High, low and deep

Thomas Cole, Indian Sacrifice, 1826
Thomas Cole, Indian Sacrifice, 1826

Depth by Hans-Dieter Gelfert

When the English extol a great soul, they say that he or she is broad-minded, clear-sighted and far-seeing, for them the most highly valued spiritual qualities. The French too believe, in accordance with their Cartesian tradition, that a great soul should be characterised by clarté. In addition to that they expect a shot of brillance. There is nothing the Germans, on the other hand, value in their heroic souls so much as depth. A breadth of vision arouses suspicion, just being stuck on the surface; clarity of thought evokes the transparency of shallow water. Everything that is dark and difficult to understand is taken by the Germans to represent unfathomable depth.

The urge for depth goes far back in German cultural history. Even in the late Middle Ages Germany was the centre of European mysticism, with such figures as Heinrich Seuse, Johann Tauler and Master Eckhart. This continued into the Baroque period with Jakob Böhme. In the 18th century it was above all Johann Georg Hamann, the ‘Magus of the North’, who came to be seen as the representative of Germanic deep thinking, and with the speculative Idealism of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel depth came to be seen as the identifying feature of German thought. This urge reached its highpoint (this sounds paradoxical, but ‘low point’ would be defamatory) in the thought of Heidegger, which was not satisfied with Being but wanted to venture into the Origin of Being. The higher the striving of political Germany, the deeper its thinkers and poets craned underwater in search of nourishment, to the extent that every duck was considered a swan if they managed to turn up enough mud out of the river bed, because anything that was obscure had to be deep. How firmly anchored this understanding of themselves is in the consciousness of the Germans can be seen in what Thomas Mann wrote in his 1945 essay on ‘Germany and the Germans’:

“If Faust was going to be the representative of the German spirit, he would have to be musical, for being abstract and mystical (which means musical) is how the Germans relate to the world, it is how a demonically inclined Professor who is both awkward and convinced that he is superior when it comes to ‘depth’ relates to the world. What does this ‘depth’ consist of? It is just the musicality of the German soul, what is called ‘inwardness’, that is the separation between the speculative and the politico-social elements of human energy and the total preeminence of the former over the latter.”

Even a critic of German irrationalism and mysticism like Adorno used his sharp intellect to don the clothing of the Germanic deep soul, since he produced sentences which can only strike the uninitiated as priestly jargon. He used the dialectical language of the Hegelians, he expanded on Heidegger to produce Adorno’s ‘language of essentiality’ in a flagellated idiom of murmuring incantation. Even today, German philosophers ascribe high, perhaps the highest, value to depth of thought. Clear thinkers like Bertrand Russell or Karl Popper, who are esteemed in England, were and are experienced as superficial by most of their German colleagues. We only need to analyse the language of literary, music and art criticism to find words which are rarely used as critical vocabulary in English speaking countries. For example, the word ‘foundation’ is a favourite item in the lexicon in German critical circles. Works of art open up ‘foundations’ or a conductor allows a symphony’s ‘foundations’ to be heard. Even in the first years after the war the word was so popular that Benno von Wiese, for example, saw a ‘swaying weightlessness flowing over the foundations’ in Kleist’s Penthesilea. Anyone in search of depth will naturally be fascinated by foundations.

. . . This high valuation of depth is more than mere linguistic exhibitionism. It is an expression of the vertical view of the world of German intellectuals who saw no possibility of effective engagement with horizontal society and who thus valued the climb to the heights and into the depths.

from Hans-Dieter Gelfert, Was ist deutsch? Wie die Deutschen wurden, was sie sind (2005) pp. 61 – 63 English translation by Malcolm Wren

Descendant of: 

SPACE (location)  

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