Sunday, December 15, 2013

"The social phenomenon called literature"

In my research into the origins of Fritz Strich's work on world literature, I have encountered some very interesting people. The past posts have dwelled on European figures: for instance, the French comparatists Joseph Texte and Fernand Brunetière and the American-German Louis Paul Betz. Despite the importance of France and Germany in inaugurating the academic discipline of comparative literature, it seems that the U.S. was somewhat out in front in establishing a university department, at Harvard. And just as the Europeans were thrashing out the contours of comparative literature as a field of research, in scholarly publications, an American wrote about the subject for The Atlantic Monthly in 1903. This was Charles Mills Gayley, then a professor of English and Classics at the University of California at Berkeley, who was apparently a genial and much-loved teacher. Before coming to Berkeley, he had taught at the University of Michigan, where he also authored Michigan college songs.

The article in The Atlantic Monthly is called "What Is Comparative Literature?" I wondered if something comparable was occurring in French or German publications, those directed not at scholars but at a literate reading public. It seems a very American thing actually. In connection with Strich and world literature, I was struck by a couple of things in the article, indicated by the title of this post.

The handsome Charles Mills Gayley
Gayley quotes Goethe's comments on world literature, in particular the statement about the "progress of the human race," and goes on to say that under "Goethe's prophetic cosmopolitanism of ideal and art" lay a belief in an essential, historical oneness of literature. This ideal, writes Gayley, is

the working premise of the student of comparative literature today: literature as a distinct and integral medium of thought, a common institutional expression of humanity; differentiated, to be sure, by the social conditions of the individual, by racial, historical, cultural, and linguistic influences, opportunities, and restrictions, but, irrespective of age or guise, prompted by the common needs and aspirations of man, sprung from common faculties, psychological and physiological, and obeying common laws of material and mode, of the individual and of social humanity.

It is this idea of a common humanity possessing "common faculties" that leads Gayley to ask whether the "biological principle" applies to literature. At the turn of the 20th century two doctrines seem to have vied for acceptance in comparative literature: evolution or permutation. Regardless of which is truer the facts, it is this "social phenomenon called literature" that is the comparatist's subject. For those of us who take pleasure, as well as wish for edification, in our reading, his exclusion of the purely subjective element  may cause one to blink. The comparatist, however, must regard

the unexpected quantity -- the imaginative -- in the light of historical sequence and scientific cause and effect, physical, biological, psychological, or anthropological, to reduce the apparently unreasonable or magical element, and so to leave continually less to be treated in the old-fashioned inspirational or ecstatic manner. We shall simply cease to confound the science with the art.

While not ignoring the achievements of genius, this new science avails itself "of the results, and so far as possible of the methods, of the sciences that most directly contribute to the comprehension of man the producer."

What is interesting to me in this exclusion of non-material factors is Gayley's assertion that the "new science" of comparative literature "will prove an index to the evolution of soul in the individual and in society." According to the biography of Gayley on Wikipedia, he was a most orthodox Christian, being born the son of a missionary in China and having married the daughter of the second Protestant Episcopal bishop in Michigan. I suspect he does not mean here "soul" in the Christian sense of that term. Fritz Strich uses "Geist" continuously, which is often translated as soul. The evolutionary theory of society, as with the biological, presumes a law governing the development of phenomena; so, too, the comparatists seek to align their discipline in according with the scientific method.

At the same time I am reminded of the 18th-century philosophes. No one specifically asserted that the accumulation of scientific knowledge would produce a change in human consciousness, but it was implicit in their predictions of the progress of society under the enlightened rule of "science." How else can one interpret the contemporary attacks on the past and on tradition ("dead white males") if not to assume that we have inherited the conviction that we have morally progressed? More on this later.

Picture credit: Permanent Cultures

No comments: