Monday, December 9, 2013

Was Goethe a comparatist avant la lettre?

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The above question is prompted by an article from 1896 by Louis Paul Betz, "Critical Observations on the Nature, Function, and Meaning of Comparative Literary History" (originally appearing in Z. f. franz. Sprache u. Litteratur, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 141-56). I will be on a panel at the MLA in Chicago in January, opining on the "prehistory" of Fritz Strich's study Goethe und die Weltliteratur. That prehistory includes the work of late 19th- and early 20th-century scholars in the relatively new field of comparative literature.

Betz became the first lecturer in comparative literature and Zurich University in 1896. His essay surveys various scholars' views of the aims and purposes of comparative literature and comparative literary history. He frequently evokes Goethe and also advances points that can be found in Strich's work on world literature. For instance, the French comparatist Brunetière, Betz writes, expressed the "essence" of comparative literary history by observing that it "look[s] on the whole from above, free from national prejudice, [observing] the constant changes, the continuous giving and taking of ideas and forms. As world literature it goes hand in hand with the national history of literature toward a common goal: the investigation of the development of the human spirit."

The lessening of national prejudice is of course alluded to by Goethe in his remarks on world literature, but the part about the development of the human spirit through the history of literary relations is purely Strich.

As for Germany, Betz traces the development of "comparative literary history" there to Daniel Georg Morhof's 1684 study Von der teutschen Poeterey Ursprung und Fortgang, in which Morhof wrote as follows: "We intend to discuss the origin and development of German poetry, and in order to do so most thoroughly we will discuss first the rhymed poetry of other peoples, so that we may discover whether it originated with them before it did with us." Betz goes on to mention Gottsched (on the history of European drama), Lessing, Herder, and Schiller, and adds that "Goethe always considered the individual literatures comparatively in the context of the general development of literature."

One author Betz mentions is Otto Weddingen, who published a small volume with the instructive title Geschichte der Einwirkungen der deutschen Literatur, which seems to have taken its inspiration from something Goethe wrote in Kunst und Altertum (vol. 6, pt. 1, 1827), namely, that German literature had begun to take an honorable place literarily among the nations. I downloaded Weddington's book, which was written in 1881, thus a decade after the Prussian victory over the French. Weddington is similarly triumphant throughout. After surveying the influence of German on western and eastern European authors (as far afield as Bulgaria and Hungry), he has a remarkable conclusion:

Es ist ein schönes Bild, welches sich dem Auge darbietet; ein Gefühl reinster Wonne beschleicht uns bei der Wahrhehmung, dass Deutschlands Litteratur überall befruchtend and befördernd gewirkt hat, dass es Deutschlands Mission im 19. Jahrhundert war und, so Gott will, bis in die spätesten Tage seiner Existenz bleiben wird, das Licht seiner Kultur nach allen Seiten hin auszustrahlen.

Of course, comparative literature was not an academic discipline before the late 19th century, so Goethe can, at most, only be part of the "prehistory" of that discipline. Goethe's importance for comparative literature, however, is of another sort. Thus, Betz writes that Goethe "summarized the great significance of a comparative world literature [my italics] in ... two terms: mediation between nations and their mutual acceptance." Goethe was rather cautious about these two factors. Betz, however (and, it must be said, Strich in essays from the 1920s on world literature), draws a more grandiose vision: "Every new discovery in the area of the constant relationship between civilized peoples constitutes not only a new achievement of scholarship but also a 'building block of the future edifice of world peace.'" (I believe Betz is quoting Weddington here, but like many scholars of this period he neglects to add his source.) In conclusion, Betz writes:

Through comparison we arrive most clearly and surely at a knowledge of the peculiarities of an individual literature. However, we thus see man also in his universality. In the Germanic literatures he emerges with the same passions, virtues, and vices as in Romance literatures; on every page the unity and mutual dependence of all nations is revealed. ... Comparative literary history corrects individual and national one-sidedness, the dangerous enemy of modern civilization.

How much responsibility Goethe bears!

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