GSNA-Sponsored Panel for the 2019 GSA Conference, Portland, OR, 3-6 October 2019
Realism in the Age of Goethe and Its Legacy
In a conversation with Eckermann in December 1826, Goethe expressed contempt for readers of his 1796 epic poem Hermann und Dorothea who attempted to merely uncover the reality behind poetry: “Man will die Wahrheit, man will die Wirklichkeit und verdirbt dadurch die Poesie” (Goethe HA, 2:738). This contempt for a plain realism as a trajectory for poetry with its implicit assertion of poetry’s own epistemic value, however, is not just an echo of Schiller’s earlier claim that poetry has to free herself of all historical contingencies in order to constitute a poetic truth of her own right. Encompassing both aesthetics and his idea of sciences, Goethe by contrast maintained his idea of “hartnäckige[r] Realismus” (ibid., 10:541.). The romantics’ position towards realism and idealism was perhaps more ambivalent, but they too came to favor what Manfred Frank describes as “erkenntnistheoretischen Realismus” (Unendliche Annäherung, p. 663).
The renegotiation of the relationship between poetry and reality was first necessitated by the liquidation of traditional concepts of rhetoric and allegory in the course of the 18th century; major systems of reference for poetic concepts of truth and meaning had eroded by 1800, making way for various competing schemes, which were unified, however, in their affirmative or critical stance towards idealism. Thus, Goethe’s apodictic proposition (and the conceptualization of poetry in general behind it) certainly has reinforced the alleged divide behind Weimar Classicism and Romanticism on the one hand, and 19th century literary Realism on the other in modern periodization of literary history with its claim of two distinct literary epistemologies of the two periods.
This panel explores how poets from 1800 on conceptualized reality in and of literature. We want to address questions of how philosophical concepts of realism and idealism shaped and calibrated poetic forms of realism in Classicism and Romanticism, and how these literary movements approached their own historical reality to which they certainly reacted (and which, in turn, they shaped). And, by contrast, we will ask how ‘realistic’ Realism actually is, and to what end (if at all) Realism utilizes earlier poetic strategies / models for its own constitution of poetic reality.