Sunday, January 7, 2018

"Monsieur Göthé"

Such is the title of a new book published by Die Andere Bibliothek concerning "Goethes unbekannter Grossvater" (as per the subtitle). For those who like archival research, and that includes me, this is a book for you. The authors are Heiner Boehncke, Hans Sarkowicz, and Joachim Seng, all respected Goethe scholars. (For German reviews, go to Perlentaucher). The subject is the paternal grandfather, Friedrich Georg (1657–1730), who died long before young Wolfgang came into the world, but whose considerable fortune allowed the Goethe family to live so comfortably in Frankfurt. The French-accented last letter of the name comes from his residence in the leading French textile center, Lyons.

Friedrich Georg is a somewhat shadowy figure, in contrast to the maternal grandfather,  Johann Wolfgang Textor, one of the leading citizens of Frankfurt and a member of the city's oligarchy. Goethe mentions grandfather Textor in his autobiography, but deals with Friedrich Georg very quickly, not even mentioning his name. Of this forebear, Nicholas Boyle writes only that the was "a Thuringian tailor of peasant stock, who, after years of wandering that had taken him for a time to Paris and Lyons," settled in Frankfurt after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685). In Frankfurt, he proceeded to make a fortune with his tailoring and through his second marriage to the widow of an innkeeper. It was the hundreds of barrels of wine from the inn that made Caspar Goethe a rich man. The authors of Monsieur Göthé spell out the details of his inheritance: approximately 12,000 liters of wine flowed into the cellar of the house on Hirschgraben. They go on to say that young Goethe came into the world with an immense "Weinvorrat, der gepflegt, umgefüllt, mit Kennerschaft und in ziemlich großen Mengen getrunken wurde," especially of the premier Mosel wines of the years 1706, 1719, and 1726, which Wolfgang's mother affectionately referred to as "die alten Herren."

Friedrich Georg was born in a Thuringian town, Artern, and indeed all the previous Göthes (so spelled) lived and died in that area, in towns with names like Berka and Kannawurf, not far from Weimar. The first one recorded in Monsieur Göthé is a Hans Gothe, a stone carver, born in 1500. Goethe may have known of this family origin, but appears never to have been interested in researching it in his Thuringian travels. The authors are of the opinion that Wolfgang, following his father's lead, obscured his paternal grandfather's working-class origins by ignoring them, especially in the autobiography.

They discuss the episode in the autobiography (book 2), when Goethe was very young and attended school. He reports of the strict discipline of the teachers and of the necessity of enduring the physical punishments they meted out, since to respond would have brought more of the same. But because he flaunted his endurance, several of his classmates, rough, less genteel boys, tested him, attacking him with switches. He managed to turn the tables on them, however, and defend himself. Another time, he was taunted by some boys who suggested that his paternal grandfather could not possibly have made so much money as an innkeeper and that Goethe's father was actually the illegitimate son of a man of rank ("der Sohn eines vornehmen Mannes") who had talked the innkeeper in pretending to be the father.

Whether this account in the autobiography is a true version of what happened, Goethe goes on to report of the strange effect this rumor had on him ("eine Art von sittlicher Krankheit"). It did not offend him to be thought to be the grandson of a noble personnage, even if illegitimately so. In fact, he was quite flattered. This is where he references grandfather Friedrich Georg (though not by name), whose portrait had once hung in the drawing room of the old house but was now stored in the attic of the new one! So, in the absence of knowing nothing about this grandfather, young Goethe started looking at paintings of famous men and seeking resemblances to himself. When visiting friends in Frankfurt with high connections and with portraits of famous men decorating their walls, he would study them carefully to see if he could discover any similarities with himself or his father. Goethe's own estimation was that his self-conceit was fueled by these speculations, and not necessarily in an estimable way.

This particular account enraged Goethe critic Ludwig Börne who lambasted Goethe for mentioning only that he was the grandson of Schultheiss Textor, which allowed him to attend the imperial coronation. Börne continued "Ein Kind ehrbarer Eltern entzückte es ihn, als ihn einst als Knabe ein Gassenbube Bastard schalt, und er schwärmte mit der Phantasie des künftigen Dichters, wessen Prinzen Sohn er wohl möchte seyn. So war er; so ist er geblieben."

 Even Heinrich Heine weighed in on this episode of Goethe's childish pretensions, while thoroughly mixing up the two grandfathers. Frankfurt's chief magistrate thereby became the father of Caspar, while Goethe was criticized for not mentioning with one word that his mother's father was a "ehrbares Flickschneiderlein auf der Bockenheimer Gasse" who repaired "die alen Hosen der Republik."

To be continued. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Jane Austen and Madame de Stael


Collection of Geri Walton
I am sure that most readers will find the title of this post somewhat puzzling, although (as will be seen) there is a Goethe connection. Since we are now officially in 2018 (I begin writing this post late on New Year's day), an earlier posting would have been more appropriate, as the death year of both writers was 1807. I didn't notice that there was much commemoration last year, in the Anglo sphere in any case, concerning Madame de Staël. It was a piece online by M.D. Aeschliman connecting the two writers under a horrible title –– "Two Great Literary Women in Light of Today's Sexual Harassment Scandals" –– that drew my attention to this confluence. (It seems typical of our time that historical figures are drafted to serve as exemplary of contemporary concerns.)

Paula Byrne's recent book on Jane Austen and the theater brought out Austen's considerable knowledge not only of theater and theatrical practice but also of the plays of the German playwright Kotzebue and of his English translator's works. In an earlier post, I wrote about Austen's knowledge of The Sorrows of Young Werther and speculated that she may have been familiar with Hermann und Dorothea. The first time I read Elective Affinities, many years ago, I suspected that Goethe may have been familiar with her novels of manners. As far as we can tell, however, he seems not to have directly mentioned her name, although his library in Weimar did contain a copy of a novel by Fanny Burney, a major influence on Austen.

Goethe of course knew Germaine Necker de Staël. Initially, before he met her, one of her writings found favor in his eyes. He translated her Essai sur les fictions of 1795, which appeared in Die Horen in 1796. Later, after her banishment by Napoleon and because of her anti-Napoleon activities, one imagines that he might have ignored her completely, except that she made a point of visiting Weimar at the end of 1803 and setting up a salon there. His diary entries indicate that they met, but Nicholas Boyle gives the impression that he tried to avoid her invitations.

As I wrote in an earlier post, she was also in Weimar in 1814 with Benjamin Constant, who was squiring her around Europe. Constant was one of the first Europeans to articulate a right to freedom of speech and argued –– unlike most of the philosophes –– that it was not the role of government to regulate morals or to mold public virtue through education or to "improve" or "enlighten" citizens. Goethe sent back to Karl Ludwig von Knebel Benjamin Constant's anti-Napoleonic treatise De l'esprit de conquête et de l'usurpation. In his letter to Knebel Goethe said that he had not been able to read it; indeed he resisted the ideas in it.

I just read Goethe's translation of the 1795 essay by de Staël, entitled "Versuch über die Dichtungen."  She makes some very interesting observations, especially about the difference between tragedy, historical writing, and the modern novel. Tragedy and historical writing are about larger-than-life figures, and even tragic figures are taken from history. True, writers of tragedy can select characters from outside the higher classes of society, but the aim is the presentation of "strong conditions." There is no room for the "Schattirungen einer zarten Seele."

Denn wenn die Geschichte uns bedeutende Umstände bewahrt, so bleiben doch dazwischen ungeheure Lücken, in welchen vieles Unglück, viele Fehler Raum haben, woraus doch die meisten Schicksale der Privatpersonen bestehen. Dagegen können die Romane mit so viel Gewalt und so ausführlich Charaktere und Empfindungen mahlen, daß keine Lecture einen so tiefen Haß gegen das Laster und eine so reine Liebe für die Tugend hervorbringen könnte.

As demonstrated by the above quote, there is a strong moralistic element in her analysis. Good novels allow readers to draw a purer, higher moral lesson than can be achieved by a try, didactic work. And while love has always been a favorite subject of novelists, it is the portrayal of those troubling passions –– ambition, pride, greed, and so on –– that can even bring a change of heart to a person who is not very moral. She has closely read the novels of Fielding and Richardson, along with Godwin's Caleb Williams, and awaits a "new" Richardson who would portray the other passions. In 1795, of course, the new Richardson was waiting in the wings, namely, Jane Austen.

A couple of amusing quotes from Madame de Staël's visit in 1803–1804 to Weimar. Schiller wrote to Goethe, who was in Jena, as follows: "The only defect is her quite extraordinary volubility. One must be turned  into a listening machine to be able to follow her. I get on very badly with her in consequence of my want of facility in the French language, but you will find it easier to carry on conversation, as you have more practice in it ..." She finally met Goethe on Christmas eve of 1803, at Anna Amalia's. According to the  testimony of Bottiger, she was disappointed by Goethe's outward appearance, as she had imagined a Werther, grown perhaps a little older. She is supposed to have said "Je voudrais mettre son esprit dans un autre corps."

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Safranski ad infinitum


I have posted twice now (on October 27 and on June 7) on the response to Goethe: Life as a Work of Art, David Dollenmayer's translation of Safranski's Goethe bio. The most recent person to weigh in is Ferdinand Mount, in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books. Certainly Michael Hoffmann and Daniel Johnson are familiar with German literature (whereas Adam Kirsch's New Yorker review of The Essential Goethe was hardly more than a potted summary of Goethe's life and work), but Mount shows more than a superficial reading of Goethe's work. I would expect nothing less of a former editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Mount has read earlier biographies, including the two volumes so far by Nicholas Boyle. A comparison with Boyle is always a good place to start, which I also did in my Goethe Yearbook review of the original German edition. In Mount's estimation, Safranski does not "measure up to the depth and subtlety of Boyle’s analysis." In compensation, Safranksi "says certain things plainly that Boyle tends to blur or omits altogether—like the story of Herr Glaser." This is an episode of Goethe's life with which I was unfamiliar and about which Safranski reported. Herr Glaser of Stützerbach was a corpulent merchant who proudly showed off a life-size portrait of himself to the young Carl August and his new privy councilor. When he was out of the room, Goethe cut out Glaser's face from the canvas and stuck his own head in the hole. In the meantime, the duke's other hangers-on were raiding the merchant's wine cellar and rolling the barrels down the hill. Here is the quote in English in Mount's review: “Teased Glaser shamefully. Fantastic fun till 1 am. Slept well.”

Here is Goethe's own diary account of the events of August 31 and September 1, 1777: "nach Tisch ritt mit Lichtenb. auf Stützerbach. war äusserst lustig den Abend. d. 1. den Morgen bis Nachm 3 auf der Jagd. Hesler zu uns nach Tische mit den Bauermaidels getanzt, Glasern sündlich geschunden, ausgelassen toll bis gegen 1 Nachts. Gut geschlafen."

Glaser House in Stützerbach. Note cellar and hill.
The commentary volume of Goethe's diary identifies Lichtenberg as "Husaren-Rittmeister in Weimar, Adjutant des Herzogs." Hesler (i.e., Häseler) was the "Oberforstmeister in Stützerbach."

Perhaps because of those Bauermaidels, Mount is inclined not to take seriously Goethe's sexual innocence before his journey to Rome. Boyle seems to accept the view that Rome was his initiation, while Safranski is silent on the subject. Mount finds the youthful Goethe too "boundless, energetic, uninhibited" to have been buttoned up. He quotes Goethe's boast to his friend Kestner ("Between you and me I know something about girls”), as well as an early letter from Weimar to Frankfurt (“I’m leading a pretty wild life here”).

Mount finds the essential Goethe in the "young Goethe," in the Sturm und Drang Goethe, and is not too enamored of the notion, purveyed by Safranski and others, that Goethe continually "reinvented" himself. Goethe, in his view, was fully formed as a young man, and his later turn to classicism, "toward the erotic," was no more than "pirouettes on the ice." As evidence, he notes that Goethe's late-life infatuations were all with young women, what Mount calls "the throbbings of noontide," which were the reviving of an old self, not the invention of a new one. Thus, Goethe's remarkable poetic facility, from youth to old age, with its "extraordinary combination of movement and musicality, the best of Byron with the best of Tennyson. He is the easiest of poets to remember."

Very interesting observations. I am not sure I agree with Mount, however, when he writes that Goethe's basic outlook was "sunny." This does not comport with Mount's conclusion, which introduces Nietzsche's reverence before Goethe in Twilight of the Idols. (Thus, the image at the top of this post from the New York Review page by the Dutch illustrator Siegfried Woldhek.) For Mount, what Nietzsche is describing is the Superman, one who "acknowledges no external limits on his will, whose actions are self-validating, who is beyond scruples." I don't see the path from the young Goethe to this image of a Goethe, for whom nothing is forbidden but "weakness." Mount seems to have made a giant leap. Although Safranski does not foreground it as such, his biography shows how the "sunniness," the  exuberance of Goethe's youth, was killed by life in Weimar. Goethe had to change, if he were to stay there. The result was resignation, renunciation (Entsagung), not a unscrupulous Superman.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Did Goethe have a pet?

A dog, perhaps? A cat? I ask, because the presence or absence is one of those biographical details that would seem to offer insight into the person, if not into the work. Maybe the Goethe household had cats around to keep away other critters, but a dog would seem a very English custom. The Brontë family, for instance, had pets, and the pets even had names. This I learned from a long essay in a recent issue of the London Review of Books by Alice Spawls assessing a number of new books on the Brontë females, the first of which concerns Charlotte, whose 200th birthday was commemorated in 2016. Emily and Anne and even brother Branwell will get their due in the coming years.

Spawls herself is very ambivalent about literary biographies, because of the confabulation that enters into them. She quotes Virginia Woolf to the effect that the worthies of the world are reduced to little figures that we expect to begin to see moving and speaking and whom we arrange "in all sorts of patterns of which they were ignorant." In this connection are the concocted images featuring famous writers. An example would be the image above of Goethe and Carl August in an imagined meeting on "state" business.

One of the books Spawls examines is Celebrating Charlotte Brontë, which looks at physical objects, including, e.g., styles of clothing, women's hair, the making of lace cuffs, dressing cases, writing desks ("really a sort of wooden tray you put on your lap"), decorative china. Spawls goes on to mention the richness of the material world of Charlotte's novels, which I found very interesting in connection with Goethe's novels. Objects are important in his novels, but they serve a symbolic purpose rather than creating realism. Long ago I read an essay by David Wellbery on Elective Affinities (the title escapes me now, but maybe someone can remind me), which concerned a bunch of objects in that novel the initial letter of which was "K." They included Kahn, Koffer, Kästchen. But, again, not easy to visualize as individually. Not very illuminating for biographical purposes, right?

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Erich Auerbach on Goethe and realism

My messy living room
 Edward Mendelson, in the first of his three talks at Columbia University on Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway, mentioned  Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis chapter on Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse. I took a look at that chapter, which is entitled “The Brown Stocking” (“Der braune Strumpf” in the German version). As is typical with Auerbach, it is an astonishing close reading of a small episode in Woolf’s novel. There is what Auerbach calls an “exterior occurrence,” which he calls “entirely insignificant” in itself — Mrs. Ramsay is measuring a sock on her son James who will not stand still — while the rest of the episode is devoted almost entirely to “inner processes,” movements in the consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay. If you have read Woolf’s novels, you will know about the role that such parentheses play in Woolf’s storytelling, which don’t move the story “forward” much -- action is not the point -- but instead paint the world through a series of changing impressions, all rendered via a point of view. “The Brown Stocking” is the last chapter in Mimesis.

The English-language copy of Mimesis that I own has been in my possession since I was in graduate school at the University of Texas eons ago. Back when I bought the book, I was not so wrapped up with Goethe and noted that the only German text treated by Auerbach was  Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe. After reading the chapter on To the Lighthouse, however, I consulted the index and discovered that Auerbach had some comments on Goethe in two long sections of earlier chapters. One is in the chapter on Shakespeare and deals with the mixing of styles in Germany in the 18th century; the other is in the Schiller chapter. What he said about Goethe interested me so much that when I went to hear Edward Mendelson last evening I stopped at the Columbia library and checked out the German version for comparison.


Felicitas Hoppe on red sofa
Auerbach’s subject, as per the subtitle, is the representation of reality in Western literature (in German: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der Abendländischen Literatur). It begins with the famous chapter entitled “The Scar of Odysseus” (Die Narbe des Odysseus), although the true focus is the superiority of the Biblical account of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the representation of earthly reality. In the Schiller chapter, Auerbach elucidates why Germany in the 18th century, despite its overthrowing of French normative poetics, especially as expressed in the earthy depictions of domestic life by Sturm und Drang dramatists, did not evolve a full-fledged realism showing the interaction of the dynamic forces of history with the lives of individuals. Such an interaction was the subject of Schiller’s drama, but Schiller, especially in depicting his villains as out-and-out scoundrels, depriving them of “their inner essence” (ihres inneren Wesens beraubt), resulted not in a realist drama, but melodrama — and propaganda (sehr wohl geeignet, eine starke, gefühlsmäßige politische Wirkung auszulösen). And that was basically where realism in the depiction of contemporary subjects ended.

Goethe, Auerbach contends, endowed as he was with “so much natural talent for grasping the sensory and real” (weil kein anderer Schriftsteller so viel natürliche Anlage zum Ergreifen des Sinnlichen und Wirklichen mitbrachte)— as seen in his early works — might have led the way, but such realism as exists in his later works was applied in a very narrow domain, e.g., in portions of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. The “contemporary shuffling of social strata” finds no expression in Goethe. Auerbach writes: Goethe, "the burgher’s son in a class-conscious social order” (der Bürgerssohn aus der ständischen Gesllschaftsordnung) was instead “irresistibly inclined toward harmonious development of his own nature. … He, too, like Wilhelm Meister, sought his own particular way out of his bourgeois class, without concerning himself with whether and how the constitution of society might one day change.” Despite his father’s mistrust, he went to Weimar, where, “within the narrowest frame, [he] created for himself a universal position which was perfectly suited to him.” (For German, see p. 396 of the original.)

These comments helped me in my understanding of Elective Affinities. The “immobility of the social background” in this novel is even stronger than in the Wilhelm Meister novel. In a sense, it might be said that the characters resemble the Homeric ones treated in the first chapter of Mimesis, who, in Auerbach’s memorable phrasing, “wake every morning as if it were the first day of their lives.” Change was something that Goethe came to dislike, especially violent, disorderly change, and he simply turned his back on it. A passage in the appendix to his translation of Cellini indicates that Goethe believed that it was only in the flowering of aristocratic cultures that significant individuals could develop unimpeded. The result: “We are left with the conclusion that Goethe never represented the reality of contemporary life dynamically, as the germ of developments in process and in the future.” (Als Ergebnis bleibt, daß Goethe die Wirlichkeit des ihm zeitgenössischen gesellschaftlichen Lebens niemals dynamisch, niemals als Keim werdender und zukünftiger Gestaltungen dargestellt hat.)

(Re the photos here: for some reason Google is not allowing me to import pictures from the internet, even from the Goethezeitportal. Thus, the ones here show the present reality of my life.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Beauty is in the details

My friend Philippe is visiting from Germany and was in town yesterday, so we went to the Metropolitan Museum (where else?). The 19th-century European painting galleries held lots of surprises for me, in the sense that the Met constantly changes out paintings from its vast storage facilities. Yesterday, there was a whole room of paintings by Pissaro that I had never encountered and, with a larger number of works to consider, offered new insights into this period.

Lately I find myself consumed by the details in works of art. Herewith some examples from yesterday's tour. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Luca Signorelli, Head of a Man in Profile (1490s)

Hubert Robert, Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius (1757)

Claude Lorrain, Perseus & the Origin of Coral (1671)

Circle of A. Mantegna, Descent into Limbo (1465)

Henri-Joseph Harpignies, View of Moulins (1850-60)

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, The River (ca. 1864)
 This last detail is from a painting by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, whose paintings are exhibited in the long hall in which the Met's ample supply of Rodin sculptures is located. Like Pisarro, his work is also one I had often passed by without looking closely, but the beauty is certainly in the details.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, The River (ca. 1864)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Panoramas in the Goethezeit

Vance Byrd, professor in the German department at Grinnell College, was at the recent Atkins Conference of the GSNA. Vance and I were on a panel together at the previous conference three years ago, at which he gave a talk entitled "A Domestic Spectacle: Breysig's German Panorama and Bertuch's Modejournal." Breysig referred to the painter Johann Adam Breysig, who considered himself to be the inaugurator of the medium of panoramic views. Friedrich Justin Bertuch was the successful Weimar publisher and entrepreneur whose Journal des Luxus und der Moden brought panoramas -- and much else that was of consumer interest -- to the attention of the German reading public in the 1780s and 1790s.

The panel three years ago was the first act of Vance's project, which has now reached completion in a book entitled A Pedagogy of Observation: Nineteenth-Century Panoramas, German Literature, and Reading Culture (Bucknell UP, 2017), which is now available from Amazon. The cover is a detail from a painting of 1830 entitled The Panorama by the painter C.G.H. Geißler.

Vance kindly sent me some images of the oldest extant cyclorama, representing the town of Thun and the mountains of the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland, which was created in the years 1800-1814 by Marquard Wochar. According to the website of the Thun Kunstmuseum, the panorama (280 square meters) has undergone two restorations, the most recent by Michael Fischer, son of the first restorer in 1899. (Go to the museum's website for more pictures and documentation.) In the 1960s a rotunda was built for observing the panorama. In the photo above, you can see the illusionistic effect provided by the platform. (As usual, click on images to enlarge.)

Detail of Thun panorama
Vance's argument is that most people did not have the opportunity to view these magnificent paintings, but instead received their knowledge of them from publications like that of Bertuch. As Vance writes, "By reading about what editors, newspaper correspondents, and writers referred to as 'panoramas,' curious Germans learned about a new representational medium and a new way to organize and produce knowledge about the scenes on display, even if they had never seen these marvels in person." In this way, they were led to witness, if at second hand, industrial transformations, urban development, scientific exploration, and so on.

Picture credit: Kunstmuseum Thun Depositum Gottfried Keller-Stiftung