Basel in the Age of Burckhardt: A Study in Unseasonable Ideas

Basel in the Age of Burckhardt: A Study in Unseasonable Ideas

Steinberg, Michael P

BASEL IN THE AGE OF BURCKHARDT: A STUDY IN UNSEASONABLE IDEAS. By Lionel Gossman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. xii, 608 p.

In a well-known but uncredited photograph, the aging Jacob Burckhardt crosses the Basel Muensterplatz on his way to lecture at the university. He carries a large portfolio, apparently filled with images and evidence of his appointment, during this period, as an historian of art. Behind him, climbing beyond the vertical limits of the image itself, rises the cathedral. The photograph communicates a sympathy for the lone figure dwarfed by the immense structure rising above and behind him, Cited but not reproduced in this elegant, erudite study, the photograph provides a fitting image of Lionel Gossman’s Burckhardt and Lionel Gossman’s Basel. Both are fonts of unseasonable ideas, and those ideas are not heroic (as they are in Nietzsche’s coinage of the phrase unzeitgemaesse Betrachtung); they are, rather, skeptical, humane, and indeed counter-heroic. German and buergerlich in parlance and heritage, they are skeptical and humane above all with regard to the German Empire, proclaimed in 1871 in possible contempt of the values of neo-humanism and civil society. What Basel was after, what Gossman is after in offering this portrait, is what Aby Warburg called Denkraum, the space to think. Fittingly, Warburg used the phrase in the text of his own 1927 seminar on Jacob Burckhardt.

Burckhardt’s Basel, like Warburg’s Hamburg, claimed a heritage in commerce, not culture. In both cases, however, the culture of commerce filtered through civic consciousness as a spiritual ideal, a value cited by Thomas Mann as a spiritual way of life. (Mann’s phrase, with reference to his home town, was Luebeck als geistige Lebensform, Lubeck as a spiritual way of life, the title of an address he gave on the Hanseatic city’s sevenhundredth anniversary in 1927). The paradigm recalls as well the Berlin-born historian Hans Baron’s neologism “civic humanism,’ through which he understood the rise and decay of Renaissance Florence. Baron’s paradigm may amount to an unintentional allegory, and it is not a dismissal of his scholarship to suggest that his trope may be as closely related to the German ideals of his youth as to the Florentine ones of seven centuries before.

Burckhardt’s most famous work remains his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, which Gossman suggests, “often functions indirectly as a critique of his own time” (p. 289). Moreover: “If humanist and neohumanist Basel is dimly perceptible behind the brilliant description of Renaissance Florence, as I believe it may be, it is another Basel-the narrowly orthodox and Pietist Basel from which Burckhardt suffered grief enough as a young professor and from which he escaped as often as he could, and above all, the new `democratic’ Basel of the second half of the nineteenth century-that is evoked by the rather grim picture of the Greek city-state of the fifth and fourth centuries in the posthumously published Cultural History of Greece” (p. 262).

Rigid Basel and humanist Basel: one culture, or two? For Burckhardt, the answer was “two,” and he consequently spent the happiest periods of his life in Berlin. But this was pre-1848 Berlin, to say nothing of 1870. So the picture is historically subtle but not ironic or contradictory. For Bachofen, the other principal figure engaged by Gossman’s study, the answer was “one, and the result is indeed ironic. The pioneer of the pro to-anthropological discourse of matriarchy, Das iutterrecht, was much more a misanthrope than an emancipator; unlike Burckhardt, he remained loyal to the power elite of Basel from whichunlike Burckhardt-he came. This context sheds light as well on the often observed fact that Bachofen’s legacy flattered the twentieth-century German Right, from the Stefan George circle to the mythologists working under Alfred Rosenberg.

Surprisingly, Basel’s most famous adopted son, Nietzsche himself, is given only a few pages here. To be sure, Nietzsche was born in Saxony and came to Basel only as a young professor. Following the negative professional reception of his Birth of Tragedy in 1872, he resigned from the faculty and ultimately left the city. But he never spoke badly of either the university or of Basel. One might argue-Gossman might therefore have arguedthat Nietzsche’s unreasonableness with regard to German triumphalism and imperialism after 1871 and his contempt for nationalism, for anti-Semitism, and finally, for Wagnerism shared a great deal with the Basler values that Gossman portrays. At the same time, however, Nietzsche did not connect the civic consciousness of fifth-century Athens with that of modern Basel: his ideal polis was mythically, aesthetically constituted. While in The Birth of Tragedy he did advocate the contemporary realization of the polis on the Wagnerian model, his turn against Wagner was also his turn against such a realization. Nietzsche did not lionize the ribbon-lords, Baendelherren, of Basel.

It was indeed the scions of the ribbon industry, as Gossman narrates in his first hundred pages, that formed Basel’s wealth and social structure. Basel’s industrial and political revolution centered on the adoption of the mechanical loom and the connection to French and German railway systems. The new railway network generated the demolition of the old town wall in 1859. The nineteenth-century elites kept to their strict Protestant ways, abjuring the theater but supporting music. As Bachofen cynically observed, the local success of painting and of art history may have accrued from the sublimation of visual pleasure that might otherwise have found satisfaction in the theater. “I don’t attend Burckhardt’s lectures,’ he wrote in 1859; “I find it simply impossible to subject myself to esthetic outpourings about the beauty of buildings and landscapes… [on the part of] … noble-minded and sensitive persons whose prejudices prevent them from going to the theater” (p. 65).

Nietzsche’s withholding from Basel of the “civic humanism” card may hold significance for the unfolding of Gossman’s argument. After a hundred pages on Basel, he turns to protracted and illuminating intellectual biographies of his two principal figures, Bachofen and Burckhardt. Their relations to Basel remain circumstantial, and the book becomes more a study of these scholars’ agendas than that of a collective urban agenda or culture. The young Bachofen found excitement in Paris in 1838-39, as Burckhardt found it in Berlin a few years later. Bachofen wrote home that “the public character of things is what dominates the entire scene here” (p. 99). But he never brought that public culture home; his opinions notwithstanding, he “never contributed,” Gossman observes, “to the public lecture series that were a tradition of Basel cultural life and that made Burckhardt a familiar and popular local personality” (pp. 123-24). Once resettled in Basel, Bachofen in fact resigned from both the university and the senate to lead the life of a wealthy and unknown private scholar. Removed as well from the values of old and new humanisms, Bachofen’s forays into imagined antiquities involved the loss of self: “What a leap from that race of men to ours! What kinship is there between the man who heard the voice of his god in the rustling branches of a tall oak at Dodona and contemporary man, who seems to stand in no relation at all to creation? Therein lies the difficulty of understanding that distant time. If we wish to return to it, we must first lose ourselves” (cited pp. 15455). Such discourse stands more at the source of modern mystification than of modern social theory.

In The Cultural History of Greece, Burckhardt staked out a critical method with much more precision and originality. He opposed, as Gossman relates, Romantic identification with the past, antiquarianism, and objectivism. He endorsed a value of Bildung that Gossman summarizes as “the formation of thoughtful and cultivated human beings and citizens through reconnection with a past that is part of who we presently are” (p. 313). At the same time, Burckhardt’s comfort with Basel’s oligarchic tradition may account for his hostility to fifth-century Athens: what was for other scholars a golden age was for him a period of “public terrorism,’ of demagoguery and corruption. The result, not unpredictably, is a tragic identification with Socrates, as well as a scathing critique of the theater of Aristophanes. Burckhardt’s anti-theatricality may show the mark of Basel, as it does the mark of both Plato (Republic) and Rousseau, in the guise of the Genevan Calvinist evident in the Letter to d’Alembert of 1758.

As Gossman recounts in the book’s preface, his interest in Basel culture developed through a dialogue with his Princeton colleague Carl Schorske, author of Fin-de-siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture.1 Gossman and Schorske taught ajoint seminar on Basel in the late 1970s and for a time contemplated writing a Basel book together. As things turned out, Gossman wrote his study alone, and the result carries no burden of comparison with Schorske’s own work. At the same time, the comparison is interesting. Disciplinary formations and differences are evident; the historian’s sense of context and collective culture remains stronger than the literary scholar’s. Schorske’s principal figures, including Freud, Herzl, Klimt, and Schoenberg, operate within a shared crisis of liberal collapse and modernist passion. The result is a combination of astonishing creativity and political failure. Gossman’s figures remain creative thinkers, informed by local politics, but a politics whose stakes are small, perhaps unfortunately small. Switzerland, as we don’t need Orson Welles to remind us, is responsible for little in twentieth-century politics; Austria is responsible for much, as it has tried so consistently to disavow. For Gossman, then, context is a gentlemanly affair, which may be just as much a sound historical judgment as it is a disciplinary proclivity.

Historians often think, and think well, allegorically. Historical allegory, as Walter Benjamin argued, can proceed by way of dialectical images, where the object world under analysis is well served by the dual signification. In the introduction to Fin-de-siecle Vienna, Carl Schorske compares the perils of post-liberal Austria to those of post-liberalism in the United States of the 1950s and early 1960s, the years during which his analytical paradigm developed. Reading Basel in the Age of Burckhardt, with or without recognition of the dialogue with Schorske, one ponders the polarity of its allegorical investment. The strongest candidate seems to me to be not contemporary society at large, American or other, but rather the contemporary American university. I detect, perhaps wrongly, a sense of closing in on the part of a distinguished and now emeritus senior scholar, as if the American university, like Burckhardt’s Basel, were portrayed as a culture caught between a spent oligarchy and an unwieldy democracy. Retaining the capacity and indeed the duty to observe the big world and its power games from a modest and protected corner, the university, like Burckhardt’s Basel, no longer seems to know in what or whose name to exercise this agenda. The result is not gay science so much as melancholy reason.

In the first chapter of The Civilization of the Renaissance, “The State as a Work of Art,” Burckhardt declares his intention of analyzing “a civilization which is the mother [pace Bachofen] of our own.” Notwithstanding the title, Burckhardt does not aestheticize his objects. The state as a work of art means “the state as the outcome of reflection and calculation” and the upholding of a “free municipal life” against the interests of despotism and empire The values of Bildung are compatible with such a construction; even more so are those of the public sphere (Oeffentlichkeit) as Juergen Habermas theorized it with respect to the Enlightenment and the century between 1750 and 1850 Habermas’s argument remains controversial and contested on many grounds; for historians it tends to bloat a north-German cultural and political paradigm into a too general European one. But Basel-Protestant, commercial Basel-surrounded not only by German empire but also by France and by Catholic Swiss cantons, fits the paradigm well. Burckhardt himself pushed the values of openness and publicness more intransigently and more coolly than Gossman may allow. Within the American university, an operative notion of the public sphere or openness (the more literal translation of Habermas’s Oeffentlichkeit) has been helpful in mediating the perceived opposition between oligarchy and chaos. In this sense, Basel in the Age of Burckhardt is an allegorical proposition entirely different and entirely better than Basel in the Age of Bachofen.

1 New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.

2 Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, trans. S. Middlemore (London: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 20, 21.

3 See Juergen Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. T. Burger (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989)


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