Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Enlightened Love: Marriage and Literary Discourse in Germany

Ph.D. Michael Taylor


It is perhaps an accident of history that the German Enlightenment came to define itself by way of a footnote to a debate about marriage. Written in 1783, this now famous footnote posed a question, “Was heißt Aufklärung,” that provoked responses from writers including Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn. Yet this question occurred more or less as an afterthought to an argument by the Berlin Pastor Johann Friedrich Zöllner that marriage requires religious sanction. Zöllner’s conviction that the language of contract proves inadequate to describe the function of marriage has, in another accident of history, proven to be prescient. The difficulty he encounters in explaining and justifying marriage as an institution is equally so.

Taking the connection between Zöllner’s article and his afterthought as its first impulse, this project writes a genealogy of marriage in Germany, where the fractured nature of the political and religious landscape made conflicts about this institution especially vigorous and acute, during the transition from the Enlightenment to the bourgeois regimes of the nineteenth century. Examining the shape and significance that marriage comes to acquire as a fiction of a natural social origin and the boundary of the bourgeois family, it argues that changes in marriage articulate contradictions central to European imaginations of Enlightenment. The focus is on the literary construction and deconstruction of the identities and communities founded in new notions of love and intimacy. This literary discourse serves as the main vehicle for the transformation of religious notions of union and transcendence, the development of new identities tied to the family and sexuality, and critiques of contractual views of marriage – including both the hierarchical system of coverture and radical new demands for the equality of marriage partners. Literary discourse thus constitutes more than a new “code” of romantic intimacy: it must be understood as a form of imaginative social practice that redefines other discourses by establishing new modes of communication claiming to be fundamentally human. The intimacy imputed to marriage as its new foundation thereby makes disagreements about this institution into conflicts regarding the legitimacy and constitution of social bonds, of dependency and dominion within the family, and of the contingency of “belonging”. This genealogy of marriage in a German context thus offers one perspective on why marriage continues to be such a hotly contested institution—and continues to remain relevant as a bright line of family—after the sexual revolution, most importantly with the introduction of “same-sex marriage” in parts of the world. It seeks to understand the paradoxical modernity of marriage as an object of reform, reformation, and even revolution that remains profoundly conservative, and a fiction of integration that incites a continuing sense of crisis with the threat of its dissolution.