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.

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