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;

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Goethe, commerce, and world literature, part 2

The prompting for the last post on the above subject was Adam Smith's work The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is earlier than The Wealth of Nations, which contains one of the most famous sentences of economic thinking:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow citizens.

The use of the term self-interest has the connotation of selfishness, but Smith was not being hard-hearted. He was rather acknowledging that self connects with self in the modern world of commerce. His arguments for free trade were based not on the ruthlessness with which that term is now often associated. Smith believed that an open market -- free of guild regulations, which restrict labor and regulate prices, to the detriment of the public; free of special interests that through political means try to bend legislation to their own narrow advantage; free of lobbying; free of monopoly protection; and so on -- would be fairer, especially to the poorer classes who, especially in 18th-century France, were shackled by feudal restrictions. In an open market, we would instead negotiate for our fair "worth."

Worth here is economic, although there is naturally a moral sense, which Smith sought to ground in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a book that is not about economics, but instead concerns the nature of relations between individuals in a secular society. Smith doesn't use that phrase, but he was writing about world in which everyday transactions would be guided by a new etiquette, one not derived from religious norms. As Emma Rothschild writes in her book Economic Sentiments "The traffic or commerce of modern life was ... a traffic in opinions." Her book is an examination of Smith and Condorcet and is concerned, as she writes, with the "discursive, reflective, self-conscious disposition, [which] is both a cause and a consequence of economic progress" (9). For Smith, the progress of affluence produced by commerce enfranchises opinions and sentiments. The negotiation in the market and in society are dependent on discourse.

Finally I am getting around to world literature, which is about the negotiations and discourse. Stay tuned.

Picture credits: Doctor Hermann; Coyote Blog

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Goethe, commerce, and world literature, part 1

The Dutch Golden Age, by Anneke Hut
As indicted above, this is going to be a multi-part excursus on the above topics.

For some time now I have been linking Goethe's concept of world literature to the development of trade and commerce as these were taking place in the early 19th century, e.g., in this post. I was always struck by Goethe's use of terms like "Verkehr" and "Handel" in connection with world literature and also of his emphasis on the mutual relations between Germany and the other European countries. Intellectual commerce between these countries had been going on for centuries, leading by the early modern period to something like a sense of a common "European" mentality. Fritz Strich's study of Goethe and world literature portrayed this process as one of give and take. Thus, all the movements in art and literature -- Gothic, Renaissance, Neoclassicism, Romanticism -- were experienced by one and all, with one country starting the ball rolling and eventually being followed by the others. For Strich, the classical spirit was French, the Romantic German. This process could be called "discursive," in our contemporary use of the term.

The process of assimilation and transmission was the work of elites for whom the literary and artistic works of the past was a precious inheritance.  Artistic "legitimacy," to to speak, was conferred by the reflection in their own works of consanguinity with past models. They preserved in this way the memory of their progenitors.

Of course, one could be cynical and say that they had nothing else to value. It was, after all, a scarcity society, with wealth spread very unevenly. One could also say that this traditionalism was in the service of the state, the court, the church, etc., whose legitimacy was substantiated by the reverence to past authority.

And, indeed, by the 18th century, the past and its institutions were regarded more skeptically. Interestingly, it was the elites themselves who turned against the past. In the arts, the battle of the ancients and moderns contrasted the past and the present. Yet, the attacks went further, with the elites condemning the past as the source of all that was bad in society. For these attacks on tradition, in particular against the church and crown, the Enlightenment is seen as a period of moral progress.

Still Life by Willem Kalf (1619-1693)
Yet, one can also be cynical about the philosophes. One can say, for instance, that, in urging men to emancipate themselves from the authority of the past, they were likewise simply rationalizing the conditions on the ground. After all, the discovery of the New World and the breakthroughs in science offered opportunities for venturing outside of the traditional boundaries. In the 17th century already, Europe had begun to emerge from the agricultural cycle of feast and famine. In some places, notably England and Holland, ordinary people could begin to plan for the future. In particular, it was "goods," not "the Good," that began to liberate ordinary people: the presence of a teapot in imitation of Chinaware on the dinner table opened their eyes and their imagination to a wider world.

What could be the role of the intellectual elite in a world of commerce and trade? The elite was now faced with legitimating its own position in society. How to do that? Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Goethe and Saint-Simon

Pierre Joseph Proudhon by Courbet (1865)
I came to this topic of course through my readings on 18th-century utopianism, which is a lot about France. Throughout my research on this byway, I have tried to keep Goethe in mind. It was evident early on that he did not have the frame of mind of the French utopian thinkers, namely, the belief that humans were perfectible, given the "correct" social environment and education. Nevertheless, he did not ignore the ideas that were being mooted in response to the emerging social and economic problems of the early 19th century. He rejected the Romantic solution of withdrawal. Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre represents his awareness of utopian settlements, yet, in contrast to the communities of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, his emigres are a self-selected group of men with the same occupations. This self-selection operated within the religious communities founded in the early 19th century in America, in particular those of German emigrants, with which he was familiar through, for instance, Prince Bernard's account of his American travels.

The bibliography of Johannes John's entry in the Goethe-Handbuch led me to the article "Goethes Verhältnis zum Saint-Simonismus im Spiegel seiner Altersbriefe" by Werner Kahle, which appeared in volume 89 (1972) of the Goethe-Jahrbuch. Professor Kahle was at the university of Jena, and it is not surprising in 1972 that he would place Goethe within a Marxist context. (In the same way, Goethe scholarship these days often reflects our own ideological tendencies, e.g., "the Green Goethe.") Thus, the subject of Kahle's 1963 publication (of 514 pages!) entitled Die Grundlinien der ideologischen Entwicklung Goethes im Spiegel seiner Brief: Ein Beitrag zum marxistischen-leninistischen Goethebild. As evidence for Goethe's sympathy with socialism, Kahle notes Faust's visions of the future in his last monologue as well as the Pedagogical Province in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, both of which reveal "a far-reaching affinity and agreement with the ambitions of French utopian socialism."

Aufbau der Republic by Max Lingner
Whatever Goethe's attitude was toward socialism, the opening of Professor Kahle's article makes an interesting point about Goethe's intellectual openness: "In a time of dark reactionary politics and intellectual suspicion, a retired civil servant of high standing in a German dukedom concerns himself with undisguised sympathy with an extremely progressive social teaching, with an important branch of utopian socialism: this, for German conditions, was extraordinary and at the same time greatly characteristic of Goethe's fundamental unbiased disposition in viewing the world" (vorurteilslose weltanschauliche Grundhaltung).

I can't help thinking how that comment could have applied to Professor Kahle's own situation in the DDR, where open-mindedness to a non-Marxist point of view would have been not only extraordinary but also quite dangerous. As I indicated above, however, we postmoderns can also be less than openminded ourselves in our scholarship. One might not be thrown in prison or lose one's teaching position by expressing opinions or having an attitude that goes against the ideological grain of the time, but there can be much social disfavor, which is also oppressive.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Goethe and Saint-Simon

Saint-Simon, from painting by
Adelaide Labille-Guyard
Goethe always turns up in surprising conjunctions, for instance, meeting with Aaron Burr, on which I posted not too long ago. His interest in Saint-Simonianism is not unknown, though it is a small area of Goethe research. Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon, was the early socialist theorist praised in a somewhat backhanded way by Engels in "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" in Anti-Dühring. He died in 1825, but his disciples, the Saint-Simonists, quickly spread their version of the master's ideas. It was in particular through the transmission of these ideas in Le Globe, of which Goethe was a subscriber, that he learned of the new doctrine. (By the way, Saint-Simon fought in the American Revolutionary war.)

In The Saint-Simonian Religion in Germany, the prolific E.M. Butler wrote about the sympathizers of the movement in Germany, including the Varnhagens, Heine, and several "Young Germany" writers. It is marvelous to witness Goethe, during the last years of his life, from 1829 to 1832, engaging with this new social manifestation. Saint-Simonism was a young man's movement, his followers having included young men who turned out to be up-and-coming. First among them was Auguste Comte, who later betrayed the master. According to Butler, France suffered at the beginning of the 19th century from "great spiritual depression. ... The fierce joy of those who had slain the giants of oppression and superstition [i.e., the French revolutionaries] could not warm the hearts of their sons."

Barthelmy Prospher Enfantin,
follower of Saint-Simon
Johannes John wrote the entry on "Saint-Simonismus" in the Goethe-Handbuch. According to John, it was the July 1830 revolution in France that was the source of Goethe's interest. Goethe also heard from Carlyle shortly thereafter (August 31, 1830), who reported having obtained some Saint-Simonist writings from Paris. Goethe had several objections to their doctrines, in particular what John calls their centralizing and dirigiste plans for restructuring social and economic relations. He voiced another objection to Frederic Soret: "Je ne sais pas pourquoi on veut sacrifier l'intérêt des individues à celui des masses. ... Ainsi, dire que chacun doit se sacrifier au bien de tous me paraît un faux principle; chacun doit se sacrifier à sa propre conviction." This sounds like Marx avant la lettre, but it was a common notion among utopian thinkers in pre-Revolutionary France, which indicates that Goethe may have been familiar, e.g., with Morelly's Code de la Nature (1755).

What he most objected to was the wishful thinking, amounting to presumption, of the Saint-Simonians. As he wrote to Zelter in May of 1831: they seem like bright people, they understand the shortcomings of our time, they know how to present what is desired. "But they fail in how they presume to eliminate the present terrible state of affairs and bring about the desired goal. The fools imagine they are able to manipulate Providence and assure everyone that he will be rewarded according to his merits if he joins them with body and soul" (summarized translation).

At the same time, Goethe felt sympathy for the Saint-Simonian analysis of contemporary social relations, e.g., excessive competition, the exploitation and impoverishment of the working population, the workers' increasing social "declassification," and the overriding role to be played in the future by technology and industrialization.

This is getting too long-winded for today. I hope to add more on this subject in my next posting.

Picture credit: Dark Government;