02 November, 2007

Sprachgefool

In 1942, besieged in his Florentine villa, Bernard Berenson kept a diary of his reading, subsequently published. It isn't a great work, by any stretch of the imagination, but nevertheless, I find myself coming back to it now and then, for little aperçus, offhand remarks and obiter dicta, some valuable in their own right, others revealing a lost world. I have already quoted the book several times on this site. On the 21st of January, Berenson wrote,
Began also the Nazi Koran, Mein Kampf, for Hitler, besides much else in common with Mohammed, has given his adherents a book.
Talk about 'Islamofascism'! Berenson continues to report on Mein Kampf for some weeks, admiring and deploring the work in (almost) equal measure. Being a Jew—by birth a Lithuanian, Bernhard Valvrojenski—he of course laments Hitler's maniacal misosemitism. A month and a half after Berenson began Mein Kampf, Hitler was at dinner with his officers, spouting off as usual. Heinrich Heim was still taking stenographic notes; his successor, Picker, had not yet taken over those duties. Hitler is alleged to have said that
The English language lacks the ability to express thoughts that surpass the order of concrete things. It's because the German language has this ability that Germany is the country of thinkers.
One reads Hitler for these sorts of statements—one reads him as a barometer, just as one reads Berenson. German is the language of grand nouns, of course—nouns like Geisteswissenschaft—which is why the Philosophen are so difficult to translate, and why I decided to drop German classes at the Warburg. But what is interesting is the move from a grammatical style to an intellectual one. Hitler's remark rather reminds me of the discussion in Karl Vossler's 1925 The Spirit of Language in Civilization, in which he argues that languages with definite articles—such as Greek, and to a lesser extent Mediaeval Latin, by contrast to Classical Latin—are well suited to philosophical thought. It is with the definite article, and with long, agglutinated nouns, that we are better able to isolate and objectify abstract concepts, and hence to analyse them. So goes the logic.

German already had a reputation, quite unwarranted, for slowness and solidity. In 1783, Johann Christoph Schwab, in his Grand Concours lecture for Frederick II's Academy—done into French (1803) as Dissertation sur les causes de l'universalité de la langue françoise et la durée vraisemblable de son empire—fascinating, but now little read—argues that the German poets are superior to the French in profundity and originality, but complains that the language lacks the sweet charm and pleasantness that has made French, deservedly, the lingua franca of European intellectuals. French and German turn out to be natural opposites. In her extremely influential 1810 work on Germany, Madame de Staël asserts that the chief limitation of the language is its end-placement of the verb, making it effectively impossible to understand a sentence until it is finished. French unfolds quickly, encouraging a lively badinage and play of social wit, whereas German is civil, still and deep. The latter is, likewise, better for poetry than prose, and better for writing than speaking. German is also better suited to the abstract.

Later in the same century, Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Hitler's many pseudo-inspirations, made a string of soon-to-be-notorious remarks on the German language, in his 1886 book Beyond Good and Evil, 2.28:
A German is almost incapable of presto in his language; thus also as may be reasonably inferred, of many of the most delightful and daring nuances of free, free-spirited thought. . . Everything ponderous, viscous, and solemnly clumsy, all long-winded and boring types of style are developed in profuse variety among German—forgive me the fact that even Goethe's prose, in its mixture of stiffness and elegance, is no exception, being a reflection of the “good old time” to which it belongs.
Kaufmann, somewhere, quite rightly objects to this, on the grounds that in Nietzsche's hands the language is most certainly capable of presto, of daring nuances and free-spirited thought. Nietzsche is, for Kaufmann, the greatest writer of German prose since Luther. That is the gangasrotagati Nietzsche.

Still, Hitler would certainly have agreed that the style of a language 'has its basis in the character of the race'. As a German, how could he not have? Hegel was in the blood, in the kraut and pilsner, in the fumes of the sewers. And having just insisted that Germany is the country of thinkers, Hitler continued to maunder, free-associating on the topic of language, happy, one presumes, to blurt out anything that came to mind, safe in the knowledge that the assembled officers would nod sagely, or perhaps laugh in sympathy, whatever it took—
We Germans are not inclined to talk for the sake of talking. We don’t become intoxicated with sounds. When we open our mouth, it's to say something.
Ach so.

22 comments:

John Emerson said...

I think that Nietzsche's genius is to change directions several times in the course of a long German sentence while still producing something intelligible and readable. Often the middle or end of a sentence says the opposite of what the beginning seemed to be starting to say. And Nietzsche himself credits this skill to an intensive training in classical Latin.

Michael said...

The emperor Charles V was supposed to have said that he spoke in Latin to his churchmen, in Spanish to his courtiers, in French to his mistress, and in German to his horse. No doubt he needed in the last instance to be able "to express thoughts that surpassed the order of concrete things."

Yusef said...

"Berenson continues to report on Mein Kampf for some weeks, admiring and deploring the work in (almost) equal measure."

What a tolerant, broad, and well-balanced mind Berenson's must have been and how noble that we continue to find value in its expressions, at the margin, of "little aperçus, offhand remarks and obiter dicta."

Only an intolerant,narrow, and unbalanced mind such as mine would hesitate and wonder at this continuing evidence of offhand remarks and obiter dicta indicating a Nazi apologist, a giddy aesthete, and a beggar for sorrow and shame.

Conrad H. Roth said...

John: yes.

Michael: the traditional quote is "Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse", though I have heard many other variations.

Yusef: "a Nazi apologist, a giddy aesthete, and a beggar for sorrow and shame"---are we talking about Berenson or me now? Naturally, hesitation and wonder is what we encourage here, but if you really believed I was a Nazi apologist, why would you keep reading? Are you one of us, perhaps? Sieg heil!

Greg Afinogenov said...

And, of course, this splendid well-suitedness for abstraction draws the ire of another German philosopher:

"Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistic brought him new and manifold evidence."
(Preface to The German Ideology)

Yusef said...

I continue reading for the very reason that Hitler was a dedicated aesthetician and only an aesthetician-aesthetics was his politics-aesthetics was all he cared about... In the final analysis all other dedicated aesthetes, for whom aesthetics is a politics, for whom aesthetics is the one care, will ally with one or another of Hitler's variations on unreligious experience as their politics, as an inevitability.

Mencius Moldbug said...

Conrad, since you're already a racist, why not dabble a little in Nazism? It's like becoming a goth once you're already a punk, or something. The combination is just somehow really natural.

The definitive work on Nazism and the German language is, of course, Klemperer's Lingua Tertii Imperii. While I normally try to refrain from this kind of book snobbery, I'm afraid that I have real trouble in regarding anyone as educated unless he or she has read Klemperer.

The essential fact about Nazism is that Nazism was fashionable. If you could somehow combine environmentalism, hip-hop, social justice, heavy metal, diversity and punk rock into a single mighty meta-ideology, you might have something as fashionable as National Socialism in Germany in 1938. I exaggerate - slightly.

So, once Conrad figures out how to be a fashionable Nazi racist, and is regularly seen hobnobbing with Brad Pitt and Gisele Bundchen, sporting his slick swastika armband and lecturing his celebrity pals on the substandard convolutions of the Negro brain, we'll definitely have to start worrying. Until then, however...

Conrad H. Roth said...

MM: "If you could somehow combine environmentalism, hip-hop, social justice, heavy metal, diversity and punk rock into a single mighty meta-ideology"

Sadly, someone's already beaten me to it. Sadder still, while my racist and Nazi credentials are apparently impeccable, being fashionable has always been my great shortcoming. Only today I was putting a safety-pin in my earlobe, and I realised I was thirty years too late! Anyway, thanks for the recommendation; I do realise that my jejune attempt to mix the Reich and linguistics was ill-fated without first dipping into that tome.

Drake said...

"When we open our mouth, it's to say something."

That, or (as Nietzsche would have noted) to fill it with bier.

Derek said...

I'm with Madame de Staël on the terminal-verb business. When I was living in Germany, and trying to speak the darn language, that was one of the things I noticed most. In my opinion, it makes the difference between written and spoken German wider than in English (and no doubt many other languages). It also gives good speakers a chance to really shine, since formulating and executing a complex German sentence on the fly is no small feat.

Hitler is one example. Watching footage of him speak on a History Channel documentary after I returned from living in Germany was an unnerving experience. (Needless to say, I didn't see much Hitler footage until I came back). The way those verbs piled up at the end, the meaning of their whole paragraph-long sentence suspended, until they arrived in sequence, each driven home with a fist on the lectern. . .

Steven Augustine said...

"We Germans are not inclined to talk for the sake of talking. We don’t become intoxicated with sounds. When we open our mouth, it's to say something."

Still. Laughing. If you have the time to listen to seven-word concepts bloat with exponential vitality into serial discursions of a thousand words each, come to Deutschland, brave lads and lasses, rotten-rich with time! The weeks will *fly* by!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Derek: that's an interesting point, thanks.

Steve: Yeah, it's beautifully ironic, isn't it? Especially in the middle of a fat 600-page tome with not much of anything to say of intellectual substance.

Michael said...

Derek's point about Hitler's periodic sentences is indeed interesting. The old newsreels make amply evident that he was a spellbinder, and this was certainly a part of his technique. It makes me wonder what it would have been like to hear the oratory of Cicero as delivered in the Roman courts and senate.

Mencius Moldbug said...

I suspect Hitler was very reminiscent of Michael Moore, at least in the general strategy of his oratory - the emotional content and structure, humor, intellectual level, etc. this film has some good footage of Moore on his speaking tours.

I'd like to think that Cicero was a little better than this. But who can really know?

Drake said...

"I suspect Hitler was very reminiscent of Michael Moore, at least in the general strategy of his oratory...."

Ja, genau! For instance, both Hitler and Moore used verbs.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Tish, Drake! Have you not heard of Moore's new 'verbless' policy? His next film will see him wandering around Central Park office-complexes, mouthing long strings of nouns at unsuspecting CEOs, until Geoffrey Pullum shows up in an unmarked van for 're-training'.

Drake said...

Wow. Next thing you know Moore's going to bring in Georges Perec as a script doctor.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Actually, I hear Stanley Chapman will be lending his services as a stand-in for the post-mortem Perec.

Drake said...

Touché.

Brunellus said...

I'm afraid I've come unfashionably late to the party, but there's a wonderful article on this by Lodi Nauta (also a quondam Warburgian): ‘Linguistic Relativity and the Humanist Imitation of Classical Latin’, in Language and Cultural Change (EAL 150). Basically, he criticizes historians of humanism – in a surprisingly gentle fashion – for peddling the absurd idea that the rejection of mediaeval Latin in the Renaissance allowed for a better quality of thought.

In a similar vein, did you notice Reggie Foster praising the virtues of Latin a few months ago? "You have to say something and move on. It's not like French and some of these philosophical languages where you can write a whole page and say nothing – in Latin you can't do that!" Evidently he doesn't spend much time reading humanist prefaces.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Brunellus, well met. I don't know that article but would like to read it. I can see, too, how it might warm your heart! As a Warburgian, I am well familiar with the awfulness and prolixity of much post-mediaeval Latin. Did you ever read Cardano?

Brunellus said...

Yes, as it happens I'm interested in Cardano as a mathematician – I wrote my first Warburg essay on his use of imaginary numbers – but I've not read him in other contexts. Surely the work of a first-rate fruitcake must have its moments?