Thursday, January 17, 2013

Goethe, utopia, and world literature

Most recently I have been listening to Thomas More's Utopia on my iPod, along with Plato's Republic, both of which are considered Urtexte in utopian theorizing. I am trying to ignore the cringe-worthy aspects of these proposals for social amity and, instead, to focus on why utopian thinking continues to attract, even as the past several centuries have amply demonstrated that one-size-fits-all solutions to governance have been disastrous.

Plato was pure philosopher, but I was struck to find so many similarities between Thomas More's career and Goethe's. According to Karl Kautsky, More was appointed "Under Sheriff" in 1509, "in which position he had sufficient opportunity to gain an insight into the economic life of the people." In 1515 Parliament appointed More a "Commissioner for Sewers." He became Treasurer and, in 1523, Speaker in the Commons," positions (according to Kautsky) that presupposed experience in financial maters. And then, shortly afterward, he became Chancellor to the king.  Goethe's many duties in Weimar governance were similarly wide-reaching, including his close relationship with the sovereign, Carl August. (I recommend the Goethe Handbuch entry, vol. 4/1, pp.35-46, on Goethe's "Amtliche Tätigkeit.") Some of his duties concerned finances.

Thomas More had more diplomatic experience than Goethe. For instance, he went to Bruges in 1515 as a member of a group conducting commercial negotiations. Another mission, to Calais, in 1517, concerned commercial disputes between English and French merchants. He went to Bruges again in 1520 to settle disputes between English merchants and the Hansa.

More's Utopia reflects the contemporary interest in travel and concourse among nations and in the customs and governance of other nations. More was writing at the very beginning of the period when the European countries began the oversees trade that would bring such wealth to England and Holland. Goethe was formulating his ideas about world literature at the moment when that trade had made the lives of Europeans similar in material respects. By the 1820s Goethe was quite a gourmand (see my post on this subject), and the table at his home on the Frauenplan in Weimar was supplied with the products of foreign trade. His household accounts show outlays for delicacies that were not produced in Weimar: chestnuts, fermented mustard, foie gras, mussels, Spanish raisins, caviar. This appreciation for fine food among the middle class was a phenomenon of commerce, and, today, we can see that people all over the world either enjoy or aspire to enjoy similar material comforts. Thus, though Goethe lacked overseas experience, he was aware of the equalizing effects of commerce and trade. World literature  is commerce on an intellectual or spiritual level, one, so Goethe hoped, that would produce amity among diverse peoples.

Photo credit: Coin Talk

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