How excited would Johann Wolfgang von Goethe have been to harness the boundless, real-time World Wide Web for his transnational dialog. The Prince of Poets was limited to snail mail, with one special privilege: Mail service was in the hands of a private authority and considered the cornerstone of pre-industrial modernization. The clout of its “inventor” Franz von Taxis was on par with that of Christopher Columbus. Provider “Thurn und Taxis” granted Goethe free postage for life.
“Goethe did not have to pay for any letters sent or received,” literary expert Peter Goßens mentioned in his interview with Sabria David, curator of the “Streaming Egos” project.
Goethe could write as many letters as he pleased. With this free communication tool, he evolved into the networking agent for European discourse. This was the driving force behind his cosmopolitan Humanism. Populist right-wing politicians would be well advised to take a leaf out of Goethe’s book. Today, Goethe would be using Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, Hangout on Air and a blog. Back in his day, he mainly used his own journal “On Art and Antiquity” to enter into a dialog with Europe’s literary minds.
“In addition to his prolific correspondence, his visitors and the conversations that were part of his daily life in Weimar, it was mainly his journal project that enabled an aging Goethe to cast his web of communication (which was virtual, yet manifest in its printed format), and to share his views on significant matters of world literature,” Goßens writes in his habilitation thesis Weltliteratur [World Literature], published by J.B. Metzler-Verlag.
Goethe sought to engage the erudite classes of his time in a debate on how old knowledge can be preserved for new times and how to develop a new social model:
“When we dared proclaim a European, even universal, World Literature, we didn’t mean that the various nations take note of one another and their cultural products; for in that sense, World Literature has been existing for a long time, more or less perpetuating and renewing itself. No, what we are talking about is rather that the living and ambitious literary minds get to know each other and, united by their shared inclinations and a sense of community, feel compelled to work together,” universal scholar Goethe wrote in a greeting to the Assembly of Naturalists and Physicians in the year 1828.
An Action Plan to Overcome Nationalist Delusion
Goethe created a small, but highly influential European public sphere. He sought and found allies for his world-literary endeavor to create a transnational communication system. Goethe does not define World Literature as a canon, but rather as an action plan to overcome nationalist delusion. It was not primarily about reading works of literature, but gaining a basic knowledge of other countries’ cultures. The Prince of Poets saw himself as a catalyst to build a European readership. One of his own favorite reads was “Le Globe”, which took a stance against national prejudices and quests for cultural supremacy.
Nationalist observers interpreted his cause as an un-German mindset. AfD (“Alternative für Deutschland”, German right-wing / populist party; editorial note), Pegida („Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes“, German xenophobic and islamophobic organisation; editorial note) and the like would probably put it exactly the same way today. With his strong international network, Goethe was able to drown out these bawling populist voices. Günther Rüther hopes that the intellectuals of our day will do the same. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was mainly wars that rekindled the European idea. Intellectuals strove to overcome nationalist stereotypes, control hatred and intolerance and, above all, reforge the lost friendships between peoples, as Rüther writes in his new book Die Unmächtigen – Schriftsteller und Intellektuelle seit 1945 [The NonPowerful – Writers and Intellectuals Since 1945], published by Wallstein Verlag. Europe now needs the voices of the intellectuals. They must decipher the language of power and politics of expertise in order to relaunch the European idea.