Wanting the World: Gottfried Keller’s Modernity (1819–1890)
On the occasion of Gottfried Keller’s two-hundredth birthday, the Zurich congress will attempt to rediscover one of modernity’s most important literary laboratories. Not only the synchronism of Keller’s works—that is, their relation to their historical context—but also their anachronism, their “futurity,” will especially be at the center of discussion: what lines lead out of the modern world that Keller did not yet experience directly back into his manuscripts, knowledge, narratives, and media? With what aesthetic, poetological, and epistemological strategies does Keller engage with the paradoxical challenges of the conditio moderna, of having to make new art out of the impossibility of art—a challenge that not only Der grüne Heinrich but also Viggi Störteler from “Die missbrauchten Liebesbriefe” and Herr Jacques from the Züricher Novellen have to face? And outside of the literary field, what allies are available for this project?
These questions should stimulate readings that pointedly view Keller’s works as documenting a large-scale, interdiscursive transformation. They will do this in opposition to the insight that it is “better” ("wohler") for us, “when we do not want too much from the world and view what it gives us voluntarily as a chance discovery” ("wenn wir nicht zu viel von der Welt wollen und das, was sie uns freiwillig gibt, als gelegentlichen Fund betrachten"; Keller to Josef Viktor Widman in January 1881). Keller’s texts can, indeed, be well understood as experiments that are not at all about “well-being” and not only want a lot from the world but also want other worlds. From the materials that the nineteenth century supplies them with, his texts generate a cosmos in which (a) science, economics, politics, and society relate to one another in a new way; (b) gender roles and concepts of identity begin to blur and thereby become aesthetically productive; and (c) literature must resituate, redefine, and reflect on itself in the medial system. In what way these different aspects of Keller’s modernity are interconnected and to what extent Keller’s imagined world is also capable of being a standard for criticism—of, not least, the still young Confederation—should also be debated at the Zurich anniversary congress.