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.

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