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Ann-Christin Bolay

Dissertation: Heroization Strategies in the Biographies of the George Circle

Between 1900 and 1933 numerous so-called ‘Gestalt’ biographies were published by the circle of Stefan George enthusiasts and admirers. These works often appeared with the seal of his periodical Blätter für die Kunst. The texts are grandiose portrayals of prominent historical rulers, such as Caesar, Frederick II and Napoleon, as well as of great thinkers, such as Plato, Shakespeare, Goethe and Nietzsche. In addition to actual members of George’s circle – among them the literary scholars Friedrich Gundolf and Ernst Bertram, the historian Ernst H. Kantorowicz and the jurist Berthold Vallentin – further scholars with close relations to George’s circle were also authors of these works. What these texts have in common is the conception that the heroic manifests itself in the presentation of the ‘Gesamtgestalt’ of a person. Hence they are marked by a holistic view of the individual person and provide an interpretation of the heroic figure without having collected source material in a positivistic manner. The boundary between factual account and fictional embellishment is blurred. The selection of heroes in these biographies points to a complex relation between intellectual heroism and heroism in deed. The antinomy between these two heroisms also defined George’s lyrical work. The dissertation argues that George’s conceptions influenced the members of his circle to a great degree in their heroization strategies and ways of portraying their subjects. It is necessary to ask the question whether and to what extent intellectual heroes and ‘heroes in deed’ were equally stylized as charismatic heroes. The following works are the focus of the project: Friedrich Gundolf’s Goethe (1916) and Caesar. Geschichte seines Ruhms (1924), Ernst Bertram’s Nietzsche. Versuch einer Mythologie (1918), Berthold Vallentin’s Napoleon (1923) and Wolfram von den Steinen’s Bernhard von Clairvaux (1926). The objective of the dissertation project is to analyze and define the heroic concept of George’s circle as a specific phenomenon of its time.

In three stages the presentation and formation of the ‘great figures’ will be explored. In the first stage the narrative heroization strategies will be analyzed. A narratological examination of the texts from a close reading approach should reveal the fictional modification of the factual. Numerous elements of the texts will be analyzed:  title, structure, and chapter arrangement; the chosen content and its arrangement; the dramatization of heroic qualities; the narrative perspective, patterns and style; metaphors and topoi. In the second stage the text analysis will be expanded to include the programmatic writings on the heroic from members of George’s circle, such as Friedrich Gundolf’s Dichter und Helden (1921), correspondences and the dramatization techniques in visual mediums. Heroizing representations of members of George’s circle in photographs, drawings and busts greatly influenced the perception of the circle from within and without and require an intermedial perspective. In the third stage the texts will be contextualized specifically with regard to the historiographical standard of the time. The books are regarded as the cultural and historical products of an academic practice which at the time was viewed as anti-modern in its affront to positivistic approaches. In examining contemporary sources such as letters, literary reviews and criticisms, dedications and obituaries this dissertation will show that the design of their hero image challenged the dominant heroic concept of the Wilhelmine period and that contemporaries fiercely debated over this design. Furthermore, in comparison to other academic publications from the time period, such as Matthias Gelzer’s Cäsar Der Politiker und Staatsmann (1921) and Emil Ludwig’s Goethe (1920), this project also intends to determine the non-aesthetic and possibly didactic function of the texts in order to better understand their specific characteristics and determine their place in academic history.