Friday, November 1, 2013

"The cosmopolitan spirit"

Just a few more comments on Joseph Texte's book on Rousseau and cosmopolitanism. Texte seems to define cosmopolitanism as Romanticism bred with the "classical spirit," the latter of French provenance, of course. This cosmopolitanism has now (writing in 1899) gone on to "embrace the literature of the world." Thus, Frenchmen like Hugo and Chateaubriand, he writes, are no longer Frenchmen in the way of their predecessors, but speak to a more "European side of the national genius."

He then imagines a literary scenario that, in many respects, has come to pass by the early 21st century. Noting the number of books published on the "little European continent," the multiplicity of translations, and facility of exchange, he asks the following:

Would it be so absurd if, from the comparison, the juxtaposition, and, let us admit it, the confusion of so many works from every country in Europe, there should result a sort of composite ideas consisting of elements artificially compounded so as to form a literature no longer ether English or German or French, but simply European--until the time should come when it would be universal? Should such a day ever arrive, across the frontiers  -- if any remain -- there will be stretched a network of invisible bonds which will unite nation to nation and, as of old during the Middle Ages, will form a collective European soul.

He does not see this "peril" as imminent, as there remain obstacles in its way, "men held together for long years to come by community of race, of language, and of historical tradition" and preserving the literary heritage as a "sacred legacy." Leslie Stephen, in his review of Texte's book, comments on this scenario: "At present, we do not seem to be rapidly approaching the period at which patriotism will be lost in universal philanthropy. When the 'parliament of man' has been elected by the 'federation of the world,' it will be time enough to make up our minds as to the gain and loss."

 Stephen continues:

The real danger is ... a little different. It is quite true that the modern author does his best to be in one way cosmopolitan. He goes about the world searching for new sensations. If an original writer arises in France or Germany, Russia or Norway, he is translated and imitated, and has his sect of fervent admirers in every other civilized country. That, no doubt, represents a very different state of things from the old order, under which each vernacular literature grew up utterly unconscious of the existence of others, or even from the order in which a small body of critics could lay down a code of absolute laws and keep to the elaboration of a single type.

He does not allude to economic trade and commerce, probably because men of intellect like Leslie Stephen (don't forget Carlyle and Ruskin) disdained trade and commerce and believed in something like an intellectual spirit progressing through history.

The spread of Roman culture (click to enlarge)
 From my reading of Goethe's comments on world literature, it strikes me that he was aware that it was specifically the rapidity of world commerce and trade that was affecting the field of culture. He writes, for instance, of the "rapidity" of these transformational processes going on by the early 19th century. According to Stefan Hoesel-Uhlig in his contribution to Debating World Literature (ed. Christopher Prendergast), Goethe was engaged with "a changing field" and thus did not concentrate on any one discipline. Instead, his "encyclopedic interests" caused him to perceive "new general structures for poetic and intellectual work, ... [a] transformation of cultural space ... and the emergent conditions for further interest and exchange."

Commerce in its crassly material sense of economic trade has, by now, produced a composite "West," nations sharing lifestyles that are, with ever lessening national variations, pretty similar. Back in 1950, if my parents had traveled to Europe, they would not have felt comfortable staying in most French or German homes, simply because the interior facilities would have been so foreign to them. Today the differences are ones of style, and indeed many American homes now copy the interiors of French or Italian or German interior decor.

The same goes for literary "products," at least in the literary market place.

Picture credits: San Rafael Chamber of Commerce; Bible Light

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