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