Supplementary Appendix 304.2

Excerpts of Dorothea Veit’s review of Friedrich Wilhelm Basilius von Ramdohr’s Moralische Erzählungen (Leipzig 1799) [*]

Moralische Erzählungen by Ramdohr

In the first of numerous prefaces designed to shield these stories like a breastplate against malicious defamation, we are informed at some length why we are to view the stories as, indeed, moral.

To wit, they make absolutely no claim on poetic merit. Instead, utterly prosaic and careful to avoid any and all florid or certainly ardent elements of imagination — against which youthful sin the author cannot issue enough warnings — they make do with “providing urgent advice to cultured readers in complex and unusual situations” and with presenting “vivid and quite specific instruction for better organizing one’s manner of thought and action in ordinary life.” In addition to such instruction, they allegedly also, in passing, intend to entertain the reader, just as “poesy contributes in passing to ennobling manners and morals.” —

But whether the entertainment is hindered by the instruction, or the instruction by the entertainment, one cannot really say. What is in any event certain is that these stories do neither the one nor the other. We have actually acquired this hybrid genre from the French, who refer to it as moral because they are, in the larger sense, not very specific with such philosophical nomenclature in any case, for such dissection of the characters, such hairsplitting delineation and anxious, contradictory tugging at unfathomable motives is sooner representative of what one calls “psychology,” for which, however, the French have no designation. They refer to their contes as being moraux because they are not physiques. [1]

It is for the same reason that these stories, too, are probably to be referred to as moral, or perhaps to be so designated per antiphrasin, [2] since it is precisely morality about which all the actants in them know absolutely nothing.

Vanity and unfaithfulness in love are generally the sins of which these heroes and heroines are culpable; boredom, emptiness of heart, and often bitter death their chastisement. If, on the other hand, they reflect in a timely fashion and change their ways, they then enjoy, as an earthly reward, a happy life. Married couples amiably pay visits to one another. The husband delicately whispers several words to the lady, and if she then cordially nods to him, he very delicately does not accompany the guest home, a measure that contributes not a little to preserving good behavior. They also attend the theater together, the place where sympathetic souls customarily encounter one the other, and which offers the best opportunity for lovers or married couples to peer deeply into their hearts. What objection can one possibly have to such moderate people and such a reasonable lifestyle? —

In one story, “Signora avveduta,” a lady comes to the assistance of the narrator just in time, just after he has had a carriage breakdown during a journey and is about to have to spend the night in extremely unpleasant accommodations. The lady immediately offers him a place in her carriage, then during their journey recounts to him, quite impulsively and animatedly, her entire life history, which in its own turn is similarly impulsive and animated.

The story is, however, quite delightful insofar as it is not boring, and one has no doubt that the gentleman offered the ride will be no less grateful. Instead, however, and in the tone of voice characterizing the appended “practical instruction,” he gives her a rather severe, even coarse lecture, and thus does the dainty little story conclude. The reader would not be surprised in the lady were to thrust the carriage door open and, just as daintily, put the presumptuous moralist out in the middle of an open field before driving off. Who, indeed, is so determined to moralize thus at the cost of courtesy?

Herr von Ramdohr possesses profound knowledge not only of human beings, but of the gods as well. In “Daphne and Apollo” this connoisseur and dissector of passions has portrayed the ancient gods with utter precision and quite correctly motivated their powerful wills. Apollo’s life as a shepherd and his love for Daphne has been developed into an extremely delicate court intrigue in which Apollo plays the role of a rather loose court page, Jupiter that of a tutor according to the latest pedagogical principles, an intrigue, moreover, into which the anecdote with Clytie has been brazenly incorporated.

But how in the world can persons who act so bourgeois suddenly transform so ingeniously into a sunflower [as did Clytie] and laurel [as did Daphne]? This story closes with the cry, “O Rousseau! O Petrarch!” — one is inclined rather to cry out “O Apollo! O Ramdohr! —

As assiduously concerned as the moral narrator is to repress the excesses of his own youthful imagination as being inappropriate for writing of this sort, and as often as he warns against so lively an imagination as being the source of so much human misery, he himself is simply not always able to maintain his own mastery over it. . . .

[Concerning the story “Odoardo and his Daughter”] The characters in his story should have been given different names, since the fact that they bear precisely the names of characters in Lessing’s tragedy [3] explicates absolutely nothing, placing the reader instead in approximately the situation of having familiar marionettes, wearing exactly the same costumes and masks, performing first a heroic play and then immediately thereafter the exact same play as a pantomimic caricature-ballet. Transforming Apius and Virginia into a bourgeois tragedy [4] is doubtless a wrongheaded idea that has also been often and justifiably reproached. Herr von Ramdohr, too, sensed the inappropriateness in such an undertaking. And yet how noble is Lessing’s transformation of Virginia compared to this travesty of Emilia Galotti! . . .

The modest fear the author expresses at the end of the aforementioned preface with respect to the assertions of connoisseurs is doubtless quite unfounded. May Herr Ramdohr continue undeterred to venture his skills on writing of this sort!


[*] Athenaeum (1800) 238–43. Back.

[1] Fr., “stories,” “moral,” “physical, concrete.” Back.

[2] Latin, the usually ironic or humorous use of words in senses opposite to their generally accepted meanings. Back.

[3] Emilia Galotti, published in Lessing’s Trauerspiele (Berlin 1772). Back.

[4] As did Lessing in Emilia Galotti. Back.

Translation © 2015 Doug Stott