Reading, Watching 09.03
The Romantic School
Okay gentle readers, this is going to be my last of these for a while as I’m really, actually going on vacation. I’m not kidding around now: I just wanted to leave you with one last round of recommendations as summer draws to a close. Hope you enjoy!
First off, there’s my obsession with Oppenheimer because of Oppenheimer. II watched two interesting documentaries about Oppie: The Day After Trinity (1981) and The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2008). The first is available on the Criterion Channel and the second is free on YouTube. Both were made for public television, with the latter an episode of the PBS series American Experience. The Day After Trinity is probably the one to watch if you had to pick; it’s been critically acclaimed and has a lot of interviews with people who knew and worked with Oppenheimer. The second dramatizes the actual Gray Board hearing that denied Oppie his security clearance, with David Straithairn playing Oppenheimer. He’s a fine actor, but such reenactments are not for everybody. Still, if, like me, you can’t get enough, it’s there.
I also started reading Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Rhodes is very talented at combining a kind of cultural history of the pre-war European scene, character sketches of the nuclear physicists that would go on to help build the bomb, and very clear descriptions of the science involved. Hard science is a real weak suit for me, but I can more or less follow along with Rhodes. I really have neglected math and science, both in my education and in my own reading, so it’s actually been kind of fascinating to learn more about it to the best of my ability, sort of an entire unexplored continent. The strict division between “STEM people” and humanists that we take for granted now did not really exist at that time. Most of the figures in the book were highly cultivated in both and Rhodes convincingly portrays their interests in art and literature as an intrinsic part of their whole intellectual lives. I had no idea that Niels Bohr was so interested in the works of his fellow dane Søren Kierkegaard, with his book Stages on Life’s Way being one of Bohr’s favorites.
I’ve been on a Romanticism kick.— I re-read Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov’s 1840 novel about the adventures of a Byronic rogue in the Caucasus mountains.At a used bookstore, I came across a collection containing Heinrich Heine’s “The Romantic School.” Heine was himself a Romantic lyric poet, but possessed of a famously sarcastic wit, which he let fly in his critical writing. Heine was living in exile in Paris at the time and “The Romantic School” is meant to be a corrective to Madame de Stäel’s famous book on Germany that introduced the concept of “Romanticism” to the French public. While de Stäel presented German Romanticism, the product of “the land of poets and thinkers.” as a positive ideal worth emulating, Heine was trying to demystify the artistic movement from his homeland. He preferred what he deemed to be the enlightened, progressive, and classical literature of Lessing, Schiller, Herder and Goethe and wanted to steer French readers towards that tradition and away from the Romantic School, lead by the Schlegel brothers. For Heine, German Romanticism’s turn towards Catholic traditionalism and the Middle Ages was both aesthetically and politically reactionary. The Romantics essentially served as the cultural front of the nationalist upsurge against Napoleon, with many of the principal figures also involved in anti-French intrigues and secret societies. (It must be said that Heine was particularly foresighted about the problems that might arise from the mixture German nationalism and Romanticism.)