Holmes’ Mad, Romantic Germans

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick (1964) © Columbia Pictures

The archetype of German mad scientist continues to evoke fascination and wonder. In the twentieth century the early cinematic portrayal of the mad scientist from Fritz Lang’s Rotwang in Metropolis and Robert Wiene’s Dr. Caligeri in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligeri, contributed to the grounding of the mad scientist in German or in the least the eastern Habsburg lands. If there is a scientist whose determination is maniacal and his character defined by severe megalomania, the character’s ability to evoke fear, loathing, and often enigmatic sympathy increases the more German he is. The German scientist became such a stock character its subsequent ridicule was inevitable. A review of several parodies of mad scientists in 20th century pop culture reveals the overwhelming majority to be German or have at least Germanic sounding names. The Rocky Horror Picture Showwith Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein, and Dr. Strangelove (originally Merkwürdigliebe) from Kubric’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and even cartoons such as Dr. Doofenschmirtz in “Phineas and Ferb” all satirize the Germanic crazed scientist, possibly discharging real latent fears and stereotypes about German genius that harken back to the Faust chapbooks from the 16th century, and certainly from Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Undoubtedly Shelley’s Germanic scientist (actually a Swiss student from the French speaking region near Geneva) ushered in a new theatrical Germanic archetype that tended to identify irresponsible but awe-inspiring science and ungodly knowledge within the Anglo-American cultural consciousness as German in nature.

After looking at Holmes’ study of Mary Shelley’s novel, I would argue his own analysis is influenced by this Anglo cultural bias. The chapter “Dr. Frankenstein and the Soul” presents a captivating overview of the scientific discoveries and philosophical trends from the early nineteenth century and argues these debates and discoveries kindled the narrative of Mary Shelley’s famous novel Frankenstein. In particular, he focuses on the vitalist debate surrounding discoveries like galvanism, the voltaic battery, and animal magnetism, which he then argues finds particular philosophical influence and scientific expression in Schelling’s Naturphilosophie and Johann Ritter’s experiments in Germany. Due to the fact these two figures resided in Jena, Germany, Holmes suggests Germany, and especially the avant-garde romantic movement in Jena, became the backdrop for characters, scenery, and especially the new sci-fi thematic elements brimming with Germanic character.  Expanding on Percy Shelley’s introduction that alludes to a German origin for the novel, Holmes suggests Mary Shelly’s gothic aesthetic owes a large portion of its genesis not just to Germany, but specifically to Jena and Jena romanticism.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Jena was indeed the home of a group of young intellectuals, writers, poets, philosophers and scientists, who for a short but productive period (1792-1801) regularly met, collaborated, and together created a common philosophical and literary discourse now identified as Jena or early Romanticism. Schelling and Ritter were two of these figures, but they were by no means the only influential or the traditionally definitive representatives of the movement. That title belongs undoubtedly to Friedrich and August Schlegelwho hosted gatherings and readings and who also published the defining journal for the movement, the Athemäum. Neither is mentioned in Holmes’ chapter. Moreover, the gothic genre Holmes speaks of started roughly ten years after the Jena Romantics disbanded with the death of their greatest philosopher-poet Novalis in 1801. Gothic Romanticism in Germany is better associated with the medieval city of Heidelberg and E.T.A. Hoffman, who explicitly employs vitalist themes in his work.

Holmes’ suggestion about the German gothic and philosophic influences of Shelley’s novel is compelling, but it requires a good deal of speculation. He himself admits this fact: “Ritter’s tragic story was clearly known to Banks, to Davy, and very probably to Lawrence after his time in Göttingen with Blumenbach. Whether it was known to Dr. Polidori and whether it was he who told it to the Shelleys in 1816, isspeculation” (my emphasis, 329). Holmes’ approach is not only highly speculative, but also inaccurate. Why tie Shelley’s novel to Ritter and specifically Jena Romanticism when his own evidence suggests only an indirect relationship to German thinkers and their philosophy through Banks, Davy and Lawrence? Why tie Ritter specifically to Jena when a significant portion of his controversial experiments with magnetism occurred in Munich? In addition to Ritter other scientist-philosophers like C.A.F. Kluge, G.H. Schubert and Eberhard Gmelin were just as conversant and better known for their involvement within the vitalist debate and practice with mesmerism. Why not mention these scientists who profoundly influenced Heinrich von Kleist and E.T.A Hoffman—late Romantic authors who employ animal magnetism and vitalist themes in their works? Finally, why mention Jena when its philosophical heritage lay much more deeply with Kant, Idealism, Fichte, and Hegel, not vitalism? Holmes’ narrative is provocative, but in regards to Jena Romanticism and the German preoccupation with mesmerism his argument is misplaced and misleading.

In spite of this, it does not mean Shelley’s Frankenstein cannot be compared with Jena Romanticism, German vitalists, and German gothic literature. The creation of an “other,” a living aesthetic that provides a reflective foil for the subject’s self-definition, is at the heart of Jena Romanticism. Frankenstein’s monster is an excellent example of the Fichtean “not-I,” that opposite subjectivity required to know one’s true self. However, this is not what Holmes uses as a basis of comparison. If Holmes wished to identify later Romantic authors who directly engage vitalist themes, he could have easily drawn a comparison with any of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s works like “der Magnetiseur,” “der goldene Topf,” and “der Sandmann”—stories that deal not only with mesmerism, but also the creation of artificial life. Finally, he could have mentioned the actual gothic ghost stories the Shelleys and Polidori read while in Switzerland—the Gruselgeschichten that had been translated from German into French that included themes like bringing the dead to life and vampires. All of this could have provided a solid basis for establishing a more accurate picture of the various sources of Shelley’s narrative.

However, the “gothic” genre Holmes mentions has little to do with Jena and its subjective idealist discourse. If there is any Jena, or German, influence, Holmes should have emphasized how this influence had been filtered through a succession of Anglo-perspectives ranging from Coleridge to Keats and the French translations of cheap German horror stories, not the theoretical self-defining, self-critical Poesie that epitomizes Jena Romanticism. I fear this interpretation merely perpetuates the Anglo fascination with the German as mad scientist.

Grant McAllister

Dr. McAllister received his PhD in 2001 from the University of Utah and began teaching at Wake Forest shortly thereafter.

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