Friday, August 28, 2009

Happy Birthday, Goethe!

It was on the 28th of August 1749, at the stroke of twelve noon, that I came into the world in Frankfurt on the Main. The constellation was auspicious: the Sun was in Virgo and at its culmination for the day. Jupiter and Venus looked amicably upon it, and Mercury was not hostile. Saturn and Mars maintained indifference. Only the Moon, just then becoming full, was in a position to exert averse force, because its planetary hour had begun. It did, indeed, resist my birth, which did not take place until this hour had passed.

These good aspects, which astrologers in later years taught me to value very highly, were probably responsible for my survival, for the midwife was so unskilled that I was brought into the world as good as dead, and only with great difficulty could I be made to open my eyes and see the light.

Goethe begins his autobiography with the above description of his birth. He was being somewhat fanciful, for he rejected the "metaphysical assumptions" of astrology, namely, that one's path in life was determined by the position of the planets and other stars at the moment of one's birth.

Nevertheless, he saw fate (Schicksal), an element of what he referred to as necessity (Notwendigkeit), determining one's life in an "incomprehensible way" (auf unbegreifliche Weise). Moral freedom was achieved by the individual working within the limitations imposed by necessity and thereby crafting a meaningful life. Goethe's view would seem to have much in common with the Ancients, especially the Stoics, an aspect I have not investigated much in connection with Goethe. There is a great element of willfulness in his view of the world, especially as he grew older, perhaps influenced by a resistance to enthusiasm or mysticism, as if willing something to be the case would make it so.

I suspect that Goethe's description of his birth is playing on the account in Matthew 2: 1-12 of the Three Magi who followed the star from the East to the site of where Jesus lay in the manger. They are portrayed above in a late 6th-century mosaic at the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuova in Ravenna.

Even if Goethe himself rejected astrology, astrologers themselves have devoted themselves to plotting his natal chart. For a full "Astro-databank" on Goethe, go to this link, where you can find a larger image of the chart above; for Christiane here.

Poetry and Truth translation credit: Robert R. Heitner; natal chart: Astrotheme

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Goethe as Gourmand

I wrote in an earlier post (November 30, 2008) that Goethe liked good food and wine. In his garden in Weimar (photo above by Adreas Trepte) he planted fruit trees and berries and raised potatoes and other vegetables, especially asparagus. Trellises on the south house wall were full of apricots. Even the cooking herbs came from this garden. In July 1793 Christiane wrote to Goethe (he was then in Marienborn; this was during the siege of Mainz) that she had eaten kohlrabi and artichokes from their garden.

The Weimar "court gardener" Friedrich Gottlieb Dietrich has also described the "experimental" portion of Goethe's garden, in which he analyzed the differences between local and foreign varieties of vegetables. According to Dietrich, Goethe liked to show visitors, such as Knebel Herder, Einsiedel, Gerning, "as well as women," around the garden, explaining the plants and giving small lectures. Providing an important contemporary illustration of the state of the garden is the charming colored etching below, by Eduard Lobe, showing Goethe and his grandsons in the garden ca. 1825.

Goethe's household accounts also show that he spent large sums on such items as chestnuts, grapes, fermented mustard, and honey. Chocolate was ordered from Vienna, and wines were imported from the Rhine region. Here are some of the other products guests enjoyed at Goethe's table: fois gras, truffles, mussels, salmon, Spanish raisins, and caviar. Weimar, a town of 6,000 people, could hardly have supplied Goethe with such delicacies, which we routinely enjoy today if we live near Zabar's or Fairway. Indeed, one of the first things that struck me when I first arrived in Manhattan so many years ago was the variety of food that could be enjoyed by ordinary folks. I grew up in the heartland, where cheese meant Velveeta.

Goethe's appreciation for such delicacies, as far as I can read the matter, takes place after the turn of the 19th century. From the moment his foot touched ground in Italy, in 1786, Goethe raved about the fruit, not surprising for an inhabitant of northern Europe. And though he mentions meals eaten in The Italian Journey -- published in 1816-17, though based on notes from the time of his stay in Italy in 1786-88 -- there is not a word in this account about Italian cuisine. It may be that in 1786 there was not what we today would call "cuisine" in Italy, though I doubt that is the case. One senses in the Italians' enjoyment of their food something atavistic; so, too, must Horace have enjoyed his food.

The appreciation for fine food among ordinary people and their ability to put it on their own table or in their own picnic baskets are phenomena of the kind of commerce that was starting to blossom in Goethe's time. It was this phenomenon that was one of the sources of Goethe's thinking on "world literature." As I have emphasized before, the free trade in goods was accompanied by the free trade in ideas. For Goethe the latter consisted of the work of writers, which he believed would bring the nations of the world into comity. To a great extent it is true that there is a "world republic of letters": those of us who care about these things are quickly made aware of the newest literary products from all over the world. We are also "tolerant" of many different ideas.

In our democratic age, however, more and more people are able to enjoy the products of free trade in material goods, especially in food. What is more, people have a great desire to move beyond what is local. An amusing story in the BBC news: although the Islamic Republic of Iran does not import any goods from Israel, in April authorities in Tehran discovered that Jaffa oranges were being imported in boxes marked as Chinese. Iranians love that seedly, sweet fruit, and someone in Tehran was willing to take the risk to supply them with it.

On a recent walk I discovered that a Whole Foods Market is to open tomorrow at Columbus Avenue and 100th Street. This is being announced as an "Upper West Side" store, but this only shows the extension of the concept of Upper West Side. The jump across 96th Street indicates a the changing demography. Lots of new apartment construction in that area, for people with trust funds or earning very big salaries, but there is also a large tract of public housing nearby. Never mind: people of all classes now appreciate choice and variety in their foods. Goethe Girl and her husband shop regularly at Fairway, another emporium for food choice.

The appearance on the shelves of stores of all these food offerings does not happen by accident. Like the Iranians who risk their lives to sell Jaffa oranges, people all over the world, in small ways and large, are working to satisfy our tastes in food and in other material goods. Working people like them are what makes our world go round. Think of all the different people behind those different varieties of bottled water at Fairway. I wish our politicians appreciated this aspect of our economy. The problem with most politicians is that none has actually worked in a real job. Like us folks in "the republic of letters," they are full of good ideas, most of which have no basis in real life.

The beautiful still life of melons and pears (in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) is by an 18th-century painter, Luis Meléndez (1716-1780). Goethe probably never saw a painting by Meléndez, though he certainly would have enjoyed fruits in Italy like those Meléndez painted. I recently became acquainted with Meléndez through a review by Maureen Mullarkey of a recent show of his paintings in Washington, D.C. Just a week ago I was in Washington to see the show myself. Another aspect of world literature, in the sense of intellectual exchange: I have probably seen more paintings in my life than Goethe ever did.

Jaffa picture credit: art2day4u

Sunday, August 23, 2009

"Der abenteurliche Simplicissimus Teutsch"

Here is another German writer I have not thought about for a long time, maybe since graduate school: Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (1621-1676), author of the above-titled work. Simplicissimus has the thickness of a novel of the Baroque era, befitting an episodic account of the adventures of its roguish narrator from childhood to adulthood during the era of the Thirty Years War.

Naturally it has a Baroque-era subtitle: "d.h. die Beschreibung des Lebens eines seltsamen Vaganten, genannt Melchior Sternfels von Fuchsheim" (i.e., the description of the life of a strange vagabond, named Melchior Sternfels von Fuchsheim). It is regarded as the greatest non-Spanish picaresque novel, and, on this the 333 anniversary of Grimmelshausen's death, a modern German translation of the 17th-century work has just appeared. The translator is Reinhard Kaiser, an estimable writer himself, who has also tranlsated Isaiah Berlin, Susan Sontag, Nancy Mitford, Sylvia Plath, and Neil Postman. What an eclectic lot.

For those who are interested, there is an English translation, from 1912, which can be had complete at Google Books. And for more information on the various literary currents in Germany in the 17th century, here is a wonderful Austrian site, with several neat graphs. So many long-forgotten names: Zincgref, Weckherlin, Angelus Silesius, Lohenstein, Gryphius, and, not to forget, my favorite of them all, Christian Hoffmann von Hoffmannswaldau.

When I entered graduate school, before I had the brilliant idea of devoting myself to Goethe, I had thought I might concentrate on 17th-century German literature. Truth to tell, it is not the greatest age of German literature, but what a great age it is in Europe nevertheless, despite endless wars. It is amazing how many brilliant men (and, yes, mostly they were men) there were. I was reminded of this greatness this past spring when the Metropolitan Museum had a special exhibition of landscapes by Poussin.

In connection with the exhibition there was also a series of lectures, which were the most brilliant talks I had heard in a long time. Helen Langdon, of the British School in Rome, spoke on "A Wild Beauty: 17th-Century Sublime." From my own recent work on this aesthetic category, I had thought that the sublime came of age in the 18th century, but according to Professor Langdon Longinus's text on the sublime was well known in the 17th century and discussed in circles in which Nicholas Poussin participated.

"Seneca," she said, referring to a favorite poet of the 17th century, "was dazzled into melancholy by the immensity of the universe." No melancholy for the 18th-century Enlightenment!

There was a vogue in the 17th century, Langdon went on, for tales of the lives of hermits. Painters popularized these "anchorite" landscape scenes: precipices, trees splintered by lightning, and so on. There were many spiritual currents that fed into these contemplative landscapes, for instance, the works of Saint John of the Cross. At the end of the novel Simplicissimus, its anti-hero undergoes a spiritual redemption and becomes a hermit, retreating from a world of which he had reported so many terrible things. (Pictured here is Dürer's painting of Saint Jerome, during the period the saint, seized with a desire for penance, spent in the desert in Chalcis, near Antioch.)

I don't know if Goethe read Grimmelshausen's great novel. Simplicissimus is not listed among the contents of his own or his father's library. Baroque literature was regarded as too passé, too superannuated by the mid-18th century, though Goethe was interested in the picaresque novel. His own novels about Wilhelm Meister are episodic, describing the travels of Wilhelm and his encounters with many colorful individuals (indeed some much more colorful than he is) from whom he learns many lessons.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Goethe and Hölderlin

Goethe's views on world literature are "cutting edge," as seen in the connection he made between free trade in goods and in ideas. World literature was a preoccupation of the last decade of his life, the 1820s, when the different regions of the earth were being linked with one another through trade and colonization. He welcomed these links, especially as they brought people like himself into contact with like-minded individuals in other lands, but it was a turbulent time, and Goethe was aware of the disquieting effect that these material changes had on one's spiritual condition: "The world is in such a turbulent state that every individual is in danger of being sucked into its vortex." (See Manfred Osten's essay on "'Alles veloziferisch' oder Goethes Entdeckung der Langsamkeit.")

Earlier, however, in the 1790s, Goethe had been less "progressive" in his judgments, especially concerning literature and the arts. In my recent readings on Herder I came across a letter from Goethe to Meyer (20 June 1796) in which he criticizes an aspect of the "Humanitätsbriefe," namely, Herder's "unbelievable toleration for the mediocre, his rhetorical mixing together of the good with the insignificant, his admiration for the dead and decayed, an indifference to what is alive and aspiring" (eine unglaubliche Duldung gegen das Mittelmäßige, eine rednerische Vermischung des Guten und des Unbedeutenden, eine Verehrung des Abgestorbenen und Vermoderten, eine Gleichgültigkeit gegen das Lebendige und Strebende).

These words are somewhat ironic in light of Goethe's own reputation for seeming lack of critical judgment concerning certain contemporary writers, including Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843). I was reminded of this on reading a review of the publication of volume 20 of the Frankfurt edition of Hölderlin's "Complete Works" and of English translations of the play The Death of Empedocles and of Hölderlin's odes and elegies. The review, by Charlie Louth, appears in the August 7 issue of the TLS.

Louth surveys the textual history of Hölderlin's works, an issue of concern perhaps only to specialists: Beissner and Beck of the Stuttgart edition, versus D.E. Sattler's Frankfurt edition. He makes a point that I found of interest. The Frankfurt edition reproduces Hölderlin's major manuscripts in color facsimiles "whose clarity of definition perhaps exceeds the originals and [which] show how much care Hölderlin bestowed on the fair copies of his poems: they are things of beauty, their balance and proportion intrinsic to their meaning."

As Christoph Jamme writers in Goethe-Handbuch (4/1, 489), "In contrast to the complicated, tragically overshadowed problematic of his relationship with Schiller, Goethe's relations with Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin are characterized by a great reserve." Goethe reported to Schiller of his meetings with Hölderlin in Frankfurt in July 1797, turning the younger poet's name into a diminutive: "Yesterday young Hölderlin visited me. I especially recommended that he write small poems and to choose for each an interesting human subject" (Gestern ist auch Hölterlein by mir gewesen. ... Ich habe ihm besonders gerathen kleine Gedichte zu machen und sich zu jedem einen menschlich interessanten Gegenstand zu wählen). In light of Hölderlin's subsequent great elegies and hymns, Jamme characterizes Goethe's words as "one of the greatest misunderstandings of German literary history."

Part of the difference between the two poets may have been what Ludwig Achim von Arnim characterized as their "totally contrary conceptions of "antiken Mythos." As von Arnim writes: Hölderlin does not lose himself in theorizing about antiquity ... Instead, the gods of the ancients surround him like approaching planets [nahende Sterne], with whose inhabitants he is able to converse." Very well put.

I notice that the German Hölderlin Society is offering a "Hyperion-Reise" in September. For those who prefer to read Hölderlin in English, this site offers a nice selection.

Credits: Hölderlin-Archiv der Württembergischen-Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

World Literature

This sculpture, commemorating German writers and poets, was on the "Walk of Ideas" in Berlin in 2006. All of the "Ideas" sculptures showcased German inventions, in this case, Gutenberg's invention of printing. Although Gutenberg's first and most famous printing job was the Bible -- thus Luther is represented toward the top of the stack of books -- note that otherwise all the writers honored are from the "modern" period. In connection with world literature, my special topic, it is fitting that the sculpture is grounded in Goethe. World literature is really a phenomenon of the manufacture and circulation of printed books. People speak incorrectly of world literature -- or at least of Goethe's concept -- when they include works of past masters, say, Homer or Dante, under that rubric.

The circulation of literature and indeed of "art" before the modern era was of a different order. I speak not of folk art or oral poetry here -- what Goethe would have called "Weltpoesie" -- but of the products of "culture," so anathematized by Rousseau. In this connection, an exhibition that I saw last week -- at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. -- brings out the difference between the modern and pre-modern: "The Tsars and the East: Gifts from Turkey and Iran in the Moscow Kremlin." The objects on view are quite sumptuous, even the equestrian trappings. (See the gold and jewel-encrusted bridle below.) The objects are for the most part ceremonial gifts from the Ottoman sultans and Safavid shahs. Despite the religious and political differences among the tsars and the sultans, each was eager to impress and flatter the other with gifts. Some of the earliest gifts -- arms and armor from Iran -- are from the 16th century. The gifts accumulate in the 17th century, with the increasing number of diplomatic missions between Russia and the Ottoman empire.

This was "exchange," made possible only through very labor-intensive craftsmanship. Its aim was splendor and its enjoyment was restricted. I am not sure one can even speak of enjoyment, since these gifts were not so much for personal adornment as to underline the representative status of the recipient. They were more like the kinds of objects made for churches throughout Christendom.

The modern world, with all our mechanical and technological know-how, has obviated the necessity for such a cumbersome production of goods. Thus, goods (including books) circulate freely and rapidly. More people have access to the intellectual products of other lands, if not in the original languages, then through translations. Thus, the process of world literature. It is no accident that this phenomenon is accompanied by the growth of democratic institutions and the growth of individual rights. In the West at least (and increasingly in the rest of the world), men and women no longer labor under the despotic conditions that produced the beautiful gifts of exchange between the tsars and the sultans.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Assumption of Mary

Yesterday, August 15, is the traditional date for the Assumption, a celebration of the Chrisian belief in Mary's assumption to heaven after her death. I am reminded that I arrived in Vienna last year on this date -- Maria Himmelfahrt -- when every shop in town appeared to be closed. The feast day gives me an opportunity to feature the only kind of painting I was familiar with as a child.

I grew up in "Middle America." There were not many frills in the Catholic school I attended, and one of my middling accomplishments was in penmanship. Even as late as the 6th grade, we spent inordinate amounts of time on exercises for increasing hand and wrist flexibility and stroke regularity -- row after row of diagonals and connected "O"s -- which also served the purpose of keeping classrooms of fifty and sixty pupils busy and quiet.

The culmination of all our practice was the compilation of a book of saints' biographies. First, Sister Eugene Maria dictated a passage, which we wrote out in pencil, concerning, say, the life of an early martyr, each of whom was a model of behavior and, in the case of Catherine of Alexandria, of prodigious educational achievement.

Afterward we went back and corrected our dictation and, only when every imperfection of grammar and spelling had been expunged was it transferred, neatly, to a special notebook. Each page was devoted to a single saint and would be accompanied by a Murillo-like reproduction of the saint, one expressing exaltation and devotion in a sea of Baroque blues and reds. We literally devoted weeks on this exercise, and the book by one of my friends, Judy, a small work of art, indicated the achievements that could be nurtured in nine- and ten-year-old girls who otherwise had no intellectual models.

How I loved those nuns, and how much I owe to them! I certainly was able to recognize all the religious imagery when I finally went to my first museum, at the age of 18. That was in Paris, and naturally, having waited to so long to see "real" art, I went to one of the best, the Louvre. More on that on another occasion.

The Assumption continues to be of interest to artists, as can be seen in this painting by Brigid Marlin.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Schiller at 250

In my last post I took on the subject of benevolent rulers. Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) lived under a ruler who was less than benevolent, Karl Eugen, duke of Württemberg. Schiller was a promising young man and entered the duke's elite military academy in Stuttgart in 1773, where he studied medicine. He also read Goethe and Rousseau at the academy and wrote his first drama, Die Räuber (The Robbers). The play, which pitted two aristocratic brothers against one another, was proto-revolutionary in taking on the themes of corruption, religion, economic disparities, and the dividing line between liberty and law. The play was, as they say, a critical success at its original performance in Mannheim in 1781. It did not please Karl Eugen, however, who ordered Schiller to stop writing and publishing and instead to concentrate on being a military surgeon.

In 1783, very much like a Schillerian hero, Schiller left Stuttgart for good, under cover of night. He continued to attack princely corruption, in particular in Kabale und Liebe. One of the themes of the play is the selling of soldiers (Soldatenhandel) by a German prince to fight in the American war of independence. This was a practice that Karl Eugen engaged in, for the purpose of filling the princely coffers. It is no wonder that Schiller was a hero with French Revolutionaries and, later, with supporters of Napoleon.

Stuttgart cherishes no bad feelings for Schiller today and is celebrating his 250th in a novel way. The Cultural Office of the city and the Bakers' Guild are sponsoring the "Schillertüte." The shopping bag (it looks a little like the reusable ones from Trader Joe's) carries on its front a short story of up to 400 words, which must refer to a work by Schiller or contain some phrase from his works.

The bags are available, naturally, at bakeries in Stuttgart, which are also creating special baked goods for the occasion: salzige Schillerlocke mit Wurst-Käse Füllung, Räuber Weckle,, DichterSeele, and "klassisches süße Schillerlocke mit Sahnefüllung." The authors of the short stories that appear on the bags were the winners of a competition. One of the selected contestants, Nia Guramishvili, is only 9 years old, while another, Hans Martin Thill, was born in 1938! The "Schillertüte" pictured below reproduces a winning entry, "Das Feuerwehrfest," which includes the lines "Ach! des Lebens schönste Feier/ Endigt auch den Lebensmai ..." (Das Lied von der Glocke).

For more on Schiller, in general and in this celebratory year, go here. The Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach is sponsoring several events and exhibits, including the intriguingly named "Autopsie Schiller: Eine literarische Untersuchung" (Schiller autopsy: a literary investigation). It promises a look at Schiller's "sinnlicher Seite, seinem physischen wie poetischen Körper, seinen realen wie geistigen Hinterlassenschaften."

Picture credits: Das Literaturarchiv Marbach; Oro Valley Real Estate

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Free Speech and Benevolent Rulers

As I have written before on this blog, I have been editing papers on the historical origins of free speech in the 18th century, which, it is hoped, will appear in a published volume. One of the papers is by Douglas Smith, writing on free speech in Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great. Catherine (1729-1796) is one of the three "enlightened despots," along with Frederick of Russia and Joseph II of Austria. Catherine, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, endorsed a liberal policy of freedom of expression, without going so far, however, as to institute it in law. She also relaxed press censorship after 1783.

Freedoms bestowed by a sovereign, however, can also be also be taken away by a sovereign, as was the case when a book appeared that tested the limits of freedom of expression in Russia. This was Alexander Radishchev's Journey from Saint Petersburg to Moscow, which portrayed the evils of Czarist Russia, particularly serfdom. It could not have appeared at a worse time, at least as far as the author was concerned, 1790. Catherine was not amused, and Radishchev was lucky to escape with his head. Before her death Catherine instituted a system of censorship, citing "the need to put an end to various inconveniences resulting from the free and unrestricted publciation of books." After Catherine, Russia was even more intolerant to freedom of expression.

The second installment of a biography of Austria's Joseph II, by Derek Beales, has just appeared. The review in the TLS (July 31, 2009) confirms what I wrote above about freedoms bestowed by "enlightened" rulers. According to reviewer Steven Beller, Joseph was a great reformer: "Once he became sole ruler in 1780, Joseph unleashed a barrage of directives which amounted to one of the most radical reform packages yet put forward by a major European monarch." Among his achievements: he imposed the most expansive religious toleration in Catholic Europe; he began the emancipation of Habsburg Jewry; he was liberal in regard to press censorship.

Joseph was also, according to Beller, "almost a populist." He liked to travel incognito among his subjects, in order to understand their needs. But he always considered himself a sovereign, not a citizen. Thus, he had no use for constitutional representative government. Instead, he saw government "in stark terms of an unmediated relationship between sovereign and subjects." Traditional elites and the people, too, especially in Hungary, were suspicious of his plans, including the census he instituted as a first step to "rational modern government there."

For James Madison, author of the U.S. Bill of Rights, "the people, not the government, possess absolute sovereignty." Freedom of speech and the press, set down in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, were instruments by which the people would exercise "censorial power" over the government, not the other way around. Europeans, on the other hand, still seem very much under the influence of paternalistic notions of government as exemplified by rulers like Catherine, Joseph, and, later, Napoleon.

In Europe, it is still felt that well-intentioned elites can lead citizens to virtue and to the public good. Thus, although Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees freedom of expression, it is limited by "the protection of the reputation or rights of others." What this limitation had led to throughout Europe is a suppression of a discussion of contentious issues.

In the U.S. we would call this "political correctness," of which there is plenty here. Nevertheless, contentious public issues (gay marriage; affirmative action) are still debated, and in the process we work our way as a nation to some kind of resolution. It takes time, of course, but life exists in real time, not in an abstract, universal dimension. Rights have to be fought for by citizens, not bestowed by wise rulers (especially not by judges who think they know what is right). People in Iran and other countries fighting for liberties are learning for themselves what the West should have learned after several centuries of experience.

The recent protests at Town Hall meetings are impossible to imagine in Europe these days, but they are certainly a vivid illustration of what Madison had in mind when he declared that the citizens were to exercise censorial power over the government. These contentious forums are not "unpatriotic," as some members of Congress have asserted. We have had more contentious disagreements in our history. Frankly, my own opinion is that, when Congress doesn't do things, we are better off as a nation. (For a large image of the chart below, showing the bone of contention at Town Halls, go to Sherry Mowery's blog.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Kayaking on the Hudson

I'm in the summer doldrums, as far as blogging about Goethe goes. I will post something "significant" soon, on Goethe or Herder (much to think about here). Last week, the rain stopped for two days! We took advantage of one of them to paddle north to the George Washington Bridge and beyond. Herewith Goethe Girl in her favorite boat, a Romany. Thanks to Marc for the photos!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Lots of work lately, in connection with the free speech volume, plus I am also immersing myself in Herder. Very interesting point about Herder: he divided ways with Kant and Schiller -- and also with Goethe -- on the purpose of art. Kant and Schiller invoked "Spiel" (play), thereby separating the aesthetic from moral values and suggesting, perhaps, that nothing is at stake. For Herder, beauty should be in the service of improving the moral fiber of human beings. Thus, his insistence on the ideal of "kalokagathia."

I have written on "Spiel" in an earlier post, also on "Spieltrieb" ("ludic drive," according to an online dictionary) which I find manifested in certain modern works of art, say, the sculptures of Martin Puryear. (The one at the left, That Profile, is at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.) They are fun to look at, yet this pleasure would seem to have something moral or ethical about it, if only because it lifts you to a plane outside of your everyday cares and causes you to be reflective. I was struck by this on a recent outing to the High Line in Manhattan, an abandoned railroad viaduct 30 feet above the streets of Chelsea, on the West Side of Manhattan, that has been transformed into an urban playground. (More images like the top one from The New York Times. And here is a link to the map of the High Line.)

I am going out on a limb here, but these public installations are instances of "Spiel." I would include Central Park and Riverside Park in New York, which seem like "natural" refuges for us urban dwellers. One forgets the labor that has gone into creating them over the last 150 years. Nature does not plan for us to be pleased by its effects, but art does have this intentionality. "Successful" Spiel in art, however, seems difficult to achieve. The practitioner, as in the case of Puryear, must be truly accomplished. Otherwise, the result is only cute, even if clearly some effort was involved.

The Bow Bridge in Central Park (in this photo by Paul Nevin) was constructed in 1859-60 by the firm of Janes, Kirtland & Co., which received the contract for the dome of The Capitol in Washington, D.C. while work was underway on the iron bridge. It has a 142-foot balustrade and a wooden walkway and serves as a picturesque backdrop for boaters. The interlacing ornamental iron railing was designed by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Hamann in Manhattan

Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) is an important figure in German thought of the 18th century, one on the edge of my expertise. Goethe probably learned of Hamann already in Frankfurt, in 1768-69, from Susanna Katharina von Klettenberg, a Pietist reader of the writings of the Counter-Enlightenment philosopher. Goethe became more intimately acquainted with Hamann's writings under Herder's tutelage in Strassburg. From this string of acquaintances and influences emerged the so-called Sturm und Drang. Goethe's early essays -- on Shakespeare, on German architecture -- show his enthusiasm for Hamann's "sibylline" style of writing. It is this style and the considerable erudition that he wields that make Hamann somewhat unapproachable for us moderns and keeps most of us from reading him. As Lessing said, one had to know "a little bit of everything" to understand him. Lately, in connection with my world literature project, I have been reading Herder, Hamann's literary descendent, and it is not easy going.

Interest in Hamann has been growing in recent years, as evidenced this past March at a conference on Hamann at Hunter College, organized by Lisa Marie Anderson of the German Department. Hamann, as I learned, has many heirs, including Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, and Kierkegaard. He was the first major critic of Kantian rationalism, having invented the term "metacritique," which is first found in a letter to Herder of July 1782. Isaiah Berlin has called him an irrationalist, but that is one of the distortions of Hamann's legacy. As I mentioned in the Q&A after one of the talks, if Hamann hadn't lived, he would have had to be invented.

What made this conference of interest was the large number of papers focusing on Hamann's theology. I hate to single out any of the speakers (here is the program) since all were top-rate. There was a high level of enthusiasm for this neglected "Magus," though not everyone was a Hamann fan. (Okay, I will mention one: Manfred Kuehn, a Kant scholar.) As irritated as I often am with academics, it was one of those occasions when I was glad to be one.

I was happily surprised the other day to get an email from Jonathan Gray, from the University of London, a speaker at the conference, who had sent to all the attendees his very detailed notes of the talks. Since they are so full and rich, I asked Jonathan if I could post them here. So enjoy and profit from them! He also provides a link to photos. Goethe Girl is included in the one above, no doubt making a penetrating observation.

Michael Larson also posted on the March conference on his blog "Gemütlichkeit," along with a picture of three attendees. On the right in the above photo is Oswald Bayer, professor of systematic theology and philosophy of religion in Tübingen, who gave the keynote address: "God as Author: The Theological Foundation of Hamann's Autorpoetik." (Michael is the middle figure, next to Ronald F. Ziegler, who teaches systematic theology at Concordia Theological Seminary.)