Monday, April 5, 2010

"The House of Intellect"

"The reciprocal civility of authors is one of the most risible scenes in the farce of life."

I have been wanting to use the above quote from Dr. Johnson (which appeared in his life of Sir Thomas Browne, publ. 1756) for ages. Finally, it finds its rightful place as I close up my discussion of R├╝diger Safranski's book on the Goethe-Schiller friendship. Certainly it cannot be said of Goethe or Schiller in the period of their literary partnership and friendship, from 1794 until 1805, that the respect each showed for the other was anything but sincere. Before the "fortunate event" -- the discussion between the two in Jena in July 1794, after the meeting of the Scientific Society -- it was different. As Safranski points out, the ten years' younger Schiller was always drawn to Goethe, wanted to be be the star he was, but his feelings, expressed in letters to friends, were mixed with resentment and anger. Goethe was the child of good fortune, while he, Schiller, had to fight for everything.

A survey of almost 2,000 Goethe letters from between June 1781 (the year in which Schiller's The Robbers appeared) and July 24, 1794, reveals not a single mention of Schiller. Thus, Schiller was not even a speck on Goethe's horizon. When Goethe returned from Italy in 1788 and was introduced to Schiller (who by this time was living in Weimar), he remained distant. If The Robbers goes unmentioned in Goethe's correspondence, its author seems to have reminded Goethe all too much of earlier enthusiasms.

By 1794 Schiller was a literary star in his own right, while Goethe had the impression people thought he was living off his reputation. That such contradictory individuals came together and forged a productive relationship is unusual, but T.J. Reed suggests (in an article in Goethe Jahrbuch 2005) that Schiller adroitly and diplomatically excluded competition between himself and Goethe. The letter of August 24, 1794, practically a preface to Schiller's later On Naive and Sentimental Poetry, describes creative differences between Goethe and himself. The gesture seems to have worked, for Goethe, in response, invited Schiller (who was now living in Jena) to come to Weimar and stay with him for two weeks.

Thus, what relevance does Dr. Johnson's quote have? According to Helmut Koopmann (in the same issue of Goethe Jahrbuch), the relationship between Goethe and Schiller was not "an alliance on behalf of one another, but instead one very much against the others ... It necessarily led to aesthetic isolation, as the correspondence proves. Distance from all that was profane, a sharply drawn line against anything that would reduce literature to enjoyment and, no less (if one reads between the lines), against those who would serve this desire for enjoyment." This was obviously a somewhat rarefied view of the role of the man (and increasingly woman) of letters.

Weimar Classicism might be said to have been a phenomenon of two individuals who, over the course of several years, articulated a "Kunstprogramm" (artistic agenda) that rejected any compromise with the public's preferences as well as with the writers who catered to the public or who (as in the case of the Romantic writers and artists) pursued different aims. The height of Schiller and Goethe's invective against their literary opponents was the Xenien, a collection of satirical epigrams composed by Goethe and Schiller, in which they attacks their critics.

Schiller wanted to be a popular dramatist, but only on his own terms: the theater was to be a forum for educating the public, a method of aesthetic as well as ethical education. Goethe had of course long abandoned public-friendly works, more and more so after his stay in Italy, and retreated into artistic anemia. The relationship with Schiller brought him back to artistic life. He was hard hit by Schiller's death in 1805, but within a few years he went in new literary directions.

And now to Dr. Johnson. The attacks on other writers -- and inadvertently on the public -- is a phenomenon of the modern "Republic of Letters." Before the 18th century learned men (and mostly the learned were men) were a class apart. As Jacques Barzun has written (in The House of Intellect, 1959), they formed an "inclusive bond," based on the habit of reading books and being articulate. Although they had little to do with ordinary folks, and vice versa, they did not feel "alienated" from society. The spread of literacy and education in the 18th century brought more men into the "conversation," but it also produced competition among them, since learning per se was not a commodity that could be traded like other skills and trades. Education led to the development of scientific fields, to professionalism, and to conversations that could be understood only by initiates. Goethe and Schiller were living on the cusp of this vast material transformation of the social order and, with it, the Republic of Letters.

Goethe and Schiller, in their Classicist period, wanted to speak to society as a whole, as they imagined had been the case with writers and artists in antiquity who articulated a common social ethos and even educated rulers (as Aristotle with Alexander) They wanted to educate the 18th-century public to such an imagined participation, which, so they believed, characterized the ancient Greek world. Goethe, for instance, considered all of his intellectual pursuits, whether literary or scientific, parts of a whole, as he he called it. His scientific work, however, was either ignored or outright rejected by most "real" scientists of his day. Thus, after Schiller's death in 1805 Goethe became for a while isolated from current trends. Feeling himself "historical," he got to work on his autobiographical writings. He made a voyage to the Orient (West-East Divan). From 1816 until 1828 he published what might be called a blog, namely, On Art and Antiquity. It was in the literary pieces in that publication that he began to develop his concept of world literature and to come to terms with the modern world. More on that later.

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