Deeper into the “Shallow Enlightenment” (Ludwig Tieck, George J. Adler, and Herman Meville)

Before resuming last week’s exploration of the “shallow Enlightenment,” we should take stock of where things stand.

What we saw last week was that “shallow” was but one of a number of pejoratives that have been marshaled against the Enlightenment. It bears remembering that, when viewed in the context of the other terms that could be used, “shallow” is probably one of the gentler characterizations of the Enlightenment’s failings.  After all, a “shallow enlightenment” is not an enlightenment that is likely to set the world on fire. It is not something that inevitably inaugurates an era of revolutions, nor does it threaten to culminate in a nihilism that eradicates all values. Indeed, friends of enlightenment are  quite capable of accusing each other of periodic lapses into “shallowness” or “superficiality.”  One of the many things that the notion that there was something called “the counter-Enlightenment” tends to obscure is that criticisms of what we now call “the Enlightenment” came in a number of forms and from a variety of parties.  In order to make sense of the history of the concept of “enlightenment,”  we need to recover the language used to criticize it.

My point of departure last week had been the assumption that, as Ernst Cassirer implied in the Preface to his Philosophy of the Enlightenment, this particular pejorative was a term that could be traced back to the Romantic tradition. This origin might help explain why this phrase turns up both in German critiques of the Enlightenment and in a number of English criticisms, including James Hutchison Stirling’s  The Secret Of Hegel, which served as one of the source quotes used by the Oxford English Dictionary in its lamentable, but now happily revised, definition of the Enlightenment.  There is, however, one problem with the OED’s quote from Stirling: when he spoke of a “shallow enlightenment” he was referring to the limited degree of enlightenment achieved by an individual — namely, Thomas Buckle — rather than the failings of an historical period.

On Errors, Forced and Unforced

In my article on the OED’s definition I was inclined to view this misreading simply as the sort of mistake that was inevitable in producing  a complex lexicon like the OED at a time when the resources on which we can now draw were not available. But in doing this, I may have overlooked an interesting question: just why would an editor, looking at a slip of paper containing a quotation from a mid-nineteenth century book, be inclined to read the phrase “shallow enlightenment” as referring to the shallowness of an historical period, rather than the shallowness of an individual? In sports (and in politics, assuming there’s a difference) we talk about “forced” and “unforced errors.” Perhaps as historians of concepts and ideas, we might want to do the same. If the OED’s error was “forced,” just what was doing the forcing? In other words, what might have lead those who were inserting these source quotes into the OED to assume that there was nothing peculiar about a passage that described an entire tradition of thought as “shallow”?

One conjecture might go like this:  by the close of the nineteenth century, when the entry was being edited, the convention of seeing “enlightenment thought” as “shallow” had become so well-established that it was only natural for an editor to read Stirling’s characterization of the shallowness of an individual as a description of the shallowness of an epoch. And, if Cassirer was right in viewing the German pejorative “flachen Aufklärung” as the verdict of the “romantic tradition,” then the explanation for the OED’s forced error might go like this: by the close of the nineteenth century, the convention of viewing “enlightenment” as “shallow” had completed its migration from German romanticism into English literature. Since an explanation of this sort is consistent with the nGram that I posted last week, it would make sense to take a look at some of the examples that Google provides and see just how this transmission might have taken place.

English Romantics with Germans Weapons

In a study dating from 1887 Alois Brandl observed that Coleridge and Carlyle “fought against shallow enlightenment, conscious calculations and narrow-minded materialism, and both fetched their weapons by preference from Germany” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the English Romantic School   370). It is not clear, however, that the phrase “shallow enlightenment” itself was one of the “weapons” that Coleridge and Carlyle picked up in Germany. A quick search for the phrase “shallow enlightenment” in texts by Coleridge and Carlyle available online turns up nothing. But, searching beyond the works of Coleridge and Carlyle, the phrase can be found in a number of nineteenth-century Anglophone accounts of German Romanticism, including discussions of a German romantic whose path had crossed that of both Coleridge and Carlyle: Ludwig Tieck.

Coleridge met Tieck in Rome in 1806 and the two men met again during Tieck’s visit to England in the spring and summer of 1817. But Edwin Hermann Zeydel’s Ludwig Tieck and England (1931) maintains that their contacts were, at best, “casual” (91). He grants that Carlyle’s involvement with Tieck might have gone a bit further. Carlyle translated a collection of Tieck’s shorter works in 1825, but does not seem to have been much impressed by them. Zeydel argues that Carlyle was “out of sympathy with the undertaking” (he regarded it, at best, as a way to make some money) and sees his introduction to the volume as betraying “a poorly disguised indifference to Tieck’s work and no unusual liking for his fiction” (116). But Carlyle later provided a somewhat more sympathetic account of Tieck’s longer works in his 1827 German Romance (a collection of translations with introductions), which offered some measured praise for Tieck’s fairy tales, particularly his dramatized version of Puss in Boots, Der gestiefelte Kater.   In this work Carlyle maintains that Tieck

laughed with his whole heart, in the true Aristophonic vein, at the actual aspect of literature; and without mingling his satire with personalities, or any other false ingredient, and drained it like a quiet shower of volcanic ashes on the cant of Illumination, the cant of Sensibility, the cant of Criticism, and the many other cants of that shallow time, till the gumflower products of the poetic garden hung draggled and black under their unkindly coating.

In seeing Tieck as taking aim at the “cant of Illumination,” Carlyle was employing the favored term that English critics used in speaking of the movement we call “the Enlightenment.”  But, while we are close to our quarry, we still haven’t found a use of the phrase “shallow enlightenment.”

George J. Adler, Lexicographer

There is, however, another English discussion of Tieck’s Puss and Boots and it contains the phrase “shallow enlightenment” along with a good deal more. The text in question is the Handbook of German Literature, an anthology of German texts with English introductions compiled by George J. Adler (New York, D. Appleton & Co. 1854). The collection includes, in addition to Tieck, not only the expected texts from Schiller and Goethe, but also extracts from Johann Georg Hamann (though one can only guess at what a student of German might have made of them). The introduction to Puss and Boots (or, as Adler would have it, The Booted Puss), explains that Tieck was born in Berlin and that

A certain tone of omniscience, which according to the author’s account was at that time particularly prevalent in the city, was as offensive to him as it was odious to foreigners. A certain shallow enlightenment, which pronounced a sentence of condemnation on everything, that would not submit to the metewand of its artificial standard, had become the fashion of the day.

Unable and unwilling itself to comprehend the profounder verities of art, of philosophy and of religion it yet arrainged them all before the forum of its superficial common sense. This jejune illuminatism, while it successfully exposed to merited ridicule and contempt many a remaining vestige of superstition or of obscurantisitic abuses, assumed itself the intolerant attitude of the parties supplanted and condescended even to inquisitorial heretifications and to a malignant persecution of all, who ventured to dissent from its infallible decisions.” (321–322)

The “Berlin Monthly magazine,” Adler goes on to note, “was the oracle and organ” of this general attitude.

Here, as long last, we find the phrase “shallow enlightenment” used in the context of a discussion of a German romantic.  It occurs not in a text written by an English romantic but rather in the work of what would appear to be an unknown American.  But Adler was, in fact, neither American nor entirely unknown.

An article in the November 1934 issue of The German Quarterly informs us that Adler was born in Leipzig in 1821, came to America in 1833, and graduated as valedictorian  from Columbia University (then known as the University of the City of New York) in 1840. He completed his most significant contribution at the tender age of 28: his massive Dictionary of the German and English Languages, published in 1849. The dictionary is available online and the epigram from Coleridge that stands at the outset suggests that Adler’s approach shares some of the concerns of today’s historians of concepts: “Language is the armory of the human mind, containing at once the trophies of its past, and the weapons for its future conquests.”

Adler’s definition of Aufklärung rounds up a fair number of the weapons that had been deployed against the Enlightenment:

Adler Aufklärung

Here, in sum, was a man who seemed to know a great deal about the intellectual life of Berlin in the mid–1780s and about the terms that had been used to criticize the Enlightenment. How did he know this?

His account of Tieck’s life drew rather heavily on Tieck’s own Preface to the republication of his early epistolary novel William Lovell. While Tieck’s description resembles what we see in Adler’s summary (for instance, it characterizes the Berlinische Monatsschrift as the “main carrier and advocate” of the general attitude he associated with the Aufklärung) the word that Tieck uses to describe the failings of this Aufklärung was “Seichtigkeit” rather than “flache.” But since both words can be translated into English as “shallow,” this is a distinction without difference. The adjective flache seems to be used a bit more often than the adjectival form of Seichtigkeit:

adjective contrast

But occurrences of flache Aufklärung are somewhat more common than references to seichte Aufklärung (though neither of these terms is all that popular, especially when compared with the other alternatives):

flache v seichte

Like his familiarity with eighteenth-century Berlin, Adler’s grasp of German pejoratives for Aufklärung has a simple explanation: anyone working on a German-English dictionary would likely have consulted the relevant German dictionaries. We need only compare the entry for Aufklärung in Campe’s 1806 dictionary to Adler’s in order to see what he might have taken from earlier German ventures:

Campe Wörterbuch Aufklärung

And this, perhaps, sheds some light on what the German term Aufklärerei is doing in the OED’s old definition: is it unreasonable to think that, when dealing with a term whose provenance —according to the source quotes that they were using —would have appeared to be German, the editors might have consulted the leading German-English dictionary of the day (even if it was written by a German-American)?

Adler at Sea

Adler’s crowning scholarly achievement came at a terrible personal cost. Among the works by him that can be found online is a self-published text entitled “Letters of a Lunatic: A Brief Exposition of My University Life During the Years 1853–54” (1854). This sad little book consists of  letters and documents he assembled in an effort to respond to the various conspiracies that he saw as having been mounted against him by his immediate superiors at New York University. He reports on voices that he has heard outside his office, taunting him.  He includes the letter that his Dean wrote to Adler’s friends and colleagues advising them of Adler’s difficulties and goes on to couple it with own lengthy response, disputing various points (but usually in a form that leaves one wondering whether his Dean’s assessment of his state might have been correct).  And he provides his readers with a copy of the letter that he wrote to the mayor of New York, protesting his confinement in the Bloomingdale Asylum, a place where he would reside, off and on, until his death in 1868. The book closes with a brief summary of “The Law of Intellectual Freedom” — extracted from Spinoza — to which Adler added a note explaining what he felt was at stake:

I emphasize this important clause for the particular benefit of those who in my personal history have had the absurd expectation that I should continue to entertain a respectful deference to a certain phase of religionism, which upon a careful and rational examination I found to be worthless and which is repugnant to my taste and better judgment, and of others who with equal absurdity are in the habit of exacting ecclesiastical tests (I will not say religious, for such men show by their very conduct that their enlightenment in matters of the religion of the heart is very imperfect) for academic appointments;—as if the science and the culture of the nineteenth century were still to be the handmaid of the church, as they were in the Middle Ages; as if Philosophy and the Liberal Arts could ever thrive and flourish in the suffocating atmosphere of the idols of the cave, the idols of the tribe, and the idols of the marketplace!

It appears that Adler’s difficulties date from the fall of 1849 and began while he labored to complete his great dictionary. Seeking respite from the demons that were troubling him, he boarded a ship for England and during the voyage spent quite a bit of time with a shipmate whose most famous novel (still, at this point, unwritten) would begin with some reflections on the curative effects of sea voyages on troubled spirits: Herman Melville. While Adler may be unknown in most parts of the academy, he looms large in the Melville literature.

It is clear from his journals that Melville was impressed by Adler. His journal entry for October 12 reports:

He is the author of a formidable lexicon, (German & English); in compiling which he almost ruined his health. He was almost crazy, he tells me, for a time. He is full of the German metaphysics, & discourses of Kant, Swedenborg & c. He has been my principal companion thus far.

The next day he wrote:

Last evening was very pleasant. Walked the deck with the German, Mr. Adler to a late hour, talking of “Fixed Fate, Free-will, foreknowledge absolute” &c. His philosophy is Coleredegian: he accepts the Scriptures as divine, & yet leaves himself free to inquire into Nature.

The entry for October 22 reports that, over “whiskey punches,” Melville and another companion had a discussion with Adler that lasted “until two in the morning”:

We talked metaphysics continually, & Hegel, Schlegel, Kant &c were discussed under the influence of the whiskey. I shall not forget Adler’s look when he quoted La Place the French astronomer—“It is not necessary, gentlemen, to account for these worlds by the hypothesis” &c.

Five days later, shifting from whiskey punches to mulled wine, the three voyagers were “riding on the German horse” until around three in the morning. After landing in London, Melville and Adler kept in contact, wandering through the city and visiting museums and churches before proceeding on to Paris, where they eventually parted company.  They never met again, though Melville was one of the few mourners who attended Adler’s funeral.

In the literature on Melville (I’ve appended a brief bibliography for those who might be curious as to what our colleagues in the Melville industry have turned up), Adler figures both as possible inspiration for his fellow madmen Pierre, Ahab, and Bartleby and as Melville’s guide into the world of German idealism. The latter role may have been more important than the former. For madness was something with which Melville was all too familiar before setting off on his voyage to England. But it is easy to see how his contact with this troubled lexicographer could have served as the catalyst for a book that included both a chapter on the “etymology” of whales — allegedly supplied by a “late consumptive usher to a grammar school” who “loved to dust his old grammars” as a way to remind himself (“mildly”) “of his mortality” — and a chapter on the attribute of “whiteness” that sails fearlessly into the heavy seas of metaphysics.

The quotation from Coleridge on words as weapons was but the first of the three epigrams that launched Adler’s dictionary. The third, and no less significant epigram, came from Jean Paul Richter:

It seems to me that — just as the speechless animal swims in the outer world as in a dark benumbing sea —man would likewise lose himself in the star-filled heaven of outer phenomena if he did not through language divide the confused shining lights into star-maps and, by means of these, break the whole into parts for his consciousness. Only language illuminates the broad single-colored world-map.

This struggle to overcome the confusion of the world by means of the light that language provides is surely one of the things that at stake in the project of enlightenment.

A Short Bibliography on Adler and Melville

Bradley, Lyman R. “George J. Adler, 1821-1868.” The German Quarterly 7, no. 4 (November 1, 1934): 152–156.  [A survey of his career, including a discussion of his contact with Melville]

Lee, Dwight A., Lee Ash, Lawrence S. Thompson, and Rigby Graham. “Melville and George J. Adler.” American Notes & Queries 12, no. 9/10 (May 1974): 138 [an early mapping of the relationship].

Marovitz, Sanford E. “More Chartless Voyaging: Melville and Adler at Sea.” Studies in the American Renaissance (January 1, 1986): 373–384 [this article, along with its sequel from two decades later, provide the most thorough discussion of the impact of Adler on Melville’s work].

Marovitz, Sanford E. “Correspondences:  Paranoiac Lexicographers and Melvillean Heroes.” In Ungraspable Phantom: Essays on Moby-Dick, 100–113. Kent State University Press, 2006.

Parker, Hershel, Herman Melville : A Biography. 2 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, [Vol 1:  661-687, provides a detailed account of Melville’s journey to England and the Continent and his contact with Adler].

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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One Response to Deeper into the “Shallow Enlightenment” (Ludwig Tieck, George J. Adler, and Herman Meville)

  1. Pingback: Publicity & the Public Sphere – Reading Habermas as a Historian of Concepts | Persistent Enlightenment

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