Academic journal article German Quarterly

Acknowledging the beautiful

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Acknowledging the beautiful

Article excerpt

Things German, as we all know, have long been plagued by problems of identity. Writing about the changing Berlin cityscape in a recent issue of The New Yorker, Jane Kramer, as others before her, has added the new capital to the list, citing as one of its most profound dilemmas the fact that Berliners cannot really decide what they want their city to be. At the turn of the century, I suggest that a parallel dilemma is facing those of us involved in the study of German literature, language, and culture in the USA: even as we recognize that our disciplinary practices have diverged rather dramatically from those of Germanistik as practiced in Germany, any consensus on a disciplinary identity seems at present out of reach.' Kramer's article is testimony to her belief that Berlin has a chance to be "something" if its citizens can only ascertain what that something is.2 If our profession exhibits similar identity problems, variously wrought by demographics, geographics, and historical contingencies, I would like to think that we also have some of the same opportunities. In that spirit I suggest here one direction in which the profession might move, whether in tandem with millennial forces for change-or not.

Within the past three decades the academic study of German literature in the USA has been transformed, as scholars have made a convincing case for imaginative literature as an enterprise that is inlaid in culture and thus partakes of or contributes to numerous other disciplines. Further, Germanists have helped to develop new fields of research that have demanded innovative methodologies, many of which-such as feminist studies, postcolonial studies, and Holocaust studieshave become linked to German cultural studies in its widest definition, and have made the complexities of individual and collective identities an integral part of literary studies. Although these developments have often been embraced for pragmatic reasons, such as the hope of increased enrollments, they have also pushed our discipline in exciting directions, bringing us productive new ways to engage with our world.

Important as this work has been, it has tended to avoid questions of aesthetics. The reasons for this avoidance are complicated, linked to history and to political alignments in the field;3 but regardless of the soundness of many of those reasons, the result has been that we have not articulated clearly enough, in my opinion, the singularity of literature, the distinctness of an imaginative text.4 We have paid much attention to thematic content, to subject matter, to the ideological entanglements of literary works. But we have been less successful, as a group, in making either to our administrators and students or to the social world outside the academy a persuasive case for the importance of literature and literary study per se. To be sure, literature does intermingle with other disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, history, and sociology-the disciplines that have been involved in the most productive interdisciplinary critical initiatives-but it cannot be subsumed by any of them. It is unique. By complicating issues and exposing ambiguities, it helps us think more broadly, more creatively, and in modes not fostered by other disciplines. But any attempt to attend to that uniqueness must at some point bring us into the realm of aesthetics, with its interrogation of value in literature and of the criteria by which imaginative texts might be judged -areas that many of us have come assiduously to avoid. Aesthetic matters have been submerged in analyses of the grotesque, for example, or of the ugly, but in many areas of our profession it is as though there existed a quarantine on the discussion of beauty, regardless of whether it is understood as aesthetic pleasure or as a form of cognition. Even the joy of succumbing to a beautifully written text has become, in Angelika Bammer's words, a "guilty pleasure. "5

Although we may be convinced of its value, beauty-controversial though the concept may be, and whether manifested in image, content, or language itself-is one of the distinguishing qualities of imaginative literature that we must articulate to every new student generation. …

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