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Category: Non-fiction

Henning Ritter



At one point in his Notebooks, Henning Ritter comments on James Boswell, a writer who combined chronicling everyday life in the eighteenth century with the cult of his own person: "This would appear to constitute the secret of what made him a man of his times: his self-possessed attention drove him to ferret out subjects that were the very exemplifications of his day, which he described because they were present, not because they were important."

What Ritter points out here as singular to the excessive Scottish diarist, reads like a counter-model to his own literary approach. It is rare for the author's “I” to address the reader in any of the philosophical and political précis, reading notes, maxims, and anecdotes that have been compiled in his Notebooks. Ritter deals sparingly with autobiographical details and direct self-ascription, allowing them to dissolve almost entirely within the cosmos of his stupendous erudition. Rare as well are his commentaries on the conditions of our age. Over the course of more than four hundred pages, there are at best a dozen entries pertaining to concrete current events and cultural topics. The catastrophes and developments that now hold the world in suspense, or did only a few years ago, merely serve Ritter as keywords to fan out surprising historical or ideological interrelationships. To illustrate, in one passage he spans an arc from the cultural policies of the GDR to Germany’s age of small states. One of his longer entries, which begins by mentioning the September 11 attacks, turns out to be a trenchant commentary on the special theological problems surrounding Islamic intellectual Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in 1966.

This book’s predominant perspective is that of looking into the past. As Ritter explains at the outset, he is presenting only a selection of his personal observations, about one tenth. The writing of the notations coincides roughly with the quarter century during which he set the standard, in an official capacity so to speak, for contemporary cultural debate—the years from 1985 to 2008 when he headed the humanities desk at Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. His notes served as the intellectual counterpoise his temperament required and were originally not intended for publication. Unfettered by the topical focus and reader orientation his position demanded, his writing allowed him to conquer the domain of associations and to soar intellectually; he was able to indulge himself with abandon and examine both well known and less known thinkers of bygone epochs in a way that was not in keeping with the times.

There is no question that Ritter's personal preference lies with the French Moralists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as Montesquieu, Pascal, Chamfort, La Rochefoucauld, or Galiani, as well as their intellectual heirs. For the nineteenth century, Stendahl, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche occupy the same place, while Spanish conservative dandy-philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset and Romanian-French chief pessimist Cioran extend the line into the twentieth.

Ritter by no means confines himself to reporting the impressions he gleans from his voracious reading of these authors. He unobtrusively enrolls himself in the maxims-and-reflections tradition on both the content and the stylistic level. Notebooks has neither an index, nor dates, nor headings. In the unsystematic manner typical for this genre, the author discusses topics such as vanity, authenticity, hypocrisy, and compassion. His command of the linguistic means puts Ritter on par with the old masters of the style. Yet the delightful passage in which he comments on the function of the aphorism in his reference authors is revealing only in a qualified sense. Lichtenberg, he writes, used aphorisms to protect himself from the impositions of scholarliness, while Schopenhauer used them to keep his insights malleable and protect his philosophy against opinionated rigidity. Meanwhile, others who were pressing toward nihilism, such as Jules Renard or Nietzsche, used language to acquire the stability that thinking had denied them. Ritter himself appears to combine all of these features in his own aphoristics. The eloquence of his style occasionally conceals trivialities or paradoxical content, and this, too, identifies him as a genuine moralistic talent.

Even if Ritter could not have expressed his affinity for the intellectual climate of past centuries more clearly, he cannot be accused of mannered epigonism. In spite of his intimate familiarity with the mental riches accumulated by four centuries of intellectual aristocrats, he has retained his capacity for original thinking and his ability to keep his analytical-critical distance. For example, although he examines Nietzsche with virtually inexhaustible enthusiasm, he suddenly pronounces the verdict that Nietzsche wrote "intellectual kitsch." Several pages later, Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault must endure the same accusation. No one is safe from Ritter's taunting points, not even the idealistic prince of poets in classical Weimar, of whom he laconically remarks, "Schiller wanted to be a contemporary to every age. He was inclined to overreach himself anyway." Ritter'sNotebooks represent a maverick free thinker’s attempt to reassure himself of his identity and to assert his own individualism by utilizing his encyclopedic knowledge and timeless intellectual acuity. The author views the impending “devaluation of individuality" as one of the main although underestimated dangers of our current "fun society," where the fear of exposing oneself to ridicule is no longer known. In other passages as well, where he speaks of "the age of ‘playback authenticity’ " or the "scandal of political correctness," he makes no secret of his cultural pessimism. Nonetheless, the tenor of his writing remains free of apocalyptic bitterness. In fact, as reading progresses the impression of a cultured melancholy emerges, relieved by self-ironic exaggeration along the lines of, "The West is declining? What could be more pleasant than to decline along with the West?"

What’s more, one should not succumb to the temptation of interpreting Ritter’s dictum, "The present cannot be understood through the categories of the present," merely as describing the shortcomings of our age. A present that provides the categories for his impressively demonstrated understanding of the past ought to be entirely in line with his way of thinking.

Translated by Philip Schmitz

Book cover Notebooks

By Marianna Lieder

​Marianna Lieder works as a freelance journalist and literary critic for publications including the Tagesspiegel, the Stuttgarter Zeitung and Literaturen. She has been an editor at Philosophie Magazin since 2011.