Sunday, 5 April 2015

Book Review: The German Genius, Peter Watson (2010)

Why do we read and write, you and I? Partly it's because we want to better ourselves. This is what people do - or what the kind of people you and I want to know do, anyway - we learn new instruments and languages, we travel, we try new things. (Or we like to think we do.)

But why do we do this? The answer may seem self-evident: who doesn't want to be "better", whatever that means? Who doesn't want to be more like the people they admire, and more liked by them? Or maybe you feel you have an inner drive: if you didn't try all these new things, you'd go crazy.

But have you ever stopped to think about the context for this behaviour? Whether people everywhere do it, and always have?

That is the concern of the first half of Peter Watson's The German Genius - or, as I like to think of it: After God, "Aargh, Modernity!". Or, even more facetiously: Why We Blog.

Watson tells us that the drive for self-improvement originated largely in pre-unified Germany, born out of the speculative philosophy of such titans as Kant and Hegel that arose to fill the growing hole left by declining Christianity and its message of "Do this, because I say so".

Why in Germany? Religion in Germany had been more inward anyway, as a result of Luther's protestantism returning religion to the people from the control of the church (see the novel Q, ostensibly but not really written by a former AC Milan footballer named Luther Blissett). Plus, it was the German Wilhelm von Humboldt who essentially invented the modern university, with the idea that scholars should conduct original research, and, owing to the support of Friedrich Wilhelm III, there were far more universities, and much more literacy, in Germany than places like France or Great Britain.

Kant, Hegel et al posited that in the absence of an afterlife or divinity, the purpose of life must be to better oneself, a concept that came to be known as bildung. Also, by bettering oneself, one also bettered those around oneself in one's community.

Thus, the next 100 years or so gave rise to such cultural colossi as Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Wagner, whose music differed from that of Handel and Bach in expressing inner concepts related to the life of man, rather than religious ones, plus Goethe, creator of the Bildungsroman, in which improvement (in the eyes of God or of man) comes only through effort on the part of the individual.

Thanks, Germany!

But then come modernity and alienation, and the second half of Watson's book, which addresses the question of whether German idealism had to lead to authoritarianism.

As Watson makes clear (borrowing on the work of others, as he's quick to point out the whole book heavily does), the idea of evolution did not originate with Darwin. Bildung is itself evolution applied to one's own character, for example. But Darwin accounted for evolution scientifically, realising it comes from overpopulation and struggle to survive and reproduce. Thus (broadly) was born the age of science.

Over the next generation or so, we have the dawn of organic chemistry and the age of cellular and molecular biology, so many of the discoveries coming from German universities and institutes. We mechanise and urbanise. We have mass-production.

Then comes the Franco-Prussian war and German unification.

Scientification continues. Education becomes less humanistic. Alongside this we have Nietzsche, telling us nothing matters anymore.

Then World War I, partly a war of now-struggling German kultur vs British mercantilism and mere civility. We have mechanised, indiscriminate killing on a scale never seen before. Germany and kultur are dealt a terrible blow, although nobody really wins.

Then Weimar and the rise of low-brow culture, followed by Einstein's relativity, Pauli's uncertainty, Godel's revelation that there are things that can never be known, atonalism in music, expressionism in art, cultural pessimism and economic plight.

Then National Socialists, with their incoherent but powerful message that everything had gone wrong and a return to classical culture was needed, and their racism, their belief that others were responsible for the way things were and that these were people who could never be truly cultured, as only true Germans could.

And what came next, which you already know.

And then the aftermath: a slow coming to terms, Heidegger and reassessment, Habermas and what now in the age of ongoing alienation and environmental profligacy.

I haven't done justice to The German Genius there, obviously. It's 365,000 words, and an awful lot of concepts that were entirely new to me. It's a lot to get your head around.

At times it reads like an encyclopaedia, and could perhaps have done with being a bit trimmer. But part of its point is that there is so much more to Germany that the Nazis, despite what British TV schedulers might think, hence there's a lot of chronicling of German achievement even when it's not essential to the narrative.

TGG is monumental in every sense, and probably the most informative and enlightening book I've ever read. I'd read it again, if only it wasn't so big. Bloody overachieving Germans, nicking all the sun-loungers...

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