Goethe is viewed as a German Shakespeare

Cultural theoryGenius: reasons and abysses

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller were the first geniuses in German-language literary history. Napoleon brought genius into politics and also became a glorified leader east of the Rhine, who cast its shadow until the time of National Socialism. Today our attitude towards genius and especially towards the cult of genius is thoroughly ambivalent. However, the phenomenon has not lost its fascination.

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Borchmeyer: "It's an extraordinary talent, with a strong natural gift."
Kirchhoff: "Inspired by a genius who wants to create something big."
Münkler: "Genius is the person who comes up with new ideas in a situation."
Beßlich: "And above all, it wants to break with norms, it doesn't want to fit into a set of rules."

To be creative like God! What arrogance, what idea! And only conceivable at a time when the ideas of the Enlightenment shed light on gloomy poets and thinkers. A time when the thought arises that man is more than just a creature that is dependent on higher powers, earthly and heavenly. In the period of secularization from 1700, the literary scholar and initiator of the Heidelberg lectures on cultural theory, Prof. Dieter Borchmeyer:

"It is part of the genius picture that he operates a kind of creation ex nihilo, a creation out of nothing, that is, that he does not rely on prefabricated rules and patterns, but that he creates out of himself."

Etymologically, the term genius has two roots: On the one hand there is the word "Ingenium", derived from the verb ingignere, which means something like planting. Ingenium - that stands for special talent. On the other hand, however, the "genius": In times of Roman religiosity he was the protective spirit of masculinity or:

Borchmeyer: "That was the embodiment of male reproductive power."

Which, according to Dieter Borchmeyer, would also answer the question of why geniuses are so often male.

Borchmeyer: "Because it is the power of procreation and that is also expressed in various genius treatises of the 18th century. The foundations of the genius cult were actually laid in England."

William Shakespeare

We owe the idea of ​​geniuses to William Shakespeare and his knowledge of human nature, which bursts all boundaries of time and is still astonishing to this day. That there are people who think and express thoughts that nobody thought before them, nobody has uttered. Or as the British poet and cultural politician Joseph Addison wrote:

"Shakespeare was born with everything that belongs to poetry, which nature has produced voluntarily and without any help from art. And one can only compare him with the stone in the ring of Phyrrus, which, as Pliny says, the figure of Apollo and the had nine muses in his veins. "

However, it had taken almost 100 years after Shakespeare's death for the view that Shakespeare was extremely gifted and laudable to take hold. Until then he was considered coarse, uncivilized, an evil subject and at best suitable as a comedian for the common people. Frederick II was indignant at the ridiculous farces that were now being given everywhere, and Voltaire judged that Shakespeare was "a savage of some imagination whose works are only popular in London and Canada." But this assessment changed at the beginning of the 18th century.

Borchmeyer: "Our countryman Shakespeare, said Addison, he's actually the genius. We knew that very well."

And with the appearance of Johann Wolfgang Goethe in the literary world at the latest, Shakespeare also became the fixed star in this country to which everyone looked up. In its pieces the individual fought against society, against convention, and rebelled. Shakespeare no longer adhered to the dramatic structure cemented by Aristotle with the unity of place, time and plot, but he broke the rules. Goethe was enthusiastic and wrote in his "Speech on the Schäkespeares Day" in 1771:

"I did not doubt for a moment that I would renounce the regular theater. The unity of the place seemed so fearful to me, the unity of action and time bothersome shackles of our imagination. I jumped into the open air and only felt that I had hands and feet And now that I have seen how much injustice the lords of the rules have done me in their hole, how many free souls are still writhing inside, my heart would have burst if I hadn't announced feuds to them and hadn't looked for them every day, to smash their towers. "

The genius time: Sturm und Drang

That was the beginning of the Sturm und Drang era. The genius time. In 1773 Goethe had his first sensational success with the "Sorrows of Young Werther" and was immediately considered a genius himself. As one who disregards other gods. As in his poem "Prometheus", which he has exclaimed:

"Cover your sky, Zeus, with cloud haze
And practice like the boy who decapitates thistles, on oaks and mountain heights
I have to leave my earth standing and my hut, which you did not build, and my hearth, the glow of which you envy me.
I don't know anything poorer under the sun than you gods. "

In Goethe's genius hymns for the first time the claim that genius makes of himself is manifested: to create something himself. Breaking the boundaries of rationality. Be an artist.

Borchmeyer: "That is why Kant said in the 'Critique of Judgment' that only artists can be geniuses because they create from the unconscious. And while the scientist creates from the conscious, he cannot be a genius. A discoverer, Kant said like Columbus is not a genius. He just invents something. "

Immanuel Kant describes creative people as a "peculiar spirit", which he liked better than the term genius. Whereby peculiarly has a different meaning then than it does today.

Borchmeyer: "A spirit is called peculiar that creates entirely from within itself. That comes from property. What it does is its property, is its own and is not prefabricated."

You are not made a genius, you are a genius from the start. And you know that too.

Borchmeyer: "Those who follow rules don't need to be convinced of themselves, but whoever says I don't want to know anything more about these rules, that means yes, they are convinced of themselves, otherwise they would not adhere to the rules at all Dare to break through, this subjectivity of genius is the very essence. This subjective self-confidence. Otherwise a genius cannot be a genius. "

Not only artists can be geniuses

Incidentally, Kant later revised that a genius can only be an artist. Scientists could also be accepted into the illustrious circle. The spreading cult of genius had horrified him, he developed an aversion to the "geniuses", the "genius apes". They were supposed to bring the enlightenment and now they behaved like initiates or rulers from the seat of wisdom in an authoritarian tone.

For Barbara Beßlich, head of the Institute for Literature Studies at the University of Heidelberg, a genius is not just someone who sits alone in a quiet little room and thinks he is something special. It also needs following, those who absolutely believe in his genius, who go with him.

"Genius is a matter of ascription."


And it wasn't just the French who saw Napoleon as a genius. Like Shakespeare, the charismatic climber from Corsica was adopted as a national hero, especially in Germany. Even at a time when, as a general of the revolution, he was actually a political opponent. But not for everyone:

Beßlich: "It is interesting to observe that Napoleon was only conceived as a national enemy for a very short period of time during the wars of liberation, that the revolutionary general of the 1790s was enthusiastically received as someone who carried the revolution to other countries then slowly after the imperial coronation skepticism arises and when Napoleon is exiled to St. Helena, transfigurations begin again very early on. "

"What do I care woman, what do I care child
I have far better desires
Let them go begging when they are hungry-
my emperor, my emperor captured. "

You could see that Napoleon had brought war across Europe. Long after his death, he not only influenced art, but also German politicians who dreamed of a united country and a constitution.

Beßlich: "With the Civil Code, of course, he brought a whole new level of legal security and he is someone who, in retrospect, in exile on St. Helena, stylized himself as a great liberal. He dictated memoirs in which he was much more liberal stylized when he was and that had an effect on the German pre-March. "

Until 1848 Napoleon was revered as a fighter against the Restoration. In the second half of the 19th century, other tones mingled with the genius discourse. Especially in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche it was no longer about civil liberties, but about the veneration of a unique person.

Obedient: "Then it is the great individual who is conceived as a spiritual aristocrat."

Napoleon embodied the desire of many Germans for the strong man. A leader figure. One they could adore and love. And who to them, who suited the German people, was of the same nature.

The National Socialists were able to use this "We against the rest of the world led by a charismatic leader figure". They did too. But with restrictions.

National Socialists

Beßlich: "There is a Napoleon biography of a National Socialist that was then crushed in 1942. Actually, this biography is entirely attributed to Hitler, Hitler is our Napoleon, and that is something that is no longer opportune in 1942."

The new rulers did not like to be reminded of Napoleon's failure in Russia and his inglorious end. And anyway, what do you need Napoleon for? The Germans now had their own genius in power.

Herfried Münkler: "And then there is also the satanic genius. And not only the genius that gives us pleasure, that creates problems for us, but also the demonic, the satanic in a brilliant form," says the political scientist Professor Herfried Münkler von the Humboldt University of Berlin, who will ask the question in the context of the Heidelberg lectures: "Was Hitler a genius?"

Münkler: "Yes, if we are ready to accept that genius generally does not include the whole person, but that it is a sprinkling in what is often a very complex person, then one can say that in some respects Hitler had ingenious traits, that concerns issues of propaganda and influencing people. "

Both were part of the German view of Napoleon, says Herfried Münkler: on the one hand, his tremendous stylization almost in the role of redeemer, on the other hand, the admiration of the demonic and apocalyptic.

Münkler: "And I think that is repeated in many ways with Hitler."

Kirchhoff: "We understand the genius as the person who achieves more than the others, but does something good for the general public."

The state and tax lawyer Professor Paul Kirchhoff thinks.

Kirchhoff: "I would oppose the concept of ingenious criminals. He can be imaginative, unbelievably resourceful, every major criminal also thinks he is more cunning and cunning than other people, because he does it because he is supposed not to be discovered. But I think the genius is, I want to discover something for humanity. I want to give humanity a great gift. "

In addition, Paul Kirchhoff points out, law is a changing factor. What was treason in Michelangelo's time would be a breach of contract today and at most result in a fine. Michelangelo, on the other hand, had risked his life when he threw his chisel at the Pope's feet and fled Rome without having completed the monument he demanded.

Borchmeyer: "Because genius is unbound, there is always the risk that he will become completely eccentric, go mad, or become a criminal. This closeness to crime has definitely been seen."

Geniuses in the 21st century

Even in the 21st century there are geniuses, no question about it, there are scientists who have earned the Nobel Prize, there are inventors and extraordinary artists. And the term has not gone out of fashion either. It's ubiquitous. Almost a nuisance of sorts.
Literary scholar Barbara Beßlich:

Beßlich: "The concept of genius is inflationary in use today. ... an everyday word that can be used for everything, a term that has been used up for aesthetic debates, which can actually no longer be reactivated."