Monday, December 30, 2013

Bodmer and world literature

Henry Fuseli, Satan Starting from the Touch of Ithuriel's Spear
A recent article of mine claimed J.J. Bodmer as a precursor of the philosophic discussion of the sublime in German letters. Despite the title of this post, I am not really claiming him as a forerunner of Goethe's concept of world literature. I came across a quotation by him today, however, that made me think of Goethe's use of the terms "commerce" and "trade" to describe intellectual exchange. Here is the quote from Bodmer, from the preface of the Neue kritische Briefe of 1746:

Der Verfasser will gerne für einen nützlichen Kaufmann angesehen seyn, der zu den vornehmsten europäischen Nationen gereiset ist, und bey ihnen kostbare Waaren von Witz und Kunst gesammelt hat, welche er izt nach Hause bringt, und seinen Landsleuten überliefert, ihrem einheimischen Bedürfniss damit zu Hülfe zu kommen.

The quote appears at the end of a very long article written by the American-German comparatist Louis Paul Betz on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Bodmer's birth on July 19, 1898. Betz is one of the comparatists I have been reading lately. Although Betz concedes that Bodmer made a major contribution to changing literary tastes in German letters, he lays to rest the notion that Bodmer was anti-French in any way. He describes the feud between Bodmer and Gottsched as part of the ongoing "Battle of the Ancients and Moderns." Even the treatise on the marvelous, Bodmer's defense of Milton's Paradise Lost against Voltaire's criticisms of the epic, contains no serious arguments. While defending the claims of "Phantasie" and challenging the insipid "reason" poetry of post-classical France (die nüchterne Verstandespoesie des nachklassischen Frankreichs), Bodmer fails here to be a literary pathbreaker. Instead, he contents himself with accusing Voltaire of "unverschämte Dreistigkeit" and "unverdaute Begriffe," without any true criticism.

Jacques-Louis David, The Anger of Achilles
Betz includes some wonderful quotes from Bodmer's attacks on Gottsched, which Betz calls "schonungslos" and "unerbittlich." Bodmer reveled in pointing out the shortcomings of Gottsched's translation of Racine's tragedy Iphigenia. As Betz writes, "Nicht genug kann er wiederholen, welcher Abgrund zwischen Original und Nachbildung liegt." And then, quoting Bodmer: "Die traurige Erfahrung anderer Poeten hätte ihn [Gottsched] lehren sollen, kein Original zu erkiesen, das seine Uebersetzng notwendig beschämen musste."

Betz does a very good job of portraying the overwhelming influence of French culture on Germany in the 18th century. His article is an example of what he himself asserted was the purpose of comparative literature, namely, to demonstrate the influence of writers of one country on writers of another. Unfortunately, one comes aways feeling that Bodmer did not have a single original literary insight (or, for that matter, a literary bone in his body); even when invoking the rights of the imagination, he was pleading with the arguments of French writers, in particular Dubos. The article confirmed a view that I presented in my article on Bodmer: it was through literature, through the writings of the best poets, not through experience, that one learned how to live properly. Read Molière if you wanted to know about people's motivations.

Fritz Strich, in his schema of the development of European literatures, makes the argument that Germany's "hour" had struck when French neoclassicism had played itself out and the literary Zeitgeist required an infusion of new life, which was provided by Romanticism. Bodmer (and Breitinger) was certainly the most important early mediator in this process, particularly in introducing the Germans to English letters (even if, according to Betz, he did not fully grasp Milton's greatness). Mediation, of course, is a central aspect of Goethe's concept of world literature. While Gottsched was urging German writers to model themselves on French writers, Bodmer's writings had the effect, in the end, in leading  Germans to create a "German" literature.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"The social phenomenon called literature"

In my research into the origins of Fritz Strich's work on world literature, I have encountered some very interesting people. The past posts have dwelled on European figures: for instance, the French comparatists Joseph Texte and Fernand Brunetière and the American-German Louis Paul Betz. Despite the importance of France and Germany in inaugurating the academic discipline of comparative literature, it seems that the U.S. was somewhat out in front in establishing a university department, at Harvard. And just as the Europeans were thrashing out the contours of comparative literature as a field of research, in scholarly publications, an American wrote about the subject for The Atlantic Monthly in 1903. This was Charles Mills Gayley, then a professor of English and Classics at the University of California at Berkeley, who was apparently a genial and much-loved teacher. Before coming to Berkeley, he had taught at the University of Michigan, where he also authored Michigan college songs.

The article in The Atlantic Monthly is called "What Is Comparative Literature?" I wondered if something comparable was occurring in French or German publications, those directed not at scholars but at a literate reading public. It seems a very American thing actually. In connection with Strich and world literature, I was struck by a couple of things in the article, indicated by the title of this post.

The handsome Charles Mills Gayley
Gayley quotes Goethe's comments on world literature, in particular the statement about the "progress of the human race," and goes on to say that under "Goethe's prophetic cosmopolitanism of ideal and art" lay a belief in an essential, historical oneness of literature. This ideal, writes Gayley, is

the working premise of the student of comparative literature today: literature as a distinct and integral medium of thought, a common institutional expression of humanity; differentiated, to be sure, by the social conditions of the individual, by racial, historical, cultural, and linguistic influences, opportunities, and restrictions, but, irrespective of age or guise, prompted by the common needs and aspirations of man, sprung from common faculties, psychological and physiological, and obeying common laws of material and mode, of the individual and of social humanity.

It is this idea of a common humanity possessing "common faculties" that leads Gayley to ask whether the "biological principle" applies to literature. At the turn of the 20th century two doctrines seem to have vied for acceptance in comparative literature: evolution or permutation. Regardless of which is truer the facts, it is this "social phenomenon called literature" that is the comparatist's subject. For those of us who take pleasure, as well as wish for edification, in our reading, his exclusion of the purely subjective element  may cause one to blink. The comparatist, however, must regard

the unexpected quantity -- the imaginative -- in the light of historical sequence and scientific cause and effect, physical, biological, psychological, or anthropological, to reduce the apparently unreasonable or magical element, and so to leave continually less to be treated in the old-fashioned inspirational or ecstatic manner. We shall simply cease to confound the science with the art.

While not ignoring the achievements of genius, this new science avails itself "of the results, and so far as possible of the methods, of the sciences that most directly contribute to the comprehension of man the producer."

What is interesting to me in this exclusion of non-material factors is Gayley's assertion that the "new science" of comparative literature "will prove an index to the evolution of soul in the individual and in society." According to the biography of Gayley on Wikipedia, he was a most orthodox Christian, being born the son of a missionary in China and having married the daughter of the second Protestant Episcopal bishop in Michigan. I suspect he does not mean here "soul" in the Christian sense of that term. Fritz Strich uses "Geist" continuously, which is often translated as soul. The evolutionary theory of society, as with the biological, presumes a law governing the development of phenomena; so, too, the comparatists seek to align their discipline in according with the scientific method.

At the same time I am reminded of the 18th-century philosophes. No one specifically asserted that the accumulation of scientific knowledge would produce a change in human consciousness, but it was implicit in their predictions of the progress of society under the enlightened rule of "science." How else can one interpret the contemporary attacks on the past and on tradition ("dead white males") if not to assume that we have inherited the conviction that we have morally progressed? More on this later.

Picture credit: Permanent Cultures

Saturday, December 14, 2013


Consider this a footnote to the previous post on "plagiarism."

As a freshman in college I was required to take an introductory course in "English Composition." Looking back, I realize that the aim of the course was to prepare us to write academic papers. The course book was a volume edited, as I recall, by Alfred Kazin and included essays on different subjects, and our assignments were to read an essay and write a critical assessment of the writer's arguments. What I most remember from this class was the teacher's (probably back then a Ph.D. student) crabbedness about footnoting sources. I seem to see her at the front of the classroom, frowning, because she suspected that we had quoted passages without acknowledging the source. She was probably correct, though at the time her point seemed to be merely one of the impenetrable rules that those in authority imposed. I was very dutiful (I had twelve years of Catholic school education behind me!), but it took me a lot longer to understand the difference between paraphrasing with attribution and quoting verbatim with attribution.

I discovered when I was writing my dissertation that, however much I thought I had copied a source perfectly, with quotation marks, generally something had been omitted or changed in the copying. It was a moment of horror to go back and verify the date of publication or pagination, only to discover that a mistake had been added to the precious words of the cited authority. A reader of this blog will perhaps have noticed that I often put quotation marks around certain phrases, which means that they come directly from the source I am talking about. In a blog like this I resist quoting very long passages with quotation marks; that's another reason why I also cite the publication details. To some extent I suppose I am like Fritz Strich, seamlessly (I hope) blending my thoughts with those of my interlocutor. (By the way, I also give attribution to illustrations I have taken from other sources, unless they are from Wikipedia or from a self-evident commercial advertising source.)

Strich of course was writing in the tradition of that referred to by Joseph Texte (see previous post). I, on the other hand, am writing in the age of the footnote. It is interesting that a modern trope is "originality." No one wants to be thought to be like anyone else. Yet the demand for footnotes exposes a lack of originality, while also indicating that we write in an age when our connection to the literary inheritance and to tradition has been fractured.

Picture sources: Beauty Best FriendEthnography MattersLapsura

Friday, December 13, 2013

European literature vs. world literature

"Heroes" of European literature
Reading these early comparatists (see previous post, among others) gives me a handle not only on the sources of Fritz Strich's study but also on what Goethe had in mind, the latter being endlessly dissected. For the moment I will remain with the former.

I have mentioned elsewhere that Strich generally does not cite his sources. It is only in the 1957 edition of Goethe and World Literature that he includes a true bibliography. I have gone through many of the studies contained there and have begun to get a feeling for why he embarked on a field that, until Goethe and World Literature, was not a scholarly field as such. In other words, Strich inaugurated the modern study of the subject.

I have discovered in the articles by the early comparatists statements that Strich takes up, if not word for word, certainly concept for concept. Yet, one hesitates to call this plagiarism, as is shown, for instance, in an article by Joseph Texte (on whom I have also posted). According to Texte, in "The Comparative History of Literature" (translated from Revue de philologie francaise et de la litterature [1896]), the requirement for literary production historically (let us say up to the mid-18th century) was precisely based on imitation of ancient literature. In turn, criticism likewise modeled itself on the relationship between work and its source. Thus, literature was plagiaristic, and criticism documented this reliance on models.

The "modern period," as Texte writes, presents a different story; modern writers are indeed more "scrupulous."  Yet, "in imitating more freely, they do not imitate less; moreover, how can one determine their originality if one does not begin by comparing them with their contemporaries, with those by whom every writer, no matter how independent ... is influenced?" Texte is arguing for the relevance of the new field of comparative literature, one of the aims of which is the discovery of such "intellectual relationships." He mentions Taine and his "followers" who would remove the aesthetic element from literary study, by extricating "the personal from each work and the original from each literature."

Tongue twisters
Texte is very brilliant, yet his article made me aware of a problem with this idea of intellectual relationships. While it is a truism, long recognized before the 19th-century comparatists (see Daniel Morhof), that writers in the Western literary tradition before the 18th century were either influenced or consciously modeled their works on earlier models, they were not writing "nationally," even while writing in their respective vernaculars. The formation of "political nationalities" in the modern period, however, especially since "the Revolution," has likewise led to the formation of "intellectual nationalities." As Texte writes: "modern nations did not become consciously aware of their intellectual personality apart from antique imitation until a relatively recent epoch." Thus, the development of comparative literature seems to have been a rearguard action to maintain a humanistic conception of "literature," based on a common intellectual heritage, even as the study of literature in the universities in the 19th century was herding literary study into departments based on "national language."

Picture source: Europe Is Not Dead

Thursday, December 12, 2013

"Goethe's Visual World"

I have been receiving announcements in connection with the meeting of the MLA in January, including one from Maney Publishing, which features this book by Pamela Currie. It looks like something I will want to take a look at.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Goethe on "European literature"

"Deluge" by GC Myers
An article from 1900 by Ferdinand Brunetière, entitled "European Literature," provides much insight concerning both Goethe's concept of world literature and Fritz Strich's interpretation of that concept.

In 1900 the discipline of comparative literature was still defining itself as a field, and Brunetière, a member of the French Academy and editor of the Revue des deux mondes, sought to set out the scope of comparative literature. In the article he applies evolutionary theories to the study of literature, in particular the development of what he calls European literature, which is the transmitter of "European thought." This latter, however, is not "Western" or "universal": there are no transcendental implications in Brunetière's account, no suggestion that European "thought" constitutes a supranational spirit.

His subject is the aims of comparative literature as a subject of study, and thus he speaks solely of literature, because literature is the vehicle which expresses the "national" or "tribal" spirit of a people.  European "thought" in this account is simply the literary blending, so to speak, of the literature of five countries into a common European product: Italy, Spain, France, England, and Germany, each of which successively, beginning with the Italians (Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio), contributed to this "movement" of thought. In Italy's case, for instance, it was as transmitter of the tradition of antiquity, while among Spain's "truly great European creations" can be found the drama. Spain was the home of Seneca, and even though the work of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson preceded Le Cid, English drama of the 16th century became "truly European" by way of Spanish genius!

None of the "European" products sprang from its own soil ex nihilo. In this movement, some national manifestations remain purely "local" -- this is especially the case with Spain -- and do not become part of European literature. Brunetière is thinking solely of the "comparative" relations among literatures, of what one "national" literature takes from another and develops. His test case is the novel, which expresses the most "English characteristics" in Smollet, Richardson, and Fielding; the origins of the genre, however, can be traced back to the Princess de Clèves and, further, to Diana enamorada by Jorge de Montemayor. 

Brunetière's scheme of progressive development is replicated by Strich in his writings on world literature. In fact, Strich utilizes the same schema, likewise positing that the dominance of one nation in this literary give-and-take occurred when its literature simultaneously manifested most strongly its own national individuality while preserving a maximum of the common European (i.e., classical and Christian) "spirit." Strich likewise affirms Brunetiere's contention that that the knowledge of other literatures sharpens in us an understanding of the most national characteristics of our great writers. Brunetière writes: "we are defined only by comparing ourselves to others; we do not know ourselves only when we know only ourselves."

Soviet-Ukranian amity ca. 1921
 The problem with Brunetière's scheme, of course, is that "national" literature was becoming increasingly irrelevant by the time he wrote. (Which did not prevent the formation, in the 19th century, of university departments of literature along national lines.) In fact, national literature would seem to have been relevant only in the early 19th century: though it may have been an "ideological" construct, it nevertheless allowed a way of talking about literary manifestations in that period. Literature, by the late 19th century, however, was jettisoning its national or local character. Tellingly, Brunetière did not extend his survey to the writings of what he called "the extreme North," i.e., Scandinavia and Russia. As he wrote, they had only recently entered, "to use a diplomatic expression, into the theater of European literature." Though he admires Anna Karenina and The Wild Duck, he does not see what is specifically "Russian" or "Norwegian" in either. We seem to be on the verge of the "internationalization" of literature, in particular of the novel.

Strich, writing some decades later, would have been aware of this internationalization. It was this process, I think, that fueled Goethe's conception of world literature. By the late 1820s, he no longer saw literature as simply the expression of the literary or aesthetic; literature had a larger task, to contribute to a spirit of like-mindedness and political tolerance among nations. The divestiture of national animosities was occurring, as he wrote, through commerce and trade, one of the products of which was literature. He thought, of course, that it was the writings of eminent and like-minded writers of the age -- like himself! -- which would further this process. He did not regard the increasing deluge of popular writing as edifying.

More anon.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Was Goethe a comparatist avant la lettre?

Ninja Archipelago Map
The above question is prompted by an article from 1896 by Louis Paul Betz, "Critical Observations on the Nature, Function, and Meaning of Comparative Literary History" (originally appearing in Z. f. franz. Sprache u. Litteratur, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 141-56). I will be on a panel at the MLA in Chicago in January, opining on the "prehistory" of Fritz Strich's study Goethe und die Weltliteratur. That prehistory includes the work of late 19th- and early 20th-century scholars in the relatively new field of comparative literature.

Betz became the first lecturer in comparative literature and Zurich University in 1896. His essay surveys various scholars' views of the aims and purposes of comparative literature and comparative literary history. He frequently evokes Goethe and also advances points that can be found in Strich's work on world literature. For instance, the French comparatist Brunetière, Betz writes, expressed the "essence" of comparative literary history by observing that it "look[s] on the whole from above, free from national prejudice, [observing] the constant changes, the continuous giving and taking of ideas and forms. As world literature it goes hand in hand with the national history of literature toward a common goal: the investigation of the development of the human spirit."

The lessening of national prejudice is of course alluded to by Goethe in his remarks on world literature, but the part about the development of the human spirit through the history of literary relations is purely Strich.

As for Germany, Betz traces the development of "comparative literary history" there to Daniel Georg Morhof's 1684 study Von der teutschen Poeterey Ursprung und Fortgang, in which Morhof wrote as follows: "We intend to discuss the origin and development of German poetry, and in order to do so most thoroughly we will discuss first the rhymed poetry of other peoples, so that we may discover whether it originated with them before it did with us." Betz goes on to mention Gottsched (on the history of European drama), Lessing, Herder, and Schiller, and adds that "Goethe always considered the individual literatures comparatively in the context of the general development of literature."

One author Betz mentions is Otto Weddingen, who published a small volume with the instructive title Geschichte der Einwirkungen der deutschen Literatur, which seems to have taken its inspiration from something Goethe wrote in Kunst und Altertum (vol. 6, pt. 1, 1827), namely, that German literature had begun to take an honorable place literarily among the nations. I downloaded Weddington's book, which was written in 1881, thus a decade after the Prussian victory over the French. Weddington is similarly triumphant throughout. After surveying the influence of German on western and eastern European authors (as far afield as Bulgaria and Hungry), he has a remarkable conclusion:

Es ist ein schönes Bild, welches sich dem Auge darbietet; ein Gefühl reinster Wonne beschleicht uns bei der Wahrhehmung, dass Deutschlands Litteratur überall befruchtend and befördernd gewirkt hat, dass es Deutschlands Mission im 19. Jahrhundert war und, so Gott will, bis in die spätesten Tage seiner Existenz bleiben wird, das Licht seiner Kultur nach allen Seiten hin auszustrahlen.

Of course, comparative literature was not an academic discipline before the late 19th century, so Goethe can, at most, only be part of the "prehistory" of that discipline. Goethe's importance for comparative literature, however, is of another sort. Thus, Betz writes that Goethe "summarized the great significance of a comparative world literature [my italics] in ... two terms: mediation between nations and their mutual acceptance." Goethe was rather cautious about these two factors. Betz, however (and, it must be said, Strich in essays from the 1920s on world literature), draws a more grandiose vision: "Every new discovery in the area of the constant relationship between civilized peoples constitutes not only a new achievement of scholarship but also a 'building block of the future edifice of world peace.'" (I believe Betz is quoting Weddington here, but like many scholars of this period he neglects to add his source.) In conclusion, Betz writes:

Through comparison we arrive most clearly and surely at a knowledge of the peculiarities of an individual literature. However, we thus see man also in his universality. In the Germanic literatures he emerges with the same passions, virtues, and vices as in Romance literatures; on every page the unity and mutual dependence of all nations is revealed. ... Comparative literary history corrects individual and national one-sidedness, the dangerous enemy of modern civilization.

How much responsibility Goethe bears!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Crime and punishment in Goethe

"The cruel death of Calas," from the Calas Chapbook
Gretchen, as we know, faced beheading at the gallows or scaffold, which, according to Wikipedia, is "an enhanced execution site for public executions." Such an execution is a bit daunting for the modern imagination, as even the current forms of capital punishment in America are not public, nor are they intended to be as "cruel and unusual" as they were in Europe before the 19th century. Again, according to Wikipedia, the last public beheading in Hanau took place in 1860. Interestingly, the district of Hanau where this took place is called "Wolfgang."

This is not a subject I have thought much about, at least not until yesterday, when I read a review in the TLS of what seems a fascinating book, The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by the American historian Joel F. Harrington. The book concerns executions in Nuremberg, as gleaned from the diary of Master Franz Schmidt, who kept a record of the executions he had carried out until his death in 1634. According to the review, executions took various forms, all of which were laid down in the so-called Carolina of 1530 (named after the Emperor Charles V), the first body of German criminal law. The lawyer Goethe would have been quite familiar with this code. We know from his diary that Master Franz "hanged seventy-one offenders, beheaded forty-eight, and broke eleven with the wheel, a procedure requiring both strength and dexterity as the executioner lifted a heavy cartwheel and dropped it onto the limbs of the malefactor ..." The review, by Richard J. Evans, is fascinating, if stomach-turning, reading: "Harrington provides a richly detailed and utterly absorbing account of a world of violence, pain, and suffering into which it would be difficult for the modern reader to enter through less sympathetic accounts."

1774 edition of Beccaria's work
"The Right to Punish" is the title of a chapter in Franco Venturi's Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment. As Venturi writes, "utopias and reforms polarized the attention of the spirits and minds of the 1760s." (See my earlier posting on the subject, especially as it concerns Goethe.) It was a book by Cesare Beccaria that drew attention throughout Europe to "the problem of the existence of crime itself and with the ways to repress it." (For Becarria's writings, see this site.) Venturi's subject is the intellectual climate. He doesn't go into the gory details to be found in Harrington's new book, yet, not only did people in the 18th century have an immense historical memory of executions, but gruesome executions were still carried out in that century. The most famous example was the case of Jean Calas of Toulouse, who was tortured on the wheel in 1762. So, Goethe's Faust, describing Gretchen's vision of the gallows, documents a contemporary practice.  This site claims that Goethe was a "witness" to the trial of Susanna Margaretha Brandt, but, according to Harrington, the trials took place in secret. So, Goethe perhaps only witnessed the beheading in Frankfurt.

Of interest in this connection is the case of Master Franz of Nuremberg, who, despite his successful career, "was anything but a sadist." It turns out that he succeeded, according to the reviewer, "with the support of the prison chaplains, in abolishing the traditional punishment of drowning infanticidal women in a sack in the local river." Master Franz argued that beheading, being more visible, was more of a deterrent to the crowds attending executions.

Picture credit: Tesori in soffitta