Eva Axer – The “inexorable law of perpetual mutation”: Motherwell and Goethe on the Tradition of the Ballad
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The “inexorable law of perpetual mutation”: Motherwell and Goethe on the Tradition of the Ballad
Around 1800 the way writers and scholars were thinking about genre fundamentally changed as a “new perception of time” evolved, which was “marked by a heightened sense of temporal flux and a new understanding of the historical relativism of cultural forms”.1 Genre was no longer perceived as a template but was henceforward seen as a tradition.2 Once neoclassical assumptions about the immutability of forms and the universality of rules were challenged, crucial questions on the relation of time and genre arose: if the ancient genres were not somehow transcending time but were aged or even dead, how can one relate to them and their pastness? Susan Stewart has argued that the process of dealing with those questions resulted in a variety of what she termed “distressed genres” – genres that were deliberately and artificially antiqued.3 Among these genres was the ballad, which was established as the ancient origin of a national literary history in a variety of ballad collections both in Great Britain and Germany.4 However, as soon as “age” ensured value and authority, there developed ← 145 | 146 → an anxiety about the authenticity of tradition and a dispute on how the present should appropriate the past.
As a response to the dubitable authenticity of edited ballads and a variety of scandalous modern ballad imitations, scholars and amateurs started to collect oral ballads.5 Oral...
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