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Models of Nature and Landscape Description: Their Sources and Functions in the Canonization of Late Eighteenth Century German Prose-Fiction

  • Rakefet Sheffy

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  • Rakefet Sheffy
    Tel Aviv University

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The appearance of nature and landscape descriptions as a literary convention in late eighteenth-century German prose-fiction is presented here as a test case for discussing repertoire formation in cases where the literary institution undergoes transformation. Descriptions of Nature have long been established as a literary device par excellence, especially with regards to corpora which bear a "Romantic" imprint. As a rule, these descriptions are discussed either in structural analytical terms, such as means of focalization, and of symbolic or metonymic representation of a character's state of mind, or in more general terms, as a reflection of the philosophical idea of Nature. At any rate, the historical perspective is rejected by such discussions, or its relevance is reduced to the highly abstract notion of Zeitgeist: variations in the conventional specifics of descriptive passages may be considered of little importance as long as they yield to certain thematic or structural generalizations.

In opposition to all this, the notion of models and cultural repertoire suggests a shift of focus to the context of text production, assumming that textual features are subject to institutional constraints and demarcations (say, the limits of "descriptive" options recognized in a certain cultural milieu as appropriate for literary use).  [1] From this viewpoint, looking for models of description will be the search for rules/norms of textual organization regulating the generation of texts, in view of their institutional affiliation. Accordingly, the leading questions here are how this repertoire was formed and how it functioned in the given literary field.

Descriptions of landscape and Nature appeared in literary prose fiction (ranging from novels to short stories) towards the end of the eighteenth century, particularly in works associated with "Romantic" tendencies, so as gradually to become, in the following generations, a solid convention in "artistic" prose-fiction. Such descriptions, however, did not seem to occur, as a rule, in the majority of the period's popular fiction (notably "the popular novel" - the Trivialroman). Furthermore, it emerges that even in texts with the most obvious artistic aspirations, this convention - for all its intensive exploitation by some of them - was eventually not an imperative. This point seems to be most revealing, since it suggests that in the context of the literary production of the time, such descriptions were only an optional convention, yet obviously a rather distinguished one. Since in terms of timing, the appearance of these descriptions more or less coincided with the gain in status of prose writing (the culmination of which was the explicite effort by the Early Romantics to canonize the novel),  [2] questions concerning this linkage seem inevitable. My contention is that in view of this historical context, these descriptions functioned more than anything else as markers of "literary distinction" (i.e., of "artistry," refinement, intellectual and imaginative depth, and above all - prestige of canonical tradition), which was attributed to prose fiction at the time. I thus propose to examine the crystallization of this model went hand in hand with attempts to canonize the novel, and what were the sources which facilitated this model's availability for playing such a role.

1. Types and Distribution of Nature and Landscape Description in Prose

1.1. Two textual patterns

Let me start by an analysis of examples. The eighteenth century provides us with abundant "descriptive writing." Generally speaking, these descriptions tend to range from a "prosaic" factual topographical description to a conventionalized "lyrical" description of Nature.

Compare, for instance, the following passages:

Let me sketch briefly the two different descriptive patterns (for further examples see appendix).

First, although their stocks of reported items partly overlap (mountains, hills, rivers, woods, trees and bushes are common in both, often with the addition of valleys, grass, flowers, the sky and the sun, etc.), in each case these items make up different realemes (i.e., reported reality units).  [5] In the former passage (see also example [1] in appendix), such items form a more 'practical' account of an area, its towns and villages, with indication of measures and directions (often with specific historical reference or proper names). In the latter passage, however, these items tend to appear more intensively yet with weaker reference to concrete scenery. Instead, they are accompanied by more sensuous predicates, mostly in repeated conventional clusters (e.g., "the golden glow of the evening"),  [6] pertaining to a lexical inventory of non-specific nouns and predicates,  [7] used to account for the "atmosphere," the fauna and the flora: clouds, air, waves, odor, stars, evening, morning, dawn, dusk, freshness, cool, light, brightness, glow, darkness, green, yellow, murmur, whispers, sounds, birds, foliage, buds, and the like.

However, these passages also differ in their principles of internal organization and standards of cohesion. By and large, the difference lies in the observe's "point of view" and its role in organizing the description. The topographical type yields completely to physical and mental constraints (the movement of an eye, or cognitive schemes of perception): the text proceeds from a generalization to the details, by way of comparison and juxtaposition,  [8] with the indication of proportions and relative spatial pointers (left/right, above/under, in front of/behind), so that the sentence-topics are concatenated both "logically" and grammatically.

By contrast, the lyrical type is organized rather as simulation of the observer's passive reception of "impressions": the objects are introduced additively, along an imaginary order of contiguity in the "represented world,"  [9] concatenated with the help of actional phrases  [10] and temporal connectives,  [11] usually using the past tense (in contrast to the habitual present-simple often used in the topographical descriptions), all of which imply a sense of "dynamism" (i.e., a "situation" rather than a "picture") in these descriptions. That is, whereas the former description, organized in spatial or logical order independent of any specific situation or event, is tightly cohesive in the formal sense, in this kind of description, the looseness of formal connection is bound up with temporal and spatial linearity, so that the text-continuum seems to derive its coherence from a simulation of a "dynamic scene" which is being depicted.  [12]

In addition, each of the two types of description are differently concatenated in the overall text-matrix; in the case of topographical descriptions, they usually form whole separated paragraphs.  [13] By contrast, the lyric descriptive sequences are as a rule shorter and rather dispersed, intersecting with the narrative and "dissolving" into it, mostly by focalizing on the characters, often through indication of its action or an explicit account of its mood (or else they are terminated through the mediation of a dialogue or a quasi "interior-monologue").  [14] In other instances, they are terminated by the action of a character.  [15] Hence, we may state that a topographical description contains information which is very specific, yet whose validity is not confined to any part of the text, whereas the lyrical type contains information whose relevance, for all the highly generalized nouns, is nevertheless more confined to a particular point along the text-continuum, often as introductory material where a micro-scene is composed.

Finally, these quasi-lyric nature description are also marked by exceptional syntactic regularity (i.e., [definite article] + [name]/[adjective + name] + [verb]; for instance: "der Abend sei so dunkel, die gruenen Schatten des Waldes so traurig, der Bach spreche in lauter Klagen [...]"). [16] Such regularity, which is hardly reconcilable with the norm of syntactic variations in prose, introduces an uncustomary sense of rhythmical regularity into the sequence. Often, this rhythmic regularity is continued in an expressive tempo, typically imitating the form of "emotional" exclamation.  [17]

1.2. Nature Description as Textual Markers of Canonicity

To sum up, there appear to have been, roughly speaking, two practices of Nature and Landscape description which differed in their principles of textual organization, as well as in their distribution in the various prose genres:

  1. a factual and "prosaic" topographical description: a non- narrative, intact and relatively long segment, logically and grammatically cohesive, concatenated in accordance with the logic of the "spatial object" described. This type of description appeared in texts which were not associated with the canonical literary tradition, such as travel reports, private journals and some types of novels.

  2. a highly conventionalized "lyrical" description of Nature: a "linearized" and rather fragmentary unit, constituting a scene and usually dissolving into an account of the character's emotions, loosely concatenated, and organized instead by rhythmic patterns. This kind of description appeared sporadically in "artistic prose" (and increasingly so, later on, in that of the Romantics, such as Tieck, Eichendorff or Arnim).

Now, this latter point is especially telling: Rhythmical order is clearly the most distinctive (although not necessarily the most "important") formal marker of "poeticalness," and indeed was viewed at the time as essential, to the extent of creating a serious impediment regarding the novel's affiliation to the realm of poetry.  [18] In addition, the very association of nature descriptions with the "subjective inner view" of the observer and his emotional and philosophical contemplation, is a well established literary convention characteristic of traditional lyrical genres par excellence. Therefore, we can conclude that as a rule, descriptions of nature in "artistic" prose fiction tend to exhibit formal and compositional norms more akin to those dominating the lyric-idyllic discourses both in verse and prose (e.g., examples [e]). This seems to comply, if only approximately, with the inclination often exhibited in Schlegel's theorization about the novel's reliance on the canonical literary tradition,  [19] where he stresses its association with such notions as the Lyrische and Idyllische (however generalized). Consider, for instance, the following examples from Schlegel's Fragments:

"Offenbar lesen wir oft einen lyrischen Dichter wie einen Roman; so oft man lyrische Gedichte vorzueglich auf die Individualitaet des Dichters bezieht, betrachtet man sie romantisch."  [20]

"Rein ethische Schriften muessen idyllische Waerme Fuelle und Einfachheit mit lyrischer Gleichartigkeit und Schoenheit, und mit rhetorischer Strenge verbinden."  [21]

"Der romantische Ep[os] ist eine Art Idylle. -"  [22]

For all that Schlegel refers to these notions on the most generalized and abstract level of classifications pertaining to "poetry," the existence of these forms in the literary production of the period obviously played a considerable role in their availability for his argument: their availability for critical discourse relied on their availability in practice. Moreover, it emerges from Schlegel's rhetoric that the desired image of the most valued classical genres, such as the Epic, was not easily reconcilable with prose fiction (see e.g., fragments 66, cited above. Regarding the Epos in particular, in spite of previous efforts to "revive" and appropriate it by German literature [notably in Klopstock's Messias] or to find in the novel its direct "modern" continuation, it remained a "dead" canonical form scarcely generative in the literary production of the time). It thus seems that precisely these minor lyrical forms served most effectively to confer the mark of literary distinction on prose writing due to their ambivalent status as both very "popular" and at the same time still endowed with "classical" prestige.

Furthermore, the two descriptive types also differ in the information which, by general agreement, they are perceived as conveying, and which does not necessarily derive from mere difference in "content." More likely, this has to do with the "literary competence" required on the part of both writers and readers in order to produce or judge these kinds of texts appropriately. While it can be assumed that topographical descriptions are intended as "informative reports" (however predictable the reported information might be), lyrical Nature descriptions in narrative prose definitely seem to be "depleted" (i.e., more or less deprived of a "referential" function),  [23] and hence appear more overtly as conventional stylistic signals rather than as a means of conveying "new information."  [24] Admittedly, a "literary" theory would argue that these descriptions are common instances of the device of "narrative delay," or that they are usually inserted into texts in subordination to characterization. This is certainly a highly established rationalization (proceeding from the naive belief in the "thematic cohesion" of literary texts) for the appearance of such sequences in so many literary texts, so established in fact that it is already believed to be the initial "motivation" for this kind of order in these texts. However, this is itself clearly a matter of convention: a procedure so eminently traceable in certain literary texts, yet totally inconceivable in others. Therefore, the stylistic markedness of these descriptive passages strikes one as predominantly carrying the function of establishing norms of "poeticalness," and thereby marking the institutional affiliation of the texts which contain them.

Such a claim can be maintained if we assume that there are texts (or segments thereof) destined for indicating status more than for "conveying information." This, in my view, is chiefly the function of canonized texts, which can actually be viewed in this light as "textual markers of the claim for canonicity."  [25] Proceeding from such assumptions, I would like to make the following observations:

  1. The Status of Small Scale Repertoremes: It emerges that often, the function of small scale textual segments such as descriptive passages (rather than entire texts or "genres" in general) is more central than we tend to think for analyzing textual models.  [26]

  2. The Exemplary Status of Repertoremes: Further, it also appears that although statistically these descriptions do not prove to have prevailed in quantities (at least not in the beginning), they still can indicate canonized rules for literary writing, as exemplary representatives which later induced a larger reproduction.

  3. The Mode of Existence of "Canonized Rules": It certainly also emerges that the status of canonized elements is to be inferred not only from explicit formulations by authorized critics (or by the writers themselves); it can also be deduced from their perpetuation in a body of texts which, as a whole, are gaining prestige. In this light, it appears that the taste for Nature descriptions was gradually appropriated in the allegedly "poetical" prose writing since in the given literary field these descriptions seemed to accord most aptly with the general idea of "artistic prose" invoked by its canonizers. The question is then what were the sources for such repertoire that made it both "appropriate" and "available" in this connection.

2. Sources for the Formation of Nature Description in Artistic Fiction

2.1. The Availability of Nature Poetry: The Popularity of Minor Canonical Lyrical Genres

In terms of production and circulation, lyrical poetry in its various genres enjoyed an enormous popularity in the cultural milieu of late eighteenth-century Germany to no lesser (if to no greater) extent than the popular fiction. Yet from the viewpoint of retrospective scholarly studies, these genres hardly constitute a focus of "sociological research of the popular" the way the novel does. On the other hand, they do not constitute a focus of interest for mainstream literary theory either, nor are they valorized or glorified by it.  [27] Generally, lyrical poetry is held to have flourished in the last three decades of the century in particular.  [28] This increasing production was widely distributed in the various poetical annuals and collections which, in respect of their "large literary spectrum and their impact on the public" are considered "the most important publication form of poetical literature of eighteenth century," and which grew extremely fashionable, to the extent that "the decades between the Sturm und Drang and Fruehromantik was called [by many literary agents of the eighteenth century] 'the epoch of Musealmanach'".  [29]

Certainly, neither these forms of publication nor the material they contained were uniform, nor was the literary status they were assigned. On the whole, this field of literary production is portrayed as the mediocre work of mediocre poets, a corpus by no means rejected as unfitting, yet still left out of the text-canon in later generations.  [30] However, the stances taken by literary agents towards this proliferating institution were ambivalent. Both Ueding and Mix cite some contemporary agents' contempt and mockery towards the "progress of the Germans in poetry- making," and the "sentimentality epidemic" (Empfindsamkeitsseuche).  [31] On the other hand, they also report the active participation of some notable critics and poets, such as Goethe and Schiller, as producers in this field.  [32]

Apparently, from the viewpoint of the literary field of the time, this was a kind of a "twilight zone," a marginal yet broadly circulated set of practices whose very structure provided the possibility of a "double market". Thanks to its allegedly drawing on the classical literary tradition, it more obviously allowed for a combination of "highly valued literary activity" with "popularity," a combination which seems to have made it a most reliable precedent for the canonizers of the novel. That is, it was apparently already rather justifiable even for the most exclusive poets who were deeply engaged in the literary activities of restricted circles to profit by investing in the large-scale "marketable" literary production (or at least by claiming to be doing so). This field of production, for all its wide spectrum and variability as "trivial" "entertaining" and "societal" lyrics "for the everyday,"  [33] in short, for all that it was held by and large "Poetry for all situations in life, for all classes and occupations and accessible to every one",  [34] it simultaneously also constituted an arena for highly conscious literary activity which pertained to the dynamics of the leading and most exclusive literary circles.

Admittedly, it is claimed that such activities constituted nothing more than a separate narrow layer in the institution of "poetic almanacs." Mix argues that "as a rule, the literary taste of the Almanacs' readership was much more conservative and hardly influenced by the aesthetic maxims of the Weimar classicists".  [35] Nevertheless, he also reveals that the status of these almanacs as agents of the crystallization of the exclusively literary field also had bearing on the growing prestige of lyrical writing in general.  [36] As a rule, this relatively marginal corpus exploited the inventory of minor poetical Classical forms and perpetuated them in the literary scene of the time. In this connection, the impact of the anacreontic fashion on the cultural scene is emphasized. This fashion, which still prevailed at the turn of the century, is claimed to be the direct continuation of the "revival of Greek and Latin poetry," allegedly persistently appropriated and adapted by contemporary German literature, from seventeenth-century Baroque poets through mid-eighteenth-century Enlightenment ones.  [37]

On the whole, the lyrical production of the time was well-provided with patterns for "making Nature portrayed by verbal means"  [38] which stemmed from the quasi-classical Naturlyrik, so that "descriptive poetry" could actually indicate the reliance of contemporary German poetry on the Classical heritage.  [39] However, the preponderance of the Naturlyrik in the its supposedly thematic actuality on both an individual and a societal scale. It is either viewed as pertaining to - and evidence of - the wave of "sentimentality" and the focus on "individual experience" associated with the improvement of the poetical style.  [40] Alternatively, it is discussed as coinciding with social tendencies. In this respect, the idyll is a prominent object of discussion. More than (and quite unlike) any other lyrical form, the proliferation and wide circulation of idyll writing gained an ideological rationalization and is therefore acknowledged to some extent as constituting an issue of sociological interest,  [41] in that it supposedly constituted the representative form of the period's literature, a classical form "updated" so as to express the era's "prevailing social tendencies," thanks to its supposed generic aptness.  [42]

At any rate, albeit the claim about a "political" message that is said to have constituted the aim of this practice, the dubious connection drawn between actual country life and the literary (fantastic) natural-setting of the idylls seems to be revealing in quite a different direction.  [43] Apparently, the effect of such intensive reference to the ancient classics in the case of the idyll was more likely one of indicating the idyll's legitimacy and primacy as a literary repertoire, than one of enhancing its alleged relevance to the actual social scene. This is made especially conspicuous in the following passage by Batteux (1747/8), where part of the conventionalized lexical inventory of literary nature descriptions is even explicated:

Wenn die Ekloge unter den Schaefern entstanden ist, so muss sie eine von den aeltesten Dichtungsarten sein; denn das Schaefersland ist dem Menschen der alternatuerlichste, und ist auch das erste gewesen, worin er gelebt hat. Man kann sich leicht vorstellen, dass die ersten Menschen, als ruhige Besitzer einer Erde, die ihnen alles, was zu ihren Beduerfnissen dienen und ihrem Geschmacke schmeicheln konnte, im Ueberflusse darreichte, dem allgemeinen Wohltaeter ihre Dankbarkeit werden bezeugt und in ihrer Entzueckung die Fluesse, die Wiesen, die Berge, die Waelder, in ihre Empfindungen hinein gezogen haben.  [44]

2.2. The Accessibility of Descriptions in Prose: Travel Reports

It is fairly tenable that the learned novelists (Schriftsteller, or Romanschreiber) were exposed to "nature poetry," and presumably even mastered its patterns (particularly these most aware of the modern Dichter [45] of later generations who also wrote fiction in their attempt to cultivate the writing of literary prose). Nevertheless, it is still not self-evident that these patterns were accessible for the writing of fiction even when both types of writing were practiced by the very same people. The practice of lyrical writing had a different status of existence and apparently constituted a separate activity altogether from that of the writing of fiction. For such lyrical conventions to be "naturalized" in prose-fiction, the mediation of patterns already more accessible in prose writing was needed, so that on the basis of some overt resemblances, "prosaic" descriptions might appear to carry similar functions as lyrical ones.

I suggest that a widely circulated stock of descriptions of landscape in written texts or in art, as well as other practices of the Cult of Nature in the relevant cultural milieu, provided fertile ground for the accessibility of more "poetic" descriptive patterns found in lyrical genres. This is particularly true of the model of topographical Landscape description most commonly practiced in prose genres (e.g., travel reports and letters, but also in certain types of novel). It is beyond the scope of this work seriously to account for the preponderance of the taste for landscapes and of the Cult of Nature in eighteenth-century culture, in art as well as in societal conduct and pastimes. However, all evidence suggest that the frequent practice of descriptions in travel-reports certainly constituted a most suitable repertoire in this connection.

For whatever historical reasons, travel in general still constituted a well-established institution (or regained its status as such [46] ) in the second half of the eighteenth century, and was viewed as indispensable in the experience and cultural qualifications of the learned German bourgeois.  [47] Already in the context of the "polite society," travels, especially to Italy and to Paris, were a means of cultivating Hochkultur [48] ; later on, with respect to the cultural sphere of the Enlightenment, they were regarded as "instrument of education and enforcement of bourgeois consciousness."  [49] Then, in the second half of the eighteenth century, a decline in the French cultural hegemony brought about a change in the preferred destinations of travel, which were now, apart from Switzerland, notably England and the local German area itself (e.g., examples [1] and [2] in appendix), as well as the Netherlands. This certainly had to do with the wave of romanticism and the increased impact of English culture as a source for modelling the German intellectual life of the time.  [50]

However, it appears that no less constitutive to the "Gelehrte Welt" than travel itself (especially in view of the high costs and technical complications)  [51] was the practice of reading and writing about it, to the extent that in many cases travel reports are accused of being fictive and based entirely on the studious encyclopedic reading of the authors.  [52] Travel literature was a no less popular form of reading material than the so-called "popular novel," only a more respectable one.  [53] At any rate, unlike prose-fiction, no claim is made regarding travel descriptions that they reached all social layers (particularly not those allegedly growing "minority" reading publics of the period, such as women and children). As already stated, the tremendous prosperity of this literate practice, which accelerated in Germany particularly during the late eighteenth century, is confined, as a rule, to the cultural orbit of the learned man, and in this context, is in fact defended as one of the central channels for cultural exchange and one of the most important agencies for establishing cultural taste and tendencies.  [54]

This respectable practice thus provided established patterns of descriptive prose which gradually assumed more aesthetic aspirations, in both content and form. Roughly speaking, this development involves three aspects. First, the change in content of the descriptions. This seems particularly to be the case regarding the fashion of worshiping "Nature" and "landscape" as target of travel, which, according to Robel, took precedence increasingly in the second half of the century along with the spread of the notions of Gefuehl ("feeling") and Natur as the era's catchwords.  [55] Moreover, according to him, it was literary activity that modelled the taste for travelling and shaped travel reports.  [56] (And this holds not only for the craze of travelling, but also for the Cult of "Nature" and the "picturesque" in all its petty societal manifestations, which were to large extent modelled on art and literature, and actually became an art in themselves).  [57]

Secondly, along with the gain of status, in the last decades of the century, travel descriptions penetrated the realm of literary writing more and more - primarily as a theme - in a variety of forms (e.g., Reisetagebuch, Reiseschilderung, Reisemaerchen, Reisenovelle, Reiseskizzen, and so forth).  [58] However, the connection of travel reports to the literary field was apparently bi- directional: topographical descriptions also found their way into novels.  [59]

And finally, all these allowed the aesthetization of descriptive passages in literary prose through models of Nature lyrics: As mentioned above, a shift in conventions of description is detected in the style of the travel reports, from a "technical-factual" geopographical style to a more "poetical" one.  [60] This break occurred at the beginning of the 1770s, when "travelers for the first time turned extensively, and sometimes almost exclusively, to descriptions of the beauties of Nature".  [61] This, in Batten's opinion, was bound up with an improvement in the style of these reports. However, for all that he detects their literary aspirations, Batten, biased by romantic attitude himself, neglects to realize that this breakthrough of romantic interest in nature in the travel reports was conventional to no lesser extent than those patterns of "factual" reports. Unintentionally, he reveals the apparent reliance of these newly fashioned reports on the most conventional descriptive repertoire of lyrical discourse (see the list of repertoremes discussed above):

[The accounts] frequently become more 'literary', and the travelers themselves often achieve a higher degree of sophistication in their observations. [...] No longer loaded with facts, their accounts become collections of evocative descriptions focusing on the almost poetic qualities of mountains, forests, rivers, and lakes.  [62]

Whereas mountains, plains, and rivers had formerly served to instruct the reader concerning their utility as boundaries, sources of food, defenses, and their influences on national manners and customs, these natural features now become the primary topics of description [....] Pleasure alone now begins to supplant the Horatian idea of pleasurable instruction as the artistic goal of travel literature.  [63]

So much for the "poeticization" of travel literature. Finally, for all that Batten (like many others who proceed from the inside point of view of a literary agent), is concerned with the adaptation of literary norms as such, his account nevertheless helps to reveal the accessibility of travel descriptions to more central types of literary writing. The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that this material, by infiltrating into the realm of literary writing, provided prose fiction with a (topographical) descriptive repertoire which could facilitate the appropriation of more "poetical" descriptive patterns characteristic of more typically canonized literary forms. These patterns apparently turned out to be highly felicitous for the "poetic" image to which the practice of novel writing aspired.