Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Goethe as Idol of the Modern World

In being a Goethe scholar, one has a certain satisfaction or even a feeling of distinction, since Goethe is generally recognized as one of the greats, even by those who are only familiar with his name. I suppose it is like being a scholar of Milton or of Shakespeare. Even among writers whose work is considered "great" (e.g., Joyce, Proust, Wordsworth, Dickens), few of them have an oeuvre that is as rich and, in Goethe's case, abundant (letters, views of contemporaries, as well as scientific and legal writings). This abundance and richness led in Goethe's lifetime already to a kind of glorification of his person.

It is not that there have not been critics of Goethe, and in reading their oppositional views one comes to see Goethe in a different light and understand him a little better. One such writer was the biologist Jacob Hermann Friedrich Kohlbrugge, whom I discussed in an earlier post. Another critic was the Jesuit writer Alexander Baumgartner (1841–1910), from whom the title of this post comes. His 3-volume life of Goethe appeared in 1879, and an excerpt appears in volume 3 of Goethe im Urteil seiner Kritiker, edited by Karl Robert Mandelkow.

Baumgartner, writing fifty years after Goethe's death, takes issue with the 19th-century "deification" of Goethe. I use that term advisedly. According to Baumgartner, Goethe's admirers transported him to that "religious-political battlefield" which Goethe himself deliberately avoided during his life. He was proclaimed the prophet of a new Gospel of "Tat und Gesinnung," with the intention of driving out true Christianity's Gospel of "Wort und Glauben."

Here are some examples of those who, in Baumgartner's view, have drafted Goethe in the secular cause: Heinrich Dünzer, e.g., called Goethe "Hohenpriester der Liebe." Ernst Haeckel elevated this "Prometheus" onto the banner of his materialistic evolutionary history. David Strauß recommended Goethe's works as a surrogate for the "superannuated" Gospels. For Johannes Scherr, the "Haus zu den drey Leyern" is a new Bethlehem. In sum, "Eine umfangreiche Literatur predigt unter der Devise 'Goethe' nur Unglauben, Darwinismus, Spinozismus, Naturalismus, alle Sorten von Gefühls-, Kunst- und Naturchristentum."

Baumgartner is of course an apologist for orthodox Christianity, especially in the context of Quanta Cura (1864), and his objections concern Goethe's aesthetic "morality" (Sittlichkeit).  He writes: "Goethes Philosophie, Religion und sogenannte Weltanschauung ist weiter nichts als der seichteste und flachste Naturalismus." He is particularly troubled that "der geliebteste Lehrer Deutschlands" had such a cavalier attitude toward women: "Besonders für Frauen und Mädchen ist Goethe der schädlichste und verhängnisvollste Schriftsteller. Wie in seinem Leben, so hat er auch in seinen Schriften, mehr als irgend ein anderer Dichter, den Frauen geschmeichelt, alle ihre Schwächen verherrlicht und glorifiziert, aber nur, um sie schließlich, nach Körners Ausdruck, herabzuwürdigen." Strong words.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Images from "Wilhelm Meister" novels

Wilhelm still held that lovely hand
A reader of this blog has written to ask about images of the Wilhelm Meister novels. There are tons of images of Mignon, but very few of Wilhelm. For this blog I am always on the lookout for interesting illustrations, and if there were any of Wilhelm I would have turned them up. Perhaps it is Wilhelm's colorless personality that has left artists without inspiration? I did find a few interesting images relating to the novels today, however, that I am posting. (Click to enlarge.) The one above is clearly from the "Travels," from a 19th-century English edition of Goethe's works, but I would not in a million years have imagined Wilhelm looking so courtly.

Conosci la terra dove fioriscono i limoni?
The second image here, one I like very much, is a modern version of Mignon by the illustrator and cartoon artist Manuele Fior. It appears on his blog and includes a translation of "Kennst du das Land" in Italian.

The final image is from the cover of a 2014 Italian translation of La vocazione teatrale di Wilhelm Meister. Wilhelm looks much more interesting in this incarnation.


Monday, March 16, 2015

German domestic life in the age of Goethe

A Domestic Scene (MMA 1971.115.6)
I frequently pass by this small painting when I am at the Metropolitan Museum, as I was today. It naturally makes me think of Goethe. The living quarters of the Goethe House in Frankfurt are not as luxurious as those represented here, but the painting may give an example of actual conditions somewhere in the Rhineland. Perhaps the house of Lili Schönemann? And certainly the father is reading aloud to the ladies, which we know was a family activity in the Goethe household.

The painting is attributed to "German Painter" and dated 1775–80. It was originally thought to be by the Dresden painter Johann Eleazar Zeissig, called Schenau (1737–1806),  but, according to the Met's website, comparison with secured works by that painter in 2013 turned up differences in style.

The website suggests several painters who might have executed this work, including Goethe portraitist Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. At left is an example of a family portrait by Tischbein, also in the Met (MMA 2002.564): The Children of Martin Anton Heckscher, from 1805. The painting was donated to the Met in 1971, "Gift of the family of August Heckscher II, in his memory." Martin Anton Heckscher, originally Marcus Abraham Heckscher, a descendent of a long-established banking family in Hamburg Altona, converted to Christianity to escape the rising anti-Jewish sentiments of Hamburg merchants. His son Charles August Heckscher (born 1806) emigrated to the United States in 1829 and acquired wealth by opening a trading house. Later, he seems to have become fabulously wealthy in the anthracite business. It is interesting that the painting of the three boys remained in the Heckscher family for so many years. This makes me think of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, in which family wealth led to decadence as symbolized by art; not so in the case of the Heckschers, however, whose wealth and love for the arts continue to enrich public institutions.

Another suggestion for A Domestic Scene is the painter Kaspar Benedikt Beckenkamp, whose portrait of the married couple below, from 1795, is in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. There is something about the Beckenkamp painting that suggests the milieu in which Goethe lived in Weimar in these years.



Saturday, February 28, 2015

Goethe's and the scientists again

I mentioned in the previous post two aspects of Goethe's scientific ambitions. One was the lack of application of any of his scientific pursuits. For instance, they didn't contribute to improvements in agriculture or to street lighting in Weimar. The second was Goethe's desire for recognition by scientists and his bitter disappointment at this lack of recognition.

As with scientists of his day, Goethe sought to explain the workings of nature, but his view of nature was radically different from theirs. Here is Kohlbrugge (see last post) on this difference:

“[Goethe] glaubte an seine spinozistische (pantheistische) Gott-Natur, die alles durchdringt, und wollte durch diese alles erklären. Er glaubte durch seine Denkkraft den Gedankengang der Gottheit ergründen zu können. Die Naturgesetze, nach denen er forschte, waren darum auch nicht mechanischer Art, sondern psychischer, ganz wie die Formen eines Kunstwerkes durch die Psyche des Künstlers bestimmt werden” (63-64).

According to Kohlbrugge, he shared his ideas with Schelling, founder of the school of “Naturphilosophie,” which sought to give everything a psychological grounding; facts no longer played a leading role. The adherents of this school accused the “concrete” school of being collectors of facts that could not be explained and that did not satisfy the human spirit on the questions of “why” and “how.”

Kohlbrugge claims that Goethe was a "Naturphilosoph" in his desire to prove the unity of nature, but that he viewed nature aesthetically, not scientifically. Here is Kohlbrugge's final observation:

“Wir haben bei Goethe stets im Auge zu behalten, daß seine vergleichend anatomischen Studien und seine Spinozistische Weltanschauung ihn zu einem eifrigen Anhänger der altbetkannten Theorie gemacht hatten, daß die Gottheit-Natur alle Tiere nach einem Grundplan, nach einem Urmodell gebildet habe, welches dann je nach den Umständen von ihr in tausendfacher Weise abgeänderte wurde. Diesen Gedanken übertrug er nun auf die Pflanzenwelt und suchte überall nach diesem Urmodell oder Urtypus der Pflanze, von dem die Natur ausgegangen sein könnte. Er forschte danach in ganz gleicher Weise wie er bei Gebäuden und Gemälden die Idee suchte, welche der Künstler in seinem Werke zum Ausdruck hatte bringen wollen” (114).

One learns more about Goethe's view of nature by reading opponents of that view, rather than the defenders.

Picture credits: Philosophy for Change; True Pictures

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Goethe and the scientists

Goethe observing the light
I recently got hold of the "Naturwissenschaften" supplement to the Goethe-Handbuch, edited by Manfred Wenzel. I am very impressed, especially since the editorial team was a small one. The volume includes an introductory apparatus, followed by 290 pages of "overview" essays, starting with the writings on morphology, followed by sections on color theory, geology (before 1800), meteorology, general "Naturlehre," and the reception of Goethe's scientific writings. The largest part  (pp. 291-720) is a dictionary and people and terms. The volume is rounded out with indexes (contemporary reviews of Goethe's writings, contents of the Leopoldina edition, places of publication) and a chronological table. The appendix includes a short bibliography, an index of illustrations, a section of color plates, and an index of names. I am especially looking forward to going through the dictionary, which begins with Abel, Johann Gotthelf Lebrecht; Abglanz; and Abstraktion and ends with Zshokke, Johann Heinrich Daniel; Zucker; and Zwischenkieferknochen.

The section that most interested me right off the bat concerns the reception of Goethe as scientist, a 38-page essay authored by Bianca Bican and Manfred Wenzel. I am only about half way through, as I keep getting held up by following some of the writers who have opined on Goethe's scientific activities. I am familiar with some of the big names in this regard: Helmholtz, Heisenberg, Ernst Haeckel, Emil De Bois-Reymond, and Rudolf Steiner, but I had never heard of Jacob Hermann Friedrich Kohlbrugge, whose Historisch-kritische Studien über Goethe als Naturforscher was published in 1913. According to the article, Kohlbrugge subjects Goethe's scientific writings to a "herber Kritik, indem er sie weitgehend as Plagiate bezeichnete, denen nur Opportunisten ihren Beifall schenkten." I found Kohlbrugge's book online –– the photocopy from the University of Toronto library was massively marked in the margins –– and read it.

Kohlbrugge was a biologist, and he  states that he wrote out of a spirit of opposition to all of the books claiming Goethe as a pathbreaking scientist, including in regard to evolution. Kohlbrugge makes a nice distinction concerning the term "pre-Darwinist," which only applies to those scientists who asserted actual evolutionary descent or "Abstammung" before Darwin. According to Kohlbrugge, it was Rousseau who first stimulating thinking about this possibility, which was taken up by French materialists and writers of the Encyclopédie. The debate on the origins of language in the 18th century also made some people consider the possibility. Herder, writes Kohlbrugge, struggled with the idea as well. Later, in  Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1785) he wrote: “Der Menschheit jüngere Brüder sind die Tiere.” However, he opposed Rousseau’s idea that men were once four-footed creatures, believing in the “Unveränderlichkeit der Art.” Goethe had read Rousseau carefully, and he gave much thought to the relatedness of man and ape, which led to the studies of the jaw bone. But he did not publish his manuscript for 34 years, which show that he changed his opinion about the relationship of man and animal. He turned his back on the “Abstammungstheorie,” in the sense of a blood relationship, and seems never to have considered the possibility of unlimited new species through exterior influences.

Kohlbrugge is indeed very severe on Goethe as a scientist and contends that “Kunst und Naturbetrachtung waren bei Goethe stets innig vereinigt.” His study, however, is a thorough presentation, including many, many 17th-, 18th-, and early 19th-century sources, while placing Goethe's efforts within the context of the time in which he was working.

There are two things that strike me about Goethe's scientific efforts. The first is that he did not engage in the kind of experimentation that led to any practical applications. For instance, as I have learned from an article by John Moyker on the intellectual origins of modern economic growth, “The great Lavoisier worked on assorted applied problems, including as a young man on the chemistry of gypsum and the problems of street lighting.” Moyker also mentions “Linnaeus's belief that skillful naturalists could transform farming was widely shared and inspired the establishment of agricultural societies and farm improvement organizations throughout Europe.” Goethe's experiments did not contribute to the accumulation of facts or knowledge that propelled the scientific revolution. On the other hand, he was responsible for bringing important scientists to the university at Jena.

This brings me to the second thing: his lucubrations were in the realm of "Weltbild," and he seems to have regarded his work in science as fundamental to the understanding of nature. Thus, his desire for recognition by serious scientists, and his bitterness at their dismissal of him as a scientist. Their "natural laws" had nothing in common with Goethe's, which, according to Kohlbrugge, were “nicht mechanischer Art, sondern psychischer, ganz wie die Formen eines Kunstwerkes durch die Psyche des Künstlers bestimmt.”

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Goethe and money


Every now and then while reading Safranski's biography of Goethe, I have to laugh out loud. Such was my reaction today when I learned that Goethe made a 100 Thaler bet in the Hamburg Lottery in May 1797; the main prize was an estate (Landgut) in Silesia. The numbers he chose included, among other calculations, his own and Schiller's birth dates. As Safranski writes, "er zog eine Niete." The next year Goethe purchased a property in Oberroßla, 10 km northeast of Weimar. Five years later, he was glad to be get rid of it at a loss.

I have posted on the subject of Goethe and money before, long ago, in fact, in 2008. Back then my focus was on what the possession of money allowed Goethe to do and enjoy. He was the recipient of a considerable inheritance, accumulated by his grandfather. While his father did not deplete the fortune, he lived off the income from that legacy, somewhat like the landed gentry portrayed in Jane Austen's novels. Goethe's expenditures in Weimar, as he sank roots there, became considerable. Like his father, he kept an accurate record of his financial outlays. In his last decades, one can see that he enjoyed good food and good wines.

I came across a post today on a site called Brain Pickings, which aims to tell readers "What Goethe can teach us about cultivating a healthy relationship with our finances." The blogger draws on a book How to Worry Less About Money, by John Armstrong, "philosopher-in-residence" at Melbourne's Business School. Armstrong earlier wrote a book (Love, Life, Goethe: Lessons of the Imagination from the Great German Poet, 2006) that I reviewed, negatively, in volume 15 of Goethe Yearbook. It is a bit tiring to return to Goethe on the subject of life lessons, but here I go again.

Life lessons from Goethe
The Brain Pickings' blogger, Maria Popova, has many musings on how to have a "healthy relationship" with finances, focusing on our emotional problems with money. For most people, I would hazard that their worries about money are very existential: they don't have enough to pay their bills, in contrast to Goethe, who never feared the loss of a roof over his head. Thus, her advice is for people who have enough. She quotes from Armstrong's new book to demonstrate Goethe correct relationship:

"From his many writings about his own experiences, we know that he was determined to get well paid for his work. He came from a well-off background but sought independence. He switched careers, from law to government adviser so as to be able to earn more (which made sense then; today the trajectory might be in the opposite direction). He coped with serious setbacks. His first novel was extremely popular but he made no money from it because of inadequate copyright laws. Later, he negotiated better contracts. He was very competent in financial matters and kept meticulous records of his income and expenditure. He liked what money could buy — including … a stylish house-coat (his study had no heating). But for all this, money and money worries did not dominate his inner life. He wrote with astonishing sensitivity about love and beauty. He was completely realistic and pragmatic when it came to money but this did not lead him to neglect the worth of exploring bigger, more important concepts in life."

Well, yes and no. It is true that money worries did not dominate Goethe's inner life, which may have contributed to his ability to write "with astonishing sensitivity about love and beauty." Friedrich Schiller, as Safranski points out, was burdened by this difference between himself and Goethe. Goethe's serenity, such as it was, however, was hard won, although having money perhaps gave him opportunity to work on his serenity.


What I find interesting about Goethe on the subject of money is his failure to increase his paternal inheritance. Aside from a few bad financial ventures (the property in Oberroßla), he remained very conservative. Some of his contemporaries were making a killing in the market in the 18th century, e.g., Voltaire. (See my earlier post in this connection.) This conservatism is somewhat strange, since, as financial minister of the duchy and because of his attempts to increase the duchy’s tax revenues, Goethe was up to date on the Europe-wide discussion of modern economic issues. He was acquainted with the writings of Adam Smith via Georg Friedrich Sartorius, economist and historian at the University of Göttingen, who was the first mediator of Smith’s writings in Germany. The Jena Allgemeine Zeitung kept abreast: in 1804 Sartorius reviewed Henry Thornton’s An Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Paper-Credit of Great Britain; in 1808 JAZ reviewed F.H. Hegewisch’s German translation of Malthus’s essay Principles of Population; and, in 1817, Georg Graf von Buquoy’s Die Theorie der Nationalwirtschaft. In recent years there has of course been increasing interest in Goethe’s understanding of finance and economics, beginning with Bernd Mahl, Goethes ökonomisches Wissen (1982).

Goethe's legacy, well expressed
Yet, the fact remains that Goethe did nothing to increase the wealth he inherited, wealth that his ancestors had labored to provide. On the other hand, of course, Goethe enriched the Western cultural inheritance, of which we are all in his debt.

Picture credits: Navona Numismatics; Carpe Diem Moments