Saturday, July 4, 2015

Independence Day

My friend Cynthia Farrell Johnson is an artist, who also makes lovely greeting cards. I include one of her images for this occasion. As is always the case with Goethe, what he said about freedom is  contextual and, in toto, conflicting. For the Fourth of July, however, one might consider the following from Faust II:

Nur der verdient sich Freiheit wie das Leben,
Der täglich sie erobern muß!

More on Goethe and environmentalism in succeeding posts.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Forget the Age of Aquarius

Markgrafenstein in den Rauener Begen (2012) by Lars Gabyrssch
Just let me get something off of my chest before I start talking about Jason Grove’s article “Goethe’s Petrofiction: Reading the Wanderjahre in the Anthropocene” in the special section on Goethe and environmentalism in volume 22 of Goethe Yearbook. The word “anthropocene” (interestingly, my spell check does not recognize the term) makes me gnash my teeth. We already have a good geological term for when humans first appear in the geological record: Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän (1979, Man in the Holocene), as in Max Frisch’s wonderful novel. “Anthropocene” carries connotations of human damage to the environment, as in “ecological serial killers.” Clearly the term is meant to “formalize” human-induced environmental change.

Okay, that is off my chest. Let me turn to Jason Grove’s article, which is the first I read in this section because it is on Goethe and geology, which was also a subject of an article of mine that appeared in the GYb in 2008.  Goethe’s earliest scientific writings, from 1784–85, were on granite, and I analyzed the essays in connection with the aesthetic category of the sublime. And though I did gnash my teeth over the word “anthropocene,” Jason’s essay is really first rate and only minimally disfigured with un-ecological writing.  Jason (whom I have not met, but since I am sure we will meet in the future I take the liberty of referring to him by his first name) takes Goethe’s explorations in geology into the 19th century and links the Wanderjahre with so-called erratic blocks with which Goethe was familiar, “large, ostensibly displaced boulders that were known to litter parts of Thuringia, Prussia, and Mecklenburg.”

Markgrafenstein mid-19th centry
From the 1820s Goethe received samples of these boulders from one of his many correspondents. The Markgrafenstein, near Brandenburg, particularly interested him. This was a 700-ton granite boulder that he discussed in his 1828 essay “Granitarbeiten in Berlin.” It turns out to be a “1.2 billion-year-old boulder from a Scandinavian outcroppping.” Clearly no one, especially not Goethe, knew of its age, but as Jason writes “it was widely surmised to be an important piece of evidence in the history of the earth.” Goethe’s own geological adviser J.C.W. Voigt had already ventured to suggest that such displaced blocks gave evidence of an early Ice Age.

(Click on all pictures to see them enlarged. The following pictures here show, as described in the essay, the the labors of master builder Christian Gottlob Cantian, stone masons, and others to to shave off a 75-ton fragment that was carted to the Altes Museum in Berlin and polished into a "Granitschale." It still stands there today. The black-and-white images are from Dieter Kloessing.)
 This very suggestive piece of scholarship proceeds not from the premise that the earth is powerless against the depredations of humans. Nigel Clark (and other “critical voices”) is quoted to the effect that that “whatever ‘we’ do, … the planet is capable of taking us by surprise.” Thus, ”the various environmental disasters associated with the Anthropocene [are also] evidence of ‘our susceptibility to the earth’s eventfulness’ rather than just the earth’s susceptibility to human eventfulness.” In turn, Goethe’s interest in erratic granite blocks “evinces an openness to the planet’s inherent instability and thus to human vulnerability.” I immediately wrote in the margin that Goethe did not like instability, and it struck me that Jason did not deal with this issue sufficiently. Was it a case of Goethe being drawn to something that frightened him?
 I won’t harp on this, however, because the essay is a wonderfully rich reading of the geological formations that appear in the Wanderjahre. Not only is the novel about itinerant humans, but it is also full of wandering “erratics” of a non-human type, especially in the 1829 version. The novel is set in a “neue, bewegliche Welt,” full of “interpolated tales of foolish pilgrims, displaced laborers, and emigrants to America.” But, as Jason writes, “Inhuman things also wander.” Throughout the novel, the earth does not appear simply as a monolith, but instead in the form of animated, active, transitory fragments. As he notes, drawing on Wolf von Engelhardt, stones and rock formations, when appearing as predicates, are never static or passive. Instead the verbs  are always active and reflexive: zeigen sich, verwandeln sich, erzeugen sich, and so on. “In this drama of things, mineral agents take humans as accusative objects: they address us, they come together to make formations.”

"The Biedermeierweltwunder" by Johann Erdmann Hummel
I recommend the essay for its detail and for its excellent use of a variety of sources. It demonstrates the insight into Goethe’s poetic work that can be had when considering it in connection with his scientific explorations. In this connection, this volume of the GYb also offers a review by Astrida Orle Tantillo of the Goethe Handbuch supplement Naturwissenschaften.

Aside from the lack of resolution concerning Goethe’s fascination with erratics vis à vis the volatility of the earth, there was another issue that might be further explored. I interpret somewhat differently a passage Jason quotes from the final section of the novel, part of the discussion of  contemporary theories of the earth’s formation. “A few quiet guests,” as Goethe calls them, seem to ruminate about a time of immense glaciers, when masses of primeval rock slid down from on high and huge blocks of rock were transported by means of floating ice. This passage appears as the epigraph of Jean de Charpentier’s Essai sur les glaciers of 1841; for Charpentier, student of Swiss glaciers, they were “milestones in the discovery of former ice ages.” But might it not be the case that the passage is exactly about what Nigel Clark suggested, and that the guests were drawing on a deep human memory of the "earth's eventfulness," a period of volatile instability, in the face of which "human eventfulness" counted as nothing?

Image credits: Lars GabryschThe Economist; Dieter Kloessing

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Goethe and Environmentalism

Let me start out with something we can all agree on: Goethe was “exceptionally concrete and sensitive to environmental phenomena.” This appears on page 11 of the introduction to the special section on “Goethe and Environmentalism” in volume 22 of the Goethe Yearbook. I would also agree that Goethe “was deeply aware of interrelationships in the natural world and the ultimate unity of nature,” and I can understand the desire to describe him “as a proto-ecologist.” The same can be said of dozens if not hundreds of nature writers, especially in England, in the 18th century, but I suppose that Goethe is of particular interest because he lived long into the 19th century, into the age of industrialization and of applications of technology deriving from new scientific methods. In other words, he lived long enough, if not to see, certainly to imagine the effects of the latter on the natural world, and here I also include humans.

Of course, a “deep awareness” of the unity of nature and of the natural world around us is not something that modern science is based on. Thus, Goethe in his own time was not recognized as a scientist by what we would now call real scientists. According to the authors, however, Goethe’s approach to nature (not really well defined in the intro) has become increasingly relevant in the past three decades because the “environmental crisis” we now face “is not simply a crisis of nature, but also, and even more fundamentally, a cultural crisis …” Thus, the goal of environmental humanities is to bring “Goethe’s approach to science” to bear and to help bridge the gap between (as per C.P. Snow) the “two cultures.”

Science gets the details, but ignores the big picture
 It is hard to see how that might be accomplished as “Science” itself has no view of the unity of nature. It studies the epiphenomena of “Nature,” without making any claims about the big picture. It is somewhat odd, however, but certainly a little refreshing to read that scholars now accept a reality beyond texts. There is really a “Real” out there, not just a construct of our imagination. Thus, environmental philosophy and ecocriticism seek to revive “‘nature’ as a theme of inquiry and … [to consider] the biosphere as an extra textual reality that is nevertheless intertwined with textual construction.” Ecology is both a model and metaphor for “the interconnectedness of all beings.” This sounds practically pre-Socratic or Platonist.

I see a big confusion in the use of the term “nature.” For environmentalists, nature seems to be the earth, the “natural,” yet non-human world, but the earth is different from “Nature” or “Reality.” Science is not the problem as it is the insights that inventive people have drawn from scientific discoveries. It is not so much the case that “modern science itself is technological in character and based on attitudes of controlling and dominating nature” as that scientific practice has led to practical applications that, indeed, lead to the domination of “nature,” or, better, the earth. Thus, the sights along the New Jersey turnpike that I mentioned in my last post.

These sights are repugnant to many of us in the modern world. I would include myself here, but I tend not to take an aesthetic view –– in the sense of moral view –– of the problem, which is the stance of environmentalists. An aesthetic view holds that everyone should think like me, thus the connection between aesthetics and morals in the modern world. (I find this already presaged in Kant, but more about that later.)  Morals, however are something that have gone out the window in the past few decades. Thus, what kind of philosophical grounding can be given for demanding a “moral,” caring approach to the earth? Goethe may have imagined that everything was interconnected, but on what basis do environmental humanists base such a claim, aside from an aesthetic one?

More to come.

Picture credit: Jenny Keller

Monday, June 29, 2015

Goethe and Environmentalism

Volume 22 of the Goethe Yearbook arrived in the mail last week. The editors of the Yearbook, as in volume 20 (on Goethe's lyric poetry), are devoting a part to a special subject, in the case "Goethe and Environmentalism." It is edited by Luke Fischer and Dalia Nassar, two scholars whom I have not yet met but who are both at the University of Sidney in Australia. A glance at the notes to their introduction to this special section of the Yearbook indicates that they have already published much on the subject of Goethe and environmentalism.

I will probably discuss the introduction and the articles in at least two posts. But let me preface things by some notes I made as I was traveling by bus to Newark Airport several weeks ago. It is hard to believe when traveling that stretch of highway that New Jersey is known as the Garden State. My thoughts concerned how this "landscape" would fit in with the aesthetic categories of Beauty or the Sublime. Bodmer had a category called "das Ungestüme," or "the turbulent," but it referred to forces that have a calamitous effect on humans and are beyond their control or understanding. An example would be the Lisbon earthquake. The sublime in nature, in contrast, is something we can come to understand.

Pulaski Skypike
Unlike those categories, the New Jersey turnpikes do not represent natural phenomena. Everything is the result of practical human activity, not of natural beauty or sublimity. To an eye accustomed to make aesthetic distinctions, the highway environment can only be regarded as ugly. There seems to be no orderliness, just a hodgepodge of railroad tracks, warehouses, abandoned tire cemeteries, toll booths, advertising signs right and left and overhead (auto dealers, Burger King, and McDonalds, Toll Booth Ahead) and of course cars, cars, cars and trucks, trucks, trucks speeding forward at 80 miles per hour. The purpose of most of the activity is commercial, and many people today, if they are not outright wanting to abolish commercialism, prefer their commercial environment to be gentrified, like the center of an imagined New England town.

A billboard you can smell
The activity on the turnpikes is too grossly commercial, without seemingly any appeal to our higher faculties, in particular our feeling for beauty. And commercialism, as we know, contributes to the degradation of the environment. But if we use our reason, as Kant urged us to do, we also come to recognize that all that commercial detritus is part of a great economic machine that also provides us with the goods and services we need for our lives.

The above as a preface to my own thoughts on environmentalism, which I too often find to be the newest version of an old phenomenon, Zivilisationskritik. Stay tuned.

Photo credits: Porlier Outdoor Advertising Company; Tom Kaminski/WCBS 880; North

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Utopian writers

Georg Forster and father in Taihiti
For mundane reasons (although one was serious: a broken little finger), I am very behind in blogging. The new edition of the Goethe Yearbook arrived this past week, and already the opening section, on "Goethe and the environment," deserves a response, which I will get to shortly. There is much there to disagree with.

In the meantime, a short report on two writers, living a century apart, but both involved in radical politics, Georg Forster and Ernst Toller. Radical means active in attempting to establish utopias, one of my research interests. The attraction of utopia remains for me a conundrum. Both were the subject of recent podcasts.

The first podcast introduced a new work by Jürgen Goldstein, Georg Forster: Zwischen Freiheit und Naturgewalt, which traces Forster's trajectory from enthusiast for Taihiti to revolutionary. Affected by what he perceived as Taihiti's harmonious and egalitarian human order, which contrasted so starkly with European social conditions, Forster believed that the laws of nature could be applied to politics. Thus, he threw in his lot with the Jacobin Club in Mainz and the Mainz Republic. He was in Paris in 1793 when the Mainz Republic was overthrown and never returned to Germany, where he had become an outcast. He died alone, neglected, in poor health (probably the enduring effect of his three years at sea with James Cook), and disillusioned by the turn the revolution in France had taken.
The Tanna ground dove, now extinct, drawn by Forster
Goldstein calls Forster "der ungelesene Klassiker der deutschen Geistesgeschichte." Indeed, Forster is a wonderful stylist, but I had never before connected his travels, especially to Taihiti, with his later utopian visions. It is interesting to compare European reactions to other countries and mores with the stance of, say, Chinese, who would not have found anything to admire in Taihiti. Perhaps it was because Forster was viewing the island through the lens of the Enlightenment, particularly the French variety, that he was so receptive to what appeared to be life lived in accordance with nature. As the podcast reporter noted: "Er hat die Natur und das Politische kurzgeschlossen, d.h., er war der Meinung, es könnte natürliche Revolutionen geben. ... Er hat sich vorgestellt, Revolutionen gehen naturwüchsig vonstatten."

Ernst Toller, Revolutionär
I encountered Ernst Toller late in graduate school, but never had any notion of how wide ranging his literary and essayistic work is, nor the extent of his political activities. While Forster was involved with the Mainz Republic, Toller was actually president, for six days, of the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919. As soon as he took office he began issuing proclamations, including one mandating Sunday as a day of rest (for the workers, of courseö this was a workers' republic), but his term ended before the first Sunday was reached!

For his role in these activities, he served five years in prison, escaping a death sentence through the intercession of Thomas Mann and Max Weber, among others. He wrote some of his well known Expressionist works in prison. He was of course persona non grata to the Nazis and emigrated in 1933 already, first to London, then to the U.S., where he died, a suicide, in May 1937. W.H. Auden wrote the poem "In Memory of Ernst Toller" at that time.

The shining neutral summer has no voice

To judge America, or ask how a man dies;

And the friends who are sad and the enemies who rejoice
Are chased by their shadows lightly away from the grave

Of one who was egotistical and brave,

Lest they should learn without suffering how to forgive.

What was it, Ernst, that your shadow unwittingly said?

O did the child see something horrid in the woodshed

Long ago? Or had the Europe which took refuge in your head

Already been too injured to get well?

O for how long, like the swallows in that other cell,

Had the bright little longings been flying in to tell

About the big friendly death outside,

Where people do not occupy or hide;

No towns like Munich; no need to write?

Dear Ernst, lie shadowless at last among

The other war-horses who existed till they’d done

Something that was an example to the young.

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:

They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end

The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.

It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living

And all that we wish for our friends; but existing is believing

We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.

The occasion for the podcast review of Toller is the publication of a 6-volume edition of his works (in bright red binding) by Wallstein Verlag.

Photo of Toller: Der Tagespiegel

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

What would Adorno say?

I once asked Rick, who was more au current about pop culture and celebrities (he read, for instance, Page Six), what was the big deal about the Kardashians. His reply: big boobs, big butts. Okay. I sort of get it.

"Kim Kardashian is known for her pert derrière"
Bruce Jenner, once a major celebrity himself, also for his physical endowments, spent too many years in the estrogenic (word?) world of the Kardashian women. It would not be surprising if a full-blooded male absorbed a large dose of the sexual hormone from such an ambiance. Yet, perhaps he simply got tired of being overlooked and decided to go them one better. And he has done so. Has any of the Kardashian women been featured on the cover of Vanity Fair? Not to mention being taken seriously, for heaven's sake, by most of the media?

Two predictions:

1. Expect to see presentations at the MLA on Jenner. Indeed, I suspect papers are already being prepared or revised to reflect this new development in "gender" studies. The graphics will be thought-provoking.

2. Since Bruce has kept his Bruce-part, he has an  opportunity for a new incarnation. Stay tuned.

Photo credit: Female First

Friday, June 5, 2015

Goethe biographies

I posted already on Andrew Piper's short biography of Goethe, but here are a few additional take-aways from my reading.

Waterloo imagined
1) Goethe, as Piper writes at the start, was conversant in many fields representing the accumulated heritage of a thousand years, but he also was a man of his time, with his life coinciding with "some of the more decisive transformations of European society." Some of the events he lived through: the Seven Years' War, the French Revolution, the end of the Holy Roman Empire, the Congress of Vienna, Waterloo, and the July Revolution of 1830 in France. The fall of the HRE coincided with the rise of the nation state.

2) Speaking of Cornelia, Piper writes that she was "Goethe's first and probably truest love." After her death, "Goethe would spend the rest of his life searching for and falling in love with sister figures." True or false?

3) Of Kätchen Schönkopf, "Goethe's great love" of the Leipzig period, Piper writes that marriage was out of the question "for class reasons." But Goethe was only 17: did marriage ever really come seriously into question? I doubt it.

4) I was glad to be reminded of Herder's belief that language shaped nations and that "poets were the ones who shaped language." Fritz Strich, in his many essays on world literature, always stresses that a language expresses the spirit of a people.

Pfarrhaus Sesenheim (1770), drawing by Goethe
5) Piper calls the relationship with Friedericke Brion "a love affair." They spent "a great deal of time together, much of it alone." Later (p.29), when writing of Lili Schonemann, Piper asserts that, "unlike this traumatic separation from Friedericke, ... Goethe was careful to leave his affair with Lili unconsummated and thus leave Lili's social status untainted." Whoa!

From what we know, through plenty of later documentation, Goethe tended to fall hard for a woman, then withdraw, although not in a sexual sense. In my essay on the Sesenheim idyll, I explored the literary formation of the episode. Recently I have been struck by the similarities with Marianne von Willemer and the composition of West-East Divan.

6) Granted that Goethe's practice of law in Frankfurt after his return to Sesenheim was "a lacklustre performance," can one really say the same of "all of his subsequent administrative duties"? I have the sense that Goethe's performance in Weimar was anything but lacklustre. See (9) below.

7) Re Wetzlar: Goethe immersed himself in a domestic scene "that he was not wholly a part of." Good observation.

Lotte as "secularized" Madonna
8) Interesting is Piper's observation that Lotte re-creates "Christianity's virgin mother in a secular domestic chord (nicely amplified in the Eucharistic gesture of breaking bread with the children)."

9) In re (6) above, Piper's own description of Goethe's duties on the Privy Council in Weimar belies any sense of a lacklustre performance on Goethe's part. As Piper points out, Goethe "led an initiative to reopen a silver mine near Ilmenau." Although this venture was unsuccessful, Goethe spent years trying to make it work. This activity also contributed to his interest in geology and to his many mineralogical speculations.

10) Weimar as a site of "intellectual networking."

11) Finally, Charlotte von Stein. Piper writes that she was an "important medium of temperance" and helped him navigate the ways of the court, in the process weaning him away from his Sturm und Drang inclinations. Piper believes the "love affair" was in this case consummated. I have always doubted this, because it seems that everyone knew everyone in Weimar and such an indiscretion would hardly have escaped notice. On the other hand, after a few years in Weimar Goethe certainly became buttoned up, so to speak, as friends like Merck noted, so perhaps the buttoning up was a way of assuring that he did not reveal a sexual liaison. But then, again, the poetry he wrote under CvS's influence is so idealized, unlike the sensuousness of the Divan lyrics or the Roman elegies.

That's all for today. Guests tomorrow, so I am cooking up a storm this evening.