Thursday, April 28, 2016

Nathan the Wise

John Christopher Jones and F. Murray Abraham (photo: Richard Termine)
Last evening I went downtown to the Classic Stage Company to join my friend and fellow 18th-century scholar Vivian Gruder for a performance of Lessing's Nathan the Wise. Truth be told, I would have preferred to see Emilia Galotti, as Nathan had always seemed to me to be dramatically indigestible. But a surprise was in store, what with the new translation by English director Edward Kemp, which complemented the clever staging: the characters' faith identified solely by the script on the robes that they wore, and a spare setting indicated by several large Oriental rugs.

The Parable of the Three Rings, by Boccaccio (in Polish?) (illustrator: Joana Rusinek)
I was impressed anew with the way a new staging can offer profound insights into familiar plays, especially canonical ones. The past two years I have attended all-female productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV at St. Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn (presented in conjunction with the English company, Donmar Warehouse). I will never again be able to read Mark Antony's speech without being struck by its self-serving manipulative power, somewhat in the manner of modern politicians and celebrities. Although perhaps I am being unfair to public figures: it concerns the power of oratory generally, which can occur in any setting.

Shakespeare's plays can of course be shortened, but most directors don't fudge on the language, and the St. Anne's productions truly brought home the brilliance of Shakespeare. But Lessing in translation can of course be "updated" and thereby avoid the ponderosities of the play's text. And "the message" comes through very clearly, which is no doubt what Lessing intended: war is terrible, but worse when motivated by religious differences. (The huge backdrop alternated between an Arabic text –– the Koran? –– and a contemporary photo of a bombed Jerusalem street.)

Lessing may have intended to present the common humanity of people of all faiths, but this production presented us not with "Menschen" in the abstract, Enlightenment sense, but with real "Menschen" in the Yiddish sense, especially in the performances of F. Murray Abraham as Nathan and Austin Durant as Saladin. Perhaps this aspect could only be pulled off in New York City. If you find yourself not quite crediting the platitudinous sentiments expressed in the original play, so, too, the characters on the stage at CSC. The translation goes for humor. I wonder if German productions could take similar liberties and work so well.

And while I sat dreading the moment when the Templar discovered his true relationship with Rachel, I found the transformation from lover to brother convincing. But what, I ask myself, was Lessing thinking with this last-moment turn of events? Edward Kemp has a very nice discussion of Lessing on his website.

Picture credits: Richard Termine; Striped Dot Studio

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Goethe on the food of Italy

I mentioned in my last post that many readers of this blog have written to me over the years. In February I was contacted by Josephine Wennerholm, an ex-pat who has been living in Frascati, the Castelli Romani area, since 1992. She was responding to a post of mine from 2009 on “Goethe as Gourmand,” in which I mentioned Goethe's failure to comment on the food in Italy during his stay there. She wrote, quoting an Italian site, that Goethe did mention cheese being sprinkled over pasta while he was sojourning in Naples. She has kindly supplied me with the translation.

“Already back in the 1700s, pasta tended to be served with simply just some cheese sprinkled upon it in many parts of Italy (Belpaese) and in his Travels in Italy, Goethe, describing the cuisine of Naples, mentions ‘the maccheroni are cooked in plain water and some cheese is then grated on top of them, thus providing both a fat content and a condiment.’”

For those interested in reading the original please go to the link above. The photo at the top of this post is from Josephine's blog Frascati Cooking. The dish, as she writes, is “the venerable vegetable stew known as Vignarola,” and it comes with recipe and step-by-step pictures.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Goethe and Mormonism

Joseph Smith
This blog was inaugurated in August 2008 and is now approaching 250,000 visitors. I would not claim that it is solely my stellar posts that have drawn so many here. Clearly, Goethe attracts a lot of people, and internet searchers go where they can to find him. Since 2008 I have corresponded with many readers who have very little to do with Goethe scholarship per se (high school students doing research), with amateur scholars, and even with a few academics who have inquired about the source of some of my quotes (e.g., on Goethe and beggars). Most of the time readers are responding not to immediate posts, but to earlier ones. Thus, not long ago I had a query concerning a post of mine from January 2009 on Goethe and religion. This was the reader's comment on that post:

“I wonder what Goethe would have made of Mormon doctrine. The LDS church radically reinterpret the story of genesis as progressive and not a fall. The doctrine of original sin is rejected as part of the restoration. It sounds as though Goethe would have approved based on this post.”

Right off the top of my head, I had to admit that I had no idea what Goethe would have made of Mormon doctrine. Today, however, I began doing a little online research and came across a very interesting review of Walter W. Arndt's Norton Critical Edition translation of Goethe's Faust. It appeared in The Mormon Review in 2009 and was written by Terryl Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond. The review is entitled “The Redemption of Eve: Joseph Smith and Goethe's Faust.”

Before quoting what Professor Givens has to say, allow me to introduce here what I have learned (on Wikipedia, where else?) about Eve in LSD doctrine:

“Unlike some Christians, Latter-day Saints generally do not see the fall of Adam and Eve as a serious sin or as an overwhelmingly negative event. Rather, the fall is viewed as ‘a necessary step in the plan of life and a great blessing to all of us. Because of the Fall, we are blessed with physical bodies, the right to choose between good and evil, and the opportunity to gain eternal life. None of these privileges would have been ours had Adam and Eve remained in the garden.’”

So, already one can see, as my reader notes, that Goethe might have approved of LSD doctrine on this issue. Professor Givens fills out the picture. I particularly liked his comparison of Eve and Faust:

“Faust is just a middle-aged Eve, with a long life in the garden and a few diplomas to show for it. … Faust has acquired all the learning his garden has to offer. He knows every tree, shrub, and garden path. Like Eve, he has seen the same sun rise over the same grassy hillock on countless winter morns and summer daybreaks, while listening to the same dutiful companion (Faust has his Wagner) recite the same litany of another day’s chores under the same cloudless skies. Like Eve, Faust faces the same two sets of alternatives. Soul-starvation, or God-alienation. Or put in positive terms: Knowledge, wisdom, and the soul’s unfettered ascent, or a different kind of assent—to God’s dictates.”

And Goethe's “Herr” is definitely not the Old Testament creator, as Givens notes:

“But this Faust labors in a mortal sphere presided over by a God who is most emphatically not the God of Genesis. Devoid of jealousy, incapable of gratuitous tyranny, this God fully acknowledges the impossibility of Faust’s dilemma.”

And finally:

“Goethe’s Faust, like Joseph Smith’s Eve, breaks free of theology, because the imagination behind their creation is more artistic than priestly.”

Thanks again to my readers!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"Banquet of the Omnivores"

Kant dines with friends (by Emile Doerling)
Every now and then I indulge myself by reading about food and food culture. The title of this post comes from a small book that I recently came across by the French writer and philosopher Michel Onfray entitled Appetites for Thought: Philosophers and Food, first published in France in 1989, but appearing in English in 2015. The philosophers in question range from the Cynical alimentary nihilist Diogenes to the Futurist culinary revolutionary Martinetti, with stops in between with Rousseau, Kant, Fourier, Nietzsche, and Sartre. They are connected by their preoccupation with what Onfray calls “Dietet(h)ics.”

The philosophers here do not come off looking good, which was probably Onfray’s aim. (According to Wikipedia, Onfray promotes hedonism, atheism, and anarchism, and is the highly prolific author, “having written more than 80 books.”)  But perhaps the peccadilloes on view here are only more systematized variants of  contemporary gastronomic obsessions. I was naturally interested in Kant.

Although Kant is known in the popular imagination as a man of regular, even abstemious, habits, in turns out that he was quite intemperate in his younger days. In the 1760s, for instance, he was known to have often been inebriated: he played billiards and cards in a cafe and often drank so much that, according to Onfray, “he could not find his way back to his home on the Magistergasse in Königsberg.” He “pulled himself together,” however, and went on to create a theory of drunkenness from his experience.  The anecdotes in Onfray’s account of Kant’s dining and drinking preferences are drawn from contemporaries of the philosopher (Reinhold Bernhard Jachmann, E.A.C. Wasianski, and Louis Ernest Borowski), which appear in a book in French entitled Kant intime. I do not know what role these accounts play in biographies of Kant by modern-day scholars, but apparently Kant’s contemporaries were intrigued by them, including the English writer Thomas de Quincy, whose 1827 essay The Last Days of Immanuel Kant is (according to J.E.H. Smith) “a massively long quotation, in English translation, of Ehregott Andreas Wasinski’s 1804 work, Immanuel Kant in seinen letzten Lebensjahren.”

A curious French video on this work by de Quincy can be found here.

Charles Fourier's Table of the Passions
In any case, Kant did write about food and drink, although not so much in connection with the actual substances as in our moral reactions to these. For instance, in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, he defined drunkenness as “the unnatural condition or inability to order one’s sense representations according to laws of experience, provided that the condition is the effect of an excessive consumption of drink.” Drunkenness does excite the imagination, however, and allows the self to escape a world that is too harsh, “to forget the burden that seems to lie, originally, in life generally.” Kant describes “the taciturn drunkenness” of brandy, the withdrawal caused by beer drinking, the stimulation of wine. As might be expected, his concern is the way that drunkenness leads to failure in one’s duties to society and oneself.

Onfray mentions another work, The Conflict of the Faculties (1797), in which Kant devotes a chapter (“On the Power of the Human Mind”) to hypochondria. Kant confessed his own disposition to that condition, caused by a “ flat and narrow chest, which leaves little room for the movement of the heart and lungs; and in the early years this disposition made me almost weary of life. But by reflecting that, if the cause of this oppression of the heart was purely mechanical, nothing could be done about it, I soon came to pay no attention to it.” That sounds like a good piece of practical philosophy. And, indeed, in The Conflict of the Faculties, he recommended the Stoic way of life because it unites “the doctrine of virtue” with “the science of medicine”: “Medical science is philosophical when the sheer power of man’s reason to master his sensuous feelings by a self-imposed principle determines his manner of feeling.”

Kant's Taxonomy of Mental Disorder
I was struck by how pessimistic Kant could sound. For instance:  “The art of prolonging human life leads to this: that in the end one is tolerated among the living only because of the animal functions one performs — not a particularly amusing situation.” Nevertheless, after his youthful years, Kant did not like dining alone and invited friends for his midday meal. According to Onfray, he sent out invites in the morning, and his cook prepared meals planned the previous evening. Quoting Jachmann: "Kant was so attentive to his guests that he took careful note of their preferences and had those dishes prepared for them." The household was set up for six people, and he adhered to Chesterton's principle: "never invite more than nine guests -- the number of the Muses."

I was led to an article by Patrick Frierson entitled “Kant on Mental Disorder,” which concerns Kant’s “anthropology.” Frierson notes that “much of Kant’s preoccupation with hypochondria throughout his life – and arguably his concern with mental disorder in general – can be traced to his efforts to combat this looming mental disorder of his own.” The article discusses the nature of Kant’s “pragmatic anthropology” contained in several writings, including his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (published 1798), which reflects the lectures he taught from 1772 until 1796. Apparently mental disorder was a popular philosophical subject in the late 18th-century, but Kant's writings were a kind of  “philosopher’s guide to help ordinary people with self-treatment,” especially with what “he elsewhere connects with ‘the power of the mind to master its morbid feelings by sheer resolution.’” Kant’s tone throughout is playful and informal, not technical or medical, and he does not speculate on the physiological origins of mental disorders.  Again, the emphasis is on pragmatism. The editors of the English edition of Anthropology state that its focus is what the human being “as a free-acting being makes of himself or can and should make of himself.”

As Frierson writes: “He provides an entertaining guide for diagnosing and dealing with peculiarities that arise in society, not a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for professionals.” An example of Kant's playful tone and his avoidance of extreme cases is shown by “offering examples that would be intuitive and available to his audience, such as that ‘the person who falls in love is inevitably blind to the faults of the beloved object, though the latter person will usually regain his sight eight days after the wedding.’”

A final note: Kant’s schema of mental disorders has to my mind an uncanny resemblance to the categorizing of emotions articulated by the French utopian philosopher Charles Fourier. I have written on Fourier earlier (see this post), in connection with my work on utopia, but allow me here only to illustrate,  by way of the two diagrams above, the hairsplitting that reason inevitably leads to.

Picture credit: Patrick Frierson (table of mental disorder); The Maverick Philosopher

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Goethe's discovery

On this day in 1784, Goethe reported to Herder his discovery of the intermaxillary bone in humans:

Ich habe gefunden—weder Gold noch Silber, aber was mir eine unsägliche Freude macht—das os intermaxillare am Menschen! Ich verglich mit Lodern Menschen- und Tierschädel, kam auf die Spur und siehe da ist es. Nur bitt’ ich Dich, laß Dich nichts merken, denn es muß geheim behandelt werden.

He later wrote an essay on his discovery: “Dem Menschen wie den Tieren ist ein Zwischenknochen der obern Kinnlade zuzuschreiben.”

As Karl Fink has written in his book Goethe's History of Science, 1784 marked for Goethe "the beginning of serious writing in the field of comparative anatomy," beginning with the essay on osteology. It was also the first of his scientific writings that he made available to scientists in the field, unlike his earlier writings on geology. Besides Herder, he also wrote to Knebel, Merck, and Justus Loder. It was through Merck, according to Fink, that the essay, in abridged form, became known to Peter Camper, Blumenbach, and Samuel Sömmerring. The full text, however, along with Goethe's illustrations, did not appear in print until 1831. Thus, Goethe only got credit, according to Fink again, for discovering the bone in various animals, including the walrus. As Fink writes: "The thesis of the connecting link was lost in an age not ready for the implications of the anatomical relationship of man and animal."

Picture credit: Bayern2/Angela Smets

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Goethe in The New Yorker: Addendum

I posted already on Adam Kirch's article on Goethe, but The New Yorker has had a follow up, a letter in the magazine (3/7/16) by Carol Sims Prunali, writing from Rome, Italy. She reminds us that we "may may have been exposed to some [of Goethe's poetry] without knowing it: anyone who has seen Disney's Fantasia has seen an enactment of ... 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice.'"

This orchestral work, by the French composer Paul Dukas, was based on Goethe's poem, "Der Zauberlehrling." As Prunali writes, "it is hard to forget the army of brooms, or the eyes of the sorcerer." Mickey, of course, as the apprentice, is wonderfully endearing. Herewith a link to that scene in the movie. Here is also a link to the poem, in German and in English. The translation is by Brigitte Dubiel.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Fritz Strich and world literature, 4

The slogans “We Are All New Yorkers” or “We Are All Charlie” and so on after terrorist attacks, along with the candles and other public signs of mourning, have always made me uncomfortable. My discomfort has to do with the sadness that such expressions represent, whereas anger would seem more fitting. Yet we inhabit a civilized world, and one of the foundation blocks of a civilized world is restraint, along with tolerance, which commands us to repress a martial spirit: “War Is Not Good for Children and Other Living Things.” The enemies of civilization feel no such restraint: they send their children to war, hand out candies to them after successful attacks. And, of course, all around us, at the margins of the civilized world that we inhabit, bubble up anarchy, dissatisfaction, resentments.

As the above cartoon by Ali Dilem demonstrates, it is not just the traditional centers of civilization, “the West,” that are the targets of Islamic terrorists. Ankara, Kenya, Mali, any place with tendencies toward the Western way of life are on the hit list.

For those who are surprised to read of these sentiments in a post on Fritz Strich and world literature, allow me to expand.

The concept of world literature, which Goethe “birthed” in the 19th century, sums up the ideals of a civilized world. Strich took an idea that had been around for a century, namely, that the countries of Europe were manifesting similar tendencies in literature and the arts. They were all “trading” with one another, for instance, sharing literary idioms and forms and motifs. Thus, no European country escaped experiencing a Romantic movement. For Strich, this interchange was evidence of a Hegelian-like Spirit that was blending the different countries into a common humanity. No people is complete in itself, and, ultimately, this succession of styles, according to Strich, represents the striving of the human spirit, through the succeeding manifestations of national spirits, toward perfection of the human Urbild.

To a great extent, this process has indeed taken place in the West. Although we tend nowadays to avoid terms like “common humanity,” we respond similarly to terrorist attacks in other European cities. It could be us, after all. Thus, “Je suis Bruxelles.” In truth, Europeans and Americans are very much alike in their life styles and in their values. We have more in common with each other than we do with non-Westernized folks. Europe and its offshoots represent, to the greatest extent, a cultural product, one that has been achieved over many centuries, the result of intellectual and material commerce among the countries of Europe beginning in the early modern period. Strich’s description of the blending and sharing of literary and artistic styles exemplifies this coming together.

For Strich and the late-19th-century comparatists from whom he drew so much, the development of common cultural ideals was evidence of universal “progress,” but it was only universal to the nations that were connected and enriched through trade and commerce.

It is not surprising that Goethe linked the spread of "Humanität" (or the "European" spirit) with "Verkehr" (commerce; transport) and "Handel" (trade); he saw a connection between the free commerce in material goods and that in ideas ("mehr oder weniger freier geistiger Handelsverkehr," from his introduction to Carlyle's biography of Schiller). That Goethe might have believed this was the case should not be surprising. By the 1820s, Europe was enjoying the benefits of several centuries of growth in scientific and cultural knowledge and was progressing on a path of technological innovation from which it has not retreated. The intellectual exchange that produced these benefits was a facet of European life in which Goethe himself was an active participant. Moreover, international trade was acquainting Europeans with the products of other nations, making them in turn more "worldly." Such changes in material life, as with the exchange of intellectual and cultural products would, so Goethe believed, lead, if not to love, certainly to a tolerant, cosmopolitan, and less ethnocentric attitude among the nations.

John Gast, The Spirit of American Progress, 1832
These issues of material "Verkehr" and "Handel" are the most undeveloped aspects of Strich's work on world literature and of the preceding literary histories of Europe. Aside from a few sentences, his interest is almost totally devoted to the "geistiger Raum" created by world literature. Strich, like Brunetière, was an inheritor of a trend in Enlightenment thinking that viewed historical transformation, according to László Kontler, as "motivated by inner moral-spiritual enlightenment. Both as the medium and as the cause of such transformations, spontaneous intercourse in the socio-economic realm [took] second place.” Perhaps this neglect indicates a Christian substrate, but it shows the power of abstract ideals, especially since the Enlightenment. Therefore, Strich neglected the influence of the rise and fall of national economies not only on artistic production but also on the accompanying transformation of institutions that produced what we now recognize as liberal values, i.e., the Western way of life. In other words, tolerance is a byproduct of the wealth of nations.  Ideas only have real power to influence when they reflect material possibilities, and the emergence of the West and Western values coincided with the rise of the market economy by the late 17th century.

Yet, if Strich vastly underrated the material effects of trade, the language he used to describe the literary commerce are full of metaphors of movement. When he speaks (as mentioned in the previous post) of German 17th-century poetry as expressing a spirit of transience –– “die Klage um den jähen Wechsel aller Dinge” –– he is describing what was occurring on the ground in Europe in the 17th century.

By the 17th century, trade was producing both a movement of men (for the most part) and freeing up massive amounts of human potential, leading in turn to new goods and an acceleration in technological advances. For instance, because of overseas trade there was an increased need for metals –– for coins and for weapons. This led to a huge investments in mining, and the need to go deeper to extract metals required new technology. Among other inventions, the magnetic compass and the telescope expanded the sense of distance. And if poets are not quite the legislators of the world, they are often the first to put such changes into words. They responded, in Germany and elsewhere, many with trepidation, others with delight, to the heretofore-unperceived immensities of the universe and to the new status of the earth, no longer standing still with the planets revolving around it. The earth was in motion. "Bewegtheit" was indeed the driving "spirit" of this era. It was more the spirit of Adam Smith, however, than of Hegel.

Transience is a byproduct of the market: what we loved yesterday is replaced today in favor of new products, new values. It is unsettling, and it is no wonder that people all over the world, even within the West itself, are unhappy when the ground under their feet is constantly shifting. Progress is, indeed “veloziferisch.”