Thursday, October 29, 2009

Goethe and the Intelligensia

I am always encountering Goethe in new contexts. Today it is in an essay by Arthur Koestler entitled "The Intelligentsia" (in the collection The Yogi and the Commissar). As Koestler says at the beginning, it is one of those terms difficult to define but easy to associate, "logically blurred but emotionally vivid, surrounded with a halo, or rather several halos which overlap and vary according to period and place." He lists several varieties: the Romantic salon, the Bohemians of Montmartre, terrorist organizations of students and aristocracy in Russia in the second half of 19th century, Bloomsbury, Montparnasse. As he says, the "aura" of intelligensia changes all the time. To orient himself, Koester consults "the Oxford dictionary," wherein it stands written: "Intelligentzia, -sia, The par of a nation (esp. the Russian) that aspires to independent thinking." A little later is the passage in which he mentions Goethe.

"Among the upper strata of the Third Estate the aspiration to independent thinking was not a luxury but a dire necessity of survival. The young bourgeoisie hemmed in by the stultifying feudal structure, had to conquer its historic Lebensraum, and this conquest was only possible by blowing up the feudal totems and taboos with the dynamite of 'independent thought.' The first modern intellectuals were the Encyclopaedists, and they enter the historical stage as the great debunkers and iconoclasts. Goethe resurrected is unimaginable in our time, but Voltaire would be within a fortnight acclimatised in Bloomsbury, winning all weekend competitions of the New Statesman. For Goethe was the last Renaissance genius, a direct descendant of Leonardo, and his attitude to Society that of a courtier of some enlightened Florentine prince; whereas with Voltaire, the great debunking of feudal values begins."

I think the term "Renaissance man" is overused in connection with Goethe; the matter is really more complex, but Koestler is right in saying that Goethe was not a debunker or representative of typical attitudes of his era. The drive -- not simply the aspiration -- to so-called independent thinking characterized many Europeans at mid-20th century -- Koestler's essay dates from 1942 -- but he is reflecting on those who, in the 1920s and 1930s, rushed to proclaim the new world order being established in the Soviet Union, in the process seeking to debunk capitalism and bourgeois civilization. By 1942, when Koestler's wonderful novel Darkness at Noon appeared, alerting the world to the true nature of Soviet communism, Koestler was rather despairing about intellectuals. (See here for an irreverent take on this social category.)

Along these lines, I came across today a long review essay in The New Republic by Enrique Krauze concerning Gabriel García Márquez. Márquez is of course a great fan of the Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro. Márquez's most recent biographer, Gerald Martin, calls him the "new Cervantes," but Krauze will have none of it: in moral terms there is no comparison with Cervantes, who was a hero in the war against the Turks, wounded and maimed in battle, castaway and prisoner in Algeria for five years: "Cervantes lived his ideals, his tribulations and his poverty with Quixote-like integrity and enjoyed the supreme freedom of accepting his defeats with humor. There is not a trace of such greatness of spirit in Garcia Marquez, who has avidly collaborated with oppression and dictatorship."

In Krauze's account Garcia Marquez resembles the Western communists who, according to Koestler, were likewise blind to the truth about Soviet communism: "five million Cubans who belonged to the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, [Garcia Marquez saw] not as the spies and enforcers of the Revolution but as its happy, spontaneous, multitudinous 'true force,' or, more plainly -- in the chilling words of Castro himself, admiringly quoted by Garcia Marquez -- 'a system of collective revolutionary vigilance that ensures that everybody knows who the man next door is and what he does.'"

Well, I have certainly got far away from Goethe, haven't I? What I like about studying Goethe is that one is far removed from these contemporary intellectual disputes. As Yeats said: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Goethe and Industrialism

I have been asked by a reader of this blog if I could offer him some information on two topics: (1) Goethe's desire to distance himself from the Romantics; and (2) Goethe's opinion of industrialism and of machines. From what I have just been reading in the Goethe-Handbuch, in two entries by Michael Niedermeier, it seems that there is a connection between these two topics.

On Goethe's distance from the Romantics, Niedermeier writes the following in his entry on craft trades ("Handwerk"): "Goethe's growing recognition that a prerequisite for every serious creative occupation is manual training [handwerkliches Können] led to a greater appreciation and active promotion of all sorts of manual activities; thus, his critical assessment of trends in culture, art, and science that in his opinion were too fixated on the subject and its inner subjective processes." The latter, of course, refers to the Romantic writers. (Here, also, a nice article on "Handwerk/Kunsthandwerk" in English.)

At the outset it must be said that Goethe had virtually no experience with industry, as we have come to know it. In his capacity as a member of the Ilmenau mine commission, he was familiar with the mechanical processes involved in mining, in extracting minerals from the earth. (Bernd Wolff's novels Winterströme and Die Würde der Steine contain excellent passages describing 18th-century German mining in the Harz and also portray Goethe's acquaintance with miners and his descent into several mines.) The Ruhr, which would become Germany's major source of coal, was still mostly agrarian in his lifetime, though by 1850 there were almost 300 coal mines in the region. Goethe, however, certainly never saw a factory like the one above, the Borsig Machine Factory (in an 1847 painting by Karl Eduard Biermann). As part of the administration of the duchy of Weimar, however, Goethe is rather singular among major writers in actually having had real hands-on contact with the world of work and with the finances of the duchy.

According to Niedermeier (in the entry on "Industrie"), Goethe's understanding of the term "industry" is originally to be seen in the context of moral philosophy, thus, a virtue in the sense of "inventive diligence, industrious activity, industry or bustle" (eine Tugend im Sinne von erfinderischem Fleiß, eifriger Tätigkeit, Emsigkeit oder Betriebsamkeit: so many terms in Germany for industriousness!).

(Homage to American Quiltmakers, by Lori Smith)

Niedermeyer mentions that the coming machine age (das aufkommende Maschinenwesen) first began to concern Goethe after he saw his first steam engine in 1790 in Tarnowitz in Silesia (today the southern Polish Tarnowskie Góry). While recognizing the possibility of greater productivity, Goethe feared that the separation of the hand from the labor posed a danger for art ["sah er doch in der Trennung der Hand von der Arbeit eine Gefährdung für die Kunst"]; he also foresaw culture becoming more shallow with technical progress, not to mention a rise in unemployment because of technical reproduction methods. (We see here where Marx got some of his ideas.)

I mentioned in an earlier post that some scholars and others have claimed Goethe as a "Green" avant la lettre. It has to be said, however, that Goethe cannot be pigeon-holed in this way; he not only saw the advantages of the coming "technologisches Zeitalter" (see Walter Benjamin), but he also followed material developments with great interest. Thus, after learning from Alexander von Humboldt that a canal would be dredged through the isthmus of Panama, he spoke to Eckermann (February 2, 1827) about the resulting prospects for world shipping:

Should a dig of this sort succeed, so that ships of any size, with any cargo, could sail from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, the consequences for the human race, civilized and uncivilized, would be incalculable. I should be surprised if the United States missed taking this project into its hands. ... I should like to see a connection forged between the Rhine and the Danube. But this undertaking would be so gigantic that I doubt it can be achieved, especially in view of our German resources. ... And finally I should like to see the English in possession of a canal at Suez. I wish I might live to experience these three achievements. It would be worth lasting some fifty more years.

(The Suez Canal was finished in 1869, the Panama in 1914, and the Rhine-Danube connection late in the 20th century.)

Picture credit: Dair House School; NASA (image taken by MISR satellite on January 30, 2001)

Translation credit: Nancy Boerner (from Peter Boerner's Goethe, 2005)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Goethe in Bryant Park

Adela Ramos, who is writing her dissertation in English at Columbia University, is also the rapporteur for the Faculty Seminar in 18th-Century European Culture. She was married this past summer and recently sent me some photos of the occasion, including this wonderful picture of her and her husband-to-be during their engagement. Goethe's statue stands among those of other eminences in Bryant Park, including Gertrude Stein, Benito Juarez, and William Cullen Bryant. (Photo by Sarah Klock of Light Fantastik Photography.)

According to the website of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, the statue is a bronze replica of an iron and copper piece by the German sculptor Karl Fischer (1802-1865) from around 1832. (The website also says that Goethe Society of America acquired the statue in 1876 and that it was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, before being moved to Bryant Park in 1832.)

I have been unable to find Karl Fischer on the Web and am beginning to wonder if the statue is not instead a copy or a re-making of the Goethe bust by Christian Daniel Rauch from 1820, now in the Goethe Museum in Düsseldorf. Obviously some art historical detective work is in order to straighten out what seems like a misattribution.

While I am pleased to see Goethe in Bryant Park, the statue is horribly positioned at the moment, as can be see from the above photo, taken by me this past summer. What an ignoble position for Goethe, facing the merry-go-round and its circus-y sound. If anyone would like to join me in requesting that the statue be turned to face the green in Bryant Park, please let me know.

Rauch photo credit: Bradsculptor's Blog

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Goethe and the Natural World

Among intellectuals today, a prevalent view is that humans are wrecking the environment. (Don't worry: I am not going to write about Goethe and "climate change.") I don't deny that our scientific and technological progress has altered the face of the earth, and in his own time Goethe was noting this as well. In recent years scholars have been writing about the "Green Goethe," for instance, Alfred Muschg, in Der Schein trügt nicht.

But Goethe cannot be appropriated for one ideology or another. He was, for instance, interested in the development of the Suez and Panama canals, both of which were being contemplated in his lifetime. A very strange poem, from 1828, entitled "Die ersten Erzeugnisse der Stotternheimer Saline ...," concerns deep drilling near Erfurt. The drilling led to a new field of geological observation (the Upper Permian formation), but it also produced important economic benefits for Thuringia in the recovery of salt. In the poem Goethe shows appreciation of the role of new technology based on scientific knowledge and mathematics over traditional craftsmanship.

Like Goethe, I cannot help noticing the effects of technology on the earth, but I try to avoid the danger of being nostalgic. Technology has given people a better life. When I think of all the hard work that generations before me have engaged in so that I now enjoy a pretty comfortable life, I cannot get too moralistic about the conditions of workers in the kinds of factories pictured above. They are no doubt making some product the rest of us would like to have. I am also certain that they prefer being in that factory than slaving in rice paddies. William J. Bernstein, in The Splendid Exchange, writes that, before modern times, 90 percent of the world's population engaged in subsistence-level farming. Even the "satanic mills" of 19th-century England were preferable to that.

Yesterday my friend Barbara Schulz and I visited galleries in Chelsea, including the Hasted Hunt Kraeutler Gallery, which is now showing the photos of Edward Burtynsky. Burtynsky specializes in large-format industrial imagery. According to his Wikipedia entry, Burtynsky's most famous photos are "sweeping views of landscapes altered by industry: mine tailings, queries, scrap piles." You might think that such subjects could not be beautiful, but you would be wrong. As the Wikipedia entry says: "The grand, awe-inspiring beauty of his images is often in tension with the compromised environments they depict."

I like that phrase: "compromised environments."

I like Burtynsky's photos so much that I can't resist posting a few here, including the one at the left, which I took at the gallery. The one of tires is from a series called "Urban Mines." Schiller made a distinction between our response to natural beauty (a rose, let us say) and our response to the beauty produced by art (a painting of a rose). Burtynsky's images challenge this distinction: the "landscapes" he photographs have become "ugly" (or compromised), but the photos themselves portray something beautiful, as in the photo below of "Silver Lake Operations #1, Lake Lefroy, Australia, 2007." I find something grand in this "landscape," but not as a result of its nature (as with, say, the Grand Canyon), but because of what humans have done with it.

As one blogger writes: the technological make-over of the world has resulted in the improvement of daily life for ordinary people. Our illnesses are treatable, as is the pain of illness. We have done damage to the earth, but continue to make the lives of the earth's inhabitants more livable.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Translation and World Literature

Translation, fostering understanding and perhaps appreciation among people for other cultures, is a central element of Goethe's conception of world literature. In the essay "Zu brüderlichem Andenken Wieland" (1813) he mentions two "translation maxims"): one requires that the author of a foreign country be brought to us so that we can recognize him as our own (daß der Autor einer fremden Nation zu uns herüber gebracht werde, dergestalt, daß wir ihn als den Unsrigen ansehen können); the second makes a demand on us, namely, that we journey to the foreigner and put ourselves in his circumstances, his way of speaking, and his peculiarities (daß wir uns zu dem Fremden hinüber begeben und uns in seine Zustände, sein Sprachweise, seine Eigenheiten finden sollen) (WA I,36, 329-30).

What I find interesting about this interest in translation is that the foreign works that were most formative for Goethe's own development were in languages that he was able to read: Latin, French, Italian. He even knew enough Greek to read Homer and to get an idea of what Pindar was writing. In was later in life that he stepped outside these and became interested in the literatures of other countries: China, the Middle East, eastern Europe. The focus on translations, however, seems to point forward to our modern era, where even very educated people only master one foreign language.

Certainly translations were essential to my own education or "Bildung." In college, at Indiana University, one of my favorite places on the campus was the Union building. It resembled a huge English manor house of Tutor vintage and was located in the middle of a charming campus of hills and dales and small bridges. Besides the university bookstore, a cafeteria, and a restaurant ("the Commons"), as well as banquet rooms for overnight visitors to the campus, it had a number of reception rooms furnished with large, comfortable couches, chairs, and tables. In the winter months fires would be burning in the fireplaces, and the mantels would be hung with garlands and other seasonal decorations. There was a smaller reading room that held current copies of magazines I had never heard of before but used to take down and try to make heads or tails of: The New Republic is one I remember being fascinated by while unable to figure out the political distinctions. What a long way I have come since then!

The rooms in the Union, with chairs and tables so different from any I had ever sat upon, suggested a larger, more privileged world. And yet, here I was, a part of it. Between classes I like to take possession of one of the solid wooded tables set into a niche. Beyond the window with leaded panes I could look out and see the autumn foliage or the flowers of spring. As I memorized German vocabulary or wrote out grammar exercises, students at other tables or on couches or chairs were similarly engrossed in the written word. Invariably, someone was reading The New York Times or Foreign Affairs, publications I had never seen in Louisville. Since these were public rooms, people passed through on a regular basis, but my feeling of possession was seldom disturbed. Food and drink were not allowed, a policy everyone accepted. Food was to be eaten in the cafeteria, though in any case food had not yet become a consuming American pastime. Indeed, a quiet decorum, conducive to reading or to feeling serious, reigned in these spaces.

I would spend hours on the oversized chairs in the Union delving into books by writers who were largely unknown to me before leaving my parents' home: Thomas Mann, Camus, Lermentov. My initial efforts with these writers were a struggle, and sometimes it was only a paragraph here or a sentence there that resonated. Even the title of Lermentov's short novel -- A Hero for Our Time -- suggested something big and important. I was principally kept going in my efforts by my awareness that thoughtful people had taken the trouble to read these writers. I liked the picture of myself sitting on one of the big chairs in the Union reading a thick Russian novel. Those novels seemed to add heft to me, as if I were absorbing all the weight of the history and tragedy of the characters' lives.

As Goethe said, in one of his comments about world literature, we come to know ourselves and our own country better by knowing other peoples and countries. My own experience bears that out. My junior year in college was spent studying in Germany. Despite the importance of foreign cultures in my life, however, I must admit that I have never felt like a "citizen of the world." One of the things that always annoyed me in my travels was the view of some people -- often Americans -- that the U.S. was somehow deficient in not being more like Europe. People who spent five days in Japan (where I lived for 5 years in the late 1970s) would be pronouncing on the superiority of the way Japanese did things.

This view of America's shortcomings reared itself in the past week with the announcement of the Nobel Prize in literature to the German-Romanian (or is that Romanian-German?) writer Herta Muller (pictured above on learning of the award). The reaction of Americans, according to European accounts, was again evidence of our eternal "parochialism." I particularly liked the headline in the Belgian newspaper De Morgan: "Amerikaanse media: Müller, who the f*** is Müller?" Need I translate? (Actually, my favorite headline was to be found in The Indian News: "Nepal Maoists disapprove of Nobel for German Author.")

Michael Orthofer at the Literary Saloon (now, that is a site concerned with world literature) had good coverage (on October 10) of the reaction of the award to Müller. Orthofer has long been campaigning for more critical attention to translations, especially in The New York Times Book Review. (I agree with him, though for different reasons, that the NYTBR is a mediocre publication.) He was irritated at the reaction of "Herta Who?" on the part of professional reviewers. After all, as he notes, five of Muller's books have been translated into English. I haven't read them, in German or in English.

Not long ago I came across an essay in the Wilson Quarterly by Aviya Kushner, a speaker of both Hebrew and English. In the essay she wrote of the parochialism of American students she had encountered while studying in France. "It is not that Americans lack curiosity of any kind" she writes, "but that we seem to lack the right kind." She faults the Americans who preferred to live in "Anglophone dorms," thereby missing the experience of French bathrooms and kitchens.

Kushner has an attitude I have often encountered among European elites, for whom the important things in life are represented by culture and art. They seem offended by America, an entrepreneurial society in which one accrues status by making money or creating jobs. What they fail to see is that most Americans are "average," just as are most Europeans, and certainly European elites don't look down their noses at their own compatriots. Class distinctions in Europe may mean that they don't expect much from Europeans who are not like themselves in education or cultural achievement. It is the ordinariness of Americans that bothers them. It must seem wrong to be successful and not have read, for instance, Goethe.

Kushner is bothered by the lack of translations, too, and more so by the fact that foreign cultures are increasingly being represented by foreigners writing in English: "Now, sadly, we have forgotten what is is to live between languages, to have translators who inhabit the space between tongues. We prefer to read of a Bosnian immigrant in New York instead of a Bosnian man in Sarajevo, written by a Bosnian."

My sense is that most people like to read about people like themselves. What is wrong with that? "Literary" works, whether in English or in a foreign language, are a special category. I think, for instance, of the Chilean writer Robert Bolaño, whose Nazi Literature in the Americas I am currently reading. On August 30 of this year, the New York Times Book Review reviewed the new translation of Bolaño's The Skating Rink, first published in Spanish in 1993. Bolaño's novels tell me more about what interests other writers than they do about Chile. I wonder where Herta Müller fits in. Does she write books that most people want to read, or is she an acquired taste?

Friday, October 9, 2009

The International Literary Quarterly

I forgot to mention that I have become a contributor to an organ of world literature, The International Literary Quarterly, edited by Peter Robertson. The above painting is by Kenneth Draper, who is featured in issue 8 of ILQ (August 2009). Besides poetry and prose, the issue includes "critical" essays by John Stauffer, Karen Thornber, and Stephen Wilson. Stay tuned for a further review.

Goethe, Wieland, and World Literature

Goethe, according to Eckermann (July 15, 1827), mentioned a benefit of " the present close communications [Verkehr]" among the French, English and Germans, namely, that they find themselves in the position of being able "to correct [korrigieren] one another." I think he means by correction something like "revision" of a country's image of itself. Such revision is one of the functions of world literature. His example here is Carlyle's biography of Schiller, which appraises Schiller in a way that no German would be likely to do. Similarly, Goethe continued, Germans understand Shakespeare and Byron and appreciate their achievements even more than do the English themselves. Thus, we come to recognize ourselves more clearly through the judgments of others and thus are able to engage in revision. Writers of course have always taken note of the efforts of other writers -- Virgil would hardly have written the Aneid had he not had Homer's epics to emulate -- but Goethe is noting the civilizing effects on countries in the modern world, sort of "getting to know you."

An early example of Goethe's noting of the useful benefits of contact between writers of different nations can be found in remarks he made in honor of Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813) shortly after the latter's death ("Zu brüderlichem Andenken Wielands"; WA 1,36: 313-46). He mentions the influence on Wieland of the English writer Shaftesbury (1671-1713).
The latter worked on a larger stage and in what Goethe calls "a more earnest time" than Wieland. He also enjoyed great advantages: he was born to high status, had traveled and occupied high offices. Wieland, though coming from much narrower circumstances, was nevertheless spiritually akin to the Englishman: Goethe describes this kinship as one of "opinion, cast of mind, and overall view" (Ansicht, Gesinnung und Übersicht). By dint of hard work Wieland transmitted Shaftsbury's optimistic and moral rationalism in his own light and graceful works. The artist John Closterman designed the portrait below of Shaftesbury and his brother Maurice to convey the neo-Platonist beliefs of the brothers. Shaftsbury gestures toward the light of knowledge.

Later in his appreciation of Wieland Goethe captures something of this Shaftesburian spirit by describing Wieland's aversion to "the enormous system of theories" (das ungeheure Lehrgebäude) of late Kantian philosophy. To those who had been used to passing their life "poeticizing or philosophizing," this system must have been nothing less than a "threatening stronghold or oppressive fortress restricting their cheerful excursions across the field of experience" (eine Drohburg, eine Zwingfeste ... von woher ihre heitern Streifzüge über das Feld der Erfahrhung beschränkt werden sollten).

It should be noted that John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, was an admirer of Wieland's works. He translated Wieland's poetic masterpiece, Oberon (1780), into English.

Picture credits: The Plate Lady

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Goethe and "World Culture"

Is there or should there be a "world culture"? This question occurred to me as I searched the web for some ideas on translation in connection with Goethe. At the site Literary Translation, of the British Council, I found the following statement: "Translation has played and plays a key role in the development of world culture." Then, "It is common to think of culture as national and absolutely distinct."

Clearly, since Goethe lived "absolutely distinct" traditional cultures are going the way of the dodo. When I first went to Germany as a student, it was obvious to me that Germans were different from Americans and also from other Europeans I encountered. Swedish girls, for instance, were not to be confused with Italian ones. The same with the males of Europe. Goethe was aware of these differences. Thus his comment: "Every nation has its idiosyncracies which differentiate it from others and make it feel isolated from, attracted to or repelled by them. The outward manifestations of these idiosyncracies usually seem strikingly repugnant, or at best ridiculous, to another nation. They also are the reason why we tend to respect a nation less than it deserves."

It was the appreciation of these cultural differences, often repellant to outsiders, that Goethe saw as a benefit of world literature. He didn't envision that there would be a unified "world culture." In 1828, for instance, writing about the contribution of periodicals to world literature, he stresses that countries should think alike, only that they should be aware of one another. (There are inconsistencies or paradoxes -- aporias, as we like to say in academia -- in Goethe's comments on world literature; I will return to these at a later date.)

Festival of World Culture at Dun Laoghaire, 2006

About twenty years ago, however, I began to notice here in New York that I could no longer distinguish Germans from Danes from French and so. Only the Africans, standing on street corners selling "Gucci" bags or "Rolex" watches, seemed foreign anymore. There is now a "McEurope" (is that the effect of the E.U.?).

The concept of "world culture" (along with "multiculturalism") has certainly taken off in recent years. Again, I tie this spread not to a growth in humanistic thinking but rather to global commerce. The results (at least for those of us who care about "culture," "civilization," "Western values," and all that stuff that the world culturalists would like to usher off the stage of history) are quite sappy, as some of the pictures here vividly demonstrate.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Oktoberfest 2009

Tomorrow is the last day of this year's Oktoberfest. Some great pictures can be found on The Big Picture site, including the above one of Munich mayor Christian Ude kicking off the event by tapping the first beer barrel on the first day of the festivities, September 19. I was never in Munich for Oktoberfest, but I did spent a raucous Fasching in Cologne many, many years ago. The festival originated in Bavaria, however, in the early 19th century, supposedly to commemorate the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. Below the Oktoberfest at night with a view of the Löwenbräu tent. You can see that 6 million people could attend every year.

Photo credit: Uwe Lein

Friday, October 2, 2009

Goethe and World Literature

I would like to begin to tie together some posts about our modern "accelerated" culture (see last two posts) with Goethe's ideas on world literature. The speeding up of life is connected of course with the increased pace of technological progress and invention, the fruits of which are in turn speedily disseminated to all corners of the world. I have also been saying for a while (see, for instance, my essay in the fall 2008 issue of The Yale Review) that Goethe's ideas on world literature were connected with the progress of commerce and trade in his time.

Goethe's dinner table in Weimar, full not only of the produce of his own garden but also of the products of different European lands, was also the site of pleasant conversation, some of it with Europeans who had traveled to visit the poet in Weimar. And, indeed, world literature as Goethe conceived it concerned such intellectual commerce. In his introduction to the German translation of Thomas Carlyle's life of Schiller, he spoke of "free intellectual commerce" (freien geistigen Handelsverkehr). Besides enjoying visits from many Europeans, Goethe was also in correspondence with luminaries on the continent. His journal Kunst und Altertum -- you might call it an early 19th-century blog -- discussed literary developments and products in France, England, and Italy. He was also aware of more far-flung efforts (e.g., Serbian folk poetry) through translations. The Persian poet Hafiz, inspiration for the West-East Divan, had been read in translation. Indeed, in Goethe's telling Germany was a literary entrepôt. Reviewing Carlyle's German Romance (WA I, 41/2, 304-7), he wrote: "Whoever understands and studies German is at the market where all nations offer their wares."

In tracing this connection Goethe made between world literature and commerce, I have been immersing myself in various works, some of them popular, that offer insight into the global expansion of trade in the modern period, beginning shortly after Columbus' encounter with the "New World." One of these is A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World by William J. Bernstein.

Goethe did not use the term "free trade" (as far as I know). This policy, which allows traders to act and transact without government interference, was only gradually coming into intellectual purview in the 18th century. Adam Smith was one of the first to point to the benefits of free trade, namely, that economic and cultural flourishing went together. He cited the Mediterranean cultures of Greece, Egypt, and Rome, but also those of the East. In Europe until the 19th century, however, there were contending protectionist and isolationist arguments against free trade, including (nothing new here) the power of special interests. Thus European economic policy was generally characterized by mercantilism, the belief that a nation's prosperity is dependent on its supply of capital, which was seen as represented by bullion. This was a zero-sum game, since there was only so much gold, silver, and other trade value.

It was David Ricardo who came up with the "law of comparative advantage." As Bernstein writes: this law "tells us it is far better for the Argentinians to grow beef, the Japanese to make cars, and the Italians to turn out high-fashion shoes than for each nation to attempt to become self-sufficient in all three areas." Although free trade (and "globalization") is accused of creating a kind of McCulture, what I find interesting about this example from A Splendid Exchange is that it assumes that different nations have a specific identity or character. Herder had been writing about this for decades before Goethe's comments on world literature. His influence on Goethe is immense, including when Goethe emphasizes that by world literature he does not mean that all the nations should be alike: "We repeat," he writes in Kunst und Altertum in 1828 (I, 41/2, 348-50), "We are not saying that nations should think alike, but only that they should be aware of one another, understand one another and, if they cannot love one another, they should at least learn to be tolerant."

Goethe thought tolerance would be aided through commerce in the intellectual products of other cultures and nations. But it strikes me that appreciation for different cultures, especially those far from our own milieu, is really an acquired taste, like that for exotic foods. Most of us are "cosmopolitan" enough to appreciate Russian literature or the works of different South American authors, but how many of us have recently (or ever) read a novel written in the Telegu language (a Dravidian language spoken by 69 million people in southeast India)?