Academic journal article German Quarterly

On the Relevance of Comparative Cultural Knowledge for German Literary Studies

Academic journal article German Quarterly

On the Relevance of Comparative Cultural Knowledge for German Literary Studies

Article excerpt

German literary studies has long acknowledged the significance of comparative cultural knowledge for understanding German material, but globalization and migration challenge German critics to know about cultures and societies previously not central to the field. Let me briefly review existing practices of drawing on comparative cultural knowledge that have been firmly established in our field and then comment on the present situation by highlighting areas of particular concern regarding the incorporation of new knowledge.

For German medievalists and for anybody who studies German literature up until the early eighteenth century, knowledge of Latin is imperative. More specifically, Mitiellatein is required for research on the medieval period, and Neulatein is a mandatory research language for the time after the Renaissance. Regarding the period beginning in the mid-1700s and extending through the 180Os, knowledge of French is crucial, and, concerning the contextual framework relevant to the material written after 1900, English supersedes Latin and French. Because the significance of these languages is widely acknowledged, we ask our doctoral students to acquire reading knowledge in one or two other languages, usually French and Latin.

These language requirements are testimony to the fact that we know that scholarly work in German literary studies can only be done when a critic is able to read primary and secondary sources in the relevant languages. Medievalists need Latin language skills to be able to read primary sources, as much of German literary culture was composed in Latin during the Middle Ages. Knowledge of Latin, however, allows not only access to texts that were written in the German cultural context; it also allows medievalists access to a shared European textual archive that played a unifying role well into the seventeenth century. Most medievalists will also acquire a basic reading knowledge of medieval French or English, as the intercultural nature of European literature during the Middle Ages is widely acknowledged; Wolfram von Eschenbach and others drew heavily on French, Latin, and Greek sources and translations, and only by acquiring familiarity with these sources are we able to ascertain what is original about the German renditions.

Regarding material from the seventeenth century onward, scholars need to equip themselves with expertise in philosophy, mysticism, and various intellectual traditions that evolved out of Protestantism and Catholicism, in addition to the basic requirement of being well acquainted with Christian traditions. Again, however, cross-cultural knowledge is crucial. Without knowledge of Greek and Roman culture and mythology, one has little access to, for example, Goethe's oeuvre. By now we might take such familiarity for granted and therefore pay it little attention, but, whether with regard to metrical forms or the use of certain figures and images, German high culture of the 1700s and 1800s is almost inaccessible without expertise in Greek and Roman heritage.

In Goethe's work (as in several texts from the Middle Ages) we can also trace the reception of Arab and Persian cultures; like Lessing, Ruckert, Platen, and others, Goethe assimilated into his literary work what he learned from translations of Middle Eastern literature. In three detailed volumes Katharina Mommsen has shown the extent to which Arab and Persian poetry, the One Thousand and One Nights, and other Middle Eastern sources play a crucial role in Goethe's work. Yet, in contrast to the eminence of Greek and Roman traces in German literature, the relevance of Middle Eastern traditions often remains unacknowledged, in spite of the excellent work that has been done in some cases.

More important, however, a critical evaluation of how this Middle Eastern (and, to a lesser degree, also Indian and Chinese) material was absorbed into German literature continues to be overlooked. We still lack studies that show how this material was not only absorbed but also reinterpreted within the German context. …

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