- Rahel Levin Varnhagen: The Life and Work of a German Jewish Intellectual (review)
- Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies
- Purdue University Press
- Volume 19, Number 2, Winter 2001
- pp. 174-176
- View Citation
- Additional Information
174 SHOFAR Winter 2001 Vol. 19, No.2 Rahel Levin Varnhagen: The Life and Work of a German Jewish Intellectual, by Heidi Thomann Tewarson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. 262 pp. $45.00 (c); $20.00 (p). Tewarson's life ofRahel Varnhagen is too broadly admiring ofher protagonist and too narrowly informed on the issue ofantisemitism. She distances herselfimmediately from Hannah Arendt's Rahel Varnhagen: Lebensgeschichte einer deutschen Jadin aus der Romantik (1959; RY: The Life ofa Jewish Woman, 1974), which appears to her much too harsh on Rahel. But her own portrait does not consider the historical complexities of majority-minority relations in Prussia around 1800, especially in the case of a minority that was both intensely drawn to the majority (high) culture and desiring to maintain a significant distinctness-the root cause of Rahel's notorious "suffering." Tewarson writes from the position of late twentieth-century identification with the victim status, relying on studies like Katz's streamlining history ofantisemitism, From Prejudice to Destruction, and a recent wave offeminist celebrations ofRahel the great (under-appreciated) woman writer. Rahel, whose fame as spiritual guide had actually been remarkably enduring for more than a century after her death in 1833, has reemerged as a cult figure, with her own very active "Rahel Varnhagen Society," and a voluminous edition of her complete letters. Arguably, the anachronistic simplifications inherent in this perspective have prevented Tewarson from asking why and how Arendt was more critical ofRahel. It is true, Rahel's husband was treated unfairly by Arendt, who disregarded his later considerable contributions because she wanted to highlight the difference in intellectual status at the time ofthe marriage between the much older woman and the still immature young man. Guided at first by Rahel's shrewdness in social matters-she insisted that he obtain the title ofnobility during the Napoleonic wars when this could be arranged more easily-, including her extraordinary networking skills, Varnhagen would eventually come into his own as an important political essayist and, as expected, he would take excellent care ofRahel's posthumous fame. From the very beginning, their relationship was a working marriage devoted to the enduring remembrance ofRahel's "greatness"-a term habitually used by both of them in reference to her-through the publication ofher letters. She trained Varnhagen to send back to her the most brilliant passages culled from her letters together with admiring reactions offriends with whom he had shared them. Always admonishing him not to overlook any gems, she would also praise him for his loyal assembling and making public the text ofher life. She "shared Varnhagen's opinion in wishing to preserve what exists of me. It has been thrown up by explosions, there are jewels among it. Long live suffering" (to la Motte Fouque, Jan. 30,1810). Rahel came to Varnhagen after several very painful love affairs with young aristocrats, and through him she finally secured her place in cultivated society and immortality for her "greatness." The young, impressionable Varnhagen was prepared for such heavy responsibility by virtue ofhis literary talents and interests. He was also Book Reviews 175 aided by the arch-literary form of Romantic sociability that expressed itself in communal explorations ofemotional and intellectual experiences through conversation and the sharing ofletters and diaries. The intensity of Rahel's preoccupation with the great text ofwhat she thought her uniquely original life was unusual; but her intimately connecting mode ofexpression was very much ofthe time. Referring to herselfas "the human magnet towards which flies every human particle!" (To Varnhagen, Sept. 2, 1827), she was profoundly attracted to the attraction ofher "genius" to others. Her cult ofGoethe was an extraordinary mixture ofsocial shrewdness, childlike reverence, and imitatio, since she saw his greatness significantly linked to hers. Goethe was the divine model for the text of her life, and she explicitly and repeatedly renounced authorship during her lifetime, because she wished to keep her story open for its significant ending that had to include the entirety of her intellectual and emotional responses to the ongoing work of Goethe. Goethe as the monumental Urbild of all human cultural greatness for the German nineteenth century, Jewish and Gentile, was Rahel's publicly private religion...