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Geist and Zeitgeist

Hermann Broch

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Title: Geist and Zeitgeist
Author: Hermann Broch
Genre: Essays
Written: (1948) (Eng. 2003)
Length: 216 pages
Original in: German and English
Availability: Geist and Zeitgeist - US
Geist and Zeitgeist - UK
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Geist und Zeitgeist - Deutschland
  • The Spirit in an Unspiritual Age
  • Originally published, in slightly different form, in German in 1997 as Geist und Zeitgeist (ed. Paul Michael Lützeler)
  • Collects six essays written between 1933 and 1948
  • Translated by John Hargraves, Maria Jolas, and Michael P. Steinberg
  • Edited and with an Introduction by John Hargraves

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting selection of essays

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       As John Hargraves notes in his introduction, Hermann Broch remains best known, especially in the English-speaking world, for his fiction (in particular the novels The Sleepwalkers (see our review) The Death of Virgil (see our review), two of the towering works of the 20th century), but of the twelve volumes of the German edition of his collected works four are devoted to his essays (and one to his poetry) -- and almost none of that, except the long piece Hugo Hofmannsthal and His Age, has been translated.
       Geist and Zeitgeist offers a Broch-essay sampler: six pieces (including a chunk of the Hofmannsthal essay) first written between 1933 and 1948 that display many of Broch's preoccupations, interests, and approaches.
       Broch's background -- in business, in philosophy and mathematics -- and his intense interest in other fields (including sociology and psychology) are reflected in his fiction, but come much more obviously to the fore in his essays. The Sleepwalkers is already a work that imposes a great deal of theory on its art; in the essays Broch elaborates on theory unencumbered (and unassisted) by fictional trappings.
       Like few authors of recent times, Broch's entire output reflects a deeply thought-through and often persuasive Weltanschauung, different aspects of which are best illuminated in different works (though all the works (fiction and non-fiction alike) are linked in this comprehensive world-view that Broch is continuously trying to relate and explain). Awareness that Broch was such a masterful practitioner of creative art also lends additional credence to his analytic approach, its success in itself a validation of his ideas.
       The essays collected here serve as a good introduction to his works and thoughts. They are mainly rooted in that evolution from fin-de-siècle decadence through a collapse of values (as came with the collapse of the Hapsburg empire), culminating in the horrors of Nazism. But for Broch these are also only moments from history and from the history of civilization, and he generally looks at a much bigger picture, detail serving only to illustrate what are more general points.
       Particularly striking is his understanding of a need to strive for the new (as he champions Joyce's efforts, including both Ulysses and the Work in Progress that became Finnegans Wake -- and as is also demonstrated in his own work) while also recognizing the inherent limitations of the new, a point repeatedly (and well-) made in these pages.
       Art, and specifically literature, plays a central role in Broch's world, allowing for a reflection and analysis of reality that he finds particularly significant in these times (roughly 1900 to 1950). Art is, in all senses of the word, a "representative phenomenon of the time" -- and, he finds, in these times "the problem of art itself has become an ethical one". The first essay in the collection specifically addresses this idea, differentiating between art that is 'beautiful' and art that is 'good'. Beyond these there is also 'evil' art -- and it is this, in the form of kitsch, that Broch emphatically decries -- and how can one not be thrilled by his passion when he writes, for example:

     The maker of kitsch does not create inferior art, he is not an incompetent or a bungler, he cannot be evaluated by esthetic standards; rather, he is ethically depraved, a criminal willing radical evil. And since it is radical evil that is manifest here, evil per se, forming the absolute negative pole of every value-system, kitsch will always be evil, not just kitsch in art, but kitsch in every value-system that is not an imitation system
       The second essay, from 1934, is on The Spirit in an Unspiritual Age, and begins: "Humanity today has been overtaken by a peculiar contempt for words, a contempt that is almost revulsion." It's a contempt that, as described by Broch, is remarkably similar to the one one finds today (complete with the same dispiriting consequences), and it's the one essay here that will strike the strongest chord among contemporary readers, mirroring so horribly closely the current state of affairs (especially in the United States). Again, Broch invests a great deal in the power of the word (and of art): he understands the limitations too -- he's no wide-eyed romantic -- but his belief (or even: understanding) is a convincing one.
       The third essay is on Joyce and the Present Age, written in 1936, and discusses the author with whom Broch clearly had the greatest affinity. It is an insightful piece, and of particular interest because Broch shared many of Joyce's aspirations in his own artistic endeavours, especially in his striving for new means of artistic representation. But Broch is also aware of the dangers, both for Joyce and himself, and he doesn't simply offer blind praise, acknowledging, for example:
The dangers of increasing aloofness are real and are to be found both in his pessimism and in the power of the artistic resources he has placed at the service of this pessimism.
       The Style of the Mythical Age is was an introduction for a book on the Iliad (by Rachel Bespaloff) -- and is the only piece in the collection originally written in English. It is another fairly good summary of Broch's ideas on literature and myth, usefully also considering older examples (including Homer).
       The fifth essay, Some Comments on the Philosophy and Technique of Translating is the one essay that Hargraves substituted from the original German version of Geist und Zeitgeist -- and a good choice that was. The piece -- amusingly written to be presented by Death of Virgil-translator Jean Starr Untermeyer (so there are many third-person references to author Broch, despite the fact that he wrote the text) -- is of great interest because it specifically does discuss the Death of Virgil-translation. Some insight is offered into that incredible undertaking (though not enough ! -- someone should devote a book just to that story), and Broch also writes more generally about translation issues.
       The final piece offers the beginning of Broch's longer essay, Hugo Hofmannsthal and His Age (previously published in its entirety in 1984 in a translation by Michael P. Steinberg). Focussing on Art and Its Non-Style at the End of the Nineteenth Century, Broch offers a useful survey and analysis of what led up to this fin-de-siècle period -- though regrettably there's little of Hofmannsthal to be found here. From literary ideas (and ideals) -- "with inadequate means, namely those of naturalism, the novel pursues an unattainable end, namely the mythical" -- to broader cultural and historical ones he offers an impressive picture of the times, leading to the present he writes from (both as artist and as citizen). Specifically, the Vienna of his youth and his formative years (Hofmannsthal's Vienna), is clearly presented, from being "less a city of art than a city of decoration par excellence" to the very "center of the European value vacuum" (and metropolis of hated kitsch)

       Broch is a writer well worth looking up to, a firm believer in the power and importance of literature (and a man who, amazingly, was able to create fictions that stood up to his high ideals). One always has to be wary when people write of, for example, the "mission of literature", but authors (and others) would do well to heed his clear and strict ambitions:
     It is at this point that the mission of literature begins; the mission of a cognition that remains above all empirical or social modes of being and to which it is a matter of indifference whether man lives in a feudal, bourgeois or proletarian age; literature's obligation to the absoluteness of cognition, in general.
       Where philosophy had failed, Broch saw literature assuming that mantle. Sounds good to us.

       We weren't entirely thrilled by the translation(s) in this volume (despite what it says on the cover, there were three different translators at work here, which doesn't help) -- and the stylistic problems should already be apparent from the quotes above, but then the precision of Broch's German isn't easily transformed into English.

       Geist and Zeitgeist is certainly a worthwhile collection. It's not always easy going, and many readers may not be receptive to these arguments (or Broch's presentation), but for those willing to make the effort it offers ample -- indeed: great -- reward. (But read the novels too !)

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Geist and Zeitgeist: Reviews: Hermann Broch: Other books by Hermann Broch under review: Books about Hermann Broch under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Hermann Broch was born 1 November 1886, and died in New Haven, 30 May, 1951. He wrote such notable novels as The Sleepwalkers and The Death of Virgil.

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