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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Historical Movement in Modern Literature

By Georg Brandes (1842–1927)

From the Introduction to ‘Main Currents in the Literature of the Nineteenth Century’: Translation of William Morton Payne

WHAT I shall portray for you is a historical movement, having very completely the form and the character of a drama. The six distinct literary groups that I intend to present to you are entirely like the six acts of a great play. In the first group, the French emigrant-literature inspired by Rousseau, the reaction has already begun, but the reactionary currents are everywhere blended with the revolutionary. In the second group, the half-Catholic romantic school of Germany, the reaction is growing; it goes further, and holds itself more aloof from the contemporary movement towards freedom and progress. The third group, finally, formed of such writers as Joseph de Maistre, Lamennais in his orthodox period, Lamartine and Victor Hugo under the Restoration, when they were still firm supporters of the legitimist and clerical parties, stands for the reaction, impetuous and triumphant.

Byron and his associates make up the fourth group. This one man reverses the action of the great drama. The Greek war of liberation breaks out, a current of fresh air sweeps over Europe, Byron falls as a hero of the Greek cause, and his heroic death makes a deep impression upon all the writers of the Continent. Just before the July Revolution all the great French writers turn about, forming the fifth group, the French romantic school, and the new liberal movement is marked by the names of Lamennais, Hugo, Lamartine, de Musset, George Sand, and many others. And when the movement spreads from France into Germany, liberal ideas triumph in that land also, and the sixth and last group of authors I shall portray became inspired by the ideas of the July Revolution and the War of Liberation, seeing, like the French poets, in Byron’s great shade the leader of the movement towards freedom. The most important of these young writers are of Jewish origin, as Heine, Börne, and later, Auerbach.

I believe that from this great drama we may get a lesson for our own instruction. We are now, as usual, forty years behind the rest of Europe. In the literatures of those great countries the revolutionary stream long ago united with its tributaries, burst the dikes that were set to impede its course, and has been distributed into thousands of channels. We are still endeavoring to check it and hold it dammed up in the swamps of the reaction, but we have succeeded only in checking our literature itself.

It would hardly be difficult to secure unanimous consent to the proposition that Danish literature has at no time during the present century found itself languishing as in our own days. Poetical production is almost completely checked, and no problem of a general human or social character awakens interest or evokes any more serious discussion than that of the daily press or other ephemeral publication. Our productivity has never been strongly original, and we now utterly fail to appropriate the spiritual life of other lands, and our spiritual deafness has brought upon us the speechlessness of the deaf-mutes.

The proof that a literature in our days is alive is to be found in the fact that it brings problems up for debate. Thus George Sand brings marriage up for debate, Voltaire, Byron, and Feuerbach religion, Proudhon property, Alexander Dumas fils the relations of the sexes, and Émile Augier social relations in general. For a literature to bring nothing up for debate is the same thing as to lose all its significance. The people that produce such a literature may believe as firmly as they please that the salvation of the world will come from it, but their expectations will be doomed to disappointment; such a people can no more influence the development of civilization in the direction of progress than did the fly who thought he was urging the carriage onward by now and then giving the four horses an insignificant prick.

Many virtues—as for example warlike courage—may be preserved in such a society, but these virtues cannot sustain literature when intellectual courage has sunk and disappeared. All stagnant reaction is tyrannical; and when a community has by degrees so developed itself that it wears the features of tyranny beneath the mask of freedom, when every outspoken utterance that gives uncompromising expression to free thought is frowned upon by society, by the respectable part of the press, and by many officials of the State, very unusual conditions will be needed to call forth characters and talents of the sort upon which progress in any society depends. Should such a community develop a kind of poetry, we need not wonder overmuch if its essential tendency be to scorn the age and put it to shame. Such poetry will again and again describe the men of the time as wretches; and it may well happen that the books which are the most famous and the most sought after (Ibsen’s ‘Brand,’ for example) will be those in which the reader is made to feel—at first with a sort of horror, and afterwards with a sort of satisfaction—what a worm he is, how miserable and how cowardly. It may happen, too, that for such a people the word Will becomes a sort of catchword, that it may cry aloud with dramas of the Will and philosophies of the Will. Men demand that which they do not possess; they call for that of which they most bitterly feel the lack; they call for that which there is the keenest inquiry for. Yet one would be mistaken were he pessimistically to assume that in such a people there is less courage, resolution, enthusiasm, and will than in the average of others. There is quite as much courage and freedom of thought, but still more is needed. For when the reaction in a literature forces the new ideas into the background, and when a community has daily heard itself blamed, derided, and even cursed for its hypocrisy and its conventionality, yet has remained convinced of its openness of mind, daily swinging censers before its own nostrils in praise thereof,—it requires unusual ability and unusual force of will to bring new blood into its literature. A soldier needs no uncommon courage to fire upon the enemy from the shelter of an earthwork; but if he has been led so ill that he finds no shelter at hand, we need not wonder if his courage forsakes him.

Various causes have contributed to the result that our literature has accomplished less than the greater ones in the service of progress. The very circumstances that have favored the development of our poetry have stood in our way. I may in the first place mention a certain childishness in the character of our people. We owe to this quality the almost unique naïveté of our poetry. Naïveté is an eminently poetical quality, and we find it in nearly all of our poets, from Oehlenschläger through Ingemann and Andersen to Hostrup. But naïveté does not imply the revolutionary propensity. I may further mention the abstract idealism so strongly marked in our literature. It deals with our dreams, not with our life….

It sometimes happens to the Dane on his travels that a foreigner, after some desultory talk about Denmark, asks him this question: How may one learn what are the aspirations of your country? Has your contemporary literature developed any type that is palpable and easily grasped? The Dane is embarrassed in his reply. They all know of what class were the types that the eighteenth century bequeathed to the nineteenth. Let us name one or two representative types in the case of a single country, Germany. There is ‘Nathan the Wise,’ the ideal of the period of enlightenment; that is, the period of tolerance, noble humanity, and thorough-going rationalism. We can hardly say that we have held fast to this ideal or carried it on to further development, as it was carried on by Schleiermacher and many others in Germany. Mynster was our Schleiermacher, and we know how far his orthodoxy stands removed from Schleiermacher’s liberalism. Instead of adopting rationalism and carrying it on, we have stepped farther and farther away from it. Clausen was once its advocate, but he is so no more. Heiberg is followed by Martensen, and Martensen’s ‘Speculative Dogmatic’ is succeeded by his ‘Christian Dogmatic.’ In Oehlenschläger’s poetry there is still the breath of rationalism, but the generation of Oehlenschläger and Örsted is followed by that of Kierkegaard and Paludan-Müller.

The German literature of the eighteenth century bequeathed to us many other poetic ideals. There is Werther, the ideal of the “storm and stress” period, of the struggle of nature and passion with the customary order of society; then there is Faust, the very spirit of the new age with its new knowledge, who, still unsatisfied with what the period of enlightenment has won, foresees a higher truth, a higher happiness, and a thousandfold higher power; and there is Wilhelm Meister, the type of humanized culture, who goes through the school of life and from apprentice becomes master, who begins with the pursuit of ideals that soar above life and who ends by discerning the ideal in the real, for whom these two expressions finally melt into one. There is Goethe’s Prometheus, who, chained to his rock, gives utterance to the philosophy of Spinoza in the sublime rhythms of enthusiasm. Last of all, there is the Marquis von Posa, the true incarnation of the revolution, the apostle and prophet of liberty, the type of a generation that would, by means of the uprising against all condemned traditions, make progress possible and bring happiness to mankind.

With such types in the past our Danish literature begins. Does it develop them further? We may not say that it does. For what is the test of progress? It is what happens afterward. It has not been printed in this shape, but I will tell you about it. One fine day, when Werther was going about as usual, dreaming despairingly of Lotte, it occurred to him that the bond between her and Albert was of slight consequence, and he won her from Albert. One fine day the Marquis von Posa wearied of preaching freedom to deaf ears at the court of Philip the Second, and drove a sword through the king’s body—and Prometheus rose from his rock and overthrew Olympus, and Faust, who had knelt abjectly before the Earth-Spirit, took possession of his earth, and subdued it by means of steam, and electricity, and methodical investigation.