Laura Tarkka-Robinson: ”Rudolf Erich Raspe and the Anglo-Hanoverian Enlightenment.” Lectio praecursoria 28.1.2017.

FM Laura Tarkka-Robinsonin yleisen historian väitöskirja ”Rudolf Erich Raspe and the Anglo-Hanoverian Enlightenment” tarkastettiin Helsingin yliopiston humanistisessa tiedekunnassa 28.1.2017. Vastaväittäjänä toimi Dr Alison Martin (University of Reading) ja kustoksena professori Markku Peltonen.

In January 1772, Rudolf Erich Raspe started to run a weekly publication entitled Der Casselsche Zuschauer, which translates as ‘the Kassel Spectator’. The name of this German weekly was, of course, a reference to The Spectator, a magazine published by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in London between 1711 and 1714. In addition to naming his own paper after The Spectator, Raspe also adopted its basic idea of providing anonymous participant observations related to his social surroundings. Nevertheless, Raspe’s paper was in many ways quite different from that of Addison and Steele, for its very first article took up the question whether or not ‘der Nachahmungsgeist,’ or, ‘the spirit of imitation’ was a negative characteristic in the German nation. Raspe argued that it was not, but judging by way he explained the matter to his readers, Nachahmungsgeist might in fact be more accurately translated as a readiness to emulate, rather than imitate others.

According to Raspe, this German characteristic had one significant advantage; it worked as an antidote against self-destructive national pride, which was harmful because it discouraged people from first experimenting with everything before finally holding on to that which they found good. Raspe argued that national pride was not based on sound judgement, and that it was injurious to the welfare of states, just like monopolies of trade. Moreover, national pride was also an aberration of universal humanity, which required that no one should be less appreciated simply for being a stranger, and that doors should be held open to all foreign virtues – and imperfections, too.

Raspe then went on to affirm that the hospitality of ancient Germans had been well documented by ancient authors, and that modern travellers still praised the Germans as a nation that welcomed foreign people and foreign customs, as well as foreign arts and sciences. He hoped that this particular trait would always remain a part of the German national character and emphasised that it was no shame to improve ones own knowledge by learning from others.

When I first started to work on my doctoral project, I was interested in finding out how eighteenth-century scholars from different parts of Europe shared their ideas, and how their different backgrounds might have influenced this kind of exchange in spite of their common aim of advancing the Enlightenment. I chose to focus on the Hanoverian scholar Rudof Erich Raspe, because his multifaceted and transnational career seemed to provide plenty of excellent material for this kind of research.

With regard to methodology, I started out by studying previous work on cultural transfers, an approach which was first developed by Michel Espagne and Michael Werner in the 1980s, and which has since inspired a considerable body of scholarship, and more recently also some critical departures from their initial design. My first impression was that, in essence, studying cultural transfers meant recovering phenomena like that which Raspe had defined as the German ‘spirit of emulation’ in the introduction to his weekly paper. In other words, it seemed to me that cultural transfer studies were basically concerned with historical examples of how people, practices and ideas stemming from culture A had been accommodated in culture B.

However, over the course of my project, it slowly occurred to me that Raspe’s ‘spirit of emulation’ was not simply about the acquisition and application of foreign ideas, nor were cultural transfers in general to be understood merely as the on-going exchange of cultural goods. I therefore started to direct more attention to the way that Raspe and his contemporaries had clustered people, practices and ideas around particular national characters, thereby seeking to create something like a general attitude for nations as imagined communities. At the same time, I concluded that it was important to emphasise – like Espagne and Werner had done – that the study of cultural transfers was essentially about showing how ostensibly self-contained cultural identities actually resulted from on-going cultural exchange; how something that was presented as home-grown was in fact based on imported ingredients.

Yet, to appreciate the crafted nature of national cultures, it is important to recognise the creative dimension of the eighteenth-century language of nations, that is, the way that eighteenth-century authors made nations by making statements about their characters. Accordingly, we have to try to understand the way in which this kind of language worked for those individuals who employed it, and this requires considering the specific social and cultural contexts in which they made their statements about national characters.

From this perspective, it is highly significant that Raspe actually admitted to having borrowed the concept of an English journal in his own weekly paper. Clearly, this was meant to support his claim that the ‘spirit of emulation’ was really characteristic of the Germans. Moreover, since Raspe chose not to content himself with publishing translated articles, and did not even follow the example of The Spectator all that closely, he effectively emphasised that the Germans were not to imitate but to emulate others. In accordance with this, Raspe’s paper consisted of essays concerned with the improvement of cultural life in Kassel, and most of these essays were written by himself.

It is also important to note how Raspe addressed a set of local, predominantly aristocratic readers and declared that he wished to make himself useful as a resident spectator. For, despite his local perspective, his discussion of national characters also suggested a more general idea of the German nation as a historical community. As a result, Raspe’s initial claim about the open-mindedness of the Germans actually served to distinguish them from other nations. However, he stressed that they should strive to be a better nation, rather than a singular nation.

In this respect, it is easy to see how the eighteenth-century language of nations was linked to the Enlightenment. Moreover, if Raspe would have been interested in making a truly cosmopolitan argument, he would hardly have claimed – as he then did – that most European thrones had by his day and age been taken over by German families. Upon reflection, this latter remark appears less perplexing than it might at first seem, because, as already noted, Raspe himself was a native of Hanover, and one of the thrones occupied by German families at this point was, of course, that of Hanoverian Britain.

Rudolf Erich Raspen kirje Thomas Houlstonille (Murhardsche Bibliothek, Kassel).

Indeed, the beginning of the Georgian era in 1714 was also the beginning of the so-called Anglo-Hanoverian ‘personal union.’ By the 1770s, the Hanoverian dynasty had already made itself at home in England, since George III was born in London, spoke English as his first language, and became the first Hanoverian Prince-Elector to never visit his Electorate. Yet, from Raspe’s perspective, the personal union still represented an intriguing fairway of opportunities which he considered well worth endorsing. This is why, only two years before starting to run his moral weekly in Kassel, he included the following passage in a letter written in English to his friend Colonel Faucitt:

I sympathise so much the better part of Your nation that in good earnest I could wish to be nearer connected with it. There’s no disgust or displeasure prompting me to that declaration; t’is rather a natural inclination to the British and the Royal Family; and the Prince of Wales if perhaps he were not provided now with a German Tutor, I should perhaps run the risk of offering his Majesty those my sentiments.

These words are a good example of how Raspe liked to imagine himself as an intermediary who encouraged closer cooperation between Britain and Hanover. As such, he is a prime example of a cultural mediator, working in the interface of national cultures which he was at the same time both bringing closer together and making more distinct from one another.

In my thesis I have also tried to stress that Raspe often made a sharp distinction between the better and the worse parts of the nation, in order to guide the national character in the direction he thought would be most advantageous. In his published work, he praised the achievements of men he considered as worthy examples for others to follow, whereas in his private correspondence he also readily criticised those who, in his eyes, were not to be allowed to represent the nation, or perhaps did not yet perceive themselves as its representatives at all. Such adversaries consisted partly of the ‘great world’ – as Raspe described the aristocracy – and partly of the ‘mobs’ – as he referred to uneducated working men.  However, Raspe was also very critical of fellow scholars, in case they entertained ideas that did not seem right.

The men that Raspe appreciated the most were typically self-made and reasonably well-educated, and it was with them that he mainly associated, as the secretary of his masonic lodge in Hanover, as a corresponding member of what has been called the German movement, and as an associate of the enterprising Lunar society in Britain. Raspe clearly hoped to find this kind of progressive company also in the Royal Society of London, of which he was a member for six years, but having resorted to embezzlement in 1775, the integrity of his own character was called into question, and it took him the rest of his lifetime to win back at least some recognition in the scholarly world.

In fact, it is curious that a man who by all accounts always worked very hard, who was extremely ambitious, and who always tried to present his readers with some sort of new information has eventually become best known to posterity as the anonymous author behind the tall tales of Baron Münchhausen, as the model for a fictional con artist created by Sir Walter Scott, and as a man who stole from his employer, the Landgrave of Hessen. In previous research, it has been suggested that each of these three roles can in one way or another be attributed to Raspe’s personal character. While I do not wish to entirely refute the validity of such claims, I think it is also worth considering why these three aspects of Raspe’s persona have persisted in historical consciousness so much better than his actual work as a scholar and translator.

Regrettably, it must be admitted that there have always been people telling lies like Baron Münchhausen, cheating like Herman Dousterswivel, and stealing like Raspe himself. However, as I have argued in my thesis, we should pay attention to the way that the connection between the fictional con artist Dousterswivel and Raspe’s own historical persona was strongly modified by the construction of national characters through cultural transfer. Furthermore, with regard to the initial success of Baron Munchausen’s Narrative, it is easy to see how similar dynamics might have been in play, for Raspe appears to have quite deliberately tapped into British discomfort with the Hanoverian personal union by having a namesake of a former Head of the German Chancery in London [Philipp Adolph von Münchhausen] tell most outrageous stories to the English readers, ‘to be repeated as their own,’ as Raspe wrote his preface.

Finally, it is also worth asking whether the scandal of Raspe’s embezzlement would have become such a taboo topic in the world of German letters, if it had been committed by someone less famously devoted to the cause of improving the national character. Indeed, as I have tried to demonstrate in my thesis, building up a representative body of intellectual achievements was an enterprise where stakes appeared to be astonishingly high during the Enlightenment period. The question how the reformers of early modern society used the language of nations is therefore a highly relevant one, as the heritage of these eighteenth-century debates is still very much with us today, and with rising discontent in many countries perhaps even more so than it has been for some time.

What historical research can do is to help us perceive the complex realities behind discourses that tend to present the world in very simplistic terms. To open up broader prospects into the past is useful, because it suggests that there are more options for the future than suggested by the culture which we currently inhabit. This, however, requires breaking up some of the narratives and concepts guiding our thinking at present. It is not an easy task, but to my mind it is the best way to avoid becoming prisoners of the past.


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