Retrograde Signs of the Times - Frederick Engels

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Retrograde Signs of the Times by Frederick Engels

Works of Frederick Engels, 1840

Retrograde Signs of the Times

Written: in November 1839 — January 1840

First published: in Telegraph für Deutschland Nos. 26- 28, February 1840

Signed: Friedrich Oswald

Telegraph für Deutschland No. 26, February 1840

There is nothing new under the sun! That is one of those happy pseudo-truths, which were destined to have a most brilliant career, which have passed from mouth to mouth in their triumphal procession round the globe, and after centuries are still often quoted as if they had only just made their appearance in the world. Genuine truths have rarely been so fortunate; they have had to struggle and suffer, they have been tortured and buried alive, and everyone has moulded them as he thought fit. There is nothing new under the sun! On the contrary, there is enough that is new, but it is suppressed if it does not belong to those pliant pseudo-truths which always have a loyal “that is to say, etc.” in their train and like a flash of the northern lights soon give way to night again. But if a new genuine truth rises on the horizon like the red morning sky, the children of night know full well that it threatens the downfall of their kingdom and they take up arms against it. For the northern lights the sky is always clear, whereas the, roseate dawn usually occurs in an overcast sky, the gloom of which it has to conquer or enkindle with its flames. And it is such doubts obscuring the roseate dawn of our time which we now intend to pass under review.

Or let us tackle the subject in another way! Attempts to depict the course of history in the form of a line are familiar.

“The form taken by history,” states an intelligent work written to oppose Hegel’s philosophy of history, “is not ascent and descent, not a concentric circle or a spiral, but an epic parallelism, sometimes converging” (this is what the word should be instead of “congruent”), “sometimes diverging."

[K. Gutzkow, Zur Philosophie der Geschichte, S. 53]

Yet I prefer a free hand-drawn spiral, the turns of which are not too precisely executed. History begins its course slowly from an invisible point, languidly making its turns around it, but its circles become ever larger, the flight becomes ever swifter and more lively, until at last history shoots like a flaming comet from star to star, often skimming its old paths, often intersecting them, and with every turn it approaches closer to infinity. — Who can foresee what the end will be? And at those points where history seems to be resuming an old path again, short-sighted people who see no farther than their noses rise up and joyfully cry out that it is just as they thought! And there we are: there is nothing new under the sun! So our heroes of Chinese stagnation, our mandarins of retrogression are jubilant and pretend to have cut three centuries out of the annals of the world as an inquisitive excursion into forbidden regions, as a delirious dream — and they fail to see that history only rushes onward by the most direct route to a new resplendent constellation of ideas, which with its sun-like magnitude will soon blind their feeble eyes.

It is at just such a point in history that we now stand. All the ideas which have been advanced since Charles the Great, all the tastes which successively supplanted one another through five centuries, want to assert their extinct rights once more at the present time. The feudalism of the Middle Ages and the absolutism of Louis XIV, the hierarchy of Rome and the pietism of the past century contend for the honour of driving free thought from the field! Permit me not to speak of these at greater length; for some thousand swords, all sharper than mine, immediately flash in opposition to anyone who bears one of these devices on his shield, and we surely know that they all disintegrate in conflict with one another and under the adamantine foot of the forward moving time. But corresponding to those colossal reactionary phenomena in the life of the church and state are less noticed tendencies in art and literature, an unconscious harking back to earlier centuries, which, it is true, are not a threat to the times but nevertheless are a danger to contemporary taste, and whose composition has curiously enough nowhere been comprehensively treated.

We do not need to go far afield to encounter these phenomena. Only go to visit a salon furnished in the modern style and you will see whose spiritual offspring are the figures that surround you. All the rococo abortions of the period of crassest absolutism have been conjured up in order to force the spirit of the movement into the forms in which the “l'état c'est moi” felt at ease. Our salons, with their chairs, tables, cupboards and sofas, are decorated in the style of the Renaissance, and all that is needed is to put a wig on Heine and squeeze Bettina [von Arnim] into a hooped petticoat, and the restoration of the siècle will be complete.

Telegraph für Deutschland No. 27, February 1840

Such a room is of course eminently suitable for reading a novel by Herr von Sternberg, with his remarkable preference for the Per d of Madame de Maintenon. People have forgiven Sternberg for this caprice of his mind, they have also looked carefully, but of course in vain, for deeper reasons for it; I venture to assert, however, that precisely this feature of Sternberg’s novels, which for the moment perhaps promotes their circulation, will be a considerable obstacle to their prolonged existence. Apart from the fact that a perpetual harping on a most arid and prosaic period, in comparison with whose eccentric nature, floundering between heaven and earth and conventional puppets, our time and its children are still natural, does not precisely enhance the beauty of a literary work — apart from this fact, we are certainly too accustomed to regarding this period in a mocking light for it to have a lasting appeal to us under any other illumination, and to find such a caprice in every one of Sternberg’s novels finally becomes extremely boring. This tendency of his cannot be regarded as more than a caprice, in my opinion at least, and therefore has no deeper reason; nevertheless I think I have found its starting point in the life of “good society”. Undoubtedly, Herr von Sternberg was brought up for this society; he learned to move in it with pleasure, and perhaps found his proper home in its circles. So no wonder he flirts with a period whose social forms were far more definite and polished, though more wooden and tasteless than those of the present day. Far more audaciously than in the case of Herr von Sternberg, the taste of the siecle is expressed in its mother city, Paris, where it makes a serious pretence of wresting from the romantic writers their barely won victory. Victor Hugo arrived, Alexandre Dumas arrived, and the herd of imitators with them; the unnaturalness of the Iphigenias and Athalias gave way to the unnaturalness of a Lucrezia Borgia; cramped rigidity was followed by a burning fever; the French classics were shown to have plagiarised the ancient writers — and then Demoiselle Rachel appears and all is forgotten: Hugo and Dumas, Lucrezia Borgia and the plagiarisms; Phèdre and le Cid walk the stage with measured tread and stylish Alexandrine lines; Achilles parades with his hints at the great Louis, and Ruy Blas and Mademoiselle de Belle Isle hardly venture to emerge from wings in order at once to find salvation in German translation factories and on the stage of German national theatres. It must be a blissful relief for a legitimist to be able to forget the revolution, Napoleon, and the great week, [44] by watching Racine’s plays; the glory of the ancien régime rises from the grave, the world is draped with high-warp tapestries, Louis, the absolute monarch, walks along the well-clipped avenues of Versailles in brocaded waistcoat and full-bottomed wig, and an all-powerful array of mistresses rules the happy court and unhappy France.

While in all this the reproduction of the past remains in France itself, it seems that a peculiarity of previous-century French literature is seeking to repeat itself in German literature of the present day. I mean the philosophical dilettantism displayed by several recent authors just as much as by the Encyclopaedists. The place occupied by materialism among the latter is beginning to be taken by Hegel among the former. Mundt was the first who — to use his own phraseology — introduced the Hegelian categories into literature; Kühne, as always, did not fail to follow him and wrote the Quarantäne im Irrenhause, and although the second volume of Charaktere [F. G. Kühne, Weibliche und männliche Charaktere], betrays a partial falling off from Hegel, the first volume contains enough passages in which he tries to translate Hegel into the modern idiom. Unfortunately, these translations must be numbered among those which cannot be understood without the original.

The analogy is undeniable; will the conclusion which the author who has already been referred to drew from the fate of philosophical dilettantism in the previous century — namely, that with the system the germ of death is introduced into literature — will this conclusion be confirmed also in the present century? Will the roots of a system that surpasses all its predecessors in its consistency be obstacles encumbering the field cultivated by poetic genius? Or are these phenomena merely a sign of the love that philosophy has for literature and the fruits of which are so brilliantly manifested in Hotho, Rötscher, Strauss, Rosenkranz and the Hallische Jahrbücher? In that case, of course, the point of view would be different, and we could hope for that co-operation between science and life, between philosophy and the modern trends, between Hegel and Börne, which a section of so-called Young Germany aimed earlier at promoting. Apart from these two conclusions, there remains only one way out, one which, to be sure, looks somewhat strange compared with either of them: namely, to assume that Hegel’s influence will be of no importance for belles-lettres. I think, however, that there are few who will be able to make up their minds to adopt this course.

Telegraph für Deutschland No. 28, February 1840

But we must go farther back than to the Encyclopaedists and Madame de Maintenon: Duller, Freiligrath and Beck claim to represent the Second Silesian School of the seventeenth century [45] in our literature. Is there anyone to whom Duller’s portrayals in Ketten und Kronen, Der Antichrist, Loyola, Kaiser und Papst, do not recall the heaven-storming pathos of the Asiatische Banise written of old by Ziegler von Kliphausen or Lohenstein’s Grossherzog Arminius sammt seiner durchlauchtigsten Thusnelda? Beck has even quite surpassed these good men in pomposity; some passages of his poems are almost regarded as nothing but products of the seventeenth century dipped in a tincture of modern world-weariness; and Freiligrath, who also at times is incapable of distinguishing between pomposity and poetic diction, makes the retrograde step to Hofmannswaldau complete by reviving the Alexandrine [Allusion to Freiligrath’s series of poems] and re-introducing coquetting with foreign words. It is to be hoped, however, that he will discard this along with his foreign subject-matter.

Withered the palm, blown off the desert sand.

The poet seeks the heart of his homeland,

A different man, and yet the same!

[F. Freiligrath. From the poem Freistuhl zu Dortmund]

And, certainly, if Freiligrath were not to do so, in a hundred years’ time his poems would be regarded as a herbarium or a sand-box and used, like Latin rules of prosody, for teaching natural history in schools. A man like Raupach could not count on any other kind of practical immortality for his iambic chronicles, but it is to be hoped that Freiligrath will provide us with poetic works fully worthy of the nineteenth century. — However, it is nice, is it not, that in our revivalist literature since the romantics we have already covered from the twelfth to the seventeenth century? In that case Gottsched, too, will not make us wait much longer for him.

I confess to being perplexed how to arrange these individual items from a single point of view. I confess to having lost the threads by which they are linked to the torrent of time which keeps rolling on. Perhaps they are not yet ripe for a survey to be made with assurance, and will yet increase in size and number. But it remains remarkable that this reaction is conspicuous in art and literature as also in life, that the complaints of ministerial newspapers re-echo from walls that seem to have belonged to the “l'état c'est moi”, and that corresponding to the shouting of the modern obscurantists, on the one hand, is the exaggerated obscurantism, on the other hand, of a part of recent German poetry.