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 entrep├┤t. 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)?

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