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)

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