Authors: Jrgen Osterhammel Patrick Camiller
Memory and Self-Observation
The Perpetuation of the Nineteenth Century
What does the nineteenth century mean today? How does it present itself to those who are not professionally involved with it as historians? Our approach to this age begins with the face it turns to posterity. This is not simply a question of
“image” of it, of how we would
to see it, of how we construct it. Such constructs are not entirely random, not unmediated products of contemporary preferences and interests. Today's perceptions of the nineteenth century are still strongly marked by its own self-perception. The reflexivity of the age, especially the new media world that it created, continues to shape how we see it.
It was only a short time ago that the nineteenth century, separated from the present by more than a full calendar saeculum, sank beneath the horizon of personal recollection. In June 2006 even Harriet, the giant tortoise that in 1835 may have made the acquaintance of the young Charles Darwin in the Galapagos Islands, finally departed this life in an Australian zoo.
No one remains to reminisce about the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1900â1901 or the solemn obsequies of Giuseppe Verdi and Queen Victoria, both of whom died in late January 1901. Neither the funeral procession for Japan's Meiji emperor in September 1912 nor the mood when the First World War broke out in August 1914 remains within the memory of anyone alive today. In 2009 the ultimate survivor of the
shipwreck passed away; the last German veteran of the Great War died in May 2008.
Remembrance of the nineteenth century is no longer a matter of individual recall but rather of media information and book reading. The traces are to be found in academic and popular history, in the collections of historical museums, in novels and paintings, old photographs and musical sounds, cityscapes and landscapes. The nineteenth century is no longer actively remembered, only depicted. It has this in common with earlier ages. In the history of the representation of cultural life, however, it occupies a distinctive place that already sets it apart from the eighteenth century. Indeed, many of the forms and institutions of current cultural life are inventions of the nineteenth century: the museum, the national archive, the national library,
statistical science, photography, the cinema, recorded sound. It was an era of organized memory, and also of increased self-observation.
The role of the nineteenth century in today's consciousness is by no means a matter of course, either for the aesthetic canon or for the formation of political traditions. China may serve as an example of this. The nineteenth century was disastrous for China politically and economically, and has remained so in the minds of most Chinese. They think back reluctantly to that painful age of weakness and humiliation, and official propagandistic history does nothing to raise their appreciation of it. At the same time, indictments of the West's “imperialism” have become more muted, since the newly rising nation does not recognize itself in that earlier role of victim. Culturally, too, the century counts for them as decadent and sterile: none of China's artworks or philosophical texts from that period can stand alongside the classical works of a more remote past. For today's Chinese, the nineteenth century is much more distant than the splendors of many a dynasty down to the great emperors of the eighteenth century, who are constantly evoked in popular histories and television serials.
The contrast between China and Japan could not be greater. In Japan the nineteenth century enjoys incomparably higher prestige. The Meiji Renewal (often known as the Meiji Restoration) that began in 1868 is conventionally seen there as the founding process not only of the Japanese nation-state but of a distinctive modernity. Its role in the consciousness of today's Japanese is comparable in many respects to that of the Revolution of 1789 for the French.
The aesthetic evaluation of the century is also different. Whereas in China a modern literature cannot be said to have begun before the 1920s, Japan's “1868 generation” was already producing modern works in the 1880s.
The historical memory of the nineteenth century casts a similar spell in the United States, where the Civil War of 1861â65 stands alongside the formation of the Union in the late 1700s as the constitutive event of the nation. The descendants of victorious white Northern settlers, defeated white Southerners, and newly emancipated slaves have each ascribed quite different meanings to the conflict and composed their own “useful past.” But there is agreement that the Civil War represents a common “felt history,” as the poet and literary critic Robert Penn Warren put it.
For a long time it operated as a collective trauma, which still has not been overcome everywhere in the South. As always with historical memory, we are dealing not simply with a quasi-natural formation of identity but also with an instrumentalization advantageous to identifiable interests. Southern propagandists, foregrounding “states' rights,” made every effort to gloss over the fact that the war was centrally about slavery and emancipation, while the other side grouped around a mythologization of Abraham Lincoln, the president murdered in 1865. Not a single German, British, or French statesmanânot even Bismarck, more respected than cherished, or the ever-controversial Napoleon Iâenjoyed such veneration after his death.
In 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt could still publicly ask, “What would Lincoln do?”âthe national hero as helper to posterity in its hour of need.
1 Visibility and Audibility
The Nineteenth Century as Art Form: The Opera
A bygone age lives on in revivals, archives, and myth. Today the nineteenth century has vitality where its culture is staged and consumed. Its characteristic aesthetic form in Europe, the opera, is a good example of such revival. The European opera came into being around 1600 in Italy, only decades after the rise of the urban music theater in southern China, which marked the beginning of a development wholly independent of European influence that would reach its peak after 1790 in what we know today as Beijing opera (
Despite the existence of a number of outstanding masterpieces, it was a long time before the cultural status of European opera became unassailable outside Italy. Only with the contributions of Christoph Willibald Gluck and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did it become the paramount genre in the theater. By the 1830s it was generally considered to be at the top of the artistic hierarchy.
This progression was paralleled in the Beijing opera, which at mid-century entered its period of artistic and organizational maturity. Since then European opera has triumphantly maintained its position, whereas its distant sister in Beijing, following radical breaks with tradition and the penetration of a Western-tinged media culture, has persisted only in folklore niches.
The opera houses that sprang up between Lisbon and Moscow in the nineteenth century are still in full swing, with a repertory that largely goes back to a “long” nineteenth century beginning with Mozart's masterpieces. Opera underwent globalization early on. In the mid-1800s it had a clear radial point: Paris. Around 1830, Parisian musical history was global musical history.
The Paris Opera was not only France's foremost stage. Paris paid composers the highest fees and outdid all rivals for the rank of music's leading magnet city.
Fame in Paris meant world fame; failure thereâas happened in 1861 to Richard Wagner, already an established master, with his
was a deeply wounding disgrace.
By the 1830s European operas were already being performed in the Ottoman Empire. In 1828 Giuseppe Donizetti, the brother of the celebrated composer Gaetano Donizetti, became the musical director of the sultan's court in Istanbul and built up a European-style orchestra there. In the independent empire of Brazil, especially after 1840 under Pedro II, opera became the official art form of the monarchy. Vincenzo Bellini's
was performed many times, and the major operas of Rossini and Verdi were staged. When Brazil became a republic, hugely wealthy rubber barons built a lavish opera house (inaugurated in 1896 and closed again after eleven years) in Manaus, then in the middle of the
Amazonian jungle, combining local precious woods with marble from Carrara in Tuscany, steel from Glasgow, and cast iron from Paris and featuring candlesticks from Murano.
Under colonial rule, too, opera spread far outside Europe, its sumptuous houses intended to display the superiority of French civilization. The theater inaugurated in 1911 in Hanoi, the capital of French Indochina, was especially massive, dwarfing many in the mother country with its 750 seats for the fewer than three thousand French in the city.
Like many others, it was modeled on the OpÃ©ra Garnier in Paris, whose 2,200 seats made it the world's largest theatrical space when it was completed in 1875.
Opera took root earlier in North America. The French Opera House that opened in New Orleans in 1859 was long considered one of the best in the world. In San Francisco, then a city of sixty thousand inhabitants, the passion for opera was so great that 217,000 tickets were sold in the year 1860. The Metropolitan Opera in New York, which opened its doors in 1883, went on to become one of the world's leading houses, a place at which American “high society” showed itself off in ways scarcely different from its counterparts in Europe. Architecturally and in terms of stage technology, the creators of the “Met” brought together elements from Covent Garden in London, La Scala in Milan, and of course the OpÃ©ra in Paris.
Almost its entire repertory came from the other side of the Atlantic. In the 1830s Chile was in the grip of Rossini fever.
In Japan, where the government had been encouraging the spread of European music since the 1870s, the first performance of European opera, a scene from Gounod's
, took place in 1894. Whereas in 1875, when an Italian prima donna had given an early guest performance in Tokyo, the event had been so poorly attended that the audience could hear the mice squeak, a steady interest in opera developed after the turn of the century and acquired a focus in 1911 with the opening of the first large Western-style theater.
The figure of the itinerant stage celebrity active in various parts of the world also originated in the nineteenth century.
In 1850 Jenny Lind, the “Swedish nightingale,” sang to an audience of seven thousand in New York, at the start of a tour comprising ninety-three performances. The soprano Helen Porter Mitchell, who called herself Nellie Melba after her native Melbourne, first appeared in Europe in 1887 and went on to become one of the first truly intercontinental divas, her voice reproduced after 1904 on gramophone discs; she was the icon of a new cultural self-confidence in her reputedly uncouth homeland. Nineteenth-century European opera was a global phenomenon, and so it has remained. The repertory of that age is still dominant today: Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Bizet, and above all Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini. But they are only some of the composers highly appreciated in the nineteenth century. Gaspare Spontini or Giacomo Meyerbeer, once celebrated masters, are rarely played nowadays, while others have entirely vanished into the archives. Who still knows any of the countless operas on Germanic or medieval subjects that saw the light of day alongside and after Wagner?
Similar points might be made about dramatic theater or another typical genre of the timeâthe novelâand a separation of the living from the dead in nineteenth-century high culture is possible for many countries. Nineteenth-century high culture is intensely present in the contemporary world, albeit with a strict selection that obeys the laws of taste and the culture industry.
The nineteenth century is visibly present to us in a quite different way in the cityscapes that often form the backdrop and arena of everyday life. London, Paris, Vienna, Budapest, and Munich are cities whose physiognomy is marked by nineteenth-century planners and architects, partly in neoclassical, neo-Romanesque, and neo-Gothic idioms that refer back to older models. From Washington, DC, to Calcutta, grand official buildings drew on and imitated this past, with the result that the architectural historicism of the nineteenth century offers us a global overview of European traditions. In many Asian metropolises, on the other hand, scarcely any old buildings have survived. In Tokyo, for instance, which for several centuries (at first under the name Edo) was the capital of Japan, earthquakes, fires, American bombs, and constant reconstruction have erased nearly all architectural traces older than a few decades and even cleared away many Meiji relics. The world's great cities range along a scale between the extremes of well-preserved urban ensembles (e.g., Vienna's Ringstrasse) and physical obliteration of the nineteenth century. The teeth of time gnaw selectively: the industrial architecture of the nineteenth century has worn away more quickly than many monuments from the Middle Ages. Scarcely anywhere is it still possible to gain a sensory impression of what the Industrial “Revolution” meantâof the sudden appearance of a huge factory in a narrow valley, or of tall smokestacks in a world where nothing had risen higher than the church tower.
2 Treasuries of Memory and Knowledge
Archives, libraries, museums, and other collections might be called
treasuries of memory
. Alongside the places of remembrance that crystallize the collective imagination of the past, these treasuries deserve our special attention. The boundaries between their various subcategories developed only gradually. Libraries were for a long time not clearly distinguishable from archives, especially if they held large numbers of manuscripts. In the eighteenth century, the term “museum” (especially in German) encompassed spaces for any kind of antiquarian study or exchange of ideas among private individuals, even journals whose declared aim was to present historical and aesthetic sources. The principle of universal accessibility to the public first appeared only in the nineteenth century. Treasuries of memory preserve the past as a virtual present. Yet the cultural past remains dead if it is nothing but treasured. Only in the act of appropriation, comprehension, and sometimes reenactment does it come alive.