When it first appeared in 1994, the “Behaviour of Cold” was surrounded by an eerie glow. The literary scholar Helmut Lethen had expanded his body and stomach topic, the New Objectivity of the Weimar Republic, into anthropology.
In texts by Bertolt Brecht, Ernst Jiinger, Walter Serner and Carl Schmitt he discovered a type of person who was the product of his epoch and at the same time stood for a general attitude towards the world. This was the great provocation of the study of the history of ideas, which otherwise stood at odds with normal German studies simply because of its theoretical horizon.
In his readings, Lethen creates a “cold persona” who emerged from the trenches of World War I with an armored self. With Brecht, he interprets the filthy soldier “trench pig” and the bourgeois subject to purification rituals in the midst of a sober Bauhaus aesthetic as one and the same figure.
Access to himself is denied to this male type, indeed he has no interest in taking the path inward, as proclaimed by psychoanalysis. Instead, a “psychology of the outside” dominates. According to Lethen, movement is not the watchword.
He develops his arguments based on two influential writings. The sociologist Helmuth Plessner provides him with “Grenzen der Gemein” (1924) an image of man that emphasizes the culturally shaped, the artificial, against any form of misunderstood naturalness.
Plessner is the propagandist of the everlasting masks and disguises behind which nothing authentic is hidden. Baltasar Gracián, a Spanish Jesuit of the 17th century, provides him with the famous “oracle of the hand” the basics of a modern-day behavioral theory that is completely related to external actions.
The latent sympathy for the New Objective model, which went far beyond the subtitle’s “life trials between the wars”, was also supported almost three decades ago by the rejection of a German culture of comfort and dismay. But in which field would the “behavioural doctrines” be located today?
In the new edition of his magnum opus, the now 83-year-old author tries to find an answer himself. The almost 80-page afterword with annotations under the title “In the freedom of the cold” seeks distance to the “virile habitus” of the past, but does not deny the continuing abhorrence of overly simple humanistic perspectives.
Beyond that, however, Lethen does not get very far in converting his theatrum mundi, in which the imposter also plays a role, into a massively virtualized phase, guided by social media appearances, which all concepts of honesty and dissimulation, closeness and distance to the could turn his head. All in all, the author rather vainly recapitulates the fuss that the book caused at the time and looks at the consequences for his subsequent books.
The updating, which should also include a look at the experience of war in the 21st century, is probably up to others anyway. But whoever does it will have a hard time surpassing this book in terms of sharpness of observation and richness of thought.