Saturday, September 24, 2011

World lit versus global lit

What prompts me to a digression on the above subject is a novel I just finished reading, Seven Years (Sieben Jahre) by the Swiss writer Peter Stamm. (Michael Hofmann provides an impeccable English translation.) It has echoes of Albert Camus, absent the worldly heft that gave weight to the novels of Camus and even of Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus and Sartre, after all, had lived through a world war and French colonialism, whereas the characters in Seven Years have lived through times of plenty, until the end, when they encounter the economic downturn of 2008. But before that happens, during their architectural studies in Munich, their travels to Marseilles, the success of their business, they are plagued by existential anomie.

The subject of Stamm's novel, as can be guessed from the title, concerns a marriage. Besides the echoes of Camus and Sartre (particularly in the pared-down narrative style), I also thought of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage. Again, Bergman made a movie about individuals who were rooted in a historical place and time. History -- in particular war, during which the civilized nations of the world had turned their vast arsenal of "progress" on each other -- had let people down, so to speak, and their anomie was, to an extent, understandable. (Wonderful portrait here of this state of the soul by Richard Cronborg.) The dissatisfaction felt by Mariane and Johan, with their marriage and their lives, related to the disparity between the ideals with which they had been raised and the compromises of everyday reality. The couple in Stamm's novel, Alex and Sonia, are similarly suffering from this disparity, though neither one has a deep historical consciousness. The novel takes place in contemporary time -- the fall of the Wall is mentioned -- but no one has much interest in what that fall represents, aside from the opportunity to make money in the East.

What does Stamm's novel have to do with world literature? Goethe thought of world literature, particularly the work of translators, as a way of allowing us to understand other cultures and peoples and, if not to love or even like them, to appreciate the differences. Goethe lived in a time in which, materially, people in the advancing West were becoming more alike, but Goethe thought that national differences would remain. Goethe's love for the literature of other lands certainly speaks to appreciation of "difference." Yet the fact is that the worldwide commerce that was making people's material lives similar in his time has also led to the uniformity of their moral life. The people in Stamm's novel might be Americans.

This point is made by Tim Parks in his write-up on Stamm in the New York Review of Books: "If you didn't know Stamm was Swiss, nothing in the English translation would betray this blemish." As Parks writes: "Stamm is one of a growing group of writers ... who, whether consciously or otherwise, have evolved a style to suit the requirements of a global literary market. None of these authors writes exclusively or even first and foremost for the country they live in. ... What we are seeing, then, is the development of styles of writing that are no longer to be understood in relation to the literary tradition the author grew up in, but to the new world of international fiction, books translated no sooner written into a dozen languages." I would only add that Stamm's stories and novels of what Parks calls "ordinary emptiness," of "lives without coherence or direction," is a Western phenomenon, again the result of the spread of material affluence with which the West was beginning to be rewarded in the early 19th century.

Picture credits: The Criterion Collection; Richard Cronborg

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Goethe and the Beloved

The subject of my dissertation so many years ago concerned Goethe's "escape from the idyll," by which I was referring to his abandonment of one of the literary forms he most loved in his youth, namely, the poetic idyll. Traditionally the idyll was inhabited by shepherds; thus, this form is also often called a pastoral. Goethe wrote many idylls, sometimes seeming to shed the pastoral element, though I contended in my dissertation and later in an article that the pastoral did not really go missing but was instead represented as endangered. For instance, the character of Werther in The Sorrows of Young Werther represents a pastoral shepherd. After all, the chief occupation of poetic shepherds is falling in love, and one of their chief activities is dancing. And where does Werther meet Lotte and fall in love with her? At a dance. His pining for her is also characteristic of poetic shepherds.

As in The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe's idylls are always shadowed by something dark. Though lovers in pastorals often fade away in love, they don't commit suicide, as does Werther. My argument concerning this short novel was that the idyll represented for Goethe a poetic suicide and that, to free himself and become the giant of German letters, he had to free himself from this poetic form, something that Werther failed at. Nevertheless, Goethe did not quite abandon his fondness for the poetic inspiration of his youth; instead, his works feature many idylls in which, however, it ends up being destroyed. One only has to think of one of the final scenes of Faust II, when the idyll of Philomen and Baucis is destroyed.

Love, as said, represents the chief occupation of poetic shepherds, and love is, I dare say, the most prominent theme of Goethe's literary works. Yet rather than the wholehearted poetic-shepherd embrace of the experience, the lover in Goethe's poetry seems more enamored of the recollection of love, from a distance. For instance, a very early poem entitled "The Night." The first two lines in its original version, from 1768, are as follows: "Gern verlass' ich diese Hütte,/ Meiner Schönen Aufenthalt." This is of course a paradox: he is happy to leave the abode of the beloved? Goethe seemed to recognize this paradox, for when he published the collection Neue Lieder in 1789 he changed the first line to read: "Nun [now] verlass' ich diese Hütte."

Love in absentia also characterizes a later and very beautiful poem, "Nähe des Geliebten," from 1795. As has been noted, Goethe wrote this poem after reading a similar one by Friederike Brun, entitled "Ich denke dein." In Brun's poem one has the feeling that the person being remembered has died, which is not the case in Goethe's poem. Here is a translation (from 1844) by William Edmonstoune Aytoun:

I think of thee when'er the sun is glowing
Upon the lake;
Of thee, when in the crystal fountain flowing
The moonbeams shake.

I see thee when the wanton wind is busy,

And dust-clouds rise;
In the deep night, when o'er the bridge so dizzy
The wanderer hies.

I hear thee when the waves, with hollow roaring,
Gush forth their fill;
Often along the heath I go exploring,
When all is still.

I am with thee! Though far thou art and darkling,
Yet art thou near.
The sun goes down, the stars will soon be sparkling
Oh, wert thou here.

Interestingly, Aytoun did not translate the title as per Goethe's title -- "Nearness of the Beloved" -- but as "Separation." The poet feels the nearness when the beloved is elsewhere. Of course, it should be added that the poetic voice in this case is feminine, as in Brun's poem.

Picture credit: Bonza Sheila

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reflections on catastrophe

Ten years ago the U.S. homeland was attacked by Islamic terrorists. The Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. were the targets of airliners, while a fourth plane failed in its target and went down in a field in Pennsylvania. I went through photos yesterday, looking for something different for this blog, and discovered the one above highlighting another NYC icon, the Statue of Liberty. No matter how many times I am downtown, and sometimes I am even on the Hudson River in a kayak, my eyes always seek out the statue.

To signal this tenth anniversary of the attacks, I will not dwell on my response, which I recorded at the time and sent to friends. Maybe on the 20th anniversary, I will dig it out and look at it. There is a lot of controversy concerning the U.S. response to the attacks, and I feel that it is still a bit soon to be able to properly assess them. I want to talk here about another catastrophe, not of men's making, but a natural one, namely, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Goethe wrote about it over half a century after the event, in his autobiography Poetry and Truth.

It seems to me that the advanced thinkers of the 18th century would have had little difficulty in responding to the attacks of 9/11. Clearly, these were attacks of war, similar to Pearl Harbor, if not backed up by the military resources of any particular nation. It is a different kind of army that is waging this war, but the 18th-century thinkers had given lots of thought to war. Mostly they thought that religious conflicts were behind wars, though even in the case of 9/11 it is not only religion that propels the terrorists. The 9/11 terrorists, after all, were not products of madrasas but of Western education. Nevertheless, for 18th-century thinkers, a military response to an attack like 9/11 (as in the invasion of Afghanistan) would not have been considered intelligent or rational. War was bad.

The memory of the Thirty Years' War was still fresh in the early decades of the 18th century, when Bodmer began his literary career. In his Critical Observations of 1741, he talks about the effects of certain phenomena on the emotions, the first two of which are beauty and grandeur. Both of these are "natural" phenomena and can be said to be universal in their operations: as humans, we all respond to beauty and to grand objects like the starry skies above. He included a third group, however, which turns out to fit oddly with these two phenomena, namely, the effects of what he calls "das Ungestueme" (or violent). Among these are violent storms, plagues, shipwrecks, and so on, in a sense "natural" phenomena but ones that cast us down rather than elevate our emotions. He also mentions in this category wars and the operations of "Pulver" or weaponry.

This last, however, cannot be considered natural in the same way as a tsunami, but Bodmer was not engaging in philosophical reflections here. He was writing about the effects of the representation of these phenomena in poetry. Thus, his examples of the category of "das Ungestueme" are all taken from literature. For instance, he begins by discussing the shipwrecks in the Odyssey and the Aneid. On the effects of the representation of war he introduces his favorite poet, Martin Opitz, who was alive during the Thirty Years' War. I haven't looked at his work in years, but Opitz did, in a sense, poeticize about contemporary events (for instance, the marriage of his princely patron), perhaps even about the battles that plagued Germany before 1648. (Although I think Opitz may have spent many of the years in Holland.) But even Opitz drew his literary inspiration from earlier poets, and his treatment of contemporary battles was saturated with earlier literary representation.

By the time Goethe wrote his observations on the Lisbon earthquake, however, even poets were reflecting on natural phenomena and trying to give voice to their reaction to them, stripped of mediated literary garb. In doing a little research for this post, I was surprised to discover that Kant had written three texts on earthquakes, inspired by the one in Lisbon. Earthquakes, of course, were a subject of reflection on the sublime, but Kant seems to have been interested in the geology. Goethe's response to the earthquake, like that of many in the 18th century, was to question the supposed providential design of the world. Here is a portion of the reaction of his six-year-old self. (Goethe was born in 1749.):

God-fearing persons were moved to wise observations, philosophers offered consoling arguments, and clergymen preached fiery sermons. ... [T]he demon of terror has perhaps at no other time spread its chill over the world as quickly and powerfully.

Having to hear all of this repeatedly, I was more than a little disconcerted by it in my boyish mind. God, the Creator and Preserver of heaven and earth, who had been presented to me as so very wise and merciful in the explanation of the first article of the Creed, had shown Himself by no means fatherly when He abandoned both the just and the unjust to the same destruction (transl. Robert R. Heitner).

Goethe is here documenting the contemporary philosophical and theological reflection concerning the causes of the Lisbon earthquake. As Theodor Adorno wrote concerning Voltaire, the earthquake caused him to abandon his Leibnizian theodicy. Goethe's response is slightly different, accusing God of having been wrathful. The latter response, however, seems normal or usual; people are always inclined to think things might have been different had they only acted differently and to consider bad things a judgment on them. I am not so sure we should get over our feeling of connectedness, even if we don't really influence the course of natural phenomena.

I notice, however, that the occurrence of catastrophic natural events -- tsunamis, etc. -- always brings out the skeptics and cynics who make fun of people who do believe a divine hand is at work. These cynics introduce the theodicy argument: why would a benevolent God allow such bad things to happen, to the just and unjust alike, as Goethe wrote? These skeptics have a point, but I notice that when the catastrophic event is not natural, but is rather mad-made, as in the case of 9/11, the skeptics are the first to say we should not start casting blame. As with violent natural phenomena, there must be an explanation. This is a legacy of the Enlightenment, when we began to understand the workings of the natural world and even to have some control over them. I can't help thinking that the current fears about global warming tap into our belief that we might have some control over nature, if we just change our bad ways.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Thinking about the poor

A book I began reading this summer is entitled How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read. It is by a Frenchman, Pierre Bayard, a professor of French literature at the University of Paris. The title is facetious, in the French way, since it is actually a serious book, and Professor Bayard has clearly read all the books he discusses. I bring it up, because I have been asked to write a review of a new biography of Charles Dickens for a national magazine for which I occasionally write literary reviews. I am not a scholar of Charles Dickens or of the 19th century, but in Bayard's terms I clearly know how to talk about Dickens. That is to say, I know how to find my bearings "within books as a system" and to understand how a writer or a work is situated in relation to other writers or books. Bayard's example in his first chapter is James Joyce's Ulysses, which he claims not to have read. And though its content is foreign to him, its "location" is not, and he can situate it "with relative precision" in relation to other books, for instance, Homer's Odyssey, and thus, as he writes, he often finds himself alluding to Joyce "without the slightest anxiety."

Well, I am not one to write a review of a biography of Dickens without at least consulting other biographers of the Victorian novelist. Suffice it to say that I have also read a number of novels by Dickens, back in my youth. Recently I have paged through some of those novels -- Pickwick Papers, Martin Chuzzlewit, The Old Curiosity Shop -- and I have asked myself whether anyone over the age of 18 can possibly bear to read Dickens today. George Orwell, a great writer who has some splendid insights on Dickens's novels, has said that he read all of them in his boyhood, but could our present crop of high-school grads get through Dickens' outsized loquacity and verbal inventiveness? It says much about the intelligence of early 19th-century readers that they seemed to have understood Dickens without any problem at all.

George Gissing, well worth reading though a now rather overlooked 19th-century writer, published a study of Dickens in 1898. Gissing, a man of socialist leanings, admired Dickens, and in his opening chapter he sketches the economic transformation that began to turn England into an industrial power in the early 19th century, one that bred a larger population and a larger class of poor and indeed impoverished people and resulted in, for instance, the employment of children as young as five or six in coal mines. Gissing would like to make Dickens a champion of reforms with novels that pointed out the "stupidity and heartlessness" of the age. Orwell, however, points out in his essay on Dickens that, while Dickens condemned a "gifted child working in a factory" (David Copperfield), he nowhere writes that no child should work in a factory 10 hours a day."

For Orwell, Dickens is a "radical," in the sense that he is instinctively against "the system," but with no practical solutions for improvement; he only has a perception that "something is wrong" with society. Dickens' idea of progress, according to Orwell, is moral in nature: Dickens does not suggest socialism. He does not want for workers to be rebellious, but for capitalists to be kind. He seemed to be reaching for what Orwell called "an idealized version of the existing thing."

This feeling that "something is wrong" with the world as it is can also be heard in the 18th century among the philosophes and other enlightened minds, as I mentioned in my recent postings on Franco Venturi's Utopia and Reform. In the 18th century there was a steady and increasing chorus of vociferations against "the rich" and "the powerful," coupled with denunciations of the treatment of "the poor" and otherwise disadvantaged. I can't help thinking that in the course of the transition to the 19th century, the attacks on the well-off became a kind of trope, what Venturi refers to as one of those "mental forms which, once they are fixed and shaped, will never yield without long and difficult trials and struggles." He is writing here of the expansion of the traditional utopia in the Enlightenment to the determination to create paradise on earth, in other words, the passage to the communist ideal. This determination is always accompanied by something like loathing for "what is." Gissing writes, for instance, of the mid-19th century: "A time of ugliness: ugly religion, ugly law, ugly relations between rich and poor, ugly clothes, ugly furniture." Social progress, as envisioned by reformers like Gissing, is always accompanied by hatred or repugnance for what went before.

Of course, one only lives when one lives, and it is hard to get a handle on whether a preceding age was as abominable as it is portrayed post hoc facto. I think Dickens remains a powerful and important writer because, through his very inventiveness and vibrant imagination, he "fixed and shaped" (in Venturi's words) a view of the Victorian age that allows later ages to believe that they have "morally progressed." It is only anecdotally that we are able to cite progress, and I have not yet seen the attempt by any statistician to quantify progress as such; the variables would be too numerous. My own feeling is that, even in the worst of times, people find ways to be comfortable, if not happy. Thus, another reason why Dickens remains an important writer. According to G.K. Chesterton (in his study of Dickens), Dickens "knew well that the greatest happiness that has been known since Eden is the happiness of the unhappy. ... Nothing that has ever been written about human delights, no Earthly Paradise, no Utopia has ever come so near the quick nerve of happiness as his descriptions of the rare extravagances of the poor." One only has to think of the Cratchits at their Christmas feast. (A Christmas Carol, by the way, is the one book by Dickens that I read once a year.)

Maybe someone can instruct me on this, but wasn't it Nietzsche who was the first to critique that mental form that denounces the rich and idealizes the poor?

Picture credit: I am a child