I’m in a class on German and Jewish Intercultural History that basically examines how Germans and Jews were dealing with the problem of tolerance starting in 1750. The course focuses on literature of the time, and most recently we have read the play Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. My professor was lecturing on the context of the play and made this point: starting around 1760, Lessing made it a project of his to create some sort of “national theater” in German that would unite all the German-speaking countries (of which there were over 300 at that time, mostly principalities, and they all spoke different dialects). His main objectives were that the plays be in recognizable German (so all the different dialects could understand them) and that the plots be non-Biblical. In short, he wanted to give all of German-speaking Central Europe a common point of cultural reference that was not religious. Lessing was a writer who had the goal of changing and uniting his culture.
This made me pause. How many writers today could claim such a goal? Sure, writers like to say that they want to reflect culture and bring our attention to problems or quirks we should worry about, but has anyone sat down and said: at the end of my career, I want to have united my culture? Perhaps this was something more feasible in Lessing’s time, when the writers were more scarce and so the public had fewer choices as to who to listen to. Or perhaps in this post-enlightment, post-Victorian, post-modernist age, we just don’t think it is necessary to change society.
The final question this lecture brought to mind is: should that be the goal of a writer? Is it our role to change the world, or just entertain it?