Friday, October 9, 2009

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

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