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Alexander Regier, Exorbitant Enlightenment: Blake, Hamann and Anglo-German Constellations. Reviewed by David Simpson.

Thursday, December 19, 2019 - 12:00

Alexander Regier, Exorbitant Enlightenment: Blake, Hamann and Anglo-German Constellations (Oxford University press, 2018). 272pp. (Hdbk, $74.00; ISBN 9780198827122)

David Simpson
University of California, Davis

Literary history has conventionally identified the influx of German thought into English as happening in the 1790s, with a spate of Gothic novels and plays and a sudden interest in the arcane initiatives of Kant and a host of other philosophers and aestheticians. Alexander Regier proposes that this moment was as much an end as a beginning. Just before the likes of Coleridge, de Quincey and Carlyle set forth to welcome German writers into English culture, less-noticed events were closing off a multilingual tradition, transmitted by way of “exorbitant” thinkers, and rendering it safe for domestic consumption. Wesley and the Methodists transformed the bilingual hymns they inherited from the Moravians into good English sentiments, erasing their origins, while the rich transnational careers of such figures as Lavater, Gessner, Lichtenberg, Fuseli and Hamann were sidelined by a new nationalism that would compose itself as part of what we now think we know as Romanticism. German literature remained associated with radical aspirations until the late 1790s, most visibly in the theater, but thereafter it became more and more comfortably incorporated into versions of high idealism and excursions into seemingly impenetrable difficulty. It was, above all, not for the common reader.

Regier argues that this is a falsification of literary history and one that has consequences. Most important, it endorses a strong disconnection between Enlightenment and Romanticism that has subsisted only because of our limited attention to the archive; and it suppresses the existence of a rich multilingual (that is Anglo-German) tradition that was especially significant in London, where, he reports, there was a German community of at least 8,000 in place by 1785, one with its own printing presses, books (including dual-language productions), and churches. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is the fictional forerunner of a significant German component in metropolitan culture, interacting in formative ways with better-remembered figures like Blake and Wesley who have become icons of Englishness. We have ignored this phenomenon, Regier argues, because so many of the important figures are “exorbitant”, a category that he intends as quite different from outsiders (who are just permissible oddballs). Exorbitants hold in common forms of excess in relation to language, the body, and religion, and relate to one another by way of contingent affiliations—Blake’s mother and wife, for example, had connections with the Moravian church—leading Regier to organize his own narrative into chapters that form stars in a constellation, by which he hopes to avoid the impression of a monolingual literary history (p. 23). This can be disconcerting, given that the cumulative discussion of Blake and Hamann that makes up the bulk of the book is parsed out across several chapters separated by what can look like quite other topics. Lack of hard and fast documentation means that some conjecture is required to imagine just how, for example, Blake knew of Hamann (p. 75). Regier’s case does not depend on this, however, but on adducing a dense network of bilingual or multilingual Londoners, outside the elite classes, in which both of them lived and moved. Moravian hymns, performed in the understanding that diversity of languages was not a curse but a sign of the bounty of God, and celebrating the bodily plenitude of God’s grace, appear as a demotic source or matrix for the otherwise obscure doctrines of these major exorbitants, who can now be placed in a tradition. This is not the key to all of Blake’s mythologies, by any means, but it is an important piece of the puzzle that his work continues to present us with: the Moravians, like Blake, used the lamb as a structuring device (p. 198); and Hamann’s reflections on the letter H suggest a promising context for Blake’s ‘Laughing Song’, perhaps explaining something that has not previously been explained.

Less conclusive, perhaps, is Regier’s  unexplored contention (made more than once) that the exorbitant views of Blake and Hamann about the supreme status of the Bible, the divine energy of words, and their “actively sexual role” (p. 205) remains “relevant today”. I wonder how they might fit into today’s world of weaponized religiosities. What might it mean to “seriously investigate” the idea that signs are not arbitrary, or that language relates directly to or emanates from the human body? (p. 91-92). The book does not explore these options, despite the hints. The idea of creativity as fundamentally linguistic-poetic is not unique to Regier’s exorbitants (think of Shelley and Friedrich Schlegel, even Wordsworth). The things that do make them exorbitant are less typical, and have remained so. Their relevance now, I think, remains open to question. But Regier leaves us in no doubt that they were relevant then, as part of the vast residue of subsequently unapproved or ignored doctrine that made possible the likes of Blake and Hamann. And in these our times, it is heartening to be reminded that Albion’s famous prophet might have known more than a few words of German.