Sunday, November 17, 2019

Goethe's diaries

I have been tweeting from Goethe's diaries for the year 1776. Interesting, that this is the year that the United States had its birth, on July 4, with the Declaration of Independence. Goethe's diary shows no awareness of this event, nor do his letters. He had barely been six months in Weimar on that date. I have the Metzler edition of the diaries for the years 1775 until 1787, along with the commentary volume, which offers information concerning people and places that Goethe reduced to abbreviations. For instance, in my last Tweet is the abbreviation "Eins," which represents Friederich Hildebrand von Einsiedel, one of Carl August's close associates (along with Wedel, who is also mentioned in that Tweet). There was what might be called a "Männerkreis" around the young duke, of which Goethe quickly became an integral member.

Einsiedel seems to have been an aesthete: a "Schöngeist." He played the violincello in the Liebhaberorchester, and took on many roles in the Liebhabertheater. He played the role of Söller in Goethe's play Die Mitschuldigen, which had its premier at the Liebhabertheater in Weimar in January 1777. The play opens with Söller breaking into the room of one of the guests at an inn. He is dressed as a "Domino" (he has told his father-in-law, the owner of the inn, that he was going to attend a masked ball).

According to the entry on Einsiedel in Effi Biedrzynski's Goethes Weimar, Einsiedel had a somewhat labile personality, which is suggested in Goethe's correspondence's with him about his part in the play. In mid-November he wrote to Einsiedel as follows:

Du mußt in einer verfluchteten Hypochondrie stecken. Ich wollte schwören, dir wärs gut, wenn du dich nur ein bissel angriffst. ... Die Andern spielen brav und ich weis absolut keinen Söller. Und weis, daß du ihn gewiss gut spielen würdest.

Toward the end of November, he wrote him again about his concerns:

Einsiedel, ich bitte dich, strecke deinen Stumpfsinn an die Rolle! Die Andern machen's brav ...

In investigating such individuals, one gets some insight into what Goethe's life was like in these early Weimar years, in which he underwent an immense transformation, personally and poetically. I try to imagine how he "managed" such aristocrats, people who could be genial, but also rather hidebound, like the society described by Proust in Swann's Way.

Picture credit: Berlin Programm

Friday, October 11, 2019

Goethe and Charlotte von Stein

Slip-covered edition of Lotte meine Lotte by Die Andere Bbliothek
I have been Tweeting various entries from Goethe’s diaries, beginning with the Weimar era. Goethe started a Weimar diary on March 11, 1776, as follows: “Herzog und H.D. die verwittibte Herzogin die nach Gotha ging biß Erfurt begleit’. Beim Herzog geschlafen.” Since I started posting Tweets on September 5, illustrating them with images of people or subjects mentioned, all the Tweets reflect the day they were written in 1776. Occasionally I throw in a passage from Goethe’s letters, especially those to Charlotte von Stein. Which has led me to reread the letters, in the edition from the Andere Bibliothek (Lotte meine Lotte: Die Briefe von Goethe an Charlotte von Stein), which I reviewed in the Goethe Yearbook (vol. 23, 2016), alongside Der Briefschreiber Goethe by Albrecht Schöne.

The letters, upward of 1,700, are often only notes that were transmitted by a servant during the day or in the evening, accompanying an exchange of food (Feldhühner, Wildpratsbraten, Phasen) or of flowers and fruit. On an almost daily basis they mention concerts, plays, excursions. Goethe passes on gossip, tells her how he slept and of his tooth aches, and is much concerned for her health and sleep as well. According to my edition of his correspondence in the Weimar edition (WA IV,3), she is the recipient of the vast majority of letters he wrote between 1775 and 1778, beginning in early January of 1776, in other words within days of his arrival in Weimar. Johanna Falmer, with whom he had been corresponding before he left Frankfurt, gradually falls out of the picture.

My edition of Lotte meine Lotte is papered with post-its on which I express my astonishment at his importuning of her. By the end of January, he is addressing her per “Du”:

Liebe Frau, leide dass ich dich so liebe habe. Wenn ich iemand lieber haben kann, will ich dir's sagen. Will dich ungeplagt lassen. Adieu Gold, du begreiffst nicht wie ich dich liebe hab.

The contemporary German poet Jans Volker Röhnert, who wrote the afterword to the Andere Bibliothek edition, speculates that the letters represent a “gesteigerter Werther.” Rather than expressing his ardor for a beloved Lotte via William, Goethe now addresses himself directly to a similarly-named, likewise unavailable lady of much higher station. How many ways can one say “I love you”? It can be hard reading: “Ja liebe Lotte ietzt wird es mir erst deutlich wie du meine eigne Hälfte bist und bleibst. Ich bin kein einzelnes kein selbständiges Wesen.”

I hazard that there is another epistolary precedent to these letters, aside from The Sorrows of Young Werther, namely, the Leipzig letters of November 1767 to Ernst Wolfgang Behrisch. Those letters, ecstatic professions of love for Katharina Schönkopf scenically dramatized over several days, were clearly a case of literary role-playing. In the case of Charlotte von Stein, the role playing went on for a long time.

Interestingly, when Goethe was on the road, when he lacked the opportunity for the daily “conversation,” his need for communication is more objectively rendered. whether it concerns climbing the Brocken or exploring the Harz; the second Swiss journey in 1779, with Carl August; the diplomatic mission to Brunswick in 1784, also with Carl August (letters in French, nicely translated); or excursions to mines and in pursuit of his geological interests. They are evidence that Goethe had many registers in which he was able to express himself.

Rereading these letters led me to look at Nicholas Boyle’s Goethe bio anew, in which Boyle offers a cogent discussion of why Goethe stayed in Weimar and of the liaison with CvS. Regarding the former, it had in part to do with Goethe’s “pedagogical” tendency, which I noted in an earlier post in regard to the Conversations with Eckermann. That tendency was also on view in Goethe’s letters to Cornelia from Leipzig, and the duke was of course Goethe’s most important student. Boyle doesn’t mention Rousseau’s Emile, although much has been written of the influence of Rousseau on Goethe’s literary works. At a certain point, however, even after the duke was “educated” sufficiently, Goethe may simply have got used to the place. Boyle quotes from a letter Goethe wrote in which he is reflecting on his situation and which includes the following sentiment: “A man who changes his situation always loses his travel and removal expenses, both morally and economically.” Boyle gives the reference  (HABr i,414), but does not mention the date or the recipient. (I don't have that edition of the letters at home.)

Monday, September 16, 2019

"Sichtung und Klarheit"

The title of this post concerns a volume of journalistic pieces so titled by Jörg Drews that I’ve been making my way through. The pieces originally appeared in the Suddeutsche Zeitung from 1984 to 1999. I was drawn to look at the book because of the subtitle (Kritische Streifzüge durch die Goethe-Ausgaben und die Goethe-Literatur der letzten Fünfzehn Jahre). Drews was a literary critic for the SDZ and later a professor of literature and literary criticism at the university in Bielefeld, and his compass and judgments are an indication of the different nature of German journalism from that in the U.S. Drews' remit was to evaluate the publication of new editions of Goethe’s works as well as scholarly literature. So far, the volume has introduced me to works with which I was not familiar (Isabella Kuhn’s Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften und das sogenannte Böse) and reintroduced me to familiar names, especially in early Goethe scholarship (e.g., Viktor Hehn).

Like all of us involved in Goethe scholarship, Drews sounds a note that is all too familiar. I quote here the entire German passage (please copy and paste to Google translate, if necessary):

"Eine der unbestreitbaren Erfahrungen intensiver Goethe-Lektüre ist, daß dieser Autor immer für eine Überraschung gut ist, daß er viel schwieriger auf einen Nenner zu bringen ist als andere .— auch bedeutende — Autoren, daß man zwar vertrauter werden kann mit seinem Werk, aber eigentlich nicht zu einem konsistenten ‘Bild’ kommen kann: dazu ist das ‘bunte Gemisch der Phänomene’ einfach zu groß, das Werk, Person und Lebensvollzug bieten."

Yes, one does feel overwhelmed. At times, I would like to revert to and remain with my earliest area of Goethe research, namely, the pre-Weimar works. In my dissertation and early essays, I traced his literary coming of age in the Anacreontic and pastoral/idyll idioms. The “young Goethe” is very likable, especially in his enthusiasms, and this trait began to be effaced in the years following his establishment in Weimar. Maybe it had something to do with encountering a young noble, a duke, who shared his enthusiasms, but on whose decisions would rest the future of the duchy, that made Goethe serious about the effect of his writing and behavior on others. (And which may, later, have turned him against his early tendencies among the Romantic generation.) The turn — and it was not immediate — must have been the result not only of considerable soul searching and evaluation of the new circumstances of life at a court but also of the conviction that his early life represented a false path. He appears to have begun to remold himself, at the age of twenty-six, at considerable personal cost, made himself into a person that was not foreseeable while still in Frankfurt. I wonder if the physical distance he kept between himself and his mother after he went to Weimar indicated his awareness that he had become a different person. The "Schattenriss" at the top of the post seems to speak to an indeterminate Goethe.

I have begun to read his diaries, especially of his first years in Weimar, for some insight into this change. Some research on my part is required before I can say anything about my reading, but I am in possession of the J.B. Metzler edition of the “historical-critical” edition of the diaries and the companion volume of Commentary edited by Wolfgang Albrecht and Andreas Döhler. In the meantime, I have started re-tweeting about Goethe, with entries from these early diaries. For those interested, go here for my Goethe Twitter feed. I am following him day by day beginning in 1776.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Eckermann pastiche

It is typical: when I do research on a given Goethe subject, I also come across something else of interest, and often far removed from actual Goethe scholarship. Case in question, a "story" in The New Yorker magazine, back on October 20, 1980, by Donald Barthelme. Taking up one full page of the magazine, the content mirrors the entries in Eckermann's Conversations, with all the pedantry and adulation that Eckermann brings to the job, while lathering it with Barthelme's irreverence. It begins with the date of an actual Eckermann's entry, November 13, 1823. Eckermann had recounted meeting a valet of Goethe's, who related an anecdote about Goethe, lying abed at night, having a premonition of an earthquake in the year 1783. No one at court believed him. "Höre! Goethe schwärmt!" said one of the court ladies. A few weeks later, however, they all learned that an earthquake had occurred in Messina on that date. Here is Barthelme's entry for the same date:

I was walking home from the theater with Goethe this evening when we saw a small boy in a plum-colored waistcoat. Youth, Goethe said, is the silky apple butter on the good brown bread of possibility.

Barthelme, who died in 1989 and did not have the wealth of Goethe "quotes" to be found on the internet today (see above picture), was obviously working avant la lettre in this genre of wisdom attribution to Goethe. Here is another good one from The New Yorker piece:

Art, Goethe said, is the 4 percent interest on the municipal bond of life.

Sunday, September 8, 2019


Theoretical Model of Cosmopolitanism

I have just returned to New York City after an absence of two and a half months. In that time, spent on a small island in British Columbia, it was a period of working on my novel, and I had very little Goethe material on hand, aside from Eckermann's Conversations and a book on Goethe's use of the superlative, the subject of a small volume by Mathias Mayer that I have just finished writing a review of. The return home has prompted me to undertake some housecleaning, which means thinning out files. Since the publication in the spring of my essay on Fritz Strich and world literature, it is high time to attack my copious files on that subject. This morning an article by Paul Michael Lützeler fell out of an overstuffed folder, to which was attached my handwritten notes. The title was "Europäischer Kosmopolitismus und Weltlteratur -- Goethe und Euorpa -- Europa and Goethe." It appeared in a volume called Kontinentalisierung. Das Europa der Schriftsteller, published in 2007 by De Gruyter. "Cosmopolitanism" is one of those terms that gets on my nerves, so here goes.

The first of my handwritten notes was a question: Did Edward Said really believe, as he is quoted by Lützeler,  that Goethe's "underlying and perhaps unrealizable rationale [for world literature] was [a] vast synthesis of the world's literary production transcending borders and languages, but not in any way effacing the individuality and historical concreteness of its constituent parts"? (My italics.) Whatever one thinks about the "vast synthesis" part of that statement, it is evident that non-European national languages have little viability in the literary marketplace today. Whether it is true, as John Noyes has written that “the mother tongue preprograms an individual’s thought with an entire cultural history of interpreting the world,” most people in the world today, even when they are literate, do not speak or write in a language that has a well-developed written tradition that reflects the history contained in such a tradition. Thus, despite the establishment of “official” languages in former colonial lands, when non-Europeans enter the public sphere today, they tend to write in a “universal” language, if not English, then French, Spanish, Chinese, or Arabic, all reflecting earlier colonial or imperial domination. That sounds to me like the effacement of "the individuality and historical concreteness" of the constituent parts of which Said was speaking.

Lützeler does not seem aware of this irony in his praise of cosmopolitanism and in anointing Goethe its spiritual father. Writers of the various countries of Europe, after all, enjoy large "native" publics and, no matter the extent of their "Europeanness" or their cosmopolitanism, continue to write in their own languages. For them, there has been no effacement of individuality, and indeed, one only has to consider the major writers of the Enlightenment -- proponents of universal values -- all of whom wrote in their mother tongue. "Europe" only began in the early 19th century, and it arose through through trade and commerce, which also included literary and cultural products.

Science is a different matter, While David Damrosch contends that a work of world literature “has an exceptional ability to transcend the boundaries of the culture that produces it," in truth it is that other European idiom, the language of science, that has transcended the boundaries of the culture that produced it. This idiom, to use Friedrich Schlegel’s formulation, is universal and progressive. All peoples of the earth today, whatever their national origin, can learn to speak it or apply its precepts without knowledge of the history of science. (This claim is not to deny the historical contributions of non-Europeans to this product, but it was in Europe, precisely because of the sharing of discoveries among the various European nations, in their own vernaculars, that the scientific and industrial revolutions took off.) Interestingly, while the universality of science can be seen in the status of English today as its quasi-universal language, French and German, which in the nineteenth century were competitive with English in the production of scientific texts, are today becoming marginal (the same goes more so for Hungarian, Danish, Polish, and so on). The earlier contributions of French and German scientists, written in their respective languages, are of interest primarily to historians of science.

Damrosch's claim, that certain literary works are so “culture-bound that they can only be meaningful to a home-grown audience or to specialists in the area," points up the problem with "the European canon." For those who don't grow up reading works of European literature, the cultural history contained in those works is to a great extent inaccessible. Thus, the postcolonial criticism of Eurocentrism and of the role of the humanities in perpetuating it. Is cosmopolitanism, which Lützeler privileges, simply a happy term for wiping out real difference? For making us all alike? And European "continentalization" the first step in that process?

Image credit: ResearchGate

Friday, August 9, 2019

Goethe, the armchair traveler

In my last post I discussed the "society" with which Goethe surrounded himself in the last decades of his life, as portrayed in Eckermann's Conversations. The immediate society was a rather tight one of Weimar inhabitants who seem to have been regulars at the house on Frauenplan on many an evening. A book that I recently reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement (July 16, 2019), presenting Goethe as an "armchair traveler," throws further light on why he did not have to venture from home for company.

The book, Goethe: Journeys of the Mind, by Gabrielle Bersier, Nancy Boerner, and Peter Boerner, concerns Goethe's immersion in foreign lands without the necessity of leaving the premises of his home. Some of this armchair traveling was in the interest of his poetic production, e.g., West-östlicher Diwan and Chinesisch-Deutsche Jahres- und Tageszeiten. For research, he had access to the Weimar library as well as to scholars of "the Orient." For me, the most interesting chapters of Journeys of the Mind concern his reading and correspondence with scholars and scientists, especially those working in the field of botany and natural science. With Alexander von Humboldt he was on close terms, and they met and corresponded often, both before Humboldt's journeys to the Americas and afterward.

As I mention in my review, by the early 19th century Goethe was Germany's most famous product, and it was not surprising that many scholars traveled to Weimar to share their findings. One of these was Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius, a professor from Erlangen, who traveled to Brazil in 1817 as part of a scientific expedition of Bavarian and Austrian scientists that accompanied the bridal ship bearing the daughter of the Hapsburg emperor to marry the Portuguese crown prince. The Leopoldina edition of Goethe's scientific writings is named for the archduchess.

Martius's treatise on the natural history and morphology of palm trees complemented Goethe's ideas of plant morphology. Nevertheless, the enigmatic entry in Ottilie's diary entry -- "Es wandelt niemand ungestraft unter Palmen"  -- could not have been suggested by Goethe's acquaintance with Martius, as Elective Affinities was published already in 1809. The relationship between Goethe and Martius was obviously of great importance to both men, as can be seen in Goethe und Martius, which includes the correspondence between the two men.

My TLS review was accompanied by a lovely illustration from Mauritius's study of Brazilian vegetation, Historia naturalis palmarum. I include another illustration at the top of this post from a book review of an English translation of Book of Palms that appeared in The Gardening Register.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Goethe at home

Friedrich August Wolf
I have written before, most recently concerning Proust and Goethe, that one gets very few details of politics or government or even the surrounding world in Goethe’s novels, which in a certain respect — Goethe was after all a government minister with quite a large portfolio, so to speak — is surprising.

But lately, as I read Eckermann’s conversations (which, admittedly, may or may not represent Goethe’s own utterances), it strikes me that the limitation in that respect in the novel Elective Affinities actually mirrors Goethe’s own domestic environment. Evening after evening, Eckermann is received at Goethe’s house, and sometimes other visitors appear: Riemer, Coudray, Kanzler von Müller. Goethe pours wine for the others; he drinks mineral water from Marienbad. Usually the subject is literature, although one evening (December 9, 1824) the discussion concerns the water crisis (“Wassernot”) in Petersburg. Oberbaudirektor Coudray makes drawings showing the effects of the Neva on the city and surrounding localities.

It is a thoroughly educational affair, although it is hard to know whether Goethe, as in E’s portrayal of Goethe, is such a pedant, always pontificating, teaching, which is fine with Eckermann. I will have to at some point look into works by Weimar contemporaries, accounts of his sayings or his appearance and so on, to see if this portrayal is corroborated by others.

There is one evening described (Jan. 18, 1825) at which one would like to have been present. Goethe was working on his autobiography and had had Eckermann makes notes of his drafts. On that evening he read aloud portions from 1795 to Eckermann and Riemer. Likewise, on an earlier occasion (April 19, 1824), Goethe gave a “Diner” for the classics scholar Friedrich August Wolf, who had stopped off in Weimar on his way back from southern France. The guests were all men: Röhr, Kanzler von Müller, Coudray, Riemer, Councilor Rehbein, and Eckermann. Unfortunately the “geistreichen Schertze, die über Tisch flogen,” were too quick for Eckermann to be able to recall them. In any case, Goethe seems to have played the devil’s advocate in the presence of Wolf: “Ich kann mit Wolf nicht anders auskommen, all daß ich immer als Mephistopheles gegen ihn agiere.”
Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer

Before Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer became one of Goethe’s right-hand men, he had attempted an academic career, on Wolf’s encouragement, but had to abandon it because of the need to earn a living. He then accompanied Wilhelm von Humboldt to Italy, when the latter occupied a diplomatic post there. According to the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie: “Goethe persönlich war er ‘als gewandter Kenner der alten Sprachen höchlich willkommen’ (Annalen 1803), und er wurde Goethe’s antiquarischer Beirath als Nachfolger des 1804 nach Dresden abgehenden Böttiger. Goethe’s bisherige Secretäre waren mehr oder weniger bloße Schreiber gewesen; mit R. trat ein Gelehrter in seinen Dienst und zwar als wissenschaftlicher Helfer und Mitarbeiter.”

These occasions confirm that Goethe liked his domestic circle and didn’t feel it necessary to move beyond it. He had everything he needed within arm's reach. More on that in the next post, particularly on Goethe as an "armchair traveler."