Monday, June 29, 2009

Goethe and the Christian Legends

When I began writing my dissertation on Goethe, people asked whether everything had not already been said. No! was my reaction. I was bored with the deconstructive, postmodernist, cultural studies approaches that were current at that time (the mid-1980s). No one seemed to look at secondary literature then, unless it was the work of a post-structuralist. I had been intrigued by the idylls in Goethe's works, genre-like scenes portraying human contentment. Some of these idylls were small, like the portrait of Philomen and Baucis at the end of Faust, and some were larger, as, for instance, The Sorrows of Young Werther, the entire novel being an extended idyll. These and other idylls in Goethe's work are either destroyed or threatened with destruction (Hermann and Dorothea). I thought at the time that this preference for an ancient literary form indicated that Goethe was not the "modern" he is often interpreted to be, but that his literary roots lie in much older traditions.

One traditional form that I did not consider when I wrote my dissertation was that of the legend. Goethe mentions the Ursula legend in Kunst und Altertum am Rhein und Main (on which I wrote  in my March 27 posting in connection with the Veronica icon).  Basically he used the legend to transition from the influence of Byzantine art in the Christian West to a discussion of Netherlandic and Old German art.

I recently encountered this wooden sculpture of Ursula (at the top of this post) at the Metropoplitan Museum. As Goethe rightly indicates, Ursula was said to be a Breton princess. Her association with Cologne comes from a 4th-5th century inscription that says Clementius restored a church in that city in honor of a band of virgin martyrs. According to Goethe, she arrived in Cologne with her retinue of virgins (said to have been 10,000 in number) at the same time as a group of young Christian men, led by Gereon, whom Goethe calls "an African prince." Gereon in Christian martyrology is associated with the Theban legion, an entire legion that had converted to Christianity.

At the height of the artistic development Goethe was describing, the 14th and 15th century, these legends offered rich artistic themes. During his visit to Cologne he saw the "Kölner Dombild" by "Master William of Cologne," who has since been identified as Stephan Lochner. The two wings portray Saints Ursula (left) and Gereon (right), which may have given Goethe the idea of combining the two legends in his discussion of the contribution of the "cultural physiognomy" of the Cologne region to the Christian art.

According to Nicola Tumparoff's 1910 study (Goethe und die Legende), it was Goethe who introduced the legend into German literature as a self-sufficient modern genre. "Der Gott und die Bajadere," for instance, derives from Indian legends. Ottilie in Elective Affinities becomes a legend in her own time, a treatment by Goethe that I find, at the least, tongue in cheek. The lovely image above, by the Austrian artist Marian Stokes (1855-1927) is, of course, not of Ottilie but of Snow White. The Christian legend in particular was popular with the Romantics, but it was Goethe and Gottfried Keller, according to Tumparoff, who created "living types" (lebendige Typen). The legend, like the idyll, offered Goethe rich thematic material. In both cases, he departed from the genre's originating conditions -- the religious veneration of the saint in the legend or the domestic security represented by the idyll -- to problematize the past. In that way, Goethe is indeed a modern, but he crafts this status from traditional material.

Monday, June 22, 2009

"The horror! The horror!"

The sight of Francis Bacon's paintings at the Metropolitan Museum made me think of the last words of Kurtz, Conrad's ivory trader in the Heart of Darkness.

In his youth, Goethe was known as something of a rebel; that is the evidence of the poetry in any case. Later he turned against many of his early enthusiasms and became known for standing stubbornly against newness, even against scientific correctness. I often find myself in the same position, standing athwart contemporary opinion and received wisdom. So it is with the paintings of Francis Bacon, "one of the most compelling painters of the 20th century," according to the Met's website. The triptych above, Three Studies for a Crucifixion, certainly suggests Bacon's own desire to be part of the history of Western art.

It is a toss-up what I find more objectionable: the depressing vision of humanity that Bacon's paintings convey, or the awe with which viewers react to them. Bacon painted a series of works in memory of his companion George Dwyer (left), who "suffered from substance abuse and depression" and who died of a drug overdose in Paris in 1971. Bacon (as per the wall label at the Met) "exorcised his grief and guilt by examining the events of the tragic evening in a number of pictures." In these "memorials" to his dead lover he posed Dwyer "against dark openings that seem to evoke the deep abyss of mortality, a recurrent concern for the artist." What pompous art writing.

There is definitely a certain craft in the application of color in Bacon's late works, but how difficult was it actually to produce the grotesque figures and shapes that inhabit his canvases? It is those "grotesques" that constitute the "genius" of Bacon and produce the knowing glances among viewers. 

Bacon is a one-note artist. What struck me today, on my second viewing, is that he has simply taken Cubism to a new level. Compare, for instance, the above portrait, of Ambroise Vollard by Picasso, the other (to the right) Bacon's portrait of Micheal Leiris.

For a different artistic vision, that of medieval draftsmen, the Met offers another lovely exhibition: "Pen and Parchment, Drawing in the Middle Ages."
These medievals could draw, and they also used their imagination, as can be seen in this wonderful depiction from the Book of Maccabees from Saint Gall, Switzerland. True, it is about war and death, but the story behind it is one of triumph.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Freedom Isn't Free

Goethe's reflections on the Middle East, in the "Noten und Abhandlungen," concern the "conditioning factors" for cultural and historical phenomena. In this focus Goethe tends toward Herder and away from the universalist view of mankind to be found in the works of the radical philosophes of the 18th century. The achievements of the human race do not spring complete from the minds of smart people; they are instead the results of the labor of generations.

This generational achievement was on my mind as I wrote the introduction to the volume on the history of the freedom of speech in the 18th century. Freedom of speech in the West, especially in the U.S., is facing some major challenges. The most visible challenge came in 2005 and 2006, in response to the publication of the so-called Mohammed cartoons in a Danish newspaper. "European" history (as distinct from the individual national histories) might be said to have been founded on the right of individuals to criticize authority, be it religious, civil, or even artistic. When Muslims instead demanded respect for their holy figure, the legitimacy of one of Europe's most ancient privileges -- the right of artists to caricature a sacred cow -- was under attack.

At the time of the controversy proponents of freedom of speech would revert to J.S. Mill's instrumental view, that tolerance of different views would lead to "truth," but this was countered by the relativists among us with the insistence on "competing truths." Likewise, to express a concern for "universal rights" invited the charge of being an "Enlightenment fundamentalist."

Thus, my approach in the free speech volume (tentatively entitled "Free Speech versus Well-Meant Speech") has been to cede the ground to multiculturalists. In a world of multiculturalism, our current liberal freedoms are the product of a distinctive culture, namely, "the West." While these freedoms and rights have been incorporated in law and in international declaration, in truth, even if the matter were not complicated by the different institutional histories of the nations of the West, one could not speak of "universal" rights. They are our rights, and we worked hard to achieve them.

That being said, I do believe that people desire in their heart of hearts to be free. For non-Western nations, however, the problem is the lack of institutional history. The institutions we have here, protecting life, liberty, property, and so on, were not created overnight. Voting is only one step; the freedoms themselves have to be fought for. Men and women in Iran are putting their lives on the line not just for a vision but for a reality. Clearly the woman at the top of this post has a vision of Iranian society that is different from that of the women in hijab waiting their turn to vote. Those differences have to be negotiated, and it will take time to do so. As we have learned, the Western "cultural product" cannot simply be imported beyond its natural constituency. There will be setbacks, as the Chinese learned 20 years ago at Tiananmen Square.

It is not our battle, but at the same time we need to voice our support for the protests in Iran and also to keep alive the memory of Tiananmen. The road is clear, but traveling it will not be easy.

Picture credit: The Big Picture

Monday, June 15, 2009

Goethe and Freedom of Speech (2)

My last post concerned Goethe's implicit recognition that freedom of speech, insofar as it concerns the right of citizens to "participate in the discussion by which the people govern themselves through the formation of public opinion" (as James Weinstein puts it in his introduction to the recently published Extreme Speech and Democracy), is a feature of modern liberal states. I say "implicit," because Goethe was not directly addressing the issue of freedom of speech but rather writing about the absence of drama in "Persian poetry": despots don't want dialogue. In the process, he was pointing out a substantial difference between the Middle East and the West, particularly as the institutions of the West were then developing in the direction of greater civil liberties.

The "Noten und Abhandlungen" to West-East Divan, in which these remarks on despots appear, impressively document Goethe's wide reading and thoughtfully cultivated conclusions. I am surprised they have not yet been translated into English. They have given me much to think about recently, as I work my way through this long reflection on "Eastern" cultures. But the implications concerning freedom of speech and opinion really got me to thinking when I came across Stanley Fish's blog post on the "imperial" Obama. Fish, as he writes, has been struck by the difference in language since Obama became president. While Obama when he began his campaign in February 2007 spoke of a project "larger than his personal ambitions" and made frequent use of the pronoun "we" to speak of what would be accomplished in his administration, everything altered with the inaugural address. As Fish writes: "The promises are now made to an America that is asked only to stand by while they are fulfilled."

In the address to Congress on February 24, for instance, "the royal we has flowered into the naked 'I,'" eight "right off the bat," according to Fish. And when, so Fish continues, Obama thanks Canada and Germany, "it is as if those sovereign nations were doing him a personal favor to which he was entitled. When he invokes 'my administration' you might think he was talking about some prized possession. (My daughter ... my ducats.)" You get the picture.

Fish thinks that Obama likes the sound of his own voice. I don't hold this against the president. After all, as Fish asks, don't we all like the sound of our own voices?

There is, however, something less seemly going on, and it is occurring among the people who should be reporting on the president's grand ambitions, which, as Robert Samuelson writes in The Washington Post, include an expansion of health-care subsidies, tightly controlled energy use, and the greatest growth of government since Lyndon Johnson. Samuelson asks: "Are any of his proposals practical, even desirable? ... What might be the unintended consequences?" You get the picture.

Instead, according to Phil Bronstein (editor at large of the San Francisco Chronicle), the press is failing to fulfill its own First Amendment role, namely, to offer the public a range of information and viewpoints and to serve as "a forum where people can venture and exchange ideas independently of government interests" (as Dieter Grimm has written in his contribution to Extreme Speech and Democracy). The media, like the fawning courtiers serving  a despot, are content to publish the administration's own "official" view of itself. Again, one can't blame Obama for acting like an emperor since the press is so clearly of the opinion that he should be one. The media, despite its claims to the contrary, is clearly uncomfortable with the messiness of the democratic process. Journalists nowadays take the position of Rousseau who went so far, in Julie and Emile, as to declare that true communication was the avoidance of words. Thus, the General Will emerges from "the voice of duty," not from the opinions of individuals. The press in the U.S. is only too happy to serve Obama's imperial ambitions.

For me, the most disturbing instance of failure of the press concerns the president's defense of the "right" of Muslim women to wear the hijab. Ask the gal pictured below, being hectored in Tehran by a morals policewoman, whether she feels empowered with full-body covering. Will the press allow Obama to come down on both sides of the issue in the present turmoil in Iran? The Pew report, comparing Obama's press coverage with that of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, made this comment: "Obama, by contrast, while he has had good weeks and bad in the media, has managed to recover from the rough ones by changing tactics and redirecting the narrative." Goethe recognized this pre-democratic ruling style.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Goethe and Free Speech

In truth, Goethe never directly addressed the issue on which I am currently working, in connection with the volume on the 18th-century history of free speech. I wrote on Goethe's absence from this debate in an earlier post. The past days, however, I have been reading the "Noten und Abhandlungen" that Goethe appended to the West-East Divan and have discovered some comments that address the issue.

About half way through the "Notes" (I am referring to p. 169 of the Hamburg edition), in the section entitled "Doubts" (Zweifel) Goethe mentions that a Westerner (Westländer) can never be entirely comfortable with "Persian poetry." 

It is not, he writes, the religion that distances us from this poetry, for the unity of God, the submission to His will, the prophets, and so on are also elements of our own beliefs and, indeed, our Scriptures are the basis for the Islamic ones. We have also been long acquainted with "Märchen" from the Middle East, and even its mysticism should not be too foreign to us. But, then, he puts his finger on the problem:

What is beyond the capacity of the Westerner to understand is the spiritual and bodily obsequiousness to rulers and masters, a practice of the most ancient times when kings were representatives of God. 

In the Old Testament we read without any particular displeasure of men and women throwing themselves on their faces and worshiping priests and heroes, for they were accustomed to doing the same before "Elohim." What began as a natural pious feeling transformed itself later into tedious courtly ritual. ... Many Western diplomatic missions have come to grief with this ceremony in Eastern courts ... Which Westerner can find it endurable that the Oriental not only presses his head nine times to the earth, but that he even tosses it away, for any cause or goal?

Goethe then describes a courtly sport known as "Maillespiel," a very rough version of croquet, in which a box-wood ball, a foot in circumference, is struck with a mallet (Schlägel) down an alley through a number of arches and hoops. (Click on image at the top for the course of the game. The history of the sport can be found here in English.) He quotes lines by the poet Dschami, from Hammer's edition, in which this extreme becomes a method of gaining the ruler's attention: the poet offers his own head as the ball.

Wie lang wirst ohne Hand und Fuß
Du noch des Schicksals Ballen sein!
Und überspringst du hundert Bahnen,
Dem Schlägel kannst du nicht entfliehen.
Leg auf des Schahes Bahn den Kopf,
Vielleicht daß er dich doch erblickt.

(I translate only the final two lines: Lay your head on the Shah's track; perhaps he will then notice you.) Goethe gives a few more examples of this sort, from Hafis. He adds that a deeper study of the subject might show that earlier poets (i.e., before the Golden Age of Persian poetry that is his subject) were more modest in their expression of such obsequiousness and, moreover, that later poets did not take these abuses (Mißbräuche) seriously, but, using the same poetic language, loved them for their parodic value.

Okay, I am getting to the free speech part. After a discussion of the characteristics of Persian poetry, he makes the interesting observation (HA, p. 189) that there is no drama in Persian poesy. "Had a dramatic poet been able to arise [aufstehen], its entire literature would have had a completely different aspect."

The nation [!] is inclined to silence [zur Ruhe geneigt]. It likes to be read aloud to, thus the countless fairytales and the endless poems. Oriental life is otherwise not talkative. Despotism has no need of dialogue [Wechselreden]. Thus we find that objections to the will and commands of the ruler appear only in quotations in the Koran and in lines from well-known poets, the understanding of which require intelligence [einen geistreichen Zustand] and deep, wide, and rigorous education [Bildung].

Thus, though Goethe never addressed the subject of free speech in connection with Europe (at least not so far as I have discovered), his acquaintance with the Middle East through the poetry led him to make observations that are relevant to the current issue of free speech and that also show his reflections concerning what has become the foundation of modern Western political life: Europeans were used to speaking out against their rulers. There was an important exception within the Enlightenment, namely, under the "enlightened monarch" Catherine in Russia, which I hope to touch on in my next post.

Picture credits: BMI magazine "Voyager" (Persian storyteller); the Ancient Web (Darius of Persia)

Monday, June 1, 2009

Goethe and Saint Philip Neri

When Philip Neri walked abroad
Beside the Tiber, praising God,
They say he was attended home
By half the younger set of Rome.

Knight, novice, scholar, boisterous boy,
They followed after him with joy.
To nurse his poor and break his bread
And hear the funny things he said.

For Philip Neri (by his birth
A Florentine) believed in mirth,
Holding that virtues took no harm
Which went with laughter arm in arm.

Two books he read with most affection -- 
The Gospels and a joke collection;
And sang hosannas set to fiddles
And fed the sick on soup and riddles.

So when the grave rebuke the merry,
Let them remember Philip Neri
(Fifteen-fifteen to ninety-five),
Who was the merriest man alive,
Then, dying at eight or a bit,
Became a saint by Holy Wit.

The poem about Philip Neri (1515-1595) is by Phillis McGinley, than whom Goethe could not have been a more different poet. Goethe, however, who lived in Italy under the disguise of "Filippo Miller, pittore tedesco," also wrote about the man he called his own "patron saint" in Italian Journey.

The first mention is from Naples, on May 26, 1787, which is the feast day of Saint Philip Neri. It is a short account of the characteristics captured by McGinley's verse, in particular the saintly balance of sanity and enthusiasm. Goethe also seemed impressed with Philip Neri's gift of combining what Goethe calls the spiritual, indeed the holy, with the worldly (das Geistliche, ja das Heilige mit dem Weltlichen). Indeed, until he was thirty-six Philip carried out his works of charity and mercy without taking priestly orders. Goethe makes what might seem an indirect comparison of northern and southern temperament with a reference to Luther, who was active at the same time. And this is Goethe's sane commentary on tales of Philip's levitation while offering mass:

Even if we are justly doubtful about his miraculous levitation, in spirit he was certainly raised high above this world; and therefore nothing repelled him as much as vanity, pretense, and arrogance, which he always vigorously combated as the greatest hindrances to a truly God-pleasing life. But he always did this in a good-humored fashion, as many a story tells us.

The picture here of Philip holding a fox refers to a story reported by Goethe: a young Roman prince came to Philip asking permission to join the congregation that he founded and was told he had to pass a test. 
Philip "produced a long foxtail and demanded that the prince have this attached to the back of his long frock and then walk quite gravely through all the streets of Rome." The young prince was horrified, saying he had "come forward to reap honor, not shame," to which Philip replied that in his circle self-denial was the rule. "Whereupon the youth took his leave."

His second and much longer essay on "Filippo Neri, the Humorous Saint" (thus the cartoon at the top of this post, courtesy of "Yaholo"; click on image to enlarge), in the "Second Roman Residence," has always puzzled me. It shows that he went back to the original sources, including Pietro Giacomo Bacci's Vita di S. Filippo Neri (Rome 1745). Goethe was no slouch: I found an English translation of this work online, and it runs to several hundred pages. Goethe even seems to have done research concerning Philip's appearance, mentioning at the outset that his portrait is contained in "Fidanza 'Teste Scelte,' Tom. V, Bl. 31," referring to this volume by Raffaello Sanzio dUrbino, published in Rome in the years 1757-59.

My puzzlement revolves around Goethe's aversion to much Christian doctrine and, especially puzzling while in Italy, to painting on Christian subjects. Julie Prandi, however, in her study "Dare to be happy!" A Study of Goethe's Ethics, devotes a section to "Filippo Neri, the Humorous Saint," in which she links Philip's "voluntary resignation" to Goethe's ethics of "Entsagung." Moreover, though Neri denies the flesh, Goethe stresses that "he is neither a misanthrope nor an irrational mystic." She quotes Goethe crediting the saint with "a happy disposition, good common sense" (den klarsten Menschenverstand) and "a practical rationality" (So finden wir zwar immer einen verständig-praktischen Mann).

The stories about Philip Neri stress his opposition to spiritual complacency in himself and others, which he countered with very strict self-renunciation. Goethe of course never went to such lengths as Philip, but he was able to immerse himself in the historical situation -- the Roman Catholic Church was fighting to regain its direction -- that might have produced such figures as Philip as well as Francis Xavier:

Let us put ourselves back into the second half of the 16th century, and into the devastated situation in which Rome, under various popes, resembled a stormy sea. Then it will be easier to grasp how this method could not fail to be effective and powerful. Through inclination and fear, devotion and obedience, it lent great strength to man's inmost wish to preserve himself in spite of all external conditions, to withstand everything that could occur, since it enabled him to renounce absolutely even what was reasonable and sensible, what was conventional and proper.

In this terrible period -- the sack of Rome (as pictured above) occurred in 1527 -- Philip gathered numbers of men to minister to the poor pilgrims who flocked to Rome, to care for the sick in hospitals, and to pray, sing hymns, and study Scripture informally in a hall, or Oratory. Thus, the name of the order founded by Philip, Oratorians. The movement spread after his death, chiefly in Italy and in France. Among its famous members were the rationalist philosopher Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715) and John Henry Newman (1801-1890).

To return to Phyllis McGinley: I cannot now recall what I once knew about her, but as a teenager I read many of her essays. Interestingly, an essay by Ginia Bellafante on McGinley appeared last December in the New York Times, in which it is mentioned that McGinley received a Pulitzer Prize for poetry the year that Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road appeared, 1961. Again, a writer more different from McGinley cannot be imagined. It was probably McGinley's optimism that appealed to me when I was a teenager (and indeed still does). As Bellafante writes: "In 'The 5:32,' a poem about a woman meeting her husband at the train, she proved again that she seemed to find roses where so many others were turning up crabgrass." There is much to be said for that sentiment. I'm sure Goethe would likewise have approved of McGinley over Richard Yates.

Credit for translation: Robert H. Heitner