Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Washington, D.C

I got back from Washington yesterday afternoon. It was a great trip, an opportunity to see friends, among them Felicitas Hoppe, who is teaching this term at Georgetown University. She gave me a copy of her newest book, Der beste Platz der Welt, which I read in two sittings. It was about her "residence," as a recipient of the Literaturpreis Leuk, in the Baroque-period Ringacker Chapel in Leuk in Switzerland. Above is a picture taken during our outing in D.C., at Dunbarton Oaks.

Another reason I love Washington is the city itself, the monuments, the museums. I could spend days at the National Gallery, but herewith some things I saw, including from a visit at the Arlington National Cemetery.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Sublime

I will be participating on a panel at the German Studies Association in October. The panel concerns "The Pre-Kantian Sublime." In preparation I am doing a lot of reading. I will be posting thoughts on my reading as I go along, but today I would like make a couple of prefatory observations. It strikes me that the aesthetic discourse of the sublime in the 18th century is heralded by two important philosophic ideas.

The first is Cartesian rationalism, which emancipated humans from the authority of tradition, handing the authority for arriving at truth to humans themselves. Descartes himself declared that his program was to construct a foundation that was all his own and should not necessarily be imitated by others. The point, however, was this: individuals, using their own powers of cognition, can discern what is true.

The second is Lockean philosophy, according to which the materials of our reason and all knowledge derive from our experience, which we then, through reflection, assemble into principles.

The one separated the mind from the body, and indeed gave the former control other the latter. The other was the reverse, giving precedence to the body. The result of both, however: "subjective" truth.

I mention these two because aesthetics, as it came to be articulated in the 18th century, was not about "principles" of art but, instead, about "affective experience." The grounds of knowledge about the world were to be found in the individual. In other words, subjectivity. The sublime was the opening movement in this modern sense of aesthetics, right after the turn of the 18th century. Stay tuned.

I'm heading to Washington, D.C., for a few days of visiting friends and museums.

Picture credits: Daniel Smith; Daniel Dostal

Friday, April 9, 2010

Bettina von Arnim

Bettina Brentano, granddaughter of German novelist Sophie von Laroche and sister of the Romantic poet Clemens Brentano, was born 225 years ago this month in Frankfurt. She married the German writer Achim von Arnim, and together with him and her brother she collected the poems that appeared in Des Knaben Wunderhorn. She was in the thick of the circle of German Romantics, even while having seven children.

She said that she would never write a poem, but she wrote some very original books, though her writing career didn't begin until she was fifty-five, after the death of her husband. Her first book, Goethe's Correspondence with a Child (Briefwechsel mit einem Kind), was a fictionalized account of correspondence between herself and Goethe. Bettina may have got the idea for a such a book from the correspondence Goethe's mother carried on with several luminaries of the day, including Duchess Anna Amalia, Wieland, and Lavater. In a similar vein was Bettina's work Die Günderode, a record of "correspondence" with her friend, the poet Karoline von Günderode. It was as impressionistic of her Goethe correspondence, consisting not only of letters but also of poetry, essays, and conversations.

Another aspect of this "third" phase of her life, according to biographer Michaela Diers, was her writing on the "social question" of her day. In This Book Belongs to the King (Dies Buch gehört dem König), published in 1842, Bettina developed her views on society, politics, and religion. The greater part of the book is a dialogue, the chief participant being Goethe's mother (pictured here in a 1776 portrait by Georg Oswald), to whom Bettina attributes many of her own views.

Bettina von Arnim's books are difficult, but as a person she is immensely interesting. She exemplifies a very modern type of individual, one devoted to developing her inner life, at the same time dismissive of the acquisition of "learning" or knowledge for its own sake.

Monday, April 5, 2010

"The House of Intellect"

"The reciprocal civility of authors is one of the most risible scenes in the farce of life."

I have been wanting to use the above quote from Dr. Johnson (which appeared in his life of Sir Thomas Browne, publ. 1756) for ages. Finally, it finds its rightful place as I close up my discussion of Rüdiger Safranski's book on the Goethe-Schiller friendship. Certainly it cannot be said of Goethe or Schiller in the period of their literary partnership and friendship, from 1794 until 1805, that the respect each showed for the other was anything but sincere. Before the "fortunate event" -- the discussion between the two in Jena in July 1794, after the meeting of the Scientific Society -- it was different. As Safranski points out, the ten years' younger Schiller was always drawn to Goethe, wanted to be be the star he was, but his feelings, expressed in letters to friends, were mixed with resentment and anger. Goethe was the child of good fortune, while he, Schiller, had to fight for everything.

A survey of almost 2,000 Goethe letters from between June 1781 (the year in which Schiller's The Robbers appeared) and July 24, 1794, reveals not a single mention of Schiller. Thus, Schiller was not even a speck on Goethe's horizon. When Goethe returned from Italy in 1788 and was introduced to Schiller (who by this time was living in Weimar), he remained distant. If The Robbers goes unmentioned in Goethe's correspondence, its author seems to have reminded Goethe all too much of earlier enthusiasms.

By 1794 Schiller was a literary star in his own right, while Goethe had the impression people thought he was living off his reputation. That such contradictory individuals came together and forged a productive relationship is unusual, but T.J. Reed suggests (in an article in Goethe Jahrbuch 2005) that Schiller adroitly and diplomatically excluded competition between himself and Goethe. The letter of August 24, 1794, practically a preface to Schiller's later On Naive and Sentimental Poetry, describes creative differences between Goethe and himself. The gesture seems to have worked, for Goethe, in response, invited Schiller (who was now living in Jena) to come to Weimar and stay with him for two weeks.

Thus, what relevance does Dr. Johnson's quote have? According to Helmut Koopmann (in the same issue of Goethe Jahrbuch), the relationship between Goethe and Schiller was not "an alliance on behalf of one another, but instead one very much against the others ... It necessarily led to aesthetic isolation, as the correspondence proves. Distance from all that was profane, a sharply drawn line against anything that would reduce literature to enjoyment and, no less (if one reads between the lines), against those who would serve this desire for enjoyment." This was obviously a somewhat rarefied view of the role of the man (and increasingly woman) of letters.

Weimar Classicism might be said to have been a phenomenon of two individuals who, over the course of several years, articulated a "Kunstprogramm" (artistic agenda) that rejected any compromise with the public's preferences as well as with the writers who catered to the public or who (as in the case of the Romantic writers and artists) pursued different aims. The height of Schiller and Goethe's invective against their literary opponents was the Xenien, a collection of satirical epigrams composed by Goethe and Schiller, in which they attacks their critics.

Schiller wanted to be a popular dramatist, but only on his own terms: the theater was to be a forum for educating the public, a method of aesthetic as well as ethical education. Goethe had of course long abandoned public-friendly works, more and more so after his stay in Italy, and retreated into artistic anemia. The relationship with Schiller brought him back to artistic life. He was hard hit by Schiller's death in 1805, but within a few years he went in new literary directions.

And now to Dr. Johnson. The attacks on other writers -- and inadvertently on the public -- is a phenomenon of the modern "Republic of Letters." Before the 18th century learned men (and mostly the learned were men) were a class apart. As Jacques Barzun has written (in The House of Intellect, 1959), they formed an "inclusive bond," based on the habit of reading books and being articulate. Although they had little to do with ordinary folks, and vice versa, they did not feel "alienated" from society. The spread of literacy and education in the 18th century brought more men into the "conversation," but it also produced competition among them, since learning per se was not a commodity that could be traded like other skills and trades. Education led to the development of scientific fields, to professionalism, and to conversations that could be understood only by initiates. Goethe and Schiller were living on the cusp of this vast material transformation of the social order and, with it, the Republic of Letters.

Goethe and Schiller, in their Classicist period, wanted to speak to society as a whole, as they imagined had been the case with writers and artists in antiquity who articulated a common social ethos and even educated rulers (as Aristotle with Alexander) They wanted to educate the 18th-century public to such an imagined participation, which, so they believed, characterized the ancient Greek world. Goethe, for instance, considered all of his intellectual pursuits, whether literary or scientific, parts of a whole, as he he called it. His scientific work, however, was either ignored or outright rejected by most "real" scientists of his day. Thus, after Schiller's death in 1805 Goethe became for a while isolated from current trends. Feeling himself "historical," he got to work on his autobiographical writings. He made a voyage to the Orient (West-East Divan). From 1816 until 1828 he published what might be called a blog, namely, On Art and Antiquity. It was in the literary pieces in that publication that he began to develop his concept of world literature and to come to terms with the modern world. More on that later.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Goethe and Rubens

As I remarked on this blog last year at Easter, it would be too much to expect that Goethe would have something to say about Easter, but I posted back then comments he made about Rubens, who was a lifelong enthusiasm.

Today, hearing Luke's version of the Resurrection story I thought anew of Rubens' portrait, which seems to reflect that Biblical scene:

The women who had come from Galilee ... when they had seen the tomb and the way in which his body was laid in it, they returned and prepared spices and perfumed oils. ... But at daybreak on the first day of the week they took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb; but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were puzzling over this, behold, two men in dazzling garments appeared to them. ... The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James; the others who accompanied them also told this to the apostles, but their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them.

In his essay "Nach Falkonet," Goethe defended Rubens' "fleshy" female figures, suggesting Rubens loved the women he painted. Goethe probably never saw the painting of the women at the sepulchre, but, despite his frequently expressed dislike for Christian-themed art, he would have appreciated the sculptural principle behind the figures Rubens created, an influence of his study of classical sculpture in Rome. Note the turn of the head of the central figure in the Three Graces group and that of the woman in red in Rubens' painting. Even the posture of the two is similar.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

"Wilhelm Tell" Again

One last word (really) on Wilhelm Tell. Safranski mentions that Goethe, while in Switzerland in 1797, wrote to Schiller of his idea of writing a drama about Wilhelm Tell. For several years afterward, he turned the idea over in his head, but nothing came of it.

Why was Goethe unable to write the play? Partly I would guess it was because of the French Revolution, which even in at the time was considered a historical "turning point." As Nicholas Boyle has written, Goethe was unable, despite various attempts, to produce a major work in response to the Revolution. He did write four dramas or dramatic fragments, portraying stages of the Revolution, none of which is very memorable. Der Gross-Cophta, for instance, on the affair of the the French queen's necklace, is described as a comedy, but is (according to The Oxford Companion to German Literature) one of the more heavy-footed of Goethe's works.

Goethe had written a play on another historical turning point several decades earlier, namely, the 1773 play Goetz von Berlichingen. That drama had made Goethe famous, even before The Sorrows of Young Werther. The visit to Switzerland in 1797, which recapitulated certain stages of Goethe's first visit to Switzerland in 1775, may have led him to think he could repeat that earlier success with a drama on a different historical subject.

Goetz von Berlichingen, however, takes place in the 16th century. It has been pointed out that the same period of time -- two centuries -- separated Goethe from his historical sources as divides us from Goethe. Still, there is a difference between a period of "historical significance" in the past and history in the making. It is one thing to immerse oneself in archives and historical records, as Goethe did in preparation for writing Goetz, another to make sense of events occurring in one's own life. Moreover, Goethe had long abandoned -- indeed repudiated -- the so-called Shakespearean style and often rough language that had made Goetz such a triumph when it first appeared.

Schiller, according to Safranski, was "as if electrified" by Goethe's letter, and, within several years, after Goethe had abandoned the attempt, wrote his own version of the Wilhelm Tell legend. If Goethe was unable to produce anything of significance in connection with the French Revolution, Schiller had been seeking to make sense of it since The Aesthetic Letters. As I mentioned in my last post, the contemporary public reaction to Schiller's Wilhelm Tell leaves no doubt that people understood the connection between the long-ago events in Switzerland and the tyranny posed by Napoleon.

Schiller's enthusiasm for writing his drama probably had much to do with his continuing absorption in the theme of freedom, but it also strikes me that Schiller may have been attempting, with Wilhelm Tell, to re-create for himself the success that Goethe had achieved with Goetz. Wilhelm Tell, as Safranski points out, abandons the future-oriented vision of free men of The Aesthetic Letters. Instead it posits the source of freedom in the past, in the native and natural traditions of an independent community. Both Tell and Goetz are men of action and representatives of freedom and natural right. Moreover, both have identifying characteristics, one a crossbow, the other an iron hand.

Goethe's play, which concerned a man out of joint with his times, was also meant to indicate something about the Germany of the 1770s. In the end it was Schiller who was able to make the connection between the past and the present with an historical drama concerning an even earlier rebel. By wrapping up his material in a "classical" five-act drama, he avoided reminding Goethe all too vividly of his Sturm und Drang enthusiasms.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Friedrich Schiller's "Wilhelm Tell"

Now to what Rüdiger Safranski writes about Schiller's Wilhelm Tell. After finishing The Bride from Messina, which was "administered to the public like a strong dose of medicine" (I have seen the play, and it does feel like medicine), Schiller got seriously down to work in the spring of 1802 and finished a draft of his mountain play in August 1803. He wrote to Goethe in November that he was not letting himself get distracted by anything and predicted finishing it by March. He even thought of traveling to Switzerland, to visit the places associated with the Tell legend, but his health did not permit it. In any case, he felt that his own imagination and Goethe's account had made him familiar with the "Genius loci." As with an earlier play, Wallenstein, Schiller worked closely with Goethe, who was eager for a new play for the Weimar stage.

While Schiller was writing, Switzerland itself was in the process of losing its celebrated independence. Napoleon "liberated" the Swiss people, whose system of independent cantons was regarded as feudal, and proclaimed the Helvetic Republic in April 1798. Resistance to the French was particularly strong in the "Ur" cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Nidwalden, the original partners in the oath on the Rütli meadow of 1291 (portrayed here in Heinrich Füssli's 1780 painting), which marked the beginnings of the Swiss Confederacy.
By swearing an oath, the Swiss had formed an alliance to protect their freedoms from would-be overlords. The memory of this earlier heroic period inspired their resistance to the French in the late 18th century.

By 1799 Switzerland had become a battleground featuring French, Austrian, and Russian armies. In Germany, too, the desire for freedom from French hegemony began to stir the natives. This desire would culminate a decade later in the wars of liberation against Napoleon. And, as in Switzerland, the voice of resistance appealed to incipient "German" traditions.

The resistance to tyranny in Schiller's play is portrayed as a conservative revolution. According to Safranski, Schiller abandoned his earlier vision of a new human being that would become capable of freedom through the process of aesthetic education. Instead, Schiller discovered revolutionary potential in the past, in the mountain world of Wilhelm Tell. The true revolution does not owe its existence to a "new man," as in The Aesthetic Letters," but in the defense of what has worked well in the past (Verteidigung des alten, wohlgeratenen). "Great deeds occur when what has proved itself takes up arms against bad reform" (Großes entsteht, wenn das Bewährte sich wehrt gegen eine schlechte Neuerung). In Schiller's drama, Wilhelm Tell defends an ancient, natural freedom of men against tyranny.

Schiller re-creates the original alliance, in a "cyclical drama." A community, in the course of its fight against tyranny, establishes a "covenant" (Bund) that reproduces what is originally a product of nature (naturwüchsig). The new, strengthened covenant is the outcome of an historical act. The community has been disturbed in its natural idyll by being cast into history, but in the end people return, richer in experience, to their idyllic origin.

Who acts? The community, yes, but above all Wilhelm Tell, who belongs to the community but also remains aloof from it. Thus, he does not take part in the oath on the Rütli meadow: "The strong man is most powerful when acting alone," he declares. When he kills Gessler, he is acting without a mandate; the responsibility is his alone. While triggering the collective freedom. he keeps the process from becoming all too political, from descending into strategic calculation. Safranski calls him a "self-helper."

The cyclical movement of the play applies to Tell himself. After killing Gessler, after the bloody excursion into history, he also returns home to the idyll. The same fire burns in the hearth, wife and children await him, the patriarchal world still stands, but Tell is no longer the same. By murdering the tyrant, he has lost his innocence.

Schiller, continues Safranski, was eager to absolve Tell of the crime of murder. In the last scene, a figure dressed as a monk appears at Tell's house. He is really Johannes Parricida, a duke of Swabia, who has murdered the emperor, his own uncle. Since the emperor has deprived him of his patrimony, he imagines Tell will be sympathetic: "You have slain the Governor who did you wrong. I too have slain a foe who robbed me of my rights. He was no less your enemy than mine. I've rid the land of him."

Tell will have none of this: "Dare you confound the crime of blood-imbrued ambition with the act forced on a father in mere self-defense. Had you to shield your children's darling heads, to guard your fireside's sanctuary - ward off the last, the direst doom from all you loved? ... You murdered, I have shielded all that was most dear to me." Schiller thus portrays Tell's act in the republican tradition of Brutus. As a side note, John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Abraham Lincoln, defended his act with reference to Wilhelm Tell. Responding to the revulsion of contemporaries at Lincoln's murder, Wilkes wrote that he was only "doing what Brutus was honored for and what made Tell a Hero." Interestingly, the Helvetic Republic also sought to make use of the Wilhelm Tell legend by featuring the archer's image on its official seal.

Goethe was disturbed about one murderer blaming another murderer. As Safranski writes, Goethe would presumably have made his own "Wilhelm Tell" darker and more contradictory, but, when the play premiered in Weimar on March 17, 1804, he professed himself satisfied.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Goethe on the Baltic

Now, for a momentary respite from an analysis of the Goethe-Schiller friendship. And, of course, Goethe was never on the Baltic, as far as I am aware, though he did have some theories about glaciers and the geology of Scandinavia.

Today I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, namely, Mare Radio, produced by Radio Bremen. Mare Radio is always about the world's waters, but this month it is focusing on the Baltic, with reports on its history, geology, and also the painters who loved it. In art there were painters who loved the Mediterranean, and indeed most of Europe seems to have headed south or to the South Pacific. Others, however, loved the more mysterious Baltic. In Goethe's lifetime the most famous was Caspar David Friedrich, who, according to the podcast, sought in nature not "die blaue Blume sondern reale Spiegelbilder der Seele" (the blue flower but real images of the soul).

The evening sea coast by Greifswald became an allegory of life and death. Thus, the "life stages" painting, in which Friedrich himself figured. Friedrich's seas are seldom blue, instead mostly green, even black and brown.

The "Brücke" painters are also mentioned in the podcast, but the artist who had a special love for the Baltic was Lyonel Feininger (1876-1956), American born but of German ancestry, who went to Berlin as a teenager already to study painting. According to the podcast (though I have not seen this in online biographies) Feininger also studied music in Hamburg (his father was a violinist, his mother a singer), where he probably saw Friedrich's paintings in the museum there. During this time he spent lots of time on the Baltic, on Rügen, later in Usedom. After his studies, he became a commercial artist, of a satirical stripe, as in the image here of "The Learned Apothecary." He even created a comic strip, and his first pictures of the Baltic were generally caricatures of people on the beach.

But the Baltic seascape grew on him. He traveled to Travermünde with Walter Gropius, where he began executing sketches of the Baltic region (many now in the Museum of Modern Art) that served as studies for later paintings.

One recognizes in these paintings less an "objective" than a "subjective" portrayal of nature. The latter, of course, was the focus of Goethe's and Schiller's animus and a principal reason for their dislike of German Romanticism. Caspar David Friedrich, in turn, was not attracted by Goethe's praise for the English cloud-watcher Luke Howard's cataloguing of natural phenomena. He persisted instead in his own very different cloud studies.

Picture credits: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum der Bildenden Künste Leipzig (Friedrich); Museum of Modern Art