In: KulturPoetik 2013, Heft 2


Hans J. Rindisbacher


Blindness and Insight
Sabine Eickenrodt (Hg.), Blindheit in Literatur und Ästhetik (1750-1850)




Far from blind, Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge in 1910 nevertheless writes, »Ich lerne sehen«; Gantenbein, in one of his roles as a blind tourist guide in Frisch’s eponymous novel from 1964, makes his tour groups see by asking them to look closely and tell him what is there; and two decades later Christa Wolf’s Kassandra can see the future but is long blind to the changes in the world around her. In short, blindness and insight, hermeneutics and aesthetics, and the linguistic encoding and narrative function of the antinomy of blindness and vision are of ongoing concern to authors. But not only to authors. The 20th century focuses broad attention on visibility, the visual and all its forms and functions. Neuroscience is increasingly contributing to our understanding of structures and forms of perception and their interpretation, both of material and textual worlds – for all senses. The modern interest in vision has become broadly interdisciplinary.
Eickenrodt’s volume provides insight into the crucial earlier moment from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries when (literary) interest in things visual burgeoned. But the book’s scope and methods of inquiry are tightly focused on literature and literary interpretive analysis in a classical Germanist philological manner. By way of context as well as contrast, Friedmar Apel’s book Das Auge liest mit. Zur Visualität der Literatur reviewed here recently comes to mind.(1) The two works engage entirely different aspects of the world of visuality in literature. But they complement each other well with Eickenrodt’s »blindness« providing the counterpoint to the »Sichtbarkeit«, visuality, visibility, vision (both as sight and as imaginative projection) at the center of Apel’s work. Their time frames overlap to a significant extent, with »Sehkonzeptionen vom 18. bis zum 20. Jahrhundert« in Apel, »Untersuchungen zur deutschsprachigen Literatur von 1750-1850« in Eickenrodt, an epoch, she writes »in which, even if speaking in generalizing terms, the aesthetization of blindness is noticeable«.(2) There are key differences, too: Apel’s is a far-ranging, single-author comparative study in the spirit of an essay, including British and French literature; Eickenrodt’s multi-author collection deals strictly with German texts. In this more limited purview it is Jean Paul who emerges as a central figure, with three of the twelve contributions dedicated to his œuvre, whereas in Apel’s construction of literary visuality Goethe and his visions are at the center.
Yet, between seeing and blindness there is also attention. Not everything that can be seen is indeed seen. That there often is more than meets the eye has been the working assumption of all hermeneutic, interpretive practice for centuries. This need for interpretation, that is, for cultural historical assignment of meaning to the raw data of primary perception is driven home in another recent book on things visual, Michel Pastoureau’s The Colours of our Memories.(3) Behind an engagingly essayistic autobiographical approach the well-known French medieval historian delivers an account of colors in western culture, a narrative of fundamental changes in our patterns of seeing, classifying, and categorizing our visual surroundings. Pastoureau sides with Goethe in the claim that while colors may be object facts or waves, they are above all sensations! The hard sciences, Pastoureau writes, may be beginning to replace humans »by a simple recording apparatus« and for them »what is recorded is still colour, measured by wave-lengths«. But »[f]or the humanities, what is recorded is not coulour but light: colour only exists if it is perceived, that is to say if it is not only seen by the eyes but also, and most importantly, apprehended and decoded by the memory, one’s knowledge and one’s imagination«.(4) This, of course, applies to sight even beyond color perception with imagination often construed as a kind of replacement vision for the blind, a phenomenon that extends ordinary seeing into the realm of the metaphysical. This concept underlies several of the contributions in Eickenrodt’s volume.
The book, prefaced and contextualized by the editor’s erudite overview of the topic of blindness in German literature of the 18th and 19th centuries, unites twelve self-contained contributions. There is no collated bibliography or index but the sum total of footnotes amounts to a good overview of the field of vision/blindness studies and reveals just how close the network of scholars and scholarship on this topic is in German literature.
For historical, philosophical, and hermeneutic contextualization a reviewer can hardly do better than draw on Eickenrodt’s introduction. The volume’s central pursuit is the history of the »Poetisierung der philosophisch-anthropologischen Fragestellungen« (p. 11) around the »literarischen Augen-Öffnens« (p. 10) that the book promises to analyze. Each of the contributors was asked to provide a case study, an individual interpretation, or a concretization of the general visual-representational developments that occur during this time. The result is a set of diverse approaches, from a study of the motif of blind and lame characters helping each other to a philosophical-conceptual analysis in Andreas Degen’s essay on Georg Friedrich Meier, to, predominantly, hermeneutic-interpretive chapters, each focusing on one text or one author.
Wolf Peter Klein opens the discussion with a historical-linguistic contribution about the sematic and emblematic field of »blindness«, presenting a rich trove of both cognitive and metaphorical uses of »blind«/»blindness« that has produced numerous set expressions in use today.
Gudrun Schleusener-Eichholz then exemplifies Klein’s findings in an in-depth study of the numerous manifestations of the parable of the blind and the lame. She shows how this dyad at first serves, in an explicitly religious context, as a body-and-soul analogy and then, increasingly secularized in the course of the 18th century, becomes more of an exhortation to friendship, support, and sociability promoting the idea of sharing with others one’s physical gifts that they themselves may be lacking. This widespread motif is thus shown to undergo a development from medieval Christian to Enlightenment secular variants, shifting from spiritual, abstract and allegorical usage to concrete-practical advice while often retaining the form of the fable.
In Andreas Degen’s philosophical study on Georg Friedrich Meier, the focus is on »Blendwerk« – façade, deception, but also something that blinds and causes blindness by being overly bright. Degen explains Meier’s »theater of mind« around the forces of sensory perception, attention, will, imagination and, ultimately, »Verblendung« as an ›overextension of attention in the presence of too strong a liveliness of imagination‹ (p. 78). He is particularly interested in the sensory and conceptual transitions connected with the sublime, a moment of rapture and paralysis at the same time for which Meier uses the image of light in a mirrored room that blinds the soul (p. 80) as an optical metaphor for overpowered mental abilities. An overstimulated imagination can lead to a collapse of sensory perception and the proper functioning of the soul. For this phenomenon, too, Meier uses imagery of »blenden« and »Verblendung«, namely the flash of lightning. In literature, however, it is necessary to stimulate the imagination beyond the dullness of ordinary life to a point, almost, of »Verblendung« in order to arouse appreciation and affective involvement of the reader in fictional drama and narrative (p. 88f.).
›Whoever speaks of green glasses today references Heinrich von Kleist‹ (p. 95), writes Jutta Müller-Tamm in her brief contribution on Grüne Gläser. Farben, Blindheit und Erkenntnis um 1800. Setting out from a G. C. Lichtenberg text from 1792, her chapter, focused on pragmatics, medical beliefs, and life-style, informs the reader about contemporary eye care. Glasses, especially green ones, apparently were a fad around 1800. They have figured prominently in scholarly research into Kleist’s so-called »Kant-crisis« and the question of objectivity and reliability of perception that so deeply haunted the writer. However, the mystery of the green glasses may not be quite as deep: ›The field of optics – seeing, blindness, light, the media such as the telescope, microscope, the small telescope, mirror, glasses and others – were part of widely present epistemological metaphors in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries‹ (p. 98). The green glasses might thus represent an attempt to protect one’s eyesight more than a distorting element in the pursuit of (hermeneutic) vision.
Anke Bennholdt-Thomsen and Alfredo Guzzoni focus on Das Spektrum der Blindheit im Werk Friedrich Hölderlins. In the poet’s oeuvre the higher spheres (now inaccessible to moderns) are also the realm of light; if you cannot reach them, you are blind (p. 104). In their diagnosis of Hölderlin’s preference for heat, fire, and lightning over tropes of light or blindness, the authors notice a shift in ›the spectrum of blindness‹, a deviation from the light metaphors that dominate both the classicism and romanticism of the time. For Hölderlin, light is concrete; there is no ›inner light of the imagination‹ (p. 104) that could compensate for a loss of real vision. In contrast, his understanding of blindness is figurative and used strictly in reference to the absence of the divine, to darkness and the night that envelops the modern, god-less world.
Monika Meier’s contribution opens the triple serving of Jean Paul analyses at the center of Eickenrodt’s book. The piece connects Charlotte von Kalb and Jean Paul biographically and via the figure of Linda in the author’s novel Titan around the topics of blindness and seeing. It is the longest piece of the collection. But in attempting to combine biographical facts, a (partial) analysis of the two protagonists’ epistolary exchange, the literary transformation of Charlotte into Linda, and an interpretation of other characters in Titan that are linked by blindness the essay undertakes too much. Written in tough German academic prose, it offers the reader a serious challenge – the more so as it also gestures at yet another issue that this reader, for one, would have loved to see pursued in more detail: the views of the historical Charlotte von Kalb on the position and role of women in the society of her time. The (metaphorical) blindness of men in this respect, for which Jean Paul could serve as an example, makes for an intriguing topic. Charlotte von Kalb seems to have come tantalizingly close to a statement equivalent to what Marianne Oellers is reported to have said to Max Frisch: »Ich habe nicht mit dir gelebt als literarisches Material«.
In an oblique way, the following piece by Monika Schmitz-Emans at least touches on this question. She turns her critique of Jean Paul’s Holzschnittkommentare into Reflexionen über das Nichtsehen. At the center of her contribution are the writer’s exegetic comments on a series of woodcuts illustrating the Ten Commandments. Inspired perhaps by G. C. Lichtenberg’s commentaries on three sets of etchings by W. Hogarth, Jean Paul’s intention is clearly satirical-parodistic – but not directed against Lichtenberg or Hogarth as Schmitz-Emans is quick to point out. As representations of the Ten Commandments, the woodcuts do not really demand exegesis. The device of a biographical narrative of a fictional artist, Lorenz Krönlein, that the images allegedly depict is thus but a typical Jean Paulian multi-contextualization, a literary device that facilitates progression and digression at the same time. Schmitz-Emans’ suggestions that Jean Paul’s real topic is that of not-seeing (p. 160), seems correct. »Das Nicht-Sehen bildet gleichsam den Hintergrund oder die Folie für alles Sehen« (p. 161). Not the visible per se is essential but rather what one actually sees, recognizes, envisions and thereby is able to imagine in and beyond the visible. But Jean Paul’s whimsical interpretations also reveal that any poetic extension of the realiter visible into a field of vision (in the imaginative sense) is gained at the expense of blind spots, things that fall outside the field of visual perception and thus have to be added back verbally, as text.
Beate Allert’s chapter on Dr. Katzenbergers Badereise highlights the narrators’ critique of vision by undermining the images he himself creates. Allert’s approach to Dr. Katzenbergers Badereise elevates writing to an ›antiocular project‹ (p. 181) and an alternative medium of perception. There are tantalizing comments on the importance of metaphors in Jean Paul’s writing overall, their potential to diffract attention from the visual onto other sensory modes and facilitate an all-out re-embodiment of perception. However, Allert’s text is a bit unfocused and lacks the thematic and conceptual signposts to guide the reader through her diverse materials. She sprinkles four rather unconnected »Thesen« over the first half of its length – the last one proposing that Theoda rather than the titular Dr. Katzenberger is the »eigentliche Hauptfigur« of the story (p. 186). These theses appear in combination with several additional topics that would require further analysis (»bedarf der Untersuchung«, p. 178) that, however, cannot be provided here. And there are questions that have been neglected in scholarship that can only be »im einzelnen vorgestellt« but »nicht beantwortet« in the present framework (p. 181). The piece thus ends vaguely on the proposition that it is »wohl das Schreiben, was eine neue Art des Sehens birgt« (p. 197). The suggestive but inconclusive »wohl« makes one wish the argument for writing as a new way of seeing had been made more cogently.
In the only contribution on Goethe, Barbara Hunfeld focuses on the »Klarheit und Verhüllung« (199) that has repeatedly been pointed out as a characteristic quality of the texture of Wahlverwandtschaften. Admitting that none of the figures in the novel is actually blind (p. 199), she picks up on Goethe’s own remark about »Schleier« and turns to the opaqueness of the text, the zone between seeing and blindness, the sublation of both in some kind of »höhere[s] Sehen[]« (p. 203). This »Sehen« is a form of vision, a sixth sense perhaps. It both subverts and complements sight and is manifest above all in Ottilie. The »Vorrationale«, »Visionäre«, »Nichtdiskursive« is associated with her (p. 205) and contrasted with Charlotte, the embodied discourse of rationality. The novel plays with options of seeing and interpreting (p. 208); clearsightedness and blindness repeatedly change positions as the central characters negotiate their relations. Recognizing and mistaking are not opposite poles, they meld (p. 208); and metaphors of vision permeate the text. As Hunfeld points out (p. 208 f.), the novel has bamboozled readers almost since its appearance by its seeming clarity of language, yet its lack of hue and mood. It has contour but not color, as it were, outline, but no fill-ins. Given that Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809) and Farbenlehre (1810) appeared in such close temporal proximity it is tempting to see them in a complementary relationship of textual and material visuality.
Setting out from a negative critique by E. T. A. Hoffmann of the »Singspiel« Der Augenarzt by Adalbert Gyrowetz from 1811, where a »Blindenheilung« is at the center, Claudia Albert provides a brief sketch of key aspects of both the topic itself and its theatrical representations that often took the from of the so-called »Starstechen«, a popular stage device at the time. Albert points out that popularization trivialized the deeper philosophical dimension that arises for the patient from the impending loss of inner vision or imagination as the price for regaining (some) normal vision after the operation: the potential for empathy and reflection gave way to popular stage shenanigans and theatricality. Hoffmann opposes this development and seems to fail to recognize, or at least to acknowledge, the popular, even if shallow, appeal of the »Starstechen« and instead to insist on the intellectual dimensions of the act. His critique is justified, no doubt, but the simultaneous  »vaudevillianization« of the »Blindenheilung« in France and Jacques Offenbach’s appropriation of it for the German stage in his new genre of the opéra bouffe, reveal that Hoffmann is simply too late.
In her analysis of the visual world of Eduard Mörike’s Maler Nolten Cettina Rapisarda provides a strong interpretation of the novel, including references to visual technologies of the time and the novel’s predisposition to transitional phenomena of perception that link the psychological with the metaphysical and real with imaginary spaces. The pervasive dualist structure is linked to the dialectical connection between seeing and blindness, where the latter opens up into an alternate realm of inner visions that takes over where the eye fails. Rapisarda connects Mörike’s dualistic mode elegantly with his positions on the topical questions of the time of somnambulism, Mesmerism, spiritual séances, the doppelgänger motif, etc., and arrives at the conclusion that Mörike tends toward the psychological, psychopathological and psycho-analytical side rather than ghost and mystery explanations of occult phenomena. Additionally she highlights Mörike’s interest in visual technologies of the time, such as the sophisticated »Phantasmagorie-Laterne« (p. 237) that superseded the laterna magica and allowed the superimposition of images and their greater movability. She characterizes Maler Nolten itself as a work exemplifying this in-betweenness in that it can be read metaphysically as well as psychologically (p. 240), the dualist kind of interpretation that had emerged around E. T. A. Hoffmann, whose Sandmann (1816) suggested both psychological or psychopathological and supranatural-metaphysical dimensions.
Peter Utz’s interpretive juxtaposition of the two versions of Adalbert Stifter’s novella Abdias from 1843 and 1847 forms the excellent final essay of the collection. It reveals just how much more an interdisciplinary opening of the strictly philological angle of approach taken by most contributors might yield if done right. Setting out from a quintessentially philological premise, a straightforward textual comparison, Utz develops an impressively broad intellectual historical account and critique of enlightenment visual features – from the motifs of blindness and light, darkness and vision to tolerance and Christian-Jewish relations. He brilliantly elucidates the »neuralgischen Punkte und Blickwinkel,  […] an denen sich der Text zum Rätsel verdunkelt« (p. 252). Specifically, he is interested in the structuring of the »field of vision« within which the blindness of Abdias’ daughter, Ditha, plays out. He convincingly argues that the second version of the story emphasizes much more strongly the principles of enlightenment and attempts, in its narrator’s stance and commentary, to shed light on human lives via rational explanation rather than the workings of fate. The visuality of descriptions and actions is heightened and foregrounds aspects the reader is supposed to focus on (p. 256) in a veritable »Lichtregie« (p. 257), an aesthetically-focused management of lamps, light, and lighting that emphasizes both enlightenment and its shadows. This is done at the expense of the auditory that was more prominent in the earlier version, as Utz convincingly illustrates. The shift from sound to sight between the two text variants and the distribution of light and darkness, including the development of Abdias’ metaphorical blindness in light of Ditha’s regained vision after the first lightning strike is elegantly written. Utz also addresses a question that, by his account, has gained some prominence in recent research on Abdias, namely the novella’s anti-Semitism, the Christian depiction of a blind or »verblendete[s] Judentum« (p. 267). At the same time, the Christian Europe that Abdias and his daughter move into is far from securely divinely protected: the sky above Abdias is empty, the sun is not God’s eye but an empty eye socket.
Eickenrodt is right, the »exemplarische[n] Einzelinterpretationen« that her volume unites provide a significantly better »Tiefenschärfe« than »Überblicksdarstellungen« could (p. 18). However, what is still needed in the field of blindness and visuality in literature – and now perhaps more than before the publication of this volume – is not a survey, but a synthesis, drawn on the increased depth of the field that Eickenrodt’s book has achieved. Utz’s essay provides a model.

Hans J. Rindisbacher, Prof. of German, Pomona College – Dept. of German & Russian, 550 N. Harvard Ave., Claremont, CA 91711, USA; e-mail:


(1) Friedmar Apel, Das Auge liest mit. Zur Visualität der Literatur. München 2010. Reviewed in KulturPoetik 12 (2012) 2.[zurück]
(2) »… ein[…] Zeitraum also, in dem – freilich generalisierend – von einer Ästhetisierung der Blindheit gesprochen werden kann« (p. 10).[zurück]
(3) Michel Pastoureau, The Colours of our Memories. Cambridge, Malden 2012. The French original appeared in 2010; a German translation is not yet available.[zurück]
(4) Both quotes are from: Pastoureau (note 3), p. 170.[zurück]