Thursday, October 24, 2013

World literature again

Colbert Presenting the Members of the French Academy to the King in 1667
I am jumping back into world literature, after so much time away in the realm of utopia, especially as I am scheduled to give a paper on it on January 11 at the MLA in Chicago. In truth, utopia and world literature are not that far apart in the realm of ideas: both are proposals to create more harmony  and decrease animosities among peoples. Utopia, however, would halt the process of change, while world literature is about change and communication. It decidedly is not, as David Damrosch contends in , about great works of literature, those that have "an exceptional ability to transcend the boundaries of the culture that produces it." Thus, Homer and Sophocles, alongside the Kalidasa and The Tale of the Genji in "world literature" surveys.  Goethe's comments on world literature are not copious, but in none of them does he designate a particular work as a work of world literature.

A term that crops up frequently in my research in this connection is "cosmopolitanism." A couple of days ago I was taken aback when I came across a book from 1899 entitled Rousseau and the Cosmopolitan Spirit in Literature. This concept is not one I associate with Rousseau, and in fact I wrote a post on this subject earlier this year. Rousseau, as I wrote, loathed the very idea of cosmopolitanism, asserting that Germans, French, English, and so on all had the same taste and manners: they had become "Europeans."

The book, as I discovered, uses "cosmopolitan" in a different sense. It is by Joseph Texte, who was a professor of comparative literature at Lyon. For Texte, the "cosmopolitan spirit in literature" was the result of the embrace of the English canons of art by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. La nouvelle Heloise  abandoned the normative classical ideals of the French Academy and introduced the more "barbarian" (in the view of the French) values of English literature, especially as seen in the homely, realist conventions of Samuel Richardson's novels.  This opened the floodgates to the reception of the "Nordic" spirit: The new content entering French literature by the 19th century was that of imagination and sensibility," definitely not a French product; they were of a northern cast and infused, as Madame de Staël expressed it, with "foreign vigour." The French developed an appetite for the foreign as a consequence of exposure to "northern" writers.

Madame de Staël by François Gerard (ca. 1810)
Texte defends his use of such racial categories. Since Taine, "the successor of Madame de Stael," the study of literature has become an "ethnological problem." What, after all, he asks, is an individual without his environment? "Dante without Italy? Could the works written in Latin be attributed to the Arabians or Chinese? Could the Alhambra be the work of the architect of the Parthenon? Each nation utters a portion of the 'interminable discourse' (Vigny) delivered by humanity." The discourse, he says, is interminable, but the nations have been participating in it for only a few centuries. He goes on to write something that is very redolent of Fritz Strich:

"'For the past eight or ten centuries there has been, in a sense, a traffic or interchange of ideas from one end of Europe to the other, so that Germany has been nourishing itself upon French thought, England upon German thought, Spain upon Italian thought, and each of these nations successively upon the thought of all the rest." 

Since my current work concerns the origins of Fritz Strich's views on Goethe and world literature, this book by Texte would seem to be part of these origins. Texte in his introduction thanks as his mentor Ferdinand Brunetière, whom I have already alluded to in an earlier presentation on this subject: In a long article in 1900,  Brunetière sketched the development of what he called "European literature," in particular the way in which the individual nations had developed a European literature on the soil of medieval Christianity and in particular antiquity, which he called "the master of Europe's mind and spirit." The great literatures of Europe developed successively (there are five: first, the Italians, followed by the Spanish, then the French, the English, and finally the Germans), with one after another manifesting "what were its most national and particular aspects," and each literature contributing to "the movement of European thought."

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