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14 November 2013

Sten Gunnar Flygt's The Notorious Dr. Bahrdt

Lieselotte E. Kurth

The title and an announcement of this book as the "Biography of an 18th century German theologian who gained a great deal of notoriety in his day by insisting on living exactly as he pleased" (Am. Book Publ. Rec., Oct. 1963) seem to promise delightful entertainment for the casual reader. An additional reference to Dr. Bahrdt as "one of the principal exponents of the eighteenth-century intellectual movement" suggests that it also offers information, perhaps penetrating insights for the scholar of intellectual history. Professor Flygt manages to fulfill more or less both of these implied promises.

Bahrdt was, to be sure, an influential man in his own time. As a theologian and reinterpreter of the Bible he became deeply involved in the same religious controversies to which Lessing devoted part of his life. Numerous Streitschriften defending or attacking Bahrdt's views and deeds are evidence of his prominent role in this field. Bahrdt exerted influence, too, as a popular university teacher; and he became widely known as a progressive educator. But Bahrdt was also a fallible human being, perhps a bit more vain and dissolute, a bit more foolish and corrupt than his famous contemporaries. Because of these human shortcomings he has obviously shared the fate of many a man whose image has become distorted with the passing of time. In the appendix of his book, Professor Flygt outlines with meticulous care exactly how the reputation of Bahrdt has declined through the ages because of highly eccentric scholarship and the negatively selective propagation of clichés.

It was Flygt's aim to correct this false and strongly biased picture without, of course, idealising the subject of his study. In contrast to others who have treated or mentioned the notorious doctor he attempts to help his reader acquire some sympathy and understanding for this truly complex human being. What emerges is a picture of an intricately patterned personality, a man who was at times shrewd, irreverent, frivolous and immoral, but also a forceful shaper of ideas, an effective champion of ideals and a versatile intellectual of great integrity.

Without having to be pedantic a precisionist might be critical of Flygt's bibliographical method and the techniques of annotation. Bahrdt's own writings are not included in the selected bibliography. Flygt's explanation of the omission is that a list of these "may conveniently be found in Goedeke's Grundiss." No one of course would expect the author to reproduce Goedeke's bibliography of more than a hundred items and twenty pages. But all of Bahrdt's works used for this study as the source of quotations should be contained in the bibliography to facilitate the work of those who might be sufficiently stimulated to investigate further. As it stands now, only a time consuming check of all notes and careful excerpting of relevant entries in the index should show which of Bahrdt's works Flygt has actually used. In addition the author frequently omits exact page references and so discourages the intellectually cusious from trying to see significant excerpts in the original language and in their natural, perhaps more revealing setting rather than in English translation as in his book.

The scholar of literature might also be a bit disappointed by the comparatively little emphasis on Bahrdt and literature. Most of his creative works are merely mentioned in passing, if at all. And the "notorious Doctor" as a literary "motif," that is Bahrdt himself as a figure in the fictitiou world of his time, is only casually treated. In one of the few instances where Flygt takes up this aspect, he bases his stateemnt on the findings of Gervinus (Geschichte der poetische National = Litaratur, 1841 - 1844) and writes: "Gervinus . . . in 1841 . . . justly points out many similarities between Bahrdt and the hero of Nicolai's novel Sebaldus Nothanker." It seems, however, that the extremely general parallels (which might fit any two men involved in theological quarrels) between Sebaldus and Bahrdt are purely coincidental and not at all intended by Nicolai. There is, however, a minor figure in Nicolai's novel who is clearly modelled after Bahrdt. It is the one-time travelling companion of Sebaldus, a man who just like Bahrdt is reinterpreting the Bible and tries to disprove most of the important dogmas with the aid of the arabic language; (Bahrdt's De usu linguae arabicae ex comparatione cum hebraea, 1785). Just like Bahrdt the fictitious scholar of the Bible turns his back on Leipzig because his efforts were not appreciated in this "orthodox" city. Bahrdt was much more significant as a figure in imaginative literature than one might guess from the sparse references in Flygt's study. Many a novel of the time contains allusions to him and his theories, as I intend to show in more detail on another occasion. Even as late as 1820 Jean Paul used Bahrdt's autobiography as the source for a fictitious situation in his Komet.

The specific negative aspects of concern to the scholar do not markedly detract from the general value of the book. Bahrdt is not treated in isolation. He was friend and enemy of many a great man of this period, and Flygt is able to uncover and display a fine net of intricately interlaced relationships. One of Flygt's problems was to fill the necessary basic information for the casual reader without boring the well-informed scholar. This problem he has solved quite well. For the uninformed he sketches adequate pictures of men and situations causing, at the same time, the better informed to recall more complete panoramas. To achieve this Flygt repeatedly uses the proven method of progression from the general to the particular. He often introduces first more broad aspect from the general to the particular. He often introduces first some broad aspect of the enlightenment; he then proceeds to a particular area and lastly to individuals and details. Thus, much of the Aufklärung with its disquieting activities and intellectual achievements becomes an expertly delineated background for this biographical study.

Since Flygt's perspective is different from that of writers who have treated only giants and summits of the enlightenment, he is also concerned with the lowlands of humanity. Contemporary anecdotes and unsubstantiated gossip enter this picture of "intellectual society." Intrigues, quarrels and conspiracies were part of this life. All that makes, of course, for entertaining reading. Considered in its entirety, Professor Flygt's study adds an essential segment to the still fragmentary picture we have of the enlightenment.

Source: MLN, Vol 80, No. 4, Oct. 1965 (German issue).

 

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