The Magus of the North: J G Hamann and the Origins of Unseen Irrationalism by Isaiah Berlin - review by Peter Levi

Peter Levi

A Most Ridiculous but Lovable Man Revived

The Magus of the North: J G Hamann and the Origins of Unseen Irrationalism


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Sir Isaiah Berlin has been the most brilliant talker when he has chosen, and the most faultless prose writer in his own manner, the best memoirist that anyone seems to remember. His standby has always been that he has read and thought about great men who were hardly known even as names to his younger listeners: Herzen was a trump card, particularly before Herzen was translated. Sir Isaiah was born in Riga, and Hamann (1730–88), the hero of this brief but sizzling book, was an intellectual who took pleasure in assaulting the liberal feelings of Riga and of Konigsberg (still alas Kaliningrad), including those of his friend Kant, and one may add his disciple Herder.

As one might expect of a critic of the Enlightenment and of every other rational system, he left wildly disorganised writings and many of his best were fragmentary and occasional and always polemic. I really enjoyed him: he seemed to be like Grigson on poetry, furious and hard to put together, and unsystematic but deeply right. Untidiness of mind was to him a matter of principle. But by page 30 he had a definite target, and by page 51 he turned out to be an anti-Semite. All the same he insisted that God was a poet, possibly even an English poet. God was both calm and energy, like Blake’s image of God, and he was the thief at the end of days. All the same the poems he knew best appear to have been Young’s ‘Night Thoughts’ and Dyer’s ‘Fleece’. He thought as poets think that a thing must be experienced before you reason about it. He really does sound a surprisingly sensible man, even though he was heavily influenced by Young on ‘Original Composition’ (1759). Quite likely, for better and worse he really was at the root of the Romantic movement.

Sir Isaiah pursues him relentlessly through Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Austro-German nationalism. That might be an obsession, but Hamann is not a fiction. Once I heard Sir Isaiah say that the Taj Mahal was by a Florentine architect, and the world suddenly fell into place in a new way. The same may happen with Hamann who loved Milton and praised Dyer because he talked about wool. Hamann used to inscribe a head of Pan on his writings. He said that he who writes in a foreign language must learn to sway or bend like a lover. It was his delight to collect the relics of unreason in modern life. For example if necessity is the mother of invention, why were the orientals the first to wear robes and why do the Red Indians go naked and shivering? He was adamant that reason and language are one and the same, language and thought are one and the same: ‘On this marrow-bone I gnaw, and shall gnaw myself to death on it.’

It is no easy task to give a rational account of so aphoristic a writer, and this one sometimes uses too many words, like a very clever lecturer on autopilot. But that is not a serious drawback, because most readers will be used to much worse writers. The only serious complaint I had was the statement that the Encyclopedia has no article on Homer. It has two I think, one under Iliad and the other under Odyssey. The Iliad article contains the wonderfully French remark that the poem is noble and glorious, though the cooking in it is filthy, whereas our modern generals have the most brilliant cooking but no success in war. The period of Hamann’s life is a queer one, not only in English poetry. It must be the last time in history when it was seriously possible to attack science. You could shrug off Newton and so on. What made the difference was atomic physics and electricity, which one might claim began with Humphrey Davy. It turns out that if God is a poet, he is one who sees the beauty of mathematics, and is content with general laws. Hamann on the other hand, whom I like more the more ridiculous I see his positions to be, was furious when he heard that astronomy was a perfected science with no room for improvement. (He was right, as it turned out.)

What he seems to have hated worst was the bland liberalism of Berlin intellectuals like Mendelssohn: he felt himself an East Prussian rather than a German. He believed that the passions were as truly blessed as the intellect. He felt it ridiculous and useless to try to justify the State or speech or love or art or the existence of plants and animals on earth. In all these propositions one can follow him, and one might well prefer Blake to Mendelssohn. He hated Kant’s ‘old, cold prejudice for mathematics’ and the very words ‘pure reason’ made him gibber with rage. But it is sad he disapproved of Buffon, whom I deeply love. ‘Le style n’est que l’ordre et le mouvement qu’on met dans ses pensées’, Buffon said in his initiation speech to the Academy, and in his case I really think the style is the man. Hamann did not understand the tranquil and victorious enlightenment of mankind which Buffon represents. A selected Buffon has been my bedside book for years, which I fear Hamann will never be. Alas, I am inclined to Jean Blum’s opinion which Sir Isaiah cannot bear not to quote, though it tells against his new discovery: ‘Hamann’s thought is what those who do not normally think would think if they did think.’

The study is a short book. Hamann is virtually unknown, though he got a chapter in The Age of Enlightenment (1956) and the lectures on which this publication is based were given in America in 1965. They have been admirably edited and annotated as the first volume (let us hope) of many. It is a long time since I so enjoyed reading about anyone in the eighteenth century, any philosopher, or really anyone at all except a poet. I wish that Hamann had met Dr Johnson, as he could have done when he visited England. I wish he had been observed by Walpole. Among a number of loose ends, he reveals an unexpected passion for Lettish poetry.

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