“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Freedom as a form of adventure

There is an overlap in the period of what Polanyi calls the Great Transformation – the period between the seventeenth and twentieth century – between various models of the modernization process. There is the theme of the liberal historians, taken up by Habermas in the sixties, that assigns to this period the creation of the bourgeois culture of sociability, which is identified with the schismogenesis of a private and public sphere; there is the theme articulated by Foucault that assigns to it the creation of the disciplinary society. And of course there is the Marxist analysis of it as the first epoch dominated by the capitalist mode of production, with all its cultural and political effects, from the creation of new class divisions to the establishment of new spaces and times – the space of the circulation of commodities, and the times - of abstract labor, of the turnover of commodity capital, etc. – in which whole populations begin to live.

There are other spheres that I would like to put into play here - for instance, the sphere of play, or entertainment, which seems to be shaped by the forces proposed by all three ways of seeing the 19th and 20th century; and similarly, the sphere of freedom, which – taking up Heine’s half serious suggestion, is not one thing, but something different according to radically different heuristics – an Anglosphere individualism, a Gallic equality, a Germanic utopia.

One of the tendencies of these explanatory models is to propose that all traditional usages and forms are purged, in modernity, to make room for building our iron cage. Myself, I hold, on the contrary, that the modernization process could not happen without a level of secondary elaboration in which traditional usages and practices come back. The weak ties are not broken, but they are stretched.

- Working with the above background, I want to look at freedom as a mode of adventure in Heine. I am not going to bind my connections close, here, but grope blindly for them. If they come to my hand, let them come.


Heine left Germany, in 1827, just as his book, Die Reisebilder, was being published. He had been living in Hamburg at the time, and not like the Hamburg bourgeoisie. This was the same Hanseatic bourgeoisie into which, in Lubeck, Thomas Mann was born at the end of the century. In the Magic Mountain, there is a scene in which the young Hans Castorp, whose mother and father have died, remembers his favorite object in his grandfather’s “Cabinet”, the baptismal bowl that had been used to baptize generations of Castorps, on which was inscribed the names of seven generations of them.

“The name of his father was there, that of his Grandfather himself, and that of his Great-Grandfather [Urgrossvaters) and then doubly, threefold, and fourfold the prefixing syllable ‘Ur’ [Great] in the mouth of his guide, and the boy listened to the Ur-Ur-Ur with his head inclined to the side, a reflective or even thoughtfree-dreamy inward look in his eyes, and his sleepily reverent mouth open, listened to the dark sound of the tomb and of buried time, which still expressed a piously guarded connection between the present, his own life, and that of the deeply sunk past, and this had a peculiar effect upon him, which was expressed on his face.”

Heine, in 1827, was particularly impatient with, stifled by, the huge burial mound of the Ur-Ur-Ur of the ancien regime. The romantic school had burned itself out – the Napoleonic wars had been fought in vain, it seemed – and so he set out in search not of the picaresque, as in his trip to Italy, but in quest of freedom. Political freedom.

On the eve of leaving Hamburg to travel to England, he wrote in a letter to a friend about the atmosphere of complete stagnation in Germany: ‘I even doubt that the book [his Reisebilder] will be forbidden. But it was necessary that it be written. In this dry, servile time, something must happen. I’ve done my part and am ashamed of those hard hearted friends who once wanted to do so much, and are now silent.”

No comments: