Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Reading Friedell

In his notice of Egon Friedell in Cultural Amnesia, Clive James writes
Translated into English in 1930, the three-volume set of his Cultural History of the Modern Age was such a publishing disaster that it simply vanished. Today it can be obtained only from a dealer in rare books.
 In the fifth paragraph of the book, it struck me why this might be so, for Friedell writes
That things happen is nothing; that they become known is everything.
Fairly or not, I imagine a hundred German heads nodding in agreement and a dozen English or American heads being scratched in puzzlement. James goes on to say that
In the original German, however, Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit turns up second-hand all over the world, because it was a talisman for the emigration...
Whether for that reason or not, it turned up at a local used bookstore last year, where I bought it. I have now read through to the end of the first volume, which after a long introduction takes one from the years of the Black Plague through the beginning of the 17th Century. I have found it steadily interesting, if slow going. Friedell's eye for the telling detail, and his well-argued judgments on historical movements and figures,  make the book steadily interesting.  Probably I will take a break before I take up Volume II, with the Thirty Years' War.

Friedell's late Middle Ages, an "incubation time" look to me a good deal like Huizinga's; he acknowledges Huizinga's work there. He makes the remarkable assertion that nominalism had a more drastic effect on European history than either gunpowder or the printing press, and offers cogent if not entirely convincing reasons.

His Italian Renaissance looks a good deal like Burkhardt's, whose work he also acknowledges. One might simply say "renaissance", for he considers the northern renaissances as pale reflections of the Italian. He is consistently interesting on the writers and artists: Petrarch, Aretino, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael. He is aware of the faults of Petrarch
He adores simplicity, retirement, and the bucolic, and is steadily occupied in snapping up benefices.
and of Raphael
Everyone understands his sweet womanly faces, his clear figure drawing, his bright and powerful color harmonies. He is what the man in the street expects a painter to be. Raphael speaks to everyone. But just for that reason, he speaks properly to no one.
(I must say that though I find the arguments over Raphael fascinating, I am in no way qualified to judge them.)

I chanced to be reading Diarmaid Macculloch's account of the early Reformation at about the same time as I read Friedell's. I would compare the experience to seeing a reconnaissance photo and an impressionist painting of the same terrain. Macculloch traces the development of Luther's thought in clear detail. Friedell lays more stress on personality, giving one a plausible picture of Luther and his extra-doctrinal life and thought. I did not see that Friedell missed anything relevant in Luther's doctrine, even if he does not work at Macculloch's level of detail. He does bring in some insights of his own: Luther's feeling for music and his utter want of feeling for the plastic arts and poetry; Luther's literalism;  the roots of Luther's style in the "language of the Saxon chancellery," and the great influence of his Bible on the German language; of this Bible that
Not very much of the fragrance, the local color, the whole ambience of the biblical world, indeed of the feeling and thought of the composer, is brought across; but in this way, in his (in every sense) German Bible, Luther has managed to write the most German book in German literature.
He is persuasive on the mystics of the German Reformation (though I am easily persuaded, knowing nothing about them) and on the early Devotio Nova.

 Friedell is hard on the Hapsburgs. With great appositeness he quotes Liutprand on a Byzantine emperor, suddenly hoisted into the air and in a different robe, and uses that as a figure for the Hapsburgs. Yet he acknowledges the qualities of some that he has just damned: after half a dozen pages writing down Philip II, he returns to "Felipe segundo sin segundo"and what Philip II and his time achieved in Spain.

The nearest comparison I can think of in English is Jacques Barzun's Dawn to Decadence, which covers much of the same period, in Barzun's case from the Reformation forward. One could walk away from either with a long reading list.

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