«E. H. Gombrich, (in Peregrine Horden ed.) The Symbol of the Veil: Psychological Reflections on Schiller's Poetry, Freud and the Humanities, London, ...»
E. H. Gombrich, (in Peregrine Horden ed.) The Symbol of the Veil:
Psychological Reflections on Schiller's Poetry, Freud and the
Humanities, London, 1985, pp.75-109 [Trapp no.1985E.1]
Friedrich Schiller is not a household word among educated people in the English-speaking world, and
I trust nobody will take it amiss if I mention that he was born in November 1759 ten years after
Goethe, that unlike Goethe he had a harsh and rebellious youth, but earned an ever-increasing reputation first as professor of history at Jena, and then as playwright, moving to Weimar, where he died in May 1805. Needless to say, the stages and facets of this varied career had given rise to an enormous bibliography, and have never been neglected by specialists in departments of German language and literature. But these signal achievements of Anglo-Saxon critics and historians, from which I have gratefully profited as much as circumstances permitted, stand in obvious contrast to the benevolent ignorance of the general public. When I asked for an edition of Schiller's poetry in two of the main academic bookshops of London, the helpful sales assistants were genuinely surprised, because they had never heard that Schiller had written any poetry. I know that this happened in partibus infidelium and that perhaps I would have had more luck in Oxford. The translations I have supplied lack all literary pretensions, though I have occasionally allowed the lines to scan if this required no effort on my part.
Let me express the hope, though, that no one will judge the quality of Schiller's verse from this ad hoc selection and translation. I believe that the best of Schiller's philosophical poetry is quite unique in literature. Those who see in Schiller mainly the philosopher who applied the insights of Kant to the criticism of literature may be tempted to regard these poems as a late flowering of the didactic genre which goes back to Lucretius and flourished in the eighteenth century, say, in the poetry of Erasmus Darwin. But in claiming them to be unique I wanted to indicate that such a reading would be onesided. Wilhelm von Humboldt, who was in constant intellectual contact with the poet at the time when he produced these masterpieces, and even occasionally suggested amendments in wording and versification, testified that Schiller's philosophical ideas developed out of the medium of his imagination and his feelings, adding that this was obvious in the case of a poet. In other words the poetic vision came first in Schiller, and though he struggled manfully and successfully also to translate his visions into the systematic language of Kantian philosophy, his profound and difficult philosophical prose works can also be seen as attempts to rationalize and communicate his basic emotional concerns.
With this assertion I have taken up our theme of psychoanalysis and its influence on the arts and humanities. No doubt it is this influence which has made me use the term rationalization, and has prompted me to look at a recurrent image of Schiller's philosophical poems with more than purely rhetorical interest. But though this influence and this interest go far back in my intellectual life to the time when I collaborated with Ernst Kris on problems of the theory of art, this approach has never interfered with my admiration for Schiller's creation. There may be applications of psychoanalysis to art or poetry which incur this danger and indeed deserve the strictures of C.S. Lewis in his witty essay on `Psycho-analysis and literary criticism'. But luckily we have the words of Freud himself to guard against this type of reductionism. Writing about his paper on Dostoevsky to Stefan Zweig in 1920, Freud explained that, `with you I need not fear the misunderstanding that any emphasis on the socalled pathological elements aims at minimizing or explaining the magnificence of Dostoevski's poetic creativity'. I certainly wish neither to minimize nor to explain the magnificence of the poetic creativity of Friedrich Schiller. What I have learned from psychoanalysis is rather to respect the ability of the genius to transmute the impulses arising from emotional conflicts into valid creations, valid not only for him but also for others. I have neither the competence, nor, to be frank, much confidence in the use of the technical terminology in which psychoanalysis describes this process of transformation.' But I am not sure that it will be needed here in any case, when discussing the work of an exceptional poet and thinker. Freud himself sometimes expressed the conviction that writers and poets have an intuitive insight into the secret workings of their own and other men's minds which anticipated and matched the more systematic accounts of his theory. In other words they were conscious of many things which are often located in the Freudian unconscious. Strangely enough Friedrich Schiller was here more popish than the pope or more Freudian than Freud. In a remarkable letter to Goethe of 27 March 1801 he comes to speak of the role of the unconscious in art and poetry – though he calls it not das Unbewusste but das Bewusstlose, the lack in consciousness. He was taking issue with the Romantic philosophy of Schelling, who had maintained that Nature started from the unconscious in order to raise it to consciousness while art started from the conscious and ended in the unconscious – a discussion, by the way, which may remind you of the many links between psychoanalysis and German Romanticism. In any case Schiller retorted that experience shows that the poet also starts exclusively from the unconscious; indeed he can consider himself lucky if, by means of the clearest consciousness of what he is doing, he can get so far that he can again recognize his first dark global idea of his work undiminished in the finished process. `Without such a dark but powerful global idea,' he continues, `which precedes all technical elaboration, no work of poetry can come into being.' `Poetry,' he suggests, `consists precisely in the ability to express and communicate that unconscious, and to translate it into an object' — we might say to objectify it. What makes the poet, Schiller concludes, is the ability to unite the unconscious with awareness (`das Bewusstlose mit dem Besonnenen vereinigt macht den poetischen Künstler aus'). I hope this formulation from Schiller's own hand empowers me now to go in search of the total idea, the global idea, which he has objectivized in so many of his works. As I have indicated in my title I find it embodied in an image or metaphor which frequently recurs in his oeuvre, the image of the veil. Let me then start from the poem of 1795 which centres on this very image or emblem, `Das verschleierte Bild von Sais' (`The veiled image of Sais'), which takes us to the legendary sages of ancient Egypt, the priests of the Temple of Isis who also figure in Mozart's Magic Flute, which was then triumphing in the opera houses of Europe after the composer's premature death.
An eager youth had gone to the sanctuary in search of initiation, explaining to his guide that, truth being undivided, he wants nothing but the whole truth.
Indem sie einst so sprachen, standen sie In einer einsamen Rotonde still, Wo ein verschleiert Bild von Riesengrösse Dem Jüngling in die Augen fiel. Verwundert Blickt er den Führer an und spricht: `Was ist's, Das hinter diesem Schleier sich verbirgt?' Die Wahrheit', ist die Antwort — `Wie?' ruft jener, Nach Wahrheit streb ich ja allein, und diese Gerade ist es, die man mir verhüllt?' Das mache mit der Gottheit aus', versetzt Der Hierophant. 'Kein Sterblicher, sagt sie, Rückt diesen Schleier, bis ich selbst ihn hebe.
Und wer mit ungeweihter, schuld ger Hand Den heiligen, verbotnen früher hebt, Der, spricht die Gottheit'— Nun?' `Der sieht die Wahrheit.' `Ein seltsamer Orakelspruch! Du selbst, Du hättest also niemals ihn gehoben?' `Ich? Wahrlich nicht! Und war auch nie dazu Versucht'— Das fass ich nicht. Wenn von der Wahrheit Nur diese dünne Scheidewand mich trennte' Und ein Gezetz', fällt ihm sein Führer ein, `Gewichtiger, mein Sohn, als du es meinst, Ist dieser dünne Flor — Für deine Hand Zwar leicht, doch zentnerschwer für dein Gewissen.' Der Jüngling ging gedankenvoll nach Hause;
Ihm raubt des Wissens brennende Begier Den Schlaf, er wälzt sich glühend auf dem Lager Und rafft sich auf um Mitternacht. Zum Tempel Führt unfreiwillig ihn der scheue Tritt.
Leicht ward es ihm, die Mauer zu ersteigen, Und mitten in das Innre der Rotonde Trägt ein beherzter Sprung den Wagenden.
Hier steht er nun, und grauenvoll umfängt Den Einsamen die lebenlose Stille, Die nur der Tritte hohler Widerhall In den geheimen Grüften unterbricht.
Von oben durch der Kuppel Öffnung wirft Der Mond den bleichen, silberblauen Schein, Und furchtbar wie ein gegenwärt ger Gott Erglänzt durch des Gewölbes Finsternisse In ihrem langen Schleier die Gestalt.
Er tritt hinan mit ungewissem Schritt;
Schon will die freche Hand das Heilige berühren, Da zuckt es heiss und kühl durch sein Gebein, Und stösst ihn weg mit unsichtbarem Arme.
Unglücklicher, was willst du tun? So ruft In seinem Innern eine treue Stimme.
Versuchen den Allheiligen willst du?
Kein Sterblicher, sprach des Orakels Mund, Rückt diesen Schleier, bis ich selbst ihn hebe.
Doch setzte nicht derselbe Mund hinzu:
Wer diesen Schleier hebt, soll Wahrheit schauen?
Sei hinter ihm, was will! Ich heb ihn auf.' (Er ruft's mit lauter Stimm.) `Ich will sie schauen.' `Schauen'!
Gellt ihm ein langes Echo spottend nach.
Er spricht's und hat den Schleier aufgedeckt.
Nun,' fragt ihr, `und was zeigte sich ihm hier.' Ich weiss es nicht. Besinnungslos und bleich, So fanden ihn am andern Tag die Priester Am Fussgestell der Isis ausgestreckt.
Was er allda gesehen und erfahren, Hat seine Zunge nie bekannt. Auf ewig War seines Lebens Heiterkeit dahin, Ihn riss ein tiefer Gram zum frühen Grabe.
`Weh Dem', dies war sein warnungsvolles Wort, Wenn ungestüme Frager in ihn drangen, `Weh Dem, der zu der Wahrheit geht durch Schuld, Sie wird ihm nimmermehr erfreulich sein.' While they were talking in this vein they found themselves In the interior of a lone rotunda Where a veiled image of gigantic size Impressed the youth, who, with a sense of wonder, Looked at his guide and asked him, `What is this That hides behind this veil?'–`Truth', was the answer.
`What?' he exclaims, `it's after Truth alone I strive And now Truth is to be concealed from me?' `That you must settle with the Goddess', said The hierophant. `No mortal hand', said she, 'May lift this veil till I myself shall lift it.
But he whose sacrilegious guilty hand Will grasp at this forbidden sacred veil, He' – says the Goddess – `Well?' – `will look on Truth.' – `What strange oracular words, and you yourself Have never lifted it?' `I? Surely not, nor did I ever feel such a temptation.' `I cannot grasp this – if Truth and I Were separated by this thin division' And by a law', said rapidly the guide, `This flimsy veil weighs little in your hand, But on your conscience it weighs hundredweights'.
The youth went home by many thoughts oppressed.
His thirst for knowledge robbed him of his sleep And restlessly he tossed upon his bed.
When midnight came he rose, and to the temple Involuntarily he turned his steps.
To scale the wall was easy and a leap Took the bold youth inside the sanctuary Where soon he came to the rotunda's centre.
So there he stands, and with a sense of dread The lifeless stillness grips the lonely youth.
Only the hollow echo of his steps, Reverberates from the mysterious vault, While from the opening of the dome above The moonlight pours its pale and silvery blue.
And fearful, like the presence of a God, A shining apparition in the gloom, In its enormous veil the statue stands.
So, moving closer with unsteady steps, His ruthless hand is reaching for the Holy When heat and cold run through his bones and marrow And hold him off with an invisible arm.
Unfortunate, what deed is this? So calls A faithful voice within his inner self.
Are you to tempt the Holiest of Holies?
No mortal, said the Oracle, you know, Must move this veil, till I move it myself.
But did these self-same lips not also say That he who lifts it will behold the Truth?
`Be what it may behind, I lift it now.' (He calls in a loud voice.) `I want to see her.' `See her,' a strident echo mockingly repeats.
So said, he seized the cover of the veil.
`Well', you will ask, `what was it that he saw?' I cannot tell; unconscious, pale and wan The temple priests discovered him next morning Prostrate before the pedestal of Isis.
Whatever there he saw and there experienced Did never pass his lips, for evermore All cheerfulness had vanished from his life.
A searing grief soon brought him to his grave.
`O woe to him' – these were his warning words When he was importuned by questioners.
`O woe to him who comes to Truth through guilt, For it will never, never, bring him joy.' We can guess where Schiller found the legend which so inspired him. It must have been in the footnote which Immanuel Kant appended to a paragraph of his Critique of Judgement which deals
Perhaps there has never been a more sublime utterance, or a thoughtmore sublimely expressed, than the well-known inscription upon the Temple of Isis (Mother Nature): `I am all that is, and that was, and that shall be, and no mortal hath raised the veil from before my face'.
Kant continues by commending a book on `natural philosophy' by a certain Segner for having chosen this motif for its frontispiece, in order to fill the apprentice, whom he was ready to take into this temple, with `a holy awe'. Schiller in fact had already alluded to the inscription six years before writing the poem in his essay on `The mission of Moses', where he applies it to the need of faith to remain esoteric.' But in the poem just quoted the application is surely much wider; nor need we indulge in much guesswork, for its message, which is meant to remain mysterious in the parable, is spelt out in another poem of the same year, 1795, and entitled 'Poesie des Lebens' (`The poetry of life'). It is ostensibly addressed to a friend, who, as I may put it, despises veils. He, we are told, is a stern realist who wants to see truth naked, entblösst. The effect of this uncompromising demand is as catastrophic
as was the sacrilegious action of the youth in the temple: