Genealogie und Menschheitsfamilie: Dramaturgie der Humanität von Lessing bis Büchner by Helmut J. Schneider (review)
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Reviewed by
Helmut J. Schneider, Genealogie und Menschheitsfamilie: Dramaturgie der Humanität von Lessing bis Büchner. Berlin: Berlin UP, 2011. 475 pp.

Helmut J. Schneider’s Genealogie und Menschheitsfamilie presents a series of incisive analyses of dramatic texts from a formative period in the history of [End Page 306] German drama. The chapters, all but two of which have previously appeared in essay form, make evident the thematic and conceptual continuity of Schneider’s reflections on literature over the past two decades. The point of departure in this study, as in many of the most distinguished histories of German drama, is G. E. Lessing’s theoretical and literary projects. The remaining essays trace a formidable path that includes the champions of Weimar classicism and concludes with discussions of two of the great literary outsiders of the early nineteenth century, Heinrich von Kleist and Georg Büchner.

The readings that make up this volume share a loose thematic interest in a single issue, which, as Schneider carefully and convincingly demonstrates, brought forth dramatic configurations as varied as they were original. Schneider indicates in the introduction that the book focuses on a historical moment characterized by the competition between two models of social organization: on the one hand, the genealogical family and, on the other, a new concept of the universal family. Schneider draws on well-established literary and sociological research when he asserts that thinkers and writers of the Enlightenment challenged traditional patriarchal models of kinship, which deployed marriage for the formation of alliances across otherwise rigid family boundaries. In a veritable sexual revolution, as Schneider following Michel Foucault claims, the eighteenth century made the freely chosen emotional bond between individuals into the foundation for the family and, by extension, for society. Because the purview of this emotional bond is not defined by a social or political alliance, the new model of the family casts a more inclusive net. As Schneider astutely points out, one of the central desires of the age of Enlightenment is the achievement of an all-inclusive notion of the family—a family defined not by ossified cultural or political boundaries but instead aspiring to the inclusion of every human being. The tension between these two rudimentary models of the family appears with varying degrees of prominence in the chapters that follow. When historical and sociological themes forfeit immediate relevance, Schneider turns instead to the related theme of birth and generation as central metaphors in aesthetic thought and classical drama. His essays do not unearth long-forgotten texts or locate familiar ones within unusual discursive contexts but instead address, with unwavering focus, core thematic and formal issues in many of the most important dramas written in the decades around the turn of the nineteenth century.

The book falls into three parts, each of which deals with a different historical moment and conceptual frame. While the first part begins with a sharp analysis of Denis Diderot’s theoretical and dramaturgical disavowal of the paterfamilias, most of the section is devoted to the major plays by Diderot’s greatest German admirer, G. E. Lessing. Many of the most compelling moments in these chapters are when Schneider combines his thematic interest with an investigation of formal arrangements. These two perfectly align when Schneider shows the interconnections between Diderot’s concept of the tableau and the culminating appearance of the father in Le père de famillie. A particularly rewarding and original example of Schneider’s skill as a reader is his discussion of Lessing’s final masterpiece, Nathan der Weise (1779). Schneider argues that the famous ring parable ultimately displaces questions of truth by means of narrative art. The ring, Schneider claims, provides an aesthetic symbol of equality that reflects the general purport of the play itself. When the curtain falls at the end of the play, as the dramatis personae embrace in a ring-like formation, the universal family depicted on the stage reveals its irreducibly theatrical status. Lessing’s happy [End Page 307] ending presents, on Schneider’s reading, an aesthetic project capable of affecting the audience in much the same way that the sultan Saladin was ultimately affected by the ring parable.

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