Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The "mind" of capitalism

The illumination of the philosophes
I continue to work on my essay on Fritz Strich and find myself somewhat bogged down in the subject of "Geistesgeschichte." Strich in his writings constantly refers to "Geist," either to German or French "Geist" and so on, or to the "Geist" of history and so on. This can first be seen in a very important essay he published in 1916 entitled "Der lyrische Stil des 17. Jahrhunderts." It is acknowledged that the essay inaugurated the discipline of Baroque literature. An indication of the low regard in which 17th-century literature was held can be seen in a comment by Wilhelm Scherer in his history of German literature (1883): "Aber nie hat ein unbedeutender Dichter mit so geringem Recht eine bedeutende Stellung in der Literaturgeschichte errungen, wie Opitz."

The connection of Geistegeschichte and the inauguration of Baroque literary scholarship has itself become a subject of recent academic interest in recent decades. Hans-Harald Müller in his Barockforschung: Ideologie und Methode, ein Kapitel deutscher Wissenschaftsgeschichte 1870-1930) of 1973 associates the two with proto-fascist tendencies. Klaus Garber in 1976 (Martin Opitz, Der Vater der deutschen Dichtung": eine kritische Studie zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte der Germanistik) finds in Geistegeschichte support of monopoly capitalism in the German empire at the end of the 19th century. Both of these studies are very well researched and documents, but they reflect a tendency of Western intellectual life since the 18th century, namely, to reject the inheritance of the past. In the case of Geistesgeschichte, it is probably the failure of this very optimistic "doctrine" of universal progress that has consigned it to the dust heap of history.

In this article Strich discussed the "naturalization" in German poetry of the baroque (lower case) style. In a much later article (1938) he would discuss the Spanish and Italian roots of "baroque," but in 1916 he was simply making the point that the accentuation of German poetry, its "Betonung," and the contraries contained in the alexandrine style, made it a "natural" for the German language to express the new "spirit of the time." This spirit was a realization of "den jähen Wechsel aller Dinge, ... : daß alles auf Erden eitel ist, ein Schatten, ein Wind, ein Rauch, ein verklingnder Ton, eine Welle. Man ist ein Ball, den das Verhängnis schlägt, ein Kahn auf dem empörten Meer, ein Rohr, das jeder Wind bewegt."

The Thirty Years' War plays a big role in the interpretation of this mood of the time. Henning Boetius, in his edition of Daniel Morhof's Unterricht von der Teutschen Sprache und Poesie (1682), has written of the 17th century: "Der mittelalterliches Ordogedanke, der bis den Humanismus hinreichte, Denken wie soziales Leben auf ein Göttliches hin hierarchisiered, ist im 30jährigen Krieg zerbrochen." Yet even while wars were leading the nations to bankruptcy, grandiose architectural projects and intellectual developments continued.

Descartes published his Discourse on Method in 1637, and Galileo was writing the founding texts of modern physics. Men born in the 17th century were the first generation to come of age outside the world of Aristotle, outside a sense of order of the universe. The telescope showed that limits could no longer be placed on the world. Poets may not be the legislators of the world, but they are often the first to respond to such changes in the world. Thus, they responded, in Germany and elsewhere, especially to the heretofore-unperceived immensities of the universe, to the displacement of Europe included, stand still with the planets revolving around it.

What inaugurated all these changes, what fractured the previously stable world view, including the confessional differences that ostensibly sparked the Europe-wide warring, was the opening of the world to commerce. That scientific knowledge began to accumulate, without any standard of truth, indicates that rapid turnover in "goods." It in only ironic that European exploration began with an Italian; the major Italian thinkers of the Renaissance period seemed blissfully unaware of change in perspective. In the Baroque essay, Strich characterizes the Renaissance poetic style as "measured": "der ganz auf Mass und Messbarkeit angelegt ist," expressed of eternal things. The Baroque, in contrast, gives expression to "dem werdenden, sich wandelnden, momentanen Erlebnis."

What is this experience but that of capitalism, The spirit of history, the "mind" of the title of this post, is that of capitalism.

1 comment:

Clem said...

"Men born in the 17th century were the first generation to come of age outside the world of Aristotle, outside a sense of order of the universe."

A fascinating thought and a well turned sentence... but I wonder how many scholars will accept it on its surface. Maybe it works well enough within the strict confines of Geistesgeschichte, but by itself it seems to indirectly insult more than 60 generations.

I see how the telescope and Descartes' ideas make a good case for a demarcation in time, so perhaps I should just let this go. But on first blush the gap from Aristotle to Galileo seems so enormous and thereby discounts SO many folk I was moved to comment and perhaps poke you to reply.