Thursday, November 5, 2009

World Literature

Material conditions change and give birth to new ideas that shake earlier intellectual foundations and offer new suggestions for how best to live and act in the world. Goethe's idea of world literature is one such idea. For centuries contacts between countries had taken place, but the world had been suspicious of change, while innovation was the result of a slow, accumulating process. The Church and the institutions of society validated tradition and age-old ways of doing things. After the "discovery" of the New World, however, global commerce brought new products into the homes of ordinary people. Tea, coffee, spices, "china ware," tobacco -- all things Europeans had done without for centuries -- suddenly became necessities of life. People could not imagine living without them. Suspicion slowly gave way to curiosity about the world, and ethnocentricty -- which formerly had performed a crucial, protective social function-- became regarded as "narrow minded," intolerant, and unenlightened. Thus, the background of Goethe's concept of world literature, something that Goethe himself may not have been fully aware of. Call him a "medium" for spiritual contents. As I have written before, Goethe's metaphors with regard to world literature -- trade, exchange -- support his sense of a connection between the commerce in goods and that among peoples. World literature says: Let's all get to know each other!

Among the books I have been reading on early modern commerce is Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. The hat in question is that worn by the gentleman in the painting The Officer and the Laughing Girl, now in the Frick in New York. The author of Vermeer's Hat, Timothy Brook, traces the head covering to beaver trapping in North America. Indeed, the details in Vermeer's paintings allow Brook to describe the beginnings of what we would recognize as "bourgeois life" in Holland (and the West generally).

Alongside these changes, of course, traditional life went on (and still goes on) its course, as can be seen by The Milkmaid (on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam), currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is part of a small exhibit on Vermeer, the kind that doesn't overwhelm you. The Milkmaid, we learn, is not a one-of-a-kind work. Vermeer was relying on a long tradition of milkmaids in art, as can be seen in the examples here.

At the same time, even The Milkmaid, with its seemingly traditional subject, alerts us to a small sign of the changes introduced into Dutch households by world commerce. Alongside the foot warmer at the bottom right in The Milkmaid is a row of "Delft tiles." (Click painting to enlarge.) Brook mentions that in the decade of the 1650s Chinese porcelains began to take their place in Dutch art and life. Dutch potters, however, unable to match Chinese blue-and-white, made passable imitations, at the low end of which were blue-and-white wall tiles. In the process, they created a kind of folk art through what Brook calls (quoting Anthony Bailey) "long-distance plagiarism."

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