Typically English
Click here to leave

Typically English. How the British came to be what they are

"... a tome that may become required reading for German visitors..."
(The Sunday Times)

typenglHans-Dieter Gelfert, Typisch englisch. Wie die Briten wurden, was sie sind. (Typically English. How the British came to be what they are) München: C. H. Beck, 1995, 4 2002, 176 pp.

deusmlClick here for price and availability information from amazon.de


The book originated from a course of lectures intended to make students see the web of English culture that shines through English literature. At the beginning it is made clear that 'typical' does not refer to any genetically conditioned pattern of behaviour, but to strategies that English society has acquired in the course of its history. The first part of the book deals with the English in a phenomenological manner by taking stock of what foreign observers have repeatedly ascribed to them. This approach was chosen on the assumption that a foreigner will compare England with his own country and will then see the conspicuous presence or absence of things that, in either case, are being taken for granted by the hosting nation. While describing these typical features the book suggests reasons why they came about.

The first chapter deals with three classical stereotypes of the Englishman: the gentleman, John Bull and the English excentric. Then follows a discussion of the "ritualistic conception of life" which is continued in a chapter on the three codes of "the English way of life", i. e. politeness, fair play, and self-discipline, which is wound up with a comparison of "the English style of understatement and the German jargon of efficiency" ("Jargon der Tüchtigkeit").

The next seven chapters deal with the 'seven English virtues': love of freedom, individualism, rationality, sense of compromise, practical sense, love of nature and humour. Then follows a chapter on those English vices that in the course of five centuries have drawn comments from foreign visitors, such as laziness, gluttony, arrogance, dullness, excessive betting, melancholy (spleen), and hypocrisy. A chapter on the English way of swearing concludes the first part, which by then has built up accumulative evidence for a common pattern the historical reasons for which are given in the second half.

Part II opens with a chapter on "England's fortunate history", which is followed by chapters on "English law without system", "a constitutional monarchy without a constitution", "a state without a concept of the state", "a class-ridden society without strict class barriers", "the paradise for women", "the amphibious culture of the landed gentry", "the picturesque as the English ideal of taste", "English art", "the English landscape garden", "18th century England as the cradle of the modern consciousness", "English philosophy without dialectics", "the disappearance of tragedy from English literature after 1642", and "English music without the grand symphonic form". By then a recurrent pattern will have become obvious which is summed up in a chapter entitled "The key to what is typically English".

Continuous reference to German culture throughout the book supports the final statement that Germany from the Enlightenment onward has been obsessed, in political theory with the concept of the state, in philosophy with a dialectic concept of totality, and in literature with tragedy. All these concepts are conspicuously absent from the English tradition since the Glorious Revolution. This striking difference seems to be the expression of two distinctly different modes of solving the most basic social problem any society has to cope with, namely the tension between the individual and society, between the ruler and the ruled. Theoretically, this tension can be solved either by putting something in between or by subjugating the rulers and the ruled to an all-embracing superior authority.

The Germans, with no parliament to mediate between the people and those in power, saw the solution in the enlightened concept of the state as a moral entity, which was, metaphysically propped up by Hegel, a German obsession until not very long ago. The English could afford to distrust the state since they had a parliament to shield them from their rulers. This is why they could do without the idea of an all-embracing totality. Their natural tendency throughout their history has always been to solve the tension between the part and the whole in favour of the part, whereas the Germans, at least in the past two centuries, favoured the subjugation of the part under the whole. This is ideologically reflected in German idealism which centres around the concept of totality, it is equally reflected in the German preference for sublimity and their obsession with tragedy.

The English, from the end of the 18th century, have opted for an aesthetics of the picturesque which neither shapes the part into the whole nor does it overwhelm the individual by a sublime totality. On the contrary, it leaves irregular parts within a well-planned whole and draws aesthetic pleasure from just this irregularity.

A concluding chapter briefly discusses Britains present economic plight and tries to see it in the light of all those social strategies previously laid bare as the deep structure of English culture. In his last comparison between England and Germany the author sums up the difference in a simile. When visualising a society as a complex machine where many wheels must fit together one will see two possible ways of making the machine work smoothly, either by imposing strict discipline and making each part fit into the perfect whole or by leaving the parts their natural irregularity and adding a lubricant instead. The first was the German pattern until fairly recently, the second has been the English approach up to the present day. And the lubricant they apply is that hall-marked article known all over the world as English humour.

[Home] [Personal]

(c) 2004 by Axel Gelfert
Impressum & Haftungsausschluss
: siehe Hinweis auf Homepage www.gelfert.net
Legal Disclaimer
: visit link on our homepage www.gelfert.net

This website is (c) 2002 by Axel Gelfert