Sunday, August 13, 2017

Goethe im Rheingau

First there was one
 We all hear of free-range poultry and meat, but in Sointula one sees “free range” concretized. The daily experience of all these cows grazing in my back yard, roaming from their homestead further up the road, has put me in mind of Goethe. Cows in yards and on public ways was probably a common sight in the small town of Weimar, if not on the meadows of the ducal residence,  perhaps along the Ilm, where Goethe had his cottage.

Then there were two

And three
As I mentioned in an earlier post, a couple of weeks ago I traveled in the Rheingau with friends. We stopped at the Brentano House in Winkel, which was once part of the large estate of Franz and Antonia Brentano. Franz, a wealthy Frankfurt merchant, was the half-brother of Clemens and Bettina Brentano. Goethe spent the first eight days of September of 1814 at their estate, which allowed him also to visit other Rheingau points of interest. Antonia Brentano wrote later of this visit:

Als Goethe bei uns zu Besuche wohnte, veranstaltete er immer selbst die Landparteien, die Mittags vorgenommen werden sollten. Er sagte z.B. "Heute Nachmittag anspannen und nach Johannisgrund fahren," denn zum Gehen bequemte er sich nicht gerne. Oder bestellte er eine Nachenfahrt.

Don't forget me!
Along with his interest in the Rochus Chapel, Goethe noted the following in his diary of Septmber 6:  “Spaziergang erst allein, dann mit Mad. Brentano und Dlle Serviere. Frl. v. Güngerode Leben und Tod. Ort ihres Selbstmordes. Kurz vorhergehend.”

He visited the vineyards of Vollrat Castle as well as those of Johannisberg. As he would write at the time to his son, he got to know the region well.

Sointula pastoral
Hier bin ich sehr gut, schön und bequem, man thut mir alles zu Lieb und Lust. Ohne die Aufmercksame Gefälligkeit dieser Familie, hätte ich die Gegend im ganzen Umfang nicht kennen lernern, welche sehr der Mühe wert ist. Man kann lange in der Erinnerung dieser Bilder genießen.

One image he did not record, however, no doubt because it could scarcely be a memorable one, was that of livestock wandering around the countryside, even if by then much farm land would have been fenced. For those of us in the West today, the sight in my back yard is of course an unusual one, prompting me to thoughts about the prominence of the pastoral genre in earlier centuries.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Home again

A visitor in my back yard
I got back from Germany on Monday, so happy to be back on my small island and also back to work on my novel. Many of you will not know that Goethe Girl once published novels, back before Goethe came into her life in a big way. I am now returning to my literary persona and my days in Sointula, so full of peace and quiet, are conducive to novelistic labors.

Herewith follow a few scenes from my final days in Germany, spent in Marburg with my friends Eberhard and Uschi Leyendecker. Marburg was where I studied so many years ago and met up with my old friends from those days at the reunion in Mannheim. (Click on photos to enlarge.)


Eberhard prepares an evening collation

Marburg was also home to a Romantic circle

The castle in Marburg
All over Germany there are Reformation exhibitions. Our group attended one in Mannheim on the papacy and its role in the "founding," to so speak, of Europe. The exhibition in the castle in Marburg laid emphasis on the role of education in the Reformation. Philipps-Universität in Marburg was the first protestant university founded after the Reformation, in 1527. Pictured below is its founder, Philipp I of Hessen (1504-1567).

Philipp I of Hessen



Friday, July 28, 2017

Goethe in Rheingau

Almost 213 years ago, on September 2, 1814, Goethe visited the Rheingau region. I learned this from a lovely exhibition catalogue I bought at the Goethe-Museum in Frankfurt on Tuesday: Goethes Zeitschrift Ueber Kunst und Alterthum: von den Rhein- und Mayn Gegenden zur Weltliteratur. The first chapter concerns "Im Rheingau Herbstages," with Goethe's visit at the country estate of the Brentano family in Winkel on the Rhine. And 213 years later, I visited the Brentano house with friends from the outing in Mannheim. Unfortunately, we had not checked to see if the house was open.It was not, and is very much in needs of patrons to rehabilitate it. We went next to the nearby Vollrads castle, which Goethe visited on September 2. It was very much open for a visit, at least the grounds. Here is what Goethe wrote about his visit to Vollrads:



Ohngefähr in der Mitte von Winkel biegt man aus nach der Höhe zu, um Vollrath zu  besuchen. Erst geht der Weg zwischen Weinbergen, denn erreicht man eine Wiesenfläche, sie is hier unerwartet, feucht und mit Weiden umgeben. Am Fuß des Gebirges, auf einem Hügel liegt das Schloß, rechts und links fruchtbare Felder und Weinberge, einen Bergwald von Buchen und Eichen im Rücken.

Schloß Johannisberg
 I will not repeat the entire account here (see KuA), suffice it to say that Goethe Girl was able to purchase a bottle of the Goethe wine at Schloß Vollrads. We also made a stop at Schloß Johannisberg. The next time I have a glass of Johannisberg Riesling, I will know from where it originates.

Near the Brentano house in Winkel


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Friends of his youth

Goethe Girl has made a quick (!) trip from Vancouver to Frankfurt. The purpose was a reunion with friends of mine from university days in Marburg back in the Stone Age. We meet very five years for a reunion, which takes place in the town of the organizer. This year we are in Mannheim. After my arrival at Frankfurt International Airport, I headed into the city and went to the Goethe-Museum for a very short visit, before heading on to Mannheim. The works below include two paintings that represent works with which Goethe was familiar and which he discussed in his autobiography, Poetry and Truth (Dichtung und Wahrheit).  The other paintings are of people who were of influence  in his youth. The dates indicate the way they might have looked when Goethe knew them.The paintings of Oeser, Stolberg, and Gellert are by Anton Graff. The painting of Carl August is by Johann Ernst Heinsius. According to the museum label, Carl August decided in 1780 to chop off the customary Prussian pigtail in favor of a "Schwedenkopf." (Click on pictures to enlarge.)

Adam Friedrich Oeser (1776)
Christian F. Gellert (1769)
Friedrich Leopold Graf zu Stolberg (1785)
Carl August, Duke of Weimar (1781)

Justus Junckner, Visit to an Artist's Studio (1854)










Monday, July 17, 2017

Sointula days

At the other end of Malcolm island, reached after travel on a logging road, is Mitchell Bay. Back in the Sixties, some folks from the U.S. settled this part of the island, living, as we now say, "off the grid." (It is amazing how interminable the road to Mitchell Bay is when you are driving in second gear.) In the meantime, some beautiful houses have been built, as exemplified by that of Thelma and Murray, who invited me to go out in their boat to look for whales. (Click on pictures to enlarge.)

The best part of the excursion was the sight of a huge pod of dolphins. They came close to the boat, swam and dived under it, but mostly they were in search of herring. They travel fast. I could not help thinking at the time how mysterious they seemed and that they would find a prominent place in Greek mythology. It just so happened that yesterday a correspondent of this blog wrote to me about the frequent appearance of dolphins in Greek mythology. He mentioned a depiction of them, dated 1600 B.C., on the walls of a bathroom in the palace at Knossos. The picture here shows these marvelous water creatures.

Whales were seen as well. Afterward, Thelma showed me her beautiful quilts.

Goethe Girl is also working while here, as will be revealed in further posts.

Departing Mitchell Bay to view whales

White-sided dolphins too fast to photograph

Goethe Girl enjoys the ride

The ocean

Thelma's quilt reminded me of Goethe's color wheels

Thelma herself

Photograph credit (Knossos): Te Ara

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Gone fishing

I am back in Sointula for my summer sojourn. It has been a busy first week, with a day trip to northwest Vancouver Island. The painting of the logger (detail only) was taken at the Scarlet Ibis Pub in Holberg on the way to Grant Bay, where the beach pictures were taken. Goethe Girl can be seen standing in front of a wonderful outcropping of basalt. Click on photos to enlarge.

Going on 10 p.m. it is 12.3 Celsius. More news to follow.






Saturday, June 17, 2017

Goethe and the Cult of Personality in 19th-Century Britain

Female preacher at a Quaker meeting
My friend and colleague Gregory Maertz, professor of English at Saint John’s University, reminds me of the men and women interviewed on HR2 “Doppelkopf,” one of my favorite German podcasts. Alongside his expertise in 19th-century British literature, he has recently published a volume of essays on the influence of Goethe in Britain in the late 18th–early 19th century. The title of the volume, Literature and the Cult of Personality, is a hint of the importance of Goethe, especially for Thomas Carlyle, at a time that the latter referred to as “these hard unbelieving utilitarian days.” In an age bereft of spiritual certainties, literature replaced the role of religion for Carlyle, and it was Goethe who became the prophet of the new dispensation, with his texts comparable to the Acts of the Apostles for people of faith. Thus, Goethe became “the Uniter and Reconciler” of “the inward spiritual chaos” of “the most distracted and divided age .. since the introduction of the Christian religion.”

It has been pointed out that Carlyle’s criticism is decidedly lacking in formal evaluation of Goethe’s works.  Instead, Goethe’s “oracular significance” was based to the greatest extent on what Carlyle perceived as his “sincerity” (or maybe “authenticity” as per Lionel Trilling?): Goethe was not simply some painter of words or imitator of poetic formulas. He lived what he wrote, which was suggested to Carlyle by Goethe’s own oracular pronouncement in Dichtung und Wahrheit: "Everything that I have published previously consists of fragments of a great confession."

While Carlyle is the best-known mediator of Goethe’s influence in Britain, the first chapter of Literature and the Cult of Personality concerns the first translators of German literature, writers loosely identified with the Godwin circle. They were among the earliest and most fervent supporters of the French Revolution, which very quickly made them marginal, not only with respect to the dominant politics (which were anti-Jacobin). The stance of being ideological outsiders may have been second nature to them, as many were Dissenters (e.g., Quakers, Methodists) or female, thus, with little access to what Greg calls the Oxbridge or public school education based on Latin and Greek.
Thomas Holcroft

A member of this circle, Thomas Holcroft, was so sympathetic to the French Revolution that he was effectively banished from publishing under his own name, even after his acquittal for treason in 1794. The appeal to him of Goethe’s Hermann und Dorothea is not surprising, and he  produced the first translation to appear in Britain.  As Greg writes, the text allowed Holcroft to center himself “in a foreign otherness,” while the conflict within Hermann’s family mirrored that of the Godwin circle “in the wake of war hysteria and government reaction.” Goethe himself praised Holcroft for his translation in a letter of May 29, 1801, in which he distinguished two approaches to translation.

Because of my own work on the reception of Milton in Germany in the early 18th century, I was interested to learn of the many contacts of Germans in Britain already by then. Several German scientists and Enlightenment figures became members of the Royal Society on its founding in 1663, and throughout the following century German musicians and painters worked in England. The youngest Bach son, Johann Christian, organized concerts of Mozart’s music in London and arranged his appearance at court in 1764. John Wesley transmitted many German hymns into the Methodist musical inventory.

Thus, Goethe was not the first or only German writer whose works appeared in translation. Fuseli, who arrived in England from Zurich in 1760, produced the first translation of Winckelmann in English, and Henry  Hudson’s translation of Lavater’s Physiological Fragments appeared in a lavish edition of three volumes (1789, 1792, 1798). The plays of Kotzebue were wildly popular on the London stage (in contrast to those of Lessing or Goethe). Indeed, as Greg writes, the dominant literary public felt “nearly universal antipathy toward Goethe,” precisely for the lack of moralism in his works. In the words of the Anti-Jacobin Review, “he has attained that divine morality which looks down on all forms of human conduct, with equal eye, and sees in the lewdness of Faustus, or the purity of Iphigenie, but that exact adaptation of effect and cause of conduct and motive, which he characterizes the constitution of things.”

There is much of interest here. I liked William Taylor's characterization of Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth) as a "biographical novel," revealing (quoting here Schopenhauer) the inner significance of everyday life, in contrast to the outer significance. Further chapters discuss the reception of Kant, Henry Crabb Robinson, the Romantic idealization of the artist, the influence of Goethe in New England, and Goethe’s role in the literary formation of George Eliot.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Safranksi biography of Goethe in English

A reader of this blog wrote to inform me of the appearance of the English translation of Goethe: Life as a Work of Art by Rüdiger Safranski. I wrote a review of Safranski's book for the Goethe Yearbook when it appeared in German a few years ago and even devoted a few posts to it, including this one.

The translation is by David Dollenmayer, a professor of German at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. I do not know Professor Dollenmayer, but a little internet research has turned up quite a bit of praise for his translations from German. The Other Press features several of these translations on its website. In 2010 he was the receipient of an Austrian Cultural Forum in New York award for his "translation-in-progress" of Michael Köhlmeier's Idyll With Drowning Dog (Idylle mit ertrinkendem Hund), first published in 2008.

In a statement regarding NEA funding in 2014, for Michael Kleeberg's A Garden in the North (Ein Garten im Norden), Dollenmayer wrote that, in a career of teaching German language and literature, translation seemed like an extension of close reading.

The review of Goethe: Life as a Work of Art by Ben Hutchinson appeared in the above-pictured June issue of The Literary Review. According to Hutchinson, Dollmayer "has boldly decided to translate all quotations from Goethe’s works and letters himself, rather than use existing translations. Occasional anachronisms aside – Goethe the ‘whiz kid’ – this works surprisingly well, giving a single, unified voice to a diverse body of work."

Congratulations to David Dollenmayer on this publication and for its contribution to wider acquaintance with Goethe in the English-speaking world.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Goethe's Lotte in Seoul

Lotte adored by Goethe, Lotte Hotel Seoul
Global Goethe is a site recently inaugurated by the Goethe Society of North America to serve (as per the website) "not just as a repository of translations, adaptations, performances, and visualizations of Goethe and his works from around the world, but also as a place for collaborative scholarship that examines the many representations of Goethe across languages and cultures." One of its first features concerned a Korean company, Lotte Co. Ltd., which was founded in 1948 by the South Korean businessman Shin Kyuk-Ho, who had a fondness for Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. (Go here for Global Goethe's first post on the Lotte company.)

Lotte is a major manufacturer of sweets, and its corporate message, "Sweetheart in Your Mouth," is resonant in connection with Charlotte. According to a Wall Street Journal article of April 17 (behind a paywall) on the Lotte company, the founder was struck by the intensity of the passion Werther felt for Lotte. In the words of one of Lotte's directors: "We want Lotte to be beloved by everyone, like Lotte was."

This link to the Lotte group indicates that the company is much larger than chocolates. It is involved in the chemical and construction industries, and there are baseball teams bearing Lotte's name, in Korea and in Japan, not to forget a chain of luxury hotels around the world. According to the WSJ article, a copy of Goethe's novel is placed in each room of the hotels. The 123-floor Lotte World Tower in Seoul boasts a 17-foot statue of Goethe, a replica of the marble one in Berlin's Tiergarten.

As soon as I read that there was also a two-story-tall illuminated gold-hued statue of Lotte at the Lotte Department Store in downtown Seoul, I got in touch with the New York City publicist for the Lotte Group, asking if she could obtain a photo of the statue for me. After weeks of back and forth emails, a photo arrived today, for which I am most grateful. The statue, pictured at the top of this post (click to enlarge), is located on the rooftop park of the department store. I think this statue of Lotte must be a first.

Also posted here is the photo of the statue of Goethe, situated in Arena Square of Lotte World Tower in Seoul, which was also sent to me by the Lotte publicist. I wonder how many Goethe statues there are around the world, erected because someone felt a passionate attachment to Goethe's work. I would be interested in hearing from anyone (with photos, please) concerning Goethe statues worldwide. With thanks for this first installment from the Seoul and New York City representatives of Lotte.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Homeopathy and German Romanticism

The same issue in which Tim Parks' essay on Victor Hugo appeared (see my earlier post) also featured a quarter-page ad from the University of Toronto Press announcing the publication of several new books, including one by Alice A. Kuzniar, who is a member of the Goethe Society of North America. The new book is The Birth of Homeopathy out of the Spirit of Romanticism. It seems that homeopathy is of German origin,  founded in 1796 by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann. According to the publisher's description, Hahnemann "ardently proposed that like cures like, counter to the conventional treatment of prescribing drugs that have the opposite effect to symptoms." Alice, who teaches in Canada at the University of Waterloo, can be seen in a YouTube video discussing the controversial medical treatment. The book's focus is the intellectual culture circa 1800, including among German Romantics. I have not yet seen the book, but I have a feeling that Goethe features in it.




Saturday, May 20, 2017

"World Literature" can evidently be about anything

Princess Xquic
Okay, I am going to vent here, but please excuse me. After all, how many times have you patiently listened to people venting about Donald Trump?

My breath is sometimes taken away when I have occasion to read contemporary literary "scholarship." Take the following sentence from the conclusion of an article appearing in PMLA in 2016 (vol. 131.5). The "Xquic" in the quote concerns a short story from 1990 by the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa. Apparently Xquic is a Mayan mythological figure.

"Reading 'Xquic' proleptically sheds light on our institutional moment in which the proliferation of the world and the global across our increasingly Byzantine (and often, as in Rey Rosa's story, suspiciously funded) administrative landscapes is indelibly linked to the simultaneous but distant scenes of transnational corporations that continually shadow intellectual life at universities in the United States."

Got that?

Under most circumstances I would not be reading the PMLA, and in truth I was not actually reading the issue. I am finishing a scholarly article for a journal that turns out to follow the MLA style manual for its Works Cited. I don't have any copies of the PMLA on my shelves at home, nor a copy of the MLA Style Manual. I was surprised to discover that no local New York Public Library branch has a copy on its Reserve shelves. So, I traveled to JSTOR in order to consult recent issues of PMLA to make sure that all my references matched the MLA style. The most recent issue of PMLA online included the article from which I quoted above. The article is entitled "Unsettling World Literature." Since the article I am writing concerns the subject of world literature, I downloaded the piece. The execrable sentence quoted above appears shortly before the Works Cited. The author is Anna Brickhouse, not only a professor of English and American Studies at the University of Virginia, but also at work on "a project on translation and catastrophe."

Can anyone really read such articles, if one is not among those "initiated" in the jargon? At one of the last MLA conferences at which I made an appearance, I attended a talk by a graduate student who read a paper that was filled with such deadening verbiage. At one point in the talk, he looked up from his paper. When he went back to it, he had lost his place, and it took about a minute to figure out where he was. It was very amusing. Apparently he couldn't figure out what he was saying either.

And what, one may ask, does Professor Brickhouse's article have to do with world literature, anyway? I have to confess, as with the young "scholar" at the MLA conference, that I get the point. In fact, one doesn't need to read the ten pages of Brickhouse's article to get the point. All the talk about comity among the nations, tolerance, universal values, etc. that can be discerned in Goethe's comments on the subject simply provided intellectual cover for predatory capitalism. We all get the point. But spare us your cynical hypocrisy. What I would like to hear about is how Brickhouse's own intellectual life is "shadowed" by transnational corporations. Isn't she compromised by teaching at the University of Virginia, whose sturdy endowment is certainly buttressed by said corporations? Come on. Let's have some mea culpa.

Picture credit: Deviant Art

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The perils of politics for literati

"My Bleeding Heart" by Angela Kennedy
Tim Parks has a review of a new study of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables in the May 4 issue of London Review of Books. The opening paragraph -- concerning the scope of Hugo's ambition, the range of his genius, the vastness of his output, but especially "the oceanic immensity of his self-regard" -- put me in mind of Goethe. I was also interested to read that Les Mis (500,000 words) was composed over 16 years, which is small change in comparison with Faust, which took Goethe almost 50 years to complete.

What impressed me most about the review essay was the dangers for literary men of becoming involved in politics. Hugo was elected to the National Assembly in 1848. Remember 1848? That was the year that Europe was breaking out all over in revolutionary agitation. Yet, despite the impression we might have from seeing the play or the movie of Les Misérables, Hugo did not come out on the side of the common man at that time. After visiting the barricades put up by Parisian workers rebelling at the new government's introduction of compulsory conscription for the unemployed, Hugo demanded the barricades be dismantled; when that did not take place, he ordered the National Guard to open fire, resulting in the deaths of a lot of workers.

Les Misérables the novel offers a different scenario, with, as Parks writes, the book's narrator appearing to be entirely on the rebels' side. In truth, Hugo was a real hypocrite, using his writing to present a different picture of himself, constantly drawing attention to society's evils in order to elevate his "sonorous and accomplished self-importance." Parks ends his review by mentioning what Leopardi observed in his own huge "notebook," Zibaldone, namely, "that compassion in literature simply allows the reader to congratulate himself on his humanity without producing any change in behavior."

Goethe, too, was involved some decades before Hugo in what passed for politics under the Old Regime. There are many indications in his writings of his compassion for the lower orders, but it must be admitted that he did not indulge in literati theatrics of the type that Victor Hugo appears to have inaugurated. He was aware of the writings of social reformers and quasi-socialists, for instance, of the Saint-Simonists, which he read with great interest, but Goethe really seems not to have had a sentimental bone in his body. If he did, it was in any case held in check by the classical norms he imposed on himself, especially in his political dramas. In his late novel, Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship, he explores the situation of rootlessness experienced by individuals under capitalism and technological change, but here, too, any compassion is muted by a very distanced portrait. I have not read Zibaldone, but I wonder if Leopardi was familiar with Goethe.

Picture credit: Angela Kennedy

Monday, May 15, 2017

Is "World Literature" relevant today? (part 3)

Sun Ji, "Memory City (Shanghai)"
Some final remarks on this subject, here concerning three elements of Goethe's conception of world literature: world, nation, and language.

Europe in a sense made itself the world in the 19th century. It became privileged out of all proportion to the rest of the earth because of its early ability to capitalize on the scientific and artisanal know-how that it had accumulated over the centuries. This accumulation was an internally driven process: the various countries of Europe all contributed, in the various vernaculars, to the knowledge that would one day send us to the moon and enable heart transplant surgery. These achievements, along with the rising standard of living and in “improvements in the arts of living” transformed "the West" by early 20th century into a wealth-producing commercial society enjoying a rising standard of living and embracing institutionally secured ethical ideals and societal expectations.

Yet this Europe is no longer the world. The scientific premises on which rest the civilizational expertise of modern life are always and everywhere accessible, whatever one’s origins. The  growing spread of literacy and education has increasingly permitted more and more people to participate in the accumulation and application of scientific knowledge and to share in the fruits of the wealth thereby created. And everywhere, of course, people are exposed to ideas of European origin, which are now felt by non-Europeans to be "universal."

Nevertheless, the West is privileged in one way that cannot be so easily assimilated by non-Westerners. The existence of national languages with long literary traditions is rare. Indeed, non-Westerners today, when they participate in the public sphere, generally write in one of the formerly colonial languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, or Chinese. The one major exception today is Japanese, as Japan itself came late to the notice of European colonists. It already had a vernacular literary tradition, after having imported Chinese writing in the 5th century, and was fortunate to escape the imposition of a colonial language.

The Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist
So it is that European writers are able to continue writing in their mother tongues today, because the European countries have literate populations who continue to read in these languages. Such widespread literacy was also an accompaniment of Europe's rise to a world economic power by the 19th century. European novelists in that century gave voice to the disruptions occasioned by the transformation of their cultures under capitalism. Although it is true that the novel has often been a genre for expression interiority, it has also been a vehicle for conveying the conditions of individuals who have lost their footing in society and in the world at large because of the loss of tradition. Charles Dickens for one made a living portraying such individuals, with many of whom we identify because we too are often lost in a world in which the old signposts have been demolished.

Thus, it is not a surprise that the major literary form worldwide today is the novel. As the rest of the world now comes to terms with "globalism" -- which simply means the spread of the processed that transformed Europe into a commercial society -- people everywhere are experiencing the same losses as ordinary Europeans once felt, trying to forge individual destinies when the earth continually moves under their feet. How, indeed, to live when everything that was solid has melted into air?

Picture credit: Earth Island Journal

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Is "World Literature" relevant today? (part 2)

Let us consider anew whether the concept of world literature has any relevance today in the sense that Goethe meant. Those who have read my earlier posts will recognize that I am, to a certain extent, channeling the ideas of Minae Mizumura, while extending her insights to the subject of world literature.

Goethe lived in “a European world” in which learned men like himself could read and speak several languages. For instance, he was able to read French works in French, English ones in English, Italian ones in Italian. For languages with which he was unfamiliar, he read translations, as in the case of Chinese and Middle Eastern poetry. He even felt that translations  of his own works helped him to understand them better. As he wrote to Boisserée (April 24, 1831):

Bei der Übersetzung meiner letzten botanischen Arbeiten ist es ganz zugegangen wie bei Ihnen. Ein paar Hauptstellen, welche Freund Soret in meinem Deutsch nicht verstehen konnte, übersetzt ich in mein Französich; er übertrug sie in das seinige, und so glaub ich fest sie werden in jener Sprache allgemeiner verständlich sein, als vielleicht im Deutschen.

The mutual familiarity of Europeans with the works of other Europeans had been standard for centuries. Whatever their political and linguistic divisions, they were united in a common Christian culture. Following the fragmentation of Europe in the Middle Ages, learned people had continued to communicate in a universal language, Latin. Thus, the discoveries of Newton, Galileo, Kepler, and so on traveled all over the continent. With the invention of printing, books in translation began to appear, of Latin works as well as of works in the vernaculars. Long before Goethe considered the topic of world literature, “Europeans” (avant la lettre) were already communicating and sharing both their literary works and their scientific discoveries. As the wealth of the western European nations increased via the application of scientific discoveries and the fruits of colonization, a new European “culture,” i.e., one shared by the various countries, was developing. It comprised an increased standard of living and common ideas about what constituted the good life. Like all "cosmopolitans," they believed that everyone shared their views.

We all feel ourselves to be the center of our world, and Europeans were only different in that they traveled far and wide and became the center of an increasingly larger world.

I am not sure whether Goethe understood what such power would mean. I am also not sure whether he was aware of the multitude of languages in the world. In any case, most of the world spoke languages that were not written down. Thus, they had no literary heritage, which is what distinguished the various European nations. Among the colonized, there developed a class of people who learned the language of the colonizers. They became bilinguals, able to move between their native tongues and the language of the colonizers, for whom they served as translators.  The effect of this can be seen today in India, where all educated people speak English. But how many of them write today in Bengali, Kannada, Telugu, and so on? Since Goethe’s time, what we have seen is that “local” languages are receding in importance in favor of colonial or imperial languages: English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese. If a writer today from, say Somali, wants to reach an international audience with his novels, does he write in Somali (16 million speakers), or does he write in one of the colonial languages?

There are exceptions, however, which I will discuss in the next post.

Picture credits: Leonel Graça; India the Destiny

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Is "World Literature" relevant today? (part 1)

"Imperial Federation Map of the World"
The concept of world literature has been around going on two centuries — Goethe’s ruminations on the subject began in the late 1820s — yet one cannot help feeling that Goethe therewith released a demon into the world. There is a decided motility about the term: almost every writer on the subject begins by wrestling with a definition, as if to capture a moving target. I am reminded of the category of the sublime, which lay dormant for so many centuries: then, toward the end of the 17th century, the world felt a need for it and has henceforth also been struggling to define it. In both cases, one suspects that, had the terms not existed, they would have had to be invented. Despite the spread of the term “world literature” among comparatists in the 19th century, it is surprising how little philology there was among Germanists on the background or the sources of Goethe’s thinking before the appearance in 1946 of Strich’s Goethe und die Weltliteratur, even as seemingly every other aspect of his oeuvre was being subjected to examination.

Strich, however, had been working in this field since the 1920s: his first essay on world literature was published in 1928. His foray into the subject seems to have been precipitated by the vexed position of Germany among the nations after World War I. In the 1928 essay and in those that followed, he described the peaceful literary commerce among the various European vernaculars in the early modern period. This commerce had led to pan-European literary movements, ranging from the Renaissance to the Romantic period. So it is today, for instance, that "Baroque" art is recognizable (at least to scholars), whether it was created in Spain or in Germany. This cross-borders exchange — occurring even when Europe was wracked by the Thirty Years War — suggested to Strich the promise of world literature as articulated by Goethe in 1828:

If we have dared to announce a European, indeed a universal world literature, we do not mean that the various nations should take notice of one another and their various achievements.  In this sense, such a literature has already existed for some time and continues and renews itself more or less.  No! we mean rather that the living and ambitious literary artists [Literatoren] learn from one another and, through affection and common purpose, find themselves compelled to be convivially [gesellig] productive.

For Goethe the exchange of literary products, correspondence among authors of various nations (for instance, his own correspondence with Carlyle and other European writers), translations, and so on seemed to promise that the peoples of the world were in the process of becoming better disposed toward others. World literature as UNESCO avant la lettre.

This was also the message of Strich's Goethe and World Literature (English, 1949). In 1946, after two world wars, in which Germany’s international stock had reached its nadir, Strich still held that the goal of world literature was to unite all humans into what he called “einer übernationalen, allgemein menschlichen, humanen Kultur.” In the 1950s, however, as Europe came to terms with the world-wide legacy of colonialism and as the formerly colonized territories began to assert their own identities, Strich’s optimism was considered passé and his interpretation too “European.” Even as Goethe and World Literature unleashed a world literature industry, it was Erich Auerbach’s more pessimistic essay from 1952, lamenting what he saw as a growing world monoculture, that set the tone for much of what has followed.

Auerbach, who wrote only this single essay on world literature, has been for a number of years a touchstone for “postcolonial” scholarship on world literature. This is the result of the translation and publication of his essay in 1969 by Edward Said, for whom Auerbach was exemplary of a “critical consciousness” that did more “than strengthen those aspects of the culture that require mere affirmation and orthodox compliancy from its members,” that resisted “the kind of filiation that is representative of traditional literary production.” Writing in 1983, Said even claimed that Auerbach’s Mimesis was not simply — as it might appear to most readers — “a massive reaffirmation of the Western cultural tradition, but also a work built upon a critically important alienation from it.”

The postcolonial negation of allegiance, of filiation, of culturally transmitted values, i.e., of “Eurocentrism,” however, simply reiterates the process that made “the West” so powerful by the beginning of the 20th century, namely, the constant circulation of goods in the modern marketplace, which is not solely a matter of goods, of the everyday consumables of the market place. Such circulation demands erasure, the jettisoning of what was loved only yesterday in favor of new goods, among which can be included literary and critical movements and attitudes. The postindustrial world is just as impatient with filiation as was Edward Said. His critique of the European literary canon and its humanistic values reflects one of the most characteristic features of Western life of the past several centuries: the abrogation of the intellectual and cultural authority of the past, with the battle of ancients and moderns marking an early milestone. Rejection has been naturalized by the ideological discourse of progress.

The postcolonial critique is of course only one of many academic trends (Marxism, deconstruction, feminist studies, ad nauseum) that purport to tell us how bad and irrelevant “Western culture” is. And Western scholars today, especially in the U.S., lured by the latest fashions, have jumped on this bandwagon. One might suggest that the number of academic conferences, especially on an international level, from Angola to Manchester, validate Goethe’s concept of “fruitful communication.” Indeed, postcolonial scholarship has become a virtual cash cow, an opportunity for the like-minded to gather together.

I see I have not got to the question posed in the title of this post. Part 2 to follow. Stay tuned.

Image credits: World Literature 101; Repeating Islands; Postcolonial Networks