Sunday, September 9, 2018

Goethe's aura

I return here to Goethe and Bettina, the subject of a 1924 essay by Hermann Hesse that I have come across in my research for my book review. Hesse begins the essay by alluding to the earlier legends surrounding  Goethe's relationship with Bettina, which have ceased with the appearance a few years earlier of the edition of the original correspondence underlying Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kind.

In a previous post, I discussed Milan Kundera’s account of the relationship between Goethe and Bettina. Hesse likewise notes the practically one-sided nature of the correspondence, but he is more sympathetic to Bettina. He contrasts the numerous, long, and loving letters she wrote, which received only short, terse, and scarcely cordial replies from Goethe, often no reply at all. There is in Bettina’s letters much that is beautiful, heartfelt, effusive, while in Goethe’s there is hardly anything worth reading. Not only did Goethe not reciprocate the touching, abiding, soulful love that Bettina felt for him until her death, but he also seems not to have completely recognized or understood it. Indeed her long letters, full of verbose enthusiasm, annoyed him, with his occasional responses lending a chilly note. Had she not come recommended by Goethe’s aged mother, he probably would have dismissed her at first encounter. Goethe’s error was that he could not say no, but also not yes, with the result that the “relationship” dragged on for years as a brittle affair. If there is any blame to be ascribed, it is Goethe’s.

And yet, Hesse writes, the edition is important for documenting two lives over two decades. We see Bettina transformed from a cheeky young woman to a wife and mother. As for Goethe, we witness his aging, his dismantlement, his increasing stiffening and isolation (Altwerden, Abbauen, zunehmende Versteifung und Vereinsamung), indeed his total dying out (Absterben), which is itself a poignant and sublime spectacle. For Hesse, the “aged Goethe” is illuminated here. Bettina's letters embrace him in a cloud of adoration and love, urge him to forget how old he is, and dare him to be infected with affectionate youthfulness. Initially such wooing is met with a few friendly words, even a smile or two, but soon there arrives the slow, inexorable distancing, so that one is not surprised, after the contretemps with Christiane, that Goethe had not a word to say about Christiane’s lack of self-control and simply cut off Bettina and her husband.

After Christiane’s death, Bettina resumed her letters to Goethe, with a new, affecting tone, which the “young Goethe” would not have withstood, but the present Goethe is unresponsive. No more letters from his side, though he did receive her in Weimar.

This new series of one-sided series of professions of love, of wooing, of “seelische” tributes is, however, eloquent negative testimony to a process in Goethe that might be ascribed to aging, but that really represents weariness (Müdewerden). While Bettina’s youthful voice continues to sing extravagantly, the other voice is absent. Goethe as such no longer exists. He has become a secretive (geheimnnisvoll) old man in the process of depersonalizing himself and disappearing completely into anonymity. This is not the effect of decrepitude, as is clear from his continuing studies and other attainments in these final decades. But he is no longer a person (er ist kein Person mehr); he is not one to whom one can direct songs of love or worship. One has the feeling that the voice of the world no longer reach his ears.

Bettina's last encounter with Goethe was in Weimar, in 1824. The great one, as Hesse writes, is a physically small and peevish old man who, in the course of the evening, keeps repairing to an adjacent room from which one can hear the sounds of him pouring himself a glass of wine. But it is not Goethe who speaks on this occasion, not the lips of an old man wet with wine; he is now a Nameless one, a no longer Personal one (der Namenlose, nicht mehr Persönliche, in den er sich verwandelt hat).

What seems to interest Hesse is the fatal, uncanny, indeed unearthly effect of an outsized Genius like Goethe. The letters reveal the tendency of the aged Goethe to die to the imprisonment of an almost totally over-cultivated personality (aus der Haft einer nahezu überkultivierten Persönlichkeit zu sterben) and to grow into a super personal and anonymous being (ins Überpersönliche, ins Anonyme hinüber zu wachsen) And while we sense that Goethe is no longer a person, not the lover or recipient of her letters and of her adoration, we see that she is a creation, an emanation of him. Consider, for instance, the beginning of the correspondence, in which she appears as a small, spirited boat striving to reach a far mountain: it is the boat that is active, the mountain is passive. But if we recognize that the mountain is magnetic, then the relationship is reversed. It is Goethe who generates the atmosphere in which everyone else participates. This quality of sucking up everyone else (Aufgesogensein) is clear if we consider those person less active (than Bettina) and less important who cluster around Goethe: Riemer, Eckermann, Meyer, even Zelter. Why do they live on? Why are their letters published, why do we read them? Why, after a century, does this “Gespensterlicht” still flicker around their marginal existences? Because, from each of them, a small bit of Goethe’s radiance emanates.

I render the last part of the essay in Hesse’s lovely prose. After considering that everything that Bettina wrote may have been a fib, a lie, Hesse writes:

Ist es nicht ganz einerlei, was Bettina sagt, ist denn nicht sie selbst, ihre ganze Beziehung zu Goethe, ihr Weinen und Knien in einem Zimmer neben jener Weinflasche, ist dies alles zusammen denn eine Eigenwelt, mit eigenen Gesetzen, mit freiem Willen zu Lüge oder Wahrheit, ist es nicht vielmehr ein Luftkreis um Goethe, ein Faden seines Geistesnetzes, eine Ausstrahlung seines Zentrums?

Picture credits: Getty Images

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Artists monumentalized

The neglect of Goethe on this blog this summer is due to my summer reading of Hermann Hesse in connection with a review I am writing of the English translation of a German biography of Hesse. Goethe comes across over and over in Hesse's writings, and hundreds of times in the biography. I estimate that the figures most frequently referred to by Hesse and that serve as touchstones for him are Goethe, Novalis, Nietzsche, and Mozart. This past day I have been reading "Klingsor's Last Summer," which Hesse wrote in 1919, when he had moved to Ticino. Hesse was apparently subject to frequent mood swings, and this story captures the volatility of the character of the artist Klingsor. In one scene, he and his friend, a fellow artist named Louis the Cruel (Louis der Grausame), have gone on an outing that leads them to the garden of an inn where they enjoy fish, rice with mushrooms, and peaches with maraschino cherries. (Hesse is big on the details of food and drink.) Naturally, lots of wine is drunk. The subject, as is often the case with Hesse, is civilizational decline. Goethe and Schiller come up in the discussion. (I quote here the German, as the English translation of the new biography has not yet appeared.)

Es fällt mir ein, daß jetzt da die zwei Maler sitzen, die unser gutes Vaterland hat, und dann habe ich ein scheußliches Gefühl in den Knieen, wie wenn wir beide aus Bronze wären und Hand und Hand auf einem Denkmal stehen müßten, weißt du, so wie der Goethe und der Schiller. Die können schließlich auch nichts dafäur, daß sie ewig dastehen und einander an der Bronzehand halten müssen, und daß sie uns allmählich so fatal und verhaßt geworden sind ...

He goes on to curse all the professors who periodize and transform great artists and writers into monuments.

The Goethe and Schiller monument in the above photo is in Syracuse, New York. It was produced in 1911, based on the original by Ernst Rietschel.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Malcolm Point hike

The post below was supposed to appear on my Sointula blog. I must have been so tired from the trek yesterday that, when I downloaded my photos at 11 p.m. last evening, I posted the following account here. For more on my summer sojourn in Sointula, go to that blog.


Today Milan, Lauren, and I went for a hike at Malcolm Point, which can be seen in the above map. It was a vigorous trek, for which I purchased a pair of good hiking shoes at the thrift store yesterday for $2.00. Worth every sent, although the soles were somewhat slippery when I climbed -- or slid -- down the last part of the trail to the beach. Any piece of wood I might have grabbed hold of was so soft that it immediately broke up in my hands when I grabbed hold of it.  I was too busy holding on to the rope to take pictures of my effort to reach the bottom. Herewith some pictures from our trek. (Click to enlarge.)

It can be seen that I am fascinated by the moss along the trail. It is in places so soft and puffy underfoot that you feel like you are walking on pillows.

One little bear

Two little bears
Three little bears

On the trail

Milan and Goethe Girl

Milan and Laura

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