Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Goethe & Newspapers

Earlier in Dichtung und Wahrheit Goethe warns of the danger of withdrawing from political life. Goethe’s own life and his own characters show that Goethe wrestled with the question of how to balance the responsibilities of an active life and the need to withdraw into solitude.

Yet, in the fourth part of Dichtung und Wahrheit (published after his death), Goethe recommends reading newspapers as a way for ordinary citizens to become involved in politics, even if they do not hold office. He suggests that newspapers serve two important functions. First, they allow citizens to view current events as one would watch a play at the theater; they can enter into the partisan spirit of events, but “in an innocent way.” For Goethe, newspapers can play a role similar to that of catharsis in Aristotle’s Poetics. Second, reading newspapers helps citizens learn how to make moral judgments, so that they will praise what is good and condemn what is bad.

But, do newspapers really encourage prudence and catharsis? Perhaps they did in Goethe’s day. Reading newspapers was once a much more genteel and leisurely activity than it is now. In the mid-nineteenth century Schopenhauer every day (after playing the flute and walking his poodle) would leave his apartment to stroll to a nearby café to peruse the foreign dailies in order to collect more evidence for his pessimistic worldview. Schopenhauer taking a break while reading the paper projects an image of thought and not mere gossip-mongering.

Today, though, it is much harder to agree with Goethe’s positive assessment of newspapers. In the internet age, it is difficult to appreciate just how influential newspapers became in the decades after his death in 1832. But, back in the day when newspapers competed for readers in every major city in America and Europe, a breaking news story was like a video going viral today; newspapers were the catalyst for mass enthusiasms. Becoming too involved with newspapers, then, would seem to represent exactly the danger that Goethe was warning against earlier in Dichtung und Wahrheit. The partisan spirit would not be innocent, but would lead to rash reactions, and there would be little catharsis but much anxiety from attending to current events. Indeed, newspapers then and today often contain shoddy fact-checking, shallow analysis, and pure sensationalism, which, instead of cleansing the reader’s emotions, make the reader keep returning for updates. Newspapers can inflame the partisan spirit, as Goethe said, but they hardly produce catharsis or prudence. This partisan spirit becomes a passion as base as any other.

To avoid arousing the partisan spirit and to develop an aesthetic experience of politics, the simple solution is to stop reading newspapers so much and to start reading good histories. If writing history is an art, much of the art consists of telling a story about a specific crisis. In English, the word "crisis" can be used to indicate any important moment, usually involving stress for the actors involved. This definition, though, does not fully describe what a crisis is. The original Greek meaning of the word--"judgment"--gives a better idea of how reading history can lead to catharsis. A crisis is an important moment because it gives us the necessary opportunity to pass judgment on the character of a person; how the person deals with this moment in his life reveals more about his character than other moments because life is lived more intensely at certain moments than at others. Witnessing the intensity of a crisis through the eyes of a sympathetic historian can produce catharsis in the reader, who participates in the character's actions. History draws the reader deeper into the action, while news stories are content to leave the reader at a superficial level. And it is the depths of history which can teach us about politics better than any newspaper story.
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