Monday, December 30, 2013

Bodmer and world literature

Henry Fuseli, Satan Starting from the Touch of Ithuriel's Spear
A recent article of mine claimed J.J. Bodmer as a precursor of the philosophic discussion of the sublime in German letters. Despite the title of this post, I am not really claiming him as a forerunner of Goethe's concept of world literature. I came across a quotation by him today, however, that made me think of Goethe's use of the terms "commerce" and "trade" to describe intellectual exchange. Here is the quote from Bodmer, from the preface of the Neue kritische Briefe of 1746:

Der Verfasser will gerne für einen nützlichen Kaufmann angesehen seyn, der zu den vornehmsten europäischen Nationen gereiset ist, und bey ihnen kostbare Waaren von Witz und Kunst gesammelt hat, welche er izt nach Hause bringt, und seinen Landsleuten überliefert, ihrem einheimischen Bedürfniss damit zu Hülfe zu kommen.

The quote appears at the end of a very long article written by the American-German comparatist Louis Paul Betz on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Bodmer's birth on July 19, 1898. Betz is one of the comparatists I have been reading lately. Although Betz concedes that Bodmer made a major contribution to changing literary tastes in German letters, he lays to rest the notion that Bodmer was anti-French in any way. He describes the feud between Bodmer and Gottsched as part of the ongoing "Battle of the Ancients and Moderns." Even the treatise on the marvelous, Bodmer's defense of Milton's Paradise Lost against Voltaire's criticisms of the epic, contains no serious arguments. While defending the claims of "Phantasie" and challenging the insipid "reason" poetry of post-classical France (die nüchterne Verstandespoesie des nachklassischen Frankreichs), Bodmer fails here to be a literary pathbreaker. Instead, he contents himself with accusing Voltaire of "unverschämte Dreistigkeit" and "unverdaute Begriffe," without any true criticism.

Jacques-Louis David, The Anger of Achilles
Betz includes some wonderful quotes from Bodmer's attacks on Gottsched, which Betz calls "schonungslos" and "unerbittlich." Bodmer reveled in pointing out the shortcomings of Gottsched's translation of Racine's tragedy Iphigenia. As Betz writes, "Nicht genug kann er wiederholen, welcher Abgrund zwischen Original und Nachbildung liegt." And then, quoting Bodmer: "Die traurige Erfahrung anderer Poeten hätte ihn [Gottsched] lehren sollen, kein Original zu erkiesen, das seine Uebersetzng notwendig beschämen musste."

Betz does a very good job of portraying the overwhelming influence of French culture on Germany in the 18th century. His article is an example of what he himself asserted was the purpose of comparative literature, namely, to demonstrate the influence of writers of one country on writers of another. Unfortunately, one comes aways feeling that Bodmer did not have a single original literary insight (or, for that matter, a literary bone in his body); even when invoking the rights of the imagination, he was pleading with the arguments of French writers, in particular Dubos. The article confirmed a view that I presented in my article on Bodmer: it was through literature, through the writings of the best poets, not through experience, that one learned how to live properly. Read Molière if you wanted to know about people's motivations.

Fritz Strich, in his schema of the development of European literatures, makes the argument that Germany's "hour" had struck when French neoclassicism had played itself out and the literary Zeitgeist required an infusion of new life, which was provided by Romanticism. Bodmer (and Breitinger) was certainly the most important early mediator in this process, particularly in introducing the Germans to English letters (even if, according to Betz, he did not fully grasp Milton's greatness). Mediation, of course, is a central aspect of Goethe's concept of world literature. While Gottsched was urging German writers to model themselves on French writers, Bodmer's writings had the effect, in the end, in leading  Germans to create a "German" literature.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"The social phenomenon called literature"

In my research into the origins of Fritz Strich's work on world literature, I have encountered some very interesting people. The past posts have dwelled on European figures: for instance, the French comparatists Joseph Texte and Fernand Brunetière and the American-German Louis Paul Betz. Despite the importance of France and Germany in inaugurating the academic discipline of comparative literature, it seems that the U.S. was somewhat out in front in establishing a university department, at Harvard. And just as the Europeans were thrashing out the contours of comparative literature as a field of research, in scholarly publications, an American wrote about the subject for The Atlantic Monthly in 1903. This was Charles Mills Gayley, then a professor of English and Classics at the University of California at Berkeley, who was apparently a genial and much-loved teacher. Before coming to Berkeley, he had taught at the University of Michigan, where he also authored Michigan college songs.

The article in The Atlantic Monthly is called "What Is Comparative Literature?" I wondered if something comparable was occurring in French or German publications, those directed not at scholars but at a literate reading public. It seems a very American thing actually. In connection with Strich and world literature, I was struck by a couple of things in the article, indicated by the title of this post.

The handsome Charles Mills Gayley
Gayley quotes Goethe's comments on world literature, in particular the statement about the "progress of the human race," and goes on to say that under "Goethe's prophetic cosmopolitanism of ideal and art" lay a belief in an essential, historical oneness of literature. This ideal, writes Gayley, is

the working premise of the student of comparative literature today: literature as a distinct and integral medium of thought, a common institutional expression of humanity; differentiated, to be sure, by the social conditions of the individual, by racial, historical, cultural, and linguistic influences, opportunities, and restrictions, but, irrespective of age or guise, prompted by the common needs and aspirations of man, sprung from common faculties, psychological and physiological, and obeying common laws of material and mode, of the individual and of social humanity.

It is this idea of a common humanity possessing "common faculties" that leads Gayley to ask whether the "biological principle" applies to literature. At the turn of the 20th century two doctrines seem to have vied for acceptance in comparative literature: evolution or permutation. Regardless of which is truer the facts, it is this "social phenomenon called literature" that is the comparatist's subject. For those of us who take pleasure, as well as wish for edification, in our reading, his exclusion of the purely subjective element  may cause one to blink. The comparatist, however, must regard

the unexpected quantity -- the imaginative -- in the light of historical sequence and scientific cause and effect, physical, biological, psychological, or anthropological, to reduce the apparently unreasonable or magical element, and so to leave continually less to be treated in the old-fashioned inspirational or ecstatic manner. We shall simply cease to confound the science with the art.

While not ignoring the achievements of genius, this new science avails itself "of the results, and so far as possible of the methods, of the sciences that most directly contribute to the comprehension of man the producer."

What is interesting to me in this exclusion of non-material factors is Gayley's assertion that the "new science" of comparative literature "will prove an index to the evolution of soul in the individual and in society." According to the biography of Gayley on Wikipedia, he was a most orthodox Christian, being born the son of a missionary in China and having married the daughter of the second Protestant Episcopal bishop in Michigan. I suspect he does not mean here "soul" in the Christian sense of that term. Fritz Strich uses "Geist" continuously, which is often translated as soul. The evolutionary theory of society, as with the biological, presumes a law governing the development of phenomena; so, too, the comparatists seek to align their discipline in according with the scientific method.

At the same time I am reminded of the 18th-century philosophes. No one specifically asserted that the accumulation of scientific knowledge would produce a change in human consciousness, but it was implicit in their predictions of the progress of society under the enlightened rule of "science." How else can one interpret the contemporary attacks on the past and on tradition ("dead white males") if not to assume that we have inherited the conviction that we have morally progressed? More on this later.

Picture credit: Permanent Cultures

Saturday, December 14, 2013


Consider this a footnote to the previous post on "plagiarism."

As a freshman in college I was required to take an introductory course in "English Composition." Looking back, I realize that the aim of the course was to prepare us to write academic papers. The course book was a volume edited, as I recall, by Alfred Kazin and included essays on different subjects, and our assignments were to read an essay and write a critical assessment of the writer's arguments. What I most remember from this class was the teacher's (probably back then a Ph.D. student) crabbedness about footnoting sources. I seem to see her at the front of the classroom, frowning, because she suspected that we had quoted passages without acknowledging the source. She was probably correct, though at the time her point seemed to be merely one of the impenetrable rules that those in authority imposed. I was very dutiful (I had twelve years of Catholic school education behind me!), but it took me a lot longer to understand the difference between paraphrasing with attribution and quoting verbatim with attribution.

I discovered when I was writing my dissertation that, however much I thought I had copied a source perfectly, with quotation marks, generally something had been omitted or changed in the copying. It was a moment of horror to go back and verify the date of publication or pagination, only to discover that a mistake had been added to the precious words of the cited authority. A reader of this blog will perhaps have noticed that I often put quotation marks around certain phrases, which means that they come directly from the source I am talking about. In a blog like this I resist quoting very long passages with quotation marks; that's another reason why I also cite the publication details. To some extent I suppose I am like Fritz Strich, seamlessly (I hope) blending my thoughts with those of my interlocutor. (By the way, I also give attribution to illustrations I have taken from other sources, unless they are from Wikipedia or from a self-evident commercial advertising source.)

Strich of course was writing in the tradition of that referred to by Joseph Texte (see previous post). I, on the other hand, am writing in the age of the footnote. It is interesting that a modern trope is "originality." No one wants to be thought to be like anyone else. Yet the demand for footnotes exposes a lack of originality, while also indicating that we write in an age when our connection to the literary inheritance and to tradition has been fractured.

Picture sources: Beauty Best FriendEthnography MattersLapsura

Friday, December 13, 2013

European literature vs. world literature

"Heroes" of European literature
Reading these early comparatists (see previous post, among others) gives me a handle not only on the sources of Fritz Strich's study but also on what Goethe had in mind, the latter being endlessly dissected. For the moment I will remain with the former.

I have mentioned elsewhere that Strich generally does not cite his sources. It is only in the 1957 edition of Goethe and World Literature that he includes a true bibliography. I have gone through many of the studies contained there and have begun to get a feeling for why he embarked on a field that, until Goethe and World Literature, was not a scholarly field as such. In other words, Strich inaugurated the modern study of the subject.

I have discovered in the articles by the early comparatists statements that Strich takes up, if not word for word, certainly concept for concept. Yet, one hesitates to call this plagiarism, as is shown, for instance, in an article by Joseph Texte (on whom I have also posted). According to Texte, in "The Comparative History of Literature" (translated from Revue de philologie francaise et de la litterature [1896]), the requirement for literary production historically (let us say up to the mid-18th century) was precisely based on imitation of ancient literature. In turn, criticism likewise modeled itself on the relationship between work and its source. Thus, literature was plagiaristic, and criticism documented this reliance on models.

The "modern period," as Texte writes, presents a different story; modern writers are indeed more "scrupulous."  Yet, "in imitating more freely, they do not imitate less; moreover, how can one determine their originality if one does not begin by comparing them with their contemporaries, with those by whom every writer, no matter how independent ... is influenced?" Texte is arguing for the relevance of the new field of comparative literature, one of the aims of which is the discovery of such "intellectual relationships." He mentions Taine and his "followers" who would remove the aesthetic element from literary study, by extricating "the personal from each work and the original from each literature."

Tongue twisters
Texte is very brilliant, yet his article made me aware of a problem with this idea of intellectual relationships. While it is a truism, long recognized before the 19th-century comparatists (see Daniel Morhof), that writers in the Western literary tradition before the 18th century were either influenced or consciously modeled their works on earlier models, they were not writing "nationally," even while writing in their respective vernaculars. The formation of "political nationalities" in the modern period, however, especially since "the Revolution," has likewise led to the formation of "intellectual nationalities." As Texte writes: "modern nations did not become consciously aware of their intellectual personality apart from antique imitation until a relatively recent epoch." Thus, the development of comparative literature seems to have been a rearguard action to maintain a humanistic conception of "literature," based on a common intellectual heritage, even as the study of literature in the universities in the 19th century was herding literary study into departments based on "national language."

Picture source: Europe Is Not Dead

Thursday, December 12, 2013

"Goethe's Visual World"

I have been receiving announcements in connection with the meeting of the MLA in January, including one from Maney Publishing, which features this book by Pamela Currie. It looks like something I will want to take a look at.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Goethe on "European literature"

"Deluge" by GC Myers
An article from 1900 by Ferdinand Brunetière, entitled "European Literature," provides much insight concerning both Goethe's concept of world literature and Fritz Strich's interpretation of that concept.

In 1900 the discipline of comparative literature was still defining itself as a field, and Brunetière, a member of the French Academy and editor of the Revue des deux mondes, sought to set out the scope of comparative literature. In the article he applies evolutionary theories to the study of literature, in particular the development of what he calls European literature, which is the transmitter of "European thought." This latter, however, is not "Western" or "universal": there are no transcendental implications in Brunetière's account, no suggestion that European "thought" constitutes a supranational spirit.

His subject is the aims of comparative literature as a subject of study, and thus he speaks solely of literature, because literature is the vehicle which expresses the "national" or "tribal" spirit of a people.  European "thought" in this account is simply the literary blending, so to speak, of the literature of five countries into a common European product: Italy, Spain, France, England, and Germany, each of which successively, beginning with the Italians (Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio), contributed to this "movement" of thought. In Italy's case, for instance, it was as transmitter of the tradition of antiquity, while among Spain's "truly great European creations" can be found the drama. Spain was the home of Seneca, and even though the work of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson preceded Le Cid, English drama of the 16th century became "truly European" by way of Spanish genius!

None of the "European" products sprang from its own soil ex nihilo. In this movement, some national manifestations remain purely "local" -- this is especially the case with Spain -- and do not become part of European literature. Brunetière is thinking solely of the "comparative" relations among literatures, of what one "national" literature takes from another and develops. His test case is the novel, which expresses the most "English characteristics" in Smollet, Richardson, and Fielding; the origins of the genre, however, can be traced back to the Princess de Clèves and, further, to Diana enamorada by Jorge de Montemayor. 

Brunetière's scheme of progressive development is replicated by Strich in his writings on world literature. In fact, Strich utilizes the same schema, likewise positing that the dominance of one nation in this literary give-and-take occurred when its literature simultaneously manifested most strongly its own national individuality while preserving a maximum of the common European (i.e., classical and Christian) "spirit." Strich likewise affirms Brunetiere's contention that that the knowledge of other literatures sharpens in us an understanding of the most national characteristics of our great writers. Brunetière writes: "we are defined only by comparing ourselves to others; we do not know ourselves only when we know only ourselves."

Soviet-Ukranian amity ca. 1921
 The problem with Brunetière's scheme, of course, is that "national" literature was becoming increasingly irrelevant by the time he wrote. (Which did not prevent the formation, in the 19th century, of university departments of literature along national lines.) In fact, national literature would seem to have been relevant only in the early 19th century: though it may have been an "ideological" construct, it nevertheless allowed a way of talking about literary manifestations in that period. Literature, by the late 19th century, however, was jettisoning its national or local character. Tellingly, Brunetière did not extend his survey to the writings of what he called "the extreme North," i.e., Scandinavia and Russia. As he wrote, they had only recently entered, "to use a diplomatic expression, into the theater of European literature." Though he admires Anna Karenina and The Wild Duck, he does not see what is specifically "Russian" or "Norwegian" in either. We seem to be on the verge of the "internationalization" of literature, in particular of the novel.

Strich, writing some decades later, would have been aware of this internationalization. It was this process, I think, that fueled Goethe's conception of world literature. By the late 1820s, he no longer saw literature as simply the expression of the literary or aesthetic; literature had a larger task, to contribute to a spirit of like-mindedness and political tolerance among nations. The divestiture of national animosities was occurring, as he wrote, through commerce and trade, one of the products of which was literature. He thought, of course, that it was the writings of eminent and like-minded writers of the age -- like himself! -- which would further this process. He did not regard the increasing deluge of popular writing as edifying.

More anon.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Was Goethe a comparatist avant la lettre?

Ninja Archipelago Map
The above question is prompted by an article from 1896 by Louis Paul Betz, "Critical Observations on the Nature, Function, and Meaning of Comparative Literary History" (originally appearing in Z. f. franz. Sprache u. Litteratur, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 141-56). I will be on a panel at the MLA in Chicago in January, opining on the "prehistory" of Fritz Strich's study Goethe und die Weltliteratur. That prehistory includes the work of late 19th- and early 20th-century scholars in the relatively new field of comparative literature.

Betz became the first lecturer in comparative literature and Zurich University in 1896. His essay surveys various scholars' views of the aims and purposes of comparative literature and comparative literary history. He frequently evokes Goethe and also advances points that can be found in Strich's work on world literature. For instance, the French comparatist Brunetière, Betz writes, expressed the "essence" of comparative literary history by observing that it "look[s] on the whole from above, free from national prejudice, [observing] the constant changes, the continuous giving and taking of ideas and forms. As world literature it goes hand in hand with the national history of literature toward a common goal: the investigation of the development of the human spirit."

The lessening of national prejudice is of course alluded to by Goethe in his remarks on world literature, but the part about the development of the human spirit through the history of literary relations is purely Strich.

As for Germany, Betz traces the development of "comparative literary history" there to Daniel Georg Morhof's 1684 study Von der teutschen Poeterey Ursprung und Fortgang, in which Morhof wrote as follows: "We intend to discuss the origin and development of German poetry, and in order to do so most thoroughly we will discuss first the rhymed poetry of other peoples, so that we may discover whether it originated with them before it did with us." Betz goes on to mention Gottsched (on the history of European drama), Lessing, Herder, and Schiller, and adds that "Goethe always considered the individual literatures comparatively in the context of the general development of literature."

One author Betz mentions is Otto Weddingen, who published a small volume with the instructive title Geschichte der Einwirkungen der deutschen Literatur, which seems to have taken its inspiration from something Goethe wrote in Kunst und Altertum (vol. 6, pt. 1, 1827), namely, that German literature had begun to take an honorable place literarily among the nations. I downloaded Weddington's book, which was written in 1881, thus a decade after the Prussian victory over the French. Weddington is similarly triumphant throughout. After surveying the influence of German on western and eastern European authors (as far afield as Bulgaria and Hungry), he has a remarkable conclusion:

Es ist ein schönes Bild, welches sich dem Auge darbietet; ein Gefühl reinster Wonne beschleicht uns bei der Wahrhehmung, dass Deutschlands Litteratur überall befruchtend and befördernd gewirkt hat, dass es Deutschlands Mission im 19. Jahrhundert war und, so Gott will, bis in die spätesten Tage seiner Existenz bleiben wird, das Licht seiner Kultur nach allen Seiten hin auszustrahlen.

Of course, comparative literature was not an academic discipline before the late 19th century, so Goethe can, at most, only be part of the "prehistory" of that discipline. Goethe's importance for comparative literature, however, is of another sort. Thus, Betz writes that Goethe "summarized the great significance of a comparative world literature [my italics] in ... two terms: mediation between nations and their mutual acceptance." Goethe was rather cautious about these two factors. Betz, however (and, it must be said, Strich in essays from the 1920s on world literature), draws a more grandiose vision: "Every new discovery in the area of the constant relationship between civilized peoples constitutes not only a new achievement of scholarship but also a 'building block of the future edifice of world peace.'" (I believe Betz is quoting Weddington here, but like many scholars of this period he neglects to add his source.) In conclusion, Betz writes:

Through comparison we arrive most clearly and surely at a knowledge of the peculiarities of an individual literature. However, we thus see man also in his universality. In the Germanic literatures he emerges with the same passions, virtues, and vices as in Romance literatures; on every page the unity and mutual dependence of all nations is revealed. ... Comparative literary history corrects individual and national one-sidedness, the dangerous enemy of modern civilization.

How much responsibility Goethe bears!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Crime and punishment in Goethe

"The cruel death of Calas," from the Calas Chapbook
Gretchen, as we know, faced beheading at the gallows or scaffold, which, according to Wikipedia, is "an enhanced execution site for public executions." Such an execution is a bit daunting for the modern imagination, as even the current forms of capital punishment in America are not public, nor are they intended to be as "cruel and unusual" as they were in Europe before the 19th century. Again, according to Wikipedia, the last public beheading in Hanau took place in 1860. Interestingly, the district of Hanau where this took place is called "Wolfgang."

This is not a subject I have thought much about, at least not until yesterday, when I read a review in the TLS of what seems a fascinating book, The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by the American historian Joel F. Harrington. The book concerns executions in Nuremberg, as gleaned from the diary of Master Franz Schmidt, who kept a record of the executions he had carried out until his death in 1634. According to the review, executions took various forms, all of which were laid down in the so-called Carolina of 1530 (named after the Emperor Charles V), the first body of German criminal law. The lawyer Goethe would have been quite familiar with this code. We know from his diary that Master Franz "hanged seventy-one offenders, beheaded forty-eight, and broke eleven with the wheel, a procedure requiring both strength and dexterity as the executioner lifted a heavy cartwheel and dropped it onto the limbs of the malefactor ..." The review, by Richard J. Evans, is fascinating, if stomach-turning, reading: "Harrington provides a richly detailed and utterly absorbing account of a world of violence, pain, and suffering into which it would be difficult for the modern reader to enter through less sympathetic accounts."

1774 edition of Beccaria's work
"The Right to Punish" is the title of a chapter in Franco Venturi's Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment. As Venturi writes, "utopias and reforms polarized the attention of the spirits and minds of the 1760s." (See my earlier posting on the subject, especially as it concerns Goethe.) It was a book by Cesare Beccaria that drew attention throughout Europe to "the problem of the existence of crime itself and with the ways to repress it." (For Becarria's writings, see this site.) Venturi's subject is the intellectual climate. He doesn't go into the gory details to be found in Harrington's new book, yet, not only did people in the 18th century have an immense historical memory of executions, but gruesome executions were still carried out in that century. The most famous example was the case of Jean Calas of Toulouse, who was tortured on the wheel in 1762. So, Goethe's Faust, describing Gretchen's vision of the gallows, documents a contemporary practice.  This site claims that Goethe was a "witness" to the trial of Susanna Margaretha Brandt, but, according to Harrington, the trials took place in secret. So, Goethe perhaps only witnessed the beheading in Frankfurt.

Of interest in this connection is the case of Master Franz of Nuremberg, who, despite his successful career, "was anything but a sadist." It turns out that he succeeded, according to the reviewer, "with the support of the prison chaplains, in abolishing the traditional punishment of drowning infanticidal women in a sack in the local river." Master Franz argued that beheading, being more visible, was more of a deterrent to the crowds attending executions.

Picture credit: Tesori in soffitta

Friday, November 22, 2013

De-accessioning things

I have been going through my husband's books in preparation for donating them to the Philosophy Program at the Graduate Center of CUNY. We met in the library there many years ago, when I was writing my dissertation. I was looking up something on Leibniz; Rick's interest was Newton, who stands on the shelves right next to Leibniz in the Library of Congress classification. He came up to me and asked me about my interest in Newton. The rest is history.

Among his books I found my ancient copy of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, which I mentioned in a post a couple of days ago. It is amazing what a pack rat I am, having toted that volume around all these many years. I must have thought I would get beyond that first sentence, and indeed I have pulled it from the books that will go the Graduate Center. So, perhaps in this lifetime ...

Rick's jahrzeit was November 2, though his actual date of death was November 26, just a few days from now. I can hardly believe that I have lived two years without him, have been without the special joy he brought to me life. The one thing that has kept me going during my grief has been my work. There was much struggle with the Bodmer essay, but finally it appeared. Also some book reviews and a couple of essays.

I have not been very good these past two years in clearing out Rick's things. It is heart-breaking to go through his clothes, but especially his many notebooks, which include, for instance, the many notes he took on Newton's optics and on German Romantic-period science, in preparation for a project we would one day undertake together. I have been very concerned, however, that my apartment might degenerate into the state it was in when I met Rick, during that dissertation phase, so I have been ever mindful these two years that I have to prevent that. Finally I am ready to let go of his books.

I have had a bookplate prepared to insert in the books, which indicates his interest in color theory.

Picture credit: Color System

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Vanity and Goethe's mysterious "Kästchen"

The Morning Toilette, by Petro Antonio Martini
I was browsing the fall issue of the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table, by Jane Adlin. As she points out in her introduction, "the history of the vanity begins, arguably, not with a table but a box." The first illustration is of the cosmetic box of the cupbearer Kemeni of the Twelfth Dynasty, which was made of cedar with ebony and ivory veneer and silver mounting.  The box, a storage container for ointments, face paints, perfumes, and other potions, was excavated in 1910 from the tomb of Reniseneb by Lord Carnarvon. Of course, I thought of Goethe's tale Der Mann von fünfzig Jahren as I browsed the Bulletin, which contains beautiful examples of portable boxes and tables.

According to Adlin, self-adornment and the use of cosmetics went into decline in western Europe in the fifth century, to reemerge in the Renaissance among the aristocracy. Thus, the demand for "specifically designed accoutrements," which for me would seem to be another indication of the way that fashion has transformed the West. It is no surprise that the dressing table, as Adlin writes, "reached the apex of its role as both a marker of social standing and an object of fine design and craftsmanship."

Dressing table, 1760-90 (MMA 62.171.14)
It was during this same period that another vanity was devised to address the latest personal grooming trend, this time among men: shaving. I must say that this is a subject that I have never thought of in connection with the "age of Goethe." Yet every picture of Goethe (Schiller, too, and others) shows him clean-shaven. Adlin writes that men, unlike women, stood at this morning ritual, which led to a construction with drawers for holding grooming supplies and an adjustable mirror. Did Goethe have one of these? Did he shave every day?

Toilet Service, 1683-84 (MMA 63.70.1-21)
Der Mann von fünfzig Jahren of course contains a "Toilettenkästchen" (has a study been done of the many mysterious Kästchen in Goethe's works, e.g., that of Ottilie in Die Wahlverwandtschaften?) with its promise of "Verjüngungskunst." The example above from the Met's Bulletin gives an idea of this object. The mock-serious scene at the top, also from the Bulletin, shows the practice of a fashionable young Frenchman at his morning toilette.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The physiognomy of nature

River Paraiba do Sul by Johann Moritz Rugendas, ca. 1820-25
I read contemporary fiction, at least a dozen novels a year. Some years ago, about the time I stopped teaching, I inherited a book group. It had begun meeting decades earlier, when several housewives-mothers formed the group in order to continue reading the novels they loved in their youth and college days. The group’s members are now grandmothers, and over the years several have died or moved on and others have joined, but there is a core that has been around the entire time. When the group arrived on my doorstep, it had gone through the major classics and was mostly reading contemporary fiction.

Alongside discussions of the literary qualities of a novel (or lack thereof) as well as ferreting out forgotten classics and the top of the "B" list (for instance, Somerset Maugham), I have several goals. First, to evaluate what reviewers and critics think important in literary fiction. Second, to be skeptical of said critics and reviewers. Like many New Yorkers, the women are inclined to follow the guidance of the The New York Times, but, after many disappointments, they have learned that few novels merit the effusive praise bestowed on them by reviewers. Likewise, the Booker Prize winners have turned out to be a mixed bag. Therefore, we discuss the judgments of reviewers and how those judgments are formed. We address the question of whether there is something called literary standards; or whether it is sufficient simply to "like" something. In this connection, I manage now and then to introduce a little of Kant's aesthetics.

I can't help noticing that non-American novelists have more of a philosophical mind set than do American writers. If one reads The New York Times Book Review, one gets a strange idea of the most important novelistic subjects. Here are a few pull quotes from that eminent publication:

"Only Bitterness Remains: In David Vann's first novel, isolation and an Alaskan winter take their toll on a marriage" 

"Growing up Fast: As this novel's 14-year-old narrator looks on, her affluent suburban family disintegrates"

"Power of Recall: A writer recollects her long-estranged mother, and her own long-estranged childhood"

Dysfunctional Family by Tim Slowinski
It can't be denied that such novels portray a fragmentation of the contemporary social fabric, which is certainly the case, but is life in America really so dysfunctional, or do these works merely confirm the vision of America as a bad place that acquisitions editors learned about in college?

How refreshing it is to read European or South American writers, whose writings leave such a deeper impression on the mind! In the spring we read Michel Houellebecq's The Map and the Territory, Enrique Vila-Matas's Dublinesque, and Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox. This "season" we are reading Tom McCarthy's very weird The Remainder and Zola's Ladies Paradise.

We just finished the novella An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by the prolific Argentinian writer César Aira. The landscape painter in question is Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858), one of a number of German painters who traveled to the New World during the "century of peace" following the Napoleonic wars. Rugendas's travels took him to the Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonial territories. No sooner did Daniel Kehlmann feature Alexander von Humboldt as a novelistic subject in Measuring the World, here he appears again, though not in person.

The novella concerns Rugendas's attempt to portray the landscapes of the Caribbean and Central and South America according to the physiognomic theories of Humboldt. The term is suggestive of Lavater, of course, but though Airas does not mention Goethe it seems to have been through Humboldt's friendship with Goethe that he developed his theory of landscape portrayal. Goethe in turn was influenced by Philipp Hackert.

Landscape with a Calm by Poussin, 1650-51
(J. Paul Getty Museum)
This view of landscape was different from that of the "classical" views of, e.g., Poussin or Claude, who were not realists: their trees and vegetation, for instance, all look alike. Humboldt encouraged painters to attempt a fidelity to elements of the landscape, but at the same time to present a picture of nature that would also be an image of history and culture. Be faithful to nature, but not subservient to reality. This perhaps followed Goethe's morphology: the "law" behind the formation of natural forms was derived from the forms themselves, from their physiognomy.

So it was that Rugendas, as portrayed in the novella, is continually making sketches that will then be integrated into a meaningful "totality," a Naturgemälde. Besides the wonderful writing, what makes An Episode fun to read is that the narrator keeps dropping bits of seemingly profound observation about art, performance, optics, civilization, and history. The backdrop of course is the imposition of the European colonial vision on the non-European continent and people, which leads to the "episode" that changes the life of the painter Rugendas.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Wittgenstein on progress

When I first studied in Germany, in Marburg, many years ago, I was still in my teens and rather uneducated. Some fellow students were discussing the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, which led me to buy a copy (in the neat Suhrkamp edition) of the Tractatus. The first proposition brought me up short: "Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist." Such a simple sentence, but what did it mean?

Something similar had happened to me two years earlier, during my freshman year in college, when I opened the big textbook for my Sociology 101 class. The opening sentence of the first chapter: "Sociology is one of the social sciences." It was English, but what on earth did it mean? The sentence represented a kind of intellectual Rubicon: would I cross it and stumble forward, or take the easier path and retreat? The decision is obvious. I forged on with that class, also with German 101, and two years later I was studying in Marburg, still baffled by many things. One might say that I had "progressed" intellectually, but the experience illustrates how difficult such progress is.

This experience came back to me recently while reading a post on one of my favorite blogs, First Known When Lost. The post was about the vanishing of a once-familiar world, and introduced a poem by the English poet Kathleen Raine. FKWL is a richly illustrated blog and in this case included paintings by Samuel Palmer. At the end of the post, the FKWL blogger commented on the present-day belief that we have "advanced" beyond our forefathers. It is true that I have progressed beyond the intellectual accomplishments of my own parents, but do I possess any more wisdom or understanding of life? Hard to judge, except in a subjective sense.

In concluding the post, our blogger quoted Wittgenstein on progress, contradicting the optimism of the 18th-century philosophes:

"Men have judged that a king can make rain; we say this contradicts all experience.  Today they judge that aeroplanes and the radio etc. are means for the closer contact of peoples and the spread of culture."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, Paragraph 132 (translated by Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe) (Basil Blackwell 1969).

Picture credit: New Philosophy

Saturday, November 2, 2013

World literature and communications

For ages now I have been questioning the use of the word "progress" in the sense of moral improvement. It is true that our ethical sphere has expanded over the past two centuries (abolition of slavery, emancipation of women), but I am troubled by our tendency to regard such "advances" as the outcome of our moral superiority over previous generations, even sometimes the immediate past. In the 18th century, the philosophes censured the religious and social institutions of the past because of the latter's imposition of what the philosophes saw as backwardness. We have moved far beyond the 18th century, however, and it seems that every week I come across a review or an article in which the 1950s is described as an age of "repression." We are all moving "forward," thus Vorwärts.

My contention is that all of this progress has been propelled by mundane material factors, carried by the explosion of industry and technology in the early modern period. World commerce and trade multiplied the objects of fashion and in our households to such an extent that we became "cosmopolitan" in ways of life and standards of living. Something similar took place in the cultural sphere. Despite the historical rivalries between the countries of Europe, each began to assimilate some flavor of the culture of the others. As Joseph Texte wrote in Rousseau and the Cosmopolitan Spirit in Literature, the "classical spirit" of French literature absorbed Nordic input from England and Germany.

Commerce doesn't stay with the same old same old. Some new item of trade is always required to lure consumers. Novelty is thus the engine of capitalism. Our attitudes and values travel the same path, as we exchange old ones for new, more enlightened ones. To take an example from my own lifetime. Back in the 1950s, one spoke of divorce as causing a "broken home." Many decades down the road, it turns out that we were living on the cusp of a profound change in family relations, indeed on the cusp of "single-parent households."

Kant saw in cosmopolitanism a requisite for universal peace among nations. Peace, however, requires a lack of competition, which seems hardly compatible with capitalism and the constant production of novelty. Hegel gave a spiritual spin on this materialistic process, and it was left to others to change what Hannah Arendt has called "the interpretation of history into the making of history," e.g., Karl Marx. Together with Goethe's pronouncements on the subject, Fritz Strich described world literature in terms of a dialectical movement of the spirit of different nationalities.

Goethe seems much more modest in his thoughts on world literature. I can't help thinking that he somehow envisioned the development of communications technologies, although in his life only the semaphore (from 1790; it must have played a role in the military skirmishes between the French and the allied forces that Goethe observed first hand) showed the possibility of almost-simultaneous communication over long distances. Of course, he did not propose effacing the individual character of "peoples" or nations into even a "European spirit." World literature is thus an advanced form of "communications" technology. I wonder what his reaction would be to our contemporary modes of communication.

Picture credits: Luctor et emergo; Majstersztyk

Friday, November 1, 2013

"The cosmopolitan spirit"

Just a few more comments on Joseph Texte's book on Rousseau and cosmopolitanism. Texte seems to define cosmopolitanism as Romanticism bred with the "classical spirit," the latter of French provenance, of course. This cosmopolitanism has now (writing in 1899) gone on to "embrace the literature of the world." Thus, Frenchmen like Hugo and Chateaubriand, he writes, are no longer Frenchmen in the way of their predecessors, but speak to a more "European side of the national genius."

He then imagines a literary scenario that, in many respects, has come to pass by the early 21st century. Noting the number of books published on the "little European continent," the multiplicity of translations, and facility of exchange, he asks the following:

Would it be so absurd if, from the comparison, the juxtaposition, and, let us admit it, the confusion of so many works from every country in Europe, there should result a sort of composite ideas consisting of elements artificially compounded so as to form a literature no longer ether English or German or French, but simply European--until the time should come when it would be universal? Should such a day ever arrive, across the frontiers  -- if any remain -- there will be stretched a network of invisible bonds which will unite nation to nation and, as of old during the Middle Ages, will form a collective European soul.

He does not see this "peril" as imminent, as there remain obstacles in its way, "men held together for long years to come by community of race, of language, and of historical tradition" and preserving the literary heritage as a "sacred legacy." Leslie Stephen, in his review of Texte's book, comments on this scenario: "At present, we do not seem to be rapidly approaching the period at which patriotism will be lost in universal philanthropy. When the 'parliament of man' has been elected by the 'federation of the world,' it will be time enough to make up our minds as to the gain and loss."

 Stephen continues:

The real danger is ... a little different. It is quite true that the modern author does his best to be in one way cosmopolitan. He goes about the world searching for new sensations. If an original writer arises in France or Germany, Russia or Norway, he is translated and imitated, and has his sect of fervent admirers in every other civilized country. That, no doubt, represents a very different state of things from the old order, under which each vernacular literature grew up utterly unconscious of the existence of others, or even from the order in which a small body of critics could lay down a code of absolute laws and keep to the elaboration of a single type.

He does not allude to economic trade and commerce, probably because men of intellect like Leslie Stephen (don't forget Carlyle and Ruskin) disdained trade and commerce and believed in something like an intellectual spirit progressing through history.

The spread of Roman culture (click to enlarge)
 From my reading of Goethe's comments on world literature, it strikes me that he was aware that it was specifically the rapidity of world commerce and trade that was affecting the field of culture. He writes, for instance, of the "rapidity" of these transformational processes going on by the early 19th century. According to Stefan Hoesel-Uhlig in his contribution to Debating World Literature (ed. Christopher Prendergast), Goethe was engaged with "a changing field" and thus did not concentrate on any one discipline. Instead, his "encyclopedic interests" caused him to perceive "new general structures for poetic and intellectual work, ... [a] transformation of cultural space ... and the emergent conditions for further interest and exchange."

Commerce in its crassly material sense of economic trade has, by now, produced a composite "West," nations sharing lifestyles that are, with ever lessening national variations, pretty similar. Back in 1950, if my parents had traveled to Europe, they would not have felt comfortable staying in most French or German homes, simply because the interior facilities would have been so foreign to them. Today the differences are ones of style, and indeed many American homes now copy the interiors of French or Italian or German interior decor.

The same goes for literary "products," at least in the literary market place.

Picture credits: San Rafael Chamber of Commerce; Bible Light

Sunday, October 27, 2013

"The cosmopolitan spirit in literature"

The title of this post refers back to my previous post and to the book of that name by Joseph Texte, the late-19th-century French comparatist. As I wrote in the post, Texte used the concept of the "cosmopolitan spirit in literature" in the sense in which Fritz Strich would later speak of the "supranational" development of a "European spirit" in literature. As Strich wrote, literary commerce  between and among  the various nations of the continent played a leading role in this development. He cited the same cultural manifestations in European cultural history. For instance, Gothic architecture can be found in Germany, France, Italy, England, Spain, and Prague. Similarly Baroque art. Yet, this manifestation began in one place before it was borrowed and transformed by another country. Thus, there is a temporal difference in the appearance of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Classicism, Romanticism, and so on.

For Strich each nation had a specific mission in the development of this "spirit" of Europe, and its contribution "reveal[ed] its own innermost character." E.g., France bequeathed to Europe the rule of reason, "transcending any place, any time," yet "this rational spirit of French literature [was] also a very national spirit." The French classical spirit dominated the arts until Germany found its moment and, with Romanticism, carried other nations before it in breaking the bonds imposed by the regimentation of classicism.

Strich modifies somewhat the "ethnological" aspect of Texte's account of cosmopolitanism, and, in the article from which I have quoted him above, published in 1930, he also problematizes what is exactly meant by "European."

Leslie Stephen, ca. 1860,
before he was Virginia Woolf's father
Leslie Stephen, in his lengthy review of Texte's book in volume 4 (1909) of Studies of a Biographer, questions the notion of a "spirit," cosmopolitan or otherwise. He agrees that there has been, since the 17th century, a "tacit freemasonry between the higher classes" and that the "cosmopolitan spirit was the product of the innumerable causes which were bringing nations into closer intercourse at their higher levels." He argues, however, that it was not Rousseau, but Voltaire, who proclaimed the new alliance between the French and English "mind." His achievement was to acquaint the French with the philosophy and science of the Englishmen Locke and Newton. But philosophy and mathematics, as Stephen writes, are not especially English. Nevertheless, Voltaire concluded that Britons were philosophers because they were "free" men, resolved "to think as they pleased and to say what they thought." But freedom is not necessarily in the particular "character" of any nation, even the English. In fact, only a generation earlier the French had considered the English more savage "than its own mastiffs" for killing its king.

In the end, Voltaire remained true to his French roots and to the Academy. The classical rules in art, according to Stephen, did not allow literary expression of the deepest subjects; that was the realm of religion. What Rousseau got from Richardson was the legitimacy for expressing sentiments directly. By introducing "enthusiasm" into French letters, however, Rousseau was engaging in genuine revolt against the established order, unlike Richardson, whose "frank utterance of common sentiments and freedom in dealing with common subjects" was not revolutionary in a country that had never possessed an Academy in the true sense.

In conclusion, Stephen criticizes what he calls this "scientific" approach to literature, the search for causes in the development of literary and artistic phenomena. Critics are always trying to trace origins, for instance, of "romanticism" and so on, and then speak

as though its first representative had made a discovery of a new product as a chemist discovers a gas which nobody had ever before perceived. Rousseau, or somebody else, has then the credit of all the subsequent developments, as Watt gets the credit of the steam engine. Each new critic pushes the origin a little further back, because in reality there is no origin but only a gradual change of form.

Picture credit: Science and Literature Reading Group

Thursday, October 24, 2013

World literature again

Colbert Presenting the Members of the French Academy to the King in 1667
I am jumping back into world literature, after so much time away in the realm of utopia, especially as I am scheduled to give a paper on it on January 11 at the MLA in Chicago. In truth, utopia and world literature are not that far apart in the realm of ideas: both are proposals to create more harmony  and decrease animosities among peoples. Utopia, however, would halt the process of change, while world literature is about change and communication. It decidedly is not, as David Damrosch contends in , about great works of literature, those that have "an exceptional ability to transcend the boundaries of the culture that produces it." Thus, Homer and Sophocles, alongside the Kalidasa and The Tale of the Genji in "world literature" surveys.  Goethe's comments on world literature are not copious, but in none of them does he designate a particular work as a work of world literature.

A term that crops up frequently in my research in this connection is "cosmopolitanism." A couple of days ago I was taken aback when I came across a book from 1899 entitled Rousseau and the Cosmopolitan Spirit in Literature. This concept is not one I associate with Rousseau, and in fact I wrote a post on this subject earlier this year. Rousseau, as I wrote, loathed the very idea of cosmopolitanism, asserting that Germans, French, English, and so on all had the same taste and manners: they had become "Europeans."

The book, as I discovered, uses "cosmopolitan" in a different sense. It is by Joseph Texte, who was a professor of comparative literature at Lyon. For Texte, the "cosmopolitan spirit in literature" was the result of the embrace of the English canons of art by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. La nouvelle Heloise  abandoned the normative classical ideals of the French Academy and introduced the more "barbarian" (in the view of the French) values of English literature, especially as seen in the homely, realist conventions of Samuel Richardson's novels.  This opened the floodgates to the reception of the "Nordic" spirit: The new content entering French literature by the 19th century was that of imagination and sensibility," definitely not a French product; they were of a northern cast and infused, as Madame de Staël expressed it, with "foreign vigour." The French developed an appetite for the foreign as a consequence of exposure to "northern" writers.

Madame de Staël by François Gerard (ca. 1810)
Texte defends his use of such racial categories. Since Taine, "the successor of Madame de Stael," the study of literature has become an "ethnological problem." What, after all, he asks, is an individual without his environment? "Dante without Italy? Could the works written in Latin be attributed to the Arabians or Chinese? Could the Alhambra be the work of the architect of the Parthenon? Each nation utters a portion of the 'interminable discourse' (Vigny) delivered by humanity." The discourse, he says, is interminable, but the nations have been participating in it for only a few centuries. He goes on to write something that is very redolent of Fritz Strich:

"'For the past eight or ten centuries there has been, in a sense, a traffic or interchange of ideas from one end of Europe to the other, so that Germany has been nourishing itself upon French thought, England upon German thought, Spain upon Italian thought, and each of these nations successively upon the thought of all the rest." 

Since my current work concerns the origins of Fritz Strich's views on Goethe and world literature, this book by Texte would seem to be part of these origins. Texte in his introduction thanks as his mentor Ferdinand Brunetière, whom I have already alluded to in an earlier presentation on this subject: In a long article in 1900,  Brunetière sketched the development of what he called "European literature," in particular the way in which the individual nations had developed a European literature on the soil of medieval Christianity and in particular antiquity, which he called "the master of Europe's mind and spirit." The great literatures of Europe developed successively (there are five: first, the Italians, followed by the Spanish, then the French, the English, and finally the Germans), with one after another manifesting "what were its most national and particular aspects," and each literature contributing to "the movement of European thought."

Sunday, October 20, 2013

18th-century reflections

My immersion in the philosophes and the 18th century, in preparation for the conference on utopia in British Columbia, was so intense that I found it difficult to concentrate on any one aspect to post a blog about. Turgot, Condorcet, Diderot were racing around in my head. Having returned from the Pacific Northwest, however, I find it high time that I make an attempt to write regularly. But, first, some views of the conference.

That is me, dispensing jewels of wisdom to the audience. It was not an academic gathering, but instead drew many individuals from the Northwest and further afield who traveled with some difficulty to hear seven people talk about utopia. Sointula is on Malcolm Island, which in turn is off the coast of Vancouver Island, and it was via two planes and a ferry that I reached it. (The map of Vancouver Island above shows Sointula in the far upper-left corner, so you can see that it was not quite a direct flight from the Northeast.) The population is small (about 700), but the conference was organized and run by the most impressive corps of volunteers that the paid staff of the MLA could not match. I was very impressed with the attendees, all of whom showed a thirst to learn about the Sointula adventure (read more at that link) and about utopia, past and present.

Chuck LeWarne
Among the speakers was Chuck LeWarne, from whose books on Puget Sound and Washington state utopias I have learned much. In the corner of utopian settlement he has explored, he has shown how America has been a place of constant re-invention (see, for instance, this book by Chuck), something the 18th-century philosophes could hardly have imagined. Anyone who has read my posts on world literature will know why I think this is the case: capitalism and the free market seem to encourage people to constant novelty. In my last post I mentioned that Turgot had found novelty to be the basic human passion, one that impelled the innovators of history to break out of the rut of tradition and custom and propel humankind on its path to perfection. For Turgot and for many 18th-century philosophes, this passion was not envisioned in "embodied" terms, for instance, in the rise of fashion or the importation of new products to France, such as tea and coffee. It was an intellectual construct, like Reason.

Sointula library and museum
Where I stayed
Since my essay on Bodmer appeared (Goethe Yearbook, vol. 20), I have been struck by something that I only treated in passing in that essay, namely, the concept of novelty or "das Neue." Joseph Addison had included novelty in his analysis of the sublime, but Bodmer rejected it in that connection because novelty was concerned with the ephemeral and not, as as did the beautiful and the great in nature, with essential aspects of human nature. I use the latter term in full realization that its existence is now objected to in some quarters. Novelty is of course the deity that presides over the modern, no-holds-barred market. Before the 19th century utopia was limited to intellectual speculation, to literary works, but global trade and commerce allowed people to see themselves in a new light. Thus, the emigration to the Americas in that century of people wanting to create a "new" life.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Goethe, commerce, and world literature, part 3

"The Drunkard's Progress," by Nathaniel Currier (ca. 1846)
The word "progress" has always bothered me, in particular its application to the realm of morals. Its original connotations indicated nothing more than moving, as in going from one place to another, as in the sense of journeying or traveling. As anyone knows who has traveled, one can be worse off after a journey, say, after a 15-hour flight from San Francisco to Tokyo. One has, however, progressed. My compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary also notes "a state journey made by a royal or noble personage, or by a church dignitary." The notion of betterment can be seen in metaphorical usage, e.g., from Joseph Addison in 1713: "I am ashamed that I am not able to make further progress through the French tongue."

The original connotation of physical movement is nowadays rarely used in connection with progress. Instead, the word is applied to continuous "evolution" in morals or ethics. Thus, certain changes in human practices, e.g, the abolition of slavery or the extension of the suffrage to all citizens, including women, are always regarded as advances in our thinking: we correct our earlier mental errors. I am certainly not one to object to emancipation. After all, I have been a beneficiary of it.

What I object to is the self-congratulatory attitude of moderns and postmoderns, our belief that we are more enlightened than people in the past. My objection derives from our failure to recognize that all of our so-called moral achievements have been made possible by material progress, by the development of commerce and of capitalism. It has been the accumulating material enrichment of the West, beginning after the discovery of the New World, that has made us "open-minded." A world of paucity and scarcity made past generations less generous than we are in an age of affluence.

The one thing our tolerance does not extend to is the past, which also reflects the effects of capitalism: the market demands that we constantly abandon what we loved yesterday in favor of the "new" and "advanced." Our demand for novelty keeps the economy going and spreading "emancipation," but it also erodes our allegiance to what, from the point of view of a divine observer, might be considered truly worthwhile in human life. Joseph Schumpeter termed this process "the creative destruction of capitalism."

Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-1781),
by Houdon (MFA, Boston)
Turgot, "the 18th-century Adam Smith," based his philosophy of progress on early 18th-century sensationalist theory of knowledge, which he adapted to posit as the basic human drive the desire "to innovate, to create novelty, to bring into being new combinations of sensations." This quote is from Frank Manuel's book The Prophets of Paris. Ignoring the paucity and scarcity of earlier ages, Turgot believed that traditional society had accepted "a changeless state of being as the greatest good," but that history showed, as Manuel writes, a battle between the spirit of novelty and the spirit of routine. In a wonderfully oxymoronic turn of phrase, Manuel writes that Turgot saw in human events the creation of "real, lasting, and enduring novelty." In his defense, Turgot was of course influenced by the discoveries in the natural sciences in the preceding decades, which represented an "accretion of scientific truth." His error was in applying scientific progress to the human moral and religious nature.

Here is where I get to my point about the blind spot of modern "progressive" thinkers. Turgot himself, the mentor of Condorcet, was a proponent of free trade and free commerce among men and nations. As Louis XVI's finance minister, he tried, but in vain, to eliminate traditional economic restrictions (guilds, royal protections of industries, monopolies, and so on), because they were barriers to the free movement of people into new occupations, and they also had the effect of determining prices of goods artificially. Economic freedom would lead to freedom as such. But people were already becoming free via commerce. As I mentioned in my last post, ordinary Dutch and the Englishmen were already enjoying new products.

Robe a la francaise, 1780,
by Isabelle de Borchgrave
I just read a fascinating article in this connection, by William H. Sewell Jr., which appeared in the February 2010 issue of the journal Past and Present. It is entitled "The Empire of Fashion and the Rise of Capitalism in 18th-Century France." Though Professor Sewell's focus is the textile trade, he draws on many studies of the rise of fashion, consumption, and luxury in the 18th century. Sewell's seeks to modify Marx's theory of labor value. He has the interesting (though, in my opinion, somewhat of a stretch) idea that "sartorial competition" in France, especially in silk garments, was actually a component of labor. The profits of silk producers were enhanced by what Sewell calls "the subsumption of consumer desire under capital," i.e., consumers were induced "to engage in unpaid labor that increased the value of their goods." Thus, unpaid "desire-generating labor," as much as the actual labor of producers, contributed to profits, as "elegantly turned-out consumers served ... as voluntary living advertisements for fashion goods and thus as spurs to further consumption by those who noticed and envied them."

The more interesting part for me concerns the effect of this trade on "progress": after all, the constant demand for novelty in the fashion market, at first on the part of noble patrons, led to a "steady expansion geographically outward and socially downward." In other words, people of the lower orders began wearing silks. "What was new in the late 17th and 18th century was the pronounced taste for novelty itself and the gradual democratization of status competition through consumption." People no longer wore what their parents and grandparents wore. "By the mid 18th century it was becoming difficult to read position in the social hierarchy from public bodily adornment." In the course of the 18th century cotton displaced linen among the poor, and consumption of silk increased among Frenchmen of all classes.

Detail of dress of Marie Antoinette,
paper creation by Isabelle de Borchgrave
Importantly, "the spread of fashion ... had potentially unsettling social and moral implications."

Turgot, so it seems to me, was correct in believing that the constant desire for novelty was a basic human passion. His mistake, however, was to believe that this was a mental or intellectual attitude that, absent the dead weight of the past, would continuously lead to the transformation of the human mind. While the acquisition of new scientific information has indeed led to a body of knowledge that is unlikely to be destroyed, this inheritance is not preserved in our genes or laid down in our arteries like cholesterol. As Turgot pointed out, and as Iran and North Korea today prove, even dictatorships (the Nazis perhaps excepted) are happy to make use of advances in technology and science.

As Manuel writes, Turgot the apostle of progress believed that mankind acquired knowledge in the same way as a newborn child. Each of us is aware of progress in one's individual life. It involves the accumulation of knowledge and experience, a process that is often halting and occasionally reversed. Doing well in school, saving money for later pleasures or retirement, and so on. Can such progress, however, be applied to the entire species? Isn't such progress something that has be re-created by each person and that is dependent to a great extent on how willing we are to avoid novelty (avoid getting tattoos) and, instead, to make use of the lessons of the past.

Well, I see I have gone on too long and have not yet got to Goethe and world literature. That is coming, however: there is a connection. Stay tuned.

Picture credits: Ludwig von Mises InstitutePenniless Press;