Monday, March 14, 2016

Fritz Strich and world literature, 2

Fritz Strich’s essays on world literature draw their inspiration from literary exchange among the European vernaculars in the early modern period. Already in the early 19th-century such writers as Friedrich Bouterwek (1766–1828) and the Schlegels had observed that the literary vernaculars, from the Renaissance on, had “traded” among themselves, successively manifesting the same styles (e.g., mannerist vs. classicist), genres (pastorals, tragedies, sonnets), themes, and so on, with local inflection.

Writing in the same vein was the French scholar Ferdinand Brunetière (1849–1906), who sketched the development of what he called "European literature," in particular the way in which the individual nations had developed a European literature on the soil of medieval Christianity and in particular antiquity, which he called "the master of Europe's mind and spirit." The great literatures of Europe developed successively (there are five in Brunetière’s scheme: first, the Italians, followed by the Spanish, then the French, the English, and finally the Germans), with one after another manifesting "what were its most national and particular aspects," and each literature contributing to "the movement of European thought."

European "thought" in this account is simply the literary blending, so to speak, of the literatures of five countries into a common European product: Italy, Spain, France, England, and Germany, each of which successively, beginning with the Italians (Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio), contributed to this "movement" of thought. In Italy's case, for instance, it was as transmitter of the tradition of antiquity, while among Spain's "truly great European creations" can be found the drama.
Ferdinand Brunetière
Brunetière's scheme is replicated by Strich in his writings on world literature. In fact, Strich utilizes the same schema, likewise positing that the dominance of one nation in this literary give-and-take occurred when its literature simultaneously manifested most strongly its own national individuality while preserving a maximum of the common European (i.e., classical and Christian) “spirit.” For instance, the sonnet began in Italy but rapidly made its way through all the lands of western Europe. Anyone who has studied art history recognizes that something similar can be seen in architectural styles: Romanesque, Gothic, and so on, which appear throughout Europe, but each manifesting individual “national” characteristics.

What differentiates Strich’s interpretation of this literary blending from the Schlegels and Brunetière is the motive force that propels the integration.  This motive force is a progressive spirit of history, expressed via a dialectical movement of the spirit of different nationalities. Here is Strich's explanation of how the movement occurs, from the opening of his 1922 study Deutsche Klassik und Romantik:

 “Das große Mysterium der Wiedergeburt, der Renaissance der Stile, muß als innersten Wesenskern eine ewig lebendige Gegenwärtigkeit geistiger Strömungen haben. Es muß in der Geschichte des Geistes etwas geben, was nicht vergeht, sondern immer zur Auferstehung bereit ist, wenn es von brüderlichem Geiste gerufen wird, etwas, das so notwendig menschlich, so ewig gültig sein muß, daß es immer wieder aus dem Strom der Zeiten aufzutauchen vermag.”

To the greatest extent, Strich's interpretation of world literature takes the "Humanitätspathos" of many of Goethe’s utterances to new levels. In 1946, after two world wars, in which Germany’s international stock had reached its nadir, Strich held that the progressive spirit expressed by the idea of world literature was to unite all humans into what he called, in Goethe und die Weltliteratur, "einer übernationalen, allgemein menschlichen, humanen Kultur.”

The process began in Europe, but it would soon encompass the earth. As Strich wrote: “Eine europäische Literatur, also eine zwischen den Literaturen Europas und zwischen den europäischen Völkern vermittelnde und ausgetauschte Literatur, ist die erste Stufe der Weltliteratur, die sich, von hier aus beginnend, zu einem immer weiter um sich greifenden und endlich die Welt umfassenden Komplex erweitern wird.”

This optimistic vision, with its universalist goal, has in the meantime been stained with the epithet of "Eurocentrism," and Europe and its offshoots now stand accused, like monarchs of old, of monopolistic behavior, while its universal values are accused of being an ideological cover for power and for the exploitation by Europeans of the non-European world. In succeeding posts, I will describe how Strich’s earliest essays on world literature shed light on the issue of Eurocentrism.

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