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  • The Aesthetics of Fear in German Romanticism by Paola Mayer
  • Beate I. Allert
Paola Mayer. The Aesthetics of Fear in German Romanticism. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2020. 504 pp. $130 CAD (cloth). ISBN 978-0-7735-5888-5.

This is a wide-ranging and sophisticated monograph on fear and the debates surrounding the aesthetics of fear, including horror, terror, and related terms. It interacts with terminologies and subtle meanings that often do not translate easily from German to English and is an excellent example of literature in the context of culture studies. Paola Mayer's book offers close readings and careful analyses drawn from various eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theories, genres, and literary sources that articulate, exemplify, and experiment with what seemed to be the otherworldly or strange, the familiar but alienating uncanny, the frightful or fear-inducing Schauerliche, the grotesque, or merely the inexplicable. Mayer's differentiations are thought-provoking and open up many insights and questions concerning distinct yet intertwined discourses from the Enlightenment, its advocacy and celebration of the rational, its movement towards refined sense perceptions and technical inventions, and debates on the sublime and the marvellous, including music theory by Mozart and Beethoven. The book is mainly on German Romanticism and its lasting impact down to the present. It explores quests into the paranormal involving the spirit world, the ghostly or the otherworldly, dreams, shadows, and experiences of the dark sides of human existence.

Mayer's book is divided into four parts and eight chapters: part 1 consists of chapter 1 on theoretical discourses, chapter 2 on Ludwig Tieck, chapter 3 on August Apel and Friedrich Laun and their Gespensterbuch, and chapter 4 on Heinrich von Kleist. Part 2 is devoted to E. T. A. Hoffmann, with chapter 5 on definitions and theories, chapter 6 on tales of music and musicians, and chapter 7 on tales of science and scientists. Part 3 offers conclusions, and chapter 8—"Romanticism Re-Evaluated: Joseph von Eichendorff"—draws attention to Eichendorff's religiosity and how Romanticism "ended in extreme conservatism with the chastisement of Romanticism and a confessionally driven redefinition and rejection of the dark side" (458). [End Page 177]

In her preface Mayer states, "[s]cholars such as Richard Alewyn have argued that this fear did not significantly recede until the advent of such modern scientific inventions as electric light and the lightning rod" (xi), and she seems to toggle between discourse analysis that would associate the origin of fear with concrete light sources or the lack thereof and discourses that address mental and psychological implications, yet may also have real causes in society, politics, and culture studies. Mayer's book deals extensively with cognition: while there is more to this topic than can be dealt with in one monograph, I was a bit disappointed that the book does not take Johann Gottfried Herder's contributions to what he called "Kognition" fully into account. Mayer does mention him briefly in her preface, and I hope that her future studies will pursue this train of thought.

In general, this book is a very informed and inquisitive study into the aesthetics of fear, the other side of the marvellous and the sublime. Mayer argues that these are not replaced by the discourses of fear in Romanticism but rather taken to an extreme and extrapolated so that the limits of reason become duly explored. Such studies on the liminality of these discourses, no longer viewed in terms of binaries but rather as more intricately related, lead to what appears to be a conglomerate of theories on both the origins and the literary uses of fear in German and European romantic literatures and music. Mayer argues that Romanticism brought about a radical shift in the aesthetics of fear; it diverted from the earlier tradition of thought, the discourse of the sublime, but it also anticipated much of what was later considered as postmodern. Fear plays a role whenever the dichotomy natural/supernatural is replaced by one of explained/inexplicable, as, for example, in the work of Ludwig Tieck or Jean Paul (alias Johann Paul Friedrich Richter) but also in the music of Mozart and, to an even greater extent, Beethoven...


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pp. 177-179
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