Saturday, August 15, 2015

Goethe and world literature

Obviously I am obsessed with the deer in the back yard. Occasionally there are two of them. I have discovered that if I throw some plums from my balcony, one will approach. I am beginning to think the deer here are a bit like the squirrels in New York City parks: you can be sitting on a bench, and they come right up to you and beg. This is a fishing island; I don't know of any hunting going on. The deer seem to wander around as if they weren't worried. In any case, from the picture it appears that the deer is thin, although maybe deer are always thin.

Searching for plums
When I am not working on my own book or reading Jane Brown's book on Goethe and allegory, I take some time out to read Dieter Lamping's short survey, Die Idee der Weltliteratur: Ein Konzept Goethes und seine Karriere. I carry it with me when I take the ferry over to Port McNeill to do some shopping or when I walk down to what is called "Graveyard Point," after the Finnish cemetery there. It is also the only nearby place on the island where I can get cell phone reception. Not that I have anyone I need to call, but sometimes I do so just to use the darn phone.

Does she look thin?
When I get back to New York, having finished my book and my review, I will turn back to an essay on world literature on which I have been working for way too long. I generally hop around in Lamping's book, to keep in touch with the issues. Today was a really lovely day, and I sat on a bench at the beach reading the chapter "Nationalliteratur und Weltliteratur." Lamping mentions that very few scholars follow Dieter Borchmeyer, who sees Goethe, Marx, and Nietzsche anticipating the replacement of national literature by world literature because of the development of "modern civilization" and more open societies. No, everyone seems agreed that Goethe did not envision the end of the individual national literatures. World literature, Lamping writes, is always national literature, as is national literature world literature, when it participates in the kind of international exchange (Austausch) that Goethe had in mind.

Yet, he goes on to say something that I don't agree with. He writes that the distinctiveness of literature is not due to its language, but rather to its poetic "Verfastheit," from which emerges a store of forms, themes, subjects, motifs, and the like, which all literatures share. But what would be "national" about a particular literary work simply by participating in "sprach├╝bergreifende Beziehungen"? And what does that mean, anyway?

If I can make a comparison with the visual arts, I suppose there is, for instance, a Japanese style of modernist architecture, just as there is a Swedish and a Brazilian style. And I suppose one might identify certain details as "Japanese" or "Swedish" or "Brazilian." Yet each is participating in an international idiom, just as are playwrights who write in the idiom of Harold Pinter or Tom Stoppard or even Andrew Lloyd Weber. Can one really describe any of these by nationality? It's all one big melting pot, as Erich Auerbach rightly wrote in his essay on world literature.

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