von-bernuthModern Literature (Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka), Literary Theory, Philosophy & Aesthetics

After completing graduate study in Comparative Literature at Harvard, I joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1969. Except for a few visiting appointments, I spent the first two decades of my career at Chicago, teaching literary criticism and theory, modern German literature, comparative literature, and introductory undergraduate core courses in the humanities. I also served for several years as chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. In 1991, I accepted an offer of permanent appointment as the Guy B. Johnson Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. At Carolina I continue to offer courses both in German and comparative literature, and I participate regularly in the undergraduate General Education curriculum and from time to time in the First Year Seminar program. I chaired the German department from 1997 to 2011 and now chair the newly organized Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literature. Since 2006 I’ve also held an appointment in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. My scholarly work began with a doctoral dissertation on the history of notions of tragedy from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth century. This thesis led to a series of articles exploring some of the persistent difficulties attending theories of tragedy and theories of genre. At the same time I began writing about leading figures of early twentieth-century German literature, particularly Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann. These early researches eventually led to a book on Mann’s sources for his “Goethe and Tolstoy” essay (1984) and a number of essays on Mann and Kafka in scholarly journals and anthologies. I had been drawn to Kafka in large measure because of the unique integration of fantastic and realistic elements in his fictions. I found that Mann had also tried in a different way to bring fantasy into his realistic stories and that an interesting theoretical problem lurked on the edges of the fantasy/realism question. No one had ever examined the issue of why our literary tradition has in the main preferred to have its fantasy alloyed somehow with reality, nor had anyone proposed a theoretical basis for those fictions (a small but important minority in our culture) that depart unabashedly from relevance to any “true” reality. I pursued this matter in The Incredulous Reader (1984), where I developed a set of concepts and vocabulary for understanding the structure and function of fictions which present pure flights of fancy. Around this time I also undertook some editorial projects in collaboration with others (The Current in Criticism, The Comparative Perspective). Essays I wrote for these two anthologies were part of a larger program of research that emerged from The Incredulous Reader. One of that book’s principal arguments is that rhetoric, particularly figurative language, generates narrative ideas. It was evident to me at the time that the transformation of a trope into the germ of a story (what I call a “rhetorical moment”) is an important and widespread literary phenomenon. I therefore spent much of the next four years examining a large number of texts with an eye to the relation between rhetorical and narrative structures. I found that sustained and detailed attention to the rather technical matter of figurative language could yield surprisingly fundamental insights into the creative process. Two books came out of this research in the late 1980s. One treats the relation between rhetoric and narrative invention in a well-known European texts ranging from Boccaccio’s Decameron to Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics(Inventions of Reading, 1988). The second focuses exclusively on the rhetorical constructions of Franz Kafka (Kafka’s Rhetoric, 1989). As these projects were completed I decided to explore further my interest in Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the figures treated in Inventions of Reading. I had come to Nietzsche primarily because of the importance of rhetoric in his practice of philosophy; but now I wanted to see how these explorations fit into Nietzsche studies in general, a field notable for productive interactions between philosophers and literary critics. Nietzsche as Postmodernist (1990) brings together essays by scholars from both fields in an examination of one of the more controversial issues in current Nietzsche research. At the same time, I was offered the opportunity to produce a new translation and critical edition of Mann’s Death in Venice for W.W. Norton (1994). The project gave me the chance not only to continue my earlier work on Mann but also to move for a time from theoretical to practical rhetoric. In the mid-to-late 1990s I returned to the heart of my long-term research interests, the exploration of the role of rhetoric in the construction of literary worlds. Though I had concentrated earlier mainly on the more outlandish realms of imaginative fiction, I wanted to turn from these invented worlds of fantasy to the reconstructed worlds of ancient history. Legendary Figures(1998) examines revolutionary views of the past that have played a crucial role in European and American literature of the last 150 years. It traces these new approaches to history through a range of nineteenth and twentieth-century European novels and argues that we find in them a new “historical sense” that tends to view the past as essentially alien. Such a past, though radically different, is still connected to the present by powerful but often perplexingly complex bonds. Since the late 1990s I’ve been deeply involved in administrative matters at UNC, as department chair and as a member of University committees with significant responsibilities (such as formulating and implementing a new General Education curriculum). In my scholarly work, German literature became again the focus. I undertook two collaborative projects, one with my Carolina colleague Eric Downing ( The Camden House History of German Literature, Vol. 9: German Literature of the Nineteenth Century, 2005) and the other with several long-time associates from the Kafka Society of America, Rick Gray, Ruth Gross, and Rolf Goebel (A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia, 2005). The latter allowed me the opportunity to immerse myself in Kafka once more and to become deeply familiar with aspects of his life and work that I had hitherto known only casually and superficially. I recently completed two books, each of which develops areas of interest I’ve been working on for many years. The first (The Revivifying Word, 2008) examines a peculiar feature of European Romantic literature: its fascination with fictional scenes of revivification. These scenes are frequently depicted also as scenes of reading, suggesting a significant connection in the minds of these writers between matters of life and death and matters of legibility. This may seem at first blush an incongruous combination, but it has deep roots in the Western tradition, going back at least as far as Paul’s comment to the congregation at Corinth that “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” In its context as part of a discussion of how to read the Old Testament in the light of the new Christian dispensation, it provides both a vocabulary and an intellectual framework for understanding reading as a process of revivification. The second (Kafka: A Guide for the Perplexed, 2011) is an introduction to Franz Kafka’s life and work for the general reader.

Curriculum Vitae