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The Dark Side of LiteracyLiterature and Learning Not to Read$

Benjamin Bennett

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780823229161

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823229161.001.0001

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. Poems, Myths, and the Advent of Modern Reading

. Poems, Myths, and the Advent of Modern Reading

(p.44) 2. Poems, Myths, and the Advent of Modern Reading
The Dark Side of Literacy

Benjamin Bennett

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

With the mind serving as fertile ground for person-centric as well as others' ideas and insights, reading becomes a strong avenue for creating, shaping, and altering perspectives. Decoding the multifaceted dynamics of reading and measuring how it enriches or influences the lives of readers necessitate a contextual distinction between novel (i.e., book) reading and literary reading. This chapter elucidates the relevance and influence of poems, ancient mythology, and modern reading in evaluating the impact of reading and that of actual text on readers' understanding. It details the ideologies purported by Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Friedrich Schlegel. Moreover, the chapter discusses the nature and repercussions of esoteric interests rooted in literature against those of contemporary communicative reading strategies with which the readership may more liberally associate.

Keywords:   esoteric, modern reading, myths, poems, Schlegel, Winckelmann

Not many of us would be imprudent enough to suggest that major intellectual shifts simply “take place” in history at a particular point or within a relatively short span of time. The reading of any large Sunday newspaper is enough to remind us that there are many people, indeed many genuinely educated professional writers, who live out their twentieth-or twenty-first-century lives in an entirely pre-Freudian or pre-Marxian or even pre-Galilean universe. And yet, on the other hand, it seems clear that large historical changes do happen on an intellectual plane. But how shall we measure or locate them? Reading as many books and documents as possible, to establish a kind of universal average awareness at some given time, is like trying to measure the height of the tide by climbing a mountain from which one can see as much of the ocean as possible. The only reasonable approach, by contrast, is to shove a stick in the sand and see how high the water climbs on it.

Reading Poems

If we are going to find texts in which the pressure exerted by the development of The Reader upon reading in general becomes apparent, these will probably not be the texts of novels, where the tendency of authorial and critical habit (the association of reading for thrills with novel reading) is precisely to minimize such evidence, to avoid the appearance of any such pressure. We shall be on the lookout, rather, for the effects of what is normally regarded as novel reading in texts that are as unlike novels as possible. As it happens, the short lyric poem with a “subjective” or personal focus turns out to be a very useful measuring device.

What do we mean by “reading a poem”? In the case of a novel or a story, we ordinarily do our best to convince ourselves—however illusory the conviction may be—that we are reading the text as if for the first time, that its content is bursting in upon our consciousness like the content of (p.45) experience itself. But in the case of a poem, I think, we do not claim to have “read” the text until we have gotten to know it, until we have looked at it from a number of points of view, experimentally, and so anchored it in our mind. It is no longer fashionable to have children memorize poems in school; but something very like memorizing is still what we actually do with poems. If, in a periodical or a collection, I read through a poem only once and then go on to the next, it is a sign that that poem has not caught my interest.

There is another sense in which we commonly speak nowadays of “reading a poem.” We have formed the habit of expecting special pleasure, and special benefit, from hearing the poem read aloud, particularly if the person who recites it happens also to be its author. It is felt that we get more of the poem's flavor, that the poem becomes more immediately or completely an experience for us, if we are permitted to witness its direct passage from the very mind that conceived it through the vocal apparatus with which nature herself equipped that mind to express itself. But despite the idea of experience here, there is a vast difference between listening to poets and reading novels. The person who listens to a poet desires to lay hold of the poem's language itself as an experience, to follow its unfolding instant by instant in search of the creative principle behind it, whereas the reader of a novel desires presumably to realize as experience the content of the language in question. (This is more or less the difference between reading for art and reading for thrills.) When Robert Frost recited “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” his audience hoped to submerge themselves not in the scene, not in the poem's “fiction,” but rather in its rhythms—audible, quasi-visible, psychological, grammatical, idiomatic—and in their nuances and interactivity.

These considerations help explain why most of us would agree that reading poetry (silently, in a book) is an activity that requires training. One must first be able to read the poem's written text as if it were an act of speaking, here and now, as if all its latent rhythms were physically present; but then one must be able to understand that act of speaking as something categorically other than precisely the speech act it pretends to be. The words “For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love” are obviously an imperative, but they do not reach me as an imperative, they do not tell me to do something. Nor would it be considered adequate criticism if I glossed that line by simply trying to identify the people at whom its command is directed. And in at least one well-known example, where the person “spoken to” is actually identified, “Hang it all, Robert Browning, / There can (p.46) be but the one ‘Sordello,’” we find that we have not really come to grips with the statement until we have recognized, not in it so much as behind it, a rather complicated piece of literary criticism.

In other words, one must be able to read the poem's implied speech act against certain conventions that present the text as something categorically other than a speech act, hence not summarizable by an understanding of what, as quasi-utterance, it “says” or “performs” or “expresses.” Those conventions may, in turn, be reducible ultimately to traditions of quotation—complex genealogical tables of actual texts which, by some form of citation or variation or montage, make their presence felt in the text under consideration with or without the author's knowledge. And if we are willing, like Pound, to restrict the whole idea of poetry to a relatively narrow range of conventions, we may think it sufficient to acquaint a prospective reader with “the facts”1—with a set of “exhibits” (95) from which a sense of convention might be expected to emerge more or less naturally. But this method does not work in practice. Even Pound finds it necessary to comment on his exhibits at length.

Here the problem arises that Pound formulates by asking how a language can “stay poetic” (22). Poetic conventions operate only by being silent, by being of an order categorically different from that of the statement or speech act they operate upon. Otherwise the relation between the poem and the conventions that govern our method of dealing with it would itself be ultimately reducible to a speech act (however complex), whereupon the question “what is being said?” would become both answerable and definitive after all, and the need for training would disappear—training in how to deal with a poem as a poem, rather than merely respond to it in accordance with the system of speech-act types that makes up our habitual (and inescapable) social and linguistic situation. Hence the importance of the project of teaching by exhibits alone, which, if we could do it, would avoid the danger of destroying by explanation the strictly ironic (silent, nonformulable) situation implied by reading a text against conventions that remove it from the domain of linguistic action and response.

It may be possible (perhaps it must be) to maintain the defining irony of poetry even in our prose elucidation of particular instances. But even if we manage thus to teach poetry with a maximum of respect for its integrity as a practice, teaching as such still has the inherent tendency to objectify its content, to transform practice into formulable knowledge. Whatever the case with Chinese, therefore (Pound 22), European languages cannot be expected to “stay poetic,” or at least cannot stay poetic in the same way. Old (p.47) conventions constantly become useless (no longer silent) and are supplanted by new ones in a process that is revolutionary by nature, being driven by the irreconcilable opposition between silence and speech, and is much better grasped, say, by Bloom's notion of misreading than by any model of literary history as a kind of intergenerational consensus on conditions of communication. But at certain points in this process the imperative of silence will be enforced by structures in which incompatible conventions are made to collide rather than simply succeed or supplant one another. One such historical collision is represented in the first text I want to discuss.

A New Type of Poem?

Reading poems requires us to be deeply schooled in a set of arbitrary conventions—or in a number of such sets for different kinds of poetry. Therefore we might expect that poetry will be especially sensitive to the discursive or literary conventions of its time. Not that poetry will simply reflect contemporary discursive conditions—far from it. But if poetry operates in a universe made out of conventions which, while necessarily silent, are nevertheless presumably known and shared in some given community at some given time, then any significant change in that community's broader discursive conventions (a change, for example, in what is understood by “reading”) is likely to have a measurable effect on the conventions that govern poetry. In particular, there is a poem of Goethe in which I think we can observe unmistakably the arrival upon the European scene of “reading” in the sense of reading for thrills.

  • Auf dem See
  • Und frische Nahrung, neues Blut Saug' ich aus freier Welt;
  • Wie ist Natur so hold und gut, Die mich am Busen hält!
  • Die Welle wieget unsern Kahn Im Rudertakt hinauf,
  • Und Berge, wolkig himmelan, Begegnen unserm Lauf.
  • Aug', mein Aug', was sinkst du nieder? Goldne Träume, kommt ihr wieder? Weg, du Traum! so Gold du bist;
  • Hier auch Lieb' und Leben ist. (p.48)
  • Auf der Welle blinken
  • Tausend schwebende Sterne,
  • Weiche Nebel trinken
  • Rings die thürmende Ferne;
  • Morgenwind umflügelt
  • Die beschattete Bucht,
  • Und im See bespiegelt
  • Sich die reifende Frucht.2

[On the Lake: And fresh nourishment, new blood, I suck from the open world; how lovely and good is nature thus, who holds me to her bosom! The water rocks and balances our boat in time to the oars, and mountains, climbing cloudily toward heaven, meet our course. / Oh, my eyes, why do you droop? Golden dreams, have you come again? Away with you, dream, gold though you are; here too is love and life. / On the water glitter a thousand hovering stars; soft mists drink the surrounding towering distance; a morning breeze flutters about the shaded cove, and in the lake is mirrored the ripening fruit.]

In Dichtung und Wahrheit, Goethe reproduces the poem in its entirety and associates it with a boat trip on the Lake of Zürich in June 1775 (WA, 29:111). He introduces it with the words “Möge ein eingeschaltetes Gedicht von jenen glücklichen Momenten einige Ahnung herüberbringen [Perhaps an interpolated poem will communicate some sense of those happy moments],” suggesting the idea of a gulf of time that might be traversed by our feelings when we read. Perhaps the poem will enable us, in some degree, to share the actual experience that provoked it. The transmission of experience by language is already an issue at this point in Dichtung und Wahrheit, where Goethe has just excused himself for not describing the elderly Bodmer on the grounds “that Bodmer's venerable person, described in words, might not make an immediately favorable impression” (WA, 29:109).

There is, to be sure, some trickery here. The first four lines of the poem Goethe actually wrote in 1775 are completely different from those in the final (quoted) version, although the rest is pretty much the same (WA, pt. 3, 1:2–3). The factual situation is this: The original poem of 1775 was revised by 1784 or 1785 and had received its final changes by 1790 (WA, 1:387, 368); and Goethe's plan to use it in Dichtung und Wahrheit was probably formed by 1821 (WA, 29:228). But nothing in this situation seriously affects the points I intend to make. There is no reason to assume that (p.49) Goethe is either insincere or mistaken when he remembers the original poem as an attempt to capture experience in language, or that the revision of the poem was not carried out in the spirit of the original.

But if the poem therefore narrates an event, not only in its external details, but also in such a way as to convey its inner or experienced aspect, then the present tense (in all versions) is disturbing. Klopstock is certainly fresh in Goethe's mind at the time of the poem's composition—he had visited Goethe in March 1775—and Goethe alludes directly to his well-known ode “Der Zürchersee” (The Lake of Zürich)3 a bit later in the same year (WA, 37:323). Even without these facts, the echoes of Klopstock's poem about the Lake of Zürich would be evident in Goethe's. Klopstock begins with an address to “Mutter Natur,” sees clouds and mountains in a dynamic relation (“Jetzt entwölkte sich fern silberner Alpen Höh”), and prefigures Goethe's “beschattete Bucht” when he poses himself “in den Umschattungen, / In den Lüften des Walds, und mit gesenktem Blick / Auf die silberne Welle.” But Klopstock maintains a strict distinction between the use of the present tense for invocation, apostrophe, reflection, and the use of the past tense for narrative. What is the effect of Goethe's not following him in this matter?

In Klopstock it is clear that the utterance originates in a moment of memory and reflection on the part of the speaker. In Goethe, if we read the poem as narrative, the present tense implies that the utterance must originate in the midst of the narrated experience itself. (At least this is true if a reader is inclined to pay attention to verb tenses here; and it seems to me that Goethe, by setting his poem side by side with Klopstock's, turns us in that direction.) But the act of speaking the poem then becomes difficult to imagine because the narrative does not describe a situation in which something like a dramatic monologue, or even a silent meditation, might naturally arise. The speaker is not alone (he speaks of “our” boat); and when he finds himself descending into his own thoughts, perhaps into a lyrically meditative state (“Aug', mein Aug', was sinkst du nieder?”), he pulls himself up short and forcibly redirects his attention to the external world. In the last section, in fact, if we take the words Sterne and Frucht literally (bearing in mind that Frucht, in the singular, is not a collective concept in German, but suggests here a single piece of ripening fruit), the sense of a connected narrative is supplanted by what appears to be a mere collection of impressions from different times of day and different points of view. If you can see reflected stars, it must be night and you must be out on the water; if you can see a single piece of fruit, it must be light and (p.50) you must be close to shore. Thus a retrospective reordering of experience is implied, which would seem to require a past tense.

This type of present tense narrative is common in modern poetry. Examples from poets as different as Valéry and Whitman come to mind easily enough. But if we are sufficiently specific in our definition, I think we will be hard pressed to find instances prior to Goethe's time. We are talking about first-person, present-tense narrative: not merely meditation, but the narrative of concrete events, as if the poem's utterance were emerging from the immediate unfolding experience of those events, but without any suggestion of how the speaker, in the midst of the experience, might be imagined as pronouncing, or even thinking, the poem's actual words. Present-tense narratives like Ewald von Kleist's Der Frühling, in which the speaker's action consists entirely of his placing himself in a quiet setting from which to observe and meditate on nature—hence to think the poem's words—do not qualify.

But another instance fairly close to Goethe's poem in time that does qualify is Coleridge's “Lines: Composed While Climbing the Left Ascent of Brockley Coomb, Somersetshire, May 1795.”4 We are by now comfortable with this poem, even though we recognize that it is highly unlikely that Coleridge actually composed it “while” making his climb. Even if the basic idea of the poem, along with key phrases and images, was conceived in the course of the actual event, it is certainly not the case that line 4, “Far off the unvarying Cuckoo soothes my ear,” was composed (as the present tense might suggest) at exactly the moment of hearing the cuckoo, whereas lines 8–11 come into being only later, when the poet rests—and in effect writes “I rest”—in the shade of the Yew-tree. Here, as in Goethe's poem, the language pretends to keep pace, step by step, with the speaker's unfolding experience, but cannot be imagined as actually originating—actually being spoken or thought—in the same step-by-step correspondence. And this poetic procedure, I think, while perhaps not strictly new in the second half of the eighteenth century, is certainly unusual enough to attract our attention and ruffle the silent surface of poetic convention in its time.

Or is It Really a Poem of that New Type?

But are we obliged to read Goethe's poem as a quasi-narrative? Or can we read it as a conventional poetic meditation whose present tense originates in the mind of an individual not otherwise occupied? The first four lines offer no special difficulty in this regard, even if we read “freie Welt” to (p.51) refer unambiguously to the outdoors. The possible translation, “I have been drawing into myself—these days—and continue to draw into myself fresh nourishment and new blood from the open world,” which takes the present tense to include a present perfect meaning, does no violence at all to the possibilities of standard German, and in fact helps make sense of the text's opening “And,” which now suggests the continuation of a state or process that precedes the poem's speaking.5 The speaker has been, for some time, in a condition of restorative union with nature; and the word and marks a transition from the condition itself to the act (now, in thepoem's present) of enjoying it reflectively. Hence also the word so in line 3, which, in order not merely to repeat the intensifying gesture of the word “wie,” must mean “thus, in this way.” “How loving and good is nature in this way,” says the speaker—namely, in that I now feel my vitality restoredin me. The speaker is thus looking meditatively into himself, not outward into “nature” considered as the landscape setting for a narrative.

(This re-reading of the first four lines as non-narrative is at least as easy in the poem's first version, where the speaker imagines himself suck-ing nourishment through his umbilical cord from a nature that surrounds him, and thus places himself as much in nature's womb as “at her breast,” in a situation that practically begs for allegorical interpretation.)

And once we have decided to regard the utterance as issuing from a poet's conventional meditative solitude, we do not have much choice but to read line 5 as an allegorical generalization of the thought. “Our boat” means “our” (all humans') life or bodily existence. If we attend to our situation in nature—as the speaker claims he has learned to do for himself—we find that the rhythm of our own civilized human activity (“Rudertakt”) operates in perfect harmony with the powerful rhythm by which the world moves us in turn, as if in a cradle (“Die Welle,” which can mean either simply “the water” or more specifically a “wave”). The boat, in being both moved against the water and buoyed up by the water, is an allegorical image of the intimate relation between our activity and nature's. And there in the distance, in the direction in which our life (“unser Lauf,” “our course”) is aimed, are cloud-capped mountains that suggest not only aspiration (a vague, lofty vision of the future) but also opposition (“gegen,” in the verb “begegnen”), hence a terminus to our existence—all of which adds up to the idea of immortality, or the hope of continued existence after death. The speaker, in meditating on his renewed personal vitality as a sign of union with undying nature, arrives naturally enough at the dream of his own personal transcendence of death. (p.52)

This strictly meditative and allegorical reading of the poem thus easily accounts for the “dreams” of the second section, which now refer directly to the vision of immortality in the first; and those dreams are spoken of as “golden,” which means not only “alluring,” but perhaps also “authentic”—a vision of the ultimate truth about us. Yet the speaker is not satisfied with his meditation in this form. For precisely by being a dream—however “golden,” however true, it may be—this vision of immortality abstracts its speaker reflectively from exactly the feeling of immediate oneness or intimacy with nature on which it depends. Therefore, by a second move of reflection—reflection being the image that both opens and closes the final section—the poem's original reflective impulse (the reflection upon nature that produces the dream of immortality) must be countered and limited. The mountains that signify personal immortality are now removed from our vision altogether by encircling mists, by some form of salutary forgetting. (In earlier versions, the mists are called “Liebe Nebel,” “dear mists.”) And the stars, representing a level of truth or ideality even higher than the mountains, are now found to be here with us, here in the natural bosom (“die Welle”) that we rest upon, and here in reflected form. (By reflecting upon our reflection, in other words, we distance ourselves from the delusive “dream” and so achieve the oneness with nature that produces the true ideal component of our being.) Then comes another image suggesting (as the image of rowing the boat had) that the large operation of nature and the particular movements of natural objects (including humans) are one and the same—in that the wings with which the morning wind flutters are also the foliage around which it flutters. And finally, the image of a ripening fruit reflected in the water suggests two things: our reimmersion in our own natural ripening toward death, now that a second act of reflection blocks the transcendental move (the dream of immortality) by which we had been tempted; and the act of reflection itself, which ripens or matures by reflecting upon itself and so maintains contact with the sense of union with nature that had produced it.

Even our original sense of community with nature may now be regarded as, in truth, our own act of mature, self-limiting reflection—reflection being our nature, as humans, which must be attuned with nature as a whole.6 Thus the opening word, “And,” becomes a sign that the end of the poem leads back into its beginning, that the process allegorized in the poem always starts over again in an experiential and reflective cycle from which there is no escape (hence the suggestion of Tantalus' punishment in the image of fruit hanging over water!) except perhaps by a transcending (p.53) move of the sort that the speaker rejects. Perhaps we have no choice but to accept the fate of Tantalus, or of Goethe's Prometheus, by resolutely declining to pursue our reflective nature in a direction that must end in unworthy servitude vis-à-vis some imagined higher (cloudy, mountain-dwelling) powers.

Thus we can carry out a complete reading of the poem as meditation and allegory, a reading which is not inconsistent with young Goethe's thought elsewhere. We can perhaps go still further in this direction. Goethe, like many poets of his time, wrote a number of riddle poems,7 and “Auf dem See” can be read as one such: “I suck new blood from the open air, where nature thus clasps me to her bosom. Who am I?” And the solution that we must supply, in accordance with the allegory, is “man.” But even without being developed to this extent, the meditative and allegorical reading is unsatisfactory for several reasons. We are disturbed by the idea of the poem's slipping in and out of the allegorical mode: lines 1–4 and 9–12 are relatively straightforward meditation; lines 5–8 and 13–20 are allegory that must be deciphered. Also, the rhyme and meter of the first two sections suggest motion and physical effort (rowing, in view of the content) more than meditative calm. And later on, in Dichtung und Wahrheit, Goethe himself tells us to seek experience in the poem, not allegorical meaning. But above all, because even as early as 1775 the reading of all literary texts is colored by habits developed in reading novels, we are already predisposed to look for a story in the poem.

The Poem as a Sheer Object and an Historical Node

And if we look, we find: a story that accounts even for the apparently disconnected images of the last section. The poem tells of a boat trip that begins probably in the evening, when distant mountains are still visible, and continues into the following dawn. When the sun first edges above the horizon, sparkles of reflected light appear on the rippling water, like floating stars. (In the allegorical mode, we can perhaps accept the idea of seeing actual stars reflected in the lake—it would be “in,” not “on”—but not if we look at the poem realistically, and certainly not if we think of the water as “Welle,” which does not suggest a perfectly flat and quiet surface.) Morning mists now rise from the lake, but are dispelled by the awakening breeze, and burned through by the now fully risen sun, which is reflected in the water like a huge yellow fruit. Earlier, perhaps just before dawn, the speaker had been overcome by the memory of a dream of happiness (p.54) he had left behind. (A few paragraphs after the poem in Dichtung und Wahrheit, Goethe quotes a melancholy little quatrain to Lili Schönemann, which he says he had composed around the same time [WA, 29:112].) But now he puts that memory aside; and his reimmersion in present experience is reflected as the intertwining, in the language of the last section, of an outer and an inner aspect of the experience, to the point where these aspects become practically indistinguishable in a single smooth flow of utterance that belies its own unsignalled leaps between simple denotative description and extreme metaphoricity.

Thus we are faced again with the problem of the present tense: that there is no plausible point of origin for the utterance either within the narrated experience (as the present tense appears to require) or outside it, at a temporal distance (which would require a preterite). But if the utterance is denied the possibility of situating itself in relation to the experience, then it seems to follow—considering, again, the implied absence of temporal separation—that somehow the utterance simply is the experience, including what we may now imagine as the subjectively conditioned compression of time in the last section.

In this manner the poem sketches a complete philosophical theory of language and experience, which can be put into propositional form as follows: Experience is verbally conditioned to its core. Whatever is not captured in language was never really there, in experience, to begin with. To borrow the terminology of Herder's “Treatise on the Origin of Language,” with which Goethe was thoroughly familiar: language is the move of taking thought (Besinnung) in which each human being is first confronted with a human world, with the possibility of experience. The place that is felt to be lacking in the poem, the place “within” experience, from which to master it verbally, is lacking in all experience; language can never have a “place” vis-à-vis experience to begin with, since language and experience are strictly coextensive. Our relation, as readers, to the experience narrated in the poem is thus exactly the same as that of the speaker—if the concept of “speaker” still even makes sense—and is exactly the same as our relation to our “own” experience. Even if we rescue the speaker here, by speaking of his “reliving” his experience in a mental and verbal present, we find that the question of how to distinguish such a reliving from its supposed original referent is unanswerable, that the originary experience—as Faust resolves not to address it (“Verweile doch! du bist so schön!”)—is never really there except in the form of a lingering or reliving anyway. (p.55)

This conclusion—that experience is constituted by the utterance that makes the gesture of referring to it—creates a resonance between the narrative reading of the poem and the meditative-allegorical reading because the latter culminates in the understanding that our union with nature is constituted by a complex, self-limiting reflection upon that union. The two readings now coincide in the denial or renunciation of a transcendental signified. The “golden dream” of an extralinguistic or extrareflective substance of experience, hence ultimately of a personified “nature” to whom we might attribute divine benevolence, must be put aside. Even here (“Hier auch”), even without help from above, we have our life and our loving. The “towering distance,” which we might otherwise have imagined as transcendentally given, is thus “drunk up,” absorbed into the immediate enveloping mists of an irreducible ignorance that characterizes, paradoxically, our contact with the constant stars of truth—which now represent ideality in a more Platonic than Christian form, in the sense that ideals are the true ultimate referent of language. Nature is loving and good “in this way,” in the process of our constant, cyclical, reflective, and verbal reacceptance of our (reflectively and verbally) limited condition.8

But what exactly do we mean, then, when we say we “read” the poem? We do not mean that the experience of reading keeps step more or less with the linear unfolding of the utterance in a kind of shadow of the experience narrated—which is at least one of the things we mean when we speak of reading a novel in the sense of reading for thrills. The meditative aspect of the poem, and its implied focus on a philosophical theorem, prevents this. But we also do not mean that we analyze the utterance for the sake of extracting and understanding the theorem. For without its quality as a miniature narrative, the utterance would be tied to no specific conditions of time, space, experience, identity, and so would become exactly the type of absolute transcendental reflection that its allegorical meaning rejects. Reading the poem, therefore, means nothing but coming to know it—not coming to know what it says, which is easy enough, but coming to know it, as if it were a material object, to be touched and tasted and smelled. For precisely by being a poem, by being made of language, hence infected in every molecule by verbality and reflection, it is or becomes, so to speak, more emphatically a material object than the actual physical things of our daily life, by which we customarily obscure for ourselves the inherent verbal quality of experience. Our coming to know the poem is therefore also exactly the cyclical experience it narrates, an experience that cannot avoid the transcendental move of understanding the utterance, (p.56) yet also is what it is (a coming to know) only by repeatedly retracting that move—by refusing to let the eyes droop into dreaming.

Like many other readings of this poem, the reading I have attempted recognizes a sharp duality or separation or inconsistency, not only in style or rhythm or meter, but in the very identity and activity of the presumed reader. And like those other readings, mine has progressed through that perception toward a more or less unified understanding of how the poem works.9 But in the present case, it must be kept in mind that the poem does not work if one imagines that the two kinds of reading it presupposes have somehow been combined or reconciled. The gulf between reading the poem as a meditation, culminating in a theorem, and reading it (or experiencing it) as a representation of experience, must remain open; for our grasp of the poem as a sheer object depends on a constant cyclical oscillation between those two approaches to reading. And this open gulf, in turn, is the sign of a specific situation in literary history. It signals the coming-to-prominence of reading in the sense of reading for thrills, the historical moment at which a particular idea of novel reading gains its ascendancy as a model of reading in general. For if reading for thrills were not available as a model, the poem could not be read as an instance of immediate experience. But if the ascendancy of reading for thrills were fully accomplished, not still open to challenge and doubt, the undecided collision with a radically different reading of the poem as meditation and allegory could not happen.

I am not trying to locate the advent of reading for thrills in Switzerland in 1775. Phenomena of this sort are not localizable in this way. But a shift in the idea of reading does happen; and it does happen that in 1775 (and repeatedly thereafter, in the course of revising the poem) Goethe becomes aware of that shift and uses it to suggest in “Auf dem See” a general idea of language that was new and difficult and so still required irony for its adequate expression. And the content of that theory of language reflects an awareness of the form of the novel and its problems—which is plausible enough, considering that by 1775 Goethe had recently finished the first version of his own first novelistic experiment in Werther, and had a number of good reasons to be dissatisfied with it. For the coextensiveness of language and experience implies a fundamental philosophical justification for the form of the novel considered as a poetic genre—as a type of text whose nonliteral level of meaning is already established in our recognition of its generic identity. It implies, in particular, the later view of James and Poulet and Iser that the novel, even in its quality as text, may be regarded (p.57) as the immediate development of a reader's own personal experience. Goethe himself later turns strongly against this view; text for him takes on a more political character, as with the writing of Tasso and Eugenie. But in “Auf dem See” he sketches a symbolic correlative to the historical situation in which such a novelistic view more or less has to arise; and even in the 1820s he sees no reason to repudiate that historical perception.

The Paradoxes of the Greeks

Goethe's “Auf dem See” signals the intrusion into the poetic domain of modern reading in the sense of reading for thrills—reading with a view to realizing as one's own immediate experience the fiction suggested by the text. But there is another important dimension of modern reading that has to do with the extent to which a reader can be said to be operating as the particular individual he or she actually is. The Reader, as defined previously, is to an important degree everywhere The Same Reader, an entity as abstract as he or she can be made—stripped, as far as possible, of all the personal qualities or abilities or tendencies that might predetermine (or contaminate) his or her role in the hermeneutic process. Can texts be found that signal at least the imagined advent of The Reader in the same way that Goethe's poem signals the coming ascendancy of the novel and the new poetic and philosophical respectability of reading for thrills? I have not found a single text that works for this purpose; but I think we can plot the direction of history by looking at texts of two authors, Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Friedrich Schlegel, that have in common an ambition to reanimate the spirit of ancient mythology.

In 1755 Winckelmann published the first of the major works for which he is mainly remembered, the Gedancken über die Nachahmung der Griechischen Wercke in der Mahlerey und Bildhauer-Kunst (Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Art in Painting and Sculpture). By the time the second edition was printed in 1756, he had added a “Sendschreiben” (Epistle), in which he poses as a critic of the original work, plus an “Erläuterung” (Explanation) supposedly responding to that fictional critic and defending the original work. These convolutions perhaps challenge a reader, but not unduly, for the original text of 1755 contains a number of very difficult and daring ideas. Only six paragraphs in, we read:

The only way for us to become truly great—or indeed to become inimitable, if that is possible—is the imitation of the ancients, and what (p.58) someone once said of Homer, that whoever learns to understand him properly also learns thereby to admire him, is also true of the art-works of the ancients, especially the Greeks. One must become familiar with them, as one is familiar with one's friend, in order to find the Laocoön statue every bit as inimitable as Homer. It is by way of such exact familiarity that one will then make judgments as Nicomachus did of the Helen of Zeuxis: “Take my eyes,” he said to an ignorant observer who sought to criticize the painting, “then she will seem to you a goddess.”10

The obvious paradox here has to do with the concept of imitation. How can we become “inimitable” by imitating? Surely it follows that the more perfectly we succeed in imitating, the more clearly we have shown that our model, and hence our own work, is imitable.

This is not the only problem. What does Winckelmann mean by “familiarity,” and why does he compare our knowledge of works of art to the feeling of certainty we have about the personal qualities of a friend? Does familiarity with a work of art mean personal sympathy with the artist? Then why does Winckelmann speak of exact familiarity (“genaue Bekanntschaft”), which suggests an objective knowledge of details? And does he not simply beg these questions when he offers the anecdote about Nicomachus? Learn to see with “my” eyes, with Winckelmann's eyes, it is suggested, then you will understand. If we do not understand him, it is our fault, not his.

Perhaps we cannot resolve these difficulties in logic—they seem intended to be irresolvable anyway—but precisely this observation enables us to make, at least provisionally, an important general statement about Winckelmann's text. It is set up to discourage or even repel certain readers. It positions itself to be accessible only to a restricted audience. It opens itself only to that reader who in a strong sense has already understood it, who already possesses the eyes that are needed to see what it is talking about. It is—depending on how one sees its exclusionary move—either an esoteric or a highly technical work, a text that is meant either for initiates or for experts, unless these two terms mean the same thing.

And even the short passage quoted above is enough to show that the two terms are equivalent. How else could we explain the idea of an “exact familiarity”? The initiates whom Winckelmann writes for are what they are not only by knowing a secret knowledge but also by being technicians or practitioners. (Nicomachus is not merely a critic but a painter.) And the expert, we infer, has achieved not merely mastery (p.59) of an art or science or profession—which would be exchangeable for another specialty in the same category—but also, somehow, a mastery of life as a whole, even down to the level at which the physical senses (here, the eyes) operate. It is this state of affairs that we must interrogate for an understanding of how imitating can make us inimitable, or of how an easy, friendly familiarity can be combined with technical or critical exactitude.11

But for the time being we can conclude at least that this little book of Winckelmann's is not aimed at The Reader, The Modern Reader who can in principle be distilled from anyone at all. The fictional critic of the “Epistle” makes this point explicitly: “My first objection is that you have written in a style that sacrifices clarity to brevity. … Where general instruction is the goal, one's writing must be easily understandable by everyone” (65). The goal of this work, however, is not “general instruction.” And Winckelmann clarifies this matter in the “Explanation”:

My essay is written only for connoisseurs of the arts, which is why it seemed to me unnecessary to give it that certain learned flavor that is produced by copious citations. Artists understand what one is saying about art even if it is not all spelled out; and since most artists consider it “foolish” (and must consider it so) “to spend more time on reading than on working,” … one ought at least to indulge them by being brief, if one hasn't anything new to teach them. (97)

Winckelmann's audience is a restricted one, in which the distinction between “connoisseurs” and “artists”—between knowers and practitioners—collapses. And it is an audience who expect nothing fundamentally new from their author—an audience of initiates or experts.

Mind, Nature, and “Allegory”

There is a further element of Winckelmann's presentation that strongly attracts our attention. Not far from the beginning of the original Thoughts, he says, “Connoisseurs and imitators of Greek works find in those masterpieces not only the most beautiful nature, but something more than nature, I mean certain ideal beauties that arise … from images created entirely within the rational mind” (30). And this thought is picked up a few pages later, where we read that the many opportunities offered by Greek culture to observe beautiful nature, especially naked bodies, were valuable to artists but not sufficient, that they “prompted Greek artists to (p.60) go further: those artists began to form for themselves certain general conceptions of individual parts of the body as well as of its overall proportions, conceptions that were meant to surpass nature itself, and whose original model was an intellectual nature generated entirely in the rational mind” (34). A letter of Raphael to Castiglione is quoted here, in which the artist says that since certain types of beauty are so rare among real women, he has had to make use, for his Galatea, “of a certain idea in [his] imagination” (35).

These thoughts alone do not seem to take us very far. Winckelmann himself mentions the “rule of Polyclitus” (30), the canon of numerical proportions by which the ideal form of the human body was meant to be described. But the quotation from Raphael suggests something more complex: that in imitating the Greeks we must imitate not only the results of their ideal imagining but also their use of the rational or imagining mind—that we must imitate their originality by ourselves being original. That Winckelmann is by no means blind to the problems created by this line of thought emerges a bit further on when he quotes Michelangelo to the effect that “he who constantly follows others will never get out in front, and if he does not know how to produce excellence from himself, he will not be able to make good use of others' work anyway” (38). To illustrate this idea, he goes back to the example of Raphael:

This is what we must understand when des Piles claims to know a report that Raphael, around the time when he was overtaken by death, had striven to leave marble behind [that is, to leave behind the sculpturally founded canons of bodily proportion] and devote himself entirely to the study of nature. For the true good taste of antiquity would have accompanied him even in the midst of common nature, and all his observations in nature, by a kind of alchemical transformation, would have become the same stuff that composed his own nature, his soul. (38)

In the very act of turning away from antiquity and imitating nature directly, Raphael would thus still have remained a true follower of the ancients because his by now fully internalized knowledge of antiquity (the stuff of his soul) would have infused nature itself as he saw it. How are we to understand this? What kind of mysterious “transformation” does even the direct observation of nature undergo for one who is thoroughly schooled in the art of ancient Greece?

We can see where this question is leading us if we jump ahead to Winckelmann's discussion of “allegory.” Artists and critics, he says, have (p.61) grown sick to death of nothing but the same standard scenes painted over and over again.

An artist who possesses a soul that has learned to think leaves that soul without anything to do when he works on a Daphne, an Apollo, a rape of Proserpine, a Europa, and things of the sort. He really desires to show himself a kind of poet and to paint significances by way of pictures, to paint allegorically.

Painting extends to subjects that are not sensory; these are its highest goal, and the Greeks strove to attain it, as ancient writings testify. Parrhasius, a painter who … depicted the soul, is said to have succeeded in painting the [self-contradictory] character of a whole people. … If this seems possible, then it is so only by way of allegory, by pictures that mean general concepts.

The painter [of today] finds himself here in a wasteland. … If he thinks beyond the limits of his palette, then he requires a learned compilation from which to choose significant and directly sensible signs for things that are not accessible to the senses. No complete work of this sort yet exists. (55–56)

Does this mean that what Raphael could have achieved by genius and deep study—the ability to see more with the eyes than is actually visible—can be made available to all painters by a kind of dictionary of iconic symbols?

After becoming accustomed to the subtlety of Winckelmann's thought, we are disturbed (to say the least) by his apparent simple-mindedness here.12 But he means what he says:

The artist needs a work that collects from all of mythology, from the best ancient and modern poets, from the secret philosophical lore of many peoples, from the glimpses of antiquity on stones, coins, and tools, all those figures and images by which general concepts have been formed poetically and offered to the senses. This abundant material could be divided comfortably into classifications and, by the citation and interpretation of particular possibilities for application, could be arranged for the instruction of artists.

By this means a large area would also be opened for imitating the ancients and so endowing our works with the lofty taste of antiquity. (57)

Nor is this mere talk. In 1766 Winckelmann actually publishes his Versuch einer Allegorie, besonders für die Kunst (Attempt at an Allegory, Particularly (p.62) for Art), which he admits is not complete but offers as a first step toward the comprehensive iconography he had envisaged.

In any case, the idea of “allegory” is extremely important to Winckelmann. The very last words of the Thoughts Imitation insist on it:

[The artist] should leave us with more to think about than he has shown to our eyes, and he will achieve this when he has learned not to conceal but to clothe his thought in allegories. If he has a subject, whether chosen by himself or given to him, which is already poetic or can be made so, then his art will inspire him and waken in him the fire that Prometheus stole from the gods. The connoisseur will then have much to ponder, and the mere art-lover will learn from it. (59)

A long section at the end of the “Epistle” raises objections to this idea of allegory (83–89). But then an even longer defense of allegory concludes the “Explanation” (118–44).

We cannot understand where Winckelmann's argument is leading us if we do not face the fact that he is absolutely serious about his “Allegory” project, and follow the implications of this fact. But I think we can best approach the matter by way of a comparison of Winckelmann's “Allegory” with Friedrich Schlegel's “New Mythology.”

Friedrich Schlegel's New Mythology

When we start reading the “Rede über die Mythologie” (Speech on Mythology) that is included in Friedrich Schlegel's “Gespräch über die Poesie” (Conversation on Poetry) of 1800, we quickly come upon passages that call Winckelmann to mind. The speaker says to his small audience of friends:

You, more than other people, must know what I mean. You have yourselves composed poetic works, and while composing you must have felt that you lacked a solid basis to warrant your work's outward effectiveness, that you lacked a maternal earth, a heaven, a living atmosphere.13

Like the modern painter in Winckelmann, who “thinks beyond the limits of his palette,” who wants to become a kind of poet in painting, Schlegel's “modern” poet—who has to “produce everything laboriously from within himself ” (2:201)—finds himself in what Winckelmann would call a “wasteland,” a world devoid of inherently poetic material. What is missing in this wasteland? For Schlegel the answer is clear: “All the essential (p.63) points in which modern poetry lags behind ancient poetry can be summarized in the words: we have no mythology.”

But how can we possibly repair this defect, as Schlegel claims we can? For the Greeks mythology was built into nature itself; it was “everywhere the first blossom of youthful fantasy, attaching and adapting itself to the most immediate and vital elements of the material world” (Schlegel, 2:201). Schlegel's answer is that the origin of the “new mythology” will be nothing at all like that of the old one. “It must be produced and shaped from the deepest depth of the mind; it must be the most artificial of works of art (das künstlichste aller Kunstwerke).” Exactly what does this mean? The difficulty we have with Winckelmann's proposed allegorical compendium is that the idea of a classification of images and their supposed meanings, for easy reference by artists, seems much too artificial to be of use in the production of works to which we might respond aesthetically. But would Winckelmann's plan have been too artificial for Schlegel, or is it perhaps close to exactly the kind of artificiality Schlegel has in mind? Like Winckelmann's “Allegorie,” in any event, Schlegel's new mythology will also be a kind of compendium, including not only Hellenic antiquity but also “other mythologies … according to the measure of their profundity, their beauty, and their clarity of contour” (2:204).

Therefore, if we find it hard to imagine how Winckelmann's “Allegorie” would operate in practice, perhaps we can acquire a useful perspective by asking how Schlegel's new mythology is meant to arise. For the latter question is fairly easy. Schlegel's speaker Ludoviko says to his friends:

I beg you, at least do not make any concessions to an outright unbelief in the possibility of a new mythology. … And now pay close attention to my conjectures! I cannot pretend, in the nature of the case, to offer you more than conjectures. But I hope that in and through you yourselves these conjectures will become truths. For they are—if you choose to make them so—in a way suggestions for experimentation. (2:202)

Everything depends here upon how the listeners or readers respond. If our response is unreservedly positive, untainted by “unbelief,” if we commit ourselves fully to the “experimentation” required, if, in all intellectual activity, we insist absolutely on the possibility of a new mythology, then that new mythology will arise.

The speaker is certain about this mechanism of cause and effect because he is certain about “the great phenomenon of the present age, [philosophical] idealism!” The truths of idealistic philosophy are now widely (p.64) accepted, and chief among them is the recognition that “it is the nature of the mind to determine itself.” The speaker then continues:

Idealism … is after all only the acknowledgment of that self-lawgiving [of the mind], and is thus also the new vitality (redoubled by that acknowledgment) which in turn most gloriously reveals the secret power of idealism by an unlimited abundance of new invention, by universal communicability, and by an ability to operate in the immediacy of life. (2:202–3)

Philosophical idealism, that is, in understanding fully the law of self-determination, transforms itself from mere knowledge or understanding into a positively self-determining, thus world-changing, power. Surely a new mythology lies within the scope of that power. The crucial requirement is that others believe in the speaker's vision. It is true that different individuals will believe differently; but the quality of idealism as an outwardly effective power guarantees eventually the consequence of an “equally boundless realism” (2:203), a single reality, suffused with intellect, that will be there for every individual in the same way and so will serve as the anchor, indeed as practically the full realization, of a true common mythology. We need only take it and use it thus.

Schlegel even offers an instance of the transformative power of belief, in his discussion of Spinoza. After reading that the means for expressing idealism's reconstituted realism will be found “only in poetry … for realism will never again be able to emerge in the form of philosophy, let alone as a philosophical system,” the last thing we expect to hear is the praise of Spinoza that begins in the very next paragraph—that same Spinoza whose Ethics is both rigidly systematic, imitating Euclid in method, and (in Schlegel's definition) absolutely realist, including the assertion that freedom of will can be attributed not even to God (Pt. 1, Prop. 32, Cor. 1). But precisely this apparent contradiction dramatizes the power of our belief and enthusiasm, which decrees of Spinoza: “Let him strip off the martial adornment of his system and take up residence in the temple of our new poetry together with Homer and Dante as one of the lares and household friends of every divinely inspired poet” (2:203). And if even Spinoza's forbidding systematicity can be reclaimed for a newly mythologized world by our joyful affirmation, then surely Winckelmann's merely pedantic undertaking, which also has the advantage of being aimed specifically at a reanimation of antiquity, need not be excluded. How, in any event, if not by something at least comparable to Winckelmann's “allegory,” will that (p.65) “deliberate physical shaping” of the “highest truth” be possible, without which, Schlegel tells us, “any free philosophical art of ideas will be an empty name” (2:204)?

Winckelmann's Mythology

Schlegel's project, then, can accommodate Winckelmann's. But do we have any grounds for supposing that Winckelmann's might accommodate Schlegel's—that Winckelmann, in suggesting the idea of an allegorical compendium, is reckoning with an enthusiastic response on the part of his readers, by which the compendium will be infused with vitality and so made into a vessel of inspiration, not merely a reference work?

In the first place, Winckelmann's aim is not what we should ordinarily call an “imitation” of Greek culture so much as it is a recreation of that culture, including an enactment on our part of the move of originality by which the Greeks surpassed a mere copying of nature. Even while knowing about the Greeks in great detail, that is, we must also in effect be Greeks, by a kind of sympathy comparable to that between friends.14 (This combination of knowing and being not only explains the phrase “exact familiarity” and the combination of initiate and expert, but also corresponds to the transformation in Schlegel of the knowledge of self-determination into an originary power.) And it is plain that the condition of thus being a Greek can be neither demonstrated nor enforced by Winckelmann's text, but must be achieved freely by at least a small group of appropriately predisposed readers. In a manner similar to Raphael's internalizing of antiquity, we too must internalize the proposed compendium, the else merely mechanical “allegory,” and make it the “stuff of our soul,” whereupon nature itself will be transformed and animated for us by something like a mythological infusion.

In the second place, precisely the contrast between the subtlety of Winckelmann's notion of “imitation” and the apparent simple-mindedness of his notion of “allegory” should alert us to the importance of the role of a reader. Either we simply convict Winckelmann of inconsistency or else we find a way of recognizing in the notion of allegory the same sort of subtlety as in the notion of imitation. But we have already recognized the importance of the restrictedness of Winckelmann's audience, its identification of initiate and expert. Who else but exactly that audience will be able to supply whatever subtilizing of “allegory” is required? Moreover, if Winckelmann is determined to exclude particular types of reader from (p.66) his audience, then his seemingly excessive emphasis on a mechanically imagined iconography serves the purpose of dividing one group of readers from the other, dividing readers who see nothing but another reference work (and who therefore have no business here in the first place) from readers who recognize in “allegory” an unlimited field for the unfolding of their Hellenically inspired imagination.

The restricted audience presupposed by Winckelmann's doctrine of imitation is composed of all the people who know that while we may not possess a mythology, we have not lost the art of mythical thinking, that there is nothing at all in our historical situation that positively prevents us from having exactly the same sort of mythology the Greeks had (not a “new mythology,” dependent on Kant and Fichte), that the “querelle des anciens et des modernes” has in truth never been more than a quibble about empty distinctions. Winckelmann is speaking only to those people, however few, who (like Winckelmann himself, according to Goethe)15 manage somehow to be ancient Greeks even in modern Europe. Hence the violently paradoxical doctrine of achieving the inimitable by imitation, and hence the suggestion that if we do not happen to have the right eyes in our head, we will never understand Thoughts on Imitation anyway. For there is no way to explain to someone who lacks the gift what it means to be an ancient Greek in modern Europe—although homoeroticism is certainly part of the equation.

Therefore, in our present discussion of the history of reading, it is very useful to have something like Schlegel's “Speech” as a source of conceptual leverage. But even without Schlegel, if one reads Winckelmann carefully, especially the later version of his thought in the Attempt at an Allegory itself, one can form a fairly good idea of what is going on, so to speak, behind the scenes. One finds, for instance, the assertion: “Nature herself was the teacher of allegory, and this language seems more proper to her than the signs we later invented for our thoughts.”16 Pictorial allegory, that is, precisely in its simple and direct connection of figure and meaning, is very like ideographic writing and therefore in a sense not artificial at all, but closer to nature than alphabetic writing.

More significant, however, is the moral dimension of allegory, which establishes a direct link between classical antiquity and Winckelmann's own eighteenth century.

Since, in general, the ancients in their best period prized only heroic virtues—i.e., those that elevate human dignity—while other virtues, by (p.67) whose practice our ideas sink and humble themselves, were neither taught nor welcomed, it follows that these latter were that much less likely to be depicted on public monuments. For the ancients' education was very much the opposite of ours; if ours is good in the measure that it pro-motes purity in manners and morals, and watches over the fulfilment of the external duties of religion, theirs by contrast was concerned to make heart and mind sensitive to true honor and to accustom young people to a manly and magnanimous virtue which despised all petty purposes, despised even life itself, when an undertaking fell out in a manner inconsistent with the greatness of their habits of thought. In our culture, the noble thirst for honor is choked and a stupid pride is encouraged. (13)

The artistic aspect of this point arises from the recognition that strictly technical considerations (without any miraculous transcending of our historical situation) incline art to serve as an instrument for education on the ancient model.

Images of vices are never anywhere to be seen on surviving ancient monuments, because works of art are consecrated to virtue, not to vice, and especially because the highest degree of vice contradicts the very process of representation in those noble pictures at which art must always aim. (16)

Art, in other words, is always fundamentally positive, always affirmative with respect to its subject matter. The “process of representation,” by its very nature, cannot but say yes to what it represents; and what is represented, in turn, must have the character of a yea-saying.

But this theorem implies that art as such, properly understood, is opposed to Christianity, not merely opposed to those dogmas and stories that many eighteenth-century deists hope to dispense with, but opposed even to the basic Christian virtues. Winckelmann does not draw this conclusion explicitly, but it follows by an inescapable logic when he argues, for example:

The concept of Christian humility was even less accessible [than that of patience] to classical antiquity, because it consists in self-negation, thus in a forced condition that conflicts with human nature. The great men of antiquity say what is good about themselves with as much confidence as they say the same of others, because they believed that a man must be aware of his own worth in order to preserve himself from villainy. The (p.68) humility of the ancients went only as far as modesty, which had to be unaffected, whereas the Christian version is almost always accompanied by dissimulation and serves as a mask for pride itself. (14)

Christian virtues, or at least some of them, are fundamentally opposed to the practice of art because they are negative. And even if one cannot advocate publicly a radical opposition to Christianity in eighteenth-century Europe, there is no reason to suppose that such opposition does not represent the true sentiments of a substantial number of artistically interested and capable Europeans, who would then make up the audience Winckelmann is writing for.

Nor is it beyond the bounds of possibility that some of these initiate-experts in true art, or the truth of art, will have internalized so fully their artistically conditioned alienation from Christian morality that in effect they do live the lives of ancient Greeks in a kind of exile—one thinks of Goethe's Iphigenie auf Tauris. And for these ancient Greeks among us, what must Winckelmann's Allegory be if not the spark that ignites their sense of self, their sense of community with each other, and their hitherto only distantly remembered sense of inclusion in a mythically legible nature?

The Difference

Schlegel and Winckelmann have basically the same goal: something akin to ancient mythology, for the sake of awakening heroic or poetic greatness in a Europe grown cold, prosaic, doctrinaire Christian, rational, and systematic. But the form in which they desire this awakening is different: for Schlegel it is a new mythology engendered by the discoveries of German idealist philosophy, for Winckelmann it is an old mythology that is not dead but merely slumbers, for the most part unrecognized, in relics of ancient art. And in method the two are even more different. Schlegel gives explicit instructions for how and where his readers must direct their philosophical enthusiasm. Winckelmann provides his readers with practically no instruction at all, except in matters of detailed iconographic interpretation, and instead configures his argument so that none but a very special type of individual can even begin to understand it and respond appropriately.

But this difference is nothing but the difference between writing after, and writing before, the advent of modern reading. Schlegel—despite all the advantages that something like Winckelmann's esoteric procedure would (p.69) entail for him—simply cannot bring himself to write for anyone except The Reader. In the very process of expressing his ideas via a fictional conversation among friends—thus indicating that a small audience with shared preconceptions might serve his purposes best—he cannot resist the need to ground his thinking in the supposed suprapersonal epochality of Fichtean philosophy, in a system that is in principle accessible to every human individual in the same way—all you need to do is understand it. (He of course denies that Fichte's thought is a system, but his treatment of Spinoza's system as a “martial adnornment” that needs to be stripped away betrays him on this point.) Indeed, precisely his showing the usefulness of shared preconceptions—rather than simply assuming or even concealing (from the uninitiated) that aspect of his thought, as Winckelmann does—is itself already a reaching out beyond any intimate group into the limitless host that is represented by The Reader.

This difference is in every sense crucial. It affects both form and content; it affects what is said, how it is said, and how it is received. Both Winckelmann and Schlegel make explicit statements on mythology (or “allegory”) in the present historical age. Schlegel's fictional spokesman says, “Wir haben keine Mythologie [We have no mythology]” (2:201), which implies (dogmatically): I am in the same condition (of having no mythology) as you, The Reader, which means anyone who might be reading. Winckelmann, by contrast, having said that we cannot successfully repair with our own inventions the gaps in our knowledge of ancient “allegory,” continues:

Denn unsere Zeiten sind nicht mehr allegorisch wie das Alterthum, wo die Allegorie auf die Religion gebauet und mit derselben verknüpft, folglich allgemein angenommen und bekannt war. (Allegorie 22)

[For our times are no longer allegorical in the same way as antiquity, where allegory was built upon religion and tied to it, hence universally accepted and recognized.]

One can of course read this statement to mean simply that we lack allegory, as Schlegel's philosopher-poets lack mythology. But the logic of the utterance also leaves open the possibility that our times are allegorical, although not “in the same way” as antiquity, or indeed that even if “our times” are strictly nonallegorical, still, at least for some of us, our being allegorical (being Greek, as it were), or our experiencing the world allegorically despite our time, is not necessarily excluded. Thus the manner (p.70) in which the statement is read affects directly its truth with respect to the particular reader. If you read it to mean simply that there is no allegory, then for you there is no allegory; if you read it more subtly, then you are perhaps one of the people for whom allegory is possible after all.

The Reader, therefore, is a meaningless concept in relation to Winckelmann's texts, whereas That same Universalized Reader, who can be anyone at all, is the very touchstone by which Schlegel's thought means to prove itself: I (like you, The Reader) am without a mythology, but I can see speculatively the way by which I might acquire one, which means that you (if you simply open yourself to the text, if you be nothing but The Reader) can see it too and will be inclined to contribute towardrealizing it.

It is not too much to say that the ascendancy of modern reading, the obligation to confront The Reader, determines the content of Schlegel's argument—that what really disturbs Schlegel in his historical situation is not simply the lack of a mythology but his recognition (however indirect) that the condition of modern writing and reading, the obligation to write for no-matter-whom, has closed all those intellectual side streets, all those secluded gatherings of the eccentric (which he recalls nostalgically in the form of his “Conversation”), all those typical eighteenth-century secret societies, in which some vestige of a mythical mode of existence might otherwise have survived among us. This is why he feels called upon later (in 1804) to write a continuation of Lessing's Freemason dialogues, in which he suggests that the true modern form of Freemasonry, after the French Revolution, is German idealist philosophy—whose character as “system” he again denies (3:76).

But he gets Lessing wrong. In reading the latter's “Ernst und Falk: Gespräche für Freimäurer” (Conversations for Freemasons), he focuses on the many occasions where Falk stresses the inexpressibility of Masonic truth or teaching. When Ernst first asks him what Freemasonry is, Falk responds, “something that even those who know it cannot say.”17 A bit later he suggests that Ernst is already himself a bit of a Freemason:


  • Because you recognize truths that are better kept silent.
  • Ernst:

  • But still could be spoken.
  • Falk:

  • The wise man cannot say what is better kept silent. (459)
  • And later still, he summarizes: “The secret of Freemasonry, as I've told you, is that which the Freemason cannot let escape his lips, even if it were possible that he wished to” (476).

    (p.71) Schlegel, in claiming to represent what Lessing would have thought if he had lived to see the French Revolution, develops this idea as follows:

    Even when philosophy [which has inherently the same indefiniteness as conversation] is made public and exposed in works, the form and style of these works must be mysterious in order to appear appropriate. Even when dialectical works maintain the greatest clarity in detail, at least the connectedness of the whole must lead toward something insoluble if we are to recognize in it a representation of philosophizing, or of endless meditating. (3:79)

    For Schlegel, in other words, the truth of philosophy is inexpressible because it is endless.

    But the truths that Lessing associates with Freemasonry are inexpressible because they are contradictory. The very notion of civil society—Falk suggests—implies “things” (structures, institutions, practices) that strongly oppose the only “purpose” that can reasonably be ascribed to the whole of civil society, which is the happiness of every human individual (458–64). Civil society is thus built on a set of contradictions, and so is constantly in danger of being disrupted from within and failing even in those steps toward its purpose that are actually possible. Ernst and Falk agree that to resist this danger, civil society requires

    Männer … die über die Vorurteile der Völkerschaft hinweg wären, und genau wüßten, wo Patriotismus, Tugend zu sein auf höret … Männer … die dem Vorurteile ihrer angebornen Religion nicht unterlägen; nicht glaubten, daß alles notwendig gut und wahr sein müsse, was sie für gut und wahr erkennen. (465)

    [Men (Lessing uses the unambiguous masculine) who would be beyond the prejudices of their nation and would know exactly where patriotism stops being a virtue, men who would not be subject to the prejudice of their native religion, and would not believe that everything is necessarily true and good that they recognize as true and good.]

    The verb “recognize” here is unambiguous. Lessing is not talking about people who are open-minded on matters of opinion, but about people who are capable of knowing something to be true while still accepting the likelihood (given the fundamental contradictoriness of human life in society) of its not being so, people capable of living a strict contradiction, which is the contradiction between living unreservedly in a particular (p.72) society (where “knowledge” of the good and the true can arise) while also living in recognition of the unrealizability of civil society as such—if one can even speak of “recognition” where there is no culturally grounded identity to do the recognizing, where the quality of being “a person of that kind” (462) is absent.

    It follows now that these people who live the inherent contradictoriness of civil society, these true Freemasons (who, Falk insists, need not be actual Freemasons [468]) whose unique perspective is their unique value in society, are automatically a secret minority joined together by an esoteric mode of communication. If they could ever form the whole of any particular society—or even a substantial, visibly effective portion—then that society would have lost thereby precisely its defining particularity (its one-sidedness, its certainty about what is true or good) and so would have ceased to exist (468).18 And this is the point at which Schlegel must misread “Ernst und Falk.” Indeed, he does so at least half-knowingly, using the French Revolution as an excuse. For he cannot accept the possibility of a truth that is not eventually available to The Reader. Therefore, in justifying the inexpressible, he substitutes for the idea of a contradictory truth that of an endless truth in relation to which the differences among individuals (as readers) are ultimately quantitative—how far along are you on the endless path?—not qualitative, as in Lessing (or Winckelmann), and pitilessly exclusive.

    Neither this argument nor any other can locate the advent of modern reading within a definite span of time. In fact the question of The Reader is contested for practically all of the eighteenth century and some of the nineteenth—even in the genre of the novel. Richardson's use of epistolary form, for example, beginning with Pamela in 1740, clearly addresses The New Reader, in that someone who reads other people's letters is positioned by contrast as one who lacks a specific involved situation and identity. And yet, twenty years later, in Tristram Shandy, Sterne does everything he can to obstruct our sense of being The Reader. It is a measure of the complexity of this situation that Iser's formulation of the problem that will inevitably defeat him, his placing of the literary work “halfway” between the author's activity and The Reader's, is borrowed from Sterne, who uses it, however (I would argue), precisely because it defeats any possibility of locating The Reader.19

    But what is interesting about Friedrich Schlegel, in his relation to both Winckelmann and Lessing, is the depth to which he truly desires the intimacy and exclusivity of esoteric writing, which can be seen from the (p.73) conversational form in which he embeds his theory of mythology and from his fastening upon just “Ernst und Falk” for adaptation. (He has good reasons for this desire, for there are definite problems in the Fichtean model he follows. Exactly how far down, for instance, on a scale from the human race as a whole to the single empirical individual, can the doctrine of self-determination be applied literally? This is a problem that could be far less misleadingly dealt with in secret than in public.) That he nevertheless simply cannot take the step of cutting himself loose from The Reader, the new universal (imaginary) reading public, is therefore a very clear indication of how powerfully modern reading has established itself for him.


    Schlegel, like Goethe in the poem “Auf dem See,” is what we might call a borderline theorist of modern reading. Like the meaning of that poem, he is pulled in two different directions—toward esoteric communication in the manner of Winckelmann and toward a new kind of text that is meant to be available to The Reader. Borderline theory is interesting for our purposes because it is here that we are likely to find evidence of the extraneous motivation that must be postulated to explain the theoretical move (or widespread pattern of parallel theoretical moves) by which the nonexistent experience of The Modern Reader is foisted on us. In Goethe's case, it is fairly clear that the motivating force is a concern with problems created by the new concept of “literature,” problems arising from the installation of such (middle-class?) categories as spirit, feeling, “experience,” in a judgment seat that had earlier been occupied by expertise in matters of poetic genre. Schlegel's case is more complicated. I will come back to it in Chapter 5 in connection with the historical situation of systematic German philosophy.

    But one crucial issue is suggested by the relation with Lessing, an issue that takes on ever greater importance as the history of modern reading develops. I refer to a feature of Schlegel's thought that is very clearly marked: his nationalism. Especially in his ostensible attempt to recapture the spirit of Lessing's meditations on Freemasonry, which is nothing if not an international movement, it is quite shocking to hear Schlegel describe the first easy steps on the endless path of idealist philosophy:

    It is possible and proper to say aloud that the purpose of the new philosophy is to destroy utterly the dominant mentality of the age, and to (p.74) found and construct an entirely new literature and an entirely new edifice of higher art and science. It is possible and proper to say that a definite purpose is to restore Christian religion and at last to profess aloud the truth that has so long been trampled underfoot. It is possible and proper to say that the express purpose of the new philosophy is to bring forth once more the ancient German constitution, i.e., the empire of honor, of freedom, and of staunch morality, in that the cast of mind shall be formed upon which a true free monarchy is based, and which must necessarily lead an improved mankind back to this original and uniquely moral and hallowed form of national life. (3:80)

    There are any number of personal and historical reasons for Schlegel's growing nationalism at this time. But what relation does it bear to his sense of obligation vis-à-vis The newly theorized Universal and Anonymous Reader?

    Is nationality one of those personal qualities that must be put aside by The Reader to avoid contaminating the hermeneutic process? Or if nationality is equivalent to the speaking of a particular language—which is how nations (originally collections of tribes) are distinguished in the narrow geographical confines of Europe—then perhaps it is not a contaminant at all, but literacy pure and simple, as the ability to read this or that text in the language in which it happens to be written. One can see, at any rate, how the difference between thinking of The Reader and thinking of The English or French or German Reader may tend to get obscured—all the more so when we recall that The Reader never really exists but is an abstract entity denoting the theorizability of the reading process; for if reading is subject to being predictively theorized (if we can say in advance what “reading” is), then surely the most important predictive factors will include basic linguistic conventions and habits. If one adds to these points the argument, in Chapter 1, on “The Two Faces of Reading,” which shows how the question of nationalism arises logically in relation to that of reading, plus the consideration that in political Europe, in the two or three decades on either side of 1800, the need of the newborn discipline of “literature” for a history of itself is most conveniently and convincingly satisfied by the manufacture of national literatures, one has no difficulty understanding how Schlegel's nationalism comports with (and very likely motivates) his sense of The Reader.

    In this connection, finally, the issue of the “mother tongue” arises, the idea that every individual has a uniquely profound relation to his or her (p.75) native language and is shaped as a character by that relation. For it now appears that the requirement of theoretical predictability for The Reader will tend strongly to include the assumption of This Reader's mother tongue, and will therefore attach itself (as a condition or as a consequence) to all sorts of national and educational issues. And this point puts into historical perspective the quality of lacking a mother tongue. Winckelmann's ancient Greek living in exile in modern Europe is a clear instance of this quality, as is, interestingly, the situation of the German Yiddish-speaker, which serves both Goethe and Lessing as a model for the true cultural condition of all Germans in an age of irony.20 The mother tongue, these instances suggest, is perhaps not after all the simple fact of human nature we normally take it for, but rather, along with modern nationalism, a construct of the new age of reading.

    Keats and the “Querelle”

    One more text, I think, will be enough to round out a general profile of the advent of modern reading. The text I have in mind is Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” where the opening of the second strophe suggests that here, in poetic form, we have a work on the theory of ancient and modern poetry. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.” By being the written or printed text of a poem—which means a piece of language whose division into temporally measured units (lines of verse) testifies to a strong original affiliation with music—the text before us is exactly the type of “unheard” melody it is talking about. Thus an opposition is established between poetry in classical antiquity, where music and poetry were practically a single art, and poetry in the modern age, whose music ordinarily arises only in the mind of someone who infers it from the silent page. There are complications here. The urn, which was made in classical antiquity, suggests unheard melodies of its own by bearing the pictures of people playing “pipes and timbrels,” making music that not even the original observers could hear. And it is probably these melodies that prompt, in the first instance, the comparative “sweeter.” The music depicted on the urn, like the springtime and the lover's moment of desire, can never be over and done with, and is the “sweeter” for thus being eternal. But the issue of the opposition of classical and modern has been opened nonetheless.

    Actually, the issue is already there in the poem's first lines. For “quietness” is not the same thing as “silence.” It is, rather, the condition of (p.76) having been quieted—even in etymology, where “quiet” is derived from a passive participle, “silent” from an active. That the urn is a “still unravish'd bride of quietness” therefore means that it is betrothed to be quieted, somehow on the brink, but not yet fully quieted. And “quieted,” in this context, must mean having nothing to say to us any more. As the time of its origin becomes ever more remote, the urn is constantly that much more in danger of being received with utter incomprehension by generations of late-comers. But the time of its complete quieting, in this sense, has not yet come, because its natural parents (the age of its making) had handed it over to foster parents, “silence and slow time,” who have in turn endowed it with a new and more durable expressiveness. “Slow time” has erased from memory the presumed original reference to a specific “legend” and so opened the images to our free imagination, while the “silence” of those painted or sculpted images positively invites us to restore imaginatively their sound and motion. The word “thus” in the following line refers to this process (among other things, perhaps) and leads us toward another enigmatic comparative of the concept “sweet”: “Sylvan historian, who canst thus express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.” Our rhyme (not “my rhyme”) means modern poetry in general. But why should the imagining of a tale from ancient images be sweeter than the simple telling of a tale in our own language and conventions?

    The answer to this question is indicated in the second strophe, and then, in the third, is hammered home with an insistence that suggests exactly the opposite of what the words seem to say: “Ah, happy, happy boughs! … happy melodist … More happy love! more happy, happy love!” When imagining a “tale” for the ancient images on the urn, since we lack knowledge of what would have been the correct “legend,” we are thrown back upon our own immediate experience of those images, especially upon the quality that threatens to stymie our narrative efforts, their unmoving silence, which we now interpret (in a move that is reinforced by their permanence, their survival since antiquity) as a perfectly “happy” transcendence of time, of change, of mortality. And from here it is but a short step to the idea that ancient Greek civilization as a whole was uniquely happy—especially in view of the suggestion, in the final strophe, that modern generations are characterized principally by their “woe.”

    At this point, however, our reasoning is brought up short by the recognition that the happiness depicted on the urn is placed there by a falsification, by the introduction into the tale of an external condition of the tale's telling—as if the projection booth could appear in the movie, as it does (p.77) in Hellzapoppin'—which suggests in turn that our admiration of Hellenic antiquity in general might possibly be based on a falsification of the same type. (Falsification is of course also suggested by the clash between the ideas of “happy” and “a struggle to escape,” which latter is repeated in “that heifer lowing at the skies.”) And our reading of the poem is brought up short, correspondingly, by the following lines:

    • All breathing human passion far above,
    • That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
    • A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
    The inversion in the first line (for “far above all … ”) makes it easier than it would be otherwise to read the relative pronoun “That” as referring (also) to the “happy, happy love” on the urn, a possibility which is reinforced by the natural association of “cloy'd” with the repeated idea, earlier, of the urn-world's superior sweetness. And this consideration—together with the last line above, which marks a descent into (the poet's?) immediate physical experience, an actual forehead and tongue, perhaps now even a “sensual ear”—suggests that the supposed difference in emotional temper between our world and the urn-world (or the real world of antiquity) is completely artificial, created by our way of looking at it, and so at the very least unverifiable. Perhaps that suspiciously insistent repetition of “happy” and “for ever” only masks for a moment our knowledge of the illusion it is based on—for a moment only, and then exposes the urnfigures and their whole civilization once more to an inescapable world of time and “woe.” Perhaps the situation “in midst of other woe / Than ours” (namely, the “woe” of classical antiquity itself ) had characterized the urn even from the time of its making.

    Or yet further, the “little town” of the fourth strophe happens to be an instance of exactly how the remains of classical antiquity appear to us today, as dwelling-and working-and worshipping-places rendered “desolate” by being “emptied” of the “folk” for whom they had been built. Thus, while on one hand our insertion of the conditions of representation into the thing represented endow classical antiquity with a “happy” exemption from time that we can hardly conceive of, on the other hand the same falsifying technique also creates even within classical antiquity an image of its subjection to the ravages of time, an image of ancient ruins.

    Our situation vis-à-vis the urn, and vis-à-vis classical antiquity, is therefore thoroughly ambivalent. When we attempt to develop this situation as a narrative, we always find ourselves telling two radically different (p.78) stories at the same time, one of perfect and timeless happiness and one of suffering, transience, and irrecoverable loss. But, in a sense, or rather in two senses, the two stories are the same. We cannot receive ancient civilization as an object of mourning if there is not something valuable to mourn for, namely the story of happiness. But the story of loss contains the implication that that happiness, “for ever panting,” is itself originally (the word “panting” says it) an instance of “breathing human passion” subject to time and satiety, so that our mourning only repeats the mourning—the remembrance of past passion—that produced the urn in the first place, whereupon the difference between antiquity and modernity (the reason for our mourning) evaporates, and the narrative of timelessness, as change-lessness, is rejustified. It is surely by way of the dialectical relation of these two inferred narratives—a form of the dialectic of memory itself, which makes present what is lost and has always already lost what is present to it—that the urn does “tease us out of thought.”

    With regard to the question of the querelle, therefore, we have here the same basic state of affairs as with Winckelmann. The Greeks are lost, “our times are no longer allegorical” (says Winckelmann); but this condition of loss also harbors the possibility of a new Hellenic presence or revival among us. In Winckelmann, however, the realization of this possibility is entrusted to a small group of specially gifted readers whom his texts address esoterically; and there is no basis that I can see for making the same assumption about Keats's ode. The urn, in being at least hypothetically visible, figures the continuing presence of classical antiquity among us. What does this figure refer to in practical terms?

    How to Read Poems and Why

    “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter.” The address here to a reader of the printed text, who is presented with the idea of music but not the audible reality, suggests that that reader's task is to deal with the poem as the poem's speaker deals with the urn, which offers him a similar type of inaudible music. This point alone is sufficient to identify Keats's reader as The Reader, The Modern Reader who can be anyone at all. If the poem's readership were imagined as a finite group of chosen individuals, communication in writing could not be understood as necessary (a finite group can be gathered within earshot, or can at least be imagined thus) and the idea of “unheard” melodies would lose its force. It is true that writing and the instruments of writing operate as self-reflexive (p.79) metaphors in poetry long before Keats, even in classical antiquity. But Keats goes further. Without the parallel between the urn's silence and the poem's—which depends on the poem's written form—the meaning of the poem cannot even begin to unfold. What we have here is not a metaphor, but a simple and absolute precondition for communication.

    The poem, then, is not only a response to the querelle, but also a piece of instruction for The Modern Reader—perhaps especially for The novel or romance Reader who expects a story, a “flowery tale,” but receives no connected fictional narrative either in the poem or on the urn—instruction of which the first element is that The Reader has no choice but to find a positive communicative function for the conditions of what must otherwise be regarded as a fundamentally defective communication. If poetry is in its essence affiliated with music, hence dependent on direct contact between singer and listener, then the printed poem is a mere empty husk, a ruin like the “little town”—perhaps even a “trodden weed,” the discarded and despised outer garment of a once living (audible) person—and reading it is a waste of time. The basic move that is therefore required, the projection of the conditions of communication into the communicated content, is suggested very strongly by the representation of the poem's silence in the urn's silence.

    But this move is a falsification—and not only in the sense that the idea of perfect happiness falsifies experience. It is also, so to speak, an absolute or intransitive falsification. For a communication whose content is essentially nothing but the conditions of communication is by definition perfect; it delivers its content whole and without distortion. (This is why “unheard” melodies are “sweeter,” at least for a reader who adopts the approach suggested by the speaker's approach to the urn.) But precisely this perfection obscures or falsifies the original defectiveness of communicative conditions that had justified our seeking it. (The perfect is too perfect; we are “cloy'd” by it.) And perhaps, in its turn, this falsification has thus become a new form of communicative defect from which the cycle starts all over again.

    Moreover, if we now understand the inevitable defectiveness of communication or representation as “truth,” and the correspondingly irresistible ideal of perfect communication or representation as “beauty,” the dictum “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” becomes transparent as a description of the reading situation. The very idea of poetry suggests perfect and complete communication, with singer and listener in direct contact. By contrast, the form of the printed book is decidedly defective, while also offering (p.80) the possibility of a new type of communicative perfection (involving as a kind of promise the book's greater permanence, like the urn's). But this new perfection violates its own conditions of existence and so operates as a defect, thus driving the cycle (by which we are teased out of thought) forward. Defect and perfection are so entangled as to become practically indistinguishable—as they are in Shakespeare's Cleopatra21—and so the identity of truth and beauty is enacted in the reading process. We can even make out the sense in which this identity is “all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” For the ability to detect beauty or ideality even in the universal defectiveness of experience—“in midst of … woe”—while yet still accepting and affirming experience for what it is, adds up to something like a universal competence for living human life. And it is also the key, if there is one, to an authentic revival of classical antiquity, which will find its completeness not in a relic from the past, not in a “Cold Pastoral,” but in its own enactment of the identity of beauty and truth. Indeed, the identity of truth (the realm of the knower) and beauty (the realm of the maker), if we reorient the categories a bit, translates easily enough into the identity, for Winckelmann, of initiate and expert.

    But, as with Friedrich Schlegel, the difference from Winckelmann places Keats firmly on this side of the advent of modern reading, except that whereas Schlegel adjusts the very substance of his thought to fit the new historical situation, Keats attempts to carry out for The Modern Reader, or at least to make available to That Reader, a project that almost exactly echoes what Winckelmann had attempted in an esoteric mode. And for Keats it is specifically the discipline of reading poetry—as sketched in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—that is now required by this project. For only the affiliation of poetry with music both (1) suggests the idea of perfect communicative immediacy and (2) exposes the radically defective communicative situation encountered by a modern reader—by The Reader who can be anyone and therefore has only the silent page to work with, The Reader who lacks the supplemental dimension of meaning that esoteric writing offers the initiate or expert.

    In a sense, then, Keats is trying to hold back the clock, to offer the discipline of poetry as an alternative to the enjoyable self-delusion of The typical novel Reader, or to that absolute submission to the state of being nothing-but-Reader from which Schlegel hopes to derive the possibility of a new mythology. Like Goethe (at least Goethe as the author of “Auf dem See”) and like Schlegel, therefore, Keats is a kind of borderline theorist, but not quite the same kind. Goethe balances on a knife edge between (p.81) pre- and post- with respect to the advent of modern reading, and concocts a single coherent text that cannot be understood without being read in both modes. Schlegel positions himself more completely within the coming age, but not without exhibiting the compensatory need to discredit Winckelmann (by implication) and Lessing (in the act of pretending to follow him). But Keats is perhaps best understood as an instance for the proposition that all reading theory is borderline theorizing—that the borderline can never be left behind because the theoretical move can never be completed. We have already discussed one other instance in Wolfgang Iser, whose theorizing, precisely in its rigor and honesty, reduces to an absurdity the whole project of reading theory. But Keats, in defiance of chronology, is perhaps already one logical and critical step beyond Iser, already involved in the movement against modern reading that I call “Response” in Part III, where we will also encounter Goethe once again. (p.82)


    (1) Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1960), 6,

    (2) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethes Werke, “Weimarer Ausgabe,” 143 vols. (Weimar, 1887–1918), 1:

    (3) Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Ausgewählte Werke (Munich, 1962), 53–55.

    (4) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ernest Hartley Coleridge, ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1912), 94.

    (5) . Other instances among Goethe's poems of initial “Und” in this general sense of “as usual” include “Ultimatum” (WA, 3:106), “An Frau von Stein” (“Und ich geh',” 4:210), “FamilienGruß” (4:260), “Altschottisch” (4:336).

    (6) . There are many versions in Goethe's writing of the idea that rational reflection itself has as much the character of a natural phenomenon as those phenomena it takes as its scientific objects. In the “Vorwort” to the Farbenlehre, a need for “Ironie” in scientific thinking is recognized (WA, pt. 2, 1:xii). In the essay “Der Versuch als Vermittler von Object und Subject” (WA, pt. 2, 11: 21–37), the development of scientific knowledge is seen as a kind of dramatic interaction involving characteristic operations of both reason (including debate and consensus in society) and nature. And there are a couple of well known aphorisms in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (WA, pt. 2, 11:118)—in “Aus Makariens Archiv,” the aphorisms beginning “Der Mensch an sich selbst, insofern” and “Dafür steht aber der Mensch so hoch,” nos. 706 and 708 in Hecker's “Maximen und Reflexionen”—which assert that the best possible scientific instrument is the combination of sense perception and reflective reason in the human make-up.

    (7) . See, for example, WA, 2:156, 287; 3:153, 154; 4:167.

    (8) . The poem thus perhaps represents an early form of the thinking on language and terminology at which the Farbenlehre culminates: with the idea that “die einfachste Erscheinung” in a given area of natural science can itself be taken as a “Grundformel” and incorporated directly into scientific discourse (WA, pt. 2, 1:305).

    (9) . The readings I have especially in mind—each of them excellent in its own way—are Sigurd Burckhardt, “The Metaphorical Structure of Goethe's ‘Auf dem See,’” GR 31 (1956), 35–48; Joachim Dyck, “Die Physiognomie der Selbsterkenntnis: Goethes Gedicht Auf dem See,” Euphorion 67 (1973), 74–84; Brigitte Peucker, “Goethe's Mirror of Art: The Case of ‘Aufdem See,’” Goethe Yearbook 2(1984),43–49; and Volker Kaiser, “Goethes ‘Ich’ und das Subjektder Dichtung: Zur Genealogie des Gedichts Auf dem See,” Goethe Yearbook 11 (2002), 197–211.

    (10) Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Kleine Schriften, Vorreden, Entwürfe, Walter Rehm, ed. (Berlin, 1968), 29–30.

    (11) . This way of looking at things is of course not original with Winckelmann. The initiate, who knows, and the expert, who practices, are also combined in the Renaissance understanding of the Latin term “poeta”; and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the technical German term for belles-lettres is “schöne Wissenschaften,” literally “beautiful sciences,” which stresses knowing in an area defined by practice.

    (12) . The idea of “simple-mindedness” here presupposes an eighteenth-century perspective. For forms of what Winckelmann calls “allegory” had (p.324) long existed and had been called mainly “iconologies” in the wake of Cesare Ripa, Iconologia: overo descrittione di diverse imagini cavate dalľ antichità, & di propria inventione (1593,1603)—which Winckelmann mentions and claims he willsupersede (56). But Stephen Orgel points out (correctly I think) in the introductory remark to his facsimile edition of J. J. Winckelmann, Versuch einer Allegorie, besonders für die Kunst (1766; rpt. New York,1976), which also includes a Frenchversion of 1799, that Winckelmann's work “is unexpectedly far closer to Ripa and Pierio Valeriano than to Addison and Spence.” Interestingly enough, there is a German book, printed by Johann Georg Hertel in Augsburg, that claims to be a version of Ripa and is almost exactly contemporaneous with Winckelmann's Versuch. See Ilse Wirth, ed., Des berühmten Italienischen Ritters Caesaris Ripae allerley Künsten und Wissenschaften dienliche Sinnbilder und Gedancken (Munich: Fink, 1970). (For dating, see p. 16 of this edition.) And it is immediately apparent that this book is meant more to show off its own engravings than to be useful to artists, which latter is the stated aim of both Ripa and Winckelmann. It appears, then, that in reality Winckelmann is attempting not so much to supersede Ripa's project as to revive it, in the form of a book meant not for a broad audience of artistic consumers, but for a smaller group of productively oriented readers (readers for art, I have said), a work that will be, in the words of Ripa's 1603 title page, “Non meno utile che necessaria a Poeti, Pittori, Scultori, & altri, per rappresentare le Virtù, Vitii, Affetti, & Passioni humane.”

    (13) Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Schriften und Fragmente, “Studienausgabe,” 6 vols., Ernst Behler and Hans Eichner, eds. (Paderborn, 1988), 2:201.

    (14) . Goethe says specifically, “Jeder sei auf seine Art ein Grieche! Aber er sei's” (WA, 49/1:156), in the essay “Antik und Modern.”

    (15) Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert, Helmut Holtzhauer, ed. (Leipzig, 1969), 210–12.

    (16) J. J. Winckelmann, Versuch einer Allegorie [and De ľAllégorie], Stephen Orgel, ed. (New York, 1976), 3,

    (17) Werke, 8 vols., Herbert G. Göpfert et al., eds. (Munich, 1970–79), 8:454.

    (18) . There are also some formal tricks in the text that suggest the game Lessing is playing. Our attention is immediately attracted by the subtitle, “Gespräche für Freimäurer.” Why conversations for Freemasons? Does this mean conversations “as a model for” Freemasons, for how to talk about Freemasonry? Or is it “conversations to be read by Freemasons”? In this case, the implication is that they will be read differently by Freemasons and by the general public, which means that even in print they will constitute a kind of exclusive conversation with Freemasons after all. And then, in the “Vorrede eines Dritten” that introduces the fourth conversation—an intermediate preface that most editors deny Lessing wrote, on the basis of no hard evidence that I have ever seen—the self-styled “Herausgeber” speaks of “Der Verfasser” (singular!) of the first three conversations (955), which (p.325) would mean that he himself is not really a “third party” at all, but only a second party, and of course also that the conversations are not really conversations but a treatise in dialogue form. And then the situation is complicated further by an editorial note at the end of the whole work, which speaks of “ein sechstes Gespräch, welches unter diesen Freunden vorfiel” (969), thus resurrecting the fiction of actual conversations yet once more. Devices of this sort are not atypical of Lessing. The author of Pope ein Metaphysiker!, for instance, speaks of himself repeatedly as “ich,” which becomes a problem when one considers that the work is a collaboration of Lessing and Mendelssohn. (The use of “wir” would not have been unusual, even for a single author.) And the objection that this feature of the text makes no difference, since the work was published anonymously, only transforms the “ich” into an esoteric joke for those in the know.

    (19) Iser, The Implied Reader, 274–75.

    (20) Beyond Theory, 10,

    (21) Antony and CleopatraF. E. Spurgeon, Keats's Shakespeare: A Descriptive Study Based on New Material (Oxford,1928),126.