The Study of National Culture

LAST spring the President and Fellows of Harvard College took a step which, like not a few steps taken under President Eliot’s administration, was novel, experimental, and somewhat venturesome: they established a professorship of the History of German Culture, the first professorship of this subject in an American or English university, and they entrusted this office to the then Professor of German Literature.

Naturally, this event has induced a renewed consideration of the fundamental question involved in this matter, the question: What is the place of the study of national culture within the whole of historical and philological studies; and it is perhaps fitting that some reflections on this subject should be presented to a wider audience of persons interested in higher learning.

The history of a nation may be studied under two main heads, — civilization and culture. When we speak of national civilization, we mean thereby all that contributes to shape the outward conditions and conduct of life: the modes of gaining a livelihood, the organization of the family, the forms of domestic and public custom, social gradations, political, legal, and ecclesiastical institutions, and the friendly or hostile contact with other nations. When we speak of national culture, we mean thereby all that contributes to shape the inner life, to enrich the world of feeling, imagination, and thought: religious and philosophical movements, tendencies in literature and art, ideal aspirations, intellectual and spiritual revelations. Civilization makes the citizen, culture makes the man; civilization has to do with specific conditions, culture has to do with values of universal application; civilization is the form, culture is the content of national consciousness. But neither of the two can develop without the other; they constantly exert a reciprocal influence on each other; and only he who has studied comprehensively both the civilization and the culture of a given nation, is in a position to estimate what this nation has contributed to the whole of the world’s history.

I shall not, in the following remarks, traverse the whole ground indicated by these observations. What I wish to do is to point out how the study of the spiritual life, the study of literature, and the study of art, may be benefited by considering spiritual, literary, and artistic movements as parts and as kindred manifestations of a given national culture.

There is nothing revolutionary in this point of view. Since the days of Winckelmann, Wolf, and Boeckh, students of classical antiquity have been accustomed to look at Greek and Roman life in its totality. The critical study of the Homeric poems, the history of Greek vase-painting, the history of the Attic drama, of Attic sculpture, oratory, and philosophy, are generally recognized to be nothing but chapters in a comprehensive history of Greek culture, supplementing and illustrating one another; and no classical philologist worthy of the name would think himself competent to write even a single paragraph of any one of these chapters without having, at least cursorily, gone over the ground of all the rest. The result has been that every Greek poem from Homer to Theocritus, every Greek statue from the Mycenæan age to the schools of Rhodos and Pergamon, every conception of Greek philosophy from Anaxagoras to Plotinus, nay, every construction of a Greek sentence and every fragment of a Greek inscription stands to us as an epitome of a particular phase in the development of Greek culture, thus revealing to us the peculiar conditions of life from which it took its origin. Nor can it be said that this alignment of individual works of literature, art, and philosophy into the historical sequence of national development has, in this case, in the least taken away from the intrinsic interest of these works themselves. On the contrary, it has added to it a very important element. The ἔργα καì ἡμέραι of Hesiod means more to us since we have come to see in it the expression of a democratic reaction against the aristocratic society of the Homeric times. We have a fuller and more intimate knowledge of the peculiarity of the art of Euripides, since he has come to be understood as a dramatic counterpart to the disintegrating tendencies of the rationalistic philosophy of his time, and to the realistic analysis of human passion in the plastic art of Skopas. And how much more has the Laocoön group to tell to us, now that it does not any longer appear, as it did appear to the men of the eighteenth century, as a timeless production of absolute genius revealing the “noble simplicity and calm grandeur” (as Winckelmann expressed it) of Greek character per se, but has come to be recognized as a typical production of that period of Greek national development when the noble simplicity and calm grandeur of the Æschylean age had been superseded by the high-strung, nervously excited temper of Hellenistic romanticism.

The point which I wish to make is that this conception of the totality of a given national culture has not as yet prevailed sufficiently to achieve for the history of modern nations what it has achieved for the history of Greece and Rome.

Not as though there had not been distinguished writers treating the literary, artistic, and intellectual history of modern nations from this point of view. Indeed, there are not a few illustrious examples of this sort of applied national psychology, with regard both to general movements and to individual representative men. Among Frenchmen, the one name of Hippolyte Taine stands for a whole class of writers trying to detect national characteristics in literary and artistic achievements. In Germany, such men as Jacob Burckhardt, Hermann Hettner, and Karl Lamprecht have applied this method both to particular periods or phases of intellectual developments and to the whole history of a given people in all its manifold manifestations. In England, John Addington Symonds and William E. H. Lecky have created masterpieces of research in the history of morals and spiritual culture in mediæval and modern Europe. And our own Barrett Wendell has attempted to build upon these same foundations a Literary History of America. As to biographies of epoch-making men, I point only to a few works of signal merit, works which give us as it were the spirit of a whole age, the temper of a whole nation condensed in one central figure: Sabatier’s Vie de St. François, Grimm’s Michel Angelo, Villari’s Girolamo Savonarola e suoi tempi, Morley’s Oliver Cromwell, Justi’s Velasquez und sein Jahrhundert, and a book by one whom we may also, although unfortunately only for a few months, call our own: Eugen Kühnemann’s Schiller. In all these works the great task, the single aim of the writers, is to arrive at a clear and just conception of what the culture of a given age, a given people, a given personality, has stood for, what ideals of life, what aspirations, passions, imaginings, forms of expression, modes of thought it included, what its place is in the general trend of human development, what it means for our own life.

While, then, much has been done by eminent writers to make that view of the totality of a nation’s history, which the great humanists of the early nineteenth century applied to the study of Greece and Rome, applicable to modern nations also, it yet remains true that the university study of modern literature, art, and intellectual life is still, on the whole, dominated by views too exclusive to lead the student from the very start into the wider realm of national culture.

I am certainly very far from decrying the value of specialization. I fully believe that a student should as soon as possible try his hand at investigating one subject thoroughly, — whether it be certain aspects of the syntax of Berthold von Regensburg, or the representation of the Annunciation in mediæval German sculpture, or the influence of Bernard of Clairvaux upon German mystic thought of the fourteenth century, or what not. But I do think that, as university teachers, we do not as a rule see sufficiently to it that such investigations be carried on in a broad spirit, that they be kept from degenerating into mere collections of grammatical forms, or catalogues of certain plastic types, or the amassing of parallel passages of a number of writers. That this sort of thing is the average work done in doctor’s dissertations dealing with this class of subjects there can be little doubt. Nor can it be denied, it seems to me, that the monographs in our philological, archæological, and literary quarterlies very often betray a deplorable lack of historical perspective, that there is something barren and unprofitable about this huge mill of Quellenuntersuchungen, of tracings of literary affiliations and indebtednesses, and of the eternal quest for the first authenticated appearance of a certain literary or artistic conceit. The wellnigh exclusive rule of this method in our university seminaries has limited the view, stifled the imagination, and brought about a state of mind among many of our young Ph. D.’s and candidates for the Ph. D., according to which literature and art seem entirely detached from life, and appear as nothing but a huge system of automatic contrivances. And the principal business of the literary historian and art critic has come to be, according to this view, to analyze the mechanism of these contrivances, and to establish the dates when their inventors —so to speak—had them officially patented.

I am convinced that one remedy against this soulless and lifeless method of studying literature and art is to hold constantly before one’s mind the connection of literature, art, and thought with the general trend of national development, and never to lose sight of the fact that they make together one living whole where “Alles ist Frucht und Alles ist Samen.”

Let me give one or two illustrations of the way in which this conception of the interdependence of the various manifestations of national consciousness may be made fruitful for the study of each of them. If these illustrations are taken exclusively from the field of German studies, there will be seen in this an effect upon myself of that very overspecialization, the narrowing influence of which upon others I just now deplored; and I would take this opportunity to say that throughout all my remarks I feel myself open to just this criticism, and shall have nothing to reply if I am to be confronted with a “Physician, heal thyself!”

My first illustration is concerned with a single phenomenon of intellectual lite. No one could make even a perfunctory study of German Romanticism without being struck by the attention bestowed by the Romanticists upon the problem of insanity. Indeed, there is hardly a phase of mental derangement which did not in one form or another appear in Romantic literature and art. There are the overstrained characters of Jean Paul, the melancholy, brooding philosopher Schoppe, whom the irreconcilable contrasts of life, the unfathomable abysses of existence, deprive of his reason; or the colossal man of will, Roquairol, whose boundless ambition leads to nothing but inner ruin and mental wreck. There is the gallery of eccentric personalities which form so large a part of Tieck’s literary household : the youthful dreamer of the Lovel type, who is unsettled by contact with the world and the teachings of a PseudoFichtean philosophy; the man of blind instincts, such as the Blonde Eckbert, who lives, as if were, in a world of chronic hallucinations, who is pursued by constant dread of monstrous happenings, to whom life is a terrible burden and a nightmare; or, on the other hand, the ecstatic enthusiast, such as the old painter-hermit in Franz Sternbald, whose gentle madness seems to have unsealed to him the beauty and harmony of the whole universe. There is the somnambulism of Kleist’s Käthchen von Heilbronn ; the irresponsible libertinism and aimlessness of the vagrant folk in Brentano’s, Eichendorff’s, and Justinus Kerner’s stories. There is the ghastly spook of Amadeus Hoffmann’s grotesque imagination, with its criminal monomaniacs, its haunted houses, doubles, and enchanted beasts, and with its Bedlam of caricatures and mentally or morally deformed human figures. That this Romantic interest in the abnormal and the deranged held its sway even to the middle of the nineteenth century, is proved in a striking manner by the well-known drawing of Kaulbach’s, representing the clubroom of an insane asylum, with its inmates grouped about in excited conversation or in silent brooding, each of them bringing before us a particular type of madness or aberration.

Now, in studying these types of insanity in German Romanticism, the most obvious, least circuitous, and (let me add) a most unalluringly safe path to be followed is that of the familiar Quellenuntersuchung. What types of insanity the different writers or artists treat by preference; how these different writers influence one another in this matter; how far, for example, the insane characters in Tieck serve as models for those in Amadeus Hoffmann ; who was the first author to set this morbid fashion; what foreign influences, if any, were at work in it; how far, for example, Tieck’s occupation with Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, or Cervantes’ Don Quixote was responsible for his leaning toward the representation of eccentric characters, — all these are perfectly pertinent questions; they are questions which it is well to have answered before one proceeds to further investigations.

But let no one who has answered these questions satisfactorily imagine that he has thereby contributed much toward the elucidation of the problem of insanity in German Romanticism. What he has done is, in the main, of bibliographical interest. He has shown that it was A and not B who first, introduced this subject into literature, that D owes much of his material to C, that E has a greater variety of types than F, and so on. The question, how this remarkable and widespread interest of the Romanticists in the phenomena of insanity is connected with German national life of that time, with the prevailing currents of thought and feeling, in a word, what place it has in the history of German culture, this question he has hardly touched.

In order to answer this question intelligently, he will have to consider the Romantic movement in all its bearings upon the emotional and intellectual life of that age, and he will try to detect those phases of this movement which would naturally have had a particular effect upon the way in which people would look upon cases of insanity. To indicate only a few lines of reasoning which such an inquiry would open, the following reflection would be likely to suggest itself.

The Romantic movement is, in one aspect at least, a revolt against society and class rule, an outburst of individual thought and passion, a pronunciamento of the individual heart and imagination against the canons of convention, a declaration of sympathy with everything that is something by itself, and that lives out its own laws of existence. To the Romanticist — and I include here under this name that whole galaxy of poets and thinkers who were under the direct or indirect influence of Rousseau’s ideals of life — to the Romanticist there is nothing uninteresting except the artificial. Everything, whether large or small, beautiful or ugly, ordinary or exceptional, strong or weak, healthy or diseased, beneficial or destructive, so long as it is not artificially perverted and estranged from its own nature, is worthy of our human interest and sympathy; and even if it is perverted it has at least a claim upon our pity and compassion. The individual is sacred; life as such is something of absolute value; and every one of its varieties has an equal right to try its wings.

Is it not clear that here there lie the sources of those humanitarian views in criminology and psychiatry which, from the latter part of the eighteenth century on to the present time, slowly and with a good many setbacks, have nevertheless steadily been pressing on toward wider recognition ? The criminal, according to Beccaria, the great eighteenth-century reformer of criminal law, is not an enemy of the human race against whom society has to wage a relentless war. Much truer it would be to say that he is a victim of the conditions of society itself; and that the prevention of crime by bettering these conditions is a matter of much greater importance than the punishment of the criminal. And the insane, according to Pinel, Tuke, and other eighteenth-century reformers of lunatic institutions, is not, as former ages have considered him, a miscreant, possessed by evil spirits, to be chained and chastised, but rather a sufferer from disease, worthy of our most tender attention and care. And both the criminal and the insane are to the popular scientists of the end of the eighteenth century, and the beginning of the nineteenth, favorite subjects of psychological analysis and description.

The individualistic and humanitarian element, then, of the Romantic movement tended to make the insane, alongside with other types of human states of mind, a topic of intense interest for the writers of fiction and poetry; and we need not go to Shakespeare’s Lear or Ophelia, or to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, to account for the frequency of deranged characters in Tieck’s novels and dramas. On the contrary, it might be said that Tieck’s interest in such characters as the Fool in Lear, or Don Quixote, is, in part at least, accounted for by the Romantic sympathy with the unconventional and the wayward. And that whole class of eccentric personages so frequent in Romantic literature, who see life at a different angle from the normal, who follow their own whims or illusions, who meander through the world as through a labyrinth of charming surprises and aimless diversions, may be called a collective protest against the humdrum and stupid matter-of-fact existence of the socalled good citizen, the substantial man of business, the respectable member of society. The illusionist is the Romantic character κατ’ ἐξοχήν; to his sensitive nerves there are revealed delights of life which remain hidden to the obtuse brain of the muscular healthy; he is the personality par excellence, unencumbered by the weight of the material world which burdens and drags down the anonymous majority; he moulds freely and with sovereign playfulness his own world; in him the divine irony, of which Friedrich Schlegel rhapsodized, finds its fullest expression. The affinity between madness and genius is a discovery which we owe to Romanticism.

This is one side of the subject. But Romanticism was not only an individualistic protest against society. It was also what at first sight may seem the very opposite of this individualism, and yet is after all only a natural sequence of it: it was a proclamation of the universe as one organic living whole. And this side of the Romantic movement also is closely connected with the interest taken by Romantic poets and novelists in the problem of insanity. The infinite is the true home of the Romanticists. Novalis defines philosophy as homesickness, — homesickness for the absolute. To Schelling, beauty is the infinite represented in finite form. Tieck’s whole life was an infinite longing for something beyond and above. All Romantic landscape paintings have that fascinating quality of the hazy blue distance which beckons on and on to endless space. Never perhaps has there been a time when the world, to the chosen few at least, seemed so literally alive with infinite power as it seemed to these men. To them there was no dividing line between rock, plant, beast, and man. A mysterious bond of magnetic attraction, they believed, unites stars and human brains, the organic and the inorganic, the conscious and the unconscious. The world of the senses was to them only a symbol of a spiritual presence hovering within and above us. All nature they conceived as one indivisible being, incessantly striving to manifest itself, and to become fully conscious of its own spirit.

Now it is clear that such views as these, very imperfectly stated by me, but of paramount, fundamental importance to the Romanticists, — it is clear, I say, that such views as these of the essential unity of all life, of the identity of matter and spirit, of the absorption of the individual in the great mysterious All, are not fully accessible to the sober intellect, that they require for their receptacle a visionary state of mind, an imagination pitched to its highest key, a soul that, is itself in instinctive contact with the invisible powers. The Romantic individual, in its highest perfection, is the inspired mystic, the ecstatic seer, who is his own law, and who harbors within himself the riddle of the universe. Is it necessary to say that here again we have arrived in a sphere where it is hard to draw the line between inspiration and madness ?

Here, then, there is seen the connection between the intellectual drift of the age, and the second important class of types of mentally deranged in Romantic poetry and fiction, — the seekers for the infinite. A great many different varieties of extravagant fancy and morbid desires may be traced back to this common type. It appears as the craving for solitude and passive contemplation ; as the reveling in the mystery of night or in the wonders of a cavernous, subterranean existence; as the glorification of the irrational and the incoherent. It assumes the form of a naïve dreaming one’s self back into a fantastic golden age, or of plunging into a state of trancelike transfiguration, or of a return to a serene, placid unconsciousness. Or again, we see it represented in characters wrestling with themselves, and seeking forgetfulness, intoxication, communion with the universe, either in mesmeristic and spiritualistic pseudo-science, or in sensual dissipation and revelry, or in suicide.

It is hardly necessary to add that all these various types of mental derangement, so frequent in Romantic literature, find their counterpart in the lives of the Romantic writers themselves. The tragic fate of Hölderlin, Heinrich von Kleist, Lenau, the erratic career of Brentano and Amadeus Hoffmann, are typical illustrations of the correctness of Goethe’s dictum: “The Classic is the healthy, the Romantic is the diseased.” In our own time, the fate of Poe, of Nietzsche, and of Oscar Wilde has furnished a new proof of this homely truth. No broad-minded man, however, while fully recognizing this truth, will fail to see that even these excesses of Romantic imagination have enlarged the vision, broadened sympathies, and heightened the interest of life, and have thus added priceless treasures to the store of spiritual possessions.

So much for the way in which a single literary phenomenon may (or is it not better to say, should) be studied as an expression of the whole culture of a given period in the national development. Let us now for a moment turn to the question, how a number of different phenomena of literature, art, and thought may be studied under the common head of the development of national culture. Here, again, I content myself, in place of theoretical discussions, with giving one concrete illustration.

Historians of German literature are wont to draw a sharp contrast between the high refinement both of sentiment and form which is characteristic of the classic epoch of chivalric poetry at the turning-point of the twelfth century to the thirteenth, and the decay of good taste setting in toward the middle of the thirteenth century. And it must be admitted that in imaginative literature the whole period from 1250 to 1500, that is, from the decline of chivalric poetry to the Humanistic movement, offers nothing that could at all be compared with the grandeur of the Nibelungenlied or the charm of Gottfried von Strassburg or Walther von der Vogelweide. From the exclusively literary point of view, the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, with their cumbersome romances, their unwieldy didactic encyclopædias, their gross satire, and their over-realistic and over-spectacular religious drama, appear indeed as an epoch of disintegration and decay.

As soon, however, as we discard this exclusively literary point of view, as soon as we survey the whole ground of higher national activities and try to detect those achievements in which the creative power of the nation at a given time found its fullest expression, these same centuries assume a very different aspect.

If, instead of following out in their wearisome and artificial detail the offshoots and outspurs of chivalric epics and lyrics in the thirteenth century, we visit the cathedrals of Naumburg, of Bamberg, of Strassburg, of Freiburg, and look at the reliefs and statues adorning their portals, choirs, and rood-screens, we become aware of the fact that the classic epoch of Middle High German poetry, from the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth century, was followed in the greater part of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth by an equally classic epoch of German sculpture. And if we study these plastic monuments from the point of view of national culture, if we compare them with the great figures of chivalric poetry, we find that, although sculpture and poetry differed from each other in subjectmatter, the spirit of these two epochs of classic German art was essentially the same. The same refinement and measure; the same insistence on courteous decorum; the same curious combination of scrupulous attention to certain conventional forms of dress, gesture, and expression, on the one hand, and a free sweep in the delineation of character, on the other; the same moral earnestness and the same fanciful vagueness; in short, the same happy union of the universally human with the distinctively mediæval, which is found in such characters as Parzival, Tristan, or Kudrun, comes to light in the Founders’ Statues of Naumburg, the so-called Konrad of the Cathedral of Bamberg, or the Ecclesia and Synagoga of Strassburg Cathedral. Very far, then, from seeing in the thirteenth century a period of artistic decline, we simply observe in it a shifting of the forms through which the artistic energy of the nation revealed itself; we receive from it a new impression, from a different angle, of that rounding out of the personality, that heightening of human existence, which was one of the great effects of the supreme sway of chivalry and of the mediæval church. As the art of Phidias and Praxiteles is an indispensable supplement to the art of Æschylus and Sophocles for our understanding of Attic culture in its prime, so these works of German sculpture of the thirteenth century, in their wonderful blending of the ideal human type with the characteristic features of the portrait, stand to us by the side of the great creations of the chivalric poets as incontrovertible proofs of the free and noble conception of humanity reached by mediæval culture at its height. Perhaps I may be permitted to say that it was considerations such as these which have led to the establishment of our Germanic Museum as a place where these impressive plastic types of national imagination and feeling might be brought before the student’s eye in their historical sequence, and with as much of completeness as possible.

Similar observations might be made about the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The fourteenth century, so barren and uninspiring if we measure it by the standard of polite literature, becomes of absorbing interest and deepest significance, if we study it as the great epoch of German mysticism, if we enter into that marvelously intense inner life, the world of visions, dreams, hallucinations, and the pure regions of exalted self-abnegation and self-perfection which mark the age of Eckart, Suso, and Tauler as the first irresistible outburst of modern individualism. And as to the fifteenth century, can there be any doubt that it was neither literature, nor sculpture, nor mystic speculation, but religious painting, which concentrated upon itself the creative energy of that age ? So that he who would understand this century and its relation to the preceding epochs should first of all study the great representatives of the pictorial art, from the Van Eycks and the Cologne masters to Memling and Albrecht Dürer. And in doing so, he will recognize Dürer and his compeers as the direct descendants of Wolfram von Eschenbach and Walther von der Vogelweide, the masters of the Bamberg or Strassburg sculptures, and Eckart and Suso and the other mystics of the fourteenth century; in other words, by this very passing from one sphere of national activities to another he will come to understand fully the continuity of the development of national culture as a whole.

I am done. Only one word in conclusion. We are witnessing at present at a number of our universities, notably at Columbia and at Harvard, a remarkable strengthening and rounding out of the departments of Comparative Literature. The comparative study of national literatures cannot fail to be a most powerful help in determining what is original, what is of abiding and universal importance in the artistic contributions of the various peoples to the common stock of spiritual life. And so, as a student of the history of national culture, I offer to these young and most promising departments of international research a cordial and expectant welcome.