Friday, August 9, 2019

Goethe, the armchair traveler

In my last post I discussed the "society" with which Goethe surrounded himself in the last decades of his life, as portrayed in Eckermann's Conversations. The immediate society was a rather tight one of Weimar inhabitants who seem to have been regulars at the house on Frauenplan on many an evening. A book that I recently reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement (July 16, 2019), presenting Goethe as an "armchair traveler," throws further light on why he did not have to venture from home for company.

The book, Goethe: Journeys of the Mind, by Gabrielle Bersier, Nancy Boerner, and Peter Boerner, concerns Goethe's immersion in foreign lands without the necessity of leaving the premises of his home. Some of this armchair traveling was in the interest of his poetic production, e.g., West-östlicher Diwan and Chinesisch-Deutsche Jahres- und Tageszeiten. For research, he had access to the Weimar library as well as to scholars of "the Orient." For me, the most interesting chapters of Journeys of the Mind concern his reading and correspondence with scholars and scientists, especially those working in the field of botany and natural science. With Alexander von Humboldt he was on close terms, and they met and corresponded often, both before Humboldt's journeys to the Americas and afterward.

As I mention in my review, by the early 19th century Goethe was Germany's most famous product, and it was not surprising that many scholars traveled to Weimar to share their findings. One of these was Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius, a professor from Erlangen, who traveled to Brazil in 1817 as part of a scientific expedition of Bavarian and Austrian scientists that accompanied the bridal ship bearing the daughter of the Hapsburg emperor to marry the Portuguese crown prince. The Leopoldina edition of Goethe's scientific writings is named for the archduchess.

Martius's treatise on the natural history and morphology of palm trees complemented Goethe's ideas of plant morphology. Nevertheless, the enigmatic entry in Ottilie's diary entry -- "Es wandelt niemand ungestraft unter Palmen"  -- could not have been suggested by Goethe's acquaintance with Martius, as Elective Affinities was published already in 1809. The relationship between Goethe and Martius was obviously of great importance to both men, as can be seen in Goethe und Martius, which includes the correspondence between the two men.

My TLS review was accompanied by a lovely illustration from Mauritius's study of Brazilian vegetation, Historia naturalis palmarum. I include another illustration at the top of this post from a book review of an English translation of Book of Palms that appeared in The Gardening Register.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Goethe at home

Friedrich August Wolf
I have written before, most recently concerning Proust and Goethe, that one gets very few details of politics or government or even the surrounding world in Goethe’s novels, which in a certain respect — Goethe was after all a government minister with quite a large portfolio, so to speak — is surprising.

But lately, as I read Eckermann’s conversations (which, admittedly, may or may not represent Goethe’s own utterances), it strikes me that the limitation in that respect in the novel Elective Affinities actually mirrors Goethe’s own domestic environment. Evening after evening, Eckermann is received at Goethe’s house, and sometimes other visitors appear: Riemer, Coudray, Kanzler von Müller. Goethe pours wine for the others; he drinks mineral water from Marienbad. Usually the subject is literature, although one evening (December 9, 1824) the discussion concerns the water crisis (“Wassernot”) in Petersburg. Oberbaudirektor Coudray makes drawings showing the effects of the Neva on the city and surrounding localities.

It is a thoroughly educational affair, although it is hard to know whether Goethe, as in E’s portrayal of Goethe, is such a pedant, always pontificating, teaching, which is fine with Eckermann. I will have to at some point look into works by Weimar contemporaries, accounts of his sayings or his appearance and so on, to see if this portrayal is corroborated by others.

There is one evening described (Jan. 18, 1825) at which one would like to have been present. Goethe was working on his autobiography and had had Eckermann makes notes of his drafts. On that evening he read aloud portions from 1795 to Eckermann and Riemer. Likewise, on an earlier occasion (April 19, 1824), Goethe gave a “Diner” for the classics scholar Friedrich August Wolf, who had stopped off in Weimar on his way back from southern France. The guests were all men: Röhr, Kanzler von Müller, Coudray, Riemer, Councilor Rehbein, and Eckermann. Unfortunately the “geistreichen Schertze, die über Tisch flogen,” were too quick for Eckermann to be able to recall them. In any case, Goethe seems to have played the devil’s advocate in the presence of Wolf: “Ich kann mit Wolf nicht anders auskommen, all daß ich immer als Mephistopheles gegen ihn agiere.”
Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer

Before Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer became one of Goethe’s right-hand men, he had attempted an academic career, on Wolf’s encouragement, but had to abandon it because of the need to earn a living. He then accompanied Wilhelm von Humboldt to Italy, when the latter occupied a diplomatic post there. According to the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie: “Goethe persönlich war er ‘als gewandter Kenner der alten Sprachen höchlich willkommen’ (Annalen 1803), und er wurde Goethe’s antiquarischer Beirath als Nachfolger des 1804 nach Dresden abgehenden Böttiger. Goethe’s bisherige Secretäre waren mehr oder weniger bloße Schreiber gewesen; mit R. trat ein Gelehrter in seinen Dienst und zwar als wissenschaftlicher Helfer und Mitarbeiter.”

These occasions confirm that Goethe liked his domestic circle and didn’t feel it necessary to move beyond it. He had everything he needed within arm's reach. More on that in the next post, particularly on Goethe as an "armchair traveler."

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Birch trees anew

Alder trees on Malcolm Island
I went out hiking this morning. One of my companions was Yolanna, who grew up literally in the backwoods of British Columbia. She can tell the difference between a thrush and a robin by their song. With Goethe's comments about birch trees on my mind, I imagined we were walking past a forest of such trees and took a picture, only for Yo to tell me that they were not birch trees, but alders. I post my own photo here, along with a lovely shot of the real thing by the photographer Randy Nyhof. (Click both to enlarge.)

Randy Nyhof, Birch Trees
Over the years I must have seen many such shots like Randy's, which made me imagine that the straight, spare trunks before me this morning were birch. According to Yo, birch doesn't grow in a wet climate, which is what we have out here in the Pacific Northwest. Birch grows where it is dry.

There is a great charm about birch trees, and it will bear looking into in connection with Goethe. Allow me to post another portrait of birches, by the Russian painter Ivan Shishkin (1883), entitled In the Birch Tree Forest. The forest itself reminds me of the one I hiked through this morning. My inability to distinguish alder from birch is due to the fact that I am a totally urban person, without much expertise in the works of nature, unlike Goethe.

Picture credit: Visual Elsewhere; Randy Nyhof

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Goethe on Ruisdael's birch trees

Jacob van Ruisdael, The Jewish Cemetery
On May 2, 1824, Goethe and Eckermann took an evening walk through "Upper Weimar" on a path that led to a view of the park from an elevated position. Eckermann is quite good at descriptions (see, e.g., his description of his visit to Goethe's garden house on March 22): "Die Bäume blühten, die Birken waren schon belaubt und die Wiesen durchaus ein grüner Teppich, über welche die sinkende Sonne herstreifte. Wir suchten malerische Gruppen ..."

Of these picturesque groups of trees full of white blossoms, it was agreed that they were not suitable for painting (nicht zu malen). Similarly, leafy birches in for the foreground of a picture, because the delicate leaf does not sufficiently contrast with the white trunk. Ruisdael, claims Goethe, never introduces birch with its foliage in the foreground, but only birch trees that are broken off at the top and without leaves: "Such a trunk is very effective in the foreground; its shape has such natural prominence.” The issue seems to be that white birch trunks are not large enough to offer striking effects of light and shade.

I speculated in my last post that Goethe might have seen the painting of a goat and sheep by the animal painter Philipp Peter Roos that is now in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, as it was once in the possession of the Brentano family whom Goethe had visited in 1814. The Ruysdael painting at the top of this post, The Jewish Cemetery, from 1655-60, is in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden. (Click to enlarge.) Is it possible that Goethe saw this painting already when he visited Dresden, perhaps when he was 18 years old and a student in Leipzig? The website of the museum does not give any information about when The Jewish Cemetery entered the museum, although there is a Goethe quote, in English: "I entered this shrine, and my amazement exceeded any preconceived idea!"

Picture credit: Web Gallery of Art

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Goethe educates Eckermann in the matter of taste

P. P. Roos, Sheep and Goat in a Rocky Landscape
I wrote previously concerning what might be considered "authentic" about the Conversations, namely, the way Eckermann portrays Goethe as a pedagogue. I am not familiar with the scholarship on the Conversations, but something similar can be seen in his Leipzig letters to his young sister Cornelia. Here is an example from February 26, 1824. They have been examining drawings and engravings in Goethe's possession. Eckermann writes as follows:

Goethe verfährt hiebei in Bezug auf mich sehr sorgfältig, und ich fühle, daß es seine Absicht ist, mich in der Kunstbetrachtung auf eine höhere Stufe der Einsicht zu bringen. Nur das in seiner Art durchaus Vollendete zeigt er mir und macht mir des Künstlers Intention und Verdienst deutlich, damit ich erreich möge, die Gedanken der Besten nachzudenken und den Besten gleich zu empfinden. ... "Ich zeige Ihnen daher nur das Beste; und wenn Sie sich darin befestigen, so haben Sie einen Maßstab für das übrige, das Sie nicht überschätzen, aber doch schätzen werden.”

Here is Margaret Fuller's translation of the passage, which leaves some things out, but for those interested I recommend Google Translate. Simply copy the German passage here, and the translation comes out very quickly, provided I have made no typing errors!

“Goethe takes great interest in forming my taste; he shows me only what is complete and endeavors to make me apprehend the intention of the artist; he would have me think and feel only with the thoughts and feelings of the noblest beings. ... 'I show you the best and when you have thoroughly apprehended these, you will  have a standard, and will know how to value inferior performances without overrating them.'”

It strikes me that Goethe might have said something along those lines. How about the comments attributed to him about the drawings of sheep by the German painter Philipp Peter Roos (1655-1706)? This occurs shortly after the above passage:

"Mir wird immer bange," sagte Goethe, "wenn ich diese Tiere ansehe. Das Beschränkte, Dumpfe, Träumende, Gähnende ihres Zustandes zieht mich in das Mitgefühl desselben hinein, man fürchtet, zum Tier zu werden, und möchte fast glauben, der Künstler sei selber eins gewesen."

This does seem to be a sentiment of Goethe's, even if it was not expressed in the exact words that Eckermann quotes. As I don't have an edition of the Conversations with commentary (I am spending the summer again on an island in British Columbia, far away from any research facility), I do not know for certain that Goethe is referring here to Philipp Peter Roos; he is quoted only as saying "Roos," and there were several painters of that name. Nevertheless, the painting at the top of this post is in the Städel in Frankfurt and was acquired by the museum in 1895 as a gift of Josephine and Anton Brentano. I wonder if Goethe might have seen the original. As I wrote in a post two years ago, he visited the estate of Franz and Antonia Brentano in September of 1814. Perhaps they owned the painting at that time?

In both of the above passages the sentiments do seem to be those of Goethe. Whether he expressed himself in that rather magisterial way is something else. More thoughts on that matter in the future. Familiarity with Goethe's method of composing letters at this time -- dictation to a secretary followed by editing or revisions -- leads one to suspect that Eckermann may likewise had formalized Goethe's speech.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Eckermann's Goethe

"Mit Goethe spazieren gefahren"
I first posted on the Conversations back in December of 2018, planning a series on the topic, and it has taken me this long  to return to it. I brought with me to British Columbia this book and one other on Goethe that I am due to review. My reading of the Conversations has now taken me through 1823 and into 1824, and a few things suggest themselves to me as worth mentioning. At the same time, I confess that I am not familiar with the scholarship on the Conversations, although I do know that they were not composed as such on the dates attributed to them. To what extent the "Goethe" before us, often quoted at length, is factual is thus uncertain.

Most entries open with time and date of encounter with Goethe (e.g., "Um ein Uhr mit Goethe spazieren gefahren"), which suggest that Eckermann kept a diary in which he recorded that information at the end of the day, which might also have been accompanied by notations concerning subjects discussed and also Goethe's personal appearance and state of health. The latter was of concern to the inhabitants of Weimar. Eckermann visited Goethe on November 16, 1823, and described an illness for which "Pflaster" was applied to his chest on the side of the heart. The next day's entry, November 17, notes as follow: "Als ich diesen Abend ins Theater kam, drängten viele Personen mir entgegen und erkundigten sich sehr ängstlich nach Goethes Befinden."

One other aspect that seems authentic to me is a decided pedagogical impulse on Goethe's part vis à vis Eckermann. This aspect is on view in Goethe's letters to his sister Cornelia when he was a student in Leipzig. His letters to her are full of recommendations for improvement of her mind. As we know, the Leipzig letters were written by Goethe himself, not dictated to a secretary, and, one suspects, were sent off to Frankfurt without being edited.

In my next post on the Conversations I will discuss some of the life lessons dished up by Goethe for Eckermann.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Goethe scribblings

Notgeld Weimar 1921
I came across an old notebook and going through it came across all matter of notes on Goethe and many other subjects. Let me note some of what I wrote concerning Goethe's finances, often only a few lines from a scholarly article. (I have written on Goethe and money a couple of times: in 2008; and in 2015).

For instance, of an article by Dieter Hein on Goethe's "Haushaltsführung," I noted that Goethe was in the 8.2 percent of Weimar taxpayers who had a yearly income of ca. 4000 talers in 1820. By then, he was drawing considerable honoraria from publishing. From a book entitled Goethe und das Geld: Der Dichter und die moderne Wissenschaft (an edited volume by Vera Hierholzer and Sandra Richter), I noted Goethe's ambivalent relationship with Bertuch, whose activities employed between 100 and 150 persons, supporting 10 percent of Weimar's population (including families of employees).

Jochen Klauß, in Goethe und Geld: Goethes Finanzen, mentioned that Goethe's negotiations, from 1827, with publishers, especially Cotta re his Ausgabe letzter Hand, reveal a hard-headed bargainer and an understanding of his commercial worth. According to Klauß, Goethe received in 1816 a yearly honorarium of 3000 talers, corresponding to 20 years of his annual salary of 3,100 talers, what today would be worth 2.5 milion Euro: "etwa das Doppelte von dem, was für den Literatur-Nobelpreis vergeben wird."