Saturday, April 27, 2019

Proust on Goethe

Swann in Love
Recently I have been reading "Swann in Love," a novella-like episode within Swann's Way, the first volume of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu. "Classic" authors, such as Proust, always serve as something of a foil for considerations of Goethe, and the major difference that struck me was the lack of "society" in Goethe's novels. One does discern some idea of German social relations circa 1770s in The Sorrows of Young Werther, and the obsession that drives Swann in regard to Odette is similar to that of both Werther and Eduard, but where in the heck are we, anyway? There are no recognizable landmarks, no Faubourg Saint-Germain, no Bois de Boulogne, only generic places and settings. I have actually written on this subject before, in connection with Trollope and Jane Austen. In that earlier post, I pointed out that Goethe knew a lot about government, first hand, in contrast to Anthony Trollope, who only worked in a post office. It was Trollope, however, who wrote about the workings of government and politics.

At home I have a volume entitled Marcel Proust on Art and Literature, which besides Proust's well-known "Contre Saint-Beuve," also contains the section "Proust the Reader," the first essay of which is on Goethe. Editors date it to the period of Jean Santeuil, Proust's first novel, between 1899 and 1904 . Here are a few nuggets:

The habits we constantly recur to in our books show what has fired our imagination ... In Goethe sites are extremely important. We often come upon a place where there is a wide and varied prospect. Valleys extend before us, with villages and a fine river on which the light of morning dazzles, and we look down on all of this from a little mountain. Various private collections, too, are dwelt on with pleasure, collections of pictures, natural history collections. One feels that these things were not merely put in to please, but that they had an extremely serious bearing on his intellectual life; that the concern of his intellect and its essential aim was to analyze the pleasure he drew from them ... and to ascertain their effect on his mind.

Characters, likewise, show us "the habitual preoccupations of Goethe's mind." Proust also draws attention to an aspect that is sometimes mentioned in connection with his own work, i.e., allegory, and to the seeming importance to Goethe of symbolizing "what is seen and unseen in our lives by ceremonies."

Proust's reading of Goethe appears to have been fairly wide. He mentions the Wilhelm Meister novels (of which the quote above might refer to the opening of the second novel) and Elective Affinities (commenting on the Count and the Baroness and on the laying out of gardens), as well as to what the translation calls "the Reflections," which I assume means the Maximen und Reflexionen. I can't help thinking back to my post a few weeks back in which I discussed what I considered the deficits of J.M. Coetzee's piece on Goethe in the New York Review of Books. Proust's take on Goethe, in contrast, shows the mind of a great writer thinking deeply about another great writer.

Goethe calligraphed


I stopped by the Grolier Club today to see "Alphabet Magic," an exhibit of the work of calligraphers and type designers Hermann and Gudrun Zapf. Typefaces with which book lovers are familiar were created by Hermann Zapf, including Optima and Aldus. Unfortunately, I did not have my camera with me and could not get images of poems by Goethe in Hermann's calligraphy. Here are a couple of nice examples from the internet. The Buch Suleika was on exhibit, a gorgeous volume. (Click on images to enlarge.)


Friday, April 5, 2019

"Faust" conference in Boston

Having discussed Peter Schwartz's translation of André Jolles's Einfache Formen yesterday, let me mention another undertaking of his at Boston University, where he is a member of the Department of World Languages and Literatures. This is a symposium this coming Saturday, April 13, on the theme of "selling one's soul," sponsored by the WLL Department. The keynote address, by Jane K. Brown, illustrious Goethe scholar and former president of the GSNA, is entitled " Irrlichtelieren: Knowledge in Faust and in Goethe’s Theory of Color." If only I had a magic carpet and could travel there.

Is it my imagination, or does the person of Faust in the above image not look like Edgar Allan Poe?

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

"Simple Forms" by André Jolles in English


No tales told here

 This is a long overdue post, no two ways about it.

A few years ago I came across in the PMLA (vol. 128:3) a contribution by my Goethe Society colleague Peter Schwartz, which included an excerpt from Simple Forms, his translation of the book Einfache Formen by André Jolles, which first appeared in 1930. (See my earlier post on other work by Peter.) It so happened that I had read the book back when I was in graduate school. This was before Goethe and I got together, when I was in my German philology phase. In those days I was steeped in the study of Old High German, Middle High German, Gothic, Dutch, Norwegian, as well as the story of the Indo-European family of languages. I could talk volubly about “Lautverschiebung” and Werner’s Law. Einfache Formen, with its wealth of material about medieval lore and its references to early scholars in the field (Wilhelm Scherer, Walter Porzig, Andreas Heusler, not to forget the real forefathers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and Herder and Hermann), were like honey to the bears. It was one of the first instances of a methodology that I sought to wrap my mind around, and in my case, as a non-native speaker of German, I was proud of my ability to follow Jolles in his formidable erudition.

Over the following decades I only once or twice encountered anyone who had heard of the book (a much annotated copy of which is still in my possession). As I have now learned, from reviews in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Critical Inquiry as well as from the introduction to Peter’s translation by Frederick Jameson, Jolles was among a number of scholars investigating earlier “folk forms” (Vladimir Propp was another) for the light such forms throw on the way that humans conceptualize the world. Later this would come under the aegis of “structuralism” and be applied to all human thinking and cultural production, not simply that of our pre-literate ancestors. According to Robert Scholes, who discussed Einfache Formen (working from a French translation!),  “The perception of order or structure where only undifferentiated phenomena had seemed to exist before is the distinguishing characteristic of structuralist thought.” I hope I can be forgiven for suggesting that the notion also suggests Noam Chomsky’s concept of “deep structure,” where the underlying forms of linguistic composition are generated.

As Scholes writes, the simple forms are “intimately connected with the human process of organizing the world linguistically.” Scholes combines here two aspects of Jolles’ treatment. Regarding the first, Jolles speaks of Geistebeschäftigung to describe the mind’s attempt to categorize the world. Peter and others use the term “mental disposition” to translate this term, which, to my ears, suggests something settled and does not convey the active sense with which the mind assembles the facts on the ground. That, however, reflects an insuperable difference between German and English. In the case of legend, in its simple form it encapsulates the human disposition to endow certain individuals with exemplary attributes. The saints that appear in legends that have been written down have little authentic historicity and stand before us in their exemplary state, achieving feats that ordinary humans are hardly capable of enduring (early Christian martyrology provides plenty of examples). It speaks to a human desire to emulate virtuous actions, even as we fall short. Today, we have only “sports legends,” but you get the idea. As for the “linguistic” part, Jolles speaks of Sprachgebärden, or verbal gestures. Under the pressure, so to speak, of the mental disposition, over time various attributes accrue to the imitation-worthy individual of legend.

While literary scholarship has traditionally had as its subject a finished work — a Gebilde is Jolles’s term —Jolles interest is not in genres as we know them, but the “elementary narrative structures” that seem to exist in the mind before they are actualized in language  (Jolles use the term “Veranschaulichung”), without the work of the poet. These nine forms, “underling all literary production” (in Peter’s words), are  legend, sage, myth, riddle, proverb, case, memorabile, folk or fairy tale, and joke.

The folk tales that the Grimms collected are a good way to consider what Jolles was getting at: a collective working out of the problem of justice or, better, injustice. They typically present a situation that conflicts with our feeling concerning what is unjust or unfair in the real world. In the real world, the poorly dressed Cinderella does not generally get the prince. In the fairytale, she does after overcoming obstacles. The obstacles sound like life, but the reward is not always there.

Jolles works backward from the “Kunstformen” with which we are familiar in either literature or in popular genres—legend, joke, riddle, saga, and so on—in order to isolate the mental disposition and that then produces the "verbal gestures" that express the “solution” to the problem. Another way of thinking about this is to consider that, once upon a time, before radio, before TV, people actually sat around talking and in the process, using the resources of their everyday life, gave expression to perennial human issues that led to genres then gave an “answer” to a “question.” For instance, myth (writes Jameson) gives an answer to the question: "Where did the world come from?

The very sad photo at the top of this post (click to enlarge) encapsulates what we have lost in the modern world. The group of Indian soccer players, instead of talking, all sit (except for one whose iPhone battery was probably low) staring at devices. It is not only athletes who no longer talk. I was recently at a birthday party for a young woman who is a graduate of Columbia University. Her friends of the same age were likewise graduates of Ivy League schools. They talked a lot, they were very verbal, loquacious, but what do you suppose they talked about? Movies and TV shows. Such is the devolution of contemporary collective wisdom. It is not surprising that the rise of journalism began at the same time as traditional forms of life underwent a process of erosion. But what is the wisdom in contemporary journalism? Today’s “answer” is rejected for another one tomorrow, which likewise gives little comfort to the imagination or to the soul.

For those who cannot read German, Peter Schwartz has achieved an estimable, indeed awesome, feat both in bringing Jolles's work into English and in making this fascinating book new to us.

Picture credit: Twitter Moments; Business 2 Community

Monday, February 4, 2019

Goethe reviewed

Coetzee wears a safety helmet
J.M. Coetzee is an author whose novels I have never read, but at a local library branch the other day I pulled off the shelf of new non-fiction the volume Late Essays: 2006-2017. Among all the illustrious writers listed on the front cover were Goethe, along with Hölderlin, Kleist, and Robert Walser. I quickly checked it out and looked at the essays right away. I spent more time with the Goethe "essay" (why I put this in quotes will be revealed) than the others, but I intend to read them all more closely.  Coetzee shows himself to be very knowledgeable about German literature.

The Goethe piece appeared in The New York Review of Books (April 26, 2012), ostensibly in connection with Stanley Corngold's translation of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers. I say ostensibly because, although Coetzee is very knowledgeable about Goethe and the publication history of Werther, he does not discuss the merits of Corngold's translation. It is a fault of many reviewers to devote the lesser part of a review to the book under consideration. Anyone who has picked up an issue of the NYTBR or the London Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement discovers that a reviewer often spends a lot of time on the "back story" of the book, which, especially in the case of non-fiction, is necessary. I mean, a new book on dinosaurs will bring the reader up to date on the field of dinosaur studies, or it might deal with cultural impressions of the vanished species over the past several centuries, before, finally, the book being reviewed is discussed. So, nothing new here.


 Coetzee's subject, however, is nothing less than a synopsis of the novel, the relationship of Goethe to his subject, the relationship of Goethe with the Kestners, the composition history, the relation of the fictional character to Goethe's own personality ("the passionate side of himself that he sacrificed to his own cost"?), Goethe's reaction to the endless interrogation about Werther in succeeding decades. There is a good passage in which the lack of a guiding authorial voice is addressed, as well as what Coetzee calls the "long run" of the story of Goethe and Charlotte Buff, as set down in Thomas Mann's 1939 novel Lotte in Weimar. Moreover, Coetzee gives the background to the Ossian letters, Goethe's translation of same, the reading of the poems preceding Werther's parting from Charlotte, and the success of Macpherson's forgery in creating a desire for "a new poetic speech." And while Goethe claimed to have written Werther in a "somnambulistic trance in four weeks," the novel absorbs pre-existing material like Ossian, not to forget his own diaries and letters. Strangely enough, Coetzee does not mention the episode that would seem to have been the inspiration behind the novel, namely, the suicide of Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem.

Toward the end of the review he introduces the Sturm und Drang movement, again very swiftly blending in the advent of Romanticism, Herder, and Rousseau. One thing I never paid much attention to in connection with Werther is the influence of Laurence Sterne. Coetzee: "The first pages of Werther bear all the signs of Sterne's mercurial narrative style." From Sterne, Coetzee writes, Goethe "absorbed the technique of illuminating the interior by bringing up fragments of involuntary memory."

In the final paragraphs Coetzee does mention that Werther has attracted many distinguished translators (but without mentioning whether he considers Corngold to be one). Instead, it is the first translation of Werther that interests him, by Daniel Malthus, father of Thomas, which appeared in 1779. Malthus, translating from a French translation, omitted passages that might have been felt to offend the public. Coetzee is intrigued by Malthus's translation of the word "Leidenschaft" in the first Werther letter, when Werther remarks on the "passion" forming in poor Leonore's heart. Malthus writes "tenderness," undoubtedly under the influence of the French "tendresse." This choice, writes Coetzee, must be deliberate: a performance of an act of cultural translation, one informed by his "embeddedness in the cultural norms of his society, including its norms of feeling." We moderns, in the face of the "tender passions," "see passion predominating," whereas Malthus's 18th-century readers would see "tenderness."

Coetzee channeling Jesus
It is an excellent piece, in fact the kind of piece that a student might be tempted to copy or plagiarize in place of doing the research on the novel. On reading a bit on Coetzee's background, I discovered that he has a Ph.D. in English literature (dissertation on Samuel Beckett), so clearly he understands research. What the piece is not is a literary essay. It is literary journalism -- of a superior nature, it should be noted, outfitted with footnotes and page references. The difference can be seen within the pages of this very book. At random, let me quote a passage from Hermann Melville, writing about The Scarlett Letter, that appears in Coetzee's piece on Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel:

"For spite of all the Indian-summer sunlight on the hither side of Hawthorne's soul, the other side -- like the dark half of the physical sphere -- is shrouded in a blackness, ten times black ... Whether Hawthorne has simply availed himself of this mystical blackness as a means to the wondrous effect he makes it to produce in his lights and shades; or whether there really lurks him, perhaps unknown to himself, a touch of Puritanic gloom -- this I cannot altogether tell."

That is a great writer writing about the mystery of another great writer. Or take this passage in Henry James's biography of Hawthorne, also quoted by Coetzee:

"It takes so many things, as Hawthorne must have felt later in life, when he made the acquaintance of the denser, warmer, richer European spectacle -- it takes such an accumulation of history and custom, such a complexity of manners and types, to form a fund of suggestion for a novelist."

This last is something that Coetzee must know something about, having published quite a few novels, but his literary "essay" on Goethe, in any case, suggests nothing so profound. I just looked online of a review of Late Essays that appeared in The Spectator. The headline says it all: "J.M. Coetzee's Essays Are Filtered Through Boundless Reserves of Knowledge, Wisdom, and Reading." I can't imagine, however, that the piece I have described would make anyone long to read The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Image credits: Books Live; Wesley Merritt for the Telegraph

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Poets ranked

I come across references to the 18th century and to Goethe and the Goethe era in unexpected places.  Case in point, the most recent issue of the New Left Review has a translation of an article by the German scholar Carlos Spoerhase that appeared in Jahrbuch der Deutschen Schillergesellschaft in 2014. The article is entitled "Das Maß der Potsdamer Garde," the measurement referring to the standard by which the Prussian military chose its soldiers (apparently 6'2" minimum). The NLR title is "Rankings: A Prehistory." The article begins by noting the many rankings by which the world around us is evaluated in the 21st century -- best sellers, restaurants, impact factors -- and also by noting that such evaluations likewise existed in antiquity: the so-called canons of Hellenistic philologists. The latter, however, did involve "critical-aesthetic" judgments, which is not the case, for instance, for best seller lists.

Between 1700 and 1800, the classical comparatio, contrasting comparisons of "persons, positions, or objects, was established, beginning with the "Scale of Painters" drawn up by the art connoisseur and collector Roger de Piles in 1708. Listing alphabetically fifty-seven "best-known painters" and judging them on a variety of attributes, he set up a "numerically based aesthetic ranking." While up to 20 points could be given in the various categories (color, expression, etc.), De Piles did not aggregate the scores. For those interested in the background, I recommend the German version or the NLR translation. It wasn't long before a similar scale was established for poets. The first was that of the Scottish poet and physician Mark Akenside, which was published in 1746 as "Balance of the Poets" and included poets of all times. Oliver Goldsmith drew up a scale for English and Irish poets. (Note again the image of weight.)

By degrees, the Germans got around to weighing poets, which shows the interplay among the various European "literati," and also how much in the 18th century started in France. Christoph Martin Wieland published in 1757 "Balance der großen Poeten," but it included no Germans. As Spoerhase writes, the Germans apparently had, in Wieland's estimation, achieved nothing exemplary. There was a certain grade inflation in Wieland's rankings, with James Thompson coming out on top. (In Spoerhase's estimation, Thompson is remembered today only for the lyrics of "Rule, Britannia." But, he was oh so loved by German writers of the 18th century!)

C.F.D. Schubart brought the Germans on board in his "Kritische Skala der vorzüglichsten deutschen Dichter" in 1792, but, by then, "mathematically inclined rationalism" employed in ranking the "Moderns" came under pressure with the rise of Romanticism. In a scale of numerical evaluations, how to deal with "Genius"? For Schubart, "the poet was beyond the reach of numerical aesthetic evaluation," there being no measure in feet and inches for the mind, as there is for the body." Still, Schubart found a rationale for his "scala": low-scoring poets would see the gulf that separated them from the great ones. Or, per the caption at the bottom of the chart: "The dwarf sees more clearly that he is a dwarf when he stretches himself up against the measure of a Potsdam guard."

In the image of Schubart's chart here (click to enlarge), earlier poets (Bodmer, Hagedorn, etc.) scored fewer points than contemporaries. I have not added up all the listings, but it looks to me as if Wieland (at 165 points) came out ahead of Klopstock (154) and Goethe (152). I was interested to see that all of the poets that Schubart listed (excluding "Denis") were still very much with us when I was in graduate school in German.

A few years later Herder rejected “the project of the aesthetic scale altogether,” a position that went on to win the day. Spoerhase: “The project of arithmetizing the aesthetic or, in the terminology of de Mairan, a ‘geometrization of taste’, was abandoned. A century after the publication of de Piles’s ‘Balance des Peintres’, Jean-François Sobry (1743–1820) summarized the new viewpoint in his Poétique des arts: ‘Let us love what is beautiful when we see it, without bothering about weighing it. Let us repay the enthusiasm of talent with the enthusiasm of esteem; and leave the scales to the merchants.’”

What we know of Goethe allows us to say that he would draw a similar conclusion.

Image credit: Berkeley Haas

Friday, January 4, 2019

Skating among the Romantics

Julius Caesar Ibbetson, Skaters on the Serpentine in Hyde Park (1786)
Jeremy Adler reaches for the sky in a recent essay in the Times Literary Supplement (12/7/18) in portraying the “poetics of skating” and the evolution of this poetics in the 18th and early 19th century. The subject is the "lyric fervor" produced by the sport, as portrayed in an episode in The Prelude (see lines 426–464 of Book 1) by Wordsworth: “The track across the surface evokes the course of the planets. The speed with which the poet flies over the frozen lake recalls the distant orbs circling through the sky, and the reflection on the surface, when the skater cuts across ‘the reflex of a star,’ evokes the universal analogy — the poet takes his place in the heavens like one of the Pleiades.” It was “the sport par excellence for the nascent capitalist era … made possible by the action of technology — polished steel — on nature, but went on to be “adapted to the pre-Romantic fashion for the sublime.” Naturally, Burke, Schiller, and Kant, all of whom addressed the subject of the sublime, make an appearance.

Only a few aspects of this wide-ranging essay can be touched on here, which concerns the development of European Romanticism, with the focus being the configuration of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the German poet Friedrich Klopstock (1724–1803). Wordsworth’s imagery in the episode of The Prelude, writes Adler, constitutes “a homage to a brother poet, one of Germany’s finest, … who first made skating a metaphor for poetic composition, the thrill of an imagination set free from terrestrial care.” As Adler points out, Klopstock’s odes were greatly popular in Germany, with “Der Eislauf” (Skating) of 1764 being “among the most celebrated.” Consisting of 15 unrhymed quatrains, it is “remarkable for condensing a systematic appraisal of the sport into a perfectly judged lyric, including images of great natural beauty.”

Peter Brueghel, Hunters in the Snow (1565, detail)
As Adler notes, it was these unrhymed quatrains, along with Klopstock's evocation of nature and the poetic subjectivity, that liberated the Sturm und Drang generation of German poets. The free verse in particular was felt to be quite radical, to which Goethe (1749–1832) offers testimony in his autobiography. His father, Goethe writes, was a man for whom poetry had to be rhymed and was thus quite disturbed at the fashion for Klopstock’s Messias, especially when “verses that seemed to be no verses became the object of public veneration.” The paternal library held fine calfskin editions of Hagedorn, Gellert, Haller, and so forth, but no Klopstock. A volume of the Messias having been smuggled into the house by a friend, Goethe and his sister read it in secret. One Saturday evening, however, as their father was being shaved in preparation for church the next morning, Goethe and his sister got so carried away in their recitation of the scene between Adramelech and Satan that their voices startled the barber. The upshot was that Goethe’s father’s chest was drenched by water from the shaving basin. This image might be said to encapsulate the effect that Klopstock had on the generation of writers represented by Goethe .

Ice Skating in Nurenberg
So it was that, in 1798, even though Goethe was at the height of his renown in that year, it was the aged Klopstock whom “the youthful tyros” — Wordsworth and Coleridge —  visited on their tour of Germany.  Adler calls it “the seminal occurrence in the birth of European Romanticism.” Indeed, “the whole episode bears Klopstock’s hallmark,” provoking the emergence of Wordsworth’s genius. Noting that Wordsworth soon wrote the first “Lucy" poems that were so central to his work, Adler speculates that Lucy likely recalls  Klopstock’s “girl” Fanny or even his first wife Cidli.

Henry Raeburn, "The Skating Minister" (ca. 1790)