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This article is taken from PN Review 199, Volume 37 Number 5, May - June 2011.

Catchwords 12 Iain Bamforth
Mines and Caves

Theodore Ziolkowski, in his German Romanticism and its Institutions (1990), reminds us of just how many German writers (in the mould of Martin Luther) had professional experience of the saltworks or mines: their numbers include Novalis, Brentano, Wackenroder, Tieck and Eichendorff. Moreover, Kleist, Hoffmann and Humboldt all wrote memorably about the underworld; and Goethe, although he had no formal training in the subject, threw himself into the technological and administrative aspects, as a privy councillor in Saxony-Weimar, of reopening the silver mines at Ilmenau. Below was the Earth-Spirit, the generative matrix which crops up in Faust I, and is imagistically associated with the spinning Fates: the miners were obstetricians who went down into the innards of the earth to assist their labour at the loom of time. In the dark some miners pursued what resembled a solar religion, or came to realise, like Faust, that the experience of the sublime cannot be brought about by using language as a tool.

Jean Paul, although he was not an engineer, called himself the chief miner ('Berg-Hauptmann') whose task it was to explore the caves of the human soul; Hölderlin too resorted to geological imagery in his poems. Between 1790 and 1810, hardly an intellectual had not been down the mines; 'the descent into a mine rapidly became a requisite of the walking tour that every German student undertook'.

Significantly, when they thought of mines, German writers thought not of coal and iron, but of ...


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