Saturday, May 23, 2015

Goethe biographies

Goethe Girl with cowboy poets
I am enjoying an extended (eight days) absence from Manhattan, visiting friends in northern Arizona. One item on our itinerary is a trip to Monument Valley. I continue to be interested in the different geological formations of Europe and of the American West.

On the flight out I started reading Andrew Piper's biography of Goethe (2010), which appears in the Brief Lives series of Hesperus Press, offering, as per the back jacket, "short, authoritative biographies of the world's best-known literary figures." Such is Goethe, as Piper reminds us throughout this very readable biography. Early on, I had the feeling that Piper worked with a chronology Goethe's life at his side, assuring that all the high points were treated, but he is seldom abstract or vague. For instance, after Goethe returned to Weimar from Italy he was made director of the theater, expending a decade of energy and time. This is followed by a nice detail that gives an impression of Goethe's ambitions as well as the limitations he endured: "The theater was of modest size (fourteen rows of benches in a fifty-foot-long room with a twenty-foot-wide stage), although its initial repertory was not: it consisted of eleven operettas and thirty-five plays in the summer season alone."

Works for sale at Phippen Museum Western art show in Prescott
Piper has the enviable ability to summarize, with pertinent detail, large historical moments, as, for instance, the opening gestures of the French Revolution in a single short paragraph and its initial effects on Germany (none, aside from the interest of intellectuals). He is also good at sketching, in a few strokes, the kernel of Goethe's works, although occasionally producing a clunker, e.g., re Werther: "It is the story of a young man with too much emotion. He falls in love with another man's fiancée, is an incessant reader, and imagines that he can see the entire universe in a blade of grass. By the end of the novel, he will shoot himself in the head as a copy of Lessing's play Emilia Galotti lies open on his desk."

Generally the insights are better, and Piper is good at relating Goethe's poetic production to his life or experience. On Tasso: "In it we can see how difficult courtly life had become for Goethe and how retreat and solitude had emerged as fundamental ingredients of his own creativity. ... Torquato Tasso was one of the most eloquent laments about the artist's awkward position in the world."

Arizona watercolors by Margarethe Brummermann
Schiller is introduced as an "itinerant playwright who had been unable to find permanent employment at one of the handful of large repertory theaters in the German states. His first play, The Robbers, had been a tremendous sensation ..., but he had never been capable of churning out standard bourgeois fare like Kotzebue or Iffland." On the success of Schiller's inaugural lecture in Jena: "No one cold move a crowd quite like Schiller."

Each "stage" of Goethe's life channels different priorities. For instance, the felt immediacy of the early poetry ("Mailied") gives way go "an artistry of reflection ("Auf dem See"),

It is a good overview, a very intelligent one, and it also places Goethe in a larger European context, with references to Keats, Carlyle, world literature, and so on. Lately I find myself interested in more partial studies of Goethe, which include two that I am currently reading, Albrecht Schöne's study of Goethe as a "Briefsteller" and Sigrid Damm's Goethes Freunde in Gotha and Weimar. More news on those two books to come.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Goethe a classical liberal?

One comes across Goethe in many places. Whenever I peruse a scholarly work, I go quickly to the index to see if he is listed, and often he is. I once sat next to the political scientist Charles Murray at a dinner. When he learned that my work was on Goethe, he told me about a book he was working on that ranked the most important "innovators" in various fields according to the number of sources that mentioned them and the amount of space dedicated. He told me that Goethe was one of the most referenced figures of all.

Franco Moretti's Hamlet network
The book was published in 2003 as Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950. In the category "Western Literature," Goethe is in second place with an "80" ranking, right after Shakespeare. He is followed by Dante (62), Virgil (55), Homer (54), Rousseau (48), and Voltaire (47). Schiller stands at 38 between Victor Hugo (40) and Boccaccio (35). It would be interesting to see a Franco Moretti-like diagram giving a breakdown of the categories of sources that reference Goethe.

Regarding the question posed in the title of this post: Was Goethe a classical liberal? I found a piece  on that subject at the Mises Institute website, a forum on the work of the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. The piece is by the German-born economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who refers to Goethe as a classical liberal. According to Hoppe, after the French revolution early Germans liberals became "democrats" and nationalists, while Goethe opposed the political creed of liberty and equality as well as political centralization. If anyone is surprised to learn this, Hoppe quotes Goethe from Maximen und Reflexionen: "Legislators and revolutionaries who promise equality and liberty at the same time are either psychopaths or mountebanks."

This description may well fit Goethe, although I find it difficult to imagine Goethe accepting the following summary of his politics found on an online site:

"Classical liberalism is a political ideology that values the freedom of individuals — including the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and markets — as well as limited government. It developed in 18th-century Europe and drew on the economic writings of Adam Smith and the growing notion of social progress. Liberalism was also influenced by the writings of Thomas Hobbes, who argued that governments exist to protect individuals from each other. In 19th- and 20th-century America, the values of classical liberalism became dominant in both major political parties. The term is sometimes used broadly to refer to all forms of liberalism prior to the 20th century. Conservatives and libertarians often invoke classical liberalism to mean a fundamental belief in minimal government."

Any reaction?

Image: Sherlockian-SherlockThe Stanford Literary Lab; The Libertarian Republic

Monday, May 11, 2015

Erinnerung an Schiller; addendum

Schiller and the Körners
This is belated, as Schiller's death occurred on May 9, but I was reminded this morning by mail from the Goethezeitportal, which included some nice images. I was also led to a site with which I was unfamiliar: Erinnerungen, devoted solely to Schiller.

Ich dachte mich selbst zu verlieren, und verliere nun einen Freund u in demselben die Hälfte meines Daseins.

ADDENDUM: Above I made note of a website devoted to Schiller. On looking more closely I discovered that the site, "Erinnerungen," is the title of a book by Gisela Seidel, which is subtitled Lebensrückblick in autobiographischer Form. Schiller never wrote an autobiography, but Ms. Seidel has improvised one. A review can be found at Goethezeit-Portal.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Goethe and wine

Although I have profited much from secondary scholarship on Goethe, I always prefer works that are richly larded with quotations from his writings. For instance, I liked thie "primary" approach of Rüdiger Safranski in his Goethe biography: Die Kunst des Lebens. (Here is a link to my post on that bio.) I have recently begun reading Sigrid Damm's Goethes Freunde in Gotha and Weimar, most of the pages of which are in the italic font that in German publications indicates quotation from the original sources.

While perusing the Goethe shelves at the Columbia U. library I came across Goethe: Der Dichter und der Wein (2000) by Christoph Michel. Documents and household accounts also make up its contents. Document 29, from Goethe's diary of April of 1780, interested me, indicating that Goethe thought he drank too much:

 1 April. gleich früh frisch gefasst. ... Seit drez Tagen keinen Wein Sich nun vorm Englischen Bier in acht zu nehmen. Wenn ich den Wein abschaffen könnte wär ich sehr glücklich. ...

1 April. bey Hofe gessen. Massig ist halb gelebt.

15. War sehr ruhig und bestimmt, die lezten Tage wenig eingezogen [bezieht sich auf Teilnahme an der Rekrutenaushebung und am Theaterbau]. Ich trincke fast keinen Wein. Und gewinne täglich mehr in Blick und Geschick zum thätigen Leben.

Louis Ferdinand, painted by J-L Mosnier
The following account (no. 138) of Prince Louise Ferdinand of Prussia, in a letter to Pauline Wiesel on December 16, 1805, contrasts with the accounts of the "stiff" or ceremonial Goethe from this time. Perhaps the champagne lightened Goethe's mood:

Ich habe nun Goethen wirklich kennen gelernt; er ging gestern noch spät mit mir nach Hause, und saß dann vor meinem Bette, wir tranken Champagner und Punsch, und er sprach ganz vortrefflich! Endlich deboutonnierte sich seine Seele; er ließ seinem Geist freien Lauf; er sagte viel, ich lernte viel, und fand ihn ganz natürlich und liebenswürdig.

Hardly a year later the prince died at the Battle of Saalfeld. According to the Wikipedia account: "When he saw his forces beginning to rout, Louis Ferdinand charged the French cavalry. He was killed in combat by Guindet, quartermaster of the French 10th Hussars, after Louis Ferdinand refused an offer to surrender and wounded the French NCO."

The prince was also a composer, and none other than Goethe's own musical adviser Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Frederick II's Kapellmeister,  considered him a great pianist. Beethoven dedicated his Third Piano Concerto to him. His friends included such writers as Wackenroder and Tieck. One can imagine that he and Goethe would be congenial spirits.

The artist and critic Wilhelm Zahn, later professor at the Berlin Academy of the Arts,  visited Goethe in 1827. He was invited by Goethe to a breakfast celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Weimar cross-bow guild ("Armbrustschützengilde") and reported (no. 158) on Goethe's pleasure in wine:

Eine große Gesellschaft war versammelt, und der edle Wein floß in Strömen. Alle tranken tapfer, aber der alte Goethe am tapfersten. Mit innigem Behagen sah er einen nach dem andern matt werden und kläglich abfallen. Ihm allein konnte der Wein nichts anhaben. Wie ein siegender Feldherr überblickte er das Schlachtfeld und die niedergetrunknen Reihen.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

History of Goethetc.

I have noted in recent days that the number of visits to this site has been moving toward 200,000. Overnight, it has overtaken that mark.

I began blogging in August 2008, not quite sure what I wanted to do. Initially I had the idea of a website, on which I would upload my own work on Goethe, but Carole, with a few keystrokes, created the blog template. "Goethe" was already taken as a blog name, and Rick suggested "Goethetc." Etcetera has truly been the case. Indeed, within days of starting the blog, I went off to Vienna for a visit. It seemed natural to post photos of my trip on my return. Thus, although I have posted mostly on Goethe, but not necessarily in my own area of interest (world literature), it has included lots of subjects that interest me personally. "Goethe," however, covers a wide swath, as noted by recent posts on Carl Friedrich Zeiss.

The image at the top of today's post comes from an Argentinian site dedicated to comparative literature. It appeared at the top of my third post, back in 2008. I can't really read Spanish, but I looked at the link today and notice that the article contains quite a bibliography–– certainly of interest for Spanish scholars of the subject. It lists, for instance, a thesis from 2000 by Waltraud Kirste: Weltliteratur de Goethe, un concepto intercultural. (Tesis doctoral bajo la dirección del Dr. José María Santamaría. Universidad del País Vasco - Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea.) And, of course, Eckermann's Conversaciones con Goethe. The article on Goethe is by Damián Leandro Sarro, who appears to be at the Universidad Nacional de Rosario.

Since 2008 I have fielded many requests concerning Goethe from all over the world, including from high school students and retired folks. Onward and upward to 500,000.

Saturday, April 25, 2015


Übergoethe is the title of a newly created site by a blogger from Braunschweig. For additional reactions to and insights on Goethe, please visit this new enterprise and send some traffic his way! The most recent posting describes a visit to Goethehaus in Frankfurt.

Goethe was in Braunschweig as part of Carl August Fürstenbund diplomatic mission between August 16 and September 1, 1784. He found the court atmosphere unappealing. Bernd Wolff, a writer who grew up in the Harz region, wrote a Brocken trilogy, novels about Goethe's Harz journeys. The third, Die Würde der Steine, includes a description of the mission to Braunschweig. I wrote a review of the novels for the Goethe Yearbook (vol. 18, 2011). I notice that Wolff has recently published Klippenwandrer: Heines Harzreise, the journey of another Harz traveler.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Zum Schäkespears Tag

Homer Teaches Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe to Sing by Bela Sesija
Die erste Seite die ich in ihm las, machte mich auf Zeitlebens ihm eigen, und wie ich mit dem ersten Stücke fertig war, stund ich wie ein blindgebohrner, dem eine Wunderhand das Gesicht in einem Augenblick schenckt. Ich erkannte, ich fühlte auf's lebhaffteste meine Existenz um eine Unendlichkeit erweitert, alles war mir neu, unbekannt, und das ungewohnte Licht machte mir Augenschmerzen.