The Essay Writers (Die Essayisten)


St. Clou, 25th June 1721

…I received a long letter from the postmaster of Bern, Fischer von Reichenbach, with the newspapers, but his style is quite foreign to me. I don’t understand the words it contains. For example, „We take the liberty of charging the postage recently introduced by His Royal Highness‘ general postal authorities on all international sendings.“ That’s some writing if you ask me, I can’t understand a word of it, it makes me quite impatient. Is it possible, dear Louise, that our good, honest Germans have gone so crazy as to completely ruin their language, so that no one can understand it any more?

Liselotte von der Pfalz

„I have now traced and demonstrated, in detail, that the latter periodicity of forms of ideology, and the former periodicity of styles always go hand-in-hand as religious-philosophical or ethical-aesthetic forms of expression and reflections of the organic development of every cultural period, from its birth until its death, and that the various cultural periods in turn differentiate themselves organically according to the ages of peoples, from a broadly patriarchical childhood, feudal youth, constitutional maturity, social old age, to the cosmopolitan decay of peoples.“

And you can make a living writing that stuff? Yes, apparently a very good living, because it is the favourite occupation of a lot of people to write essays, and most of them resemble this sample.

A style has developed among those writers who always write de aliqua re, never aliquid[1], which is worth investigating. Just as, according to Goethe, there are poems which the language writes on its own, there are essays which the typewriter spews out, without the active participation of their authors. We can fall back on a good, old saying: the essay style is the abuse of the term which was coined to describe it. An entire industry has grown up around it, and there are a lot of manufacturers.

Old Schopenhauer’s honesty doesn’t seem to have had any effect on the Germans. Every sentence in the two chapters, Über Schriftstellerei und Stil[2], and Über Sprache und Worte[3], is still valid today, and essayists should have them spread on their sandwiches, word for word. It would be the only legible thing about them. „It would be good for German writers if they would try to think like great intellects, but speak like everyone else. One can use ordinary words to say extraordinary things, but they do the opposite.” Everyone knows these terrible discussions which start off like a lecture: wild men give us the benefit of their semi-literacy, until it hurts, and one doesn’t want to hear any more. This style has become so accepted that there is hardly an essayist, businessman or civil servant who avoids this ghastly style in his utterances. They foam at the mouth with their speeches, but they don’t actually say anything. Whoever writes that way, thinks that way, and works even worse. It is an intellectual masquerade.

The grand-daddy of this literary fancy-dress ball is Nietzsche, one of its fathers, Spengler, and the Austrian children dress up best. There are unmistakable signs by which one can recognize them.

Nietzsche contains hundreds of samples of this essay style, they are his weakest point. They blind one at first sight; at the second one, one recognizes the mirrors which caused the blindness. The flame isn’t really that strong, it is just cleverly reflected. It is those magical formulations which everyone has been copying ever since, but with the difference that the copiers only give the formulations, whereas with Nietzsche they are usually just the end of a long chain of thought, although also sometimes even with him, just an end in themselves, a little firework display in the park. “Sportsmen of Holiness“ is well put, but brought to too fine a point. This phrase also uses a technique which gets used on us in Vienna, which is to say in Berlin, ad nauseam: mixing metaphors. One hears appearances, and sees odours. They present themselves as good swordsmen, but only at school, where they can be sure that there will be no fencing. They are high priests in the pub, and it’s all phoney. Nietzsche gave them the pose; I don’t know to what extent one can hold an artist responsible for his followers, including the false ones, but Nietzsche had more of a bad influence on them than a good one. When he said ‚one‘, when he meant ‚I‘ or the old-fashioned meaning of ‘we’, it was for a reason, but this ‘one’ is just a stupid fashion. “One enters Greta Garbo‘s villa through the main gate…” Don’t talk rubbish. One? You enter! They have taken from Nietzsche his showing off of his knowledge, which is an organic component of his humanism, but his imitators only lust after knowledge, and keep dropping the evidence of the knowledge that they have just picked up, like horses drop their little heaps. I recommend Plotinus[4], and Polybius[5] is also very nice instead of Hippocrates[6], it’s not that easy to keep track of. They have taken Nietzsche‘s pose of loneliness, which is no less coy in the imitators than the master’s expression of loneliness; if one read that today, one would be amazed how the suffering of Sils-Maria[7] has been tidied up. They have taken from Nietzsche the latin use of the superlative, which actually means very big, not the biggest, and leads to untenable judgements such as, ‘the best book of the eighteenth century’, which then have to be qualified with ‘perhaps’. That’s how all critics write these days. They have not learnt how to write good German from Nietzsche. He was a great mountain-climber, but he had a slightly laughable, striped walking stick. They stayed down at the foot of the mountain, but they use the same kinds of walking stick.

And from the Hegel[8] corner comes a bowling[9] champion: Spengler[10]. Theodor Haecker[11] said of this type, „The secret of their success is that, just like with Hegel, anyone who is cheeky enough can join in.“ And they do. They emit a cultural yodel[12], and the hunt is on.

Italians like to see themselves as picturesque. They position themselves favourably in the scene. The German essay writer likes to see himself as historical. He positions himself favourably in time. There has never been such a historical perspective, but one musn’t look back at it after two years, because none of it works any more. They write, as it were, always for the mid-day edition of the year, with powerful headlines, and by New Year it’s all over. “If the history of this movement is written one day…“ Don’t worry, it won’t be. They anticipate the future. And the past, for its part, is just the playground of their petty vanities, in which they stick fashionable labels on the great men of the past: Hail, Caesar! What about the Gauls? The other side of this fake familiarity is the pedestal onto which the old men are raised; and if someone writes about Wallenstein[13], he believes that the essence of that which is printed in bold type in the history books is actually the product of his own intellect. What a historical swindle!

Only few people manage to grasp that which they experience historically correctly, and nobody can do it completely, but these essay-writers act as though they could. We sometimes see Dukatenmännchen[14] on old churches. They shit ducats. That’s how these essay-writers make history.

So it’s no surprise that the style in which they write is so hideous; it staggers in on two baroque left legs. ‘The wanting[15]’ is a case in point. And swollen adjectives to which one should apply a cold compress. The silly choice of words which tries to create an entirely new world for every clown. He hails from…, As far as he is concerned… The misuse of words: magical, dynamic, dialectic. These stale cliches which drop out of the machine ready-formed: Knowledge about, What we know today, the gestalt switch, and of course, ‘space’.

Without ‚space‘ they have no fun at all. Space is everything, everything is space, and that’s all really great. “From a human perspective, the nation no longer occupies a space…“ If one tries to translate that, there is nothing left over, because it is pure hot air. A man who ran a bookshop would once upon a time have said, „Men tend to read different books from women, and it also depends on the social class to which they belong.” This sentence doesn’t say much, I wouldn’t bother to say or write it, because it doesn’t really say anything. These days, the man, no, sorry, the Director of the Municipal Libraries, makes an announcement, „The contradistinction between men and women varies according to the sociological location at which one undertakes the comparison.” This sociological location is called Wichtigstein a. d. Phrase[16], but that’s the way a thousand pairs of spectacles flash, and into which a thousand reports congeal, and how a thousand speeches sound, and that is their job: blowing up banalities like children’s balloons. If you prick them with the needle of reason, all that is left of it is a wrinkled heap of bad grammar.

And it is not just those Austrian essay writers, who all behave as though they had just breakfasted with Buddha, but could not tell us what there was to eat, because it is top-secret; the North Germans are not bad at it either. None of them have much to say, but lots to speak!

From just one book:

„So once again the entire political situation is the reflection of the cultural conscience and the intellectual movements of our times.“ „What is acceptable from Klaus Mann, is not acceptable from Edschmid[17], because he has to be aware of perspectives, and contribute to the ordering of chaos, not just to be in the thrall of the superficial.“ So the superficial Edschmid is admonished to deal with chaos. And one can hear the false tone, „Typical were at first the young men who nonchalantly put the receiver to their ear and gave their broker instructions to buy or sell bonds and shares. Talented, friendly, sharp young chaps, one shouldn’t say anything against them.“ The old Herr Poseur wrote „Young chaps…“ himself, and this fat hand waving out the car window is a trademark of a lot of these writers. Sometimes, if they happen to be in London, they wave to Germany, sometimes to the chaps, sometimes they play new times… Whatever happens, they are always waving something at someone. But, „The way that Blüher[18] writes the history of the Wandervogel[19] as though it were his own, that is genuinely German: a furrowed brow, dramatic gestures, taking the slightest thing absolutely seriously, up to and including confessing intimate biographical details, insisting on getting to the bottom of even trivial matters, and seeing his own ego as entirely objective.“ So there we have it! And this statement of ample self-awareness is taken from the same book as all of these samples, Erziehung zur Freiheit[20], by Frank Thiessen, a man who is too intelligent to be dumb, but not intelligent enough to not be terribly conceited; too much to ever be able to condense clouds into a storm, he is not a poet; with too little wit to be a good essay writer. But what a tirade! What a furrowed brow, what dramatic gestures… see above.

I have started to collect this stuff, and it has very quickly become quite a pile. „The absolute victory of technology makes our whole attitude planetary.“ „Demonic knowledge of the ultimate secrets of the soul is combined here with a hard, clear, cruelly analytical capacity to depict – endless compassion with the creature contrasts splendidly with an almost elemental mercilessness of composition.“ There’s no arguing with that, and Stefan Zweig[21] has probably already had a rubber stamp made with that on it. One can use it anywhere, because it doesn’t really fit anywhere. „After the descriptive poems of his youth, one notices in the poem Caryatid[22], the emergence of a more dynamic word sequence; the theme recedes, almost disappears in the time-flooding verbs; the temporal, multi-functional ego makes the theme vibrate, and activates the materiality in the sequence; the theme is now more alive, but only by virtue of its focus in the ego; it draws attention to the contingency of the world on the lyrical ego.“ This, for what it’s worth, is from Carl Einstein[23], who obviously wrote it to test how much he could get away with with his editor. And what is good enough for the elite is also good enough for the masses.

One only needs to sit the average school master, lawyer, mayor, priest, doctor or accountant on the trolley of this essay language, give it a little push, and the conveyance trundles off, and all of them, without exception, steer it. „Contemporary man, if he want to make an impression, must have an inner stability, whether it is in his ethos, his philosophy, or in his faith, but he must permanently reinvigorate and test his position, using the strength of his spirit, and not isolate himself by insisting on his particular structure of thought.“ If I am not mistaken, one refers to that as youth-moved[24].

One cannot express complicated things simplistically, but one can express them simply. One must, of course, have first thought them through, and one must not be looking in the mirror while writing. It is, of course, possible, to take a few sentences out of their context in a philosophical work, and they won’t mean anything to someone with no previous knowledge, and that does not mean that there is anything wrong with the sentences. But if, however, an entire population of mediocre writers, of whom each one makes himself important with some jumped-up title which his output never justifies, produces something like a monument to Plato made of yeast, when it is ninety degrees in the shade, then it is surely fair to call this laughable essay style fashionable rubbish. Our best people have fallen for this temptation, and all the others can no longer express themselves in any other way than, „It is of interest to each and every one of us to know the position of the Catholic church to the various problems of everyday life and current affairs, and to identify the tensions between a traditional attitude to economic activity and the further developments demanded by the exigencies of the times.” They ruin the beautiful, clear language which German is, with their tinny cacophony. German can be beautiful and clear, but the hackneyed phrases which hang around the semi-literate in all scientific subjects, have made it cloudy. Börne[25] once said that the German language pays either in copper or in gold. He forgot about paper.

The German essay style reveals an artificial humanist and sociological education which is as limp and jaded as its bearers. And they write in the same language as Hebel[26] did! One should really pour scorn on the fake dignitaries, from Bäumer[27] to Thiess[28], from Flake[29] to Keyserling[30], every time that they utter such confused and discordant gibberish.

Try to write a novel. If that doesn’t work, try to write a play. And if you can’t manage that, write a report about the share prices on the New York stock exchange. Keep trying, try everything. And if all else fails, say that it is an essay.

[1] Writers with a specialist subject, not generalists

[2] About Writing and Style

[3] About Language and Words






[9] Untranslatable pun: German for bowling is Kegeln, which rhymes with Hegel





[14] A vulgar depiction of a little man (männchen) shitting coins (ducats)

[15] Tucholsky is talking about particular typical stylistic devices used by the writers he is criticizing. They don’t always have exact equivalents in English usage. Here: the tendency to create a noun form of a verb: the wanting.

[16] A made-up ‘typical’ place name: something like Self-Importance on the Cliche

[17] No English page

[18] No English page


[20] Education for Freedom




[24] From Youth Movement



[27] No English page




Author: Kurt Tucholsky

Published in: PantrTigerCo Tucholsky Panter, Tiger & Co. TuchoReader Tucholsky Reader


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