Thursday, February 26, 2015

Goethe and the scientists

Goethe observing the light
I recently got hold of the "Naturwissenschaften" supplement to the Goethe-Handbuch, edited by Manfred Wenzel. I am very impressed, especially since the editorial team was a small one. The volume includes an introductory apparatus, followed by 290 pages of "overview" essays, starting with the writings on morphology, followed by sections on color theory, geology (before 1800), meteorology, general "Naturlehre," and the reception of Goethe's scientific writings. The largest part  (pp. 291-720) is a dictionary and people and terms. The volume is rounded out with indexes (contemporary reviews of Goethe's writings, contents of the Leopoldina edition, places of publication) and a chronological table. The appendix includes a short bibliography, an index of illustrations, a section of color plates, and an index of names. I am especially looking forward to going through the dictionary, which begins with Abel, Johann Gotthelf Lebrecht; Abglanz; and Abstraktion and ends with Zshokke, Johann Heinrich Daniel; Zucker; and Zwischenkieferknochen.

The section that most interested me right off the bat concerns the reception of Goethe as scientist, a 38-page essay authored by Bianca Bican and Manfred Wenzel. I am only about half way through, as I keep getting held up by following some of the writers who have opined on Goethe's scientific activities. I am familiar with some of the big names in this regard: Helmholtz, Heisenberg, Ernst Haeckel, Emil De Bois-Reymond, and Rudolf Steiner, but I had never heard of Jacob Hermann Friedrich Kohlbrugge, whose Historisch-kritische Studien über Goethe als Naturforscher was published in 1913. According to the article, Kohlbrugge subjects Goethe's scientific writings to a "herber Kritik, indem er sie weitgehend as Plagiate bezeichnete, denen nur Opportunisten ihren Beifall schenkten." I found Kohlbrugge's book online –– the photocopy from the University of Toronto library was massively marked in the margins –– and read it.

Kohlbrugge was a biologist, and he  states that he wrote out of a spirit of opposition to all of the books claiming Goethe as a pathbreaking scientist, including in regard to evolution. Kohlbrugge makes a nice distinction concerning the term "pre-Darwinist," which only applies to those scientists who asserted actual evolutionary descent or "Abstammung" before Darwin. According to Kohlbrugge, it was Rousseau who first stimulating thinking about this possibility, which was taken up by French materialists and writers of the Encyclopédie. The debate on the origins of language in the 18th century also made some people consider the possibility. Herder, writes Kohlbrugge, struggled with the idea as well. Later, in  Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1785) he wrote: “Der Menschheit jüngere Brüder sind die Tiere.” However, he opposed Rousseau’s idea that men were once four-footed creatures, believing in the “Unveränderlichkeit der Art.” Goethe had read Rousseau carefully, and he gave much thought to the relatedness of man and ape, which led to the studies of the jaw bone. But he did not publish his manuscript for 34 years, which show that he changed his opinion about the relationship of man and animal. He turned his back on the “Abstammungstheorie,” in the sense of a blood relationship, and seems never to have considered the possibility of unlimited new species through exterior influences.

Kohlbrugge is indeed very severe on Goethe as a scientist and contends that “Kunst und Naturbetrachtung waren bei Goethe stets innig vereinigt.” His study, however, is a thorough presentation, including many, many 17th-, 18th-, and early 19th-century sources, while placing Goethe's efforts within the context of the time in which he was working.

There are two things that strike me about Goethe's scientific efforts. The first is that he did not engage in the kind of experimentation that led to any practical applications. For instance, as I have learned from an article by John Moyker on the intellectual origins of modern economic growth, “The great Lavoisier worked on assorted applied problems, including as a young man on the chemistry of gypsum and the problems of street lighting.” Moyker also mentions “Linnaeus's belief that skillful naturalists could transform farming was widely shared and inspired the establishment of agricultural societies and farm improvement organizations throughout Europe.” Goethe's experiments did not contribute to the accumulation of facts or knowledge that propelled the scientific revolution. On the other hand, he was responsible for bringing important scientists to the university at Jena.

This brings me to the second thing: his lucubrations were in the realm of "Weltbild," and he seems to have regarded his work in science as fundamental to the understanding of nature. Thus, his desire for recognition by serious scientists, and his bitterness at their dismissal of him as a scientist. Their "natural laws" had nothing in common with Goethe's, which, according to Kohlbrugge, were “nicht mechanischer Art, sondern psychischer, ganz wie die Formen eines Kunstwerkes durch die Psyche des Künstlers bestimmt.”

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Goethe and money


Every now and then while reading Safranski's biography of Goethe, I have to laugh out loud. Such was my reaction today when I learned that Goethe made a 100 Thaler bet in the Hamburg Lottery in May 1797; the main prize was an estate (Landgut) in Silesia. The numbers he chose included, among other calculations, his own and Schiller's birth dates. As Safranski writes, "er zog eine Niete." The next year Goethe purchased a property in Oberroßla, 10 km northeast of Weimar. Five years later, he was glad to be get rid of it at a loss.

I have posted on the subject of Goethe and money before, long ago, in fact, in 2008. Back then my focus was on what the possession of money allowed Goethe to do and enjoy. He was the recipient of a considerable inheritance, accumulated by his grandfather. While his father did not deplete the fortune, he lived off the income from that legacy, somewhat like the landed gentry portrayed in Jane Austen's novels. Goethe's expenditures in Weimar, as he sank roots there, became considerable. Like his father, he kept an accurate record of his financial outlays. In his last decades, one can see that he enjoyed good food and good wines.

I came across a post today on a site called Brain Pickings, which aims to tell readers "What Goethe can teach us about cultivating a healthy relationship with our finances." The blogger draws on a book How to Worry Less About Money, by John Armstrong, "philosopher-in-residence" at Melbourne's Business School. Armstrong earlier wrote a book (Love, Life, Goethe: Lessons of the Imagination from the Great German Poet, 2006) that I reviewed, negatively, in volume 15 of Goethe Yearbook. It is a bit tiring to return to Goethe on the subject of life lessons, but here I go again.

Life lessons from Goethe
The Brain Pickings' blogger, Maria Popova, has many musings on how to have a "healthy relationship" with finances, focusing on our emotional problems with money. For most people, I would hazard that their worries about money are very existential: they don't have enough to pay their bills, in contrast to Goethe, who never feared the loss of a roof over his head. Thus, her advice is for people who have enough. She quotes from Armstrong's new book to demonstrate Goethe correct relationship:

"From his many writings about his own experiences, we know that he was determined to get well paid for his work. He came from a well-off background but sought independence. He switched careers, from law to government adviser so as to be able to earn more (which made sense then; today the trajectory might be in the opposite direction). He coped with serious setbacks. His first novel was extremely popular but he made no money from it because of inadequate copyright laws. Later, he negotiated better contracts. He was very competent in financial matters and kept meticulous records of his income and expenditure. He liked what money could buy — including … a stylish house-coat (his study had no heating). But for all this, money and money worries did not dominate his inner life. He wrote with astonishing sensitivity about love and beauty. He was completely realistic and pragmatic when it came to money but this did not lead him to neglect the worth of exploring bigger, more important concepts in life."

Well, yes and no. It is true that money worries did not dominate Goethe's inner life, which may have contributed to his ability to write "with astonishing sensitivity about love and beauty." Friedrich Schiller, as Safranski points out, was burdened by this difference between himself and Goethe. Goethe's serenity, such as it was, however, was hard won, although having money perhaps gave him opportunity to work on his serenity.


What I find interesting about Goethe on the subject of money is his failure to increase his paternal inheritance. Aside from a few bad financial ventures (the property in Oberroßla), he remained very conservative. Some of his contemporaries were making a killing in the market in the 18th century, e.g., Voltaire. (See my earlier post in this connection.) This conservatism is somewhat strange, since, as financial minister of the duchy and because of his attempts to increase the duchy’s tax revenues, Goethe was up to date on the Europe-wide discussion of modern economic issues. He was acquainted with the writings of Adam Smith via Georg Friedrich Sartorius, economist and historian at the University of Göttingen, who was the first mediator of Smith’s writings in Germany. The Jena Allgemeine Zeitung kept abreast: in 1804 Sartorius reviewed Henry Thornton’s An Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Paper-Credit of Great Britain; in 1808 JAZ reviewed F.H. Hegewisch’s German translation of Malthus’s essay Principles of Population; and, in 1817, Georg Graf von Buquoy’s Die Theorie der Nationalwirtschaft. In recent years there has of course been increasing interest in Goethe’s understanding of finance and economics, beginning with Bernd Mahl, Goethes ökonomisches Wissen (1982).

Goethe's legacy, well expressed
Yet, the fact remains that Goethe did nothing to increase the wealth he inherited, wealth that his ancestors had labored to provide. On the other hand, of course, Goethe enriched the Western cultural inheritance, of which we are all in his debt.

Picture credits: Navona Numismatics; Carpe Diem Moments

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

War is terrible

The cathedral of Mainz burns, by Georg Schneider (ca. 1800)
Such is the conclusion one might draw from Goethe's reaction to the campaigns in which he participated in 1792 and 1793. I have reached this point in Safranski's biography. In 1792 Goethe was living in happy domesticity in Weimar and was not eager to join Carl August. Nevertheless, the allies were confident that the revolutionary forces would be quickly defeated. In one of his first letters to Christiane (Sept. 2, 1792), he writes that they expect to be in Paris soon and that he will return with a souvenir or two. In Campagne in Frankreich, written three decades after the event, Goethe portrays the disastrous campaign, especially the mud in which the forces were trapped and the lack of provisioning.

Safranski writes that there is no independent witness of Goethe's statement in Campagne –– von hier und heute geht eine neue Eoche der Weltgeschichte aus, und ihr könnt' sagen, ihr seid dabei gewesen." He did write something similar to Knebel, however, on September 27, 1792: "Es ist mir sehr lieb, daß ich das alles mit Augen gesehen habe und daß ich, wenn von dieser wichtigen Epoche die Rede ist sagen kann: et quorum pars minima fui." The middle of November he wrote to Voigt: "Dieser Feldzug wird als eine der unglücklichsten Unternehmungen in den Jahrbüchern der Welt eine traurige Geschichte machen."

Map of the siege of Mainz, 1793
Not even a year later Goethe was present at the siege of Mainz, which has already produced a refugee catastrophe. First, the French forces drove out 2,000 people who refused to take the revolutionary oath, among them clerics, Jews,  and officials. Later all non-combattants were expelled –– the aged, along with women and children, who were left to their fate, without resources. The bombardment of the city lasted three weeks, and when the siege was over the victors took terrible revenge, according to Safranski, which was followed by "Pogromstimmung" among the surviving population. (Here is a good report, in German.) On August 3, 1793, Goethe wrote to Jacobi of the effect on him of the events: "Mich wandelt in meiner jetztigen Lage eine Art Stupor an und ich finde den trivialen Ausdruck der Verstand steht mir still, trefflich um die Lage meines Geistes auszudrucken." One result was Reineke Fuchs, in which the human atrocities are reflected in the animal kingdom.

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the Islamic State in Sinjar, walk towards the Syrian border
Goethe's reaction took on additional resonance this morning. I was at the gym, where one cannot avoid the TV monitors, and as I worked out for 45 minutes on the elliptical CNN beat to death, so to speak, the death of Kyla Mueller, the twenty-six-year-old ISIS hostage. Picture after picture showed the smiling young woman, in some photos bearing signs demanding "justice in Darfur" or the cessation of the genocide there. She seems to have worked in several war-torn or impoverished areas in recent years, including Israel, the Palestinian territory, and India. Most recently she was on the Turkish-Syrian border assisting in the efforts to aid refugees pouring out of Syria. She was kidnapped in August 2013, as she left a hospital operated by Doctors without Borders, when ISIS moved into that area.

My twenties are too far behind me to judge Kyla's motives not only for helping others but also for suffering. As she wrote to her father in 2011: “Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love. I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.” She seems to have been a remarkable young woman, as can be seen in this letter that she wrote from captivity.

The conventions that arose in the 19th and 20th centuries to spare non-combatants as well as journalists are not honored in the present stage of war. Human shields have been a standard instrument of Middle Eastern "freedom fighters." Westerners, accustomed to a more civilized standard of living, tend to become excessively valedictorial when confronted with the death of an idealistic young woman like Kyla Mueller, who becomes representative of "all that is best in the West." Thus, the non-stop coverage on CNN.

Picture credits: Hundert Jahre Mainzer Dom; International Business Times

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Goethe at auction

I posted back in November on the immanent Sotheby auction of a cache of Goethe letters. The estimate was 80,000–100,000 British pounds. The lot was sold for 110,500 British pounds. Does anyone know who the purchaser was?

The charming 19th-century cup and saucer with Goethe's profile, above, was sold by a German auction house in 1993. Here is a description: "Keramik, heller Scherben. Gelblich und bräunlich glasiert. Craquelé. Unleserliche, eingepresste Marke. H. der Ot: 7 cm, D. der Ut: 12,5 cm. - Zustand: Ut min. Chip am Rand." I wonder how much was paid for it.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions of Van Nuys, California, is offering in March various items associated with Goethe, including this 1982 screen print by Andy Warhol. The estimated price is $30,000–50,000. For those who are interested, here are the details.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Freedom of speech


 Although I published a volume several years ago on freedom of speech in the 18th century (Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea), and even discussed that work on this blog, I haven't felt drawn to comment on the events of January 7 in Paris. That is, until I came across the above image on the internet.

In the heated history of freedom of speech in the past couple of centuries, Voltaire is often quoted on the subject, along with J.S. Mill. Voltaire did not utter the quote misattributed to him ("I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it"), but he and Mill have been considered something like founding fathers of the doctrine. In light of this year's events, I wonder if Voltaire would really be so brave.

One had to admire Charlie Hebdo for being so fearless back in 2006; it was one of the few publications to stand behind the right to insult a holy cow by reprinting the so-called Mohammed cartoons. But was admiration really the right feeling? If freedom of speech is so sacrosanct, why weren't truly major publications equally fearless? In the U.S. that would include the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Self-censorship by BLU
By 2006, however, self-censorship and circumspection toward Islam were the order of the day. The Times, for instance, did not reprint the cartoons, which in any case circulated widely on the internet.
Interestingly, the Times article on February 8, 2006, was accompanied by a photograph of Chris Ofili's offending painting of the Virgin covered with cow dung. Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, hailed the “sensitivity” of Fleet Street in not reprinting the cartoons. PEN, the organization of writers that "works to defend freedom of expression and resist censorship worldwide" (as per its website), restricted itself to holding forums in New York in the spring of 2006 to explore the question whether there should be limits on the right of speech and artistic expression. Yale University Press decided to omit the cartoons from its 2009 publication on the controversy, The Cartoons That Shook the World by Jytte Klaussen. So, why quote Voltaire, if inaccurately, if one is not ready to stand behind the sentiment.

The size of the crowds in Western capitals after January 7, bearing signs proclaiming "Je suis Charlie," were impressive, but compare them with the animated crowds of men who appear in the Middle East whenever an offense to Islam has been felt. If it came to blows, I fear the former would rapidly disperse. The truth is that the only people who put their lives on the lines to defend our Western freedoms are our soldiers. They allow the rest of us to go on with our lives, enjoying not only our rights but also our wonderful way of life.

In my publication on freedom of speech I argued that our Western civil rights have been historically achieved; that they were fought for by previous generations. These rights were achieved alongside growing material progress in the West (achieved to the greatest extent on the backs of non-Westerners): when ordinary people have a roof over their heads and are able to purchase a second set of clothes, they develop a sense of self-worth, which led, in turn, to demands to have that worth represented in institutions. This was a century-long process, but by now our rights have become so naturalized that we take them for granted. Thus, rights are often referred to as "universal," as if they were endowed by God.

The lawlessness that accompanies the protests of masked and scimitar-wielding Muslim fanatics, not to mention the sight of burkha-clad women demanding shariah law, especially on the streets of European cities, no doubt strike fear into the hearts of Europeans, accustomed for several decades now to the good life. It is clearly hard for many Europeans to understand the rage of the home-grown jihadists. Barring a miraculous European economic recovery, it is unlikely that the anger of the latter will be assuaged anytime soon.

That being said, most Muslims the world over would no doubt prefer to live in a stable society with economic opportunities and democratic institutions. Yet, they have become wary of the West because of the issue of religion. They do not wish to see Mohammed or other Islamic religious figures treated with the same ridicule as Christian and Jewish icons. To accept such treatment would be to abandon a distinctive part of their own cultural patrimony. Westerners, religious or not, have become inured to insults against Christianity or Judaism as well as to ridicule of traditional claims of religion on us as moral persons. Rather than concentrating on the pieties of Muslims concerning their beliefs, we should proudly demonstrate that our Western heritage, which includes religion, is dear to us. That goes for atheists as well, who should now be declaring: “We Are All Christians and Jews.”

That is my take on the subject.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Corona Schröter and Goethe

Corona Schröter drawing a bust of Goethe
I continue to plunge through Safranski's biography of Goethe, or Kunstwerk des Lebens. The new environment of Weimar certainly stirred Goethe's imagination and gave him, initially anyway, "ein freies Feld" for his exuberant tendencies. Even for those who "know" their Goethe, this section is a pleasant (in the best sense of the term) read. Goethe is close to power, even if it is a small power. It is hard to dredge up a contemporary example of the situation of the duchy. Even the small Muslim principalities of India in the 15th and 16th centuries had more splendor than Weimar. Power relies to a great extent on symbolism.

Besides Charlotte von Stein, Goethe was very drawn to the actress Corona Schroter, whom the duke and Goethe urged to settle in Weimar. She was, however, according to Safranski, very concerned for her reputation and was always accompanied by a kind of "Kammerzofe." The duke wooed her, with great effort, but with no success.

Goethe likewise was attracted. He wrote in his diary on January 2, 1777, after a visit with her: Nicht geschlafen. Herzklopfen und fliegende Hitze. In May, when Charlotte von Stein was away, she spent an entire day with Goethe in his garden house. A few days later, Charlotte, having heard of this visit, made a rare visit to the garden house.

Goerg Melchior Kraus: Goethe als Orest und Corona Schröter als Iphigenie
Goethe became an impresario in the first years in Weimar, especially of cultural activities. The "Uraufführung" of Iphigenie took place in April 1779 in the Redoutentheater. According to Safranski, he created the character of Iphigenie on Corona, viewing her as beautiful and passionate, yet also pure and "sittsam." This first production featured Corona as Iphigenie and Goethe as Orest. Writes Safranski: "Coronas junonische Formen und ihr sorgfältig drapiertes seidenes Kostüm paßten zm antikisierenden Geschmack bei Hofe, und Goethe selbst kam so gut zur Geltung, daß der Arzt Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland noch im hohen Alter in Erinnerungen schwelgte: 'man glaubte eine Apollo zu sehen.'" Goethe's own diary entry of April 6 records the following: "Iph[igenie] gespielt. gar gute Würkung davon besonders auf reine Menschen." His friend Knebel played Thoas, and Prince Constantin appeared in the role of Pylades. The above painting by Kraus was executed in the same year. The painting of Corona drawing the bust of Goethe, also by Kraus, is from 1794-97.

Picture credits:  Kunst-fuer-alle.de

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Goethe and Friedrich Jacobi

Friedrich Jacobi
While searching for images for posts on Goethe's blog, I often file some in a folder for future use. Such is this picture of Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819) by and unknown portraitist. I now have an opportunity to use it, as chapter 10 of Safranski's biography of Goethe introduces Jacobi. This is how Safranski describes him: "Er war ein tüchtiger und sehr vermögender Geschäftsmann mit einer ausgeprägten Liebe zur Philosophie. Er kannte Gott und die Welt, wechselte Briefe mit allen, die Rang und Namen hatten, mit Lessing, Wieland, Klpstock, Hamann und Kant. Jacobi war ein schöner Mann mit elegantem und gewinnendem Auftreten." The painting of Jacobi here certainly suggests "ein[en] schöne[n] Mann mit elegantem und gewinnendem Auftreten."

Goethe was very impressed, and they went on to have a gay old time together. Anyone who has read the letters Jacobi wrote to Goethe at this time (1774) will certainly recognize a so-called man crush. The relationship became more complex in later years, although Jacobi seems always to have been of an "enthusiastic" temperament. Goethe managed to channel this aspect as time went on.