1.1 Visual Literary History: The Mechanics of Epochs

Visual Literary History (1)

This is the first posting in a longer series of thoughts about literary history. Each of them will focus on a diagram, a visualisation, an illustration. I will publish these perspectives as a side product of my present work. The individual postings will easily live outside the book project, easier probably once they are individualised items and thoughts than in the complex book under my hands.

The image that might open the series opened the history of literature my father was given to read in the mid 1950s.Brenner_Deutsche_Liiteraturgeschichte_1929-1952 The little book had gone through 13 editions and made 131,000 copies by then. My father was obviously trying to make sense of the diagram and information it seemed to refer to where it became particularly specific. He would better ask the teacher in case he misunderstood something. The mature student had learned gardening, was in his late 20s, and had begun to attend evening classes in order to gain a university admission.

The author of the diagram, Dr. E. Brenner, was eager to date and personalise the visualisation: He signed and dated it as an artist in order to make sure it was understood as his prediction, a prediction now lying in the past. It had by and large been fulfilled.

The graph gives a picture of the course of Germany’s entire “cultural development” beginning with the year 700 and reaching into the year 2000. Culture is always a totality, so one of the messages, yet never homogenous. An epic battle between two movements is depicted. We get peaks of classicist movements (in white), of movements that take their models from Europe’s common horizon of the Roman and Hellenist classical heritage. Where these periods wane we get (reddish) periods of an alternative focus on the collective with religion, nationalism and the social question as main topics – which only blossom to give way to a new white rising of classical art and so on.

Each white phase has a special moment right before its climax in which the entire culture suddenly invests in the new age – all of a sudden, right before the highest point, a red phase flashes in and supports the rise of the white.

Romanesque art, flourishes between 700 and 1100 AD just as the round arch becomes the characteristic design pattern of that period. The decline is the inverse image of the rise of the Gothic era — pointed arches begin for instance to appear around 1100 and peak in the 1230s, before the Renaissance begins, which in turn leads to a revival of classicist design with a peak in the 1590s and so on.

Literature can be associated to these developments and verbalises the changing perspectives. The red periods focus on the collective and stress the

  • religious
  • national
  • social

This is the hierarchy of the Gothic era and still of its later spiritual brother, the Baroque.

Germany’s enlightenment is rather its way into its own phase of classicism. Goethe and Schiller become the period’s central protagonists in the 1780s and 1790s just after they themselves went through a short Gothic revival with questions of the nation, religion, and the social in the “Sturm und Drang”, the age of “Storm and Stress”. A definitive Romantic era follows for Germans in the course of the 19th century and focuses once again on the three topics of our social lives, though now under a new hierarchy: The national question dominates the era of the Anti-Napoleonic wars. Religion remains still more interesting than the social question though.

“New Times” end the Romantic era and climax in a bloom of modernity around 1900 only to lead into a backswing of an anticlassical era of new thoughts about the collective: The hierarchy of topics is now reversed and gives a taste of what one has to expect in 1929. The party which had turned the first two words of the old agenda into its brand name seized power in 1933 and immediately heralded a new era of classicism with Albert Speer’s architecture and Hitler’s Roman cohorts at the Reichtsparteitag of 1936. The new classicism was, as predicted, briefly pervaded by national-socialism with an almost religious support.

What was to last a thousand years was less stable, and Brenner had forecasted this instability. Each new period had, in the last 1000 years ended faster than its precursors; each swing of the pendulum had been weaker, each new era had become shallower than the preceding.

In 1952 one could easily reevaluate this prediction. Brenner had been right. The Nazi era had lasted but twelve years. And now? Was one not living in an age of almost indiscernibly fast oscillation, of nothing but superficial fashions? Was one not awe-struck by all the artefacts of the great Middle Ages or even of the Renaissance and the Baroque?


Periods, this might be the the first message of Brenner’s diagram, have their own mechanics. They blossom and collapse. They react on each other. They are geared into each other. They boom and cease under a swinging historical pendulum.

Time, so another message, is accelerating – a 20th-century stereotype. We might say that we are gaining speed in an industrialised increase of productivity. Our culture is, while heating up, loosing depth and intensity though, so the additional stereotype.

Historical knowledge allows, so it seems, predictions (and sometimes they are uncanny).

The diagram is with all these messages less a result of empirical research – this will become clearer with some of the following diagrams – it is rather the representation of a perception. It has at the same time the power to uniquely reflect prevalent cultural premises.

I do not know how many of these diagrams exist. We should collect them in order to gain a greater awareness of their evolution.

To be continued.

  • Dr. E. Brenner, Deutsche Literaturgeschichte, 13. Auflage, 122-131. Tsd. Mit einer farbigen Beilage (Wunsiedel/ Wels/ Zürich, 1952).

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