cazes. These writers were all needed, with their various graphic conceptions of woman, in order to arouse the German weib to think of herself. For the Germanic woman is used to regarding herself merely as an adjunct to men. Her all and all in life has consisted in understanding them, existing for them, submitting to them. The father, brother, or lover to whom she belonged was the content and pride of her being. But within the present generation a change has been wrought in her conceptions, and this change has been induced largely by the writings of the great poets of the age. The classic literature of Goethe’s time sustained a patronizing tone of gallantry towards woman. She was a “ beautiful soul ” throughout the literary reign of Schiller and the Epigonen. Along with the Romanticists, for the first time gallantry vanished from fiction. The writers of “ Young Germany” had no leisure to do homage to the ideal woman ; they were too much engaged in urging the real woman to revolt and emancipate herself. The first original poet of eminent gifts who gave a genuine picture of genuine womanhood to the German public, at once unvarnished by dalliance and undeformed by exaggeration, was Gottfried Keller. No books afford a completer, fuller, and finer embodiment of the Germanic woman than do his. The archetypes of his female personages are to be met with everywhere in German towns and farmsteads. They are good comme le bon pain, simple, honest, hearty, cheery, matronly; surrendering themselves to the objects of their affection as unreservedly as does the fertile earth to the beams of the sun, understanding everything by sheer reason of their unspoiled sensibility, becoming the humbler the deeper they love.

The environment of Keller’s heroines, however, is still that of a past time. It is primitive and friendly, like their own souls. There is no misery therein, nor overwork, nor industrial slavery. In a similar way, Paul Heyse’s stories fail to afford any portrayal of workaday sordidness. Yet, despite this absence of verisimilitude in their surroundings, his female personages present the subtlest and profoundest study of woman’s nature in the literature of our century. He recognizes the essence and core of womanhood intuitively, through all its manifold diversities, and he esteems women highly. Up to the time when Heyse began to write, it was quite usual, in poetry, to see women consigned, in a coarser or finer fashion, to one fate or another. Heyse makes them disposers of themselves, active agents. He frees his heroines from narrow limitations ; gives to them inner refinement and imperiousness of manner, a cultivated soul, and a quietly grand self-dependence in every emergency of life. Woman in German literature was a provincial who charmed by her naïveté. In Heyse’s writings she does not hold to any illusions ; sometimes she towers above man. She possesses knowledge of life, and is a cosmopolitan.

After Heyse comes Ibsen, who is to be distinguished as the first writer the femininity of whose heroines raised a discussion equal to that which Paul Heyse’s had aroused in the previous decade. Almost all of Ibsen’s women are the daughters of poor families, who suffer amidst cares and miseries without a prospect of relief. Heyse’s impecunious heroines are insensible to their poverty, or spiritually above it. Ibsen’s young girls look out for their own livelihood. Love is a luxury to them. They have no time for indulging in it. They are undergrown in figure and plainly clad. In the struggle for life they work beyond their strength. Their hard lot makes them reflect, and they evolve a philosophy which teaches them to make a demand from life. This demand is ever the same, and is the very one which Heyse’s heroines hold to, — a demand to possess a right to themselves.

But while Heyse depicts women as sustaining this right in favorable moments and the holiday circumstances of life, Ibsen delineates them as grasping fast hold of it in the meanness and paucity of every-day existence. His pen draws the mothers, brothers, husbands, and guardians of his heroines as we know them by experience to be commonly, all too commonly, and day after day; shows them in their habitual practice of appropriating for themselves the light and air of knowledge and acquaintance with the world, then asking why their womankind are dwarfed in judgment and comprehension.

The men in Ibsen’s dramas place their women folk in unlovely or shabby homes, and expect subordination and thankfulness in return. The women all live lonely lives inwardly. And so, too, do Heyse’s. But the inward solitude of Heyse’s heroines comes of spiritual and physical exclusiveness. Ibsen’s female personages are lonely because of deprivation and want of sympathy. Björnson’s women are self-detached, not suffering amidst society and because of it, but apart from it; an elbowing throng thrusting their aggressive way into the ranks of the opposite sex, and preaching the perverted doctrine that the exuberance of virility should be cramped within the smaller measure of feminine morality, Heyse’s heroines, in a word, are natural aristocrats ; Ibsen’s are, by compulsion, emancipated ; and Björnson’s are sexless plebeians.

The chapter on Björnson is full of this word “plebeian.” It rings with every possible accent of scorn, and the “ Priest of Purity ” himself comes off, as it seems to the present writer, with epithets infused with hateful animus. For this reason, it is herein, if anywhere, that the reader is apt to fancy he detects, past doubt, the individual personal views of the authoress, the other chapters being almost free of such animus, while throughout the book the style of writing makes the task of getting at the tendency of Wir Frauen und Unsere Dichter in any other wise, if not exactly hard, at least indeterminate. A certain pathetic eloquence, taken together with new and uncommon words, compounded in imitation of the phraseology of pseudometaphysicians, renders the trend of writing uncommonly elusive.

The essay on Björnson is followed by one on Björnson’s opponent, Herr August Strindberg. German critics consider this misogynist “ pervertedly erotomaniacs!.” Madame Blanc calls him, with unscientific and vigorous directness, brutal. Mrs. Marholm refers to the author’s descent. She finds therein a cause of his peculiarities, and comes to the plausible conclusion that they are hereditary. The Mongolian blood in his veins accounts for the extraordinary furtiveness of his literary manner, as well as for the strange aberrations of his private life and civil career. It explains the sadden advances made by his soul out of its secret of secrets, in the Confessions, and its equally abrupt retreat, which is ever carried out cunningly and warily, as is the nomad’s wont after a foray. Each genuine item of confidence is covered by a fictitious one, each positive assertion by a contradiction. And as in detail, so in general. His every profession is, or has been, succeeded by its opposite. At first a Radical, he is now a Tory ; once a philanthropist, he is now a hater and despiser of men. From the philosophy of altruism he has withdrawn into that of egoism, and from a sally forth into literature as a defender of the weak he has returned at the head of a rabble of writers who accomplish, as much as in their power lies, the suppression of all that is gentle and spiritual.

Mrs. Marholm suspects his fierce denunciation of women to be but a savage cry of fear and self-defense against a power he must succumb to ; and as she herself is a worshiper at the shrine of sex, she understands and consequently forgives him amiably, as she can by no means forgive Björnson, to whom her temple of mystery is no awful temple at all, to be either shunned or visited, but a mere house of common order which men can do better than tarry at for long. She quits it in order to launch upon the quest for the reason why a great bowline should have to be made over Germany, if I may so express it, into Russia, before anything like Strindberg’s books is met with. Why has he his spiritual relationships beyond the Caucasus, and not close by in Germany ? The dramatists and novelists of the Fatherland are none of them conspicuous because of their doctrines of sex and portrayals of scenes of cruelty and unnatural sins, whereas the Slavonian Dostoieffsky and Tolstóy are. Is the coincidence, in truth, a matter of race ? Is Strindberg, by reason of the tincture of Lappish-Finnish blood in his veins, affiliated spiritually to the Mongolian Slavs ? And are the writers of this semi-barbaric race destined to appear in literary history in future as the impulsive, passionate confessors, in contradistinction to the Rousseaus and Lamartines of Gallic tradition, with their theatrical pose before the confessional, and sentimental embellishment in the substance of their confessions ? And will they continue from their debut in our century to be in literature as unlike the insincere or more decorous mass of Romanic and Teutonic authors as the earnest Shemitic Biblical writers appear in contrast with Greek and Roman litterateurs ? For a certainty, as poets, these misogynists are not so much writers for women as of women : wherefore it is, perhaps, that Mrs. Marholm pronounces them “ bad men in youth, with good consciences ; in age, good men, with bad consciences,” then passes them by.

The final object of her remarks is the coquette fin de siécle. She takes this creature most seriously, and, as is natural with her temperament, abhors her but little less than “ Björnson’s woman.” Most of us. in the innocence of inexperience, have fancied the flirt could love if she only would. Mrs. Marholm says decidedly no ; she cannot love. And while Addison’s dissection of her heart laid bare, at any rate, a quantity of furbelows, pretty ornaments, and, in a remote corner, a picture of the beau, this later investigator discovers nothing save “ a cold curiosity.” But then Addison’s flirt was younger than Mrs. Marholm’s, Hervieux’s, Jules Cazes’s, and Maupassant’s by a couple of centuries !

Upon closing the book, a number of clever observations and felicitous expressions linger in the mind, making the enterprise of reading it seem quite worth the while. The philosophy which the authoress upholds is essentially the same that Luther held on the same subject, so far as the indolent reader can make out. What strikes him is the discovery that he lays down one book on the subject of sex in literature only to take up another that has likewise many references to, and one especial essay on, the selfsame topic. In Herr Georg Brandes’s Men and Works,2 however, the subject is removed from the main point of view to a place aside, and is there treated with plain sense. Thus, for instance, Herr Strindberg’s misogynetic fury is not referred to race or origin, but is pronounced due to the disgust which the extravagant heroine - worship of other writers called forth. Without explaining why the same worship in other lands has failed to produce a second Strindberg, Braudes passes under a rapid review the Scandinavian novelists who are guilty of representing their Gretchens not only as better than Dr. Faustus, — for that is an old habit, — but as getting the better of him. As usual, he shows himself herein altogether on the side of the attacked party. But although this and every part of his book appears monumental in substance when compared with the light cleverness of Mrs. Marholm’s work, still, when compared with Brandes’s own former writings, it betrays a falling - off ; there are frequent lapses in the old, even vigor of his style, and quite an uncommon number of examples of a want of acuteness and intensity of insight and thought. An air of weariness and nonchalance pervades many of the pages. One feels a sentiment of sympathy with him as a man whom one has been ever wont to resort to for instruction ; failing to remember that he is a reader of books, an overworked reader of over-many books, who himself has need of relaxation. One thinks of it, strangely enough, now for the first time, and the remembrance puts one into a mood of indulgence. One forgives him everything, especially his contradictions. Contradictions are the defiant cries of men bored sorely and desperately ; and how is not a professional critic badgered by the public who will not listen well, and bothered by his brethren of the sacred pen who do not write well ! For to him the pen is sacred, and a man who has held it is always the superior, to his mind, of the mass whose idols are not the idols of imagination. Hence, wearied and irritated as he himself is over "Nietzsche’s disjointed ravings, he still cannot bear the thought of having the philosopher abused by any one but himself. And the anticipation of the objections which his review of Nietzsche’s life and writings will meet with at the hands of the moralists and professors of the schools is sufficient to stir his heavy gall. With hardened front, therefore, he resumes his quill, and writes : “ There are men whose first thought, on reading anything, is, Now, is this true, or is n’t it? There are others to whom this consideration comes in the second place, and who ask themselves first of all, Is the man who has written this interesting, eminent, worth my knowing, or not ? If he he so, then the correctness of his views remains a secondary matter, even although the views themselves concern important things. Such men feel the satisfaction of having come across an original, mighty personality.

“ Thus of Nietzsche. Is he reactionary ? What is the difference? Joseph de Maistre was far more reactionary, and nevertheless is a precious author. Is he cynical ? What harm if he is ? Cynicism can he of use ; and besides, we do not mean to strike in with him. Well, is he not a dilettante in exact science ? It is possible. But there are dilettanti who start up more fresh ideas among us than the most grubbing of our trained specialists. Yes ; but he is infinitely more an artist than a thinker ! We do not deny it, but we cannot separate the artist from the philosopher, and we enjoy both, the thinker none the less when he dreams than the artist when he speculates. In truth, we are not children who seek instruction, but skeptics on the outlook for men and who have great joy when a man is discovered, for he is the rarest product on earth.”

But even in what is second-rate for him, Brandes remains the great critic. Without being possessed of Sainte - Beuve’s facility of expression, he has all his forerunner’s wonderful versatility of impression. And has he not perhaps more than Sainte-Beuve’s stock of knowledge ? If one is astonished at the acquaintance of the author of the Causeries de Lundi with the least and minutest of the “ trifles light as air ” of literature, one is taken back with wonder over Brandes’s selection. To have cast out the bric-abrac of letters as he has done, he needed first to assure himself of its true nature. He lias examined everything, and chosen the original thing. He has neither the Gallie appreciation nor the Gallic eye for the merely deft, the merely fantastic, the merely chaste, nor for any of the mere minor virtues that inhere in artful refinements of style and workmanship. His is the philosopher’s turn of mind ; the democratic philosopher’s, not the artistic. He is a searcher of the origin of ideals, not a holder of them. No writer is his equal in this particular. He has made it his forte. From a familiarity with the writings of all authors of all European countries, of the past two centuries, he is able to trace back the types of characters presented in modern novels and the archetypes of ideas in modern philosophies to their fountain and originator. He is the sleuth-hound among critics. He follows the intentions of authors and their pretensions. He goes backwards and forwards over the whole ground not alone of their books, but of their intellectual development.

In the present collection of essays, Oehlenschläger is thus tried and judged. Friedrich Nietzsche’s savage paradoxes are tracked back, not to the chambers of his own diseased brain, where Germans have hitherto fancied, in their ignorance, they had their sole hiding-places, but to the known essays of Renan, and the unknown and unsold works of Eugen Dühring and Dr. Paul Rée. In a similar fashion, the assumption of M. Emile Zola’s originality is taken to task, and with a truly edifying result. Two sketches of the writings of the German dramatists, Herr Hermann Sudermann and Herr Gerhard Hauptmann, are of inferior worth, while a long paper on Goethe in Denmark is characteristic at once of both the author’s best and most eminent traits, which are simplicity of exposition and completeness of development.

  1. Wir Frauen und Unsere Dichter. Von LAURA MARHOLM. Wien und Leipzig : Verlag der Wiener Mode. 1895.
  2. Menschen und Werke. Literarische Anstalt. Von GEORG BRANDES. Frankfurt. 1895.