Monday, December 13, 2010

Fritz Strich and Goethe's concept of world literature

Because of my editorial duties in connection with the book on the history of freedom of speech -- the title, by the way, will be Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea -- I have not been able to get to my real area of scholarly interest for some time, namely, Goethe and world literature. I have also been detoured by another topic, this time at least on a Goethe subject, the sublime. I first began working on the latter when writing on Goethe's geology; the result was an article in the Goethe Yearbook a few years back. And because of that article, I was asked to participate in a panel at the recent German Studies Association conference on the pre-Kantian sublime, which, in turn, took me further away from world literature. Still, as I gradually put the free speech volume and an article on the sublime behind me, I look forward to getting back to world literature in the New Year.

In this connection, I was recently reminded of Fritz Strich, who was the scholar who put world literature on the academic map. A strange aspect of world literature, which Goethe began to speak and write about in the 1820s, was that the idea lay fallow for another half-century. True, since Goethe had utter the oracular words, there was some attention to the concept in the late 19th century, but it wasn't until the discipline of comparative literature began to be established that world literature was drafted to talk about the scope of the new discipline. Still, everyone got it wrong, speaking of world lit as if it stretched back in time, back to Homer or Gilgamesh, or extended to other parts of the world, encompassing, for instance, Chinese or Indian literature. Goethe was speaking of a future phenomenon. More about that at another time.

Before World War II, there were a couple important articles on world literature, but the first major publication on the subject appeared in 1946, with the first edition of Goethe und die Weltliteratur, by Fritz Strich. An academic growth subject was born, and by the 1950s the industry began. The concept of world literature seems to fill a conceptual need, much as did "the sublime" in the 18th century, when that term was drafted to express the new aesthetic consciousness. After all, Longinus's treatise on the sublime (written in ca. 80 A.D.) had been around in Europe since the first editions in the 16th century. It was not until the beginning of the 18th century, however, especially with Joseph Addison's essays on the imagination, that the concept really took off and dominated theoretical discussions through the century, culminating in the works of Schiller and Kant.

A few years ago I placed an inquiry in the Times Literary Supplement concerning Fritz Strich, asking for personal reminiscences of Strich. From a scholarly and an intellectual point of view, Strich has certainly been as important as, say, Erich Auerbach or Ernst Robert Curtius, whose works are familiar to many outside of Germany. Besides his study of world literature, Strich is almost single-handedly responsible for the rediscovery of German Baroque literature, with an essay on that subject in 1916. Nevertheless, aside from a small Festschrift honoring Strich, there has been no work on him as a person. At the time of my TLS inquiry, however, I received no responses.

Much to my surprise I recently received a letter from Switzerland, from Heinz Günter, an English translator who works in Berne. Mr. Günter, who had saved my TLS inquiry, now sent me a speech given by the novelist John Le Carré on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of the University of Berne. Le Carré, it turns out, had as a young Englishman (his name is actually David Cornwell) studied in Berne and had some very kind words to say about Fritz Strich, especially about Strich's encouragement of him. Indeed, Le Carre's tribute to the university and to Strich reminded me very much of my own experience as a student in Germany in the late 1960s. Though I was not so fortunate to have a professor like Fritz Strich take an interest in me, I did have many German friends who initiated me into German ways and also helped me to become a capable speaker of German. Unfortunately, after three-quarters of a century, Le Carré was unable to provide any specific details about the lectures he attended. The impression remains, however, of the kind, polite nature of Fritz Strich. (Here is a link to an article in English, which makes many of the same points as in Le Carré's Berne talk.) I am still hoping for reminiscences from others, though I suspect I may one day have to go to Berne and do some research in the archives that contain Strich's papers.

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