Monday, July 16, 2018

Goethe and Hermann Hesse

Goethe Girl in Sointula
I am again in Sointula, on Malcolm Island in British Columbia, where I have spent the last five summers. I call it my summer idyll.  (If anyone is interested in my activities here, go to my Sointula blog.) While working on my novel, I also attend to a couple other projects, one of which is a review of a biography of Hermann Hesse by Gunnar Decker that will be published in English translation by Harvard University Press in the fall. I taught Hesse's Demian in an undergraduate course many years ago and have also read Peter Camenzind and Siddhartha. In order to immerse myself deeper into Hesse's oeuvre, I brought several other Hesse novels with me. The past few days I have been working my way through Steppenwolf.

Working is the operative word. How much nihilism and negativity can you tolerate as a reader? How much do you want to read about the  existential crisis of alienated males? Such features are present in nuce in Peter Camenzind (a really beautifully written book), but by the time of Steppenwolf (1927) they have been extensively worked out. I fear it will become worse in succeeding novels. Today, however, I came across a very amusing episode in which Goethe plays a role.

Portrait of Hesse by Ernst Würtenberger (1905)
Already before I had reached this episode it seemed obvious that Faust's remark concerning "the two souls" that inhabit his breast applied to these alienated men populating Hesse's work. I am not going to bother (at least not now) with the secondary research on Hesse and Goethe. Allow me simply to review the episode.

Harry Haller is the so-named Steppenwolf, totally out of sorts with bourgeois society and against which he rages ad nauseum. At the same time, he longs for human companionship and love. He has all the prejudices of the highly educated against bourgeois propriety and bourgeois self-satisfaction, which provokes very bad behavior at the home of a young professor of East Indian languages who has invited him to dinner. Practically the first thing he notices, after the maid has received him, is an etching of a Goethe portrait atop a small round table. There was no sign in it of Goethe's fiery expression, not a trace of his solitude or tragic nature, no demonic quality. Instead, the image is one of control and moral uprightness (Biederkeit). In the course of things, Harry insults the professor's wife, who was fond of the portrait.

Steppenwolf, ca. 1970
Harry storms out and is engaged in a night of wandering through the town, going from bar to bar. Very late he finds himself drawn to a restaurant-bar (Wirtshaus) in which dancing is going on. It is here that he meets a young woman, maybe a prostitute or maybe simply the kind of female who makes money dancing with customers in such places. He falls into conversation with her, and she gives him a lesson or two concerning his childlike behavior. Because he has never learned to dance, he refuses to dance with her. She promises to return to him after she has danced with another customer and tells him to take a nap. So, in the midst of the loud music and all the noise at such a place, he does fall asleep and has a dream about Goethe.

The portrait of Goethe in the dream reminded me of the Goethe of Milan Kundera's novel Immortality, on which I posted earlier. In the dream Harry is a journalist who has an audience with His Excellency. Goethe appears, "small and very stiff," wearing the medal of some order on his "Klassikerbrust." He addresses Harry as follows: "You seem not to be in agreement with us and our efforts?" To which Harry replies in the affirmative: "You are too solemn for us, too vain and pompous. Essentially too insincere" (zu wenig aufrichtig). Goethe smiles in response, his officially closed lips open, and the words of the poem "Dämmerung senkte sich von oben" pours from his mouth, which disarms Harry to such an extent that he is ready to kneel down at Goethe's feet.

Still, Harry goes on to complain. Despite recognizing and feeling the dubiousness, the hopelessness of the human condition, the glory of the individual moment and its miserable withering away, the imprisoning character of everyday existence, etcetera, etcetera, in short all the hopelessness, exasperation, and burning despair of the human lot -- why on earth did Goethe nevertheless preach the opposite, express belief and optimism, extol persistence and meaning?

Goethe is unruffled, continues to smile, and asks Harry if he is repelled by Mozart's Magic Flute. In Goethe's words: "Die Zauberflöte stellt das Leben als einen köstlichen Gesang dar, sie preist unsere Gefühle, die doch vergänglich sind, wie etwas Ewiges und Göttliches, ... predigt Optimismus und Glauben." Goethe is not offended by Harry's irritated response, that Mozart lived only to the age of twenty-eight and did not experience the demands of persistence, order, and rigid dignity. "It may seem inexcusable," Goethe says, that he reached the advanced age of eighty-two, but he always had a great desire for old age (Dauer) and feared death. The battle against death, along with the unconditioned and obstinate desire for life, however, are principles by which all outstanding men have operated. His own desire in this respect was the same at twenty-eight as at eighty-two. And even though there was plenty of playfulness in his nature, he also became aware that play (Spiel)  must also have an end.

Lotte and Werther dance
This is a minor summary, and I advise going to the original. It goes on in this vein, with Goethe refusing to take Harry seriously, but instead to start prancing around cheerfully. Harry, who had refused to dance with the young woman, concedes that at least Goethe had not failed to learn that social art.

Images: Creating the 19th-Century Ballroom

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Goethe everywhere

I have mentioned on many occasions that Goethe crops up in unsuspected contexts. Today I came across another intellectual touchstone. As always when checking out a work of non-fiction, I consult the index to see if Goethe is mentioned, and today I came across a reference in a biography of Thomas Henry Huxley, which appeared in the well-known Twayne's English Authors Series in 1969. The biography was written by my friend Albert Ashforth, who died this past year. Al had been an English professor before he became a writer of novels about the war on terror, and his first book had been the Huxley biography.

Huxley, a supporter of Charles Darwin's work on evolution against the outrages of clerics and others, called himself "Darwin's bulldog." Huxley is an early example of a public intellectual who promotes certain ideas, which, if repeated often enough, become familiar to people and lead to the ideas being institutionalized. There is some doubt whether Huxley actually accepted the theory of evolution, but he was skeptical of theology and abhorred "humbug." As Al writes in his Huxley bio, "Huxley's differences with Christian ecclesiastics were almost without exception academic, centering generally on abstruse points of theology; on the essential there was no quarrel." As Huxley himself wrote in 1892:

"I have a great respect for the Nazarenism of Jesus. But the only religion that appeals to me is prophetic Judaism. Add to it something from the best Stoics and something from Spinoza and something from Goethe, and there is a religion for men."

Huxley's salute to Goethe underlines the penetration of Goethe's ideas in Britain in the 19th century, which was the subject of my blogpost last year in connection with Greg Maertz's book on Goethe in Victorian Britain.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Goethe and Bettina

Goethe and "Bettschatz"
 Just the other day I pulled Immortality by Milan Kundera off of the shelf. I have always been drawn to the “Mitteleuropa” point of view of his novels and their situatedness on the 20th-century historical stage: more is at stake than the family dysfunction of so many American novels. I also like the philosophical heft. As a reviewer once wrote, his characters are vessels for ideas. Goethe has a featured role in Immortality, but I already loved it before I wrote my dissertation on Goethe, having first read the novel when it appeared in English in 1991. In Immortality, Germany's great poet is a vessel for ideas about immortality and love. Kundera subjects these ideas to his ironic, even cynical gaze, via the documented relationship between Goethe and Bettina Brentano, later von Arnim. It is a story of what famous people have to suffer: everyone wants a piece of them. As Gabriel Annan wrote in a review of the novel: “The narrator’s tone is debonair. But his view of the world is pitch black.”

Some back history, which Kundera gets right. Goethe first met Bettina in the spring of 1807. She was twenty-two, about the same age as Goethe when he fell for her mother, Maximilian, back in his youthful Frankfurt days. This earlier infatuation with her mother may have led Bettina to imagine that she could be Goethe's daughter. As Kundera writes, the feeling grew in her that “she had some sort of secret right to the great poet, because in the metaphoric sense (and who should take metaphors seriously if not a poet?) she considered herself his daughter.” In any case, she developed what might be called hero worship for the great man. She was a small person and played on being a child, a figure like that of Mignon in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister novel. She liked to sit on the floor; later she wrote that she had sat on Goethe's lap. They met very few times: in Kundera's reckoning six times in the course of twenty years. But she wrote him fifty-two letters, in which she addressed him with the familiar “you” form. These letters were the basis of the book she published after Goethe's death, Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kind. As Kundera points out, it was not until 1920 that the authenticity of the correspondence was questioned, when the original letters were discovered and published.

Amid the avalanche of words in her letters to Goethe (to which he only occasionally responded and with ministerial brevity), she also presented herself as a lover. In a letter from 1809 she wrote, “I have a strong will to love you for eternity.” For Kundera, Bettina is a Western type that he characterizes as Homo sentimentalis: feelings raised to the category of value. Bettina was in love with the idea of love, love as an emotion, not with a love relation. In her letters she does not ask his opinions or share ideas with him. The word “soul” appears 50 times in the letters, “heart” 119 times, but not in an anatomical sense. Kundera calls this love “extra-coital”: it exists outside of marriage.

“The gallery of Goethe's loves” (Frederika, Lotte, Lily, Ulrike) usually excludes his wife, Christiane: “The public refuses to see Christiane as one of Goethe's love simply because Goethe slept with her. For love-treasure and bed-treasure were mutually exclusive entities.” The dismissal of Christiane has deep roots, starting in the culture of Weimar, but Bettina added some fuel to it. It is with an encounter between Christiane and Bettina at an exhibition of paintings that Kundera begins his story. The date is September 13, 1811. There was a disagreement about the merits of the paintings, and the upshot was that Christine knocked the glasses off of Bettina's face. It was a very rude thing to do, but Christiane knew that Goethe had approved of the paintings that Bettina was criticizing. Moreover, Bettina's husband was a prominent figure among the Romantic poets to whom Goethe had an aversion. Christiane was also probably sick and tired of Bettina flirting with Goethe.

Goethe cut off contact with the Arnims then and there, which caused Bettina go on a tear  in the salons of Weimar, saying of Christine: “That fat sausage went crazy and bit me!” As Kundera writes, true or not, it has become an “immortal remark," cementing an unflattering image of Christiane.

Bettina is also the source of another anecdote affecting Goethe's afterlife. In 1839 (seven years after Goethe's death), she published an account that she said she had straight from Beethoven. For a few days in 1812 the two men were both at the spa of Teplitz in Bohemia. While they were out taking a walk together, the carriage carrying the Russian empress and her entourage passed them. Goethe doffed his hat to the royal company, while Beethoven pulled his hat down over his forehead. Again, the account is not substantiated by documentary evidence, but it has had long legs. As Kundera writes, “it enchanted everyone and became famous.” The outcome was a new story, cementing an image of Goethe as a reactionary, “a servant humbly bowing by the side of the road.” Another image Bettina sent into the world was that of Beethoven “striding forward with his hat pulled down over his forehead … marching down the centuries.”

In the 20th century, Romain Rolland became “a witness for the prosecution of the eternal trial conducted against Goethe.” For Rolland, the self-professed progressive intellectual, the Teplitz episode was an allegory: Beethoven as a radical, Goethe as a reactionary. Kundera finds the anecdote nonsense, even preposterous. Beethoven, after all, had not hesitated to compose for royalty; he even wrote a Polonaise for the Empress of Russia. An alternate allegorical picture would interpret Beethoven striding past the Empress as a statement on behalf of creativity: works of art are immortal, unlike wars or aristocratic costume balls. (Goethe would have felt the same way, but would have been more circumspect.) Those who applaud Beethoven fail to understand his pride as an artist: they are, as Kundera writes, for the most part people blinded by politics. Romain Rolland “would surely have bowed much more deeply than Goethe, if he had encountered Stalin on a path in Teplitz.”

Rolland (along with Rilke and Paul Eluard) also criticized Goethe for not properly loving Bettina and instead preferring his wife. Christiane was described by Rolland as “jealous,” “fat,” “ruddy and corpulent,” and “importunate.” This is surprising for an admirer of the proletariat:

“Why did it never occur to the friend of the proletariat to elaborate the anecdote with the glasses into an allegory, in which a simple woman of the people rightly punished the arrogant young intellectual while Goethe, having taken his wife’s part, strode proudly forward with head held high (and hatless!) against an army of aristocrats and their shameful prejudices?”

Picture credits:; Interlude; Alamy Stock Photos

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Europe and the world

Europe and the world
I have been working longer than is sane on an essay on Fritz Strich and Goethe's concept of world literature. Actually, not so much Goethe's concept but, rather, Strich's interpretation of that concept. Strich published in 1946 the first major study of the subject of world literature, Goethe und die Weltliteratur. Interestingly, in the century and a half after Goethe's death, despite practically every aspect of his life and work being investigated, his ideas on world literature stirred very little philological interest. Indeed, Hans Pyritz’s edition of the Goethe-Bibliographie, published in 1965, does not even devote a section to world literature. With the appearance of Strich's work in 1946, world literature scholarship took off.

The term "world literature," however, was already a buzzword by the end of the 19th century, but usually in the context of comparative literature or in reference to the great books of "the world" or to the circulation of books beyond their country of origin. The world literature publishing industry, as represented by anthologies and college textbooks, has likewise left the Goethean context far behind. The focus continues to be the "great books of the world," of all times and places. Thus, the Norton Anthology of World Literature includes (in volume 3), among others, the writings of Martin Luther, John Milton, The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, and "Indian Poetry after Islam." This is very sloppy intellectual work. In Goethe's conception, world literature concerned the active and continuous exchange of and encounter with living literary works of other nations. They were something like news in a bottle that had been cast in the ocean and turned up on another shore, bringing us information about the ways and folksways of other peoples. The distinction between then and now, however, is that when one read books of other cultures in translation, we understood that they had once been in a particular native language, which, as John Noyes has written, also conveys a particular cultural history.

Map of European languages
But what if no written cultural history exists in your native language, say, if you grow up in the those parts of the world that, until recently, had no written language? If you want to enter the public sphere as a writer, today most likely you will learn to express yourself in a so-called "world language": English, Arabic, Chinese, French, or Spanish. To what extent do these language, as powerful and as extensive as they are, continue to express a cultural history? Historically and concurrently, the most privileged writers in this respect have certainly been European ones. In Goethe's time, they wrote in their native languages, transmitting a cultural history of "Europe," which forms the basis of what is called and often criticized as the humanities. Moreover, European writers still enjoy large “native” publics and, therefore, continue to write in their own languages: Italian, Danish, Hungarian, Polish, and so on.

The interest of Strich in this respect was his focus on national difference and national language, which was not quite Goethe's focus. Indeed, Goethe was turned toward the world, but his world was mostly a European one. As Strich wrote, already in an essay in 1930 on world literature, Europe is not the world.

Images: Clker art; Pinterest

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Goethe and Gottfried Arnold

Gottfried Arnold: I bet that's a name you haven't heard in a long time. How about Unparteyische Kirchen- und Ketzer-historie (“Impartial History of the Church and of Heresy”), published in Frankfurt in 1699–1700? The two hefty volumes, consisting of 2,300 double-column folio pages, was a comprehensive work on varieties of religious heresy, going back to Apostolic times, and was written when, it might be said, there were fewer heresies than now. Anyone who has studied Goethe's early years and works -- before he went off to Weimar -- will have come across Arnold's name and work. Somehow the title sticks in your mind, even if you haven't looked into the subject. Goethe seems, like many a young person, to have experienced religious scruples. At a certain stage, he was also in the company of Pietists, who were in many ways anti-ecclesiastical. As I have discovered, he was quite taken with Arnold's volumes, which seem to have stood in his father's library.

It came about this way. For a long time now I have been trying to thin out my large collection of books, which includes a number of issues of Horizon magazine, which was published by American Heritage from 1959 to 1989. Compared to today's arts and letters coverage (e.g., that of the New York Times), Horizon was a quite a distinguished venture, with really excellent writing. Going through my copies for a final time, I found in the Spring 1964 issue an essay entitled "Four Faces of Heresy" by H.R. Trevor-Roper. Yes, that historian, writing in comprehensible English for what was not an academic publication.

Trevor-Roper's light tone on a weighty subject is present at the start: "An account of religious heresy in a single essay!" And then he moves on to the heavy stuff: "Only once in history, to my knowledge has so vast a subject been comprehended in one work, and that was published by the Lutheran pietest priest Gottfried Arnold in 1699." Trevor-Roper goes on to indicate that the work was not well received by the religious establishment, with Arnold being accused of being an "impertinent disturber of the peace of the Church." The reason: "Arnold, on the whole, took the side of the heretics."

As I have mentioned on this blog on numerous occasions, Goethe turns up everywhere. And there he was, at the start of the second paragraph of Trevor-Roper's essay: "But Goethe (and who would not wish to be on the same side as Goethe?) thought differently. When Arnold's book fell into his hands, he was enchanted by it. It had, he wrote, a great influence on him. Now he saw the heretics of history in a new light. 'I had often heard it said,' he wrote, 'that every man came in the end to have his own religion, and now it seemed to me the most natural thing in the world that I should devise my own; which I did with great comfort ...'"

The quotation here is from book 8 of Goethe's autobiography, Poetry and Truth (Dichtung und Wahrheit), written many, many decades after the years in which he was involved with the Pietists. After reading this, I went through Der Junge Goethe, the five-volume edition of his pre-Weimar writings, but could find no direct mention by Goethe himself regarding Arnold's work from his youthful period. Still, even if Goethe did a lot of research when writing his autobiography, he had an excellent memory.

The essay by Trevor-Roper is worth a read. (And American Heritage is now attempting to digitize past issues of Horizon, if one would wish to contribute to a worthwhile endeavor.)  Heresies fall into four categories: puritan, messianic, mystical, and rational. Trevor-Roper makes the point that it was in the economically advanced areas of Europe that the Protestant Reformation emerged. Later, it was those from the non-established Church, Quakers and Baptists, who made the industrial revolution in England, while the Pietists of Saxony began the industrialization of eastern Germany. What some would have called heresy then was for others intellectual speculation. And, yet, while "heretical" thinking allowed science to progress and led to religious toleration, heretics have done nothing for art. So, writes Trevor-Roper:

"The wealth and patronage which spends itself in art has always been at the disposal of the established church, not of its persecuted critics, and this economic fact has often become a moral attitude: heresy, which is essentially intellectual, disdains appeals to the senses. Moreover, the puritan spirit, which is so powerful in heresy, is positively opposed to art. ... The artistic product of two thousand years of heresy is nil."

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917)
It is hard to imagine that the current moment is one that hates the senses, but currently approved sexual attitudes certainly lack a spiritual element. Perhaps that lack of spirituality contributes to much of the anti-art with which we are surrounded today. I wonder what Goethe would think of it all.

Picture credit: Tate Modern

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Alexander von Humboldt anew

Voyages aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent

 A new book on Alexander von Humboldt has appeared (so far only in the UK), the second in the last few years. (Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature was published in 2015 to great acclaim.) Entitled A Longing for Wide and Unknown Things: The Life of Alexander von Humboldt, its author is Maren Meinhardt.  I came across a review of it today in the Literary Review, an English publication that was the first out of the gate on reviewing the English translation of Rüdiger Safranski’s most recent book on Goethe (discussed here in my blog: ). The title of the Humboldt review is "He Never Sat an Exam," which refers to AvH’s slowness as a young scholar, indeed, per the reviewer (Peter Moore), his reputation as an “unpromising boy.” Wilhelm, his brother, was the genius in the family.

Humboldt is somewhat like Goethe, in popping up in the most varied contexts. Besides Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World, a few years back I read An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, a very charming novella by the prolific Argentinian writer César Aira. The landscape painter in question was Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802–1858), one of a number of German painters who traveled to the New World during the "century of peace" following the Napoleonic wars. Rugendas's travels took him to the Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonial territories. The novella concerns Rugendas's attempt to portray the landscapes of the Caribbean and Central and South America according to the physiognomic theories of Humboldt. The term “physiognomy” is suggestive of Lavater, of course, Goethe’s erstwhile friend, neither of whom is mention in the novella.

Views of the Cordilleras, pl. 41
Rugendas, as portrayed in the novella, is continually making sketches that will then be integrated into a meaningful "totality," a Naturgemälde. The backdrop is the imposition of the European colonial vision on the non-European continent and people, which leads to the "episode" that changes the life of the painter Rugendas.

According to the publisher’s page on the new Humboldt biography, the author and her two daughters retraced Humboldt’s footsteps in Ecuador in the summer of 2014. Very impressive. I once followed in Goethe’s footsteps in Sesenheim.

Image credits: Cambridge University Library; Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Der Duckenfaust

Goethes Entenhausener Klassik

Interesting program on BR Fernsehen recently: “Was Goethe über Big Data wusste.” It was premised on Goethe having sent Faust on “eine rastlose Jagd nach der Zukunft.” When Goethe created the pact with Mephisto, he was aware that “Verweile doch, du bist so schön” was a thing of the past. Some of the topics investigated on the program were artificial intelligence, the financial world, big data,” interspersed with scenes from a production of the play. Some familiar faces among the interviewees: Manfred Osten, Michael Jaeger, Peter Sloterdyck, and Carsten Rohde, along with new (to me) folks: Jürgen Schmidhuber, whose goal (according to the program) is to make the entire universe more intelligent; and Katharina Zweig.

Carsten Rohde, who works at the Klassik-Stiftung in Weimar, is shown in the very impressive and modern “stacks” of the K-S, pulling out various editions of Goethe’s works, the most fascinating of which, for me anyway, was a comic book concerning the adventures of “Doctor Duchtus.” Disney and Goethe: quite a conjunction. The image at the top of this post (with link) is from a site that offers copies of Hier bin ich Ente, hier darf ich's sein.

Rohde has a nice post on the K-S blog concerning the penetration of Goethe’s language into modern German discourse, even among people who have never read Goethe’s works, for instance, in the advertising slogan of a Lübeck bakery: Es irrt der Mensch, solang er strebt und morgens ohne Brötchen lebt.