Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Prophets of Dissent: Essays on Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Nietzsche and Tolstoy [Amazon, Bookshop, Project Gutenberg, Local Library] by Otto Heller.
Otto Heller was a native of Bohemia who immigrated to the US in 1883. He had a lifelong career as an academic, including a doctorate from the University of Chicago. He wrote Prophets of Dissent during World War I, while he was Professor of Modern European Literature in Saint Louis. It collects four essays on “the foremost literary expositors of important modern tendencies” (vii). There is little or no mutual reference among the component essays on Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Nietzsche, and Tolstoy, even when one mentions a figure treated by another; each will stand on its own for a reader. In each there is a good overview of the literary figure including both biographical details and bibliographic notes.
Of the four writers treated here, Maurice Maeterlinck is the one whom I have read the least and am most likely to read in the future. Heller’s treatment of Maeterlinck, whom he classes as a “mystic,” was encouraging in this regard. He also characterizes Maeterlinck as working within the “new romanticism” of his period (13). The features of Maeterlinck’s work that Heller observes to have been off-putting or even risible to early readers are all attractive to me: a preoccupation with transcendent realities expressed through subtle and enigmatic symbols.
Heller’s study of August Strindberg–whom I have read extensively, but long ago–glosses the notorious Swede as an “eccentric.” I think the observations here are incisive and accurate, if often dismaying. For example, “In Strindberg’s case, religious conversion is not an edifying, but on the contrary a morbid and saddening spectacle; it is equal to a declaration of complete spiritual bankruptcy” (100). The essay necessarily treats Strindberg’s eventual keynote of misogyny, his self-torment, and his apparent ideological fickleness, and gives him credit for “the extraordinary subjective animation of his work” (104).
Friedrich Nietzsche features as the “exalted” figure in Heller’s treatment. As a reader of Nietzsche, Heller would not have been dependent on other translators, and I assume the quotes and fragments that he presents in English are his own translations. These compare favorably with other translations on my shelf. For example, he quotes Also Sprach Zarathustra: “All great Love seeketh to create what it loveth. Myself I sacrifice into my love, and my neighbor as myself, thus runneth the speech of all creators” (128). Heller is of course at pains to dissociate Nietzsche’s intentions as an author from the Great War policies of his countrymen. He surveys the doctrinal leitmotifs of Neitzsche’s work and scores him as a powerful and admirable advocate of self-realization, if nearly useless as a reference for social reform.
The chapter on Leo Tolstoy the “revivalist” marks him as a spiritual successor to Jean Jacques Rousseau, and possessed of a similar “inconsistency between principles and conduct” (205). Heller rates Tolstoy highly as a social critic, while pointing out the unworkability of the author’s proposed solutions in light of actually existing society. (For myself, I see Tolstoy as a puissant modern agent of the Great Sorcery, and I find his moral aspirations somewhat noxious.)
Throughout the book Heller’s own prose is full of little gems. He was clearly a perceptive reader and skillful writer, confined to criticism and academic study through want of his own determining inspiration. This book (along with a separate study of Ibsen) seems to be his principal intellectual legacy, and it is a pleasant and informative read for those of us interested in its subject matter.