Cambridge only woke up to the great achievements of Peter Stern when he died there aged 70 in 1991. Stern’s adoptive university, to which he found himself evacuated from the LSE after arriving from Prague as a refugee from Nazi anti-Semitism, became his home for half a century; but although he taught there for many years and remained devoted to his college, St John’s, Cambridge failed adequately to recognise his stature during his lifetime.
Cambridge had earlier failed to prevent the departure to Chicago of another exiled native of Prague, Stern’s lifelong friend Erich Heller, whose postwar rehabilitation of German literature and thought, The Disinherited Mind, gave Stern ‘the pattern and the inspiration’ for his own work. Unlike the older Heller, however, Stern’s intellectual provenance was predominantly Anglo-American. He adopted the terminological fastidiousness by means of which British academics sought to distinguish themselves from the more discursive and speculative Continentals, and from German philosophy especially. But he also set himself the formidable task of interpreting one mode of thought in the language of the other: though he wrote excellently in German and Czech, Stern expressed himself most naturally on paper in English.
Like Heller, Stern came from Prague with a mission to persuade the British to take German literature seriously again, and in particular the preoccupation with metaphysics which had so fascinated Coleridge, Carlyle and George Eliot. Disdaining textual positivism in all its forms, Stern taught his pupils (myself among them) and younger colleagues to treat novelists, dramatists, poets and philosophers as a simple continuum using the same currency of ideas. What rival Germanists saw as his eclecticism – his highly successful collaboration with Tom Stoppard in adapting the plays of Schnitzler and Nestroy for the London stage, for instance – was in reality a deliberate policy of dragging the study of German culture out of the ghetto to which the Nazis had condemned it.
Stern’s first book, Ernst Jünger: A Writer of Our Time, appeared in 1952. It was a bold debut because the young critic was committing lese-majesty against one of Germany’s most celebrated living writers. He subjected Jünger to a linguistic analysis clearly influenced by Wittgenstein’s methods, and the result was far more persuasive than the contemporary Marxist criticism, typified by Georg Lukàcs in The Destruction of Reason, by virtue of the fact that Stern did not merely dismiss the purely literary appeal of Jünger’s works under the rubric of ‘irrationalism’. Instead, he sought to act as devil’s advocate, accepting Jünger’s inner emigration under the Nazis at face value and entering fully into the private world of this ‘adventurous heart’, in order to demonstrate how a profound impoverishment of literary sensibility might result, for all Jünger’s intelligence, from a conceptual currency debased by moral idiocy. According to Nicholas Boyle in his Foreword to The Dear Purchase, when this monograph appeared one of Stern’s older colleagues told him: ‘If you want to get on, do not write this sort of thing again.’ Stern, Boyle adds, ‘was incensed. He continued writing, and, in Cambridge at least, he did not get on.’ But Stern, who enjoyed riding to hounds, never lost the scent of this particular quarry: two of the most illuminating sections of The Dear Purchase deal with Jünger.
If Jünger was the first of the German nihilists to engage Stern’s attention – the apostles of strenuousness who would eventually lead him back to protracted study of their only begetter, Nietzsche – then Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was the first of the redeeming spirits who illuminate his books with their stubborn refusal to despair of God and the world. For Stern, Lichtenberg uniquely embodies the light and dark sides of the Enlightenment: in public he was a man of science and erudition, and a perceptive critic of German and English culture, in private he was the author of the Waste-Books, an aphoristic, fragmentary and prodigiously sustained record of self-exploration. The role of all-purpose sage which Goethe filled for Erich Heller, as for so many prewar Central Europeans, was in Stern’s case reserved for Lichtenberg, to whose ‘doctrine of scattered occasions’ he devoted his longest monograph, and whose hunchbacked figure, isolated by temperament and by scandal (he fathered several children by an adolescent concubine), appealed to Stern more than the olympian Goethe.
The writers on whom Stern wrote most and best were all isolated, introverted figures: Rilke, Kafka, Spengler, Musil, Benn, Wittgenstein and especially Nietzsche, on whom he published three books. The first was a slim volume in the Fontana Modern Masters series; the second, A Study of Nietzsche, was a longer version of the same book, partly modelled on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. The third, a collaboration with the classicist Michael Silk, was a formidably detailed study of the genesis, significance and legacy of The Birth of Tragedy. One celebrated but parenthetical aside in that work was accorded cardinal importance in Stern’s writings: ‘for only as an aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified.’ This idea is given its fullest exposition in The Dear Purchase, which is, in a sense, a commentary on the Nietzschean dialectic of metaphysics and aesthetics that defined German culture in the early 20th century. Here Stern quotes what the poet Gottfried Benn said of Nietzsche in 1949 (‘when all was over bar the mourning’): ‘what else have we done these last fifty years but trot out and vulgarise his gigantic thoughts and sufferings?’
When Stern retired from teaching in 1986, he threw himself into the task of writing a book which would draw together all the disparate strands of the argument that was implicit in his life’s work, an argument best encapsulated in a phrase taken from the Baroque poet Andreas Gryphius: ‘here without purchase dear/Is comfort freely given to all those who before/Were wholly drowned in tears.’ This Christian conception of salvation, in which grace isn’t something that has to be paid for by human suffering, ‘ohn’ teuren Kauf’ (‘without dear purchase’), is alien to the Modernism with which The Dear Purchase is concerned. This – the great tradition that extends from the beginning of the Second to the end of the Third Reich, from Nietzsche to Heidegger, from Stefan George to Ernst Jünger – takes a tragic view of human existence: one in which this world without end is also a world without ends, without transcendence, without God. It is redeemed only through an ethos of strenuousness, requiring the sacrifice of all illusions of meaning on the altar of reality.
Less a theme than a ground bass, the dear purchase turns out to embrace in metaphorical form the entire complex of moral and epistemological perspectives which define die Moderne. Under the rubric of relativity – the conscious abandonment of absolute, durable meaning or value – the dear purchase re-emerges in the meta-history of Spengler, in the meta-novels of Musil and Mann. Stern devotes one of his most illuminating chapters to a brief history of the idea of reality in German thought, from the first German document extant (the Wessobrunner Prayer, c. 800), via Leibniz, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche to the early 20th century, with careful analyses of texts by Rilke, Musil and Werfel. With the last two, Stern is able to show how humanity and decency could be sacrificed in the pursuit of a nebulous ‘reality’. Hence in 1914 almost all German intellectuals welcomed the ‘extreme, penitential experience’ of war, and in 1933 many of them welcomed National Socialism as ‘a further radicalisation of that same quest’, while those on the Marxist left offered their services to a different but equally bogus ‘reality’.
Stern is on treacherous ground here, but in a magnificent chapter on the Great War he justifies his indictment of this insidious rhetoric. The war ushered in ‘an age in which sacrifice will be discredited, in which the metaphysical, separated from the moral, will be exploited for base political designs’. He begins, improbably, with Scott of the Antarctic, whose last letters suggest that the moral imperative implied by the dear purchase, the rejection of comfort and ease in favour of futile self-sacrifice, was European rather than German in provenance; but in the war itself it was German writers – he cites Jünger and George at length – who offered a metaphysical justification for the collective dehumanising of the sacrificial victims. Their legacy pointed in conflicting directions. If, as Stern suggests, George acknowledged in 1933 that there was a kinship between his own new – spiritual – Reich and that of Hitler, which he found so distasteful, a no less potent part of the poet’s legacy was the dearly bought honour of the attempt on Hitler’s life by George’s disciple Claus von Stauffenberg. And Stern’s eloquent tribute to Georg Trakl’s Grodek, which he considers the greatest German war poem, shows how the evocation of suffering there achieves ‘a poetic force that is undeflected by any justificatory devices’: it is ‘a metaphysical lament for the warlike sacrifice’.
Stern’s attitude to his grand theme is a complex one. Though he always insisted on the critic’s duty to pass objective aesthetic and even moral judgments – which made him recoil from the egregious subjectivity of Post-Modernism – he could not suppress his love of the literature whose limitations he here exposes. This ambivalence manifests itself most clearly in a long chapter entitled ‘The Purchase of Poetry’. Here the protean forms of the German sacrificial cult are analysed in three close readings. Rilke’s Duino Elegies were, in Stern’s eyes, perhaps the most enduring monument to the age of the dear purchase, from 1870 to 1945. Benn’s late poems are the valedictory testament of an age in which German intellectuals successfully fused private respectability with public radicalism, but fatally confused the tragic view of life with a nihilistic ‘ecstasy of fate’. Lastly, there is the ‘minimalist faith’, the existential survival kit, which Stern discovers in the ballads of Brecht. (He had a much higher regard for Brecht as a poet than as a dramatist, long before the composite authorship of the plays had fully emerged.) All three poets exhort their readers to embrace a strenuous existence, to test themselves to the limit. In the Duino Elegies, what is being ‘weighed and found weighty enough’ by Rilke is not poetry alone, but the human condition. In Quaternary, Stern sees Benn as ‘the best witness we have’ to the suite of mind in which Nazi totalitarianism could be realised as the reflection of ‘a strenuous poetic undertaking’. And in Brecht – whose politics apparently mark him out as the outsider in this company – another version of the dear purchase emerges. The Christian virtue of compassion – still supreme for the Marxist Brecht no less man for Stern, whose Jewish family had converted to Catholicism, and who was deeply influenced by Anglicanism at Cambridge – may be invoked only after all suspicion of hypocrisy has been eliminated, and at the cost of sacrificing every thing else. The differences between these three great poets are more numerous and significant than their similarities; but Stern’s achievement is to have identified the predicament which they shared with the rest of the German intelligentsia, and which determined the unexamined axioms of their thought.
In the penultimate chapter, ‘Rendering Account’, Stern returns to prose, and above all to Thomas Mann. Mann’s Dr Faustus was, for Stern, the ‘last great literary document of the old Germany’. In the harsh winter of 1947, he went to Göttingen as a research student, bearing a precious copy of the recently published novel. Seeing how his German contemporaries, shivering in their eiderdowns, devoured the book, and listening to their night-long conversations, persuaded him that ‘what fascinated, overwhelmed and sometimes angered them ... was the illumination of self-knowledge it provided for each of them’. Stern inveighs against the ‘anti-historical bias of Structuralism’, which he blames for the received wisdom of our time that sharing an idiom is tantamount to sharing a mode of thought: Mann, like other anti-Nazi intellectuals, shared the distinctive language of the dear purchase with the Nazis themselves, and Dr Faustus is here seen as a protest against the abuse of that mode of thought, though Stern acknowledges that, ever since Nietzsche first fully articulated it, that mode had always been double-edged: ‘not only a literary theme but also a part of the ruling ideology of the day’. This leads on to what, apart from an enigmatic Postscript, is the final chapter, ‘A Deliverance of Sorts’. It examines two works: Mann’s only comic novel, Felix Krull, and Kafka’s most – indeed, as Stern points out, his only – serene story, ‘Josephine the Singer; or, The Mouse People’. It is no accident that this chapter (which would certainly have been longer if its author had not fallen ill) is devoted to the final works of Mann and Kafka, both of whom were central to Stern’s intellectual life. There are poignant references to the dying Kafka throughout. The ‘deliverance’ of which Stern speaks is, once again, foreshadowed by Nietzsche: it is a release from ‘the spirit of gravity’, the tragic view of life as justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon. Both Felix Krull, the con-man, and Josephine, the mouse singer, are artists; both tales are concerned with truth and illusion, with metaphor and reality, with the mythopoeic imagination. In Dr Faustus, Mann had dramatised the dear purchase as a lament for a lost culture, and so distanced himself from its corruption; in Felix Krull he went further by dissolving its ideological concepts into metaphors. Kafka’s parable seems at one level to be about art and society; at another about Kafka himself; at yet another it encapsulates the paradox of the dear purchase in a single image. Josephine, whose merits have been doubted by her public and who consequently disappears from view, is acknowledged by the narrator (who shares these doubts) as having sacrificed everything for her art: ‘She reaches for the highest garland, not because at that moment it happens to hang a little lower, but because it is the highest; were it in her power she would hang the garland higher still.’ Here strenuousness is still a virtue, but the absolute value of what has been so dearly purchased remains uncertain. Kafka reduces the dear purchase, not to absurdity, but to uncertainty. Not since The Disinherited Mind appeared more than forty years ago has German culture been the object of such an inspiring study.