Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Goethe and the Velociferic Tendencies of the Modern Age, 2

North and west and south are breaking,
Thrones are shattered, empires shaking:
Flee to the pure East, and there
Taste its patriarchal air;
Love, wine, song are waiting for you,
Khiser's fountain shall restore you.

This is the first verse (in David Luke's translation) of "Hegira," which opens Goethe's West-East Divan. Goethe has appropriated the term "Hegira," referring to the flight of Muhammed from Mecca to Medina in 622 A.D. and the beginning of the Muslim era, for his own poetic flight to the lands of the East. The images in the opening lines -- of empires shaking and thrones shattering -- explain the reason for his flight. From 1789 and into the first decades of the 19th century, Europe was also entering a new era.

For Goethe, Napoleon epitomized the dynamic changes taking place in Europe. According to Manfred Osten, it was Napoleon who imposed on Europe a modern tempo, not only through the introduction of modern mobile warfare ("Bewegungskrieg") but also in his attempt to replace the ancient political and social order with a new universal government. But Napoleon could not have been as successful as he was had the age of technology not already begun, offering the instruments whereby a new tempo could be imposed on life.

It is said that the Napoleonic wars resulted in a dramatic rise in the price of fodder, making the the steam locomotive an "economic proposition." By the 1820s the railway in England had advanced so far that Manchester (a cotton manufacturing town) could be quickly linked with the port of Liverpool. Throughout the 18th century steamships were being developed, with Robert Fulton leading the way on the rivers of America. In 1815 Pierre Andriel crossed the English Channel aboard the steamship Elise, initiating the first sea-going use of a steamship. (The crossing took 17 hours, by the way!)

In Goethe's last decade there was already what we would call mass tourism, to which he reacted in this fashion: "Like a packaged, inanimate ware people propel themselves through the loveliest natural beauties. They don't get to know countries anymore. The fragrance of the plums is gone" (Einer eingepackten, willenlosen Ware gleich schießt durch die schönsten Naturschönheiten der Mensch. Länder lernt er keine mehr kennen. Der Duft der Pflaume ist weg). In a letter to Zelter he wrote the following: "Everything is now ultra, in thinking and in doing. We don't know ourselves anymore; we don't understand the element in which we exist and are active ... Young people are aroused [aufgeregt] and then swept into the contemporary whirlpool. The world admires wealth and speed, and everyone strives for both." He mentions the effect of the railroad, express mail, steamships, and other methods of modern communication.

"We don't know ourselves anymore." Such is the effect of the velociferic tendencies of the modern age, which, with their futuristic, forward dynamic, efface all the traditional ties that gives humans their sense of identity. Goethe's "therapy" was to study other cultures, especially those of the East. This study, for those who would engage in it, would slow down the velociferic tendencies of the West. Like Osten, I see the origin of these tendencies in the Enlightenment, which was not simply a movement of ideas.

(William Hogarth, A Harlot's Progress, 1733, Tate Britain)

The mistake of the great men of the Enlightenment was to believe that "progress" occurred when humans freed themselves of inherited traditions and allegiances (principally religious ones but also those of family and nation). As Kant put it, "Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity." As if one could simply turn a switch on. But freedom, whether physical or from the opinions of others, has been made possible by modern progress in material conditions. Gradually, throughout the modern period, developments in technology made it possible for men, first, and, then, women, to become "emancipated." The modern work force requires individuals who can move from job to job, and, if growth is to continue, it requires women as well. Yes, we are definitely "freer" in 2009 than were people in 1809 or even 1909, but what is the price of such progress?

Much of the dissatisfaction with modern life -- note all the protests at the G20 summit last week -- stems from the unhappy fact that we have indeed lost much in moving forward. In sentiment the G20 protesters remind me of the Romantic movement in Germany. There is tremendous nostalgia mixed in with the revulsion at modern life and with what progress has brought us. For myself, however, I am happy for progress. It has made it possible for a person of my background to travel, learn foreign languages, get a Ph.D. And here I am, and living in New York City, too! Progress frees people to craft their own destiny.

The pictures of cargo ships and transport facilities are by Israeli-born photographer Shuli Hallak. The photos are the result of years of photographing at the New York container terminal on Staten Island. She also sailed aboard the M.V. Charles Island through the Panama Canal. I first saw Hallak's large photos early this year at the Moti Hasson Gallery in Chelsea and immediately thought that I would like to use them as illustrations in my book on world literature. It was because of the development of trade and commerce, via ships, that Goethe began to develop his concept of world literature. The free trade in goods went hand in hand with the free trade in ideas.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Goethe and the Velociferic Tendencies of the Modern Age

I have referred in earlier posts to Manfred Osten's work on Goethe, in particular the series of essays concerning what Goethe described as the tendency of the modern age, namely, that everything takes place "velociferically" The phrase occurs in a letter Goethe wrote to his grand-nephew Alfred Nicolovius in 1827. (I am relying on Osten here, since sovereign Goethe scholar that he is, he has neglected to give a reference and I have not been able to find the letter in the Weimar edition. Perhaps someone can assist me on this.)

In the letter Goethe writes that the greatest disaster of the present age, which allows nothing to mature, "is that one consumes the previous moment in the next one, wastes the day in the day, and thus always lives from hand to mouth" (daß man im nächsten Augenblick den vorhergehended verspeist, den Tag im Tage vertut, and so immer aus der Hand in den Mund lebt). Moreover, none of our activities are private anymore: "No one is allowed to be happy or to suffer, except to serve as a pastime for others." Goethe saw this tendency in global terms: "And so it goes from house to house, from city to city, from empire to empire, and finally from one part of the world to the other: everything "velociferically" or, in German, "alles veloziferisch."

"Velociferic" is a combination of "velocity" and "Lucifer." The latter, in the person of Mephisto, is the impresario for the "theater of impatience" that characterizes the Faust drama, the "modern world theater of impatience." The wager between Faust and Mephisto turns on Faust's inability to enjoy the present moment: "Fluch vor allem der Geduld!" And so Mephisto leads him through a journey of evanescent encounters (the Mothers, the Helena episode) and introduces him to a series of "instruments" by which time and experience proceed ever faster: the magic carpet, the rapid creation of money, and so on.

Goethe, according to Osten, anticipated the global reach of the media and information society, one that constantly creates and produces new "experiences" for us. (Indeed, Osten calls the episodes of Faust II "videoclips.") Impatience drives modernity, destroying what we cherished only a moment before (e.g., the final scene of Faust, when Philomen and Baucis are killed for their land) or insisting that we forget the past (Faust's guilt about Gretchen must be excised). By erasing all the associations that anchor one to the world and that give one an identity, we can proceed easily to the next distraction. Modern culture is dynamic: "alles veloziferisch."

Mark Helprin would seem to be channeling Goethe in an essay in a recent issue of National Review, a reply to the critics of his book Digital Barbarism: A Writer's Manifesto. The book was a response to attacks on Helprin for a 2007 New York Times op ed in which he defended the extension of legal copyright for authors. The op ed garnered 750,000 replies, mostly negative and illogical, demonstrating what Helprin saw as the entitlement of people educated to believe in "collaboration." For Helprin the theft of intellectual property represents a threat to an independent literary culture. Here are some excerpts from the NR essay, as I say "channeling Goethe," on the effects of the modern culture of impatience:

In 1807, Wordsworth held that the world was too much with us late and soon. Little did he know. What with BlackBerries, Blueteeth, iPhones, webcams, Twitter, and a never-ending creation of time-absorbing toys, intrusions, penetrations, and pre-cooked programs, the tyranny of which we are not supposed to notice, scores -- perhaps hundreds -- of millions of people no longer have a life of their own, and can neither sit still nor face a moment of solitude without the oxygen of an incoming or outgoing flicker. ... Too many people are in danger of becoming or have become what the Italians call industriali: extensions and servants of a machine culture of which they fancy themselves the master when in truth they are the slaves.

... I [do not] attribute to the past the perfection that some see so close at hand if their revisions are implemented, but to believe that at this moment the character, the art, the pace of things, and man's idea of his place in the universe, his powers, obligations, and destiny are sick and confused. Whereas in the past, burdened as it was by slavery, uncontrollable disease, and mass warfare, the tools of existence were largely capable of leading us out of them, the new tools of existence are capable of leading us back into them.

Goethe, according to Osten, suggested some "therapy" for this situation. It was called "world literature" and would serve to decelerate the velociferic tendencies of the West. More on this next time.

Picture credits: Highway Africa; the Louvre; Product Critic; Reviews U Can Use (2/24/09)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Back in New York

I spent three days this past week on Lake Sebago in Harriman State Park, enjoying the rustic benefits of a cabin belonging to the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club. Besides kayaking, I caught up on some canoeing. I also spent an afternoon touring the Rockefeller mansion, Kykuit, in nearby Tarrytown, New York. Amazing what one could build for a few million dollars back in 1907! On the way back to Manhattan, we exchanged cars in Matawan, New Jersey. Imagine, only an hour from New York, and you encounter real Americans: cheerful, hardworking, helpful people! It's good to get away from Manhattan now and then.

Yesterday Rick and I biked to the Battery and caught the ferry to Governor's Island, where we spent some time chilling out (as above). You get close views of the Statue of Liberty from the island. Now, it is time to return to serious work! Back to Goethe!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Goethe and Romanticism

Goethe is often considered a "Romantic" writer. He pointedly distanced himself from the literary movement that is usually referred to as German Romanticism and that includes such diverse writers as the brothers Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, Novalis, Clemens Brentano, Heinrich von Kleist, Friedrich Hölderlin, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Wackenroder. Goethe was a bit closer intellectually (and perhaps by sensibility) to the philosopher Schelling, but he literally seemed afraid of "contagion" by the younger generation, many of whom had come of age just as the French Revolution occurred. What made things worse for Goethe is that the younger writers took him as their model. Goethe's early writings, after all, had produced a new epoch in German literature, but by the time the German Romantic writers appears on the scene, by the late 1790s, Goethe had turned away from his own youthful literary enthusiasms. As Nicholas Boyle writes (in the first volume of his Goethe biography), by the 1780s Goethe "became more closely identified with the court culture," while gradually "his attention was turning to the classical civilizations of the Mediterranean."

These thoughts on Romanticism are prompted by my viewing yesterday of the film Bright Star, directed by Jane Campion. My friend Elizabeth Denlinger, curator of the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library, invited me to a showing sponsored by the Pforzheimer and the Keats-Shelley Association of America. The preview was in conjunction with the release of the movie, after its showing at various film festivals, this week in the U.S.

The movie, which concerns the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, gives more attention to Fanny than is usually the case with accounts of Keats's life. That is to say, Fanny hasn't traditionally come off too well in biographies of Keats. Jonathan Bate, for instance, has referred to the relationship as pitiful. Campion's film is in some sense revisionist, drawing on the more sympathetic reading of Fanny in Andrew Motion's recent biography of Keats.

There are plenty of sources concerning the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, including this one, which I leave for readers to investigate. What interested me was the portrayal of what might be called Romantic sensibility. As I have often stressed, it is really impossible wholly to enter into the mentality or even the material conditions of the past. Yet we never cease making the attempt. In the case of Bright Star, I kept thinking of the Jena Romantic circle, both the intensity of the poetic vocation and the volatile romantic relationships.

Something of the influence of Romantic-period painting can be seen in the photo below of actress Abbie Cornish, who plays the role of Fanny Brawne in Bright Star. For Romantic-period paintings of similar "Rooms with a View," see my posting of February 1, 2009.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Galsan Tschinag

Back in graduate school, when I was working on my dissertation on Goethe, I began writing reviews for World Literature Today. I started with reviews of German novels but was occasionally sent American ones as well. Over the years, I have written reviews of Birgit Vanderbeke, Christine Brooke-Rose, Angela Krauß, Paul Theroux, Erich Loest, Joyce Carol Oates, Jens Sparschuh, Muriel Spark, Christoph Peters, Philip Roth, and many more. What a lineup! The short format -- 500 words -- taught me to be succinct while also telling what the novel was about. (Have you noticed how that information is missing from so many book reviews?)

It was a good exercise, plus I have been able to keep up with contemporary literature. I must admit that I have not always been excited about the German writers, but certainly one of my favorites has been Martin Mosebach (pictured at the right), whose Der Mond und das Mädchen I reviewed for WLT. Besides being a wonderful chronicler of Germany and of Frankfurt in particular, Mosebach is refreshingly politically incorrect. Listen here to a interview with him on Das Literatur-Café. A very intelligent and thoughtful man.

No doubt the most interesting book I reviewed for WLT was Tau und Gras by Galsan Tschinag (b. 1944), a Mongolian writer and shaman from the small nomadic tribe of the Tuva, who traditionally occupied yurt settlements in the pastures and valleys of southern Siberia and Mongolia. I was reminded of Galsan Tschinag the other day, when I came across the photos of the Mongolian yurt above. It was among a series of photos of Mongolia and Inner Mongolia on the Big Picture website.

Mongolia, a newly independent nation since 1990, was formerly a Soviet-based communist republic. The shamanist story traditions were already being eroded by Soviet collectivization when Galsan Tschinag was born. Like many promising young men and women from formerly socialist lands of the Third World, he was sent to Leipzig to study in 1962, where he made himself a master of the German language. Tau und Gras and his other stories and novels offer a glimpse of a people for whom, according to Herder anyway, poetry was once a spontaneous cultural product. Galsan lives today mostly in Ulan Bator, but travels widely in Europe giving readings of his works.

I was unable to pull off any pictures of Galsan from the Internet (but go to the Wikipedia entry), but Big Picture includes many from Mongolia, including this arresting color composite image (made using shortwave infrared and green wavelengths) of the Edrengiyn Nuruu, which forms a transition one between the Mongolian steppes to the north and the arid deserts of northern China to the south.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Goethe and Geology

For a review I will be writing for Goethe Yearbook I am reading a trilogy by Bernd Wolff. The novels have as their central theme Goethe's three "Harz journeys," which took place in the years 1777 to 1784. The most well known product of these years, in terms of Goethe's oeuvre, is the poem "Harz Journey in Winter," which begins with a poetic invocation: may his song rise as effortlessly as a hawk, its pinions resting lightly on morning clouds, on the lookout for prey: "Dem Geier gleich/ Der auf schweren Morgenwolken/ Mit sanftem Fittich ruhend/ Nach Beute schaut,/ Schwebe mein Lied." Wolff's first novel, Winterströme, seeks to re-create the Harz journey of 1777 that gave impetus to this poem.

The major products of the second and third Harz journeys were two writings by Goethe on the subject of granite. Goethe, after becoming a member of Carl August's governing council, was appointed to the Ilmenau mine commission: the duchy of Weimar was short on cash, and it was hoped that the mine there, which had been shut down for several decades, would yield copper. Goethe took his duties seriously and began immersing himself in the study of mineralogy. The oldest university of mining and metallurgy in the world, established only a decade or so before, was located nearby, in Freiberg in Saxony. Among its famous students (at a later date) was Alexander von Humboldt.

Goethe took advantage of the expertise of J.C.W. Voigt (1752-1821), whom Carl August had sent to Freiberg to study, to carry out a mineralogical study of the duchy. This period was really the infancy of the science of geology or, in German, Erdenkunde. Voigt's mineralogical mapping was carried out with real hands-on labor. Today we are the beneficiaries of two centuries of technological development, as can be seen in this digital magnetized map of the so-called Kursk Magnetic Anomaly. We now can instantly see the mineralogical potential of the entire earth, thanks to the Commission for the Geological Map of the World. It is Goethe's enthusiasm for granite that Wolff portrays in the second and third novels: Im Labyrinth der Täler and Die Würde der Steine. It sounds very arcane, but Wolff's intention is to show the development of Goethe's scientific interests as a search for what might be called cosmic certainty. Another view of Goethe's interest in geology can be found here, in an article I wrote a few years back.

Wolff's novels suffer from the problem of most historical novels: the impossibility of recapturing the reality of the past. As I read, I constantly find myself objecting to conversations between characters but mostly to the mentality Wolff portrays. Nevertheless, for a Goethe scholar like myself it is fun to encounter all the people who were part of Goethe's milieu. There is hardly anyone Wolff leaves out: Goethe's cook and servants; Charlotte von Stein, but also her son Fritz; the painter Melchior Kraus (who accompanied Goethe on the third Harz journey and supplied the drawings of geological formations, including the one pictured here); Carl August's sad wife, Louisa August; the poet Gleim; Maria Antonia Branconi; Herder. They are all there and many more. So, if I can't take seriously Wolff's reconstruction of these figures, I have at least been led to reading more about them in historical accounts (which also suffer from the difficulty of recapturing past reality).

The painting at the top of today's post, The Weimar Court of the Muses, is by the artist Theobald von Oer. It shows Schiller (who died in 1805) reading his poems in the park of Schloß Tiefurt. (Goethe stands at the right, in a Napoleonic gesture.) It was painted in 1860, 55 years after Schiller's death, and is evidence of the late-19th-century fascination for "great" men. The court of the Muses at Weimar more likely resembled that to be seen in contemporary drawings by Melchior Kraus of "amateur theatricals" at the court in Vienna. Pictured here is a production of Der Postzug by the Austrian "officer and author" Cornelius Hermann von Ayrenhoff (1773-1819). Never heard of him? (And feminists are always decrying all the "disappeared" women writers!) According to his Wikipedia entry, his plays were modeled on the French writers Racine and Corneille; at the Burgtheater in Vienna, he was opposed to all the new-fangled theatrical innovations.

Picture credit: Free Republic

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

September 1, 1939

World War II "officially" began on this day 70 years ago. The lead article today in the Times of London calls Poland "the great survivor" and commends the country for having emerged from rival totalitarianisms and become an integral part of a free Europe. Recently I have read Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes, a marvelous novel about Russian oppression under the tsars. It reveals that, under the Soviets, Russians only changed the names of their oppressors. As a warning to us today, it also shows the kind of fanaticism that grips people who live under tyrannies.

Neville Chamberlain is usually ridiculed for his "peace in our time" appeasement of Hitler, with the Munich Agreement of September 1938, but, as the Times remarks today, the "ailing and politically quiescent Prime Minister, who had been outmanoeuvered on the international stage, belatedly did the right thing nonetheless. For the next six years Britain's fate was integral to Poland's prospects."

A ceremony in Danzig today commemorating this date in history included the presence of the Polish president Lech Kaczynski, German chancelor Angela Merkel, and Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin (above). Putin looks like he would prefer to be elsewhere.

As a former student and now scholar of German literature and of Goethe, one is hard put to explain why totalitarianism developed in Germany. Herblock's cartoon expresses something of that puzzlement. Certainly German history in no way approaches the barbarism of Russian rule, whether under the tsars or the Soviets. It may be the very intellectual achievements and cultural heritage of Germany that makes the Nazi period stand out and continue to exert a rather perverse fascination. In contrast, when a tyranny like that of Stalin kills millions of its own citizens, we shrug our shoulders, as if such behavior is to be expected, thus not holding that regime to the standards of civilization. Such a reaction, however, is a disservice to the millions of people all over the world who would prefer to live in a free society. Let this date be a reminder of what our fathers and grandfathers fought for. And don't forget to read Conrad, on the dangers of quiescence.