- Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History
Starting point as well as result of this inspiring book is the abrupt beginning of modern times around 1800. In line with other narratives told since the days of Danton, the author emphazises the great "rupture" caused by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. But his focus is not on political and economical [End Page 186] processes that made "modernity" but on the notion of a "modern time" itself, i.e. on fundamental changes in the concepts of and the feelings toward the nature of time and history (for the sake of simplicity I shall here call this a change in "mentality").
The phase of upheavals and wars between 1789 and 1815 ushered into the disconnection of past, present and future. Following Reinhardt Koselleck, Fritzsche argues that the certainty of former concepts of a more or less predictable course of history had vanished. Neither could the future be derived from the present, nor was the present a continuation of the past. The present destroyed the past. This had ambiguous consequences: History was perceived as a process of permanent losses, causing feelings of melancholy, or nostalgia, respectively. Since the structures and the people of former times were so different from those of the present, history lost its function as magistra vitae. But it gained new capacities making it more important than ever: it allowed for "imaginative journeys backward in time" thus helping to build "subjecthood" in respect to "both the nation and the individual". (p.7)
With a good eye for the telling detail the emergence of a new historical knowledge and a new use of history around 1800 are displayed in five chapters. First, the French Revolution is portrayed as the big upheaval, not comparable to any other revolution. Great politics begun to affect the lives and thinking of every single European (and so created not only national identities but also a European space of shared categories). Second, the notions of refugees and other foes of the revolution are regarded from the aspect of the general homelessness in modernity. Third, the new estimation and function of ruins are discussed, in particular the romantic gaze on the banks of the Rhine, making this region an all European heritage and at the same time a mnemotope of the German identity. The following chapters widen the re-definition of the past onto literature, brother Grimm's fairy tales etc. Fritzsche regards the new historical thinking and the new emotional quality of history as a trait of the "West", and takes his sources from France, England, America, and Germany. Emphasis is laid on the latter where the romantic spirit was especially strong. However, as the author rightly insists, national peculiarities are not as "important as the common endeavour to think historically and to possess the past." (S.10)
All this is bound together in an elegant and convincing manner. Alas, sometimes the main arguments are presented all too convincingly to my taste, e.g. by means of repetition and omission. Already the very start of the book provokes some concern in this respect. In the "early 1800s" we sit in a train compartment together with Joseph von Eichendorff, a leading poet of romanticism. He mocks his fellow passengers who were unable to grasp the aesthetic and moral value of a castle ruin appearing beneath the window pane. A telling introduction into the key phase around 1800—apart from the fact that there were no railways at that time (the given source, a fragment by Eichendorff, stems from the mid 19th c.). More serious objections concern the theoretical framework. The author draws e.g. on Michel Foucault, who spoke of a sudden historization in the way people "gaze" at the world, but does not discuss that this rupture from "similarity" to "genealogy" occured in the decades before the French Revolution—not its consequence but possibly a precondition. In this connection it is indicative that Rousseau—who made the term "romantic" popular—is ignored completely...