The Abstract and (not so) Brief Chronicles of Lichtenberg

It’s been a rather painful process, but I have finally read Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Briefe aus England in their original German. Although the lack of available translations forced my hand, I’m glad that I spent some time on this: not only has my German improved because of it, but I also – I suspect – paid far greater attention to the text than I would have done so otherwise.

So much attention, in fact, that I have about 7 000 words of notes on these three letters. This blog post can make no attempt at covering such a vast amount of material, so will instead pick out two themes that particularly interested me in Lichtenberg’s letters to his friend Boie, all written in October and November 1775. The first theme is ‘abstraction’ (abstrahieren) and the second is ‘observation’ (beobachten).


One of Lichtenberg’s most endearing traits is his awareness of how useful his letters might or might not be to his correspondent. His letters are about both the actors he has seen and about the process of observing those actors. At several points in his first missive, Lichtenberg remarks for instance that he may lack the experience and practice necessary for the analysis of performance. Elsewhere, he breaks off with the thought that he had been describing Garrick’s acting while still under the influence of it. This second thread is then picked up in the third letter, when Lichtenberg distinguishes between different times of criticism, during, immediately after and some distance from the performance: only in this last situation (im kalten Gespräch) is it possible, for example, to find apparent fault with Garrick. Perhaps because Lichtenberg himself is conscious of his foreigness, these few passages represent many more where his very status and method as an observer is put into question.

Observation, however, is more than a theme of Lichtenberg’s methodological digressions. It is also something that connects our letter-writer to his subject. Throughout the first letter in particular, it is made clear that the mark of a great actor, and indeed a great writer like Shakespeare, is the ability to observe the world around them. Unlike his countrymen who rely for the most part on enthusiasm, Garrick, in Lichtenberg’s eyes, went to the same school as Shakespeare, not relying on “revelations” (Offenbarungen) but instead studying London to find the foundational materials for his art (“wo ein Mann mit solchem Talent zur Beobachtung seinen Erfahrungssätzen in einem Jahre leicht eine Richtigkeit geben kann”).

If Garrick and Shakespeare are both skilled observers, writing and performing in accordance with their knowledge of the world, then they can only be judged by an observer equally able to distinguish between what is nature and what only appears natural. This is why Lichtenberg worries that he might not have enough experience and practice for the job. Of course, he is still better than others who have tried it, as a stinging attack on those who draw without observation in the second letter shows.

So we have the Lichtenberg observing the skilled observer Garrick as he performs plays drawn by Shakespeare from his own observations of the world around him. This triple-layering of observation ties the Briefe together, for it allows a connection between each of its subjects: Lichtenberg’s writing persona is mirrored in Garrick, and both are then reflected in aspects of Shakespeare. Observation is the method and material of these texts.


But what to do with that material? This is where abstraction comes in. The word (abstrahieren) appears a great deal in the first letter, while the concept it introduces persists throughout the series. First, Lichtenberg tells us that some English writer had the project of ‘abstracting’ a set of rules for actors from Garrick, but has so far failed, since such a task would require the skills of a Lessing at least. Later on, the way Mrs Yates moves her arm on stage is so beautiful that, in this author’s view, an entire “Chrionomie” could be abstracted from it. Finally, in the last letter, Lichtenberg wishes himself able to write a book about Mrs Abington’s art, which would doubtless be a great work.

These hypothetical printed materials all enforce the idea that the actor contains and incarnates a vast store of knowledge. Garrick has within him, for instance, equations for movement that would be of service both to other actors and to poets and novelists (Eine Gleichungstafel, die solche Züge enthielte, wäre kein geringes Geschenk für die Schauspieler, und, unter uns, für unsere dramatischen Dichter und Romanenschreiber.). The source of this knowledge, these equations, is both practised observation, but also, perhaps more interestingly, input from literary figures too. Here is a section from the third letter on why it is so hard to find fault with Garrick’s act:

er spielt itzt nur Stücke, die er sich völlig eigen gemacht, und über die er nun ein Vierteljahrhundert durch in seiner ausgesuchten Gesellschaft das Urteil der größten Kenner des Menschen empfangen hat. Selbst den Strumpf, der ihm so herabhängt, kann man denken, hat ihm vielleicht Fielding herabgezogen, und den Hut, der da so schön seitwärts sitzt, Sterne oder Goldsmith zurückgestoßen.

Garrick here is not just an object from which theories and rules might be abstracted, but also is himself the abstract of the best of eighteenth-century English literary culture. Over twenty-five years, he has absorbed the instructions of the Fieldings, Goldsmiths and Sternes. How can Lichtenberg ever achieve a position from which to criticise such a person?

This last point is bringing us back to observation, and, to be fair, both observation and abstraction are deeply connected. All Lichtenberg can do, despite the prodigious length of his letters, is gather all his observations into short, abstracted portraits, just as – to continue my earlier point about mirroring – Macklin manages to pack so much observation and experience into his first words as Shylock: “Three thousand ducats…”.

Die ersten Worte, die er sagt, wenn er auftritt, sind langsam und bedeutend! Three thousand Ducats. Das doppelte ‘th’ und das zweimalige ‘s’, zumal das letzte nach dem ‘t’, das Macklin so leckerhaft lispelt, als schmeckte er die Dukaten, und alles, was man dafür kaufen kann, auf einmal, geben dem Mann, gleich beim Eintritt, einen Kredit, der nicht mehr zu verderben ist. Drei solcher Worte so, und an der Stelle gesprochen, zeichnen einen ganzen Charakter.

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