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

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