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Prof. Dr. Joachim Harst

»Universal History of Adultery.«

Binding Forces between Law, Literature and Religion


The study asks in what way narrations of marriage and adultery, of making and breaking bonds effect „Verbindlichkeit.“ Integrating „commitment“ and „obligation“ in the idea of binding or being bound to something, the German notion of „Verbindlichkeit“ describes phenomena of personal and social commitment that precede institutionally enforced laws, rules and norms. Narratives of marriage and adultery have in common that by telling of passionate love, they not only describe, but also strengthen and even generate interpersonal commitment. Thus, the common opinion that the 19th-century novel of adultery demonstrates a loss of social cohesion does not hold true. On the contrary, narrated love constitutes new forms of commitment and new fields of study – among them the national philologies of the 19th century. These „philologies“ institutionalize the traditional correlation between loving and reading by constituting themselves as the loving successors of national poets.

The main part of the monograph is laid out in three historical steps and examines the Ancient Epic, the courtly novel of the High Middle Ages and the adultery novel in the times of Goethe. In dialogue with the cultural, political, and especially the medial conditions of their creation (e.g.: oral tradition and governmental textualisation), the study examines how these narratives are instrumentalized politically (Odyssey and Aeneid as national epics), how they take on other discourses of „Verbindlichkeit“ (Canonic Martial Law in the court novel), and how they create their own models of commitment (Goethe’s ‚invention‘ of Goethe-philology). Despite all relevant differences, the studied works agree in their claim to universality: They depict a self-contained, unified world, whose boundaries serve as foundation for their universal binding effects; however, each work can only establish this unity in debate with fundamental breakings that correspond to the theme of adultery. Moreover, the three historical steps show in what way the works put the epic tradition into their service (e.g.: recourse of the courtly novel to the Aeneid) in order to creatively transform them again: Through the fractures of the ancient cosmos the audience enters the epic world already in the High Middle Ages, an epic world which no longer justifies its cohesion in an extensive representation of the world but rather by instituting a bond between narrators, characters and audiences under the sign of love (Tristan) – a strategy that culminated in the romantic communication-phenomenon „Goethe“ that dictates generations of philologists its loving interpretation. In this way, the love for the word inherent in the term “philology” is narrowed down to an author who pretends to embody the lógos.

In this constellation the works discussed here can be called „universal histories“ in a specific sense. Two framing chapters pursue the implications of this term with reference to Borges, who understood his work, but also Literature in general, as „universal history“. His works on Dante’s Divine Comedy and especially on the episode of Francesca and Paolo’s adulterous love show how reading, loving and writing still intertwine in the 20th century, constructing a literary program with high claims on „Verbindlichkeit“. Its ambivalence, if not fragility can be demonstrated by the complex relations between Borges’s and Nietzsche’s concepts of eternal return, which at the same time take up a recurring figure from the other works: From Homer to Goethe, closure is produced as a framework of „Verbindlichkeit“ in reference to a cyclical order – returning, disparate phenomena are bound together into a circular unity. In the ultimate conclusion drawn by Nietzsche, however, the eternal return atomizes every binding order: What returns infinitely can never have been one in the first place. When Nietzsche talks about the „nuptial ring of return“, then, he combines making and breaking marital bonds in a sense that is essential to this study. Since he poetically stages his thinking of the eternal return as a loving and mocking overcoming of Goethe, it can also be understood as a critique of „philology“, the love of the author’s word. It is all the more surprising that Borges was able to integrate Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return into his „universal history“. The study therefore ends with a double conclusion: demonstration of the universal integrative power of literature (Borges) and critical distancing from its “philo-logic” (Nietzsche). In this way, it pleads to reassess the binding nature of literature and its role in philology.

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