Monday, November 12, 2018

The representational Goethe

Bouguereau, The Shepherdess (1889)
I have been neglectful about posting in recent months, as most of my waking thoughts are given over to the novel I am writing. For those who do not know Goethe Girl, it may be of interest to learn that, before Goethe came into her life, she published two novels. That occurred ages ago, after which, for reasons not to be gone into here, she went to graduate school and wrote her dissertation on Goethe. The dissertation concerned the pre-Weimar Goethe, before Goethe betook himself to Weimar and never looked back. My focus was on the poetic genre known as the idyll -- alternately, pastoral -- which appears throughout Goethe's oeuvre, from the Rococo lyrics of the Leipzig student years to the Philomen and Baucis episode in the last scenes of Faust. Like other traditional genres, the idyll is set in a communal world and displays reverence for the order of that world as well as for the regular movements of the heavens, the changing seasons, the regularity of festivals and harvests. Any ripples that disturb the regularity of the pastoral world -- a lost ribbon, a lost sheep -- are part of a larger wave of time in which everyone and everything are merged in a continuous human cycle.

Hermann Ramberg, Hermann and Dorothea
Such a conception of life was being undermined already by Goethe's time, a breakdown that also undermined traditional poetic genres. Who writes an epic in the style of Milton anymore? Goethe had a great fondness for traditional genres, however, and thus he often drew on the idyll, but in doing so the idyll is always portrayed as endangered. One example is Hermann und Dorothea. in which the French Revolution casts its shadow over the loving interlude of wooing a wife And, of course, Philomen and Baucis must be destroyed in order to make way for progress, the most modern of modern conceptions.

While this theme of the destruction of the idyll runs through Goethe's oeuvre, the move to Weimar brought about a departure in his poetic production. Goethe gradually left behind the "Genius" mentality that characterizes the production of the pre-Weimar works. Indeed, I have often thought about what Goethe might have been like had he not secluded himself for another fifty-plus years in the backwater of Weimar. Evidently, Goethe thought he had a lot to learn there, but what he produced was eigenartig: exclusive to himself. Goethe was of course familiar with the works of contemporaries, but one only has to consider his novels after The Sorrows of Young Werther to understand that he was not working the vein that has played such an important role in the conceptualization of the modern novel. I am thinking in particular of the British tradition.

I was again looking through Hermann Hesse's essay "Dank an Goethe" (1932), in which Hesse also refers to the split, if one can call it that, between the pre-Weimar poetry and what came thereafter. Hesse writes that he came to know Goethe as a boy, when it was easy to succumb to the power of the early lyrics and to Werther. That Goethe was "der Sänger, der ewig junge und naive," who brought "samt dem Duft von Wald, Wiese und Kornfeld, und in seiner Sprache, von der Frau Rat her, die ganze Tiefe und die ganze Spielerei der Volksweisheit, die Klänge von Natur und Handwerk, und dazu einen hohen Grad von Musik" (the scent of the forest, of meadow and cornfield, and, in a language inherited from his mother, the entire playfulness of folk wisdom, the sounds of nature and of craftsmanship and, in addition, a high degree of musicality).

Goethe and Carl August on Swiss journey, 1779
Yet in time Hesse also began to encounter a different Goethe: the great writer, the humanist, the ideologue and educator, the critic and the literary man, the friend of Schiller, the collector of art, the journal founder, the author of countless essays, the correspondent. This is not the fresh, youthful poet we know from his Sesenheim lyrics. Indeed, his appearance (attested in contemporary portraits, but even more so in contemporary accounts) is bourgeois, somewhat stuffy, official, miles distant from the wildness of Werther. Hesse doesn't say so, but this was Goethe "becoming Goethe," a transformation that took place only after he went to Weimar. This Goethe was what has been called "suprapersonal" ("überpersönlich). He became a representational person, somewhat like in Habermas's use of that term.  Though this be madness, according to Hesse, yet there was method in it: "die Ermöglichung und Begründung eines vom Geist regierten Lebens, für ihn selbst nicht nur, sondern für seine Nation und Zeit" (the facilitation and justification of a life dominated by Spirit, not simply for himself, but for his nation and his era).

Image credit: Goethezeitportal; Die Weltwoche (AKG Images, Keystone)

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Goethe and Music

Schubert's autograph of a simplified accompaniment to his "Erlkönig"
One of my favorite German radio programs is HR2's "Doppelkopf." A recent program featured the well-known Goetheaner Dieter Borchmeyer. Doppelkopf's mandate, according to the website, is "Interessante Zeitgenossen –– Menschen, die etwas zu sagen haben, unterhalten sich 50 Minuten lang mit einem Gastgeber über ihre Arbeit und ihr Leben." Each program also includes musical selections chosen by the guest. The Borchmeyer program began with the sounds of Schubert's setting of "Erlkönig," featuring the "Getrammel" that Goethe noted when the piece was performed for him by Maria Szymanowska in the early 1820s. As was noted, the 18-year-old Schubert had sent the piece to Goethe in 1815. It is usually reported that Goethe sent the package back unopened, but Borchmeyer contends that this should not be interpreted as rejection of the work by Goethe so much as by the fact that Goethe was simply overburdened by the large number of such requests that daily arrived in his mailbox.

Goethe heard Wilhelmina Schröder sing "Gretchen am Spinnrad," but Borchmeyer contends that Goethe was a "musical lay person" who could scarcely have got the point of a composition simply by reading the notes. And in any case he adhered to a "Liedaesthetik" that was dominant until at least the 1860s, according to which "es wurde ganz klar gesagt, daß das Lied ein Strophenform hat, die besagt, daß die Form musikalisch abgebildet werden muss." Goethe was an opponent of naturalistic imitation in music and held that the composer should develop a “Symbolik für das Ohr."

Mendelssohn serenades Goethe
Any impression that Weimar was a backwater and that Goethe lacked understanding of developments in the world of music beyond its confines was dismantled by Borchmeyer, who noted, among other things, the different musicians who arrived at Goethe's door. These included Paginini, the young Mendelssohn (as portrayed, opposite, by Moritz Oppenheim) and the young Clara Wieck, and Spontini. Goethe's contribution to productions of opera was also noted. Borchmeyer called Goethe "ein Pioneer in der Bühnenwirkung von Mozart." As for the story about Beethoven and Goethe, Borchmeyer calls Bettina “eine geniale Lügnerin” who invented a meeting that did not take place. If Beethoven was not 100 percent to Goethe's taste as a person, he recognized his artistic greatness: “Energischer, zusammengefasster, innerlicher habe er keinen Menschen erlebt.”

There was of course a discussion of the rendering of Goethe's poems and other writings, especially from Faust II, but I was particularly intrigued by what Borchmeyer said of Goethe's contribution to "Entstehung der Liebe" in literary form in the 18th century, especially on the example of Gretchen at the spinning wheel. In this connection, Borchmeyer mentioned Goethe's self-censorship concerning the wording in Faust I of the famous line: "Mein Busen drangt sich nach ihm hin." In the Urfaust, it reads, “Mein Schoss, Gott! drängt sich nach ihm hin.” Unfortunately, Schubert could not do anything about this, as he only knew Faust I, and the  “körperliche Erweckung der Leidenschaft des jungen Mädchens, das immer steigert” is weakened.


There is an excellent entry in the Goethe-Handbuch, by Günter Hartung, on Goethe and music, which covers in more detail the symbiosis between Goethe's poetry and its musicality, but Hartung dismisses the influence of Catholic church music on Goethe. Borchmeyer, however, finds that the Italian Journey is just as much a discovery of music as it was of art. He mentions in particular the effect of a piece of Renaissance music, Allegri's Miserere, a setting of Psalm 51, that Goethe heard during Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel. Whatever Goethe may have thought about Catholicism, its liturgical music fascinated him.

I recommend going to the podcast itself for other topics covered in the discussion, including Goethe's "Tonlehre," and also reading Hartung's more detailed description. This was a project that arose, according to Hartung, in connection with increasing scientific interests on Goethe's part by the beginning of the 19th century.

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.

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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.