Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.07.21 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.07.21

Doren Wohlleben, Enigmatik: das Rätsel als hermeneutische Grenzfigur in Mythos, Philosophie und Literatur. Antike – Frühe Neuzeit – Moderne. Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften, Bd 146.   Heidelberg:  Universitätsverlag Winter, 2014.  Pp. 335.  ISBN 9783825363550.  €54.00.  

Reviewed by Christine Luz, University of Berne (

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Wohlleben’s Habilitationsschrift, which won the second prize of the “Heidelberger Förderpreis für klassisch-philologische Theoriebildung”, attempts to shed new light on the nature, the use, and the application of what in German is called das Rätsel. This term comprises all kinds of enigmatic concepts, mystery, obscure speaking, and riddling, and thus covers a much broader semantic field than any related English expression. I shall therefore continue to use the German term in the discussion that follows.

Wohlleben defines das Rätsel as a hermeneutische Grenzfigur, i.e. a cognitive concept and/or a way of speaking that operates at the limits of hermeneutics. That is, by hinting at possible solutions but eluding them at the same time, Rätsel not only question the possibility of understanding, she claims, but also undermine the raison d’être of hermeneutics as the art of understanding.

After an introduction that defines the subject and situates the study in the context of current research the book contains five major sections. Chapters I-III each approach a selection of texts from a certain historical period (antiquity, Early Modern Age, and the 19th and 20th centuries). These synchronic chapters are separated by two sections A and B that compare in a diachronic perspective several treatments of two famous figures associated with Rätsel: the Sphinx (A) and the Persian Princess Turandot (B), who attracted her suitors by riddles they had to solve in order to win her hand. The book ends with a concluding chapter, which suggests a method of how to treat Rätsel in literature and literary criticism.

Chapter I is concerned with instances of Rätsel in antiquity that are associated with the beginning and origin of the cosmos. It starts (subchapter I.1) with a discussion of Rigvedic songs from the second half of the second millenium BC which consist in a series of ritual questions and answers known only to the initiated. This kind of Rätsel is not a riddle to be solved but secret knowledge whose correct and ritual performance manifests the power and wisdom of a select group. Subchapter I.2 looks at the notoriously obscure language of Heraclitus’ sayings. Relying heavily on modern thinkers such as Hegel, Gadamer, and Heidegger, Wohlleben sees in the obscure speaking of the ancient philosopher an awareness of how language can both enable and prevent understanding. In subchapter I.3, the author identifies Rätsel as the underlying structure of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and focusses on the hitherto unknown aspect of solving Rätsel by intellectual effort. Oedipus discovers one of the primordial riddle types of mankind, the riddle about the human being; by solving it, he annihilates the obscure and perilous figure that has guarded the secret so far: the sphinx.

In subchapter I.4 Wohlleben establishes five aspects or types of Rätsel, which differ in their characteristics and in the way they work or, more specifically, in what they do for their recipients. Wohlleben distinguishes them as follows: 1. the cosmogonic-magical type, in which the oral ritual enacts the experience of cosmic genesis; 2. the hermetical-esoteric type, whose crucial feature is the exclusion of the non-initiated; 3. the utopian-ethical type, which reflects the limits of understanding and asks for advice rather than a solution; 4. a type that concerns hermeneutics and alterity; it focusses on the interaction of what is familiar and what is unknown; and 5. the ludic-heuristic type, i.e. a riddle to be solved as an intellectual challenge. Furthermore, Wohlleben maps these five types on a matrix between two ways of seeking the solution to Rätsel: 1. the intellectual attempt at solving Rätsel and 2. the perspective of a divine or supernatural salvation, i.e. the belief that the unknown cannot be illuminated by human intelligence but needs to be revealed by a divine power. The textual discussions of the following chapters regularly refer back to these five types of Rätsel and their position between rational solution and divine salvation.

Chapter I is followed by section A, a diachronic treatment of adaptations of the sphinx myth by several authors from the 17th to the 20th centuries (in particular Francis Bacon, Hegel, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ingeborg Bachmann). In the texts in question, Oedipus’s rational solution of the sphinx’s riddle symbolises the transition from a mythical and irrational era to a rational and scientific one. Whereas Bacon and Hegel consider this transition definite, the sphinx’s dark symbolism never really disappears in Poe’s tale. And for Ingeborg Bachman, her mystical power even remains dominant.

In the subsequent chapter II, Wohlleben looks at the role of Rätsel in the philosophical discussion about human curiosity from the medieval period to the age of Enlightenment. Whereas in the Middle Ages the secrets of the world were predominantly supposed to be accessible only by divine revelation, Wohlleben points out how in the following centuries human desire for knowledge develops gradually into a positive concept. In this process, she argues, Rätsel play the part of a catalyst as being a way of showing hidden truth. In subchapters II.1-II.3, she demonstrates how enigmatic speaking mutates from being a merely rhetorical device (subchapter II.2) into a means of investigating knowledge (Nikolaus Cusanus, subchapter II.1; Francis Bacon, subchapter II.3) and interpreting not only biblical but also literary texts by intellectual effort (Boccaccio, Petrarca, subchapter II.3). In the eighteenth century, Christian Enlightenment confronts the Jewish tradition of concealing (divine) truth (subchapter II.4). This controversy is reflected in literature in Schiller’s Nathan der Weise: by telling the famous parable of the three identical rings, the Jewish protagonist leaves the Sultan’s question, to wit, which of the three Abrahamic religions can claim superiority, for ever unanswered.

In the following section B, Wohlleben illustrates the transformation of the tale of the Persian princess Turandot. In the earliest known version of the plot by the Persian writer Nizami from the late 12th century, her story ends happily: the princess recognises the right suitor by means of a ritual which constitutes the victory and consequent happiness of both. In later adaptations, the suitor solves the princess’ riddle by means of intellectual capacity; Turandot feels defeated by his success and can only be saved by a counter-riddle which she solves (Gozzi, Schiller). A new—tragic—turn is introduced in Puccini’s opera version of the tale, where the happy ending is brought about by the voluntary sacrifice of a slave girl.

In chapter III, Wohlleben explores texts of the 19th and 20th centuries, in which Rätsel are associated with the (human) face: a Rätsel is found in the other, in the encounter with alterity. Subchapter III.1 discusses the contrasting and complementary approaches of Nietzsche and Rosenzweig. For both the human face holds the ultimate Rätsel, be it in its distortion into a grotesque grimace (Nietzsche), be it by allowing to visualise the face of god (Rosenzweig). In Hermann Broch’s novel Die Schlafwandler (subchapter III.2) human faces represent mysteries that are impossible to read. Broch often describes them in ways that make them merge into landscapes; Wohlleben compares this ecphrastic technique to equivalent developments in the visual arts. In Leo Perutz’s novel Der Meister des jüngsten Tages, discussed in subchapter III.3, Wohlleben discovers two levels of a Rätsel structure. 1. On the surface, the plot is devised like a detective story whose development leads to a solution. 2. Wohlleben traces an enigmatic substructure centred on a mysterious colour named Drommetenrot, which can be seen only by the hallucinating protagonist. Following Adorno’s Ästhetische Theorie, Wohlleben perceives in this colour a symbol of art’s potential to go beyond what can be rationally explained. The discussion of the poetic cycles Glühende Rätsel by the 1966 Nobel Prize laureate Nelly Sachs concludes Wohlleben’s treatment of literary texts (subchapter III.4). Wohlleben points out that in Nelly Sachs the ludic “riddling” character of Rätsel (type 5 as defined in subchapter I.4) is entirely absent whereas the other four aspects can be found. This circumstance contradicts a tendency in literary criticism of the last two centuries, which frequently focusses on the ludic type.

In the conclusion, Wohlleben makes a few suggestions she wishes to be considered in future studies in the field of Rätsel. In particular, she warns against two extreme interpretations which should be avoided: 1. that Rätsel are regarded as simply solvable riddles, which once solved lose all enigmatic potential, and 2. that Rätsel are a priori unsolvable without even hinting at a possible solution. Instead, she proposes a model of interpretation in which three constituent parts of Rätsel constantly interact: 1. the actual verbal expression of Rätsel, which the recipient reads or hears; 2. the hypothetical, perhaps never attainable but imaginable solution to Rätsel; and 3. a non-verbal, even non-rational but rather aesthetic experience of Rätsel, which interferes with the linear movement between the other two.

Wohlleben’s study faces two problems the reader needs to be aware of in order to enjoy the book and to profit from reading it. First, it oscillates between a historical and systematic approach: on the one hand, Wohlleben embeds and analyses the texts (and works of art) she deals with in their cultural-historical and philosophical background, and on the other hand, she uses them as a source to derive a theoretical understanding of Rätsel. By developing a theory from the discussion of her material and applying this theory to the same material she takes the risk of leading the reader into a circular argument unless he is at all time aware of where he stands and which perspective he is being shown at any particular moment. Second, the broad semantic field comprised by the German term Rätsel, which has no exact equivalent in any modern (or, for that matter, ancient) language referred to by Wohlleben, compels the author to cover an enormous amount of material. Consequently the subject of the book becomes rather unfortunately broad and lacks a clear focus. The author’s endeavour to remedy this by linking the discussions of individual texts to the theory defined in subchapter I.4 often seems a little contrived and sometimes almost trivialises the much more subtle and sophisticated nature of the textual analysis. Despite the author’s attempt to internationalise her discussion by referring to semantically related terms in other modern and in particular ancient languages (the Greek terms ainigma and griphos are regularly quoted in order to specify particular aspects of the German Rätsel), it appears that the conceptual frame of the study is based on thinking in German.

The book is written in what might be called Academic German, which does not always make its reading easy, not even for a native speaker. The most enjoyable passages are the discussions of literary texts of the 18th to the 20th centuries, in which the author seems most at ease. These passages, which provide interpretations of texts from the point of view of their enigmatic nature, can easily be read without the context of the whole study. Thus the book does not only address a readership with an interest in the philosophy of enigma and riddle, comparative literature, or more broadly Geistesgeschichte, but can also be relevant to students of literature of a particular period or a particular author.

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