Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Goethe marries

"I want to sleep with you!"

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Christiane Vulpius were married on this day in 1806 in the Jacobskirche in Weimar. Like other official buildings in Weimar, it was also serving as an infirmary for the wounded. This was five days after the Battle of Jena and Auerstadt, in which the Prussian forces were defeated by Napoleon's troops. The reasons for Goethe's marriage to his long-time companion have been much studied. See, for instance, the essay by Peter Schwartz, "Why Did Goethe Marry When He Did?", which appeared in volume 15 (2008) of the Goethe Yearbook. The reason had much to do with the European-wide wars.

Sigrid Damm in Christiane und Goethe: eine Recherche poses the interesting question: how did "die kleine Freundin" (as Goethe referred to her), known for eighteen years as Demoiselle Vulpius, feel at this overnight change in her status. From one day to the next she inherited Goethe's name, his title of nobility, as well as his official title: suddenly she became "Frau Geheime Räthin von Goethe.

The photo above comes from a production that was supposed to take place in Istanbul in 2014, but that seems to have been canceled. The play dealt with Goethe's relationship with "a working woman from a lower class." It had to be canceled (I have this from the newspaper report in the English-language newspaper Hurriyet Daily News) because of the line "I want to sleep with you." I have not been able to find any other information on this play, not even the name of the writer of the play. According to the caption on the photo, the director was Kazım Akşar.

Monday, October 17, 2016

"A hard rains gonna fall"

Goethe must have been thinking along the lines of Bob Dylan's song (note the apocalyptic imagery: e.g., "a wave that could drown the whole world") in the summer of 1816. Christiane died on June 6. It was not a good time, and then there was all that rain, which he noted in his diary. I referred in an earlier post to the effects of the Tambora volcano eruption, which made themselves felt in Europe in the summer of 1816. As Wolfgang Behringer notes in his book on the eruption, Goethe made many references to the rain in his diary that summer.

The first mention occurs on June 23: "Schrecklich durchwässerter Zustand des Gartens." There continue, until October, notations about the weather conditions. For instance, on July 3: "Um 7 Uhr von Jena ausgefahren. Schlimmer Weg durchs Mühlthal." Or, on July 9: "Spazierfahrt mit Meyer wegen dem Regen abgekürzt." Or, regarding his visit to the court: "Durch kalte Witterung aus dem Park geschreckt." On July 29, he noted that it had rained the entire night and was continuing. There are entries along these lines: "Anhaltendes Regenwetter." Attempts to take a walk were interrupted by rain. He also noted good weather. June 29: "Erster schöner Tag." On the same day he also drove "am Neuthor" in order to view the flooding.

It is unclear from these entries how much he knew about the cause, but on June 28 he notes a visit of Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner, followed by "Gespräch über die Sonnenflecken. Sauerstoffgehalt der Atmosphäre" (conversation about sun spots; oxygen content of the atmosphere), which suggests that he was being informed about the atmospheric effects of the eruption.

Constable, Flatford Mill on the River Stour (detail)
There were two interesting entries about other effects, for instance, on June 21 he noted that thunder clouds had broken up into sheet lightning. And he also noted, on June 30, the reflection of trees in cloudy water (im trübem Wasser). Does he mean in puddles? Or in a river? This reference caused me to look up some contemporary artists who might have painted such reflections. I turned to John Constable, the notable English landscape painter. Constable painted a lot of English water -- lakes, canals, locks, etc. -- and in many case there are trees on the water's edge, yet he seems not to have dealt much with this aspect. I am not a Constable expert, so there may be examples in his oeuvre, but I include here the one that I found, from 1816. But I also noted that, even though he was painting in the very period in which Friedrich and Turner had documented the red skies, his skies do not reflect the new pollution.

By September there occur more mentions of good weather, and, finally, on October 7: "Schöner Tag. Im Garten."

Friday, October 14, 2016

"Da warst du chic angezogen ..."

So begins Helmut Winkelmann's reading of a German translation of "Like a Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan. The Germans are taking Dylan as a poet seriously, which indeed he is. Mark Polizzotti, a colleague of mine and Editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also wrote a piece ("Dylan's Appropriations") in Parnassus about the literary allusions in Dylan's lyrics.

Seemingly a Goethe-unrelated post, but one of our very own Goethe scholars, Heinrich Detering, wrote a book on Bob Dylan a few years ago, and he was interviewed on "3sat" (identified onscreen as president of the Akademie der Sprache und Dichtung!) regarding the Nobel announcement. Here is a link to the video interview. I liked the part where he referred to Brecht in connection with "It Ain't Me, Babe." We have some very interesting people among Goethe scholars.

I wrote an article that appeared in the Goethe Yearbook years ago (indeed, it was my first publication there) on Goethe's play Die Laune des Verliebten. At the time, Tom Saine, the editor of the Yearbook criticized me for the lack of current scholarship on the play. As I mentioned to Tom, practically the only recent scholarship on the play at that time was an article by Heinrich Detering entitled “Die Heilung des Verliebten: Pathologie and  Poetologie in Goethes Schäferspiel,” which appeared in 1991 in the Jahrbuch des Freien Deutschen Hochstifts. It is good to be in such company.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Goethe and the year without summer

Caspar David Friedrich, Der Himmel glüht (1818)
I have really been falling behind in my posting. There has been so much to do in connection with the book I have been writing, which has left little time for anything else. I am resolved now, however, to do better (thereby sounding like Emma Woodhouse, with her list of 101 important books to read). A few days ago I came across an article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung concerning the above topic. The year without a summer occurred a century ago, in 1816, and was an effect of the eruption of the Tamboro volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa in April 1815. Among other things, the eruption launched enormous volumes of volcanic rock and gases more than 25 miles into the stratosphere and "volcanic aerosoles" that then began to circle the planet at the equator. Within five months of what has been called a "slow-moving sabotage of the global climate system at all latitudes," a meteorological enthusiast named Thomas Forster observed strange, spectacular sunsets over Tunbridge Wells near London. “Fair dry day,” he wrote in his weather diary—but “at sunset a fine red blush marked by diverging red and blue bars.”

The article in FAZ by Rose-Maria Gropp concerned some of the artists who observed this effect. These included Caspar David Friedrich and William Turner, whose paintings described a new color in the sky.

William Turner, Dido Builds Carthage (1815)
Naturally I was interested in Goethe's response to this climate event, as it adversely affected agriculture in Germany, leading to crop failures and mass starvation in 1816. Carl von Clausewitz, traveling through the Rhine region in the spring of 1816, wrote that he saw "decimated people, barely human, prowling the fields for half-rotten potatoes.” According to Wolfgang Behringer, it rained without stop in Thuringen that summer, making the streets impassable and preventing Goethe from traveling to Karlsbad. His diary of that summer records his observations. In the following posts I will discuss those entries and Goethe's response.

Readers of this blog who are members of the Goethe Society of North America know of my interest in the subject of Goethe and science generally. I have posted on that subject in past posts, but going forward I would like to devote more space to the subject, as it is a "relatively" under-researched area of Goethe scholarship. In particular, I would like to situate Goethe within the science of his time. If anyone has any suggestions on this topic, please get in touch.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Stephen Spender on Faust

Faust and Marguerite in the Garden by James Tissot (1861)
I have posted on this subject before, but I have recently been engaged in "de-accessioning" many of my old research files and came across notes that I had made on Spender's essay "Goethe and the English Mind." Spender was interested in the differences between Shakespeare's characters and those in Goethe's plays, especially Faust. What follows is a paraphrase:

In Goethe's plays there is not the complete identity of the real with the symbolic which makes Shakespeare's characters seem both real and unreal at one and the same moment. Faust, for instance, is a poetic symbol of overwhelming significance. One does not question his psychology, history, or background, yet they do not arouse one's curiosity in the way that one is interested in Hamlet.

Gretchen and Martha, on the other hand, have a reality that outweighs their poetic significance. They seem people introduced into a world of high poetic symbols. As poetry, Gretchen's existence is an inadequate fantasy within the poetry of the drama. She and Faust are brought together by their dramatic situation, but their poetic worlds do not really meet. Faust, according to Spender, has an "immense poetic superiority" over Gretchen.

I think that something similar occurs in Goethe's Egmont, in which there is not only immense social, but also poetic, disparity between Egmont and Klärchen.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

"After the Avant-Gardes"

The Southern Cross, Milky Way and Carina Nebula, viewed from Kenya
Yes, I am here, back from the Northwest, but I have been occupied these few weeks since my return to New York with several writing projects, including a book review that had to be turned around in one week. Amid the stack of mail on my return was a book that my Goethe colleague Elizabeth Millán very generously sent me. Elizabeth, who teaches in the philosophy department at De Paul University in Chicago, edited the volume After the Avant-Gardes: Reflections on the Future of the Fine Arts. It contains ten essays. I have not yet had a chance to immerse myself in the volume although I have the feeling that the "fallen" status of art weighs heavily. I notice that Elizabeth's essay, which I have only scanned, is hopeful in its predictions, particularly concerning art's humanizing power.

In this connection, I noticed that she quoted Alexander von Humboldt. It is not surprising, as she has done considerable scholarly work on Humboldt. Humboldt traveled in Latin America between 1799 and 1804. The results of his immense scientific research there appeared in the multi-volume Kosmos. Upon first seeing the Southern Cross in the night sky as he approached the South American continent, however, he did not think about measuring the sky in order to advance our knowledge of the constellations: a scientific enterprise that would in turn help us in predicting weather patterns. Humboldt's first thought was the lines of a poet:

"Impatient to explore the equatorial regions, I could not raise my eyes to the sky without dreaming of the Southern Cross and remembering a passage from Dante."

Humboldt goes on to quote the relevant passage, in Italian (see Purgatory, canto 1, 22–27).

As Professor Millán writes: "Dante's work made a mark so strong in the mind of Humboldt that lines from his poetry became part of the experience of seeing the night sky and understanding the meaning of the Southern Cross for the human observer gazing upon its brilliant light."

(Click photo at the top to enlarge.)

Picture credit: Babak Tafreshi/National Geographic Society, via Corbis