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Secret Germany: Stefan George and His Circle
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on August 24, 2002
I wish to stress with some urgency that in my view this recently issued monograph on Germany's greatest poet, Stefan George, who was likewise one of modern Europe's most enigmatic and disturbing political presences, constitutes an achievement of incomparable significance in the historiography of cultural modernism. Experto crede: I have been occupied in studying these individuals for thirty years or more, and I can assure students that Robert Edward Norton has shed more light than admirers of Stefan George would have thought possible upon a dazzlingly talented, albeit indubitably eccentric,literary cenacle at whose center stood the masterful and charismatic visionary who was its spiritus rector.
Although George began his literary career as something of a minor Teutonic satellite on the far fringes of the French Symbolist movement (we learn, for instance, that the poet became quite close, both personally and artistically, to several of the Symbolist School's leading lights, viz., Paul Verlaine and Stephane Mallarme to mention just two of the more prominent figures) the predominant emphasis in Robert E. Norton's monograph rests upon the author's entertaining presentation of a wide range of hitherto obscure details involving the poet's later career, when his personal pretensions began to outweigh his literary career--over which George assiduously endeavored to cast a shroud of mystery and ambiguity--as well as unlocking for us a treasure trove of hitherto obscure biographical facts and anecdotes about the disciples and associates who drifted into the orbit of George-Kreis at one time or another. These anecdotes cover the waterfront, from uproarious and barely believable brawls that erupt out of the blue between alpha-intellects who are not what one would describe as pugilists, to grotesque tales of oddballs and geniuses who prefer to gussy themselves up in amazing couture in order to be wearing chic and appropriate threads when sallying out to attend the legendary and elaborate masqued balls that were almost a matter of routine in Schwabing-Muenchen. That custom, we learn, dictates that these people are more often than not attired in Roman-styled togas or, when feeling somewhat more daring, decked out in some gaudy purple-dyed gown that has been designed to garb a middle-aged intellectual who is impersonating the Magna Mater!
We learn also that these bright young things also hold somewhat outre "language orgies" in the course of which one of the oddest of the odd, viz., Alfred Schuler, launches himself into a catatonic state and then proceeds to time-travel back to ancient Rome (to visit his idol, of course, the Roman Emperor Nero!).
On the darker side of these affairs, the narrative presents more ominous anticipations and adumbrations of ominous types of cultic behaviors and ritual observances many of which would one day come to exert a profound and troubling influence on a less purely literary gathering of activists, viz., Hitler's National Socialists, whose adherents were to inherit so many elements of George's uniquely--even oppresively--authoritarian leadership style, along with the [Schuler-inspired]adoption during the fin de siecle period of the swastika as a sort of occult sigil of mystical might, one that came to adorn the title page of the Circle's official literary journal, the Blaetter fuer die Kunst.
We're also given numerous details about the poet's itinerary as he wandered from one associate's flat to another's (he was definitely what one might call a "professional house-guest"), along with fresh discoveries about the incredible group of renowned thinkers and creative writers (among whom the most talented were surely philosopher Ludwig Klages, archaeologist Alfred Schuler, poet Hugo von Hoffmansthal, and Shakespearean scholar Friedrich Gundolf), all of whom became adherents to the famous "Circles" that were so idiosyncratic a feature of cultural life in Schwabing-Munich at the dawn of the 20th century.
In closing, I repeat that I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in German culture, in the nascent proto-National Socialist scene in early 20th century Bavaria, or simply in the spectacle of some of the weirdest intellectuals ever to have come down the pike.
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on July 15, 2002
Robert Norton's landmark biography on Stefan George and his circle truly is an exceptional book in every respect. Expansive in its inclusion of meticulous detail, this work stands as the definitive biography on George in any language to date.
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