General characteristics. – It is evident that national literature, in the integral sense of the word, cannot be talked about, at least until today: the long and complicated formation process of the Confederation constituted for a long time an obstacle to the formation of a unified culture: in the lack of a center of common radiation, the culture of the individual cantons – especially the peripheral ones – continued for centuries to be nourished exclusively by modest local traditions or by the great cultures of the neighboring peoples, to which the cantons themselves belonged ethnically. And even afterwards – if there was an ever greater fusion within the sphere of each ethnic group and, between one group and the other, a more intimate spiritual union – the profound split represented by diversity continued to remain intact. of languages.
On the other hand, it is also undeniable that, just as a principle foreign to national forces has managed to preserve its vitality in contrast with all of the surrounding Europe, so too has the conscience gradually consolidated an “esprit suisse”, which – while revealing itself above all in the form of social ideologies and political will – invests life in various ways and also transpires from literature.
From its origins to the end of the seventeenth century. – Clear and aware this spirit begins to appear in the eighteenth century. In previous epochs traces of it emerge, affinities are determined, but without souls interpenetrating them, making the forces active in one’s conscience. All the literature of the “Suisse romande” in fact continued to remain, until the eighteenth century, a “province” of French literature; the only Swiss element of literature is represented by the material of the compositions: by polemic or religious apologetics (in the 16th century: P. Viret, Th. Beza; in the 17th century: Th. Tronchin, JA Turrettini) or by the local subject of histori- ography (in the ‘500: F. Bonivard; in the’ 600: G. de Montmillin, etc.). And also in the literature of German-speaking Switzerland one encounters a similar situation, Waltharilied and the flowering literature in the monastery of St. Gall; the chivalrous poems of U. v. Zatzikofen, by K. Fleck, by Rudolf von Ems, the Minnesang of Steinmar and Hadlaub) to Humanism (Niklas von Wyle; China Brant, H. Glareanus, Erasmus) and to the Reformation (N. Manuel, P. Gengenbach) it is a constitutive element of German literature. Nor did the conditions change in the following century: even in Switzerland the Baroque is marked, for one part, by an effort of formal cleansing and a display of verbal elegance in the manner of Opitz and Rist and Zesen (HR Simler, JM Hardmeyer, etc.), and, on the other hand, by the splendor of the Jesuit theater (flourishing both in the Jesuit convents, with a center in Lucerne, and in the Benedictine convents, with a center in Einsiedeln) and the mystical-sensual color of Catholic religious lyric (JK Weissenbach; M. v. Menzingen, etc.); the most Swiss note, apart from Manuel’s local-colored realism and AD Grob’s epigrams,
The eighteenth century. – With the eighteenth century, however, the situation was reversed. In social liberation, which was one of the great tasks of the century, it seemed to the Swiss conscience that it was rediscovering the same spirit that had marked the origins of its history; on the other hand, with the cosmopolitanism of the time one of the barriers that could prevent the citizen from feeling, above the national divisions, his own unity of people, came to momentarily fall. Beyond the literary patriotism of the previous century, the pride of its nature was thus awakened in the Swiss consciousness with the pride of its history. The poets now title their collections: Schweizerlieder or Schweizerische Gedichte or Poésies helvétiennes. In 1758 the Patriotische Träume eines Eidgenossen, by Balthasar Urs edited by Iselin, became the soul of the Helvetische Gesellschaft, founded in 1761. One wants to be “Swiss” and nothing but Swiss. And for half a century correspondents from all cantons collaborated in this regard in the Journal helvétique. Special literary magazines arise: the Schweizerische Blütenlese, the Schweizerisches Museum ; and also in Lausanne the Journal littéraire opens a special column: Littérature suisse. The great Encyclopédie is contrasted by an adventurous Italian, FB de Felice, with the support of Haller and Bonnet, a Encyclopédie d’Yverdon ; Ph. Bridel announces the advent of the “poète suisse” era; finally, Johannes von Müller’s Geschichten schweizerischer Eidgenossenschaft evoke the historical period of formation of the Confederation.
In reality – with de Muralt, Bodmer, Breitinger, Haller, Gessner, Lavater, Pestalozzi, J. von Müller in the German zone; with JJ Burlamacchi, Rousseau, Bonnet, Madame de Staël, Constant, Sismondi, in the French area – at this time Switzerland became a driving force of European culture, with a well-defined and, in many respects, coherent historical individuality.
In particular, reservations were raised about Rousseau’s “Swiss character”; but, in the refined and complex French culture of the time, he appears as a force of opposition and alien, while to Switzerland he appears originally linked not only by the intransigence of the Calvinist spirit or by the democratic ideology dear to the Genevan traditions, but by his same position towards society and culture. A “return to nature” had already been the very act from which the Confederation was born, when a mountain population opposed the more civilized populations living downstream. And this need for primitiveness in life continued to persist even in the following centuries, as a result of the deep bond with nature, by which men felt bound, in the midst of the grandeur of their alpine country. In full Humanism, while the Glareanus extends his Descriptio Helvetiae, Ph. Th. Paracelsus fills Europe with its flashing sense of the arcane powers of nature. The mountain is gradually crossed in every sense, observed, scrutinized, and from the descriptive literariness of a Rebmann or a Ruchat one passes, with the eighteenth century, to the naturalistic speculation of the Contemplations de la nature by Ch. Bonnet or to the exactness of observation of the Voyage sur les Alpes of HB de Saussure. Meanwhile A. v. Haller sings – in Die Alpen – the life that is sublimated in the contemplation of the purity and grandeur of the altitudes. Rousseau completes the last study: the poetry of the mountain and the poetry of passion, nature and life come together in the unitary force of a new sensitivity.
But even if from another aspect Rousseau’s theoretical “primitivism” appears significant for the Swiss mentality of the time, as it constituted a reaction not only against the dangers of culture, but also against the bottlenecks of rationalism, it is a fact that Switzerland did not have a single “Cartesian” of any significance. The most notable thinkers of the Enlightenment were Burlamacchi, a philosopher of law, and Iselin, a historian and moralist. The reluctance towards abstractions created a state of distrust towards pure rational constructions. The spiritual problem was felt essentially as a problem of sensitivity (and it is symptomatic that Switzerland has given Europe the most sentimental of all idyllic poets: Gessner), or as a problem of practical life: moral, social, politics. Religious life itself, with Neo-Calvinism, with Marie Huber, etc., was oriented towards attitudes of “natural religion”, the final outcome of which was the Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire or Lavater’s mystical fantasies. But above all, thought found, realistically, its center in the educational problem. It can be said that everything vital that the literature of the century has produced converges in this direction. Every writer – from Haller to Rousseau, to Pestalozzi, to JC Zimmermann – considered himself as an “educator of the people”.
The same historical function that Switzerland fulfilled as an intermediary between the great national cultures of Europe was essentially carried out on this basis. From the discovery of a moral world still unknown to his fellow citizens and from the consideration of its “exemplary value”, B. de Muralt was led to those Lettres sur les Anglais et les Fran å ais, which marked the beginning of Anglomania of the century. Not otherwise, behind J. Bodmer’s Diskurse der Mahlern, is the example of the Spectator ; and even the new demands that Bodmer placed on poetry are only mediately of an aesthetic nature: it was the enthusiasm for the moral world of Milton and Dante that originally prompted the critic to affirm “the rights of the imagination beyond the confines of reality”. According to a similar trend, Haller and Klopstock were the first German poets whom Switzerland proposed, with Tscharner’s translations, to the admiration of the French. And in the literary exchanges which, through different ways, multiplied in every sense, it is always the moralistic-sentimental educational interest that prevails. Even Shakespeare – performed in Geneva as early as 1741, later translated by Wieland in Zurich and celebrated by HD Chaillet in the Journal helvétique – becomes for Ulrich Bräker a “teacher of life” and “doctor of the soul”. And when at the end of the century all the currents of European literary cosmopolitanism converge on the shores of Lake Geneva around Madame de Staël, once again the renewal of aesthetic ideas takes place within the climate of a broader renewal of sentimental and moral aspirations. The disappointed Necker (v.) Gives the “moral lesson” even to the revolution, in a pathetic tone that counterbalances the aggressive harshness of another disappointed Swiss: Mallet du Pan. From the “Sparse Pages” of Staël’s mother, Madame Necker, a predominant pedagogical inclination emerges, not unlike that which inspired Staël’s cousin and biographer, Madame Necker de Saussure,. Ch. V. von Bonstetten reaches – even in literary writings – its naive and moving consistency when it indulges in “ammaestranti” analyzes and descriptions of moods. Sismondi instills his robust civility in his investigations of the history and interpretations of poetry. Only B. Constant (v.), With his taste for conceptual fencing, attempts in the Réflexions sur la poésie to grasp the problem of art in its essence; but he fails to “gain momentum”, and provokes a mischievous epigram by Goethe. All the varied tumult of ideas in which the “court of poets” gathered in Coppet from all over Europe was agitated and exalted for years, only then finds its center, when – beyond the first intuition of an Italy – “country of the creative instinct, of passion and of art” – Staël identifies in Goethe’s Germany “the homeland of enthusiasm and of the life of the soul” and, raising its image in the light of myth, presents it to the Europe as a moral ideal.