Monday, July 27, 2015

Goethe and granite

Granite (1968) by Isamu Noguchi (Yorkshire Sculpture Garden)
I have been thinking about Goethe and nature since reading Jason Grove's article on "petrofiction" in the current volume of the Goethe Yearbook. (See my posting on that article.) It strikes me that natural phenomena, e.g., granite, always represented something to Goethe, but it was a stand-in. Thus, my earlier question: did Goethe's heart leap up when he beheld a rainbow in the sky? My answer was no: I do not believe that he was an enthusiast of rainbows or of other natural events. The earth was simply the theater –– the Schauplatz –– of such phenomena, but the production itself stood for something greater, for the workings of so-called Nature. He collected "the rocks of time," as Heather Sullivan put it in a 1999 article in the European Romantic Review, but it was his very collecting activity, with thousands of mineral specimens and rocks stored in neatly labeled boxes, that distinguishes Goethe's interest in the natural world from that of, say, Wordsworth.

Isamu Noguchi (1929) by Winold Reiss
I was led to the image above of Isamu Noguchi's 1968 work Granite after reading a review of a biography of  the Japanese-American sculptor: Listening to Stone by Hayden Herrera. There is a lovely Noguchi Museum in Queens, which I visit at least once a year, visits inspired to some extent by my interest in the subject of Goethe and granite. Noguchi's "aesthetic," especially the simplicity of his works, seems at first glance Japanese-influenced, which can be seen in the gardens in which his works are frequently situated as lone, solitary objects, as in a Japanese garden. At the same time, because of my experience of living in Japan for several years, I always felt that there was something un-Japanese about Noguchi. The review of the biography explained why that is the case. Although his father was Japanese, his mother was a "bohemian" American lady who raised him on her own. And although he spent several years as a child in Japan, he did not grow up there and in fact did not speak "adult" Japanese.

If it speaks to you, it is a metaphor
I have to admit that rocks (like rainbows) do not really "speak" to me. But they clearly spoke to Noguchi, and the reviewer of the biography revealed that it was not Japan that provided Noguchi with inspiration: "It was [Constantin] Brancusi who first revealed to Noguchi the incalculable metaphorical richness of stone, an intuition upon which so much of his subsequent career would be based."

The reference to metaphor reminds me of what Denis Donoghue wrote in his 2014 book Metaphor: "Metaphor, more than simile or metonymy, expresses one's desire to be free, and to replace the given world by an imagined world of one's desiring." This desire is a very modern one, and the more I learn about subjects like ecocriticism, the more I am struck by the influence of Romanticism, by the way that  nature –– the earth –– has become "an imagined world of one's desiring." But did Goethe ever, like Noguchi, "listen to stone"?

Image sources: Nigel Homer; American National Biography; Photius

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Goethe and his scribes: addendum

After posting on Goethe and his scribes, I came across a delicious image of Voltaire, already dictating as he rises from bed, which I wanted to contrast with Goethe's more decorous procedure.

Goethe dictating to his scribe John

Voltaire Dictating at His House in Ferney, by Jean Huber

Picture credit: AKG-Images UK

Monday, July 20, 2015

Goethe and his scribes

Francesco Clemente, "History of the Heart in 3 Rainbows," from Palimpsest

I have been wanting to post something on Albrecht Schöne’s new book, Der Briefschreiber Goethe. It deserves several posts, but a recent review in Book Forum gives me an opportunity at least to mention it (vorübergehend, let us say, since I will return to it later). The BF review (by Clive Thompson) concerns Palmipsest: A History of the Written Word by Matthew Battles, who is also the author of Library: An Unquiet History.

The reviewer notes that writing has often been associated, “in the West, anyway, with the rise of interiority and the individual … It is by sitting in solitude with our thoughts, pen in hand, that we develop our most profound ideas about society, ethics, and ourselves.” As Battles points out, however, none of the writers in the Western literary tradition sat down in solitude to write. Instead, they dictated, often to slaves (in Greece and Rome).

One of the major benefits of having taught “Great Books” to undergrads while I was in grad school was the chance to read works I might otherwise have bypassed. These included Plato’s Phaedrus, in which Socrates opposes writing on the grounds that it promotes forgetting, in contrast to orality, which encourages memory. As with gossip, however, oral transmission encourages a distortion of the original message, to the point where the original is no longer recognizable. Similarly, the oral transmission of "literature," such as the epics of Homer or other “ancient” writers, produced varying versions. The production of a standard text has been the task of philologists from the time there have been philologists.

To return to writing itself, which is the subject of Palimpsest (how I love that word: I must bring it into my spoken vocabulary), writing originally served commerce and statecraft, of “tallying just what was in the coffers of the state and the grandiose one of expressing the might of rulers.” Scribes thus wrote “at the king’s bequest.” On the other hand, as I remember from grade school so many years ago, it was Phoenicians, early tradesmen par excellence, who originated the script that is the basis of our alphabet.

Writing for purposes that were purely literary, on the other hand, was “a victory.” Thompson quotes the Canadian poet and translator Robert Bringhurst: “Literature in the written sense represents the triumph of language over writing: the subversion of writing for purposes that have little or nothing to do with social and economic control.”

And Goethe? As we know, he preferred to dictate, not only his literary works, but also his correspondence. The letters discussed in Schöne’s volume (there are nine “case studies”) were subject to much thought, though interiority as we understand it was not at issue. Rather, it was process of coming up with the correct rhetorical strategy for the person being addressed. His earliest letter to the 16-year-old Ludwig Ysenburg von Buri, dated May 23, 1764, when Goethe was 14 years old,  displays “heitere Souveränität … über das rhetorische Instrumentarium.”

Moreover, as Schöne adds in a footnote, this early letter in which Goethe presents his case for entry into the "Gesellschaft derer Arcadier zu Phylandria,” was not, aside from the signature, in his own hand. The scribe was Johann David Clauer. Goethe's father was the guardian of this mentally ill man, who was in any case a “Dr. jur.” He resided in the Goethe family home for 30 years, during which time he took dictation and also executed written documents for Goethe’s father. In several essays on Goethe, I have stressed that rather than drawing on his own “experience,” he was calling on established literary forms when he drafted his literary works, just like all poets before the 18th century. Goethe's genius, I have always thought, lay in disguising his literary forefathers, but in dictating to an amanuensis (another great word I have to make more use of) he was following in a venerable tradition.

Picture credits: Schirn Kunsthalle; Jonnie Miles/Getty Images; Crystal Links

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Goethe in Chinese

This morning, while canvasing the internet for Goethe images, I came across an article in the Global Times (scroll down to read) dated March 15, 2015, with the following report: "A specialist team at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU) will translate the complete works of German writer Johann Wolfgan von Goethe into Chinese.

 All of Goethe's novels, poetry, dramas, memoirs, autobiography, letters, diaries, treatises and literary and aesthetic criticism will be translated into 40 to 50 books containing around 30 million Chinese characters. 

I have not yet seen any reports in German newspapers. 歌德

According to the article, "one group of experts" will be responsible for the translations, including annotations, and will be under the direction of Wei Maoping, dean of SISU's School of Germanic Studies and the program's director. Here is a link to an interview with Professor Wei, who published in 1999 A History of Chinese Influence on German Literature. He is also an editor of the journal Literaturstraße.

"Goethe" in Chinese characters: 歌德

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Penultimate thoughts on Goethe and environmentalism

I say "penultimate," because I am sure I will chime in on this subject again. Here I simply want to mention one of the main reasons why I am out of sync with "environmental humanism" and the like. This discipline, such as it is, is an outcome of the present climate debates, in particular the role of humans in causing damage to the earth. I do not deny that humans have in some sense ravaged the earth, but I find that something like human hubris is in play in attributing planetary change to humans. What is next? The cosmos?

Climate variation factors
I know that I am in very small company, but when I am told that 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is “real, man-made and dangerous” (actually it was President Obama who use that expression), I respond: “Well, in 1600, 98 percent of scientists pilloried Galileo for claiming that the sun did not move around the earth.” Really, doesn’t anyone get suspicious when everybody is of the same opinion? There is something hypnotic about that 97 percent figure, endlessly replayed.

Among thinking people there really is a difference of opinion on global warming. For instance, a poll of members of the American Meteorology Society found only 52 percent agree that humans are the cause. I know, I know: figures can be manipulated for any outcome, but the following quote, to be found on the Geological Society of America website, might cause people to stand back a bit from the claim that humans are so powerful: “Modern society struggles with the implications of climate change and now ponders if humans actually alter climate. Anthropocene forces us to consider the implications of sending the Earth system into a completely new domain driven by our actions. Does humanity operate on such a grand scale that we drive Earth processes in ways that overshadow tectonic, climatic, and eustatic processes?”

While Kate Rigby asserts that there is a divide between science and the humanities that obscures our current perilous situation, scientific researchers are part of the same social environment in which we all live. They depend on society for their justification and relevance. They have hit pay dirt, publication-wise, with the concept of human-induced environmental change. This is not surprising, as the modern world is in many respects scarey, and the public is simply bombarded by the media with scares: vaccines, GMOs, the toxins in crayons, and so on. Color me skeptical.

My take-away: more caution in claiming that Goethe would be a precursor of environmental humanism.

Photo credit:

Monday, July 13, 2015

Goethe and Environmentalism

Did Goethe's heart leap up when he beheld a rainbow in the sky? Such questions came to mind as I read “Art, Nature, and the Poesy of Plants in the Goethezeit: A Biosemiotic Perspective.” Such is the title of Kate Rigby’s contribution to Goethe and environmentalism in the current Goethe Yearbook.

Rigby opens with some lines from a Petrarchan sonnet Goethe wrote in 1800 (why not quote the entire sonnet?) about the relationship of art and nature, but her real interest is the current field of biosemiotics, and in particular its precedents in Goethe and Schelling (or “Weimar and Goethe”). It draws on the work of linguist Thomas Sebeok –– a name I never imagined I would ever hear again. I took a course with him back in the Stone Age, when I was an undergraduate at Indiana University.

Her discussion of the premises of biosemiotics (another word my spell check does not recognize) is both clear and fascinating, even if resembles scholastic disputations of the Middle Ages. The paragraphs might have been numbered. This is how it goes: All animate life communicates with its environment, through the senses, with humans distinguishing themselves principally via “total semiotic freedom,” i.e., spoken language. The acquisition of language has led to a loss of “naturality” and thus alienation from the animate world in which we have our existence and to the belief that we are superior to the rest of creation. Do I need to repeat it? We are back at the the anthropocene delusion.

The gist of course is that humans are no different, naturally, from the “lowest” form of animate life. Several 18th-century thinkers held a similar view. Rousseau comes to mind, not to forget La Mettrie, Diderot, Holbach, Helvetius. (Goethe, as he wrote in Dichtung und Wahrheit, was repelled by this view of the world.) La Mettrie had studied medicine, and his notion that there existed no real difference between humans and animals was based on his findings that sensory feelings were present in animals and plants. He was in no sense a “Romantic” in his view of humans, and biosemiotics is not the same old materialism of, for instance, Holbach. In the meantime we can peer right into the interstices, so to speak, of organisms, but already in  Schelling’s lifetime a purely mechanistic or atomistic view of humans was passé.

I do not wish to denigrate “Naturphilosophie.” It is part of the history of ideas, and it has produced some solid evaluations (Richards, Beiser). But it is an intellectual realm that I have never been able to enter. That said,  Naturphilosophie made a bit more sense (if that is the right term) after I finished Rigby’s article. In fact, it made clearer to me the entwined human and natural world of Die Wahlverwandtschaften (which Rigby does not discuss), reflected not only in the surface narrative but also in Goethe’s language.

Naturphilosophie seems to have built on advances in scientific examinations of matter that dispelled the purely mechanistic view of matter and that suggested something more dynamic in the organization of matter. But I can’t see how dynamism, as in the production of poetry, can be put under a microscope. Art, as in Goethe’s poetry, can capture our feeling (or intuition) of “hidden interconnectivities” between natural processes and our mental capacities. The "modern constitution of knowledge," characterized, as Rigby writes, by a rupture between scientific and humanistic disciplines, seems to formulate what is inherent in humans ab initio: the instinct to separate from nature and to use it instrumentally. We would not be human if we did not do so.

Certainly early humans “listened” to the “language” of nature, which must have been very audible to them, but it was always an instrumental listening. Their lives depended on paying attention, and most of us have certainly lost that ability. There is no state, however, to which humans can return as humans. It may happen that, like Noah's fellow humans, we will be punished for our poor stewardship of nature, but punishing suggests a final authority, a theological view that I can't imagine my fellow scholars accepting.

Environmentalist's vision of the future

To return to my question: did Goethe’s heart leap up when he beheld a rainbow in the sky? I think not. It made him reflect on “Nature,” but did he revel in the natural world? The poetry that we associate with his early genius is saturated with nature imagery, but he would go on to turn his back on the sentiments of that period. I am fully aware of the effects of seasonal affective disorder, but I must say that my heart also does not leap up at the sight of the rainbow. When the first spring arrived after Rick’s death, it was only with intellectual curiosity that I noted the rebirth of the flowers and the cherry blossoms in Central Park. I admired the beauty of the natural world, especially the order that it manifested. None of this consoled me; only friends could do that. What I did notice is that Kant's observations on aesthetic judgment pre-occupied me. It is not surprising that I am a scholar of the Enlightenment, not of the Romantic period.

Picture credits: UNSW; Elias Schewel; Environmental Humanities Utah; The Vendor

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Independence Day

My friend Cynthia Farrell Johnson is an artist, who also makes lovely greeting cards. I include one of her images for this occasion. As is always the case with Goethe, what he said about freedom is  contextual and, in toto, conflicting. For the Fourth of July, however, one might consider the following from Faust II:

Nur der verdient sich Freiheit wie das Leben,
Der täglich sie erobern muß!

More on Goethe and environmentalism in succeeding posts.