Thursday, March 31, 2011

America and the Enlightenment Project

I just received from my friend Ellis Shookman an offprint of an article, "Attitudes to North America in Wieland's Teutscher Merkur," which is appearing in Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies (vol. 34 [2011], pp. 81-100). Ellis gave a talk on this subject a year or so ago, when I was still chair of the Columbia University Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture. Reading it today led to some reflections about attitudes among Europeans toward America, and in particular the U.S.

When I went to study in Germany as a very young woman (ages ago), Germans were very helpful and kind to me. Nevertheless, especially when among older people, I couldn't help noticing that they thought America somewhat backward. This was especially the case in the matter of "culture," which supposedly Americans had none of. I would not say that I was particularly resentful at their attitude. Like many Americans first facing a foreign culture, I felt my deficiencies, intellectual and otherwise, and was in any case trying to become "cultured." At the time, of course, I did not ask them why people as cultured as the Germans had started World War II -- though it did occur to me. To imagine that any nation or culture is superior to others is now considered in bad taste, so I will simply say: where do you prefer to live if you have a choice? Obviously, if we have a choice in the matter, we think we live in the best place on earth.I see from Ellis's article that, in the late 18th century, some Germans already had the attitude that America was a place without "culture." At least that is what can be discerned from his thorough investigation of issues of Der Teutscher Merkur (and later Neuer Teutscher Merkur) appearing between 1773 and 1810. This quarterly publication was one of the most important intellectual organs of the time. Goethe was not a regular contributor, though a few poems and reports by him did adorn its pages.

One of its subjects was the events of the American Revolution, both before and after, in which the German correspondents of the journal were very interested. The journal published some correct news as well as misinformation, often relying, for instance, on the reports of sailors. It was obviously difficult to follow events on the ground, especially after hostilities broke out, but there was an attempt to cover them. Whatever the outcome between the British and the colonists, Germans, like the rest of Europe, saw important implications for the balance of power on the continent. As Ellis writes, most of these articles "were largely non-committal accounts of political or military developments, ... conveyed their authors' knowledge that new of the events they related was not always reliable, their apparent distaste for war and preference for peace and their sympathy for both sides." They were even "nuanced and balanced"!

The reporting changed after the United States came into being. Clearly, some Europeans had utopian aspirations for the new republic. Well, these were men of the Enlightenment, and soon the articles began to decry "Americans' commercialism and lack of culture." Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Ellis mentions several writers who struck this note. One was a baron, Gustav Anton von Seckendorff (1775-1823). The little information to be found on him on the internet (not even a picture) indicates a very cultured person. Therefore his comments, published in the Merkur in June 1797, that people in Philadelphia "were too busy making or spending money to write or read books. Acquiring and enjoying, he explained, were the two pivots around which all striving and urging of North Americans revolved." Interestingly, after returning to Europe, he came once more to America, dying in Louisiana "in poverty" (according to Wikipedia).

More interesting to me were the reports of Karl August Böttinger, who was a staple of Weimar society (and in fact took over the publication of the Merkur in 1807). In November 1793 he wrote an admiring article about the building of Washington, the "youthfully beautiful, emerging capital city." One can just tell from the title of the article -- "Neu-Rom in Amerika" -- that he would end up being disappointed with the U.S. By 1796 he was writing, according to Ellis, "that utopian conceptions of North America were exaggerated." In further articles, he warned against emigrating and considered the majority of Americans to be a "vile, money-making tribe."

As I said, Böttiger was a well-known Weimar notable. After receiving his "Dr. phil." in Wittenberg he came to Weimar in 1791, on Herder's prompting, and became director of the Weimar Gymnasium. He was a member of the "Friday Club" and among Goethe and Schiller's circle. He seems to have been very indiscreet, however, earning Goethe's eternal enmity. Böttinger is also the source of many rumors about goings-on in Weimar. Safranski in his book on the friendship of Goethe and Schiller says of Böttinger that he "had his ear in all places (überall seine Ohren hat). For instance, he reported that opinions were divided concerning Goethe's ballad "The Bride of Corinth." One side, according to Böttinger, called it "the most revolting of all bordello scenes [die ekelhafteste aller Bordellszenen] and are agitated by the profanation of Christendom; others call it the most perfect of all of Goethe's small works of art." And who do you think painted the portrait of him here? Tischbein, of course!

Picture credits: Griffith University; muttaQin


Zentrist said...

To understand how Germany, with its sublime history of achievement, could have tacitly assented to Hitler's deeds--this conundrum requires the skills of an analyst. Lacan or Zizek. The latter, in particular, thinks notably in terms of the chronically paradoxical. One of his favorite examples is the "chocolate laxative," the remedy that coincides with the "negative," the sin. I love these paradoxes of Zizek even though I don't fully understand them! They smack of truth! His interpretation of the great movie, The Sound of Music, is a marvel of insight into what analysts call "the unconscious mind." We find ourselves "attracted" to the sharp-looking and the apparently "cultivated." For me, however, things German ARE the ultimate in culture. I don't care about my "unconscious" mind 24/7. Just think of the year in Europe, 1800. Especially Germany. Beethoven; Goethe; Hegel; Kant; Fichte; Schelling; is inconceivable. To this day, Emily Dickinson and Company notwithstanding, Americans SHOULD be humbled in the presence of such conglomerations of human genius.

Goethe Girl said...

Yes, I forgot to mention the "Dichter und Denker." Where can I find that essay on "The Sound of Music."

Zentrist said...

Zizek talks about the Sound of Music in a film produced by Ben Wright. I forget the title but it is easy to get via Netflix. (2003.) We also ordered "Zizek!", a movie created by Astra Taylor.
Zizek "reads" The Sound of Music in terms of Lacan's three categories--the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. I think you'd find his remarks interesting.
Oh. Just remembered the title: something like THE REALITY OF THE VIRTUAL. For me, this tension is analogous to the Pauline tension in his Letters...between the nunc and the nondum, the now and the not yet. We have already in the New Testament a kind of REALITY OF THE VIRTUAL.

Zentrist said...

Zizek has a whole book about Lacan and popular culture. I'd be willing to bet he discusses The Sound of Music in this book! Like many teachers, he uses his favorite examples over and over. By the way, a fellow from Benares, India, a techie, introduced me to the name, Zizek, which until about a month ago, I'd never heard before.