Wednesday, May 12, 2021

How much poetry, how much truth?

Clärchen in Egmont (W. von Kaulbach, detail)

Goethe frequently mentions in Dichtung und Wahrheit the divertissements poetiques with which he regaled friends in his youth. He also writes that spontaneity characterized his literary production in these pre-Weimar years. Ideas or scenes would form fully in his head, and he would sometimes jump out of bed in the middle of the night to record them. In Book 19 he mentions how he came upon the figure of Egmont: after writing Götz he became interested in a similar turning point in the affairs of state, which led him to the uprising in the Netherlands against the Spanish. He and his father had lively discussions about he might handle the topic. In turn his father ardently wished to see in print what his son had already worked out in his  head (“dieses in meinem Kopf schon fertige Stück auf dem Papiere, es gedruckt, es bewundert zu sehen”). And so began, he writes, in the days during which he waited for the coach that would take him to Weimar, the composition of Egmont, not like with Götz, in logical order (“in Reih und Folge”); instead, after an introduction, he devoted himself to the main scenes without paying much attention to the connections between them.

There are many things about Goethe’s life that one would like to know more. Unfortunately, he destroyed almost all of his pre-Leipzig correspondence, which might have given us a picture of those get-togethers with Frankfurt friends of his youth, during which he entertained (as per DuW) them with spontaneous poetic effusions. One also misses, of course, the absence of a comparable autobiography of the early Weimar years. Of course, since Dichtung und Wahrheit was written half a century and more after the events it describes, one always has to be careful at taking Goethe at his word about his youth.

Still, it strikes me that surviving correspondence as well as other documents of the early Weimar years offer evidence of the truth of the above-mentioned autobiographical account.

Parts 3 and 4 of DuW portray what Goethe calls the “Zerstreuungen” (distractions) of his life in Frankfurt following on his entrance into the literary world, beginning with his contributions to the Frankfurter Gelehrten Anzeigen and with Götz and Werther. Everyone wanted to meet him, wanted something from him, wanted to instruct him, plus there was the “distraction” of his relationship with Lili Schönemann. Such was also his life in Weimar from the get go. Nicholas Boyle writes that 1778 was the year of “Goethe’s involvement with the amateur theater” in Weimar. Goethe became the organizer of theatrical entertainment for the court, writing some of the plays himself and even acting in them. While Goethe did not abandon his “earlier pyrotechnic productivity,” as Boyle puts it, “in the circumstances it is remarkable that Goethe wrote as much as he did, unsupported either by the immediate Weimar environment or by the wider world of German literary culture.” By the way, on this date in 1778, Goethe mentions that "Egmont war mir wieder in Sinn gekommen."

 The diary entries of 1778 document that Goethe saw a lot of theater and opera as well as productions on which he played a major role. Interesting for me to see, especially because of my interest in the "Ur-Meister" is that Goethe records four meetings with the actor Conrad Ekhof in January of 1778, which is when he began writing the novel.

Images: Das Goethezeitportal

Friday, April 9, 2021

The young Goethe

Goethe by Lips

Yes, I have updated the image on the blog. Quite a lot of my scholarship has concerned Goethe's earliest literary productions, what I call the "pre-Weimar Goethe," as there occurred a slow transformation of  his poetic production after he settled in Weimar in 1775. He moved away from what initially made him Germany's most famous writer, the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther and Götz von Berlichingen. This was the Goethe about whom I wrote my dissertation, a study of the earliest influences on his writing. The last few years I was involved on the subject of world literature, which owes much to Goethe's own thoughts on that notion, beginning in the 1820s. For about a year now, I have been working on a project that takes me back to my earlier focus, and am rereading his earliest works again. In this connection, I am also rereading his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit, which deals with that early period of his life, published in 1811, The above drawing of Goethe by Johann Heinrich Lips was done about the time of the Rhine journey Goethe undertook in 1774.

Today I was reading a passage in Book 15 of the autobiography, in which Goethe describes that trip, which include a visit to the Jabach home in Cologne, named after the man who built the house in the 17th century. I posted a few years ago on Goethe's visit (see here), in which he spoke of the effect on him of a family portrait of the Jabach family. I had just seen the painting myself, which has been recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Today I looked up the work on the Met's website and learned that it had been sold already in 1792 to an English collector, after which it passed through various private hands before its acquisition by the Metropolitan in 2014. According to the commentary in the Hamburg edition of the autobiography, the Jabach house itself was destroyed by a bomb in 1943.

Gamepiece with Dead Heron (1695)

On this Rhine journey in which Goethe made lots of new acquaintances along the way, he also visited the hunting estate Bensberg Castle, which had a large collection of paintings of hunting scenes by the Netherlandic painter Jan Weenix. Goethe was very impressed by one of the paintings of dead game ("entlebten Geschöpfe") by Weenix. It's impossible to know which painting Goethe saw at Bensberg, but the image here shows one of Weenix's paintings that is also now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its provenance, however, is very different. According to the Met website, it was owned by Baron Mayer Rothschild of Vienna until 1905, when it passed to his nephew Alphonse. It was seized by the Nazis in 1932, then returned to Austria in 1948, and restituted to Clarice Baron Rothschild of New York in 1950. The dealers Rosenberg & Stiebel sold the painting to the Met in 1950.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

"zum ewigen Ruhme"

(Click to enlarge)

I have come across two recent books on the European Enlightenment. One is by Ritchie Robertson: The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790.  Robertson is a scholar of German literature who has already published a book on Lessing and the Enlightenment. The other is by Steffen Martus: Aufklärung: Das deutsche 18. Jahrhundert - Ein Epochenbild. Martus a scholar of German literature whose book focuses on Germany in the 18th century (basically the period 1680 to Kant’s 1784 essay “Was ist Aufklärung?”).  From its preface (gleaned from Amazon’s Kindle sample), Robertson is covering a larger swathe of territory, viewing the Enlightenment as a pan-European phenomenon (although “Europe” as such was not yet in existence). Martus, though a literary scholar, introduces German history as well, beginning with the Brandenburg elector princes and their quest for equal power status with Britain, France, the Hapsburgs, and Russia. I was fortunate to be able to check out the book by Martus from the NY Public Library, but have so far only skimmed it, paying more attention to the treatment of literary figures than on-the-ground history: it is, after all, like the volume by Robertson, 1,000 pages.

I sense, however, from what I have been able to glean, that both volumes are concentrating on the different “estates” and their “medial” influence on changing, more dynamic social and political circumstances. From what Robertson writes in the preface — and I don’t know whether it is his own opinion or if he is simply presenting the attitudes of the “Enlighteners” — they are a very self-satisfied, know-it-all lot, bent on exposing and expunging the prejudices of the past and on transforming the masses to their own (more enlightened, naturally) ways of thinking. Like Martus, however, Robertson highlights the “networking” and the “networks” that flourished in the 18th century, especially with the appearance of more and more periodicals.

It was interesting to see that Johann Christian Gottsched (1700-1766) is taken more seriously by Martus than one usually encounters him in studies of the Goethe era. Since I wrote my dissertation on the pre-Weimar Goethe, I read back then many of the poets and writers that preceded him in the eighteenth century, including Gottsched's Versuch einer critischen Dichtkunst vor die Deutschen, mainly trying to figure out where Goethe was coming from in his earliest poetic productions. Martus's chapters on the philosopher Christian Wolff and Gottsched portray the intellectual “soil,” so to speak, in which Kantian philosophy incubated, a period I later covered in an essay on Bodmer and Breitinger.  Gottsched was in his own time a controversial figure, but Goethe’s portrayal of him in his autobiography has stamped him irrevocably.

Indeed, one can say that Goethe’s opinions had a lasting effect on the posthumous reputations of many 18th-century figures. Why else, for instance, would one remember today Count Thoranc, the French military man who occupied the Goethe family home during the French occupation of Frankfurt during the Seven Years’ War. For Goethe’s father, supporter of Prussia, it was an unhappy time and at one point there were maneuvers outside the city between the French and the Germans (Schlacht bei Bergen). Goethe’s father was so enraged by the outcome that he insulted the count to his face, whereupon the count demanded that the father be taken to the “Wache.” A friend of the family, who spoke French and had served the entire time as a mediator between the Goethe family and the count sought to have the count rescind this order. It is recounted in a lengthy scene in book 3 of the first part of Goethe's autobiography. It is a blow-by-blow exchange (in the most diplomatic terms, of course), and toward the conclusion the friend tries the following gambit on the count:

Ich habe Euch so oft über Eure Fassung bewundert, Herr Graf; gebt mir diesmal Gelegenheit, Euch anzubeten. Ein Krieger ist ehrwürdig, der sich selbst in Feindes Haus als einen Gastfreund betrachtet; hier ist kein Feind, nur ein Verirrter. Gewinnt es über Euch, und es wird Euch zu ewigem Ruhme gereichen!”

This appeal causes the count to weaken, to break out in a smile, whereupon the friend promises to tell the children of the family and Goethe's mother how much they owe the count, and that they will likewise henceforth recall the count’s magnaminous behavior to outsiders. And, as the friend promises, “eine Handlung dieser Art kann nicht untergehen!

And how true it is. Gottsched and the Count are immemoriably linked: indeed, zu ewigem Ruhme.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Goethe in 1778

Should any readers have wondered why Goethe Girl has been absent from posting here and also Goethe's Tweets, it is not because she has been victim to the virus. In late December an errant piece of heavy furniture fell on her head, and she was remanded for the month of January to what the neurologist called "home rest" -- in other words: house arrest, as it involved cessation of much that was important to her: no reading, writing, or physical activity, for going on five weeks. She was allowed to listen to audio books, as long as headaches didn't trouble her, and she made her way through William Meisters Lehrjahare and several of Goethe's novellas (along with Jane Austen's major novels). It has to be said that the German readers of Goethe's works are not as good as English readers. The Germans don't distinguish the different characters in their voices as well, and Goethe's WMLJ can be rather tedious to listen to. It is this drawback that has kept her from downloading Dichtung und Wahrheit, as the two samples on Audible are not enticing. Both male readers have wonderful voices, but they seem to be enchanted with their own voices, rather than with the story they are telling.

Released at the beginning of February there was a lot to catch up on. I had really been looking forward in January to posting Goethe's diary entries on Twitter, as January 1778 was filled with activities. First off, he finished writing the first book of the so-called Urmeister. It is amazing that he had any time to write, as his life that month was chockablock with court-related activities.

Ekhof by Anton Graf (1774)
It being January there were skating parties and sleigh rides, alongside rehearsals for a performance of the play The West Indian by Richard Cumberland. It was directed by Conrad Ekhof, theater director in Gotha, with whom Goethe seems to have had a conversation over dinner ("Eckhof as mit mir. Erzählte die Geschichte seines Lebens"). Since Goethe played the title role in the play when it was performed in Weimar on January 13, allow me to quote from the Wikipedia entry describing the hero:

Its hero, who probably owes much to the suggestion of Garrick, is a young scapegrace fresh from the tropics, "with rum and sugar enough belonging to him to make all the water in the Thames into punch," — a libertine with generous instincts, which prevail in the end.

Goethe's play Der Triumph der Empfindsamkeit was performed for the duchess's birthday on January 30, but the month might be said to have been overshadowed by the suicide on January 17 of the 16-year-old "Hoffräulein" Christel von Laßberg. Goethe was among those who went to her parents' home that evening. He notes in his diary on January 18 that Knebel spent the night at his house and that they discussed the suicide: "Viel über der Christel Todt. Dies ganze Wesen. Dabey ihre letzten Pfade ppp."

Image: ScienceDirect

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Der Brocken 1945

I have been posting almost daily Tweets of Goethe's diary for December 1777, when Goethe was traveling in the Harz visiting various mining sites and also making his famous ascent of the Brocken. As I mentioned in my previous post, the journey made great physical demands. Snow, sleet, hail, fog, and then there were days when Goethe climbed down into the shafts of mines. On December 12, 1777, he descended into three pits of a silver mine in St. Andreasberg: Samson, Neufang, and Gottesgnade. The former, Grube Samson, even has a Wikipedia entry. It is 810 meters deep, and Goethe wrote afterward in his diary: "ward mir sehr sauer diesmal."

The larger towns on his route can be found on online maps of the Harz (Clausthal, Mühlhausen), but not the many mining villages: Duderstadt, Dammhaus, Silkeroda, and so on. But I keep looking, hoping to find such a map. Today, however, I came across quite unexpectedly the map at the top of this post, showing the path of the American troops who stormed the Brocken on April 20, 1945. According to the accompanying post, at the beginning of April 40.000 male prisoners from the concentration camp Mittelbau-Dora (and its "satellites" in Ellrich, Nüxei, Wieda, Mackenrode und Osterhagen) as well as from the concentration camp Brunshausen near Bad Gandersheim were death marched through the Harz. The goal of the death march was to reach towns that had a rail connection to Ravensbruck or Dachau. 10,000 died on the march. Click on the image to enlarge. For those who don't know German, "KZ" on the map represents "concentration camp."

It's sobering to consider that it was over the same paths that so many of those prisoners died.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

"Harzreise im Winter"

As I mentioned in my previous post, it was at this time of year in 1777 that Goethe took off in a trip through the Harz. By then, he had been in Weimar for two almost years. Some of my recent posts have described his accommodation to life in Weimar. Although he had a residence in the town, he was also had new quarters for himself on the banks of the Ilm, something of a retreat, which he occupied with only a man servant. In the early part of 1777, when not busy with his court duties, he tended to repairs and reconstruction of this new home. Things seemed to be going well, but, as mentioned in an earlier post, a certain darkening of his mood began in the middle of 1777, occasioned in part by the death of his sister Cornelia. So, what was a young man to do -- Goethe was approaching thirty -- but to make a geographic escape? Nicholas Boyle in his Goethe biography, writes that, as in 1772 and 1775, Goethe sought through such a escape "clarity and relief from despair and doubt."

The Goethe-Handbuch, my go-to source for background on many of my posts, doesn't have an entry on the Harz journey itself, only on the poem and its reception. It is often the case that scholars seek for an interpretation of a poem by Goethe in his personal experience. After all, didn't Goethe himself once say that all his work represented "fragments of a great confession"? Much of the reception presented in the Goethe-Handbuch is recapitulated in Boyle, who refers to it as a "poem of self-assessment," reflecting a "division of Goethe's self" at this time and an attempt to discover whether his destiny is to be that of "Glück" or "Unglück." In this the poem, the journey to an undisclosed location, represents an attempt to seek a path out of "the danger of emotional self-destruction" in which an entire generation was stuck.

For Boyle and for much of the reception of the poem, Goethe's aim on this trip ("avowed at first only to himself") was to climb the Brocken, his reason being to be open to "a sign." Thus, the oracular language in parts of the poem "Harzreise im Winter."

My own scholarship on Goethe has been skeptical of considering his poetry strictly in this way. In my view, the "meaning" of the poem is determined by the form or genre in which Goethe chose to write. In this case, Goethe has written a hymn, which necessarily evokes religious associations. Hymns are expressive of exultation, and I can't help feeling that this arduous journey on horseback in the worst kind of weather speaks to the exaltation felt in his own strength and endurance. His letters to Charlotte von Stein, written as he took overnight refuge in inns, offers details. On December 4, he writes:

Ein ganz entsezlich Wetter hab ich heut ausgestanden wie die Stürme für Zeugs in diesen Gebürgen ausbrauen ist unsäglich, Sturm, Schnee, Schlossen, Regen, und zwey Meilen an einer Nordwand eines Waldgebürgs her, alles fast ist nass, und erhohlt haben sich meine Sinne kaum nach Essen, Trincken, drey Stunden Ruhe.

He refers to what he has experienced as an adventure (Abenteuer) that he has withstood. As he sits in the inn at the end of the day in the company of "ordinary people," his clothes are hanging on the stove drying. 

The letters to CvS cover many subjects, while his diary entries (see Tweets) give evidence of the rigors of the journey. As the days go by the tone remains that of exaltation. Traveling alone on horseback, it is obvious that he has a lot of time to think about himself and what he is going through. Goethe has always looked for signs, and it is not unusual that he would refer to type in such circumstances. On December 9, he writes that he wishes that the duke could share the experience (Mitgenuss so eines Lebens) with him. As he writes, however, the duke would experience the rigors in a different spirit:

 ... aber den rechten leckern Geschmack davon kan er noch nicht haben, er gefällt sich noch zu sehr das natürliche zu was abenteuerlichem zu machen, statt dass es einem erst wohl thut wenn das abenteuerliche natürlich wird.

A somewhat different interpretation of Goethe's motive for the journey is that of Wolf von Engelhardt (Goethe in Gespräch mit der Erde) who claims that the relevant reason was to get a picture of the "modern mining industry," such as it was in that region. Evidence, according to WvE, is Goethe's purchase of technical literature on mining in early November already, along with mentions of this in letters to Charlotte von Stein, and, above all, the well-planned travel route, which omitted not a single important mining site. Again, the diary (see the Tweets) record all those visits. They also inform us that Goethe actually descended into the depths of the mines. As far as the Brocken goes, the highest mountain in Middle Germany, von Engelhardt writes that Goethe would have been familiar with two volumes by Johann Heinrich Zuckert on the "Naturgeschichte" of the Harz and of its mines, but which also mentions that the Brocken was notorious as a site of witches and Satanic goings-on. It can be imagined that Goethe, having endured the effects of such terrible weather, might have taken it into his head to ascend the Brocken. Endurance does seem to be one of the themes here, which some individuals are unable to muster, while others, born in fortunate circumstances, do not have to exercise. This would include Plessing, whom Goethe met (according to his diary) on December 3.

Von Engelhardt sees expressed in the poem and in the journey itself a new and unsentimental view of nature -- not a Christian one in which rocks and mountains have a divine source. Goethe sought to convey such an unsentimental view of the world to Plessing, without success. The central part of the poem would seem to refer to Plessing's dissatisfaction with the world.

A wonderful recording of the poem, read by Christian Wewerka, is available on this site, along with an English translation.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Goethe's Harz Journey


On Nov. 28, 1777, Goethe wrote in his diary: "besorgt ich noch aller ley." What is being referred to are his preparations for a long trip, which began the next day, Nov. 29, and which would continue until December 15. He was traveling by horse, and stopped in such places as Greußen, Ilfeld, Elbingerode, Baumannshöhle, Wernigerode, Goslar, Clasthal, Altenau, and Eisenach. (Some of these are so small that they are not captured on images of the Harz mountains.) The high point of this journey would be his Brocken expedition, leading him, in the middle of winter, to ascend on Dec. 10 the high peak of the Brocken, of which it was said that no one climbed it in winter. On Dec. 12 he noted in his diary that he was working on the poem that would become known as "Harzreise im Winter."

Because the diary entry for November 29 is so long, I will not post it on the Goethe Twitter feed, but instead will break up here the contents of that day, which was quite a journey itself. First the setting off during a hailstorm (Schlossen), but feeling peaceful:

Früh gegen sieben ab übern Ettersberg in scharfen Schlossen 20 Min. auf 1 in Weissensee. stürmisch gebrochen Wetter, reine Ruh in der Seele, Sonnenblicke mit unter Abends nach 4 in Greusen.

In Greusen he decided to stop. The commentary to Goethe's diary makes it sound as if Goethe hears an anecdote from a teamster (Fuhrmann) he met there about a preacher (Seelsorger) who (apparently) sent a load to 3 blacksmiths who didn't wish to shoe it because it was too big. (This is a total guess: please correct me who knows what it is meant here. The diary commentary volume is not very revealing):

Musste schon Halt machen es brach die Nacht ein. NB. Wie der Furhmann erzählt von seinem Seelsorger wie der ein Maas zu 3 Schmieden schikt dies nicht beschlagen wollends so gros ist. Aber er wills so haben.

In any case, the anecdote ends with a Biblical reference (Deut. 25, 14: Thou shalt not have in thy bag divers weights, a great and a small):

Wenn wird der zehende aufhören und ein Epha -- ich weiss wohl was steht.

The diary for December 1 is even longer. It describes a very arduous journey:

Sonnt. früh nach sechsen von Greusen mit einem Boten ab. War scharf gefroren und die Sonne ging mit herrlichsten Farben an. Ich sah den Ettersberg, den Inselsberg, die Berge des Thüringer Waldes hinter mir. dann in Wald und im heraustreten, Sondershausen das sehr angenehm liegt. Die Spizze des Brockens einen Augenblick, hinter Sondershausen weg auf Sundhausen Schöne Aussicht die goldne Aue vom Kyffhauser bis Northhausen herauf.Mit einigen Invaliden die ihre Pension in Ilefeld hohlten. Fütterte in Sundhausen. Dann bey Northhausen weg. es hatte schon gegen Mittag zu regnen angefangen. Die Nacht kam leise und traruig. Auf Sachswerben, wo ich einen Boten mit einer Laterne nehmen musste, um durch die tiefe Finsterniss hierher Ilefeld zu kommen. Fand keine Stube leer. Sizze im Kämmergen neben der Wirthsstube. War den ganzen Tag in gleicher Reinheit.

I have posted this early portion of the diary and will continue with further stops on the route on the Twitter feed, after which I plan to post on the interpretation of Goethe's Harz poem and my own thoughts.