Sunday, March 28, 2010

Goethe's "Wilhelm Tell" Again

I misspoke in my last post: Nicholas Boyle does mention that Goethe saw material for a new work in the Wilhelm Tell story. Concerning the 1797 trip to Switzerland Boyle writes; "Goethe came down from the mountains back into the world of literature." He visited more "Tell sites" on Lake Lucerne. Tell, as Goethe noted in Tag- und Jahreshefte 1804, would be "a sort of Demos," personifying the power of the people, and Gessler would "represent the individual nature of arbitrary rule."

What Goethe really wanted to deal with at this time, according to Boyle, was "the relation of an individual life to a great and violent historical upheaval, a struggle for political liberation ..." Goethe was stymied, and, indeed, one has to recognize that he never learned to say "what it meant to live in his unprecedented times." Boyle ascribes this inability to not knowing "who he was addressing," i.e., who his public was. The literary market had changed considerably since the success of Werther and Götz, and Goethe was unwilling to write for the new popular tastes.

Boyle goes on: "Goethe made several attempts in 1799 ... to circumvent the mysterious obstacle that was preventing him from producing the major work in response to the [French] Revolution which was his ultimate aim." As Friedrich Schlegel wrote: "the French Revolution, Fiche's philosophy, and Goethe's Wilhelm Meister" were "the significant trends" of this new age. Despite this perception -- especially the comparison of political and philosophical revolutions -- Boyle does not believe that Schlegel, or the Jena Romantic circle generally, showed the sense of history that marked Hegel or Hölderlin at this time, and "certainly no sense of historical 'Fate.'"

Picture credits: Gudrun Zapf von Hesse

Friday, March 26, 2010

Goethe's "Wilhelm Tell"

In my last post I mentioned that Goethe re-ascended the Gotthard on his aborted 1797 trip to Italy. The head of the road to the pass is the village of Altdorf, the capital of the canton of Uri and the birthplace of the expert marksman Wilhelm Tell. As Nicholas Boyle writes in his biography of Goethe, this was "the heart of the Swiss national legend," namely, the rebellion of the Swiss against Habsburg tyranny and the formation of the Swiss Confederation in the late 14th century. On his trip Goethe visited the Rütli meadow, where the oath against tyranny was taken, and he stopped at the chapel from which Tell had sprung to freedom. Goethe had recently completed the small epic Hermann und Dorothea, which perhaps inspired him to consider another epic on a "folk" subject. He wrote to Schiller that the story of Tell offered possibilities for an epic handling.

Much later Goethe told Eckermann that the "magnificent and glorious natural setting" of the Vierwaldstätter See (i.e., Lake Lucern, or the Lake of the Four Forested Cantons) had so moved him that he wanted to give it poetic form. In order to endow the setting with more charm and life, he thought of populating it with "significant human figures" (bedeutenden menschlichen Figuren). He also related to Eckermann that he described his impressions to Schiller in whom "my scenery and figures took dramatic shape. ... And since I had other things to do and kept postponing my intention to write about it, I finally handed over the subject to Schiller, who went on to write his admirable poem."

Interestingly, Boyle does not mention any of this in his biography. Rüdiger Safranski, however, in his book on the Goethe-Schiller friendship, discusses it at length, and he also writes that the matter was more complicated than described by Goethe. Schiller was already acquainted with the Tell legend, since several Tell dramas had been staged in the second half of the 18th century. Schiller's fiancé read Johannes von Mueller's History of the Swiss Confederation in March 1789 and recommended the theme to Schiller: "The history of free men is doubly interesting, because it is they who fight with more enthusiasm for their constitution." Schiller didn't follow Charlotte's suggestion, being more occupied, writes Safranski, with his "heroes from the flatland," i.e., his history of the Netherlands.

Schiller, however, was "as if electrified," when Goethe wrote to him. It was as if it was necessary for Goethe to approach the subject for Schiller to recognize its poetic possibilities. He seems to have begun to adapt it mentally, and in March 1802, after completing The Bride of Messina, he began to work on the Tell drama. He informed Goethe in a letter of his new dramatic plan, without, however, mentioning the name of the subject. Thus, exactly when Goethe "handed over" the subject to Schiller is unclear.

Next time I will write a bit about "Schiller's Wilhelm Tell." Stay tuned.

Picture credits: Adventure-Archive; Snak

Monday, March 22, 2010

Goethe's Third Italian Journey

As I have written elsewhere, Italy has had a special place in the imagination of German artists and writers. Think, for instance, of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, which portrays the longing and repulsion. Albrecht Dürer first went there in 1494, two years after Columbus discovered the New World. The watercolor above, in the British Museum, was executed shortly after his return from Italy.

Goethe tried his hand at such landscapes as well. During his stay in Italy, from 1786 to 1788, most of his friends were artists. In the contemporary drawing below by Frederich Bury, Goeth is shown (third from right) with his German friends. Goethe even thought he might become an artist himself, but he soon gave up the notion.

He returned to Italy in 1790, to Venice, where he stayed for two months waiting for Anna Amalia, Carl August's mother, whom he was to accompany back to Weimar after her visit to Rome, which was no doubt inspired by Goethe's earlier journey. He seemed to have the same feeling about Venice as did Thomas Mann. He was enjoying domestic pleasures in Weimar with Christiane Vulpius, and his impressions of Venice, as recorded in the Venetian Epigrams (first published in 1796), are much more sharp and also lebensnah. Many of these poems are erotic, as per Goethe's model Martial, and they are also "snapshots" of daily life, culture, and politics in Venice. Goethe would seem to be prefiguring here the 19th-century flaneurs.

Here is an example, about a prostitute, in David Luke's translation:

"If I'd the husband I need, and if I kept house for him, I'd be
Happy and faithful and true, hug him and kiss him all day."
That was the song, among others more coarse, of a little Venetian
Whore; and so pious a prayer never I heard in my life.

Many of the epigrams suggest Goethe closely observed the habits of Venetian prostitutes. (See here for more translations of the epigrams, especially of the erotic ones.)

Goethe planned a third trip to Italy, in 1797, in order to make a comprehensive study of art. He got as far as Switzerland, before deciding to turn back. Napoleon's troops were all over the peninsula by now, and, like Hitler later, they were ransacking churches and private collections for art that would be transported back to Paris.

Though he didn't enter Italy, he sought to retrace the steps of his first trip to Switzerland, in 1774, during his Sturm und Drang period. Goethe was at that time engaged to Lili Schönemann in Frankfurt, but he was, as we would now say, "conflicted" about this engagement. He wrote a beautiful poem about his shifting moods, "On the Lake." The "high point" of this trip was his ascent with a travel companion to the Gotthard Pass, where they were welcomed at a Capuchin friary and served bread, cheese, and Italian wine.

In 1797, he repeated the ascent to the Gotthard Pass, as if to relive those earlier days. The pass is reached by several "bridges," which no doubt looked very much as in this painting of the pass by Turner, from 1803. Goethe wrote a lovely poem, which addresses the nearby summits whitened with snow. According to Goethe biographer Nicholas Boyle, Goethe was here acknowledging that this, his third Italian journey, "had become a journey into the 'autumn of life'":

Yesterday thy head was brown, as are the flowing locks of love,
In the bright blue sky, I watch'd thee towering, giant-like, above,
Now thy summit, white and hoary, glitters all with silver snow,
Which the stormy night hath shaken from its robes upon thy brow;
And I know that youth and age are bound with such mysterious meaning,
As the days are linked together, one short dream but intervening.

(This translation, by William Edmondstoune Aytoun, appeared in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in 1845.)

Monday, March 15, 2010


The Metropolitan Museum of Art currently has a small exhibition entitled "Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Collage." It contains charming examples of photocollages by a number of aristocratic ladies, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales; Victoria Alexandria Anderson-Pelham, Countess of Yarborough; and Constance Sackville-West.

The works combine photographic cutouts of humans or animals in fanciful landscapes or ordinary domestic settings that have been rendered in beautifully executed watercolors. The exhibit made me think of Goethe and Schiller's writing on dilettantism, which addresses the subject of "amateur art," especially as practiced by ladies.

According to Michael Niedermeier, who wrote the entry on dilettantism for the Goethe-Handbuch, "dilettante" was coined in the Italian Renaissance to distinguish the connoisseur of art from the "professional" artist. The term only began to have a negative connotation in the late 18th century. As part of this critical evaluation Goethe wrote a short epistolary novel in 1798 entitled Der Sammler und die Seinigen (The Collector and His Circle). The letters characterize different responses to art and contain a criticism of amateur art, especially the mixing of media, the tendency to naturalism, and subjectivism. Shortly after it was published, Goethe and Schiller began to plan a larger treatise on the subject, which remained fragmentary, however, and was published (as "Über den Dilettanismus") only after they had both died.

On this subject, Rüdiger Safranski notes in this book on the Goethe-Schiller friendship that amateur art (or, in German, Laienkunst) was widespread in aristocratic and bourgeois circles. Watercolors, papercuts, versifying, singing, acting in amateur performances -- everyone was being "artistic." Goethe's Iphigenie was first performed in the Weimar court theater made up of non-professionals, including the young duke Carl August. Goethe, when he went to Italy in 1786, still wasn't sure whether he would be a writer or an artist; in other words, he was still trying to find himself, as we would say today. He had drawing instruction from Tischbein and others while in Italy and discovered that he was not an artist, but an amateur. (See example below, executed in Pozzuoli in 1787.)

This immersion in art, however, and the exposure to classical and Renaissance art made him think more seriously about the aims of art. When he had returned to Weimar and became, in 1790, the director of the theater there, he became much more professional about the business of acting. By 1796, part of the "classical" program of art that he and Schiller were developing was concerned with the objective rules of art and with the training and attitudes that distinguished "real" artists (which would include literary artists) from those who were only playing at being ones.

Here are some of their thoughts on the subject (in the translation of Ellen and Ernest von Nardroff):

The dilettante always shies away from serious study, avoids acquiring essential knowledge in order just to practice, and confuses art and subject matter. Thus, one will never find a dilettante who draws well. If he did draw well, he would be on the path to art. ... Precisely because most dilettantes lack a true concept of art, they prefer quantity and mediocrity, the unusual and costly to what is select and god. Many dilettantes have large collections. We might even say that all large collections owe their existence to dilettantes. For the dilettante's desire to collect, particularly when supported by great wealth, usually deteriorates into an obsession to amass as much as he can. He wants only to possess, not to select judiciously, and be satisfied with less, but of good quality. ...

Art creates its own laws and sets the standards of the time; dilettantism follows the trends of the time. ...

Toying with the serious and important corrupts man. [The dilettante] skips some levels, lingers on others, which he regards as goals, and he thinks he is justified in judging the whole from this vantage point, thus hindering his advancement. ...

All dilettantes are essentially plagiarists. They undermine and destroy all natural beauty in language and thought by mimicking and aping it in order to cover up their own vacuity.

By the time this was written there were many women who wrote and painted and performed. Helen Fronius, in her book Women and Literature in the Goethe Era, writes that Schiller and Goethe saw a connection between dilettantism and the presence of women in the literary scene. At the same time they acted as mentors to certain women, e.g., the poet Amalie von Imhoff, pictured here in a charming portrait miniature, an artistic genre that certainly must be included in the ranks of amateur arts. Indeed, the Metropolitan devoted a rather large exhibition and catalogue to painted miniatures several years ago.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Invention of German Idealism

In connection with the review I am writing of Rüdiger Safranski's book on the friendship between Goethe and Schiller, I have been reading Safranski's earlier biography (2004) of Schiller, subtitled "The Invention of German Idealism." Safranski puts flesh, as it were, on philosophical ideas, breaking them down into digestible portions. Kant spoke of his "critical" apparatus as a family tree (Stammbaum), but Safranski describes it instead as a "Rococo-like music box construction of our faculties of perception and knowledge, with the various kinds of judgment attached to their respective categorical levers (thus, judgment of quality is attached to the categories of 'reality, negation, limitation')."

Kant was not the only philosopher with whom Schiller grappled, and Safranski makes a great tour of the "worldly philosophers" of the 18th century, especially the Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson (in the portrait here by Joshua Reynolds in the NGA, London) whose Institutes of Moral Philosophy (1769) was translated by the German Enlightenment philosopher Christian Garve. Schiller's medical training as a young man greatly impressed on him the material nature of humans. Although he had "lost religion" early, he was unwilling to accept the determinism inherent in purely mechanistic or materialist philosophies as explanations for human behavior. In his youth already, he would not accept that humans did not have freedom of action or will. In his earliest attempt "to save freedom in the physiological machine," namely, in the dissertations he wrote at the end of his medical training, he posited love as a mediating power (Mittelkraft) that closed the gap (Riß) between material world and spirit.

For this "philosophy of comic love" to operate, life has to be breathed into the "machine" (i.e., the body), thereby allowing spontaneity and freedom. Schiller developed his theory of attentiveness, which, according to Safranski, led Schiller to becoming the philosopher of freedom.

In determinist theory, as Schiller learned from his reading of Ferguson, sense impressions generate conceptions, which in turn determine thinking and action. This scenario suggests that everything is causally ordered and that freedom is an illusion. "But here," writes Safranski, "begins the power of attentiveness. It is like an agile [bewegliche] ray of light, which, led by an intention, scans [abtastet] the fields of perception, fixes on something here, passes over something there; it selects, guides the processes of thinking, and gives rise to connections: in short, 'the soul has an active influence on the organ of thought.' It has this influence, because the soul is the active subject of attentiveness."

So begins, as Safranski writes, "the invention of German idealism."

Picture credits: Insashi; Gene World