Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Was Friedrich Hebbel a Square?

Every once in a while you come across something that isn’t particularly brilliant or wise, but which strikes a note. Carol Tully’s review of Moniker Ritzer’s biography of the German writer Friedrich Hebbel fits that bill precisely (“Never a round nothing,” TLS9/6/19). Tully quotes a poem written by Hebbel and cited by Ritzer at the beginning of her book. It reads: “It is nevertheless better to have been an edgy something than a round nothing.” A l9th century writer who only lived to be 50, but in that relatively short period wrote plays and poems, Hebbel was the recipient of the first Schiller prize. Some people are appreciated in their times with their work living on and some are forgotten. Schiller himself, the author of plays like Mary Stuart and The Robbers is not a household name today. Certainly Hebbel was no George Bernard Shaw, whose legacy remains intact, but this curious bit of doggerel stops you in your tracks. Of course, it recalls the homily about “being a square peg in a round hole.” Yet on a more global scale it takes some attributes of form and places them “squarely” in the service of personality. Is a round the kind of person who goes through life in a state of blissful unawareness? Are “rounds” the types who annoyingly reply “I can’t complain” when you ask how they are? On the other hand, an edge is something that one associates with a ruler, in all senses of the word. An edgy person might in fact end up producing a line of kings. At the very least he or she might turn out to be a satirist or pundit—which, on the basis of the poem at hand, was apparently one of Hebbel’s attributes.

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