Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Goethe's report of the Roman Carnival festivities (Das Römische Carneval) ends with a section entitled "Ash Wednesday," a meditation ("Betrachtung") on the events he had witnessed in Rome in 1787 and 1788: "Since life, like the Roman Carnival as a whole is ungraspable, unenjoyable, even questionable [unübersehlich, ungenießbar, ja bedenklich], we wish that each [reader] be reminded of the importance of every momentary, often even seemingly insignificant enjoyment that life offers." Goethe was not referring to the religious significance of the Lenten and Easter mysteries ushered in by Carnival. As usual, Goethe brackets that out.

He wasn't comfortable with the bacchanalia or the chaos, much of which played out on the Corso, directly below the windows of Casa Moscatelli, the quarters he shared with Tischbein and two German artists. In Italian Journey (February 20, 1787), he writes: "One has to have seen the Carnival in Rome, in order fully to rid oneself of the wish to see it again." Friederike Brun, writing in Roman Diary (1801), was also unnerved by the crowds on the Corso. Unlike modern tourists, neither she nor Goethe had gone to Rome to get to know Italians or Italian life.

It was during the second Carnival, in 1788, that Goethe began to see the artistic possibilities of the event. Thus, he writes (Bericht, February 1788) that he became reconciled to the turmoil (Getümmel) and looked on it as "another meaningful product of nature and a national event; it was in this sense that I became interested in it, noticed accurately the course of foolishness (Torheiten) and the way in which it all followed a certain form and appropriateness." He thus made notes of the individual events in the order in which they took place, which he then made use of when he wrote what he calls "the essay" that was published by Bertuch in Weimar in 1789 as Das Römische Carneval. The colored drawings in the first edition (of 250 copies) were by Johann Georg Schütz, a Frankfurt artist who also lived in the same house with Goethe and Tischbein.

I have a reprint of the edition with Schütz's beautiful drawings (as in the illustration at the top), which I always like looking at, but the text itself is cold and distant, representing a series of tableaux. Nicholas Boyle has written that, within "this exquisite physical framework," Goethe makes no attempt "to incorporate an account of normal Roman life: the subject is exclusively the saturnalian behaviour of the masked and costumed citizenry and the brief culmination of the day's excitement in the horse-race down the Corso. ... The narrator himself has no individual part in the events, except as a typical and anonymous body in the throng: he merely observes this world and reports it for an alien audience to whom everything he says is strange."

Goethe does not do tourist reporting. Instead, he dutifully forced his way through the masked crowd, which, "despite all artistic intent often makes a repulsive, frightening impression" (welche denn trotz aller künstlerischen Ansicht oft einen widerwärtigen unheimlichen Eindruck machte). The reason for this alienation has everything to do with why Goethe was in Rome in the first place: not to experience the contemporary life of the city but rather the ancient world as it could be disinterred from the ruins. Thus, "the spirit," accustomed to the worthy objects with which one had occupied oneself the entire year in Rome, seemed to become once more aware that he was not really at home  (Der Geist, an die würdigen Gegenstände gewöhnt, mit denen man das ganze Jahr in Rom sich beschäftigte, schien immer einmal gewahr zu werden, daß er nicht recht an seinem Platze sei).

This reaction reveals again the gap between 21st-century expectations about travel and those of Goethe's time. The 18th-century reactions to mountains offers a comparable difference. Indeed, in the 17th century already, writers can be seen attempting to come to terms with what were considered frightful natural phenomena. Here is the reaction of the English critic John Dennis (1657-1734), for instance, at seeing the Alps of Switzerland: "We walk'd upon the very brink, in a literal sense, of Destruction. One Stumble and both Life and Carcass had been at once destroy'd. ... The sense of all this produc'd different emotions in me, viz., a delightful Horrour, a terrible Joy, and at the same time, that I was infinitely pleas'd, I trembled." Dennis's reaction is an instance of what 18th-century writers described as an encounter with "the Sublime." Joseph Addison, Edmund Burke, Kant, Herder, Moses Mendelssohn, and Schiller are a few of the writers who addressed this phenomenon.

By now, of course, mountains have become tamed, even for mountain climbers, lost any sense they might have had of sacredness or terror. In the same way, the Carneval, which once marked the beginning of a period of mystery, both in pre-Christian and Christian life. The image of the running of the horses on the Corso (courtesy of Goethezeitportal) in an advertisement for Liebig "meat extract," from 1897, exemplifies the way the once-sacred was increasingly familiarized.

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