- “Kunstleben” zur Kulturpoetik des Briefs um 1900—Korrespondenzen Hugo von Hofmannsthals und Rainer Marie Rilkes by Jörg Schuster
What was the specific cultural and symbolic function of the literary letter around 1900? And is it possible to describe the letter as the central literary manifestation of the Jugendstil era? These are two of the questions Jörg Schuster examines in his analysis of selections from the voluminous correspondence of Hofmannsthal and Rilke. Letter writing, he notes, was no sideline endeavor for either poet—just in case we did not know, he reminds us that the combined corpus of their (archived) letters exceeds ten thousand.
Schuster’s main concern is applying the methods and heritage of German-language epistolary culture to concerns of the Jugendstil era. He defines Jugendstil as the epoch beginning with the widespread reception of Nietzsche in the early 1890s, continuing with the movements for Lebens-, Architektur- and Kunstgewerbe reform that his writings inspired in the years that followed, and then traces the echoes of that message until the 1920s. Jugendstil, Schuster argues, aimed at creating the “new man” through a reform of Europeans’ built environment and bodies. It called for reforms in clothing, architecture, art, and crafts. But was there a Jugendstil literary style as well?
Schuster sets out to investigate the symbolic meaning of letter writing for Hofmannsthal and Rilke, arguing that the two men, despite their many artistic differences, shared the Jugendstil aesthetic of reform and interiority. He demonstrates how the Jugendstilbrief around 1900 was also dedicated to the “epistolary imagination and the [creation of the] ideal living arrangement” in the authors’ experience (327). In addition, he traces the relationship between their (public) literary productions and their simultaneous self-presentation (“Inszenierung”) through the medium of the (private) sphere of correspondence with friends and admirers. For both poets, Schuster demonstrates how their practices of letter writing around 1900 reflected the broader cultural responses [End Page 126] to modernity after Nietzsche: Lebensreform and the return to nature, authenticity, and truthfulness.
This work is both dense and fascinating. In three sections, Schuster painstakingly makes his point with deep textual analysis.
Part 1, the introductory section entitled “Kulturpoetik des Briefes um 1900,” is a powerful and convincing argument for the significance of the project. Here Schuster provides extensive background about the development of the epistolary genre during the nineteenth century in the German-speaking world. In addition, Schuster reflects upon the relative scarcity of research into the epistolary world of 1900, noting how the letter itself became a contested and deeply symbolic medium of expression at the beginning of the twentieth century; new technology (the telephone) had already begun to signal its imminent demise even as Hofmannsthal and Rilke were both questioning the adequacy of language itself. How did these literary trends overlap with, or reflect, the Jugendstil aesthetic? What was at stake for these two poets in their commitment to the letter?
Nevertheless, Schuster uses the terms Kunstleben and Künstlerleben with some playfulness. He demonstrates the ironies inherent in the poets’ talk of “life” within the increasingly artificial construct of their epistolary interiors. Thus in the title, the word Kunstleben acts as a commentary on the strategies of both Hofmansthal and Rilke not only as letter-writers but also as the creative directors of their artistic personae. Artifice replaced life as they presented themselves to readers and friends through letters, while the meta-communication in their styles was one of distancing and interiority—as in the cool and subdued interior furnishings of a Loos apartment.
In the next two sections, Schuster provides highly sophisticated and richly detailed literary and rhetorical analyses of the letters of Hofmannsthal and Rilke. These sections are organized in roughly chronological order, and the letters of each poet (organized by a selection of correspondents) are deconstructed extensively. This is a blessing and a curse: Some portions of these sections will be of great interest to any reader, but others are dense for those outside the discipline, who might have less enthusiasm for extended analyses of...