ROMANTICISM FOR THE 21st CENTURY
Simon Strauss has been hailed as Germany’s new wunderkind – a millennial author whose debut novel, Seven Nights, has been described as ‘a passionate, fearless battle cry’ and a manifesto for the millennial generation, by the German press. The young author was in Amsterdam to speak about his vision for the future – a vision that centres around a focus on feeling, in the Romantic tradition of 19th century Europe.
Strauss hails from Berlin. He has recently completed his Doctorate in History and is a critic for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. His father is also a well known writer, Botho, whose plays are among some of the most widely performed in Germany. In all these ways, the young Strauss is the quintessential millennial – born as he puts it, into ‘the made bed of wealth’, inheritor of ‘a liberality that was and is no longer a promise’. Yet perhaps it is precisely because of his privileged position that his debut novel is concerned with what he terms, a ‘revolutionary tiredness …, a fear of not tackling things’. Perhaps this is also why Strauss is drawn to the passion and the focus on feeling characterized by Romanticism. He explains that his book, ‘goes against the Postmodern desire to distrust feelings’ and asks instead, ‘What does it mean to feel in the 21st century?’.
‘I yearn for more quarrels.’
Strauss admits that he ‘simply floated into thirty’ but asks, ‘what do I really believe?’. As a member of a generation for whom, ‘there isn’t so much to oppose’, he asks how one defines oneself against ‘so much happiness and comfort’. It was this sentiment that inspired his book. After writing an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung titled, ‘I yearn for more quarrels’ in which he wrote of his longing for “conflicts of attitude in moral questions” Strauss was challenged to write a book by Tom Muller, editor of publishing house, Aufbau. As the book’s narrator approaches thirty, he takes stock of his past and looks toward his future. However, it is his decision to challenge himself further in his quest for what adulthood truly means, that causes him to embark on a project to commit each of the cardinal sins on seven consecutive nights. The young writer admits that it is ‘a radically personal book’ that asks ‘what is sinning in the 21st century?’
Although Muller envisaged something, ‘raw ‘, carrying ‘all the flaws and virtues of youth’, the book was in fact 2 years in the making. Strauss tells us that the idea for the novel’s structure came from Hollywood blockbuster, ‘Seven’, about a serial killer who kills seven people, one for each of the seven, literally deadly sins. He explains that its form is, ‘at least half of the book’ and admits that it took much time and effort to avoid the potential for kitsch and cliché to which such an approach might lead. Indeed the young author admits to taking confidence from poetry, when he felt worried that his writing was in danger of becoming too sentimental and cliched. Although he wrote the book in opposition to what he terms ‘the ironic wave’, he acknowledges that his generation is characterized by a highly self-critical reflectivity. This also means that it is very individualistic.
‘I am writing this out of fear.’
Strauss speaks about the ‘hyper-individualism’ of his age. He believes that many of his generation yearn for ‘cohesion, trust and empathy’ and this has been exploited by right-wing populists. The novel begins with an important admission by the narrator, ‘I am writing this out of fear’ and indeed, this is a theme to which Strauss returns more than once during the course of the evening. Essentially it is the fear of his own complacency, ‘I’m afraid of not wanting more than I have’ but also of what he terms ‘cynical irony’. This type of irony acts as a shield for your soul, it is designed to protect you from the world yet in so doing, it robs you of the ability to feel truly and deeply. ‘Cynicism wraps its cold fingers around everything’ as he puts it. ‘It is hollowing us out from the inside.’
For Strauss then, Romanticisms represents a much needed antidote to the ‘purely rationalist, efficiency trimmed worldview, which has become so decisive for our Western societies’. It is also ‘a plea for the wonderful, the mysterious’. He argues that feelings are ‘interesting and important’ because they, unlike so much of our technological world, can not be so easily controlled and are often unpredictable. His book has been described by some as a controversial revival of Romanticism. Germany’s relationship with Romanticism is complicated but Strauss refuses to let what he describes as its ‘perversion’ by the National Socialists to cloud its ‘original promise’. He draws our attention instead to Romanticism’s central role in the development of European liberalism because of the emphasis it places on the individual.
Simon Strauss is not alone in his interest in the virtues of Romanticism. Germany’s new Romantics have taken inspiration from Berlin-based philosopher, Byun-Chul Han who champions the Romantic in the face of the seductive smartpolitics of capitalism embodied by the ‘smoothness’ of iPhone and ‘teflon Chancellor Merkel’. Han argues that capitalism in the neoliberal era works by ‘pleasing and fulfilling rather than ‘forbidding and depriving’. ‘Instead of making people compliant, it seeks to make them dependent.” ‘To me, the Romantic world of Holderlin (German poet) is the world of the future,’ says Han. His series of talks on Romanticism at Berlin’s University of the Arts last year were delivered to packed lecture theatres. He champions authenticity and laments the eradication of difference.
‘Europe is more than taxation and immigration.’
Simon Strauss ends with a focus on Europe. Specifically, the role that Romanticism can play in the identity crisis that lies at the heart of the European project. He argues that the original idea of Europe was ‘a deeply Romantic one … in its focus on a universal community’. He points out that previous generations had a clear European narrative – the peace narrative as he calls it. But today, most of the talk about the EU centres on rational, technical issues. ‘Europe is more than taxation and immigration’ he maintains, ‘It is a powerful idea/l that can talk to both the mind and the soul’. Strauss is a strong advocate for the role of the arts and notions of philosophical idealism in this regard and agrees that Macron has started to move in this direction. However he calls on his fellow millennials to ‘Again dare to raise our voices and dream of another world.’ Clearly the young author belongs to a generation of Germans that have the psychological confidence to do just that. Souwie Buis 14th April 2019