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

Friday, April 14, 2017

Philipp Hackert's waterfalls

Waterfall of the Aniene River at Tivoli (1769)
A friend in Oberammergau regularly sends me links to worthwhile German TV shows, mostly literary. Yesterday I watched a segment of Arte's "Die grosse Literatour: Goethes Italien." Nothing particularly new: lots of scenes of present-day Venice, Rome, and Naples along with the reading of excerpts from the Italian Journey. Naples was the last stop on the show; no Sicily. Lots more tourists in Italy since I was there last -- decades ago! The contemporary scenes were made more interesting by paintings of the same scenes from the 18th century; many of the buildings appear to be the same.

The most charming part of the program was the interview with the curator of the Casa di Goethe in Rome, located in the quarters that Tischbein rented and in which Goethe stayed on the via del Corso. It seems that the Casa di Goethe is currently hosting, until September, an exhibition of works by the German photographer Kerstin Schomburg, who is also featured in the Arte program. She was in Italy photographing some of the sites that Hackert painted, including waterfalls, for which he was apparently well regarded. The painting at the top of the post is from near Tivoli. (Click on images to enlarge.) The show is entitled Punti di Vista.

While I was searching for images for this posting, I came across the Iberia Airlines website, which has the most scandalously incorrect information about the Casa di Goethe. Here is the money quote:

"In 1786 the poet moved to Rome, where he founded a meeting place in his home, for writers and artists of that era. Goethe was a very politically active person, and, due to that, left a great mark on the city. Also, he always expressed his love for the city of Roma, to which he left his residence in his will after his death."

Please do not quote that as by me.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Goethe and Dante

I have been reading Goethe's Italian Journey and tweeting daily tidbits. Yesterday, in another connection, I read Erich Auerbach's 1929 essay, "The Discovery of Dante by Romanticism" in the splendid translation of Jane O. Newman. In this essay, Auerbach sketches the Dante reception in Germany in the 18th century. Of Goethe, Auerbach contends that he “never became truly intimate with Dante; his admiration for the Divine Comedy (or at least from some very few passages in the poem) was diluted by his instinctive antipathy for a personality like the Tuscan’s that was so fundamentally different from his own.”

The Goethe Handbuch sketches a more nuanced rapprochement of Goethe with the Italian poet, although it is true that the influence was on the level of poetic form and motifs, not of world view. For instance, Gerhard Schulz, in the entry on the 1806 poetic cycle that begins with "Mächtiges Überraschen," writes that the meaning of the cycle is captured in the last two words of that poem: new life. As in Dante's sense of Vita nuova, one of the first great collections of love poetry in "the Christian-European tradition." In Dante's work, according to Schulz, the experience of love first finds its true meaning in the poem itself. It was unclear to me from this entry, however, to what extent Goethe was familiar with the Vita nuova.

Of great interest was the stand-out entry on Goethe's "late poetry" (das lyrische Spätwerk), of 1819–32. The work of this period, writes Mathias Mayer, is characterized, among other things, by a "dialogue with foreign languages and cultures." For instance, the tercets of the poem "Im ernsten Beinhaus war's" indicate a dialogue with Dante.

Domenico Petarlini, Dante in Exile (1860)
Even though Auerbach knew Dante's works inside out, I would guess that he was thinking mostly in terms of the relationship of Faust to Dante's Divine Comedy. In this connection, Auerbach asserts that the "two worlds" of the works are “fundamentally incomparable.” The most important point: “The characters and scenes in Faust are, finally, the stuff of an individual’s soul and its history, unintelligible if they do not refer to the one who experiences them. In the Divine Comedy, they belong to an objective order outside the self.”

I learned from this essay that it was the Schlegel brothers, especially August Wilhelm, and Schelling, who “produced the most significant set of observations about Dante and his poem produced by Romanticism narrowly defined.” Schelling was the first since "the twilight of the hegemony of the Catholic Church and its philosophy" for whom "the integrity of the magnificent poem became visible.” Auerbach credits Schelling with understanding that the Comedy’s “characters enter into and manifest a kind of eternity as a result of the specific space that they are made to occupy in the poem.” Further, “the all-encompassing crux of the poem’s significance is this: our earthly and historical world in its true and eternal form is a manifestation of God’s judgment.”

I actually can imagine that Goethe recognized this significance and simply rejected it. Auerbach was more correct in respect of world view than in the influence on Goethe of Dante's poetic forms when he wrote that Goethe had no connection or rapport with “either the intellectual or the material world of the Trecento.”

Monday, April 10, 2017

Goethe's classical half-view

Monreale mosaics, photo by Dennis Jarvis
V.S. Naipaul in a small book of essays from 2007 entitled A Writer's People discusses what he calls the "classical half-view." The classical half-view derives from a refusal to look too closely at reality. One of his examples is the writer Cicero who wrote to a friend about the five days of games organized by Pompey. Cicero went to all five days, and in the letter he mentions the displeasure of the crowd on the final day at the killing of twenty large elephants. The only other ancient source is found in Pliny’s Natural History, where the Roman crowd was said to rise and curse Pompey as the elephants were being speared. Cicero was present, writes Naipaul; unlike Pliny, he “could have spoken more plainly. He could have told us more.”

But he was a friend of Pompey’s; he would not have wanted to diminish the event, and so ...  he preferred to use words to hide from what he saw. He preferred to have the half view. It enabled him, in the brutalities of the ancient world, to see and not see.

Monreale cloister, photo by Per-Erik Skramstad
Reading Goethe's account of his travels to Italy has put me in mind of Naipaul's "classical half-view," no more so than in the Journey's pages on Sicily. On this day in 1787 Goethe visited the Monreale Cathedral and its Benedictine monastery. He writes that the monks showed him some of their collections, of which he notes one that particularly struck him, a "Medaille" with an image of a young goddess. He also mentions that the abbot had a fine meal prepared for him and Kniep and sat with them for half an hour answering their many questions. Does he mention what he asked or what the answers were? Not at all.

Monreale cloister
The above images give an idea of what the cloister looked like, which could hardly be inferred from reading the Journey. One is struck, according to the end notes of my edition, by Goethe's lack of attention to the the mosaics on the ceiling of the cathedral, a major example (Hauptstück) of Norman-Byzantine art. When he went to Italy, however, Goethe was under the influence of Winckelmann, which narrowed -- indeed, prejudiced -- his perception of Italy. He suffered from the classical half-view. Indeed, it quite amusing to read his reference to the very grand monastery as a "respectable establishment" (eine respektable Anlage).

Photo credits: Planetware; Wonders of Sicily

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Goethe in Sicily

Christian Heinrich Kniep
"What are men to rocks and mountains?" This line from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has some resonance in connection with Goethe's visit to Sicily in 1787.

I have been working my way through Goethe's Italian Journey and have taken to recording some of his observations, day by day, so to speak, on his Twitter site. I usually compare the Journey with letters written to Weimar as well as with the Diary. Now that we have reached Sicily, however, there are few entries about Sicily in the Diary, and there is also a breach in the letters from March 23, 1787 (to C.G. Voigt from Naples) until April 17 (to Friedrich von Stein from Palermo). Thus, there is no truly illuminating information about first impressions.  I have not done any research on this, but it would seem that the portions of the Journey devoted to Sicily are post facto, perhaps prepared from on-the-spot notes that were later destroyed. I am ready to stand corrected if anyone has any information on this.

Goethe was of course accompanied by the artist Christian Heinrich Kniep, who served, if not as a stenographer, as a recorder of sights,  for tangibles, which for Goethe was obviously important. An indication of this is the entry for April 5, 1787 -- today! -- concerning an excursion he and Kniep made in Palermo. This is the opening:

"In the afternoon we visited the pleasant, fertile valley that comes down past Palermo from the mountains to the south, with the Oreto river winding through it."

It appears that Palermo is situated in a basin formed by three rivers, one of which is the Oreto mentioned by Goethe. Today, the river divides the downtown part of the city from the industrial western sections. Clearly it was more picturesque on Goethe's outing and, as Goethe writes, Kniep was busy finding the most attracting vantage points.

The most notable aspect of this particular entry is Goethe's dressing down of their guide, who was eager to explain the "local history," in particular concerning the battle at this spot in which the Carthaginian general Hannibal was defeated in 251 B.C. (The notes to the English edition of the Journey, by the way, point out that the defeated general was Hasdrubal.) For Goethe, this was pure pedantry and, as he writes, he "crossly rebuked him for so wretchedly evoking these departed spirits." Goethe declared his desire not to be startled out of his peaceful reverie by such tales of tumult (Nachgetümmel), which naturally surprised the guide.

Er verwunderte sich sehr, daß ich das klassische Andenken an so einer Stelle verschmähte, und ich konnte ihm freilich nicht deutlich machen, wie mir bei einer solchen Vermischung des Vergangenen und des Gegewärtigen zumute sei.

Goethe's understanding of "classical" soon emerges. He begins foraging in the shallows of the river for stones, which likewise astonished the guide. As Goethe writes, here, too, he felt unable to explain to him that the best way to understand a mountainous region was "to use rubble in order to obtain an idea of those earthly antiquities, the eternally classical mountains." (As always, the English here is mostly from Robert R. Heitner's translation.)

 ... daß hier auch die Afugabe sei, durch Truümmer sich eine Vorstellung von jenen ewig klassischen Höhen des Erdalterums zu verschaffen.

His booty amounted to almost forty specimens, the mineral content of which he goes on to describe. Tangibles again.

Picture credits: Alchetron; Your Rock Store