For Louis Dumont the heartland of modernity has been charted through a ceaseless debate between French and German culture. France's all-important positing of modernity derives from the Enlightenment and from the revolution; it is grounded in an individualism that esteems political egalitarianism. By contrast, German notions of individualism are, according to Dumont, sustained less by processes of political negotiation than by cultural imperatives. That legacy derives primarily from Luther, Pietism, and expresses itself supremely in the notion of Bildung or self-cultivation. The immense and protracted legacy of the Holy Roman Empire means that the inward and belated non-nation-state (in political terms) becomes transformed into the spiritual heartland of modern Europe.
The community to which the German aspires is, then, not the politically disputatious space of Gesellschaft, but, on the contrary, the culturally drenched realm that is Gemeinschaft. Dumont writes: "In the predominant ideology, the Frenchman sees himself as a man by nature and a Frenchman by accident, which is what we call individualism, while the German feels he is first a German and a man through his being a German, which corresponds to what we call holism. For the German, belonging is cultural, while for the Frenchman it is political."
There are many fine things in Dumont's study. Beyond any doubt, his cultural anthropology of the modern spirit highlights some of the key energies of the last two centuries - most particularly the ceaselessly renewed debate between principles of individualism on the one hand and those of collectivity and belonging on the other. And it is particularly welcome that the German voice within this debate is seen not as some fatally cankered aberration that "had to" lead to Hitler, but as an all-important response to - and articulation of - the challenges of modernity: "French culture and western (English and French) Enlightenment had predominated until the end of the 18th century. The unprecedented development of German thought and literature between 1770 and 1830, which almost constitutes a cultural mutation, can be understood as a powerful response to the challenge western Enlightenment and the French revolution presented to the German culture." There are impressive passages of detailed analysis on Moritz, on Humboldt (a particularly fine chapter) and on Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. Inevitably, there are gaps one regrets; neither Hegel nor Nietzsche gets much of a look-in, yet their voices are crucial to the story Dumont has to tell. But no matter: this is a thoughtful and wide-ranging study.
If I have one particular criticism, it is that some of the English moves uneasily between translationese on the one hand and on the other, although it may be a related condition, the Delphic. As examples of the former one might mention the comment on the hero of Goethe's novel: "Wilhelm is no longer genial; he is now a common man" - or the reference to "the first four chants - that is, almost half - of Hermann and Dorothea" ("cantos" are meant).
And in the Delphic mode, there is the following: "Even a distinguished Germanist like Robert Minder failed to acknowledge the novel of Bildung (Bildungsroman) as a German counterpart of the French social novel (roman de societe). And we shall see here itself how the Goethean penetration of Luckacs (sic) finally succumbs to his desire to establish himself as a champion of the Enlightenment, which leads him to subordinate German culture to a materialistic universalism."
To be fair, certain sections (particularly the Humboldt chapter) do read well. But it is a pity that the awkwardness has not been expunged - not least because this is a valuable book.
Martin Swales is professor of German, University College, London.
German Ideology: From France to Germany and Back
Author - Louis Dumont
ISBN - 0 226 16952 9
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £25.95
Pages - 250