1.2 Our knowledge has gaps

Previous positing in this thread Visual Literary History (1)

This posting’s diagram has been first published in 2001 and dates back into the year 1989. It is a diagram I produced to get a clearer picture of an unexpected search result. For years I had been using Frenzel’s Daten Deutscher Dichtung to my utmost satisfaction. Still no other history of German literature can rival its sheer market success. The design is perfect. The authors made sure that they covered all the major literary works students of German literature are likely to be confronted with. Each of these works gets its own entry with a short summary of the plot and indications of qualities that have been discussed. The individual titles are then put under rubrics of their respective periods. If you wonder whether you should read a certain literary work the Frenzels will tend to help you faster and more focused than most their multi-volume rivals who can spend pages on developments without giving more detailed information about the books they mention on these pages.

The search that inspired me to produce the diagram was no search a student or professor of German literature is likely to conduct. I needed more information about literature as it circulated between 1690 and 1730. Two overlapping periods — the Baroque (1600 to 1760) and Enlightenment (1670 to 1790) are — candidates that should cover the period; and yet there is a gap reaching from the 1680s into the 1730s. I realized that I had thus tried my best to better understand the major periods. We seemed to know everything about these periods and were not likely unknown masterpieces of the Baroque or the Enlightenment. And here I was: I had stumbled into a gap that was not supposed to exist under these categories.

1980 Frenzel Daten deutscher Dichtung visualisiert

click to enlarge

The graph gives the distribution of works as mentioned in Frenzel’s history. The colours show to which epochs and these titles have been attributed. Periods have centres and they get the respective heaps of titles.

An image of our knowledge rather than the actual production

The diagram above does not depict the actual production of books, plays, novels or fictions, It is rather an objective image of our perception — it is closer to Brenner visualisation of how he saw things as a German cultural historian (see the previous posting in this thread), yet far from Brenner’s depiction of his awareness. The distribution of works actually mentioned remaps our knowledge under a merciless grid — one of years. Other equally severe grids can be imagined: A geographical grid would show our knowledge of German literature has its hidden geographical centres. The graph puts our knowledge to the test of the time line, and the time line is more objective since it does not allow us the usual adaptation our categories to out potentially incomplete array of information. Periods are defined in order to fit our knowledge like a four-finger-glove will fit the hand of someone who has lost a finger. (That all finger’s of a four finger glove are filled is a precarious prove of a complete hand within that glove).

A continuous production beginning in the 1720s, a roughly reconstructed past

Our knowledge of German literature has its structural anomalies. It is not simply getting more fragmented the farther back in time we look.

I offered the more complex interpretation of the diagram in my Marteaus Europa in 2001: We get a continuous sequence of periods rising in the late 1720s, we get (secondly) a gap around 1700, and we get (thirdly) rather isolated periods before the 1690s.The 1700 gap can be traced back into the preface to Johann Christoph Gottsched’s Der Sterbende Cato (1731) where the author promised to end a forty year gap in verse tragedy. Ensuing histories of poetry accepted this gap and created in the 1660s and 1670s an alternative production, the production that would later receive the term Baroque as it authentic label.

The diagram reveals how our history of literature were to written: A fast succession of periods begins with the 1730s. What is produced here goes into our histories as they are written and re-written generation by generation. Waves of debates follow upon one another. The past, however, had to be built and was not built in a concerted field exploration. Scholars defined periods and searched for works that represent these periods to the greatest perfection, so the mechanism that led to a search of more of the same for each period. The past, the era before the 1730s is a construct designed to inform us that our present histories of literature are consistent — they continue a presumably uninterrupted tradition in the literary genres. The diagram shows that this is not quite the case.

To be continued.


  • Olaf Simons, Marteaus Europa oder Der Roman, bevor er Literatur wurde (Amsterdam/ Atlanta: Rodopi, 2001), p.12.
  • Herbert A. und Elisabeth Frenzel, Daten deutscher Dichtung. Chronologischer Abriß der deutschen Literaturgeschichte, [1953] 17th edition (München, dtv 1980).
  • German Wikipedia on Herbert A. Frenzel
  • German Wikipedia on Elisabeth Frenzel
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