- Demonic History: From Goethe to the Present by Kirk Wetters
Flippantly but not inaccurately stated, Wetters’s study is one sign that the demons are loose again. The topic of the demon and the operating energies of the demonic periodically show up on the literary radar and then vanish again. Current interest is evident not just by this study but also by a volume of essays of which Wetters is one of the editors (Das Dämonische: Schicksale einer Kategorie der Zweideutigkeit nach Goethe, 2014). Wetters’s colleague at Yale, Harold Bloom, has also just published a study of the American sublime called The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime (2015).
The renewed interest attested by these deeply researched volumes does not and cannot bring scholars any closer to a pat definition. The demonic is more a force than an object, known more by its effects than directly. And how could there be a set definition for something that Goethe, the starting point of the present study, could only approach as being so cryptic that he addressed it in poems collectively titled “Urworte. Orphisch”? As Wetters notes, “The Dämon [. . .] cannot be simply reduced to the ‘genie’ that inspires the genius [. . .]. In the ‘Urworte,’ Dämon corresponds to the character and individuality of every individual.” Keener conceptual tension arises from realizing that Goethe first published these Orphic primal words in his Morphology (39), thus yoking essentially inscrutable forces to a taxonomic concept. The result is necessarily a study of “two interdependent but inherently conflictual ‘tendencies,’” an indwelling, irreconcilable set of polarities. Goethe discovers “a consistent symbolic system writ large in nature,” and that consistency balances against the tensions and antinomies of the demonic, which appears to subjugate itself to the morphological.
Accordingly, inscrutable does not mean vaporous. Wetters negotiates this tension by asking the question, “What is the demonic?” in his last chapter. Concerned not to let the term “expand into all-encompassing vagueness,” he lists a series of nine characteristics readers after Goethe have discerned. [End Page 186] He “shows how the demonic shaped a largely unrecognized or misrecognized prehistory of twentieth-century theory. [. . .] The demonic refers to a structure of historical motivation that puts pressure on the differences between instrumental, theoretical, and communicative reason.”
That is, the demonic can best be understood in the light of how others have requisitioned the concept. A key to the persistence of the concept after Goethe, a recognition that haunts the entire discussion, lies in what Wetters terms “false secularization”—“in familiar Nietzschean terms: God was killed, we killed him—but gods remained.” There seems no longer to be a proper place for the metaphysical, but neither can it be banished. The present study is, then, an examination of conceptual and cultural history, with three chapters dedicated to Goethe, who initiated the discussion in the modern age; one each to “The Unhappy Endings of Morphology: Oswald Spengler’s Demonic History”; “Demonic Ambivalences: Walter Benjamin’s Counter-Morphology”; “Georg Lukács and the Demonic Novel”; and “Demonic Inheritances: Heimito von Doderer’s The Demons.” These are preceded by a preface and an introduction, including a list of acknowledgements (in which the present reviewer is mentioned) and followed by the concluding chapter already discussed.
A study delineating a conceptual heritage cannot be other than abstract, at times even abstruse, because of the subject material itself but also the need to tie many threads into a complex weft. Wetters is admirably clear in tracing influences and counter-influences, understandings and misunderstandings, readings and (possible) misreadings—mainly of Goethe—with a skill worthy of Bloom in his Map of Misreading. Wetters is agile at tracing reception history, plausible in showing “Goethe in Spengler,” for instance, or Goethe and Spengler in Benjamin, or the debt of Lukács to his forebears in the Heidelberger Ästhetik.
The last work Wetters examines, Doderer’s The Demons, stands below the line Lukács had drawn in proclaiming that the novel was at an end (odd how practitioners never seem to heed the theorists). Indebted in many ways to Dostoyevsky’s...