Karl Bleibtreu

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Karl August Bleibtreu (January 13, 1859 – January 30, 1928) was a German writer who promoted naturalism in German literature. He was noted for his aggressive and dogmatic style of criticism, linked to a nationalistic and sometimes antisemitic agenda. His later work was heavily influenced by Nietzsche's theory of the übermensch.

Life[edit]

Bleibtreu was born in Berlin, the son of the battle painter Georg Bleibtreu.

After abandoning his studies in 1884 at the Faculty of Arts in Berlin, Bleibtreu travelled all over Europe, visiting Belgium, Hungary, Italy and the UK. In the same year he became editor of the Kleinen Tagblatts, a Berlin newspaper. From 1885 he worked as a freelance writer in Berlin-Charlottenburg, where he met Michael Georg Conrad, with whom from 1888 to 1890 he worked on the magazine Die Gesellschaft: realistische Wochenschrift für Literatur, Kunst und Leben (Society: realistic weekly for literature, art and life).

In 1886 he published the work which made his name, Revolution der Literatur. This proposed a programmatic body of literature dedicated to an Émile Zola-style of systematic naturalism. In 1890, together with Konrad Alberti, Bleibtreu founded the Deutsche Bühne (German Theatre) in Berlin, as a rival to the then important Freie Bühne (Open Theatre). The project was not very successful and failed shortly thereafter. From 1908 he lived in Zurich.

Literary theory[edit]

Bleibtreu was considered an important representative of naturalism in German literature. This he promoted as an editor, producer, director and critic. His writings were characterized by their intolerance of opposition. He saw himself as an educator and leader of German literature, often as its saviour.

As a result of his excessive self-centeredness and egotism he acquired both friends and many enemies. He described himself as a poet and genius turned into a great statesman or commander. Like his friend Michael Georg Conrad, he waged a lifelong battle against contemporary literary critics. Literary critics, in his eyes, were of great importance for the success of an author, because they had power to make or break reputations. He described himself as an anti-Semite and suspected a conspiracy of the Jewish press. Bleibtreu insisted that critics should evaluate only the real quality of a literary work and not - as so often in this period - judge on the basis of aversion to the author or his morals and political intentions. In Revolution der Literatur Bleibtreu described this demand in his characteristically lurid style:

If Shakespeare had been the greatest villain [...], would we be less committed to admire him? By heaven! If Jesus Christ showed me bad poetry, I would thrash him mercilessly, all my moral respect and adoration notwithstanding."[1]

He stated that he did not care whether an author was poor or rich, but only respected talent. His literary-critical style was arrogant and insulting, using humiliating and contemptuous expressions for his opponents.

He argued that new German literary forms should follow closely on the Sturm und Drang movement. This new movement should represent realism. Bleibtreu's worldview was shaped by heroism, nationalism, machismo and pessimistic world-weariness. At the height of his career, he even claimed that his work should be regarded as the nucleus of future literature. In reality, his influence was limited only to the short period from 1885 to circa 1890.

After the publication of Gerhart Hauptmann's naturalist drama „Vor Sonnenaufgang“ ("Before Dawn") Bleibreu's call for "revolutionary literature" seemed to be fulfilled. However, from that point on he wanted nothing more to do with "consistent naturalism" („konsequenten Naturalismus“), which he even called "so-called realistic imitation of the Jewish school." He envied the successful new authors, as their success marginalized him.[2]

His later writings show the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche. He entitled his book on Byron, Byron der Übermensch in reference to Nietzsche's theories in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. However, he characteristically belittled other writers who appropriated Nietzschean rhetoric, commenting on the poet Greta Meisel-Hess that,

Everyone today wants to speak with Zarathustra's tongue...even Meisel-Hess showers out poems in Nietzsche's mode in her rhapsodic masturbation.[3]

After 1890, he was mainly involved in the writing of historical novels and books on military issues, especially the Napoleonic era. In 1907 he wrote Der Wahre Shakespeare, a book proposing that Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland was the true author of the canon of William Shakespeare, after an earlier critic had suggested that he may have written the comedies.[4] The theory had a brief but significant flourishing.[5] He died in Locarno, Switzerland.

Works[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Bleibtreu, Karl, Revolution of Literature, 3rd edition, S. XVII. Original "Wenn Shakespeare der größte Schurke gewesen wäre […], – wären wir minder verpflichtet, ihn zu bewundern? Beim Himmel! Wenn Jesus Christus mir schlechte Gedichte vorlegte, ich würde ihn erbarmungslos vermöbeln, all meiner Ehrfurcht und moralischen Anbetung unbeschadet."
  2. ^ Hartmut Baseler: Gerhart Hauptmanns soziales Drama „Vor Sonnenaufgang“ im Spiegel der zeitgenössischen Kritik. Eine rezeptionsgeschichtliche Modellanalyse: Karl Frenzel, Theodor Fontane, Karl Bleibtreu, Wilhelm Bölsche. Kiel: Univ. Diss. 1993.
  3. ^ Carol Diethe, Nietzsche's women: beyond the whip, Walter de Gruyter, 1996, p.128.
  4. ^ Wadsworth, Frank (1958). The Poacher from Stratford: A Partial Account of the Controversy over the Authorship of Shakespeare's Plays. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-01311-7. pp.106-10.
  5. ^ Campbell, Oscar James, ed (1966), A Shakespeare Encyclopedia, London: Methuen, pp.730–731.