Books: Cultural Amnesia — Ernst Robert Curtius |
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Ernst Robert Curtius (1886–1956) was the most eminent medieval romance philologist of his time. After World War I he tried to build bridges between the German and French humanist worlds, deploring the extent to which they had been separated. In 1932, when it was clear that the Nazis had a chance of power, he published Deutsche Geist in Gefahr (The German Spirit in Danger). When the danger became an actuality, however, he made no further combative moves. Nor did he choose exile. He withdrew into his library, emerging after the war to publish, in 1948, his capital work European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, which was universally hailed as one of the great scholarly books of the century. He also continued with the series of literary essays through which he is most easily approached by the non-scholarly reader. (They were posthumously translated and collected, as Essays on European Literature, in 1973.) So it looked as if he had done the best he could. But there was a lingering question. With his lifelong emphasis on cultural continuity, what did he really think about the greatest blow that the Nazis had struck against it?

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When the German catastrophe came, I decided to serve the idea of a medievalistic Humanism by studying the Latin literature of the Middle Ages. These studies occupied me for fifteen years. The result of them is the present book.


SEVEN YEARS HAD already gone by since Hitler’s fall, and still the most revered scholar in Europe wasn’t saying very much about what the catastrophe had actually entailed. (In the original, German edition of the book that had come out in 1948, he had said even less.) The lacuna wouldn’t have mattered so much had he been less magisterial. At his best, that was the only word for him. When I was first a student at Sydney University in the late 1950s, my teacher George Russell, himelf a scholar of the Middle Ages, placed his copy of Curtius’s masterpiece on a lectern, opened it as if it were a holy text and said: “This is a great book.” At the time I had no means of knowing whether he was right. Years later, when I had finally swallowed the hint and began to take on board some of the preliminary knowledge (such as who Dante was) necessary to appreciate what Curtius had written, I found that the book read like a thriller. Curtius had the invaluable knack of not getting bogged down in his own scholarship. His Dante, like the Dante of Gianfranco Contini (Curtius and Contini were friends), lived and breathed. They were agreed that Dante was a great mystifier, but to that fact they both posted the necessary qualification. He was, but not as much as he wasn’t.

Dante set problems that only scholars can tackle: a reason for them to love him. But if Dante had not done much, much more than that—if he had not written in a way that invaded the memory and imagination of people with no scholarly qualifications at all—there would be no Divine Comedy for scholars to study. Curtius is a tacit, benign and unusually creative proponent of a line of thought that can be vocal, malignant and sterile: the idea that scholarship and criticism are essential to culture. But they are not: they are essential to civilization, just as culture is. Culture on the one hand, and the study of culture on the other, are inseparable only in the sense that they both belong to something larger. The idea that the professional student of culture is some kind of creative collaborator easily grows into an assumption that the professional understanding of culture is part of culture’s driving force. It is, after all, the professional understanding that establishes the culture’s tradition. For Curtius, tradition was a key concept. “Culture without tradition,” he wrote, “is destiny without history.” For him, a threat to tradition was a threat to life. In the Nazi era it was understandable that he should feel that way: understandable and commendable. To help stave off the threat, he wrote European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. He did the work for it while the Nazis ruled, and published it not long after they were gone. Even more than Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, Curtius’s summa looks like an act of creative regeneration: a timely and triumphant effort to reintegrate the shattered mental world. At this distance, to equivocate seems churlish. But there are aspects of Curtius’s position that require comment, and at least one that ought to be questioned closely.

Not long after peace broke out, Curtius and André Gide met at a café in Cologne, within sight of the ruined cathedral. They could congratulate themselves for having survived, and trade reasons for pessimism. Both had seen the culture of their beloved Europe brought to the same condition as the city around them. The spectacle of disintegration must have been especially discouraging in the case of Curtius. After World War I he had done more than any other German to further the interchange of mental life between France and his own country. The first serious study of Proust to be published in Germany was from his hand. It was contained in a 1925 collection of essays called Französischer Geist im neuen Europa, which is among my treasures: an elegant book bound in crimson polished linen, solidly printed in Bodoni bold, the true typeface of the modern Europe after World War I. He also wrote the best German book about Balzac. Victor Klemperer (now justly famous for his Nazi-era diaries but still a minor figure at the time) was in the same field. A two-volume study of French pre-Revolutionary literature was among Klemperer’s early publications. But nobody in the Francophone departments of the German academic world had quite the cachet of Curtius. Always a scholar of the far past, he was keen to apply his curatorial standards to the creative present. (Later on, his admirer Contini was to be the Italian exemplar of the same double competence.) Curtius was also the first German translator of The Waste Land. A valued contributor to Eliot’s magazine The Criterion, Curtius kept up with Eliot’s poetry and knew all of it by heart. He trusted his memory of it at least once too often: in his posthumously published Gesammelte Aufsätze (Collected Essays) we find “April is the cruellest month of the year,” a line that Eliot never actually wrote. But the slip proves that Curtius took literature in as a living thing.

In his role as a representative of European cultural unity, as it had once existed under Christendom and might conceivably one day exist again in a new political synthesis, Curtius could hardly have done a better job. History, however, caught him out: not cruelly, as it did the Jews, but ironically, in the way that it so frequently did to those Aryan scholars who thought they could keep a shred of civilization going by sticking to their tasks. On the right wing of French intellectual life, there were quite a few writers and scholars who dreamed that French culture might get together with German culture in a beautiful union, with the new, strong Germany as a political facilitator. (The recurring emphasis on the idea of “strength” should have tipped them off that the unitary concept had less to do with Kultur than with Macht, but wish fulfilment was doing its deadly work: World War I had cost France so much to win that nobody believed there could be a war again.) Though the part of the French right wing that took its tune from Action Française was resolutely German-hating like its founder Charles Maurras himself, there were plenty of others who believed that an integrated Euro culture was at hand. After the Germans occupied Paris, the Propaganda Abteilung encouraged that belief. Some of the second rank of French writers fell for the invitation to tour Germany. (The farcical results were recently well recorded in François Dufay’s Le Voyage d’automne.) The higher orders were less pliant, but there was a brand of quietism ready to believe that cultivated Frenchmen and cultivated Germans could make a civilized common cause over and above the sordid level of mere politics.

Gide was one of the Frenchmen and Curtius was one of the Germans: the meeting in post-war Cologne was not their first contact, although during the war it had been through an intermediary. We learn from Gide’s Journal 1939–1949 that on 15 March 1943, he met a “très aimable jeune officer allemand, étudiant l’histoire de l’art, ami d’Ernst Robert Curtius.” (A very amiable young German officer, a student of the history of art, and friend of Curtius.) “He simply said, at the beginning of our conversation, how uncomfortable he was made to feel by his uniform.” “Il parle chaleureusement aussi de Jünger.” (He also spoke warmly about Jünger.) Like Ernst Jünger, Curtius was one of the eternal Germany’s living, breathing examples of a cultural continuity that the current unfortunate episode in history had no doubt compromised but could scarcely obliterate—or so their theory went. The deeper their commitment to the richness of the past, the slower their acceptance of the fact that there was nothing the Nazis could not obliterate. Later on, Curtius soft-pedalled this part of his career, but there is no reason to suppose he had anything much to hide. Curtius was no Heidegger: he never gave the Nazis any vocal support. He and Gide were guilty of nothing except a wishful, wistful thought: that there could be a cultural unity in conditions of political barbarism. Most of our wishful thinking is about what we love. If there were to be condemnation for that, we would all be condemned sooner or later. But if we are to learn anything from catastrophe, it is wise to remember what some of the men who shared our passions once forgot.

Curtius forgot that continuity is not in itself an inspiration for culture, merely a description of it. Similarly, a tradition is an accumulation through time of inspired works, created by people who do not have tradition on their minds. If they have anything on their minds, it is their own uniqueness: the ways in which they do not fit in, not the ways they do. The critic and the scholar, when they are properly qualified, spend at least as much time dismantling their own continuity as reinforcing it. In the twentieth century Natolino Sapegno, the Dante scholar in excelsis—and rivalling even Contini as a scholar of the fourteenth century in general—dismantled the Romantic critical tradition which had given Dante’s Paolo and Francesca the saving grace of an eternal love, a free pass valid even in the winds of the Inferno. Dante, Sapegno pointed out, wanted the lovers punished: the poet’s morality was at the heart of his originality. Scholarly emphasis on cultural continuity—including scholarly emphasis on scholarly continuity—will always attempt to erode the very idea of originality. But originality is more than an idea: it is the closest description of the creative impulse. Curtius would never been the great scholar he was if he had not known that all along. Indeed he would have thought it a truism to say so. But in his work there was also the tacit assumption that, with scholarship’s help, art grew out of art.

Art grows from the individual vision. It always has, when political circumstances make individuality possible. The Nazis were dedicated to the self-imposed task of removing individuality from the world. By one of the twentieth century’s most vicious paradoxes, Hitler did more than any of his all-conquering predecessors to integrate Europe politically. Luckily he never completed the job, but he got far enough to prove, by negative example, that a civilization is inseparable from a measure of liberalism. In the past, artists have worked for tyrants and done great things, but only because the tyrants, in the exceptional case of the artists, allowed a bubble of freedom. The civilization we know most about, and which we still inhabit, has institutionalized freedom to the point where the connections between art and the study of art are sometimes hard to see. But the central catastrophe of the century gone by served to show us that any such connection between them depends entirely on their both being joined in the first instance to the civilization itself. In the light of that demonstration, Curtius the universal scholar is left looking depressingly restricted, and humanism is left with its besetting weakness on display—the temptation it carries within it to reduce the real world to a fantasy even while presuming to comprehend everything that the world creates.

It is comprehensible and forgivable that Curtius said nothing about Nazi atrocities during the war. Incomprehensible and unforgivable is that he said nothing about them after it. At the height of his prestige, with the whole international scholarly world for a worshipping audience, he never alluded even once to the extermination camps. George Steiner was right to point out that Eliot’s post-war Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, by neglecting to mention what had just happened to Europe, disqualified itself from being a definition of culture. The same objection can be made to Curtius’s thunderous silence. Writing in his defence, Christine Jacquemard-de Gemeux, in the closing pages of her 1998 monograph on Curtius, touchingly contends that he did not wish to comprehend the tragedy, because to comprehend it would have been to approve it. (“Il refuse de chercher à comprendre le phenomene parce que le comprendre serait une maniere de l’approuver.”) It is hard to see why. The sad truth is that Curtius lived out his studiously untroubled years still stuck with the decision he had made in 1933, when he condemned Thomas Mann for going into exile. Curtius thought that Mann had been unfaithful to his country. Curtius thought that the true Germany could survive within the Nazi state. Mme. Jacquemard-de Gemeux, generously attempting to make a point he never made for himself, would have us believe that he thought there was such a thing as an interior intellectual life to which Hitler was exterior. In the same way she might have argued that the worm in the apple’s core was exterior to the apple. In the café across from Cologne cathedral, Curtius and Gide no doubt found the heaps of rubble a sad comment on their uncivilized times. But the ruins were a sign that the civilization they valued had been fought for, and saved against the odds.