Of walls and windows: What German studies and comparative literature can offer each other
Although this essay will focus on German studies, the case of German is in many ways representative of the situations of other European languages or commonly taught languages, as contrasted with so-called “critical” languages such as Sanskrit, Urdu, or Basque. Moreover, if current enrollment trends continue, as documented for instance by Bettina Huber and Richard Brod in the Winter 1997 issue of the ADFL Bulletin (55), German, along with Russian, Italian, Latin, and even French, may soon become “critical” languages, i.e. taught only rarely. Some of the following remarks will touch on ways we might prevent, and are already working to prevent, this development from occurring.
The image of walls in the title of this essay is meant to allude to the occasional insularity, even chauvinism, of German as a literary discipline. There have been times when the study of German literary history (Germanistik) has built walls around itself, walls impenetrable or at best impermeable, for example, during the Wilhelmine era (the period from 1871, when the first German nation was founded with Bismarck as chancellor and Wilhelm I as emperor, to the beginning of World War I) and beyond. The chauvinistic character of much of German literary history in this period is perhaps not surprising in view of the belated unification of Germany: there had never been a consolidated German state prior to 1871. This fact has typically been used to explain multiple facets of German history, not least the rise of fascism, as follows: because German nationalism had been frustrated for so long, after unification was finally achieved in 1871, there followed a process of overcompensation, or making up for lost time, that eventually resulted in National Socialism. This theory is supported by the analogous example of Italy, which also witnessed the rise of fascism in the twentieth century following the belated attainment of nationhood in the nineteenth century.
Aesthetically speaking, we find a corresponding desire in Wilhelmine Germany to build up and maintain a nationally-oriented discipline of German literary history. Already in 1887, when the Zeitschrift fur vergleichende Litteraturgeschichte Journal of Comparative Literary History) was founded, its editor Max Koch stipulated that German literature should be the point of departure for and the central focus of comparative studies in the journal (Konstantinovic 58). Similarly, the literary scholar Julius Petersen suggests in his 1928 article “Nationale oder vergleichende Literaturgeschichte?” (“National or Comparative Literary History?”) that the purpose of the comparative perspective is to identify the national character of German literary history (48) .
As one might expect, such value judgments are even more pronounced during the Third Reich, where we find the literary scholar Kurt Wais writing in 1934 (the year after Hitler’s assumption of power) that comparative literature should serve as an aid in discovering the spirit of the Volk, which is for him the “true source of genuine literature” (original cited by Konstantinovic 58). Cosmopolitan thinking takes a back seat to the celebration of all things Germanic; as Ulrich Weisstein sums up the situation of fascist Germany in his still useful study, Comparative Literature and Literary Theory, “How could Comparative Literature flourish in a country in which the plays of Shakespeare, Moliere, and Eugene O’Neill were banned from the stage, and where the novels of the great French and Russian writers were no longer accessible?” (200) .
The case of Nazi Germany is of course an extreme one; this kind of national chauvinism has not been the rule in the history of German literary studies. Not only during the period since World War II but also during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the discipline of literary studies in Germany was more receptive to other national literatures and to what we today call comparative literature than it was during the period from 1870 to 1945 and than are numerous other national traditions today. Windows were opened, as it were, through which influences from the outside could enter. An autobiographical detail is perhaps relevant here: as a Ph.D. in comparative literature with German emphasis, my experience on the job market, both in the late 1970s and in the late 1980s, demonstrated that in general German departments look more favorably on job candidates with doctorates in comparative literature than do many other national literary departments, notably English and French.
This receptiveness has historical roots. In the early nineteenth century, for example, both August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel made quite a splash in Vienna with their lectures on world literature, which were enthusiastically received and became famous (Weisstein 185). In 1808 August lectured on “Dramatic Art and Literature,” treating a range of national traditions of European theater from the ancient Greeks to the eighteenth century, and in 1812 Friedrich delivered a series of lectures on the “History of Literature, Ancient and Modern,” which manifested similar breadth, both temporally and geographically, and even included consideration of Indian literature and religion.
The best-known, most often cited example of the cosmopolitan, comparative orientation of many German writers and thinkers in the early nineteenth century is of course Goethe, who with his notion of Weltliteratur, or world literature, in essence invented comparative literature. This concept occupied Goethe frequently during the last ten years of his life (the 1820s), and, although he never offered a short definition of the term, Fritz Strich has synthesized a definition from Goethe’s writings on the subject. World literature is the literature that links national literatures; it is a literary bridge, a form of intellectual barter, a literary market with intellectual commodities (Goethe himself used the metaphor of trade and commerce; Strich 5). The purpose of this “intellectual conversation” (Strich 5) is that writers living in different nations should “notice and understand each other, and, if they do not wish to love each other, at least learn how to tolerate one another” (qtd. in Weisstein 18). One is reminded of the phrase often misquoted from Madam de Stael’s Corinne, “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” (“To understand everything is to forgive everything”). (In fact the original reads, “Tout comprendre rend tres indulgent.” [“To understand everything makes one very indulgent.”] )
Goethe’s formulations reflect the fact that a significant motivation for the promotion of world literature was the Napoleonic Wars. But the harmonizing function that Goethe ascribes to world literature is still operative today. To put it bluntly, the more alien a culture is, the easier it is to bomb it (or napalm it, as the case may be). For Goethe the purpose of world literature is to foster the growth of a common humanity, to advance human civilization (Strich 12-13) by, as is often the case with comparative literature today, bringing out not only the national characteristics but also the unifying, “universal” features of different national literatures (Strich 10). For Goethe, translation is an important instrument of world literature, since it transcends national boundaries (this is a more controversial issue for comparative studies today, as I will indicate later). In Goethe’s opinion, world literature also involves physically crossing these boundaries, traveling to foreign countries, getting to know the inhabitants of other nations as well as their literature. But it is important to note that for Goethe, world literature meant only European literature, a fact that significantly differentiates his enterprise from the discipline of comparative literature today.
The receptiveness of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century German culture to world literature is no accident; it has much to do with particularism-Germany’s status as a conglomeration of many small states rather than as a united nation. Goethe summarizes the causal relationship in his 1795 essay “Literarischer Sansculottismus” (“The Production of a National Classic”). In the absence of an actual nation and a national center in which the best minds could assemble to develop imitable models, without a national literary canon and a national style, in the face of what was perceived as the poverty of German history and the resulting scarcity of national themes, Goethe and his contemporaries were forced to be eclectic, to look to other nations and eras for their subjects, for instance to classical Greek and Latin models. This reaction was responsible in large part for Weimar Classicism, or Germany’s belated renaissance, which was dominated by Goethe and Schiller.
It is the two modes I have outlined-literary parochialism or even chauvinism on the one hand versus cosmopolitanism and a receptiveness to the literature of non-German cultures on the other hand-which my title image of walls versus windows is intended metaphorically to capture. For those who like alliterative pairings, these attitudes could be epitomized in the pair Bismarck versus Benjamin (the embodiment of Prussian nationalism and militarism versus the critic Walter Benjamin, who often referred to other cultures, above all French, in his writing), or even Hitler versus Heine (Heinrich Heine having spent much of his life in exile in France and in a love-hate relationship with Germany). It is no accident that both representatives of cosmopolitanism, Benjamin and Heine, are Jewish, Jewishness being the fatal emblem of Otherness for many Germans throughout their history.
Parochialism and cosmopolitanism tend to exist side by side or to alternate throughout much of German history. Since the Second World War, however, the latter attitude appears to be gaining support, at least in the academy. Following the war chairs for comparative literature (Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft) were established at several German universities, notably Mainz, Bonn, and Berlin. Scholars like Horst Rdiger, Walter H6llerer, and Eberhard Lammert established themselves as comparatists. Although these programs were highly occidental, even European, in orientation, I mention them because they indirectly left their mark on early comparative literature departments in the U.S., which were founded in part by emigres, many of them scholars from Germany.
Against this background I would like to suggest how the street connecting German and comparative literature can now be decidedly two-way, how German can give to comparative literature as much as this brief history shows comparative literature has given to German. But as my title indicates, I would like in doing this to substitute the designation “German Studies” for German, to advocate, in other words, that the study of German literature be supplemented by the study of other facets of German thought, such as history, philosophy, sociology, art history, film studies, and so forth. In addition to offering intellectual expansion, this kind of move toward interdisciplinarity, now in evidence in many American universities, can work to combat the problem of declining enrollments mentioned at the outset of this article.
As a paradigmatic illustration of what German Studies can offer comparative literature, of ways in which German Studies material can be placed at the center of comparative enterprises, I will mention only three words: Marx, Nietzsche, Freud. Marx can stand as the tag word for an approach that considers the role of socioeconomic factors in literature and brings economic history into contact with literary studies and comparative literature. The importance of German philosophy for comparative literature might be epitomized in Nietzsche’s enormous influence on twentieth-century philosophy, literature, literary theory, and political thought. To cite a concrete example of this kind of conjunction, I have taught a comparative literature course on Nietzsche’s impact on twentieth-century literature and literary theory, which treats, along with major writings of Nietzsche, texts from several national literary traditions as well as a range of literary theorists. Similarly, a graduate seminar taught in Harvard’s Department of Comparative Literature by Michel Chaouli uses a detailed reading of Kant’s Critique of Judgment to introduce students to concepts of aesthetics and to the philosophical, critical, and political uses to which aesthetics can be put. Other readings in the seminar include works by Arendt, de Man, Gadamer, Lyotard, Novalis, Schelling, Schiller, Friedrich Schlegel, Derrida, Deleuze, and Bourdieu. The name Freud of course invokes the multifaceted relationship of literature and psychoanalysis.
I would now like to widen my angle of focus in order to bring up a further issue that concerns not only German and not only comparative literature, but other national, non-English literary traditions as well. The courses to which I have just referred”Nietzsche and the Twentieth Century,” “Introduction to Modern Aesthetics”-can be viewed as examples of a current trend in the American academy, a trend in which broadening is on the rise (to mix horizontal and vertical metaphors). They are products of an impulse that has led us to teach and write about not only one literary tradition, but several; not only one discipline-literature-but many (reflected in the designation “interdisciplinary” or in the “Studies” component of “German Studies,” “French Studies,” etc.); and not only a few writers but an entire culture or social group. The ramifications of the last area of activity, cultural studies, for German Studies are explored in the volume German Cultural Studies: An Introduction. In the introduction to that volume Rob Burns writes the following:
In Britain cultural studies originated with the attempts by Richard Hoggart and, above all, Raymond Williams to shift the critical focus from the one meaning of the term to the other: from the traditional, narrow view of culture as coterminous with the arts to the broad, anthropological and extended sociological use of the word to indicate a “whole way of life,” the entire mental and material habitat of a distinct people or other social group. (1)
Burns then argues that the development of German Cultural Studies was significantly influenced by the thinking of the Frankfurt School, particularly the notion of the culture industry-the capitalist industrialization of culture and its strategies of manipulation and deception (Burns 2-8)-developed in Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s seminal work Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). Whether one agrees with Burns or not, it should be clear that courses like “Nietzsche and the Twentieth Century” or “Introduction to Modern Aesthetics” belong neither to German Studies nor to German Cultural Studies; they are comparative literature courses centered on material from German Studies.
But on this new playing field, where literary texts are not the sole object of study, how important is it that we read works in the original language? This question has received much attention of late. Given the problem of dropping enrollments I alluded to at the beginning of this essay, I suspect that many in this profession who work in at least one non-English literature have been caught at one time or another between the Scylla of a program that seems to offer an uncomfortably high number of courses in English translation-how rigorous is such an education in a foreign literature, one asks?-and the Charybdis of underenrolled or cancelled classes taught in the original foreign language. (I would guess that people who have not found themselves in this position probably work in Spanish as their principal area.) How do we keep our bilingual or polylingual heads when all those around us, especially administrators, are losing theirs? Or do we really want to?
To confront, rather than answer, this question, I will touch on two sites of debate regarding this issue, Hinrich Seeba’s article “Cultural versus Linguistic Competence,” which appeared in a special issue of The German Quarterly on “Culture Studies” (another designation for Cultural Studies), and the volume Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism, edited by Charles Bernheimer. In the first of these, Seeba, a professor of German at the University of California at Berkeley, quite rightly calls attention to the provincialism and fear of bilingualism typical of American culture; he emphasizes the interdependence of language and thought, surveys the history of the idea-prominent in the German traditionthat language indeed determines thought, and points out the paradoxical fact that “the more academic programs in the humanities embrace the cultural turn of their disciplines . . . the more they tend to move away from the particular language whose instruction was their original raison d’etre” (404). Seeba argues for the importance of maintaining German in German Cultural Studies, for making sure that linguistic competence in German remains the conditio sine qua non for cultural competence and intercultural criticism (410).
I would like to second the points Seeba makes but also to observe that, just as life consists of compromise, so too does our profession. When we talk about cultural competence, it is I think expedient to differentiate among kinds of cultural documents. The question of language in literary texts is clearly different from that question in other forms of writing; this readership does not need to be reminded that a literary text is an aesthetic construct in which every word plays a role, in which form (in the original language) and substance are closely interrelated. The original wording of a Kleist story matters in a way that the language of a work by Kant or Marx might not. Not that I am making light of anyone who learned German in order to read Kant or Marx or Nietzsche or Freud in the original-but my point should be clear. For an analogous distinction I will call to witness the 1993 “Bernheimer Report: Comparative Literature at the Turn of the Century,” which, even though it casts its net fairly widely in defining comparative literature, differentiates comparative literature from cultural studies in part on the basis of language: most scholarship in cultural studies has tended to be monolingual (45).
A parallel exists between this hybrid practice-the attempt to maintain the use of German in the study of literature though not necessarily in the study of other cultural documents-and the situation of comparative literature: we teachers and advanced students of comparative literature read works in the languages we know in the original, but this should not prevent us from reading and using other literary texts in translation in our teaching and scholarship. I share the attitude of Mary Louise Pratt, who in her response to the Bernheimer Report encourages us not only to condone but to welcome the opportunities to discover, through reading in translation, the as yet unexplored cultures that the increasing globalization of scholarly networks opens up to us (61-62).
In conclusion, as should by now be evident, I do not think we should fortify the walls that enclose and protect both linguistic and disciplinary parochialism, but I would also oppose knocking them down entirely.
Bernheimer, Charles. “The Bernheimer Report, 1993: Comparative Literature at the Turn of the Century.” Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism. Ed. Charles Bernheimer. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 39-48.
Brod, Richard and Bettina J. Huber. “Foreign Language Enrollments in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 1995.” ADFL Bulletin 28 (1997): 55-61.
Burns, Rob, ed. German Cultural Studies: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
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