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Necessary Luxuries

Necessary Luxuries: Books, Literature, and the Culture of Consumption in Germany, 1770–1815

Matt Erlin
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  • Book Info
    Necessary Luxuries
    Book Description:

    The consumer revolution of the eighteenth century brought new and exotic commodities to Europe from abroad-coffee, tea, spices, and new textiles to name a few. Yet one of the most widely distributed luxury commodities in the period was not new at all, and was produced locally: the book. In Necessary Luxuries, Matt Erlin considers books and the culture around books during this period, focusing specifically on Germany where literature, and the fine arts in general, were the subject of soul-searching debates over the legitimacy of luxury in the modern world.

    Building on recent work done in the fields of consumption studies as well as the New Economic Criticism, Erlin combines intellectual-historical chapters (on luxury as a concept, luxury editions, and concerns about addictive reading) with contextualized close readings of novels by Campe, Wieland, Moritz, Novalis, and Goethe. As he demonstrates, artists in this period were deeply concerned with their status as luxury producers. The rhetorical strategies they developed to justify their activities evolved in dialogue with more general discussions regarding new forms of discretionary consumption. By emphasizing the fragile legitimacy of the fine arts in the period, Necessary Luxuries offers a fresh perspective on the broader trajectory of German literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, recasting the entire period in terms of a dynamic unity, rather than simply as a series of literary trends and countertrends.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7043-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction: Guilty Pleasures
    (pp. 1-23)

    The current crisis of the humanities is only the most recent incarnation of a controversy that has been ongoing since Plato denied the poets admission to his ideal state. The debate, simply put, concerns the value of literature and the arts; more specifically, it centers on the question of whether artistic pursuits have any demonstrable value for society at all. This book argues that we can better understand what is at stake in attempts to answer this question, as well as why the question itself will not go away, by turning to a moment in German history when it first...

  6. 1 The Conceptual Landscape of Luxury in Germany
    (pp. 24-52)

    Long neglected by scholars, luxury is now recognized as one of the central intellectual preoccupations of eighteenth-century Western Europe, inseparable from the development of the historiography, philosophy, social theory, and aesthetics of the period. Whether or not one agrees with Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger’s characterization of luxury as “the keynote debate of the Enlightenment,” it has become clear that virtually every major intellectual figure of the Enlightenment weighed in on the subject, including, to name just a few, Mandeville, Gibbon, Hume, Smith, Swift, and Pope in England, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Mirabeau in France, and Galiani in Italy.¹ Germany...

  7. 2 Thinking about Luxury Editions in Late Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century Germany
    (pp. 53-77)

    The funeral of Christoph Martin Wieland in 1813 offered a fitting tribute to one of Germany’s best-loved poets. According to a detailed report published in Friedrich Schlegel’sDeutsches Museum, the casket was put on display on January 24, and large numbers of Weimar residents, representatives “of all classes,” came to pay their final respects. Upon arrival, they encountered what must have been an impressive and moving scene:

    The casket was placed on a low platform. Inside the deceased rested quietly, wrapped in a white muslin burial gown and crowned by a laurel wreath woven by his youngest daughter. His features...

  8. 3 The Appetite for Reading around 1800
    (pp. 78-99)

    Reading has always been considered dangerous by some, but rarely as dangerous as it was perceived to be in late eighteenth-century Germany. The meteoric growth of the market for books and periodicals in this period not only gave rise to a new literary public sphere; it also triggered wide-ranging and often hysterical fears among German intellectuals and other educated elites of a “reading epidemic.” These fears have attracted a fair amount of interest over the years, with more recent studies generally addressing the topic from the perspective of the history of genre, class conflict, or gender politics. Commentators like Eric...

  9. 4 The Enlightenment Novel as Artifact: J. H. Campe’s Robinson der Jüngere and C. M. Wieland’s Der goldne Spiegel
    (pp. 100-138)

    How did German authors respond to the widespread perception of literature as a luxury good and reading as a form of consumption? Or, to use a more modern idiom, how did German literature around 1800 respond to its own commodification? The question is not new to scholars of German culture; nonetheless, the topic deserves further attention.¹ The idea of literature as a potentially pernicious form of luxury posed a serious challenge to writers in this period, a challenge that not only influenced conceptions of the book as artifact and of the impact of reading, but also shaped the narrative structure...

  10. 5 Karl Philipp Moritz and the System of Needs
    (pp. 139-174)

    Both Joachim Heinrich Campe and Christoph Martin Wieland approach the fine arts with considerable ambivalence, an ambivalence that can be traced back to the perceived status of the arts as a form of luxury. While the previous chapter emphasized the relationship between the fine arts and the idea of utility in its broadest sense—both individual and social utility—the analysis also revealed that to view the arts as luxuries is necessarily to situate them within a framework of needs, to ask whether and under what circumstances human beings can be said toneedart. This question is not quite...

  11. 6 Products of the Imagination: Mining, Luxury, and the Romantic Artist in Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen
    (pp. 175-202)

    The representation of mining in German romantic literature can be read as an allegory of romantic aesthetics, and nowhere more so than in the work of Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg), himself a graduate of the Freiberg mining academy. On this much all commentators agree. Theodore Ziolkowski describes the mine as “the image of the soul” and links it generally to the ideas of descent and inwardness so prevalent in romantic literature.¹ Herbert Uerlings takes a similar tack in a recent interpretation ofHeinrich von Ofterdingen(Henry von Ofterdingen): “Mining serves Novalis as no other material does as a means to...

  12. 7 Symbolic Economies in Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften
    (pp. 203-231)

    Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s final novel,Die Wahlverwandtschaften(Elective Affinities), is a work obsessed with exchange and equivalence. Most conspicuously, the question in this novel is whether one partner can be exchanged for another: whether the protagonist Eduard can replace his wife, Charlotte, with her cousin Ottilie, giving Charlotte in turn to his friend the Hauptmann in order to balance the accounts. The famous parable (Gleichnisrede) in the novel, in which the dissolution and reconstitution of various chemical elements serves as a metaphorical representation of the possible recombinations of the four main characters, can be seen as the epicenter of this...

  13. Conclusion: Useful Subjects?
    (pp. 232-242)

    The discourse of luxury in late eighteenth-century Europe speaks to the shifting status of the ornamental, to the possibility of embedding the seemingly superfluous—literature included—within meaningful social and cultural frameworks and thereby rendering it productive. In this respect, luxury is a discourse of both subjects and objects. Its dual character results in a tension, one that runs through virtually all of the novels and treatises discussed in the previous chapters. Many of these texts assert that managing the impact of the arts as luxury depends primarily on the ability to anchor sensuous and imaginative pleasures to a natural...

  14. Works Cited
    (pp. 243-258)
  15. Index
    (pp. 259-264)