Sunday, October 30, 2011

Goethe and world literature

I have not stopped blogging, but matters close to home have kept me otherwise occupied. God willing and the creeks not rising, however, I will travel to Chicago this coming Thursday to attend the triennual conference of the Goethe Society of North America, where I will be chairing a panel on the above subject. My thoughts are also turning to my long-delayed essay on Fritz Strich and the "prehistory" of his study of world literature. For today, let me note two things concerning this prehistory.

First, though Strich's study (Goethe und die Weltliteratur) appeared in 1946, he had begun reflecting on the subject much earlier, as can be seen in an essay that appeared in 1927. The essay emerged from a lecture he gave in London in 1926, in which he addressed Germany's place among the nations. Many of us are familiar with the voices after World War II who sought the answer to this question: how did the nation that produced Bach, Goethe, and Beethoven unleash such barbarism on the world? (One might consider that those eminent figures were produced when Germany was not yet a nation and that a "qualification" for serious nationhood used to be an imperial war. But that is another matter.) Fritz Strich had already sought an answer to this question after World War I. Simply expressed, his answer was that the world had not yet taken cognizance of the healing message of conciliation and toleration among the nations as expressed in Goethe's concept of world literature.

Strich was drawing here on some of Goethe's pronouncements, which suggested that the nations of the world -- more specifically, of Europe -- were getting to know each other in a new way. Literary criticism, periodicals, travel, and so one were making us more familiar with the cultural products of other lands and, what was more, revealing a new appreciation for these products.

Second, the foundation of Strich's views on world literature rests on something that is the case: from the time they began writing in the vernacular (which coincides to a great extent with developing national consciousness) the countries of western Europe were constantly engaged in intellectual and artistic exchange, during which one country or the other originated a cultural product that was then assimilated by the others. For instance, the sonnet began in Italy but rapidly made its way through all the lands of western Europe. While such receptivity indicates a universal human tendency (according to Strich), the expression of what is borrowed is specific to each country. Thus, the Petrarchan sonnet is not that of Shakespeare, and the French Gothic is different from the Flemish and so on.

The differences are what interested Goethe. In a letter to his friend Zelter (May 1828), for instance, he mentions different performances of "Helena," in Edinburgh, Paris, and Moscow. (Apparently the episode from act 3 of Faust II, published in 1826 as "Phantasmagorie," had been staged in these three cities.) It is, Goethe writes, "very instructive in this way to get to know three different ways of thinking" (drey verschiedene Denkweisen).


Anonymous said...

Professor Gadamer, in 1976, encouraged me not to "universalize" my theory (of the day!).

Wise advice!

Yet there is something in our make-up that yearns for a Unity that results from some kind of (underlying?) System. Indeed, the evolution into a particular language already seems to bespeak this strong desire. Yet again, even the most phenomenal of system-makers, e.g., a Hegel, will endeavor to take man "in the concrete," following the lead of Saint Augustine. Hegel was most engaged, a true being-in-the-world. He followed closely the Revolution and was intrigued by Napoleon, to put it mildly. He worked as a headmaster of a school and as a newspaper editor! Experts tell me his favorite work of art was Sophocles' "Antigone," a play about divided loyalties. It is fair to say that the man was immersed in art. Which immersion, I think, made him one of the great teachers of Hans-Georg Gadamer. I'll never forget our seminar with the great German philosopher...on a poem by Wallace Stevens, "A Jar in Tennessee," if my memory serves me well.

Goethe Girl said...

Lucky you -- to have studied with Gadamer!