Monday, July 19, 2010

Happy Birthday, Bodmer!

The Swiss man of letters Johann Jacob Bodmer was born on this day, July 19, in 1698. Bodmer was a figure that, if you were studying German, you encountered in graduate school. He was always linked with another Swiss literatus, Johann Jakob Breitinger, and the two B's were further presented as oppositional figures to a certain Leipzig literary "pope," Johann Christoph Gottsched. The opposition between the two critical camps -- Zurich and Leipzig -- came down to the issue of figurative language in poetry. Both Bodmer and Gottsched were apparently figures capable of attracting a number of acolytes, indeed very many of those who were working as writers or critics in the early part of the 18th century in German-speaking lands. The battle between the two, carried out with much invective, went on during the decade of the 1740s.

Gottsched was in some ways a more commanding figure, especially physically, which may have something to do with why he is more likely to be heard of today than is Bodmer. Lessing reacted pretty harshly to Gottsched's neoclassic literary recommendations in 1759, after which it was felt that Gottsched's time as arbiter of taste was over. Later, Goethe, in his autobiography, penned a satiric portrait of Gottsched, and this view has pretty much stuck.

Bodmer must have had a milder character, and seems to have been much loved by his friends and "pupils," including the painter Heinrich Füßli, or Henry Fuseli, as he was known after he emigrated to England. The portrait of Fusseli with his mentor indicates the reverence with which Bodmer was held by those who knew him. Among his literary acquaintance and correspondents were the poets Wieland and Salomon Gessner; the critic and philosopher Johann Sulzer; Johann Casper Lavater, author of the famous "physiognomic fragments" (to which Goethe contributed); and the educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.

Bodmer was instrumental in launching the career of Friedrich Klopstock, but there is much more to his literary influence. Important in connection with my current research, he is probably the principal conduit for the transmission of the aesthetic concept of the sublime into German letters. Later, he translated John Milton's epic Paradise Lost, and his enthusiasm for Milton was the bone of contention between him and Gottsched, who found the Englishman's flowery language too "Baroque." If Gottsched represented the influence of French poetics in German letters, it was Bodmer who introduced English literary currents. Being from a "republican" nation, he felt great admiration for England. Peter Hanns Reill, in his book on the German Enlightenment and the rise of historicism, has noted that the early journal published by Bodmer and Breitinger, The Discourses of the Painters, was much influenced by Joseph Addison's Spectator essays, especially its "cosmopolitan description" of English customs.

When the Sturm und Drang era of German letters began, in the late 1760s, Bodmer was pretty much regarded by the young shakers and movers as superannuated, but this literary movement was precisely a reaction against the French neoclassical poetics recommended by Gottsched. Sturm und Drang writers, including Goethe, had by now discovered the liberating effect of English writers, including Shakespeare and Ossian, a discovery that owes much to Bodmer's pioneering efforts. This image of Bodmer as a young man shows, however, the different time in which he and Goethe came of age. This may, however, have been the way Bodmer looked when Henry Fusseli first knew him.


Zentrist said...

I think I like this Mr. Bodmer very much, the man of letters and the human being. Happy Birthday! (Belatedly.)

Zentrist said...

These bloggings, especially these, continue to enrich my studies in the history of ideas. The approach to literature (and other texts as well) by the New Critics, on the one hand, and the Deconstructionists, on the other, just to name two, did not arrive out of thin air. It has been FASCINATING to see in addition the roots of the Ancients versus Moderns "quarrel"... That somehow Kant influenced the Agrarian Group; that these less well known 18th century German speakers (I'm not referring to Goethe) thought deeply about INTERPRETATION, its laws and grounds, limits and boundaries--and freedoms! I'm reminded, just now, of one of Leo Strauss's early books, "Spinoza's Critique of Religion." Just exactly what is the appropriate way to read a book? To write about it? It has been exciting to learn that Gadamer was much influenced by Nietzche and Heidegger both; that Nietzsche in turn was reacting to Schopenhauer and Kant; that Kant was profoundly influenced by both Hume and Rousseau (which two, by the way, were good friends); that Herder and Hamann had enormous influence on people like Eric Voegelin (it appears) and Pope John Paul II (with his apparently Hamann-influenced "theology of the body"). I don't understand German, but I can clearly discern a reference to "Heidegger" in our Holy Father's recent music CD, the spoken part of "Alma Mater." The pope's writings I'm familiar with show a remarkable understanding of the "existential" and "phenomenological" aspects of liturgy that he wants to bring back into the foreground. Clearly, this holy man is utterly steeped in the historical-philosophical German of his training in the forties and fifties. It was an education that landed him loving Augustine much more than Aquinas. And that is only one of the reasons why I love our German-born pontiff so.