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.

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