The birth of world literature


[MUSIC – FELIX MENDELSSOHN, “WEDDING MARCH”] MARTIN PUCHNER: Thanks to Eckermann’ notes, we know that the birth of world literature took place in the afternoon of January 31, 1827 at Goethe’s house. By the time, Eckermann had been in Weimar for over a year and a half and had settled into a routine. A few times a week, he would have dinner at Goethe’s. On that Wednesday, he hadn’t been at Goethe’s several days. So Goethe had all kinds of thoughts and reflections pent up and was holding forth, reporting on what he had done and read since they last met. Apparently he had been reading a Chinese novel. Really? That must have been rather strange, Eckermann explains. But this was not the right reaction. After a year and a half, Eckermann had still not fully understood his master. No. Much less so than one thinks, Goethe reprimanded him and began to lecture. Eckermann liked it when Goethe lectured. There was always something to be learned. Goethe started about the influence of the British writer Samuel Richardson on his own work, which Eckermann listened to with polite interest. But before long, Goethe came back to Chinese novels en masse. Eckermann was still skeptical. What? These Chinese novels are decent? More decent than the French, Goethe replied. Which wasn’t saying much. Eckermann ventured that this Chinese novel must be quite an unusual, the exception to the rule. Wrong again. The master’s voice was stern. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Chinese have thousands of them. And they had them when our ancestors were still living in the trees. Eckermann was speechless. Goethe took advantage of the silence and topped the claim with a truly ludicrous one. The time has come for the epoch of world of literature. And everyone must seek to accelerate it. Everyone, and that includes you, you my young and ignorant friend, Goethe means. Everyone, and especially Eckermann, must accelerate the process of world literature, must read Chinese novels. Thousands of them. Eckermann was shocked realizing that Goethe had opened a can of worms. But fortunately he got distracted. There was a noise outside the window. Excited, he jumped up and went to the window to look outside. And Goethe did the same. They were expecting the return of horse-drawn sledges that had left in the morning, one of the more exciting things that could happen on a Weimar late afternoon. Suddenly Eckermann and Goethe didn’t care at all about Chinese novels and world literature. They pressed their noses against the window to get a better look at the street. But it wasn’t the sledges. And so they got back to their seats disappointed. Where were we? Ah, yes. World Literature. Goethe started talking again until there was another noise outside. And Eckermann and Goethe once again dropped the conversation to look out the window. But it still wasn’t the sledges. And so they went back to their seats. And Goethe talked of this and that rather listlessly until it was time for Eckermann to leave. This was the birth of world literature.

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