Literature

        It did not dawn on me, when in the fall of 1952 I became acquainted with the University of Illinois German faculty,  what vicissitudes these doctorates from pre-war Germany  must have undergone.  Helmut Rehder from Hamburg had experienced the incineration of hundred thousands in his home city.  I never heard him speak of it, but I later learned how he felt history cautioned against enthusiastic or hasty judgment.  His seminar taught a sober assessment of art, by distinguishing the categories Stoff, Form, and Gehalt, or subject matter, artistic form, and the sense or spirit of the work.  He began by distributing Albrecht Dürer's celebrated copper engraving Melancholia, and asking us to draw up a list of the objects depicted there.  None of us could, of course.  But I think we all grasped how vacuous would be any talk about the meaning, much less the artistic form of a picture before we had even figured out what was in it.

        Ernst Philippson loved to recall his Protestant background in a sometime proud province of Frederick the Great's empire.  On his wall hung a forebear's portrait in the 19th-century uniform of a Prussian officer.  Philippson had written his dissertation on the most nationalistic of topics, The Genealogy of the [Germanic] Gods.  Philippson's teacher (my academic grandsire, as it were) was Friedrich von der Leyen, a name today still attached to the Rhineland dialect map.  Philippson had married into the family of architects who at last completed the "gothic" tower of the Cologne Cathedral.  Like many prominent Rhineland families, Philippsons boasted Jewish ancestors.  The University of Cologne had rescinded Philippson's doctorate.  He once mentioned how odd it felt to see family possessions in a stranger's house.   Philippson was now active in reviewing books dealing with Germanic mythology, mostly for the house organ, Journal of English and Germanic Philology.  He thought it important to nip in the bud any revival of "romantic interpretations," by which he meant anything remotely nationalistic.

        Henri Stegemeier, wine connoisseur and son of a prominent Indianapolis restaurateur, taught German culture.  He was a great Germanophile most enthusiastic about all the traditions just in these same years being abolished in Germany.  Perhaps the most gifted teacher was Mimi Jehle, educated as gardener and still with a heavy Swabian dialect. This was a faculty which saw their task as passing down to their students what they had learned from their own teachers.  An exception was perhaps Raymond Phineas Stearns, who introduced me to history of science.  He touched upon the then developing field of cytology.  We discussed ribonucleic acid and deoxyribose, their genetic function.  Only many years later did I learn enough to marvel that Stearns had taught me all this in the very year that Cricks and Watson published their momentous paper.  From Stearns I also found out the importance of seventeenth-century England in intellectual history.  Seeking some such evidence in Germany may have led me to my dissertation topic, a "baroque" novel.  I really hoped to be able to relate German to a larger world.

       In any case, I had settled on the study of "literature," a term understood to mean a body of writings. In my student days René Wellek was formulating a better articulated definition, now in The Dictionary of the History of Ideas.  Wellek's was a generation fond of theory.  My own background was more pragmatic and laconic.  I was curious as to what might have actually existed, and how we might know about it.  Much as a physicist takes his field to be energy in space, or a biologist deals with life forms, I saw my own work to lie in documentation.  Taking "literature" in its simple, ostensible meaning, I understood my study to be of the written record and, by extension, the culture which both brings letters forth and is in turn conditioned by them.

        Writing came into existence as a consequence of agrarian life, and became an expression of that new culture with its distinctive economic base.  In neolithic times nomadic warriors, who had followed many gods and religious mysteries, became conquerors of arable land worked by their peasants. 
Here is no place for me to expatiate on humankind's accommodation to settled, agricultural ways, but one of its implications was the invention of writing.  At first, writing may have served only as one of the better choices for business and temple records.  Eventually, though, the keepers of scripture ministered at the altars of great warriors like King David.  In my present context, just one literary example will do:  my next page, "Deborah," illustrates the beginning of literature.  The transition from song to scroll was the attempt, after many generations, to capture oral tradtions in writing.

        Writing remained the medium for literature for maybe five thousand years.  The important innovations that print finally brought about, mass production and interchangeability of parts, were advances in technology more than in reading habits.  But when the great religious debate arose some five
hundred years ago, those making special appeal to scripture employed print to recruit a much larger world of readers.  I try to present the Faust Book in such a way as to illustrate their important transition from manuscript to print.  That was in the sixteenth century.  It may be that in our own day yet a third major shift, that from print to electromagnetic net, constitutes yet another decisive change in "literature," which points on beyond song, scroll, and book.

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