Mesocosm

"A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." – Franz Kafka

Archive for December 2015

Reading List: December 2015

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Hey there, readers – thought I’d drop you a line and let you know what I’ve been up to. I’ve been pretty busy with work the last year or two, so I’ve not been writing as much as I used to, though I try to keep things going from time to time. But I’ve been having a very lively year reading and researching in my own precious personal time. I’m currently finishing up Heinrich Heine’s book of poems entitled Deutschland; Ein Wintermärchen, or Germany; A Winter’s Tale. If you know a bit about Germany in the 19th century it’s spellbinding stuff. Heine wrote it not long after the failed 1848 uprising in which liberal nationalists in German-speaking Europe attempted to do away with the Ancien Régime, as Napolean called the crusty old order of hereditary rule, and replace it with a federal representative government. Wagner fans will note that the young composer, like most right-thinking intellectuals of his day, also fervently supported this goal and was himself demonstrating in the streets, until the uprising was harshly suppressed and many of its supporters were imprisoned or fled into exile.

In his Winter’s Tale, Heine reflects on the state of things in a contemplative set of poems describing a journey through the Rhineland on the border of France. He falls into a series of reveries, heavy with a dreamlike quality, and the events of the recent past are animated by images from the distant past, or from songs, or passing fancies. In one powerful sequence, he dreams that he is with the Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa, who, according to German legend, lies sleeping under his Magic Mountain, waiting for Germany’s hour of need, prepared to rise again.

It’s easy to get the impression of Heine as a sentimental lyricist and writer of pretty verse, but he’s widely regarded as one of the chief figures of early German modernism because of his powerful and unflinching engagement with serious issues of contemporary import. It’s interesting to contrast him to another poet who, in my mind at least, stands for the advent of modernity in German literature: Friedrich Hölderlin. In a way Heine and Hölderlin are dialectical opposites – Heine, in form, is extremely conservative, using light cadence and simple rhyme schemes to clearly and eloquently convey his striking, complex and often-ironic ideas. That is, his style is conservative but his content is strikingly modern. Hölderlin, in contrast, is extremely conservative in subject, dwelling on the sublime and Ancient Greece with all the ardent nostalgia of the high Romantics, while his style is extremely modern, problematizing the status of the subject and the voice of poetry with his obscure and complex forms, setting down layers of ambiguous imagery in the service of ideas that are, ultimately, somewhat simple.

Prayer Niche (detail), 7th century Persian Pergamon Museum

Prayer Niche (detail), 7th century Persian
Pergamon Museum

I’ve found Heine hard to reach – anthologies often carry his light and whimsical verse, and it’s hard to get a sense of his importance from those delightful but relatively inconsequential poems. Going through this volume has made it perfectly clear why he’s widely regarded as the most important German poet of the 19th century.

In the last several months I’ve also been going somewhat into Islamic philosophy, focusing particularly on the Neoplatonists, especially Ibn Sina. As a kind of corollary I’ve been looking at modern voices in Islam – particularly voices of modernization in German Islam, such as Navid Kermani and Karajan Amritpur. I’ve been having a field day with Kermani’s magnificent Zwischen Koran und Kafka, or Between Koran and Kafka, which is one of the most useful works on Islam I’ve ever read. Kermani reads Islamic history in the light of aesthetics, particularly in dialog with his European literary and philosophical training, and consequently has a capacity to articulate a central aspect of the Muslim worldview in terms that I find extremely easy to understand.

I also deeply appreciate Kermanis insistence that Islam be understood as fundamentally an aesthetic phenomenon. He eloquently pulls from a panapoly of traditional sources describing people who are so moved by the beautiful of Qu’ranic recitation that they swoon, or even die. (!) That led me to a deeper interest in Islamic art, and I wish I’d given it more attention earlier on in my studies – nothing tells you about the way a religious tradition actually supports human life like its art.

Cult Figure, Fifth Century CE, Neues Museum

Cult Figure, Fifth Century CE, Neues Museum

The third area I’ve been researching heavily in the last several months is German and Norse mythology. Here my cornerstone has been reading through the Austrian scholar Rudolf Simek’s magnificent book Religion und Mythologie der Germanen, which I picked up this summer in a bookstore in Zürich. The thing I love about this book is that Simek really puts the whole picture together, linking the literary evidence with the archaeological data, and asking a lot of hard questions of what we know and what we don’t know of the whole thing. In most of the English-language sources I’ve found on the Norse and German myths, the evidence is almost completely literary, and that can paint an extremely misleading view of the whole thing. All of our literary sources are quite late, after the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity, and they are unreliable sources for what the pre-Christian beliefs and practices actually were.

So that’s what I’ve been up to lately, I’ll probably write more about all of these topics soon. Please share what you’ve been thinking about lately in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.

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Written by Mesocosm

December 20, 2015 at 5:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized