Saturday, October 24, 2009

Goethe and Industrialism

I have been asked by a reader of this blog if I could offer him some information on two topics: (1) Goethe's desire to distance himself from the Romantics; and (2) Goethe's opinion of industrialism and of machines. From what I have just been reading in the Goethe-Handbuch, in two entries by Michael Niedermeier, it seems that there is a connection between these two topics.

On Goethe's distance from the Romantics, Niedermeier writes the following in his entry on craft trades ("Handwerk"): "Goethe's growing recognition that a prerequisite for every serious creative occupation is manual training [handwerkliches Können] led to a greater appreciation and active promotion of all sorts of manual activities; thus, his critical assessment of trends in culture, art, and science that in his opinion were too fixated on the subject and its inner subjective processes." The latter, of course, refers to the Romantic writers. (Here, also, a nice article on "Handwerk/Kunsthandwerk" in English.)

At the outset it must be said that Goethe had virtually no experience with industry, as we have come to know it. In his capacity as a member of the Ilmenau mine commission, he was familiar with the mechanical processes involved in mining, in extracting minerals from the earth. (Bernd Wolff's novels Winterströme and Die Würde der Steine contain excellent passages describing 18th-century German mining in the Harz and also portray Goethe's acquaintance with miners and his descent into several mines.) The Ruhr, which would become Germany's major source of coal, was still mostly agrarian in his lifetime, though by 1850 there were almost 300 coal mines in the region. Goethe, however, certainly never saw a factory like the one above, the Borsig Machine Factory (in an 1847 painting by Karl Eduard Biermann). As part of the administration of the duchy of Weimar, however, Goethe is rather singular among major writers in actually having had real hands-on contact with the world of work and with the finances of the duchy.

According to Niedermeier (in the entry on "Industrie"), Goethe's understanding of the term "industry" is originally to be seen in the context of moral philosophy, thus, a virtue in the sense of "inventive diligence, industrious activity, industry or bustle" (eine Tugend im Sinne von erfinderischem Fleiß, eifriger Tätigkeit, Emsigkeit oder Betriebsamkeit: so many terms in Germany for industriousness!).

(Homage to American Quiltmakers, by Lori Smith)

Niedermeyer mentions that the coming machine age (das aufkommende Maschinenwesen) first began to concern Goethe after he saw his first steam engine in 1790 in Tarnowitz in Silesia (today the southern Polish Tarnowskie Góry). While recognizing the possibility of greater productivity, Goethe feared that the separation of the hand from the labor posed a danger for art ["sah er doch in der Trennung der Hand von der Arbeit eine Gefährdung für die Kunst"]; he also foresaw culture becoming more shallow with technical progress, not to mention a rise in unemployment because of technical reproduction methods. (We see here where Marx got some of his ideas.)

I mentioned in an earlier post that some scholars and others have claimed Goethe as a "Green" avant la lettre. It has to be said, however, that Goethe cannot be pigeon-holed in this way; he not only saw the advantages of the coming "technologisches Zeitalter" (see Walter Benjamin), but he also followed material developments with great interest. Thus, after learning from Alexander von Humboldt that a canal would be dredged through the isthmus of Panama, he spoke to Eckermann (February 2, 1827) about the resulting prospects for world shipping:

Should a dig of this sort succeed, so that ships of any size, with any cargo, could sail from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, the consequences for the human race, civilized and uncivilized, would be incalculable. I should be surprised if the United States missed taking this project into its hands. ... I should like to see a connection forged between the Rhine and the Danube. But this undertaking would be so gigantic that I doubt it can be achieved, especially in view of our German resources. ... And finally I should like to see the English in possession of a canal at Suez. I wish I might live to experience these three achievements. It would be worth lasting some fifty more years.

(The Suez Canal was finished in 1869, the Panama in 1914, and the Rhine-Danube connection late in the 20th century.)

Picture credit: Dair House School; NASA (image taken by MISR satellite on January 30, 2001)

Translation credit: Nancy Boerner (from Peter Boerner's Goethe, 2005)

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