Friday, March 11, 2016

Fritz Strich and world literature, 1

 Over the years I have posted often on world literature and on Fritz Strich. (For anyone who is interested in these posts, go to the small search window at the top left and add the search term.) My interest in Strich (1882–1963) has to do with the odd position he occupies in world literature scholarship. Or perhaps it is the position he does not occupy. One invariably encounters his name, and the status of his 1946 study Goethe und die Weltliteratur is always invoked. John Pizer has written, for instance, that it is "still the most important monograph on the subject." According to Theo D'haen, Strich is "one of the most perceptive and thorough commentators on Goethe and world literature." Yet if one examines recent historical overviews of world literature, for instance, The Routledge Companion to World Literature (2012), one finds chapters on Hugo Meltzl, Georg Brandes, Rabindranath Tagore, Albert Guérard, Erich Auerbach, Claudio Guillén, Edward Said, Pascale Casanova, Franco Moretti -- but none on Strich.

It might seem that Strich's special contribution to the field was simply to have compiled the scattered Goethean uses of the term “world literature,” twenty-one in total, which appear before the endnotes of Goethe und die Weltliteratur. These have been the starting point for many a work that shows otherwise no extensive knowledge of Goethe's utterances or thinking.

This is a strange fate for Strich, whom Anne Bohnenkamp describes as "der Verfasser der bis heute grundlegenden Monographie zum Thema [Weltliteratur].” To show how foundational this work was, and to indicate the effect of historical conditions on scholarship, let me mention what is the only other significant contribution to theorizing world literature before Goethe und die Weltliteratur. This is a long 1930 article by Victor Klemperer entitled “Weltliteratur und europäische Literatur,” which contains many of the same observations found in articles on world literature written by Strich before 1946. Within four years, however, Klemperer was removed from his teaching position in Dresden, denied access to libraries throughout the National Socialist era, and did not return to the subject after World War II. By 1930, Strich had left Munich and relocated to Switzerland, to Berne, and had the field to himself.

Strich wrote three essays of which the titles refer specifically to world literature (in 1928, 1930, and 1932), along with a number of other essays that reflect the same concerns that will be voiced in all of his succeeding work, namely, the historical exchange among the European literary vernaculars since the Renaissance and the hopeful prospect of amity among the peoples of the world that such an exchange seemed to promise and that for Strich was the central element of Goethe’s concept of world literature.

Moreover, Goethe und die Weltliteratur inaugurated a new field of scholarship, namely, that of “world literature,” even if Strich himself has been left aside in the process. Bohnenkamp is correct to say that it was “grundlegend.”

It is true that Goethe's concept, already in his lifetime and immediately thereafter, was a subject of much interest. But, as Peter Goßens has written (Weltliteratur. Modelle transnationaler Literaturwahrnehmung im 19. Jahrhundert, Stuttgart, 2011) of this afterlife: “Interessant ist dabei, daß und wie sich der Begriff allmählich aus dem direkten Goetheumfeld entfernt und sein Eigenleben in anderen transnational orientierten Kontexten beginnt.” Despite the spread of the term, especially among late-19th-century comparatists, it is surprising how little philology there was on the background or origin of Goethe’s thinking before the appearance of Goethe und die Weltliteratur, even as seemingly every other aspect of his oeuvre was being subjected to examination. After its appearance, however, studies of world literature soon followed, first among them the publication of the Aspen symposium of 1949.

Indeed, I hazard to assert that the initial reception of Strich’s study was a boon to Goethe’s reception and reputation after World War II. Yet it is Strict’s contemporary Erich Auerbach (1892­–1957), who published a single essay on world literature, in a 1952 festschrift for Strich, who is increasingly a touchstone for world literature scholarship.

The following posts will be devoted to this issue of Strich’s absence from the scholarship. It has of course much to do with his interpretation of world literature, which takes the “Humanitätspathos” of many of Goethe’s utterances to new levels. As I will discuss, however, his interpretation sheds light on the issue of “Eurocentrism” and its universalist assumptions.

Picture credits: Dreamstime; Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

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