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Literature as Social Action: Modernist and Traditionalist Narratives in Germany in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.

Literature as Social Action: Modernist and Traditionalist Narratives in Germany in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. By Pamela Currie. Columbia, SC: Camden House. 1995. viii + 252 pp. 40 [pounds sterling].

This book is not a survey of German narrative prose during the period indicated: no work that omits Grimmelshausen and all but one of Wieland's novels could or would make such a claim. What it offers is a well-informed, well-argued, and well-written examination of certain socio-political trends as they manifest themselves in selected literary examples and as such it provides a helpful and stimulating companion even to those who do not wish to take too much bulky sociological baggage on the voyage. Literature may, or may not, be 'social action', but it is often revealing to view it from that perspective.

The basic process is a battle of ideologies: between those who wish to judge and regulate human activity through absolute and transcendent criteria ('clerical') and those of a more 'legal' turn of mind who fix on individual circumstance and motivation. Translated into narrative terms, this becomes a dualism of 'imperative' and 'interrogative' fiction, related respectively to 'romance' and the novel, whose lineage can be traced back to the 'simple forms' (Jolles) of exemplum and casus. The theory (and there is much more of it) is unavoidable, and it is expounded with exemplary clarity. Its application is handled in a scholarly and sensitive fashion and even when one feels that this approach can over-simplify a complex reality, its effect is to illuminate rather than obscure.

One, at least, of the central issues is surely the idea (and what else is it?) of 'reality'. This would certainly have been a crucial problem had Grimmelshausen been included, and the intricacy and complexity of the argument that would have been involved (including in-depth analysis of his 'satyrical' manner) is presumably the main reason for his exclusion. But the concept does need to be very carefully defined. Otherwise, the 'modernist' can easily come to look like the ancestor of the contemporary ideologue who urges the claim to exclusive validity of something called the 'real world', or what Nicolai, in Sebaldus Nothanker, consistently (and perhaps more justly than he knew) referred to as 'das gemeine Leben'.

Thus one feels at times, in reading Pamela Currie's account of the seventeenth century, that the whole nexus of ideas bound up in the phrase 'der Wahn betrugt' should be taken more fully into account. This applies particularly in the case of Anton Ulrich who (in the absence of Grimmelshausen and the 'political' novel) is the closest we come in the 'Baroque' section to a form of 'realism'. It could well be that in the Aramena (the chosen exemplar) there is significant attention to individual rather than universal truth. But 'der gutige Himmel' is surely also a real presence. The labyrinthine plot and the frequency of error and misunderstanding at the 'human' level are perfectly compatible with the idea of a 'Verhangnis' and a Guide who brings the characters out of the labyrinth as a reward for exemplary heroic constantia. The difference would emerge in subtleties of emphasis revealed by textual analysis, in comparison, say, with Ziegler's Banise. The other examples of indigenous Baroque narrative treated (Harsdorffer (an excellent vignette), Buchholtz, Ziegler) fit reasonably well into the formula.

Currie's treatment of the Enlightenment is in the main comprehensive and well balanced. It might be possible to make a case for the inclusion of narrative in verse (for example Gellert, to say nothing of Wieland), and the absence of any reference to Klopstock is regrettable. But this section is already very large, proportionately, and there are greater things still to come. So we reconcile ourselves to the summary treatment of such as Nothanker (though the attack on imagination and 'romance' there is of interest for what follows) and Siegwart and (a little less readily) to the absence of Sophie von Laroche's novels. We must concentrate on the treatment of Wieland. Here, the problems of selectivity and simplification arise in a more acute form. Though the review of Wieland's career stretches as far as Weimar and the Teutscher Merkur, discussion of his writing is restricted to the first version of Agathon (1766-67), the salient point being the switch from a 'romantic', imagination-driven idealism to ironic scepticism. One accepts, obviously, that coverage of the whole range of Wieland's narrative work is impossible within the scope of this book. But even in the 1760s version, the demolition of the Richardsonian hero can hardly be said to lead to something unequivocally Fieldingesque. The question of a 'true' (or 'real') idealism, a legitimate enthusiasm, is one of balance and this text enunciates, but, as Wieland was well aware, does not answer it. His subsequent quest for an adequate formulation of that balance, through the novels and essays of the following decades, needs to be taken into account in some way if his position (in particular as regards the imagination, in which respect he needs to be distinguished from the narrator of Nothanker as well as from the 'Singularitat' of Sophie von Laroche's heroine) is to be fairly stated. It may or may not be the case that Wieland is 'chiefly remembered' for Agathon, but the argument here surely requires that some notice be taken of the final version, together, perhaps, with Peregrinus Proteus and Agathodamon.

Imagination can be the source of an experience of individual liberation, but it can also become a gaoler and torturer, as emerges in Currie's stimulating account of Werther, in a chapter that places the Sturm und Drang on the 'traditionalist' side of the equation in its re-creation of the 'Lehrstand'. But no sooner does the shadow of the giant appear than we realize that we are within some thirty pages of the end. What are we to do with Goethe? It is not so much his status as his complexity that is the issue. The thinking of Kant and Schiller can be, and is, clearly and efficiently presented in a relatively short space but the Lehrjahre, Unterhaltungen, and Wahlverwandtschaften are less accommodating, especially when they in their turn are to be accommodated under the roof of 'Traditionalism Triumphant'. It is not that a case might not have been made out, but Goethe, with his own individualistic brand of realism, is not an author who allows himself to be reduced to ideological attitudes without much close argument and textual analysis. The only solution would have been to jettison the philosopher and the literary theorist to allow sufficient room for the narrator. But the sociological theme of the renewed 'Lehrstand' would certainly have suffered and who are we, in any case, to counsel such ruthlessness? A full-scale investigation of Goethe the 'Classical' narrator under the rubric of 'social action' must be postponed to another occasion. This book has at least laid the foundation.

It is very well presented. It lacks a bibliography, but the standard of the notes and index is excellent and the general level of accuracy is extremely high, so much so that to list the odd mistake or inconsistency would smack of pedantry. For all that (in part because of its clear and challenging quality) one is sometimes stirred to disagreement, it was well worth writing, and well worth reading.

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Author:Menhennet, Alan
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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