The Idealised and Naturalistic View of Reality: Early 20th Century German Literature Laureates

Record Number of Prizes

Within a space of ten years at the beginning of the twentieth century, four writers in German were awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature: Theodor Mommsen (1902), Rudolf Eucken (1908), Paul Heyse (1910) and Gerhart Hauptmann (1912). This is a record that has yet to be surpassed by any other country. The choice of four Nobel Prize Winners from one and the same country in a short period of time may seem strange to us now living as we are in the time of globalisation and with cultural and geographical horizons far different from those existing a hundred years ago. One may, with good reason, wonder whether the Swedish Academy in this respect had not made an interpretation that was counter to what Nobel had in mind when, in his third criterium as to who would be considered for the Nobel Prize, he wrote:”no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates”.

Undoubtedly, the fairly good relations between Sweden and Germany at that time had their own significance in this development. After the founding of the German empire in 1871, Germany became the very pattern and model for Western Europe in matters relating to theology, philosophy, technology, medicine, science, culture and social engineering. German was the language of science and, until the beginning of the 1930s, it occupied roughly the same position in Sweden as English does today. It was not only the members of the Academy who spoke, read and wrote in German, but also the educated Swedish bourgeoisie who, moreover, liked to flaunt their common “Germanic heritage”. The focus on German literature at the beginning of the twentieth century in Sweden was also quite clear. Never have the Swedes read so much German literature – both in the original and translation – as during the first decades of the twentieth century. Of Paul Heyse’s wide-ranging production, for example, there were no less than forty-five of his works that were translated into Swedish; and the more than two hundred works of German literature and other belles lettres found in Alfred Nobel’s private library witness to the self-evident position that German culture held in Sweden at that time. It is hardly overstating the case to say that Sweden, during the period of Kaiser Wilhelm’s government (1888-1918) was culturally a German province.

It lies in the realm of probability that these undeniably strong pro-German sentiments had somewhat influenced the Swedish Academy to look towards Germany for authorship which – in accordance with Nobel’s own wishes – was grounded in reality, but ‘in a direction towards an ideal’, and the first three Prize Winners, Theodor Mommsen, Rudolf Eucken and Paul Heyse did precisely this. On the other hand, the fourth prize winner, Gerhart Hauptmann, was their polar opposite in his attempt to describe reality unadorned; however, even his work was eventually caught up in a broader literary stream moving in “an ideal direction”.

Tensions Between Inner and Outer Reality

What then was meant by “reality” during the epoch of Kaiser Wilhelm? The discussion around what was considered as reality and the attitude taken towards it was a result of the explosive industrialization in Europe throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Questions that writers asked themselves were: what is the relationship of external reality – a reality that is independent of our consciousness – to our inner reality? How can the tensions between objective ‘mirroring’ and subjective interpretation of reality be resolved in the fictions of literature? Is it at all possible to resolve these tensions and to capture an increasingly complex reality with the traditional linguistic and stylistic means at our disposal? The answers to these questions about reality were many, but in Germany they tended to posit the idea of an evolving harmony, a movement towards equilibrium between the two poles of an objective reality and subjective human consciousness. The work of Mommsen, Eucken and Heyse was characterized by this spirit of willingness to see reality in an explicable, idealised light, whereas Hauptmann, the consumate naturalist, rejected all attempts to embellish reality. Like other naturalists he adopted a critical position, under the banner of “truth”, towards hypocrisy and convention and under the banner of “modernity”, towards the fashion for historical themes and subjects within literature. It is in the light of this dichotomy between the idealised and the naturalistic view of reality that we should also consider these first German literary Prize Winners and their work.

Equally important in this context is the fact that the industrial revolution in Germany had brought with it a pragmatic way of thinking. This meant that profits and material success were more important than ethical principles and fundamental philosophical questions. This gave rise to a crisis within the educated bourgeoisie which had been nurtured by Goethean ideals of the good, the true and the beautiful, as the basis for the harmonious personality. Without a stable internal ethical compass and increasingly being subjected from without to the demand to ’succeed’, this generation tried at all costs to maintain an outwardly respectable facade and to deny the conflicts, ugliness, passions and subconscious urges of the psyche. One way of doing this was, on the one hand, to depict the successful lives of the bourgeoisie in a positive light and, on the other hand, to look back to times past when the great and the good were able to display themselves in all their glory.

The Nobel Prizes in Literature which were awarded to the German writers Mommsen, Eucken and Heyse in the first decade of the twentieth century highlighted, above all, authors who looked towards the past and who presented an idealised picture of reality informed by the good, the true and the beautiful. The prize awarded to Hauptmann, on the other hand, was a tribute to naturalism’s inexorable depiction of industrial society. In many ways, one can see the attention paid to these works and authors as a direct reflection of the way in which society and literature were developing in the whole of Europe before and around the turn of the century, but perhaps above all – as indicated above – as a clear expression of the close ties which then existed between Sweden and Germany, when Germany was regarded as the role model and cultural blueprint.


~ by jeanehistoria on December 29, 2009.

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