Nowadays, many writers follow a straight line—an elite education, MFA degree and publication.
The German author Karl Phillip Moritz (1756-93) had plenty of schooling before literary success, but his life was a jagged line. Born poor, he received just a smidgen of formal education before he was apprenticed to a hatmaker at age 12. But he clearly had a sharp mind – and also a troubled one that would haunt his days - and so patrons financed his study of theology.
Moritz grew tired of this and became an actor for a while before returning to his studies at several institutions – the rambling man could not stay put. During his short life he was a writer, preacher, teacher and editor. He developed a theory of aesthetics—an early formulation of the idea of art for art's sake—that earned him the friendship and admiration of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller and Johann Gottfried Herder. One writer observes:
Moritz argues that an object is beautiful neither because it gratifies us nor because it is useful to us but because it possesses an entirely internal purposiveness that is so perfect that contemplation of it causes us to leave all our ordinary concerns behind: In such a moment of contemplation, "we sacrifice all of our individually limited existence to a kind of higher existence" (Moritz 1989, p. 11; Moritz 1993, vol. 2, p. 545). This position leads Moritz to the extreme conclusion that when one feels bad at seeing a play performed before an empty house, one shares the disappointment not of the playwright, actors, and producers but of the work of art itself.
Moritz was a prolific writer. His most notable, though still not widely read work, is a novel that blends autobiography, psychology and philosophy, Anton Reiser. We residents of Top Ten Land were especially happy when Charles Palliser added this obscure masterpiece to our world of books and agreed to write this splendid appreciation. Perhaps Charles’ piece will spark a publisher to return this hard to find title to print.
Appreciation of Karl Philipp Moritz’s Anton Reiser by Charles Palliser
When I first encountered this autobiographical novel by the German writer, Karl Philipp Moritz, I found it hard to believe it was describing a childhood and adolescence lived in the 1760s and 1770s. That’s how acute and fresh is its depiction of the humiliations endured by a clever boy from a poor background who becomes the recipient of charity in order to obtain the education that will give him the respect and celebrity he craves. The fact that he is clearly gifted does not deter those who are from “superior” backgrounds or in positions of power over him from patronizing and insulting him.
Even on later readings, I feel myself blushing with vicarious embarrassment at the treatment inflicted on the boy. There is a horrible moment, for example, when he is translating from a valuable book owned by a powerful man who likes him and has helped his career. Reiser turns over a page too quickly and nearly tears it. His patron is outraged and withdraws his favor and thereby crushes Reiser’s self-confidence and so this trivial incident has a grave effect on his life.
The novel was written a mere ten or fifteen years after the author’s own adolescence—shortly before his early death—and the pain of his experiences is still vivid. Although Reiser endures hurtful slights and unjustified accusations of dishonesty, there is no self-pity and no sentimentality in the book. Reiser is shown as a sympathetic character but one with many failings. It is an extraordinarily perceptive exploration of an individual’s psychology.