Thursday, October 16, 2014

World literature and progress

Several posts on this blog have discussed Peter Goßens book, which concerns the reception of Goethe's concept of world literature already in Goethe's lifetime and in the decades following his death. World literature was appropriated in the context of social and political reform. For instance, prominent in Goßens’ treatment is the influence of Karl August Varnhagen and the penetration of the ideas of the followers of Saint-Simon, especially among Goethe admirers in Varnhagen’s Berlin circle. Cyrus Hamlin has written that Varnhagen’s reading of the Wanderjahre was a “Gebrauchsanweisung für die zukünftige soziale Ordnung Europas in 19. Jahrhundert,” thereby forming, in Goßens’ words, “der Grundstein einer sozialistischen Goethedeutung.”

So "progessive Universalpoesie," although not in the sense in which Friedrich Schlegel meant. World literature was the inspiration for reformers, not only of their own society, but also of the world. The project was utopian: formal analysis was set aside, and aesthetics was subsumed into ethics.  It was this utopian vision that drew Marx’s ironic response to world literature in The Communist Manifesto and to the more scathing ridicule in Engels’ Anti-Dühring.

Goethe himself had of course asserted that literary exchange among the European nations would erode the prejudices that existed among them and, in the future, extend beyond Europe to encompass the world. Echoing Goethe, if not in his own words, the German-American comparatist Louis-Paul Betz (for Betz, see my earlier post) wrote the following in 1903:

 "Comparative literature not only creates new and more liberal insights into  both national literature and foreign literature, it not only reveals errors and corrects traditions, but it also achieves useful, ideal, and ethical purposes: world peace, mediation between peoples, a humanity that, regardless of the inner life of a nation, also has heart and feeling for that which takes place on the other side of the boundary post. … it leads to the recognition that the concord of peoples and progressive national development are based on an continuously growing consciousness of the richness of all peoples and of their universal unity and on the principle of being forever true to oneself and of joining with the Other."

French soldier and Indian bride return from Paris, 1720
In an essay in 1924 ("Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown") Virginia Woolf claimed that "on or about December 1910 human character changed." She was not saying that literature produced this change, but that literature began to record or reflect changes on the ground. In my last post, I suggested that commerce and trade, beginning in 16th century already, was the major factor in diminishing enmity among the people of the various countries, if not among their rulers. Trade produced a need for new products and inventions. The result was "progress," at first of a material nature. Such progress, however, would upend the the traditional order of life, open people's horizons, and and make them codependent on others for their comforts and their way of life. This term, however, came to be moralized: progress meant an advance on the past, which began to be considered retrograde. As the painting above shows (click to enlarge), Europeans also sought to improve the conditions of non-Europeans, to help them to "advance," which meant becoming European.

Picture credit: Anglais pour le Bac

Monday, October 13, 2014

World literature and trade and commerce

In my paper on the construction of Europe as a cultural space, I am drawing attention to three thinkers who stressed the connection between trade and commerce, on the one hand; and the "advance" of manners and customs and the amity among nations, on the other. These are Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Nicholas Barban.

First, Voltaire, in his 1736 work Le Mondaine (The Worldling):

See how that fleet, with canvas wings,
From Texel, Bordeaux, London brings,
By happy commerce to our shores,
All Indus, and all Ganges stores;
Whilst France, that pierced the Turkish lines,
Sutans make drunk with rich French wines.
Just as the time of Nature’s birth,
Dark ignorance o’erspread the earth;
None then in wealth surpassed the rest,
For naught the human race possessed.
Of clothes, their bodies then were bare,
They nothing had, and could not share:
Then too they sober were and sage,
Martialo lived not in that age.
Eve, first formed by the hand divine,
Never so much as tasted wine.
Do you our ancestors admire,
Because they wore no rich attire?
Ease was like wealth to them uknown,
Was’t virtue? Ignorance alone.
Would any fool, had he a bed,
On the bare ground have laid his head?

Next, Montesqieu, from Spirit of the Laws (1748):

“Commerce cures destructive prejudices, and it is an almost general rule that everywhere there are gentle mores, there is commerce and that everywhere there is commerce, there are gentle mores. ... Commerce has spread knowledge of the mores of all nations everywhere; they have been compared to each other, and good things have resulted from this.” (ch. 1)

“The natural effect of commerce is to lead to peace. Two nations that trade with each other become reciprocally dependent; if one has an interest in buying, the other has an interest in selling, and all unions are founded on mutual needs.” (ch. 2)

“It is the nature of commerce to make superfluous things useful, and useful things necessary.” (ch. 23)

Finally, the interesting figure of Barban, one of the earliest exponents of free trade, who makes concrete a point made by Goethe in his comments on world literature, namely, that commerce with other nations lessens our prejudices toward our neighbors. From A Discourse of Trade (1790):

"Nature may be satisfied with little; but it is the wants of the Mind, Fashion, and desire of Novelities, and Things scarce, that causeth Trade. A Person may have English-Lace, Gloves, or Silk, as much as he wants, and will Buy no more such; and yet, lay out his Money on a Point of Venice, Jessimine-Gloves, or French-Silks; he may desire to Eat Westphalian-Bacon, when he will not English ...”

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Goethe and Europe

Jean Cousin the Elder, The Abduction of Europa (1550)
 I am preparing my presentation for the Goethe Society of North America conference, which takes place in Pittsburgh from October 23 to 26. The panel I am on concerns "space": domestic spaces and cosmic space in the papers of my co-panelists. My paper concerns Europe, its construction as a unified cultural space by the 19th century and the implications of that unity, in particular universalist aspirations.

As is usual in my presentations, I come equipped with a "slide show." Herewith some opening images. (Click to enlarge.)

As Anthony Pagden has written (among his publications are The Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union), "Europe" is an ambiguous place. As the painting by Jean Cousin indicates, the origins of Europe are not in geography, but in myth. The abducted Europa was a Phoenician, thus an "Asian." As Pagden writes, "An abducted Asian woman gave Europe her name; a vagrant Asian exile [i.e., Aeneis from Troy] gave Europe its political and finally its cultural identity; and an Asian prophet gave Europe its religion." Frankly, I find this "Asian" emphasis a bit thick. What, after all, constitutes "Asia," everything south and east of the Aegean Sea?

In connection with my presentation, however, this assimilationist tendency is characteristic of what has become "Europe." More postings on this subject follow.

Picture credit: Counter-Currents Publishing

Friday, September 26, 2014

Goethe and the mines

Clausthal (click to enlarge)
 Goethe's "first" Harz journey began at the end of November 1777, the culmination of which was his ascent of the Brocken on December 10. While on this trip, undertaken on horseback, Goethe also visited several working mines in the region, perhaps as part of informing himself about mining matters in connection with the Ilmenau project. The Rammelsberg mine, south of Goslar, was open to visitors, and he wrote in the visitors' book on December 5: "Den ganzen Berg bis ins Tiefste befahren."

He was also writing letters to Charlotte von Stein during this journey; unfortunately he provides no details in these letters, nor mentions anything of his observations or of conversations with mining officials.

Model of a 16C mine, from G. E. von Löhneyss' Bericht vom Bergwerck, 1690
The next day he rode to Clausthal, pictured at the top of this post, site of the most productive mine in the entire Harz, producing silver, copper, tin, and "Zinkblende." He spent the night in Clausthal, and on the morning of December 8, he traveled to the nearby Dorothea, Caroline, and Benedict mines (the mines were first worked by Benedictine monks) and inscribed his name in the guest book as “Johann Wilhelm Weber aus Darmstadt.” Again he descended into the mines, apparently without any fear of the depths or the poor illumination. It was not an entirely danger-free thing, as the miner who accompanied him, walking in front of him, was injured by a large block of falling debris. According to Wolf von Engelhardt, the Clausthal mines extended to a depth of 520 meters (1,700 feet), but we don't know far into the depths Goethe descended. We know, however, that he went down by ladders, as are pictured in the above illustration from a 16th-century mine.

Picture sources: GeoMuseum Clausthal; Robert M. Vogel

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Goethe and geology

From The New Yorker (click to enlarge)
A friend reminds me that I have not posted much lately. True: most of my time is devoted to the book I am trying to finish, which is not directly about Goethe, but I came across something yesterday that gave me an opportunity to think about him.

I was at the M.D., one who has copies of The New Yorker, and an issue from earlier this year had a rather thrilling piece by Hector Tobar on the Chilean miners who were trapped 69 days at 2,3000 feet below the earth — and survived. The piece contains some factoids about the geology of the mining environment, which reminded me that I have been asked to prepare 100 words on “Goethe and Geology” in connection with a book exhibit for the forthcoming conference of the Goethe Society of North America.

For those unfamiliar with the subject, Goethe was a member of a commission in the duchy of Weimar that investigated the possibility of re-opening the mine at Ilmenau as a way of producing revenue for the duchy. The venture eventually came to nought, but Goethe struggled with it for a decade. He also familiarized himself with the mineralogy of the region and with "geology," a subject that was not yet known as such, as it was then a field only coming into being. The first scientific writing he produced was on granite, which was believed at the time to constitute the earliest building block of the earth. (See my essay in the Goethe Yearbook.)

Goethe went on to pursue other scientific areas, perhaps because they were more easily accessible: for instance, botany, anatomy, and colors. In retrospect, it might seem that to theorize about geology took a leap of the imagination that was nigh impossible for people, even for Goethe. James Hutton’s revolutionary insight into the age of the earth was something hard to wrap your mind around. Here is Hutton, a Scottish farmer who is known as "the father" of modern geology (emphasis added):

James Hutton, by Sir Henry Raeburn (1775)
"As there is not in human observation proper means for measuring the waste of land upon the globe, it is hence inferred, that we cannot estimate the duration of what we see at present, nor calculate the period at which it had begun; so that, with respect to human observation, this world has neither a beginning nor an end."

The above is from 1785, from a "dissertation" Concerning the System of the Earth, its Duration, and Stability. Hutton's point was that the earth was continually being formed, a process that we could not observe because it took place over such a vast extent of time.

In the early years in Weimar, when Goethe was studying mineralogy, there were certainly writers who already estimated that the earth was much older than the Biblical account would suggest. I believe Buffon thought in terms of 75,000 years. If Goethe been able to visualize millions of years, he might have come to accept the concept of a dynamic planet, especially the massive forces of volcanoes and hot springs in the formation of the earth.

So, what about the Chilean miners? As for the age of the stone forming the mountains in which they worked, it was “born of the earth’s magma more than 140 million years ago. For aeons, a mineral-rich broth rose up through the fissures of the Atacama Fault System. Eventually, the broth solidified, becoming ore layered with interlocking veins of quartz, chalcopyrite, and other minerals.”

And as for the slab that blocked their escape? “It was later estimated to weigh seven hundred thousand tons, twice the weight of the Empire State Building."

Such figures are something that we moderns have come rationally to assimilate. Ah, yes: twice the weight of the ESB. Of course! Yet, confined as we are to our tiny place on the earth and in the universe, do we really understand the infinity of time or the enormous weight of the earth? As the author of The New Yorker piece writes: "The men couldn’t see the extent of the slab, but one could sense the enormity of the disaster.”

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tieck visits Goethe in Weimar

On this date in 1817 Ludwig Tieck visited Goethe in Weimar after his return from England, where he had ventured in order to collect materials for a work on Shakespeare, which he did not complete.

Goethe wrote in his diary: "Besuch von Dr. Ludwig Tieck, welcher aus England zurückkam und von Shakespeare, Theater und sonstiger dortiger Literatur erzählte."

Friday, August 29, 2014

Last days in Sointula

The deer outside my window
I finished my review of the Goßens book on world literature and sent it off this morning. Since world lit is also my area of research, I read the book very carefully, all 470+ pages. Goßens includes well-chosen passages from many 19th-century writers, men (entirely) whose names one encountered very briefly in one's graduate studies, but about whom one now learned a bit more: Karl August Varnhagen, Moritz Veit, Theodore Mundt, Hermann Hettner, Johannes Scherr, Adolf Stern, Moriz Carriere.

On Sunday morning I return to New York. End of summer.

The deer was outside again this morning, under the plum tree at my neighbor's house. Below is what he was looking for. I shook a few out of the tree for him.

This is what the deer was after

The rocks are from Bere Point. I thought about Goethe when I saw them. I wondered whether he, with his interest in geology, had ever seen or desired to collect such specimens. For those who are interested, you can read my article on Goethe and geology here.