Sunday, January 13, 2013

Goethe, utopia, and world literature

Bird's eye view of Robert Owen's never-completed utopia in New Harmony, Indiana
Some time back I did some postings on intellectuals and power, in which I discussed the book Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment by the Italian historian Franco Venturi. I distinguished Goethe from the French philosophes: Goethe actually worked in government and tried political reform. I quoted Nicholas Boyle, from his biography of Goethe, who suggested that Goethe saw in his position in the Weimar administration "the possibility of doing something -- perhaps even useful for his fellow men ... certainly of fulfilling the ambitions that his father had had perforce to renounce when the door closed on his own political career." I wrote that "the experiment failed."

It was not correct to say that it failed, because Goethe continued to have much influence over matters civil and public: at the university at Jena, in particular. No doubt, he experienced much frustration, e.g., in the Ilmenau mine venture, yet it must be said that Goethe never succumbed to millennial or visionary scenarios that began to absorb thinkers in the early 19th century. In other words, perhaps because he understood from experience how difficult reform is, he never fell into the trap of thinking that the human condition could be perfected.

It was through my postings on Venturi, on intellectuals and power, and on utopian thinking that I have been invited to participate in a conference entitled "Culture Shock! Utopian Dreams, Hard Realities," which takes place in Sointula on Malcolm Island this coming September. Sointula, which means "Place of Harmony" in Finnish, was the site of a utopian community founded in the late 19th century by Finnish immigrants. Other speakers include Charles LeWarne, who has written extensively on Washington state and on communitarian settlements, and anthropologist Edward Dutton, who first conceptualized the term "culture shock."

I will be speaking on the 18th-century background of 19th-century utopian experiments, and will post here as my research proceeds. Since I started with Goethe, with his real-world experience in political administration, let me mention another way in which Goethe can be distinguished from the 18th-century thinkers who had such an influence on 19th-century utopian planners like Robert Owen. The difference, I would like to suggest, can be found in Goethe's concept of world literature. Goethe, too, was aware of the problems besetting the modern world, and Goethe hoped that the growth of a world literary market and of literary commerce among writers and nations would lead to a kind of amity among peoples. He never envisioned, as did Fourier or Owen that the world would be joined into some kind of community in which all differences between people would be effaced. As he wrote in Über Kunst und Altertum (1828) on the effect of world literature: "Let us repeat: we are not saying that the nations should think alike, only that they should become aware of one another; and, if there is no mutual love among them, that they at least learn to tolerate one another." Goethe probably thought that was the best that could be hoped for in the modern world, in contrast to those utopian thinkers who imagined that heaven could be produced on earth. Stay tuned.

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