EXORBITANT ENLIGHTENMENT: BLAKE HAMANN, AND ANGO-GERMAN CONSTELLATIONS by Alexander Regier, Reviewed by David Jasper
 

EXORBITANT ENLIGHTENMENT: BLAKE HAMANN, AND ANGO-GERMAN CONSTELLATIONS
By Alexander Regier
Oxford, 2018. viii + 253 pp.
Reviewed by David Jasper on 2019-07-13.

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In this very fine study of eighteenth century England, Alexander Regier radically resituates common assumptions about the Enlightenment and Romanticism in English and Anglo-German literature and culture. Although he can sometimes be repetitive and makes rather too many typographical and grammatical errors for such a finely produced volume, these failings are far outweighed by the exuberance of the narrative and the intelligence of the well-researched scholarship and argument. At its heart are "exorbitant" figures -- William Blake, Johann Georg Hamann, Henry Fuseli, Johann Casper Lavater and the Moravians in London, among others -- who "exceed proper limits," remaining at the edge of culture and yet also assuming central importance for our understanding of thought and poetry in England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Closely reading familiar texts, especially the poems of Blake, Regier sheds fresh light on them. Just as importantly, he challenges Leslie Stephen's celebrated remark of 1898 (which has been generally accepted), that "no Englishman read German literature in the eighteenth century" (qtd. 31). But the Introduction reminds us that the hero of that very English novel Robinson Crusoe, published in the early eighteenth century (1719), is properly called Robinson (after his mother) and Kreutznaer (after his German father who settled in York). To assume that this story of immigrants is very English, therefore, is for Regier "both mistaken and exactly right" (4).

Leslie Stephen is likewise mistaken. Scholars of Romanticism often hold up S. T. Coleridge as almost unique in his reading of German (and Kant), while nineteenth century English theologians generally disregarded and feared German scholarship (at least until George Eliot's great translation of David Friedrich Strauss' Das Leben Jesu in 1846). But England was hardly ignorant of German language and literature. Regier's first chapter fascinatingly probes "unexpected connections" among the flourishing, multilingual Anglo-German community of eighteenth-century London. While Leslie Stephen claims that English readers had no German literature to read, they were perfectly familiar with the writings of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Christoph Martin Wieland, Johann Jakob Bodmer and others. For instance, Regier notes, Salomon Gessner's Tod Abels (Death of Abel) of 1758 attracted 120 reviews before 1810, and his German stories "were a mainstay in Britain while the first generation Romantics grew into the poets we know today" (38). Gessner deeply influenced Coleridge, Byron, Wordsworth, and many others. By the end of the eighteenth century, some 8,000 German immigrants to London sustained a flourishing German and English speaking community that encouraged a culture of church life, publishing, and bilingual publications.

Having introduced the reader to this community, Regier explains in his second chapter the "exorbitant" significance of Blake and Hamann. To compare them is to see what standard understandings and models of the Enlightenment and English Romanticism typically ignore. Blake, that "very English oddball" (71, emphasis mine), takes on new characteristics as Regier clarifies the poet's links with the German community in London. Hamann, though almost unknown in England after the eighteenth century (until scholars like John Milbank begin to recover him in the twentieth century), turns out to have been ubiquitous. Besides his critical relationship with Kant, Regier argues, he was widely noted as "a scholar, a key reader of biblical hermeneutics, a public intellectual, a moral thinker" (73). Of course, Blake and Hamann were both "odd," but that is just the point. We still need to take them seriously in the fields of literature, philosophy, theology, and above all in their "'exorbitant'" sense of the living power of language.

Blake and Hamann anticipate much of what I have hitherto assumed was first seriously explored by Coleridge in The Statesman's Manual (1816), where he writes on language and the "living educts of the Imagination" (SM 28) Coleridge is also anticipated by Fuseli and Lavater, who shared an understanding of the embodied sense of language, the idea that "Every Letter Has a Body," in the words of the title of Chapter 8. Fuseli here comes alive in a new way. Though probably best known now as the artist responsible for the iconic painting The Nightmare, he was also an important translator from and into German as well as a writer on Rousseau who engaged with David Hume, William Cowper, and others within a broad European intellectual landscape.

But perhaps my favorite chapter in this book involves the bilingual and "'exorbitant'" Moravian church in eighteenth-century London. Through his Moravian mother Blake was closely linked to this congregation, which turns out to be edgier and more radical than is usually thought: a church "both inside and outside Protestantism" (154). The hymns and writings of the Moravians voice an intensely, indeed alarmingly, physical and sexually charged devotion to the wounds and blood of Christ, and their culture, with its energetic and global missionary drive, is deeply German as well as English. Above all, Moravian hymns paved the way for the great Wesleyan tradition of English Methodist hymnody, though John and Charles Wesley conventionalized this great tradition and made it monolingual by burying its Anglo-German roots.

The last three chapters of this book seem like somewhat separate essays, but they confirm the rich implications of the central argument by further reshaping the standard models of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Chapter 6 shows how Blake's profoundly Christian beliefs motivated his radical and exorbitant opposition not only to the rising tide of secularism but also to traditional forms of Christianity and the church. In probing Blake's enmity to the dead hand of instrumental reason as well as to the loss of innocence and the power of the imagination, Regier implicitly points toward hidden but profound theological issues that might, in a future volume, be explored further. In close, lively readings of Blake's poetry, he shows how Blake--and Hamann as well--almost seem to anticipate Nietszche in their loathing of the process of institutionalization, their radical understanding of marriage, and their liberal view of education.

Powerfully examining what its title calls the "Sexuality of Language" and the living being of words, the final chapter shows why Blake was attracted to Kabbalistic writings and also how he and Hamann anticipate a now very largely forgotten stream of English Romantic thought best exemplified by the prose works of Coleridge. Regier aptly cites Hamann's powerful and witty New Apology of the Letter h, a riposte to C. J. Damm's Betrachtungen über Religion (1773), which argues that the silent h in German should be abandoned as superfluous. Among a number of arguments against this move, Hamann suggests that a silent letter can signify a divine trace: a suggestion echoed in postmodern thought and the poetics of Edmond Jabès and others.

The book ends somewhat abruptly. I would like to have seen a concluding chapter that drew together the rich strands of its argument and explained why so much of this Anglo-German tradition was forgotten to the point of blank denial, as evidenced by Leslie Stephen's comment. Nevertheless, this is one of the most compelling books that I have read for some time. It deserves to be read and taken with the utmost seriousness not only by scholars of Blake, Hamann, Fuseli, and Lavater, but also by anyone interested in the shift from Enlightenment to Romantic thought in literature, philosophy, theology, and culture in eighteenth century England.

David Jasper is Emeritus Professor at the University of Glasgow, where he was formerly Professor of Literature and Theology.


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