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My last post touched on the fact that working in academia, like any profession I guess, means becoming part of a tradition. That might sound – it did to me once, at any rate – like a kind of security, a ground to stand on, but the reality is that it is a relationship full of contradictions and enigmas. I’m going to try to think through some of them today, starting with those earlier scholars that I mentioned in passing last week and taking some examples I came across in writing my Lohengrin book.

‘Outmoded’, ‘nationalistic’, ‘chauvinistic’ are words that tend to pile up easily around these early predecessors, and there is an element of truth to each – yet one cannot just do without this past. There is the multifaceted learning that made much of the groundwork of comparative philology possible, say, or the openness to what would now be called other disciplines that, ironically almost, so much energy is spent trying to recreate. All well and good, until one comes across remarks like this that rather undermine such counter-idealizations:

Der Kerl hat ohne Zweifel immer halb besoffen geschrieben. Sie werden gesehen haben, wie er den Lohengin zugerichtet. (The man must have been half-drunk in everything he wrote. You’ll have seen what he did to Lohengrin.)

Who can Joseph Görres be talking about here in this letter to Jacob Grimm from 1817? None other than Ferdinand Glöckle, with whom he had collaborated to produce the first modern edition of Lohengrin, published shortly before in 1813 (and which Grimm had indeed reviewed that same year). Back to the ‘outmoded’ nineteenth century, then? Not quite, unfortunately: wind the clock forward a century and a half, and consider the declaration that

das Feld immer unübersichtlicher wird und Außenstehende, die sich hineinwagen, zunehmend Gefahr laufen, sich zu verirren. (The field is becoming harder and harder to navigate, and outsiders who dare to enter it are in increasing danger of losing their way.)

The field in question is codicology, and the statement is directed against a historian who, the authors add, had attempted to use it to defend his views about the dating of Lohengrin against those of Germanists. The rhetoric seems designed to preclude dialogue, to construct boundaries between fields of study and the people who pursue them, and, through words such as ‘hineinwagen’ and ‘Gefahr’, to threaten attempts to cross them. The tone is not as literally brutal as Görres’s remark, but the force, the shift toward a personal attack, is not all that dissimilar.

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I have deliberately not gone into the rights and wrongs of the different sides of the debate in these examples (they concern the textual form and dating of Lohengrin respectively). What I am concerned with and about is the kind of discourse, the way of doing business, that takes shape in them, and how one deals with that when it becomes intertwined with the collective knowledge that has built up in a subject. Enigmatic indeed, but fittingly human as well. Fare well out there.

Read more …

… on antagonism and Lohengrin in an open-access article of mine here, or some notes on Ferdinand Glöckle by Karl Stackmann on Google books. The quotations are from Joseph von Görres, Gesammelte Briefe, vol. 2: Freundesbriefe (von 1821–1821), ed. by Franz Binder (Munich, 1874), p. 524, and Christa Bertelsmeier-Kierst and Joachim Heinzle, ‘Paläographische Tücken! Noch einmal zur Datierung des “Lohengrin”’, ZfdPh, 115 (1996), p. 42.