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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have just discovered your most wonderful blog! It is really a work of art. I'm sure you put a lot of work into it. Regarding Goethe's novels about Wilhelm: the big difference is that Wilhelm does eventually learn to have a purpose of his own rather than leading a "tag along" life, being used by others who did have goals. Grimmelshausen's protagonist, as is typical in the picaresque novel, learns nothing from his adventures. There is no "Bildung."