Sunday, May 17, 2009

Goethe Überall

Whenever I pick up a book I find myself consulting the index to see if there is an entry for "Goethe." It is an indication of his influence that Goethe is so frequently cited, say, in a book I just chose randomly from Rick's bookshelf, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance (1982), by Ernst Mayr, which leads off the discussion on Naturphilosophie with Goethe. It's a reminder of how many areas of thought Goethe worked in. In a recent post on Sylvia Townsend Warner I mentioned finding in her correspondence with the writer and New Yorker editor William Maxwell letters between them in which they discussed Wilhelm Meister. But even in books that have no immediate reference to Goethe's own pursuits, Goethe himself still resonates. For instance, in Escapism by the cultural geographer Yi-fu Tuan (a writer in whom I like to dip for escape as well as for wonderful insights), one finds Goethe embedded in a discussion of human anxiety: "History can make unbearable reading because it exposes the extent and weight of misery among humbler folk. As to the individual life, even the favorites of the gods, such as Tolstoy or Goethe, claim that they have known few moments of genuine happiness."

Goethe is still a touchstone, though sometimes as a product of the past or maybe only as a catch phrase rather than a figure of continuing relevance. I was reminded of this by a collage entitled "Frankfurt" (at the top of the post) by the artist Maureen Mullarkey in which she utilizes a scrap from the spine of an old edition of Goethe's works. The work is in an exhibition of her collages at the Kouros Gallery in Manhattan, in a show entitled, appropriately enough, "Gutenberg Elegies": all the works in the show are made from scraps of old books.

I first encountered Maureen Mullarkey through her columns in The New York Sun, the now defunct conservative New York daily, which had the best arts and literary writing of any New York newspaper (and that includes The New York Times). It was via the Sun that Rick and I would read of the openings in Chelsea to which the Sun devoted so much coverage. We met one of the former publishers of the Sun at Maureen's opening. When we lamented the Sun's demise, he said it would take only $20 million to start it up again. Surely there must be something in the Stimulus package for that!

Maureen, by the way, is also a wonderful painter. I like this portrait of a rather androgynous figure. It has a Weimar Republic quality to it (in contrast to the Goethe-period Weimar). I look forward to a show of her paintings.

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