James L. Rolleston
I arrived in German Studies through a love of poetry and specifically of Rilke’s poetry. Both my M.A. and my Ph.D. theses were on Rilke, and I realize now that Rilke has subtly influenced my choice of other topics for scholarly work, through the magisterial power and scope of his language; through his historical position as a German modernist in an intensely productive era; and through his formulation of that perennial German Romantic dream of a “total work of art”, a version of th e aesthetic so comprehensive that it intervenes on life at every point. Two of my courses, Romanticism and Modern Poetry (Goethe to the present) are taught very much in this spirit. Not that I see Rilke as some teleological high point in German literature: my perspective is, rather, originary, drawing out the astonishing, seemingly infinite implications of texts by early Romantics like Novalis, Tieck and Friedrich Schlegel.
Another enduring concern of mine has been the work of Franz Kafka, Rilke’s near contemporary: indeed both these great, totally dissimilar writers grew up in Prague, a cultural fact that has been very fruitful for linguistic and thematic analysis. I teach a graduate seminar on Kafka, in which we read virtually all his fiction and survey the continuously interesting critical tradition.
In our time literary theory may play the role performed by Romanticism and Modernism in their historical moments, the role of bringing together seemingly disparate phenomena (art and advertising, pleasure and politics) in the cause of conceptualizin g human culture as a whole. Cultural Studies, of which German Studies is a branch, is the most useful label for current theoretical aspirations. And of course it’s a style of theorizing deployed by many German writers since the originary Romantics. I n my course Consciousness and Modern Society, I present readings from Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Lukacs, the Frankfurt School and Habermas. The theme is the way in which the Romantic concept of productive consciousness has generated a ceaseless thinking of what would be needed for a “good society” to come into being.
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