Monday, October 5, 2015

Goethe meets Napoleon

I should have posted on this subject on October 2, but I was in Virginia attending the German Studies Association conference. So, here a few days late, is a small post on the encounter in Erfurt in 1808, described by Talleyrand in his memoirs as "a policy of imperial seduction to rally great German intellectuals" and "to give Napoleon a literary and cultural guarantee on a European scale." This last was important since Napoleon had lost the support of such eminences as Madame de Stael and Chateaubriand. (This site has more information on the meeting.)

Talleyrand did not record the famous "Voila un homme!" comment. Wieland, who also met the emperor and who wrote down his own recollections on the very evening, mentions that Napoleon had called him "Germany's Voltaire."

 (Am I being cynical to suggest that many intellectuals and writers today would feel profoundly flattered, as did Wieland and Goethe, to be so distinguished? And to receive the Légion d'honneur? Yes, I am being cynical.)

Napoleon receives the Austrian ambassador, October 1808
Talleyrand was present at the meeting between Goethe and the emperor. In the picture above, in which Napoleon is shown receiving the Austrian ambassador later in the same month, Talleyrand stands behind the table, between Baron Vincent and the emperor, while the Russian czar is seen in profile on the right. Although Talleyrand's memoirs must be read with some caution, he recounts that the emperor recommended that Goethe attend some historical plays that were being performed in Erfurt, asserting that the "dramatic art' was higher than history: "A good tragedy should be seen as the worthiest school for superior men."

Picture credit: Fondation Napoleon

Saturday, September 26, 2015

International literature

I am finally beginning to understand what Dieter Lamping is talking about. (See previous post on this subject.) Once, not so long ago, “German” literature was identified with certain writers — H. Böll, G. Grass, etc. — who not only wrote in German but also on German themes. But increasingly the “book market” is international, and Germans write novels that, even in translation, even with a German theme, e.g., Grass’s Crabgang, enjoy international repute. Another phenomenon is writers who write in German, but not on German themes. Their novels, although set in Germany or Switzerland or Austria, could be set anywhere. Peter Stamm seems to be doing well in this regard. Lamping mentions Peter Handke, whose novel Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht has a mixed cast and is set in various non-German locales, although I don’t how much international success Peter Handke enjoys, if one is talking about book sales. I don’t know a single American who reads Handke who doesn’t also know German.

According to Lamping it is this very internationality of literature is what comparative literature is all about these days. It no longer concerns itself solely with comparison: e.g., Racine vs. Shakespeare. It investigates literary forms, structures, subjects, and so on that may originate in one country but that travel. E.g., some German poets write haikus. Comp lit investigates not the national characteristics of literature, but the internationality of these characteristics. This reminds me a bit of Franco Moretti, who has done interesting work on such subjects as the detective genre, with maps, graphs, and trees.

Félicien Rops, Pornokratès (1878)
The 19th century would seem exemplary of the kind of process he is writing about. In fact, I am pretty sure that Moretti has concentrated on that century. Writers from one country after the other picked up on the subjects and forms of writers of other countries. For instance, drama. At the beginning of the century, dramatists still employed historical figures: Hebbel, Hugo; by the end they were all writing about bourgeois subjects. And then they were all subjecting the bourgeoisie to critical analysis, dissecting its hypocrisies and so on: Zola, Ibsen, Strindberg. So, I guess this would be “international” or at least a European movement. Decadence flourished in France, but had its adherents in Germany, Italy, and England. I would say that the novel is the international form par excellence. And its subject since its origins is about individual breaking free of the traditional bonds of society. So it re-creates in its form the break as well.

 This kind of literary commerce seems a function of trade in the modern period, as writers are more frequently and more quickly in contact with one another. There is an element of fashion about it, as one movement arises and then is succeeded by another. Boredom sets in, and, 100 years later, it is  hard to believe that the audience actually threw shoes at the stage during the premier of Afternoon of a Fawn.

Earlier literary commerce (one cannot avoid that word), however, was additive. The literary inheritance was passed down through the generations. There was a conscious process of absorption of a culturally privileged and traditional literary idiom. Literary works reflected the constructing of the present from the past, and suggested approval and identification.

International literature is competitive, like all products of the market. It does not build on what went before, but, by its nature, is dismissive of what went before. This dismissal is even its subject: “old” attitudes, “old” practices are constantly being scrutinized and found wanting. It is about process. Of course, every modern or contemporary writer hopes to be “lasting,” to leave a mark on literature, but he can’t expect to know in his own lifetime whether he has made such a mark. Modernity, as Lamping writes, puts tradition in question.

Picture credit: Matt Bromley

Friday, September 18, 2015

The internationalization of literature

Dieter Lamping's book on Goethe and world literature, although small (138 pp. plus bibliography), is a very good survey of the "career" of the concept. Nevertheless, there are a couple places where I find some conceptual confusion on Lamping's part. That was especially the case in the fifth chapter, "Deutsche Literature um 1800," which begins with a discussion of the "internationality" of German literature at that point.

But what exactly is "internationality"?

Among other things he mentions the growing interest of German writers in non-German literary products, beginning, e.g., with Lessing or Wieland. Lamping contrasts the interest of Goethe in contemporary foreign writers with the more historical appropriation by the Romantic writers. The increase in translations, or "Verdeutschung," of foreign works is part of internationality, as is a rise in theorizing the practice of translation. Friedrich Schleiermacher, in a lecture in 1813 already at the Berlin Academy of Sciences, emphasized the importance of translation for German literature and sounded very much like Goethe speaking about world literature a decade or so later.:

Eine innere Nothwendigkeit, in der sich ein eigenthümlicher Beruf unseres Volkes deutlich genug ausspricht, hat uns auf das Uebersezen in Masse getrieben; wir können nicht zurükk und müssen durch.

German writers had of course been absorbing foreign influences for centuries, as Fritz Strich pointed out in his many articles and his book on Goethe and world literature. Clearly late eighteenth-century translations of classical and foreign works also enriched the capacities of the German language.  German writers were encouraged to undertake their own versions of ancient genres. Goethe's Hermann und Dorothea would be an example. Writers also accumulated a store of new motifs and themes.

But what is "international" about such literary commerce? When we use the word international in connection with literature, is there an analogy with its use in other contexts, e.g., as in "International Court of Justice" or "International Space Station," even international driver's license? More to come on this subject, as I have just turned to another small volume by Lamping: Internationale Literature.

Picture credit: Adobe Blog; Texas A&M International University

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Summer is almost over

These are the last days in Sointula. I managed in August to accomplish the three projects I worked on, including writing a review of Jane K. Brown's Goethe's Allegories of Identity. Stay tuned for it in the Lessing Yearbook.

Today there was a cow in the backyard. These big guys really walk fast, but I managed a few shots.

Yesterday was the last day of dragon-boating for the season.

I also went out to Beare Point with Robin.

The weather is turning autumnal here.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Happy Birthday, Goethe!

Am 28. August 1749, mittags mit dem Glockenschlage zwölf, kam ich in Frankfurt am Main auf die Welt. Die Konstellation war glücklich; die Sonne stand im Zeichen der Jungfrau, und kulminierte für den Tag; Jupiter und Venus blickten sie freundlich an, Merkur nicht widerwärtig; Saturn und Mars verhielten sich gleichgültig: nur der Mond, der soeben voll ward, übte die Kraft seines Gegenscheins um so mehr, als zugleich seine Planetenstunde eingetreten war. Er widersetzte sich daher meiner Geburt, die nicht eher erfolgen konnte, als bis diese Stunde vorübergegangen.

Image credit: Auckland Goethe Society; Thaumazein

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Goethe and the Gothic novel

Sunset at Wendy's house
Heather and I took the ferry yesterday afternoon to Vancouver Island and spent the day shopping, mostly for groceries, of which there is a much greater selection than on Malcolm Island. My cooking experimentation continues, with mixed results. Heather likes to go to used book shops, so we stopped at one in Port McNeill, at the church of Saint John Gaulbert (985–1073), the patron saint of forest workers (forestry being a traditional occupation of this region).

Roasted peppers with pine nuts
I did not intend to buy any books here, but the first one, literally, that my eyes fell on at the bookshop was The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. Just that morning I had read Jane Brown's discussion of that novel in Goethe's Allegories of Identity. In discussing the influence of Goethe on Romantic-period tales and, subsequently, on Freud's "depth psychology," Brown mentions that the former incorporate elements of "the newly popular gothic novel," a genre that began "quite suddenly in 1764" with the appearance of Walpole's novel and went on to greater acclaim with Ann Radcliffe. As Brown writes, Goethe's "Märchen" shares Otranto's interest "in family curses, mysterious ceremonies, and a vaguely Italian setting, but it [also] uses two striking motifs ... underground vaults and dangerous giants." Furthermore, Mignon's ancestry has much in common with such gothic elements: "Italy, monks, stubborn fathers, and incest." Similarly, Elective Affinities, for instance, with its preoccupation with death and places of burial.

From 1794 German translation of Otranto
So, I laid down $2.00 and brought The Castle of Otranto home. I was surprised at how readable it was, despite the outlandish events. Partly this derives from the amount of "low comedy" in the novel, especially when the noble figures interact with the domestics. Matilda and Bianca's discussion of the perfect lover would seem to come straight out of Shakespeare, as does especially Manfred's long exchange with two domestics about the "terrible sight" that has terrified them.

"Sot! cried Manfred, in a rage, "is it only a ghost then, that thou hast seen?"
"Oh, worse! worse! my lord," cried Diego: "I had rather have seen ten whole ghosts."

The terrible sight turns out to be a "great giant" hiding in the "chamber next to the gallery."

Image credit: Houghton Library, Harvard University

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Goethe and world literature

Obviously I am obsessed with the deer in the back yard. Occasionally there are two of them. I have discovered that if I throw some plums from my balcony, one will approach. I am beginning to think the deer here are a bit like the squirrels in New York City parks: you can be sitting on a bench, and they come right up to you and beg. This is a fishing island; I don't know of any hunting going on. The deer seem to wander around as if they weren't worried. In any case, from the picture it appears that the deer is thin, although maybe deer are always thin.

Searching for plums
When I am not working on my own book or reading Jane Brown's book on Goethe and allegory, I take some time out to read Dieter Lamping's short survey, Die Idee der Weltliteratur: Ein Konzept Goethes und seine Karriere. I carry it with me when I take the ferry over to Port McNeill to do some shopping or when I walk down to what is called "Graveyard Point," after the Finnish cemetery there. It is also the only nearby place on the island where I can get cell phone reception. Not that I have anyone I need to call, but sometimes I do so just to use the darn phone.

Does she look thin?
When I get back to New York, having finished my book and my review, I will turn back to an essay on world literature on which I have been working for way too long. I generally hop around in Lamping's book, to keep in touch with the issues. Today was a really lovely day, and I sat on a bench at the beach reading the chapter "Nationalliteratur und Weltliteratur." Lamping mentions that very few scholars follow Dieter Borchmeyer, who sees Goethe, Marx, and Nietzsche anticipating the replacement of national literature by world literature because of the development of "modern civilization" and more open societies. No, everyone seems agreed that Goethe did not envision the end of the individual national literatures. World literature, Lamping writes, is always national literature, as is national literature world literature, when it participates in the kind of international exchange (Austausch) that Goethe had in mind.

Yet, he goes on to say something that I don't agree with. He writes that the distinctiveness of literature is not due to its language, but rather to its poetic "Verfastheit," from which emerges a store of forms, themes, subjects, motifs, and the like, which all literatures share. But what would be "national" about a particular literary work simply by participating in "sprachübergreifende Beziehungen"? And what does that mean, anyway?

If I can make a comparison with the visual arts, I suppose there is, for instance, a Japanese style of modernist architecture, just as there is a Swedish and a Brazilian style. And I suppose one might identify certain details as "Japanese" or "Swedish" or "Brazilian." Yet each is participating in an international idiom, just as are playwrights who write in the idiom of Harold Pinter or Tom Stoppard or even Andrew Lloyd Weber. Can one really describe any of these by nationality? It's all one big melting pot, as Erich Auerbach rightly wrote in his essay on world literature.