*Curtius, Ernst Robert

Ernst Robert Curtius

Ernst Robert Curtius



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Curtius, Ernst Robert

German, 1886–1956
In his magisterial study Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter (1948;
European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages), Curtius collected many of his important essays and articles written during nearly 30 years of philological research. This book made him famous among both medievalists and early modern literary scholars. In it he discussed the cultural world of the Latin Middle Ages, the role of literature and education from the early through the late Middle Ages, rhetoric, topoi or topics, the function of the poetic figure of goddess Natura, the relationship of poetry and rhetoric, the topos of the ideal landscape, the concept of classicism, mannerism, the book as a symbol, the relevance of Dante for medieval literature, and the interplay between theology and poetry among Italian writers of the 14th and 15th centuries. In a voluminous appendix Curtius added a collection of other essays dedicated to themes such as devotional formulae and humility, jest and earnest in the Middle Ages, divine frenzy among poets, numerical composition, the relationship between poetry and scholasticism, self-references of medieval poets, the cultural development of Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries, and, finally, essays on Calderón, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Horace.
Curtius was deeply influenced by classical schooling, and was an ardent defender of the cultural values representative of the European traditions rooted in classical antiquity.
He was brought up as a Catholic, but later espoused Anglicanism. His religious orientation connected him with such philosophers and writers as Max Scheler, T.S. Eliot, Romain Rolland, José Ortega y Gasset, and André Gide. The same traditional outlook led Curtius to despise current political events and the trivialization of public culture during the 1930s. In his polemical pamphlet and essay Deutscher Geist in Gefahr (1932;
German ideals in danger), he argued against the futile squabbles of the various political parties, seeing grave dangers for German culture resulting from the rise of the mass movement. Individualism and elitism, as represented by his role models Stefan George and Friedrich Gundolf, were much more to Curtius’ liking. He also stayed away from narrow nationalism and defended the view of a European political unity with a broadly conceived culture shared by all European nations.
To reach a comprehensive understanding of this culture, the critic himself has to realize the highest educational goals possible and turn into a high priest for the rest of society. As Curtius argued, the essayist best represents this high priest, as demonstrated by the Romanticist Friedrich Schlegel, whom Curtius deeply admired. In Schlegel he also discovered a fighter for “culture,” not simply for “civilization,” the former supported by the national Geist (spirit), the latter by the masses. Nevertheless, Curtius strove for a cosmopolitan approach to culture, as he outlined in his study on T.S. Eliot (1927). From this perspective the writing of James Joyce, particularly Ulysses, was a true experiment in exploring the essence of human existence, similar to Homer’s Odyssey. In this and other essays from this time Curtius hailed the idea of a cult of elite leaders steeped in European traditions. At the same time he rejected the positivistic and scientific method of analysis, instead favoring a form of intuition and the quality of affinities between great spirits as the only meaningful avenue toward true learning.
In a 1950 article on Balzac, Curtius discussed the mystical harmony of spiritual unity and the creative act of writing poetry—aspects academic critics cannot comprehend because of their lack of adequate methodologies with which to grasp a”seer’s unity of vision.” He expressed similar ideas in his important essay on Proust, which was first published in his book Französischer Geist im neuen Europa (1925; French spirit in the new Europe) and reprinted in Französischer Geist im zwanzigsten Jahrhundert (1952;
French spirit in the 2Oth century). Following Proust in his concept of the “unique spiritual life,” Curtius argued that receptivity and musical sensibility are the crucial vehicles for a profound perception of art and the truths of life.
At a time of great political, military, and economic pressure on Germany after World War I, Curtius struggled hard to overcome the cultural differences between France and Germany and to reveal in his many essays and articles the common historical roots connecting both countries. Latinity and the world of classical antiquity were for him the foundation of the entire European culture, a shared heritage that, properly understood, should overcome modern conflicts and nationalistic tensions.
Despite Curtius’ efforts to awaken his contemporaries to the values of humanism based on classical learning, the trends of his time were against him. In Deutscher Geist in Gefahr he attacked the new barbarism of the National Socialists and the general decline of cultural values. In particular, he challenged the suddenly fashionable view of Charlemagne as the first perpetrator who alienated the Germanic world from its indigenous values and allowed Christianity and Roman culture to enter the minds of his people. Curtius desperately stressed the European orientation of the emperor and the absolute importance of classical antiquity for the emergence of medieval and Renaissance civilization on North European soil.
On the other hand, Curtius attacked the rise of new schools of thinking and new academic disciplines such as sociology because, as he saw it, they engendered nothing but useless knowledge, whereas traditional humanism would be the only trustworthy guarantor for the survival of culture. The study of the past, in particular of the Middle Ages, would provide modern students with an instrument to grasp both their origins and their present. But Curtius differentiated here, since the study of Greek culture was in such a decline that there was no possibility of its revival in the schools. Instead, the world of Rome and the Middle Ages based on the Latin language promised hope for the future.
Ernst Troeltsch’s criticism of historicism, A.J.Toynbee’s historical studies, and Jacob Christoph Burckhardt’s concept of universal truths and ideals all deeply influenced Curtius’ essays. Nevertheless, he carved his own approach to history in his many articles and essays published during the 1930s and 1940s in which he explored the relevance of medieval Latin literature, comparing it with texts from classical antiquity and the postmedieval world. Curtius firmly believed in the importance of medieval Latin writings from which the modern reader could gain profound insights into the basic aspects of life.
The study of the Latin Middle Ages, which for him lasted from the 8th through the 18th century, became a struggle for the preservation of Western culture on a large scale.
Curtius repeatedly voiced his conviction that only a solid familiarity with medieval Latin and a great concern for the detailed facts of medieval culture could provide a firm foundation for any philological study of that past. With these two tools Curtius fought against the speculative nature of the so-called “Geistesgeschichte” (history of ideas), a methodology aiming for a broad picture of past cultures, taking into account the various forms of cultural expression. Yet Curtius himself followed the school of Carl Jung in many respects, rejecting art history as an elusive academic subject.
Many of Curtius’ essays became the basis for chapters in his famous monograph European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, which stirred up academic disciplines for many years to come. In particular his perception of topoi as deciding elements in medieval literature was heavily attacked, as was his exclusive focus on Roman heritage, omitting the important Jewish, Arabic, Celtic, and Slavic influences on medieval Europe.
Moreover, as critics pointed out, Curtius paid little attention to lyric poetry and the drama.
Nevertheless, Curtius’ essays continue to be seminal interpretations despite their denial of the historical individuality of particular periods. His belief in a Zeitgeist was highly provocative, while also demonstrating the superior quality of his essayistic writing. Many of his views may no longer be fully accepted today, but as essays they preserve their historical value, not to speak of their importance as scholarly landmarks.

Born 14 April 1886 in Thann. Traveled widely throughout Europe during his formative years. Studied Sanskrit and comparative literature at the University of Berlin, 1904–11, Ph.D. Traveled to Rome, 1912, where he met Romain Rolland. Privatdozent, 1913, and associate professor, 1914–20, University of Bonn; chair of philology, University of Marburg, 1920–24, and University of Heidelberg, from 1924; chair of Romance philology, University of Bonn, from 1929. Died in Rome, 19 April 1956.
Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Französischer Geist im neuen Europa, 1925
Die französische Kultur, eine Einführung, 1930; as The Civilization of France, translated by Olive Wyon, 1932
Deutscher Geist in Gefahr, 1932
Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter, 1948; as European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, translated by Willard R. Trask, 1953
Kritische Essays zur europäischen Literatur, 1950; enlarged edition, 1954; as Essays on European Literature, translated by Michael Kowal, 1973
Französischer Geist im zwanzigsten Jahrhundert, 1952
Gesammelte Aufsätze zur romanischen Philologie, 1960
Büchertagebuch, 1960
Kosmopolis der Wissenschaft: Ernst Robert Curtius und das Warburg Institut: Briefe, 1928–1953 und andere Dokumente, edited by Dieter Wuttke, 1989
Other writings: books on French literature, and correspondence (including with André Gide, Charles Du Bos, and Valery Larbaud). Also translated works by Gide, Jorge Guillén, William Goyen, and The Wasteland by T.S.Eliot.
Richards, EarlJeffrey, Modernism, Medievalism and Humanism: A Research
Bibliography on the Reception of the Works of Ernst Robert Curtius, Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1983
Further Reading
Berschin, Walter, and Arnold Rothe, editors, Ernst Robert Curtius: Werk, Wirkung, Zukunftsperspektiven, Heidelberg: Winter, 1989
Christmann, Hans Helmut, Ernst Robert Curtius und die deutschen Romanisten, Mainz: Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, and Stuttgart: Steiner, 1987
Evans, Arthur R., in On Four Modern Humanists: Hofmannsthal, Gundolf, Curtius, Kantorowicz, edited by Evans, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,
Forster, L., “Ernst Robert Curtius Commemorated,” New Comparisons 4 (1987): 164–72
Freundesgabe für Ernst Robert Curtius zum 14. April 1956, Berne: Francke, 1956
Godman, Peter, “The Ideas of Ernst Robert Curtius and the Genesis of ELLMA,” in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages by Curtius, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990:599–653
Hoege, Dirk, Kontroverse am Abgrund: Ernst Robert Curtius und Karl Mannheim, Frankfurt-on-Main: Fischer, 1994
Lange, Wolf-Dieter, editor, In Ihnen begegnet sich das Abendland: Bonner Vorträge zur Erinnerung an ERC, Bonn: Bouvier, 1990
Theis, Raimund, Auf der Suche nach dem besten Frankreich: Zum Briefwechsel von Ernst Robert Curtius mit André Gide und Charles Du Bos, Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 1984

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