Monday, December 30, 2013

Bodmer and world literature

Henry Fuseli, Satan Starting from the Touch of Ithuriel's Spear
A recent article of mine claimed J.J. Bodmer as a precursor of the philosophic discussion of the sublime in German letters. Despite the title of this post, I am not really claiming him as a forerunner of Goethe's concept of world literature. I came across a quotation by him today, however, that made me think of Goethe's use of the terms "commerce" and "trade" to describe intellectual exchange. Here is the quote from Bodmer, from the preface of the Neue kritische Briefe of 1746:

Der Verfasser will gerne für einen nützlichen Kaufmann angesehen seyn, der zu den vornehmsten europäischen Nationen gereiset ist, und bey ihnen kostbare Waaren von Witz und Kunst gesammelt hat, welche er izt nach Hause bringt, und seinen Landsleuten überliefert, ihrem einheimischen Bedürfniss damit zu Hülfe zu kommen.

The quote appears at the end of a very long article written by the American-German comparatist Louis Paul Betz on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Bodmer's birth on July 19, 1898. Betz is one of the comparatists I have been reading lately. Although Betz concedes that Bodmer made a major contribution to changing literary tastes in German letters, he lays to rest the notion that Bodmer was anti-French in any way. He describes the feud between Bodmer and Gottsched as part of the ongoing "Battle of the Ancients and Moderns." Even the treatise on the marvelous, Bodmer's defense of Milton's Paradise Lost against Voltaire's criticisms of the epic, contains no serious arguments. While defending the claims of "Phantasie" and challenging the insipid "reason" poetry of post-classical France (die nüchterne Verstandespoesie des nachklassischen Frankreichs), Bodmer fails here to be a literary pathbreaker. Instead, he contents himself with accusing Voltaire of "unverschämte Dreistigkeit" and "unverdaute Begriffe," without any true criticism.

Jacques-Louis David, The Anger of Achilles
Betz includes some wonderful quotes from Bodmer's attacks on Gottsched, which Betz calls "schonungslos" and "unerbittlich." Bodmer reveled in pointing out the shortcomings of Gottsched's translation of Racine's tragedy Iphigenia. As Betz writes, "Nicht genug kann er wiederholen, welcher Abgrund zwischen Original und Nachbildung liegt." And then, quoting Bodmer: "Die traurige Erfahrung anderer Poeten hätte ihn [Gottsched] lehren sollen, kein Original zu erkiesen, das seine Uebersetzng notwendig beschämen musste."

Betz does a very good job of portraying the overwhelming influence of French culture on Germany in the 18th century. His article is an example of what he himself asserted was the purpose of comparative literature, namely, to demonstrate the influence of writers of one country on writers of another. Unfortunately, one comes aways feeling that Bodmer did not have a single original literary insight (or, for that matter, a literary bone in his body); even when invoking the rights of the imagination, he was pleading with the arguments of French writers, in particular Dubos. The article confirmed a view that I presented in my article on Bodmer: it was through literature, through the writings of the best poets, not through experience, that one learned how to live properly. Read Molière if you wanted to know about people's motivations.

Fritz Strich, in his schema of the development of European literatures, makes the argument that Germany's "hour" had struck when French neoclassicism had played itself out and the literary Zeitgeist required an infusion of new life, which was provided by Romanticism. Bodmer (and Breitinger) was certainly the most important early mediator in this process, particularly in introducing the Germans to English letters (even if, according to Betz, he did not fully grasp Milton's greatness). Mediation, of course, is a central aspect of Goethe's concept of world literature. While Gottsched was urging German writers to model themselves on French writers, Bodmer's writings had the effect, in the end, in leading  Germans to create a "German" literature.

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