Literature as Utopia
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It has not been all that long since I myself was sitting on a bench in a lecture hall, admittedly not in order to hear any talk about literature [Literatur]1—and the little that I did happen to hear every now and then only reinforced my antipathy to such talk—this at a stage in life when a young person who writes and wants to do nothing but write has already been regarding writing as the center of all his thoughts and hopes for the longest time. My aversion to literature as treated by professional scholarship may have been among other things a foolish mistake. But you can be sure that that the study of literature is unnecessary and superfluous to writers [Schriftsteller]2 given that there are plenty of business people and vagabonds, doctors and convicts, engineers, dandies, journalists, indeed even professors, who have gained creditable reputations through writing. Time and again one encounters this ominous word “literature,” this eagerly all-encompassing term for an ostensibly clear thing, a term that is deployed and employed not only by scholars but also by authors, that is one of their principal nouns; they are quite partial to employing it every now and then in their own wantonly mischievous way. It is certain that the idea of not figuring in the sphere of literature or someday no longer figuring in that sphere terrifies the writer, who regards such a fate as tantamount to a death sentence. He competes relentlessly if secretly for membership in the order of the knights of “literature,” and even if he never receives a hint that he will enjoy a long-term membership in it he hopes for it and never relinquishes this hope.
One would think that there ought to be no need for an explicit consensus about what this keyword means, what it unlocks, what realm it discloses to our gaze. After all, everybody knows what, for example, German literature is, and what European literature and world literature are. Of course, we must totally disregard the fact that in German-speaking countries the word “literature” tends to be used as a pejorative, depreciative expression, or even as a term of abuse (in the word “Literat” [i.e., literatus or man of letters] it has been devalued with almost complete success!), and that in our linguistic community people say things like “That’s nothing but literature!” and “That is so literary!” Here people prefer the “poetic” [Dichterische] and “creativity,” “poetry” [Dichtung] and “creating,” but because the use of these words is marked by a history of highly insalubrious outbursts of passion, I would like to set them aside and fall back on the word literature as a descriptive term. But what is this thing that I am describing? Is literature the sum total of all written works and beyond that the sum total of all those who have bequeathed written works to posterity?
Which works? Only the outstanding ones? By whom have they been deemed outstanding? Which authorial personages? Only the ones whose works have survived, and for whom have they survived? And once someone or something has been admitted into the literary canon, is his or its place therein unshakeable? Is this treasure, this so-called hoard of eternal poetry which literary history so zealously shelters and maintains, worth this piety and this incessant evocation? Are these gold ingots of the human mind all genuine; don’t a good many of them turn black; and don’t they often sound as if they are a bit hollow? And isn’t everything made of gold subject to the most incredible fluctuations in market value? Your teachers will be better able to tell you how often Goethe and Schiller have been toppled, to tell you what plunges the Romantics, the Naturalists, and the Symbolists have suffered. To tell you how often a writer has been neglected, feted again, forgotten, and resurrected—to tell you which works of the maestros have been unduly praised or unduly disregarded. And we ourselves are of course standing in the middle of the process; we disparage, we reappraise; on the one hand, we treat literature like an unshakable object, on the other hand we abuse it at the same time, until it becomes something like an ideal.
Admittedly, a chain of evidence, a chain in which each link is a written work, suggests that there really is such a thing as literature. Let us just take as an example German literature--but here we are already faltering, even though every beginner’s guide to the subject states that German literature starts with the Merseburg Incantations and ends—just where does it end? We are faltering because we have also heard that in a precise sense we have never had a literature; our literature is said to be lacking a tradition and to be very poorly suited to the observation and ascertainment of what we understand literature to be—at least by comparison with French or English literature. And this bit of hearsay has much to recommend it, at least to those who stick to received opinion. But once one has shifted oneself to a different vantage-point, it is no longer possible to see why French or any other sort of literature should qualify as what we understand literature to be. For what do we understand it to be? It is an ideal that we are constantly correcting into a more proper state, an ideal in which we abandon certain facts and eradicate certain others.
But today let us just take a quick survey of the various opinions, the various definitions. Because we can have strange experiences each and every day, in conversations with our friends, for example. In a conversation about, say, painting, you may hear the names Giotto, Kandinsky, and Pollock, but in that same conversation everybody will take care not to mention Raphael’s name in the same cadence. When you’re a guest at somebody’s house and looking for a record to put on, you may find Bach, a bit of baroque music, Schoenberg, and Webern prominently on display, but you’ll have a very hard time finding any Tchaikovsky at all in your host’s collection. In conversations about literature with people you’re staying with, you may hear calm pronouncements about Joyce and Faulkner, Homer and Cicero, but names like Eichendorff or Stifter will possibly set off alarm bells. These are by no means fictional scenarios; we come across such scenarios every day, and we ourselves are contributing participants in them. For whereas on the one hand literature and every other art are benefiting from an official historical preservation industry that gives everyone his due; on the other hand, this industry is counterpoised by an unofficial reign of terror that subjects entire sectors of literature and every other art to excommunication and exile. This reign of terror has always been in force, and it will hardly do us any good to get clear in our minds about it; we act as its agents out of sheer necessity; our delight in one sector of literature is conditioned by our aversion to the other, and by means of this unjust state of affairs we keep literature alive and orient it towards an ideal. And it is entirely conceivable that in the not too distant future our idols both ancient and modern will be toppled again and be obliged to step down, that our questing and quarreling on behalf of the modern as we understand it will provoke another quarrel. As long as we are here, and everybody is always here in good faith, we don’t care.
Thus, even though and even because it is always an omnium gatherum of the happened and the happened-upon, literature is always the hoped-for and wished-for space that we furnish out of the hoard in accordance with our desire--thus it is an anteriorly open-ended realm whose borders are unknown. Our desire ensures that everything that has already been shaped in the medium of language simultaneously partakes of that which has not yet been uttered, and our enthusiasm for certain magnificent texts is actually an enthusiasm for the white, blank page on which that which has yet to be gained seems to be already inscribed. In our eyes, every great work, be it Don Quixote or the Divine Comedy, has a certain withered, weathered quality; in our eyes, there is always a defect that we ourselves repair as a result of giving the work a chance today, of reading it and wanting to read it tomorrow—a defect that is so massive that it impels us to proceed with literature as with a utopia.
Scholarship, too, ought to find itself in this quandary, for there is no such thing as an objective opinion about literature; there is only a living one, and this living opinion entails such consequences. In the course of our life we frequently change our opinion of a writer several times. At twenty we dismiss him with a joke or call him a plaster statue who is of absolutely no concern to us; at thirty we discover his greatness, and then ten years later still our interest in him is defunct or we have developed new misgivings and a new inability to tolerate him.
Or vice-versa, at first we regard him as a genius, subsequently discover platitudes that disappoint us, and cast him aside. We are merciless and ruthless, but if we weren’t, we wouldn’t be engaged at all. There is always this or that thing about a writer or an age that strikes us as exemplarily correct, and something else about it that stands in our way, that must be disputed away. We quote in a triumphant or damnatory tone, as though the works existed only for the sake of allowing us to prove something to ourselves.
The alternating successes of the works or their failures tell us less about themselves than about our own constitution and the constitution of our age, but nobody has yet written the history of these constitutions, and more is being written about the history of literature, and this historiography is being organized using the terminology of criticism and aesthetics, as if it were a fait accompli that is subject to the unanimous verdict of the sworn members of the jury—namely the reader, the critic, and the scholar.
But literature both old and new is unclosed; it is more unclosed than every other domain—than the sciences, in which every new form of knowledge outstrips the old one—it is unclosed because its entire past pushes into the present. With the force of all the ages it presses into us, into the temporal threshold at which we stop, and its onrush with robust old and robust new forms of knowledge makes us realize that not one of its constituent works had any wish to be rendered dated and innocuous, that rather they all contain the prerequisites for eluding every peremptory arrangement and system of classification.
I would like to try to dub these prerequisites, which inhere in the works themselves, the “utopian” prerequisites.
Were it not for these utopian prerequisites on the part of the works, despite our commiserating participation, literature would be a cemetery. Were it not for them, we would merely be officiators at wreath-laying ceremonies. Were it not for them, each work would be superseded and rectified by another one, each of them would be buried by a subsequent one.
But literature needs no pantheon; its forte is not dying, heaven, or any sort of salvation, but rather the realization of the strongest design in every present, in this one or the next one.
But literature, always “literature”…
Nor is any of this changed by, for example, the very recent publication of a French book that is titled Alittérature contemporaine (Albin Michel, Paris 1958) and attempts to prove that literature is being shunned by writers [Dichtern], that literature or being-in-literature is being disowned by writers. These are nuances that obviously must be negotiated in a different way than the sentimental German aspiration to separate literature and Dichtung; for it is easy enough to understand what this book’s author, Claude Mauriac, means by the former, and yet it is irrelevant whether a work becomes a work of literature because it wanted to stay “outside” or to be admitted into literature.
The ideal of aliterature is itself a part of literature, and it says more about the literary industry of the moment, about the social situation and the ineluctable revolt of artists than about literature itself: an aliterature is taking shape within the confines of literature. But as for this literature, which itself is incapable of saying what it is, and which is incessantly being told what it is and what it should be—how should one encircle it, approach it? One might also go looking for it via a detour that simply discloses a dozen blind paths. There is that nasty Flaubert novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet, and the book’s two knowledge-craving clerks’ adventure with literature is inextricable from the grotesquery of our own adventure with it. Bouvard and Pécuchet, the two bonhommes, yearn for certainty, and their discovery of the uncertainty of human knowledge does not make them mere objects of ridicule but rather transforms them into our partners in suffering. For in the tragicomedy in which Bouvard and Pécuchet are acting the tragicomedy of science is also depicted. Because they cannot make do with simply reading the works; they seek refuge in science, which they expect to set them on the right path. Pécuchet had a bright idea:
The reason they were having so much trouble was that they didn’t know the rules. They studied them, in d’Aubignac’s Pratique du Théâtre and in other, less antiquated works.
Important questions are debated here: Is verse permissible in comedy? Does tragedy overstep its fixed limits when it takes its plot from modern history? Must tragic heroes be virtuous? What is the essence of a tragic villain? To what extent should graphically horrific events be represented on the tragic stage? To be sure, Aubignac maintains, each particular event must contribute to a single outcome, the dramatic interest must constantly be building, and the conclusion must jibe with the beginning—obviously!
“Devise mainsprings that can hold my attention,” says Boileau.
How does one devise these mainsprings?
“Be sure that in all your speeches genuine passion seeks out the heart, warms it, and moves it.”
How does one warm the heart?
So the rules aren’t enough. One also needs genius.
And genius isn’t enough. Corneille understands nothing about the theater, according to the Académie française. Geoffery denigrated Voltaire. Racine was ridiculed by Subligny. La Harpe blushed at the mention of Shakespeare’s name.
They got sick of the old critics.
...“Let’s busy ourselves with prose first,” said Bouvard.
The authorities formally recommend the careful imitation a specific classical work, but all the classics have certain dangerous shortcomings as models--this on account not only of their stylistic but also of their linguistic sins.
But perhaps the science known as aesthetics could settle their dispute.
Then they preoccupied themselves with the sublime.
“In short, taste is taste, and none of this tells us how to go about acquiring it.”
But in what manner has literature so far been dealt with in earnest, and what methods and vicissitudes have impinged on it during its journey to us? This is no idle question, for literature always retains some trace of everything that has befallen it.
A literary history has existed only since the beginning of the nineteenth century, since the Romantic period; back then the study of history was undertaken as a patriotic duty. It amounted to a pernickety chronicling of the historian’s national literature, and often, if not invariably, the national pride of the chroniclers forbade them to perceive that over huge stretches of time this literature runs on empty. This smug, all-encompassing overview of something that was by no means an integral entity but rather a shoddily underpinned optimistic ideal derived from the blueprint of national pathos, has had a long and abiding influence on our school textbooks. And this more or less depraved historiography of literature has borne unexpectedly unanticipated fruits yet again in Germany of the twentieth century. But to be sure, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Goethe had discovered a formulation that had comparably and more felicitously abiding aftereffects:
I am seeing ever more clearly that poetry is the common property of humankind and that it manifests itself in hundreds upon hundreds of human beings in all ages and places. One person writes poetry a little better than the next person and when swimming keeps his head above water a little longer than the next person; that is all.
And later, to Eckermann:
National literature doesn’t mean much now; the epoch of world literature has arrived, and everyone must now do his best to accelerate this epoch. But in thereby esteeming productions of foreign origin we must not cleave to any particular work and try to regard it as exemplary. We mustn’t think that the Chinese, or Calderon, or the Nibelungen, got it right; rather, in our need for something exemplary we must always return to the ancient Greeks, in whose works the human individual is invariably depicted in all his beauty. Everything else we must contemplate in a merely historical light and, to the extent that this is possible, appropriate whatever good it contains.
As excellent as the beginning of this formulation still appears to us today—as laudable as we still find its lively desire for something exemplary and the foundation of exemplarity on the works of the Greeks, as well as its exhortation to contemplate everything in a merely historical light—this prescription for keeping company with literature, like most others we have encountered, has grievously suffered at the hands of time. Nevertheless, in its desire to relegate something exemplary to a moment of origin still lurks the desire to establish something up ahead, something unstandardized rather than a standard, something that can never be reached no matter how closely it is approached.
In any case, today we do not have what it takes to defer slavishly to such and similar Olympian propositions. But if they appear to us in a new light, they are likewise shifting to a new place in the horizon. Goethe’s Greeks can be conceived of as a cipher. The alternation of outlooks, of standards, that took place so slowly until the end of the nineteenth century that everyone found time to pay due regard to particulars and everything achieved efficacy, is giving way in the twentieth century to a previously unthinkable restless temperature curve of criteria. One of the reasons for this is what Jacob Burckhardt remarked on the situation in World-Historical Meditations: “The destiny of modern poetry in general is its literary-historically conscious relationship to the poetry of all ages and peoples.” So this fine mess that could not have failed to materialize and that we have inherited from the nineteenth century has in fact made us richer than the generations that preceded us, but also more labile and more vulnerable, more defenseless against every association. For today we are not only familiar with the literature of all peoples, including those of Africa, but also conscious of the availability of all grammars, poetics, rhetorics, aesthetics, of all formal and normative possibilities in literature. For everything factual in literature is either accompanied by theory or is itself theory at the same time, and literature’s have is confronted with a shall that orients it or would like to orient it, or has arisen from it as a stratum of orientation and often overshoots it so far that it injures it or no longer manages to reach it.
But we all want to substantiate literature or to substantiate something with it. At the same time philosophy, psychiatry, and every possible other discipline pounce on it, and it is straitjacketed into laws and conditions or revelations that it—for the sake of everybody and nobody—fits into satisfactorily today and yet will contradict tomorrow. The literary historian—and we have almost gotten used to this by now—smashes it into temporal fragments, colors it ancient, medieval, and modern. Literary criticism and philosophical literary scholarship X-ray metaphysical and ethical problems with it—but literary scholarship has also leaned on other things, on sociology, psychoanalysis, and art history—so vast is its scope for free play. It inspects literature in search of stylistic periods; an intuition of essences is ventured or an existential yield is expected from it. And because a writer is too deficient in detailed knowledge to negotiate a path through this labyrinth, allow me to call to my aid one of our greatest scholars. In his preface to his book European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Ernst Robert Curtius writes of modern literary scholarship and a few of its tendencies:
It wants to be “intellectual history.” This tendency, which leans on art history, operates with the extremely questionable principle of ‘the mutual elucidation of the arts’ and thereby engenders an obfuscation of objective states of affairs. It then proceeds to apply to literature art history’s periodization according to styles that supersede one another. So we end up with a literary Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, etc., right on down to Impressionism and Expressionism. Every stylistic period is then endowed by the “intuition of essences” with an “essence” and peopled with a special “individual.” The “Gothic individual” (to whom Huizinga has assigned a “pre-Gothic” comrade) has become extremely popular, but the “Baroque individual” probably doesn’t lag too far behind him. There are profound beliefs about the “essence” of the Gothic, the Baroque, etc., that admittedly contradict one another to some extent. Is Shakespeare Renaissance or Baroque? Is Baudelaire an Impressionist, George an Expressionist? Much intellectual energy is devoted to such problems. The stylistic periods are perambulated by the art historian [Heinrich] Wölfflin’s “foundational principles.” For him there is an “open” and a “closed form. Is the end of Goethe’s Faust open, and Valéry’s closed? Here’s a big question: is there even, as Karl Joël tried to show with great intelligence and abundant historical intuition, a regular succession of “binding” and “loosening” centuries (each one fitted out with its own “secular spirit”)? In the modern age are the even centuries (the 14th, 16th, 18th, and, to all appearances, the 20th as well) “binding,” and the odd ones (the 13th, 15th, and 17th) “loosening,” and so forth ad infinitum?
And Curtius continues: “Modern literary scholarship—i.e., that of the last 50 years—is a phantom.”
I don’t know if today, fifteen years later, you still find yourself in the same situation as students; I hope you don’t, but it no longer seems possible to be optimistic when keeping company with literature, for not even its historiography has remained uninjured by pessimism. A History of the Poetic National Literature of the Germans reads one of its first titles, and the last of which I am aware is Tragic Literary History. But why does literature always flee from literary research in such a disastrous manner; why can we never catch hold of it in the way we would like to catch hold of it; for it can’t only be the fault of the researchers, of the critics?! They alone can’t be to blame for contradictory definitions. There must be a reason that is not solely rooted in the variable constitution of time and that we can seek out on our own.
If we were as inexperienced and gullible as those two poor fools Bouvard und Pécuchet—and often enough we are just that—we would be obliged to drop this and every other object amid a great, anonymous burst of laughter, beneath which we ourselves and literature are being buried.
But literature, which itself is incapable of saying what it is, which merely proclaims itself a thousand-fold and multi-millennial offense against a bad language—for life only ever has a bad language—and which therefore confronts life with a utopia of language; so this literature, however tightly it may cling to time and its bad language, is glorious on account of its despair-ridden never-ending journey towards this language, and it is only for this reason that it is one of humankind’s glories and hopes. Its most vulgar and affected languages still have a share in the linguistic dream; every vocabulary, every syntax, every sentence, every punctuation-mark, metaphor, and every symbol fulfills some portion of our dream of expression, a dream destined never to be totally realized.
In the dictionary one reads: “Literature is simply the aggregate of written intellectual products.” But this aggregate is contingent and unfinished, and the intellect contained therein is has not been given to us exclusively in written form. When we turn off our searchlights and extinguish every other source of illumination, literature, left in the dark and in peace, renders its own light, and its genuine products have their own form of emanation, one that is timely and stimulating. These are products that shimmer and that have dead patches; pieces of a realized hope for integral language, for integral expression for an ever-changing humanity and an ever-changing world. What we call perfection in art does nothing but activate imperfection afresh.
And because this imperfection is still active, the writer is undaunted by the greatness of what was written before his time--and they could not but find this greatness daunting if it were great in the sense of being unattainable, unsurpassable. And they likewise could not but feel daunted if in this case, as in all others centering on achievements, they could be overtaken by greater writers; for then tomorrow they would be the sacrificial victims that they are not yet today. But in literature there are no finishing lines, no achievements of this kind, no such things as overtaking and falling behind.
Nevertheless, from the point of view of the present, it looks as though literature were merely an overwhelming past being constantly played off against the present, which has been condemned to lose from the outset. The writer himself is afflicted by the past and at the same time by the present, in which he privately feels that he and his contemporaries are nonentities.
In Robert Musil’s diary there is a passage of great candor, in which he confesses that he has only ever opened up to a handful of writers—Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, and others, but that not a single one of his contemporaries figures among them, that they all wrote between twenty and a hundred years earlier. If we subtract the small dose of vanity and resentment that is also saying its piece here, we are still left beholding the astonishingly authentic and in impartial terms impossible residue of appreciation of his contemporaries. In another passage one finds the following note: “‘Who’s around who counts nowadays?!’ That pessimistic appraisal of the value of contemporary literature—myself included.” Further: “And yet the average level is definitely high. The reason: akin to longing for the ‘Savior’.” But this figure who is the object of longing is also merely an ideal figure, and when he casts his mind back, the following occurs to him:
Virgil, Dante, Homer…set them aside. In any case, loving them requires an illusion and a love of the world that surrounded them…But Balzac, Stendhal, etc.; picture them to yourself; they lived and were ‘colleagues.’ How much aversion to those scribblers and that fop! Their imaginary worlds would be insufferable if one didn’t suppose them to be sited in sundry places and ages. Are they combinable or mutually exclusive? How does one account for the fact that the effect is attenuated when one accepts an author with all the baggage of his bygone age?
And this note is superscribed by the words On the Utopia of Literature. Here and there in Musil’s work one can encounter these words utopia and utopian being used in connection with literature, with the authorial [schriftstellerischen] existence; he has not elaborated these ideas but merely given me the keyword that I have tried to come to grips with here today. But if those who write [die Schreibenden] now had the courage to declare themselves in favor of utopian existences, they would no longer need to adopt that country, that dubious utopia—that something which tends to be called culture, nation, and so forth, and in which they have hitherto carved out their place. This was their former situation, and I believe that for Hofmannsthal and Thomas Mann it had already long since ceased to be a natural one and had become, rather, a situation that could be maintained only in an attitude of utter despair. But was it ever thus naturally? Did not this utopia of culture fortunately contain a much purer element of utopia as a vector that will remain open to pursuit when our culture no longer keeps up appearances on High Holy Days, when literature [Dichtung] is no longer conceivable “as the spiritual region of the nation”—today this is basically already an impossibility—but rather is obliged to recoil from the exile of Here and Now into the unspiritual region of our doleful countries? For this at least remains true: we must labor with the bad language that we happen to discover, labor at this language towards a language that has never yet ruled, but that rules our intuition and that we imitate. There is such a thing as imitation in its bad sense, in the conventional sense; I am not referring to that; and there is such a thing as the kind of imitation about which Jacob Burckhardt spoke and from which conservative criticism profits nowadays, either contentedly or reprovingly, imitation, reverberation as a destiny; and I am not referring to that either. I am referring, rather, to an imitation of this very language surmised by us, a language that we cannot bring into our possession. We possess it as a fragment in literature [Dichtung], concretized in a line or a scene, and we conceive ourselves as breathing freely within it in having attained our voices through language.
It is vital to continue writing.
We shall undoubtedly be obliged to continue toiling away with this word, literature, and with literature itself, with what it is and what we think it is, and we shall still often be greatly vexed by the unreliability of our critical instruments, by the net out of which literature will always slip. But let us be glad that it ultimately eludes us, glad for our own sakes, so that it remains vital and our life coalesces with it in hours when we swap our breath with it. Literature as a utopia—the writer as a utopian existence, the utopian preconditions of the work-----
If one fine day the questions that crave to follow those dashes could be properly formulated, we could perhaps write the history of literature and our history with it again and afresh. But the individual who writes, who has been residing in this unwritten history from time immemorial, seldom has words for it and lives in the hope of the unbroken secret pact. Such being the case, allow me to close with the words of a writer [Dichter] that seem almost to have been written with what I have been trying to say in mind. They are the words of the French poet [Dichter] René Char:
“With each collapse of proofs the poet responds with a salvo of futurity.”
1. All subsequent occurrences of literature are likewise renditions of Literatur unless otherwise indicated.
2. All subsequent occurrences of writer(s) are likewise renditions of Schriftsteller unless otherwise indicated.