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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.1 (2003) 53-92

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Conjuring History:
Lyric Cliché, Conservative Fantasy, and Traumatic Awakening in German Romanticism

Thomas Pfau

Schläft ein Lied in allen Dingen,
Die da träumen fort und fort,
Und die Welt hebt an zu singen,
Triffst du nur das Zauberwort.

[Song slumbering in all things
That dream forever on and on,
The world leaps into song,
If only you divine the magic word.]

—Joseph von Eichendorff, "Wünschelrute"

The ambiguity of the . . . revelation of the past does not depend so much on the vacillation of its content between the Imaginary and the Real, for it locates itself in both. Nor is it exactly error or falsehood. The point is that it presents us with the birth of Truth in the Word, and thereby brings us up against the reality of what is neither true nor false. . . . For the Truth of this revelation lies in the present Word which testifies to it in contemporary reality and which grounds it in the name of that reality. Yet in that reality, it is only the Word which bears witness to that portion of the powers of the past which has been thrust aside at each crossroads where the event has made its choice. . . . [Historical anamnesis] is not a question of reality, but of Truth, because the effect of a full Word is to reorder the past contingent events by conferring on them the [End Page 53] necessities to come, just as they are constituted by the little liberty through which the subject makes them present.

—Jacques Lacan, Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis

Heeding the call of German Romanticism's programmatic declarations rather than that of its momentous history, readers have long construed that epoch as the very apotheosis of aesthetic autonomy or, if critical of that value, as succumbing to strictly theoretical contradictions. 1 Except for obligatory, token references to the threat of the French Revolution and the pervasive disorder of the Napoleonic era, criticism has generally proven reluctant to relate the period's artistic or theoretical output to its momentous history. Just how to configure aesthetic production and the experience of historical change has long proven elusive, if hotly debated business. 2 My aim in the following pages is to sketch and exemplify how to read literature as a critical medium for historical cognition, which is to say, to approach literature as maintaining a dialectic (rather than evasive, reactive, or otherwise secondary) relation to history. To help set the stage, we may recall Theodor Adorno's prescient warning against a historicism that deems literature generically incapable of historical cognition and, with its rich methodological armature, purports to redeem literature from its canny, if unconscious obfuscation of ideological positions. Early in his Aesthetic Theory, Adorno thus remarks on something both profound and enigmatic that lies at the heart of all claims for aesthetic autonomy. By way of qualifying his earlier optical metaphor ("There is no aesthetic refraction without something being refracted"), Adorno observes:

The communication of artworks with what is external to them, with the world from which they blissfully or unhappily seal themselves off, occurs through noncommunication; precisely thereby they prove themselves refracted. . . . Even the most sublime artwork takes up a determinate attitude to empirical reality by stepping outside of the constraining spell it casts, not once and for all, but rather ever and again, concretely, unconsciously polemical toward this spell at each historical moment. That artworks as windowless monads "represent" what they themselves are not can scarcely be understood except in that their own dynamic, their immanent historicity as a dialectic of nature and [End Page 54] its domination, not only is of the same essence as the dialectic external to them but resembles it without imitating it. . . . Art's double character as both autonomous and fait social is incessantly reproduced at the level of autonomy. It is by virtue of this relation to the empirical that artworks recuperate, neutralized, what once was literally and directly experienced in life and what was expulsed by spirit. Artworks participate in...


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pp. 53-92
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Archived 2004
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