Thursday, October 16, 2014

World literature and progress

Several posts on this blog have discussed Peter Goßens book, which concerns the reception of Goethe's concept of world literature already in Goethe's lifetime and in the decades following his death. World literature was appropriated in the context of social and political reform. For instance, prominent in Goßens’ treatment is the influence of Karl August Varnhagen and the penetration of the ideas of the followers of Saint-Simon, especially among Goethe admirers in Varnhagen’s Berlin circle. Cyrus Hamlin has written that Varnhagen’s reading of the Wanderjahre was a “Gebrauchsanweisung für die zukünftige soziale Ordnung Europas in 19. Jahrhundert,” thereby forming, in Goßens’ words, “der Grundstein einer sozialistischen Goethedeutung.”

So "progessive Universalpoesie," although not in the sense in which Friedrich Schlegel meant. World literature was the inspiration for reformers, not only of their own society, but also of the world. The project was utopian: formal analysis was set aside, and aesthetics was subsumed into ethics.  It was this utopian vision that drew Marx’s ironic response to world literature in The Communist Manifesto and to the more scathing ridicule in Engels’ Anti-Dühring.

Goethe himself had of course asserted that literary exchange among the European nations would erode the prejudices that existed among them and, in the future, extend beyond Europe to encompass the world. Echoing Goethe, if not in his own words, the German-American comparatist Louis-Paul Betz (for Betz, see my earlier post) wrote the following in 1903:

 "Comparative literature not only creates new and more liberal insights into  both national literature and foreign literature, it not only reveals errors and corrects traditions, but it also achieves useful, ideal, and ethical purposes: world peace, mediation between peoples, a humanity that, regardless of the inner life of a nation, also has heart and feeling for that which takes place on the other side of the boundary post. … it leads to the recognition that the concord of peoples and progressive national development are based on an continuously growing consciousness of the richness of all peoples and of their universal unity and on the principle of being forever true to oneself and of joining with the Other."

French soldier and Indian bride return from Paris, 1720
In an essay in 1924 ("Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown") Virginia Woolf claimed that "on or about December 1910 human character changed." She was not saying that literature produced this change, but that literature began to record or reflect changes on the ground. In my last post, I suggested that commerce and trade, beginning in 16th century already, was the major factor in diminishing enmity among the people of the various countries, if not among their rulers. Trade produced a need for new products and inventions. The result was "progress," at first of a material nature. Such progress, however, would upend the the traditional order of life, open people's horizons, and and make them codependent on others for their comforts and their way of life. This term, however, came to be moralized: progress meant an advance on the past, which began to be considered retrograde. As the painting above shows (click to enlarge), Europeans also sought to improve the conditions of non-Europeans, to help them to "advance," which meant becoming European.

Picture credit: Anglais pour le Bac

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