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Enlightened: Schiller at the Hohe Carlsschule

December 30, 2013 | by

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In honor of the new year, we are bringing you some of your favorite posts from 2013. Happy holidays!

In 1784, a twenty-five-year-old Friedrich Schiller, then Germany’s most famous playwright, published a notice announcing his new journal, the Rheinische Thalia. “It was a strange misunderstanding of nature that condemned me to the calling of poet in the place where I was born,” he wrote, reflecting on his path to fame. “To be inclined towards poetry was strictly against the laws of the institute where I was educated, and ran counter to the plan of its creator. For eight years, my enthusiasm struggled against the military rules, but passion for poetry is fiery and strong, like first love. What those rules should have smothered, they only fanned.”

These bitter words were written in memory of the Hohe Carlsschule, the military academy founded by Carl-Eugen, Duke of Württemburg, where Schiller spent his teenage years and young adulthood. In Germany the duke was known for his autocratic rule, wasteful spending, and eleven illegitimate children. At the same time, Carl-Eugen was deeply interested in statecraft and, above all, in educational reform. Decades into his rule, he decided to found an academy whose goal was to create a bureaucratic class free of the aristocracy’s tangled family loyalties. The only criterion for entrance was merit. Accordingly, students from bourgeois backgrounds (like Schiller) vastly outnumbered the noble-born.

Schiller was fourteen when he was sent to the Carlsschule, and he was not happy to be there. Visits from family were strictly regulated; female relations, particularly sisters and cousins, were forbidden entirely. Worse, Élève 447, as he was now known, had to wear a uniform, march in formation to meals, and sleep in a dormitory that was kept lit even at night to make sure the students weren’t masturbating. Any violation of the rules or attempt to flee resulted in the student’s having to write out his crime on a red card, which he wore pinned to his chest at mealtimes. As the students ate, the duke would work his way around the tables, read each card aloud, and give the student a slap. Serious offenses were punished by imprisonment or caning.

What distinguished the Hohe Carlsschule from other European military academies was its founder’s deep fascination with the progressive pedagogical ideas of the French Enlightenment. From a young age, the students learned Greek, Latin, French, philosophy, and were set on a professional path as doctors, lawyers, or civil servants—all extremely enviable positions. They studied rhetoric and contemporary literature and learned, through style exercises, to write poetry. The teachers were scarcely older than the students, and instead of lecturing held informal chats in which the students were invited to participate. The Carlsschulers were encouraged to look on them as their friends and confidants, to whom closely guarded secrets could be trusted. Schiller enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Jakob Friedrich Abel, a philosophy teacher only seven years his senior. He credited Abel with the deep moral and aesthetic convictions that would run through his plays and his poetry, even as Abel reported on Schiller to the duke.

Despite the school’s professional emphasis, Carl-Eugen stressed that students’ primary area of study was the knowledge of man, the most cherished of Enlightenment values. To that end, classes were given regular essay assignments like “Which student among you has the worst moral character?” Time was set aside for the students to write detailed studies of another’s characters and habits. The first existing piece of Schiller’s writing is one such essay, written when the poet was fifteen years old. Asked to analyze an older student named Karl Kempff, the young Schiller pulls no punches. With an astonishing mix of eloquence, astuteness, and coldness for a fifteen-year-old, Schiller accuses Kempff of mediocrity, egotism, crudeness, envy, malice, and false modesty. Schiller’s brutal honesty is particularly shocking in light of the fact that students could be punished for infractions revealed in the studies. Practically, the reports had the effect of undermining the students’ sense that they were victims of authority by turning them into co-perpetrators. The duke would stand by as the essays were read aloud and chide the students if he felt that they were being insufficiently specific.

Making the Carlsschule experience still more oppressive was the suffocating Oedipal atmosphere that reigned there. Separated from their families—and all contact with women—the students were encouraged to look on the sixty-year-old duke as their adoptive father, while for a mother they had his twenty-three-year-old mistress, Franziska von Hohenheim. Difficult as it is to imagine now, this too accorded with Enlightenment ideas about pedagogy. In her unattainability, Franziska was to serve as an ideal, intended to help the boys realize that pure love is more important than immediate sexual gratification. As a reward for good behavior, they could ride with her in her coach, or eat a meal with her in her English park. Predictably, she loomed large in the students’ imaginations. Schiller’s first known poetic effort is a poem written for a graduation ceremony, equating Franziska with virtue itself. Peter-André Alt observes that the poem’s meter, cadence, and rhyme scheme prefigure “Ode to Joy,” now the unofficial anthem of the European Union.

After several years at the Carlsschule, the medical profession was chosen for Schiller, much to his chagrin. Late one evening, while Schiller was manning the infirmary, his friend Joseph Friedrich Grammont showed up and asked for some sleeping pills. Sensing that something was wrong, Schiller prodded Grammont until his friend confessed that he planned to kill himself. Schiller was able to dissuade him and dutifully reported the incident to the duke, who assigned Schiller to cure his friend—effectively, Schiller was to be Grammont’s psychoanalyst. Schiller’s diagnosis, which he tuned in several weeks later, was that the painful headaches and stomach pains plaguing Grammont were psychosomatic symptoms of a psychic disturbance brought on by his deep hatred of the school. (Later studies of the case attribute Grammont’s condition to depression brought on by compulsive masturbating.) Displeased with the results, the duke told Schiller to convince Grammont that staying at the academy was his only chance of being cured, a task Schiller went about with understandably little enthusiasm. Eventually the case had to be given up and Grammont was discharged from the academy.

Schiller’s time at the Carlsschule was a trauma he would reflect on for the rest of his life. Rape, patricide, the abuse of power, betrayal, imprisonment, and suicide would remain themes in his work until he died of tuberculosis in 1805. His characters seem most themselves either in prison or under surveillance, as in Mary Stuart or Don Carlos. In those, his best plays, the tightly metered verse conveys not so much the desired sensation of dignity and grace but of speech straitjacketed by tyrannical authority. Even his personal life reflected the extent to which he was never able to move on. Remembering the strict hygienic rules of the institute, Schiller rarely shaved as an adult, hated wigs, and would receive guests in his bathrobe. The crowds at the Mannheim Theater could never understand why he wore such a shabby coat. Several friends commented on its likeness to a military uniform.

Later critics of Schiller like Theodor Adorno and Friedrich Kittler, who knew how easily his works had been repurposed by the Nazis, never tired of pointing out that Schiller’s passionate pleas for human dignity were at heart totalitarian. Someone who presumes to speak for humanity secretly wants to subjugate it, writes Adorno: someone who sees people for what they can be will inevitably hate them for what they actually are. Knowing the details of his time at the Carlsschule, the least that might be said for Schiller is that his evocations of freedom are so unconvincing because he never knew what it was to be free, a painful fact he would reflect on again and again. He might have had his young self in mind when, in a letter defending Don Carlos to a critic who found it improbable that a Spanish nobleman would have openly criticized the Inquisition to King Phillip II, Schiller answered that, though the scene was probably historically inaccurate, it was not so improbable as it seemed. “After all,” he wrote, “it’s in the deepest dungeons that the most beautiful dreams of freedom are dreamt.”

Michael Lipkin is a student who lives in New York City.

 

25 COMMENTS

22 Comments

  1. Stephanie Barbé Hammer | March 13, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece. Schiller was certainly a trauma victim, but what was particularly remarkable was his ability to use his own woundedness to probe issues far ahead of his time. As I argue in SCHILLER’S WOUND (Wayne State UP, 2001) Schiller investigates ideas that still perplex us in the 21st Century: the hypocrisy of the bourgeois family, the problems of masculine aggression and its ties to the male homosocial, as well as the thwartedness of female desire. In many of his plays, he shows us the wages of PTSD: that the pain within can easily lead to both suicide and murder, and that the soldier is asked to be something other than human. He even saw — like Maria Montessori did much later — that children had a kind of creativity and genius, that adults lost. He’s truly a under-appreciated genius.

  2. Mark A. Scheunemann | March 15, 2013 at 6:12 am

    Indeed a thoughtful and well presented essay. Though I am no expert on Schiller you make clear that he was certainly a reflective person capable of creatively expressing manifestations of human experience as a keen and insightful observer of others and perhaps himself.

  3. Vlad | March 18, 2013 at 1:21 am

    Wow, bravo Michael Lipkin! Interesting, thoughtful, and stylish. Great job!

  4. Emma | March 18, 2013 at 5:31 am

    I very much enjoyed reading this. My dad suggested your article (he often sends me brilliant hyperlinks), and he has done well here. As have you! If you don’t mind me asking, where and what do you study, Michael?

  5. Marco | March 18, 2013 at 5:50 am

    Actually while I find this essay interesting and the focus of childhood trauma important, unfortunately I do not get the impression Mr. Lipkin has properly understood yet the German literature and philosophy he is writing about. Actually Adorno says the very opposite of what Mr Lipkin takes him to say. Adorno says: : ‘The love for the people how they are is the hate for what they could become.’ It’s really the very opposite.
    Adorno and Friedrich Kittler have next to nothing in common, and their reception of Schiller is no exception. Adorno criticized Schiller and German idealism in general because it would not speak of freedom without emphasizing that true freedom would mean to give in to necessity. So for Adorno the idealistic understanding of freedom was not radical enough in fact.

  6. Michael Lipkin | March 18, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Marco,

    I was thinking of the passage devoted to Schiller in Minima Moralia, fragment 53, where Adorno writes, “Between the universal-human grandiosity and sublimity – which all idealists have in common, and which continually wishes to inhumanly trample on what is small as mere existence – and the crude love of ostentation of bourgeois men of violence, exists the most intimate understanding. Spiritual giants are wont to laugh in a booming voice, to explode, to utterly demolish.” I will admit I took liberties with my gloss, but I do think that that is the substance, that the high tone of idealism betrays a hatred for the smallness of life as it is.

    And while I agree with you that Kittler and Adorno have little in common, aside from a fundamental interpretation of the modern world as being deeply determined and deeply pessimistic view of the humanities, I would say that their reading of Schiller is very similar on this point. Kittler’s reading of Schiller in “Carlos als Carlsschuler” is basically that all of the supposedly progressive humanist concepts informing Schiller’s work actually have their origin as disciplinary tools deployed by the faculty and administration of the Carlsschule. His reading of Posa’s character in Don Carlos is that he’s secretly a tyrant, and that, had his plan succeeded, he would have liquidated Alba and Domingo.

    The piece was meant to be short, and for a general audience, so I had to skip over the more scholarly aspects of the argument.

  7. Michael Lipkin | March 18, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Emma,

    I don’t mind you asking at all. I study German Literature at Columbia University.

  8. Alain | March 18, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    I enjoyed this piece- felicitations, Michael Lipkin. Do you know of any work that treats this period of Schiller’s life?

  9. Michael Lipkin | March 18, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    Alain,

    There are definitely some works, unfortunately, they’re all in German. Peter-Andre Alt has a two volume biography of Schiller called Leben-Werk-Zeit which is a pretty astounding and really elegantly written work of scholarship. There are about 100 pages devoted to the Carlsschule in there, including analyses of his homework, medical reports, style exercises, etc. At the more theoretical end, there’s Friedrich Kittler’s essay “Carlos als Carlsschuler,” which reads Don Carlos as a document of Schiller’s time at the Carlsschule, and takes things in a kind of Foucauldian, Deleuze-Guattari direction. Finally there’s Heinrich Laube’s 1847 play, Die Karlsschueler, which I have never read, but is presumably written from a left, anti-institutional standpoint, given Laube’s political leanings. Hope that helps!

  10. Kelsi | March 18, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    I am writing a college English paper over Ethos, Pathos and Logo’s. I was just looking through some articles when I came across yours. The minute I started reading the article I was hooked. I wanted to finish and needed to know what you have to say. I am going to school to be a jounalsit. I think your article is truly amazing

  11. Michael Edgar | March 18, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    “female relations, particularly sisters and cousins, were forbidden entirely.”
    What? I have written nonsense sentences in my time but they have never been published, thank heavens.

  12. B Gieringer | March 19, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    Another very insightful recent biography of Schiller that I recommend in addition to Alt and Hammer is Safranski’s “Schiller Oder die Erfindung des deutschen Idealismus.” I think it is also worthwhile to consider Schiller’s Karlsschule experience in light of Caspar Schiller’s (Friedrich’s father) relationship to Karl Eugen through military service and later employment.

  13. Marco | March 20, 2013 at 4:03 am

    Michael,

    Adorno says in Minima Moralia Fragement 4: “The bourgeois is tolerant. His love for the people how they are arises from the hatred against the real human being.” (my translation, the German original is: “Der Bürger aber ist tolerant. Seine Liebe zu den Leuten, wie sie sind, entspringt dem Haß gegen den richtigen Menschen.” ). So I can only repeat: It’s the very opposite of what you take him to say. That “someone who sees people for what they can be will inevitably hate them for what they actually are”, that “someone who presumes to speak for humanity secretly wants to subjugate it”, is really just an ideological platitude. It can be used against everybody who “dares” to criticize fundamentally the current socio-economic order. That’s the reason why Adorno says the very opposite.
    Apart from that I enjoyed your essay and I think your focus on Schillers childhood trauma is to be welcomed. However in the final point you get it all wrong – especially as far as Adorno is concerned.
    best wishes,
    Marco

  14. Marco | March 20, 2013 at 4:10 am

    P.S. Just to be ultra-clear about my quote from Minima Moralia: When Adorno says: “The bourgeois is tolerant” he does not identify with this “bourgeois” attitude, he criticizes it. That’s why in the following sentences he identifies bourgeois “tolerance” and “love” with an underlying “hatred”. For European readers this is obvious, maybe for young Americans not so much.

  15. Harkirat | March 20, 2013 at 4:34 am

    a biography well delineated… great job!!!

  16. John Borstlap | March 20, 2013 at 8:08 am

    ADORNO NOT TO BE TRUSTED
    The extensive quotation of Adorno both in the article and comments reflects a misjudgement of Schiller and especially, the original drives of the Enlightment. Adorno belonged to the generation who witnessed the degeneration and fall of European civilization in the 1st half of the last century. Adorno’s twisted German makes it hard to both understand and to translate it, but certain is that he read ‘secret totalitarianism’ in the best of human impulses, thereby blackening genuine positive idealism and constructive thought as machinations of dictatorial motivations. Although this may be true in certain cases, as a point of departure it is extremely dangerous and suicidal, it is paranoia and morbid projection. If humanitarian idealism is ‘imprisoned’ in totalitarian accusations, and this view subseqently institutionalized, a real totalitarian construct is created, tabooing any escape from nihilist thought. This negative view of Schiller’s idealism can also be seen in Foucault’s misreading of institutions and the like, and in postmodern structuralism. Nothing creates a mental prison as devastating, for being ‘invisible’, as the institutionalization of seeing totalitarian motives behind any expression of humanist idealism. Hence the mental malaise of thinking elites in Europe…. It is all the result of war trauma, holocaust and the following nihilism of the last century. Because the nazis appropriated Schiller, Schiller was a secret totalitarian – what nonsense! People who would like to see humanity developing into something better than they are, do not necessarily hate (?!) what they happen to be at the moment. And to despise the sort of people who appropriate artists like Schiller and commit themselves to mass murder, like the nazis, is a perfectly civilizational drive. Adorno’s influence was, and is, morbid, outdated, and inappropriate in the 21st century and should be kept at a critical distance in academic thought.

  17. Michael Lipkin | March 20, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Marco,

    It looks, then, like Minima Moralia has two seemingly contradictory quotes about humanist idealism, which is pretty typical of Adorno’s dialectical style, right? Together, they can be seen to add up to one position that takes idealism to task for holding humanity to a standard that it can never reach, with the secret aim of loathing it for falling short, while at the same time using its high-flown rhetoric to offer ideological justification for the status quo. These are both things that Schiller’s plays can be (and have been) seen as doing, and sounds like a nuanced analysis worthy of Adorno.

  18. Michael Lipkin | March 20, 2013 at 10:31 am

    John,

    I see where you’re coming from here, and, in bleak moments, I’ve found myself feeling the same way, but I really hope that you give Adorno another chance. I think Adorno is a really ethical writer, and one of the few people in the entire twentieth century (in literature or philosophy) who is really committed to thinking through the problem of how to live, what sort of people we should be, and why our good intentions, both politically and personally, so often run aground. One thing that Adorno really gets right, in my opinion anyway, is the sense that we’re always choosing between two equally impossible options–two options that MAKE one another impossible. The belief in progress is deeply ideological, but, at the same time, to give it up would be barbaric. Popular culture is completely administrated and lifeless, but high art is no answer. If this a feeling you can at all connect to, then I would really urge you to glance through Adorno again. You might find something that really resonates.

  19. Ted Schrey Montreal | March 23, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    “To be inclined towards poetry was…against the laws of the institute…and ran counter to the plan of its creator” is closely followed by “[The students] studied rhetoric and…literature and learned, through style exercises, to write poetry”.

    This doesn’t sound too wrenching for a sensitive soul with poetic talent.

    To put it in typically blunt teutonic manner, this piece reads like a amateurish attempt at hagiography.

  20. loewenzahn | May 10, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    Ted Schrey Montreal :
    “[The students] studied rhetoric and…literature and learned, through style exercises, to write poetry].
    This doesn’t sound too wrenching for a sensitive soul with poetic talent.”

    learning through style exercises? like painting by numbers?

    It seems that you understand rhetoric but do not understand a sensitive soul.
    If you read” Die Bürgschaft”, you will get a basic understanding of Schiller’s dislike of tyrannical authority.

  21. Mack Hall, HSG | January 1, 2014 at 10:10 am

    Very interesting – thank you!

  22. google | August 1, 2014 at 10:42 am

    Excellent article. I am going through some of these issues as well..

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