Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Fritz Strich and world literature, 4

The slogans “We Are All New Yorkers” or “We Are All Charlie” and so on after terrorist attacks, along with the candles and other public signs of mourning, have always made me uncomfortable. My discomfort has to do with the sadness that such expressions represent, whereas anger would seem more fitting. Yet we inhabit a civilized world, and one of the foundation blocks of a civilized world is restraint, along with tolerance, which commands us to repress a martial spirit: “War Is Not Good for Children and Other Living Things.” The enemies of civilization feel no such restraint: they send their children to war, hand out candies to them after successful attacks. And, of course, all around us, at the margins of the civilized world that we inhabit, bubble up anarchy, dissatisfaction, resentments.

As the above cartoon by Ali Dilem demonstrates, it is not just the traditional centers of civilization, “the West,” that are the targets of Islamic terrorists. Ankara, Kenya, Mali, any place with tendencies toward the Western way of life are on the hit list.

For those who are surprised to read of these sentiments in a post on Fritz Strich and world literature, allow me to expand.

The concept of world literature, which Goethe “birthed” in the 19th century, sums up the ideals of a civilized world. Strich took an idea that had been around for a century, namely, that the countries of Europe were manifesting similar tendencies in literature and the arts. They were all “trading” with one another, for instance, sharing literary idioms and forms and motifs. Thus, no European country escaped experiencing a Romantic movement. For Strich, this interchange was evidence of a Hegelian-like Spirit that was blending the different countries into a common humanity. No people is complete in itself, and, ultimately, this succession of styles, according to Strich, represents the striving of the human spirit, through the succeeding manifestations of national spirits, toward perfection of the human Urbild.

To a great extent, this process has indeed taken place in the West. Although we tend nowadays to avoid terms like “common humanity,” we respond similarly to terrorist attacks in other European cities. It could be us, after all. Thus, “Je suis Bruxelles.” In truth, Europeans and Americans are very much alike in their life styles and in their values. We have more in common with each other than we do with non-Westernized folks. Europe and its offshoots represent, to the greatest extent, a cultural product, one that has been achieved over many centuries, the result of intellectual and material commerce among the countries of Europe beginning in the early modern period. Strich’s description of the blending and sharing of literary and artistic styles exemplifies this coming together.

For Strich and the late-19th-century comparatists from whom he drew so much, the development of common cultural ideals was evidence of universal “progress,” but it was only universal to the nations that were connected and enriched through trade and commerce.

It is not surprising that Goethe linked the spread of "Humanität" (or the "European" spirit) with "Verkehr" (commerce; transport) and "Handel" (trade); he saw a connection between the free commerce in material goods and that in ideas ("mehr oder weniger freier geistiger Handelsverkehr," from his introduction to Carlyle's biography of Schiller). That Goethe might have believed this was the case should not be surprising. By the 1820s, Europe was enjoying the benefits of several centuries of growth in scientific and cultural knowledge and was progressing on a path of technological innovation from which it has not retreated. The intellectual exchange that produced these benefits was a facet of European life in which Goethe himself was an active participant. Moreover, international trade was acquainting Europeans with the products of other nations, making them in turn more "worldly." Such changes in material life, as with the exchange of intellectual and cultural products would, so Goethe believed, lead, if not to love, certainly to a tolerant, cosmopolitan, and less ethnocentric attitude among the nations.

John Gast, The Spirit of American Progress, 1832
These issues of material "Verkehr" and "Handel" are the most undeveloped aspects of Strich's work on world literature and of the preceding literary histories of Europe. Aside from a few sentences, his interest is almost totally devoted to the "geistiger Raum" created by world literature. Strich, like Brunetière, was an inheritor of a trend in Enlightenment thinking that viewed historical transformation, according to László Kontler, as "motivated by inner moral-spiritual enlightenment. Both as the medium and as the cause of such transformations, spontaneous intercourse in the socio-economic realm [took] second place.” Perhaps this neglect indicates a Christian substrate, but it shows the power of abstract ideals, especially since the Enlightenment. Therefore, Strich neglected the influence of the rise and fall of national economies not only on artistic production but also on the accompanying transformation of institutions that produced what we now recognize as liberal values, i.e., the Western way of life. In other words, tolerance is a byproduct of the wealth of nations.  Ideas only have real power to influence when they reflect material possibilities, and the emergence of the West and Western values coincided with the rise of the market economy by the late 17th century.

Yet, if Strich vastly underrated the material effects of trade, the language he used to describe the literary commerce are full of metaphors of movement. When he speaks (as mentioned in the previous post) of German 17th-century poetry as expressing a spirit of transience –– “die Klage um den jähen Wechsel aller Dinge” –– he is describing what was occurring on the ground in Europe in the 17th century.

By the 17th century, trade was producing both a movement of men (for the most part) and freeing up massive amounts of human potential, leading in turn to new goods and an acceleration in technological advances. For instance, because of overseas trade there was an increased need for metals –– for coins and for weapons. This led to a huge investments in mining, and the need to go deeper to extract metals required new technology. Among other inventions, the magnetic compass and the telescope expanded the sense of distance. And if poets are not quite the legislators of the world, they are often the first to put such changes into words. They responded, in Germany and elsewhere, many with trepidation, others with delight, to the heretofore-unperceived immensities of the universe and to the new status of the earth, no longer standing still with the planets revolving around it. The earth was in motion. "Bewegtheit" was indeed the driving "spirit" of this era. It was more the spirit of Adam Smith, however, than of Hegel.

Transience is a byproduct of the market: what we loved yesterday is replaced today in favor of new products, new values. It is unsettling, and it is no wonder that people all over the world, even within the West itself, are unhappy when the ground under their feet is constantly shifting. Progress is, indeed “veloziferisch.”

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