Thursday, December 30, 2010

Goethetc. at New Year

The Goethezeitportal issued a New Year's "Greeting," with illustrations and texts, mostly from the 19th century. There were a lot of charming postcards featuring the kinds of graphics associated with "old Germany." As at Christmas, not a single line or feature from Goethe. The drawing above, however, from 1790, struck me as something that could have come from the pen of Goethe. It is identified as by Johann Rudolf Burckhardt (1750-1813) and is entitled "A Boy Presents a New Year's Greeting to His Father."

Burckhardt was a businessman from Basel, specializing in silk manufacture. According to the site of Basel's Institute of Archaeology, he was one of the richest men in the town, commissioning, for instance, the "Stadtpalais," a residence known as "das Haus zum Kirschgarten" (the house at the cherry orchard), which is now part of Basel's Historisches Museum.

The entry on Burkhardt goes on to say that his mansion housed lots of art, including many plaster casts of works of antiquity, and that he was in contact with such eminences as Goethe. I can't find any mention of him in any of my Goethe reference books, but who knows? I wonder if he is related to Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784-1817), a famous Swiss Orientalist who discovered the Roman city of Petra.

It's an indication of the fascination of the Middle East for Europeans that this Burckhardt, during his travels in the Middle East, disguised himself as an Arab (as pictured here), calling himself Sheik Ibrahim ibn Abdallah. His writings -- or perhaps news of his travels in the Middle East -- may have been familiar to Goethe. The scene pictured in the drawing at the top of this post, however, of the young boy handing a New Year's card to his father, would certainly have been one familiar to Goethe. The mother looks like Charlotte von Stein.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Peace on Earth

I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (or Upper Left Side, as my husband calls it), so it is not surprising that at mass there is, among the intercessions, always a prayer for leaders to "work together to end the violence" in the world. In the eighteenth century, which is my area of research, there were many (the Enlighteners) who began to imagine that perpetual peace could be achieved on earth. There is a great sign on a phone booth on Broadway: "What good is hate?" Indeed. Such a question is what H.L. Mencken would have described as a pompous instance of "the self-evident made horrifying." What makes it worse is that tax dollars have been spent to publicize this phony iconoclasm.

Yet I will make one wish for peace at Christmas, namely, that Christians throughout the world be able to enjoy the freedom to worship. For instance, the Christians in Indonesia pictured above, living in a majority-Muslim nation. For that to happen our leaders need to summon the courage to start speaking out against the intolerance toward Christians worldwide.

Picture credit: Big Picture

Friday, December 24, 2010

Goethe at Christmas

As an indication of how little Christmas meant to Goethe, there is not a single mention of Goethe in the Christmas email of the Goethezeitportal. This is the major website for all kinds of information on Goethe and the era of Goethe, including texts, documentation, and so on. As always, there are lots of cool pictures (including the two posted here) and texts. Even Heinrich Heine, who was not a Christian (despite conversion), has an entry, describing Christmas in Berlin in 1822. Rüdiger Safranski in his book on the friendship between Goethe and Schiller, mentions one Christmas, in 1800, when Karoline Schlegel wrote to Goethe imploring him to invite Schelling for Christmas. It seems that Schelling (whom Karoline would later marry) was depressed. One glance from Goethe, she wrote, would transform him: "If I had a wish that I might dare to express, it is this, that you would lure him from his solitude at Christmas and invite him to be near you."

Goethe did, going so far as to send his own horses to Jena to pick up Schelling and bring him to Weimar on December 26. Schelling stayed until January 4 as a guest in Goethe's house am Frauenplan. Schiller joined them on New Year's Eve, when they engaged in "serious discussions," according to Safranski.

It's unclear to me whether Safranski is making a connection between events, but the next paragraph (p. 263) reports that, three days later, Goethe came down with erysipelas, a horrible bacterial infection, that nearly killed him: "he lost his sight, occasionally consciousness."

Thursday, December 23, 2010

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Well, another Christmas has snuck up on me. Today I am posting a couple of silly pictures. The one at the top (from an Amazon fulfillment center) is not silly, though somewhat sobering, informing us of what Christmas is for most people. At the same time, I am not one to attack the commercialism of this holiday. We live in a capitalist society, and the success of capitalism gives us leisure not only to enjoy ourselves -- and, incidentally, to be wasteful but also to engage in fun things like the Chinese below -- but also to reflect on our good fortune.

What interests me is the complaints against capitalism and the U.S. in particular, not from those who don't share our good fortune, but from those who live in Western society. Here is a comment on the terrific Big Picture site, in response to the Christmas photos there:

"Capitalism takes advantage of the 'specials and religious' days to make people think that giving material stuff will make parents and friends happier. ... I insist, Capitalism is the most dangerous way to human life and the planet, and the american way of living have to be rethought ..."

Imagine someone in Kenya or the Ukraine, not to mention Somalia or Rwanda, expressing such a grinchy sentiment. Wouldn't they love to be out on the ice in costumes, kicking around a ball? Capitalism is obviously being good to the Chinese. I wish that our president and our Congress critters understood how capitalism works, how arugula and a hundred different varieties of cheeses and wines get on the shelves of our grocery stores. Capitalism interests me a lot, tied up as it is with my subject of world literature. In case anyone missed it, my review of Joyce Appleby's book on the history of capitalism recently appeared in The Weekly Standard.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Goethe and Finance

I'm catching up on things, one of which is my mail. Back in June a friend sent me an article from Investor's Business Daily: "Faust Really Sells It." The writer for IBD, Reinhardt Krause, began: "Bankers beware. Heed author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's words of caution." Krause was quoting Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, who thought that banks could learn from "Goethe's 1830 tome on self-restraint," i.e., Faust. I was expecting much from the piece on what Goethe might tell us about the financial markets. Faust has, of course, been mined for many subjects, including Goethe's views of childbirth, heaven, hell, etc., but, in the event, the piece was very superficial, with Krause leaving out some really important facts.

For starters, Krause might have mentioned that Goethe was also a doctor of law (University of Strassburg, 1771). On his return to Frankfurt, he wrote legal briefs under the direction of his father, after which he spent a few months in Wetzlar interning at the Imperial Cameral Court. Though no legal writing is known from that experience, he was inspired to write The Sorrows of Young Werther. Later, in Weimar, he served as economic and financial minister to Duke Carl August. His legal and other official writings are contained in four volumes.

Krause might also have mentioned that Josef Ackermann, CEO of Deutsche Bank, did his post-doctoral thesis under Hans Christoph Binswanger, the Swiss economic minister, whose Geld und Magie: Eine ökonomische Deutung von Goethes Faust appeared in a revised edition in 205. As the word "magic" in the title indicates, Binswanger, proceeding from the thesis that the Faust of legend was an alchemist, contended that the creation of paper money in part 2 of the drama is a continuation of alchemy by other means. Paper money thus has a magical quality. According to Binswanger, Goethe forecast the potential of the modern economy to create value ex nihilo. (Here is a link to an English-language article, from 1998, by Binswanger on "The Challenge of Faust.") It should be added that money creation likewise stands at the center of things in Ackermann's postdoctoral thesis.

Back in June 2009 the finance section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung featured an interview with Messrs. Ackermann and Binswanger (pictured above), in which they sought to illuminate what Goethe's Faust had to say bout the financial crisis of the time. In the interview Binswanger contended that Goethe could not have done his job had he not been familiar with "economic literature." In his book he mentions Goethe's acquaintance with leading contemporary German economists, including Justus Moser, Georg Sartorius, and Georg von Buquoy. (Do all these connections, including with Ackermann and Binswanger, indicate a German gene for finance? When I was a student in Germany, Ludwig Erhard had just become chancellor.)

In the painting of Goethe at the top of this post, he looks every bit the finance minister that he was. I can't help thinking that he modeled himself on Prince Metternich (at right), who knew a thing or two about finance and politics.

You can imagine that this subject interests me: in connection with my own work on Goethe's concept of world literature, I have been trying to pin down his knowledge of Scottish economic thinkers, especially the connection they made between the improvement in manners and morals and the advance of commerce. Goethe's views always seem "cutting edge," no more so than in the link he made between the free trade in goods and in ideas. Thus, "world literature," a preoccupation of the last decade of his life, the 1820s, when the different regions of the earth were tightly linked through trade and colonization. He welcomed these links, especially as they brought people into contact with like-minded individuals, but they also produced turbulence. Goethe was well aware of the disquieting effects that material changes had on our spiritual condition: "The world is in such a turbulent state that every individual is in danger of being sucked into its vortex." Sound familiar?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Goethe's Deathbed Portrait

After the last post (see below) concerning the eBay offer of a drawing of Goethe on his deathbed, I started looking for some more information on the artist, Friedrich Preller, and was able to find the original drawing on the Zeno website, a good source for German texts. If you compare it with the eBay drawing, you can see that the latter is not original.

As I wrote in the previous post, Goethe was instrumental in sending Preller to study painting in Italy, but some of the images Wikipedia links to definitely place Preller in the tradition of German Romantic artists, toward whose work Goethe was decidedly unfavorable. For instance, the very moody work below, entitled Storm on the Coast, from 1856. Thus, he headed in the Romantic direction after Goethe's death. Goethe would have turned over in his grave had he known of that.

Goethe and Collecting

Thursday evening I gave my talk at Columbia on "John Milton and the Pre-Kantian Sublime." It went over well, to a great extent because of the "Keynote" (Apple's version of Power Point) presentation. I had some great images to keep people occupied. The next step is to turn the talk into an essay. But, first, time to catch up with a few things, which I was prevented from doing while preparing for my talk.

I received an email from Prudence Crowther, alerting me to an eBay auction of this drawing of Goethe by Friedrich Preller (1804-1878). Goethe is portrayed in death, with a laurel wreath on his head. Preller had been a student of the drawing academy in Weimar. At the age of seventeen, he executed cloud studies for Goethe and was later sent by Carl August to Italy to study painting. He was in Rome in 1830 with Goethe's son August when the latter died, and, in 1832, he was the only artist allowed to sketch Goethe on his deathbed. The laurel wreath was placed on Goethe's head by Coudray, the architect with whom Goethe had a close personal and professional relationship. According to a fascinating site, Recherche, the original drawing is in the Goethemuseum in Dusseldorf. Goethe's family did not wish to have the drawing duplicated, but apparently Preller made copies of which the eBay drawing is one. Since I wasn't able to pull the Preller drawing off of the eBay site, I am including the drawing below from Recherche, namely, of "Goethe auf der Strasse, 1785." I have not seen this image of Goethe previously, and there is no indication of who drew it.

Prudence thought I might like to purchase the Preller drawing, though I am not really a collector, in contrast to Goethe. He began collecting in the 1770s already, with "Schattenrisse," in connection with his work on Lavater's physiognomic studies. He went from there to collecting "autographs" (remember those from your schooldays?). As he later (in 1812) wrote to his friend Jacobi, "Since sensuous intuition is indispensable to me, excellent people are made present in a magical way through their handwriting" (Denn da mir die sinnliche Anschauung durchaus unentbehrlich ist, so werden mir vorzügliche Menschen durch ihre Handschrift auf eine magische Weise vergegenwärtigt).

The extent of his passion can be seen from the size of his collections. Of works of art, these include 2,500 drawings, 50 paintings, over 9,000 copperplate engravings, etchings, and other graphic works, 2,000+ coins, 76 cameos ... Well, I won't go on. He also had almost 18,000 minerals, stones, and fossils.

Back in March of this year, I posted on Goethe and dilettantism, in which I mentioned an essay, The Collector and His Circle, written in 1798. The essay is in the form of an epistolary novel, with the letters written by members of the family of the collector. Among other things, the work concerns the various motives one might have for amassing a collection.

I do collect books, though hardly in a systematic manner, and it is a collection that is not of much interest to anyone but myself. If I were to collect, I might like to own one of the charming watercolors done by Edward Lear when he was in Greece in the 1840s, like the view at the top of this post of the temple of Hephaestus in Athens. In fact, if I had my life to do over again, I would become a watercolorist. What could be more pleasant than sitting out of doors with a sketch pad? And I find such a delight in looking at watercolors.

Picture credits: Golden Age Painting; Recherche

Monday, December 13, 2010

Fritz Strich and Goethe's concept of world literature

Because of my editorial duties in connection with the book on the history of freedom of speech -- the title, by the way, will be Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea -- I have not been able to get to my real area of scholarly interest for some time, namely, Goethe and world literature. I have also been detoured by another topic, this time at least on a Goethe subject, the sublime. I first began working on the latter when writing on Goethe's geology; the result was an article in the Goethe Yearbook a few years back. And because of that article, I was asked to participate in a panel at the recent German Studies Association conference on the pre-Kantian sublime, which, in turn, took me further away from world literature. Still, as I gradually put the free speech volume and an article on the sublime behind me, I look forward to getting back to world literature in the New Year.

In this connection, I was recently reminded of Fritz Strich, who was the scholar who put world literature on the academic map. A strange aspect of world literature, which Goethe began to speak and write about in the 1820s, was that the idea lay fallow for another half-century. True, since Goethe had utter the oracular words, there was some attention to the concept in the late 19th century, but it wasn't until the discipline of comparative literature began to be established that world literature was drafted to talk about the scope of the new discipline. Still, everyone got it wrong, speaking of world lit as if it stretched back in time, back to Homer or Gilgamesh, or extended to other parts of the world, encompassing, for instance, Chinese or Indian literature. Goethe was speaking of a future phenomenon. More about that at another time.

Before World War II, there were a couple important articles on world literature, but the first major publication on the subject appeared in 1946, with the first edition of Goethe und die Weltliteratur, by Fritz Strich. An academic growth subject was born, and by the 1950s the industry began. The concept of world literature seems to fill a conceptual need, much as did "the sublime" in the 18th century, when that term was drafted to express the new aesthetic consciousness. After all, Longinus's treatise on the sublime (written in ca. 80 A.D.) had been around in Europe since the first editions in the 16th century. It was not until the beginning of the 18th century, however, especially with Joseph Addison's essays on the imagination, that the concept really took off and dominated theoretical discussions through the century, culminating in the works of Schiller and Kant.

A few years ago I placed an inquiry in the Times Literary Supplement concerning Fritz Strich, asking for personal reminiscences of Strich. From a scholarly and an intellectual point of view, Strich has certainly been as important as, say, Erich Auerbach or Ernst Robert Curtius, whose works are familiar to many outside of Germany. Besides his study of world literature, Strich is almost single-handedly responsible for the rediscovery of German Baroque literature, with an essay on that subject in 1916. Nevertheless, aside from a small Festschrift honoring Strich, there has been no work on him as a person. At the time of my TLS inquiry, however, I received no responses.

Much to my surprise I recently received a letter from Switzerland, from Heinz Günter, an English translator who works in Berne. Mr. Günter, who had saved my TLS inquiry, now sent me a speech given by the novelist John Le Carré on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of the University of Berne. Le Carré, it turns out, had as a young Englishman (his name is actually David Cornwell) studied in Berne and had some very kind words to say about Fritz Strich, especially about Strich's encouragement of him. Indeed, Le Carre's tribute to the university and to Strich reminded me very much of my own experience as a student in Germany in the late 1960s. Though I was not so fortunate to have a professor like Fritz Strich take an interest in me, I did have many German friends who initiated me into German ways and also helped me to become a capable speaker of German. Unfortunately, after three-quarters of a century, Le Carré was unable to provide any specific details about the lectures he attended. The impression remains, however, of the kind, polite nature of Fritz Strich. (Here is a link to an article in English, which makes many of the same points as in Le Carré's Berne talk.) I am still hoping for reminiscences from others, though I suspect I may one day have to go to Berne and do some research in the archives that contain Strich's papers.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Franz Messerschmidt's Grimacing Figure Heads

I did a post last November on Franz Messerschmidt. His "heads" have now arrived in New York, at the Neue Galerie. I haven't had a chance to go to the exhibition, but the website of Neue Galerie offers a variety of images.

My favorite is "the Yawner." Actually, Messerschmidt did not provide titles for his works, and it is difficult to say exactly what the grimaces are expressing. Nevertheless, I do think yawning is appropriate here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Freedom of Speech

The volume on freedom of speech is about ready to be submitted to the publisher. There has been tons of work, in getting the manuscript ready for submission, so I have not been able to post. The image above, by the Austrian painter Maulbertsch, will probably be on the cover of the published volume. It exemplifies the rowdiness of the Viennese stage in the 18th century, which was a forum for social and political commentary. Thus, the threat posed by free speech to the powers that be. Of course, the powers that be in the 21st century are also alarmed by the speech of the masses. A recent episode concerns the protests over the proposed Islamic cultural center at Ground Zero. The American protesters have been routinely characterized as "intolerant," "divisive," "xenophobic," and so on, words that likewise reflect 18th-century debates and anxieties concerning speech. Rousseau, for instance, in his novel Julie, thought that true communication was best achieved through silence! Herder worried about the harm that could result from unconstrained speech. Men like Voltaire were certain that unlimited freedom of expression could harm the masses.

As much as we owe to 18th-century thinkers, we should not forget that they were indebted to intellectual traditions that valorized the pursuit of truth and, ultimately, agreement. Truth, however, is not the standard of liberal democracies, which function not by imposing a few grand ideas handed down from on high, but by encouraging a marketplace of diverse, competing, unrestrained opinions -- as portrayed in the Maulbertsch painting. Lest we forget it, the pursuit of truth in the past also involved the assiduous refutation of error. It has been trial and error, however, not dogma, in whatever form, that created the West. Freedom of speech, if we are serious about it, must also allow for unpopular, even "wrong," opinions.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Aesthetic Thinking II

The other day I noticed a young child dragging his fingers along a chain-link fence. Touching it, as if to get to know it. That sight made me think more about how we, as children, acquaint ourselves with the world. Johann Jakob Bodmer, following John Locke, wrote that we come into the world knowing nothing, possessing only our senses to make "sense" of things: "Die Welt ist eine Academie, und der Mensch ein Schüler, welcher bey dem ersten Eintrite in dieselbe von aller Wissenschafft entblösset ist, und allein darin von todten Wercken der Natur sich unterscheidet, daß er Instrumente besitzet, welche ihn tüchtig machen etwas zu fassen und zu erlernen, nemlich die fünf Sinnen" (The world is an academy, and the human being a pupil who, with his first entry into it is denuded of all science and is only distinguished from other dead works of nature by the possession of instruments that make him industrious to grasp and to learn, namely, the five senses).

He continues: "And an attentive avariciousness (Wundergierigkeit), in addition to a love for everything that is new, excites us to employ these tools of knowledge (Werkzeuge des Wissens)."

The senses are our first "instructor," and through them we are moved by what we touch or see or taste and form concepts of things. But our knowledge of the world would be quite narrow if we only had the senses. After all, we spend half of our days asleep. How would it be if every evening, with the departure of light, we put aside everything we had experienced during the day and had to start again anew in the morning? The Creator, however, having a special purpose for humans, endowed the soul with a special capacity: the imagination, which allows us, at will, to recover all the concepts and sensations we felt in our original contact with the objects. He goes on to say that attention and practice help us to cultivate our imagination. Indeed, poets must have a great store of imagination and make readers forget that they are reading only words and to believe instead that the objects are before their eyes.
The senses are something that we have in common as humans, and we all seem to agree on the pleasure associated with certain experiences (or the converse): most small children like to run through puddles. With time and experience we develop our individual taste for things and, indeed, probably set aside many of the things that gave us pleasure as children. I remember when I first went to college about half the girls in my dormitory had a copy of a painting by Margaret Keane (although back then everyone thought the artist was her husband).

Something about those big-eyed girls moved us, which is, according to Bodmer, the purpose of art. Of course, back in my college days our professors were trying to draw us away from our appreciation for the Keane paintings, to develop better judgments about art, but that initial reaction of pleasure was a first step. And for Kant, it is our ability to respond subjectively, whether to the beauty of sunsets or even to the Keane paintings -- that make our other cognitive accomplishments possible. In other words, because we feel, we can think. That is aesthetics, in a nutshell.

(By the way, a movie is currently being made about Margaret Keane, appropriately titled Big Eyes.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Aesthetic Thinking

"As spectators of art we enter a state of calm passivity and enhanced objectivity, and the various art forms allow us to recognize diverse aspects of reality from a vantage point where our own individual will is not engaged."

The above is from an essay in the Times Literary Supplement (Oct. 15, 2010) by Christopher Janaway, who is here discussing Arthur Schopenhauer's view of the value of art, namely, its disinterestedness, which allows us to escape from the demands of "will." The sentence struck me, reminding me of something I read long ago in Freud. Though I have not been able to rediscover it since, Freud wrote something to the effect that reading a novel allows us, as in no other way, to enter into the "head" of another person. In other words, to see the world from another's viewpoint. I think he may also have been suggesting that reading of novels allows us to develop empathy for others.

When I reflect on my own thinking, it seems that it is characterized by two things. One is obsessiveness: I go over (and over) a subject, as if trying to solve a problem. Unfortunately, the subject is usually very banal. The other is "aesthetic." Often this second manner of thinking concerns art, though in a very broad sense, in that I am often absorbed by the beauty or ugliness of my surroundings. But aesthetic judgments are even broader than that, characterizing my reactions to people. Sometimes my reaction is pleasure (in the case of someone really pretty or handsome); sometimes it is revulsion (do I need to give examples?). Those reactions I would almost consider "objective," since many people might have the same reaction. But my judgment also includes reactions to people's behavior: approval, disapproval, and the like. Once upon a time, say, when I was growing up back in the 1950s, there were some "universal" standards for judging behavior. We all knew who the juvenile delinquents were. Now, of course, you can't even use that term.

It was in the 18th century that the arts -- literature, music, painting, sculpture, and so on -- became subject to discussion on a wide scale. There was a sense that the traditional authorities -- Aristotle, Horace, and so on -- no longer provided direction. Longinus appeared in this fluctuating situation as a gift, requiring that art move us. Thus, the role of feeling entered into the judgment of "taste," the word that suggests a standard but at the same time withdraws the imprimatur of objectivity. We know what is beautiful, and we expect others to feel the same.

In a sense, however, the arts are beside the point. We judge, and we expect others to share our judgments.

German philosophers since Kant have been particularly interested in the arts, for instance, Hegel and Schopenhauer (both of whom Goethe knew), Nietzsche. This interest reminds me of the Greeks: Plato and Aristotle. The Germans might be said to have returned to Western philosophy's origins and preoccupation with the mind.

Picture credit: Jeff Hopkins

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Last days of summer ...

This lovely picture, previously unknown to me, was forwarded by Harry Spitz, a fellow kayaker at the Downtown Boathouse. Actually, Harry is a kayaker extraordinaire, in contrast to the piker that I am. I saw him on Saturday afternoon, returning from an outing, wearing a dry suit of course. He even builds his own kayaks, Eskimo style. Harry is also an artist, as can be seen on his blog.

Here in Manhattan the water temperature today is 53 degrees, actually warmer than the air temperature (as I write) of 48. If we have a day of 70 degrees, which could happen before the end of the month, I hope get out for a paddle, wearing my wet suit. We are reaching the point, however, when one has to wear a dry suit, usually when the water temperature is 55.

The lady in this painting by French Realist artist Gustave Courbet, from 1865, is seated on a "podoscaphe." On page 108 of Velocipedes, Bicycles, and Tricycles by David Glasgow Velox, one learns that the podoscaphe is a marine velocipede, vélocipède marin in French. (This book, originally published in 1869, has been recently reprinted and is said to be an "unusual book [that] will appeal greatly to all who are interested in the history and manufacture of the bicycle.")

Picture credit: Ricci Art

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Goethe and Hot Air Balllooning

Wie ein Luftballon hebt sie uns mit dem Ballast, der uns anhängt, in höhere Regionen und läßt die verwirrten Irrgänge der Erde in Vogelperspektive vor uns entwickelt daliegen.

(Like a hot air balloon it raises us, with all the ballast that we carry, into higher regions and allows us, from a bird's-eye perspective, to see the pattern in the confused pathways of the world labyrinth.)

Goethe is writing here, in his autobiography, Poetry and Truth, of the power of literature. The reference to hot air balloons, however, is one of the indications that Goethe kept abreast of all that was new in the world of science and technology. Though he never ascended in a balloon, he got the picture, so to speak, of how the earth would look from above. Because of his lifelong geological pursuits, I like to think the image above, of balloons flying over the Cappadocia region of Turkey, would have interested him. It shows lava and white ash mixed with floodwaters to form the hard, sun-baked layer known as tufa. The spectacular geological formations are called "fairy chimneys." On the other hand, maybe Goethe was just as glad not to have such a view of the earth, instead allowing his imagination to do the work.

In any case, he was present in 1784 at several attempts at sending a hot air balloon into the air in Germany, made a year after the first experiments in France by, among others, the Montgolfier brothers and the Roberts brothers. The latter were responsible for the first "manned" flight. (Why are these earlier inventors of flight brother teams? Think the Wright brothers.)

One of the first experimenters in Germany was the chemist Samuel Thomas Soemmerring, one of Goethe's science correspondents. (Goethe occasionally wrote him asking for animal fossils and skeletons.) He visited Soemmerring in Cassel in late 1783 and attended an unsuccessful balloon trial. (Later, Soemmerring got a balloon off the ground.) In 1784, Goethe was present in Weimar when the local apothecary, Wilhelm Sebastian Buchholz, also made an unsuccessful attempt. As Goethe wrote to Knebel: "He torments the air in vain; the balls refuse to rise." The same summer, however, Buchholz was successful, and Goethe wrote down his reminiscence of the occasion many years later in Der Verfasser teilt die Geschichte seiner botanischen Studien mit (The Author Communicates the History of His Botanical Studies):

"At the time that the scientific world was busily occupied with determining the qualities of air, he didn't neglect to bring the newest scientific experiments before our eyes. So it was that he let ascend one of the first montgolfiers from our terrace, to the delight of the instructed and to the speechless astonishment of the otherwise assembled, while the pigeons, in consternation, fled in all directions."

These thoughts on Goethe's experience with ballooning were prompted by a review in the Times Literary Supplement of a book on the history of ballooning: The Sublime Invention: Ballooning in Europe, 1783-1820, by Michael R. Lynn. I haven't been able to get my hands on a copy -- none of the New York City libraries has a copy on its shelves -- but the reviewer calls the book an invaluable source for future study. What caught my eye, of course, was the word "sublime" in the title of Lynn's book.

Picture credits: Yoray Liberman/Getty; Xplanes

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Blogging and Letter Writing

Well, I have certainly been missing in action, with nothing posted since October 16. The past two weeks I have been under the gun, finishing all the details that are involved in submitting a manuscript (in this case, the volume on the origins of freedom of speech in the 18th century) to a publisher. One has to do literally everything these days. The numbers of errors, misprints, and the like in books these days had long suggested to me either that publishers no longer provide basic copyediting or that the copyeditors are illiterate. So, I spent a long time with basic copyediting of the contributors to my volume. I also wrote what will eventually be the jacket copy for the book, and I will post that soon.

Shortly after I initiated this blog, I realized I could not keep up blogging on a daily basis. To write about Goethe, after all, requires some thought. Still, I had hoped to make this a record of my work, both on Goethe and on other subjects. For the most part I think I have been successful in that aim, though I would like to have posted more. Thinking, and then putting down one's thoughts in writing, takes a lot of work!

Recently I read a review essay by the classics scholar Peter Green in The New Republic. The subject was a new biography of the novelist William Golding with whom Green was friends many decades ago, when both lived with their families on some Greek island. (Those were the days.) Professor Green, a classics scholar, mentioned in his review that he and Golding had also exchanged long letters, and gave some details from those letters.

I still write letters occasionally. (In fact, I even wrote one to Professor Green, with whom I have earlier corresponded, after reading the review.) Before the computer and emails, however, I wrote often and long letters at that, especially when I lived in Asia. Letters were a way of keeping up with friends and family, letting them know what I was up to. It struck me on reading the review of the Golding biography that the blog has become my way of keeping up, with letting people know what I am up to. Thus, the "Etc." in the name of this blog, since Goethe is not my only subject of research and writing.

Still, I long to get back to Goethe. Though my knowledge of the 18th century has expanded considerably, the free speech volume has diverted me somewhat from my main area of literary interest. I barely have a chance to read anymore. And I am also falling behind in my "letter writing," i.e., blogging. When I can read again, I can get back to thinking and writing.

Picture credits: Clipart ETC. ; Gopal Khetanchi

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The California Sublime

Well, I have returned from my outing to the West Coast. The first days were spent in Oakland at the German Studies Association conference. There were a number of panels on Goethe's lyric production, from which I profited enormously. Most of the folks attending these panels were fellow members of the Goethe Society of North America, and it was great fun to be among them again, too, and to hear some really good and even some really incomprehensible approaches to Goethe. The application of philosophical perspectives to Goethe -- Hegel, Stanley Cavell (!), even Spinoza -- generally leaves me cold (though Nietzsche is an important exception), but such views are what makes the field of Goethe studies vibrant.

And, then, there was the panel I was on, "The Pre-Kantian Sublime," with fellow panelists Bethany Wiggin and Kay Goodman. What I found especially beneficial about the panels I attended was the high quality of the "Comment" after the presentations. Our panel's commentator was Birgit Tautz. Again, really excellent, and I learned a lot. Kay Goodman's presentation, on Luise Gottsched, the wife of Johann Christoph (lovely portrait of her here), formed a really insightful contrast to my own presentation on Bodmer. Luise Gottsched and Bodmer represent two aspects of the reception of the sublime style in German letters.

The German Studies Association is not restricted to literary scholars. Indeed, the members are to a great extent from history. The president of GSA this year is Celia Applegate, a historian at the University of Rochester. I am looking forward to getting a copy of her book Bach in Berlin: Nation and Culture in Mendelssohn's Revival of the St. Matthew Passion. I had it in my hands for a few minutes at the conference's book exhibits and noticed that Goethe has a long entry in the index.

Professor Applegate gave the presidential address, entitled "The Importance of Culture." Abandoning any political correctness, she addressed the perilous state of the profession of German history and letters, in particular the effects of catering to students with "popular" subjects. It was a very good talk; she was very impassioned. The entire time, however, I kept thinking that she was at least ten years too late. The professoriate has got itself in this pickle, making the humanities irrelevant and, indeed, contemptible to many. I have always been surprised at the pusillanimity of the tenured. For decades they have witnessed the rise of mediocre scholarship and have kept their mouths shut. Well, like the federal government, spending the inheritance of future generations now, they have enjoyed their perks without caring about nurturing real scholarship and the future of the "liberal arts."

Let me not dwell on this topic, since there is nothing I can do, except pursue my own work.

After Oakland I traveled over to San Francisco, where I spent a few days with friends. It was the first time I enjoyed decent weather in SF. Indeed, it was so warm that there was practically no haze by early afternoon, not to mention fog.

The day after the conference I visited the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. From an architectural point of view, the de Young is really a lovely museum. Moreover, the first thing I encountered in their American section was the above painting on a sublime subject, a diptych of Niagara Falls from 1832 by the Moravian-American painter Gustav Grunewald (1805-1878). (Here is a link to Grunewald, with some biography as well as another Niagara image.) I particularly like the detail from Grunewald's painting at the top of this post, showing viewers above the Falls. Indeed the museum has quite a number of 19th-century American paintings with the sublime as their subject.

My own experience with the sublime, however, was my bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge and then down (and down and down) to Sausalito. It was a gorgeous day, and, what was more, I discovered a kayak site at a small public beach in Sausalito. Afterward, there was the bike ride back up (and up and up) to the bridge. I peddle around Manhattan all the time, on a one-speed bike, and can even manage the hills in Central Park just fine. But the hills of San Francisco and environs are a different matter. I had to get off the bike a couple of times and push it up the hill. Much to my delight, when I got to the San Francisco side of the bridge, I discovered a bus that would take me to Golden Gate Park. I was able to attach my bike to the front of the bus. Hurray! All in all, a splendid experience.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Irregularity" in Art

In my last post I mentioned that Bodmer and Breitinger, in their defense of John Milton's Paradise Lost, made a case for "irregular" beauties, as against the symmetry and proportion demanded by neoclassical poetics. What could be more irregular than the Alps, with which both men were surrounded their entire lives long. And, indeed, those mountains are often invoked in discussions of the sublime in the 18th century. Joseph Addison, in Pleasures of the Imagination, writes of the delight occasioned by great objects: "the Prospects of an open Champian Country, a vast uncultivated Desart, of huge Heaps of Mountains, high Rocks and Precipicies, or a wide Expanse of Waters." He goes on to say that our "imagination loves to be filled with an Object, or to grasp at any thing that is too big for its Capacity." Immanuel Kant, in his pre-Critical Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764), mentioned mountains with peaks above clouds, raging storms, and Milton's portrayal of hell as arousing "enjoyment but with horror."

What surprised me about Bodmer and Breitinger, however, is that neither mountain beauties nor mountain horrors play a role in their thoughts on the sublime. Still, I think that their advocacy of "irregularity" in poetry may owe something to accounts of travelers concerning the effect on the imagination of the Swiss Alps. A major account of the mixed feeling of delight and dread was written by an English cleric, Thomas Burnet. In Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681 in Latin; 1684 in English), he wrote of seeing in the Alps "vast Bodies thrown together in Confusion. ... Rocks standing naked round about him; and the hollow Valleys gaping under him." He found himself appalled at the "incredible Confusion" that broke down all his ideals of symmetry and proportion. "They are the greatest examples of Confusion that we know in Nature; no Tempest nor Earthquake puts things into more Disorder."

At the same time, Burnet also conceded that the majesty of the mountains produced awe in him. Though the mountains are "ruins," they also "shew a certain Magnificence in Nature."

As I said, neither beauty nor dread in Bodmer or Breitinger, but in their advocacy of art that grips the imagination they may have been influenced by such accounts.

Yesterday, when I was looking for images to illustrate the post, I came across this painting by Salomon Gessner, whose pastoral tales Goethe criticized for their tameness. The scene shows nymphs, to be sure, but what struck me was the setting. It definitely does not look like a tame landscape. For Gessner and for Bodmer, the sublime was not so much a pyschological category as it was a tool of artists or poets to stimulate the imagination of viewer or reader. Here, Gessner introduces some "irregular" natural forms, while Bodmer defended Milton's irregular diction and striking metaphors.

Picture credits: Harold's Planet (click on image to enlarge); Kunsthaus Zurich

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Sublime

I've finished writing my presentation for the panel at the German Studies Association and have sent it off to the moderator of the panel. It is not my final word on the subject; after all, the presentation is limited to 20 minutes. That is the form of these academic panels. The real work will begin when I return and attempt to put everything I know into a couple of essays for publication.

Herewith a few thoughts that are not in my presentation, and they concern the rejection of neo-classical, French aesthetics in German letters in the 18th century. Let me start with Ernst Cassirer's nice summation of the essence of this aesthetics: the work of art, be it poetry, painting, sculpture, "is more perfect according to its degree of success in reflecting the object itself unencumbered with the cloudy spots and distortions resulting from the nature of the subject." The artistic program of the "Sturm und Drang" poets in Germany was predicated on the categorical rejection of this attitude and the introduction into art of "the cloudy spots and distortions." (One can see that neoclassicism actually had a long shelf life. The sculpture here, by Antonio Canova, was executed in 1814. Not to forget that architecture in America in the early 19th century was heavily reliant on neoclassical ideas: think Monticello.)

Goethe was a major figure of this generation of poets in the early 1770s in Germany. In a wonderful review, which appeared in the "organ" of the Sturm und Drang, the Frankfurter Gelehrten Anzeigen in 1772, he wrote that he preferred a wooden leg to the dozens of "ivory feet" of the nymphs in Salomon Gessner's pastoral tales. In a review of "Poems by a Polish Jew," he praised the poet for abandoning the family trade in favor of poetry, but criticizes him for bringing nothing from his background into the poetry. Instead, he is no different from all the other "powdered" heads to be found in good society and on the promenades.

When one reads about the Sturm und Drang, particularly in graduate school, one has the feeling that the rejection of neoclassical aesthetics came about over night. But is has a genealogy, beginning with Bodmer and Breitinger in Zurich. Of course, one cannot say that the two Swiss writers were rejecting French models. They were simply trying to introduce something new into the literary discussion. From Longinus, translated by Boileau, the French neoclassicist par excellence, they assimilated the idea that poetry is more pleasing if it is not perfect. Longinus, defending "lofty geniuses," preferred "grandeur with some attendant faults" to "success which is moderate but altogether sound and free of error." He went on to say that "invariable accuracy incurs the risk of pettiness, and in the sublime, as in great fortunes, there must be something which is overlooked." Thus Bodmer and Breitinger introduced the idea of "irregularities."

Bodmer, who translated John Milton's Paradise Lost into German, wrote a very long treatise on the marvelous (das Wunderbare) in poetry, which was basically a defense of Milton's epic against the criticisms of Voltaire and other French writers. Voltaire had objected to the lack of correspondence between what was represented in the epic (e.g., the battle between the bad and the good angels) and the empirically experienced laws of nature. Gottsched in Leipzig was, of course, on the side of Voltaire. Besides defending Milton's language, Bodmer also drew on Leibniz's notion of "possible worlds." Such worlds may not be accessible to the senses, but they are to the imagination, especially the imagination of the poet. Such worlds have their own probability, and poetry has as its subject the imitation of them.

I realize that I have said little about the sublime itself, but it was the sublime in writing that, for Bodmer and Breitinger, was represented by Milton's epic. Their influence on the continuing preoccupation with the sublime until the end of the 18th century and beyond can be seen in the oeuvre of Henry Fuseli, the Swiss-born artist and disciple of Bodmer who executed an entire cycle of paintings on Milton's Paradise Lost. The painting at the top of this post, Satan Starting, Touched by Ithuriel's Lance, is described in book 4 of the epic. As an aside, this painting disappeared after 1779, only to reappear in 1994, in the auction of the estate of Rudolf Nurejev, who has been described as a "dancer who could pause in mid-air." If one compares the poses of Nurejev here and that of Satan in Fuseli's painting, it is easy to see why the dancer would have been drawn to this work.

Photo credit: Lessing Photo

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Goethe and Wilhelm Tell (Again)

Now that I am no longer chair of the Columbia University Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture, I can really enjoy the meetings. I particularly like the cocktails portion, in the lounge of Faculty House, in the hour before the talk, when I can sit with my scotch and soda without worrying about whether there will be enough chairs for the attendees and so on. Last Thursday was the opening meeting of this academic year, and the speaker was Elizabeth ("Cassie") Mansfield, a professor of art history at New York University. She spoke on a painting by François-André Vincent, who in his time was admired for his historical re-creations. (As in the lovely painting below, from the National Gallery of Australia, of the Roman general Belisarus.) The painting in question was Democritus among the Abderites. Yes, Abderites! In case you didn't know, the Abderites were a pre-Socratic school of philosophy, and Democritus was one of its proponents. Somewhere back in graduate school I actually dipped into Wieland's novel History of the Abderites.

Professor Mansfield was making the point that Vincent, a "liberal" artist, though in favor of the French Revolution, was directing some veiled satire on the growing power of the Paris mob. Professor Mansfield made the interesting point that Vincent was more admired at this time than Jacques-Louis David, who has come to represent the Revolution in art. David was an enthusiast, after all, and perhaps, as Cassie indicated, Vincent's more critical reaction to the Revolution kept him from being straightforward.

A more compelling case for Vincent's attitude toward the Revolution was another example Professor Mansfield showed us, namely, the1795 painting at the top of this post, from the Museé des Augustins in Toulouse. Here, Vincent has portrayed Wilhelm Tell, in the famous scene in which, during a storm on Lake Lucern, he escapes from Gessler and his soldiers. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Two years later, in 1797, Goethe made his final visit to Switzerland, when he was still thinking about writing his own Tell epic. (See my earlier posts on this subject, here and here.) In preparation for my paper on Bodmer at the German Studies Association next month, I have been reading about Henry Fuseli who was one of Bodmer's disciples in the 1750s. Goethe admired Fuseli's work, and after his visit to Switzerland with Carl August in 1779, he had written to their mutual friend Lavater, asking if Fuseli might help him prepare a "memorial" of this journey as a present for the duke. According to Goethe biographer Nicholas Boyle, Fuseli declined to cooperate. In 1797, Goethe saw Fuseli's painting of the Rütli oath, in which one sees similarities to David's later painting of the oath of the Horatii. What amazing artistic inter-connections.

Picture credit: historywiz

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Gallery viewing

We've been hitting the galleries in Chelsea again. September marks the start of the season, and for a change there was some really interesting work, if one hesitates to call it "art." Above and below are some works by the South Korean artist Airan Kang at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery. Naturally, the colored lights drew our attention, but even more so the reference to Kant's "Critique of Judgment" in the "pile of books" at the front of the gallery. Who said these old white guys don't have any relevance?

I always love reading the press releases, "propaganda," as Rick refers to them. The curators of these exhibits always outdo themselves with pomobabble. Here is a description of Kang's book-shaped sculptures fashioned from resin and LEDs: "For nearly a decade she has been both personifying and objectifying discourse and our concepts of knowledge by simulating libraries, bookstores, and reading rooms. ... This exhibition conflates material and ephemeral depictions of knowledge to realize the pluralistic space of our imagination." Got that?

Goethe, of course, was represented. I would have been surprised had he been omitted.

I suppose what is most impressive about some of these works is the amount of craftsmanship involved, for instance, in the exhibition of stainless steel sculptures -- "Real Fakes" -- by the Chinese artist Liao Yibai. But to what purpose all this craft?

These works seem to prompt us to be "knowing," to be on the game, to see that we are manipulated by beautiful material goods. According to the propaganda, the exhibition "questions the skewed concept of value on a variety of levels. The oversized lavished sculptures of watches, rings, handbags, and high heel shoes confront the multitudes of popular brands and logos and their overwhelming presence in today's society. Yibai's newest body of work examines this increasing obsession with opulence and luxury goods while glorifying and laughing at it simultaneously."