Peter von MattDie Schweiz zwischen Ursprung und Fortschritt

2.34 Peter von Matt, Die Schweiz zwischen Ursprung und Fortschritt, Zur Seelengeschichte einer Nation, in Das Kalb von der Gotthardpost, zur Literatur und Politik der Schweiz, München 2012, S. 9-93

[Switzerland between origin and progress, on the history of the soul of a nation]

a) Background

The text at hand is the lead text in Peter von Matt’s most recent book, a selection of essays with the title “Das Kalb von der Gotthardpost, zur Literatur und Politik der Schweiz” which is tricky to translate – “the calf in front of postal carriage of Gotthard pass – on literature and politics of Switzerland”. The rest are individual texts on events in Switzerland and on Swiss writers, which had previously been published mainly in the press. This text at hand is a fundamental essay written especially for the volume. The subtitle of the text is “Switzerland between origin and progress – on the history of the soul of a nation.” The starting point is a painting of Rudolf Koller, a friend of the writer Gottfried Keller. The painting shows a postal carrier drawn by four horses pressing down the Gotthard pass; in the background a number of cows lazily grazing in the clouds of dust and – this is the key – a small calf fleeing in the front of the rushing postal carrier. The painting was a present for Alfred Escher, the visionary employer, politician and entrepreneur active in state and national parliament, the founder of the Swiss Institute of Technology, Swiss Credit Bank, Zurich Insurance and the founder of a number of railway companies. He is best known for his project building the first railway tunnel through the Gotthard Mountains. The building of the tunnel was in process at the time Rudolf Koller did the painting.

Europe looks upon Switzerland, the country which constantly refuses itself to the European Union. Von Matt transforms the symbols of alpine traditions and high-tech endeavours. He focuses on the prevailing tensions between the simultaneous and ongoing presence of “origin” and “progress.” The text is an eye-opener, since he uses the study of literature and language to unveil the heart and the soul of a nation.

The text is situated in the part on Europeanization of the Anthology, since it is primarily the surrounding Europe and the European Union that triggers an imminent and deep rooted encounter and conflict in which a presence of the “origin” and “progress” within Switzerland become apparent in the formation of mindsets and attitudes vis-à-vis Europe.

Peter von Matt is one of the eminent scholars and public figures of Switzerland of recent times. He is an emerite Professor of German Contemporary Literature from the University of Zurich (2002). He is a member of various international academic institutions and has obtained many awards and prizes for his publications and for his activities as publicist and public speaker as well. The famous literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranitzky, the former head of the “literary quartet” discussing new works of literature on a German TV station said once about his colleague in the quartet, that not only is he the Swiss champion of German literature and literary criticism but also the most prominent Swiss writer. Beyond seminal monographs on topics of German literature, von Matt is a profound observer of Swiss literature and the Swiss societal and political process on which he regularly comments either in oral lectures or written essays, which are widely read and admired. His talent and gift is to address issues of Switzerland as a nation through the lens of literature. He is a sorcerer in revealing the source of Switzerland and the fate of Switzerland as a small nation in the post-World War II period, primarily in relation to the neighbouring European nations and to the world at large. Von Matt’s texts are imaginative and rooted in a deep understanding of the role of literature for Swiss culture and for the nation of Switzerland. The texts moreover display a deeply humorous quality.

b) Summary

The surprising and elegant path of the essay starts with observations on the painting of the postal carrier of Rudolf Koller, which simultaneously actualises the dynamics of various speeds of technologic developments. Salient are the differences of speed of the grazing cows and the fleeing calf and the fast moving horses; the little calf is about to become a victim of the speed on the street on the south flank of the Gotthard pass. The simultaneity of different speeds is interpreted by Peter von Matt as a symbolic process. At the same time of the origin of the painting the historian Jacob Burckhardt in Basel taught an annual course on the study of history, which later became the book “Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen” (Observations of World History). Burckhardt deals with the dynamics of changes and acceleration in history and defines historic crises as “accelerated processes” (Beschleunigte Prozesse). Burckhardt’s statement on this time is a prophecy for our present period of time; the motto of the “accelerated process” is a synonym of global historic crises. When speed is increased there are people left behind. The painting was the present for Alfred Escher, the president of an important regional railway company, which he had to relinquish because he became the head of the building of the Gotthard railway track and tunnel. At the time the painting was made, the building of the tunnel was already underway. The painting was made for a person, whose major intent was to make postal lines outdated by the upcoming modern railways. The symbolism of the painting captured a simultaneous looking forward and backward – dealing with a deep singularity and peculiarity of Switzerland. Peter von Matt looks for this phenomenon in Swiss literature:

No other work of Swiss literature, according to von Matt, had a greater influence on European civilization than the poem of twenty one year old scientist Albrecht von Haller “The Alps” (Die Alpen). The first line of the definitive version contains the key to the significance of the work. The sentence deals with perfectibility, which in the time of enlightenment was at the root of the vision of a step by step embetterrment of the world by an almost linear perspective of the future. Haller develops a paradoxical model of progress as resistance of staying an embetterment by renunciation to change, by a daring assumption of an all-encompassing happiness of the Swiss Alpine people and established the key terms of the century, nature, reason and liberty. In a nutshell, Haller’s vision was deeply ideological, which in its geographic extent extended the alpine vision from the Alps to the cities and all of the Swiss Confederation. There was a deep criticism of the historic present. It was founded on the unconditional authorities of Greek and Roman classic writing following the patterns of Virgil and Horatio.

Every culture celebrates its origin. According to von Matt, Haller radicalised this celebration with the help of a vision of a golden century and a fantasy of a good, free and happy people in untouched original nature. Contrary to the United States where the vision of the frontier was a reality of the soul and to Germany in which the Reich was a specific vision of a specific political option, the ideology of Switzerland always was an illusionary superimposition of the social and political reality with the antique legend of Arcadia and the literary practice of Bucolics. According to von Matt, the problem of Switzerland is that the world has believed Switzerland’s Arcadic design. The biggest success in the world of Swiss literature, Heidi is a parody of this vision. The United States is the country, which has made the frontier the vision of the dynamics of civilisation in its soul and carries the vision of Aufbruch and Auszug leading to an unlimited game in the world. This vision is contestably directed to the attainment of its goals in the future. If Switzerland as a country has in its soul a vision of a happy land of the fathers, far away from cities and content among themselves not oppressed and not oppressive, every future is a danger.

Von Matt then wanders through Swiss literature and uses a literary lens to look at the societal and political reality of Switzerland. He constantly notes that the origin continuously comes to life in its elements in present time. The fantasy vision collides with modern realities of technics and technology; Rudolf Koller shows the disintegration of societal and political reality in this painting. Von Matt shows that Switzerland is not a special case (Sonderfall), but only has a special fantasy (Sonderphantasie) about its self-chosen origin and destiny. The differences of opinions of Goethe and Schiller on Switzerland are used as evidence and testament in that respect. The consequence of this fact is that, according to von Matt, the political language is dying, isolation being a consequence. The political language of isolation is in a dramatic way sub complex, which leads to an inability to verbalise the issues between Switzerland and its neighbouring countries. Despite its rhetoric effectiveness, its simplicity turns in a simplicity of the perception of the political process and problems. In Switzerland presently different political languages are spoken: Two political languages different from each other just as much as the fantasy vision of an origin of untouched nature differs from the reality. A productive communication between the two positions is impossible. The dream of an accelerated technical civilisation with its worldwide operating economy leads to a marked difference of the literary views of Switzerland.

The issue of the contrast of the political views is again found in more recent Swiss literature. Von Matt walks through works of key Swiss writers dealing with progress in present time. He ends with conclusions that the wandering poets reflect the reality of the “Viatoric” (das Viatorische). This viatoric element is existential in the life of many Swiss writers. He ends with a sketch of typologies of viatoric strategies in present day Swiss literature, which he highlights as follows: the writer leaves Switzerland as a young adult for several years; a writer leaves sometimes indefinitely without losing the contact to Switzerland; a writer constantly travels and comes back from many destinations in the world; a writer leaves for a long and essential part of his life; a writer regularly changes between Switzerland and other domicile; a non-Swiss writer has emigrated as an adult person to Switzerland and stays here; a writer is a child of an emigrant, is born and lives here and writes with a consciousness of his origin.

Von Matt comes to the conclusion that the viatoric cultural life of the Swiss writers better and more adequately reflect the relationship of the country to the world surpassing all the fantasy visions of political theories. Regarding the temporary emigrants as literary writers to Switzerland, von Matt states, that the topics of the equal rank with the topic of Swiss outside Switzerland. The political and artistic culture of Switzerland, according to von Matt, is closely connected to the phenomena of the existence of the polity as nation. Von Matt humorously points to the most successful books Heidi, The Swiss Family Robinson and the Swiss emigrant of General Sutter.

Von Matt concludes the essay by stating the inextricable relation of “origin” and “future” in Switzerland facing the world of today.

c) Text

This text is currently not available. The release for publication is still being negotiated with the publisher.

© Prof. Jens Drolshammer, office@drolshammer.com,  www.drolshammer.net

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