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Cyclic Vitalism: The Dialectics of Life and Death in German Poetry around 1900*

DOI: 10.4236/als.2014.21004, PP. 12-18

Keywords: Vitalism, German Literature, German Poetry, Life Reform Movement, Life Force

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Abstract:

Over the past decade, Scandinavian and German scholars have been active in the redefinition of the terms “Vitalism” and “Vitalist” as descriptive categories for analytical purposes in the fields of literary and cultural history. In this context,“Vitalism”has primarily been used to describe an enthusiastic worshipping of life, one that holds youth, health, strength and beauty as its primary attributes, which was prevalent in all aspects of cultural life around 1900. But even the post war founders of the Vitalist re-conceptualisation of this era, Wolfdietrich Rasch and Gunter Martens, warned of taking such a unilateral view ofwhat constituted a Vitalist concept of life. It could lead to a misunderstanding of Vitalist way of thinking, Rasch said, if the focus wasonly set upon the enthusiastic surplus, the worshipping of youth and health. To Vitalists, life is more than that. It is a totality that also encompasses notions of destruction, decay and death. “All life symbols in literature around 1900 are at the same time symbols of death” (Rasch, 1967:24).Through the analyses of three poems, this article aims to show concrete examples of how cyclic Vitalist thinking is embedded in poetry of the era. The analyses include a further sub-categorisation to capture the different types of Life Force dealt with in the texts. By way of an introduction, Vitalism is discussed within the context of the scientific and social developments of the 19th Century.

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