Saturday, January 31, 2015

Goethe biographies

From The Book Haven
I have a new book review project: Rüdiger Safranski's Goethe: Kunstwerk des Lebens. I suppose it is not surprising that the titles of Goethe biographies resemble one another: Ludwig Geiger, Goethe: Sein Leben und sein Schaffen (1913); Albert Bielschowky, Goethe: Sein Leben und seine Werke (1895, followed by numerous editions); Friedrich Gundolf, simply Goethe (1916). It can't be helped. The same thing goes for biographies of Napoleon, Dante, Churchill, and lesser lights. Nevertheless, this issue of titles has me thinking about the book I am now completing, the title of which I will reveal in due course. Obviously, a book has to have a title that forces book buyers to want to look.

Safranski's method is to make use only of primary sources: the oeuvre, letters, diaries, conversations, reports of contemporaries. Whether this method is ultimately satisfying remains to be seen:  I have only reached chapter 7, which concerns the events after Goethe's return from Strassburg. In his preface, Safranski writes of a reason for our continuing interest in Goethe: "Er war nicht nur ein großer Schriftsteller, sondern auch ein Meister des Lebens." And the reason for a new biography? "Jede Generation hat die Chance, im Spiegel Goethes auch sich selbst und die eigene Zeit besser zu verstehen." In this respect, of Götz von Berlichingen he writes that what fascinated Goethe on this historical figure is the same as our fascination with American Westerns, i.e.: "der romantische Blick in eine vergangene Welt, in der der Einzelne noch zählt, der kraftvolle Kerl, der sich selbst seiner Haut wehren kann und der seine Souveränität noch nicht an Institutionen abgetreten hat, wodurch man zwar an Sicherheit gewinnt, aber eben auch verzwergt wird." That is definitely a Goethe for our time.

I was interested to see that Nicholas Boyle, author of Goethe: The Poet and the Age, of which two volumes have so far appeared, also published in 2012 a book entitled: 2014: How to Survive the Next World Crisis. This is a case of the kind of caution one must use in choosing a title. According to a headline of a 2012 review of the book in the English Daily Mail, "World could be plunged into crisis in 2014: Cambridge expert predicts 'a great event' will determine course of the century." Retuers (UK) headline: "Historian warns of looming political crisis." Well, 2014 is past, and what was that great event? An interdisciplinary journal, Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy, opines: "A tempting thesis, leavened with erudite references, to Hegel, Bentham, Johnson and Jefferson, and sound on the confused waffle that surrounds 'human rights.'"

Cover image of book, 1949
The Amazon "reviewers" of books, ordinary readers, are always interesting. There were only three of 2014, two of which gave it five stars. Here is the one-star review, with the headline The Blurb Says It All, thus beginning with a quote from the book's jacket copy: "If human civilization is to survive the 21st century, that ideology [American exceptionalism] will have to give way to a more realistic acceptance of supranational authorities, and especially of an enhanced IMF and WTO." The reviewer then continues: "In other words, saving humanity requires giving the parasites of the world increased power to plunder America. Meanwhile we're going broke as it is. LOL."

As much as I admire Professor Boyle, I am always skeptical of people wandering outside of their discipline to opine on the state of the world, especially the future. Although Reuters identifies Boyle as a historian, he is really a scholar of literature. Moreover, despite having spent many years trying to enter into the world of the 18th century, I am reticent to draw lessons for the present from events and the actions of individuals of that time. One only lives when one lives. Thus, history or the writing of history is of interest for the "errors" of the past, but I am not really sure what lessons one can draw for current issues. Yet, of course, that is the aim of even Safranski's biography of Goethe: "im Spiegel Goethes [Generation] auch sich selbst und die eigene Zeit besser zu verstehen."

Photo credits: Cynthia Haven; Only Artists; Dictus

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Goethe and Matthias Claudius

Matthias Claudius (b. 1740) died 200 hundreds years ago this past week. A new biography of Claudius has just appeared, by the German musicologist Martin Geck, who has written numerous musical biographies, including one of Richard Wagner, which appeared in English translation by Stewart Spencer in 2012. Geck is also editor of Wagner’s complete works. The subtitle of Matthias Claudius is Biographie eines Unzeitgemäßen. (Here is a review.) Claudius is not a figure with whom many Goethe scholars, much less Germanists, are familiar, although all of us who concentrated on the 18th century in our studies recognize the name "Der Wandsbecker Bote," the small newspaper of which Claudius was editor from 1770 to 1775.

Besides Claudius's own contributions to the newspaper, he published on its fourth page reviews and literary notices as well as the writings of some of the most famous writers of the time, including Johann Heinrich Voß, Heinrich Christian Boie, Herder, Goethe, Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty, Hamann, Lessing, and  Wieland. The Goethe poems were folk songs Goethe had collected in the Alsace and revised (e.g., "Das Lied vom Herrn von Falckenstein," "Das Lied vom verkleideten Grafen") as well as the short poems "Es hatt' ein Knab eine Taube zart" and "Ein Gleichniß" ("Uber die Wiese, den Bach herab."). That was in 1773. Claudius also reviewed Die Leiden des jungen Werthers when it appeared. "Weiß nicht," he wrote, "obs ’n Geschicht oder ’n Gedicht ist."

Besides this journalistic activity, Claudius was also a poet, most famous today for a poem that is supposedly known to all Germans, "Abendlied." It begins, ""Der Mond ist aufgegangen,/ Die goldnen Sternlein prangen/ Am Himmel hell und klar;/ Der Wald steht schwarz und schweiget,/ Und aus den Wiesen steiget/ Der weiße Nebel wunderbar" Here is a link to a musical version.

Claudius evoked divided opinion. Herder, who published "Abendlied" in Stimmen der Völker in Liedern, called him "das größte Genie," with a heart that burned "wie Steinkohle." Goethe referred to him in Italienische Reise as a "Narr, der voll Einfaltsprätentionen steckt." Schiller passed on to Goethe Wilhelm von Humboldt's opinion, namely, that Claudis was "eine völlige Null." Those seem very harsh opinions. Was it because of Claudius's Christian piety? Although Geck writes that Goethe and Claudius first met while riding in a coach and discussing Spinoza, Claudius also had lifelong associations with Lavater and Hamann.

Goethes Handschrift im Kickelhahn-Häuschen (Das Goethezeitportal)
I listened to a German radio podcast of an interview with Martin Geck. In discussing the subtitle of the Claudius biography, he said that he was also alluding to himself. He is a Christian and grew up in a Christian family that sang songs every evening, including those of Claudius. Geck makes a nice contrast between the last words of Goethe's "Über allen Gipfeln" and "Abendlied." Both end with the single syllable "auch," but Claudius's verse has a much different emphasis:

So legt euch denn, ihr Brüder,
In Gottes Namen nieder;
Kalt ist der Abendhauch.
Verschon uns, Gott! mit Strafen,
Und laß uns ruhig schlafen!
Und unsern kranken Nachbarn auch!


Professor Geck said that he sits down before dinner every evening and plays "Abendlied" on the piano.

If you go to the site MartinInBroda and enter "Matthias Claudius" in the search bar, you will find some nice posts on Claudius, including poems with English translations.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Visit to Aruba

Goethe Girl on the beach
Goethe Girl just returned from a stay on the island of Aruba. A friend of mine who has a time share there invited me for a visit.

Aruba, a former Dutch possession, is now an independent country that is nevertheless one of the four "constituent countries" of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The main "industry" is tourism, and it is evident that a lot of investment has gone into making it a travel-friendly and comfortable place. The inhabitants appear to be well educated. I went out on two tours –– standup paddle boarding and snorkeling –– and in both cases the instructors spoke four languages: English, Dutch, Spanish, and Papiemento. On such a short visit it was difficult to discover much about the civic life of Aruba. For instance, many, many years ago, I spent several months on the Indonesian island of Bali, where one is everywhere aware of the native mores and institutional structures. In Aruba, one is hard put to get behind the scene, if indeed there is "a scene." I notice on the Wikipedia site that no books have been devoted to the history of the island, unlike, for instance, the many books on Trinidad or Jamaica. This absence will be something to investigate if I return.

Aruban iguana
One is so fortunate to be a "Westerner." Imagine a very cold winter, temperatures hovering around zero, but, because of a worldwide commercial infrastructure, you have the opportunity to board an airplane and in four hours land on an island where the sun always shines and the temperature is 88 degrees.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Goethe and "Mr. Turner"

From TheoryOfColor.Org (Brendan Ferguson)
I am not crazy about biopics, but who can avoid Mr. Turner, especially when there is evidence that he was familiar with Goethe's Farbenlehre, which appeared in an English translation by Charles Eastlake already in 1840. Turner owned a copy in which he made marginal notes. Two paintings by Turner first exhibited in 1843 have been regarded by scholars as referencing Goethe's optical experiments: Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis and Shade and Darkness — the Evening of the Deluge. According to the blog of Alexandra Loske, the paintings became part of the Turner Bequest after the painter's death. They were paired in an exhibit at the Tate in 2010 as part of a display called "Color and Line: Turner's Experiments," alongside Turner's annotated copy of Goethe's Theory of Colors. Again, according to Loske, the book does not form part of the Bequest, but is in a private collection.

Below is the image of Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis. Go here for Shade and Darkness.

Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory of Colour), Tate Britain
Aside from the fact that I am not a visual artist, I don't feel qualified to comment on the effect of Goethe's theories on artists. (Wikipedia has an article on the Light and Colour painting.) Let me, however, offer the insights of Michael Bockenmühl, author of Turner, regarding Goethe's general influence as well as Turner's response in these two paintings:

"Goethe's theory was the only attempt in Turner's time to formulate a theory of the phenomena of light and colour acknowledging the physical, psychological, and aesthetic conditions and their interrelation. As a concept of an introduction to the phenomenality of colour, it is a kindred spirit to Turner's creative work.

"One of these marginal notes is a direct expression of the extent to which Turner was in accord with Goethe's opinions. At the same time, it shows that Turner was fully aware of the problematic nature, as examined here from various angles, of a pictorial quality aiming at direct experience through the observational act. With regard to the effect of colour structures in a picture, Goethe writes: 'If the totality of colour is presented to the eye from the outside in the form of an object, it will be pleasing to the eye, because it thereby encounters the sum of its own activity as reality,' Turner comments: 'this is the object of Painting.'"

And the movie Mr. Turner? My objection to biopics concerns the "potted" nature of the narrative. For instance, Turner's fall from the height of his acclaim is presented in two episodes lasting about five minutes: Queen Victoria walks with full court (including Prince Albert) into the gallery in which Turner's works are on view and expresses her displeasure, whereupon, in quick succession, various viewers express their agreement with the now common wisdom that Turner has lost it. The next scene is a popular theater stage on which Turner's paintings are ridiculed. Still, all in all, the movie was fun to watch, and the performances leave one in admiration of good actors.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Hitler redux

Now, for a change of pace: Adrienne gave me for Christmas the book Er ist wieder da: Der Roman by Timur Vermes. It is a first novel by the author and recounts the reappearance of Adolf Hitler, time capsule–transported to a vacant lot in Berlin, sixty years after his supposed death in his Berlin bunker. Waking up, he finds himself homeless and destitute. When he discovers, from the front page of a newspaper, that it is 2011, he promptly faints and is initially given shelter by the owner of the kiosk. Since he is immediately recognizable, people at first take him for a figure in a TV series ("Stromberg") who has parodied Hitler. The kiosk owner is astute enough to get in touch with media folks, who in turn believe he is a method actor. Among this reborn Hitler's many false inferences –– and an indication that he sees events through a Nazi perspective –– the presence of so many Turks in Berlin convinces him that Turkey joined the Axis. He achieves modern celebrity status through his rants, which are broadcast on YouTube. I have not yet reached the end of the novel, but apparently he is heading for a return to politics. Empfehlungswert?? Hmmm. The novel hit the bestseller lists in Germany. Check out the Guardian review.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Christmas and all that

S. Dali, St. John of the Cross, 1951
Lots to do at the end of the year, for instance, donations to make, but no commemoration of Christmas or Hanukkah. After Rick passed away (three years now) I could not bring myself to send out Christmas cards. Traditionally, after all, that card always included a photo of Rick and myself taken during the course of the year. The small photo at the top right of this blog was taken on Governor's Island on Memorial Day in 2011 and would have served as the Christmas photo for that year. It was never sent. Every holiday since I have managed to get out of town, as the thought of waking up in my apartment on Christmas was too much to bear. We always celebrated New Year's eve by going to a restaurant nearby, sitting at the bar and having drinks and dinner, while keeping an eye on the TV, tuned to the goings on in Times Square. Since we went there year after year, we ran into many of the same people. This year I kept it local: a friend came for dinner early, after which I watched House of Fools, a surprisingly tender but not sugar-coated movie set in an insane asylum located on the front of a skirmish between Russians and Chechens in that ongoing war. Not downbeat, although my mood corresponds very much to the sentiments to be found in the lovely rendition of "Dark Night of the Soul" by Loreena McKennitt. (Sorry about the ad preceding the song, but I prefer the images on this video to other versions. I owe this link to a German blog: Martin in Broda.)

Goethe Girl and Sol LeWit
Christmas was spent with my friend Adrienne in Chatham, New York, near the Massachusetts border, and we ventured one day to North Adams to the MassMoCA, a contemporary arts museum located in a huge, abandoned textile complex. It is dedicated to installation art, a medium that has in the past not "spoken" to me. Think Joseph Beuys or Richard Serra: i.e., spit-in-your-face, disgust-the-public, with no concession to anything approaching "beauty." Joseph Beuys seems to have made his name with such works at documenta in Kassel many years ago, but on my visit there in 2012 there was very little of the offputting stuff: the tendency in Germany was toward the didactically political and environmental. In the U.S., however, I have noticed in recent years that installations are becoming more "public friendly." Think the High Line. Such is MassMoCO. Above is Goethe Girl in one of the rooms devoted to the works of Sol LeWit. People wandered through the large rooms with their kids, and one couldn't help noticing how absorbed the kids were.  The artists' intentions are playful. I have written on this before, in a post on "Spieltrieb" and Schiller's Aesthetic Letters. The pieces are not produced in order to remind you of politics or of war or of global warming.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Goethe's "bildhafte Sprache"

The 3 Fates, by Hans Vischer, ca. 1530
I was reading through Über Kunst und Altertum and discovered (vol. 5, no. 1) the following in the opening of the section "Einzelnes." It is succinct, as in required with aphorisms, but I was struck anew by Goethe's employment of a structure of imagery, drawn from nature but also, as here, from mythology, in the process embedding human life and activity in a larger context:

Indem ich mich zeither mit der Lebensgeschichte wenig und viel bedeutender Menschen anhaltender beschäftigte, kam ich auf den Gedanken: es möchten sich wohl die einen in dem Weltgewebe als Zettel, die andern als Einschlag betrachen lassen; jene gäben eigentlich die Breite des Gewebes an, diese dessen Halt, Festigkeit, vielleicht auch mit Zuthat irgend eines Gebildes. Die Scheere der Parze hingegen bestimmt die Länge, dem sich denn das Übrige alles zusammen unterwerfen muß. Weiter wollen wir das Gleichniß nicht verfolgen.

By reference to the Fates, Goethe also suggests the role of chance in the success or failure of human activity, which accords with his belief that Nature is amoral: "Die Natur versteht gar keinen Spaß, sie ist immer wahr ... sie hat immer Recht, und die Fehler und Irrtümer sind immer des Menschen." Nature does not play favorites: that is a thought that sounds like the rationalizing of a man whom life has bitterly disappointed, although in Goethe's case one might think that he was mightily fortunate.

The "weighing of the heart" from the Egyptian Book of the Dead
This is one of those times when I sense what seems like a chink of glass in Goethe's heart. But maybe it is I who has the blind spot. I much prefer the notion contained in this Egyptian image, in which one's actions are being evaluated posthumously.