PRINT December 2014


Diedrich Diederichsen

A decade ago, when Per Leo, a young German novelist, was organizing the books of his deceased grandfather, a former SS official, he made two piles: “cultural heritage” and “barbarism.” Yet Leo eventually found himself forced to create a third pile of texts that he could not definitively put into one or the other category—those by strange (anti-) modernist and anti-Semitic poets or cultural philosophers such as Ludwig Klages. So the research began for Der Wille zum Wesen (The Will to Essence) (Matthes & Seitz), a brilliant history of the ways in which the often lamented increasing anonymity in modern urban life in the nineteenth century brought forth all kinds of characterological theories and practices. Exploring the tension between (racist) stereotyping and modern psychology, Leo found a huge field occupied by of all kinds pseudosciences that were once, especially in the German-speaking world, considered as important as psychoanalysis—and more often than not valued as its anti-Semitic counterpoints. Leo’s physiognomy of these ideologies, which finally reckons with their contribution to the worst crimes of the twentieth century, is especially interesting in relation to their origin. He shows that such theories emerged as German intellectuals tried to deal with the new mass culture of the nineteenth century, compensating for the loss of security in the city by exploring the status of the individual subject—its traits, faces, and masks—amid the rise of urbanism. In doing so, Leo develops a genealogy of the lesser known ideological roots of twentieth-century right-wing thinking, even discovering parallels with esoteric ideas in the creative class of today.

Diedrich Diederichsen is a Berlin-based critic and a professor of theory, practice, and communication of contemporary art at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.