Friday, July 14, 2017

Art and Immortality

Hans Sachs, a sixteenth-century cobbler-poet, declaims the following lines at the end of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg:
Drum sag’ ich euch:
ehrt eure deutschen Meister!
Dann bannt ihr gute Geister;
und gebt ihr ihrem Wirken Gunst,
zerging’ in Dunst
das heil’ge röm’sche Reich,
uns bliebe gleich
die heil’ge deutsche Kunst! 
So I say to you: honour your German masters! Then you will bring up good spirits. And if you favour their endeavours, let the Holy Roman Empire melt into mist: still Holy German Art will remain to us!
The ironic drama in this speech comes from the fact that after Sachs’s death, the Holy Roman Empire indeed melted into the mist: it was dissolved by Napoleon in 1806. And yet, sixty-two years after that, here was Wagner writing Die Meistersinger. German Art prevailed!

Wagner’s point in giving Sachs these lines was that German art and culture are separable from German political power. Germany was independent of any imperial structure. Destroy whatever nation-state you want, but you won’t damage the spiritual heart of the German people. 

Here Wagner indulged in a classic trope of nineteenth-century German thought. The French, it was said, relied on steel and gunpowder to project their civilisation across the earth. Not so with the Germans, who had no political centre or military power; and whose cultural treasure was literary. France, in this picture, was the heir of mighty Rome, and Germany of the Greek city-states.

Let’s compare this line of thought to Horace’s prophecy:
Exegi monumentum ære perennius
Regalique situ pyramidum altius
Quod non imber edax, non Aquilo inpotens
Possit diruere aut innumerabilis
Annorum series et fuga temporum.
Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei
Vitabit Libitinam : usque ego postera
Crescam laude recens dum Capitolium
Scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex. (Od. III.30)
I have built a monument more durable than bronze; higher than the royal mound of the pyramids. No consuming rain will be able to destroy it, nor the violent north wind, nor the sequence of the years, nor the flight of time.  I will not completely die, but a great part of me will escape the grave. Ever new, I will grow in fame till the latter days, so long as the Pontifex climbs the Capitoline Hill with a silent virgin.
My poems will survive forever, says Horace, provided only that the Empire and its religious rites go on.

Vergil uses exactly the same trope in his epitaph of Nisus and Euryalus, heroes who die in a raid against the Rutuli. He says (Æn. IX.446–9):
Fortunati ambo ! si quid mea carmina possunt
Nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet ævo
Dum domus Æneæ Capitoli immobile saxum
Accolet imperiumque pater Romanus habebit.
Happy pair! If my songs are worth anything, no day will strike from the memory of the ages; not as long as the house of Æneas sits upon the unmoving hill of the Capitol; not as long as the Roman father holds his empire.  
These Romans believed that their literary heritage would be sustained forever by Rome’s political might. Destroy the Roman Empire, they implied, and you will destroy Latin poetry. But the Empire’s destruction is unimaginable: therefore poetry will last forever. Wagner, meanwhile, perhaps in an attempt to one-up his classical models, proclaimed that German letters would last by their own right: no emperor’s arms would be necessary to sustain them.

Horace and Virgil were both wrong. The Roman Empire, like all empires, fell. But that did not mean the death of Latin letters. For two thousand years after the Latin Golden Age, schoolboys were still made to memorise the Odes of Horace. And just the other day, I saw a nineteenth-century statue of Nisus and Eurylaus in the Louvre:


The Romans of course, were wrong in the happiest way: their wishes were granted far beyond what they could have imagined. Wagner’s wishes, by contrast, were violently disappointed. German culture did not ultimately survive the Holy Roman Empire’s fall. With a couple centuries’ perspective, we can see that Goethe, Heine, Schiller, and Wagner were not leaders of a Renaissance, but flowers in an Indian summer. What the Grimm brothers had dreamed was in the end nothing but backwards-looking nostalgia. Everything traditionally German was soon to be burned in fire, and then covered over in Marshall-plan concrete. Literate culture has gone under along with architecture. Let alone two thousand years from now: even now, it’s hard to find a German who can stand to listen to Schubert or to read Hölderlin.

German culture has also disappeared without a trace from most of the territory that it used to inhabit. (How many people in Kaliningrad today can read Simplicius Simplicissimus?) Even physically speaking, there are few German cities left that Wagner would recognise if he were dropped into them — so radically did the war and its aftermath disfigure the face of the country. (Go to Nürnberg, for instance: the centre is a history-themed disneyland, and everything else is a grim fortress.

The Romans asked the gods for something hubristic and wild – that their verse should exist until the end of the Empire. They received even more than they asked. Wagner, encouraged, requested the same fate for Germany – that its culture should go on after the end of the German Empire. This time, the gods refused.

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