Memory of Karl Heinz Bohrer: The last romantic of the language

Memory of Karl Heinz Bohrer: The last romantic of the language

“He’s missing” – Karl Heinz Bohrer would have deleted such a sentence from the text immediately: cheap emphasis, pleasing sentimentalism! Above all, because the sentence does not fit when it comes to an awake intellectual: Doesn’t he think exactly in the time in which he lives? Inconceivable to transfer his thinking to this other time when he is no longer there.

Karl Heinz Bohrer died last summer in London at the age of eighty-eight – and of course one would like to know what he would have said about the developments of the past twelve months, the death of the Queen, the colonialism debate, the war, Macron in Paris and Truss in London, the climate of the cities where he had lived for so long.

Today, on the day when he would have turned ninety, one can only imagine it: politically it would not have been immediately clear to classify, Bohrer was neither left-wing intellectual nor conservative, neoliberal or progressive, neither the essayist chattering away in the feature pages nor the hermetic arguing university professor.

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Only the anti-foil of his thinking would have been perfectly clear: Karl Heinz Bohrer, as a thinker, was equally distant from politics and morality – instead, he took aesthetics as an object of consideration almost existentially seriously, he couldn’t do anything else.

Even if Bohrer developed many of his exaggerated ideas in conversation with others and was therefore anything but an unworldly thinker, he remained above all a philologist, in the most literal sense of the word.

The boy in Bohrer’s “Granatsplitter”, the story of his youth, develops his perception of the world by paying attention to the word and the words, their sound and their hidden worlds of ideas. His memoirs are also the description of his own love of languages.

He talks about the “wonderfully swelling melody” of the Martinslied, which moves him so much that he has to cry with happiness, about Greek lessons, where he realizes that poetry “did not only consist of content, not only of ideas, but of special words”, and later also by the English sounds of the BBC announcers, which promise a different world of ideas than the German one.

perception of the world through language

For Bohrer, language was not simply the means of creating meaning, but contained a romanticism of its own that even hermeneutic access was unable to completely disenchant. Bohrer transferred this perception of the world through language to phenomena that he encountered, with varying degrees of success in his professional positions.

After he had written all sorts of outspoken texts as a young editor of WELT in the early 1960s – for example one about the beauty of covering up using the example of the bikini – but then fell out of favor with his editor-in-chief because of an intellectually advanced dissection of German fraternities and their rhetoric and when he went to the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” as the head of literature, he said: Although one could easily demand iceboxes, soap and good schools for the majority of society, literature was not “socially demandable”, it could only be conveyed to a broad public indirectly.

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Bohrer was then deposed a short time later in favor of Marcel Reich-Ranicki and went to London to become a professor in Bielefeld after his habilitation, and later also in Stanford, USA. His unconditional insistence on the autonomy of literary language remained, perhaps also because he kept as far away from German intellectual society as possible.

His spiritual home was the “Merkur”, which he published from 1984 to 2011, he himself living in Paris, London and Stanford in order to “literarily lock himself in as a foreigner in the skin of the German language”, as Jürgen Habermas puts it Has. “He’s missing” isn’t a Bohrer phrase, but it’s true nonetheless.


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