Friday, July 1, 2016

Germans and Greeks

Well along in the second volume of Egon Friedell's Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit, there appears a closely reasoned fifty-page section, "The Invention of Antiquity". Summarized, the thesis is that 18th-Century Europe invented a Greek past to suit the needs it felt with the exhaustion of the baroque era; and that it did so by thoroughly misunderstanding ancient Greece. Twenty or fewer pages would have sufficed to trace the origin, errors, and consequences of the invention. But Friedell seems to have suffered from the infection he diagnosed, and to have been unable to let go of the Greeks once he had taken them up.

He is biting on the etiology of the invention:
And we know today where the aesthetics and conception of history of the German classicists had its origin: from the teaching and example of the generation that brought it forth, a generation of physically and spiritually undernourished teachers, stooped bookworms and crook-backed art pedants, out of the dusty confines of libraries and writing rooms, the dusky close air of provincial streets, the tedium of the crooked and curled miniature world of the German baroque. Today we feel this world, not antiquity, as historical: in its old worm-eaten feeling, its smell of wood plaster and train-oil lamps, the anemia from bad feeding, its touching and bizarre concern to give itself depth and gravity through stiff pedantry, heaped up proper nouns, and book titles.

Poor Winkelmann, earlier called "the disastrous founder of German plaster of Paris classicism," gets several pages partly of praise but mostly not.

Friedell writes that "If one were not perfectly well aware that the gymnasium students understand not a word of the Greek writers, one would not only have to remove their works from the curriculum, but also privately forbid it as thoroughly immoral." He illustrates the immorality and amorality of the Greeks amply, but it is hard to take what he says about the students literally. The pages he gives to Greek musicality and the Greek language suggest that he understood more than a few words. So, for example,
An eminent, indeed unique musicality expresses itself in the Greek language: in its liveliness and subtlety, power of modulation and it melody, color and fullness, force and flexibility, and not least (what one in a certain sense can also regard as a musical element, for the world of melody is immediately intelligible to everyone) in its pure popularity. Greek, although it first raised the highest scientific and philosophical problems, possesses almost no loan words, and likewise has a mysterious ability to make the abstract always plastic, to express the purest concepts tangibly, to occupy itself in the fullest Platonic sense with the seen idea. In addition it has an unusual richness of forms, not a few of them unique to it, as the optative mood, the aorist tense, the doubled adverb, the middle voice, the dual; particularly the last two are of astonishing subtlety: for what one does for oneself is as sharply distinguished from what one does for another as from what another does to one; and what one does as a pair bears an different character for what one does with more or does alone. It is possible that the great role that the erotic played in Greek life might have been determinant for this cultivation, which runs through all tints and shades. And the language gained a simultaneous coordination and nuance, firmness and mood, enabled by the unsurpassed quantity of particles, as well as an indefinable element of playful, floating irony. Certainly these delicate tints of expression cannot be translated, unless through the finest reflection and most sensitive feeling for language; the garden variety philologist's translations into German, which satisfies itself to render all parts of speech literally, and as far as possible clumsily and old-fashioned, in messes such as "Troth! Thou might herein now have some reason", fail entirely.
That the Greeks actually regarded language as a musical phenomenon is attested in their remarkable sensitivity to false expressions, emphases or word orders, which is conveyed in numerous stories, and finds an analogy only in the sharp ear of the Italian public for bad singing. And this was really the secret of the Greek "style": they were educated by centuries-long organized hearing and seeing to the highest receptivity and capacity for distinctions.
John Jay Chapman made comparable remarks (allowing always for the differences between New England and Central Europe) in "Greek as a Pleasure", collected in Memories and Milestones:
In the time of the Greek tragedians noun and verb and adjective and conjunction, as we know them, existed not. Greek adjectives are half nouns, pronouns are voices, and might easily be called so; propositions are moody, bat-like things, and ought probably to be called moods. The verbs turn into nouns upon the slightest provocation, and the case-endings attract and eat each other up with whimsical facility. All is done for the sentiment of the ear, noting for rule, all is governed by a supergrammatical instinct, which the modern mind can neither practice nor understand. All the words in Greek take their meanings from each other to an extent not easily conceivable. Their wings are in motion like butterflies that will nto alight. The air is full of the petals of particles for which we have no modern equivalents and which yet flutter and wheel with an inner poetry and an inimitable logic of their own. We were men before we were scholars, and therefore these things affect us like music.
But back in the Kulturgeschichte Winkelmann is dead in Trieste, the classical fashion has spread to France and Britain, and Friedell is about to move on to revolution and empire. Perhaps I will take a break for the weekend of the Fourth.

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