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

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