Monday, July 30, 2012

Literature's Influence or Lack Thereof

Secular examination of the Bible and of the origins of Judaism and Christianity -- a field of inquiry sometimes known by the particularly pompous name of "higher criticism" -- has been dominated over the past two centuries by German scholars. In asking myself, Why Germany? Why not somewhere else? it occurred to me that France and England up to the 18th century were much more strictly unified as monarchy than were the hundreds of more or less independent territories in German-speaking lands. In France and England it was much easier and more natural to identify one's nationality, culture and language with one monarch, who in turn was definitely closely associated with Christianity. And therefore, perhaps, it was much less natural for an Englishman or Frenchman to shrug off traditional Christian attitudes than it was for a German.

Or maybe that wasn't it at all. Maybe it was Goethe, the decidedly un-religious king of the German literary hill. In English literature, there is one indisputably most influential writer, Shakespeare. In Spain it's Cervantes. In the history of American literature, ask ten different experts and you might just get ten different answers. In Germany the most highly-esteemed writer is Goethe -- or Luther. Hard to find an enthusiast of the German language who doesn't strongly prefer one over the other, much the same way that you'd be hard-pressed to find an American bookworm without a strong preference for either Mark Twain or Henry James. Luther, for whom Catholicism was not Christian enough, or Goethe, who complained that he was so sick of hearing about Jesus that he didn't want to hear any more unless it was told to him by Jesus Himself. Luther, who visited Rome while still a monk and hated what he perceived as its wickedness, or Goethe who loved Italy. Luther the staunchly nationalist German or Goethe the emphatic cosmopolitan, hungry for knowledge and art from every corner of the Earth.

So maybe "higher criticism," which has lead fairly directly to what we now call "mythicism," the inquiry into whether or not Jesus really lived or began as a mythical being, is one of the many results of Goethe's pre-eminence in German letters. Yes, activist American atheists love to quote pithy atheistic lines from Twain, but to the general public Twain is many things before he is an atheist. (And do those atheists ever actually read whole books by Twain? I hope so.) Goethe, on the other hand, put an unambiguously negative verbal slap in the face of theology near enough to the beginning of the single most-revered work of German literature that to know him at all is to know that he wasn't pious the way Luther or any other good Christian was or is. (Imagine if Twain had put "Faith is believing what you know ain't so" into Huckleberry Finn's mouth on the first page of the novel bearing Huck's name, and you'll have some idea of the impact of Faust's first monologue.)

Or maybe it's absurd to assign such influence to Goethe, or to any poet anywhere. I really don't know: 1) Do individuals such as Goethe or Shakespeare really shape whole cultures, the mental habits of entire nations? Or 2) is it the other way around: are individuals, even the mightiest and most original of them, shaped by the cultures they live in, which are much too huge to be moved around by any one individual, any more than a single swimmer could change the course of the Mississippi or the Rhine? Or 3) does the entire relationship between literature and culture tend to be vastly exaggerated by bookish types such as myself, and is literature, even that which we like to insist is the "greatest literature," and even if we generously pad it out with things like philosophy and Biblical studies, thoroughly unimportant to the great majority of people, apart from some school courses they are forced to take and are right to despise, and are all those "great writers" really not much more than particularly grandiose fools?

I honestly don't know how to measure such things. All I know for sure is that I like stuff on the highbrow reading lists, very much. Even if that does mean that I'm a fool and wasting my life. At least I'm having a good time wasting it.

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