Immermann’s Memorabilien

Written: in late 1840 and early 1841
First published: in Telegraph für Deutschland Nos. 53-55, April 1841
Signed: Friedrich Oswald

Erster Band. Hamburg Hoffmann und Campe, 1840
Telegraph für Deutschland No. 53, April 1841

The news of Immermann’s death was a hard blow for us Rhinelanders, not only because of the poetical but also because of the personal significance of this man, although the latter, even more than the former, was only just beginning to develop. He stood in a special relationship to the younger literary forces which have lately emerged on the Rhine and in Westphalia; for in respect of literature Westphalia and the Lower Rhine belong together, however sharply they have been politically divided up to now, and in fact the Rheinisches Jahrbuch provides a common rallying point for writers from both provinces. The more the Rhine had hitherto kept literature at a distance, the more Rhenish poets now tried to figure as representatives of their home province and hence acted if not according to one plan, at least towards one aim. Such an endeavour rarely remains without a strong personality at its centre to which the younger ones subordinate themselves without surrendering any of their independence, and Immermann seemed to want to become that centre for the Rhenish poets. In spite of many prejudices against the Rhenish people he had gradually become naturalised among them; he had publicly made his peace with the literary present to which all the younger ones belonged; a new. fresh spirit had come over him, and his work was finding increasing recognition. Hence, the circle of young poets who rallied around him and gravitated towards him from the surrounding area kept growing; how often did not Freiligrath, for example, shut his memorandum and ledgers, when he was still writing invoices and current accounts in Barmen, to spend one or two days in the company of Immermann and the Düsseldorf painters! Thus Immermann came to occupy an important place in the dreams’ which were cherished here and there of a Rhenish-Westphalian school of poetry; before Freiligrath’s fame matured he was the mediating transition from the provincial to the general German literature. This had long been no secret to anyone with an eye for such relationships and ties; a year ago Reinhold Köstlin, among others, drew attention in Europa to the fact that Immermann was maturing towards a standing similar to that of Goethe in his later years. [113] Death has destroyed all these hopes and dreams for the future.

Immermann’s Memorabilien appeared a few weeks after his death. Was he, a man in his prime, already mature enough to write his own memoirs? His fate says yes, his book says no. However, we must not regard the Memorabilien as an old man’s final settlement with life, by which he declares his career closed; Immermann was rather settling accounts with an earlier, the exclusively romantic period of his work, and hence a different spirit prevails in this book than in the works of that period. Moreover, the events described here had receded so far through the great changes of the last decade that even to him, their contemporary, history seemed to have finished with them. And yet I think I am justified in maintaining that in ten years’ time Immermann would have grasped the present and its attitude to the war of liberation, on which his work hinges, more profoundly, more freely. But for the moment we must take the Memorabilien as they are.

If the earlier romantic, in the Epigonen, had already striven for the higher standpoint of Goethe’s plasticity and repose, and Münchhausen already rested firmly on the basis of the modern poetic manner, his posthumous work shows even more clearly how well Immermann appreciated the latest literary developments. The style and with it his vision of things are quite modern; only the more thoroughly thought-out content, the stricter arrangement, the sharply stamped individuality of character and the albeit rather veiled, anti-modern views of the author distinguish this book from the mass of descriptions, characters, memoirs, reviews, situations, conditions, etc., with which our literature, gasping for healthy, poetic fresh air, is suffocated today. Immermann, moreover, has sufficient tact only rarely to arraign before the forum of reflection subjects which are entitled to a different tribunal than that of bare reason.

The present first volume finds its material in the “youth of twenty-five years ago” and the influences which dominated it. A “bill of lading” prefaces it in which the character of the whole is most faithfully outlined. On the one hand, a modern style, modern catchwords, and even modern principles; on the other, the peculiarities of the author, the significance of which has long been dead for a wider circle. Immermann writes for modern Germans, as he says fairly bluntly, for those who stand equally far from the extremes of Germanism and cosmopolitanism; he has an entirely modern conception of the nation and establishes premises which would lead logically to autocracy as the people’s destiny; he pronounces himself emphatically against that “lack of self-confidence, the rage to serve and throw oneself away” [K. Immermann, Memorabilien 1. Teil, S. 27] a from which the Germans suffer. And yet, at the same time Immermann has a most inadequately grounded preference for Prussianism and the cool indifference with which he speaks of constitutional aspirations in Germany reveals only too clearly that he has not yet understood the unity of the modern spiritual life at all. One sees that the concept of the modern does not appeal to him at all since he resists many of its aspects, but nevertheless he cannot dismiss the concept.

The memoirs proper begin with the “Boyhood Reminiscences”. Immermann keeps his promise to describe only those moments at which “history made its passage through him”. [ibid., S. 30-31] World events grow with the boy’s consciousness and the colossal edifice is raised of which he was to witness the fall; at first storming in the distance, the waves of history break through the dam of North Germany in the battle of Jena, sweep over complacent Prussia, making the saying of its great king “apris moi le déluge” particularly true of his own state, [114] and at once flood first over Magdeburg, Immermann’s home town. This part is the best in the book; Immermann is stronger at narrative than reflective writing, and he has succeeded excellently in perceiving how world events are mirrored in the individual heart. This is also the point at which he links himself frankly to progress, even if only for the time being. For him, as for all the volunteers of 1813, the Prussia of before 1806 is the ancien régime of this state, but also, what is now less often admitted, the Prussia of after 1806 is a Prussia entirely reborn, a new order of things. The rebirth of Prussia is a peculiar affair, however. The first rebirth, through the great Frederick, has been so praised on the occasion of last year’s jubilee that it is hard to understand how an interregnum of twenty years could already make another necessary. [115] It is also claimed that in spite of the double baptism of fire, the old Adam has of late shown new, strong signs of life. In the present section, however, Immermann spares us the praises of the status quo, hence the point at which Immermann’s road diverges from that of the modern day will only become clearer in the course of these lines.

Telegraph für Deutschland No. 54, April 1841

“Until it enters public life, youth is educated by the family, by study, by literature. For the generation which we are here considering, despotism was added as another, a fourth medium of education. The family cherishes and nurses it, study isolates it, literature leads it again into wider fields; despotism gave us the beginnings of character."
[K. Immermann, Memorabilien, 1. Teil, S. 95]

This is the pattern according to which the reflective part of the book is arranged, and which has the great and undeniable merit of showing the development of consciousness in its successive stages. — The section on the family is quite excellent as long as it describes the old family, and it is only regrettable that Immermann has not made more effort to combine aspects of light and shade into a whole. The remarks he makes here are all most apt. By contrast his concept of the newer family shows again that he has not yet rid himself of the old prejudice and resentment against the phenomena of the last decade. True, the “old-fashioned comfort”, the contentment with the family hearth, increasingly give way to ill humour, to dissatisfaction with the joys of family life; but against that background the philistinism of the patriarchal way of life, the halo around the nightcap, are more and more lost, and the causes of the ill humour, almost all of which Immermann emphasises quite correctly and only too glaringly, are no more than the symptoms of a still struggling, uncompleted, epoch. The epoch preceding foreign rule was completed and as such bore the stamp of repose, but also of indolence, and carried within it the seeds of decay. Our author could have said quite briefly: the reason why the newer family cannot fight off a certain sense of discomfort is that new demands are being made on it which it does not yet know how to reconcile with its own rights. As Immermann admits, society has changed, public life has been added as an entirely new element; literature, politics, science, all this now penetrates into the family more deeply, and it has difficulty in accommodating all these alien guests. That is the point! The family still lives too much in the old style to be able to come to a proper understanding with the intruders and be on good terms with them, and here indeed a regeneration of the family is occurring; the disagreeable process just has to be gone through, and to my mind the old family badly needs it. Incidentally, Immermann studied the modern family in precisely that part of Germany, on the Rhine, which is most mobile and receptive to modern influences, and here the discomfort of the transition process came to light most clearly. In the provincial towns of interior Germany the old family continues to live, move and have its being in the godly shadow of the dressing-gown; society still stands where it stood in A. D. 1799, and public life, literature, science, are dismissed with calm and deliberation, without anybody allowing his comfortable routine to be disturbed. — The author adds “pedagogical anecdotes” to prove what he has put forward about the old family and then concludes the narrative part of the book with “Uncle”, a character typical . of the old days. The education which the adolescent generation receives from the family is completed; the young throw themselves into the arms of study and literature. Here the less successful sections of the book begin. Study touched Immermann at a time when philosophy, the soul of all science, and knowledge of the ancient world, the basis of everything the young were offered, were caught up in a whirlwind revolution, and Immermann did not have the advantage of being able to follow it up to its goal as a student. When it drew to its close, he had long outgrown school. Nor does he say much more for the time being than that teaching in those days was narrow, and makes up for this by dealing with the most influential thinkers of the time in separate articles. Speaking of Fichte he obliges with a philosophy which would strike gentlemen familiar with the subject as fairly peculiar. Here he lets himself be lured into a witty argument about a matter which it needs more than a witty and poetic eye to penetrate. How our strict Hegelians will shudder when they read the history of philosophy as presented here in three pages! And it must be admitted that it would not be easy to discuss philosophy in a more dilettante fashion than is the case here. The very first sentence, which says that philosophy always oscillates between two points, seeking certainty either in the thing or in the ego, was clearly written in deference to the fact that Kant’s “thing-in-itself” was followed by Fichte’s “I”, and can, with difficulty, be applied to Schelling, but in no sense to Hegel. — Socrates is called the incarnation of thinking and for that very reason the ability to have a system is denied him; pure doctrine is said to be combined in him with a direct penetration of empiricism, and since it transcended the concept, this union, it is declared, could manifest itself only as a personality, not as a doctrine. Are these not sentences which must throw into the greatest confusion a generation that has grown up under Hegelian influence? Does not all philosophy end where conformity of thinking and empiricism “transcends the concept"? What logic can stand its ground where lack of system is asserted to be a necessary attribute of the “incarnation of thinking"?

But why pursue Immermann into a sphere which he himself only wanted to fly through? Suffice it to say that he can no more cope with the philosophical concepts of earlier centuries than he can unite Fichte’s philosophy with his personality. By contrast he again describes excellently the character of Fichte, the orator of the German nation, and the gymnastics enthusiast Jahn. These character sketches shed more light on the effective forces and ideas by which the youth of the time was influenced than might any lengthy discourses. Even where literature forms the theme we enjoy far more reading the description of the relationship in which the “youth of twenty-five years ago” stood to the great poets than the inadequately substantiated demonstration that, unlike all its sisters, German literature has a modern, nonromantic origin. It will always appear forced to make Corneille sprout from a romantic medieval root and to attribute more in Shakespeare to the Middle Ages than the raw material which he found to hand. Is this perhaps the not altogether clear conscience of the erstwhile romantic seeking to reject the charge of continuing crypto-romanticism?

The section on despotism, namely, that of Napoleon, will not please either. Heine’s worship of Napoleon is alien to the consciousness of the people, yet nobody will be happy that Immermann speaks as an insulted Prussian, while claiming the impartiality of the historian. He must have sensed that the national German, and particularly the Prussian, standpoint needed to be transcended here; hence he is as cautious as possible in style, adapts his viewpoint as closely as possible to the modern and ventures out only in minor and incidental matters. Gradually he does become bolder, however, admitting that he cannot quite see why Napoleon should be counted as a great man, establishing a complete system of despotism and showing that in this craft Napoleon was a pretty bad tyro and bungler. But this is hardly the right way to understand great men.

Hence, apart from a few ideas which run ahead of his convictions, Immermann stands in the main far from the modern consciousness. Nevertheless, he cannot be classed with any of the parties into which Germany’s spiritual status quo is customarily divided. He explicitly rejects the trend to which he seems to stand closest, Germanism. The well-known dualism in Immermann’s convictions was expressed, on the one hand, as Prussianism, on the other, as romanticism. The former gradually lapsed, however, especially in Immermann the official, into the most sober, mechanistic prose, the latter into unlimited effusiveness. So long as he remained at this point Immermann could not achieve real recognition and was compelled more and more to realise that not only were these trends polar opposites but that they left the heart of the nation increasingly indifferent.

At last he dared a poetic advance and wrote the Epigonen. No sooner had this work left the publisher’s shop than it showed its author that only his previous tendency had prevented a more general recognition of his talent by the nation and the younger men of letters. The Epigonen were appreciated almost everywhere and occasioned diatribes on the character of their author such as Immermann had not been previously accustomed to. The Young Literature, if we may apply this name to the fragments of what had never been a whole, was the first to recognise the significance of Immermann, and was responsible for his becoming properly known to the nation. He had been inwardly resentful at the constantly sharpening division between Prussianism and romantic poetry, and also at the relatively slight popularity enjoyed by his writings, and he had unwittingly impressed more and more on his works the stamp of a stark isolation. Now that he had taken a step forward and won recognition, a different, freer, more cheerful spirit came over him. The old youthful enthusiasm thawed again and in Münchhausen made a start towards reconciliation with the practical, reasonable side of his character. The romantic sympathies which still remained at the back of his mind he appeased with Ghismonda and Tristan; but what a difference from his earlier romantic poetry, and especially what plasticity compared with Merlin!

Telegraph für Deutschland No. 55, April 1841

Basically, romanticism was only a matter of form for Immermann. The sobriety of Prussianism saved him from the dreaming of the romantic school, but this was also the cause of a certain resistance in him to the developments of the time. We know that in religious matters Immermann was very liberal; politically, however, he was a far too zealous supporter of the government. True, his attitude to the Young Literature brought him closer to the political aspirations of the century and taught him to view them from another aspect; but, as the Memorabilien show, Prussianism was still very firmly entrenched in him. Yet precisely in this book we find quite a few statements which contrast so strongly with Immermann’s basic views and rest so much on a modern basis that the significant influence of modern ideas on him is quite unmistakable. The Memorabilien clearly show their author’s endeavour to keep pace with his time, and who knows whether the current of history might not eventually have undermined the conservative Prussian dam behind which Immermann kept himself entrenched.

And now one more remark! Immermann says that the character of the epoch which he describes in the Memorabilien was primarily youthful; youthful motives were given play and youthful moods were voiced. Is that not also true of our epoch? The old generation has died out in literature, and youth has seized hold of the word. Our future depends more than ever on the growing generation, for this generation will have to decide contradictions of ever-heightening intensity. The old may complain about the young, and it is true that they are most disobedient; but just let them go their own way: they will find their bearings, and those who get lost have only themselves to blame. For we have a touchstone for the young in the shape of the new philosophy; they have to work their way through it and yet not lose the enthusiasm of youth. He who is afraid of the dense wood in which stands the palace of the Idea, he who does not hack through it with the sword and wake the king’s sleeping daughter with a kiss, is not worthy of her and her kingdom; he may go and become a country pastor, merchant, assessor, or whatever he likes, take a wife and beget children in all piety and respectability, but the century will not recognise him as its son. You need not therefore become Old Hegelians and throw around “in and for itself”, “totality”, and “thisness”, but you must not fight shy of the labour of thinking, for only that enthusiasm is genuine which like the eagle is afraid neither of the dull clouds of speculation nor of the thin, rarefied air in the higher regions of abstraction when it is a question of flying towards the sun of truth. And in this sense the youth of today has indeed gone through Hegel’s school, and in the heart of the young many a seed has come up splendidly from the system’s dry husk. This is also the ground for the boldest confidence in the present; that its fate depends not on the cautious fear of action and the ingrained philistinism of the old but on the noble, unrestrained ardour of youth. Therefore let us fight for freedom as long as we are young and full of glowing vigour; who knows if we shall still be able to when old age creeps upon us!