Saturday, May 29, 2010

Goethe and World Literature

Just a few final observations on Françoise Waquet's marvelous book on Latin. As she writes, in part 1, which I discussed in my last post: "The whole cultural history of the Western world from the Renaissance to the mid-twentieth century can be inscribed under the sign of Latin." In part 2 she showed that competence in Latin, even at the highest levels of the Church and in "the Republic of Letters," was not as high as imagined. "One would have liked," she writes, "to know the extact Latin in which Descartes talked to Beeckman on the occasion of their meeting at Breda."

Part 3 concerns "What Latin Meant." She traces the beginnings of the revival of Latin in the Quattrocento. For the Italian humanists, "culture" resided in the great writers of antiquity, who were seen as the source of all learning. The acquisition of classical Greek and Latin "became the foundation of education in the full sense of the term." Education in the broadest sense based itself on "dialogue" with masters who were recognized as "archetypes for humanity."


The Humanist restoration, however, which, in a sense, reconstituted Latin "by committee," broke the vitality of Latin in its medieval incarnation (go to this link for a hilarious video of monks in the Middle Ages), and Latin afterward lived an "artificial, specious existence," separating scholars from ordinary folks. Too much learning also drew attention to itself, and in the 16th century people were making fun of the "pedantry" of humanists. By the 17th century it was recognized that children, despite spending up to ten years of instruction in Latin, were leaving school with little knowledge of the language. In the 18th century, the era of Enlightenment, the humanist model of education, based on Latin, was challenged on the grounds of utility.

In the U.S., for instance, Founding Father Benjamin Rush (pictured left in the painting by Peale) equated classical studies with "Negro slavery and spirituous liquors" in their unfriendliness "to the progress of morals, knowledge, and religion in the U.S." Thus, the "classical ideal" began its slow retreat and, in the 1960s, disappeared as an educational premise in one fell swoop in the Western world.

Interestingly, the development of modern vernaculars in Western Europe coincided with scientific specialization. The result was that scholars, speaking a variety of languages, could no longer communicate with one another, especially at the international conferences that began to take place in the 19th century. Surprise, surprise -- people started talking about the need for an international language. They claimed that "scientific sociability" would be strengthened, as would something called "human solidarity." A universal language would allow people from all over the world to understand one another "in perfect transparency, and the curse of Babel would be lifted at last."

Countering this desire, Waquet cites a passage from Umberto Eco's The Search for a Perfect Language, in which he speaks of "the possibility of companionship in a continent multilingual by vocation":

"The problem of European culture in the future certainly does not reside in the triumph of total polyglotism .. but in a community of individuals capable of grasping the spirit, the scent, the atmosphere of a different language. A polyglots' Europe is not a Europe of persons who speak a lot of languages, but at best of persons who can communicate by speaking their own languages and understanding other people's, persons, who, although they cannot speak other languages fluently and may have difficulty understanding them, do understand the 'genius,' the cultural universe, conveyed by anyone who is speaking the language of his ancestors and his tradition."

I have not (yet) read Eco's book and don't know if Goethe is referenced in it, but this quote comes close to some of Goethe's utterances of the subject of world literature, which often suggest a desire for a return to the kind of comity Eco was prizing.Here are a few nuggets:

I am convinced that a world literature is in the process of formation, that all nations are inclined to participate in it and are therefore taking steps to do so (in a letter to Streckfuß in January 1827).

Literary journals, as they increase their readership, will contribute effectively to the hoped-for universal world literature. Let us repeat however, that we don't mean that all nations should think alike but that they become aware of one another, understand one another, and, if they don't love one another, at least to be mutually tolerant (in Über Kunst und Altertum, 1828).

For some time there has been talk of world literature, and correctly so. For if was evident among all the nations, thrown together by the most terrible wars, could not help noting the influence of foreign ways after returning to their status as individual nations; they had absorbed these foreign influences and even become conscious of intellectual needs previously unknown. The result was a sense of neighborliness. Instead of returning to their former isolation, they gradually developed a desire to be included in the increasingly free exchange of ideas (introduction to Carlyle's Life of Schiller, 1830).

Goethe's subject was a literary one, and, like many a public intellectual of today, he imagined that it would be men of letters who would lead the way to comity and appreciation of the nations for one another.

1 comment:

Zentrist said...

Interestingly, one of the stated objectives of the Bahai faith is the eventual development of an international language..... Goethe's vision of the future is amazing, astounding. Today's new communication technologies, especially the worldwide web, could exacerbate the problem of "Babel," or it could perhaps speed up exponentially the solution. I suppose this remains to be seen. In the meantime, I for one still require books, newspapers and journals and magazines. My college Greek, Latin, Spanish and French come in handy at times, but mainly life and letters is about the DEEPENING of English Studies, including translations of the great German writers! For the last fifteen or so years of my life I'd like to FOCUS, however, on a great English or American writer. Such an intense study of the "part"--say someone from the American Renaissance of the 19th--can deepen, if I understand Goethe aright, an appreciation of the whole.