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Karl Heinz Bohrer Portrait
©Suhrkamp Verlag.

Karl Heinz Bohrer is perhaps Germany's most significant contemporary writer on aesthetics and the literary imagination. In overlapping careers as journalist, literary editor, professor, and magazine editor he has adopted a variety of genres, from newspaper columns to academic monographs, to write about topics ranging from aesthetics and contemporary politics to English football.

Born in 1932, Bohrer grew up during the Third Reich. Only twelve years old when World War II ended, of the many events of these years the Allied occupation seems to have most influenced his intellectual development. In an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit he described what it meant after 1945 to see the victorious soldiers -- friendly, jazz-playing and gum-chewing. For Bohrer the American GIs represented the "triumph of secularization" that taught his generation how to "be human without gods" (Die Zeit, 7 March 1997). He has credited this experience with determining his personal resistance to theological, as well as teleological thought, which includes the German tradition of Geschichtsphilosophie (theory of history), Marxism, and Critical Theory.

Bohrer studied history, philosophy, German literature, and sociology. His mentors included leading post-war literary scholars such as Wolfgang Kayser at the University of Göttingen and Arthur Henkel at the University of Heidelberg. He completed his studies with a doctorate at the University of Heidelberg in 1962 and a dissertation on the Geschichtsphilosophie of the German Romantics. He completed his Habilitation in 1978 at the University of Bielefeld with Die Ästhetik des Schreckens, a densely packed book on the "aesthetics of terror" as illuminated in the early writings of Ernst Jünger. He finished this work while also living in London as a journalist. His newspaper career had begun in 1968 as literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). Bohrer headed the literature section and weekly review magazine of the FAZ until 1974, establishing it as a prominent review venue. Due to conflicts with other editors in Frankfurt, particularly his famous successor as "literary boss" at the FAZ, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Bohrer was exiled to England as a foreign correspondent operating out of London from 1975 to 1982. He achieved success and notoriety for his provocative and often humorous essays, focused at first on England's unique style of coping with its own "decline," and later with the Thatcher years and parallel reflections on Germany's postwar values and conventions. Michael Winter has described the importance of vantage-point in Bohrer's London essays by arguing that "from [Bohrer's] English-exotic perspective, the Bundesrepublik itself became an exotic country." The Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung awarded Bohrer its Johann Heinrich Merck Prize for these essays, the best of which have been reprinted as Ein bißchen Lust am Untergang: Englische Ansichten (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982).

In the early 1980s, Bohrer was called to two posts that established his position in the German cultural and academic scenes. First, he was appointed Professor for Modern German Literary History at the University of Bielefeld in 1982, where he currently leads a group working on aesthetic theory ("Ästhetische Theorie"). In 1983, soon after his appointment in Bielefeld, he also succeeded Hans Schwab-Felisch as editor (since 1991 co-editor with Kurt Scheel) of the influential Merkur, the "German journal of European thought."

In his scholarly work Bohrer has attacked prevailing traditions in aesthetics, modernist studies, and literary criticism. His writings on the German Romantic tradition and its evolution in the early work of Ernst Jünger published in the 1970s and 1980s established several crucial points of his position. Der romantische Brief (Munich: Hanser, 1987) and Die Kritik der Romantik (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1989) examined the dichotomy in the emergence of modernism from two perspectives. In the first he traced the roots of aesthetic subjectivity to the letter-writing of the German Romantic movement. In the second he studied the Romantics' critics as writers operating within a different set of "modernist" ideologies -- which Bohrer calls by various names, including "rational" or "social" modernism -- linked by their adherence to the teleology of a future-oriented "philosophy of history" in the Hegelian sense.

In his subsequent monographic studies Bohrer has narrowed his attention to the literary aesthetics of specific psychological states or experiences such as pain or terror. For Bohrer, these represent moments characterized by "suddenness" (Plötzlichkeit) and emotional intensity. They are autonomous realities that exist outside continuous, historical structures of space and time. The aesthetic imagination experiences these states in a continually ephemeral "absolute present" that can only be longed-after or missed after it has departed. This aesthetic moment is traced in the reflexive consciousness of the writer as no longer present and thus cannot constitute a past connected to the future. In his latest study, Der Abschied: Theorie der Trauer, Baudelaire, Goethe, Nietzsche, Benjamin (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1996), Bohrer has extended his work on the aesthetic moment. He interprets literary treatments of the "farewell" as stages in the development of an "aesthetic modernism" focused on "the absolute present of literature." His position remains opposed to ideologies of historical continuity and teleology. Farewell and mourning are paradigmatic in his view; they operate at basic elements of consciousness and react to the constant loss of the present, thus informing the literary theme of longing for past emotional states that can no longer be experienced. The implications of Bohrer's studies have led him to be characterized as a "poetic nihilist," the phrase chosen by Franz Schuh in his essay on the ethical implications of Bohrer's aesthetics for the German weekly Die Zeit.

As editor and co-editor of Merkur, Bohrer has attempted to steer aesthetics into the center of public discourse in Germany; Merkur's contents have shifted accordingly in emphasis from the political to the aesthetic realm, but without abandoning commentary on current affairs. The politics of Merkur are at the same time controversial and disengaged, strident and independent. As editor Bohrer has insisted that the Merkur "does not become engaged in practical-political objectives" and "does not even sympathize with ideological directions." Rather, its motto is: "To think and not to act" ("Rückkehr der deutschen Barbarei?" No. 525; Dec. 1992: 1144). Bohrer's own contributions to Merkur, such as his opening essay as editor, "The Aesthetics of the State" ("Die Ästhetik des Staates." No. 423; Jan. 1984: 1-15), have continued the sharply satirical criticism of Germany's cultural and political life introduced in his articles from England. Werner Fuld, writing on the eve of Germany's reunification, called these essays the "instruction manual" for Germany's intellectual situation; for Fuld, Bohrer's condemnations described reality in such precise detail that they were misunderstood as satire: "they have since shifted into an unalloyed description of the facts." ("Die Lust am Bösen: Karl Heinz Bohrers ungemütliche Ansichten," FAZ, 25 March 1989. Reprinted in Ein Bücher Tagebuch, Frankfurt am Main: FAZ, 1989: 11-12). While the Merkur remains the leading forum for discussion of the relationships of literature, culture, and aesthetics with politics and the state in Germany, its emphasis on aesthetics has met some criticism, most recently in an essay by Joachim Rohloff in Jungle World.

In an essay on Bohrer's scholarly and teaching career in Bielefeld Wolfgang Lange noted that Bohrer's method is not that of packaging and distributing completely worked-out theories. Rather, his impact on students and other scholars derives from the ability to "put forward suggestions, fling open perspectives, and make categories available." Students and scholars outside Germany have not had many opportunities to benefit in this way from Bohrer's provocative writings, which are represented in English by only one translated book, Suddenness: On the Moment of Aesthetic Appearance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), and less than a handful of essays and articles.


By Henry Lowood

(c)1998, Stanford University


Karl Heinz Bohrer pages edited by Henry Lowood, Curator for Germanic Collections, and Curator for History of Science and Technology Collections, Stanford University, lowood@leland.stanford.edu

Editor's Note: Special thanks are due to Nathalie Auerbach for assistance with the bibliography and proofreading, and to Heidi Beck for reviewing the text.



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