World Literature

Martin Bodmer and the Promise of World Literature

30 April 2018


The Constellation devoted to “World Literature” has published two volumes with Éditions Ithaque. On World Literature [De la literature mondiale], the product of a collaboration between Jérôme David and Cécile Neeser Hever, is an anthology of the principal texts by Martin Bodmer on the question of “Weltliteratur,” translated into French for the first time.

A collection of 150 notebooks of unpublished commentary, written by Martin Bodmer between 1920 and 1960, forms the heart of this anthology. Here, we are able to trace the evolution of the guiding philosophy of world literature which guided the Bodmer collection.

Martin Bodmer and the Promise of World Literature [Martin Bodmer et les promesses de la littérature mondiale] is an essay by Jérôme David that maps Martin Bodmer’s intellectual trajectory onto the turbulent history of the 20th century. Bodmer initially saw his collection as a history of the human imagination over four millennia before coming to think of it, with Hitler’s rise to power, as one of the only possible refuges for humanism, then besieged by Nazi myths. Over the 1950s, Bodmer would come to see his massive library in the context a mystical temptation: assembling a unified Totality of human culture, and thereby offering a glimpse at a higher power.

In this essay, the reader learns that Bodmer’s efforts with the International Committee of the Red Cross were driven by the same ideals as those that motivated his intellectual and curatorial enterprise. The Bibliotheca Bodmeriana is a realisation of the “Spirit of Geneva” in the literary realm: a material utopia in the service of world peace. In the light of these two studies, Martin Bodmer emerges as a European thinker of continental scope.

Special edition boxed set prepared by Patrick Lindsay and Arno Célérier for Éditions Ithaque.


Excerpt of Martin Bodmer, notebook n° 85, dated 1944:

The only person, until now, who in his very being embodied world literature, the only one who didn’t merely either write about the subject or participate in the tradition, is Goethe. At a particular point in time, from the Conversations with Eckermann to the end of Faust, he was world literature and he knew it.

What is world literature, but an awareness of the action and reaction that translocal and transnational cultural forces exercise on the human imagination?

First and foremost, there was the Bible. Then, Antiquity in all its forms (poetry, art, philosophy, science, politics, law, etc.). Finally, the very idea of humanity. According to that measure, Goethe emerges as a culmination, evoking an existence where cosmopolitanism (a notion that, whatever its form, either real or imagined, is never entirely pinned down) holds no small importance. In his own lifetime, the voices of nationalists were already rising up against such an idea! As in the case of Arndt, in “Don’t Give in to Temptation; or, World Literature [Lasset Euch nicht verführen, oder die Weltliteratur]” (1842). Or in Wienbarg (1835).




Already here we see the emergence of the antagonistic way of thinking that will track so perfectly, to its own ruin, with Nazism! The danger of such a mind-set—a danger rooted in the German character—derives from the desire for Romanticism (romantic sensibility) to be made materially manifest! It seeks to impose the irrational by rational means, and fails in this superhuman undertaking.

Hitler represents the grim combination (more dangerous than picric acid!) of the philosophical combination of a romantic myth and the power of an empire, from Zarathustra to the Krupp corporation…

But the instincts that lead to titanism and the twilight of the gods are just as German as the instincts toward organisation, discipline and sentimentality […] and when they come together, as in the case of Nazism, they threaten to annihilate the world. This combination is more terrifying than the atomic bomb. It cannot be stopped through coercion or police action, but only through systematic attention to the other side of the German character: the mind of Goethe—the essence of the moderate, the organic, the human, and even the specifically German essence of world literature. (“German poetry offers a laboratory of natural history that is geographically almost complete, with representatives of all nationalities, from all time periods and regions of the world, except, as the saying goes, the German nationality,” writes Friederich Schlegel in On the Study of Greek Poetry). Along with its Nibelungien side—which becomes dangerous once it is joined to its martial side—Germany also has a “Greek side” (not in the idealistic sense as Winckelmann and Humboldt understood it, but in a broader, romantic understanding, the one Nietzsche struck upon!) and it is this side which must be cultivated! Just like the Anglo-Saxon has grown closer to a Roman-style attachment to the state and its modern incarnation, so too the German might become closer to the Greeks. But when he sees himself as an empire-builder in this spirit of the Nibelungen, he fails and leads the world into chaos! Such is the very essence of this war! […]

And so: the spirit of Goethe, the spirit of the Greeks, humanity, world literature—these are the German traits we must once again start to cultivate! The German people has a vested interest in not allowing itself to be sacrificed once again […] on the altar of a romantic paradox—as does the rest of the world! It is true that some Germans want this sacrifice, abhor the heirs to Goethe, and want to teutonise a world they hold in suspicion. They want “romantic reality”—or a deliberate downfall…! Against this, one can do nothing—but we cannot not let them get the upper hand on the “Greeks,” this we must ensure!

Martin Bodmer, De la littérature mondiale, translated by. C. Neeser Hever. J. David and C. Neeser Hever, editors. Paris, Éditions d’Ithaque, 2018, pp. 174-177.