The irreducible significance of literature: David Wellbery on Goethe, Cavell and de Man

Interview with David E. Wellbery

David E. Wellbery is LeRoy T. and Margaret Deffenbaugh Carlson Professor at University of Chicago, where he chairs the Department of Germanic Studies and is a member of the Committee on Social Thought. A renowned scholar of the German tradition, he has published numerous books and essays on Lessing, Goethe, Kleist, Schopenhauer and many others.

Interview by Chris Fenwick

Professor Wellbery, you’re visiting Berlin as a guest speaker at the ZfL, so it’s perhaps appropriate to begin with a couple of questions about internationalism in academia. Do you think that German and US academics have different approaches within your own field of German Studies? What do you think are the major differences between German and US universities?

First of all, let me say something about internationalism in general, which I see as really having accelerated over the past five years. The conference I’m involved in here is co-organized by colleagues from Potsdam, Tel Aviv and Chicago, and I have a bit of a hand in the organization too. This is rather typical of today. Just before coming here I had a guest from the University of Curitiba in Southern Brazil who is working on a very interesting project, making digitally available all of the German-language publications in Brazil in the nineteenth century. This is the kind of thing we could also do in the US and I am interested in pursuing such possibilities. Moreover, his project is co-supported by the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, so you get a kind of triangulation there, which I think is typical. Again and again I’m experiencing at conferences that Asian students are listening in, if not participating. It’s only going to be a generational question before we see more of their participation, which I think is really good.

Now let’s look at the German and American fields of Germanistik. There was a time, let’s say in the 1980s and ‘90s, when I could have given a straightforward answer to that question. At that time, there were what you might call characteristic national forms. As far as I can tell right now, both German and American Germanistik are quite internally diverse. For instance, at Chicago we have a strong accentuation on, first of all, teaching the literary canon, and second of all, approaching it from a theoretical point of view, particularly inflected by philosophy, psychoanalysis, and other broader theoretical categories. But there are other kinds of department in the US. Let’s take the University of Michigan, for instance – an excellent department, which has stylized itself in a completely different way. It is a department of German Studies in which there are also colleagues who are primarily historians, and they have a very strong social and historical approach. In many places, what we see is a Cultural Studies approach, which is very broad-based, interested in issues like migration, memorial culture and so on. I think it’s not easy to compare right now because of the internal diversity that we see in both countries.

Coming from a more philosophical perspective, how do you regard certain historical and sociological approaches to literature – for instance, those inspired by the early Foucault or Bourdieu? Is there potentially something deterministic there that stands in tension to more philosophical approaches – do they miss the moment of aesthetic experience, the way in which literature thinks? These approaches may be correct to view texts as expressions of social power, and the subject as being produced by these power relations, but isn’t there something fundamental about literary experience that we have to account for in terms of the (however limited) autonomy of the subject?

Well, I would not say that literary studies should banish – I would not even say that literary studies can do without – conceptions that are historical, and indeed sociological. The question is, how does one bring that to bear in our discussions?

I think that there is a test we can perform. If the language of our description – structures of power, other kinds of sociological configurations – becomes too deterministic, then we have fallen prey to a kind of mimetic relationship to the sciences. We think that we need to get behind and explain the causal forces that have brought something about. But then, after we’re done with that causal explanation, we go out and we interact with one another and we use a language of self-ascription, of ascription of responsibility to others, and so on – and in fact, there’s no way we can make our interactions with one another intelligible without that kind of account. You need that kind of account just to understand what human action is. “Did you really mean to do that?” “No, that’s not what I meant. I was trying to say this…” The danger arises with the compulsion to achieve a certain form of result that looks scientific or “deterministic” – that seeks to determine. When we endeavour to get a description that we stand outside of as pure observers then I think the chance is that we have gone wrong.

But let’s look at the question of historical semantics. Here you and I are sitting together, we’ve been talking for a while, and we’ve been drawing on concepts that we share to a remarkable degree. We draw on a semantic reservoir with which we articulate our views. We are now able to study that kind of thing in a really interesting way as a result of digitalization – we have the possibility of really investigating semantic histories. Not just semantic history – we could look at, for instance, the vocabulary of affectivity in literary works of a certain period. What is the spectrum of feelings that are thematized in these works? We can actually get quite large and global views of things and those can be very helpful in coming to understand the particularity of a work – one of those works that we think is particularly significant, that’s had a big influence. Maybe there’s a way in which Werther, even as it draws on the vocabulary of Empfindsamkeit, actually diverges from it in significant ways. If we can find that out it becomes a datum for literary interpretation.

You’re currently working on a book about Goethe, an author on whom you’ve already published extensively. Would you care to tell us about your new project and perhaps how it relates to your earlier work on Goethe?

I just published a little book on Goethe’s Faust, which is available for free from the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung [link:]. It’s a little 90-page study of Goethe’s Faust I. It is a component of a larger investigation that I will publish in English that includes studies of several other works, most notably Goethe’s Werther, Egmont, Faust I and his festival play Pandora. In each of these cases what we have are interpretative studies centred on the concept of literary form and the way that in each of these phases of Goethe’s productive life – basically, three different phases, although Faust is distributed over a period of time – he develops a new understanding of literary form.

It is a characteristic of Goethe’s writing that he never stuck within a single form. If you look at all the dramas that Goethe wrote, each is of a different type. There’s quite a bit of distance between Götz von Berlichingen and Iphigenie or Pandora or Die natürliche Tochter, a highly allegorical piece. If you look at Schiller and Kleist, the other great dramatists of the period, you’ll see much greater formal consistency. This has to do, in my view, with Goethe’s exploration of the concept of form in conjunction with the concept of transformation – with his famous statement that what he is interested in is not Gestaltungslehre but Verwandlungslehre. These ideas are rooted in his overall scientific and aesthetic thinking.

Part of this project involves an effort to place Goethe in a broader theoretical and philosophical context – to see Goethe more closely in relationship with his contemporaries. Those contemporaries are major figures of the post-Kantian philosophical world: Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, most notably. Of course, Goethe’s relationship to philosophy is a complex one. There were various philosophers who influenced him – for instance, he had a deep relationship with the philosophy of Plotinus – and Goethe also had a tremendous influence on philosophy, especially in the twentieth century. Someone like Ernst Cassirer is unthinkable without Goethe. But I’m particularly interested in what I refer to as the “idealist” matrix. I want to see Goethe as part of that – but not only that, I want to try to elaborate those concepts in such a way that their importance or relevance for literary studies today becomes clear. I used the slogan of a “new idealist” mode of literary studies in a paper. It has to do with recovering the truly exceptional conceptualization of literary study that we find in the major figures of this world.

Could you tell us more precisely about this “new idealist” theory of literature?

It involves formulating an idea of literary or more generally artistic expression as an articulation of human self-understanding. This is very closely related to Hegel, but of course it can take different forms in other thinkers. A thinker I’ve become more and more interested in in this regard, and whom I think is a foundational figure for literary studies internationally, is August Wilhelm Schlegel. Friedrich Schlegel has had the benefit of most of the scholarly attention. Of course, he was a brilliant, imaginative theoretician, but look at what August Wilhelm Schlegel worked out in the various volumes of his lectures – the lectures on dramatic art and the history of drama, or the Kunstlehre, a general aesthetic theory, or his lectures on romance literature, which deal with all of the romance literary forms as they develop across history, his creation of a conception of the Western literary canon (although in the last phase of his career he was also looking at other cultures, India in particular) – this is a monumental achievement. Some of those lectures that Schlegel gave were immediately translated into multiple languages, so he became, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a point of orientation for the very conceptualization of literary studies. In a certain way people have forgotten that origin and have lost the sense of what I would call its theoretical brisance – its exciting, innovative character.

If we view literature as a mode of self-understanding, is it fair to see it as supplementing philosophy – that is, does literary discourse contribute to our self-understanding in a way that philosophical discourse doesn’t?

There’s a certain way in which I agree with Aristotle on the point that literature is more philosophical than history. It deals with universals, not with particulars. But that doesn’t mean that it is translatable into philosophical concepts. It is a unique form of the articulation of our self-understanding. What is it that makes that form unique? I think that this is a crucial question for the theoretical discussion of literature today. I’m not sure that we have a good, full account of that. But that’s an animating question for me. What kind of knowledge is there that we have by virtue of the fact, not that we know that x or y, but that we know that we have experienced x or y? There is a way in which literary knowledge is the knowledge that we gain for having gone through something in a particular way. There’s a way in which it is a process-based thought

That’s almost a Hegelian formulation.

Maybe it is. But I was thinking of Cavell.

Do you there are significant commonalities between Cavell and German idealism?

There are undoubtedly motifs that one can find in Cavell’s thought that one can say have an idealist tone to them, although of course there is a difference in emphasis. The emphasis on the ordinary and everydayness is one thing that one doesn’t find in idealism. But if I look at the seriousness of intellectual engagement of Cavell, let us say, in his essay on King Lear – which I regard as one of the great essays of the twentieth century – that is a seriousness of intellectual engagement equivalent to that of the best commentaries of the idealist tradition – let’s take Friedrich Schlegel’s great essay on Wilhelm Meister, or his brother’s review of the Roman Elegies, or Hegel’s engagement with ancient tragedy, for example. Hegel’s great 120-page review of Hamann’s complete works might also fall under this. And there’s a way in which I see a continuity there. Also, if we look at Cavell’s theoretical reflection on the notion of genre, particularly in the introduction to Pursuits of Happiness, we’ll find, I think, remarkable idealist resonances. In fact, in the piece that I just wrote on Goethe’s Faust there’s a kind of effort on my part to think of genres in a mode that is cognate both to idealist theory, on the one hand, and to Cavell’s notion of genre in Pursuits of Happiness, on the other.

I find of absolutely crucial importance in Cavell’s account of drama the notion that there must be some way that we participate in the dramatic action. His view is that in drama there is a world that is present to us but we cannot be present to it – we’re outside of it. You can’t get up on stage and intervene – so what is the appropriateness of our response? Where, at what level, does what we call “acknowledgement” come into play? And it comes into play, as he puts it, by virtue of the fact that we share the time with drama. We share the time not just in the sense that we’re sitting in the theatre, but in the sense that the openness of the present moment, as the dramatic action folds, is also the openness that we are experiencing as we’re involved in the drama. It’s a remarkable reinterpretation of the classical notion of Mitleid, or of pity – tragedy’s mode of participation in the work. That’s the kind of thing that I find in his thinking that is particularly engaging. Of course, no one making a significant contribution to literary theory or literary studies is going to say something that is absolutely original, that’s absolutely other to the thinking that has taken place since Aristotle. Not that one is condemned merely to repeat, but one is going to rearticulate certain key ideas. And that’s what I think he succeeds in doing in an essay like the King Lear essay.

We’ve discussed a number of different influences on your work. As a graduate student at Yale you worked with Paul de Man. What mark did he leave? Does deconstruction still inform your thinking about literature and philosophy?

As far as my work right now is concerned, I do not think that I draw on very many key ideas of deconstruction. But I want to speak a little bit about the experience of de Man’s teaching. There have been various individuals who have had a tremendous impact as teachers. In Germany, such a person, even though he didn’t publish his major work until he was 60 years old, was Gadamer. But Gadamer produced, if we went through the people who were his students in all fields in the Geisteswissenschaften – History, English, French, German, Philosophy – major, major figures. There are teachers who have tremendous influence in that way, and de Man was certainly one of them.

What was really important for me about de Man’s teaching was that he conveyed a sense that the study of literature was a matter not of secondary, not of tertiary importance, but a matter of utmost importance. De Man had certain theoretical views that drove that: literature as a kind of self-consciousness – even though he wouldn’t use that term – of the ambiguities, twists and turns, and inevitable distortions of language. Language as a reflection on its own rhetoricity, language as a reflection on the necessity of misreading, and so on. But the effect of his teaching was not a matter of content, it derived from the fact that, when we went into his seminar, we felt we were at the point where absolutely crucial issues were being discussed. He gave the study of literature a tremendous importance. And I think that is part of the reason. Look at the people – I don’t count myself among them – look at the people. It’s not as impressive a list as Gadamer, it’s shorter, but there are a number of major people who were students of his and who went on to make really significant contributions, particularly in the US.

Similarly, one interesting feature of Cavell’s work is the high seriousness he brings to the study of literature, in particular in his effort to recover the contemporary importance of the great figures of the American transcendental tradition, Emerson and Thoreau. And he can direct toward both Shakespeare and Frank Capra the same intensity of intellectual engagement. There’s a way in which our discipline gets into trouble if it loses the sense of wonder and amazement, as when one feels compelled to utter: “My goodness, this is an important thing for us to be studying!” There’s something special about these works.

There was a time when the study of literary theory was something that was a small part of what literary studies were. There were a few people who sat down and wrote a general theory. A classic and still readable work in this regard, in the German tradition, is Wolfgang Kayser’s Das sprachliche Kunstwerk. In the American tradition, it was Wellek and Warren’s Theory of Literature. These books explicated the various literary categories; you could consult them for a clear definition of what a genre is, what metre is, and so forth. They were theoretical guides to the Handwerk of literary studies. That was the attitude toward theory that was consonant with the New Criticism. But when that tradition began to seem a recondite exercise, new impulses entered literary studies: Marxist theories and other sociological variants coming in on one side, linguistic structuralism and semiotic approaches on the other. There was a profusion of different theoretical modes. Of course, this was good in many ways, because it transformed, deepened, and enhanced the discussion. But there is a way in which the literary works became secondary to theoretical formulations. When that happens, they begin to lose their importance. I think there’s a problem with that. And my prediction is that another kind of need is being felt in many quarters: the need for a mode of Literaturwissenschaft that allows the works to speak in the specificity of their poetic-aesthetic mode. It is our periodically recrudescent need to reconnect with the irreducible significance of literature.