My dear Professor Worthy,
The varied interests of your correspondents all center ostensibly on literature, but they are so historically conditioned as to comprise, in reality, several topics. Consider merely the physical factors.
Your idea of "literature" seems to call for transmission by letter (littera), but when we Germans say Dichtung, we bring out an imaginative and creative component. Does not this suggest that, on the general subject, all parties may not always be talking about the same thing? As you know, I associate poetry with the very origins of language, and anyone might agree who watches mothers with their babes, or children at play. It is in any case certain that writing begins only after eons of singing and saying. I have in mind the Old Testament, of course, Homeric epic, ancient Germanic saga, all of which originate and develop as orally transmitted song. What is at last preserved for us on papyrus, vellum, or paper is like the tip of the Alps, jutting up here and there out of a sea of clouds, but supported by hidden masses of exclusively oral prehistory.
An alphabet is extremely abstract. Perhaps it begins as pictures. Devised and developed by priests, writing removes itself more and more from objects, and in the west eventually becomes entirely phonetic. This, strictly speaking, may be the beginning of literature. In any case, since it is so decisive for all of culture, it begins an Age of Literature. I should not be surprised if we were ourselves witnessing the end of that great era, as we revert to an older culture of images. I ask you, were your contemporaries still able even to imagine the stimulus we literary folk take from tiny, cramped ciphers black on white?
I suspect that the economic basis for letters lay ultimately in the agrarian way of life. Writing seems to have its inception at the temple, for recording contributions of grain and cattle from the surrounding countryside. Letters soon also capture the old tales stored in the prodigious memory of a bard, who recited them at entertainments for his war-lords. We have a delightful symbol for the beginning of "literature" in in an old legend which, true or not, credits the tyrant Peisistratus with collating and preserving Homer. At about this same time King Salomon's court is drawing the traditions in the Old Testament together, or so I suppose.
I fear that the fascination exercised by letters, especially their imaginative stimulus, is also inextricable from feudal social structures, so that we who are surrounded by revolutions are also watching the Age of Letters draw to its close. Our so-called Industrial Age had, by your time, Professor, dropped literature from the human culture. From archaic picture language on scrolls, through manuscript, to print on codex pages, all the way to your computer's return to the scroll again, literature is a most tenuous thread in the texture of a mind. My protege Goethe rightly associates poesy with his mother's spinning wheel. In any case, poetry did not survive the heavy machinery driven by fossil fuels, and certainly not your statistical world-view embedded in electronic informatics.
Leo Tolstoy, confronted by a moving picture machine, seems appalled at how unnecessary literature has become:
This little clinking contraption with the revolving handle will make a revolution in our life--in the life of writers. It is a direct attack on the old methods of literary art . . . . This swift change of scene, this blending of emotion and experience--it is much better than the heavy, long-drawn-out kind of writing to which we are accustomed. It is closer to life.
Yes, that is life. The image projected through celluloid or cathode ray purged the interior image woven on the loom of a readers' mind. No matter. We have marked the beginning of the Age of Letters, and also its end. As to whether it be by mere chance that the Age starts with a neolithic "revolution" and ends in an industrial one, that is a question for some industrial historian.
With pastoral blessings from the banks of the Ilm, I remain your eternal friend
Johann Gottfried Herder
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or see the correspondence with Herder, and please do not forget your own animadversions.