“Dunkles zu sagen”: Deutschsprachige hermetische Lyrik im 20. Jahrhundert by Von Christine Waldschmidt (review)
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“Dunkles zu sagen”: Deutschsprachige hermetische Lyrik im 20. Jahrhundert.
Von Christine Waldschmidt. Heidelberg: Winter, 2011. 659Seiten. €68,00.

Viewing the recondite forms of modern poetry as the most exemplary manifestations of the genre has been a staple at least since Francesco Flora’s and Hugo Friedrich’s [End Page 714] famous meditations on poetic hermeticism. In spite of many poets who denied such claims about the “darkness” of their works—Paul Celan famously insisted that his poems are “ganz und gar nicht hermetisch”—postwar philosophers and scholars alike, from Adorno via H.R. Jauss, W.-D. Stempel, K. Stierle, B. Witte to Th. Sparr, have added considerable weight to this characterization of a poetic paradigm. Waldschmidt’s seven-part study takes its cues from these reflections, but systematizes and expands the range of poetic features. A helpful research report (Part I) is followed by methodological reflections pleading for a formalist approach (Part II). Her method of weaving 19 exemplary figures into a single tapestry is based on the key notions of “Sinnverweigerung” (Part III) and “Sinnstiftung” (Part V and VI). Forming a paradoxical, yet constitutive “Gestaltungsprinzip” (23), these two inform all possible “Strukturen und Verfahren” (17) used by hermetic poets. Similar to Celan scholars such as Sparr (1989), Waldschmidt identifies the source of the poem’s alleged “darkness” in its intended structure, not in the reader’s shortcomings (37). On a formal level, therefore, the hermetic poem is easily recognized by its striking lack of coherence. Elliptical diction, “Aneinanderreihung” (79) or what is known as Trakl’s “Zeilenstil” (289) string together the isolated words and dark images (79, 83, 501). On an existential level, the hermetic poets relate to modernity itself as a severe “Erschütterung” (92, 142, 175). Consequently, the poem’s mimetic impulse becomes fractured and all references must appear empty (52); the poets’ negative “Weltsicht” (89) finds its counterpart in an unapologetically idealized diction whose hallmark is heavy pathos (82).

Throughout her study, Waldschmidt renders semantic difficulties in absolute terms as an irrevocable “Unverständlichkeit” (35); she thereby aligns herself with Friedrich’s familiar terminology which has regained currency in the Tübingen school (G. Wunberg 2001, M. Bassler 1994). By discrediting hermeneutics (39), she denies the various degrees of accessibility, although, upon closer inspection, the claim about the poem’s utter incomprehensibility is seriously compromised by the notion of a “partial” meaninglessness (153, 240 et passim) or less “radical” expressivity (441). What informs the author’s terminology is an idealist tradition that embraces a subject-object binary: a hypostasized “Einheit von Subjekt und Welt” (396) breaks apart in the modern era because of a profound linguistic or existential crisis—a “Sprachkrise” (142) or “Entfremdung” (72), merely consoled but not resolved in the creation of a recuperative diction. The notions of a disembodied subjectivity and an upside-down world loom large throughout the discussions; examinations of gendered identities or larger discursive and social contexts have all but fallen by the wayside, even though exile, isolation, and displacement played a considerable role in the poets’ lives (M. Hein, N. Sachs, etc.).

Having devoted Part III to “Sinnverweigerung” (43–202), the author then turns to various poetic techniques of “Sinnstiftung”: Part V focuses on four variations of referentiality in modern hermetic poetry; Part VI collocates seven patterns of giving significance. In reflecting on two object-related references to art (239–306) and nature (340–389) as well as two subject-based transcendental and immanent concerns, viz. mystical-surreal (307–339) or historical (390–451) perspectives, Waldschmidt gives a good sense of the tensions between the more escapist forms of hermeticism (i.e., S. George) and its outward-looking manifestations (i.e., E. Arendt). Not all examples, though, serve particularly well to illustrate the austere, allegedly impenetrable style; [End Page 715] a discussion of hermeneutic tenets would have helped to shed light on the difference between total “Unverständlichkeit” and proverbially dark passages. Having established these variations of sensemaking, the author then approaches a wider range of possibilities for showing the poets’ “Aufwertung des dichterischen Mediums” (462). In a rich but meandering section (453–619), the author reintroduces the idea that, on the most basic level...