Friday, April 14, 2017

Philipp Hackert's waterfalls

Waterfall of the Aniene River at Tivoli (1769)
A friend in Oberammergau regularly sends me links to worthwhile German TV shows, mostly literary. Yesterday I watched a segment of Arte's "Die grosse Literatour: Goethes Italien." Nothing particularly new: lots of scenes of present-day Venice, Rome, and Naples along with the reading of excerpts from the Italian Journey. Naples was the last stop on the show; no Sicily. Lots more tourists in Italy since I was there last -- decades ago! The contemporary scenes were made more interesting by paintings of the same scenes from the 18th century; many of the buildings appear to be the same.

The most charming part of the program was the interview with the curator of the Casa di Goethe in Rome, located in the quarters that Tischbein rented and in which Goethe stayed on the via del Corso. It seems that the Casa di Goethe is currently hosting, until September, an exhibition of works by the German photographer Kerstin Schomburg, who is also featured in the Arte program. She was in Italy photographing some of the sites that Hackert painted, including waterfalls, for which he was apparently well regarded. The painting at the top of the post is from near Tivoli. (Click on images to enlarge.) The show is entitled Punti di Vista.

While I was searching for images for this posting, I came across the Iberia Airlines website, which has the most scandalously incorrect information about the Casa di Goethe. Here is the money quote:

"In 1786 the poet moved to Rome, where he founded a meeting place in his home, for writers and artists of that era. Goethe was a very politically active person, and, due to that, left a great mark on the city. Also, he always expressed his love for the city of Roma, to which he left his residence in his will after his death."

Please do not quote that as by me.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Goethe and Dante

I have been reading Goethe's Italian Journey and tweeting daily tidbits. Yesterday, in another connection, I read Erich Auerbach's 1929 essay, "The Discovery of Dante by Romanticism" in the splendid translation of Jane O. Newman. In this essay, Auerbach sketches the Dante reception in Germany in the 18th century. Of Goethe, Auerbach contends that he “never became truly intimate with Dante; his admiration for the Divine Comedy (or at least from some very few passages in the poem) was diluted by his instinctive antipathy for a personality like the Tuscan’s that was so fundamentally different from his own.”

The Goethe Handbuch sketches a more nuanced rapprochement of Goethe with the Italian poet, although it is true that the influence was on the level of poetic form and motifs, not of world view. For instance, Gerhard Schulz, in the entry on the 1806 poetic cycle that begins with "Mächtiges Überraschen," writes that the meaning of the cycle is captured in the last two words of that poem: new life. As in Dante's sense of Vita nuova, one of the first great collections of love poetry in "the Christian-European tradition." In Dante's work, according to Schulz, the experience of love first finds its true meaning in the poem itself. It was unclear to me from this entry, however, to what extent Goethe was familiar with the Vita nuova.

Of great interest was the stand-out entry on Goethe's "late poetry" (das lyrische Spätwerk), of 1819–32. The work of this period, writes Mathias Mayer, is characterized, among other things, by a "dialogue with foreign languages and cultures." For instance, the tercets of the poem "Im ernsten Beinhaus war's" indicate a dialogue with Dante.

Domenico Petarlini, Dante in Exile (1860)
Even though Auerbach knew Dante's works inside out, I would guess that he was thinking mostly in terms of the relationship of Faust to Dante's Divine Comedy. In this connection, Auerbach asserts that the "two worlds" of the works are “fundamentally incomparable.” The most important point: “The characters and scenes in Faust are, finally, the stuff of an individual’s soul and its history, unintelligible if they do not refer to the one who experiences them. In the Divine Comedy, they belong to an objective order outside the self.”

I learned from this essay that it was the Schlegel brothers, especially August Wilhelm, and Schelling, who “produced the most significant set of observations about Dante and his poem produced by Romanticism narrowly defined.” Schelling was the first since "the twilight of the hegemony of the Catholic Church and its philosophy" for whom "the integrity of the magnificent poem became visible.” Auerbach credits Schelling with understanding that the Comedy’s “characters enter into and manifest a kind of eternity as a result of the specific space that they are made to occupy in the poem.” Further, “the all-encompassing crux of the poem’s significance is this: our earthly and historical world in its true and eternal form is a manifestation of God’s judgment.”

I actually can imagine that Goethe recognized this significance and simply rejected it. Auerbach was more correct in respect of world view than in the influence on Goethe of Dante's poetic forms when he wrote that Goethe had no connection or rapport with “either the intellectual or the material world of the Trecento.”

Monday, April 10, 2017

Goethe's classical half-view

Monreale mosaics, photo by Dennis Jarvis
V.S. Naipaul in a small book of essays from 2007 entitled A Writer's People discusses what he calls the "classical half-view." The classical half-view derives from a refusal to look too closely at reality. One of his examples is the writer Cicero who wrote to a friend about the five days of games organized by Pompey. Cicero went to all five days, and in the letter he mentions the displeasure of the crowd on the final day at the killing of twenty large elephants. The only other ancient source is found in Pliny’s Natural History, where the Roman crowd was said to rise and curse Pompey as the elephants were being speared. Cicero was present, writes Naipaul; unlike Pliny, he “could have spoken more plainly. He could have told us more.”

But he was a friend of Pompey’s; he would not have wanted to diminish the event, and so ...  he preferred to use words to hide from what he saw. He preferred to have the half view. It enabled him, in the brutalities of the ancient world, to see and not see.

Monreale cloister, photo by Per-Erik Skramstad
Reading Goethe's account of his travels to Italy has put me in mind of Naipaul's "classical half-view," no more so than in the Journey's pages on Sicily. On this day in 1787 Goethe visited the Monreale Cathedral and its Benedictine monastery. He writes that the monks showed him some of their collections, of which he notes one that particularly struck him, a "Medaille" with an image of a young goddess. He also mentions that the abbot had a fine meal prepared for him and Kniep and sat with them for half an hour answering their many questions. Does he mention what he asked or what the answers were? Not at all.

Monreale cloister
The above images give an idea of what the cloister looked like, which could hardly be inferred from reading the Journey. One is struck, according to the end notes of my edition, by Goethe's lack of attention to the the mosaics on the ceiling of the cathedral, a major example (Hauptstück) of Norman-Byzantine art. When he went to Italy, however, Goethe was under the influence of Winckelmann, which narrowed -- indeed, prejudiced -- his perception of Italy. He suffered from the classical half-view. Indeed, it quite amusing to read his reference to the very grand monastery as a "respectable establishment" (eine respektable Anlage).

Photo credits: Planetware; Wonders of Sicily

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Goethe in Sicily

Christian Heinrich Kniep
"What are men to rocks and mountains?" This line from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has some resonance in connection with Goethe's visit to Sicily in 1787.

I have been working my way through Goethe's Italian Journey and have taken to recording some of his observations, day by day, so to speak, on his Twitter site. I usually compare the Journey with letters written to Weimar as well as with the Diary. Now that we have reached Sicily, however, there are few entries about Sicily in the Diary, and there is also a breach in the letters from March 23, 1787 (to C.G. Voigt from Naples) until April 17 (to Friedrich von Stein from Palermo). Thus, there is no truly illuminating information about first impressions.  I have not done any research on this, but it would seem that the portions of the Journey devoted to Sicily are post facto, perhaps prepared from on-the-spot notes that were later destroyed. I am ready to stand corrected if anyone has any information on this.

Goethe was of course accompanied by the artist Christian Heinrich Kniep, who served, if not as a stenographer, as a recorder of sights,  for tangibles, which for Goethe was obviously important. An indication of this is the entry for April 5, 1787 -- today! -- concerning an excursion he and Kniep made in Palermo. This is the opening:

"In the afternoon we visited the pleasant, fertile valley that comes down past Palermo from the mountains to the south, with the Oreto river winding through it."

It appears that Palermo is situated in a basin formed by three rivers, one of which is the Oreto mentioned by Goethe. Today, the river divides the downtown part of the city from the industrial western sections. Clearly it was more picturesque on Goethe's outing and, as Goethe writes, Kniep was busy finding the most attracting vantage points.

The most notable aspect of this particular entry is Goethe's dressing down of their guide, who was eager to explain the "local history," in particular concerning the battle at this spot in which the Carthaginian general Hannibal was defeated in 251 B.C. (The notes to the English edition of the Journey, by the way, point out that the defeated general was Hasdrubal.) For Goethe, this was pure pedantry and, as he writes, he "crossly rebuked him for so wretchedly evoking these departed spirits." Goethe declared his desire not to be startled out of his peaceful reverie by such tales of tumult (Nachgetümmel), which naturally surprised the guide.

Er verwunderte sich sehr, daß ich das klassische Andenken an so einer Stelle verschmähte, und ich konnte ihm freilich nicht deutlich machen, wie mir bei einer solchen Vermischung des Vergangenen und des Gegewärtigen zumute sei.

Goethe's understanding of "classical" soon emerges. He begins foraging in the shallows of the river for stones, which likewise astonished the guide. As Goethe writes, here, too, he felt unable to explain to him that the best way to understand a mountainous region was "to use rubble in order to obtain an idea of those earthly antiquities, the eternally classical mountains." (As always, the English here is mostly from Robert R. Heitner's translation.)

 ... daß hier auch die Afugabe sei, durch Truümmer sich eine Vorstellung von jenen ewig klassischen Höhen des Erdalterums zu verschaffen.

His booty amounted to almost forty specimens, the mineral content of which he goes on to describe. Tangibles again.

Picture credits: Alchetron; Your Rock Store

Thursday, March 30, 2017


Beast of the Apocalypse
Yesterday I journeyed by Long Island Railroad to Queens. I wanted to travel on the 1:46 p.m. train, so I left my apartment on the Upper West Side at 1, knowing that the subway runs regularly at that hour and would get me to Penn Station in plenty of time to buy a ticket and a sandwich to eat on the train. I was in no doubt that the train would leave at 1:46, which it did. I could plan my return trip to Manhattan similarly.

Yet, amid all this regularity, this rationalization of everyday structures of life, why were several people sitting on the dirty floors of the subway begging? Why indeed were the floors of the subway littered with newspapers? Why, with all the public money that is spent on welfare, on helping people to get enough to eat and to have a place to live, why, indeed, do so many people live so “unrationalized”?

Bloody signs in the sky, 1531
I ask these questions as a way of winding up these posts on climate hysteria. Back in the so-called Little Ice Age, heavy snowfall, avalanches, flooding, not to forget harvest failure, price increases, disease, and infertility were seen as signs from God foretelling either the end of the world or divine retribution for sin. After 1560 every kind of disaster was laid at the door of witches. The impetus for the persecution of witches came not from the institutions, but from “below.”

I started these posts on climate hysteria during the Little Ice Age as a way of situating our current apocalyptic thinking about climate change. According to Wolfgang Behringer, whom I have often cited in these posts, the 17th-century hysteria about climate cooling began to wane with the age of reason. Make that the Enlightenment. It began to be understood that the catastrophes resulting from the adverse weather conditions were a consequence of what we would now call “underdevelopment” and of ineffective — make that corrupt — political and social institutions that are still the norm for much of the world. “The public was no longer prepared to accept sermons about divine retribution, but pointed to the structural deficits and political omissions that hindered relief operations after crop failures. Why were the roads so bad that bread cereals could not be expeditiously imported? Why were the warehouses too small to supply the poor? … Why had royal officials not made adequate provision?”

The authorities were forced to act, and did so. In Holland, for instance, there was an agrarian revolution beginning in the late 16th century. With the introduction of dyke-based land reclamation, crop rotation, irrigation, sowing of new varieties of seeds, famine became a rarer occurrence. This happened after 1709 “in the space of a single generation.” In Holland, of course, witch hunting had long been abandoned: “even heretics and Jews had the possibility of a relatively good life.”

Also occurring in Europe was an artisanal revolution. Among the many instruments produced and sold in large quantities were barometers, thermometers, pumps, and prisms. Newspapers took to recording daily atmospheric pressure readings.
Ice skating in Weimar

The dark winter landscapes of Pieter Bruegel gave way to friendlier winter depictions, and winter sports became popular, e.g., ice skating, of which Goethe was so fond. Of course, the rigors of nature were not over, and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Goethe sought to avoid visits to the court in Gotha during the winter. Versailles must have been a fearfully cold place, despite all the glitter and glamour, but there arose the “Sun King” construct, promising a better future. Not only Louis XIV but also HRE Leopold I stylized themselves as “heat-providing central stars.”

Of course, the rise in bureaucratic structures that facilitated improvements in land use and in recovery from catastrophe was accompanied by a growth in populations, which in turn has put pressure on the earth and its resources, as have the industries that keep people employed, diverted, entertained, comforted, and so on. These developments, in my opinion, are serious for our fellow non-human creatures, but I do not believe that they cause the earth to become warmer or colder. That is a function of processes beyond our planet. We are simply not that powerful, although the ideology of progress suggests that we should be able to contain these processes.

Nowadays, apocalyptic visions come from “above,” from the intellectual classes.  Thus, the concept of “eco-sin,” so redolent of the 16th and 17th centuries. As Behringer writes, in earlier times, a sin was an offense against God’s command that deserved to be punished, and it was the task of priests to point out violations of divine law.

Goethe Girl is really sticking her neck out here by quoting Behringer to the effect that civilization was a product of climate warming: “The Neolithic Revolution and the rise of ancient civilizations became possible in periods when it was somewhat warmer than it is today.” If the IPCC’s latest predictions are accurate, those levels will be reached again at some point in the twenty-first century. “Then the Alpine glaciers will melt, but not those of the Antarctic. We will save on heating costs and use less fossil energy. What will become of the deserts? Will they really spread? During the Atlantic period, more water circulated in the atmosphere and the Sahara was fertile.”

So, if the earth is becoming warmer, we must take measures to contain and reduce its effects, just as in the Enlightenment people began to apply “reason” to counteract the effects of extreme cold. It is not a time to reprise the role of Nostradamus.

Picture credit: Martin Joppen

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Goethe Essay Prizes

The Goethe Society of North America has announced two essay prizes for this year, including one for the best essay on Goethe and science. I am pasting the information below. The deadline for submission is April 15, so please pass on the announcement to anyone who may be working in this area.

The GSNA Essay Prize and the Richard Sussman Essay Prize The deadline for nominations or self-nominations for our annual prizes—is drawing near. Please submit a copy of the essay (electronic version preferred) by April 15, 2017 to the Society’s Vice-President, Catriona MacLeod. See the website of the organization for terms of award/ eligibility:

Picture credit: Ahram Online

Goethe at Paestum

I am not abandoning my continuing posts on "climate," but it turns out that Goethe, on this day in 1787, was in Paestum. I have been working my way through Italian Journey, and everyday I tweet something Goethe wrote on the day in question. His description on March 23 deserves more than 180 characters.

Through Tischbein Goethe had met the painter Christoph Heinrich Kniep, who is now renowned for the drawings Goethe hired him to execute on his Italian travels. On March 23 they traveled in a two-wheeled carriage, to Paestum, alternately taking the reins. Goethe was initially not pleased by what he saw. As he writes, he found himself in a thoroughly alien world. His eyes, he writes, his whole being, were accustomed to slender architectural forms, "so that these blunt, cone-shaped, dense columnar masses seemed annoying, indeed awful" ("so daß diese stumpfen, kegelförmigen, enggedrängten Säulenmassen lästig, ja furchtbar erschienen").  But, he adjusted his eyes, as can be seen in this nice translation posted by "Rome Art Lover":

I pulled myself together, remembered the history of art, thought of the age with which this architecture was in harmony, called up images in my mind of the austere style of sculpture -- and in less than an hour I found myself reconciled to them and even thanking my guardian angel for having allowed me to see these well-preserved remains with my own eyes.

 Picture credit: World Tour