The Enlightening Supernatural: Ghost Stories in the Late Eighteenth-Century Germany
This dissertation explores the place of ghosts in late eighteenth-century German texts, where they appear with surprising frequency despite widespread disbelief in their ontological reality. These ghosts could simply be lingering remnants of superstition in an age where they no longer belong, but my project argues that they play a central role in the Enlightenment and its ideal of progress. The key texts analyzed in this context include three versions of the story of the Weiße Frau, as well as works by Immanuel Kant, Karl Philipp Moritz, Friedrich Schiller, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In various ways, these texts demonstrate how the presentation of a ghost creates new possibilities in philosophy and aesthetics, as well as opportunities for critique. For some, the ghostly encounter produces an “Enlightening” suspense, disrupting the normal conditions of one’s understanding and creating a demand for resolution that propels one towards the future. Some recognized a dangerous manipulative potential in such suspense, and they used ghost stories to critique Enlightenment thought or imagine alternative aesthetic models. In all of these works, the ghost does not function simply as a relic of the past that needs to be left behind; it features prominently as a means of considering the present and imagining the future.
The relationship between the Enlightenment and superstitious beliefs has either been oversimplified as a basic opposition, or complicated by the recognition that the commitment to reason works as a new form of superstition. Prior scholarship has recognized the German ghost story as a primarily nineteenth-century phenomenon. This dissertation uncovers the roots of the German ghost story in unlikely texts from the eighteenth century and suggests that the relationship between ghostly apparitions and the Enlightenment was more complementary than oppositional. Ghosts do not only represent the persistence of the past, they also disrupt the normal conditions of the present in a way that enables progress towards new possibilities in aesthetics and thought.
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