Acknowledging the Beautiful

by Sara Friedrichsmeyer
Acknowledging the Beautiful
Sara Friedrichsmeyer
The German Quarterly
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SARAFRIEDRICHSMEYER University of Cincinnati

Acknowledging the Beautiful

Things German, as we all know, have long been plagued by problems of identity. Writing about the changng Berlin city- scape 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 ascer- tain what that something If our pro- fession exhibits similar identity problems, variously wrought by demographics, geo- graphics, 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 pro- fession might move, whether in tandem with millennia1 forces for change-or not.

Within the past three decades the aca- demic study of German literature in the USA has been transformed, as scholars have made a convincing case for imagina- tive literature as an enterprise that is in- laid in culture and thus partakes of or con- tributes to numerous other disciplines. Further, Germanists have helped to de- velop new fields of research that have de- manded innovative methodologies, many of which-such as feminist studies, post- colonial studies, and Holocaust studies- have become linked to German cultural studies in its widest definition, and have made the complexities of individual and collective identities an integral part of lit- erary studies. Although these developments have often been embraced for prag- matic reasons, such as the hope of increased enrollments, they have also pushed our dis- cipline 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 compli- cated, 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 articu- lated clearly enough, in my opinion, the singularity of literature, the distinctness of an imaginative texte4 We have paid much attention to thematic content, to subject matter, to the ideological entanglements of literary works. But we have been less suc- cessful, as a group, in making either to our administrators and students or to the so- cial world outside the academy a persua- sive case for the importance of literature and literary study per se. To be sure, litera- ture does intermingle with other disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, history, and sociology-the disciplines that have been involved in the most productive inter- disciplinary critical initiatives-but it can- not be subsumed by any of them. It is unique. By complicating issues and expos- ing ambiguities, it helps us think more broadly, more creatively, and in modes not fostered by other disciplines. But any at-

The German Quarterly 73.1 (Winter 2000) 4


Acknowledging the Beautiful

tempt to attend to that uniqueness must at some point bring us into the realm of aes- thetics, 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 sub- merged in analyses of the grotesque, for ex- ample, 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 plea~ure."~

Although we may be convinced of its value, beauty-ontroversial though the concept may be, and whether manifested in image, content, or language itself-is one of the distinguishingqualities of imagi- native literature that we must articulate to every new student generation. Not every- one will have the sensitivity of soul that Rilke presumes when viewing the torso of Apollo, but that should not deter us. Nor should the awareness that literature is deeply embedded in its particular culture relieve us of the task of confronting aes- thetic beauty in our teaching and research. Rather, this knowledge could reinvigorate our sense of disciplinary purpose, for it remains the responsibility of literary schol- ars and critics to account for the power of imaginative writing, to ask why certain texts are beautiful, why they touch us, why they have the power to keep us reading.

The involvement with aesthetics, the acknowledgment of beauty, that I am sug- gesting is not a return to a sterile formal- ism. Rather, I propose that we use the re- markable insights we have gained from nearly three decades of German cultural studies to help us recuperate beauty as part of the literary experience. To be sure, the particular development of our own disci- pline has left us with a tendency to regard aesthetic issues as incompatible with polit- ical or social engagement, and the so-called culture wars have further polarized this split so that any attempt to bridge it is difficult indeed. The difficulty, however, has not obviated the importance of the task. Indeed, our relative silence on aes- thetic matters has allowed the discussion of beauty to be perceived as not just mar- ginal but as opposed to forward-looking thinking. What literary studies needs now are theoretical perspectives and methodol- ogies for combining what we know about the social construction of our realities with the aesthetic moment of literary texts; we need to find ways of malung a sustained at- tention to aesthetics compatible with polit- ical or social concerns.

In this country scholars are gradually acknowledging this need, among them, as it happens, some who have earned their reputations through work on the cultural ramifications of imaginative literature. And the interest is increasing. When George Le- vine wrote the introduction for his 1994 an- thology Aesthetics and Ideology, he felt obliged to establish his own cultural stud- ies credentials (2), but the scholars cited in a 1998 Chronicle of Higher Education article show no such hesitation at their turn to aesthetics, specifically to beauty. I mention only one, Elaine Scarry, who dares not merely to suggest, but even to insist, that "beauty assists us in our commitment to justice" (A16).6 Yet with its title-"Weary- ing of Cultural Studies, Scholars Discover Beauty "-this article, welcome though it was, fell into the same trap that Scarry and others hope to avoid, positing a study of beauty as incompatible with cultural stud- ies approaches. That they can be provoca- tively and productively combined is also be- ing demonstrated by Germanists who are turning to aesthetics and beauty in other than traditional ways: three sessions orga- nized fbr the 1999 MLA Division of 19th- and Early-20th-Century German Litera- ture, for example, examine beauty at a dis- tinct remove from literary formalism^.^

I would like to think that we German- ists could help to lead this potential reshap-


ing of literary studies. Because of the long, intense involvement of German-speaking writers and thinkers in the development of an aesthetic tradition, and because of their equally rich history of confrontations with and defiances of that tradition-from the Romantics' predilection for the sublime over the beautiful to a contemporary skepticism born of the forced awareness of the manipu- lation of aesthetic pleasure in the service of political ideologies-we are well positioned to play a pivotal role in this reshaping. Not coincidentally, such efforts would also help us avoid a repeat of the 1980s, when we all but ceded Freud and Nietzsche to French and Anglo-American theorists.

Whether we understand aesthetics as a part of philosophy or as a field linked more closely with psychology or political theory, for all of which there are strong traditions, or whether we find new means of pursuing our investigations, by, for example, draw- ing on science, for which there are more re- cent precedent^,^ there is much to do; there are many topics that beg for our analysis. We might debate traditional concerns in new contexts, while, just as importantly, remaining alert for the new ones that will surely emerge, by addressing such ques- tions as: In what ways could or should the beautiful be a subject for scholarship and/ or pedagogy, and what can it contribute to interdisciplinary work? Why is it that cer- tain ages valued and found beauty in cer- tain texts? Is beauty related mainly toplea- sure, or is aesthetic appreciation a form of insight into the world and ourselves, a kind of knowledge? Is there a place for beauty in the construction of an ethical, moral, and just universe? Or must an appreciation of beauty disarm critical judgment, must it inhibit civic responsibility? And what is the link between idealized human beauty and theimpulse to aesthetic theory? Other que- ries might arise from our expectations of the world that we will inhabit in the twenty-first century, among them the fol- lowing: How can beauty exist in a techno- logical world? Can it in any way function as an antidote to the mind-numbing effects of a surfeit of information in our lives? How can we understand the beautiful as a shared perception while remaining sensi- tive to cultural differences? And what does it mean to our study and teaching of Ger- man literature if we accept a multiplicity of aesthetic codes? How can we assure that aesthetics no longer be regarded as an elite preoccupation with indisputable claims to transcendent values? How do writers con- ceive of beauty in a post-Holocaust world? Where is the place for aesthetic education in identity formation? Does an imaginative text that we identify as beautiful offer a potentially liberating or perhaps utopian moment? And what about the sublime? Is there validity to the claim that a post- modern sublime can resist extremes of neutrality and order? We will also want to ask what beauty means in a postmodern aesthetic that unabashedly embraces the sentimental, for example, and even camp.

Some of these explorations will perhaps lead us to new understandings of aesthet- ics itself, raising concerns over its continu- ing viability as a separate field. Others will interrogate the very nature of beauty and its place in our lives, requiring us to con- front the issue of whether, and if so why, there seems to be a basic human need for form or beauty. Approached in this man- ner, scholarly attention to beauty will not oblige us to validate eternal verities, but will help us to pose the kinds of aesthetic questions that can contribute to under- standing imaginative writings in their full historical and social contexts.

Of course, none of this will solve the identity problems of our discipline, if that quest is even viable for a profession as heterogeneous as ours, one in which strati- fication and diversity will likely increase, and in which our professional lives will surely be conducted in a wide variety of in- stitutional settings-in departments of national languages and literatures, de- partments of German Studies, depart- ments of European culture, or in academic

FRIEDRICHSMEYER: Acknowledging the Beautiful

units constituted differently altogether. Nevertheless, it seems safe to predict that interdisciplinary endeavors will continue, despite the multifaceted obstacles they present and the threat of dilettantism that still hover^.^ For those who value a disci- plinary base even within this interdisci- plinary work,lO for those who choose to fo- cus on literary texts, an acknowledgement of beauty in any of its shapes could be a timely challenge. The attempt to reclaim for ourselves and our students a sense that beauty belongs among the many ways that literature matters would be a worthy con- tribution to the profession at the beginning of our new millennium.


discussions of disciplinary identity have continued for much of the history of Ger- manics in this country, and with increased ur- gency at least since the early 1970s. See, for ex- ample, Trommler, Gerrnanistik as German Studies, and McCarthy and Schneider.

2See also the summary of the article in the magazine's table of contents (2).

3An in-depth analysis of this chapter in the history of our discipline has not as yet received adequate scholarly treatment.

41t is instead a scholar from outside of liter- ary studies, the philosopher Martha Nuss- baum, who articulates some of the most per- suasive arguments for this uniqueness. See, for example, Love's Knowledge: Essays on Phi- losophy and Literature and Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life.

5Bammer speaks for many of us, putting into words the kind of unspoken taboo that has somehow formed around the concept of read- ing pleasure for anyone working in cultural studies (37).

GPrinceton UP has announced Scarry's new book On Beauty and Being Just for Sep- tember 1999.

71 selected this topic and issued the calls for papers for these sessions with some trepida- tion, but the large number of stimulating, thoughtful proposals that I received quickly al- layed any of my earlier qualms.

8See Belluck on the scientific basis for hap- piness in the cortex and Etcoff on the science of

'See, for example, the introduction to the focus section of Women in German Yearbook 12 in which Sara Lennox, one of the strongest advocates of interdisciplinary research andteaching in our field, also acknowledges the

difficulties involved. loLynn Hunt presents a convincing case for honoring the "virtues" of disciplinarity.

Works Cited

Bammer, Angelika. "Interrogating Germanness: What's Literature Got to Do with It?" A User's Guide to German Cultural Studies. Ed. Scott Denham, Irene Kacandes, and Jonathan Petropoulos. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan E: 1997.3144.

Belluck, Pam. "Looking for Happiness? It May Be Very Near." New York Times 24 July 1999: A17-19.

Etcoff, Nancy L. Survival of the Prettiest: The Science ofBeauty. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

Germanistik as German Studies: Znterdisciplin- ary Theories and Methods. Spec. issue of German Quarterly 62.2 (1989).

Heller, Scott. "Wearying of Cultural Studies, Some Scholars Rediscover Beauty." Chronicle of Higher Education 4 Dec. 1998: A15-16.

Hunt, Lynn. "The Virtues of Disciplinarity." Eighteenth-Century Studies 28.1 (1994): 1-7. Kramer, Jane. "Living with Berlin." New Yorker 5 July 1999: 50-64.

Lennox, Sara. "Feminist German Studies across the Disciplines: Introduction to Grossmann, Ferree, and Cocks." Women in German Year- book 12. Lincoln: U of Nebraska E: 1996. 1-9.

Levine, George, ed. Aesthetics and Ideology. New Brunswick: Rutgers UE: 1994.

McCarthy, John, and Katrin Schneider, eds. The Future of Germanistik in the USA. Changing OurProspects. Nashville: Vanderbilt UT: 1996.

Nussbaum, Martha. Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Oxford: Oxford Ue 1990.

.Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life Boston: Beacon, 1995. Trommler, Frank, ed. Germanistik in den USA. Neue Entwicklungen und Methoden.

Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1989.

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