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Julius Langbehn, Rembrandt as Educator (1890)

Julius Langbehn (1851-1907) earned a doctorate in art history and archaeology in 1880 but never managed to secure a university position – a situation no doubt attributable to his difficult personality, sloppy intellect, and poor academic preparation. In the 1880s, he led a mostly itinerant life characterized by odd jobs and frequent moves. In 1889, he attempted to take sole custody of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who was suffering from severe mental illness. His plan to “cure” Nietzsche was yet another failure. Langbehn’s luck finally changed in 1890, when he published Rembrandt as Educator [Rembrandt als Erzieher], a tract lambasting modern life in all its myriad manifestations (e.g., rationalism, liberalism, materialism, and the rise of “mass culture”). The book praised the Dutch artist Rembrandt as the quintessence of the “southern German race.” For Langbehn, Rembrandt was both a spiritual father-figure and an “educator” whose shining example would ultimately lead to a national rebirth that placed art above politics, religion, and science. The book was an instant success, particularly in middle-class circles. It went through 39 editions almost immediately and took on increasingly anti-Semitic overtones. (Note: the excerpt below is taken from the 37th edition, published in 1891.) Langbehn’s overt nationalism was part of a larger trend in Germany – the country was suffering from a general malaise over the kind of polity it should become in the midst of so many conflicting interest groups and social formations.

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Central ideas

Signs of decline
It has almost become an open secret that the spiritual life of the German [Volk] people today is in a state of slow – some would say rapid – decay. Science everywhere is splintering into specialization; epoch-making figures are missing in the fields of thought and literature; the visual arts, though represented by important masters, lack monumentality and thus their best effect; musicians are rare, performers many. Architecture is the axis of the fine arts, just as philosophy is the axis of all scientific thinking; at the moment, however, there is neither a German architecture nor a German philosophy. The great luminaries in the various fields are dying out; les rois s’en vont [the kings depart]. The contemporary artistic endeavor has, in its frantic pursuit of style, tried out all periods and peoples, and in spite of this – or precisely because of this – it has not achieved a style of its own. There is no question that the democratizing, leveling, atomizing spirit of the century is finding expression in all of this. Moreover, the education of the present is largely historical, Alexandrian, and backward-looking; it is concerned less with creating values than recording them. This, in fact, touches on the weak side of our contemporary education: it is scientific and wants to be scientific, but the more scientific it becomes, the less creative it will be. “They hold the parts in their hands; sadly they lack only the spiritual bands.” Goethe, who is venerated by Germans today more in theory than in practice, could not stand people with glasses; but Germany is now full of real and spiritual wearers of glasses; when will it return in this regard to Goethe’s point of view? Surely it is not fitting for the inhabitants of an empire like the German one to declare themselves epigones with a shrug and to renounce progress regarding the truly decisive question of spiritual life. No error is more calamitous than the belief that one has completed the main elements of one’s education; the belief that one can merely patch them up here and there: as long as a Volk is alive, it cannot escape the necessity of great shifts in its mental axis, in its inner life. Today, discoveries are made in East Africa, but there are far more important discoveries to be made right here in Germany; it is not enough that the Germans have discovered themselves as citizens; they should also discover themselves as human beings!

A turn toward art
Indeed, a trend in that direction is already perceptible; the better among Germany’s educated are looking for new goals in the realm of the intellect. Bismarck, however, said that “the people’s opinion is difficult to discern.” And in fact, the latter is often something very different from the so-called public opinion; but even a hidden stream betrays itself through vague murmurings. – As it does in this instance. Interest in science, and especially in the once so popular natural science, has recently been declining in broad circles of the German world; a noticeable turnaround in the relevant general mood is taking place; the time when a prominent member at the meeting of natural scientists in Kassel could, in all seriousness, declare it the “brain of Germany” is over. People no longer quite believe in this kind of Gospel. They are rather fed up with induction; there is a thirst for synthesis. We are now standing at the beginning of a new era. The reign, not of Wissenschaft [science and scholarship] as such, but of a

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