Sunday, November 30, 2008

Goethe and Money

In 1765, when the 16-year-old Goethe was a student in Leipzig, his sister passed on the following question from their father back in Frankfurt: how much of his allowance did he still have? This was his response:

"If I had twice as much as I have now, and in addition to that, half again and one-third and three-sixths of that which I have: then I would have 100 louisdors."

(Very clever of Goethe, testing his sister like that! To find the answer, you will have to go to the end of this post.)

Goethe came from a well-off bourgeois family that lived quite comfortably. (Yes, it could be done in the 18th century, without hot running water and central heat.) Thomas Mann's novel Buddenbrooks is an excellent portrait of the comfort as well as the priorities of a 19th-century bourgeois family, and these would not have been much different in the Goethe family household in Frankfurt in the 1750s and 1760s. In the 18th century Europeans were beginning to experience discretionary spending on a large scale, to enjoy the commodities that international trade was introducing to town and city alike. People began to dress better, to eat better, to be better informed about the world (newspapers, book production). People's "taste" improved; indeed, taste, usually applied to aesthetics, was intimately bound up with the progress of material life in Europe. After all, in order to be well read and to appreciate art, you had to have some disposable income. As a sign of his own taste, Goethe's father had a considerable library, and he also commissioned local Frankfurt artists to create works of art for his home. Like good bourgeois families not all that long ago, his father also kept a detailed record of family income and expenses as well as purchases.

Goethe also kept a pretty good financial record, and we know that in his youth his expenses outweighed what he earned. In fact, he didn't start earning real money until he went to Weimar and became a member of Duke Carl August's privy council in 1776. Up until 1781 he was paid 300 talers quarterly, a salary that would be increased over time. He also began to earn goodly sums from his writings and became the first German writer not only to earn enough to keep a roof over his head but, in addition, to accumulate considerable wealth.

In 1829, three years before he died, he said to Eckermann: "One has to have enough money to be able to pay for one's experiences. Half a million [talers] have gone through my hands in order to learn what I have learned." According to the Goethe-Handbuch (an indispensable source of information for Goethe scholars), for instance, the costs for his stay in Italy -- from October 1786 to May 1788 -- came to about 5,600 talers. The half a million paid for many books, works of art, collections of minerals, rocks, cameos, and such as well as his travels to the spas of Bohemia. He employed secretaries to whom he dictated much of his writing and his voluminous correspondence. In his later years, after 1810, he maintained a good table, from 1 to 4 p.m., where guests enjoyed his discriminating taste in food and wine. Besides plenty of fruit and vegetables from his own garden, eggs, milk, butter, and meat from local producers, and out of season vegetables from the ducal greenhouse, his household records show sums spent on trout, pike, carp, and crabs, also local products. Luxury items came from farther afield: chestnuts, grapes, fermented mustard, honey, artichokes. The records show that Goethe remained partial to wines from the Rhine region. From Berlin the household obtained caviar, cervelat wurst, pike-perch; chocolate was ordered from Vienna. A sign of the growing trade between nations were purchases of the following from 1820: fois gras, truffles, mussels, salmon, rum, Spanish raisins, tea, rice, and ginger.

In 1827 Goethe said this about money to Eckermann: "In our youth, when we possess nothing or are unable to appreciate what it is to be in secure possession of much, we are 'democratic.' If we live a long life and accumulate some substance, we not only want to safeguard it but also wish that our children and grandchildren might comfortably enjoy the fruits of what we have earned." Indeed, at his death, Goethe's estate was worth over 63,000 talers. When he wrote his will, in 1831, in reference to the value of his collection of art, he said that a real estimate of these relatively inestimable objects was not possible. In the event, in 1834, two years after his death, an estimate of 16,000 talers was made. Real estate can always be appraised and given a dollar (or taler) value.

Beyond such figures there is something incalculable about Goethe's legacy. When his last surviving descendant died in 1885, he bequeathed all of Goethe's collections, including the literary works, to the Grand Duchess Sophie of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach. She founded the Goethe Archive, which, along with the Schiller Archive, now forms the core of the collections of the Klassik Stiftung Weimar. Thus, Goethe's wealth continues to provide spiritual enrichment for the generations.

As to the answer to that questions posed at the beginning, here is the calculation:

2X + X/2 = 2.5X; X/3 + 3X/6 = 2X/6 + 3X/6 = 5X/6; 2.5X/1 + 5X6 = 15X/6 + 5X/6 = 21X/6 = 3.5X

Got all that? In other words, he would have to have 3.5 times the monetary units that he has (talers? Rheinish gulden?) in order to have the equivalent of 100 louisdors. I have a feeling that most Americans don't have such a firm understanding of money, nor of its value, as did Goethe. For a great illustration of current ignorance (which seems to extend to the government, which is now throwing bad money after badder), go to Maggie's Farm for a hilarious video of non-Goethean arithmetic.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Contemporary German poets

When I was in Pittsburgh Klaus Post gave me a neat collection of contemporary German poetry, Lyrik von Jetzt zwei (the "two" in the title indicating a second installment of an earlier edition of the work of young poets) . Here is a poem I particularly liked, "Geweihe," by Nora Bossong.

Das Spiel ist abgebrochen. Wie sollen wir
jetzt noch an Märchen glauben? Die Äste
splittern nachts nicht mehr, kein Wild,
das durch die Wälder zieht und das Gewitter
löst sich in Fliegenschwärmen auf. Gleichwohl,
es bleibt dabei: Das Jucken unter unsern Füßen
ist kein Tannenrest, kein Nesselblatt, wir folgen noch
dem Dreierschritt, den sieben Bergen und auch
dem Rehkitz Brüderchen und seiner Liebsten.
Erzähl mir die Geweihe an der Wand, erzähl mir
Nadel in die Fliegen. Im rechten Moment
vergaßen wir zu stolpern.
Schneewittchen schläft.

Let me do a loose translation. The title refers to the antlers of deer, though in this case I think she means the kind you see hanging with hunting trophies, as in the vintage photo below.

The game is over [lit. broken off]. How are we still supposed to believe in fairy tales? The branches no longer crack at night, no deer moves through the woods, and the storm dissolves in swarms of flies.

Nevertheless, there remains: the scratching under our feet is not a bit of pine, not a nettle; we still follow the Three Tasks, the Seven Mountains, and Little Brother and his darling. Tell me the story of the  antlers on the wall, tell me the needles in the flies. We forgot to stumble at the right time. Snow White sleeps.

Nora Bossong is writing about the loss of magic in the world. Thus, the fairy tale imagery, the Three Tasks, for instance, referring to the three-stage rhythm of the tale, the hero with three tasks, the princess who dances three times, and so on. The Seven Mountains is where Snow White lived with the dwarves. And Little Brother (in German "Rehkitz Brüderchen) is from the tale of "Brother and Sister," about a brother and sister who escape from a wicked stepmother into a forest, only to have the boy transformed into a deer after drinking from a spring that she has bewitched.

I also recommend Nora Bossong's novel Gegend, a rather mysterious family story, which was highly praised on its appearance in 2006. The younger writers in Germany -- Bossong is twenty-six -- are returning to earlier literary traditions for inspiration, unlike many of the German poets of my generation (the so-called "68"ers), for whom social relevance often came first.

Picture credit: Ookami Dou.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Goethe on Beggars

While reading the third volume of Goethe's On Art and Antiquity (Über Kunst und Altertum), from 1822, I came across some observations concerning various beggars whom Goethe encountered in his travels, including a comparison of Protestant beggars and their counterparts.

Of the former, Goethe writes that, on receiving alms, they say matter-of-factly, "May God reward you for your generosity," without offering to put in a good word for the giver with the Almighty, after which the two of you then go your separate ways. The Catholic, however, declares he will pray for you, will storm God and his saints with petitions, until they shower you with the holiest material blessings. Goethe finds a certain irony in these claims:

When one is in the right mood, it is really touching to see someone who, despite claiming a direct relationship with the highest being, is unable to entreat for himself a resonable improvement in his own condition, yet nevertheless believes himself able to be the patron of another, making an appearance before God, accompanied by his many clients, with supplications.

The essay in which this quotation appears concerns coincidences and the seemingly accidental nature of good fortune -- for example, the unexpected beneficence of a handful of coins from a toff like Goethe. For Goethe, the prayers of Catholics suggested superstition. Like many Germans raised in the Protestant tradition, he was both fascinated by Catholic practices and repelled by what he would have called mysticism. (Mother Angelica: "Angels could kill 260,00 peoples in one night. One angel went through Egypt and killed the firstborn humans, cows, sheeps, dogs, cats, locusts -- everything that was firstborn went. That angel was powerful.")

Goethe's anecdote hits on a distinguishing point that has been elucidated by Max Weber and that underlies the different direction in which Protestantism traveled with the onset of modernity. To men of the Enlightenment like Goethe, Catholicism seemed downright impractical in a worldly sense. And it continues (except among the "liberation theologian" types)  to reflect this unworldliness.

It is a truism that, in our modern worldliness, we often have little sense for the miraculous. I venture to say that our present worldliness affects our relationship with beggars. I was struck by this today, as I passed one of these forlorn humans on my way to the grocery store. One feels a decided skepticism about their condition. (For instance, how much of their condition is self-inflicted, because of, say, drugs or alcohol?) Moreover, how much money have Americans spent since Lyndon Johnson promised an end to poverty, and yet it still stares us in the face? In the face of our own affluence, beggars also seem something of a reproach to the good life that most of us manage to lead, even while often struggling to keep a roof over our head. Why do so many people remain failures despite all the money that has been poured into welfare, despite all the opportunities (free schooling, free breakfast and lunch programs for schoolchildren)?

Interestingly, it is the Protestants (in their contemporary liberal incarnation) who believe in miracles, expecting the welfare system to fix broken lives. Catholics seem more clear-sighted about the human condition.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Goethe in Bohemia

The cycle of poems entitled "Marienbader Elegie" (more properly, "Trilogie der Leidenschaft," or trilogy of passion), from 1824, is the most famous product of Goethe's frequent visits to the spas and healing springs of Bohemia. Other spas he favored were Franzensbad, Teplitz, and Karlsbad, of which he wrote, on a visit in 1785: "From granite and through the entire creation, to the women: everything conduced to make this stay pleasant and interesting."

From "granite and through the entire creation" refers to Goethe's lifelong interest in geology and geological formations. The drawing above (click on image to enlarge), made by Goethe in 1808, is of the so-called "Kammerberg" (chamber mountain), not far from Franzensbad, which we now know is an extinct volcano. Goethe visited and climbed it numerous times, and his geological writings contain an essay entitled Der Kammerberg bei Eger.

The 18th century challenged the time frame of the Biblical account of earth's creation, and rival theories arose to explain the formation of mountains. Thus arose the so-called Neptunist-Vulcanist controversy: Vulcanists (or Plutonists) declared that rocks and mountains had been formed by violent means, through volcanic action within the earth; for the Neptunists the process had been more gentle, with geological sedimentation (as in mountains) arising from the precipitation of water. This was an academic controversy, somewhat like that today over global warming. Goethe was a Neptunist. The fourth act of Faust II even has a scene between the two sides, with Mephistopholes taking sides with the Plutonists.

Goethe wrote the following about his observations at Kammerberg: "A long stay in Franzensbrunnen allows me to visit the problematic Kammmerberg at Eger often. I collect samples, observe it closely, describe and draw it. I find myself compelled to diverge from the opinion of Reuss, who declares it to be pseudo-volcanic, and to declare it instead to be volcanic. I will write an essay on it ... but the question will probably not be solved, and a return to Reuss's opinion might be advised" (Tag- und Jahreshefte 1807). Reuss refers to the first Czech balneologist, Frantisek Ambroz Reuss, founder of modern geological research of the Bohemian mineral waters. Goethe had consulted his works on the geology and hydrology of the Bohemian mineral springs.

It was not only at Kammerberg that Goethe collected rocks and minerals. He amassed a considerable collection all over Germany and Bohemia (and people constantly sent him samples from other regions of the world, though I don't know whether he had a sample of jasper, as in this piece in the Metropolitan Museum (2000.504). He frequently said he was not interested in gems. The jasper, with its lovely amethyst inclusions, was mined in mountains northwest of Prague and transformed into this vessel at the court of Charles IV in the late 1300s.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Goethe's "Novelle"

The lovely ivory plaque above (now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2003.131.2) was made in Paris in about 1350. Originally the back panel of a casket, it shows a hunting party emerging from a castle on the left. On the right is a stag, already wounded by the hunter's sword, drinking from the waters of a fountain. (Click the image for a larger view.)

When I saw this image (it is reprinted in the November 2008 issue of The Burlington Magazine, p. 797), I immediately thought of the opening of Goethe's Novelle, which he began working on in 1797 but did not publish until 1828, four years before his death. Despite the title, it is not a novella in the conventional literary sense, derived from the Italian novella (lit. "a little, new thing"), a short tale in prose exemplified most famously by Boccaccio's Decameron.

Thomas Mann is one of the best-known practitioners of the form, as in Death in Venice or (one of my favorites) The Black Swan. (In German, the latter is called Die Betrogene, or "the deceived one," and was Mann's last tale.) Both are about impossible loves.

It is somewhat mysterious why Goethe chose Novelle for the title of his tale. (He also wrote Das Märchen, which is unlike any fairy tale you are likely to encounter.) It begins with a scene much like that pictured in the ivory, with the duke of a well-off town riding out from his castle with a group of nobles to hunt. He leaves his young wife behind at the castle, looking out the window (as in the ivory) at the departing riders. Nothing much happens in the story: the duchess and her husband's uncle and a young courtier named Honorio visit the ancient site of the family's castle in a nearby forest. While they are out, a fire breaks out in the town, and a tiger escapes from its cage into the forest. Of course, the tiger is not dangerous, since it was part of a menagerie and its killing by Honorio (who thinks he must protect the duchess) is unnecessary. A lion has also escaped, but the child of the menagerie owner is able to calm it with gentle music and song and lure it back to its cage. So, the story is about different ways of taming the passions.

I have always thought that Novelle would make a wonderful movie, something along the lines of Ever After: A Cinderella Story, a movie from 1998 starring (I kid you not) Drew Barrymore. It was a delightful re-creation of the fairy tale, with Cinderella, although put upon by the wicked stepmother (in another star turn, Angelica Houston), being the rescuer of the prince. Even in Goethe's time, Novelle must have had a similar otherworldly quality, and I imagine the story set in the years before the French Revolution. This is a movie script I would like to write.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Popular culture

It is interesting how facets of contemporary "culture" can simply pass you by. I am thinking now of Andy Warhol and of Interview magazine. When I came to New York, back in the early 1980s, the large-format Interview was always staring out at you from magazine stands, with the star or personality du jour on the cover, but I can't recall every picking up a copy and reading it. I was also aware of the club scene, with the likes of Bianca Jagger and Halston and so on, but I never went to a club and didn't really have much interest in going. There was the phenomenon then that I found amusing, the bouncers outside clubs who chose who got to go in and mingle with the "elect." Andy Warhol seems to have inaugurated all that, but for me there was simply no interest in being around celebrity. (I still feel the same way about movie stars and, now, the Obama celebrity.)

But when I got to Pittsburgh on Thursday, mid-afternoon, a few hours before the opening reception of the Goethe Society conference, I decided to go downtown to the Andy Warhol Museum. Warhol was such a quintessential New York personality that it is hard to believe that he actually came from Pittsburgh.

As I said, Andy Warhol was never of interest to me, though I have as my screen saver his silkscreen of Goethe (from the original painting by Tischbein). Still, the museum was lots of fun, again perhaps because of my recent interest in the phenomenon of "Spieltrieb." There seems to have been nothing serious about Warhol's artistic intentions. He was a central figure in what was known back in the ... when was it anyway? the 1970s? ... pop art movement. He even made Goethe into pop art and also Pittsburgh's benefactor, Andrew Carnegie.

Monday, November 10, 2008


At a certain point in a conference, it is necessary to have a break. That happened to me on day two. I gave my paper at 9 a.m. that morning. At 10:40 Robert Richards gave the keynote speech, in which he maintained that Goethe and Schelling had anticipated Darwin's theories, including those of species generation. Bob, by the way, has written a fascinating book, which I have used in my own research, called The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe. Some of us then went to lunch at the Carnegie Museum cafe, after which, at 1:30, facing the prospect of a talk entitled "Epistemology of Sensing and Feeling in Goethe's Faust I," I decided to take a break and go instead to see some paintings in the Carnegie Museum of Art.

What is it I like about museums? Probably being by myself for an hour. Solitary museum visits also replicate my first experience of museums, when I was 18 and visiting Europe for the first time. Europe: that means, museums, right? There was a lovely small museum in Paris, then called the Jeu de Paume, devoted solely to the Impressionists. For a person who had never been to a museum before, the Impressionists are immediately accessible. Thus I would spend hours there, taking notes in a small notebook I always carried and trying to decipher the French in the labels next to the paintings. I was particularly intrigued by the phrase "nature morte."

Despite the fact that Pittsburgh was once an important industrial city and that the Fricks and Mellons established their fortunes there, the art acquired by those men has gone for the most part elsewhere, to the Frick Museum here in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Wahington, D.C. (the Mellons). Thus, there is not the fullness of representation at the Carnegie Museum of Art, despite being the obvious recipient of the largesse of Andrew Carnegie (though many of the older public buildings in the city bear the Carnegie profile), that you find at, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The paintings in the first two galleries are in fact arranged in a very 19th-century style, as in the charming scene of schoolgirls drawing.

What I find interesting about the three paintings below, by Edvard Munch, Pierre Bonnard, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, is that they were painted within the same decade, from 1904 to 1914. The same for the painting at the top, "The Picnic" by Maurice Prendergast, a wonderfully cheery painting from 1914. (Check out this better image of the painting at the Carnegie website.) If you look at a painting by Raphael or any of his contemporaries, you usually assign it to a "period," in their case the Renaissance. The very different styles of the paintings by Munch and his contemporaries, however, are indicative of what we now called "Modernism" or even modernity itself: multiplicity of  styles, without any authoritative one, an era when art is about individual sensibility and is dependent for its reception on taste, but mostly on the marketplace.

It should be mentioned that the Carnegie is a very public- and family-friendly museum. Besides the schoolgirls who were drawing in the galleries (above), the large rooms invited antics from the two munchkins below.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Goethe Society of North America

I'm off this afternoon for Pittsburgh, where I will be giving my paper on Fritz Strich. Here is something to feast the eyes on, prepared by Rick, for our Haloween evening with friends. Am I a lucky wife, or what? (Click on picture for larger image.)

Saturday, November 1, 2008


Since I work at home, with occasional forays to the library, procrastination is always an issue. Of course,  I am always working on something; often, however, the thing I am working on has nothing to do with the one thing that most needs to be done. I guess this is avoidance. There is a new book on the subject, which I will not read since I have so much to do, but I enjoyed the interview (heard as a podcast on my iPod) with the two German writers, Kathrin Passig and Sascha Lobo, who were promoting the book at the Frankfurt Book Fair, recently ended. Passig is an interesting person, not only a web designer but also a writer. She was winner of last year's Ingeborg Bachman Prize with her story "Sie befinden sich hier" and is also the author of the intriguingly named Lexikon des Unwissens. Check out Sasch Lobo's hair here.

The interview was courtesy of one of my favorite sites, Das Literatur-Cafe. Wolfgang Tischer is the impresario, reporting on the literary goings-on in Germany with much flair and intelligence. Passig and Lobo's book on procrastination is called Dinge geregelt kriegen: ohne einen Funken Selbstdisziplin (Rowohlt), or "How to get things done, without an ounce of self-discipline." They call it an anti-self-help book. Check out their website, where they tell you why they have written it.

The cartoon above (click on it for a larger version) is from another favorite site, Harold's Planet, from which I receive daily a lovely message.