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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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Among the areas of knowledge and scholarly inquiry
listed by Lovejoy in his essay “The Historiography of
Ideas,” we note his reference to “Literary history, as
it is commonly presented, namely, the history of the
literatures of particular nations or in particular
languages—in so far as the literary historians interest
themselves... in the thought-content of literature”
(Essays in the History of Ideas, p. 1). It is with the
explicit or implicit thought content of German literary
expressionism that our survey is primarily concerned.
However, Lovejoy disparaged the study of literary and
artistic movements as “units” of the history of ideas;
for, according to him, “the doctrines and tendencies
that are designated by familiar names ending in -ism
or -ity, though they occasionally may be, usually are
not of the sort which the historian of ideas seeks to
discriminate” (The Great Chain of Being, p. 5). Yet he
devoted considerable time and effort to the discrim-
ination of romanticisms. Still, the history of ideas,
rather than dealing with philosophical systems or
esthetic currents, isolates the components or elements
(also called the unit ideas) of which such thought struc-
tures are made up. It does so knowing full well that
“the seeming novelty of many a system is due solely
to the novelty of the application or arrangement of
the old elements which enter into it” (ibid., p. 4).

In dealing with German literary expressionism as
intellectual historians, we are fortunate in facing a
situation compatible with Lovejoy's strictures. For
unlike naturalism and surrealism in literature and im-
pressionism in painting, literary expressionism was not
a movement in the strict sense of the word, i.e., to
use René Wellek's definition, a body of “self-conscious
and self-critical activities” resulting in “consciously
formulated programs.” It was, rather, a syndrome of
thoughts and feelings—in short: a Weltanschauung
giving rise to certain techniques and engendering a
preference for certain types of subject matter, such
as the conflict of generations. Unlike their activist
contemporaries (Franz Pfemfert and Kurt Hiller, to
name only two of the most prominent ones), who
shared a common sociopolitical, humanist-pacifist goal
and expressed their views in periodicals like Die
Aktion, Das Ziel,
and Dieweissen Blätter, all the ex-
pressionists proper seem to have had in common was,
in the words of Gottfried Benn, their urge for
Wirklichkeitszertrümmerung (“destruction of external
reality”). Intensität (“intensity”) is, in fact, another of
those “sacred words and phrases” which Lovejoy
wished to see dissected. As early as 1915, Otto Flake,
writing in Dieneue Rundschau (XXVI, 1276-87), used
it to label the most recent literature, and Kurt Pinthus,
editor of the paradigmatic anthology Menschheitsdäm-
(Berlin, 1920; “The Twilight of Mankind”),
singled out the same phenomenon as characterizing the
work of the poets included in his collection.

The basic difference between expressionism and
activism (which Wolfgang Paulsen made the subject
of a still cogent monograph) is well explained by Max
Krell, who writes:

Expressionism—a collective term for a complex of feelings
and ideas (Gefühls- und Anschauungskomplex—is not a
program. There is a league of Activists, but not of Expres-
sionists. There the goal is Bindung (adherence to a common
cause), here it is Lösung (detachment). Whatever force seeks
to compel intellectuals, artists and creators to subscribe to
an identical program is to be condemned. A program implies
bias (Tendenz), obligation. Obligation means death of the
self. The self: adventure of spiritual loneliness. This loneli-
ness gives birth to the work of art”

(Über neue Prosa, pp. 11f.).

So diverse have been the opinions, still held by the
artists themselves as well as by literary historians and
critics, as to who should, and who should not, be re-
garded as an expressionist that no universally accepted
grouping is available. For example, Georg Trakl, sev-
eral of whose poems appear in Menschheitsdämmerung
and who is now sometimes designated as a proto-
expressionist, would seem to belong, in part, to a com-
pletely different tradition which, on occasion, has been
called surrealist. Similarly, the writings of the German
dadaists are usually discussed in the standard surveys
of expressionism, although the ties are very tenuous—at
least esthetically speaking. Ernst Barlach, the “existen-
tial” expressionist par excellence, was shocked to see
his plays staged expressionistically. However, Rainer
Maria Rilke, some of whose later poems—including
certain aspects of the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets
to Orpheus
—display stylistic mannerisms of the kind
we tend to associated with expressionism, is rarely dis-
cussed in this particular context. What is more, it
would be downright foolish to think that an author's
entire oeuvre could be regarded as belonging, fairly
and squarely, to expressionism. Those who wish to
discuss this complex literary phenomenon are, there-
fore, well advised to concentrate on specific works or
groups of works.

Historically, expressionism in art and literature must
be seen as one of many manifestations, in the arts, the
sciences, philosophy, religion, and so forth, which were
symptomatic of the revolt against positivism, a revolt
which erupted shortly after 1900. Like the cubists and
the futurists—from whom they were only tentatively
and inadequately distinguished by such perceptive
contemporary critics as Theodor Däubler and Her-


mann Bahr—the expressionists despised the realistic-
naturalistic approach to art which, as a final, glorious
offshoot, had recently produced the sensuous surface
portrayals of impressionism. Following Cézanne, the
cubists aimed at stabilizing and eternalizing impres-
sionism by transforming it into an “art of the museums”
(Cézanne's formulation) bordering on, but never actu-
ally resulting in, geometrical abstraction. The futurists,
glorifying speed and idolizing the machine, indulged
in a kind of accelerated impressionism using hardened
particles and centering in the notion of simultaneity.
The expressionists, finally, pitted their own brand of
emotional but, characteristically, nonsensuous and
nonerotic subjectivism against the imitative art of the
nineteenth century.

With Kasimir Edschmid, one of their chief literary
spokesmen, the expressionists in Platonic fashion be-
lieved that to reproduce an already existing reality was
a waste of creative strength: “The world is there; so
why should we repeat it?” (Über den Expressionismus
in der Literatur und die neue Dichtung,
p. 56). Empha-
sis was not to be placed on Sehen (“observation of
visual details”) but on Schauen (“visionary experi-
ences”), in an effort to gain mystical access to perma-
nent values and thus merge the subjective with the
objective. The program which the expressionists un-
wittingly embraced was formulated by Vincent van
Gogh in several letters to his brother Theo, written
between 1886 and 1888. In one of these, dated mid-
August, 1888, we encounter the following exemplary

Because instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have
before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily so as to express
myself more forcefully.... I should like to paint the portrait
of an artist friend, a man who dreams great dreams, who
works as the nightingale sings, because it is his nature. He'll
be a fair man. I want to put into the picture my apprecia-
tion, the love that I have for him. So I paint him as he
is, as faithfully as I can, to begin with.
But the picture is not finished yet. To finish it I am now
going to be the arbitrary colorist. I exaggerate the fairness
of the hair, I get to orange tones, chromes and pale lemon
Beyond the head, instead of painting the ordinary wall
of the mean room, I paint infinity, a plain background of
the richest, intensest blue that I can contrive, and by this
simple combination the bright head illuminated against a
rich blue background acquires a mysterious effect, like the
star in the depths of an azure sky

(Letters, p. 277).

Substituting definition for description, Herbert Read
called expressionism an art seeking to reproduce “not
the objective reality of the world, but the subjective
reality of the feeling which objects and events arouse
in us” (The Philosophy of Modern Art, p. 51). Much
the same was said by John Galsworthy who, in his
Presidential Address to the English Association (1924)
entitled “On Expression,” quotes a “great good
painter” as ironically stating that

Expressionism meant expressing the inside of a phenomenon
without depicting its outside in a way that could be recog-
nized. That is to say, if you wanted to express an apple-tree
you drew and coloured one vertical and three fairly hori-
zontal lines, attached a small coloured circle to one of those,
and wrote the word “Fruity” in the catalogue...

in Spain
[1927], p. 89).

Although Galsworthy may have spoken with a de-
gree of levity, this deliberate emphasis on the inside
of phenomena led to the serious and dogged attempt,
on the part of many expressionists, to breathe a soul
(beseelen) not only into animals and plants, but into
inanimate objects as well. Thus, Franz Marc wished
to portray a horse or an eagle not as he saw them but
as they would see and feel themselves; and Theodor
Däubler referred to Robert Delaunay's painted Eiffel
Tower as an expressionist, or even the father of
Delaunay (Däubler, p. 182). This spiritualizing tend-
ency marks one of the strongest contrasts between
expressionism on the one hand and all the other major
nineteenth- and twentieth-century movements (includ-
ing surrealism) on the other.

Although, as we have already indicated, no one
individual connected with expressionism wrote a pro-
gram or offered a theory that was binding for the entire
“movement,” one work in particular exerted a power-
ful influence on many artists: Wilhelm Worringer's
book Abstraktion und Einfühlung (“Abstraction and
Empathy”) which, originally written as a dissertation,
was not published until 1908. In this treatise,
Worringer, speaking as an art historian, champions the
nonnaturalistic and anticlassical phases in the history
of the plastic arts. After refuting the empathetic mode
of creation and perception he finds to have prevailed
in these eras, he introduces the concept of Kunstwollen
(“artistic volition”) in contrast to the notion of art as
a skill (Können) dependent on the artist's technical
expertise and the nature of his materials.

Kunstwollen, which disregards all conventional
canons of beauty, asserts itself most forcefully in prim-
itive and highly sophisticated ages when man is either
still afraid of his natural environment or has already
transcended it spiritually. Rejecting the art of the
Renaissance, neo-classicism, and realism-naturalism,
Worringer praises the Middle Ages—especially the
Gothic style—the baroque, and romanticism, during
which periods, according to him and his followers, the
urge for transcendence and spiritualization made itself
felt, without quite succeeding in breaking through the


barrier of material life. It is precisely these three eras
(notably the baroque and romanticism) which the
expressionists exalted for similar reasons.

Although, in Abstraktion und Einfühlung, Worringer
does not refer to contemporary art, his provocative
study was shortly to be regarded as the Bible of expres-
sionism. Without this model, for instance, Wassily
Kandinsky's essay Über das Geistige in der Kunst (1912;
“Concerning the Spiritual in Art”) would not have
been written, at least not in its present form. Here the
father of abstract (“nonobjective”) art, writing in 1910,
invokes the principle of Spiritual Necessity, his equiv-
alent of Worringer's Kunstwollen. Renouncing any
claims to universal beauty, Kandinsky states that “in-
ternal beauty is achieved through necessity and renun-
ciation of the conventionally beautiful. To those who
are not accustomed to it it appears as ugliness.” But
Kandinsky's link with expressionism is a weak one, for
the style he developed after 1910 is of the serene,
post-empathetic and Oriental-decorative kind, whereas,
on the whole, the expressionists (such as the members
of the Dresden Brücke) were drawn toward the neo-

Geist (“spirit”), by the way, was the expressionists'
favorite catchword, although occasionally they con-
fused or contaminated it with Seele (“soul”), which
suggests a more religious outlook than they usually had
in mind. Geist, at any rate, was preferred to intellect
or reason and was always stressed at the expense of
Körper (“body”) or Materie (“matter”).

The intensity of the experiences which the expres-
sionistic writers sought to convey was frequently hinted
at by such synonyms as Ballung (“agglomeration or
concentration”) and Spitzen (“peaks”), both of which
terms play a crucial role in the dialogue of Georg
Kaiser's drama Von Morgens bis Mitternachts (1916;
From Morn to Midnight). Elsewhere, phrases like Höhe
des Gefühls
(“height of feeling”) and Berge des Herzens
(“mountains of the heart,” a metaphorical expression
coined by Rilke) prepare one for the typically expres-
sionistic situation of Aufbruch (“departure”) signaling
the emergence of the projected New Man.

Trying to pierce the surface of things, the expres-
sionists intuitively grasped for essences. Mensch, werde
—the opening lines of a famous epigram
by the seventeenth-century poet Angelus Silesius—
served as an inspiration for a whole generation of poets
and playwrights, among them the proto-expressionist
Ernst Stadler, whose poem “Der Spruch” (“Epigram”)
incorporating this dictum, has an almost programmatic
ring. Like Wesen (“essence”), Kern (“core”) is a term
which crops up incessantly in expressionism, for in-
stance, in Reinhard Goering's drama Seeschlacht
(“Naval Engagement”), which contains a whole reper
tory of phrases relevant to our survey. In this work,
Kern primarily refers to that which all human beings,
irrespective of their race, creed, social status, or men-
tality have in common. It is an attribute of Mensch
(man seen abstractly and universally) rather than Mann
(man seen as a concrete and unique individual).

The replacement of concrete particulars by quasi-
abstractions bordering, at times, upon allegorical forms,
is another distinct feature of literary expressionism.
Thus Goering's play is significantly entitled Seeschlacht
rather than DieSeeschlacht or DieSchlacht am
The poet August Stramm displayed an in-
creasingly radical tendency toward nounalization on
the one hand and reduction of syntax to its bare essen-
tials on the other; and even Trakl—whose ties with
expressionism are so brittle—distinctly preferred
nounalized adjectives, such as ein Weisses (“a white
thing”), to less generalized, and hence less abstract,
designations. In summarizing this significant trend,
Edschmid claims that, in the context of expressionism,
“the rhythmic construction of the sentences is differ-
ent,” in so far as they serve “the same spiritual urge
which renders only the essential” (op. cit., p. 65).

Although the term “expressionism” and its cognates
were occasionally used before the turn of the century
(as Armin Arnold has shown in the opening chapter
of his book DieLiteratur des Expressionismus), the most
appropriate point of departure for a semantic history
is the exhibition held in 1901 at the Salon des Indé-
pendants in Paris, which included several canvases
grouped together under the title “Expressionisme” by
the otherwise unknown painter Julien Auguste Hervé.
(The term was never popular in France, where a kind
of decorative expressionism—that of Les Fauves
flourished around 1905.)

In Germany, the term was first applied to painting
in 1911, in connection with an exhibition staged by
the Berlin Sezession. It was quickly popularized by
influential critics like Karl Scheffler and Worringer.
(The latter's Abstraktion und Einfühlung came to the
attention of T. E. Hulme, who transmitted some of the
key notions to Wyndham Lewis and the group of
vorticists gathered around Ezra Pound and the short-
lived periodical Blast, which became the voice of
English expressionism—in reality, a blend of expres-
sionist, cubist, and futurist ideas.) Generally speaking,
expressionism had little impact on English drama,
whereas American playwrights like Eugene O'Neill
(The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape) and Elmer Rice
(The Adding Machine) were strongly influenced by
Georg Kaiser.

Although “expressionism” had been applied to liter-
ature as early as 1911 (by Kurt Hiller), it did not gain
currency until 1915 when Otto Flake published the


review article mentioned above. In the fall of 1917,
however, Kasimir Edschmid denounced those imitators
of the expressionistic style who sought to reproduce
its external features without sharing the underlying
world view. And by April, 1922, Kurt Pinthus, prefac-
ing the second edition of Menschheitsdämmerung,
could assert, in good faith, that in the intervening
two-and-one-half years no poetry begging for inclusion
in his anthology had appeared. Indeed, what around
1917 had been true of expressionistic prose and poetry
could now be said to apply to expressionistic drama
as well; for, along with Goering's Seeschlacht, Georg
Kaiser's most significant plays, although written several
years earlier, had been premiered in quick succession,
among them DieBürger von Calais (1914), Von
Morgens bis Mitternachts
(1916), DieKoralle (1917),
and Gas (1918). The first version of Bertolt Brecht's
Baal was also written in 1918. Thus expressionism had
run its course, covering a time span extending over
the decade from 1910 to 1920, a decade which Gott-
fried Benn was justified in calling Das expressionistische
Perhaps the lustrum beginning in 1921
might be included by extension, although by 1923 the
dominant style of the twenties, Neue Sachlichkeit (New
Objectivity, or functionalism) had acquired full mo-
mentum through the activities of the Bauhaus.


A. Arnold, DieLiteratur des Expressionismus: Sprachliche
und thematische Quellen
(Stuttgart, 1966). H. Bahr, Expres-
(Munich, 1916). Th. Däubler, Der neue Stand-
(Dresden, 1916). H. Denkler, Drama des Expression-
(Munich, 1967). B. Diebold, Anarchie im Drama
(Frankfurt, 1921). K. Edschmid, Über den Expressionismus
in der Literatur und die neue Dichtung
(Berlin, 1919); idem,
ed., Schöpferische Konfession (Berlin, 1920). M. Hamburger,
Reason and Energy (New York, 1957), essays on Trakl, Benn,
and “1912.” C. Hill and R. Ley, The Drama of German
Expressionism: A Bibliography
(Chapel Hill, 1960). W.
Kandinsky, Über das Geistige in der Kunst (Munich, 1912),
trans. as Concerning the Spiritual in Art... (New York,
1947). A. Klarmann, “Expressionism in German Literature:
A Retrospect of a Half Century,” Modern Language Quar-
26 (1965), 62-92. M. Krell, Über neue Prosa (Berlin,
1919). M. Niedermayer, ed., Lyrik des expressionistischen
(Munich, 1962). W. Paulsen, Aktivismus und
Expressionismus: Eine typologische Untersuchung
and Leipzig, 1935); idem, ed., Aspekte des Expressionismus
(Heidelberg, 1968). K. Pinthus, ed., Menschheitsdämmerung
(Berlin, 1920; new ed., Hamburg, 1959). W. Rothe, ed.,
Expressionismus als Literatur (Berne, 1969). R. Samuel and
R. H. Thomas, Expressionism in German Life, Literature and
the Theatre
(Cambridge, 1939). W. Sokel, The Writer in
(Stanford, 1959); idem, Expressionismus in Kunst
und Literatur 1910-1923
(Munich, 1960). H. Steffen, ed.,
Der deutsche Expressionismus (Göttingen, 1965). Vincent
van Gogh, Letters of Vincent Von Gogh, ed. Mark Roskill
(New York, 1963). U. Weisstein, “Vorticism: Expressionism
English Style,” Yearbook of Comparative and General Liter-
13 (1964), 28-40; idem, “Expressionism: Style or
Weltanschauung?,Criticism, 9 (1967), 42-62. W. Worringer,
Abstraktion und Einfühlung (Munich, 1908; new ed. 1948),
trans. as Abstraction and Empathy (New York, 1953).


[See also Empathy; Impressionism; Naturalism in Art;