UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The concept of action in the works of J.M.R. Lenz Pope, Timothy Fairfax


Lenz's concept of action: Handeln, is a pervasive idea in his writings and an obvious preoccupation in his life. Lenz scholarship has tended to follow Goethe and other contemporaries of Lenz in seeing Lenz's activism in practice as mere intrigue, and as a mere obsession when it was commended in theory. Scholars have, at the most, looked for origins for his views, or changes in them, but have generally declined to take them as the serious and coherent statement that they were intended to be. This study views Lenz's ideas on action as a coherent whole that amounts to a credible philosophy of life worth studying for its own sake, and with its parallels in modern psychotherapy. Lenz's views are inseparable from the Societe de Philosophie et de Belles Lettres—the identity of which we find it necessary to clarify-- because they were expressed in the context of this society and for its benefit. Its turgid spirit was what provoked Lenz to urge its members to action. Most Lenz scholars to the contrary, one of the society's members: Johann Daniel Salzmann, stands apart from the others in influencing and encouraging the poet in his thinking. Responding warmly to Salzmann's ideas Lenz works out his own philosophical and theological system of salvation through action, in which Goethe's GStz von Berlichingen stands as the model for powerful, spontaneous, altruistic action, creating and expressing the freedom of the individual. Lenz's deepest interest, though, is not in moral giants and their exemplary action, but in ordinary humanity and the soteriology of any action. It is man's calling to develop morally by learning from the consequences of his actions. Whether good or bad, action is the basis for moral discovery, growth and salvation; as such it is a sacred expression of one's individuality and beyond the reach of judgmental moralising by others. As literary-critic Lenz defends Werther against Nicolai's parody, arguing that Werther's life had precisely this sacramental quality. The spontaneity of Werther's actions was matched by his willingness to take moral responsibility for them, and to learn from them. Freedom of action is freedom to make mistakes and to profit from those mistakes: this, to Lenz, is the gospel of Christ. At the heart of it is the idea of metanoia, which is the new mentality, the loftier perspective that comes about through the performance of action that is followed by moral evaluation. Metanoia means not the pietistic dwelling on past failures and past wrongdoing, implied by the German equivalent Bufie, but the sense of freedom to turn those failures to account. Lenz's first major drama: Per Hofmeister, brings the idea of metanoia to bear on the fallible nature of human life. The play concerns not so much the cause of the family tragedy: ostensibly the hiring of a private tutor, as the way in which that tragedy is overcome by moral renewal and by the joy of believing that the curse of the past is outweighed by the infinite possibilities of the future. In Die Soldaten, the painful and saddening consequences of erring action are barely overcome. But though blame for the disaster is laid at society's door, it is again the individual that is morally responsible. Since it is Marie's and Wesener's actions that are at fault, there is the possibility of their learning from the consequences and experiencing some degree of metanoia. Their predominant reaction is, however, not the joy of renewal but the painful acceptance of suffering, which, in Lenz's view, was one of the highest forms of action, with its own perspective of salvation.

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