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  • The Practices of the Enlightenment: Aesthetics, Authorship, and the Public by Dorothea E. von Mücke
  • John A. McCarthy
The Practices of the Enlightenment: Aesthetics, Authorship, and the Public. By Dorothea E. von Mücke. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 292 pages + 13 b/w illustrations. $75.00.

One should not judge a book by its title, even if it is a catchy one. This title promises a lot for the literary historian, but it does give pause: the practices? The Enlightenment? [End Page 644] And only a single stratum of Enlightenment for England, France, and Germany (historically associated with empiricism, materialism, rationalism respectively)? No multiple variations of the movement internally and externally due to regional, religious, political, and cultural circumstances, as is the prevailing view in Enlightenment research today? The author does not address the normative thrust implied by the definite article in 280 pages. Yet the universalizing tendency comes through and seems paradoxical in light of the dialectic of self-determination that she contrasts to the (various) codifications of the era.

This book is an ambitious and venturesome undertaking with twelve chapters divided into three major sections labeled respectively: (I) “The Birth of Aesthetics, the Ends of Teleology, and the Rise of Genius”; (II) “Confessional Discourse, Autobiography, and Authorship”; (III) “Imagined Communities and the Mobilization of a Critical Public.” The thematic structure leads to some overlapping, repetition, and organizational challenges. Some of the chapters are in fact chapter introductions or conclusions that have been awarded chapter status (e.g., 73–76, 177–79, 180–86). Von Mücke begins with a foray into early Pietistic self-examination practices, which she labels “Surprise Origins of Enlightenment Aesthetics,” coupling them with reflections on animal instinct, nature as “beautiful, not intelligent design” (39, the title of Chapter Three) and moving on to a consideration of genius as being in tune with nature, before concluding Part I with Goethe’s remarks on Erwin von Steinbach’s Strasbourg Cathedral. Nature—the source of art and the wellspring of the creative arts—is a crucial point of departure for von Mücke. She then explores the valorization of experience, the “production of presence,” and the function of art in major autobiographical works of the era. The second part focuses on confessional literature by Johanna Eleonora Petersen, Rousseau, and Goethe (77–179), whereas the final third revisits the equally well-travelled territory of the reading public and role of the author (181–246).

Part III does not dovetail with Part I and in fact seems oddly disjointed from the first two parts of the book. Whereas von Mücke emphasizes nature and the function of art in Part I and relates them to Part II, she does not recall them in the final sections of Part III, whose focus on the creation of a public differs from the personal perspectives on introspection that reveal little regard for the external world. The bridge she endeavors to construct between the final section and the preceding two is derived from Rousseau’s insecurity regarding his audience and Goethe’s self-conscious positioning of his own writing career in retrospect. A discussion of Dichtung und Wahrheit could have usefully preceded von Mücke’s examining Goethe’s other works in chronological order.

Von Mücke promises new readings of canonical texts such as Johann Arndt’s Vom wahren Christentum (1605); Gottfried Arnold’s Unparteiische Kirchen- und Ketzerhistorie (1699/1700); Rousseau’s Émile and La nouvelle Héloise; Lessing’s Briefe, die neueste Literatur betreffend and Laokoon; Goethe’s encomium “Von deutscher Baukunst,” Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Dichtung und Wahrheit, and his Winckelmann essay; Kant’s “Was ist Aufklärung?” and Kritik der Urteilskraft; Young’s Conjectures on Original Genius; Thomas Abbt’s “Vom Tode für das Vaterland” (1761); Herder’s essays “Haben wir noch das Publikum und Vaterland der Alten” (1766) and “Shakespeare” (1772); alongside interpretations of lesser-known documents such as Johann Heinrich Reitz’s Historie der Wiedergebohrnen (1699), [End Page 645] Johanna Eleonora Petersen’s autobiography (originally published as an addendum to her Gespräche des Herzens mit Gott 1689 and later expanded in 1718/1719 as Leben, von ihr selbst mit eigener Hand...


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