Kinder Sculpture

 

Jun 2012 Journal

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Erich Heller – a centenary tribute

Connoisseurs of German literature will regret that the centenary of the birth of the great literary scholar Erich Heller has passed largely unmarked. Heller was born in Komotau (now Chomutov in the Czech Republic) on 27 March 1911 and studied law in Prague. In 1939 he fled to Britain, where he was awarded his doctorate at Cambridge University in 1943 for a dissertation on Thomas Mann, the predecessor of his influential study The Ironic German: A Study of Thomas Mann (1958). Heller held lecturing posts at the London School of Economics, Cambridge and the University College of Swansea, where he was head of the Department of German, being promoted to the rank of professor in 1950. In 1959, he was appointed Professor of German at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he lived until his death in 1990.

Heller was best known for The Disinherited Mind (1952), a brilliant series of studies of German literary figures from Goethe to Rilke and Kafka, including Nietzsche, Jacob Burkhardt, author of The Culture of the Renaissance in Italy, and Karl Kraus. The essays are case studies in ‘the spiritually disinherited mind of Europe’, examining the relation of poetry and truth ‘in an age dispossessed of all spiritual certainties’, a world where the moral and cultural certainties underlying the real order have ceased to obtain and where, in consequence, the artist has to create that order for himself, thereby inevitably distancing his art yet further from the world around him. At the book’s heart is Hölderlin’s lament, in his poem Brot und Wein (Bread and Wine), ‘wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?’ (‘why be a poet in a spiritless age?’) - a fundamental question that Heller’s dazzling erudition went some way to resolving.

Anthony Grenville

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