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Reviewed by:
  • Ästhetik des Bösen
  • Jeffrey Champlin (bio)
Peter-André Alt . Ästhetik des Bösen. Munich: C.H. Beck Verlag, 2010. 714 pages.

Peter-André Alt's Ästhetik des Bösen begins with a debate within Hegel regarding the appropriateness of evil as the object of aesthetic study. On the one hand, [End Page 689] the philosopher of the end of art programmatically asserts the irrelevance of "das Böse als solches" in his Lectures on Aesthetics, while on the other hand, he continually addresses specific instances of evil in literature as celebrated by the Early Romantics. Alt offers a program which makes up for Hegel's theoretical and systematic failure, arguing that around 1800 evil disappears as an identifiable figure in the outside world governed by the divine and reappears obscurely within mortal man. Literature, in response, draws on new forms to make evil appear in the context of its post-enlightenment withdrawal.

Ranging from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Jonathan Littell, the 700-page study demonstrates an impressive scope, attention to context, and focus on detail. It invites numerous readings, with distinct threads following not only German, French, English, and American literature (among others), but also the history of religion, psychoanalysis, French Theory, and German Idealism. In order to speak to the broader movement of the investigation, however, I wish to suggest that it may be more than simply a kind of encyclopedia, as Alt at times modestly implies. He writes in the introduction that his goal is to open a "phänomenologisches Spektrum" of the evil in literature and in terms of method, he asserts a combination of historical and typological approaches. In this sense, Alt employs the term "Ästhetik" in the title in a restricted manner, offering broad chapter headings that organize insights into specific works of literature, such as "Verlagerung durch Introspektion," "Wiederholung als Erscheinungsform des Bösen," and "Ästhetische Lust an der Überschreitung." While he eschews the term "Begriffsgeschichte," his book largely follows historical contours, albeit with significant exceptions.

We might be satisfied with the pleasure of non-doctrinaire categorization and the author's evident joy in the specifics of literature's dark side. Looking at evil "als solches" frees it from the subordination to classical moral greatness that Hegel prized. In this context Alt does not seek to define evil but opens up a "Konstellation" of topics including, for example, breaking taboos, the disgusting, the perverse, and the sick. At the same time, however, reading through Alt's typological descriptions over the course of literary history also teaches us something about the spur that evil gives to literature by refusing to present itself in its essence, about the challenge of describing and confronting the furtive modes in which evil comes into appearance.

Alt carefully delimits his study in aesthetic terms while pointing to the horizon of a reemergence of the importance of moral questions for literature in the 20th century. Especially in terms of German Studies, it will be helpful to indicate a few points on Alt's trajectory from the decline of Enlightenment and renewal of formal experimentation "around 1800" to the collision of literature and ethics following Auschwitz. The first chapter, "Vorspiel im Mythos," investigates efforts to account for the origin of evil in stories of a fall. The story of the Garden of Eden allows that which logically appears as a contradiction—an evil that exists before the fall—to become perceptible in the course of narrative differentiation. Looking forward to 1800, Alt draws from this a broader implication of the power of literature to grasp in stories [End Page 690] that "was sich dem Verstand entzieht" (75). His reading of Goethe's Faust in the next chapter provides an anchoring point for his investigation, which at its core departs from the rationalism of the 18th century. Indeed: "Mephisto ist eine Verkörperung der Paradoxie, die es bedeutet, ein Teufel unter den Bedingungen der Aufklärung zu sein" (101). The paradox has two main components. In terms of the body, Alt points our attention to the Witch's Kitchen scene, where Mephistopheles remarks that his monstrous corporeal characteristics of Nordic lore have been lost, leaving only a feather to...


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