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.

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