Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Fritz Strich and world literature, 3

 Goethe und die Weltliteratur appeared in 1946, the same year as Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklicheit in der abendländischen Literatur, by Erich Auerbach (1892­–1957), and two years before Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter, by Ernst Robert Curtius (1886–1956). Following on World War II, after which Germany’s international stock had reached its nadir, the three works indirectly addressed “the German problem.” Yet, at a moment when Europe seemed irrevocably sundered by perennial animosities, each insisted on the historical continuity and unity of European culture.

An early essay by Strich, a 1916 essay on German Baroque poetry, “Der lyrische Stil des 17. Jahrhunderts,” exemplifies this unity. This long essay is a detailed, example-rich analysis of how German poets created a national style from the imported alexandrine. It was by the naturalizing of a Romance-originated poetic style that German poets began to participate on equal footing in a European-wide style, “the Baroque.”

In 1916, of course, Germany was at  war with the rest of Europe, by the end of which Germany’s standing among the nations had undergone catastrophic decline. It must have been at this point that Strich embarked on what became his vocation, namely, the promoting of world literature as a form of national and international understanding. Thus, Goethe und die Weltliteratur had its genesis twenty years earlier, after the First World War. In a review of Goethe und die Weltliteratur in Publications of the English Goethe Society in 1948, L.A. Willoughby wrote that “English readers will feel a proprietary interest in this book, for its germs were planted in 1924 when Professor Strich delivered a series of lectures on this subject before the University of London.”

"Es ist der Geist, der sich den Körper baut"
Even though he was the first Goethe scholar to publish a major work on the subject, Strich's ideas on world literature were inspired by the works of scholars who already in the early 19th century, recognized that the countries of Europe were coming together in a kind of aesthetic cosmopolitanism. An indication of this coming together was the sharing across borders of literary and artistic phenomena: what began in one country — be it the sonnet, the alexendrine, the novel, or even such themes as adultery –– would be taken up in another country, so that one could speak of “literary movements” (e.g., Baroque, Neo-Classicism, and so on), even as each literary culture had its own “national” characteristics: for instance, you could not mistake the Spanish Baroque for the German.

"Bewegtheit" (Carracci, The Lamentation, 1582)

 For Strich, the literary interchange was a reflection of a profound process, namely, a universal spirit (“Geist”) traveling through history and uniting the different nations into shared amity and tolerance, a view that was at the heart of his interpretation of world literature. The spirit moves; it does not stand still; and Strich constantly uses nouns and verbs expressive of movement in describing the effect of the spirit on literary expression. To return to the 1916 essay on German Baroque poetry, he writes that the most frequent motif of 17th-century poetry is “die Klage um den jähen Wechsel aller Dinge, ... : daß alles auf Erden eitel ist, ein Schatten, ein Wind, ein Rauch, ein verklingender Ton, eine Welle. Man ist ein Ball, den das Verhängnis schlägt, ein Kahn auf dem empörten Meer, ein Rohr, das jeder Wind bewegt.”

He contrasts this “Bewegtheit” with the “epische Ruhe, Gegenständlichkeit und Gebundenheit” of  the poetry of the 16th century, as exemplified in the treatment of the death of Christ in a poem by Hans Sachs. (As in the painting at the left by Guido di Pietro, from 1420-23.) Paul Fleming, in contrast, transforms the event into an “epische[s] Geschehnis.” The principle of movement also characterizes the treatment of homely subjects, of ordinary life, because of the sense of the fleeting nature of all things, which produced a desire to capture an elusive moment. Thus, one reads of  “Als Flavia einsmahls an einem groben Sack arbeitete,” or “Als sie bei trübem Sturmwetter ihre Wäsche bleichete.”

While Strich's formalist approach to describe the “travel” of a literary style from one national literature to another is compelling in its wealth of stylistic detail, he does not offer an explanation for what produced the change in spirit from Hans Sachs to Paul Fleming, from timelessness to time. Of the Thirty Years’ War he writes only that it produced no heroic poetry. In retrospect that war has taken on large contours in explaining the 17th-century “fracturing of the world.” Yet, while Germany and Central Europe were certainly devastated, the fracturing was not restricted to that region. The travel of ideas and intellectual advancement did not require a war to leave behind the old hierarchies behind. The experience of transience expressed in the poetry, “den jähen Wechsel aller Dinge,” also replicated the rapidity with which material changes were transforming Europe by the 17th century.

In my next posts I will discuss the material changes that were giving rise to the idea of the progress of a universal spirit uniting the nations into a common humanity.

Picture credits: Luminous Dark Cloud; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Die Zeit

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