Simmel’s selfie

Georg Simmel was prescient: he realised that the freedom to pose as who we like helps in high-pressure mass societies

Georg Simmel: Selfie aware

Georg Simmel would have understood selfies. The German thinker, who died 100 years ago last month, noticed back in 1903 that people needed to individuate themselves in high-pressure mass societies. Today technology, for better, for worse, helps self-making, where a century ago technology — and big money — were “superpowers” overwhelming personal lives.

Simmel was born in 1858 in Berlin. The youngest of seven, he belonged to one of those secular German-Jewish merchant families whose scientific and artistic talents mightily enriched middle-class culture. When his father died prematurely a wealthy family friend stepped in to ensure Simmel’s education and, indeed, with a legacy, underwrote his whole career. For although, with topics like money and alienation, Simmel’s Berlin public lectures made him a star of the social scene, anti-Semitism dogged his university teaching career. He took up a chair of philosophy in Strasbourg (then under German rule) only in 1914, four years before his death.

He is often called a sociologist, but in my view he is a philosopher. He loved the city philosophically, the way Heidegger, a generation younger, loved forests. Simmel analysed the new monetising that hollowed out human behaviour in the urban streets, while Heidegger turned away from it to contemplate the fields and the craftsman’s tools. Both imprinted their passions deeply on continental philosophy and were embroiled in the fate of their country.

In the anti-Semitic Wilhelmine state, Simmel was a semi-outsider, yet also one of the great minds of his age, hailed by friends and admirers. He understood his own divided social situation, and that of the new-fangled city dweller, through a dynamic and dialectical approach rooted in German Idealism.

It’s the interplay of individualising and generalising forces he teases out in the 1903 essay “Big Cities and Inner Life” — “Die Grossstädte und das Geistesleben” — that makes it such a compelling, if unclassifiable, testament both to the German socio-economic upheaval of the late 19th century and the enduring pressure to be someone in the anonymous city. He was a dandy himself. He saw the power of fashion, and of sexual difference, coming. The metropolis is surely kinder today than when self-individuation first collided with bourgeois formality. But Simmel reminds us that the freedom to pose as who we like helps to reduce the underlying fear and animosity big crowds can breed.

Like other outstanding men of his day, he was surrounded by brilliant, creative women looking for their own new roles. His wife Gertrud Kinel was a writer and painter, whose many books reflected the burning topics of the day: sexuality, childhood and the future of religious feeling. The art historian and lyric poet Gertrud Kantorowicz was his much younger lover, and they had a child in secret. In the Nazi years, more than a decade after Simmel’s death convulsed her, Kantorowicz helped many fellow Jews to escape but neglected her own situation. Rounded up, she died in Terezin in April 1945, while Angi, her daughter with Simmel, was accidentally killed shortly after arriving in Palestine.

The tragedy of Simmel’s Jewish posterity is matched by the pathos of his support for his beloved Germany in the Great War, which in turn stemmed from his love of the cultivated inner life, das Geistesleben. He didn’t live long enough to see German culture run aground because of its old obsessions twice in 30 years. But Simmel was prescient on tensions between provincial and metropolitan life, between those who can’t bear too much difference, and those who have learnt to live with it.

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