Brandes, Georg

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BRANDES, GEORG (Morris Cohen ; 1842–1927), Danish literary critic and writer. Brandes was born into an assimilated family which had retained some nominal ties with the Copenhagen Jewish community. As a student of philosophy, he was at one stage strongly attracted to Søren Kierkegaard's Christianity. Turning more and more to literature, Brandes abandoned the idealist philosophy of his time, mainly during a stay in Paris (1866–67), where he was especially influenced by Taine. In 1870 he received his doctorate for a thesis on Taine's aesthetics and at about this time he also became Denmark's leading advocate of the new positivism. A series of public lectures which Brandes delivered in 1871 appeared as Hovedstrømninger i det 19de Aarhundredes Litteratur (6 vols., 1872–90; Main Currents in 19th Century Literature, 1901–05) and was notable for its new and unorthodox approach. In this work he formulated his opposition to romanticism, and demanded that literature should stimulate the discussion of modern problems. Nevertheless, Brandes' essays on the Scandinavian romantics are among his best works.

Meanwhile, the new naturalist school had gained support and the critic found gifted disciples in Ibsen and Strindberg, among others. However, he encountered strong opposition from conservative and church circles and as a result was denied the chair of aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen. (Years later, in 1902, the title of professor was eventually conferred on him, but without the obligation to lecture.) Bitterly disappointed, Brandes left Denmark and from 1877 until 1882 lived in Berlin. There he became active in the field of German literature, embarking on a new, and ultimately decisive, trend: concentration on personalities rather than on literary currents. Brandes' essays on John Stuart Mill, Renan, Flaubert, and the two great Norwegian writers, Bjørnson and Ibsen, testify to this change, as do his monographs on Lassalle (1877) and Disraeli (1878). In 1883 Brandes returned to Denmark, where friends helped him to secure a livelihood. His new lectures and essays appeared in a selected English edition as Eminent Authors of the 19th Century (1886). In 1886 and 1887 travels in Eastern Europe provided him with material for two books, Indtryk fra Rusland (1888; Impressions of Russia, 1889) and Indtryk fra Polen (1888; Poland, A Study of the Land, People and Literature, 1903).

In the 1880s Brandes read the still unknown Friedrich Nietzsche and found a message for himself. His Danish article on the German philosopher (1888) was published in Germany (Aristokratischer Idealismus, 1890) and marked the starting point of Nietzsche's world fame. Thereafter Brandes indulged in a kind of hero worship. His books on great figures include Shakespeare (1895–96; seven English editions appeared from 1898 to 1924); Goethe (1915; Eng. tr. 1924–36);Voltaire (1916–17; Eng. tr. 1930); Julius Caesar (1918); and Michelangelo (1921). When Eminent Authors appeared in a new English edition in 1923 as Creative Spirits of the 19th Century, it was characteristically enlarged with essays on Swinburne, Garibaldi, and Napoleon. In one of his last works, Sagnet om Jesus (1925; Jesus, a Myth, 1927), Brandes sought to refute the historical basis of Christianity and launched another attack on early Christianity in Urkristendom (1927). His collected works appeared in Danish (1899–1910) and in German (Gesammelte Schriften, 1902–1907).

Georg Brandes was one of Denmark's greatest writers and his enormous influence on Danish culture and on European literature is still apparent. He was also one of the outstanding representatives of the greatness and tragedy of the assimilated European Jew. It is significant that the Jewish figures whom he tried to understand and describe were *Heine, *Boerne, *Disraeli, and *Lassalle. Although Brandes created a new type of literary critic and was familiar with all of the different national literary and political manifestations in Europe, he himself was never really at home anywhere and his relationship with Denmark was ambivalent. He was never really accepted by the Danes and his ideas still provoke either enthusiasm or disgust. Brandes denounced the progroms in Eastern Europe, but repudiated his own Jewishness and disliked "Jewish" characteristics in others. He defended Dreyfus, but did not take Herzl's Jewish State or the Zionist movement very seriously, much to Herzl's dismay. After the Balfour Declaration, Brandes recognized the reality of Zionism. He expressed this change of view in an article entitled "Das neue Judentum" (1918), which later appeared in a biographical study by Henri Nathansen. Here, an intimate friend described the critic's struggle with his Jewish identity.


H. Nathansen, Jude oder Europaeer: Portraet von Georg Brandes (1931); J. Moritzen, Georg Brandes in Life and Letters (1922); P. von Rubow, Liter're Studier (1928); idem. Georg Brandes' Briller (1932); Correspondance de Georg Brandes, 5 vols. (1952–66); H. Fenger, George Brandes et la France (1963), contains bibliography and list of works, including posthumous editions of his correspondence; A. Bein and G. Herlitz (eds.), Iggerot Herzl, 1 (1948), contains Herzl's letters to Brandes.

[Frederik Julius Billeskov-Jansen /

Leni Yahil]