Saturday, November 2, 2013

World literature and communications

For ages now I have been questioning the use of the word "progress" in the sense of moral improvement. It is true that our ethical sphere has expanded over the past two centuries (abolition of slavery, emancipation of women), but I am troubled by our tendency to regard such "advances" as the outcome of our moral superiority over previous generations, even sometimes the immediate past. In the 18th century, the philosophes censured the religious and social institutions of the past because of the latter's imposition of what the philosophes saw as backwardness. We have moved far beyond the 18th century, however, and it seems that every week I come across a review or an article in which the 1950s is described as an age of "repression." We are all moving "forward," thus Vorwärts.

My contention is that all of this progress has been propelled by mundane material factors, carried by the explosion of industry and technology in the early modern period. World commerce and trade multiplied the objects of fashion and in our households to such an extent that we became "cosmopolitan" in ways of life and standards of living. Something similar took place in the cultural sphere. Despite the historical rivalries between the countries of Europe, each began to assimilate some flavor of the culture of the others. As Joseph Texte wrote in Rousseau and the Cosmopolitan Spirit in Literature, the "classical spirit" of French literature absorbed Nordic input from England and Germany.

Commerce doesn't stay with the same old same old. Some new item of trade is always required to lure consumers. Novelty is thus the engine of capitalism. Our attitudes and values travel the same path, as we exchange old ones for new, more enlightened ones. To take an example from my own lifetime. Back in the 1950s, one spoke of divorce as causing a "broken home." Many decades down the road, it turns out that we were living on the cusp of a profound change in family relations, indeed on the cusp of "single-parent households."

Kant saw in cosmopolitanism a requisite for universal peace among nations. Peace, however, requires a lack of competition, which seems hardly compatible with capitalism and the constant production of novelty. Hegel gave a spiritual spin on this materialistic process, and it was left to others to change what Hannah Arendt has called "the interpretation of history into the making of history," e.g., Karl Marx. Together with Goethe's pronouncements on the subject, Fritz Strich described world literature in terms of a dialectical movement of the spirit of different nationalities.

Goethe seems much more modest in his thoughts on world literature. I can't help thinking that he somehow envisioned the development of communications technologies, although in his life only the semaphore (from 1790; it must have played a role in the military skirmishes between the French and the allied forces that Goethe observed first hand) showed the possibility of almost-simultaneous communication over long distances. Of course, he did not propose effacing the individual character of "peoples" or nations into even a "European spirit." World literature is thus an advanced form of "communications" technology. I wonder what his reaction would be to our contemporary modes of communication.

Picture credits: Luctor et emergo; Majstersztyk

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