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.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Goethe the novelist

Elective Affinities, by Eric Edelman
Thoughts about Goethe as a novelist came to me rather indirectly. In an essay on the novels of Anthony Trollope, I encountered the following observation: "One might read Jane Austen’s novels through and never suspect that there was better medical advice to be had in London than in the country. One might read them through and never know that there are courts of law in London. In Mr. Trollope’s novels you never forget these things. Indeed, you see a good deal of the machinery of Parliament and of the greater administrative offices of the State. … The great web of London is the centre, and some kind of London life for the most part the motive power." The observation was by a contemporary of Trollope's, Richard Holt Hutton.

Since reading Hutton's comments many months ago, I have been thinking about how different Goethe is from either Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope, both masters of the English-language novel. When I first read the opening of Elective Affinities many years ago, I thought I might be entering into Austen's world. All of her novels take place in a tightly circumscribed social milieu with a small set of characters: "three or four families in a country village." Nothing could be more circumscribed than the setting of Elective Affinities: a country estate quite like that of Hartfield in Austen's 1815 novel Emma. At the center of each novel is a moral problem. Despite the disturbances caused by Emma's moral lapses, in the end all is in order. In Goethe's almost contemporaneous novel, published in 1809, the story ends much differently, with a complete overturning of the moral order.

What is interesting in connection with Trollope is that Goethe knew a lot about how government worked. As a minister and advisor in the duchy of Weimar, as a resident there for over 50 years, he was intimately concerned with affairs of state. In fact, one might compare him to Trollope of whom Henry James wrote: “Trollope was familiar with all sorts and conditions, with the business of life, of affairs, with the great world of sports, with every component part of the ancient fabric of English society. [He had traveled the globe] The background of the human drama was a very extensive scene. ... But his work is full of implied reference to the whole area of modern vagrancy.”

As for Goethe, there was so much he could have said, but there is not a hint of business or of politics or of a greater social world in his three large novels. (The Sorrows of Young Werther is an exception, but it was written before he went to Weimar.) Although, like Trollope, he begins his novels matter-of-factly, introducing the setting and dramatis personae with some precision, evoking character as briskly as we come to understand our acquaintances (I am paraphrasing Holt Hutton here), from there Goethe goes all symbolic. Even such major activities as the estate reconfiguration or the painting of the walls and ceiling in the chapel in Elective Affinities stand for more than themselves.  A boat ride is fraught with implications.

In this connection, Michael Lipkin, in an essay on that novel a few years ago in The Paris Review, wrote as follows: “Only Goethe could write a sentence like 'He took note of all the beauties which the new paths had made visible and able to be enjoyed,' skipping, in typical Goethe fashion, right past the actual beauty to linger on the sensibility of organization that makes it possible.” To return to the contrast with Trollope with which I began, Lipkin also writes: "Occupation, in the middle-class sense that would come to define the nineteenth century—making things, buying things, selling things—held little interest for Goethe."

I wrote a post on the novel back in 2009, which marked the centenary of the novel's appearance, and in which I included a lovely painting entitled Elective Affinities by the Colombia artist Nohra Borras. It is a theme that has attracted many artists and illustrators. The image at the top of this post is by the New York artist Eric Edelman, whose website contains many striking collages on literary and philosophical subjects.

Monday, February 5, 2018

"Monsieur Göthé," continued

A Tailor's Workshop (detail)
As mentioned in the previous post, I have been reading a book with the above title in order to review it. Monsieur Göthé: Goethes unbekannter Großvater concerns the paternal grandfather of Germany's most famous writer. Biographical scholarship on Goethe's ancestors began already in the late 19th century, but there was little to dig up in the case of Friedrich Georg Göthé. He was born in the town of Artern in Thuringia in 1657, but, as is the case with many historical documents, a fire ravaged the town in 1683, destroying church and other records. And even though Friedrich Georg served a tailor apprenticeship of eight years in Germany, there is likewise no record of that period of his life. Then, he went to France and continued his apprentice training in the "silk city" of Lyon. We can assume he worked in an establishment resembling the one in the above engraving (which appeared in Diderot's Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry). Presumably because he was a Protestant, he kept a low profile. As the authors write: “Er blieb unsichtbar, hinterliess keine Spuren.” It was only when he reached Frankfurt in 1686, after having left France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, that there is an historical record, the first being his application for citizenship in that city.

The only place in the book where the grandfather comes alive occurs when the authors discuss a lawsuit in which he was a party. This lawsuit, which began in 1695 and continued until at least 1702, was the first time that the Goethes and the Textors came together; later, in 1770, the two families would be united in the marriage of Goethe's father and mother. By the time of the lawsuit, Friedrich Georg was a very successful dressmaker. The authors call him the "Karl Lagerfeld of his time."

Bone corset, ca. 1880
Johann Wolfgang Textor the Elder was a 55-year-old widow who married the 18-year-old Maria Sibylla Fleischbein in 1693 Maria Sibyl departed the marriage in 1694, leaving the abandoned husband with considerable debts, which he declined to pay. Fifteen debtors joined the action, among them Friedrich Georg, whose bill was the fourth highest sum owed, and which also included outstanding debts for clothes made for Textor’s adult children from the first marriage. Among the items Friedrich Georg made for Mara Sibyl was a fully boned laced bodice of "fein hollländischen Canvas mit incarnat Seiden gestept" requiring a pound of fish bones.

Because of the prominence of the Textor and Fleischbein families, the debtors were unsuccessful, which appeared to wound Friedrich Georg's honor. He persisted long with legal initiatives, which bore no fruit for him. As the authors point out, as a self-made, successful man, he felt the injustice greatly.

The authors criticize Johann Wolfgang for writing the paternal grandfather out of the family history, and instead, as mentioned in the previous post, for inventing a more illustrious lineage. But just as his grandfather was a self-made man, Goethe, too, invented himself anew. I would also add that, aside from the nobility, most people in the 18th century were probably not concerned about tracing their ancestry. Our contemporary interest in genealogy seems to reflect a modern nostalgia for all that has been lost in our pursuit of progress. Goethe, like his grandfather, didn't look back.

Picture credit:; Metropolitan Museum of Art

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 he 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 (1786–1837) 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 alten 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  Madame de Staël was 1817 and Austen 1816. 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."