- Necessary Luxuries: German Literature and the Culture of Consumption, 1770–1815 by Matt Erlin
Is culture a luxury? While many German intellectuals have contended that the two terms stand in direct opposition to each other, Matt Erlin’s excellent new book argues convincingly that the notions of self-cultivation (Bildung) and aesthetic autonomy emerged in Germany as a manifestation of modern bourgeois consumer culture. German writers, he shows, formulated subtle engagements with material culture that acknowledged culture’s position as indispensible luxury. Erlin explains how discussions of civilizations’ progress were intertwined with historical evaluations of material culture. His argument becomes quite compelling when we consider books as one of the preeminent luxury goods circulating in eighteenth-century Germany. Media are all too often treated as immaterial, noneconomic things when in fact they were much-desired commodities.
In the first chapter, Erlin argues that luxury was one of the central concerns in the European eighteenth century, inseparable from the Enlightenment and its aftermath. The debate was split between critics of luxury, who invoked both Christian and ancient Latin arguments about its evil social consequences, and economic proponents who claimed that the desire for luxury fueled social progress. Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees (1714) was the first and most notorious celebration of such trickle-down reasoning. Erlin is not content with merely reiterating the already familiar lineage of British economic thinkers leading from Mandeville up to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776). Instead, he shows how arguments over [End Page 365] luxury were dispersed across Germany, from princely Cameralists to the Classicist Goethe. Throughout the book Erlin addresses possible objections to his position that might be made by a critic dedicated to aesthetic autonomy. His argument has a light touch even as it makes weighty distinctions; he does not overwhelm the reader up front with a high-pressure theory discussion, an approach which is very welcome. In laying out the contours of the ethnographic discussion of luxury, Erlin does a very sensitive job of providing new material, carefully developing his own line of analysis so that it extends previous work.
Erlin demonstrates classical German literature’s debt to luxury by concentrating on the sumptuous edition of C. M. Wieland’s work published at the turn of the nineteenth century. Moving beyond book history, he argues that such Prachtausgaben should be understood in terms of consumer culture, as luxuries reflecting and enhancing the canonization of the author. Wieland’s exalted reputation made a princely luxury edition seem acceptable, not just as a personal consumer purchase but also as an element within the formation of German high culture. The publication of such luxury editions thus became a material sign of Germany’s cultural advancement.
In chapter three, Erlin switches from a micro-history of the book as material object to the historical psychology of reading, specifically the eighteenth-century anxiety over Die Lesesucht, or reading mania, with readers obsessively plowing through one book after another. Such practices, and their attendant criticism, should be understood as confirming and extending the new consumer culture.
The next chapter, on J. H. Campe’s Robinson der Jüngere and Wieland’s Der goldene Spiegel, argues that both authors are committed to a moderation-based ethics of luxury consumption: Campe’s Robinson Crusoe stripped away and rebuilt European civilization on his island, whereas Wieland depicted Asiatic opulence as a counter-image to avoid. Erlin argues that Campe’s Robinson depicted primitive life on the island as a simplification of everyday life in order to re-approach European luxury and appreciate it from a new vantage point. Wieland and Campe both stage and regulate literary pleasure as a vital element in civilized life, a luxury to be placed within an appropriate balance. Many scholars, however, focus on a close reading of such texts, to the detriment of any contextualization—or, worse still, provide only a broad discussion of intellectual history that moves from text to text. This chapter shows neither of these tendencies. It constitutes...