Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Goethe on "European literature"

"Deluge" by GC Myers
An article from 1900 by Ferdinand Brunetière, entitled "European Literature," provides much insight concerning both Goethe's concept of world literature and Fritz Strich's interpretation of that concept.

In 1900 the discipline of comparative literature was still defining itself as a field, and Brunetière, a member of the French Academy and editor of the Revue des deux mondes, sought to set out the scope of comparative literature. In the article he applies evolutionary theories to the study of literature, in particular the development of what he calls European literature, which is the transmitter of "European thought." This latter, however, is not "Western" or "universal": there are no transcendental implications in Brunetière's account, no suggestion that European "thought" constitutes a supranational spirit.

His subject is the aims of comparative literature as a subject of study, and thus he speaks solely of literature, because literature is the vehicle which expresses the "national" or "tribal" spirit of a people.  European "thought" in this account is simply the literary blending, so to speak, of the literature of five countries into a common European product: Italy, Spain, France, England, and Germany, each of which successively, beginning with the Italians (Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio), contributed to this "movement" of thought. In Italy's case, for instance, it was as transmitter of the tradition of antiquity, while among Spain's "truly great European creations" can be found the drama. Spain was the home of Seneca, and even though the work of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson preceded Le Cid, English drama of the 16th century became "truly European" by way of Spanish genius!

None of the "European" products sprang from its own soil ex nihilo. In this movement, some national manifestations remain purely "local" -- this is especially the case with Spain -- and do not become part of European literature. Brunetière is thinking solely of the "comparative" relations among literatures, of what one "national" literature takes from another and develops. His test case is the novel, which expresses the most "English characteristics" in Smollet, Richardson, and Fielding; the origins of the genre, however, can be traced back to the Princess de Clèves and, further, to Diana enamorada by Jorge de Montemayor. 

Brunetière's scheme of progressive development is replicated by Strich in his writings on world literature. In fact, Strich utilizes the same schema, likewise positing that the dominance of one nation in this literary give-and-take occurred when its literature simultaneously manifested most strongly its own national individuality while preserving a maximum of the common European (i.e., classical and Christian) "spirit." Strich likewise affirms Brunetiere's contention that that the knowledge of other literatures sharpens in us an understanding of the most national characteristics of our great writers. Brunetière writes: "we are defined only by comparing ourselves to others; we do not know ourselves only when we know only ourselves."

Soviet-Ukranian amity ca. 1921
 The problem with Brunetière's scheme, of course, is that "national" literature was becoming increasingly irrelevant by the time he wrote. (Which did not prevent the formation, in the 19th century, of university departments of literature along national lines.) In fact, national literature would seem to have been relevant only in the early 19th century: though it may have been an "ideological" construct, it nevertheless allowed a way of talking about literary manifestations in that period. Literature, by the late 19th century, however, was jettisoning its national or local character. Tellingly, Brunetière did not extend his survey to the writings of what he called "the extreme North," i.e., Scandinavia and Russia. As he wrote, they had only recently entered, "to use a diplomatic expression, into the theater of European literature." Though he admires Anna Karenina and The Wild Duck, he does not see what is specifically "Russian" or "Norwegian" in either. We seem to be on the verge of the "internationalization" of literature, in particular of the novel.

Strich, writing some decades later, would have been aware of this internationalization. It was this process, I think, that fueled Goethe's conception of world literature. By the late 1820s, he no longer saw literature as simply the expression of the literary or aesthetic; literature had a larger task, to contribute to a spirit of like-mindedness and political tolerance among nations. The divestiture of national animosities was occurring, as he wrote, through commerce and trade, one of the products of which was literature. He thought, of course, that it was the writings of eminent and like-minded writers of the age -- like himself! -- which would further this process. He did not regard the increasing deluge of popular writing as edifying.

More anon.

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