Barbara Burns speaks to Joanna Raisbeck, author of Karoline von Günderrode: Philosophical Romantic.
BB. You've produced a scholarly and meticulous study of an important but little-known eighteenth-century German female poet and playwright who addressed some of the most complex philosophical questions of her era. This is not an easy book for a non-specialist to understand. Can you sum up what your volume is about?
JR. At its core, what I was interested in were two questions. The first is: what is the relationship between the individual and the world, and the second: how can we know what the world out there is, philosophically speaking? What Günderrode was trying to avoid at all costs was a descent into any sort of nihilism – a new fear around 1800 – which emptied human life of meaning, a sense of what we might now call transcendental loneliness. But standard answers to the question of the meaning of human life, such as orthodox Christianity, were no longer sufficient for a variety of reasons. Günderrode ends up turning to a version of pantheism – the idea that God and the world are the same – as a way of assuaging existential anxieties, and in this she’s indebted to the lively interest in the philosophy of Spinoza at her time. What made the project hard was trying to tease out the variety of traditions that Günderrode was creatively working through to provide her own answers in her literary work.
BB. How did you first encounter Günderrode, and what made her work appeal to you?
JR. I first came across Günderrode as a final-year undergraduate at Oxford. Having mostly had a diet of canonical literature throughout the degree, I felt obliged to do a women’s writing option. What I remember most strongly is how different her work is to other female writers of the period. She doesn’t write novels, isn’t really interested in questions of gender, compared to, say, Sophie von La Roche, and in many ways isn’t a socially interested writer. I already had some background in Romanticism, having encountered Novalis and not understood his work at all (which I now realise is partly the point of Novalis). There are clear similarities in the poetic abstraction in Novalis and Günderrode, but her poetry features formal and lexical control as well as complexity – the later poetry, and particularly the sonnets, are still exciting to me.
BB. Why is it essential to study non-canonical writers, do you think?
JR. I do strongly believe that it’s important to give sustained intellectual attention to non-canonical authors. It’s one way in which the narratives of literary and intellectual history can be challenged and revised. Whilst I sensed at times a certain resistance to dedicating a research project to Günderrode, now that I’m done with it, I have a greater sense of how it fits in with recent work in the history of philosophy – spearheaded, among others, by Dalia Nassar and Kristin Gjesdal – about taking women philosophers seriously.
BB. Günderrode’s rather spectacular suicide at the age of 26 because of unrequited love had the effect of drawing attention away from her literary work as readers became fascinated with her biography. What effect has that had on scholarship over the decades?
JR. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t attracted by the biography myself when I first heard of Günderrode. There’s a general trend in work on women writers to focus on biography – to a reductive extent. Günderrode is an extreme example of this in scholarship, and it can be traced in both nineteenth-century criticism and up to feminist scholarship – most famously, Christa Wolf published a selection of Günderrode’s work, which was prefaced by an essay that frames Günderrode as a victim of her time. There are several dangers to this biographical focus. One is mythologising – a spectacular, melodramatic myth of a life cut short. The reality is complex, difficult to reconstruct historically. The myth makes it hard to treat a historical individual’s profound distress with sensitivity.
BB. To what extent then were you venturing into unexplored territory in terms of Günderrode’s intellectual legacy?
JR. I feel in many ways indebted to scholarship that’s gone before me. But what I’ve done differently is trying to find a main thread that unifies Günderrode’s literary work, and that I found in her philosophical and metaphysical commitments, manifest in different ways, but all sharing the same foundation.
BB. What was the most rewarding aspect of this research project?
JR. This was always partly my intention, but it was amazing to see how Günderrode’s centrifugal intellectual interests led me to all sorts of strange parts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, from comparative mythology to the history of science. That being said, what I would have liked to have known is that doing a research project in the humanities is challenging because it is individualistic and can be very lonely work, and that can be very draining, especially if you are working in a smaller discipline.
BB. Well, your effort has been worth it, and congratulations are in order as your work has won not just one but two prestigious academic prizes, the inaugural Klaus-Heyne Preis in 2021, and the Novalis Preis for 2022, both awarded for research in Romanticism. Were you able to attend special events to celebrate these occasions, or did Covid prevent this?
JR. Thank you very much! This all has been a bit overwhelming, but also the source of a series of ‘pinch-me’ moments that, especially coming out of the pandemic, I feel immensely grateful to have experienced. There was a prize ceremony in Frankfurt for the Klaus Heyne-Prize, which was fantastic because I could thank people who had helped me when I did research work in Frankfurt some years prior. I’m going to go to the Novalis family castle in Sachsen-Anhalt this May to formally receive the Novalis Preis, which I’m very much looking forward to!
BB. Has winning these prizes had collateral benefits?
JR. I was also asked, as part of the Heyne-Prize, to curate an exhibition on Günderrode’s work at the Deutsches Romantik-Museum in Frankfurt, which led to a very happy time rooting through archive materials last summer, with terrific archivists, researchers, and graphic designers, prior to the exhibition opening in September. We also managed to exhibit, on loan, some hitherto unknown Günderrode poems – it’s not very often that new material pops up in public collections, and I fondly remember the moment when, during a phone call last summer, a German colleague, Holger Schwinn, recited the poems he’d found.
BB. Does Günderrode’s understanding of the human relationship with the natural world resonate with elements of current environmental thought?
JR. I’ve always thought that what makes Günderrode an exciting poet is her last collection, Melete (1806), which wasn’t published until the centenary of her death. That’s where we can find some unusual experiments in lyrical subjectivity – allowing natural forces, such as the river Nile, the barren earth, and the Caucasus mountains to speak. For Günderrode, that’s not an anthropocentric projection, but is rooted in a philosophical position where human subjectivity is absorbed into and subsidiary to the subjectivity of nature, of all of interconnected life. That brings Günderrode close to, say, the ecological pantheism of Arne Naess, or more recently, to ideas of ecological enmeshment in Timothy Morton. There are also some productive parallels with the vital materialism of Jane Bennett.
BB. Was Günderrode a controversial writer in her day? Presumably the incompatibility between Spinozist pantheism and the traditional theism taught by the Christian church was a source of tension. Was her work commercially successful, or was she catering to a very niche intellectual market?
JR. I’m afraid I’m going to have a disappointing answer – which is common to women writers at the time, unless they really were scandalous –, that is: Günderrode didn’t publish much in her time, and her work received uneasy reviews, including a passing comment from Goethe that her first collection was interesting (meant, I think, somewhat ambiguously). So she certainly wasn’t commercially successful, which is also because she was aiming for a niche, highly literary and intellectual market. Her metaphysics weren’t really that much of an issue – we can see similar moves, although not as radical, in nature poetry of the period, and, more canonically, in Novalis and Hölderlin.
BB. Have you ever managed to include any of Günderrode’s work in your teaching and, if so, how well do students cope with it?
JR. I’ve only rarely taught Günderrode, but when I do, I use ‘Ein apokaliptisches Fragment’, which is short and snappy, and covers a lot of ground to do with the unconscious or irrational mind that is close to Novalis’s ‘Hymnen an die Nacht’. I have a distinct memory of a student getting the problem of Kantian epistemology, so I scrapped my initial plans for the tutorial and decided that we could think about Günderrode and Novalis as Romantic responses to Kant. It made for a terrific discussion. I can’t generalise from that experience, but it does align with a general principle of teaching – to follow the students’ interests and see where we end up after looking at the texts.
BB. Finally, what do you do to relax?
JR. I try to read as much as I can in English – short stories or novels –, and watch films (a recent favourite was Il buco, which is just marvellous and quietly melancholic). Now that the pandemic has eased, I’ve also been going to the theatre – next up is the re-imagined Oklahoma! in the West End – and to art exhibitions.