A renowned specialist and professor of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg, Jan Assmann moves beyond his immediate area of expertise to offer an illuminating and finely researched essay on Friedrich Schiller’s well-known ballad of 1795. Rather than give a line-by-line explication de texte, Assmann takes this poem of fatal curiosity and reads it as a site where various, complicated lines of cultural and intellectual memory converge. Such an exposition proves to be quite ambitious, and Assmann does an excellent job of covering a very broad field in a remarkably short space. In addition to offering a wonderful (and altogether entertaining) reading of the poem, I believe this essay also has some significant theoretical ramifications for literary history in general. I shall first give a quick summary of the essay’s contents and then comment on a few of the more important methodological points.
In brief, the essay aims to demonstrate how Schiller’s poem articulates at least three fundamental precepts of eighteenth-century esotericism: 1. Behind the veil of official Egyptian polytheism there exists a single, monotheistic divinity; 2. this true Egyptian godhead is identical to Jehovah, the God of Mosaic monotheism; and 3. this common divinity is to be understood as all-encompassing and sublime, corresponding to Spinoza’s controversial deus sive natura. A reading of Schiller’s earlier essay, Die Sendung Moses (1790) is introduced to corroborate this interpretation. As Assmann shows, Schiller’s primary model for this essay is a book by an acquaintance at the University of Jena, the freemason-philosopher, Karl Leonhard Reinhold. Reinhold’s book Hebräischen Mysterien oder die älteste religiöse Freymaurerey (1788), is a veritable compendium of intertextual sources and provided Schiller with a firm basis for his own formulation of the Egyptian mysteries. The poet simply colored the material more explicitly in the language of the Sublime.
The central concern throughout, then, is the poem’s particular conception of Egyptian religion and its sources in the European hermetic tradition. As such, this work belongs to Assmann’s lengthier project on the “mnemohistorical” construction of Egypt in the Western tradition, which he published in English a few years back under the title, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Harvard University Press, 1997). The term mnemohistory, Assmann’s own coinage, deserves further explanation. Distinct from history proper (but not opposed to it), mnemohistory restricts itself to the study of cultural memory. It forgoes a positivistic investigation of the past in favor of an analysis of how the past is remembered. Whereas historical scholarship presumably works to disentangle some objective truth from mythologized, egocentric accounts, mnemohistory adheres to the truth of memory. The professional Egyptologist, therefore, in his discussion of the ancient mysteries, is licensed to ignore the evidence of the primary sources, which only began to speak after Champollion’s celebrated decipherment in 1822. Nonetheless, despite his explicit methodology, Assmann is still tempted to introduce material that was inaccessible to Schiller. However, this move is wholly justified by the dictates of source analysis. For example, when reference is made to the cult of Neith within Saite theology, it is mentioned only as possible background for Proclus’ version of the veiled image.
By all accounts, the argumentation is incredibly rapid. Of course, this essay, part of a series of lectiones Teubnerianae, was designed as a public lecture. A steady, step-by-step presentation is abandoned for the more exhilarating pace of an argument that “only connects.” For example, the initial discussion of the poem centers on the final couplet which expresses the relation of knowledge and guilt — “Weh dem, der zu der Wahrheit geht durch Schuld / Sie wird ihm nimmermehr erfreulich sein.” Then, after an interesting detection of the differing motives beneath this relation (biblical, Platonic, Egyptian-mystical), the subject is dropped suddenly and replaced by an examination of Schiller’s sources for his Egyptianizing. When the knowledge-guilt problem does resurface, it is raised in connection first with Apuleian and Augustinian curiositas, and then with the figure of the
This is the major consequence of a mnemohistorical approach. I hardly view it as a failure but rather see it as a potentially useful contribution to more conventional methods of scholarly research. Insofar as it is interested in how the past is structured by the present, mnemohistory brings historical research closer to the conceptual perspective and sophistication of literary reception theory. Such an interdisciplinary alliance is crucial for our understanding of the processes of tradition, both on a broadly cultural level as well as on a narrower, specifically literary level. For this reason, I see Assmann’s mnemohistory as continuing the iconological work represented by Edgar Wind, Erwin Panofsky and their predecessor, Aby Warburg. It is not unimportant, for example, that Warburg’s grand library project bore the motto, “Mnemosyne.” What is of issue in this kind of research is not necessarily the identification of themes and motifs, but rather the study of what Panofsky would call “cultural symptoms,” where “documents bear witness to the political, poetical, religious, philosophical, and social tendencies of the personality, period or country under investigation.”1 In this way, therefore, mnemohistory not only successfully augments historical research by applying theories from the fields of literary studies and art history, but also serves as a beneficial corrective for standard, German Quellenforschung.
Such a methodological approach proves most suitable for examining the highly charged, intellectual ferment of Schiller’s eighteenth century. With apparent ease, Assmann traces the lines of the broad, intertextual conversation compiled by Karl Reinhold, stretching from Plutarch and Pausanias, through Maimonides, to the Cambridge Hebraists, Ralph Cudworth and John Spencer. As Assmann shows, Reinhold inherited much from William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, who, in his epic study on The Divine Legation of Moses (1738-1741), greatly expanded upon Spencer’s project of disclosing the Egyptian sources of Hebraic law. Schiller’s poem is thereby explicated as an accumulation of cultural memory that antedates the poet by some two thousand years. If the analysis of each source appears too selective and decontextualized, it is because mnemohistory is primarily a process of selectivity and decontextualization. Of course, works like Reinhold’s Hebräischen Mysterien and Schiller’s Die Sendung Moses respond especially well to this type of analysis. But I am convinced that Assmann’s approach would prove most fruitful when applied to other texts, less mnemohistorically driven.
1. See the introductory essay in E. Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (2nd ed: New York: Harper and Row, 1962) 3-31; the citation is from p. 16.