The case of Georg Büchner is particularly revealing in a discussion of the relation between textual and cultural studies. The brevity of his life (1813–1837) and the scarcity of his literary output (three plays and one novella), on the one hand, the density of contemporary political and cultural upheavals (post-napoleonic repression, Juli-Revolution; the end of Goethe’s Kunstperiode and the emergence of journalism) on the other, have prompted scholars to explain, illustrate, interpret the former through the latter. Such a pronounced cultural and political perspective is not unusual in the study of nineteenth-century authors who themselves lay claim to realism, but the exclusivity with which Büchner’s œuvre is taken to have documentary rather than literary value is astonishing.
The austerity of this approach, and Büchner’s exemplary status for post-war Germanistik, are themselves the result of a complex historical and cultural constellation that keeps escaping cultural studies. There is, to begin with, Büchner’s youth, the fact that he, like Novalis and perhaps Hölderlin, never betrayed himself: his life and his work does [End Page 470] not exhibit the traces of doubt and withdrawal characteristic of his more long-lived colleagues. Büchner would thus be the champion of straight expression (Sagen) in contrast to the irritating revocations (Entsagung) of the late Goethe or even the late Heine. The latter theme was especially important to a Germanistik profoundly compromised by its prostrations during Fascism (see, e.g., A. Henkel’s Entsagung; eine Studie zu Goethes Altersroman, Tübingen 1954, and W. Emrich’s Die Symbolik von Faust II, Bonn 1957). Attention to Büch-ner was thus a conscious decision of a younger generation of scholars eager to escape the cultural and thematic strictures of its fathers, a decision that could be paralleled with Büchner’s own rupture with the discourse of the Goethezeit.
Yet is was not only the metaphysics of youth and the oedipal and political drama of the 1960’s and 1970’s that motivated the resurgence of Büchner-Studies in Germany. With his seemingly revolutionary pronouncements in his plays, his authorship of the Hessische Landbote, and above all his participation in the clandestine politics of sedition in his native Hessen, Büchner was the only unrepentent revolutionary author in a canon of literature dominated by the modes of purely gestural rebellion, of political acquiescence, and of resignation. So indisputable seemed his commitment to a political revolution (and so evident the goals of that revolution) that it required only cultural documentation, not literary interpretation. When in 1979 the Germanist and future Party Secretary of Revolutionary Büchner-Studies, T. M. Mayer, presented 15,000 pages of hitherto unpublished papers documenting the police machinations and interrogations to which the suspected authors of the Hessische Landbote were subjected in the 1830’s, this was hailed as a “literaturwissenschaftliche Sensation” (P. v. Becker, “Die Trauerarbeit im Schönen,” Dantons Tod. Die Trauerarbeit im Schönen, ed. P. v. Becker, Frankfurt 1980, pp. 75–90, p. 76) although Büchner himself did not speak on a single page. The allure of the revolutionary Büchner was intensified by the pathos of everything clandestine. It is hard to overestimate to what degree the ideology of the public sphere had lost credibility in West Germany during the late 1960’s, the 1970’s, and early 1980’s when a large group of intellectuals and political activists were routinely subjected to secret state surveillance and repressions on an unprecedented scale. To give just one example: the word Kassiber (secret message) which recurs in the description of communication between those arrested in Büchner’s circle (GBJb I , p. 282) resonated, and still resonates, with all the suspicions and unsolved obscurities [End Page 471] surrounding the deaths of members of the Red Army Faction in a German prison more than 140 years later.
The generational shift and the political polarization in post-war Germanistik were cemented during the 1980’s and profoundly marked...