Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Tristan and the Sites of German Memory part II

Gottfried's identity was a matter of dispute during the late 19th C century. Nothing was known about him other than his authorship of the work. Based on one manuscript on which the author was called "Master Gottfried from Strasbourg", it was assumed that he was in fact a burger from Strasbourg. His lack of knowledge about court practices removes him at least from the aristocratic world. Based on the scholarship he displays, it was also assumed that he was educated in French institutions.

[This is part II of a three part post. To start with Part I, click here. To skip to part III, click here.]

One literary historian pointed out that there was no way to locate where the poem was written or from what social group the author emerged. This claim, which on the surface was true, must have been an attack on the Alsatians who claimed Gottfried as their own, separating them from one of the Great German poets. (A not entirely watertight proof or origins comes from the handwriting and language, both of which conform to Alsatian standards of the 13th C.)

Could there have been political motivations? As I read, I thought that this attack was out of step with what I knew about German policies of integration. The Hohenzollerns, who were both German emperors and Prussian monarchs, used Medieval heritage in order to establish their own historical legitimacy. In particular, they restored castles and fortifications, showing how the dynastic presence shaped and moved German history since antiquity, and that the Hohenzollerns were the successors of the Hohenstaufens.

Why would they distance themselves from this literary landmark? My initial guess was that the potential bourgeois character of the work conflicted with legitimacy of aristocracy. Gottfried's Tristan was evidence that German culture could develop without the support of the court, especially in Alsace.

The truth is more complex. Germanists and historians in the 19th C suspected Gottfried's work of introducing French influences into German literature. One critic complained that Gottfried lacked originality, wholly borrowing from French sources rather than developing a narrative from his own originality based on the German character. He introduced fantastical, mystical elements to an otherwise pragmatic German culture. The Alsatian Tristan is almost a degenerate work: according to the critic, Gottfried feigns being an aristocrat in this work, filling the work with endless theorizing without founding a sound moral universe.
"He recognizes no bounds for the desires of men, except the public opinion of refined society, which for its part allows everything that does not create a painful sensation."
He creates nothing more than a a play of wit and words, " a clever conversation on the subject of love." The critic abhors the writers who followed Gottfried's example, Rudolph von Ems and Konrad von Wuerzburg, who attended more to the craft of language.

Another critic claims that Gottfried arrested a process of separating German from French influences that was started by Hartmann von Aue. He stood "in sharp opposition to what the people hold dear" in the rest of Germany. This second critic locates Gottfried in an era when Strasbourg and Alsace underwent significant changes. The power of the German courts waned; the territory became separate from the rest of the Allemannic world; municipal independence grew; in place of the ideals of the aristocracy came bourgeois culture and artisan liberties. "The poet was the first flower of this social transition." Loosened from eastern influences and falling under western, Gottfried's exploration of love reveals virtue uprooted from its noble foundation, as was Alsace. The final judgement: "Gottfried is the Frenchman to the Germans."

Alsatian critics, it would seem, praised Gottfried for the things that the Germanists condemned: the introduction of a mixed culture. Rene Schickele's poem, unsurprisingly titled "Gottfried von Strassburg", praised him for putting "Gallic music into shiny Germanic words." Moreover, he introduced an unconditional love of the world that wanted nothing to die and no sides to be taken. Schikele romanticizes quite a bit, but none the less casts a positive light on Gottfried's place in European culture.

His supporters and detractors seemed willing to locate Gottfried in the world of the Alsatian bourgeoisie. However, the terms of their debate centered around identity rather than milieu.

Go to Part III.

History : Germany : Literature


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